Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Sultan of Sophistry by Satya Sagar // The rise and fall of Emperor Modi by AMIT VARMA

The Sultan of Sophistry
It is early winter and a thick, grimy fog, black and white tinged with grey, hangs over Delhi much of the day. Morning visibility is bad, clears up a bit with a dull sun in the afternoon, before darkness descends again on the city. A month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his demonetisation policy, the gloomy weather in the national capital describes quite well the mood of the people here. Sullen but not angry, worried but not yet panicked, uneasy about the future but focused for the present on solving daily problems. 

And yet somewhere deep down there is a growing feeling that we are witnessing the twilight of the Indian Republic – at least as we have known it for over six decades- a sovereign, federal, democratic nation, which with all its flaws, stumbles along intact. Few fully understand the real implications of 86% of the Indian currency disappearing overnight but there is foreboding it is a sign of many more drastic events to come. 

If something as fundamental as money in a system can be so casually overturned what guarantee is there that you or your family will be safe tomorrow? Why should any of India’s various regions and states take orders from Delhi and its upstart Sultan of Sophistry anymore? With every passing day though the disaster wrought on the economy and lives of ordinary citizens by demonetisation is becoming starkly apparent. Industries, trade, farming operations and daily consumption of essential goods are collapsing due to the lack of sufficient cash to carry out the simplest of transactions. 

The queues at the banks are only getting longer and more frustrating with a surge in violent incidents as the initial support for the government’s self-proclaimed ‘war on black money’ wears thin. After all it is not the rich and powerful who are lining up day after day to exchange their old notes or try and withdraw a paltry 2000 Rupees from the few ATMs that work here and there.

In the meanwhile, the elderly and weak die in the wait like only they can, tired and breathless at the heartlessness of it all. How much more suffering is in store and how many needless lives lost to this manmade disaster – nobody really knows. There is very little talk now from the government of any windfall gains to state revenues due to demonetisation, as almost all the ‘black cash’ around finds its way back into the banking system. There are zero measures to tackle the far larger problem of ‘black wealth’, in the form of gold, property, foreign accounts revealing the fundamentally dubious nature of this ‘war on corruption’. 

A desperate regime aids this conversion with marginally stiffer penalties on unaccounted money coming into the banks, making the current crusade just a continuation of previous voluntary disclosure schemes for tax evaders. Calculations made by respectable research institutions show the costs to the Indian economy of demonetisation will far exceed any benefits it brings. 

The rhetoric has  instead already turned to the cuckoo world of a ‘cashless economy’, where everyone will live happily tied to a digital grid, run by the government hand in glove with banks, payment gateways, e-commerce companies and other peddlers of seductive software. All you need is a secure identity, the Aadhar card, the number imprinted on which will open or close doors depending on your credit rating. (If Aadhaar cards get fabricated on a large scale- as they are perhaps already- the powers that be will insist on a special stamp with indelible ink on your forehead to certify you are allowed to exist on this planet!)

It would all be very laughable if not for the cruel implications in a country where a majority still struggle to eat, cannot read or write and survive on a daily basis without power or water. It is only a generation ago that the poor learnt to negotiate cash – itself a complicated concept- and here they are being told to abruptly go digital. It is as if the Earth opened up one morning and swallowed them wholesale. 

Along with the poor the real target of demonetisation are thousands of small and medium businesses which thrive only on cash transactions and underpin Indian democracy itself through both their sheer diversity and ability to earn and live independent of state support. Once they are decimated it will be that much easier to establish total control over the Indian economy by a handful of large corporate monopolies, which will also facilitate political dictatorship. 

Sure, informal enterprises avoid giving tax but then what exactly will the Indian state give them in return if they become compliant – good schools, infrastructure, quality health care, pensions? Why should anyone pay tax to a government that seems to use these revenues to fatten the bank accounts of politicians, bureaucrats and crony capitalists?

The educated, urban classes are the only ones cheering Modi on right now as they see in the digital economy a consolidation of their traditional power – after all feudalism was also a ‘cashless’ system – not even a signature was required to get things done. A mere wave of the hand was enough to get orders or even orderlies executed in Ram Rajya. ‘E-Brahmanism’ would be indeed be a more appropriate way to describe a society without any physical cash! 

Is it really possible to impose such a ‘Uniform Commercial Code’ on such a vast and heterogenous economy like India without sparking a revolt? Isn’t the Modi regime and the cabal of corporates playing with fire by pushing this ‘Big Bang’ reform? When former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described demonetisation as a ‘monumental management failure’ he was essentially warning Modi not to bite more than he can chew. He should know, having been the architect of the original ‘Big Bang’ of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation over two decades ago. It was the tectonic forces he unleased on the Indian economy and society that gave impetus to Hindutva, helped the BJP rise to power and the phenomenon of Narendra Modi himself - all of which swallowed up the Congress party itself.

Of course there will be blowback and long after India recovers from the dire consequences of Narendra Modi’s monetary adventure, future historians will actually wonder what led a ruler, at the peak of his power, to attempt harakiri in this manner?  For, it is not difficult really to see what has happened – the man is falling in front of our eyes on his own sword of hubris – the brash weapon that has humbled many a self-styled emperor before him. 

Trying to understand the motives many have dubbed Narendra Modi a new Mohammad bin Tughlaq, the 14th Century ruler of Delhi, whose kingdom collapsed due to foolish experiments with new and poorly minted currency. There is some truth to this of course,  as grandiose visions that lack of attention to detail and hasty schemes marred by low quality of implementation have indeed been his hallmark so far. His harsher critics have compared Modi to the notorious Mir Jafar, who due to greed and ambition shook hands with the wily East India Company  only to lose both arm and country. 
Modi, an ordinary pracharak who rose to became Prime Minister, a chaiwallah who rubs shoulders with corporate bigwigs, does represent Mir Jafar’s burning quest for power at any cost.

The collective herding of 1.2 billion people into a ‘cashless economy’  is also nothing less than the return of Company Raj with loss of control over lives and livelihood for the Indian people. Mastercard, Visa, Facebook, Google, Paytm are the new Robert Clives of our times, manipulating intrigues in the Nawab’s palace to take over control. There is even a Jagat Seth around, Mir Jafar’s financier, in the form of none other than Mukesh Ambani, whose business interests are poised to benefit most from the nature and timing of the demonetisation policy. Launching ‘Jio Money’, a payment gateway venture, in the first week of December, Ambani praised demonetisation in the same vein as a weapons dealer extolling the merits of war. 

Coming back to Modi and the parallels with Tughlaq and Mir Jafar, they do indicate the way he thinks and behaves but do not fully capture what he is all about. In order to really get a more accurate picture of the man, there are two other essential ingredients that need to be added. One is the persona of a small town hustler of whom our Dear Leader has more than a heavy dose of and which is what lends him colour and explains his widespread popularity. 

The dandy man in dark glasses, dressed in a white suit with flower sticking out his pocket, ambushing foreign Heads of State for a hug or posing like a tourist for selfies around ancient monuments – that is what endears him to the masses. All embellished by the legend that he is someone from humble origins who has made it big – something every poor man and woman admires and dreams of. 

The other component of his character and one that makes him immensely dangerous though, is that of a megalomaniac with the mind of a shrewd criminal. Nothing less that a wannabe Godfather. Someone, who is willing to do or say anything to get his way. With no loyalty to anyone except himself and his immediate benefactors – in the current case the corporate backers who financed his climb to power. 

This makes him frightening to even those who helped him get where he has reached today – a man untethered to any principle, person or even the political party he leads. Remember Haren Pandya? The only consultation Modi seems to have done before embarking on the drastic experiment of ‘notebandi’ was perhaps in front of a mirror with himself – for it turns out none of the senior leaders of the BJP or even the RSS had a clue as to what he was upto- though all of them are lining up to praise his ‘brilliant’ policy out of fear today. 

The reason why Modi is able to ride roughshod over his own party stalwarts is because he has cultivated a financial and popular support outside the traditional base of the organisation. If small and medium traders disappear with the digital economy, so be it – the future belongs to big corporations anyway. If the extreme Hindu right is upset with him how does it really matter when he can win elections with the support of corporate financed propaganda?

Nothing else – but this understanding of Modi as a mix of Tughlaq, Mir Jafar, petty hustler and gangster –  explains the indifference to consequences with which the entire demonetisation exercise was thought up and implemented. Nothing else explains also the arrogance that Modi continues to display about his own abilities as a ‘visionary’ and the complete lack of remorse for the immense hardships he has subjected the Indian population to.  

What we have got from the Prime Minister so far in response to criticism or complaint is an anecdote about a beggar somewhere with a swipe card machine. Is this supposed to be the new aspirational model for the country – jobless citizens asking for doles in digital currency? And of course, that casual ‘Robin Hood’ statement too, urging poorer citizens with Jan Dhan accounts not to return any of the unaccounted cash deposited in their names by those trying to convert their black money into white. 

Wow! Did he really mean that? If he did, then good for him! I am just waiting for the day the masses figure out that all ‘white money’ in this country is only so because successive regimes have helped ‘whitewash’ it through convenient laws. When that finally happens – taking cue from Modi’s statement about redistributing wealth -  there will not be a single Ambani or Adani shop left anywhere in the country!

It is clear, that even by the gross standards of the Indian elite’s historical disdain for the fate of the nation’s marginalized Narendra Modi’s entire discourse around the impact of his demonetisation policy is obscene beyond belief. In any other country, far less poor than India is, by now there would be class war raging– a French Revolution scenario complete with guillotines and heads rolling on the boulevard around India Gate.  

That’s an exaggeration of course, but at least there would be mass protests around the nation calling for resignation of the Modi regime, the sacking of the RBI Governor, for restoration of the old Rs.500 notes and other measures that can relieve the immediate misery caused by demonetisation. Instead, so sorry is the state of our Opposition parties- except for the brave Mamata Banerjee- that instead of hitting the streets all they want is a statement from the Prime Minister in Parliament! 

Given the reality that there is no organised opposition to the ruling dispensation outside, a more likely scenario is perhaps a palace coup against Modi from within. There is no doubt, while Modi is trying hide his wounds and bluster his way through the mess he has created, it is only a matter of time before, not just the Indian public, but also his own political party and fans turn on him viciously. 

Leading this plot will be the Peshwas who run the RSS – unhappy with Modi getting too big for his boots and anxious to consolidate power before he fritters it away. In that case we may even see the rise of a new, more rigid and rabid version of Modi in the days ahead as his own partymen abandon him and move to the next level of their project to establish Hindu Pad Padshahi in the country. 

The sad truth of all this is that if you thought Modi was bad, there are even worse characters lurking in the shadows, just waiting to take over. 

Caveat: Narendra Modi is only incidental to the snaring of the Indian Republic by the powerful forces of global finance. He happens to be the right man at the right moment to do their bidding. There is no doubt any future dispensation will come under similar pressure from outside to handover the keys or encrypted passwords to the kingdom’s treasury. 

It will take much more than bogus ‘Hindu Nationalism’ of the RSS Peshwas to resist the temptation to sell Indian sovereignty and independence for a few shining sovereigns more. Maybe it is time for those interested in saving the Indian Republic to revisit 1857 for clues as to what needs to done next. No, I am not comparing Mamata Banerjee to the Rani of Jhansi or Kejriwal to Tatya Tope!

The rise and fall of Emperor Modi by AMIT VARMA
November 2017. This is an excerpt from the screenplay of a musical play performed recently at the Kala Natak Academy, inaugurated by Prime Minister LK Advani. It stars Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley and a chorus of 30 cows. While reading it, please sing it in your head with a grand dramatic voice.

(Silhouette of Narendra Modi sleeping on a bed. Loud snores emanate. At the foot of the bed, a minion sits. Loud footsteps are heard. Arun Jaitley enters the room.)

AJ: Modiji, Modiji!

Chorus of 30 cows: Modiji, Modiji!

Minion, thrusting his arms out towards Jaitley: Do not wake him, Do not shake him. He is sleeping, he spent all of last evening weeping, for this nation, the creation of a Hindu god in a Himalayan location. Do not wake him! Please forsake him!

AJ: He must be woken! My spirit is broken! Forget the nation, I’m out of ration. I have no cash. The supreme leader has obliterated my stash, it’s all trash. He could have let me know at least. Oh, the beast!

(There is a loud grunt, and Modi rises, and then gets out of bed. He is wearing only his Modi kurta.)

Modi: Oh here you are, my little one. I am lohpurush, you’re a brittle one. As for your notes, why don’t you... write on them? As for your notes... a blight on them! You have been rather slow, lately. Don’t you see the plan, Jaitley? Like me, you must learn to see far. What happened to my churidar?
30 cows: Churidar! Churidar!

(Minion scurries off to fetch churidar.)

AJ: You say you want to attack black money. Are you being funny? This won’t hurt black money, truth be told. Hoarders keep their wealth in real estate and gold. In benaami investments and banks that are offshore. Why did you let go of the Panama chors? The IT department found only six per cent of black money is held in cash. So stop talking trash.

30 cows: Talking trash! Talking trash!.. read more:

More posts on demonetisation

George Monbiot - No country with a McDonald’s can remain a democracy

In 1938 President Roosevelt warned that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.” 

One of the answers to Trump, Putin, Orbán, Erdoğan, Salvini, Duterte, Le Pen, Farage and the politics they represent is to rescue democracy from transnational corporations. It is to defend the crucial political unit that is under assault by banks, monopolies and chainstores: community. It is to recognise that there is no greater hazard to peace between nations than a corporate model that crushes democratic choice.

A wave of revulsion rolls around the world. Approval ratings for incumbent leaders are everywhere collapsing. Symbols, slogans and sensation trump facts and nuanced argument. One in six Americans now believe that military rule would be a good idea. From all this I draw the following, peculiar conclusion: no country with a McDonald’s can remain a democracy.

Twenty years ago, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman proposed his “golden arches theory of conflict prevention”. This holds that “no two countries that both have McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other since they each got their McDonald’s”.

Friedman’s was one of several end-of-history narratives suggesting that global capitalism would lead to permanent peace. He claimed that it might create “a tip-over point at which a country, by integrating with the global economy, opening itself up to foreign investment and empowering its consumers, permanently restricts its capacity for troublemaking and promotes gradual democratisation and widening peace”. He didn’t mean that McDonald’s ends war, but that its arrival in a nation symbolised the transition.

In using McDonald’s as shorthand for the forces tearing democracy apart, I am, like him, writing figuratively. I do not mean that the presence of the burger chain itself is the cause of the decline of open, democratic societies (though it has played its part in Britain, using our defamation laws against its critics). Nor do I mean that countries hosting McDonald’s will necessarily mutate into dictatorships.

What I mean is that, under the onslaught of the placeless, transnational capital that McDonald’s exemplifies, democracy as a living system withers and dies. The old forms and forums still exist – parliaments and congresses remain standing – but the power they once contained seeps away, re-emerging where we can no longer reach it.

The political power that should belong to us has flitted into confidential meetings with the lobbyists and donors who establish the limits of debate and action. It has slipped into the diktats of the IMF and the European Central Bank, which respond not to the people but to the financial sector. It has been transported, under armed guard, into the icy fastness of Davos, where Friedman finds so warm a welcome (even when he’s talking cobblers).

Above all, the power that should belong to the people is being crushed by international treaty. Contracts such as Nafta, Ceta the proposed TransPacific Partnership and Trade in Services Agreement and the failed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are crafted behind closed doors in discussions dominated by corporate lobbyists. And those lobbyists are able to slip in clauses no informed electorate would ever approve of, such as the establishment of opaque offshore tribunals, through which corporations can bypass national courts, challenge national laws and demand compensation for the results of democratic decisions.

These treaties limit the scope of politics, prevent states changing social outcomes and drive down labour rights, consumer protection, financial regulation and the quality of neighbourhoods. They make a mockery of sovereignty. Anyone who forgets that striking them down was one of Donald Trump’s main promises will fail to understand why people were prepared to risk so much in electing him. At the national level too, the McDonald’s model destroys meaningful democracy. Democracy depends on reciprocal belief, trust and belonging: the conviction that you belong to the nation and the nation belongs to you. The McDonald’s model, by rooting out attachment, could not have been better designed to erase that perception.

As Tom Wolfe observes in his novel A Man in Full, “the only way you could tell you were leaving one community and entering another was when the franchise chains started repeating and you spotted another 7-Eleven, another Wendy’s, another Costco, another Home Depot”. The alienation and anomie this destruction of place promotes are enhanced by the casualisation of labour and a spirit-crushing regime of monitoring, quantification and assessment (at which McDonald’s excels). Public health disasters contribute to the sense of rupture. After falling for decades, for instance, death rates among middle-aged white Americans are now rising. Among the likely causes are obesity and diabetes, opioid addiction and liver failure, diseases whose carriers are corporations.

Corporations, released from democratic constraints, drive us towards climate breakdown, an urgent threat to global peace. McDonald’s has done more than its fair share: beef production is among the most powerful causes of climate change. In his book The Globalisation Paradox, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik describes a political trilemma. Democracy, national sovereignty and hyperglobalisation, he argues, are incompatible. You cannot have all three at once. McDonaldisation crowds out domestic politics. Incoherent and dangerous as it often is, the global backlash against mainstream politicians is at heart an attempt to reassert national sovereignty against the forces of undemocratic globalisation.

An article about the history of the Democratic party by Matt Stoller in the Atlantic reminds us that a similar choice was articulated by the great US jurist Louis Brandeis. “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both,” he said. In 1936 the congressman Wright Patman managed to pass a bill against the concentration of corporate power. Among his targets was A&P, the giant chainstore of his day, which was hollowing out towns, destroying local retailers and turning “independent tradesmen into clerks”.

In 1938 President Roosevelt warned that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.” The Democrats saw concentrated corporate power as a form of dictatorship. They broke up giant banks and businesses and chained the chainstores. What Roosevelt, Brandeis and Patman knew has been forgotten by those in power, including powerful journalists. But not by the victims of this system.

One of the answers to Trump, Putin, Orbán, Erdoğan, Salvini, Duterte, Le Pen, Farage and the politics they represent is to rescue democracy from transnational corporations. It is to defend the crucial political unit that is under assault by banks, monopolies and chainstores: community. It is to recognise that there is no greater hazard to peace between nations than a corporate model that crushes democratic choice.

see also:
Marx's economic categories

SHANKAR GOPALAKRISHNAN - The Politics of Fear and Hate Hidden in Demonetisation

By now, the government’s post demonetisation plans seem quite clear. Next year, the government will launch a new welfare scheme by extracting a higher dividend from the RBI and/or collecting revenue through new tax provisions. This could be as simple as putting money in Jan Dhan accounts. Most believe that this will ‘work’ – that is, it will win the BJP votes. But the demonetisation is not just about elections. It is also in line with the kind of politics that the Sangh parivar and this government have always promoted. In this sense, the note ban is already ‘working’ at three levels.

A sacrifice that isn’t a sacrifice: The first level is the rhetoric of ‘sacrifice’ regarding demonetisation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked people to bear these “temporary inconveniences” and assured them that their “sacrifices” will not go in vain. The move’s supporters have also appealed to the public, saying that if people can stand in queues for sales, surely they can do so at an ATM.

But how exactly does dealing with demonetisation constitute a sacrifice? By definition, a sacrifice is not a sacrifice if it is not done out of choice. Living with the effects of demonetisation is not a matter of choice. No one suffering as a result of the move actually chose to do so, and those who chose to impose it are not the ones suffering. Whether you are willing to stand in a queue for a sale or not, you still have to do so now. So where’s the ‘sacrifice’?

But there is one choice that everyone does have to make – and that is, how we react to what we are forced to do. This is precisely the choice that supporters are referring to. The sacrifice they cite is not a choice about demonetisation as such, but the decision to accept or even celebrate the resulting losses. The thing being sacrificed is the public’s capacity to dissent. In this view of the world, only those who choose to cheerfully obey have put the nation’s interest above their own.

This confusion over which sacrifice is being demanded of the people leads us to the second level of politics. The language of sacrifice is a language of dignity and honour. That language is very valuable in a context like India’s. Observing the seemingly widespread support for the move, several commentators have referred to the anger that the poor feel against the rich. But this is only part of the picture. For the majority of Indians, the most destructive fact of life is not poverty as such but the deeply unpredictable, insecure and unsafe lives they have to lead. Whether it is migrant and daily wage workers who have no idea what kind of work they will find, farmers unsure of rains and prices or households fearing the loss of their life savings to a medical emergency – there is a constant threat of instability. This leads one to be dependent on the goodwill of others, such as netas, police, government staff or shopkeepers in order to survive. Thus this insecurity is experienced as a fundamental lack of dignity, of being a lesser human being.

For decades, we have all been told that black money and its cousin, corruption, are India’s biggest problems and that those guilty of corruption are precisely these people – the face of a callous state and a brutal exploiting class. Now, demonetisation makes many feel that their sacrifice somehow makes them part of a larger crusade that hits out at the very people who keep brutalising them. Ironically, the more powerless a person is, the higher the initial attraction.

The third level at which the policy is ‘working’ is precisely the widespread economic damage being created by  demonetisation. This is not about lines. The massive cash crunch means lost wages, possible distress sales, the closing of businesses and so on. Those seriously ill or short on food are, quite simply, dying. However, to most people, these losses look very much like the insecurity that was already present in their lives. The vast majority of those hit by the policy cannot necessarily draw a straight line connecting the government’s decision to demonetise to their suffering. Demonetisation is making things much worse for the majority. But for each of these individuals, the BJP is hoping that it can continue to claim that black money is the ultimate cause of poverty and insecurity, rather than the scheme itself.

Once the BJP delivers its new welfare scheme, the logic comes full circle. From this ‘national endeavour’, many people will receive a direct benefit. The benefit and those responsible for delivering it will be obvious, while the much larger losses will be scattered and invisible. Thus it will be ‘proven’ that those who did not make the ‘sacrifice’, who chose to not be loyal, are at best selfish busybodies and at worst traitors.

The RSS and its ‘politics of obedience’: Demonetisation may be an unprecedented move in the realm of economic policy, but there is nothing novel about this kind of politics. This is what the Sangh parivar practices in every situation. The entire cadre base of the RSS is built upon this kind of bargain. There are two sides to it. On the one hand, give up your autonomy and your right to ask questions of the powerful and instead target ‘enemies’ (Muslims, anti-nationals, terrorists) since they are responsible for all problems. On the other hand, in exchange, receive benefits for yourself from those same powerful classes or castes – but only if you obey. This is particularly true of the Sangh parivar’s organising among marginalised sections. Thus Adivasis get access to Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram clinics and schools if they quietly accept that they are ‘backward Hindus’; Dalits get access to temples and public life in exchange for accepting the Brahminical RSS and its deep casteism; women get access to political activity and public leadership in exchange for extolling ‘motherhood’ and the very patriarchal values that excluded them in the first place.

In this sense, demonetisation is the most successful Sangh parivar campaign so far. It has hit literally every household in the country simultaneously. Moreover, the enemies it claims to be fighting are completely invisible. The government gets to decide who is labelled an enemy. Thus gigantic corporate tax evasion,  such as the 2014 Vodafone tax case, is not described as black money. But every town in India is now full of rumours about the guy down the street caught with Rs 6 crores or 29 lakhs or whatever. Just like all other Sangh parivar campaigns, the real structure of tax evasion is not being confronted (leave alone the structures responsible for poverty). Instead, individuals are being asked to loyally obey the ruling party, while it attacks other individuals, who are seen as the enemy.

The result is a climate of fear more intense than ever before. Supporters proudly march and shout while critics, especially those who don’t belong to the elite, whisper their criticisms in corners. Many people feel obliged to say, after narrating their struggles or losses, that it’s all worth it for the sake of the country. Demonetisation is a hate-mongers’ dream. Incidentally, we can also expect to see Sangh outfits build on this. Cash could be the new beef, with private, official and joint official-private raids becoming the norm. Opposition parties, in particular, will be easy targets.

The Sangh’s basic problem: Of course, in the long run, the RSS faces a much deeper problem, to which it has no answer – its entire politics is built on a lie. Obedience to it produces more instability, not less; so it has to keep generating new enemies for it to ‘save’ people from. It never fulfils its ultimate promise of prosperity and security, because it strengthens the structures that create injustice and insecurity.

Several commentators have pointed out that this leads to a cycle of escalation, where something bigger is constantly required to detract attention from the previous stunt. And it is not merely bigger and bigger stunts that are necessary. All of them will be of this obedience versus dissent, enemies versus society type. This is what makes them far more devastating than merely dictatorial moves. This is also what leads so many people to draw parallels between the Sanghis and the Nazis, for this was the distinguishing feature of fascism: the mass mobilisation of people against “enemies” while strengthening the already powerful.

What the demonetisation has also shown is that both the BJP and the Modi government – confident in the Sangh parivar’s massive support base and the backing of big corporates – are quite capable of sudden drastic moves beyond the constraints that bind normal politics. In this sense, the sky is the limit. We do not know what they will do next and we do not know how many people will pay for it.

But this is not a counsel for despair. By its very nature, a politics built around constant insecurity is not a long term form of politics. It reduces its own supporters’ lives to ever-growing chaos and propels never-ending searches for the ‘real leaders’ who can deliver the safety these supporters seek. Moreover, this kind of pseudo-empowerment is no match for a genuine liberatory politics. Indeed, it creates the conditions for such a politics to emerge, as anyone who can tie the threads together can expose the whole enterprise as a sham. At the local level, wherever the RSS has confronted a genuinely strong progressive force, it has lost. The problem is for the latter to emerge at the national level – and the price that will be paid as long as it does not. Both, the most terrifying and hopeful lesson of demonetisation, is that politics as usual no longer works in Modi’s India.

More articles on demonetisation

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Tom Phillips - UN fears Chinese human rights lawyer has been 'disappeared' by authorities

United Nations human rights experts are demanding answers from Beijing over the disappearance of a prominent Chinese lawyer they fear has been targeted by authorities in reprisal for meeting a UN official earlier this year. Jiang Tianyong, a 45-year-old Christian lawyer known for defending a number of prominent human rights activists, has not been seen since 21 November. Relatives and supporters believe he has been taken into secret custody by security forces.

Jiang’s unexplained disappearance comes amid what appears to be a fresh wave of detentions 
targeting Chinese activists. Human rights groups say that more than 250 activists, lawyers and their relatives have been detained or interrogated as part of a sweeping crackdown labelled China’s “war on law” that began in July 2015.

In a statement released on Tuesday by the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights in Geneva, the group said it suspected Jiang had become one of the latest victims of that campaign: “We cannot rule out the possibility that Jiang may have been disappeared by state agents because of his human rights work.

The UN experts noted that as a result of his longstanding human rights work Jiang has been repeatedly targeted by Chinese police and agents from its powerful spy agency, the ministry of state security, which is tasked with tackling political threats to the Communist party. “We fear that Jiang’s disappearance may be directly linked to his advocacy and he may be at risk of torture,” said the statement.  Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said he was “deeply concerned that Jiang’s disappearance has occurred, at least in part, in reprisal for his cooperation with the UN during my visit to China”. 

Alston conducted a nine-day fact-finding mission in August, telling reporters in Beijing that President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on dissent risked causing mass unrest.  “The international standards are clear: states must refrain from and protect all persons from acts of reprisal,” Alston said on Tuesday of Jiang’s disappearance. The UN representative claimed others he met during his trip to China were also subjected to apparent reprisals. “Governments must provide assurance that no persons will suffer intimidation, threats, harassment or punishment … for their cooperation with the UN experts.”

The statement, which also has the backing of Michel Forst, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and David Kaye, the special rapporteur on freedom of expression, came as activists said Li Heping, one of the most prominent Chinese lawyers caught up in last year’s clampdown, had been indicted on unknown charges. Li has not been heard from and has been deprived of all contact with his family since he was taken from his Beijing home on 10 July 2015. He is expected to be tried in the coming weeks.

Eva Pils, a King’s College London scholar who knows Li, said she believed her friend was being denied independent legal counsel. “The authorities claim that Li Heping has appointed his own lawyers and dismissed the family-appointed ones,” she said. “This is wholly unconvincing.” Pils said Li’s wife and the spouses of other jailed lawyers continued to be subjected to “all kinds of reprisals merely for trying to find out what is happening to their husbands”.

The German press agency DPA reported that French and German diplomats had been summoned by Chinese authorities after their governments honoured Li’s wife, Wang Qiaoling, with a human rights prize recognising her “tireless dedication to representing the families of lawyers and activists held in China”. In response, French and German officials called for Li’s immediate release, “in accordance with the rule of law, as set out in the Chinese constitution”.

see also

“We do not own the land, the land owns us” - "We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke"

Forgiveness Ceremony Unites Veterans And Natives At Standing Rock
"We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke"

National Congress of American Indians - “My hands go up to all the water protectors who have stood up to protect tribal treaty rights and to protect Mother Earth” 

On Monday, Native Americans conducted a forgiveness ceremony with U.S. veterans at the Standing Rock casino, giving the veterans an opportunity to atone for military actions conducted against Natives throughout history.

Wesley Clark Jr., middle, and other veterans kneel in front of Leonard Crow Dog 
during a forgiveness ceremony at the Four Prairie Knights Casino & Resort on the 
Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on Monday. JOSH MORGAN HUFFINGTON POST

In celebration of Standing Rock protesters’ victory Sunday in halting construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline, Leonard Crow Dog formally forgave Wes Clark Jr., the son of retired U.S. Army general and former supreme commander at NATO, Wesley Clark Sr.

Many of us, me particularly, are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. When we took still more land and then we took your children and then we tried to make your language and we tried to eliminate your language that God gave you, and the Creator gave you. We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.

This was a historically symbolic gesture forgiving centuries of oppression against Natives and honoring their partnership in defending the land from the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Maria D. Michael, a Lakota elder from San Fransisco, embraced veteran Tatiana McLee during an emotional forgiveness ceremony at the Four Prairie Knights Casino & Resort on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on Monday… See historic photos

Monday, December 5, 2016

Adam Zagajewski: A defence of ardour

In honour of Adam Zagajewski being awarded the 2016 Jean Améry Prize for European essay writing, Eurozine publishes Zagajewski's defence of ardour. That is, true ardour, which doesn't divide but unifies; and leads neither to fanaticism nor to fundamentalism.

We're left with the impression that the present day favours only one stage of a certain ageless, endless journey. This journey is best described by a concept borrowed from Plato, metaxu, being "in between", in between our earth, our (so we suppose) comprehensible, concrete, material surroundings, and transcendence, mystery. Metaxu defines the situation of the human, a being who is incurably "en route".... 

This is the misfortune of our times: that those who never make mistakes are mistaken, while those who make mistakes are right. Ernst Jünger in some of his observations concerning "substance", T.S. Eliot in parts of Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, and so many other conservative authors may not be wrong "ontologically" in their analyses of man in modernity. But they're completely immersed in the element of twentieth-century history and are blind to the phenomenal (and fragile) benefits we derive from liberal democracy.... 

On the other hand, those who analyse our political troubles with exceptional acumen and respond to injustice are often completely at sea spiritually. Perhaps this is linked to Charles Taylor's brilliant observation in Sources of the Self: in our age, Enlightenment values have triumphed in public institutions, at least in the West, whereas in our private lives we abandon ourselves to Romantic insatiability. We go along with rationalism whenever public, social issues are at stake, but at home, in private, we search ceaselessly for the absolute and aren't content with the decisions we accept in the public sphere...The anti-metaphysical but politically dependable liberal left (or perhaps rather "centre") and the potentially menacing but spiritually engaged right: one might summarize our peculiar bifurcation like this...

I keep my eyes closed. Do not rush me,
You, fire, power, might, for it is too early.
I have lived through many years and, as in this half-dream,
I felt I was attaining the moving frontier
Beyond which colour and sound come true
And the things of this earth are united.
Do not yet force me to open my lips.
Let me trust and believe I will attain.
Let me linger here in Mittelbergheim.

I know I should. They are with me,
Autumn and wooden wheels and tobacco hung
Under the eaves. Here and everywhere Is my homeland, wherever I turn
And in whatever language I would hear
The song of a child, the conversation of lovers.
Happier than anyone, I am to receive
A glance, a smile, a star, silk creased
At the knee. Serene, beholding,
I am to walk on hills in the soft glow of day
Over waters, cities, roads, human customs.

Fire, power, might, you who hold me
In the palm of your hand whose furrows
Are like immense gorges combed
By southern wind. You who grant certainty
In the hour of fear, in the week of doubt,
It is too early, let the wine mature,
Let the travellers sleep in Mittelbergheim...

(Excerpt from Mittelbergheim, which Milosz wrote in 1951, at a time when he was tormented by the ideological and political problems of the mid-twentieth century)

... One August, the month when Europe relaxes intensively, we spent two weeks in one of its most beautiful landscapes, in Chianti, a part of Tuscany. A concert of chamber music was staged in the courtyard of a certain lordly manor, an eleventh-century monastery that hadn't held monks for centuries and had been transformed into a palace with a lovely garden. The audience for this concert was very distinctive, and consisted, with a few exceptions (one of them being the author of these words), of wealthy people possessing their own palaces, villas, and houses. This international company included a fair number of Englishmen (and also several Englishwomen who had decided for unknown reasons to behave like British clichés), a few Americans, and, of course, some Italians. In other words, the neighbours of the owner of this beautiful estate. Some of them only summered in Tuscany, others were full-time residents. The concert began with one of Mozart's early quartets; the four young women played wonderfully, but the applause was relatively sparse. I was a little annoyed and decided on the spot that it was time for a defence of ardour. Why couldn't the affluent audience appreciate this wonderful performance? Does wealth perhaps diminish our enthusiasm? Why didn't this ardent performance of Mozart meet with an equally ardent reception?

One of my vacation books at the time happened to be Thomas Mann's essays, including, among others, a piece called Freud and the future, a text written (and given as a lecture) in the thirties. What connection could there possibly be between the summer response of a rich crowd at a concert and Mann's essay? Perhaps only that I also found a rather summery, ironic attitude at work in Mann, who was searching for a new intellectual orientation while writing Joseph and His Brothers. It goes without saying that Mann's motivation had nothing in common with the blasé audience at an afternoon concert. In the essay, Mann interprets Freud's chief purpose as being something like the work of a sapper in a minefield: we're dealing with explosive materials of great force. Ancient myths conceal immense dangers; they're bombs that must be defused. Of course we need to read Mann's essays in historical perspective, recalling their context. The author of Buddenbrooks saw Nazism and fascism as a return to the energies of the mythic world, to the destructive violence of archaic myths, and hoped to resist this great wave of terror with the soothing substance of humanist irony. But this irony wasn't entirely defenceless, it wasn't simply abstract, "chamber" irony. It too was rooted in myth, but differently; it fostered life without recourse to violence.

Did Thomas Mann finally win? Since today, after all, we hear rather similar tones within the most au courant, postmodern circles. Irony, it's true, has changed its meaning; it's no longer a weapon directed against the barbarism of a primitive system triumphing in the very heart of Europe. It expresses rather a disillusionment with the collapse of utopian expectations, an ideological crisis provoked by the erosion and discrediting of those visions that hoped to replace the traditional metaphysics of religious faith with eschatological political theories. More than one eastern European poet employed irony as a desperate defence against barbarism – in this case, barbaric communism with its soulless bureaucracy (this time has passed – isn't neocapitalism an adroit ironist?).

But no, Thomas Mann didn't win, it was a different irony. In any case, we find ourselves in a very ironic and sceptical landscape; all my four periscopes reveal a similar image. The last bastions of a more assertive attitude stand guard perhaps only in my homeland.

Some authors flog consumerist society with the aid of irony; others continue to wage war against religion; still others do battle with the bourgeoisie. At times irony expresses something different – our flounderings in a pluralist society. And sometimes it simply conceals intellectual poverty. Since of course irony always comes in handy when we don't know what to do. We'll figure it out later.

Leszek Kolakowski also praised irony in his once-famous essay, "The priest and the fool" (1959). It really was famous, and not just in academic circles. It was avidly studied in Warsaw and Prague, in Sophia and Moscow, and probably in East Berlin. Brilliant and profound, it promised a new point of view. It called attention to the ubiquity, albeit in very contemporary disguise, of long-standing theological traditions. The dogmas of the hieratic priest – and every intelligent reader realized he was dealing with a passionate critique of Stalinism – were opposed by the behaviour of the fool, quick-witted, shifty as Proteus, mocking a petrified civilization built on doctrine. Even today this essay still retains its freshness and the exceptional force of its reasoning. It marked a vital contribution to the critique of communist civilization; at the same time it arose from the moods of those times. In it we catch echoes of those countless, inspired, hilarious student cabarets that produced, in Gdansk, in Warsaw, in Krakow (and no doubt in other European cities seized by Moscow), a champagne of anti-Soviet humour. We also catch tones close to the "fool's" ontology in poetry (in Szymborska, for example, whose poems of that period should be read in concert with Kolakowski's programmatic essay).

Kolakowski distanced himself from his manifesto – his evolution reveals a growing fascination with theological issues (which had always intrigued him). Philosophy's splendid "technician", the author of Main Currents of Marxism, never ceases to approach faith asymptomatically, as if to say (not being a poet, he'll never just come out and say it) that you can't remain permanently in the fool's position, since its meaning is exhausted by its polemical attitude, its ceaseless needling of powerful opponents.

In a much later essay, "The revenge of the sacred in secular culture", Kolakowski writes, "A culture that loses its sense of 'sacrum', loses its sense entirely". The priest can get by without the fool; but no one's ever spotted a fool in the desert or a forest hermitage. Our epoch, though, that puer aeternus of history – worships perversity. It's no accident that Bakhtin's idea of the "carnival", the revolt against hierarchy, appeals so strongly to professors of literature.

In a section of The Dehumanization of Art eloquently entitled "Doomed to irony", Ortega y Gasset points to the ironic character of twentieth-century avant-garde culture, its violent aversion to pathos and sublimity: "[T]his inevitable dash of irony ... imparts to modern art a monotony which must exasperate patience itself."

Too long a stay in the world of irony and doubt awakens in us a yearning for different, more nutritious fare. We may get the urge to reread Diotima's classic speech in Plato's Symposium, the speech on the vertical wanderings of love. But it may also happen that an American student hearing this speech for the first time will say, "But Plato's such a sexist". Another student will note, on reading the first stanza of Hölderlin's "Bread and Wine", that in our great cities today we can't experience true darkness, true dusk, since our lamps, computers, and energies never shut down – as if he didn't want to see what really matters here, the transition from the day's frenzy to the meditation offered us by night, that "foreigner".

We're left with the impression that the present day favours only one stage of a certain ageless, endless journey. This journey is best described by a concept borrowed from Plato, metaxu, being "in between", in between our earth, our (so we suppose) comprehensible, concrete, material surroundings, and transcendence, mystery. Metaxu defines the situation of the human, a being who is incurably "en route". Simone Weil and Eric Voegelin (thinkers who loathed totalitarianism and from whom I first learned about Plato's metaxu) both drew upon this concept, albeit somewhat differently. Voegelin even made it one of the key points of his anthropology.

We'll never manage, after all, to settle permanently in transcendence once and for all. We'll never even fully learn its meaning. Diotima rightly urges us toward the beautiful, toward higher things, but no one will ever take up residence for good in alpine peaks, no one can pitch his tent there for long, no one will build a home on the eternal snows. We'll head back down daily (if only to sleep ... since night has two faces. It is a "foreigner" summoning us to meditation, but it's also a time of absolute indifference, of sleep, and sleep demands that ecstasy be utterly extinguished). We'll always return to the quotidian: after experiencing an epiphany, writing a poem, we'll go to the kitchen and decide what to have for dinner; then we'll open the envelope holding the telephone bill. We'll move continuously from inspired Plato to sensible Aristotle ... And this is as it should be, since otherwise lunacy lies in wait above and boredom down below.

We're always "in between" and our constant motion always betrays the other side in some way. Immersed in the quotidian, in the commonplace routines of practical life, we forget about transcendence. While edging toward divinity, we neglect the ordinary, the concrete, the specific, we turn our backs on the pebble that is the subject of Herbert's splendid poem, his hymn to stony, serene, sovereign presence.

But the connections between high and low are complex.. read more:

see also
My Correct Views on Everything - Leszek Kolakowski
Sigmund Freud is out of fashion. The reason? His heroic refusal to flatter humankind
Writing to Albert Einstein in the early 1930s, Sigmund Freud suggested that “man has in him an active instinct for hatred and destruction.” Freud went on to contrast this “instinct to destroy and kill” with one he called erotic—an instinct “to conserve and unify,” an instinct for love.
Joshua Rothman - HAMLET: A LOVE STORY