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Global Capitalism and the Novel

What if global modernism is a “selective tradition” that through its critical predilections and textual investments creates a world in its own image? What if, as a result, it completely misses the bigger story of global culture in the last four decades: namely, the persistence and development of realism? And, what if, finally, in order to both understand and critique the rise of global capitalism and its deeply consequential cultural effects a critical re-tooling is necessary, away from cultural ambivalence and toward the structural inequalities of social class?

I pose these opening questions because I believe there is a strong tendency in contemporary modernist studies to simultaneously inflate and banalize the influence and span of modernism, and turn the existential weightiness of a deep representational crisis into a form of global consumer culture (a “hot” and “bad” topic, as Bad Modernisms [2006] has it). The risk here is not only to misconstrue the nature of modernism but to dilute its critical mechanisms as well. If modernism is everywhere and (a precursory) in every period, then it loses its coherence as a category and becomes a form of identitarian self-affirmation. Worse, it risks becoming a form of metropolitan narcissism: an impoverished version of itself reinvented as a playful companion to global capitalism rather than its negative critique.

There are several ways to avoid this problem. What I tried to do in my own work on both interwar British culture and the Palestinian novel is to respond to such modernist inflations by historically locating modernism as a response to capitalist transformation and political change, consistent with the work of materialists like Theodor Adorno and Raymond Williams. This approach, I believe, both safeguards modernism’s potential critical edge and recognizes that it does not have a monopoly on experimentation and literary innovation—which realism can embody and advance as well. Modernism is thus read as a particular form of response to modernization and crisis without superseding or drowning out other equally compelling and potentially critical forms like realism. Both realism and modernism, therefore, can be politically retrograde or conformist; both can justify or challenge a dominant ideology. What is false is simply to assume that either form is intrinsically radical, questioning, or conformist without locating it in its historical specificity and examining its distinct determinations. One other problematic assumption is worth considering: about the relationship of writers to modernism. Writers who produce a modernist text (or several) are not necessarily always and forever modernists. Woolf can be an arch-modernist in (say) Jacob’s Room (1922) and an arch-realist in (say) Night and Day (1919) and Between the Acts (1941). Ignoring or drowning out such aesthetic nuance does not cancel it out.

I do not here wish to either rehearse or revisit these arguments. My aim is to push forward and to think about their relevance to the contemporary moment. What connections can be formulated between global capitalism, class, and the novel, and what critical tools do we need to explain contemporary realism? By tackling these questions, I aim to address this forum’s mandate and engage issues of global scale and critical form.

In the following, I propose to do two things: one historical, the other literary. First, to delineate some of the key contours of global capitalism, and examine it as an elite, class project that has had devastating effects on global societies, especially in the global south. Second, to briefly show how some contemporary novels are responding to this massive crisis by deploying a realist social imaginary. My suggestion is that one reason why realism is (finally) coming back into critical discussion and academic consideration as an object of analysis is not only because it is extremely well suited as a literary form to capturing issues of historical change and transformation that the third world is undergoing today, but also because much of what is happening now in the global novel simply cannot be called modernist. My main objective is to read both class and realism as global forms in the south, and to show that globalization and neoliberalism are coeval with a new form of social realist novel focused on global inequality and urban deprivation.

Global Capitalism

In Capital Resurgent: Roots of the Neoliberal Revolution (2004), Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy capture the essence of neoliberal capitalism as a transfer of powers and profits back to the capitalist class after the post-war class compromise of social democracy. They summarize the contours of this political economic shift in the following terms:

From World War II to the late 1970s, the decades of the Keynesian compromise, full employment, social welfare protection, and universal access to education and health care had come to be accepted as important features of developed societies. The desire to tackle the challenges of the capitalist order and the fight against communism made development policies urgent necessities. These policies had led to institutional frameworks that were on the margin of the fundamental rules of straight-laced capitalism—more advantageous financing conditions for the nonfinancial economic sector, a high degree of state intervention in industrial policy, and an international monetary framework favourable to development, which placed certain limits on the freedom of decision for the owners of capital.

What seems crucial to register is that “[on] both the domestic and the international level, neoliberalism has undertaken the destruction of this social order and has restored the strictest rules of capitalism.”[1]

Neoliberalism thus marks the re-ascendency of finance capital and its return to hegemonic status within global capitalism. A new social order had arrived. Ideologically, Thatcher’s there is no alternative captures the essence of this global elite assault on working-class pay, organization, and conditions of work. As wages stagnated for the majority, profits massively increased for the tinniest minority. The general “effects of these transformations,” Duménil and Lévy argue, “can be summed up in three words, poverty, efficiency, and opulence: perpetuated or aggravated poverty, reaching into the capitalist centres; the efficiency of the big groups led by capital in accordance with an unambiguous criterion, that of maximizing the profit rate and payments to owners; and the opulence of the superior fractions of the dominating classes” (Capital Resurgent, 10). After decades of being shackled by the post-war compromise with labour, owners of capital could now pursue their interest more aggressively and freely. Public goods and services were privatized and handed over to business for profit; social rights became more market dependent; the public sector was downsized and streamlined; and capital mobility was deregulated and globalized. As Robert Brenner and Vivek Chibber have most recently argued, neoliberalism is thus best understood as “politically constituted plunder . . . and historic—redistribution of income upward to the top 1 percent . . . The top 1 percent appropriated no less than 95 percent of the total increase in income between the Great Recession [of 2008] and 2013.”[2]

In historical terms, this resurgence of capital from the mid-1970s onwards was dubbed the “Washington consensus” and seen as a US strategy for global dominance. As Peter Gowan argues, this allowed the US to shape both “the internal and external environments of states in directions which will induce them to continue to accept US political and economic dominance.”[3] The main effect of US’s global management is a new political economic regime premised on a big increase in both global and social inequality. Wages stagnated in advanced capitalist countries. For the post-colonial world, the effects were registered in what came to be called the debt crisis. As interest rates on third world loans were increased, the repayment of rising debts came through structural adjustment programs that were imposed on peoples that had barely begun to pluck the fruits of political independence. A third world elite jumped on the opportunity to increase its profits and to roll back social welfare.

The main effect of squeezing public services and reducing government subsidies, especially support for rural populations and agrarian economies, was a massive flight to the cities. As Mike Davis shows in his devastating Planet of Slums (2006), this is where global political economy meets slum life. The numbers are horrifying: more than 1 billion slum-dwellers worldwide, with 332 million slum-dwellers in Black Africa alone and a staggering 99.4% of urbanites in Ethiopia and Chad living in slums.[4] Mega-cities like Mexico City and Lagos now have mega-slums, and Bombay is described as the “global capital of slum-dwelling” with “10 to 12 million squatters and tenement dwellers” (Davis, Planet of Slums, 23). In fact, as Davis states, “[t]he majority of the world’s urban poor no longer live in inner cities. Since 1970 the larger share of world urban population growth has been absorbed by slum communities on the periphery of Third World cities” (37).

Postcolonial neoliberal migration is about poor people on the move. Far from being an elite metropolitan affair of cultural identity and hybridity, migration in the twentieth and twenty-first century is predominantly a mass affair. It is about flight from a collapsing rural economy and towards the peripheries of over-populated cities with their dwindling or (now) non-existent state services and protections and their structural absence of regular work. As the UN report The Challenge of the Slums (2003) states: “Instead of being a focus for growth and prosperity, the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trade” (quoted in Davis, 175).

Salaam Bombay!, 14 May 2011. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Inequality Realism

If global capitalism is a world premised on increased inequality and a massive redistribution of profits back to the elite, and if it is a form of class struggle from above, then what does this tell us about the global culture it generates or makes possible? The logical inference is that it too is structured by class and determined by these historical developments. A profoundly unequal economy generates a profoundly unequal culture. At its best, it ruminates on its condition of possibility and cost of production.

Mike Davis raises this issue when he talks about Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and how today’s city descriptions hark back to Dickens’s Bleak House (1853). He invokes Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road (1976) and quotes the following from Chris Abani’s Graceland (2004), which captures the contradictions, inequalities, and antagonisms of a globalized south: “[H]e let his mind drift as he stared at the city, half slum, half paradise. How could a place be so ugly and violent, yet beautiful at the same time?”[5] The unequal world of the African capitalist gleam captured and critiqued by Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born (1966) at the beginning of political independence has now descended into unprecedented levels of poverty, inequality, and atomization.

Building on the older postcolonial novel of political disillusionment and defeat, this new social novel has its own distinctive features: it lacks an active memory of collective struggle; it speaks to new urban realities of massive rural migration to the city, exploding slum life, and more polarized class inequalities; and it is marked by a profound pessimism about the prospects of change and the end of permanent subordination. Significantly, it depicts these processes in a realist mode, where individual fate is socially situated and symptomatic of larger historical trends. The historicizing and democratizing features that Pam Morris attributes to realism can be found in these new novels of class inequality and exclusion set in the new mega-cities and slums of the south.[6] Examples from global literature, including African and Latin American, abound—novels by Roberto Bolaño from Chile; Paulo Lins’s City of God (1997) from Brazil; K. Sello Duicker’s Thirteen Cents (2000) and Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Hillbrow (2001) from South Africa; and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (2013) from Zimbabwe. In a postcolonial field that has been constitutively and for far too long enchanted with modernism, a new social justice novel is now gaining critical attention.[7]

I want to briefly turn to an area of the globe that is regarded as a neoliberal success story in the global economy with high levels of economic growth in the last couple of decades, but which, crucially, is also accompanied by massive inequality and economic disenfranchisement: India. A stark contrast between plenty for a small minority and want for a vast majority has become both an everyday fact of life in India and the stuff of fiction. As Arundhati Roy shows in Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014), the new India is based on a new myth: “After twenty years of ‘growth,’ 60 percent of India’s workforce is self-employed, 90 percent of India’s labour force works in the unorganized sector.”[8] One only needs to look at the landless masses daily filling city slums to register this reality.

Inequality and conflict is, indeed, the basic premise and organizing concept of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), a novel that puts class division, global economy, and moral degeneration at the heart of its fictive world. It traces Balram Halwai’s journey from a polluted and impoverished village to the city, where he becomes servant and driver to landlord Mr. Ashok. The novel charts the protagonist’s class resentment and contempt for his boss, and gradually clears the way for his murder by Halwai. The only way up for Halwai is by pulling someone down: that is the “social entrepreneurship” the novel advances as ultimate solution for the structural social injury it represents. The White Tiger is the exception that proves the rule: “no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature” and a figure who pulls himself out of the “perpetual servitude” of the majority (dubbed as the Great Indian Rooster Coop) because he is “a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed—hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters.”[9] The only way to overcome “the desire to be a servant [that] had been bred into me: hammered into my skull, nail after nail, and poured into my blood, the way sewage and industrial poison are poured into Mother Ganga” is through individual violence and apathy to the suffering of others (Adiga, The White Tiger, 165).

There is no other way that the novel imagines change. Alternatives are non-existent and oppositions are part of the “fucking joke” that is the political system. Neither solidarity between the oppressed nor organized democracy, discussed by voters “like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra,” are real options (82). This is the novel’s great wonder: that such a system of mass deprivation happens not in the world of political compulsion and authoritarian dictatorships (like China) but in the largest democracy in the world. That is indeed what’s striking about it. If there are moments of pity and identification with suffering beings in The White Tiger, those come at a huge cost to others and have no structural or broad benefits. They are momentary ruptures, just localized individual acts of philanthropy in a corrupt and irredeemably unjust world.

What this ultimately represents is capitalist morality in its crudest and strictest form. This is what Engels in the Condition of the Working Class called the “social war” that capitalism breeds: “the war of each against all.”[10] For Engels, “this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere” (Condition, 37). And: “The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle and a separate purpose, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme” (37). The outcome of capitalism unleashed is “barbarous indifference,” “social warfare,” and “reciprocal plundering” (37). Aijaz Ahmad spoke in the same terms about capitalist globalization when he called it a “society of aliens” and talked about how the global market breeds difference not equality or cooperation, and forces individuals and groups into cut throat “competition for separate ends.”[11]  

Why does The White Tiger capture this new reality so well? The answer has to do with the realist form itself. Realism has a long lineage of representing capitalism as a social system. Examples are numerous, historically varied, and truly global in scope: Honoré de Balzac was (in Karl Marx’s terms) the social historian of capitalism; Sir Walter Scott charted the dispossession of the highlands; James Fenimore Cooper ruminated on the dispossession of the Native Americans; Naguib Mahfouz captured the new social differentiation of the Arab capitalist city; Abdul Rahman Munif captured the transition to capitalism in the Gulf, etc. Even though specific parallels have already been drawn between Adiga’s novel and Victorian social realism, with The White Tiger already referred to as “a ‘condition of India’ novel,” much more needs to be done in order to link capitalism and realism.[12] Ulka Anjaria has already spoken about a new Indian social realism, which entails a “double gesture—toward realism on the one hand and a concern with structural injustice on the other—[and] constitutes . . . a mode that dialectically transcends early twentieth-century progressive writing and the self-conscious aesthetics of a Rushdean postmodernism in order to draw attention to social inequities in India today.”[13] The “killing fields of inequality,” as Göran Therborn has entitled his new global analysis of the contemporary social order, are generating a new novel that puts poverty and abjection at the heart of its literary and ethical concerns.[14]

A deeper question is, finally, worth posing. If, as these examples show, realism has followed capitalism’s key transmutations for so long and over so many different parts of the globe, why shouldn’t both realism and capitalism be read together as companion social and aesthetic forms? Critical, complicit, oppositional, or whatever: but as companions all the same. In fact, isn’t capitalism as a social form realism’s ultimate condition of possibility?

I don’t need to defend this claim here in order to make my more curtailed argument: that to understand contemporary realism we need to understand contemporary capitalism, and that capitalism is the right scale through which to evaluate recent developments in global culture. But it does raise a crucial question that requires sustained collective critical attention and engagement.


[1] Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, Capital Resurgent: Roots of the Neoliberal Revolution, trans. by Derek Jeffers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 1.

[2] Robert Brenner and Vivek Chibber, “Editorial: Introducing Catalyst,” Catalyst: A Journal of Theory & Strategy 1, no. 1 (2017): 3–26, 14.

[3] Peter Gowan, The Global Gamble: Washington’s Faustian Bid for Global Dominance (London: Verso, 1999), vii.

[4] See Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006), 19, 23.

[5] Chris Abani, Graceland (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 7. Quoted in Davis, Planet of Slums, 20.

[6] See Pam Morris, Realism (London: Routledge, 2003).

[7] The most recent books include: Ulka Anjaria, Realism in the Twentieth-Century Indian Novel: Colonial Difference and Literary Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Eleni Coundouriotis, The People’s Right to the Novel: War Fiction in the Postcolony (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014); Toral Jatin Gajarawala, Untouchable Fictions: Literary Realism and the Crisis of Caste (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012); Neil Lazarus, The Postcolonial Unconscious (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Dougal McNeill, Forecasts of the Past: Globalisation, History, Realism, Utopia (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012); Joseph R. Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007); Eli Park Sorensen, Postcolonial Studies and the Literary: Theory, Interpretation and the Novel (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). Multi-authored journal issues include: “Peripheral Realisms,” ed. Joe Cleary, Jed Esty and Colleen Lye, special issue, Modern Language Quarterly 73, no. 3 (2012); “Worlding Realisms,” ed. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, special issue, Novel: A Forum on Fiction 49, no. 2 (2016).

[8] Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 10.

[9] Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger: A Novel (New York: Free Press, 2008), 150.

[10] Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 37.

[11] Aijaz Ahmad “Globalization: A Society of Aliens?” Frontline 17, no. 20 (2000).

[12] Merrit Moseley, “Ordinary Novels,” Sewanee Review 118, no. 1 (2010): 154–60, 159). See also Ines Detmers, “New India? New Metropolis? Reading Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger as a ‘condition-of-India novel,’” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 47, no. 5 (2011): 535–45.

[13] Ulka Anjaria, “Realist Hieroglyphics: Aravind Adiga and the New Social Novel,” Modern Fiction Studies 61, no. 1 (2015): 114–37, 114. I am less sure that Adiga’s novel can be both focused on injustice and inequality and be indecipherable at the same time. The ultimate aim of Marx’s “social hieroglyphics” that Anjaria invokes is precisely to reveal the hidden social pattern that undergirds (and explains) what’s visible. That assumes decipherability and knowledge.

[14] Göran Therborn, The Killing Fields of Inequality (New York: Wiley, 2013).