Why Arundhati Roy Is Wrong

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The renowned Indian author Arundhati Roy has recently published a controversial opinion piece titled „The NGO-ization of Resistance“. As it is often the case with viral articles, Roy’s piece does not contain one single innovative point – it is rather a synthesis of a number of very old claims, so familiar to the average reader that Roy probably felt she did not need to waste time backing them with facts or, God forbid, empirical data. Instead, she focused her evident writing skills on building a compelling narrative. I’m not a fan of the sort of writing that favors depiction over argumentation. But, for what it’s worth, here’s a short summary of her argument (the full text available on this link):

The rise of nongovernmental organizations in the developing world is a byproduct of the process of neoliberal reforms. The „neoliberal project“ led by Western governments causes the governments of the transitioning states to retreat from providing certain services, and this newly found lack of governmental provisions angers people. This vacuum of supply is then filled by NGOs, who provide the lacking services and present as a gift what should have been demanded as a right. Because these NGOs are indirectly Western-funded, they will never openly confront the Western architects of the neoliberal reforms, „turning confrontation into negotiation“, and genuine resistance into some half-baked constructive criticism. Ultimately, they drain energy from guerrilla-style, uncompromising (and locally funded) anti-capitalist resistance into a sort of champagne dissidence with a steady paycheck. They turn potential militant, Tariq Ali-style antiglobalists into conformists harboring illusions of meaningful resistance. This, in short, is Roy’s theory.

Full disclosure: the gut reaction I’ve developed when coming across opinion pieces on economic issues written by poets, novelists or artist falls somewhere between eye-rolling and instantaneous dismissal (put in words: “Arundhati Roy is a novelist. What does she know about economic models and political theory?”). Yes, these profession-based etiquettes are ludicrous and betray snobbish stereotyping – but one is forced to admit that the sentiment behind them doth hold a grain of truth. In his “Return to Depression Economics”, Paul Krugman complains about the stubbornness with which the lit-crit humanists won’t allow the figure-crunching empiricists to have the final word on economic matters. And while it’s true that there is no convincing reason why Jürgen Habermas should close shop and let Krugman’s colleagues establish a monopoly on explaining the world with graphs and stats, it is also true that the liberal left’s critique of society too often fails to honor due analytic diligence in favor of satisfying an ideological narrative, the charlatanism of which can be irritating (enter Slavoj Žižek).[1]

To get a better picture of what I’m saying, let me outline what I see as the major fallacy of Roy’s argument:

It appears as though Roy perceives the transition process of developing states from socialism or some sort of dirigism to a system of smaller, more limited government as the State retreating from providing services („rural development, agriculture, energy, transport and public health“) leaving a vacuum of supply and demand-driven anger. For Roy, the State’s retreat from service X means exclusively „withdrawing state funding“ from service X. This is obviously an incomplete definition – the State may retreat from the health care, energy, agriculture or transport industry by privatizing it. In this scenario, the level of investment in the privatized industry does not fall with the State’s retreat but rather increases. The image of which Roy evokes, that of „turning off the tap“, seems to only apply to rural development programs, State-run development funds and other credit-issuing agencies operated by the State. Cuts in services similar to these are an inevitable aspect of every single US budget proposal that purports to cut spending. Cuts in these programs are part of every reformist agenda in developing countries for many reasons – for one, state-run development funds are notorious for their corruption and inefficiency; for another, the credit lending activity ought to be the job of commercial banks. So, it appears that the „mess“ created by neoliberalism is really the effect of a series of transitions from a centrally planned economy to free market. While Roy can lament these medium-term turmoils all she wants (Naomi Klein already did it in 672 pages of „The Shock Doctrine“), her claim that the resulting lack of services is compensated by the work of NGOs is unsubstantiated. Let’s say that the State cuts funding for a development fund crediting small and medium agricultural enterprises. Ever heard of an NGO that gives credits to small and medium enterprises? It is not very apparent how nongovernmental organizations may be able to fill the vacuum which Roy claims to be a result of the State’s withdrawal from development funds, or from any other service areas she mentioned. Her understanding of the process of transition to what she calls neoliberalism is confused and obviously inadequate.

That said, Roy’s contention that NGOs are there to diffuse political anger is true in some way. However, the problematic premises of this contention are revealed when we ask from what end do the NGOs diffuse the said anger. It seems that Roy would want the political anger to generate an uncompromising, reactionary, resistance movement trying to avert the transition process, whose end (neoliberalism) it sees as the source of all corruption, theft and injustice that follows it. To what sort of alternative system such a reactionary resistance movement would purport to revert remains a mystery, but the bottom line is that one finds it hard to accept Roy’s point about anger diffusion if he does not share Roy’s ideological premises.

Despite the above discussed faults, I do believe there is some validity in the argument of „The NGO-ization of Resistance“. In political systems (such as Montenegro) where corruption is endemically prevalent, there is no reason to suppose that nongovernmental actors would be exempt from its influence (not any more so than political actors or private sector decision makers). In this sense, Arundhati Roy may be right in claiming that resistance is effectively diluted by being filtered through nongovernmental work. But if she posits the faulty NGOs as the cause, and not merely an effect of that predicament, she is missing the point.

[1] For a well-argued take on the intellectual charlatanism and, in particular, the postmodern intellectuals’ abuse of scientific concepts, see Sokal and Brickmont’s book “Fashionable Nonsense”.

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