21 12 2005
Globalisation: Materiality and the Limits of a Will to Power
by Lata Mani (IN)
Speaking at the World Information City Conference, Bangalore, historian and cultural critic Lata Mani challenged the widespread belief in the triumph of globalisation. Bangalore's IT locations, she argues, are "like fortresses built on the quicksand of a culturally alien territory".
Capitalist globalisation hungers for total control over nature and human society. It seeks to realize this dream through all the disciplinary means at its disposal, and technology has, as we know, come to its aid in this project. However, the desire for mastery encounters many obstacles, for the logic of capitalist globalisation is not the only, and certainly in the 3rd World, not the primary logic at play. Solomon Benjamin’s work (1) demonstrates this principle exceedingly well in context of his discussion of the complex land tenurial system prevailing in Bangalore and its environs.
No matter what software may be brought in to codify, reclassify and reorganize this system for the benefit of globalizing forces, the socio-economic realities and life worlds reflected by, and embedded in, these tenurial systems cannot be wished away. Indeed, it is not Sundramma (whose story Benjamin chronicles) who lives in the encroaching jaws of Intel and Infosys. It is rather that Intel and Infosys are like fortresses built on the quicksand of a culturally alien territory. The sheer magnitude of the cultural and class difference between the smash and grab globalisers, and their culturally Other neighbours who vastly outnumber them make the former (Intel, Infosys), in truth, dependent on the hospitality of the latter.
Several clarifications are in order here. First, in saying this, I do not minimize the power differential between a Sundramma and an Intel or Infosys. Neither do I suggest that there are only two players in this contentious sociopolitical field. Rather I am suggesting that we not be transfixed by the media machine of globalisation which presents as fact that which is nothing other than what it wishes were true, namely that there is only one future and it is the one heralded by it. Third, let me explain why I say that Intel or Infosys are dependent on the hospitality of those that surround them. Given the poor penetration of capitalism itself, let alone capitalist globalisation, the strategy of pacification of the masses is not as readily available here as it has been in the First World. It is thus that corporate capital has to function in a negotiated truce with logics other than its own: accept them, accommodate to them as necessary and, when it can, try to subvert or inflect them to its advantage.
What all this means for us as social theorists is that we are called upon to attend seriously to the question of competing socio-cultural and economic logics and their interrelationships, what in cultural studies would be called ‘articulation.’ It is here perhaps that our energies would be well invested. My own sense is that we would fail if we conceptualized the problem of globalisation merely as a cultural and economic contest between national and international corporate elites, and the urban and rural poor. We need to think seriously of social actors left out of such a picture: feudal elites, the urban and small town lower middle classes, regional elites excluded from the English language club, etc. And we need to analyse the cultural flash points and fissures in tracing the frictional interface between these competing logics- several participants in this conference have striven to do just that.
So far, we have spoken of those structurally positioned on the periphery of globalizing forces though they are not, as just noted, marginal from any other purview. But what of those who are within the fortress? Interestingly, if we look closely at the IT/BPO industry we find that the punitive logic of maximal extraction is leading to problems of its own (2). Anyone reading the press will have noticed an increase in reports of employee dissatisfaction with conditions of work, even in the pages of such a customarily ardent supporter of globalisation as The Times of India. These include the deleterious consequences of long working hours, constant deadlines, night shifts, and the shrinking of social and leisure time. Quality of life issues seem to outweigh the question of the much envied and remarked upon high levels of remuneration. These issues are also the subject of articles in employment supplements. Additionally, as is well known, those in customer care face the hostility of the very persons for whose comfort accents are altered, false identities are created, and most Indian holidays are forgone.
These problems are evident enough to be of concern to employers. For instance, the problem of attrition is widely acknowledged by industry analysts. In IT the exit is primarily in a lateral direction, while in BPO, many employees leave in order to return to earlier plans for higher education or professional training. To the chagrin of their BPO employers, many do not regard these as career jobs, no matter how impressive their salary or designation (‘customer care officer,’ ‘call center executive’). An interesting fact in this regard is that a three day BPO job fair held in Mysore at the end of December 2004 attracted a mere 400 odd persons and not the thousands that were expected. Organisers argued that lack of awareness about the career potential of these jobs was chiefly responsible, as also the impression that these jobs were stressful and involved night shifts.
What is fascinating is how the very themes noted above figure in many advertisements in oblique and not-so-oblique ways. For instance, a hoarding for a UK based retail company about to launch its Bangalore facility shows a smiling female employee stating she dreams of retail during the day and sleeps soundly at night. The copy (which I am paraphrasing here) cleverly condenses several interrelated elements into a single sentence in the effort to distinguish this employment opportunity from others in this segment.
To begin with there is the obvious reference to companies that require one to service customers in time zones more challenging to one’s body, mind and sleep habits. Further, in setting up a contrast between dreaming on the job and sleeping soundly at night, the copy implicitly refers to several problems endemic to this sector, even as it claims their irrelevance in this case. First, there is the ubiquitous problem of overwork and sleep deprivation. Second, there is the challenge of work that follows one home and even pervades one’s sleep. This is a poignant issue for those required to take on a separate identity and accent at work, many of whom speak of identity confusion on and off jobs and recurrent nightmares. Finally, dreaming on the job implies an unhurried pace of work. This is again something that conditions often preclude what with ever present deadlines and such benchmarks in call centers as the optimum number of minutes per call. ‘Anything but relaxed’ is probably a more accurate description.
Night shifts are obviously unpopular, for jobs requiring them bury this thorny fact deep in the body of the advertising copy. The advertisements invoke an abstract notion of ‘career,’ one that is frequently inversely related to the skills required by the job. In marked contrast with other industries, advertisements for call centers rarely describe the actual work to be performed. (Could this be a way of side-stepping the often repetitive nature of the job?) They focus instead on the client list of the company in question, presumably implying that the reputations and financial earnings of clients somehow imply a like future for those who undertake technical support or customer assistance for them.
In another inversion of things as they really are, jobs for IT/BPO are at times advertised as though they are principally about fun, glamour and a global lifestyle. These ideas take up as much space in the layouts of advertisements as the details of jobs available or qualifications required. It is as though each company is selling an idea as much as it is recruiting personnel for specific positions. Examples here would include a retailer leading off a job advertisement with its recreational facilities and an IT company featuring a woman relaxing on a pier with a keyboard on her lap framed by copy promising ‘java, clear skies and fresh air.’ In the face of a ‘work,work,work’ ethic, companies in this sector have decided to accent its opposite, the idea of leisure, pleasure and fun-filled challenge as integral to life in IT and BPO.
The credibility of my analysis does not depend on the avowed intention of the copy writer or the company executives responsible for advertising vacancies. Advertisements do not merely create images but also rely on the interpretive competence of their primary target audience. In so doing, they offer us a window on the issues and concerns businesses consider important to address. Clearly quality of life and conditions of work are real issues. Reading advertisements against the business and city pages of newspapers illustrates how the former frequently remakes facts reported in the latter in marketing an image that is at odds with reality.
The term "miasma" connotes something that hovers above ground, obscures clear perception and vitiates the atmosphere. Any discourse about globalization and its presumed benefits that remains disconnected from material facts does the same. There is an uncanny way in which adharmia or injustice always seems to pave the way for its own destruction. Strikingly, the challenge to a continued expansion of Bangalore along the lines of the past decade is coming from the world of matter: precisely that which the prevailing miasma would like to pretend is irrelevant, innocently contingent, or transformable at will. Rain, heat, sewage, garbage, concrete debris, tree roots, mud, potholes: the very newspapers that reproduce a triumphalist discourse on globalization are filled with stories about the rains, the drains, the floods, the sewage, the traffic, the potholes and the rising temperatures.
In the ideal world of neo-liberal globalisers, the ‘local’ represents market opportunity and a pliant labour force able and willing to serve metropolitan capital. Diversity is admitted, but primarily in the realm of tastes, colours, texts and sounds that can extend or else supplement prevailing aesthetics. Ideally, diversity should add to, not disrupt, the logic of capital. In Bangalore, however, the local has erupted in a manner most inopportune for expansion. The boom industries have not generated wealth, except for a small class fraction. This, together with the insularity, exclusiveness and even outsiderness of many in this field, has generated ambivalence towards it, not merely among some sections of the population but more importantly, within the local political machinery and state government as well. The modest degree of political participation of this elite class also means that there is no fear of losing votes in the next election.
This ambivalence is reflected in the way the current coalition government of Congress and Janata Dal (S) has in the last year tended to respond only symbolically to this lobby. Inaction has been the order of the day. Even though it frequently touts the notion of Brand Bangalore and claims satisfaction at the so-called international status of the city, at a practical level the state government has offered little other than promises of development in the long term. In a peculiar way, the compulsions of a democratic polity appear to have put the brakes on continued growth, even though the impulse to slow down the show has little to do with genuine concern for the mass of citizens, who suffer even more as a result of government lassitude and realpolitik calculations. Only the next elections will reveal whether and how the electorate will punish the government for pursuing inaction as a seemingly deliberate strategy.
We live in a surreal time when the language of commerce has been allowed to fashion far too many aspects of our social existence. Cities are not brands. They are living entities: eco-systems in relation to which humans have evolved modes of living which in turn have accumulated history. Neither history nor geography is incidental. Neither can be wished away. We can try to re-image the world as though what already exists were of no consequence, but it cannot work. Sooner or later the nitty gritty of matter will disrupt our diurnal dreaming. The rains, the drains, the floods, the sewage, the traffic, the potholes and the rising temperatures. The headaches, the exhaustion, the burn out, the breakdown of bodies battered by the logic of profit.
Whether within or outside the central command centers of globalization, the resistance to the seamless make-believe worlds of affluence and glamour promised by capitalist globalisation is coming from realm of the everyday: matter, culture and politics. The fantasy of total dominion and maximal profit is being thwarted by events and logics outside the control of the forces of capitalist globalisation. The virtual meets the material and is compelled to concede to the latter. Those who might be tempted to think otherwise would do well to watch developments in Bangalore in the months to come.
(1) Solomon Benjamin, “Analogue to Digital: Re-Living Big Business’s Nightmare in New Hydras, World Information City Newsletter, IP City Edition, 8-9.
(2) For a fuller version of this argument, see Lata Mani
“Are We Feeling Global Yet?” India Together, February 23, 2005.