Updated: Nov 23, 2020
This talk was presented on August 17, 2017 as part of the 3rd annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of India, Calcutta.
Raoul Peck, the Haitian filmmaker, opens his new film—Der Junge Karl Marx (2017)—in the forests of Prussia. Peasants gather fallen wood. They look cold and hungry. We hear horses in the distance. The guards and the aristocrats are close. They have come to claim the right to everything in the forest. The peasants run. But they have no energy. They fall. The whips and lances of the aristocrats and the guards strike them. Some of the peasants die. Even fallen wood is not allowed to them. Young Karl Marx, sitting in Cologne in 1842, is dismayed at the violence against the German peasants. The peasants, he wrote, know the punishment. They are being beaten, even killed. But what they do not know is the crime. For what crime are they being punished?
Peck is clever to open his film with this dilemma, for it is the question that every sensitive person should ask today. What is the crime for which the world’s poor are being punished? Poverty and war produce refugees of hunger and bombardment, but they are denied mobility, denied any exit from their predicament. They know the punishment that they face: starvation, death and indignity. This they know. What they do not know is their crime. What have they done to deserve this? The Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz visited Raoul Peck’s Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010. In a memorable essay titled ‘Apocalypse’, Diaz noted that Haiti warned us of the zombie stage of capitalism, where entire nations are being rendered through economic alchemy into not-quite alive. In the old days, a zombie was a figure whose life and work had been captured by magical means. Old zombies were expected to work around the clock with no relief. The new zombie cannot expect work of any kind—the new zombie just waits around to die.[i]
And the new zombie cannot be allowed to forage for food or to seek shelter or medicine. The new zombie, truly, must just wait to die. This is the punishment. But what is the crime?
How to begin to speak about India today? Do we begin with the most obvious fact—that, as a McKinsey report recently showed, one in two Indians lives in acute deprivation? This means that half of India’s population—about 700 million people—live with the reality that they do not know where their next meal is coming from. These millions do not eat, cannot know what they will eat. Their future, as it were, is confined to the horizon of their hunger. Those are their aspirations.
Even if we translate that McKinsey report into each of our languages, 300 million Indians will not be able to read it. India has the largest illiterate population in the world. This illiteracy is our reality almost seven decades after independence. Among those who can read, 240 million will not be able to do so in the evening because they do not have access to electricity. But, then, the report’s findings would not be a surprise to them.
Nor would it surprise the million dalits who have to crawl into the sewers across India or carry human refuse on their heads. What does it mean that the brutal indignities of caste hierarchy condemns more than a million people to do something so inhumane that could easily be done by machines? What does it say that brutalities of caste hierarchy remain so central to our world despite the fact that the Indian Constitution was drafted by Dr Ambedkar, the greatest critic of this infirmity? In his final address to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949, Ambedkar said that for Indians to believe they were a great nation was to cherish ‘a great delusion’. ‘How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation?’ Ambedkar asked. Castes are anti-national, he said, because ‘they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste’. What India is there, then, if castes so fundamentally govern social life?
Should we begin our search through the ruins of the present with the barbarities of honour killings, the khap panchayats, the disregard for women’s bodies in public? A few years ago, 370 gender specialists around the world voted India as the worst place in which to be a woman out of all the G20 countries. Saudi Arabia came second. Gulshan Rehman of Save the Children, one of the people who participated in this poll, said, ‘In India, women and girls continue to be sold as chattels, married off as young as 10, burned alive as a result of dowry-related disputes and young girls exploited and abused as domestic slave labour.’ If you think this is an exaggeration, then consider that on the United Nation’s Gender Inequality Index, India merely switches places with Saudi Arabia. This is misery.
Is this not the place to begin if we are to start our journey in the ruins?
What journey? Who is going to walk on this journey? Is there a ‘we’ that is prepared to walk out of the ruins into something hopeful, into a national project that is not corrosive and dangerous?
The freedom movement produced a reservoir of energy—a commitment to some form of social democracy, of care for the masses, of a sense of unity of the nation. It was this ‘unity’ that allowed India to move to universal suffrage for both men and women and for all ‘castes’ without any debate. This sensibility of unity and social democracy was shared by all the components of the freedom movement, from the Gandhians to the Communists. The RSS was never part of this stream, having committed itself early on to not the view of India but of Hindu Rashtra, to not unity but division. Gandhi’s influence on capitalists such as G. D. Birla and Jamnalal Bajaj opened up space for liberalism even among people who had a great deal to lose from social democracy. They helped draft the 1944 Bombay Plan, a pact of national development that promised to raise the living standards of people by wrenching India away from the predatory instincts of imperialism.
This sense of national unity and this care for the people is now vanished. It has exhausted itself, not carrying over through the generations. The Congress Party’s embrace of liberalization was one side of the abandonment of social democracy. The rise of the BJP and the RSS is the other. The political elites speak now of the ‘nation’ but do not mean the millions who are indigent. Ideas of ‘nation’ now are utterly abstract or else emptied out and then refilled with a toxic content.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like a colossus, straddles India. His triumphant ride from Gujarat to Delhi supersedes the Rath Yatra of Advani—he seized the throne while all Advani could do was leave blood in his wake. Modi has vanquished India. His acolytes say that whatever happened in 2002 in Gujarat is in the past. The future is in Development.
What is meant by Modi’s Development? There are two ways to gauge this. First, one can look at Gujarat—where Business has thrived, but the livelihood of the ordinary people remains mediocre, where labour conditions are abysmal and environmental protections withdrawn. Second, one can go and find the theory of Modi’s Development. This is easily found in the writings of the former head of the Niti Aayog—Columbia University Professor Arvind Panagariya. The most important suggestions are for what Panagariya calls Track 1 Reforms. Let us look at three points:
Eviscerate labour laws. ‘Track 1 Reforms require, first and foremost, the reform of India’s labour laws,’ writes Panagariya. ‘Highly rigid labour laws have made entrepreneurs terrified of hiring workers.’ Since the 1990s, the courts have whittled down the right to strike and other protections given to workers. But Modi’s Development requires more. It requires freedom for capital to fire labour as well as freedom for capital to declare bankruptcy and liquidate its labour force. This means workers—Indian citizens—should not be allowed to bargain for a better deal, but should accept as their bad karma their deprivation.
Expand Privatization. The BJP’s Vajpayee government had set up a Ministry for Disinvestment. It went a long way toward the asset stripping of Indian industry. The Congress-led UPA was too embarrassed to do the job with such brazenness, and chose more refined ways to do the same kind of thing. Panagariya thinks the Congress simply didn’t go fast enough. He wants more. ‘The government must restart efforts to privatize public-sector enterprises, especially those engaged in such activities as manufacturing fertilizers, chemicals and electronic and engineering goods.’ Little divides the UPA’s Montek Singh Ahluwalia from Panagariya. It is merely that this BJP government is not hamstrung by the wiles of the regional parties or the ideological opposition from the Left. Public Sector Units—such as Hindustan Zinc—are seeing their market capitalization deteriorate; they are being starved of funds, rendered unable to compete with big corporate firms that have close ties to the political elite. On the chopping block for privatization, for profit over people are Air India, Indian Railways, ONGC, Oil India, BHEL, SAIL, Hindustan Flurocarbons . . . The public good, the social wages of a nation, are to be squandered to private profit, to the ruins of the future.
Privatize Education. One of the most serious gestures made by this government has been the call for the privatization of higher education. In June 2014, Panagariya wrote that the government ‘should abolish such government bodies as the University Grants Commission, which set and enforce standards for all Indian universities’. There is a need, he wrote, for the government to ‘end its own bureaucratic stranglehold on the university system’. What would replace it? Some modest regulation of a largely fee-for-service educational industry. The attack on higher education in India—from JNU to Presidency College—is a piece of this privatization agenda. You might like to know that, during apartheid, the government in South Africa spent a higher proportion of its GDP on education for the black majority than the Indian government has ever spent on its own population. This is to be further cut back as profit drives the education agenda—and as a narrow understanding of skill development overwhelms the important task of producing citizens and human beings.
In essence, the mechanism to end poverty—which Modi has said is his major goal—is by freeing up the private sector to create jobs. The policies that Modi is trying to install in India are precisely what have created a drought in global employment, according to the International Labour Organisation and the UN Conference on Trade and Development.
Modi has said that it is poverty that he wants to fight, that social suffocation of India’s diversity is not his goal. Nonetheless, Modi’s election has strengthened the forces of suffocation who now give full vent to their ludicrous yet dangerous ideology. There is always a whiff of fascism emanating from the BJP’s allies. From Muzaffarnagar to Muzaffarpur, from the rhetoric of Varun Gandhi to Niranjan Jyoti, the evidence of this intolerance is evident. But these epigones of Modi are not new to the Indian stage. Advani would froth at the mouth during his Ramjanmabhoomi campaign, as would Vajpayee in his Goa speech in 2002 (This is what Vajpayee said: ‘Wherever there are Muslims, they do not want to live with others. Instead of living peacefully, they want to preach and propagate their religion by creating fear and terror in the minds of others.’) The emotional register of the BJP and its Sangh Parivar is viciousness—it cannot speak without bearing its fangs.
The attack on Gandhi is not merely for his position on Partition or on Hindu–Muslim unity, but also for his philosophy of care. The term Gandhi used to describe his form of socialism was sarvodaya—care for all. The legacy of this Gandhian socialism is now inert, with socialist parties—samajwadi parties—now patrons of business and of disbursement of advantages to their supporters. Gandhi is now a token, little read and not taken seriously. Gandhi’s test for nationalism would evoke glassy-eyed nods in our time, in the ruins: ‘The test of orderliness in a country is not the number of millionaires it has, but the absence of starvation among its masses.’ It is a bewildering formula. You might say, but that is idealistic, utopian—how can starvation be ended? It is that disregard, that cold-calculation of realism that erodes our moral compass and produces political cynicism. Why bother? Why get involved?
To read the ruins, we have to go further back.
Colonialism made us feel backward. It was always Europe that was advanced and enlightened, and it was always the East that was backward and wretched. Rather than honestly say that they had come to plunder, the colonial rulers said that they had come to school the East—it needed to be civilized.
It took an immense effort of political will in the colonies to craft powerful movements against the colonizer. Different cultures of rule and resistance marked the battlefields—some engaged in armed struggle while others built resistance through nonviolent mass action. But what united all these movements was the deep desire for freedom—for a break from the experience of backwardness.
The deep desire for freedom among the masses came in a register that appeared narrow. In his brilliant The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon wrote that the people ‘take their stand from the start on the broad and inclusive positions of bread and the land: How can we obtain the land, and bread to eat?’[ii] The masses make a concrete demand for dignity through their call for land and for food—this, according to Fanon, is their ‘obstinate point of view’.
Such a concrete form of dignity had to be denied to the masses. Such a demand would spell socialism. Any movement that took that position in the 1950s and 60s had to be cut down. And they were, from Cape Verde to Malaysia—crushed with the full force of colonial violence. Fifty years ago, the fighters from around the Third World gathered in Cuba to inaugurate the Tricontinental, to break the wall built around their aspirations. None of their movements—with the exception of Cuba—would remain intact. Between CIA coups and financial terrorism, their dreams were crushed. What was allowed was ‘flag independence’— freedom from direct colonial rule— but what was not allowed was full independence. Backwardness had to remain intact.
Fanon considers the problem of backwardness as it re-emerges after independence. The masses’ victory does not come with the sensation of a new beginning. They have thrown out the colonizers, but they now find that ‘they have been robbed of all these things’ that modernity had promised them—running water, surely, but also freedom of political action. Two or three years after independence, Fanon writes, the people begin to feel that ‘it wasn’t worthwhile’ to fight the colonizers, and ‘that nothing could really change’. Fanon sees this resentment. It marks his text. ‘The enlightened observer takes note,’ he writes, ‘of the existence of a kind of burnt-down house after the fire has been put out, which still threatens to burst into flames again.’[iii]
Independence from colonial rule opened a new continent for the darker nations—but it was not enough. It did not give them freedom to craft their own social and economic agendas. Tentacles of the capital of capitalism strangled their options. Coups and corruption dampened the enthusiasm to create a new world. It was enough to reduce oneself to a subcontractor for the former colonizer. Old colonial terms—such as comprador, which the Portuguese used in China—defined the subordinated bourgeoisie of the new nations. Their degeneration was marked by their subservience.
Fanon spots a problem for the racist. During colonial times, the native was called lazy and slow. But with independence, the masses want change to come quickly. Now they are disparaged for being impatient, for wanting to move history too fast. The racist shrugs off the criticism. The racist still has power over the narrative. The story can change whenever the racist wants it to change. The masses want to walk on the stage of history, to refuse the term ‘native’. But it is this desire that is most wantonly denied.
What are the masses to do? They dream for a while of a Third World Project, but even that is killed before it can get off the ground. Communism is denied. Religion is an outlet, and it is indeed where many take refuge. But even religion is not sufficient. It has its cruelties, its insistence on narrow social agendas and fatalism. But it is something to grasp in the desert of human possibilities. Religion is, as a very young Marx wrote, the ‘soul of soulless conditions’. ‘Religious suffering is, at one and the same time,’ he noted, ‘the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.’[iv] When the critique of capitalism from a socialist standpoint is denied them, it is through religion that the masses find their voice against suffering—in this sense, it is an expression of real suffering. But because religion does not offer an alternative to the experience of backwardness, it is also a protest, a scream in the dark, the search for a hallucination of reality. What is Heaven if not the real longing for an alternative?
Groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda and RSS continue to attract people who have been broken by a world order that neither provides for them security nor livelihood, nor the ability to dream of a better future. New economic policies—driven by the disarticulation of production in the West and the creation of a Global Commodity Chain—set in motion from the 70s economic outcomes that impoverished large parts of the world. The new inequality combined with a sharp attack on social welfare and on agricultural protections threw millions of people to the wolves. New forms of disgruntlement emerged, but this time not with the temper of communism nor social democracy but with the revived and regenerated masks of ethnicity and religion. The distemper of the post-Cold War era came with a glance backward, at what appeared to be primordial identities, rather than a future-oriented humanism. It was through part of this emergence that ‘terrorism’ became the buzzword. These new terrorists are the detritus of the suffocated world order from whom the clothes of a progressive cause had been ripped off and who now dress in religious garb to fight brutally for a future that remains impossible.
The colonial gaze descends upon women in burkhas or burkinis or anything that resembles—as far as the colonizer is concerned—backwardness. Real backwardness—poverty, disease, illiteracy—is set aside. It is the false backwardness—backward religions—that must be condemned. This colonizer sees in the woman a threat to his civilization. He wants to tell her what to do. She cannot make up her own mind. Not long ago, the colonial patriarch told white women not to wear bikinis. Now the colonial patriarch tells women to wear bikinis. It is always the colonial patriarch who must decide. He is the only voice of freedom.
Anger in the banlieues, where the natives live inside France, rises because real backwardness is unaddressed, but also because the false backwardness is disrespected. Dignity is more expensive to win than one imagines. Workers go on strike, and their first demand is often: Treat us with more dignity. But the boss does not know what this means. The boss thinks that this is a cheap demand and nods, yes. But the boss does not realize that dignity is the hardest of all demands to meet. To meet the demand for dignity requires that the boss change the conditions of real backwardness. This is not possible without the boss being erased from history.
Revolutions have drifted into despair. This does not mean that no revolution is on the horizon for the people of the region. Indeed, revolutions are a great necessity, but not cloaked in religion.
In the slums of Athens (Greece) and in the slums of Ferguson (United States) resentment grows against lives of indignity and suffering. The bosses do not know how to manage the situation. They turn to the gun. It is easier to hire more police than to provide enough jobs to erase human misery. The police stand in for a broken system. They are the dying canaries in the coalmines of capitalism. Repression becomes normal. The masses respond but only here and there. The Black Lives Matter movement represents the inherent hopefulness of the United States, while Spain’s Juventud Sin Futuro, ‘youth with no future’, suggests the fatality in the Old World. Such forces are united beneath these differences of temperament by their refusal to accept the terms of the present.
Last September, 180 million Indian workers went on strike. Twenty-five years of neoliberalism has pushed them into a corner—fewer workers’ rights, a smaller share of the wealth their labour has produced. Every corner of India experienced this strike. It was a demand against backwardness.
Chilean students go out on the streets. A woman with her face painted white like a mime carries a sign that reads—No Nos Callarán (We Will Not Be Silenced). This is the mood. It is a refusal to accept the condition of backwardness.
It is to those of us who believe in a possible future, a future that is progressive and rich, one that strikes against economic and social inequality and ushers in a cultural outlook that is diverse and embracing. The political projects that are available in the world—neoliberalism, religiosity—are incapable of solving the problems of the present. Another project is needed. Another world is to be imagined. Another dream is to carry us forward to the future.
[i] Available at: http://bostonreview.net/junot-diaz-apocalypse-haiti-earthquake
[ii] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Constance Farrington trans.) (New York: Grove Press, 1963), p. 50.
[iii] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, p. 75.
[iv] Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction’ (1843–44). Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm
Vijay Prashad is George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and Professor, International Studies, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. Author of more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South and No Free Left: The Future of Indian Communism, he is a regular contributor to Frontline, Hindu (India), BirGün (Turkey) and Alternet (USA), and Chief Editor, LeftWord Books.