"[W]hen you live in the United States, with the roar of the free market, the roar of this huge military power, the roar of being at the heart of empire, it's hard to hear the whispering of the rest of the world. And I think many U.S. citizens want to."
- Arundhati Roy,
The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile
with David Barsamian.
Arundhati Roy was catapulted to fame in 1997 when she won the Booker Prize for her first novel, The God of Small Things. She is trained as an architect, worked as a production designer and has written the screenplays for two films. Since then she has also become known internationally for her lyrical political writing in books like Power Politics, War Talk, and her latest, about to be released: An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire. Arundhati Roy was recently in the United States to publicize her book The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, which is a series of interviews with journalist David Barsamian. KPFK’s host of Uprising. Sonali Kolhatkar, interviewed Roy in San Francisco on August 16th , 2004 and this interview appears here courtesy Znet
Sonali Kolhatkar: The last time I saw you, you were in Mumbai, India. You were on a very big stage and you were speaking to tens of thousands of people at the World Social Forum and you were one of the few people who made a specific suggestion about boycotting a couple of American companies that were profiting from the war in Iraq and you got a lot of applause for it because that was sort of a rare thing – there were mostly platitudes at the WSF. Has anything come of that suggestion?
Arundhati Roy: Well I don’t know that anything has come of it concretely but I think people are working on that idea. How exactly it should be done is a difficult issue. But I would just like to repeat the fact that it’s really dangerous for us to limit our protests to purely symbolic spectacle and that we have to begin to inflict real damage and we have to be able to signal to these absolutely heartless multinational companies that they cannot function like this. And if we don’t do that, then we’re going to take a very big hit. We’re just going to be a comical movement of people who like to feel good about ourselves.
Sonali Kolhatkar: But you’re also very much a believer in non-violent struggle. How does one hit the empire without using a little violence – and can boycotts be effective?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t also want to go around being the Barbie doll of non-violent struggle. To confuse non-violence with passivity is one of the things that’s dangerous. And the fact is that neither am I a person who feels that I have the right, or I am in a place where I should be dictating to people how they should conduct their movements.
Personally I’m not prepared to pick up arms now. But maybe I can afford not to, at whatever place I am in now. I think violence really marginalizes and brutalizes women. It depoliticizes things. It’s undemocratic in so many ways. But at the same time, when you look at the massive amount of violence that America is perpetrating in Iraq, I don’t know that I’m in a position to tell Iraqis that you must fight a pristine, feminist, democratic, secular, non-violent war. I can’t say. I just feel that that resistance in Iraq is our battle too and we have to support it. And we can’t be looking for pristine struggles in which to invest our purity.
But I feel that for those of us who are prepared to resist non-violently, the economic outposts of empire are vulnerable. These same companies that first did business with Saddam Hussein, then were on the Defense Policy Board advising America to go to war, now are getting huge contracts from the destruction of Iraq, are also the same companies that are privatizing water and privatizing power and so on, in Latin America, in Africa, in India. Therefore we do have a foothold and we can shut them down if we wanted to.
Sonali Kolhatkar: I want to touch on what you said about not demanding that a particular movement be pristine. Women are on the forefront of the struggle against globalization. At the same time, they are fighting a slightly different battle from men – they are against the misogynist traditions of their community, as well as against the "modernity of the global economy" as you call it. How do you explain the dynamics then between men and women – the men who on the one hand fight the same fight against globalization but may want to retain, even harder, the structures of misogynist traditions?
Arundhati Roy: Well, look, people like me, and I’m sure you, are in this dilemma full time, right? I spent the first part of my life just fighting tradition, just refusing to be the woman that the community that I come from wants me to be. And you escape that and you come slap-bang up against some that, it’s hard to say which is worse. But I think that’s beautiful in a way, to pick your way through that fight. And though the experiences of women are different, the fact is that the fight is not being fought separately by women and men. There are plenty of men who see that side and there are plenty of women who don’t. The battle lines are not drawn between women and men. They are drawn between particular world views.
What is disturbing, I think, is that there are two kinds of struggles going on in the world today -- I mean resistance movements-wise. And they are almost like in two different eras even though they are both contemporary. One is the struggle of movements like the Zapatistas, or the anti-dam movement in the Narmada, or the anti-privatization forum, or the landless peasant movements, those movements which are fighting their own states and are radically wanting to restructure their society.
And then there are those movements which are fighting neo-colonial occupations whether it’s Tibet, or Palestine, or Kashmir, or in the Northeast [of India]. And there the repression is so extreme that those movements, even if they were more radical when they started, or more progressive, are being pushed into retrogressive positions, where they are misogynist, or they are fundamentalist and in many ways, using the same language and the techniques as the states they seek to replace.
And then you have the cycle turning full circle and coming back to Iraq where you’re re-colonizing a place and appropriating its resources and so on. I think that the fact is that those movements that are fighting liberation struggles have to start asking themselves now, what kind of state are they fighting for. And especially the women have to ask that question now. They can’t be saying once it happens, then we’ll be okay, because they won’t be.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Speaking of women as well, the situation in the United States is interesting on the left. It’s very refreshing for me to see a South Asian woman, a woman who looks like me, be the new superstar of the left. And you may reject that term, "superstar" but unfortunately, or fortunately, whether you like it or not, when you walk into a room today, you command an audience. And it’s the Noam Chomsky effect – when he walks into a room, he gets a standing ovation before he even says a few words. So on the one hand I’m ecstatic that it’s not just another straight white male with a fancy education. How do you deal with that and is it healthy for the left?
Arundhati Roy: I think it’s very unhealthy. This process of iconization is also a political one. That it is a way of making real political resistance very brittle. Because it’s okay to say oh Arundhati Roy, she’s a superstar. And then tomorrow say, but actually you know, she’s this and she’s that and it’s over. But it’s not about me and what a nice human being I am because I’m not a nice human being. I’m not at all playing for saint-hood here. So I think it’s a very dangerous process. It’s hard to know what to do about it. Because all one does is to continue to write and say what one writes and says. Then the rest of it is a fallout that you have to deal with and realize and that the option is to shut up and go away. Is that what I want to do? I don’t know.
But it is dangerous because it does make the whole movement very brittle. Obviously it’s not just me, there are others. But individuals who are picked out – we are very fragile things. I could be ... how easy is it for the propaganda machine to try to discredit me tomorrow?
Sonali Kolhatkar: You’ve talked about, in the book, [The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile] with David [Barsamian] the way in which ordinary people are different from powerful people who can be ruthless, cold, calculating. Does ruthlessness and coldness just come from power? Unless people have power we can’t solve the problems of the world. What are your ideas on distributing power?
Arundhati Roy: Tonight, the subject of my talk is "Public Power in the Age of Empire". I think it’s probably a subject that occupies many of my waking hours and what does that mean in today’s age? What does it mean in an election year? Does it mean just going out and voting? What does it mean? I think that it’s very very important for us to also accept a certain amount of culpability for what is happening to the world and what we have allowed to happen. So how do we as people who are not walking the path to public office or government, how do we shorten the leash on power because that’s the only way.
Like I keep saying that basically the pre-neo-liberal era, already in countries like India, the distance between people who made decisions and people who suffered those decisions was big enough. Corporate globalization has just increased it and we have to minimize that distance. And sometimes in order to minimize it, we have to reach across national boundaries and borders. If you see in a very simple way, democracies are premised on an almost religious acceptance of the nation-state. Neo-liberalism is simply not. Capital moves across these boundaries in the way that it does. And so while that project needs the coercive powers of the nation state to quell the revolt at the servant quarters, it also ensures that no individual nation can stand up to the project of corporate globalization.
So whether it’s Lula or whether it’s Nelson Mandela, whoever they are, they’ve crumbled in the face of that. The only way the public can ensure that…. Like in India what is called now when people are arrested and called terrorists and put in jail in the thousands under this new POTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act, the counterpart to the USA PATRIOT Act in India] act? You know what it’s called? Creating a good investment climate. So we’ve got to create a bad investment climate.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Speaking of elections and of what’s happening in India – the election here in the United States is seeing a face off between Democrats and the Republicans and some of the left is very much rooted in the "Anybody But Bush" strategy. I wonder if you see a comparison between what happened in India and what could happen in the US –the Congress versus the BJP similar to the Democrats versus the Republicans – it’s good to have the Democrats but still lots of work to be done.
Arundhati Roy: Well, yes and no. There is a parallel. And yet, we have to admit that whether it’s the Congress or the BJP that came into power in India it doesn’t affect the rest of the world as much as the outcome of the American election, in theory. I’ve been here for just a few days and one thing that bothers me is that the whole thing has been reduced to some personality contest – like some squabble between two boys who belong to Yale, and were in the "Skull and Crossbones" club or whatever.
Let’s say -- as a subject of empire I speak -- Kerry says that even if he had known that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, he would still have gone to war. He says that he wants to send another 40,000 troops more to Iraq. He wants to send Indians and Pakistanis or other people there to kill and die instead. He’ll get UN cover. For the Iraqis what does it mean? That the French and the Germans and the Russians can also partake of the spoils of the occupation? These are very difficult questions.
But the fact is that if the antiwar movement in the left openly campaigns for Kerry then people in the rest of the world will ask, do you support "soft imperialism" a la Kerry or not? In terms of the fact that people like me and many of us have gone out of our way to make a huge distinction between American government and the American people. But now you have to accept that people in democracies are more responsible for the actions of their governments than the Iraqis are for the actions of Saddam Hussein or the Afghans were for the actions of the Taliban.
So then if you are responsible, then you have to take responsibility. It’s a complicated and dangerous situation right now. And what you say is very important. Can you openly support this man?
Sonali Kolhatkar: We deal with a lot of these issues on KPFK. We don’t hear much discourse on corporate globalization and free trade in the United States. But during this election we are hearing a conversation that’s focused on the outsourcing of jobs which is very much related to India with hi-tech and other jobs going to India. Some people on the left think that they should embrace this as a positive benefit of globalization [with jobs going to a third world country] but others end up falling into the nationalistic trap and denounce the losing of jobs to India. What is your approach and how does one walk the line and how does one treat the issue of outsourcing jobs in India?
Arundhati Roy: The middle and upper classes in India who completely support the neo-liberal corporate globalization project now say, look, we have call centers, isn’t that wonderful? Not seeing that part of the project of India having many thousands of people working for call centers, but who are they? They are also the English speaking, middle class or upper middle class people, at the cost of what? Of millions losing their lands and their jobs and the rest of the corporate globalization project, because of the privatization of electricity and water and removal of subsidies and so on. So once again, for a few people who are comparatively better off getting jobs there, millions are losing jobs there. And over here, what is happening is that the poor are losing jobs. So you have to see it as a complete process of what is happening. It’s not just that you say, oh look, some people are losing jobs here and they’re getting jobs there. It’s just a little part of a much larger project.
Sonali Kolhatkar: A distraction if you will?
Arundhati Roy: It’s not a distraction because in India it’s the main issue.
Sonali Kolhatkar: … I mean here in the United States in election terms…
Arundhati Roy: … It’s a kind of jingoism. I think that what actually globalization has done here is more than people losing jobs in call centers. If you look at the fact that America and Europe are trying to force a country like India to remove subsidies for farmers and poor people while they pay 1 billion dollars a day in subsidies to their farmers, but not to their poor farmers, but to the corporate farmers. So within America too, that project … you see it’s really important for people to understand that it isn’t just a divide between rich countries and poor countries – it’s a divide between rich people and poor people. And that affects the Indian poor as well as the American poor.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Some people, liberal economists for example, like the New York Times’ Paul Krugman who will take a pretty decent position on the issue on war, will disagree with the anti-globalization movement saying that we should embrace the issue of globalization, it’s good for the world. But then you have movements represented by the World Social Forum who are wholly rejecting it. In your opinion, is there anything good about globalization, or what would "your" globalization look like? Or is there just no space for globalization? Should everything turn back to localism?
Arundhati Roy: I suppose it’s one of the most loosely used words in history. Globalization, what does it mean? I keep saying, we are pro-globalization. It would be absurd to think that everybody should retreat into their little caves and continue oppressing Dalits and messing around the way they used to in medieval times. Of course not. And of course I think when you look at it, we are the people who are saying we should have global treaties on nuclear weapons, on international justice, on environmental issues and how can there not be that kind of globalization?
And then there’s that issue of whether organizations like the WTO and the IMF and the World Bank can be reformed. And even within the global justice movement there are two schools of thought. One says, scrap them and other says, no no, you can reform them. To me, it doesn’t matter. If you can reform them, then reform them. But the fact is of course it would be good to have financial institutions that are just institutions, fair institutions. But it’s much worse to have an entrenched, unfair international agreement. You know what I mean. You can’t entrench injustice and institutionalize it in the way that these institutions are doing. It isn’t a vague debate about globalization is good or bad. You’ve got to understand what it means.
And it keeps changing and warping. Five years ago the World Bank was funding big dams. Not five years ago, in 1993 they were driven out of the Narmada Valley. Now they are back. But how? They are not directly funding them. But they are trying to fund them through organizations like the NHPC which is the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, they are trying to come in through the back door now. They are trying to hold hands with the government. Because in any case, these private projects have to have government support. You can’t privatize power without government support. You can’t privatize a dam without using the coercive powers of the state. So it keeps warping and changing. You can’t just have clichéd reactions to it, also keep understanding what is happening.
Sonali Kolhatkar: The issue of globalization from the perspective of activists who want justice, is an interesting one because it brings up ideas and challenges that I noticed – in the World Social Forum there was one topic that kept coming up was the issue of language. You had all these people coming together – most of them didn’t speak one common language. And Nawal el Saadawi [famed Egyptian feminist] was talking about rejecting the use of the colonial language, English. Even though the "God of Small Things" [Roy’s first novel] has been translated into many languages, your primary language that you write in is English.
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