99% of 1.2 Billion

Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story

Verso, 144pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781784780319

reviewed by Maya Osborne

Capitalism is a greedy, vampiric fiend in Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: A Ghost Story. It gnaws at the lifelines of well over 99% of India’s population and mainlines its acquired riches into a select few bejewelled, oily capitalists. In a nod to the Occupy! movement, she proclaims: ‘[the 1%] say that we don’t have demands … they don’t know, perhaps, that our anger alone would be enough to destroy them.’ The first page of the first essay sets the tone: ‘in a nation of 1.2 billion, India’s one hundred richest people own assets equivalent to one-fourth of the GDP.’ Across these essays, Roy’s ardent advocacy on behalf of the 99% is coupled with an acerbic anger at the corruption that helps to maintain this absurd imbalance, and which is woven into the very heart of Indian governance, policy, democracy, media and big business.

Roy observes these iniquities are sustained by careful ‘perception management’ - for example, the assuaging of middle-class concerns that the arts might suffer in the face of boorish businesses interests. Thus the recent enthusiasm among powerful mining conglomerates for sponsorship of major film, art and literary events; Tata Steel was one of the primary sponsors of Jaipur Literary Festival. Indeed, corporate sponsorship increasingly permeates all aspects of day-to-day life:

‘[w]e all watch Tata Sky, we surf the net with Tata Photon, we ride in Tata taxis, we stay in Tata Hotels, sip our Tata tea in Tata bone china, and stir it with teaspoons made of Tata steel…’ 

Tracing the insidious sophistication of modern-day capitalism back to the United States, Roy notes how ‘corporate philanthropy began to replace missionary activity’ in the early 20th century, with wealthy foundations offering philanthropic handouts to those in need. Amongst them was the Carnegie Corporation, established in New York in 1911, which aimed ‘to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.’ Similarly the Rockerfeller Foundation provides financial support to the UN, the CIA, MoMA, and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) – ‘today the most powerful foreign policy pressure group in the world’, co-created by the Carnegie and Rockerfeller Foundations. Connection to these private institutions can offer immense power: ‘All eleven of the World Bank’s presidents since 1946 – men who have presented themselves as missionaries to the poor – have been members of the CFR.’

As such, power is channelled through an elite global crust; pander to it, or stay out in the cold. Roy points to the Rockerfeller Foundation’s strategic support of US policy concerning South Africa’s ANC party in the late 1970s, which at the behest of the US proceeded to flush out more radical political organisations, as well as to drop socialism from its agenda. This led to the canonisation of Nelson Mandela, ‘not just because he is a freedom fighter who spent twenty-seven years in prison but also because he deferred completely to the Washington Consensus.’

Perhaps one of the most unsettling themes in the book concerns the capitalisation of poverty, and Roy dryly observes that ‘[t]here is a lot of money in poverty, and a few Nobel Prizes too.’ And although the proliferation of Non-Governmental Organisations (Rockerfeller was already funding several in the 1950s) is not always bad – Roy herself acknowledges that they are capable of excellent work – the fact of their non-governmental status means that they are able to create their own ethical and moral guidelines. NGOs serve the interests of their sponsors, which do not necessarily match the needs and desires of the people that they are meant to be helping. NGOs also serve to compartmentalise all areas of life, so that ‘everything has become a “subject,” a separate, professionalized, special-interest issue... Funding has fragmented solidarity in ways that repression never could.’ Thus in the ‘NGO universe’ the endemic issue of millions living without clean water, food, housing, and so on, gives way to the more specific problems of, for example, orphans with AIDS. Roy isn’t dismissing the importance of any specific problem per se; rather, she is pointing to the fact that the more fundamental needs of the majority of India’s population will remain disempowered if NGOs continue to operate privately and in isolation from each other.

Roy highlights one particularly significant imbalance: between who is heard, and who is not. On the one side is the din of a mass media in hoc to powerful interests: ‘most of the Indian mass media is made vulnerable by the fact that the major share of their revenues come from corporate advertisements.' On the other side, the unheard clamour of ‘the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed.’ Jean Baudrillard once wrote that ‘language thinks, thinks us and thinks for us at least as much as we think through it.’ Roy recognises this power of language; her prose, which is sparing and cynical, has a simple, persuasive power. But her amassing of these 800 million ‘dispossessed’ feels uncomfortably presumptuous, especially given the slimness of this volume. Although the argument across these essays is persuasive and wide-reaching, it is activated on a fairly surface level – the level of angry, impassioned rhetoric. Capitalism does not offer much in the way of detailed, measured critique, and as such it seems unlikely that its effect will be felt much beyond Roy’s already-converted choir.
Maya Osborne is a writer based in London. She has just completed an MA in Critical Theory at the University of Sussex.