The Abstraction of Numbers

Professor Jairus Banaji  suggested to a New Delhi audience,  in  millennial year 2001, that we should be concerned about how our  provident fund and pension savings  are invested in local businesses. In the following years, we saw how global capital created crises after crises, and the relief that Indians felt when concurrent recessions were not experienced in India. However, we know that post office and SBI savings were the spine of the  Indian economy. The agricultural population turned up for work at industrial sites, receiving a minimum wage, and keeping in touch with their families through mobile phones. Those who had their families accompany them, served the nation, built metros and malls, nuclear sites and smart cities, watching their children play in the dust while they worked. The heartlessness of capitalism is perhaps it’s trade mark, and whether it was putting up tin sheds, or plastic tents in work sites, for labourers, it was the substitutability of wage labour that pushed the foreman and the supervising mechanics and engineers


On March 15, 2018, at Delhi University’s literature department, Arjun Appadurai spoke to an audience of university scholars of the puzzle that is global finance. Multi sited, it rests on the idea of ‘contract’, which is also a promise, but a narrative that is ambiguous in nature, buttresses it. This polyphonic language is filled with nuances, such that, the client is ready to believe that profits are immediately to be made, if he or she invests, but if there is a mishap, the ‘narrative’ has already preserved the verbiage of possibilities of risk. According to Appadurai, who is simultaneously referencing a reservoir of literature on the subject, published by Chicago University Press, and weaving them in with his own observations, the game is really endowed with “performativeness.” The media too plays a large part in representing the variety of options that global finance has. The latter plays with abstract numbers, buys and sells, and if the market crashes, the victim was the one who did not guess right.

It is in this perspective, that demonetisation was represented as the “search” for black money.

Farmers’ suicides because of debt to fertiliser and  seed companies, internet banking which installs itself without electricity, unpaid pensions, promise of currency to already indebted farmers, if  they invest in  complex insurance,…all of these are now everyday conversations, oft repeated. If prime minister Modi does not believe in climate change, then why provide insurance for farmers to protect them from floods and earthquakes?

Commonsense would tell us, that now news of thousands of crores of scams, divesting banks of their money assail us, that demonetisation happened because the domestic economy which consists of house holder’s savings had to be called in. The banks were able to function because the citizens of the country were summoned, and asked to deposit what they had, in person, at the counters. India’s wealth has rested in it’s ordinary lives, the people who have worked hard, and earned little, and saved much. There is a certain grace in which channa chabanna (or chewing roasted gram) has been the way in which a large mass of the population has lived. They have survived millennia, bearing children and accepting fate. Their hardiness is what makes India a land of maya. Nothing will stop the magnetic core of planet earth from pushing itself out, and in the same way, nothing will stop the sun from cooling down. History is made between these two events, as our plans for future existence in future planets continue to be made.

Yet, we know that the life we have is made precious by our interactions with one another. We know that our sense of empathy comes from being human, which involves both imagination and language. The depression was the site of many suicides, as wealthy and poor struggled to exist in circumstances, which were very much changed. In  America, the poor and the old were hidden away, and did not appear in public, because there was a standardisation of life chances, where a welfare economy ran parallel to the extravagance of capitalism.  The past was always represented as being either Boston Brahmin, White Trash,  or Black. In between, the Assimilation Model used the idea that  the  Irish, Latins, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, followed by Chinese and Indians could co-exist, but in  stable hierarchies. The Vietnam War changed all that, as the music that evolved led to the possibility that anti war platforms could rethink the America of the McCarthy era.

In the 21st century, the protest movements have been so varied, whether it is Occupy Wall Street, or Equal Citizenship for Minorities and Blacks, that one can only look towards niche cultures and resistance movements against the gun lobby, and the odd world of “global finance without a body” as Appadurai calls it.
(The writer is professor of sociology at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU)

Susan Visvanathan