November 30, 2016
The Myth of a Cashless Society
By Prakash Kona
I wonder if PM Narendra Modi understands the gravity of the disaster unleashed on the poor masses thanks to the overnight project of demonetization. The ex-PM Manmohan Singh is right in calling it "organized loot" and "legalized plunder" except that the neo-liberal economic reforms which turned loot and plunder into virtues were initiated when Mr. Singh began his term as the Minister of Finance in 1991.
For a teacher of literature who interprets myths as a way of reading a text, I am clueless as to what a "cashless society" is supposed to look like and if at all there are such societies somewhere hidden and unknown to Google Earth. I wonder if PM Narendra Modi understands the gravity of the disaster unleashed on the poor masses thanks to the overnight project of demonetization. The ex-PM Manmohan Singh is right in calling it "organized loot" and "legalized plunder" except that the neo-liberal economic reforms which turned loot and plunder into virtues were initiated when Mr. Singh began his term as the Minister of Finance in 1991. Under the Congress-dominated UPA, looting and plunder took the form of massive corruption though they did not interfere with how the social structure operated as a whole. India being a big country -- the common people have their own ways of working things out at a day-to-day level.
In a closed society like India cash is a deeply private thing like bedroom sex and people hold on to their experience-based strategies of using money to enhance their sense of power. Homemakers from lower-middle class income groups are a good example of the small world power because part of their ability to run the home stems from their ability to save whatever little money comes into their hands. Since we are not a completely modern society some of the traditional ways of functioning such as lending small amounts of money for interest keep the society going.
Thus there are parallel economies without which the entire social order would collapse in a matter of days. In other words, cash enables us to run other economies on a smaller scale rather than being a part of the banking system which caters to those who have accounts. The more than a couple of hundred million people who are outside the banking system are very much a part of the cash-based transactions as it happens with rural folk.
If the agenda of this government is to incorporate everybody into the banking system -- either they are dreaming with their eyes open or they are simply implementing an agenda scripted by the corporate and Non-Resident Indian (NRI) lobby living mainly in the US and UK who want to turn India into a colony for the global elites. In my view, the latter comes closer to the truth. What used to be the white man's burden -- the civilizing mission -- is now the brown man's burden -- the globalizing mission. The popular belief on the streets is that the aim of the demonetization is to take the money out of the pockets of the middle classes and the poor and transfer it as loans to the rich and the powerful. I subscribe fully to this view.
An overnight planned attack of this kind on the common masses needless to say was hatched a long time ago. Out of panic, people are holding on to whatever cash they can lay their hands on. I watch in distress the blank and helpless expression on the faces of poor vendors and small shopkeepers waiting for the nightmare to pass as it happens when your breath stops in sleep and you are struggling to wake up in the hope that things will be normal again.
Crises such as this one are ripe for mass violence. All that a cynical government has to do is distract the masses by doing something dramatic and laying the blame on a group of people who it can conveniently target as being responsible for all our problems. It is fashionable to talk of the Nazis as cynical manipulators but majoritarian governments have functioned throughout history by turning economic crises to their advantage. My gut feeling is that this government will not be an exception.
The public mood is one of subdued anger bordering on indignation, the kind of low flame that at any point could turn into a wild fire, but they are waiting in a restrained way to see what comes next. Nobody seriously believes that terrorism has reduced because of demonetization. I can't say that the public is intelligent as such but I don't think that they are stupid either to swallow hook, line, and sinker the blatant lies of the government.
No ideology can stand before the pinch of the stomach. Violence is bound to erupt at that very point when the stomach takes charge and the mind and heart are left to perish in the cold. To leave people vulnerable and fearful that they could go hungry is the first step to a violent society. By rushing in foolishly where angels fear to tread, the BJP-led NDA government has proved two things: One is that they are completely incompetent as is revealed in the fantasy of a cashless society which the Prime Minister Modi keeps chanting like a mantra as if somehow it would become true. Another is that the agenda of the government is a devious and dangerous one because it wants the masses to be powerless in a way that would not only provide cheap labor for the corporate lobby but would reduce the poor to an animal-like condition where survival becomes an end in itself like it happened with the working classes in the 19th century.
Through man-made famines the British could effectively run India for two hundred years because the masses were starved and simply did not have the strength for a revolt. Gandhi saw through the colonial agenda of starving the masses and knew that passive resistance which empowered the weak was the best possible way of challenging British might. When an elected government decides to act against the interests of the masses to such an extent that the latter are broken and impoverished, both the government and the party in power should be resisted through whatever available legal means at the public's disposal as well as through something that I rarely recommend: popular protest.
Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.