Capitalism: a ghost story by Arundhati Roy

Reviewed by Daphna Whitmore

The slim contours of this paperback are deceptive. Although at just a hundred pages it is more of an essay than a book, every sentence is laden with content. Arundhati Roy has produced a weighty work.

Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy

Since winning the Booker prize for her novel the The God of Small Things in 1997, Roy has lent her voice to the cause of the poor, the dispossessed and the environment. In Capitalism a Ghost Story she focuses her poetic prose on the grotesqueness of corporate India. ” “In the drive to beautify Delhi for the Commonwealth Games, laws were passed that made the poor vanish, like laundry stains.” The numbers are staggering: India’s new middle class, who have reached 300 million, are still dwarfed by the country’s 800 million impoverished. Then there are the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves.

In this work she returns again to the government’s war, Operation Greenhunt,  being waged against the people living in the forests of central India which she introduced the world to in Walking with the Comrades, in 2011.

She has a challenge for the feminists: “Why is it that the dispossession and eviction of millions of women from land that they owned and worked is not seen as a feminist problem?”

She does not confine the discussion to India; speaking of the decline in revolutionary momentum around the world she sums up the experience in South Africa: “Socialism disappeared from the ANC’s agenda. South Africa’s great ‘peaceful transition’, so praised and lauded, meant no land reforms, no demands for reparation, no nationalisation of South Africa’s mines. Instead there was privatisation and structural adjustment.”

One of the most interesting areas she explores is the rise of corporate philanthropy which she says “has replaced missionary activity as Capitalism’s (and Imperialism’s) road-opening and systems maintenance patrol”. What is utterly ‘normal’ today was once looked upon with suspicion. “When corporate-endowed foundations first made their appearance in the United States, there was a fierce debate about their provenance, legality, and lack of accountability. People suggested that if companies had so much surplus money, they should raise the wages of their workers. (People made these outrageous suggestions in those days, even in America).”

She challenges the narrow focus of human rights which “enables an atrocity-based analysis in which the larger picture can be blocked out and both parties in a conflict – say for example the Maoists and the Indian government, or the Israeli army and Hamas – can both be admonished as Human Rights Violators. The land grab by mining corporations and the history of the annexation of Palestinian land by the state of Israel then become footnotes with very little bearing on the discourse.”

While I don’t share her optimism in the Occupy Movement I do hope that her voice will move the thinking of masses of people. Throughout the book Roy translates contemporary propaganda so that we see what is really the agenda.

She acknowledges some may find her too harsh a critic, but she says it can be read “as an acknowledgment of the vision, flexibility, sophistication, and unwavering determination of those who have dedicated their lives to keeping the world safe for capitalism.”

Available at $16.34

Further reading:
The Gates Foundation in India: charity versus liberation
The Gates Foundation: big philanthropy and imperialism
India: an ’emerging economy’ in the capitalist crisis