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Eve's Review

The Crime of Progress, the Crime of Caste

"My Seditious Heart"

Arundhati Roy

Haymarket Books, 1000 pages

$29.95

 

Eve Ottenberg

Some of Arundhati Roy's most galvanizing essays describe the ruin of the forest people, whose lands in India were flooded to create huge dams. Over the past fifty years, as many as 56 million people were displaced by Big Dams, many reduced to utter destitution. These ancient villages of "ferrymen, fisher folk, sand quarriers and cultivators of the riverbed" were not compensated for their dispossession. Instead, as Roy writes, "I can warrant that the quality of their accommodation is worse than any concentration camp in the Third Reich…In cities like Delhi, they run the risk of being shot by the police for shitting in public places." She calls the Indian state "a giant poverty producing machine."

 

"When the history of India's miraculous leap to the forefront of the information revolution is written," according to Roy, "let it be said that 56 million Indians (and their children and their children's children) paid for it with everything they ever had." As of the late 1990s, 700 million rural people lived in India. Many of their lands have since been stolen and privatized, what Roy calls "barbaric dispossession on a scale that has no parallel in history." If this sounds familiar, that's because it resembles what the U.S. army and government did to Native Americans during the nineteenth century.

 

India is a country, Roy writes, "where something akin to an undeclared civil war is being waged on its subjects in the name of 'development.'" In essay after essay of her new collection, "My Seditious Heart," she describes how the Indian government dispossesses tribal forest people (Adivasis) and desperately poor Untouchables (Dalits), to gift their lands to mining corporations, hydro-electric corporations and other industries. When these forest people resist, the government declares them Maoists or terrorists and sends in the military. If a tribal person plants a vegetable garden, that's proof he or she is a Maoist. If they fish the rivers – they're Maoists. If they refuse to abandon their huts – they're Maoists. Small wonder that in the end, many of these crushingly poor people react to the banditry called privatization by becoming Maoists.

 

"My Seditious Heart" spans the period from 1994 to 2016, during which India became a magnet for capital investment, underwent an "information revolution," and privatized forests, rivers and mountains, which were previously the people's commons. During this time, the Hindu fanatics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its sister organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) transformed the country from a secular democracy with a socialist constitution into a religious, ethnocentric autocracy espousing fascist doctrines. This transition relied on calculated violence. The RSS's early twentieth century founders admired Hitler, Mussolini and the Nazi drive for ethnic purity. One founder of this Hindu movement, also called Hindutva, said it should take Hitler as a model. And indeed, several decades ago, starting with a call to destroy an ancient mosque, the Babri Masjid, and replace it with a Hindu temple, the BJP began whipping up the population against the minority of 170 million Muslims.

 

This frenzy of anti-Muslim attacks, murder and propaganda culminated in 2002 in a pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat. Two thousand Muslims were butchered by mobs, many disemboweled, women were raped and burned alive, children slaughtered, tens of thousands of Muslims permanently fled their homes, and one prominent Muslim politician, Ehsan Jaffri, who also happened to be a fierce critic of Modi, was dragged from his house by a Hindu mob and dismembered. Modi, the leading government official at the time, was accused of inciting this pogrom. Several of his ministers went to jail for just that. Indeed when Modi became prime minister, he was denied a U.S. visa for these human rights violations. The Indian Supreme Court exonerated Modi, but this is the same court that looked the other way when told that the law required those dispossessed by Big Dams be recompensed. Also, it is a crime in India to criticize the Supreme Court. So, not surprisingly, there was little uproar over its whitewashing of Modi's role. Predictably, after he rose to be prime minister, Modi fomented the anti-Pakistan frenzy and put the entire population of Kashmir – the world's largest occupation – on lockdown. Conditions were already dreadful in Kashmir, with the police murdering "suspected terrorists" at will. Now they are worse.

 

Modi's party promotes the idea of India as a Hindu nation. As such, it has inherited Hindu anxiety that its dreadful caste system – which brutalizes, stigmatizes and humiliates the lowest castes – will so alienate Dalits that they will convert to Christianity, Islam or another religion. Indeed many have. Roy critiques Gandhi's defense of caste, in her excellent essay on his opponent, the Dalit intellectual Ambedkar. The Indian establishment long insisted that caste was an internal Indian matter, but for Ambedkar "there cannot be a more degrading system of social organization than the caste system." Roy reports that Dalits are prohibited from using certain roads, wells and temples, while the occupation of many Dalit women is cleaning shit with their bare, ungloved hands and carrying it away in baskets on their heads. Dalits who "pollute" upper castes with their proximity are beaten, and Dalit women frequently raped. Ambedkar called out Indian communists for their hypocritical failure to attack caste. Indeed, it is scarcely imaginable how any leftist could ignore such injustice.

 

"No Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land," Ambedkar wrote. Yet upper caste politicians have slyly worked to keep Dalits from leaving the Hindu fold. Indeed Roy reports that the early twentieth century Hindu dilemma was how to recruit people they believe should be treated abominably. "Even today…the BJP has to persuade the majority of the Dalit population to embrace a creed that stigmatizes and humiliates them." Meanwhile Dalits who convert to other religions are still treated abysmally. Dalits who manage to get a university education, often turn sharply left and so become police targets. Not surprisingly, Dalits and Advasis constitute the majority of the millions of people displaced by mines, dams and other major infrastructure projects.

 

Roy reports that Adivasis practice primitive communism. "Today Adivasis are the barricade against the pitiless march of modern capitalism." As such they are a target of its military. "This is a war against people who have barely enough to eat one square meal a day," she writes.

 

Roy concludes her collection with a grim, foreboding picture of modern India under Modi, a country in which the ethnic cleansing of Kashmir looms as a possibility. After all, that would be of a piece with events in India proper: "Our forests are full of soldiers and our universities are full of police."

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The Lies of Capitalism

"The Lie of Global Prosperity"

Seth Donnelly

Monthly Review Press, 119 pages

$21

 

Eve Ottenberg

Neoliberals love to quote the World Bank's rosy statistics about capitalism lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. Unfortunately, those statistics are skewed and manipulated to the point of outright prevarication, as Seth Donnelly demonstrates in his new book, "The Lie of Global Prosperity." He quotes a breathless World Bank press release, "soon 90 percent of the world's population will live on $1.90 a day or more." No matter that translated into local currency at local prices, in many places that $1.90 per day purchases the equivalent of 30 cents a day or that $1.90 per day means the pauperization of billions – for as Donnelly shows, a truer metric of avoiding desperate poverty is over $5 per day. If that far more honest measure is applied, 80 percent of South Asians and sub-Saharan Africans are, Donnelly explains, horribly impoverished. Even more disturbing, achieving a 70-year life expectancy requires $7.40 a day, something the world's cold and pampered capitalists will certainly not shell out or even allow for the billions of wretchedly poor.

 

Best exemplifying the World Bank's ideologically biased poverty measures – biased to glorify capitalism – is how it uses statistics about China. "The free health care, education and food that people received in Mao's China do not enter into the calculation. As a result, Chinese people, who achieved new levels of food security and saw their life expectancy double in this [Mao's] period were found to be on the whole 'extremely poor'…the Chinese only ceased to be 'extremely poor' once they lost their collective lands, food rations and medical care and began making iphones and other export goods under atrocious conditions."

 

When there are too many destitute people to conceal, neoliberal UN organizations and the World Bank simply erase them. "The World Bank statistically elevated by more than 100 percent the dollar incomes of Haitians, thereby artificially reducing poverty" in 2016, Donnelly writes. He then points to the 836 million Indians who live on fifty cents a day, in conditions that are "utterly deplorable." But creative statistics disappear poverty by underestimating food costs for the poor.  These costs soar higher in poor countries than rich ones due to neoliberal trade pacts that harm Third World agriculture. Donnelly attributes food price gouging in the Third World to agribusiness' death grip on the world food system.

 

That the World Bank, UN groups and magazines like the "Economist" fabricate statistics to lie about poverty should surprise no one. After all, as Donnelly reports, the World Bank assumes that economic growth automatically reduces poverty. But we can put that myth to rest, given that the majority of all people live on about $3 a day, according to a Pew expert Connelly cites. Globally, 4.3 billion or 60 percent of humankind lives below $5 per day. Donnelly quotes a Pew report that 71 percent of the world population is low income, "with most living in severe poverty." Capitalism has deracinated and dispossessed hundreds of millions, if not billions of the rural poor, and packed them like sardines into shanty-towns in cities in the Global South, as Mike Davis documented in his indispensible work, "Planet of Slums." As many on the left have observed, for most people on earth, capitalism has been an unmitigated disaster.

 

Most deceptive, indeed devious, is the neoliberal claim of an ascendant middle class.  The Pew report defines this as living on between $10 and $20 per day. From 2001 to 2011, this middle income population doubled to 783 million, a fact much ballyhooed by capitalism's boosters. But "this was only half the increase…of those living between $2 and$10 per day. By 2011, the global middle class represented only 13 percent of the world population." Most of this increase occurred in China, very, very little in India, Africa, Southeast Asia or Central America. Donnelly also argues that the term "middle class" misleads. Living on $10 to $20 per day is "more like living on anywhere between $3 and $7, converted to local currencies [and paying local food prices]. This is far below the U.S. poverty line of $15.77 per person per day." So basically much of the world's so-called middle class is actually poor.

 

Donnelly invokes Via Campesina, which organizes peasant farmers, the Haitian political group Fanmi Lavalas associated with the heroic liberation theologian Jean Bertrand Aristide – twice elected president in Haiti and twice overthrown in U.S.-backed coups – the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, Black Lives matter and the Standing Rock Sioux resistance, as correct responses to capitalism's crimes. Donnelly knows quite well that the systematic global plunder called capitalism "cannot be tamed to make it either sustainable or humanely acceptable." More movements are needed, especially now that in addition to pauperizing billions through obscene inequality, unchecked fossil capitalism, big money industrial agriculture, a planet-heating, meat-based diet and the wildly destructive, incessant pouring of concrete threaten the habitability of earth. Capitalism causes ecocide, and endless growth is cancer, as is already visible with extreme weather and melting polar ice caps. Anti-capitalists must illuminate the link between destitution and a poisoned world and must refute the lie that over-population is why our world is dying. The citizens of Bangladesh, drowning in climate-altered floods, have a miniscule carbon footprint compared, say, to the U.S. military. We live in the Capitalocene, not the Anthropocene. Blame where blame is due.

 

And we better dismantle capitalism, before it dismantles us.

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