Arjun Appadurai is the Senior Advisor for Global Initiatives and the John Dewey Professor in Social Sciences at New School University in New York. He was born and educated in Bombay and did his MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. Appadurai is one of the few scholars who have defined the way we have come to understand globalisation. He is also involved deeply with Mumbai-based NGO, PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research). He spoke to Sayandeb Chowdhury about globalisation, the decline of the nation-state, and what makes Mumbai unique.  

You are an expert on globalisation, your work has shaped its reception worldwide. How would you define it today?

Thank you, yes, I have seen globalisation, especially in its first decade since 1990, as a positive idea — in its reach, in its ability to bind the world in a common economic framework, in its push for open societies. It can be defined as a new arrangement in worldwide financial transactions since 1970, whereby the finance market has gradually got independent from other markets like labour, manufacturing, etc. But globalisation’s attraction is in its ability to go beyond finance and affect other spheres of life, thereby transforming loyalties and identities. That is its strength and also, I would say its major weakness. Nobody is outside its reach and hence not everybody is happy about it. 

Your first book on globalisation, Modernity At Large, discussed culture under globalisation, including the culture of consumption. In your second book, The Fear Of Small Numbers, you made a shift to explore globalisation’s darker side.

Yes, absolutely. As I said, I began to see globalisation, in its initial years, as a good thing. But in the process, I became aware of the hidden violence that emerges out of it. ‘Small numbers’ means the minority everywhere who have become much more aware of their rights under globalisation. And hence is no longer small in number. This is a good thing but it also means that the majority, in many cases the majoritarian state, has found it difficult to suppress the minority as it had done before.

There is, therefore, a minority which is not a minority which the ‘majority’ cannot map anymore. This is where the violence comes from. This is as much true about Europe and the US as it is about Islamic terrorism, Gujarat, or even the Mumbai riots. Hence it is in the process of globalisation’s unfolding that the fear of the ‘Other’ lies. We must examine this. We must see why none of the long-distance violence we have seen in the last 10 years is about poverty and deprivation, but about morality and civilisation.

What is the way out? 

Mumbai is a great example. It is a city of many faiths, ethnicities and varieties. Life in Mumbai is anything but serene and uncomplicated. And yet, there is no intractable, linear violence as you have in other cities like Johannesburg, Lagos, Sao Paolo or even New Delhi. In Mumbai, people invest a lot in keeping social life lubricated. That is an amazing lesson. The life of poor people everywhere in India is the same. But elsewhere you either stay where you are or you go down. But in Mumbai, there is a good chance that your life just might improve. That is a big lesson. You come here to know people and make your own life. Why would you want to turn away from them? Mumbai in that sense is globalisation in practice. Like Mumbai, globalisation also gives hope. 

But Mumbai is no longer India’s premier industrial city. How has the city changed for you in the last couple of decades?

Commercial and political short-sightedness has meant that many of the new industries have not come to Mumbai — both in services and in manufacture. Nobody has planned Mumbai’s economic future. In the social, political, economic and territorial spheres, Mumbai has changed so dramatically as to be virtually unrecognisable, say, from the 1980s. It is difficult to say whether these changes are good or bad. In some spheres, Mumbai is an expanding and proportionately declining metropolis, like in basic civic infrastructure. However, its unique charm and cosmopolitanism have survived all assaults.

The nation-state, you say, is declining under globalisation. Is it because minorities will connect across borders? 

Not only that. Tell me, which part of our lives is limited by borders anymore? The internet, the job market, the education industry, information, entertainment, commerce — they all exist without borders. This is only natural. The nation-state is not an absolute decree. It is a comparatively new idea in world history, a little more than two centuries old and has had its day. Whether it will dissipate and give way to something new, we have to wait and see.

Will you then describe globalisation as an epoch in itself or an epoch-making event? 

That’s a difficult question. We are still in its infant stages. Did we know in the initial days of the Industrial Revolution, how far it will take us away from the past? We did not. Similarly, we cannot say how far we will go. But it’s a break with the past and it’s never going to be the same again.