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Mediotics, Industrialization and the Angel of History

September 6, 2008

[Being a sequel to ‘Singur, Mediotics and an NGO Called Indian Express‘]

“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment…to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.” Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

These prophetic words were written in 1920 1940, when modernity’s arrogant faith in Progress was still pretty much intact. The rubble-heap of Progress has since piled up like never before. The world is now engaged in battling the effects of modernity that threaten humanity’s very existence. We know, for instance, that global warming or climate change threatens to destroy human civilization itself. Who knows, perhaps, millions of years later, some future civilization might discover its remains submerged under the sea and wonder at the heights of the ‘Progress’ it had achieved. Little might it occur to them that it was Progress itself that took this civilization to the sea.

Today,  you can no longer naively continue to repose your faith in Progress, epitomized by Industry,  as we shall see. But to our mediots – and the Left-wing bourgeoisie of Bengal and Kerala – it is still an article of faith. We all remember Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s now famous response to ‘errant’ marxist historian Sumit Sarkar that if we do not move from agriculture to industry, “it will be the end of History.” Then just the other day (4 September), we saw a mass mobilization of scientists at Esplanade, (in Kolkata) “in support of industrialization and the Tata Motors project” (as the Indian Express, 5 September 2008, gleefully reported). Have we ever seen the scientific community out on the streets on any issue ever before? Not even on matters directly concerning science, for instance, the issue of nuclear arms (leave alone nuclear energy). And why not? Scientists are the vanguards of ‘value-neutral’ Progress – which includes and always included the atomic/ nuclear bomb (the story of the atom bomb, in fact, best tells the sordid story of these flag-bearers of Progress.)

We can go on multiplying instances of how important and vocal sections of contemporary India are still drunk on this once-heady potion of Progress and completely taken by the romance of Industry. But let us not waste time trying to prove the obvious. Just a quick look at some of the comments on our previous post (Singur, Mediotics and an NGO…) will reveal how deep this faith is. I have no reason to believe that those posting these comments are agents of some other larger force. But one thing is certain: they are completely out of it. Their desire for industry is predicated upon pure self interest: ‘We want industrialization but the peasants must bear the cost.’ ‘We want jobs (which Nano will create), what do we care if three times as many people lose their livelihoods in the bargain.

One of the stark absences of the entire post-Nandigram debate on industrialization has been the question of global warming and the ecological crisis. Not surprisingly. For even those opposing the CPI-M and the Tatas or the Salem group – for instance, most of the other Naxalite groups – are still wedded to the ideology of Industrialization-as-Progress. Here as everywhere else. It is not without significance that in neighbouring Nepal, Prachanda, on the morrow of his winning the elections, assured the Nepal Chamber of Commerce and Industry that they should not be afraid of the Maoists; that they too want to build capitalism and invite investments. Indian Naxalites of different hues defended his statement saying that capitalism was necessary to liquidate feudalism in Nepal and make it modern.

The mindset cuts across the spectrum. Today’s Indian Express editorial comment is yet another instance of this same mindset, even though the point of the edit is about ‘management’ of social conflicts. However, the silly – and mediotic – reference to the ‘Maoists’ as ‘anti-industrialization Luddites’ is as ill-informed as it is ‘outdated. ‘ For one thing, what the editorial sees as ‘anti-industrialization ‘politics‘ is actually a way-of-life. The peasant, at the point of losing land, is neither pro nor anticapitalist and may himself want to become a capitalist using his land as capital, without any attachment to the ideological overgrowth that clouds these terms.  That a certain politics (Naxal, Trinamool or what have you) steps in and attempts to appropriate it, is no reason to conflate the two. But as I said in the last post, this conflation suits all concerned. All concerned would rather believe that everything is a simple matter ‘managment’ and ‘improper handling’ of the situation by the CPM; that there are actually no people whose lives are being destroyed in a ruthless manner. However, for our mediots, language itself defeats their intent: The reference to the Luddites is revealing for it was not ‘politics’ in the conventional sense that they represented; the Luddites represented a way or form of life, being textile artisans, who were perishing under the impact of the industrialization. There were neither Naxalites or Mamata Banerjees then to ‘mislead’ them. Yet, managing social conflicts had to take a entirely different course that we know only too well today: The Luddites were either executed or transported to Australia. That is what the battle for industrialization has always been.

But this is not the point of our discussion today. Our point rather, is the to examine the myth of Industry-as-Progress in these early years of the twenty-first century and to show that those who dream of hypermodernity today (Left wing bourgeoisie, mediots, and other assorted being like scientists of Esplanade) are actually way way behind times. I hate to use this modernist metaphor (of being ‘behind times’) but want to do so here to show that the peasants or the Luddites or Gandhians (to use a more Indian term) might yet have the last laugh.

When we were students in the early 1970s, we often read of hours of traffic jams in London. We read that it took four hours to get from one point to another. Thirty eight years later, we are getting there. We are becoming modern. Hoorrrraay! And automobiles, especially the Nano, will really get us there real fast. This when London and most other Western cities are learning to curb their fascination for the automobile. For a number of reasons. First, of course, is the sheer unsustainability of a model of urban growth that bases itself on fast cars and automobiles – typified by Los Angles type cities for example. Second, expressways and freeways, our mediots will never recognize, may ease the flow of traffic but at the cost of adding scores to driving-miles to reach even nearby destinations, thus adding to the ever- escalating demand for petroleum/energy consmuption. That they completely eliminate pedestrians and slow modes of non-polluting traffic like cycles and rikshaws is of course another matter. Finally, the contribution of the automobile to global warming and climate change is no trivial matter. Thus from the Central Park in New York to Oxford and other European cities, cycle rikshaws have begun plying. And they began plying long before the current petroleum crisis hit them, while our capital-zealots are busy clearing Chandni Chowk of cycle rikshaws. While they dream of Tata’s Nano cars and jobs that it will apparently generate (not a fraction of the number of livelihoods they will destroy), Western cities are learning the need to move into the modes of transport long prevalent in India and other third world countries. Our zealots are still way behind, intoxicated by what was a twentieth century dream.

Similarly, just when our capital-zealots are busy telling us that industry must decimate agriculture because it is the Law of History, elite  Western consumers are beginning to demand, as part of a rapidly growing movement, food that is exclusively (or as far as possible) produced at local sources and produced organically. Most countries of the west are seriously challenged in this regard, having already destroyed agriculture and reduced it to a small fraction of their economies. Yet the attempt is there, while the Indian mediotic zealot fantasizes about retail chains as the insignia of Progress.

The mediot really does not care. For he or she is the lobotomized ‘unencumbered self’ produced by nineteenth and twentieth century capitalism – self-gratifying, self-obsessed and insensitive to the core. S/he does not even care, true Brahmin that s/he is, as to what happens to the waste that s/he produces. Hindu society always had a class of people to remove their excreta from their sight. This same attitude is extended by this Brahminized boourgeois to the universe. The entire world is for him to consume and pass out from the other end. Who the hell cares how and who removes the shit. The Indian mediot-zealot is thus a compound product of the worst of western capitalism and indigenous, Bramhinical insensitivity. This attitude of unconcern to waste thus has a metaphorical resonance to all other kinds of waste – large industrial waste included.

The rich industrialized countries have third world countries like India to dump their hazardous, radioactive waste in. The Western bourgeois attitude is bad enough but if the dreams of our champions of industrialization were to come true, we would not even know what to do with this waste but to dump it on our own population – and would they care? Have they ever cared? Which is not to say that ‘our own’ should be valued differently from others, or that it would be better if we could kill some thousand Sri Lankans, Bhutanese or Nepalis by some slow death mechanism.

And yet, let us keep in mind that we in these parts of the world have the advantage that we have not destroyed everything and can switch to a different, more equitable, ecologically sustainable future. Those possibilities are still available here. In the West they may actually have to bomb down built structures of unsustainable cities in order to make the transition to a different life. If our zealots are to have their way, the possibilities available to us today might also be lost forever.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. atreyee permalink
    September 6, 2008 9:55 PM

    I live in a small city in New England embedded in plush greens, fast cars, a thriving private business environment for recycling wastes, bicycling communities and organic food. And the outer fringes of the city are lined with Black ghettoes that produce dope dealers, gunmen and low skill workers.

    I wonder if this polarity of the violent and wasteful and the moral, economical, nurturing and law-abiding is inevitable. Also, if the opportunity to experience and enjoy the orgasm of modernity(be it fast cars, laptops, cell phones, foreign travel) is indispensable to the creation of the secure late moderns who learn to nurture, conserve, beautify, ideologise.

  2. rameshwar permalink
    September 6, 2008 11:25 PM

    I am sorry Aditya but the passage that you quote here was not written in 1920 but shortly before the death of this particular author in 1940

  3. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    September 7, 2008 8:05 AM

    Dear Rameshwar, Thanks for the correction.

  4. Anant permalink
    September 7, 2008 9:05 AM

    1920 is the year in which Paul Klee painted Angelus Novus.

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