Empire’s Religion: Arundhati Roy Confronts the Tyranny of the Free Market
Perhaps the most revealing words on the topic of globalization in recent years came not from the pen of Thomas Piketty, nor were they written by Robert Reich or Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman — rather, they can be found in the pages of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, written by the notorious New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
“The hidden hand of the market,” Friedman notes in a particularly telling fragment, “will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglass, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.”
Friedman isn’t known for his subtlety or sincerity, but the above passage strikes at a crucial truth. So much so, in fact, that Arundhati Roy christened it “the most succinct, accurate description of the project of corporate globalization that I have read.”
Roy first made waves internationally with her novel The God of Small Things, published in 1997 — it was an instant hit, selling millions of copies and propelling the relatively obscure writer into stardom. The fame, as she would later recount, was overwhelming; her picture appeared in prominent magazines and she was sought out by mainstream outlets as an established literary voice.
Such acclaim among the upper classes and elite sectors of society both abroad and in India, her home country, would soon become less cheery, however.
In the year following her debut novel’s appearance, Roy wrote a scathing essay condemning the Indian government’s nuclear test, the nation’s second since 1974. The test featured, as CNN reported at the time, “two big explosions, including a thermonuclear ‘hydrogen bomb’ explosion, and three smaller blasts involving a nuclear yield of below one kiloton.”
Roy’s essay, titled “The End of Imagination,” made waves of an entirely different nature than those triggered by The God of Small Things. Fervent nationalism was on the rise in India in the 1990s, and Roy staked out a position against this trend, arguing that the mere existence of nuclear weapons is a sign not of national strength, but of “supreme folly.”
“Ever-present is an unblinking confrontation of the scourge of imperialism and of the devastation brought about by the forced imposition of so-called free market principles.”
“The fact that they exist at all, their very presence in our lives, will wreak more havoc than we can begin to fathom,” she wrote. “Nuclear weapons pervade our thinking. Control our behavior. Administer our societies. Inform our dreams. They bury themselves like meat hooks deep in the base of our brains. They are purveyors of madness.”
Thus began Roy’s foray into national, and global, politics, a foray motivated, at least in part, by a sense of obligation.
“If I had not said anything about the nuclear tests, it would have been as if I was celebrating it,” Roy told the New York Times. “I was on the covers of all these magazines all the time. Not saying anything became as political as saying something.”
Over the next several years, Roy would become an established voice of dissent at home, as well as a fierce critic of the world’s imperial powers — or, more accurately, power, the United States. And while it may seem as though these critiques occupy separate terrains, they always coalesce.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in The End of Imagination, a collection of Roy’s essays released earlier this month. Ever-present — whether stated outright or in narrative form — is an unblinking confrontation of the scourge of imperialism and of the devastation brought about by the forced imposition of so-called free market principles. And as Roy frequently urges us to remember, these two prominent features of the global political and economic landscape are deeply interconnected.
Sometimes, the objectives of empire are expressed in terms as frank as Thomas Friedman’s description of the project of global capitalism.
“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,” said Henry Kissinger, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, the same year, incidentally, that the CIA participated in the violent subversion of Chilean democracy, which resulted in the death of the country’s elected leader, Salvador Allende.
The coup prompted a reign of terror; it also presented, in stark terms, a rebuke to those who insisted (and still insist) that capitalism is a guarantor of freedom. In fact, as Roy often notes, capitalism and its purveyors have frequently been explicit opponents of freedom. The core project of the disciples of the “free market” is to subordinate society to the needs of the investors. If civil liberties must be curtailed, if democracy must be crushed, if war must be waged, so be it.
“The men in suits are in an unseemly hurry,” Roy wrote in an essay adapted from a speech she gave in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one week after the first anniversary of the attacks of September 11. “While bombs rain down on us and cruise missiles skid across the skies, while nuclear weapons are stockpiled to make the world a safer place, contracts are being signed, patents are being registered, oil pipelines are being laid, natural resources are being plundered, water is being privatized, and democracies are being undermined.”
The “free market” is, to use Karl Polanyi’s term, a “stark Utopia“: It is a construct peddled by those who insist upon the belief that the accumulation of wealth and resources at the very top is a natural phenomenon, one dictated by the immutable laws of the universe.
Furthermore, it is designed to provide a smokescreen for those who, in conjunction with their allies in government, write the rules of global trade and investment, tipping the scale in their favor.
“Multinational corporations on the prowl for sweetheart deals that yield enormous profits cannot push through those deals and administer those projects in developing countries without the active connivance of state machinery — the police, the courts, sometimes even the army,” Roy observes.
Meanwhile, she continues, “the ‘structural adjustment’ end of the corporate globalization project is ripping through people’s lives. ‘Development’ projects, massive privatization, and labor ‘reforms’ are pushing people off their lands and out of their jobs, resulting in a kind of barbaric dispossession that has few parallels in history.”
We are told the world is being made “safe for democracy,” a trope that dates back to the days of the First World War. But “democracy,” in elite-speak, is code for capitalism.
“Across the world,” Roy writes, “as the free market brazenly protects Western markets and forces developing countries to lift their trade barriers, the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer.”
A fist has, of course, always been behind the market’s “invisible” hand. And whether in Iran in 1953 or Guatemala in 1954, whether in Vietnam or Iraq or the Dominican Republic, the fist often takes the lead role, smashing disobedient nations into submission, forcefully prying open previously closed markets, shaping the world in such a way that is amenable to the needs of the profit-seekers and the already powerful.
The resulting consolidation of wealth is astonishing to behold. Each year, the remarkable achievements of the global elite are celebrated in Davos, Switzerland. And each year, Oxfam publishes a report detailing these achievements.
In 2013, Oxfam estimated that the income of the world’s “richest 100 billionaires would be enough” to eradicate extreme poverty “four times over.” A year later, little had changed: “Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population,” the organization announced. A pattern is emerging. What about 2015? The world’s billionaires have it all, Oxfam told us, and they still want more.
Then there was the dutiful 2016 report, which featured many striking but unsurprising facts, like this one: “Runaway inequality has created a world where 62 people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.”
The neoliberal period has been defined by these trends, and whatever critiques of the foundations of global capitalism that remained within mainstream political discourse have been decisively erased or confined to the margins. And, as Roy masterfully documents in her 2014 book Capitalism: A Ghost Story, massive corporations have taken to co-opting the heroes of progressive movements for their own purposes.
“Martin Luther King Jr. made the forbidden connections between Capitalism, Imperialism, Racism, and the Vietnam War,” Roy notes. “As a result, after he was assassinated even his memory became toxic, a threat to public order. Foundations and corporations worked hard to remodel his legacy to fit a market-friendly format.”
The Ford Motor Company — in partnership with Monsanto, General Motors, Procter and Gamble, and other corporate giants — helped set up and bankroll the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which has coordinated with the U.S. Department of Defense and has run events with such titles as “The Free Enterprise System: An Agent for Nonviolent Social Change.” To call such a headline insulting to Dr. King’s legacy would be to vastly understate the case.
Similar examples of the corporatization of social justice abound. Thanks to tremendous reporting by Slate‘s Maria Hengeveld, we have learned of the brutality with which Nike exploits its female factory workers — who face very credible threats of violence if they dare to speak out against their conditions — while simultaneously leading a campaign ostensibly dedicated to the empowerment of women.
As the interests of the state increasingly merge with the interests of business, the potential for change is further undercut; democratic institutions no longer function, as they are held hostage by various interest groups whose aims are fundamentally at odds with those of the public.
“The planet is faltering in the face of relentless corporate plunder; business is tightening its stranglehold on public policy; and violence, whether committed by state or non-state actors, is spreading.”
All of this, Roy contends, is perfectly predictable, given the concentration of power and resources. The effects of such a state of affairs are global — and existential.
The planet is faltering in the face of relentless corporate plunder; business is tightening its stranglehold on public policy; and violence, whether committed by state or non-state actors, is spreading.
Sunday marked another anniversary of the horrific attacks of September 11. Combat missions continue in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, with little oversight, they have spilled over into Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya — a cause for celebration for the world’s weapons manufacturers.
Global business is also coalescing in support of the next big “trade” agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, if passed, will grant multinational corporations unprecedented power. Heads of state are happy to play along, even to present the agreement as a step in the right direction for the working class.
The global poor are kept out of the negotiations, their needs apparently of little concern compared to those of the business class. So the plunder, the exploitation, the war, and the occupation continues.
But whether she is writing of Kashmir or of the Palestinians, of American foreign policy or of terror in the Middle East, of environmental degradation or of the threat posed by nuclear proliferation, Roy maintains a sense of hope, one that jumps from the page even in the midst of her devastating polemics.
Her hope, thankfully, is not contingent upon a leap of faith. There is supporting evidence, if one is willing to look closely enough.
Globally, resistance to the tyranny imposed by free market capitalism and its evangelists is burgeoning. In India, millions of workers took to the streets to protest privatization and austerity and to call for higher wages. Anti-TPP protests are spreading; in the United States, opposition to big oil is intensifying.
The public recognizes what is happening to them and their families, to their communities. They increasingly understand that “electoral democracy has become a process of cynical manipulation.”
“The crisis in modern democracy is a profound one,” Roy notes. “Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities available on sale to the highest bidder.”
Nasty, violent, and fascist groups and individuals will surely emerge from such circumstances. But a movement valuing solidarity, mutual aid, peace, and democracy can also thrive, with enough time, effort, and imagination.
Roy’s own prediction is cautious, but it leans in the direction of optimism.
“The urge for hegemony and preponderance by some will be matched with greater intensity by the longing for dignity and justice by others. Exactly what form that battle takes, whether it’s beautiful or bloodthirsty, depends on us.”