Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for November 2022

Standing on the bleak platform of a New York subway last week, I was captivated by a shabbily dressed stranger who dropped a bag by my side, unzipped it to produce a trumpet and began to play the most haunting jazz I have heard in some time. I decided to miss three trains so that I could stay and listen to the glorious music.

There was something ethereal about the experience: beauty in the midst of drabness, human creativity bursting through poverty and squalor. It recalled the late sociologist Peter Berger’s description of what he called “rumours of angels” or “signals of transcendence”- for instance, the universal human experiences of play, ordering, protesting evil, defying death, and so on.

Identifying such signals in the midst of the bleak political landscape of our times calls for a knowledge and imagination that exceed my own. And I invite readers of this Blog to share such explicitly political “rumours of angels”.

In my own country, people continue to peacefully protest the incompetence and corruption of a government that seeks to suppress them by means of repressive decrees. In Iran, the indomitable courage of schoolgirls puts to shame the protestations of armchair critics of tyranny that “nothing can be done”. The complicity of banks in Australia and Singapore in buttressing the military junta in Myanmar has been exposed, albeit too late. Bolsonaro has been evicted in Brazil; but, at the same time, a far-right politician takes over in Italy and fascist Jewish groups control Israel politics. (Indeed, the state of Israel, as I have often noted, is a classic example of how people brought up on a collective narrative of victimhood can become victimisers themselves. How different are the far-right Zionist settlers from the Nazi thugs who terrorized German Jews?)

Conventional economics separates economic outcomes from political and cultural practices. Marx turned such thinking on its head. Political ideologies reflected the economic forces of production. But Marx’s middle-classes are now themselves at the mercy of “market forces” shaped by oligarchs and oligopolies. And the proletariat (if it exists in its classical form) are seduced by the new opium of sport- World Cup football and T20 cricket- to be anything approaching a revolutionary force.

The Tory leadership in the UK represents the callous indifference of upper echelons of British society and are completely out of touch with the lives of the average Briton. (In this regard they are more like monarchies than Marx’s bourgeosie). As for both the Labour party leadership in the UK and the Democrats in the US, they have long become estranged from their historic bases in the lives and aspirations of blue-collar workers.

The unholy alliance of economic and political power is shown not only by the influence of the big merchant banks on government policies (remember the bailouts of 2008?) but by the erosion of all global and domestic efforts to ensure fair economic competition and moral accountability. Corporations routinely ignore the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Western corporations have meekly submitted to China’s draconian Community Party line in order to gain access to its huge markets and supply chains.

Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is not simply an economic act. It has huge political ramifications, for Musk has significant business interests in China, just as Trump’s empire has in the Persian Gulf. China is Tesla’s second-largest market, and sales in China have increased significantly in the past couple of years. Tesla’s plant in Shanghai is the world’s largest electric vehicle factory. In January, Tesla opened a showroom in Xinjiang that was criticised by some members of the  US Congress and rights groups because of the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity targeted at the region’s Uighur community and political dissidents.

The Chinese government is sensitive about its image abroad and has repeatedly targeted Twitter uses in the country. It has jailed those who criticise the party, and forced them to delete sensitive tweets or close their accounts. At the same time, they have used the platform to spread false information, creating numerous fake accounts that defend the government’s positions on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, COVID-19 and other issues.

Online safety groups and human rights campaigners have expressed concerns about Mr Musk’s plans to relax content moderation and reverse permanent Twitter bans given to controversial figures, including former US president Donald Trump.

But Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has overjoyed the Chinese regime. It has now created an opportunity for China to reshape the discourse on that social media platform about its practices of cultural genocide, arbitrary imprisonments and forced labour.

Writing in The Times of India four decades ago, the well-known sociologist Rajni Kothari lamented: “As I talk to my friends, my relatives, my professional colleagues today, I get a feeling of total ignorance of the other India. When in fact they are forced to take note, such as when they walk through the pavements on which people are sleeping, there is a feeling of revulsion, of rejection, of contempt, not of compassion, empathy and least of all of any sense of guilt.”

Little has changed since Kothari wrote those chilling words. And they apply not only to India, but to the Western liberal democracies. The insularity and parochialism of current global politics, coupled with massive, unaccountable and concentrated economic power, threaten all humanity and future generations. From where will arise rumours of angels?



November 2022