Sitting in a car parked at a gas station on the outskirts of Houston, Texas, my colleague holds an audio recorder to my cell phone. At the other end of the line is Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, who is some 2,000 miles away, driving to Boston. I have driven some 7,000 miles and visited 23 cities (and counting) in reporting on the Occupy movement. The secret behind the Occupy Wall Street movement that Roy visited before the police crackdowns started is that most Americans now live in poverty, on the edge, or in fear of a descent into the abyss. It’s why a majority (at least of those who have an opinion) still support Occupy Wall Street even after weeks of disinformation and repression.
Roy offers her thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, the role of imagination, reclaiming language, and what is next for the Occupy movement that has seized the world’s attention.
GUPTA: Why did you want to visit Occupy Wall Street and what are your impressions?
ROY: How could I not want to visit? Given what I’ve been doing for so many years, it seems to me, intellectually and theoretically, quite predictable this was going to happen here at some point. But still I cannot deny myself the surprise and delight that it has happened. I wanted to see for myself the size, texture, and nature of it. So the first time I went there, because all those tents were up, it seemed more like a squat than a protest, but it began to reveal itself in a while. Some people were holding the ground and it was the hub for other people to organize, to think through things. As I said when I spoke at the People’s University, it seems to be introducing a new political language into the United States, a language that would be considered blasphemous only a while ago.
Do you think that the Occupy movement should be defined by occupying one particular space or spaces?
I don’t think the whole protest is only about occupying physical territory, but about reigniting a new political imagination. I don’t think the state will allow people to occupy a particular space unless it feels that allowing that will end up in a kind of complacency and the effectiveness and urgency of the protest will be lost. The fact that in New York and other places people are being beaten and evicted suggests nervousness and confusion in the ruling establishment. I think the movement will, or at least should, become a protean movement of ideas, as well as action, where the element of surprise remains with the protesters. We need to preserve the element of an intellectual ambush and a physical manifestation that takes the government and the police by surprise. It has to keep re-imagining itself because holding territory may not be something the movement will be allowed to do in a state as powerful and violent as the United States.
At the same time, occupying public spaces did capture the public imagination. Why do you think that is?
I think you had a whole subcutaneous discontent that these movements suddenly began to epitomize. The Occupy movement found places where people who were feeling that anger could come and share it. That is extremely important in any political movement. The Occupy sites became a way you could gauge the levels of anger and discontent.
You mentioned that they are under attack. Dozens of occupations have been shut down, evicted, at least temporarily. What do you see as the next phase for this movement?
I don’t know whether I’m qualified to answer that because I’m not somebody who spends a lot of time in the United States, but I suspect that it will keep reassembling in different ways and the anger created by the repression will, in fact, expand the movement. But eventually, the greater danger to the movement is that it may dovetail into the presidential election campaign that’s coming up. I’ve seen that happen before in the antiwar movement here and I see it happening all the time in India. Eventually, all the energy goes into trying to campaign for the “better guy,” in this case Barack Obama, who’s actually expanding wars all over the world. Election campaigns seem to siphon away political anger and even basic political intelligence into this great vaudeville, after which we all end up in exactly the same place.
Your essays, such as “The Greater Common Good” and “Walking with the Comrades,” concern corporations, the military, and the state violently occupying other people’s lands in India. How do those occupations and resistances relate to the Occupy Wall Street movement?
I hope that the people in the Occupy movement are politically aware enough to know that their being excluded from the obscene amassing of wealth of U.S. corporations is part of the same system of exclusion and war that is being waged by these corporations in places like India, Africa, and the Middle East. Ever since the Great Depression, we know that one of the key ways in which the U.S. economy has stimulated growth is by manufacturing weapons and exporting war to other countries. So, whether this movement is a movement for justice for the excluded in the United States or whether it is a movement against an international system of global finance that is manufacturing levels of hunger and poverty on an unimaginable scale, remains to be seen.
You’ve written about the need for a different imagination than that of capitalism. Can you talk about that?
We often confuse or loosely use the ideas of crony capitalism or neoliberalism to avoid using the word “capitalism.” This model of U.S. economics packaged in a carton that says “democracy” has, in the United States, resulted in 400 of the richest people owning wealth equivalent [to that] of half of the population. Thousands are losing their jobs and homes, while corporations are being bailed out with billions of dollars.
In India, 100 of the richest people own assets worth 25 percent of the gross domestic product. There’s something terribly wrong. No individual and no corporation should be allowed to amass that kind of unlimited wealth. Money need not be our only reward. Corporations that are turning over these huge profits can own everything: the media, the universities, the mines, the weapons industry, insurance hospitals, drug companies, non-governmental organizations. They can buy judges, journalists, politicians, publishing houses, television stations, bookshops and even activists. This kind of monopoly, this cross-ownership of businesses, has to stop.
The whole privatization of health and education, of natural resources and essential infrastructure is so twisted and so antithetical to anything that would place the interests of human beings or the environment at the center of what ought to be a government concern.
What would the different imagination look like?
The home minister of India has said that he wants 70 percent of the Indian population in the cities, which means moving something like 500 million people off their land. That cannot be done without India turning into a military state. So in the forests of central India and in many, many rural areas, a huge battle is being waged. Millions of people are being driven off their lands by mining companies, dams, and infrastructure companies. These are not people who have been co-opted into consumer culture, into the western notions of civilization and progress. They are fighting for their lands and their livelihoods, refusing to be looted so that someone far away may “progress” at their cost.
India has millions of internally displaced people. And now they are putting their bodies on the line and fighting back. They are being killed and imprisoned in their thousands. Theirs is a battle of the imagination, a battle for the redefinition of the meaning of civilization, of the meaning of happiness, of the meaning of fulfillment. This battle demands that the world see that, at some stage, as the water tables are dropping and the minerals that remain in the mountains are being taken out, we are going to confront a crisis from which we cannot return. The people who created the crisis in the first place will not be the ones that come up with a solution.
That is why we must pay close attention to those with another imagination: an imagination outside of capitalism as well as communism. We will soon have to admit that those people, like the millions of indigenous people fighting to prevent the takeover of their lands and the destruction of their environment—the people who still know the secrets of sustainable living—are not relics of the past, but the guides to our future.
In the United States, the Occupy movement has made the poor and homeless visible for the first time in decades. Could you comment on that?
It’s so much a reversal of what you see in India. In India, the poverty is so vast that the state cannot control it. It can beat people, but it can’t prevent the poor from flooding the roads, the cities, the parks, and railway station platforms. Whereas here the poor have been invisible, because obviously this model of success that has been held out to the world must not show the poor. But I think the time will come when the movement will have to somehow formulate something more than just anger.
What do you make of the term “occupation,” which has now been reclaimed as a positive term when it’s always been one of the most heinous terms in political language?
As a writer, I’ve often said that, among the other things that we need to reclaim, other than the obscene wealth of billionaires, is language. Language has been deployed to mean the exact opposite of what it really means when they talk about democracy or freedom. So I think that turning the word “occupation” on its head would be a good thing, though I would say that it needs a little more work. We ought to say, “Occupy Wall Street, not Iraq,” “Occupy Wall Street, not Afghanistan,” “Occupy Wall Street, not Palestine.” The two need to be put together.
Around the country, many occupiers we’ve talked to seem unable to reconcile their desires about Obama with what Obama really represents. When I talk to them about Obama’s record, they say, “Oh, his hands are tied; the Republicans are to blame, it’s not his fault.” Why do you think people react like this, even at the occupations?
Even in India, we have the same problem. We have a right wing that is so vicious and so openly wicked, which is the Baratiya Janata Party (BJP). Then we have the Congress Party, which does almost worse things, but does it by night. People feel that the only choices they have are to vote for this or for that. My point is that, whoever you vote for, it doesn’t have to consume all the oxygen in the political debate. It’s just an artificial theater, which in a way is designed to subsume the anger and to make you feel that this is all that you’re supposed to think about and talk about. When in fact, you’re trapped between two kinds of washing powder that are owned by the same company.
So it’s also a failure of the imagination?
It’s walking into a pretty elaborate trap. But it happens everywhere and it will continue to happen. Even I know that if I go back to India and tomorrow the BJP comes to power, personally I’ll be in a lot more trouble than with the Congress [party] in power. But systemically, in terms of what is being done, there’s no difference because they collaborate completely, all the time. So I’m not going to waste even three minutes of my time, if I have to speak, asking people to vote for this one or for that one.
So this inspires you, as a novelist, the movement?
Well, it comforts me, let’s just say. I feel in so many ways rewarded for having done what I did, along with hundreds of other people, even the times when it seemed futile.
Arun Gupta is a founding editor of the Indypendent newspaper. He is writing a book on the decline of American empire for Haymarket Books. Michelle Fawcett contributed to this article. She and Arun Gupta are covering the Occupy movement nationwide for Salon, Alternet, and other outlets. Their work is available at occupyusatoday.com.