(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
DURING THE DARK days of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic that swept through Indian cities and villages in the early months of 2021, killing hundreds of thousands, a great contradiction arose. The body of the state—the archipelago of its institutions, the behemoth army of its official functionaries and its elaborate processes—was present and yet invisible. Meanwhile, the body of the Indian citizen was absent and yet visible in hospitals, on roadsides, in crematoriums and, on occasion, afloat on the river as corpses. Most Indians huddled in their homes and the famously disputatious Indian who protests and pushes back against the state was suddenly rendered impotent. Major demonstrations in parts of the capital were grudgingly wound down as the virus swept through bodies and the body politic. Indian politics, which has, over the past century, acquired its shape and substance thanks to a careful, sustained and organised usage of representations—from placards to memes, from rhetoric to rallies—was suddenly denied its most powerful tool for spectacle-making: the human body. In The Society of the Spectacle, French philosopher Guy Debord wrote: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.” When the spectacle ceased to be, what was to become of politics, our political life? The pandemic, amid all the carnage, revealed the innards of Indian institutions to the wider public—its inefficiencies as well as abilities to coordinate and execute monumental programmes—and in turn offered us a break unlike any in our history to rethink India’s present and presence in the world.
For a few weeks during the pandemic, that permanent bloodsport of Indian public life—politics—gave way to something more fundamental and unexpected. Everybody scrambled to accumulate resources to save the human body; or, to paraphrase Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, we were forced to leap over a chasm from the world of bios (“politically qualified life”) and crawl our way to save zoe (“bare life”). The virus had stripped the thin veneer of sociability on which our civilisational conceits thrived. We may seek moksha while living inside the carapace of dharma and experiencing the many truths of kama, but at that hour—in order to rescue, revive and restore ourselves, as individuals and as a society—a great clamour for resources, or artha, arose. And, with some macabre irony, the most important artha was the very air, the oxygen we breathe.
Which resource was deemed important and necessary was often a function of who was doing the clamouring. Doctors and nurses understandably asked for more medical gowns, oxygen tanks and other equipment, while the rest of us sought to stock up on food, cash, everyday medicines and so on. Even the dead, or rather, the relatives of the dead, clamoured for funeral-pyre wood and space in crematoriums and graveyards. The world of humans had suddenly transmogrified into something unrecognisable. Economic transactions, in whose names siblings and families, firms and corporations, markets and cities come together and break apart, had ceased to be. What was valuable yesterday and a store of wealth for future generations was suddenly emptied of its value and in its stead, people wandered in search of hospital beds, oxygen tanks and, when all else had failed, an opportunity to die with some dignity. The idea of wealth had metamorphosed from the all-too-familiar to something less tangible and even obscure. That old dictum—“Health is wealth”—suddenly acquired a renewed lustre. But before long, even this mothballed truth began to smell of cliche: healthy people had been sequestered in confined spaces for days on end and their minds were wrought by paroxysms of anxiety, despair and loneliness.
Those who are worse off in our societies had other material and existential anxieties in the form of lost employment, diminished savings, and rental and mortgage arrears. More fundamentally and unconscionably, an endemic hunger stalked the homes of many. What constituted wealth—traditionally seen as a repository of resources we can rely on to trade with each other to smooth intertemporal consumption—was suddenly revealed to be not what it is. Wealth began to acquire an existential patina. During the pandemic, when all kinds of labour markets came to a standstill, even that ancient source of economic value, the labour embodied in a human body, had no value. When a society no longer is able to provide a market for human labour in exchange for goods, our understanding of “wealth” suddenly slips into an economic singularity. Yet, ironically, even as we read about rising poverty, stories of hunger and stunting among children over the past decade, equity, bond and cryptocurrency markets have frothed and provided many Indians with more wealth than they could know what to do with in a lifetime. What we saw in the starkest possible sense is an India in which “wealth” could no longer be reduced to a simple metric, and where we could not even arrive at a consensus on what constitutes “wealth” or “artha”.
It is a time-honoured philosophical puzzle to ask what is dharma, to which the Rig Veda, in Book 8, offers the answer: “Yasya dvibarhaso brihat/ saho daadhaara rodasi/ girimrajraam apah svar vrshatvanaa” (translated by Joel Brereton and Stephanie Jamison as “Him, the double lofty, whose lofty power holds fast the two world-halves, the mountains and plains, the waters and sun, through his bullishness”). Dharma, among its oldest meanings, referred to the act of preventing the world from falling into chaos. Before the gods performed this act of separation, all was mixed up in an unrecognisable whole. Chaos reigned everywhere. Since the shape of chaos changes over time, the very act of separating the two halves—mountains and plains, the waters and the sun—changes over time. Faced with this demand to interpret dharma, Vyasa ,that great raconteur of moral and ethical shapeshifting concerns, tells us in the Mahabharata, “Dharmasya tattvam nihitam guhaayaam” (“The essence of Dharma is hidden inside a cave”). Generation after generation is therefore accursed, or blessed, to discover the constituents of this order-making.
But when faced with similar epistemic questions about interpretative difficulties regarding “artha”—or wealth, resources, or the wherewithal to negotiate the world—we are relatively impoverished in our understanding. In parts, this is because capital, like dharma in ethical discourses, changes shape, is often obscured by changing ownership, and encourages actions and motivations that are often outside the scope of sustained thought. And when it is discussed, artha is often perfumed and poisoned by the utilitarianism that governs most of our everyday life and commerce. Also, the nature of our economic arrangements is subject to a great amount of local detail and idiosyncratic formations which belie everyday political pieties and hypocrisies. This urge to foist a supra-narrative is all the more evident in an increasingly centralised democratic machinery. In parts, this is because of the structure of how our politics is arranged. Politicians, the sharp end of the civic discourse, are often asked to facilitate the needs of their most organised and therefore their seemingly most powerful constituents. And no force in present-day discourse is more organised, potent and ultimately powerful as the assorted species of capitalism that arrive in various guises: corporations, lobbies, media and sections of academia.
The result of this is not surprising. Faced with an increasingly homogenous global capital-tradeable market and accompanying cross-border tariff and regulatory regimes, any political leader who interfaces with these nebulous but ferocious forces comes face-to-face with the need to crafting a national-level economic policy which inevitably clashes head-on with the fragmentary and historically contingent nature of economic relationships on the grounds. These local ties have typically evolved, over decades, to create unique forms of economic rent-seeking and political patronage, often indistinguishable from the practice of democracy itself. It is through excesses and inefficiencies that democracy works. The real enemy of democratic ideals then is not the obvious—authoritarianism in one form or other, which thrives in great many sub-national elections where bosses rule—but rather the doctrines of greater efficiency. Democracy and capitalism become nomenclatures behind which the real powerplay is between the old rent-seekers who control small amounts of capital and local labour, and new rent-seekers who bring new technologies and abilities to forgo rent-seeking longer than their competition. Historically, the pace of such changes and challenges was slow and occurred over decades and the state could leverage its prowess to manage affairs on its own terms, which often meant suborning the demands of commerce to those of the ruling classes. Thus, when we learn that in the 11th century “Chola naval forces raided Srivijaya trade centres on the Malay peninsula” and “such depredation [likely] damaged trade relations”, it is not surprising. This has been the preponderant case in world history. However, by the 15th-16th centuries, as commercial capitalism begins to take shape, we find that the state is increasingly trying to provide a semblance of equidistance among various commercial interest groups. Perhaps most starkly, we see this in the Kozhikode of the 16th century, which French traveller François Pyrard de Laval tells us that the Zamorin “permits the exercise of every kind of religion, and yet it is strictly forbidden to talk, dispute, or quarrel on that subject; so there never arises any contention on that score.” The real religion of the city of Kozhikode—we find mentions of “merchants from all parts of the world, and of all nations and religions, by reason of the liberty and security accorded to them there”—was trade, commerce and money. The state became the provider of security and conditions for commerce.
What was valuable yesterday was suddenly emptied of its value and in its stead, people wandered in search of hospital beds, oxygen tanks, and when all else had failed, an opportunity to die with some dignity. The idea of wealth had metamorphosed from the all-too-familiar to something less tangible and even obscure. That old dictum—‘health is wealth’—suddenly acquired a renewed lustre
By the 21st century, however, with the financialisation of the world, the state was often the messenger boy of global capital and its masters. In the 1990s, neoliberalism imperiously stomped across the world aided by its dutiful pontiffs at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which sprinkled the holy waters of economic orthodoxy on the faithful and threatened the heretic with a burning at the bond markets. But two spectacular forces have sought to reassert the powers of the state. One, the rise of authoritarian and technocratic China where billionaires mysteriously suffer accidents and Wall Street darlings are kneecapped overnight thanks to decrees emanating from the Zhongnanhai. Two, the rise of reactionary, rightwing and leftwing populist anger across Europe and North America, which has ended the career of many public intellectuals and politicians who shilled for the Washington Consensus in the 1990s. In an unanticipated turn of events, India now finds itself to be an heir to ideas such as structural reforms, liberalisation, single markets, and free-trade agreements in a world where all major powers are looking inward. In such environs, a heavyhanded state policy that upsets traditional economic arrangement runs the risk of preparing conditions for prolonged conflicts—not because the policy is in itself right or wrong but because the politics of policymaking cannot be separated from the history of the alternative policies elsewhere. Failing to heed this can facilitate the transformation of these agitations into violent extremism and even revive the rhetoric of political secessionism. Thus what we need from our political leaders—they are not the principal guilty parties, they are merely weathervanes who proximate the flow of electoral prejudices—and our omnivorous intellectual classes are active education and communication about where India is at this juncture in world history.
To do this, we need to begin by interrogating and trying to understand what India means at this hour in our public, and especially economic, discourse. Is “India” merely a category of expressions held together by institutions that project cohesion when needed and otherwise entirely dedicated to maintaining the sclerotic present? Or is “India” a typology of assessments with specific contemporaneous similarities frothed forth by historic forces? Implicit in these questions is that when we begin to think of Indian history, we need to ask, what is it a “history” of? Is it a history of everything subsumed by the geographies demarcated as India? Is it a history of connections between ideas, institutions and geographies across borders? Or is it a history of how we internalised alien ideas? These questions become even more difficult and pressing when we place India within the sway and the history of “Capitalism”.
Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, who studied the medieval era, defined capitalism as “the tendency to the steady accumulation of wealth”. For Adam Smith, capitalism was intricately linked to a particular economic arrangement that was linked to the production of goods; for Marx, capitalism was a system that depended on the subordination of labour to capital to accrete surplus value; for some, capitalism was a self-sustaining system constituted by a “propertyless labour force” and “separation of the state and market activity”; for an older generation of European economists who metamorphosed into neoliberals by the late 20th century, capitalism was a means to resuscitate the vanished worlds of empires where capital moved freely. Borrowing from Schumpeter, who pithily observed that capitalism is like a hotel where the clients are forever changing, in the post-World War II era, freemarket capitalism had acquired near-religious connotations especially as the totalitarian economy of the Soviet Union offered itself as an alternative—a religion that has now fallen into disfavour. By our time, the question of what “capitalism” means is even more complicated. Is it the Foxconn factories of Shenzhen in China which supply to corporate behemoths like Apple? Or the mechanisms and modalities that govern sabzi mandis in small towns and municipalities across India? What are we to call the present American financial system where large financial corporations enjoy unending access to liquidity at the specialised financing windows of the Federal Reserve? These questions merely highlight the difficulty of trying to subsume a vast array of economic arrangements—all of which thrive in a continent-sized India—and force us to face the fact that there is no substitute for a periodic rethink of where we are in history and in the world. This interregnum between the pandemic and a return to a business-as-usual world offers us an unprecedented break and an opportunity to rethink the fundamentals of our world, our artha—the meaning and material of our being—and all else that we hold familiar.