The prize-winning author of The God of Small Things talks about why she is drawn to the Occupy movement and the need to reclaim language and meaning
December 3, 2011
Sitting in a car parked at a gas station on the outskirts of Houston, Texas, my colleague Michelle holds an audio recorder to my cellphone. At the other end of the line is Arundhati Roy, author of the Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things, who is some 2,000 miles away, driving to Boston.
"This is uniquely American," I remark to Roy about interviewing her while both in cars but thousands of miles apart. Having driven some 7,000 miles and visited 23 cities (and counting) in reporting on the Occupy movement, it's become apparent that the US is essentially an oil-based economy in which we shuttle goods we no longer make around a continental land mass, creating poverty-level dead-end jobs in the service sector.
This is the secret behind the Occupy Wall Street movement that Roy visited before the police crackdowns started. Sure, ending pervasive corporate control of the political system is on the lips of almost every occupier we meet. But this is nothing new. What's different is most Americans now live in poverty, on the edge, or fear a descent into the abyss. It's why a majority (at least of those who have an opinion) still support Occupy Wall Street even after weeks of disinformation and repression.
In this exclusive interview for the Guardian, Roy offers her thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, the role of the imagination, reclaiming language, and what is next for a movement that has reshaped America's political discourse and seized the world's attention.
AG: Why did you want to visit Occupy Wall Street and what are your impressions of it?
AR: How could I not want to visit? Given what I've been doing for so many years, it seems to me, intellectually and theoretically, quite predictable this was going to happen here at some point. But still I cannot deny myself the surprise and delight that it has happened. And I wanted to, obviously, see for myself the extent and size and texture and nature of it. So the first time I went there, because all those tents were up, it seemed more like a squat than a protest to me, but it began to reveal itself in a while. Some people were holding the ground and it was the hub for other people to organise, to think through things. As I said when I spoke at the People's University, it seems to me to be introducing a new political language into the United States, a language that would be considered blasphemous only a while ago.
AG: Do you think that the Occupy movement should be defined by occupying one particular space or by occupying spaces?
AR: I don't think the whole protest is only about occupying physical territory, but about reigniting a new political imagination. I don't think the state will allow people to occupy a particular space unless it feels that allowing that will end up in a kind of complacency, and the effectiveness and urgency of the protest will be lost. The fact that in New York and other places where people are being beaten and evicted suggests nervousness and confusion in the ruling establishment. I think the movement will, or at least should, become a protean movement of ideas, as well as action, where the element of surprise remains with the protesters. We need to preserve the element of an intellectual ambush and a physical manifestation that takes the government and the police by surprise. It has to keep re-imagining itself, because holding territory may not be something the movement will be allowed to do in a state as powerful and violent as the United States.
AG: At the same, occupying public spaces did capture the public imagination. Why do you think that is?
AR: I think you had a whole subcutaneous discontent that these movements suddenly began to epitomise. The Occupy movement found places where people who were feeling that anger could come and share it – and that is, as we all know, extremely important in any political movement. The Occupy sites became a way you could gauge the levels of anger and discontent.
AG: You mentioned that they are under attack. Dozens of occupations have been shut down, evicted, at least temporarily, in the last week. What do you see as the next phase for this movement?
AR: I don't know whether I'm qualified to answer that, because I'm not somebody who spends a lot of time here in the United States, but I suspect that it will keep reassembling in different ways and the anger created by the repression will, in fact, expand the movement. But eventually, the greater danger to the movement is that it may dovetail into the presidential election campaign that's coming up. I've seen that happen before in the antiwar movement here, and I see it happening all the time in India. Eventually, all the energy goes into trying to campaign for the "better guy", in this case Barack Obama, who's actually expanding wars all over the world. Election campaigns seem to siphon away political anger and even basic political intelligence into this great vaudeville, after which we all end up in exactly the same place.
AG: Your essays, such as "The Greater Common Good" and "Walking with the Comrades", concern corporations, the military and state violently occupying other people's lands in India. How do those occupations and resistances relate to the Occupy Wall Street movement?
AR: I hope that that the people in the Occupy movement are politically aware enough to know that their being excluded from the obscene amassing of wealth of US corporations is part of the same system of the exclusion and war that is being waged by these corporations in places like India, Africa and the Middle East. Ever since the Great Depression, we know that one of the key ways in which the US economy has stimulated growth is by manufacturing weapons and exporting war to other countries. So, whether this movement is a movement for justice for the excluded in the United States, or whether it is a movement against an international system of global finance that is manufacturing levels of hunger and poverty on an unimaginable scale, remains to be seen.
AG: You've written about the need for a different imagination than that of capitalism. Can you talk about that?
AR: We often confuse or loosely use the ideas of crony capitalism or neoliberalism to actually avoid using the word "capitalism", but once you've actually seen, let's say, what's happening in India and the United States – that this model of US economics packaged in a carton that says "democracy" is being forced on countries all over the world, militarily if necessary, has in the United States itself resulted in 400 of the richest people owning wealth equivalent [to that] of half of the population. Thousands are losing their jobs and homes, while corporations are being bailed out with billions of dollars.
In India, 100 of the richest people own assets worth 25% of the gross domestic product. There's something terribly wrong. No individual and no corporation should be allowed to amass that kind of unlimited wealth, including bestselling writers like myself, who are showered with royalties. Money need not be our only reward. Corporations that are turning over these huge profits can own everything: the media, the universities, the mines, the weapons industry, insurance hospitals, drug companies, non-governmental organisations. They can buy judges, journalists, politicians, publishing houses, television stations, bookshops and even activists. This kind of monopoly, this cross-ownership of businesses, has to stop.
The whole privatisation of health and education, of natural resources and essential infrastructure – all of this is so twisted and so antithetical to anything that would place the interests of human beings or the environment at the center of what ought to be a government concern – should stop. The amassing of unfettered wealth of individuals and corporations should stop. The inheritance of rich people's wealth by their children should stop. The expropriators should have their wealth expropriated and redistributed.
AG: What would the different imagination look like?
AR: The home minister of India has said that he wants 70% of the Indian population in the cities, which means moving something like 500 million people off their land. That cannot be done without India turning into a military state. But in the forests of central India and in many, many rural areas, a huge battle is being waged. Millions of people are being driven off their lands by mining companies, by dams, by infrastructure companies, and a huge battle is being waged. These are not people who have been co-opted into consumer culture, into the western notions of civilisation and progress. They are fighting for their lands and their livelihoods, refusing to be looted so that someone somewhere far away may "progress" at their cost.
India has millions of internally displaced people. And now, they are putting their bodies on the line and fighting back. They are being killed and imprisoned in their thousands. Theirs is a battle of the imagination, a battle for the redefinition of the meaning of civilisation, of the meaning of happiness, of the meaning of fulfilment. And this battle demands that the world see that, at some stage, as the water tables are dropping and the minerals that remain in the mountains are being taken out, we are going to confront a crisis from which we cannot return. The people who created the crisis in the first place will not be the ones that come up with a solution.
That is why we must pay close attention to those with another imagination: an imagination outside of capitalism, as well as communism. We will soon have to admit that those people, like the millions of indigenous people fighting to prevent the takeover of their lands and the destruction of their environment – the people who still know the secrets of sustainable living – are not relics of the past, but the guides to our future.
AG: In the United States, as I'm sure you're aware, political discourse is obsessed with the middle class, but the Occupy movement has made the poor and homeless visible for the first time in decades in the public discourse. Could you comment on that?
AR: It's so much a reversal of what you see in India. In India, the poverty is so vast that the state cannot control it. It can beat people, but it can't prevent the poor from flooding the roads, the cities, the parks and railway station platforms. Whereas, here, the poor have been invisibilised, because obviously this model of success that has been held out to the world must not show the poor, it must not show the condition of black people. It can only the successful ones, basketball players, musicians, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell. But I think the time will come when the movement will have to somehow formulate something more than just anger.
AG: As a writer, what do you make of the term "occupation", which has now somehow been reclaimed as a positive term when it's always been one of the most heinous terms in political language?
AR: As a writer, I've often said that, among the other things that we need to reclaim, other than the obscene wealth of billionaires, is language. Language has been deployed to mean the exact opposite of what it really means when they talk about democracy or freedom. So I think that turning the word "occupation" on its head would be a good thing, though I would say that it needs a little more work. We ought to say, "Occupy Wall Street, not Iraq," "Occupy Wall Street, not Afghanistan," "Occupy Wall Street, not Palestine." The two need to be put together. Otherwise people might not read the signs.
AG: As a novelist, you write a lot in terms of motivations and how characters interpret reality. Around the country, many occupiers we've talked to seem unable to reconcile their desires about Obama with what Obama really represents. When I talk to them about Obama's record, they say, "Oh, his hands are tied; the Republicans are to blame, it's not his fault." Why do you think people react like this, even at the occupations?
AR: Even in India, we have the same problem. We have a right wing that is so vicious and so openly wicked, which is the Baratiya Janata party (BJP), and then we have the Congress party, which does almost worse things, but does it by night. And people feel that the only choices they have are to vote for this or for that. And my point is that, whoever you vote for, it doesn't have to consume all the oxygen in the political debate. It's just an artificial theatre, which in a way is designed to subsume the anger and to make you feel that this is all that you're supposed to think about and talk about, when, in fact, you're trapped between two kinds of washing powder that are owned by the same company.
Democracy no longer means what it was meant to. It has been taken back into the workshop. Each of its institutions has been hollowed out, and it has been returned to us as a vehicle for the free market, of the corporations. For the corporations, by the corporations. Even if we do vote, we should just spend less time and intellectual energy on our choices and keep our eye on the ball.
AG: So it's also a failure of the imagination?
AR: It's walking into a pretty elaborate trap. But it happens everywhere, and it will continue to happen. Even I know that if I go back to India, and tomorrow the BJP comes to power, personally I'll be in a lot more trouble than with the Congress [party] in power. But systemically, in terms of what is being done, there's no difference, because they collaborate completely, all the time. So I'm not going to waste even three minutes of my time, if I have to speak, asking people to vote for this one or for that one.
AG: One question that a lot of people have asked me: when is your next novel coming out?
AR: I have no answer to that question … I really don't know. Novels are such mysterious and amorphous and tender things. And here we are with our crash helmets on, with concertina wire all around us.
AG: So this inspires you, as a novelist, the movement?
AR: Well, it comforts me, let's just say. I feel in so many ways rewarded for having done what I did, along with hundreds of other people, even the times when it seemed futile.
• Michelle Fawcett contributed to this article. She and Arun Gupta are covering the Occupy movement nationwide for Salon, Alternet and other outlets. Their work is available at occupyusatoday.com