Playing Cassandra.

28 Dec

A Year in Reverse, Part II.

(Part I was Deluded Democracy, about elections around the world.)

The first of these.. snippets is a dismembered essay I wrote for popmatters back in February. That essay makes less sense every time I read it, and I’m hoping the remnants of it will fare better. Another essay that would’ve made it into this series is Of Nativity, where my allegiance to Frantz Fanon was recorded for posterity to note. It has already found its way onto this blog, however, and that’s that as far as introduction goes.

Playing Cassandra.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a woman of demonstrably diverse talents. If she should want to find conventional employment, one would assume it would be a fairly easy process. Bait and Switch is a detailed exposition into why one would be wrong. In it, she goes undercover again, as she did in Nickel and Dimed, this time in the very white collar world of PR and marketing. Excluding the publishing world, she starts the book applying and searching for marketing/PR positions promiscuously, sans moral qualm and geography. Her single string is income level, yet she spends the rest of the book upgrading herself in vain. 

I read this book amazed at the ‘transition’ industry unemployment in America has spawned, converting desperation into dollars. By synthesizing selfishness with self-help, Corporate America seems to have learnt how to systemically shed people while simultaneously convincing them it’s their own fault they’re out of a job.

Ehrenreich describes her steady line of career coaches offering contradictory advice on the basis of loopy personality tests, one of whom hilariously advises her to work on her writing skills. She negotiates the catch-22 of “appropriate” attire for corporate women (simultaneously professional and feminine, without being either threatening or provocative), encounters the evangelical Right, and discovers the new workforce makes the people it retains as miserable as the ones it fires. Several of the people she networks with are employed, but desperate to find alternate employment: either because they are underemployed and dissatisfied, or because they are stretched far too thin compensating for fired colleagues. Apart from time and energy, she ultimately spends $6,000 on her job search: money spent on coaches, resume-checkers, job sites, networking “clubs” and “events”, bootcamp (essentially group therapy), a wardrobe consultant, a “professional development seminar” until, finally (and fittingly), she is offered the chance to pay someone to employ her.

Mervyn Peake, Mad Hatters.

In her penultimate chapter Ehrenreich introduced me to “independent contractors”- a term I associate with people who can violate most Indian labour legislation. In American unemployment circles, it apparently means working for companies as direct sales people, with neither benefits nor salaries. The only income comes from commissions, which can be of two kinds: finding more agents to sell the product for the company; or from direct sales of the product to consumers.

In one instance she describes, Ehrenreich is offered the chance to sell “supplemental health insurance” for AFLAC, but when she enquires about her own health insurance, she is evaded with: “We’re independent contractors, we get our own”. “Supplemental health insurance”, as the name somewhat obliquely suggests, is additional health insurance for people who don’t receive adequate coverage from their employers; a business that is booming, her interviewer hastens to inform her, as people have less disposable income while healthcare costs are ballooning.

To become part of the dubious AFLAC-family Ehrenreich needs to get a license and attend training ($1900); and then hope that the local market for the product hasn’t already been saturated. The more people she can pull into the scheme, either to buy or sell, the more money she earns; and even there, as Ehrenreich points out, it’s tough to distinguish pyramid schemes from legitimate ones.

As an option for the white-collar unemployed, there are thousands of commissions only sales jobs such as the one AFLAC offered me. According to the Direct Selling Association, 13.3 million Americans worked in such sales jobs in 2003, selling $25 billion worth of goods. In many cases, like AFLAC, these jobs offer rewards not only for selling the product but for recruiting new people to do so as well. On it’s dark side, the direct-selling world is filled with traps for the unwary- pyramid schemes in which the ultimate product is valueless non existent. An outfit called JDO Media, for example, enticed people to make money by enlisting others to sell a sketchily- developed ‘marketing program’- for which privilege each recruit had to put up as much as $3,500…

… a real job involves some risk taking on the part of the employer, who must make an investment to acquire your labour. In real estate, franchising, and commission-only sales, the only risk undertaken is by the job-seeker, who has to put out money upfront and commit days or weeks to training. Then she is on her own, fearful that the market will soften or that the quasi-employer will flood the area with competing sales reps or franchisees.

“Independent contractors” must be a global euphemism for the unregulated underbelly of the corporate world. As Ehrenreich wryly observes at the close of her last interview with Larry, the AFLAC minion, she “might as well have applied at Wal-Mart and been given a pushcart full of housewares to hawk on the streets”.

 Bait and Switch was published in 2005, long before one noticed the words ‘recession’ or ‘economic crisis’ bandied about in the popular press. It talks about the slow extinction of a class: the powerful American executive, the golden boys of capitalism. It confirmed what I had been reading on the fringes: that the recession unfolded across a decade, gathering momentum, with different classes hit at various times and accreting intensity.

The fringes in India are making similar noises today about the drive towards a fully corporate, privately owned economy and its costs upon our ecology and our people. The mainstream remains complacent about the advantages of “modernization”, unwilling or unable to hear protest, even as it rises to a crescendo of desperate violence. Ms Ehrenreich outlines a disturbing evolution in the pattern of global capital: if the American corporate workforce is being forced to adapt to a permanently “lean” culture, which recruits and discards at will, how much worse will things become in India?

In India, privilege still seems to ensure jobs, the “boom” is on, and I am no economist. Nonetheless, it appears a fragile dream, grafted onto a vast quagmire of extortion and exploitation. Employment in India has always been uniquely ridden by the scepter of caste, and the corporate dream may only be the latest avatar of the Brahmin imaginary.

The Brahmin Imaginary.

The Brahmin stranglehold on the telling of Indian history is twofold: literacy, and legitimacy. As the clergy, Brahmins were the only caste where formal education is in the job description. This made them readers, and collectors of manuscripts, in a predominantly oral culture; the genetic intelligentsia. As a class, they have always been dependent upon royal power: first for ritual sacrifice, later for land grants. Divine kingship has always been a potent symbol in Indian politics: even the Mughals fell under its spell. The Brahmins, intermediaries to the gods, were convenient legitimators for any king seeking to attest his kingship and establish a dynasty; ritual sacrifice persisted in royal consecrations long after it had disappeared from the popular religion. The British found them handy collaborators, and from colonial times Brahmins have drifted off the land and into the professions.

Even in 2010 India, Brahmins dominate education, especially higher education. I suspect the trend would be especially prominent in the professions and the higher echelons of management: the very executives Bait and Switch talks about. Companies owned by other communities are nevertheless likely to employ a fair number of Brahmins in managerial posts. While the civil services and public companies reserve posts for the “scheduled” castes, private enterprise is free to hire who it wants, and they tend to prefer the dwija.

(More Fintan Taite illustrations can be found on his website. There are more than a few scattered across chaosbogey, but they’re but the tip of an iceberg.)

The obvious disadvantage Dalits in corporate India face is that they are relatively alone in a culture still dominated by kinship bonds: they have a far smaller network of family and friends to turn to for employment. Even as family businesses give way to the more impersonal firm and the corporate meritocracy entrenches itself, the process of exclusion is likely to continue unabated: caste privilege can operate in many covert, insidious ways. Idiomatic English, comfort with technology, dietary habits, an elite education, even a person’s name and home address can flag off their caste to potential recruiters, making candidates vulnerable to the other person’s prejudices.

In any case, verticality far predates the birth of the corporation in India, so one can be sure that access and promotion remain two very different things. It would be very interesting to study to how two famously opaque hierarchies, caste and corporation, interpenetrate within Indian corporate culture to create a new heaven of conspicuous consumption for the Dwija, oblivious to reality. For the Dwija, reality comes with an escape clause. But for the excluded majority, the really interesting question is this: when the lean times come, who amongst the dwija will be shed?

Ms. Ehrenreich tells a compelling story about betrayed people living out the nightmare inversion of the American dream. I will hazard the guess that the advantages of the lean, mean corporate machine will suggest itself to Indian employers soon. When this new Brahmin heaven implodes, as so many have in the past, I am curious to see what the tenacious bunch do next. India’s rulers no longer require divine legitimacy, the traditional route Brahmins have for bouncing back. But Brahmins have spent centuries arbitrating employment and honing their blaming-the-victim expertise. So maybe they’ll just morph into the transition industry in the (even more) destitute India their vision leaves in its wake.

(yes, I’m one too, and the choice of pronoun in this essay was self-evasion. What to do, no?)

Third Generation Sales.

Numbers are a notoriously relative factor within Indian politics, existing only to be massaged at every corner. The distinctive semantics of numbers is nowhere clearer than in the convenient slippage between lakhs and millions in the media’s perpetual quest for the more glamorous statistic. 5 million is, after all, a far more imposing figure than 50 lakhs, unless one has cultivated the esoteric skill of fluently flitting back and forth between numerical systems. In a country where “crorepati” and “millionaire” are practically synonymous, it’s safe to assume such literacy remains an elite skill even among the educated. Add to that the inevitable and instinctive association between millions and dollars, and a million is virtually guaranteed more eyeballs than a paltry 10 lakhs.

Conversely, when an effort is being made to downplay the magnitude of a certain value, the ingenious “hundreds of lakhs” are trotted out in defiance of mathematical logic. Corporate accounts, for instance, enumerate in the hundreds and even thousands of lakhs by default. But the big money still talks in crores, the Indian billion, seamlessly transiting between the hoi polloi and the haute. By this marker, the recent sale of 3G spectrum to telecom majors within India was almost too haute to touch.

The Government of India laughed its way to the Reserve Bank this past week, even as the Pakistani Government was busy ejecting its country out of the internet revolution. 3G spectrum, which enables the further diffusion of the web across India, sold for twice its estimated revenue, at a whopping 67,700-odd crores (677 billion rupees or 15 billion dollars, for those who prefer an alternate gloss). I should reiterate, before my compatriots get smug about our relative freedoms, that this diffusion is strictly an elite phenomenon, as anything that assumes more than barely-there literacy is bound to be. Besides, it’s easy to forget that internet access is expensive in the subcontinent, a reality that posher phones are not likely to address. The average internet monthly plan can (and does) feed entire families for weeks, if one neglects the attendant requirement of a computer/smart phone. My internet bill is half the (optimal) monthly minimum wage. Despite our burgeoning cyber-cafe culture, this disparity is not easily resolved. The web has been a home to many of us while remaining a myth to many more.

From, of course, xkcd

Sermons aside, when news of the final 3G deal broke on 19th May, Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee was asked how the windfall was to be spent “for social interest” by a zealous (if naive) television journalist. The minister acted coy, if only because he realises the bounty is hardly about to reach those who most need it: India’s budget allocates a paltry 900 crores towards agricultural production, indisputably India’s poorest profession (after, possibly, day-labour, but that is not even considered a profession within India’s three pronged system of manufacturing, agriculture, and services). We are, they tell us, a perennially poor country. So poor we can’t afford to offset an obscene 16% inflation rate on basic food grains and commodities.

Well, anyway. Woe betide the less fortunate. It is, after all, what they are there for: to be used as lightning rods for all the squalor and misery we live amidst. To most of my peers, the sale of 3G spectrum deserves attention because it marks a transition in our paradigm for mobile information (the pun is intended, but forced: I am using mobile as an adjective, not a noun). It’s shift embodied by the iPad: once 3G settles down, the iPad will go from being a bewildering and largely useless gizmo to another splendid toy for the social climber’s stable. We are a young, voracious nation unwilling to be left out of the gadget wars, a fact telecom companies obviously respect enough to cough up such astonishing amounts. That is, I suppose, all for the better, if it ensures that I will never be bereft of wikipedia. And I can’t wait to be able to stream movies while I read, rock, surf, skype, and play video games on the train to heaven.

Where Green Ants Dream.

An Allegory for Niyamgiri and the Dongria Kondhs.

Green Ants can be interpreted at various levels- it can be constructed as a classic tale of the human and environmental costs of human greed, as a study of the encroaching tides of western rationality upon profoundly different ways of thought or as an indictment of a civilisation that respects no other. At its heart is a question: can you really consider yourself civilised if you cannot understand another person’s perspective, or at the very least respect it?

The story of green ants is a tale about corporate profit clashing with aboriginal beliefs. It is, in some ways, the story of advancing capitalism. Capitalism has always laid waste what came before it- whether it was the “red” Indian or the brown one, the yellow man or the black one. The white man, they say, was blind to his own history and imported his blindness to the colonies. This was done by subordinating, undermining and dividing cultures with the ruthlessness only the religion of profiteering can muster. How can it be otherwise? If all is fair where money is to be made, how easy it must be to poison societies where wealth is respected but not worshipped. Historically, imperial ambitions have always mixed well with religious fervour: the only difference in the modern world is that money is the new false god.

In Herzog’s movie, a mining company wants to excavate the holy ground of a group of Australian aborigines: they believe that the land that is to be mined is where the green ants, upon whom existence depends, dream; and upon that dream rests reality. On the face of it, it is irrational and absurd, but really is it any more absurd that ordering existence for the benefit of the unqualified zeal for profit? Than unrestrainedly exploiting resources, when the finiteness of them is beyond question? The “American dream” is today what constructs reality- and it is no more tangible (and some would argue possible) than the green ants’ dream. This film, to some extent, exposes it for the myth it is by deconstructing other myths that have sustained other cultures in their fight for survival.

The sharpest voice protesting capitalism today says that it steals from the poor to reward the rich. The latest recession, for instance, will hit aid to dependant Africa and the sundry poor of the world worse than anyone else, because they are the most expendable. It was caused because of the recklessness of big business and banks; yet they received a trillion dollars in stimulus packages. This is a story about how stealing from the poor, the unrepresented, the helpless, is the easiest and quickest crime in history and one that has always borne rich dividends. It is made easy by dismissing their qualms and their claims as irrational, backward, irrelevant and placing them against “real” truths, like the fact that the world needs to mine constantly to support a wasteful and extravagant system. It is made easy by the fact that the privileged of the world- economically, culturally, socially privileged- are so few and yet so powerful, and the only ones that have the resources to be able to stick together. And the fact that they disguise their minority so effectively by forcing the majority to fight amongst themselves for scraps. In fights for survival, metaphysical questions about the “system” and its validity are a luxury. It is only when one’s basic beliefs about existence are challenged that one begins to consider actually fighting, and by then it is often too late.

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