“…The fear of small numbers is the paradoxical weakness of liberal democracy in the era of globalisation…”
You might be wondering the logic behind reviewing the book at hand, which is an old book, published in 2006, to be precise. While going through the book, I realised that the key argument(s) it makes; keeps it still relevant, perhaps getting more relevant with the passing of time.
As students of sociology, we knew Arjun Appadurai as someone who works on globalisation and the history of Census surveys in India. This book at hand, Fear of Small Numbers carries forward the trajectory already taken in his earlier works. What pushed Appadurai to write this work? He says his earlier work on globalisation was criticised for not paying attention to the darker side of globalisation. This darker side was growing violence against minorities in many, if not most, nation-states.
Two events jolted Appadurai: the 9/11 attack in the USA, and in India, the demolition of the Babri Mosque and the subsequent anti-Muslim pogrom in Mumbai. He began asking the question of why the world, which had the potential to consider people as one super large family, suddenly started targeting its own fellow beings. More powerful cultures started to criminalise less powerful ones; this happened at both global and national levels.
Numerically, a larger group of people want the elimination of smaller groups. This is a story of increasing hatred against ethnic minorities in the age of increasing fervour for the global economy. This is a story of paradoxes: where the powerful dread the powerless, where the rich dread the poor and where the majority dreads the minority. This inverted logic of the violence, compelled Arjun Appadurai to write this slim volume, what he calls an essay.
Let us have a brief overview of the two major points that Fear of Small Numbers makes. First, the book claims that globalisation has happened deepest at the level of the economy but not polity or society. Globalisation has considerably evaporated the notion of ‘national economy. Nation-states feel increasingly irrelevant, and to make themselves feel alive, they revive the older and imaginary national culture.
This ‘national culture’ is created via propaganda and violence against non-national culture. Thus, the boundary of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is created. This boundary is logically irrelevant, but this irrelevance is the cause of anxiety in the nation, national leaders and all the vested interests to whip up the prejudices of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. The majority is created not in terms of quality social relationships but in terms of otherising the minority. Thus, we have a ‘majority’ without actual ‘we’ feeling but only ‘they’ feelings.
Globalisation, on paper, should have increased the geographical boundaries of ‘we’ but has done precisely the opposite. The majority is actually fake. The second point that Appadurai makes is the growing inferiority complex among the fake majority to contain/control the minority. A certain sense of incompleteness depletes the psyche of the so-called majority. They want their communal ethos to be national ethos, meaning those who do not fit in their mould must not only be marginalised but also be excluded fully. This anxiety of being incomplete despite being greater in number causes hatred, exclusion and finally, genocide.
It is here that we see the paradox of ‘fear of powerless’ to be making full sense to the readers of Fear of Small Numbers. The more the numerical preponderance increases, the more the majority suffer from the complexity of incompleteness and uncertainty. Thus, as globalisation tries to liquidate nation-states, the nation-states, in turn, do the same with their minorities.
I would recommend Fear of Small Numbers for two reasons: first, it explains the failure of the US in keeping the world unipolar after the globalisation of the 1980s and second, the failure of dominant caste Hindu men to keep their masculinity intact. Sadly, the book keeps these two key arguments as sub-text and not as analytical tools to describe ‘the global war of terror and Hindutva’.
Let me describe what Appadurai has to say about these two phenomena. The whole discourse of terrorism is to cover up the violence US is committing via military expeditions, foreign policy and economic institutions. Today’s capitalism is increasing wealth inequality across the world; the global north is becoming richer while the global south is becoming poorer. Fear of Small Numbers mentions how (the Hindu) elite desires the wealth of the US but loathes its social values.
There is also the mentioning of West’s obsession with the attire of Muslim women while remaining silent (complicit?) on rampant domestic and sexual violence against White women.
Finally, is the question of Hindutva that Appadurai takes up to describe India’s fear of (religious) minorities. Citing a work by Amrita Basu, the book explains that Hindutva is the symptom of the insecurity of the dominant caste Hindu men to hold on to their traditional power. This reaches its panacea in demand for due representation for Hindu OBCs, what is called Mandal agitation.
To deflect the anger of poor Hindus against rich Hindus, Hindutva forces propagate the myth of appeasement of (religious) minorities. Hindutva ideologues have bowed down to the logic of a free market economy. Yet, this cannot solve growing economic inequality, and the Hindu rich fear the Hindu poor. One conspicuous absence is the reference to the plight of Hindu women, say, for example, the famous work of Charu Gupta on Hindu communalism.
Also read: Book Review: Muslims In Indian Economy By Omar Khalidi
While I broadly agree with the major points made in Fear of Small Numbers, one was expecting a nuanced understanding of the term minority. The term minority, as Sukhadeo Thorat uses it, means not only religious minorities but also social minorities like Dalits, Adivasis and women. This helps to expand our intellectual horizon to include social groups beyond the immediate victims of violence like Muslims and Christians. Crimes against all minorities like Dalits, Adivasis, Backwards, Sikhs, Buddhists and (Hindu) women and the LGBTQIA+ community have become so entrenched that most scholars fail to understand it. Following Hannah Arendt, let me say no evil is banal enough.
Also read: Book Review: ‘Muslim Women Speak’ By Ghazala Jamil
Zeeshan Husain has done BSc (AMU), and MSW (TISS). He is presently pursuing PhD in sociology from JNU. His research interest is in the society and polity of Uttar Pradesh. You can find him on Twitter.
Featured image source: Amazon
What a lucid review of a great anthropologist’s work!
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