Demonetisation: Neither Cultural, Nor Revolutionary

Posted by Nissim Mannathukkaren in Politics, Staff Picks
December 30, 2016

Matching people around the idea of “cultural revolution” usually leads either to confusion or to demagoguery. —Ivan Illich

We live in ironic times where the establishment quotes Bob Dylan, an anti-establishment figure. Thus, the Prime Minister recently cited lines from Dylan’s song, The Times They Are A-Changin including, “And don’t criticise/What you can’t understand,” all ostensibly targeted at the critics of demonetisation.

Demonetisation is an event of biblical proportions. But even as its economic consequences are discussed, what goes unnoticed are the new cultural imaginaries that are sought to be put in place. Rather than see demonetisation as only an economic measure to curb corruption, the Prime Minister, in the government narrative, wants to usher “a behavioural change at all levels of society”, which is a part of “the grand ‘cultural revolution’ that the PM is working on”.

The problem is that this cultural revolution is neither cultural nor revolutionary. Culture becomes a mere appendage to technological transformations which still mask material exploitation. In this cultural revolution government still needs lucky draw contests (and prizes worth ₹340 crores) to incentivise digital payments and behaviour change. Also, the revolution will be ushered in through an executive fiat from above rather than it emerging organically from the people.

Emptiness Of Words

Technology is the fulcrum of the new cultural revolution. As the Prime Minister puts it, in ‘Digital India’, “your phone is your wallet”. But when Dylan becomes yoked to the project of “Cashless India” and “Digital India,” culture becomes merely instrumental and hollow. Otherwise, how is Dylan’s song in question, reflecting the American youth’s anger against imperialism perpetrated by their own government, quoted by a government that has come down heavily on dissent, and has used militarism as a political tool?

The cultural revolution is supposed to completely overhaul the system. In a reference rich with religio-cultural symbolism, the Prime Minister calls demonetisation a “yagna against corruption, terrorism and black money”. There is, of course, tremendous hardship for the people. But he asks them to endure it, like the Japanese who bravely faced the tsunami, to make the nation great and modern. Remarkably, in this vision, there are no cultural revolutions to annihilate caste, the most important barrier to India becoming modern. Nor there are yajnas against class and gender exploitation.

Source: Sakib Ali/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In this cultural revolution without culture, anything goes, so the Prime Minister can wish that “the youth seize the moment and be the winds of change” even after his government has virtually criminalised any youth politics that is unpalatable to the state. Or, a union minister can also quote Dylan to critique patriarchy in Muslim community, but not patriarchy among Hindus.

No Critical Pedagogy

Such a conjuncture is itself a result of the failure of India in building a critical pedagogy. Instead of questioning the fundamental bases of exploitation, the entire pedagogy has been built on a technocratic understanding of society catering to building “meritorious” citizens, a society which merely reinforces existing hierarchies. In this pedagogy, as the philosopher Ivan Illich put it, “medical treatment is mistaken for healthcare, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work.”

It is on this ground already ploughed by conformist and regressive currents that the seeds of the new cultural revolution are sown. How else does one explain sections of the most “educated”, including those in the bureaucracy, with a bird’s-eye view of governance, seeing demonetisation as a panacea to all the nation’s ills? The crux of technocratic thinking is to paper over systemic causes of issues such as poverty and prescribe technological fixes.

The root cause of our misery in this technocratic vision is a culture steeped in corruption. While there is a grain of truth in this, the decadent culture is not caused by the ruling classes in general, but only, as a government representative puts it, “encouraged by Congress and its friends all these years in power”. Again, the accumulation of privilege by the upper castes/classes or of the state-sanctioned plunder of public wealth, forests, minerals, etc. by the ruling classes, cutting across party lines goes unmentioned.

When one identifies the problem as such, the solution can only be superficial. Demonetisation becomes a magic wand to end all problems of corruption. When the Prime Minister tells a rally that the rich are queuing up at the houses of the poor to seek their help in depositing black money, he is definitely not referring to the ultra-rich in India. So, the cultural revolution is already making a distinction between the rich themselves.

In this cultural revolution, culture becomes a mask to hide fundamental material realities. Thus, it does not tell us that the top one percent of people own 58.4% of the country’s wealth (up from 49% in 2014, and 36.8% in 2000). When the bottom 50% own only 2.1% of the wealth, how does the promised manna of a few thousand rupees in Jan Dhan accounts alter anything?

The staggering levels of inequality have very little to do with black money held in high denomination notes, but are a result of a skewed distribution of wealth, resources and power legally enforced. That among the prominent economies of the world, India is only second to Russia, which is known for its mafia capitalism, in terms of the wealth owned by the top one percent says something about our rapacious model of development, especially under liberalisation.

The cultural revolution does not tell us that the revenue foregone by the government in corporate income tax, excise and custom duty since 2005-06 is ₹42 trillion— an amount which can fund NREGA for over 100 years!
Neither does it tell us that state-owned banks have written off ₹1.14 lakh crore of bad loans from 2013 to 2015 or that just two corporate houses alone owe over ₹3 lakh crore in debt to the banks.

DELHI, INDIA NOVEMBER 11: Photo by Qamar Sibtain/India Today Group/Getty Images

The tragedy is that the questions not asked by the cultural revolution are left unasked by popular discourse. And they will not be until we are prisoners of what the cultural theorist Henry Giroux calls as the “relentless activity of thoughtlessness” fostered by dominant power through its cultural apparatuses. What they do is to transform the genuine aspirations of the people for equality, a corruption-free society and anger against the existing system into sanitised expressions like demonetisation which do not fundamentally challenge the system.

It is in the absence of a genuine cultural revolution that we have reached a conjuncture in which a nation as diverse and unequal as India is asked to place its hopes on an individual leader as a talisman for a cultural revolution. A cultural revolution in which mobile phones will herald a corruption-free society. To unveil this cultural revolution, we need to go back to deciphering Dylan ourselves.