Diabolical Dealing: At its base, India remains the numberless mass of deeply impoverished and politically marginalised people it has always been. Like their Chinese brothers and sisters, the vast majority of Indians have little reason to thank their neoliberal “liberators”. Their masters – white, yellow or brown – have always danced with the Devil. It’s an entirely inadequate consolation for neoliberalism’s victims that their souls, if nothing else, remain their own.
ANYONE WHO HAS SEEN the wonders of modern Chinese architecture might easily be persuaded that “neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics” is a spectacular success. But the skylines of Shanghai and Beijing testify not to the emancipation of the Chinese masses, but to the burgeoning power of the Chinese elites. Like the futuristic skyline of Los Angeles in the sci-fi movie Bladerunner, they are symbols of a deeply dystopic state.
For close to forty years the Chinese Communist Party has presided over the economic modernisation of China. From its state of near collapse following the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the “capitalist roaders” so despised by Chairman Mao have steered their country to its present position as the world’s industrial powerhouse. Step-by-step they have mounted the staircase of economic growth and sophistication, freely borrowing techniques and ideas from the capitalist West, but never permitting modernisation to cross over into the development of a recognizably capitalist class. They called it “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and its extraordinary achievements are the reason why the Communist Party still rules China.
It could not have happened had China followed the example of Russia and instituted democratic reforms. The modernisation of China was a strictly top-down affair – albeit one in which the top takes action to head-off the threat of changes driven from below. The Party leaders did this by empowering their counterparts in the regions and municipalities: giving them just enough latitude to enrich themselves, but not enough to threaten the system as a whole.
Thus was established the unholy alliance between party apparatchiks, state owned enterprise bosses, free-wheeling entrepreneurs and organised criminal gangs that made the Chinese “miracle” possible. Driven by a combination of political ambition, personal greed, rampant corruption, extra-legal force and Chinese commercial acumen, the transformation of the Chinese economy and Chinese society proceeded at breakneck speed.
But the raw material for all this “progress” was – as it has ever been in human history – the bodies and brains of the great mass of the people. Those who found themselves excluded from the magic circles of power and personal enrichment.
Deng Xiaoping began the process by engineering the break-up of the agricultural communes and their associated systems of health, education and welfare. The millions of peasants displaced by these land and economic reforms were to become part of the greatest migration in human history. From China’s vast interior they made their way to the huge new joint-enterprise factories that were opening up along the Chinese coast. Many came with official permits, but many more came without. Living in a state of legal limbo, these “unofficial” migrants took what work they were offered and did as they were told. Like their Nineteenth Century counterparts, the millions of East-European immigrants who poured into the rapidly industrialising United States, they are essential to maintaining the low-cost labour upon which China’s Faustian economic bargain with the West is based.
You will not find these sons and daughters of modern China in the new air-conditioned office towers of Shanghai and Beijing. They live where the housing is cheapest, the pollution thickest, and health, education and welfare services non-existent. They are not dressed by Armani or Dior, and they do not holiday in Queenstown. Their workplaces do not put health and safety first, nor are they represented by unions. Attempts to better their conditions are more often than not ended by the bosses’ hired thugs. Complaining to the authorities only earns them a visit from the Police. (“Re-education Through Labour” camps are one of the few Maoist-era institutions that survived Deng’s reforms.) Few now remember, and none dare recall, the bright vision of Tiananmen Square. For them, the distinction between “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics” is difficult to discern.
INDIA RESEMBLES CHINA only inasmuch as neoliberals like to claim it as proof of their ideology’s benevolent impact on the peoples of the world. This is entirely delusional. All that India offers us is the same grim evidence of dystopian excess as the grossly unfree and unequal Peoples Republic. The investigative journalist, John Pilger, calls contemporary India: “extreme capitalism’s pact with feudalism”.
Mahatma Ghandi’s heroic attempt to construct a new India out of the British Raj: an India without castes and classes, in which all religions and all ideologies would be tolerated and enjoy equal rights; was foundering even before a member of a right-wing Hindu political movement shot him to death in January 1948. Jawaharlal Nehru’s attempt to make India a secular socialist republic fared no better. In the end, India’s ancient caste system outlived them all.
It is difficult to imagine a cultural template more suited to the imposition of neoliberalism that India’s rigid caste system. The latter has its origins in the political and economic needs of a society characterised by a grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power. As gross inequality backed by state power is a reasonably good description of the sort of world neoliberals are trying to create, it’s not hard to explain why India struck them as a nation it could do business with.
India’s “New Economic Policy” of 1991, like New Zealand’s Rogernomics “reforms” of 1984, was imposed on a nation in the midst of an economic crisis. That the crisis coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union (one of India’s strongest diplomatic, and economic, partners) only reinforced the message from the IMF that, in order to be bailed out of its difficulties, the country would have to embrace the new orthodoxy of open borders and open markets. India also followed the New Zealand model inasmuch as the Prime Minister who rammed through these changes, P V Narasimha Rao, was a member of the Indian National Congress – India’s democratic socialist party.
In the years since, India has become the destination for massive amounts of foreign investment, and its elites have taken advantage of their new open economy to enrich themselves beyond the dreams of even the wealthiest of feudal maharajahs. High tech hubs, like the city of Mumbai, give the impression of a nation rapidly catching up with its Western competitors. But if the inequitably distributed wealth and high-tech industrial development is real, the notion that the Indian masses are being similarly enriched is illusory.
Since 1992, inequality in India has increased. With the removal of the protective barriers erected by the Congress Party in the 1950s and 60s, ordinary Indians have seen their economy taken over by all the usual transnational suspects. Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut, Microsoft, Monsanto and many, many more have brought with them the same sense of diminished influence and control that all the re-colonised peoples of the world have experienced.
At its base, India remains the numberless mass of deeply impoverished and politically marginalised people it has always been. Like their Chinese brothers and sisters, the vast majority of Indians have little reason to thank their neoliberal “liberators”. Their masters – white, yellow or brown – have always danced with the Devil. It’s an entirely inadequate consolation for neoliberalism’s victims that their souls, if nothing else, remain their own.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 17 February 2016.