Review: Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy

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Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy book cover
Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014) is a short collection of polemical essays from Booker prize winning writer, Arundhati Roy. Though they vary in scope, each essay is a biting denouncement of the ravenous capitalism that is consuming modern India, sweeping aside the many that stand in its way. In a country where one hundred people own assets equivalent to a quarter of the country’s GDP, this is an important topic at an important time and, for Roy, everyone and everything is a target, from mining corporations to the legacy of Gandhi and Mandela, the government to NGOs – all are under suspicion here. Outraged, sensationalist, passionate: this is a book to engage a Western audience and turn its eyes to the atrocities to natural justice being perpetrated in modern India.

The picture of India that Roy reports is a troubling one, which is not frequently enough reported on in the Western press. In Roy’s India, corporations suck the natural resources from beneath the feet of the masses, turning a people’s country into profit. The status quo is maintained by divisive politics that split the billion-strong population, and the knowledge that any resistance by the dispossessed is brutally quelled by state-sponsored militia, as money is syphoned into the pockets of a select few. It’s a not unfamiliar story, but one that is told with passionate outrage by Roy.

Her critique is not restricted to demonstrating how the country’s resources are being stripped, either; Roy also laments corporate philanthropy and the dulling of genuine dissention. She writes well on the construction of acceptable causes for the disaffected to champion, highlighting particularly the neatly packaged women’s rights charities, which Roy believes distract from the larger issues that intersect with acceptable feminism. Linked with this, Roy is also strong on the attempts of corporate enterprises to present a respectable face to disguise their less PR-friendly activities, putting on film and literary festivals, offering selective charity and the like. Whether the value of these things, no matter the motive for their inception, should be disregarded is slightly doubtful, but Roy does well to highlight the distraction and prettifying tactics of those who seek to strip the people of their rights with one hand while offering a saccharine sweet palliative with the other.

As with any revolutionary privileged enough to be afforded a voice, Roy is open to the accusation of hypocrisy. Certainly, that her writing is rarely translated into any language other than English suggests that she writes for a privileged audience, but Roy is engaged in the issues that affect the lives of the many - able to tie together the high-level corruption that creates problems at the bottom of the economic food chain. Whether she is rightly called a dilettante or not, Roy shines a light on the state of India in a way that is much needed, managing to engage a Western audience starved of information about the daily events in the biggest democracy in the world. She is also clear-eyed about her own, and everyone’s, complicity in the corporate, consumer culture that grows ever stronger year on year: “Which of us sinners was going to cast the first stone? Not, me, who lives off royalties from corporate publishing houses, We all watch Tata Sky, we surf the Net with Tata Photon, we ride in Tata taxis, we stay at Tata hotels...” Big business owns the world – even the dissidents and artists that represent the counter-voice are really on the payroll in one way or another, Roy is wise to this fact.

By using India to demonstrate the ills of uncontrolled capitalism, Roy, by inference, extends the criticism further afield. By veiling, in some senses, her criticism of global capitalism, Roy makes the message more cerebral (perhaps not something one would necessarily associate with such an outspoken writer) and more palatable for Western readers. Even as she writes of India’s fascination with America and the exporting, a century after it took hold in the States, of the American dream, there is still a disconnect between the two brands of capitalism that will, perhaps, pacify some readers.

There is a relative authenticity to Roy’s writing – no matter her own background – as she writes from a position of knowledge, spending time with those who suffer at the hands of the corporate machine. This empathy and experience is matched by her smart prose (her essays are not only readable, but well referenced too, well enough for a non-academic text at any rate). There is a burning indignation in every line she writes, and to an outsider the sheer scale of the corruption that Roy sees can become overwhelming to the point where one simply ceases to fully take it on board: after the first wave of disgust at the bare facts, one becomes almost desensitised as Roy jumps from one topic to the next. Partly this is due to the scale of the problem that she describes, but her own style – vitriolic, suspicious – is as much a part of this. Her sentences overflow with passion and this is hugely engaging but it can also oversimplify and distract from her point at times. In an age when information whizzes around the world, quickly to be digested and then forgotten, there are times when focus is needed to ensure a point is driven home.

Roy is often accused of being sensationalist and writing for a middle-class audience, and for readers removed from many of things she writes about. The validity of this argument can be difficult to establish but whoever Roy writes for, the fact remains that she writes with a deep-seated scepticism that is needed to truly begin to understand the dark underbelly of the capitalist model, and all the effects it can have on those who suffer to profit the few. Most Western readers may not have the detailed knowledge to appreciate all that Roy writes about, or evaluate her position to the facts, but Capitalism is a powerful wake up call to any who have yet to fully comprehend the extent of the atrocities being perpetrated in one of the world’s emerging super powers.

Roy closes with an afterword that proposes a few points that would help form a fairer society, and a reassertion of her commitment not to tinker with the system but to overthrow it completely. As Roy’s writing receives so little publicity in the West, it seems fitting to share at close with a few of her words here, starting with her four rules for a fairer society:

“One: An end to cross-ownership in business. For example: weapons manufacturers cannot own TV stations, mining corporations cannot run newspapers, business houses cannot fund universities, drug companies cannot control public health funds.

“Two: Natural resources and essential infrastructure – water supply, electricity, health, and education – cannot be privatized.

“Three: Everybody must have the right to shelter, education, and health care.

“Four: The children of the rich cannot inherit their parents’ wealth.

Somewhere along the way, Capitalism reduced the idea of justice to mean just “human rights,” and the idea of dreaming of equality became blasphemous. We are not fighting to tinker with reforming a system that needs replaced.”

Without doubt some of this went over my head, particularly the details. I wouldn't like to comment on the particulars of Roy's essays, but it's interesting to learn more about modern India.


Useful Links
Reviews of Capitalism: A Ghost Story on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Capitalism: A Ghost Story on Amazon (US)

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