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Fresh air at the Financial Times!

January 14, 2012

Indian novelist Arundhati Roy makes a surprise appearance at the Financial Times today and brings with her a bit of fresh air that, for today anyway, greatly lessens the stench from the right wing economists and oligarchs who so consistently occupy this paper.

She shows us the reality of India under capitalism, and it’s quite different from the rising BRIC 21st century super star propaganda that so regularly assaults our senses.  Anyone who’s been to India will know her story is essentially true.  It’s such a powerfully clear description of the dynamics of capitalism that I think it’s well worth quoting at length.

In India, the 300m of us who belong to the new, post-“reforms” middle class – the market – live side by side with the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800m who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us. And who survive on less than 50 cents a day.

(There are but) a handful of corporations, some family-owned, some not, that run India.  Since the cross-ownership of businesses is not restricted …, the more you have, the more you can have. Meanwhile, scandal after scandal has exposed, in painful detail, how corporations buy politicians, judges, bureaucrats and media houses, hollowing out democracy, retaining only its rituals. Huge reserves of bauxite, iron ore, oil and natural gas worth trillions of dollars were sold to corporations for a pittance, defying even the twisted logic of the free market. Cartels of corrupt politicians and corporations have colluded to underestimate the quantity of reserves, and the actual market value of public assets, leading to the siphoning off of billions of dollars of public money. Then there’s the land grab – the forced displacement of communities, of millions of people whose lands are being appropriated by the state and handed to private enterprise. (The concept of inviolability of private property rarely applies to the property of the poor.) Mass revolts have broken out, many of them armed. The government has indicated that it will deploy the army to quell them.

Corporations have their own sly strategy to deal with dissent. With a minuscule percentage of their profits they run hospitals, educational institutes and trusts, which in turn fund NGOs, academics, journalists, artists, film-makers, literary festivals and even protest movements. It is a way of using charity to lure opinion-makers into their sphere of influence. Of infiltrating normality, colonising ordinariness, so that challenging them seems as absurd (or as esoteric) as challenging “reality” itself. From here, it’s a quick, easy step to “there is no alternative”.

Having worked out how to manage the government, the opposition, the courts, the media and liberal opinion, what remains to be dealt with is the growing unrest, the threat of “people power”. How do you domesticate it? How do you turn protesters into pets? How do you vacuum up people’s fury and redirect it into blind alleys? The largely middle-class, overtly nationalist anti-corruption movement in India led by Anna Hazare is a good example. A round-the-clock, corporate-sponsored media campaign proclaimed it to be “the voice of the people”. It called for a law that undermined even the remaining dregs of democracy. Unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement, it did not breathe a word against privatisation, corporate monopolies or economic “reforms”. Its principal media backers successfully turned the spotlight away from huge corporate corruption scandals and used the public mauling of politicians to call for the further withdrawal of discretionary powers from government, for more reforms and more privatisation.

After two decades of these “reforms” and of phenomenal but jobless growth, India has more malnourished children than anywhere else in the world, and more poor people in eight of its states than 26 countries of sub-Saharan Africa put together. And now the international financial crisis is closing in.

Poverty isn’t as great in many regions of the world, but the system which Roy describes in India is the same that exists in every nation.  It’s fully global and we call it capitalism; but wouldn’t something down the lines of industrial feudalism be more descriptive?

Enjoy the fresh air today; the window at the FT will shut tightly again on Monday and the stench from the likes of Lawrence Summers and Edmund Phelps will resume.

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