Comment on Capitalism – A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy

Thank-you Sterling for having chosen this book. I can’t say I enjoyed it, who could enjoy reading about corruption and murder? But I can say I learned quite a bit from it. I had no idea this was going on in India. I backpacked there with a friend in 2008, and the book was right, all those things that the author described were hidden from me. The people I met seemed more interested in cricket than the horrors the author described. (My friend was from Australia and the two countries had just played a series of matches).

I really only have two comments. The first is a strongly supportive one; the second raises questions about a minor point in the book. I’m trained as, and I think of myself as a scientist. The philosophy of science demands that one try to refute every hypothesis before believing it. In this case my hypothesis is that the author’s description is reasonably accurate. The method I used to test this hypothesis was to find another account of human rights in India and see if it painted pretty much the same picture or a very different one.

The idea is to try to disprove the hypothesis, because if repeated attempts to disprove it fail then the one’s confidence in it grows. To make the test stronger it’s best to do tests that are likely to disprove it. So for instance testing the author’s description against the account of, say, Amnesty International, would not be a strong test.

So instead I chose to see how the US Department of State (DOS) described the situation in India. I reasoned that the USA is in a period of virtually unbridled capitalism. So if it were true that large companies have significance influence on the government, one would expect the DOS to disagree with her characterization. This might be particularly true because the US and India are have vigorous and growing economic ties, especially through outsourcing tasks from US companies to places like Bangalore. (Remember Balram’s description of Bangalore, it’s probably one of India’s Special Economic Zones that Roy writes about.

Here is the link to the DOS site describing the state of human rights in India. The report is 62 pages long but I strongly encourage reading at least the introduction, which is just 1¼ page long – it ends at the start of Section 1.

http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/204611.pdf

Suffice it to say the DOS description largely corroborates the author’s description in Capitalism: A Ghost Story. The only significant difference I found was a very short paragraph saying the “insurgents” also committed human rights abuses. Given the descriptions of the conflicts in the book one would be surprised if this were not the case. However the brevity of this paragraph can be taken, I think, as indicating that abuses by “insurgents” are not the major issue of human rights in India.

Thus my attempt to reject the author’s description failed, increasing in my mind the likelihood that her description has validity. A continued attempt to find sources to reject this hypothesis could/should be done by those who feel the need.

Another part of the philosophy of science teaches to try to find other hypotheses that explain the observed “data.” I can think of numerous conspiracy theories that would claim to explain why the DOS and the book’s description were generally in agreement. But I generally reject conspiracy theories as being false hypotheses (ones constructed so they can’t be disproven such as many about Obama’s ties to either terrorists or Wall Street capitalists) so I don’t consider it a valuable use of my time to explore them.

I need to address one more point, in this case to disagree with the author, although in the overall context of the book, this is a minor point. Her hypothesis is that Foundations sponsored by corporations are used for the company’s benefit and to maintain the status quo. I don’t know about all foundations but I know something about The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She claims it was founded during a time when Microsoft was not seen well because of their aggressive businesses practices, so Gates started the foundation essentially as a publicity ploy to help Microsoft. My major objection to her hypothesis is that Gates ran Microsoft as a very aggressive business entity and was essentially always had a PR problem because of its aggressiveness. Remember for example their crushing of Netscape, and the monopoly charges against them both in the US and in the EU. These and other issues raged for years. Thus one really can’t tie the timing of the formation of the Foundation to specific businesses, which raised PR issues. Since there were virtually always PR issues one cannot tie a single event (the starting of the Foundation) to any one. Her hypothesis, about the timing of the foundation, is in essence a false one because it cannot be disproved.

Yet as I said above science favors hypothesis which can be disproved and which can explain or even predict events. Here is such an alternative hypothesis. The well-know fact is that Bill Gate’s father was very active in issues of world health and hunger all his life. Thus Bill was raised to believe those to be very important core issues. The hypothesis is that at some point in his life he would decide to act to promote action on those issues. As for the timing an alternative trigger could have been his marriage to Melissa who supports those values. This hypothesis also explains why he did more than just start a foundation; he quit Microsoft and has devoted himself fully to promoting its mission. Unlike the Carnegie’s, Rockefeller’s, and Ford’s he and Melissa quit their capital adventure to involve themselves fully and personally in the foundation. It is not the Microsoft Foundation; it is the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.   So perhaps he started the Foundation because of parental and spousal encouragement to actively promote his family values.

I’m not saying I have proven anything, just that my hypothesis is stronger because it is rejectable, and explains more known facts than Roy’s.

But as I said, in the larger sense this is only a minor point in the book. My support for her general message remains undiminished. So the bottom line is that my investigating the DOS Human Rights database has significantly increased my acceptance of the book’s description.

Thanks again, Sterling, for asking us to read this book.

Peter

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