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Capitalism: A Ghost Story

Written By Krishna on Thursday, January 26, 2012 | 3:12 AM

Arundhati Roy, Anuradha Ghandy, and 'Romantic Marxism'

This is the full-text of the introductory remarks made by Bernard D'Mello at the Fourth Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Lecture delivered by Arundhati Roy on 20th January 2012 at St Xavier's College, Mumbai.

I woke up this morning to the chirping sounds of the swallows. Arundhati Roy seems to have brought in those love-birds that come in to Mumbai at this time of the year from the cold environs of the North. The lively spirit of Anuradha Ghandy (Anu, as she was fondly known) is all around us -- that picture of hers reminds me of one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, "Forever Young". We have here with us Anu's mother -- comrade Kumud Shanbag. Parents abiding by Hinduism usually give their daughters away at the time of marriage in a ritual called kanyadaan. Comrades Kumud and Ganesh Shanbag, rational and progressive, broke with this humiliating tradition; they raised their daughter Anu (Janaki) to decide what she wanted to do with her life and she joined the Revolution (Kranti). One might call what she did kranti-daan, though, I think, daan (donate) is not the right word for it. The Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sanghatan (KAMS) is justifiably proud of Anu (Janaki). Not long ago, when Arundhati Roy was walking with these comrades, they proudly showed her a photograph of Anu that they were carrying -- she's dressed in fatigues, an olive green cap with a star on it, rifle slung over her shoulders, and smiling, as always.

Anu came a long way, from the Hamil Sabha (the general student body) of Elphinstone College in the first half of 1970s to the Byramgadh area in old Bastar in the latter half of 1990s. For her, dalit, adivasi and women's liberation1 were part of the fight for "new democracy" -- indeed, for her they were a prerequisite for any kind of democracy. Just as Anu was shaping this policy of the Party -- the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (People's War) -- in the 1990s, Arundhati Roy created a character called Velutha in The God of Small Things (1997). Velutha came from a dalit, attached-labour household. But despite his origins -- Velutha came from the wretched of the wretched of the Indian earth -- he became an accomplished carpenter and mechanic, indispensible to semi-feudal capital's profit register in the small town of Ayemenem. Rahel and Estha, Ammu's children, established a close bond of friendship with him. Ammu was attracted to him, fell in love with him -- he was a passionate lover, he loved her like no one else could ever have loved her.

Velutha is my hero -- for me, he is the classic Indian proletarian. Despite the exploitation and the oppression, Velutha did what he did with devotion -- he kept the creativity and imagination in him alive. For him, like it is for his creator, ingenuity and work became one. This characterisation tells us something about Arundhati Roy, Velutha's maker. In the conception of Velutha, I saw, very early on, signs of a romanticism closely linked to revolution in Arundhati Roy as a writer. That subversive intent was there from the very beginning. From The God of Small Things to Broken Republic, Arundhati Roy is through-and-through a romantic, anti-capitalist writer. There is a basic structure of feelings in her writings that touches my heart.

I don't know if she will agree with me, but I'd like to believe that Arundhati Roy has embraced 'Romantic Marxism'. I know the ideological censors would be frowning at me; for them, there can never be anything like 'Romantic Marxism'; "comrade Bernard, you cannot mix romanticism with Marxism". I differ and in this I am with E P Thompson. And, with Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1959)2 and his passionate denunciation of capitalism in Capital, Volume-I -- with a language and imagery that makes the reader realize the need for Kranti. Marx did, after all, also hitched romanticism with his exposition of the structure, the social relations and logic of the inner workings of the capitalist system. At its core, 'Romantic Marxism' brings together Marx's thesis of alienation with his theory of value and welds these with the basic structure of feelings that such a consciousness evokes.

Let me now say a few words about the topic of today's lecture -- "Capitalism: A Ghost Story". Capital is not a work of Marx's imagination; so also, and I'm sure, Arundhati has a real story to tell, and it's going to be a passionate denunciation of really existing capitalism. If we were to look at capitalism from a romantic Marxist perspective, we would see, above all, the total domination of exchange value, the "cold calculation of price and profit . . . over the whole social fabric . . . the death of imagination and romance, . . . the purely 'utilitarian' . . . relation of human beings to one another, and to nature".3 What should be reciprocity in human relations -- love for love, intimacy for intimacy, trust for trust, as it was with Ammu and Velutha -- has been replaced, in capitalism, by the exchange of money for commodities: accumulation and possession is all that matters today. Indeed, beauty, now defined by capital, has also been commoditised; nothing remains unsullied by capitalism, its logic, and its basic structure of feelings. Human beings have been turned into wretched beings -- physically, psychologically and spiritually dehumanised.

We, the Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Committee members, are old-fashioned Marxists. We continue to insist that wealth comes from the exploitation of human labour and nature. To quote Marx and, keeping in mind the importance he assigns to ecology, include capital's "sucking" of nature too:4

Capital is dead labour [and out-of-play nature] that vampire-like only lives by sucking living labour [and extant nature], and lives the more, the more labour [and nature] it sucks.

Value then is nothing but congealed labour and defunct nature incarnate in commodities. And, in the contemporary world capitalist system, we witness the real subscription of labour, nature, and even democratically-elected governments to finance. Yes, the bond markets -- the funds and financial institutions that buy government bonds, not the people who elected the governments -- are able to very significantly influence public policy, for it is they who specify the conditions under which they will buy those governments' bonds. Indeed, the main focus of corporations today is financial, and here, with quarterly reporting on a mark-to-market basis, short-term net worth is all that seems to matter. Add to this stock options-based remuneration of those who manage the huge financial portfolios, monetary policy designed for the benefit of high finance, and rising labour productivity alongside stagnant real wages, and the result is "traumatized workers", "indebted consumers", and "manic-depressive savers"5 high on Prozac and Viagra which keep Pfizer's cash register ringing. "Humanity" has become "an appendage of the asset markets", my friend Jan Toporowski writes.6 We are reminded of what Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff (then editors of Monthly Review) wrote in the aftermath of the 1987 stock market crash in the US and it seems appropriate to paraphrase their words to apply to the present: "The mess" the world-system is in flows "from capitalism's ruthless pursuit of unlimited wealth by any and all available means, whether or not these have anything to do with satisfying the needs of real human beings."7 Indeed, capitalism -- which has metamorphosed into a life-threatening disease -- has become a threat to humanity and other forms of life. The only remedy "is a truly revolutionary reconstruction of the whole socio-economic system".8

But, the failures of the revolutions of the 20th century stare us in the face. I have taken more time than I had intended to, and lest I become a barrier between the star-speaker and you, I need to quickly wind up. Let me then not mince words -- revolution is about expropriating the expropriators, and "force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one".9 But, and more importantly, revolution is also about "human emancipation". It has to create a socialist sensitivity, a socialist consciousness; so forms of violence -- cruelty and brutality -- which negate the very end of revolution must never be a part of the means. Now, while the "seizure of power" and the strategy to achieve this seem to be the central preoccupation of revolutionaries, we need to remember these words of Marx from The German Ideology (1932; written in 1846):10

Both for the production on a mass scale of . . . communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of [human beings] on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.

Rightly, Marx was more concerned about the "human emancipation" that must come about in the process of making the revolution, the kind of emancipation that makes of us a new kind of "human" being, a practice necessary to found a society that is egalitarian, cooperative, and democratic.

With this "brief" (ha, ha!) introduction, may I invite Arundhati Roy to take the baton.


1 Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy, edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books, Delhi, 2011.

2 One should also mention Marx and Engels' On the Jewish Question (1844) and The German Ideology (1932, writing completed in 1846).

3 See Michael Lowy's "The Romantic and the Marxist Critique of Modern Civilisation", Theory and Society, Vol. 16, No. 6 (November 1987), p 892.

4 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954; a reproduction of the first English edition of 1887, edited by Frederick Engels), chapter 10, "The Working Day", p 233.

5 Riccardo Bellofiore and Joseph Halevi, "Magdoff-Sweezy and Minsky on the Real Subsumption of Labour to Finance", 2010, at cemf.u-bourgogne.fr/z-outils/documents/communications%202009/AHE.pdf.

6 Jan Toporowski, "The Wisdom of Property and the Politics of the Middle Classes", Monthly Review, Vol. 62, Issue 4, September 2010.

7 Paul M. Sweezy and Harry Magdoff, The Irreversible Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press), 1988, p. 55.

8 Ibid.

9 This is how Marx puts it in chapter 31 on "The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist", in Capital, Volume I.

10 www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01d.htm.
Bernard D'Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, and a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai. URL: mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2012/dmello250112.html

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Capitalism: A Ghost Story


Is it a house or a home? A temple to the new India, or a warehouse for its ghosts? Ever since Antilla arrived on Altamount Road in Mumbai, exuding mystery and quiet menace, things have not been the same. “Here we are,” the friend who took me there said, “pay your respects to our new ruler.”

Antilla belongs to India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. I’d read about this, the most expensive dwelling ever built, the 27 floors, three helipads, nine lifts, hanging gardens, ballrooms, weather rooms, gymnasiums, six floors of parking, and the 600 servants. Nothing had prepared me for the vertical lawn – a soaring wall of grass attached to a vast metal grid. The grass was dry in patches, bits had fallen off in neat rectangles. Clearly, “trickle down” had not worked.

But “gush-up” has. That’s why in a nation of 1.2bn, India’s 100 richest people own assets equivalent to a quarter of gross domestic product.

The word on the street (and in The New York Times) is, or at least was, that the Ambanis were not living in Antilla. Perhaps they are there now, but people still whisper about ghosts and bad luck, vastu and feng shui. I think it’s all Marx’s fault. Capitalism, he said, “ ... has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, it is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells”.

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.

Mr Ambani is personally worth more than $20bn. He has a controlling majority stake in Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), a company with a market capitalisation of Rs2.41tn ($47bn) and an array of global business interests. RIL has a 95 per cent stake in Infotel, which a few weeks ago bought a major share in a media group that runs television news and entertainment channels. Infotel owns the only national 4G broadband licence. He also has a cricket team.

RIL is one of a handful of corporations, some family-owned, some not, that run India. Some of the others are Tata, Jindal, Vedanta, Mittal, Infosys, Essar and the other Reliance (ADAG), owned by Mukesh’s brother Anil. Their race for growth has spilt across Europe, central Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Tatas, for example, run more than 100 companies in 80 countries. They are one of India’s largest private-sector power companies.

Since the cross-ownership of businesses is not restricted by the “gush-up gospel” rules, 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”.

The Tatas run two of the largest charitable trusts in India. (They donated $50m to that needy institution the Harvard Business School.) The Jindals, with a major stake in mining, metals and power, run the Jindal Global Law School, and will soon open the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy. Financed by profits from the software giant Infosys, the New India Foundation gives prizes and fellowships to social scientists.

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. The growth rate has plummeted to 6.9 per cent. Foreign investment is pulling out.

Capitalism’s real gravediggers, it turns out, are not Marx’s revolutionary proletariat but its own delusional cardinals, who have turned ideology into faith. They seem to have difficulty comprehending reality or grasping the science of climate change, which says, quite simply, that capitalism (including the Chinese variety) is destroying the planet.

“Trickle down” failed. Now “gush-up” is in trouble too. As early stars appear in Mumbai’s darkening sky, guards in crisp linen shirts with crackling walkie-talkies appear outside the forbidding gates of Antilla. The lights blaze on. Perhaps it is time for the ghosts to come out and play.

The writer is author of ‘The God of Small Things’. Her newest book is ‘Broken Republic’
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