We live in the time of “austerity”: the global project to stamp out the social democratic consensus which dominated world politics in the three decades following the Second World War. The roll-back of gains achieved by non-elites during that period—their share in the economic surplus, their social and economic protections—is the drama that dominates national headlines everywhere.
In the West, the success of this project has plunged the middle classes into a remarkably rapid decline. The accompanying cloud of nostalgia and apocalyptic fantasy can obscure the fact, however, that what is assailing them is not so much “neoliberal capitalism” but just plain “capitalism,” tout court.
It is in the world’s “emerging” centers that we see most distinctly what this means. In cities where the large, affluent middle class never existed in the first place, we do not need to wait for its decline to see the true nature of our system. The future is on full display. And it looks remarkably like the nineteenth-century “norm” to which—as Thomas Piketty argues—our twentieth-century “aberration” is returning.
Welcome to New Delhi. A capital city built by British colonial rulers whose bougainvillea-covered bungalows and tree-lined boulevards retain a strikingly imperial relationship to the nation at large.
After 1991, when four decades of socialist economic controls came to an end, Delhi’s political system was assailed, Moscow-like, by a privatization scramble. By 2008, the wealth of India’s billionaires was equivalent to 22 percent of the nation’s GDP, up from 1 percent fifteen years earlier. Also prospering was the managerial class (often referred to as “middle,” quaint in a country where 80 percent of the population earned three dollars a day or less), which carried out the intricate work of reorienting Indian land, labor, and consumer markets toward global capital.
The city was knocked down and rebuilt—“From walled city to world city” went the slogan: shopping malls and luxury hotels were built over former slums, whose residents were evicted by the hundreds of thousands. But there was little serenity for those who remained. For many professionals, the financial equation simply did not add up: white-collar jobs siphoned away from the West paid a fraction of Western salaries—that was the whole point—and it became clear that being “middle-class” in India would look nothing like the ads. Huge numbers went into the streets to protest the new ills: corruption, violence, rape.
The ability of India’s rural poor to endure cruelty is admittedly stupendous, but it is not, as their industrial overlords fondly believed, infinite.
In recent decades the global system has retained whatever dynamism it has thanks to the desperation of a billion and a half Asian peasants, and the endless stream of people fleeing the ravaged countryside kept Indian business in its boom. Many of these startled individuals entered the terrifying world of the twenty-first-century factory; others guarded offices or cleaned houses. In all cases, the astonishing cheapness of their labor, combined with their seemingly infinite docility, fueled elites’ smug sense that they themselves were blessed with extraordinary talent and potential. Of course they could discern, like everyone else, the vampiric undertone that had corroded their society, but this did nothing to dispel the feeling—which was cynically astute—that they had at last moved “ahead” of the decadent, welfare-laden, West.
But while they were lost in such self-satisfaction, they did not notice that the basis of their reality was changing. Historians have suggested that it takes about thirty years from the moment of major investments in a rural economy for workers to become sufficiently organized to negotiate their wages and conditions. Twenty-five years have passed since the Indian economy was opened up to global capital, and it is already becoming clear that the efficacy of the old imperial strategy of “divide and rule”—caste against caste, religion against religion, temporary worker against permanent—is running out. The ability of India’s rural poor to endure cruelty is admittedly stupendous, but it is not, as their industrial overlords fondly believed, infinite.
The change is felt most strongly in the automotive factories in Delhi’s industrial hinterland. These are state-of-the-art factories, and they are completely networked with the rest of the supply chain, so that any interruption to the schedule—which demands, for instance, that a motorcycle engine be assembled in eighteen seconds—sends waves throughout the entire commercial system. In order to maintain this schedule, workers are frequently beaten and abused; they may lose between 20 and 50 percent of their $200 to $300 monthly pay for lateness, absence, or even sickness. The sheer number of other people willing to do these jobs, as well as the constantly deferred promise of a permanent contract, have historically ensured that workers accept whatever is thrown at them. But perhaps no longer.
In February of this year, a worker in a Honda motorcycle factory in the state of Rajasthan refused to work overtime. He had worked overtime for three days in a row, and had fallen sick. His supervisor was incensed by his refusal, and began to physically attack him. All 2,000 workers in the factory stopped working in support of the sick man. Coordinated attacks on the striking workers by police and hired gangs did nothing to break the strike, nor did the subsequent arrests, incarcerations, and criminal charges. A massive demonstration of support by workers in other factories—and indeed a chain reaction of other strikes—showed just how far political networks had grown since similar action brought production of Maruti Suzuki cars to a halt in 2011.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 promising a dynamic Indian economy unhindered by insubordination—whether it came from labor or the natural environment. But already it is becoming clear that this vision was built on assumptions that cannot hold, even when enormous state violence is administered. And as politicized Indian workers are in touch, also, with workers in similar organizations—or even in the same corporations—in China, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Turkey, etc., their influence extends beyond the national. They are better aware than anyone else of who makes the global ethos of newer, cooler, faster—and how—and it is this ethos, ultimately, that stands in question.
What does this mean for the future of India’s capital city? It means another struggle for independence. It means the rise of proletarian resistance, refusal, and utopianism on a scale not seen in the West for close to a century. This will be just one of the many ways in which we will slip back into “normal”—that is to say, nineteenth-century-style—capitalism. But this time around, things will move much faster. First, because information-rich activists will know everything that happened before. And second, because there is not another Asia to where a hundred million jobs can be moved—so somehow or other, all parties must be creative enough to make the present situation work.
These battles will bring a new sense of hope to the capital’s streets. In the short term, they will reduce the profits of Indian industry, certainly, and slow down global growth. But ultimately they will produce a more broad-based, intelligent, and therefore durable economy than what exists right now. With a wider range of classes and communities pitching in, the enormous creativity of Indian society will be productively brought to bear on questions that challenge the entire world. In the process, there will be some welcome therapy for the spiritual sickness of neo-feudalism, which destroys the rulers as well as the ruled; and the dull culture of superiority will be reanimated with a much-needed jolt of modernism.
Rana Dasgupta is a British novelist and essayist based in New Delhi. His most recent book, Capital, is a portrait of the astonishing transformations brought about by new money and ambition in his adopted city. Dasgupta is a curator at the House of World Cultures in Berlin, and a visiting professor at Brown University.
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