Parks and Recreation.

The Office.

The town marker's hype sets the tone for The Office.

Dharavi, from a blog on "Dharavi slum tourist."

Metal work in Dharavi.

The traditional arts:

Patta work, from Bengal at the same fair.

A couple enjoying the warmth of coals in Hauz Khas village.

Boutiques and restaurants added on to Hauz Khas village. [14]

Indian high fashion.


In this “new economy” U.S. workers, like artists, are expected to live as free-lancers who constantly updated their skills and knowledge. Not only do they have to retrain themselves but they are also expected to own their tools, such as laptops, cameras, and home offices. As Ursula Huws (2003) has clarified, simply owning the means of production does not make workers autonomous because they still need to be tied into a network in order to work. Ultimately there is a stick behind the carrot. Thomas Friedman and later Obama himself have warned U.S. children that if they do not work hard enough their jobs will be taken by Indians. “Buckle up! the Indians are coming for your jobs,” has been Obama’s refrain—and it echoes an old racist trope; at the same time it blames U.S. workers, in particular young people, for the new economy’s diminishing opportunities.[7][open endnotes in new window]

As a consequence, a self-internalized sense of failure remains a major barrier to class outrage. This buried outrage is manifested, especially amongst white-collar professionals, in self-destructive behaviors such as suicidal self-blaming or wild conspiracy/paranoid theories, often obsessed with uncovering motivations of fellow workers.[8] It is also reflected in television series, such as The Office or Parks and Recreation, that mock the intrigues, ambitions, eccentricities, and relationship troubles of white collar workers.[9] While the series blank out the overall context of the diminishing role of white collar work, they dwell in great detail on personality quirks and unfulfilled individual lives, both playing out and socializing us to laugh at our own dimunitization. Parks and Recreation deals with a state agency in decline in a fictional town, Pawnee, Indiana. The Pawn(ee) office is in a constant battle with budget cuts; its failing attempts at “building community” is the source of ironic comment. The Office is set in Scranton, Pennsylvania in a paper supplier office with the absurd name of Dunder Mifflin, hurtling along in a losing battle against chain suppliers like Staples and Office Max. The series’ ironic tone comes from treating the office as a ship-of-fools lead by a petty and manipulative but not-bad-at-heart boss. In this scenario, everything, including the town-marker with which the show starts, appears ridiculously inflated.

If (on account of consumer-capitalism and a longstanding individualism) life in the creative economy may be turned into a subject of self-flagellating cynical comedy in U.S. television, its importation to India reveals its antagonisms in much sharper relief. In India in 2004, the Planning Commission set up a Creative Industries Division. This was a decade after the Indian state, under IMF supervision, formally initiated a process of neoliberal restructuring. The strongest advocate of this policy was the Chambers of Indian Industry (CII), the representative body of business interests, which also has its own creative industries section. One of outcomes of this state and business coalition is a Creative Economy discourse, which promotes a specific notion of Brand India (also known as India Inc., India Shining). Such a phrase connotes a major shift in governance. India as a neoliberal state has shifted away from social redistribution to invent itself as an executive body whose role is to market India as a good place “to do business with and in.” [10] To affect this shift, in fact, the Indian government has some of the mantras of the U.S. and European creative economy: youth culture, nomadism, cosmopolitanism, and urban regeneration and growth through tourism and entertainment.

One such plan initiated in September 2003, Vision Mumbai,  advocated turning Bombay into a “World Class” city by 2013. Commissioned by the Maharashtra Government to McKinsey International, the plan is typical of the neoliberal trend towards outsourcing governance to private capital. The favored term for this trend —which is now visible in all sectors, from rural development, education, medicine to the arts — is the euphemism public-private-partnerships (PPP). McKinsey identified one of plan’s main objectives to make Bombay fulfill its “yet to be realized potential of becoming India 's and, eventually, Asia 's consumption and financial centre."(2003, 15) Yet as Darryl D’Monte describes the plan while criticizing it,  it recommends shifting manufacturing away from the city to free Bombay to develop as a center for information technology/service industries and consumption. (2004) The four areas the plan proposed for development are financial services, healthcare, IT and ITES (IT enabled services) and media/entertainment. All require education and technical efficiency thus disqualifying a vast majority of the city’s working class, comprised of immigrants from rural areas, from earning a living in these new jobs.

Given the declining role of the State in building infrastructure and uneven development of the rural areas, the plan has been from its very inception a callous proposal to simply move the homeless half of Bombay’s population out of sight and lift Bombay out of India into the rarified atmosphere of a “world city.” This strategy became visible in Jan-Feb 2005 when a massive demolition scheme was carried out, displacing 300,000 people.[11] Unusually heavy rains followed and further exacerbated the miseries of those living on the streets. It became clear that plans for a world city had more to do with expanding roads for private cars and beautifying south Bombay’s business and residential areas rather than serving the people of the city as a whole.

In 2007 another phase of re-development was initiated, this time in Dharavi under another PPP — this one between the Maharashtra government and Mukesh Mehta, an architect returning from the United States. Renovating what’s considered the largest slum in the world, in the heart of Bombay, the project involved billions of dollars for investors. Mehta’s plan included a provision for re-settling the original inhabitants: highrise buildings would be built and each family would get a 225 square feet apartment for free. The catch was that for every square foot the builders constructed, they would get an equal amount of land for free. Thus the residents would have to close down the small businesses that sustained them in the area.

Pottery in Dharavi. Recycling in Dharavi.

Socially, the consequences are serious. Dharavi is not only a residential area but also a workspace where small scale industries, such as recycling, embroidery, leather work, and printing, etc., are carried on from the home. Shutting down businesses in this area means effectively turning the residents into a large servant class for the wealthy in their new residences slated to be built on these premises. Subsequently, the plan was obstructed by organized protests by residents who saw this as a means of eventually driving them out of the area, killing their livelihoods, and pricing them out of the market. In contrast to Pittsburg, the construction of Mumbai as a center for consumption has to proceed with open and overt force and efforts to corporatize public policy met with organized resistance. In Dharavi, Slum for Sale (Lutz Konermann, 2010), one of the residents remarks that Dharavi is a test case for the future, for how people will live on this planet.

In a similar way, in a profound essay on the neoliberal architecture of malls built by the Pinochet regime in Chile after the brutal repression of the socialist practices and desires represented by Allende’s government, Jean Franco (1987, 63) wrote about the culture of death that the mallls embodied:

“…they [the malls] were built, as were the economic policies of all the military regimes, upon cemeteries, and the new citizens of the consumer societies browbeaten by torture and disappearance resembled the living dead rather than the upbeat Coke generation of American advertising.”

Brand India is driven by a similar logic. People are disposable commodities for a brand that must position itself as the global factory/IT/service center as well as a thriving market for global brands.

A folk music and dance group from Rajasthan. Bamboo work from Orissa.
Admirers gather around wood carving. Fabrics.

Another outcome of the new emphasis on creativity as a commodity has been a reorientation of government policy towards the arts. In its nationalist phase, the Indian government had defined its task as the “preservation” of the arts, maintaining a distinct division between high and folk art. The policy towards the high arts, for example, classical dance, music, and literature, followed the auteur tradition recognizing and awarding individual creators. The policy towards the “folk” or “traditional arts,” in contrast, identified entire communities rather than individuals for government recognition and support, placing the development of the arts within a broader framework of development, poverty alleviation, and preservation of tradition. Largely inspired by a Gandhian ethos of national self-reliance, preservation of the Indian arts was solidly entrenched within the logic of the welfare state. The recognition of these arts as Indian heritage accorded the artists a certain dignity. Leatherwork, dances, or embroidery from specific regions of India, for example, were constituted as the folk arts. The following pictures were taken at Surajkund Mela, a typical government-funded folk arts festival that is an annual event held close to Delhi, the nation’s capital. Artists from all over India are supported to come to the festival and show their work as well as sell it. Unlike the boutiques, there are no brands but traditions, and the prices very affordable to the middle class.

Now culture has emerged as a core commodity of Brand India. It is to be marketed globally, open to global competition. Subsidies to artists are being withdrawn. The traditional arts are now increasingly integrated into a culture industry that crosses films, new media, marketing, advertising, music, magazines, and fashion. Here, I am using the term “culture industry” in the Frankfurt School sense, in that the capitalist production of culture produces a network of commodities that reinforces subservience to capitalistic reverence for money, commodity culture and alienation from self and others. For example, Tanishq, a subsidiary of Tata, the large India-based multinational, trans-sectoral, and trans-industrial megacorporation that has stakes in finance, manufacture, construction, and communications launched its new jewelry collection in the big budget commercial Hindi film, Paheli/ The Riddle (Amol Palekar, 2005) and repeated that presentation with another big budget release, Jodha Akbar (Ashutosh Gowarikar, 2008). Both films glamorize the elites’ conspicuous consumption and justify that kind of personal consumption as an exercise in Indian tradition. Jewelry in these films is not part of the mise-en-scene, a prop necessary to the film’s narrative and design. Rather, the film and the narrative are a prop to showcase the real star, that is, Tata’s wares and thus to uncritically present the worship of gold as “our” tradition.

Leading star, Aishwarya Rai from Jodha Akbar.

Traditional Indian designs are also incorporated into global fashion trends mediated by fashion designers, boutiques, brands, and multinational chains. The process started in the 80s when designers moved into the handicrafts business, opening up boutiques and transforming ethnic traditions for a global market. It led to the transformation of villages such as Hauz Khas, on the outskirts of Delhi, into touristy venues where air-conditioned boutiques and restaurants were built in the middle of village, turning its people and social life into a living museum, for free. A travel web site describes the village this way:

“Back in the village, wander through the narrow lanes to experience a medley of old and new structures — expensive shops and art galleries in a medieval warren. In the 1980s Hauz Khas was designated an upscale tourist destination, but (fortunately) the process of redevelopment was never completed, so some of the village character persists. After exploring, stop for a meal at one of the village's restaurants, particularly Park Balluchi (in the Deer Park), Naivedyam, or the Village Bistro.”[12]

Other tourists, not so charmed by underdevelopment as this one, complain of potholes, dust and stares from the local inhabitants. The “rustic charm” of Others is good insofar as it is a sight to behold for the tourist and does not interfere with the pleasures of the shopping gaze, the omnipotent fantasy that all one sees may be owned and bought.

The busy main street in Hauz Khas: the narrow entrance to the village is packed with cars but the rest of the village has to be traversed on foot. [13] And yet another juxtaposition of the old and the new in Hauz Khas village. The village is built around a water tank from the 12th century which is now overlooked by multi-storied buildings.

In a careful study of the transition of folk arts from the village to the bazaar to the malls and the boutiques, Nestor Canclini described shopping malls as

“…those anonymous and sumptuous storehouses where commercial abstraction reaches the height of ostentation—where the owner is concealed from the salespeople, where each worker is reduced to his/her role—salesperson, supervisor or guard, the closed and aseptic space lit artificially day and night.” (1993, 73)

Here, Barbero observes, the artisan is completely erased so that “one can buy without abandoning the specular narcissism which guides one from article to article.”[15] The irony in contemporary India is that such insularity has to be built and preserved through obvious displays of force. These air-conditioned malls are heavily guarded by armed security and under surveillance not only of cameras but ubiquitous salespersons. Such a phenomenon is a global one, also observable, for example in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Istanbul. The freedom of the market is fragile, maintained by force.

Furthermore, the fashion industry is highly volatile, open to global fluctuation, making the artisan vulnerable to what Albert Hisrschman has called Capital’s “exit option,” its ability to pick up its business and move elsewhere. (1970) Indian fashion is relatively new on the global stage with the first fashion industry show held only eight years ago. It has since found an international market in exhibits such as Lord & Taylor’s Into India, which presented clothes by Tarun Tahiliani, Rina Dhaka, Vivek Narang and Manish Arora. The individual artisan fashion designer, unlike the larger fashion houses, will never accumulate enough capital to wait out a market slump and s/he will fall into the ranks of the unemployed when disconnected from capital. The poverty of the Indian artisan, then, becomes a resource in the global market, culminating ultimately in children’s labor. Thus, in an all too common scenario, a few years ago, young children as eleven were found working in Gap sweatshops embroidering cotton dresses.[16] Furthermore, numerous high-fashion global designers such as Giorgio Armani, Ferre, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Christian Lacroix, Emmanuel Ungaro, Jean Paul Gaultier, etc., contract various Indian artisans and designers to hand-embroider their creations, which are ultimately priced at a thousands of dollars each.[17]

Neo-liberalism continues the capitalist logic of making labor invisible. The artisan is deskilled and turned into a property of the capitalist/brand — without the latter the former cannot produce. The signature of the fashion designer brands the work, turning the folk artist into a process worker or executor while the designer emerges as the creative genius. Simon Evans, an advocate of creative industries, justified what is essentially a theft of labor as follows: (2005 )

“Think of Nike, or Coca Cola. What do these companies actually do? They don’t make shoes or drinks, they get other companies to do that. Their whole manufacturing process is outsourced. It’s appropriate for them to do this because the shoe and the drink are incidental to the real sales offer — which is a lifestyle. Companies like Nike and Coca Cola do not manage factories, they manage narratives. And the language that they use is not analytic and impersonal, but intuitive and aesthetic. It is the language of the storyteller, the entertainer, the artist.”

However, as Ursula Huws points out, without the shoe or the drink or other commodifed services, such as entertaining or haircutting, there would be nothing to sell. (2003) You have to have a product, whether an object or a service, to produce consumers.

Ultimately, capitalism has to produce both workers and consumers, although following Marx, the better term would be buyers rather than consumers. Marx was careful to show that producers and consumers were not identical, that producers did not simply morph into individuals who could choose freely in the market. Rather, they were products of their social relationships and their purchasing power depended upon their position in the market.[18] He clarified, for instance, that although workers/producers consumed raw material and machinery in the production process, they could never buy these means of production — rather they could only buy some of the commodities they produced. In the repeated cycles of overproduction that capitalism was prone to, when prices fell due to gluts in the market, the producers were blocked from both producing and consuming. Ultimately, they became, Marx said with bitter irony, part of a “temporary surplus population" because they were surplus workers who had produced a surplus of things.[19]

Yet, capital cannot do without the creativity of labor. In fact, the dynamism of the system depends upon novelty, innovation, and invention as a means to revolutionize production, reduce labor costs, and maximize profits. As the Marxist theorist, Ernest Mandel explained, innovation is necessary to fight the law of diminishing returns. (1978/1987) Certain kinds of intellectual labor then, can lay claims to intellectual capital, to the originality of designs, ideas, or innovations, and thus assert higher market value in negotiating with capital. It is in the interest of capital to limit and confine such claims, to separate intellectual from manual labor to the utmost limit possible, and posit capital as the creative element in production. Capital tends towards producing a homogeneous work force by breaking it down into specialized parts so that exchangeable units, now spread across the globe, can become part of a system or machine. What that means for human creativity is that one’s own labor-power becomes an alien, living outside of the self, to be pressed into service only when bought by capital. In Marx’s words (Capital V I, 482):

“If in the first place, the worker sold his labor power to capital because he lacked the material means of producing a commodity, now his own individual labor-power withholds its services unless it has been sold to capital.”

Such proletarianization on an international scale, which depresses wages worldwide pitting one set of workers in competition against another, is justified by a gendered and racialized discourse as we are seeing in the representations of Indian IT workers. Marx’s critique of capital’s exploitation of labor, both as a source of surplus value and its crippling effects on humanity, is also a theory about the limits imposed by capital on creativity: about why and how capital produces the aesthetic as a separate sphere of life, detaches it from labor and politics, and offers it instead for consumption as a commodity.

Marx’s humanist ethic, Terry Eagleton indicates, might well be called an aesthetic, in that it holds as a fundamental human value our need to be creative for its own sake, with no instrumental or utilitarian value attached to it. (1999) Its goal is, “To put humanity where art is.” (Eagleton, 21). For Marx, this meant not that “each should do the work of Raphael” but that “…anyone in whom there is a potential Raphael should be able to develop without hindrance.”[20] Leon Trotsky expanded on this idea, integrating the aesthetic with the human, imagining humans who would be “immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler,” whose bodies would become more humanized, movements more rhythmic, and voice more musical:

“The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.” (207)

Trotsky’s imagination of creativity as universalized self-realization is eons away from the functional use of art as commodity; the artist as the model precarious worker of neoliberalism; and the subordination of labor to capital.

“The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in particular individuals, and its suppression in the broad mass which is bound up with this, is a consequence of the division of labor (emphasis mine). … In a communist society there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities.”
— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (417-18)

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