Maybe the (Indian) national anthem and the corporate anthem aren't that different after all, says Thomas Crowley.
The year is 2018. After a period of global warfare, the nation-state system has dissolved. In its place, six gigantic corporations – each with their own geographic territory – control the world. In order to forestall another world war, the corporations attempt to distract the world populace with a new, super-violent professional sport that is meant to channel all of humanity’s excess aggression. The sport develops a television following of billions across the globe. Before each game, a low, serious voice intones: “Please rise for the corporate anthem.” And those in attendance at the stadium solemnly stand as the anthem plays out.
This is the premise of the 1975 film Rollerball, a violent sci-fi thriller. 2018 is now only a year away, and Rollerball seems prescient in some ways and patently absurd in others. Released as the Western world was transitioning from the so-called “Golden Age” of the post-War welfare-conscious capitalism to a more nakedly brutal form of neoliberal capitalism, the movie presaged the increasingly global reach and power of multinational corporations. But the thought that nation-states could wither away by 2018 now seems laughable. If anything, the opposite has happened: in recent years, a constricted, hyper-patriotic, xenophobic defence of the nation has gained ground in many countries around the world.
The irony of economic globalisation co-existing with cultural provincialism is perhaps more apparent than real. Scholars and commentators have long argued that the uncertainties and disruptions caused by the neoliberal onslaught have led many to take shelter in the verities and supposed stability of an idealised past. Even as financial investment from other countries is sought, the exclusion of the cultural, religious or ethnic outsider is increasingly enforced.
Scholars and commentators have long argued that the uncertainties and disruptions caused by the neoliberal onslaught have led many to take shelter in the verities and supposed stability of an idealised past. Even as financial investment from other countries is sought, the exclusion of the cultural, religious or ethnic outsider is increasingly enforced.
This trend can be seen, among other places, in the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Hungary, and, of course, India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a perfect embodiment of this double movement. He has convinced himself – and much of the nation – that an outward looking embrace of the world’s markets and an inward-looking cultural recidivism can co-exist in easy harmony.
A key part of this trend, at least in India, is the increasingly blurry line between the good of private companies and the ostensible good of the nation. This logic is evident in the rhetoric surrounding demonetisation, which was sold largely in the garb of nationalism (sacrificing for the country, surgical strikes against monetary terrorism, and so on). However, it has become increasingly evident that the real aim behind demonetisation is not so much the curtailment of black money as the increasing digitisation of payments – the techno-utopian dream of a cashless India. In this gleaming future, the role of private companies like Paytm will be pivotal, as the financial and personal information of millions of citizens gets funnelled into the hands of private players. No wonder Nandan Nilekani, tireless promoter of the private IT sector and of the government’s Orwellian Aadhaar ambitions, has been brought on board to support demonetisation efforts. (And on the other side of the world, Paypal founder Peter Thiel has emerged as a major backer of the hyper nationalist Donald Trump.)
However, it has become increasingly evident that the real aim behind demonetisation is not so much the curtailment of black money as the increasing digitisation of payments – the techno-utopian dream of a cashless India. In this gleaming future, the role of private companies like Paytm will be pivotal, as the financial and personal information of millions of citizens gets funnelled into the hands of private players.
Meanwhile, Paytm is happy to give credit where credit is due, releasing full-page ads featuring Modi’s face after the demonetisation announcement, congratulating the Prime Minister on “taking the boldest decision in the financial history of independent India.” Of course, it didn’t hurt Paytm that demonetisation increased their traffic by 435% within hours of Modi’s announcement. This followed on the heels of similar full-page advertisements, released a few days earlier by Reliance, featuring a huge picture of Modi and promoting ‘Jio Digital Life’. It was later revealed that Reliance had not taken the government’s permission for the advertisement; the government, though, has little interest in taking action against Reliance, and – at worse – the company will face a Rs. 500 fine for their infraction. But even this minor slap-on-the-wrist punishment seems unlikely, since Modi and his government have made it clear that they see the nation’s interests and Ambani-Adani interests as more or less synonymous. In fact, promoting neoliberal economic policies has been redefined as the very soul of nationalism and patriotism.In this redefinition, Modi has the support of much of the judiciary. In a 2013 ruling, the Punjab and Haryana High Court denied bail to Maruti Suzuki workers who had been jailed on specious grounds, arguing that granting bail would negatively affect the business climate and the attractiveness of India for foreign investors. The government clearly saw it as its duty to serve the needs of Maruti Suzuki’s management, even though the state had completely disinvested in Maruti – once a public-sector company – by 2007.
Even when judges do decide to grant bail, they can use the opportunity to wax eloquent about nationalism and the perils of questioning the nation – or at least, this was the case with Kanhaiya Kumar’s bizarre interim bail order, which referred to Kumar’s supposedly anti-national activities as a gangrenous infection that may require amputation.
Most recently, the judiciary has demonstrated its sterling nationalism by making it mandatory for all cinema halls to play the national anthem before films, and for all audience members to stand up during the anthem as a sign of respect. The ruling is a follow-up to an earlier decision issued by the Madhya Pradesh High Court, and it rivals the Kanhaiya Kumar judgment in its freewheeling use of bloated prose and jingoistic excess. One of the most quoted sections of the judgment proclaims that the national anthem, as the “the symbol of the Constitutional Patriotism… does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights, that have individually thought of have no space.”
Enforced anthem standing brings us back to the dystopian world of 2018 Rollerball. Explaining the purpose of the game of rollerball to his fellow corporate bigwigs, a prominent CEO says that the team sport demonstrates to viewers the futility of individual effort, and of the individual more generally. Maybe the national anthem and the corporate anthem aren’t that different after all.