Perhaps the most revealing words on the topic of globalization in recent years came not from the pen of Thomas Piketty, nor were they written by Robert Reich or Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman — rather, they can be found in the pages of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, written by the notorious New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
“The hidden hand of the market,” Friedman notes in a particularly telling fragment, “will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglass, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.”
Friedman isn’t known for his subtlety or sincerity, but the above passage strikes at a crucial truth. So much so, in fact, that Arundhati Roy christened it “the most succinct, accurate description of the project of corporate globalization that I have read.”
Roy first made waves internationally with her novel The God of Small Things, published in 1997 — it was an instant hit, selling millions of copies and propelling the relatively obscure writer into stardom. The fame, as she would later recount, was overwhelming; her picture appeared in prominent magazines and she was sought out by mainstream outlets as an established literary voice.
Such acclaim among the upper classes and elite sectors of society both abroad and in India, her home country, would soon become less cheery, however.
In the year following her debut novel’s appearance, Roy wrote a scathing essay condemning the Indian government’s nuclear test, the nation’s second since 1974. The test featured, as CNN reported at the time, “two big explosions, including a thermonuclear ‘hydrogen bomb’ explosion, and three smaller blasts involving a nuclear yield of below one kiloton.”
Roy’s essay, titled “The End of Imagination,” made waves of an entirely different nature than those triggered by The God of Small Things. Fervent nationalism was on the rise in India in the 1990s, and Roy staked out a position against this trend, arguing that the mere existence of nuclear weapons is a sign not of national strength, but of “supreme folly.”
“Ever-present is an unblinking confrontation of the scourge of imperialism and of the devastation brought about by the forced imposition of so-called free market principles.”
“The fact that they exist at all, their very presence in our lives, will wreak more havoc than we can begin to fathom,” she wrote. “Nuclear weapons pervade our thinking. Control our behavior. Administer our societies. Inform our dreams. They bury themselves like meat hooks deep in the base of our brains. They are purveyors of madness.”
Thus began Roy’s foray into national, and global, politics, a foray motivated, at least in part, by a sense of obligation.
“If I had not said anything about the nuclear tests, it would have been as if I was celebrating it,” Roy told the New York Times. “I was on the covers of all these magazines all the time. Not saying anything became as political as saying something.”
Over the next several years, Roy would become an established voice of dissent at home, as well as a fierce critic of the world’s imperial powers — or, more accurately, power, the United States. And while it may seem as though these critiques occupy separate terrains, they always coalesce.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in The End of Imagination, a collection of Roy’s essays released earlier this month. Ever-present — whether stated outright or in narrative form — is an unblinking confrontation of the scourge of imperialism and of the devastation brought about by the forced imposition of so-called free market principles. And as Roy frequently urges us to remember, these two prominent features of the global political and economic landscape are deeply interconnected.
Sometimes, the objectives of empire are expressed in terms as frank as Thomas Friedman’s description of the project of global capitalism.
“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,” said Henry Kissinger, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, the same year, incidentally, that the CIA participated in the violent subversion of Chilean democracy, which resulted in the death of the country’s elected leader, Salvador Allende.
The coup prompted a reign of terror; it also presented, in stark terms, a rebuke to those who insisted (and still insist) that capitalism is a guarantor of freedom. In fact, as Roy often notes, capitalism and its purveyors have frequently been explicit opponents of freedom. The core project of the disciples of the “free market” is to subordinate society to the needs of the investors. If civil liberties must be curtailed, if democracy must be crushed, if war must be waged, so be it.
“The men in suits are in an unseemly hurry,” Roy wrote in an essay adapted from a speech she gave in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one week after the first anniversary of the attacks of September 11. “While bombs rain down on us and cruise missiles skid across the skies, while nuclear weapons are stockpiled to make the world a safer place, contracts are being signed, patents are being registered, oil pipelines are being laid, natural resources are being plundered, water is being privatized, and democracies are being undermined.”
The “free market” is, to use Karl Polanyi’s term, a “stark Utopia”: It is a construct peddled by those who insist upon the belief that the accumulation of wealth and resources at the very top is a natural phenomenon, one dictated by the immutable laws of the universe.
Furthermore, it is designed to provide a smokescreen for those who, in conjunction with their allies in government, write the rules of global trade and investment, tipping the scale in their favor.
“Multinational corporations on the prowl for sweetheart deals that yield enormous profits cannot push through those deals and administer those projects in developing countries without the active connivance of state machinery — the police, the courts, sometimes even the army,” Roy observes.
Meanwhile, she continues, “the ‘structural adjustment’ end of the corporate globalization project is ripping through people’s lives. ‘Development’ projects, massive privatization, and labor ‘reforms’ are pushing people off their lands and out of their jobs, resulting in a kind of barbaric dispossession that has few parallels in history.”
We are told the world is being made “safe for democracy,” a trope that dates back to the days of the First World War. But “democracy,” in elite-speak, is code for capitalism.
“Across the world,” Roy writes, “as the free market brazenly protects Western markets and forces developing countries to lift their trade barriers, the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer.”