The Coronavirus, the Enemy, and Nationalism

(Second in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been making its way across the world, conquering one territory after another, since it first emerged in China around three months ago.  There are now 185 countries where the virus has taken hold, and most of them, barring a few that took early and concerted measures to mitigate it, are finding it difficult to restrain the advance of the virus within their territories.  Much like a world conqueror, the virus respects no borders, recognizes no nation-states, and cares not an iota for sovereignty.  This may be one reason why the leaders of many countries, and even Donald J. Trump, an open exponent of the idea ‘America First’, have declared that the wholly unprecedented situation created by the virus concerns all humankind.  “Let’s look out for each other,” the WHO’s Director-General said in pronouncing the virus a pandemic, “because we’re in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world.” Musicians, actors, and major public figures are all part of the choir reassuring the world that “we are all in this together”.

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*Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

It is nearly an axiom of contemporary thought that we live in a shrinking world, in a world of unprecedented transnational exchanges, the global movement of peoples, flows of goods and ideas, and so on. The world has never seemed smaller, some commentators argue, and clichés about the present situation abound, among them the idea that the world is a ‘global village’; others, in a variation of this argument, speak of a world that is increasingly ‘flat’.   Global village sounds trendy, chic, even sexy and, in some vague way, ethically responsible.  It gives rise to the satisfying idea, which however demands no action on our part, that our humanity links us all.  We may be all connected, in much the bland way envisioned in cell phone ads; at the other end, if one is to take a highly optimistic view of the matter, perhaps the idea of ‘global village’ may be said to have been anticipated in John Donne’s famous observation, ‘No man is an island’.

There are obvious rejoinders, of varying complexity, to the notion that our world has shrunk and that information travels at immense speeds not even remotely imaginable a mere few decades ago.   Visa and passport regimes have been considered tightened, borders have never seemed so hostile and insurmountable, and walls – in Palestine, between India and Bangladesh, along the US border with Mexico, and many others — have come up where they never existed before.  The increasing turn towards biometric measurements and national identity cards points to the fact that surveillance regimes have the world over become normalized.  One wall, in Berlin, came down, but many more have come up in its place. There are, of course, many walls besides those built with brick and mortar, or with electric wiring calculated to leave dead or shock into submission those daring to transgress the law of borders.  It is not even necessary to enter into discussions about whether the Euro will survive over the next decade or two; of more interest is the question whether the EU is at all the harbinger of a freer and more ecumenical world as it is sometimes made out to be.  Free trade agreements offer relatively unhindered movement of goods, but no nation-state will even remotely contemplate the free mobility of outsiders across its borders.  Those living in the Global South can barely indulge in the idea of wanderlust.  (On a recent visit to Germany, the Schengen visa issued to me, a citizen of India with permanent residency in the United States, holding professorships at leading universities in India and the US, specified the exact dates during which I was permitted to be present in the land of former Nazis:  21 to 25 November 2010.  Just how easy is it for those without invitations, immediate family members in the country of destination, professional positions, or reasonably lucrative businesses to travel to the Schengen zone or North America?)  Leaving aside, however, for the present such obvious criticisms of the regnant ideas of the day about our so-called ‘global village’, what would a more trenchant critique look like?

There is much talk of ‘knowledge cities’ and ‘knowledge societies’, and no one doubts that the sum total of our ‘knowledge’ of the natural and social world is much greater than it has ever been before.  But everything hinges on what we mean by knowledge, and what relation knowledge has to awareness, wisdom, perspicaciousness, and insight; moreover, any pride we may feel in our capacity for knowledge is at once moderated when we begin to ask, whose knowledge, to what end, and for whom?  Even as our knowledge of the world has perhaps grown, the means by which we oppress and remain oppressed have grown dramatically.  Oppressive class relations, the military-industrial complex, feudal norms that stipulate the place of overlords and servants, the brutal exercise of sheer military force:  all these have persisted through the advent of modernity.  Nevertheless, there is little if any awareness of the fact that oppression is increasingly exercised through what might be described as the imperialism of categories established by modern knowledge systems.  What are the categories of knowledge bequeathed to us by the social sciences through which we are induced to comprehend the world around us, and how have these categories become nearly impermeable to critique?

One of my earliest books, Empire of KnowledgeCulture and Plurality in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2002; enlarged Indian ed., Sage, 2005), is largely orchestrated around the idea that, if knowledge helps to liberate us, it also enables a more thoroughgoing and rigorous oppression than anything else that we have so far witnessed.  Even concentration camp inmates understood that it was possible to be broken in the body but not in the mind.  From there we move to the more complex idea that the interpretive categories through which we understand the world have shrunk rather than grown, even as disciplines have developed and multiplied and the entire knowledge industry has grown by gargantuan proportions.   The social scientist may object that certain categories are dropped as they are found to be inadequate, false, misleading, or unproductive, but in truth the social scientist establishes an imperialism of categories.  If the idea of the nation-state holds us in captivity, as is obvious to those who have thought about the fact that the nation-state appears to be the only form in which corporate political community is now conceptualized, why should we expect that the categories with which economists and social scientists work, such as ‘development’ and ‘growth’, or ‘poverty’ and ‘scarcity’, to be any less compromised?  The Palestinians and Kurds may simply want ‘freedom’, but why does freedom necessarily have to take the form of a nation-state?  [See Thesis Three, next, for a greater elaboration of this point.]

How did a category such as ‘literacy’, if I may take another example, become so normalized as to become sacrosanct?  The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, usefully, that though the word ‘literate’ was first used in the English language around 1432, the word ‘literacy’ only entered the language in 1883.  [See the essay on literacy by Barry Sanders in Ashis Nandy & Vinay Lal, eds., The Future of Knowledge and CultureA Dictionary for the Twenty-first Century (Viking Penguin 2005).]  There have always been literates and illiterates, but ‘literacy’ as an evaluative scale, used to judge one nation-state in relation to others, only came into use in the age of eugenics.  To reiterate: even though military domination, class relations, and other familiar structures of hierarchy may not have diminished, increasingly oppression will be exercised through the imperialism of categories established by modern knowledge systems.  The corollary is that our conceptual categories have, contrary to received opinion, shrunk dramatically.  The implications of this are all the more frightening to contemplate when we consider that the Global South cannot even remotely claim intellectual autonomy since the practice of the social sciences is borrowed lock, stock and barrel from the West.

See also previous and subsequent posts in this series:

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)



*From Masjid to Mandir: Across the Corentyne, into Suriname

Guyana’s history, since the arrival of the Europeans, has been inextricably linked to the quest for ‘El Dorado’. For a small country, with a population of around 800,000, it has a surfeit of political stories. I call it the ‘land of narrratives’. But it is not only narratives which are aplenty. Its rivers are imposing, even if I will not see the Essequibo, which – I have been told many times – is 22 miles wide at its mouth. The Los Angeles river flows close to my home in Encino, and at its best is not much more than a creek. To be in Guyana, by contrast, is to be reminded of the elemental force of water and the majesty of rivers. In the hotel room in Georgetown, however, the water pressure in the taps was very low, and I understand that there have been water shortages. The abundance of water, and yet not enough for cooking and drinking – this story has its counterpart in many other parts of the world.

This morning Rishee Thakur and I took a wooden speedboat across the Corentyne into Suriname. The river, which must be two or three miles wide at this point, was not choppy and it took all of fifteen or twenty minutes to land at the other end. It was a lovely ride. We commenced our trip from close to the mosque in Corriverton, and at the other end arrived at a Sanatan Dharma temple in Suriname, a few kilometers from Nickerie. Hinduism and Islam both came to Guyana (which was part of Dutch Guiana, as I recall from my history, before the British purchased Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice in the 19th century and renamed their possessions British Guiana) with the indentured laborers, and it is perhaps apposite that this trip should have been prominently marked by signs of both the religions. At the landing, we were mobbed by taxi drivers, nearly all Indians – this could have been a scene from almost anywhere in India. Our taxi driver picked up his wife from the Sanatan Dharma mandir, and offered to share the temple’s prashad, a generous helping of big puris and small ladoos.

The taxi driver and I talked in Hindi. The one obvious difference between Guyana and Suriname that strikes one is that Guyana is surprisingly monolingual, just as Suriname is an astoundingly polyglot society. The Indians in Guyana have, almost to the last person, lost their Hindi or rather Bhojpuri, but my taxi driver in Suriname alerted me to the difference by conversing with me in Hindi. Dutch is the official language, and the road signs are in Dutch; but a creole, described to me as Sranan Tongo, is also widely spoken. The Indians speak Hindi, or rather I should say a dialect of Bhojpuri, and the Javanese, who account for something like 15% of Suriname’s half a million population, speak Javanese. Everyone speaks two or three languages, even more – a pleasant contrast from the monotonous monolingualism of the Anglo-Saxon world. In addition, as I found, Mandarin, Chinese, Portuguese and Amerindian languages are also spoken by some. I asked Surinamese and Guyanese Indians why Bhojpuri had survived among the former while it had disappeared in Guyana, but no one was able to give me a reply. Similarly, I am tempted to say, a greater portion of the Amerindian population appears to have survived in Suriname, compared to Guyana. Did Dutch and English colonial policies impact differently on the capacity of people to retain their language? Is it the particular misfortune of those who speak English that, given the increasing dominance of English over the last several decades, they become ‘linguistically lazy’ and lose command over other languages?

That the Indians in Suriname have not lost Hindi at all became all too evident as soon as we came into Nickerie. At Manoj’s Music Center, near the India Bazaar, I conversed with the shopkeeper in Hindi, and some men standing nearby chimed in with their opinions when I asked for some recommendations for Caribbean Indian music. I found there a collection of songs by Droopati. Nickerie is doubtless more affluent than any of the towns in Berbice, across the river in Guyana, though there too I found a sizable presence of the Chinese. Not all of the Chinese here go back to the period when Chinese contract laborers were brought to the country; in Nickerie, especially, it appears that there have been recent Chinese immigrants who run restaurants, boutiques, supermarkets, and the like. Suriname might not seem a likely place for understanding what globalization has wrought around the world, but heaven knows that the Chinese, Indonesians, Indians, creoles, Africans, and Europeans have created a society that merits more attention than is commonly bestowed on it.