The state from below
Accessible human stories providing excellent contemporary accounts of the state
EXPERIENCING THE STATE: Lloyd I. Rudolph and John Kurt Jacobsen Editors; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 675.
This fine collection is illuminating, informative, and often entertaining; that may be why at least one contributor says mainstream academic journals would never have accepted their papers but the authors are very distinguished, and the book makes a welcome change from the positivist sterility of much social science, relating facts and findings to accessible human stories throughout to provide excellent contemporary accounts of the state.
The book addresses serious issues. James Scott's analysis of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) shows how technological rationality is a smokescreen for raw power. The TVA was blocked by interests which had already hijacked the state which had created it. Arundhati Roy shows how the World Bank gave $450 million to the Narmada project with no advance analysis and then withdrew when they found that the Gujarat Government had no plans to provide drinking water to millions; Roy also exposes official lies about flow-rates and irrigation efficiency. Meanwhile sugar mills have opened along the rivers despite a ban, and Roy shows the planners' contempt for those displaced.
Paul Brass excoriates developmentalism for neglecting India's horrors communal riots amounting to anti-Muslim pogroms reinforced by communalist rhetoric, chronic mass hunger, colossal corruption and monstrous suffering, and the utter indifference of the wealthy to what hundreds of millions endure: "India is a living catastrophe." Similar could be said of Pakistan, but Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui shows what the formal sector can achieve by recognising the strengths of the dispossessed, a lesson also shown in India's better schemes and brilliantly applied by the great South African Communist Joe Slovo in Nelson Mandela's first government. The Indian state itself, Philip Oldenburg finds, is everywhere, from electric lines to health centres, and is variably corrupt but not particularly oppressive. Villagers know the officials with whom they get angry are underpaid, and recognise that they themselves are corruptible; and they are appreciative of services and institutions. They view the state with far less hostility than urban elites, who benefit far more from it and are quicker to bribe officials while fallaciously absolving themselves: "Everybody bribes officials."
There are symbioses between official and unofficial systems. Helmuth Berking, describing German unification in a Brandenburg village, shows how the communism of the German Democratic Republic was both anti-Fascist and offered new educational and occupational advancement. Further, village life remained recognisable, and the mayor was a popular fixer, allowing local deals and minor illegalities while satisfying party officials of his loyalty. Unification, however, brought shocks like Wessi arrogance towards the Ossis, and huge unemployment, which bred rampant neo-Nazism. Those who did worst were people who had left the party; their past made it impossible for them to get work in the new system, and both Ossis and Wessis hated them for jumping ship. Hyung-Min Joo shows how the failures and the lies of the Soviet system generated an informal economy and an unofficial discourse, the samizdat press; both subsisted in symbiosis with officialdom.
As to the state from outside, Nicholas Temple shows the demoralisation of dedicated British public-sector staff after decades of under-funding Margaret Thatcher dared not attack the British National Health Service openly followed by the Blairist imposition of rigid, utterly unnecessary, top-down management and performance-monitoring. The NHS has been further damaged by the use of private finance indemnified by the public purse to build and run NHS hospitals. Hugely expensive, these have cut staff and services; NHS management has been vastly expanded, and despite government claims the U.K. still spends less of its GDP on health care than comparable countries. The result is the imminent destruction of the only element of the welfare state that was founded on a universal ethical principle, that of free public health care.
The arts have always been political. John Kurt Jacobsen examines Hollywood, finding that the real government conspiracies are as crazy as the conspiracy theories. The surprise is that with rapidly- increasing inequalities, terrifying job insecurity, and stagnant living standards for 80 per cent of Americans, there are not more conspiracy theories. Patricia Bickers shows that in the U.K. the successive Blair governments have abandoned the arts to a private-finance climate far more inimical than the American context and have ruthlessly tightened government control over the regional arts boards, headed by ministerial appointees today's cultural commissars.
The collection concludes with resistance. Sudipta Kaviraj argues that while Indian elites saw Gandhiji's trial in 1922 in causal and instrumental terms, Indian peasants saw any gesture against established power as expressing wider, even miraculous, meanings. Gandhiji conveyed the independence movement to the Indian masses as political action and used his sense of theatre to reach the British public. He knew, better than his colleagues and most of the Indian elites since then, the importance of knowing about the world.
Bruce Cumings, with firsthand experience of Korea, details the torture inflicted by the U.S. occupation forces, which went unreported though never unknown by the American press for half a century. Much of the conduct of the U.S. forces and their puppets in Korea, including machine-gunning villagers, is virtually identical to that which was partly publicised in Viet Nam and which in Iraq has gone largely unreported by the mainstream international press. We may never know what happened in Falluja, and if we learn it we may wish we had not done so. Yet not to know it will mean repeating it or being a victim of its repetition. The editors, in their concluding reflections, quote an unnamed Bush official: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." As we watch that delusion crash about its creators' heads, we must remember that millions of ordinary people have paid with their lives for such delusions.
It is a pity that the contributors have been let down by the publisher. The text is littered with errors and inconsistencies. Secondly, the jacket design is grossly one-sided; worse still, it has been approved by a publisher based in a region which embodies the success of the post-war social-democratic state, a success so great that it gave rise to that most sought-after of gated condominiums, the European Union.
Send this article to Friends by