Capitalism: A Ghost Story

Mandela, Vedanta to Anna Hazare…. How long can the cardinals of corporate gospel buy up our protests?

Arundhati Roy    Part-III

Another conceptual coup has to do with foundations’ involvement with the feminist movement. Why do most “official” feminists and women’s organisations in India keep a safe distance between themselves and organisations like say the 90,000-member Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (Revolutionary Adivasi Women’s Association) fighting patriarchy in their own communities and displacement by mining corporations in the Dandakaranya forest? Why is it that the dispossession and eviction of millions of women from land which they owned and worked is not seen as a feminist problem?

The hiving off of the liberal feminist movement from grassroots anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist people’s movements did not begin with the evil designs of foundations. It began with those movements’ inability to adapt and accommodate the rapid radicalisation of women that took place in the ’60s and ’70s. The foundations showed genius in recognising and moving in to support and fund women’s growing impatience with the violence and patriarchy in their traditional societies as well as among even the supposedly progressive leaders of Left movements. In a country like India, the schism also ran along the rural-urban divide. Most radical, anti-capitalist movements were located in the countryside where, for the most part, patriarchy continued to rule the lives of most women. Urban women activists who joined these movements (like the Naxalite movement) had been influenced and inspired by the western feminist movement and their own journeys towards liberation were often at odds with what their male leaders considered to be their duty: to fit in with ‘the masses’. Many women activists were not willing to wait any longer for the “revolution” in order to end the daily oppression and discrimination in their lives, including from their own comrades. They wanted gender equality to be an absolute, urgent and non-negotiable part of the revolutionary process and not just a post-revolution promise. Intelligent, angry and disillusioned women began to move away and look for other means of support and sustenance. As a result, by the late ’80s, around the time Indian markets were opened up, the liberal feminist movement in a country like India has become inordinately NGO-ised. Many of these NGOs have done seminal work on queer rights, domestic violence, AIDS and the rights of sex workers. But significantly, the liberal feminist movements have not been at the forefront of challenging the new economic policies, even though women have been the greatest sufferers. By manipulating the disbursement of the funds, the foundations have largely succeeded in circumscribing the range of what “political” activity should be. The funding briefs of NGOs now prescribe what counts as women’s “issues” and what doesn’t.

The NGO-isation of the women’s movement has also made western liberal feminism (by virtue of its being the most funded brand) the standard-bearer of what constitutes feminism. The battles, as usual, have been played out on women’s bodies, extruding Botox at one end and burqas at the other. (And then there are those who suffer the double whammy, Botox and the Burqa.) When, as happened recently in France, an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burqa rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it’s not about liberating her, but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. It’s not about the burqa. It’s about the coercion. Coercing a woman out of a burqa is as bad as coercing her into one. Viewing gender in this way, shorn of social, political and economic context, makes it an issue of identity, a battle of props and costumes. It is what allowed the US government to use western feminist groups as moral cover when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Afghan women were (and are) in terrible trouble under the Taliban. But dropping daisy-cutters on them was not going to solve their problems.

In the NGO universe, which has evolved a strange anodyne language of its own, everything has become a “subject”, a separate, professionalised, special-interest issue. Community development, leadership development, human rights, health, education, reproductive rights, AIDS, orphans with AIDS—have all been hermetically sealed into their own silos with their own elaborate and precise funding brief. Funding has fragmented solidarity in ways that repression never could. Poverty too, like feminism, is often framed as an identity problem. As though the poor have not been created by injustice but are a lost tribe who just happen to exist, and can be rescued in the short term by a system of grievance redressal (administered by NGOs on an individual, person to person basis), and whose long-term resurrection will come from Good Governance. Under the regime of Global Corporate Capitalism, it goes without saying.

Indian poverty, after a brief period in the wilderness while India “shone”, has made a comeback as an exotic identity in the Arts, led from the front by films like Slumdog Millionaire. These stories about the poor, their amazing spirit and resilience, have no villains—except the small ones who provide narrative tension and local colour. The authors of these works are the contemporary world’s equivalent of the early anthropologists, lauded and honoured for working on “the ground”, for their brave journeys into the unknown. You rarely see the rich being examined in these ways.

Having worked out how to manage governments, political parties, elections, courts, the media and liberal opinion, there was one more challenge for the neo-liberal establishment: how to deal with growing unrest, the threat of “people’s power”. How do you domesticate it? How do you turn protesters into pets? How do you vacuum up people’s fury and redirect it into blind alleys?

Here too, foundations and their allied organisations have a long and illustrious history. A revealing example is their role in defusing and deradicalising the Black Civil Rights movement in the US in the 1960s and the successful transformation of Black Power into Black Capitalism.

The Rockefeller Foundation, in keeping with J.D. Rockefeller’s ideals, had worked closely with Martin Luther King Sr (father of Martin Luther King Jr). But his influence waned with the rise of the more militant organisations—the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations moved in. In 1970, they donated $15 million to “moderate” black organisations, giving people grants, fellowships, scholarships, job training programmes for dropouts and seed money for black-owned businesses. Repression, infighting and the honey trap of funding led to the gradual atrophying of the radical black organisations.

Martin Luther King Jr made the forbidden connections between Capitalism, Imperialism, Racism and the Vietnam War. As a result, after he was assassinated, even his memory became a toxic threat to public order. Foundations and Corporations worked hard to remodel his legacy to fit a market-friendly format. The Martin Luther King Junior Centre for Non-Violent Social Change, with an operational grant of $2 million, was set up by, among others, the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Mobil, Western Electric, Procter & Gamble, US Steel and Monsanto. The Center maintains the King Library and Archives of the Civil Rights Movement. Among the many programmes the King Center runs have been projects that “work closely with the United States Department of Defense, the Armed Forces Chaplains Board and others”. It co-sponsored the Martin Luther King Jr Lecture Series called ‘The Free Enterprise System: An Agent for Non-violent Social Change’. Amen.


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Posted on June 16, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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