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How India's Traumatic Capitalism Is Reshaping the World

03/04/2015 11:04 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

Novelist Rana Dasgupta recently turned to nonfiction to explore the explosive social and economic changes in Delhi starting in 1991, when India launched a series of transformative economic reforms. In  Capital: The Eruption of Delhi, he describes a city where the epic hopes of globalization have dimmed in the face of a sterner, more elitist world. In Part 1 of an interview with the Institute for New Economic Thinking, Dasgupta traces a turbulent time in which traditional ways of life are dissolving as a new class of entrepreneur-warriors is wielding unprecedented power — and changing the global landscape.

Lynn Parramore: Why did you decide to move from New York to Delhi in 2000, and then to write a book about the city?

Rana Dasgupta : I moved to be with my partner who lived in Delhi, and soon realized it was a great place to have landed. I was trying write a novel and there were a lot of people doing creative things. There was a fascinating intellectual climate, all linked to changes in society and the economy.  It was ten years since liberalization and a lot of the impact of that was just being felt and widely sensed.

There was a sense of opportunity, not any more just on the part of business people, but everyone. People felt that things were really going to change in a deep way — in every part of the political spectrum and every class of society. Products and technology spread, affecting even very poor people. Coke made ads about the rickshaw drivers with their mobile phones —people who had never had access to a landline. A lot of people sensed a new possibility for their own lives.

Amongst the artists and intellectuals that I found myself with, there were very big hopes for what kind of society Delhi could become and they were very interested in being part of creating that. They were setting up institutions, publications, publishing houses, and businesses. They were thinking new ideas. When I arrived, I felt: this is where stuff is happening. The scale of conversations, the philosophy of change was just amazing.

LP: You’ve interviewed many of the young tycoons who emerged during Delhi’s transformation. How would you describe this new figure? How does he (and I say ‘he’ because this figure is nearly always male) do business?

RD: Many of their fathers and grandfathers had run significant provincial businesses.  They were frugal in their habits and didn’t like to advertise themselves, and anyway their wealth remained local both in its magnitude and its reach. They had business and political associates that they drank with and whose weddings they went to, and so it was a tight-knit kind of wealth.

But the sons, who would probably be now between 35 and 45, had an entirely different experience. Their adult life happened after globalization. Because their fathers often didn’t have the skills or qualifications to tap into the forces of globalization, the sons were sent abroad, probably to do an MBA, so they could walk into a meeting with a management consultancy firm or a bank and give a presentation. When they came back they operated not from the local hubs where their fathers ruled but from Delhi, where they could plug into federal politics and global capital.

So you have these very powerful combinations of father/son businesses. The sons revere the fathers, these muscular, huge masculine figures who have often done much more risky and difficult work building their businesses and have cultivated relationships across the political spectrum. They are very savvy, charismatic people. They know who to give gifts to, how to do favors.

The sons often don’t have that set of skills, but they have corporate skills. They can talk finance in a kind of international language. Neither skill set is enough on its own by early 2000’s: they need each other. And what’s interesting about this package is that it’s very powerful elsewhere, too. It’s kind of a world-beating combination. The son fits into an American style world of business and finance, but the thing about American-style business is that there are lots of things in the world that are closed to it. It’s very difficult for an American real estate company or food company to go to the president of an African country and do a deal. They don’t have the skills for it. But even if they did, they are legally prevented from all the kinds of practices involved, the bribes and everything.

This Indian business combination can go into places like Africa and Central Asia and do all the things required. If they need to go to market and raise money, they can do that. But if they need to sit around and drink with some government guys and figure out who are the players that need to be kept happy, they can do that, too. They see a lot of the world open to themselves.

LP: How do these figures compare to American tycoons during, say, the Gilded Age?

RD: When American observers see these people they think, well, we had these guys between 1890 and 1920, but then they all kind of went under because there was a massive escalation of state power and state wealth and basically the state declared a kind of protracted war on them. 

Americans think this is a stage of development that will pass. But I think it’s not going to pass in our case. The Indian state is never going to have the same power over private interests as the U.S. state because lots of things have to happen. The Depression and the Second World War were very important in creating a U.S. state that was that powerful and a rationale for defeating these private interests. I think those private interests saw much more benefit in consenting to, collaborating in, and producing a stronger U.S. state. Over time, American business allied itself with the government, which did a lot to open up other markets for it. In India, I think these private interests will not for many years see a benefit in operating differently, precisely because continents like Africa, with their particular set of attributes, have such a bright future. It’s not just about what India’s like, but what other places are like, and how there aren’t that many people in the world that can do what they can do.

LP: What has been lost and gained in a place like Delhi under global capitalism?

RD: Undeniably there has been immense material gain in the city since 1991, including the very poorest people, who are richer and have more access to information. What my book tracks is a kind of spiritual and moral crisis that affects rich and poor alike.

One kind of malaise is political and economic. Even though the poorest are richer, they have less political influence. In a socialist system, everything is done in the name of the poor, for good or for bad, and the poor occupy center stage in political discourse. But since 1991 the poor have become much less prominent in political and economic ideology. As the proportion of wealth held by the richest few families of India has grown massively larger, the situation is very much like the break-up of the Soviet Union, which leads to a much more hierarchical economy where people closest to power have the best information, contacts, and access to capital. They can just expand massively. Suddenly there’s a state infrastructure that’s been built for 70 years or 60 years which is transferred to the private domain and that is hugely valuable. People gain access to telecommunication systems, mines, land, and forests for almost nothing. So ordinary people say, yes, we are richer, and we have all these products and things, but those making the decisions about our society are not elected and hugely wealthy.

Imagine the upper-middle class guy who has been to Harvard, works for a management consultancy firm or for an ad agency, and enjoys a kind of international- style middle class life. He thinks he deserves to make decisions about how the country is run and how resources are used. He feels himself to be a significant figure in his society. Then he realizes that he’s not. There’s another, infinitely wealthier class of people who are involved in all kinds of backroom deals that dramatically alter the landscape of his life. New private highways and new private townships are being built all around him. They’re sucking the water out of the ground. There’s a very rapid and seemingly reckless transformation of the landscape that’s being wrought and he has no part in it. If he did have a say, he might ask, is this really the way that we want this landscape to look?  Isn’t there enormous ecological damage? Have we not just kicked 10,000 farmers off their land?

All these conversations that democracies have are not being had. People think, this exactly what the socialists told us that capitalism was — it’s pillage and it creates a very wealthy elite exploiting the poor majority. To some extent, I think that explains a lot of why capitalism is so turbulent in places like India and China. No one ever expected capitalism to be tranquil. They had been told for the better part of a century that capitalism was the imperialist curse. So when it comes, and it’s very violent, and everyone thinks, well that’s what we expected. One of the reasons that it still has a lot of ideological consensus is that people are prepared for that. They go into it as an act of war, not as an act of peace, and all they know is that the rewards for the people at the top are very high, so you’d better be on the top.

The other kind of malaise is one of culture. Basically, America and Britain invented capitalism and they also invented the philosophical and cultural furniture to make it acceptable. Places where capitalism is going in anew do not have 200 years of cultural readiness. It’s just a huge shock. Of course, Indians are prepared for some aspects of it because many of them are trading communities and they understand money and deals. But a lot of those trading communities are actually incredibly conservative about culture — about what kind of lifestyle their daughters will have, what kinds of careers their sons will have. They don’t think that their son goes to Brown to become a professor of literature, but to come back and run the family business.

LP: What is changing between men and women?

RD: A lot of the fallout is about families. Will women work? If so, will they still cook and be the kind of wife they’re supposed to be? Will they be out on the street with their boyfriends dressed in Western clothes and going to movies and clearly advertising the fact that they are economically independent, sexually independent, socially independent? How will we deal with the backlash of violent crimes that have everything to do with all these changes?

This capitalist system has produced a new figure, which is the economically successful and independent middle-class woman. She’s extremely globalized in the sense of what she should be able to do in her life. It’s also created a set of lower middle-class men who had a much greater sense of stability both in their gender and professional situation 30 years ago, when they could rely on a family member or fellow caste member to keep them employed even if they didn’t have any marketable attributes. They had a wife who made sure that the culture of the family was intact — religion, cuisine, that kind of stuff.

30 years later, those guys are not going to get jobs because that whole caste value thing has no place in the very fast-moving market economy. Without a high school diploma, they just have nothing to offer. Those guys in the streets are thinking, I don’t have a claim on the economy, or on women anymore because I can’t earn anything. Women across the middle classes — and it’s not just across India, it’s across Asia —are trying to opt out of marriage for as long as they can because they see only a downside. Remaining single allows all kinds of benefits – social, romantic, professional. So those guys are pretty bitter and there’s a backlash that can become quite violent. We also have an upswing of Hindu fundamentalism as a way of trying to preserve things. It’s very appealing to people who think society is falling apart.

LP: You’ve described India’s experience of global capitalism as traumatic. How is the trauma distinct in Delhi, and in what ways is it universal?

RD: Delhi suffers specifically from the trauma of Partition, which has created a distinct society. When India became independent, it was divided into India and Pakistan. Pakistan was essentially a Muslim state, and Hindis and Sikhs left.  The border was about 400 kilometers from Delhi, which was a tiny, empty city, a British administrative town. Most of those Hindis and Sikhs settled in Delhi where they were allocated housing as refugees. Muslims went in the other direction to Pakistan, and as we know, something between 1 and 2 million were killed in that event.

The people who arrived in Delhi arrived traumatized, having lost their businesses, properties, friends, and communities, and having seen their family members murdered, raped, and abducted. Like the Jewish holocaust, everyone can tell the stories and everyone has experienced loss. When they all arrive in Delhi, they have a fairly homogeneous reaction: they’re never going to let this happen to them again. They become fiercely concerned with security, physical and financial. They’re not interested in having nice neighbors and the lighter things of life. They say, it was our neighbors that killed us, so we’re going to trust only our blood and run businesses with our brother and our sons. We’re going to build high walls around our houses.

When the grandchildren of these people grow up, it’s a problem because none of this has been exorcised. The families have not talked about it. The state has not dealt with it and wants to remember only that India became independent and that was a glorious moment. So the catastrophe actually becomes focused within families rather than the reverse. A lot of grandchildren are more fearful and hateful of Muslims than the grandparents, who remembered a time before when they actually had very deep friendships with Muslims.

Parents of my generation grew up with immense silence in their households and they knew that in that silence was Islam — a terrifying thing. When you’re one year old, you don’t even know yet what Islam is, you just know that it’s something which is the greatest horror in the universe.

The Punjabi businessman is a very distinct species. They have treated business as warfare, and they are still doing it like that 70 years later and they are very good at it. They enter the global economy at a time when it’s becoming much less civilized as well. In many cases they succeed not because they have a good idea, but because they know how to seize global assets and resources. Punjabi businessmen are not inventing Facebook. They are about mines and oil and water and food —things that everyone understands and needs.

In this moment of globalization, the world will have to realize that events like the Partition of India are not local history anymore but global history. Especially in this moment when the West no longer controls the whole system, these traumas explode onto the world and affect all of us, like the Holocaust. They introduce levels of turbulence into businesses and practices that we didn’t expect necessarily.

Then there’s the trauma of capitalism itself, and here I think it’s important for us to re-remember the West’s own history. Capitalism achieved a level of consensus in the second half of the 20th century very accidentally, and by a number of enormous forces, not all of which were intended. There’s no guarantee that such consensus will be achieved everywhere in the emerging world. India and China don’t have an empire to ship people off to as a safety valve when suffering become immense. They just have to absorb all that stuff.

For a century or so, people in power in Paris and London and Washington felt that they had to save the capitalist system from socialist revolution, so they gave enormous concessions to their populations. Very quickly, people in the West forgot that there was that level of dissent. They thought that everyone loved capitalism. I think as we come into the next period where the kind of consensus has already been dealt a huge blow in the West, we’re going to have to deal with some of those forces again.

LP: When you say that the consensus on capitalism has been dealt a blow, are you talking about the financial crisis?

RD: Yes, the sense that the nation-state — I’m talking about the U.S. context — can no longer control global capital, global processes, or, indeed, it’s own financial elite.

It’s a huge psychological dent in people’s faith in the system. I think what’s going to happen in the next few years is huge unemployment in the middle class in America because a lot of their jobs will be outsourced or automated. Then, if you have 30-40 percent unemployment in America, which has always been the ideological leader in capitalism, America will start to re-theorize capitalism very profoundly (and maybe the Institute of New Economic Thinking is part of that). Meanwhile, I think the middle class in India would not have these kinds of problems. It’s precisely because American technology and finance are so advanced that they’re going to hit a lot of those problems. I think in places like India there’s so much work to be done that no one needs to leap to the next stage of making the middle class obsolete. They’re still useful.