Coup de Tête: A Radical Takeover of Your Head

As we speak, Orwellian forces are creating …and gradually introducing into mainstream society… slippery speech patterns aimed at manufacturing a zeitgeist. Koli Mitra interrogates neoliberalism’s attempt to become the dominant economic philosophy …by manipulating the public imagination.

After the Lok Sabha elections, many of our colleagues in the mainstream media – ‘neutral’ journalists – gleefully reported that the financial markets had been whipped up into a suddenly bullish frenzy in response to the news. Elite publications of the global business community – The Economist, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal – were all duly excited. “Narendra Modi’s amazing victory gives India its best chance ever of prosperity,” gushed one headline in The Economist.

Really?  It’s true that Modi’s victory certainly gives the global aristocracy  – including a few who hold Indian passports – their best ever chance of deriving (even greater) prosperity from India’s resources, its labour pool, and its enormous current and potential consumer market. But is that the same thing as giving India a chance at prosperity?

It has become popular for analysts to characterise Modi’s victory as an indication that Indians are putting aside identity politics and getting down to the business of economic development. It is said that the Modi Wave is a mass movement aimed at improving the lives of the masses by ousting the ‘elite’ minority-appeasers that have made a mess of the country’s finances for way too long.

Really? Expressing concerns about marginalised people is to be condemned as ‘identity politics’ but open hostility to minorities and the language of ‘unity’ that explicitly favours one set of ethno-demographic traits and dictates that that all should merge into a particular ‘national’ identity – is somehow the same as ‘putting aside’ identity politics?  This is a blatant, radical redefinition of terms like ‘identity politics’ and ‘unity’ and ‘Indian’ in order to reprogram certain politico-cultural memes, so that the story of an economic model can be told:  efficient, clinical, practical, and free from irrelevant ideological baggage, ready to ‘put aside’ petty differences for the sake of the betterment of all.

I am relatively new to Indian politics, but, sadly, this kind of Newspeak narrative construction is all too familiar to me.  In my native country, the United States, we have seen many social, political – and even scientific – realities touched up by the rightwing agenda since at least the 1990s, when the Neoconservatives (and their then-chief strategist Karl Rove) staged a coup on the collective public consciousness – a coup from which we have yet to emerge, despite the superficial successes of a (purportedly) liberal administration, a short-lived liberal majority in the legislature, and a few intense but quick-to-fizzle-out (and ultimately ineffective) liberal social movements like Occupy Wall Street. This ‘coup’ is the practice of hijacking the public debate – and really the background political culture – by controlling the framing of the issues, by defining all the terms, and by inventing agenda-fuelled labels, however false, to slap onto people and things; labels that get repeated over and over, without a hint of irony, on talk radio, TV, increasingly tabloidized ‘newspapers’,  the internet …and any media outlet owned by Rupert Murdoch… until these become society’s default positions, so that they no longer have to be defended or explained.  For example, ‘welfare’ is now practically a profanity in some circles; estate taxes are ‘death taxes’; affirmative action is ‘reverse discrimination’; tax cut is ‘tax relief’; and all kinds of oppressive and discriminatory policies are ‘traditional values.’

The roots of the coup go back to the early 1970s, when conservative think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation were founded. Over time, Neocons have poured billions into them to design a long-term programme for spreading their influence by insidiously injecting their ideology into ordinary political expressions and everyday speech.  This is no longer even a secret. Republican political Strategist Frank Luntz has actually written a book about the process called Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.

Liberals have not managed to do anything even remotely comparable. According to George Lakoff, a linguist and cognitive scientist at UC Berkeley, liberals, having missed the critical point that it is personal/emotional resonance that wins elections, keep trying to win with facts and concrete policies/programmes. When this doesn’t work, they move their own positions to the right, thinking that’s what the voters want.  If Lakoff is correct, then the liberals are actually completing the Neocons’ project by reifying and substantiating their planted memes.

The liberals are constantly playing catch-up and defence and engaging in debates framed entirely by conservatives, instead of calling them out on their tactics. The (comparatively) liberal president is unable to implement almost any liberal policy because the Neocon legislature has recast any attempt to do so as ‘tyranny.’ They denigrate concern for others as ‘political correctness’; concern about growing economic inequalities is ‘class warfare’; welfare support for low income people offends the sense of ‘personal responsibility’ but corporate giveaways and multibillion dollar bailouts are ‘incentives’ for ‘job creators’ and ‘wealth creators’.

This is the true soul of the Neocon movement, its economics; its neoliberal, trickle-down, supply-side, professedly ‘free-market’– but surprisingly comfortable with government intervention into markets on behalf of the super rich – economics.  The tendency to absorb religious fundamentalism and populist sentiments into it is a purely cynical (though diabolically ingenious) ploy to push the economic agenda on people who otherwise have no reason to support it.  After all, consider the neoliberal pantheon: Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, etc., mostly agnostics and atheists, people whose attitudes toward god ranged from extreme indifference to actual hostility. But then why is neoliberalism so often seen yoked to a religious fervour (typically associated with the regionally dominant faith)? Because a philosophy that advocates for such a tiny elite would never garner the support it needs to survive without an additional gimmick. So, they get people by appealing to irrelevancies cleverly elevated to sacred status.

In the US, Neoliberal candidates do well with less-educated, working class voters who are unlikely to benefit from corporate tax cuts, estate tax cuts, or capital gains tax cuts and are likely to be harmed by environmental deregulation, abolition of the minimum wage and/or workplace standards laws… etc. yet they are happy to ‘live poor, vote rich’ (as a law school classmate of mine used to say), seduced by appeals to racial pride/fears, God, and ‘family values’, whatever that means.

Coming back to the Lok Sabha elections, I think the economic implications of the new parliament need to be looked at with a measure of active scepticism about the neoliberal assumptions that are rapidly becoming the default positions in the contemporary Indian political landscape. In America, we have been experimenting with those assumptions since 1980. And it has not worked out particularly well for us.  Forty percent of the nation’s wealth is now concentrated in the hands of one percent of the population, compared to 1970, when the wealthiest one percent owned less than ten percent of the nation’s wealth.  The ‘bottom’ eighty percent of Americans now own only about seven percent of the nation’s wealth. For the first time in history a majority of Americans report feeling their economic prospects are worse than they had been for their parents’ generation.  According to economist Robert Reich, ninety-five percent of the post-recovery economic growth (since the Great Recession of 2008) has benefited the richest one percent of Americans.  By the estimates of economist Dean Baker forty percent of working Americans have seen a steep decline in their real incomes and purchasing power even as they are working harder, more productively, and for longer hours.

Is this what India wants to sign up for? If the US, which started out with an enormous amount of wealth (even after this kind of bleak redistribution, its median net worth, adjusted for local-market purchasing power, is much higher than India’s), is smarting from its experiment, what’s in store for India?

I know people who voted for the BJP.  Unbelievably, some of them are people who describe themselves as ‘socialist’. In fact, when we first met, they thought I was some kind of rightwing nutjob because I do not.  These are people who are suspicious of foreign capital inflows and globalisation. Some of them are environmentally conscientious and sceptical about large-scale industry. Yet they jumped on to the Modi bandwagon. “He has done good things for Gujarat” they inform me, categorically and without analysis.  “Have you changed your mind about socialism?” I ask.  “Not at all” they tell me, with no sign of cognitive dissonance. “What Modi has achieved in Gujarat is socialism” someone explained to me, “it’s the right kind of socialism.” When I stared uncomprehendingly, he explained further “Modi is single-mindedly focused on India and the needs of Indians… however much his economic policies might resemble American capitalists, I assure you those similarities are superficial. He would never bring harm to Indians.”

I wonder if the crux of his statement wasn’t embedded in that one word, ‘Indian’ and whether this isn’t just an instance of Modi having convinced people (Hindus, who think Hindu is synonymous with ‘Indian’) that his neoliberalism must be benign because he is one of their own?  Is it just an instance of yoking irrelevant emotional resonances with an economic programme in order to triangulate and deflect attention from real agenda (as discussed above)?

Perhaps, though the questions of nationalism and identity politics are large and complex topics requiring separate discussions in their own right.  I will refrain from launching into any such discussion (and instead recommend my colleague Saswat Pattanayak’s excellent article in this month’s Kindle, which examines those questions in depth).

For my part, I will add only this thought (from a blog post I wrote in 2009, after a visit to India, during which period the Hindu fundamentalist group Sri Ram Sena was in the news for going around harassing women whose dress or behaviour they deemed to be inappropriate for ‘respectable’ Hindu women):  “there is only one Religious Fundamentalism in the world, designed to cultivate a shared sense of righteous rage at some perceived ‘enemy’ among a certain historically identified group. That group is encouraged to internalise a received set of values purportedly derived from some mythical ‘fundamental’ source of the group’s identity.” I believed then, as I do now, that all fundamentalism is really about acquiring and maintaining power and control over resources; it is one of the ways that small powerful elites “exploit whatever characteristics [they] share with a portion of the masses to develop a fear of difference, so that [the latter] will focus their energies on hating others, equally as powerless as themselves, and never even realise that the powerful elite egging them on shares with them only some arbitrary and manufactured ‘values’ and some irrelevant demographic characteristics, but none of the power and privilege.”

And certainly none of the resources.

Passionate rationalist. Bleeding-heart moderate. Geek. Afflicted with a "language fetish". Koli practiced law on Wall Street until her lifelong love affair with writing demanded its rightful place as her primary occupation.

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