Sunday, October 4, 2015
Arundhati Roy's "Capitalism: A Ghost Story": Book Review
While still best known internationally for her Booker Prize-winning 1997 novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy has taken another path in her native India. Delaying her progress on a novel about Gandhi, she's a journalist on a crusade, fighting corruption and supporting populist protesters.
Capitalism: A Ghost Story elucidates the spectral voices haunting the shadows of India's capitalist glow. A hundred people own assets equivalent to a fourth of India's GDP. Politicians are corrupt. Dams wash away indigenous homelands. Troops massacre tribes in an anti-Maoist campaign. Many of the hundreds of millions of poor live on less than two dollars a day. Globalization accelerates poverty rather than easing it, Roy contends, and these recent essays document these unjust situations.
In another collection republished this year by Haymarket Press as Field Notes on Democracy, Roy admits the limitations in her fight for equality. In trying to get the facts right, she confesses, she may be reducing the "tragic scale" of suffering. "But for now, it's all I have. Perhaps someday it will become the underpinning for poetry and for the feral howl." Roy admirably turned away from a lucrative career after earning worldwide fame as a novelist, but as a crusader, she has exposed herself to charges of being a dilettante. She castigates those more affluent, her critics charge, but is she not one of them, benefiting from their largess and patronage?
Roy acknowledges her opponents and points out the good works that come from corporate philanthropy. But she attacks the way these foundations churn money towards the increase of power. "What better way for usurers to use a minuscule percentage of their profits to run the world?" It's hard to argue with this.
As to Non-Government Organizations such as the World Bank, and the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations, the author documents examples of how they mold activists into participants. She notes the '60s evolution of "Black Power into Black Capitalism," as well as the shift which lured Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress into a congenial embrace of capitalist values. These are stories rarely heard. Right-wing health organizations and the Ford Foundation now tame the outcast Dalits in India, she illustrates. Roy predicts that with capitalism in crisis, the solutions that rescued it in 2008 from destruction will not last. "War and Shopping," as President Bush urged citizens post-9/11, will fail. The risk we face globally is destroying our planet, let alone our economy.
Part One of this brief collection provides two articles. The first charts impacts of India's massive dams. The second, as some of her previous journalism has done, tracks anti-Maoist crackdowns. Part Two takes the reader along to contested Kashmir amid fears of a Pakistani nuclear showdown. She opens up these areas of tension, but how they influence readers beyond these battle zones seems uncertain. Many of her essays are uneven. Roy has a knack for lively phrases, but her rhetoric can fizzle into mixed or clumsy metaphors. She mingles her distance as a reporter with snatches of personal encounters. This jumbles her tone, and her prose can drag on for far too long.
Additionally, in Field Notes, Roy updated a collection of her journalism with an introduction setting the entries in context. End notes tied each piece to its dates and origins in Indian publications, helping to enlighten a wider audience unfamiliar with the context. Capitalism lacks this editorial frame. Notes point readers to sources, but the essays themselves lack introductions, and for the most part Roy fails to set her crusade in a context that makes sense to a Western spectator.
Roy finally addresses such readers at the anthology's end with her 2011 speech at Occupy Wall Street. "We want to put a lid on this system that manufactures inequality," concluding, "We want to put a cap on the unfettered accumulation of wealth and property by individuals as well as corporations." In her appeal to "cap-ists" and to "lid-ites," Arundhati Roy conjures up her own spirits to rally those who turn words into action. (Spectrum Culture 9-20-15; Amazon US 9-22-15)