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Occupy Movement and India

Why did the Occupy movement fail to take root in India? The basic reason is that the Indian middle class is so infused with the ideology of the caste system that it can never easily identify itself with the lower strata of society to say that we are the 99.99%.

MARGIN SPEAK

class divide. But technological change has

Occupy Movement and India

not been able to save capitalism from the impending crises that gripped it from the mid-1960s. When, in order to stave them Anand Teltumbde off, it adopted an offensive strategy of

Why did the Occupy movement fail to take root in India? The basic reason is that the Indian middle class is so infused with the ideology of the caste system that it can never easily identify itself with the lower strata of society to say that we are the 99.99%.

Anand Teltumbde (tanandraj@gmail.com) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

The Occupy movement really is an exciting development. In fact, it’s spectacular. It’s unprecedented; there’s never been anything like it that I can think of.

– Noam Chomsky

U
ltimately, hundreds of police officers in riot gear clamped down on the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampment at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan in New York City in the predawn darkness on 15 November. They demolished the tent city that had come up there since mid-September as the epicentre of a movement protesting against corporate greed and economic inequality. Around 200 people were arrested; their tents, sleeping bags and equipment were carted away, and by 4:30 am, the park was empty. Earlier, the police did a similar thing in Oakland. However, this leaderless movement had already sprouted in all kinds of places across the world from Australia through Asia, Europe and, of course, the Americas. In India, arguably one of the most unequal countries in the world, it failed to evoke much response. All that we saw of the Occupy movement was a small rally in Kolkata and an attempt to stage an “Occupy Dalal Street” in Mumbai, which died a still birth because it lacked support and, of course, the prompt arrests of a significant section of the protestors by the Mumbai police.

The Form of Struggle

Every mode of production and every historical phase throws up its own form of struggles. Previously the anti-capitalist movements were marked by militant workers’ strikes. But things have changed fast with changes in the form of capitalism. It has, on the one hand, nearly succeeded in marginalising the proletariat and, on the other, adopted increasingly predatory forms of exploitation. Advances in technology that not only displaced human labour but also human labourers from the sphere of production have helped blur the classical

December 17, 2011

neo-liberal globalisation, the resistance also manifested itself in novel forms. One of the first major protests it faced was in 1999 during the ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle. The negotiations were quickly overshadowed by massive street protests outside the hotels and the conference venue. The crowd of over 40,000, which was mobilised through informal networks, effectively stalled the meeting and shook the citadel of global capital. It was compelled to devise, as we know, the vent of the World Social Forum (WSF) with its illusory slogan “Another World Is Possible” from 2001.

After 11 WSFs, and scores of regional social fora, the roughshod march of global capital not only distanced that “another world” but also brought the world itself to the brink of collapse. The massive financialisation of economies to facilitate accumulation intensified the crises to un precedented magnitudes. The Asian financial crisis of 1997, the sub-prime lending crisis of 2008 in the US, and the current European sovereign debt crisis are but markers in this continuing process of financing the accumulation of global capital. Each successive crisis was followed by a massive transfer of public funds to save the crumbling banking system. The estimates of public funds channelled in the wake of the so-called subprime crisis is said to be as high as $16 to 23 trillion. It was a naked illustration of the Marxian dictum that the state is but a committee of the bourgeoisie to advance its own interests at the expense of the public. Such transfer of public funds into private hands evoked a mass expression of disapproval.

The clue came from the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia. The accumulated mass dissent against the feudal regimes in Arab countries spread like wild fire from country to country and brought about changes, which although currently modulated by imperial America, are being carried on through a new upsurge in Tahrir Square.

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Economic & Political Weekly

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Taking inspiration from this mass rage, an artist at the Adbusters magazine in Vancouver drew a poster of a ballerina balancing on the Wall Street bull, putting a hash tag on her head “Occupy Wall Street”. The poster resonated with people. It soon spread to over 100 cities in the US and even outside. Over 1,500 protest actions, took place all over the world on the “global day of action” in 82 countries. Although they have been crushed at various places, it may not be the end of them. Such forms of spontaneous mass upsurge sans leaders, indeed, do not have a beginning or an end; they only signify the beginning of the end of what they protest against.

We Are the 99%

The slogan “We Are the 99%” of the OWS movement signifies the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 1% of income-earners and drives home the point that an overwhelming majority of the people are paying the price for the speculative dealing of a tiny minority. Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, said that the 99% slogan aimed too low. A large fraction of the top one per cent’s gains have actually gone to an even smaller group, the top 0.1% – the richest one-thousandth of the population. The top 0.1% of the population saw the sharpest increase in income share, taking home over 10.4% of the nation’s earnings in 2008 as against 1% in 1970 and 2.6% in 1975. During the last two decades of neo-liberal globalisation, in e qua lity has been growing all over the globe. Krugman cited a Congressional report that between 1979 and 2005, the inflation-adjusted, after-tax income of Americans in the middle of the income distribution rose by 21%. The equivalent number for the richest 0.1% rose by 400%. But deepening inequality in the so-called emerging economies like Brazil, China and India has been rather worse.

The rulers of these countries fooled the people saying that their free market policies would bring economic growth which would trickle down to the lower strata, making everybody better off. These policies led to an unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of the elite at the top, even as they simultaneously dispossessed the vast majority. The resultant

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
December 17, 2011

inequality was not a problem so long as people experienced a reasonable degree of improvement in their living standards. However, this has not been the case for the majority of people. The process of deindustrialisation, jobless growth, devastation of the environment, commercialisation of public services, etc, unleashed by these policies has eroded their living standards. The politics shaped by these policies has undermined democratic expression of the working classes and valorised the euphoric voices of the middle classes. The jolts of repeated economic crises have shaken the middle classes but they have still not realised the mirage of the free market and started seeing the stark reality.

Whither India?

If corporate greed and inequality were the targets of the Occupy movement, India should have been fertile ground for such protests. Income inequality, both in rural and urban areas, has gone up during the post-1990s. The per capita consumptionbased Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality – zero signifying perfect equality and one, perfect inequality) has moved up for rural India – from 0.38 in 1995-96 to

0.41 in 2004-05 – and also in urban India

– 0.39 vis-à-vis 0.43. At the all-India level, the Gini coefficient has moved up from

0.43 (1995-96) to 0.45 (2004-05) (Economic Times, 7 February 2008). The distribution of consumption expenditure does not however reflect the true magnitude of inequality. Reeve Vanneman of the University of Maryland and Amaresh Dubey of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the National Council for Applied Economic Research have in a working paper “Horizontal and Vertical Inequalities in India”, dated 21 June 2010, computed the Gini coefficient based on income distribution and found its value to be a whopping 0.54, well above conventional estimates, catapulting the country into the ranks of the most unequal in the world. “Cross-cutting this large vertical inequality are regional and social group inequalities...With the exception of the city state of Delhi, Ginis for Indian states vary between 0.45 (Chhattisgarh) and

0.59 (Karnataka), all well above typical OECD values”.

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With regard to corporate greed, the government has been systematically fuelling it by ideologically valorising the private sector. In just six years from 2005-06, it wrote off corporate income tax worth Rs 3,74,937 crore in successive union budgets. Besides these direct transfers, there have been massive transfers to the private corporate sector through disinvestment, giving away natural resources and opening up business opportunities in public goods like healthcare and education. Corporate plunder has provoked people’s resistance movements in various parts of the country. But the opulence of the corporate honchos, evident in their billion dollar residences, private planes and so on, knows no end.

Why then did the OWS movement evoke no response in India? As mentioned earlier, apart from a small rally in Kolkata, an attempt was made to “Occupy Dalal Street” in Mumbai on 4 November but it failed due to lack of public support and high-handedness of the police. It is interesting that the middle caste-class youth who excitedly thronged behind Hazare just ignored it. Paradoxically, some commentators mistakenly traced inspiration of the Occupy movement to the Anna Hazare-led campaign, not knowing the fundamental fact that while Hazare’s movement seeks a surreal solution to the real problem of corruption, and that too, within the confines of the status quo, the Occupy movement has symbolically challenged capitalism itself.

Why did the “globalising” middle classes of India ignore this global movement is an important question to ask. The possible reason, of course, is that they still feel that they are greatly benefiting from the system. After all, it is this system that extricated the economy from the fivedecade long syndrome of the “Hindu rate of growth”, brought recognition to the rich migrant community in the US, their El Dorado, catapulted many of them to the top of the corporate ladder and restored their megalomaniacal pride in the nation. But there is something that is missing. The Indian middle class is a class that is infused with the ideology of the caste system. It will thus never easily identify with the lower strata of society of say that we are the 99.99%!

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