Waylaid Dialectic

April 5, 2010

Travels with Mao

Filed under: Conflict — terence @ 7:23 pm
Tags: , ,

An essay to read: Arundhati Roy travels in India’s Dandakaranya forest with Maoist insurgents. Elegant anger. And if you’re like me, who never met a Maoist other than the occasional ideologue at a university, it’s an eye-opener.

First lesson – it’s not ideology that’s powering the rebellion, it’s injustice.

Second lesson – if you don’t want Maoist insurgents in the countryside (and I certainly don’t) stop riding roughshod over the rights of the ordinary people who live there. It’s crazy after the horrors of the last century that anyone would take arms in the name of Chairman Mao. Crazier still though, the ways which the indigenous people in the essay have been shafted by the state.

It’s hard not admire Roy’s bravery and commitment. That being said, I’ve never agreed with everything she says. And there’s two things about the essay that seem wrong to me.

One, she underplays the atrocities of the Maoists. You could argue this is a counter to the way the rest of the media underplay the atrocities of the Indian State. But if you really want to get to the bottom of things the whole story must be told, I think.

Two, in the solidarity and gender equality of the peasant militia, Roy wants to see the makings of an alternative. A fairer and more equal way. She sees something in the camaraderie and simplicity of the lives lived in the forest. And it’s true; as she tells it, the militia are a model of equality. The trouble is, it’s not so hard to organise small groups with shared values and beliefs, and facing an external threat, around the principles of equality and cooperation*. But it’s just not possible to do this on a society wide scale.

I’m with Paul Krugman on this. Capitalism isn’t a moral way of running a country or the world. It’s not a particularly good way either. In fact it’s the worst way – except for every other system that’s ever been tried. I’m interested in alternatives to it, but I doubt we can do better in replacement than we can in reform. Aiming for a global Sweden if you will.

[Update: to be fair, having read the essay again, Roy does state that the alternative she sees is for the people in the forest; not for other countries or even New Delhi. This is much more plausible. I could imagine: regional autonomy; a ceasefire overseen by the UN; participatory democracy at a village level; gender equality (maybe mandated in the regional parliament); secure property rights for the villagers distributed in an egalitarian manner; non-corrupt regional institutions; aid funded health and education; and trade with the rest of India. That would be a radical alternative to what actually exists there. It wouldn’t be a Maoist alternative though.]

*Actually, that’s not really true. It’s still damn hard, just not impossible.

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