Monday, August 28, 2006

Another good use of blogging...

Don't worry, the fourth installment of "Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain?" is coming shortly. But since my last post I realized I forgot to mention another nice example of using blogging to give voice to the voiceless.

Over at randon-typing, Aneesh has posted a conversaton he had with what Americans would call a "gopher." (link to the English translation, though read the original post as well for some context). Only this was no intern getting coffee for a corporate executive. This gopher was a 12-year old boy working at a seat-cover shop (for those who haven't been to India, seat-cover shops, which supply replacement seats for the widely used motor bikes, are common in most cities).

There are very interesting similarities and differences between this boy's views and the autowallah that I discussed in the previous post. After the boy tells Aneesh a story about a classmate who has deliberately failed the fifth standard so that he can continue to get free meals from school, Aneesh tells him "Don't you do things like this. Study well and you'll get food automatically."

The boy replies: "One never gets food automatically, you have to work for it, no matter you study or not." Like the autowallah, this boy has developed a realist orientation to life borne out of his own experiences and first-hand observations.

On the other hand, the boy shows much greater optimism about the changes that "development" is bringing to his life and the lives of people in his colony. The autowallah, when asked whether all of the "India Shining" talk has changed anything for him, responded "Kya bakwaas, gharib aadmi gharib ho raha hai, aur aamir log aur aamir" (What bullshit, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer).

Here's how Aneesh's boy responded when asked "development, what does it mean?"

"it means, the coming of newer things to the city, the beautification of the city, people getting jobs. You know bhaiyya 4 people of my colony are employed by the service." Later the boy asks Aneesh if he has been to the new mall, about which the boy says:

"What a great place it is. The bijli ki sidhiyaan (the escalator) are fantastic. They take you up and bring you down, automatically. Mangal City (another mall) is useless, they only have the up escalator. It's like as if they want you to stay there forever, it's one-way."

I'm not going to try to find any deeper meaning in what these two first-hand accounts by people who do not currently, and likely will never, have a blog to spread their views tell us about economic development in India. They are important stories, and the world should hear more of them.

If anyone knows of others who are using the blogosphere this way, please let me know. I'd like to begin keeping a record of these types of accounts. Comment here or email me at zavestoski [at] gmail dot com.

Blogging at its best?

I'm interrupting the "Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain?" series because I came across a post today at a now defunct blog called Subehshaam that should be read widely. The post is titled "dekho sabse sasta wallah" (the cheapest one), and retells the story of an exchange between the blogger and an autowallah.

I think it's vital that bloggers remember that we're all talking to people similarly privileged (either by birth, hard work, or a combination of both). When we read debates about whether India's growing economy is or is not benefiting the millions of Indians living in poverty, the voices we never hear are those whose present conditions and future hopes we are debating. An example of such a debate can be found in Nitin's "Puncture Mishra" post at The Indian Economy Blog and the 46 comments that followed.

The blogger relating the conversation with the autowallah has helped remind us all how important it is that we hear not just each other, but also the voices of the autowallah's, and everyone else trying to make a living and make sense out of the changes India is going through.

The following part of the conversation, which began with the driver saying to the blogger "I have never understood why you all argue with us over 5-10 rupees," best illustrates my point:
Finally, I asked, "Uncle, aap yeh lecture har savaari ko dete hain, zyada paise lene ke liye ya mujhe hee diya hai?" (Do you give this lecture to all your customers to get more money, or just me?" He said, "Meri baat sirf haqeeqat hai, aap samjhne na ya samajhe." (My talk is only reality, regardless whether you understand it or not."
Do we understand his reality? And perhaps as important, is our talk, all our blogging, a meaningful reality?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain? (Part 3 of 5)

Consumerism, Identity, and Resistance in India
In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, I defined consumer culture and then discussed some of the consequences of finding an identity within a consumer society that is characterized by a rapidly shifting, and therefore unstable, system of cultural meanings. But what does all of this have to do with India? The obvious answer is that inasmuch as India continues down the path of a consumer society, citizens in India will increasingly take on all of the problems with consumerism as a form of social organization that were discussed in Part 2.

In this installment, I want to explore whether there is any evidence of concern among Indians about the transition to a consumer culture. I think there is evidence, modest though it may be. To illustrate, let me turn to Chetan Bhagat's One Night @ The Call Center, a fictional book about six employees at Gurgaon call center. The book, which is a bestseller in India, is less about life working in a call center, and more a vehicle for the author to critique India's headlong rush into consumer capitalism. For a summary, see here. For blogger reviews, see here or here.

In the following passage, the characters are returning to their call center after an extended break at a nearby nightclub. Shyam, the main character who seems to be complacent with being a team leader at his call center with the potential to move up the call center hierarchy, is talking to Vroom, who continues to work in the call center despite having deep reservations about its effect on him and his generation:
At the corner of Sahara Mall we passed by a Pizza Hut. It was closed. Vroom went up and stood in front of it. I wondered if he had really gone crazy; was he expecting pizza at this time?
We stood near the entrance. On our right, there was a thirty-foot wide metal hoarding of a cola company. A top Bollywood actress held a drink bottle and looked at us with inviting eyes. Like a fizzy drink was all it took to seduce her into bed.
Vroom walked close to the actress’s face.

Photo by Flickr member "afterimagery"

‘What’s up dude?’ I said.
‘You see her?’ Vroom said, pointing to the actress.
I nodded.
‘There she is, looking at us like she is our best friend. Do you think she cares for us?’
‘I don’t know. She is a youth icon man,’ I shrugged my shoulders.
‘Yes, youth icon. This airhead chick is supposed to be our role model. Like she knows a fuck about life and gives a fuck about us. All she cares about is cash. She doesn’t care about you or me. She just wants you to buy this black piss,’ Vroom said, pointing to the cola bottle. (p. 211-212)
As a sociologist, I am interested in the reasons for this book’s popularity. The success of the author’s first book, Five-Point Someone, offers a partial explanation. Another explanation is that there is a message that resonates with readers at some level. Vroom is speaking for a segment of the population that is disillusioned with global capitalism’s promise that consumer culture is India’s economic salvation.

Photo by Flickr member "patangay"

Near the end of the book, Vroom speaks even more explicitly for his generation, the “youth generation:”
The government doesn’t care for anybody … Even that “youth special” channel, they don’t care either. They say youth because they want the damn Pizza Huts and Cokes and Pepsis of the world to come and give their ads to them. Ads that say if we spend our salary to have pizza and coke, we will be happy. Like young people don’t have a fucking brain. Tell us what crap to have and we’ll have it. (p. 213)
And then, in a speech aimed at saving the call center from lay-offs that Vroom and Shyam’s manager calls “rightsizing,” Vroom offers what could be considered a rallying cry for his generation:
My friends, I am angry. Because every day, I see some of the world’s strongest and smartest people in my country. I see all this potential, yet it is all getting wasted. An entire generation up all night, providing crutches for the white morons to run their lives. And then big companies come and convince us with their advertising to value crap we don’t need, do jobs we hate so that we can buy stuff—junk food, colored fizzy water, dumbass credit cards and overpriced shoes. They call it youth culture. Is this what they think youth is about? Two generations ago, the youth got this country free. Now that was something meaningful. But what happened after that? We have just been reduced to a high-spending demographic. The only youth power they care about is our spending power. (p. 253)
Vroom wants to know why his generation is up all night working in call centers and not hard at work building up India’s infrastructure, discovering alternative energy sources, reforming its government, or in other ways changing the country for the better. Instead they are stuck inside the call centers, working through the middle of the night, so that they can have enough money to buy the cultural commodities of the very people whose problems they are solving in their call center jobs. In a sense, Vroom seems to be asking "Will the embrace of consumerism have been worth it if in the process Indian’s lose a sense of what it means to be Indian?"

Photo by Flickr member "k1mk1m"

There are some very interesting parallels between Vroom’s speech to the youth generation at the end of One Night @ the Call Center, and Karan’s speech over the airwaves at the end of the top-grossing film "Rang De Basanti." In a future post, I’ll discuss the similarities between these two recent Indian pop culture phenomena, the most striking of which might be that both One Night @ the Call Center and "Rang De Basanti" received very strong, and very mixed, responses from readers/viewers. In both cases, it seems that people either hated or loved the book/film.

Now back to my point. Vroom’s concern has to do with the potential for the lure of consumer luxuries to stifle the talents and promise of an entire generation of Indians. For me—and I’ll admit I am merely someone with some training to understand social organization and social change who also happens to have lived in India for six months—the problem with consumer capitalism is the way in which it forces the transformation of certain existing cultural traditions in the interest of expanding markets to meet the system’s demand for constant growth.

I understand that this is sensitive terrain I am now treading. I certainly do not mean to romanticize India or its culture. Nor do I want to lump all Indians into one category. But there seems to be no denying that consumer capitalism is brining changes to India. Indeed, every Indian I spoke to about these matters admitted that India is experiencing rapid change. The changes will mean different things for different people, depending on who you are or where you fit into the cultural mosaic of India. Ultimately, every Indian should be asking “What will the future India look like if change continues to be driven by a market orientation rooted in the culture of consumption?”

I’ll offer one possible answer to this question in the next installment of “Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain?”

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain? (Part 2 of 5)

The Social Costs of Consumerism

Photo by flickr member "Dreamer7112"

In the previous entry in this series, I offered a definition of "consumer culture." In this entry, I will discuss why, given this definition, consumer culture is problematic.

Historically, cultures have maintained social order by defining needs and desires appropriate to particular people at particular times. A consumer culture views needs and desires as uniquely individual and limitless. Social order, in turn, becomes destabilized. Where social order is uncertain, the development of a meaningful and stable self is disrupted. Furthermore, because consumer culture commodifies everything, space outside the marketplace ceases to exist. Consumers who want to return to being citizens, and who want to begin to create new meanings and impute new values to themselves and the social order, cannot find nor create social space in which to do it.

In short, consumers eventually find troublesome the attempt to make life meaningful inside the almost infinite world of consumer goods. This is what I observed among the subjects I studied in 1998, as part of my dissertation on the Voluntary Simplicity movement in the U.S. The "simplifiers" I interviewed and surveyed all had chosen to simplify their lives after becoming exasperated with the stress of making life meaningful through the consumer lifestyle. Most of the subjects I interviewed experienced a crisis of self—a moment in their lives when they asked themselves “Who am I?” All the consumer goods, though useful in constructing various facades, had failed to provide them with an authentic sense of self.

Admittedly, only a small number of people ever reach this point of crisis. But consider the possibility that most consumers are on a trajectory towards such a crisis. Some of us will reach a crisis point and reject consumerism as a source of self-meaning. Others may reach this crisis but decide that the problem is not consumerism itself, but consuming the right set of goods. The American mid-life crisis—in which the individual disposes of old possessions and constructs a new self-identity by consuming new fashions, a new car, or other new material goods—exemplifies this strategy. Still others may go on convincing themselves that material goods will make them happy and give their lives meaning, while in denial that something about this strategy is unsettling. Finally, there may be some individuals who can truly find happiness and a deep sense of self-meaning through the acquisition of material goods. But if this number is small, is a consumer culture really the best way to go about structuring our social lives?

Whichever category we fall into, all consumers must spend time negotiating our way through the sea of advertising messages urging us to define our identities through consumer goods requires great psychological work. Consumers must filter, process, and/or avoid selling messages that are mostly superfluous and unsolicited. When marketers portray the goods and services they promote as indispensable vehicles for the realization of such virtues as authenticity, self-worth, happiness, and fulfillment, consumers are forced to invest time and energy into evaluating the extent to which one consumer choice or another will garner them the cultural assets (e.g., esteem, prestige, love, belongingness) they may be seeking.

Photo by flickr member "y entonces"

But if there are psychological prices to pay for life in a consumer society, some might suggest those unable to pay the cost should simply opt out. According to this argument, failure to acquire important cultural resources by making choices within the consumer marketplace, and the social and psychological burdens following from such a failure, are the fault of the individual. This is certainly consistent with the individualistic orientation of selfhood advocated by Americans. But such a narrow vision is flawed for two reasons.

First, it assumes that our consumption practices are only meaningful from the point of consumption onward. After all, we consume to convey meanings about ourselves to others. This is the symbolic universe of consumerism. But there is a material universe as well. In this universe, the material goods we consume have real consequences in the lives of people who live in and around the places where the goods are manufactured and later disposed of. Failure to function within the symbolic universe of consumerism may be due to consciousness of, and concern for, the consequences of consumption in the material world.

The second problem with the narrowness of the “blame-the-individual” response is linked to the first problem discussed above. The problem is that not everyone has the option of opting out, now matter how strongly one might object to a social system in which cultural resources essential to self-survival and to the maintenance of the social structure are procured through the consumer marketplace. On the contrary, some people are excluded from ever opting in. This problem may be less pronounced in a country like the U.S. where the widespread availability of consumer credit gives all but the most marginalized members of society an opportunity to opt into the consumer lifestyle. But in a country like India, where at least half of the population is currently excluded from the shopping malls and multiplex cinemas, “opting out” is a ridiculous notion.

One danger of consumer capitalism is that it carries with it a legitimating rationale that allows us to dismiss members of society too marginalized to participate in the consumer lifestyle. According to consumer capitalism’s legitimating rationale, a consumer society is a free and open society in which anyone who works hard has the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of her or his hard labor in the consumer marketplace. From this perspective, anyone left out of the consumer lifestyle simply has not yet worked hard enough.

This rationale also allows those with social advantages to justify consumption of luxury goods while fellow members of society around them live in unacceptable poverty. People who have worked hard to acquire wealth, the argument goes, should be free to spend their wealth in whatever ways they want. I will return to the problems with this argument in a later installment in this series. First I want to introduce a counterargument to the notion that life in a consumer society is burdensome.

What I have so far described as burdens, some perceive as valuable opportunities for acquiring the cultural competency needed to sustain a meaningful social existence. In fact, many people actively seek more marketing information than is available passively. People will pay an entrance fee to auto shows, wedding shows, boat shows, home shows, garden shows, and other types of product-based exhibitions. What do they get for their money? They get what they must perceive as valuable information about new products and other consumer goods and services. That people seek out this information suggests that marketing messages may not always be burdens, and in fact can be desirable commodities in and of themselves. Indeed, any time a consumer pays for the privilege of wearing clothing that doubles as an advertisement, she/he demonstrates that self-commodifying advertising is often perceived to be an opportunity rather than a burden.

In other words, the perceived burden of failing to create a meaningful self through socially expected ways (i.e., material goods) makes subjecting oneself to marketing messages worth the burden. In a consumer culture, mass-marketed consumer identities represent a form of almost universal currency (except for those too poor to opt into the system of meanings). Choosing to engage non-consumer-based identities, therefore, is like trying to exchange a form of currency that is not recognized in consumer cultures.

Photo by flickr member "ilmungo"

If consumer cultures existed within closed systems, it could be argued that they offer an elegant solution to the problem of identity and social order. The real problem posed by consumer cultures, however, has to do with the impacts of the flows coming into, and going out of, the societies in which consumer cultures function. By "flows" I mean the natural resources being exploited outside the system to create the meaningful goods inside the system, the material (and often hazardous) waste leaving the system, and the cultural creep wherein the meanings of the lifestyles and goods within the system begin to influence cultures outside the system.

In a world where various societies' cultures are almost instantly linked through telecommunications and the Internet, the creep of consumerism into other cultures is inevitable. This is not universally problematic. Many cultures have adapted to consumerism with little disruption to the social order. In India, however, the transition is taking place with such speed, and with such a disruption of previous forms of identity formation and livelihood, that there are already signs of disillusionment (as evidenced in the violence in Bangalore following Dr. Rajkumar’s death, which I wrote about in “30 Days: ‘Outsourcing,’ The American Perspective (Part 1 of 2).”

I’m not proposing that India, or any society, should reject consumerism. In theory, there are certainly better alternatives. In practice, consumerism is the only option for many societies. My main hope is that, somehow, societies beginning to embrace consumerism can evolve their own unique consumer cultures that not only produce thriving economies, but that also, and more importantly, offer people more meaningful and less market-based ways to develop a sense of self.

In the next installment in this series, I’ll explore the possibility of such an alternative form of consumer culture evolving in India by focusing on a few signs of resistance to the creeping culture of consumerism.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain? (Part 1 of 5)

In Part One of this series, based on a lecture I delivered at the University of Calcutta in March 2006, I define “consumer culture” and begin to discuss some of the implications, good and bad, for individuals living in a consumer society.

Note: I'm grateful to Joe Rumbo, with whom I originally developed and wrote about some of the ideas in this series.

When the University of Calcutta’s Department of Business asked me to offer a lecture on “anti-consumer” attitudes, I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit research I had done several years earlier on this burgeoning phenomenon among a small but significant number of Americans. At the time of my lecture, I had been in India for four months working on research about struggles against multinational corporations that pollute local environments and harm people’s health. Much of this pollution is the direct result of the manufacturing of goods for Western consumers, and increasingly for the growing number of new middle-class Indian consumers.

The basic logic goes like this: Capitalism requires a constantly expanding economy. Economic expansion takes place, among other ways, through the mass production of more goods in more efficient ways (efficiency is achieved by reducing the cost of inputs like raw materials and labor). These efficiently produced goods then need to be consumed. With saturated consumer markets in U.S. and most of the developed world, countries like India represent the next great hope for capitalists looking for new consumers.

There are two forms of pollution in this process. The first is the obvious environmental pollution that results from manufacturing processes (e.g., the chemicals that are emitted into air and water in the process of manufacturing plastic and electronics for the production of mobile phones). In this essay, I want to focus on the other type of pollution that results. I call this second type of pollution the pollution of culture and mind. It results as the proliferation of consumer goods, and the cultural meanings ascribed to these goods--meanings that are mostly created by the agencies marketing the goods but also to a lesser extent by the people consuming the goods--transforms a culture. As the culture becomes transformed, marketing messages and the system of meanings attached to material goods begin to occupy more and more of our mental space.

Environmental pollution is a profound problem, but can be addressed by a combination of technical solutions and social restructuring. Pollution of culture and mind is more difficult to address because we don’t see it as a problem the way we see people suffering from exposures to industrial hazards as a problem. Even if we did see it as a problem, there are no technical fixes and we lack a vocabulary or discourse for thinking about solutions.

So, the question I want to explore is whether, in the process of pursuing developed-world levels of economic growth, India is “selling its soul” as the legendary Faust is purported to have done (and as some might argue the U.S., the unparalleled consumer society in the world, has already done)? I’ll begin by defining what I mean by a consumer culture, and in the next installment I will discuss some of the downsides of the American consumer society in order to highlight some of the changes western-style consumerism is likely to bring to India.

Consumer Culture Defined
As a sociologist, I should begin with a distinction between society and culture. A society can be defined as a group of individuals bound together by a set of social arrangements, sometimes called social structures, intended to facilitate the accomplishment of certain essential tasks to sustain itself. These tasks include, but are not limited to, reproduction of members, production and distribution of food, clothing, and shelter, maintenance of health, education of its members, and the passing on of the patterns and practices that govern the society.

Culture, which can be viewed as a set of tools people use to function in society, has a certain amount of overlap with the above definition of society. I will define culture as the tangible and intangible, or material and symbolic, resources available to the members of a society to carry out the tasks needed for sustaining itself. Thus we arrive at a more formal definition of consumer culture, which I borrow from a book titled Consumer Culture & Modernity:

“[Consumer culture is]… a social arrangement in which the relation between lived culture and social resources, between meaningful ways of life and the symbolic and material resources on which they depend, is mediated through markets” (Slater, 1997, p. 8)

In other words, in a consumer culture, the role of the consumer is to find and purchase in the marketplace whatever material or symbolic resources she or he needs to function in society. Status, prestige, esteem, love, and even salvation—in a consumer culture, all of these intangibles are available in the marketplace. This is not to say that one can no longer gain the admiration of others through good works alone. But as more and more individuals purchase the goods that earn them the admiration of others, genuinely earned admiration is cheapened. Cultural meanings and values become encoded in material goods, and eventually it becomes easier to communicate information about oneself through possessions than through deeds.

In a consumer culture, everything we need to function in everyday life—from food and shelter to gossip and fun—is obtained primarily through markets. Culture continues to be produced and reproduced through forms of consumption that take place outside of markets, but consuming in the marketplace becomes the default strategy for making everyday life meaningful.

For now, I don’t want to place any value judgments on consumer cultures. There are many useful aspects of consumer cultures, some of which I will talk about in future installments in this series. I begin with this definition so that we can start to think about what it means for a society when it makes a transition from one type of culture--for example one derived largely from religious beliefs and traditions--to another type of culture such as a consumer culture.

All significant cultural shifts unsettle the members of a society in some way. Is there something about the shift to a consumer culture that results in a greater amount of anxiety or even social disorder than the shift, for example, from earlier cultural traditions to the Age of Enlightenment? I know I am using the idea of culture rather loosely in suggesting that the Age of Enlightenment represents a unitary culture, but just consider the question for the sake of discussion. If there are past cultural shifts that have similarities to the shifts many contemporary cultures are making to a consumer culture, then we ought to understand these past shifts in order to better prepare for today’s ongoing transformations to consumer cultures. And if there are not similarities, then we need better critical thinking about what is happening around the world today.

Consumer cultures will be the dominant global cultural form by the end of this century. In the remainder of this series, I hope to make a modest contribution to understanding what this transformation means with respect to India. My hope is that my ideas start some dialogue that might help today’s cultural leaders make the transitions to consumer cultures smoother for their societies.

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30 Days: "Outsourcing," The Indian Perspective (Part 2 of 2)

The TV show 30 Days is typically aimed at dispelling some misconceptions one person has about some other group of people. One nice feature of the “Outsourcing” episode is that it showed not just what outsourced jobs mean for Indians, but also how Indians view Americans and American jobs.

If you are not familiar with Morgan Spurlock’s show 30 Days, be sure to read the previous entry about the “Outsourcing” episode featuring American Chris Jobin living with a family in Bangalore for a month and working in a call center.

On Chris’s first day in the call center training program, he feels compelled to let the gentleman in the seat next to him know that his job was outsourced to India. As he explains to his new friend that he is currently unemployed, his friend responds: “I thought that if they lose their job, they’re going to get another job. I never knew that they were unemployed or something. I mean it’s really out of my mind. I can’t imagine Americans, I can’t believe that you don’t have a job. You’re an American.”

The point of this exchange, and a point that is made in other conversations Chris has with his host family, is that Indians working in business processing operations (e.g., call centers) do not think of themselves as taking away jobs from Americans. And even if they are in some way aware of Americans losing jobs to cheaper Indian workers, the assumption is that the unlucky Americans will find other jobs.

Does Chris explode this myth for his Indian friends? Not exactly. Why? Perhaps because it is not really a myth. Americans who lose their jobs to outsourcing may not find other jobs immediately. But because most of the jobs lost to outsourcing are held by educated professionals, the chances are they will find other work. In the meantime, most of them have a safety net. Sure, Chris had to sell some stock to pay his bills, and if didn’t find a job soon he wasn’t sure how he’d be paying future bills. But he had a family that could support him in the meantime. It’s also possible that Chris might have to wind up settling for a job for which he is overqualified (and for which he would most likely feel underpaid). But aren’t these insignificant sacrifices in the bigger scheme of things?

He might even have some health care coverage held over from his previous job. What a far cry his life is from an Indian who lives on the margin, without health care or even adequate housing. Chris realized this by the end of the episode, and expressed a genuine sense of gratitude that he had the chance to start his life over.

My point is that there is something valuable to be learned from the Indian perspective. When you realize the stereotype many Indians hold of America as the land of abundance, and then really reflect on what that means and all that we take for granted, you realize that for once the stereotype holds true.

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30 Days: “Outsourcing,” The American Perspective (Part 1 of 2)

A recent episode (2 August) of Morgan Spurlock’s “reality” TV show, 30 Days, deals with the issue of outsourcing. I was surprised to find that there has been no discussion of the episode among bloggers of Indian origin, especially desi bloggers who have access to this program unlike India-based bloggers.

In the broader blogosphere there has been a modest number of postings about 30 Days’ “Outsourcing” episode, but almost exclusively on pop culture and TV blogs (e.g., see here, here, here, and here).

Before I offer my own analysis, let me provide a bit of background on the show. Morgan Spurlock became relatively famous for his high-grossing 2004 documentary “Super Size Me” in which he attempts to subsist solely on food from the McDonald’s menu for 30 days. He followed up the success of this film with a 6-episode season of 30 Days on the Fox-owned FX cable channel. The premise of 30 Days is that in each episode a person leaves the comfort of their own lives and moves into a situation that will challenge their own beliefs and attitudes. In other words, the main character quite literally “walks a mile (or 1.6 kms) in someone else’s shoes.”

For example, last season’s episodes included a devout Christian living with Muslims, an anti-gay man living with a gay man, and Spurlock and his then-fiance abandoning their comfortable New York City lifestyle to live on minimum wage jobs in Columbus, Ohio. This season the show premiered with an anti-immigration activist living with a family of illegal immigrants in East Los Angeles, which brings us to this season’s second episode.

Here is the description of the episode:

Outsourcing is explored as a New York computer programmer follows his former job to Bangalore, “the Silicon Valley of India.” Chris Jobin, 37, finds he can't get it back (he'd need “Indian experience,” he's told), but he easily finds work---prestigious work---at a call center. But first Chris must take “American training.” It's “raining jobs,” Chris marvels, but the training is part of the price India must pay. “This culture,” he says, “is bending and reshaping itself to match ours.”

What is interesting about the outcome of this social experiment? First, Chris’s experience, at the very least, conveys the range of responses Americans have to outsourcing. Chris represents every American’s worst nightmare, that you will be the one whose job is sent to India. The first response most Americans have is an understandable, albeit narrowly self-interested, concern with the loss of American jobs (since one of those jobs may end being your own). One important message the episode gets across is the incongruence between concern for loss of American jobs and anger directed at Indians who are the beneficiaries of the new outsourced jobs.

A second American response to outsourcing, which is characteristic of what I will call “enlightened free market champions,” is captured by Chris’s father. At a family dinner prior to Chris’ departure for Bangalore, his father says about outsourcing: “I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s going to create a growth market and a place to sell American products and services ... If companies don’t take advantage of cheaper labor resources, then they become less competitive, they disappear, and the jobs disappear with them.”

Side note...
I find it interesting how free market advocates pull out the “let’s think about the long-term” argument when it justifies near-term impacts on workers; but they won’t consider long-term perspectives, like reducing global greenhouse gas emissions for everyone’s future benefit, when the short-term impacts are borne by corporations.

Back on point...
This seems to me to be the primary perspective, albeit largely unspoken, underlying U.S. support, substantive or in spirit, for India’s economic development. At its extreme, people use this line of reasoning to justify the loss of thousands of U.S. jobs. More significant is the way in which this perspective--that companies must remain competitive or they will go bankrupt and the jobs will be lost anyway--illustrates our reification of this thing called “the economy.” We treat the economy, and its growth, as an entity somehow independent of all the human actors who make it up. As a result we become overly focused on measuring growth quantitatively through numbers like GDP. Meanwhile, overlooked is whether or not quantitative indicators of economic growth are even correlated with qualitative measures of the improvement of the human condition.

The reification of the economy relates to the final perspective some Americans have on the outsourcing controversy. Blame, so this perspective holds, lies not with Indians working outsourced jobs, but with the corporate executives who pursue the bottom line in yet another example of the pursuit of abstract numbers, like stock prices, over real improvement in people’s quality of lives.

The “blame the executives” view is more or less the perspective Chris’s mother exhibits when she points out that executives after the almighty dollar are the real culprits of outsourcing. It is also the view expressed by a commenter to a post about the episode on the blog TV Squad: “Chris shouldn't of showed anger towards [Indians] ...its not their fault. It is the douche bag CEOs and VPs that send the work over there, they are just willing to take it...”

So, what actually transpires in Chris’s 30 days in Bangalore? He is told he cannot get a job as a programmer because he does not have enough Indian experience, but he does get a job in the call center where is host, Ravi, is a manager. Through his job at the call center and his interactions with Ravi and his family (especially Ravi’s wife, through arranged marriage, Soni), Chris comes to realize that (a) people in India needed his outsourced job a lot more than he did; and (b) that the influx of outsourced jobs, and the money they bring with them, is causing tension within Indian culture and society.

As an example of Chris’s first realization, take the following statements:
Indians have a much tougher daily life. They suffer through a lot of things that we don’t have to deal with, and they smile. Outsourcing is a step. What’s going on here is giving India a real chance to become economically viable. “

Knowing that probably like 16 people are surviving off of my one job ... it’s almost like charitable at that point. They need the job way more than I do.
As an example of his latter realization, take the tension Chris observed between Ravi and his wife, Soni. Soni fulfills her duties in the house (cooking, cleaning, and organizing the extended family’s religious rituals and cultural traditions), but she has an education and wants to test her skills in the new marketplace of jobs.

The other example of Chris’s realization that India’s economic growth is causing some internal strife occurs while he is surveying some of the damage caused during the unrest that ensued after the death of famous Kannada film actor Dr. Rajkumar. Crowds marched, often out of control, many vehicles were burned, and building windows were broken with rocks and chunks of concrete thrown by the rampagers amidst the largely peaceful gathering of mourners. Eight people were killed by police firing into the crowds.

As Chris observed:
“People were throwing rocks at the fancy new buildings. And it seemed almost like an economic outcry from the poor people of this city. There’s so much wealth around them and they’re starving ... There is millions and millions of dollars here, but there is no visible signs of it being used to take care of their own people.”
This kind of observation and analysis of the violence following Rajkumar’s death was almost completely absent from the Indian English language media (I can’t speak for how the Kannada dailies covered the violence, but perhaps a reader can inform me if the coverage was any different than the superficial stereotypes of mob violence doled out in The Hindu and Times of India).

The lone exception was a profound analysis offered by Rajendra Chenni in an editorial in The Hindu’s “Friday Review” section on April 21, in which Chenni writes:

In these times of globalisation (that is abdication of the state of its social welfare responsibilities) the state is seen as a handmaiden of the rich. In the absence of any politically mature people's movement, the anger and frustration of the deprived is ventilated in frenzied acts of destruction ... One doesn't want to make a case for the violence, but social analysis is impoverished by the blanket refusal to understand the language of violence. As long as we continue to ignore the double speak of development, modernisation and globalisation through which it privileges a few and orphans the many, there will be many occasions when the masses resort to the language of violence.

My point is that viewers should give Chris some credit for making such a connection, even just a day after the violence occurred, when few other Indians were making such a connection. Now, I am sure that many Indians would take umbrage with Chris’s attempt to link the violence following Rajkumar’s death to economic inequality and the claim that there are no visible signs of India’s increasing wealth being used to take care of its people. But events like the violence in Bangalore last April ought to give everyone pause--Indian or not. Throughout India’s economically booming metros, there seems to be a blindness to the intense poverty, perhaps facilitated by the euphoria the middle and upper classes feel about emerging economic opportunities.

“This is the only way,” they say, to put India on the global economic map and bring its people out of poverty. But by “the only way,” do these financially secure Indians mean that the only way is for India’s new wealth to be concentrated into the hands of a small number of economic elites (a social class that largely coincides with India’s historically most privileged castes)? It may such a blindness to “other ways,” and a refusal to see the growing discord among India’s most poor, that creates the type of powder keg we saw go off in Bangalore.

Now for a little self-reflection. Since returning from india back in May, I have been convinced that globalization is not good for India in the long run. It was only after watching Chris’s experience that I had the realization that globalization itself is not the concern. The creation of jobs through business process outsourcing, facilitated by India’s economic liberalization and certain external forces of globalization, is good for India. Chris learned this as well or else he would not have concluded that his job is better off in India than back in New York. My major concern has to do with the link between production and consumption as India’s economy grows.

Currently, India’s economic growth, as I have written about previously, is creating a western-style consumer class in India. But this consumer class is, for the most part, limited to those who are benefiting from India’s production-side growth (whether what is being produced is computer chips or IT services). There are certainly questions about how consumerism will transform Indian society and culture. But perhaps the more pressing question is how in-your-face consumerism will impact the masses in India for whom western-style consumption is an extremely distant dream, and one that for many will never be realized?

Maybe as Americans watch Indians embrace the consumer revolution, we can learn something about ourselves and the role of consumerism in our own lives. Chris’s 30-day experience in Bangalore certainly gave him a new way of looking at outsourcing:

I’m here talking about outsourcing to people, and about how Americans are losing their jobs and might have to sell their homes and move into an apartment. And then I look at these people and they’re getting jobs and they’re living in a prison cell, and they don’t complain. There’s a huge gap in the way people think on different ends of the planet.

But the gap that Chris is talking about is in terms of the way we think about our jobs in the global economy. In terms of our respective views on consumerism and finding happiness through material goods, there appears to be virtually no gap. Here lies my concern.

It’s a concern I will be writing about in a 5-part series I will begin shortly. Stay tuned.

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The Two Indias

India’s current and potential future economic growth have been the focus of some pretty high-profile media sources lately. Stories in Time (see “India Inc.” cover story June 26, 2006), Newsweek (“The New India,” March 6, 2006 cover story), and even The Economist (“Can India Fly?” June 3, 2006), might lead one to believe that India’s masses are finally being lifted by the rising tide.

In the Indian blogosphere, there is much debate about whether the optimism of these stories is warranted. Here’s how the basic argument plays out: the optimists contend that market liberalization is working, but poverty eradication in India will take some time, and besides this is "The Only Way" that India can possibly hope to take care of its more than 1 billion people. Those more cynical about market liberalization’s current and future impacts on poverty--let’s call them the pessimists--argue that there may be some minor signs of poverty alleviation, but that there are still far too many Indians living in absolute abject poverty, and that the vast majority of India’s growing economic wealth is being concentrated in the hands of the elite.

Here’s an example of the optimist view:
“Poverty in India is real. It's pathetic. But it has been reduced Not by revolution (which never really benefit the poor, now, do they?). But by market reforms.

This sucks less than any other darn alternative out there.

And, this side of the Kingdom, in an imperfect, fallen world, where we don't have a magic wand to suddenly turn everyone into a saint, it's the only way there, I'm convinced more and more. [from a blogger’s post titled “India Shining: II.”]

The pessimists focus primarily on the problems of concentration of wealth, inequality, and a growing rural/urban divide, as illustrated in the following excerpts:
...somehow I believe that there are two India’s and never the ‘twain shall meet ... The ‘twain should meet, because only when you see what is happening, one might realize that the optimism on the surface ... is matched by a level of despondency at the bottom. [from “India A and B” on the blog Don’t Trust the Indian Media!]
“The new wealthy in India are quietly abandoning the state: paying for their own private police force and playing golf at private clubs. There appears to be little concern about supporting public services or about the poor who are stuck with decrepit hospitals and schools.” [from “A Tale of Two Indias,” A Guardian special report]
The pessimists go on to argue that the “India is Shining” viewpoint is largely held by the 12% or so of Indians who are currently benefiting from the country’s economic growth. The optimists claim that the country’s growth has already reduced poverty, and that the pessimists are unpatriotic socialists who’d rather see India stay at the 3-4% rate of growth of the 1980s.

Obviously there is a lot of enmity between the holders of these two views. In future entries, I intend to unpack both arguments and get beyond the “Has economic liberalization been good for India?” debate. After all, whether it has been good depends a lot on what India’s economic and social goals are.

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In HyperCity, India Gets Big Box Retail

For better or worse, big box retail has arrived in India. Yet another sign of the dramatic changes India is undergoing.

Back in April, K. Raheja Corp. Group, a real estate and retailing giant in India, opened a 120,000 square foot HyperCity retail store in Malad, a Mumbai suburb already known for another K. Raheja Corp. project, the Inorbit Mall. The company plans to open somewhere between 35 and 50 more HyperCities throughout India's tier-I (e.g., Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai) and tier-II (e.g., Mangalore, Aurangabad, Lucknow) cities in the next ten years.

How much does this emerging market for big-box retail in India really represent a changing India? After all, only a very small percentage of India's population can afford to shop at a place like HyperCity. Nearly half of Mumbai's population, almost 6 million people, live in slums like
Dharavi--ignominiously known as Asia's largest slum--and aren't likely to make it to the suburb of Malad, a good hour away by car or train. But poverty is meaningless when people embrace consumer debt. HyperCity seems to be anticipating a growth in the acceptance of consumer debt more than any sort of real economic prosperity among the country's poor. This may sound cynical, but when you learn that HyperCity has partnered with Hong Kong bank and Citi Financial to make sure rupee-less consumers can still make a purchase, it sounds more like the reality:

"It's our way of telling shoppers--if you don't have money to pay for something now, don't fret," according to HyperCity's South African CEO, Andrew Levermore, in an interview on

Until very recently, this sort of consumer debt was unheard of in India. Levermore also has his eye on other ways in which the Indian consumer is changing:

"We have a phrase here: 'It won't work in India - IWWII,' " Levermore recently explained in an article in The Guardian

"I was told Indian housewives want to handle their vegetables. They don't. They like it just like everywhere else: clean, wrapped in cellophane and free from everyone else's grubby fingers."

Let's return to the question: How much does a place like HyperCity really change a country of more than a billion people, especially when 97% of all retail spending in the country--a total of $258 billion--happens in traditional family-run shops taking up, on average, about 500 square feet of space? (statistics are from The Guardian article cited above).

If HyperCity proves to be anything like Wal-Mart, it has the potential to lead to vast change.

A small aside...
Admittedly, there is ongoing debate about the precise impacts Wal-Mart has on small businesses, rural communities, global supply chains, and workers and working conditions. But even if, on balance, there is a net "good," the fact that there is such opposition to Wal-Mart in the U.S., as evidenced not least of which by the many small towns fighting legal battles to keep Wal-Mart out of their communities, says something about perceived impacts.

Back on point...
If even a small fraction of the people working in India's current mom-and-pop retail sector wind up out of business, The 340 or so jobs created by each HyperCity will hardly balance the losses.

Of greater concern may be the way HyperCity is following the American big box model of suburban development. This is where land is cheapest, so obviously HyperCities, which are land-intensive enterprises, will be located in suburban areas. But unlike some of the uncertainties surrounding social impacts of Wal-Marts, the environmental impacts of Wal-Mart-style development are fairly well documented (for a conservative government view, see NASA's website on the use of satellite images to understand sprawl's environmental impacts; or Sierra Club's website for a good article on the link between big box sprawl and climate changing CO2 emissions).

But maybe the HyperCities of India, and other retailing magnates hoping to follow in HyperCitiy's footsteps, understand the social and environmental impacts their operations will have. This is what K. Raheja Corp. says about its commitment to social responsibility:

...increasing urbanisation leading to spiralling prices of real estate and higher pollution levels have necessitated the need to provide more green cover. At K. Raheja Corp, we identified this need and developed parks, children's play areas, beautiful traffic islands and similar facilities to do our bit towards creating a more equitable environment.

American companies who have made promises of social or environmental responsibility haven't always delivered on their promises (though what Wal-Mart does with its new image makeover, which includes a commitment to a sweeping environmental initiative, will be interesting). In the case of the K. Raheja Corp., I'm not sure that adding a little green cover is going to balance the impacts its development projects have. But I'd like to move away from the environmental impact argument anyway. It's too easy for critics to dismiss arguments coming from the west that the global south should reduce its environmental impacts to help save the world from the consequences of climate change.

Instead, let me conclude by suggesting that India should move ahead not just with HyperCities throughout India, but also with the opening up of foreign direct investment for retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, and Best Buy. I say this partly tongue-in-cheek. But in all seriousness, this seems to be the inevitable end toward which India is headed. Furthermore, real competition might mean that the company with the retail model that is most consistent with current Indian preferences and values will win out. Carrefour and Wal-Mart both learned following their failures in South Korea that a successful retail model in one part of the world doesn't always translate to another part.

Regardless of how the big box retail revolution in India proceeds, I would hope that Indians are able, in a way that Americans could only do after the fact, to anticipate and respond to the changes big box retail will bring: from the weakened social networks resulting from the vanquishing of local retailing and the increased time spent in automobiles to reach the new mega retailing outlets, to the increased individualism and diminished communitarianism resulting from the heightened focus on self-image and the pursuit of happiness through material goods that comes with the type of consumer capitalism epitomized by big box retail.

If, in fact, big box retailing proceeds in India in a way that is sensitive to local customs and values (here's where I become highly skeptical of my own hopes), then perhaps Levermore, the HyperCity CEO, will be right when he claims that "HyperCITY exemplifies all that India should be proud of," (from an article in The Telegraph.)

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Change Happens

"I am a bookseller--the owner and operator of a personal bookstore. We are, I'm afraid, members of a fast-vanishing tribe. I agree with those who say that the small personal bookstore is a somewhat picturesque carryover from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Yet there are still people who are so badly adjusted to reality that they insist on either writing books or selling them."

These were the words of Fred Cody, co-founder and owner of one of Berkeley, California’s most venerated institutions: Cody’s bookstore. I can’t exactly confirm when Cody said these words. My guess is that it was sometime between 1977 when he and his wife sold their landmark bookstore to Andy Ross, and 1983 when Cody died.

Ross operated Cody’s from its historic Telegraph Avenue location from 1977 until about a week ago when Cody’s closed its doors for the final time. In Ross’ speech at the closing of the Telegraph Avenue branch of Cody’s (two other branches--one in Berkeley’s chic 4th Street shopping area and one near Union Square in San Francisco--remain open), he echoed Fred Cody’s remarks from more than 20 years earlier:

“The marketplace has been the center of community life since the time of the Greek Agora. It is being systematically undermined by chain stores and Internet commerce, which feed on communities without offering a vibrant communal life.”

“I know that a day will come when the world will change again. And Americans will recognize that the fetish for branding, for predictability, for mass marketing is a sad and impoverishing myth, and that people will once again rediscover a richer world of ideas, and a store like Cody's at Telegraph, that thrived on that richness, will be reborn.”

What does this have to do with the social and cultural changes happening in the wake of India’s economic renaissance? Well, the obvious connection has to do with India’s historic or otherwise culturally significant bookstores. Will People Tree, in the Regal Building on Parliament Street in New Delhi, or any of the old Higginbotham’s bookstores in South India be able to compete in the new India against Crossword, India’s version of Barnes & Noble? Are there any bookstores in India, already out of business, that played important roles in India’s Independence struggle or other historically or socially significant events?

If so, then those who once frequented those bookstores will understand what’s been lost with the closing of Cody’s. Historically, Cody’s is significant for having provided shelter to activists chased from Berkeley’s People’s Park by police, and later by the National Guard, when in May 1969 they protested then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s attempt to suppress freedom of speech and freedom of assembly by fencing off the University-owned grounds on which the park sat.

In 1989, in what current owner Andy Ross describes as Cody’s proudest moment, employees of the bookstore voted to defend freedom of speech by continuing to sell Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses despite the fact that every major bookstore chain in the country was removing the book from its shelves. This decision was made more profound by the fact that the vote took place the day after a pipe bomb was detonated in the store in protest of the book.

According to Ross, “I think the importance of this story is to acknowledge the true heroism of Cody's workers who agreed to risk their lives in support of the principle of freedom of speech. They have received very little glory for this; and, God knows, it brought them no financial gain. It was a quiet, yet heroic, act of commitment that deserves acknowledgement here and should be remembered for all time.”

Here’s my point: Change happens. Cody’s closed its Telegraph Avenue branch for a variety of reasons, among them the emergence of discount big box booksellers and the Internet, the decline of Telegraph Avenue as a shopping destination, and broader cultural trends in people’s reading habits and interest in literature. In Berkeley, future generations won’t be able to walk into the Telegraph Avenue Cody’s and get lost in obscure books that the big chains won’t stock--books like Henryk Skolimowski’s Living Philosophy: Eco-Philosophy as a Tree of Life, a book I was fortunate enough to stumble upon when passing through Berkeley one summer during college.

What’s important is that a culture has ways of transmitting knowledge to future generations. How will future generations of Americans know what independent bookstores stood for--principles captured by Ross when he explained that “independent booksellers...are the carriers of the values of civility, diversity, and respect for literary individualism, values which are fundamental to a free and humane society”--once the independent bookstore goes the way of the public telephone booth?

Americans take for granted how certain cultural institutions embody many of the principles that we claim to hold most sacred--individualism and freedom of expression, for example. For India, the sacred principles may be different, perhaps they are derived from the Gandhian philosophy of self-sufficiency, but whatever the principles are (and given India’s diversity, I am sure there are many, not always agreement on what they are), there most certainly exist cultural institutions that embody them.

As India continues along the path of economic development, what safeguards are in place to preserve--whether tangibly in the form of buildings or places, or intangibly in the form of legends or lore--the cultural institutions that currently serve to transmit lessons about the importance of these principles from generation to generation? Without such safeguards, India risks becoming as existentially and spiritually depleted as the U.S. What a shame this would be for a country with thousands of years of rich spiritual traditions.

At least there will always be the cricket.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Curious Stall: An Explanation

In this entry I explain why this blog is named The Curious Stall. India is a curious place. This alone is reason enough to name a blog about the changes through which India is going The Curious Stall. When I decided to start this blog, my reasons for which I discuss below, I began looking through pictures I took while living in India with my family between November 2005 and May 2006. I came across a picture I took at the Ernakulam railway station in Kerala, India.

Indians are charmingly loose in their usage of the English language. The vendor on the platform probably meant to call his shop a “curios” stall (i.e., a stall where rare, unusual, or intriguing objects are sold). But in calling it a “curious stall,” he evoked in me not just a chuckle, but also a reminder of the ways in which India is changing. At one time, his stall very well may have had rare, unusual, or intriguing objects for sale. At the very least, the objects were probably hand-made, and therefore unique.

In 2006, his stall contains all the same cheap and mass-manufactured goods as almost every other train station platform vendor in India (I am not talking about food vendors, whose goods, with the exception of processed packaged foods, vary greatly from region to region). The items for sale are not curios and they are not curious. The fact that they are neither makes me curious about how India is changing. Hence, this blog is named The Curious Stall.

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