Example essay

Book Review: Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger by Arjun Appadurai

“…Fear of the few is the paradoxical weakness of liberal democracy in the age of globalization…”

You might be wondering the logic behind reviewing the book at hand, which is an old book, published in 2006, to be precise. As I read through the book, I realized that the key argument(s) it makes; always keeps it relevant, maybe more and more relevant over time.

As sociology students, we knew Arjun Appadurai as someone who works on globalization and the history of census surveys in India. This handy book Fear of small numbers continues the trajectory already taken in his previous works. What prompted Appadurai to write this book? He says his earlier work on globalization has been criticized for not paying attention to the darker side of globalization. This darker side was the growing violence against minorities in many, if not most, nation states.

Numerically, a larger group of people want the elimination of smaller groups. It is the story of a growing hatred against ethnic minorities at a time of growing fervor for the global economy. It is a story of paradoxes: where the powerful fear the weak, where the rich fear the poor and where the majority fear the minority. This inverted logic of violence forced Arjun Appadurai to write this thin volume, what he calls an essay.

Two events rocked Appadurai: the 9/11 attack in the United States, and in India, the demolition of the Babri Mosque and the ensuing anti-Muslim pogrom in Mumbai. He began to wonder why the world, which had the potential to think of people as one super big family, suddenly started targeting its own kind. More powerful cultures began to criminalize less powerful ones; this has happened globally and nationally.

Numerically, a larger group of people want the elimination of smaller groups. It is the story of a growing hatred against ethnic minorities at a time of growing fervor for the global economy. It is a story of paradoxes: where the powerful fear the weak, where the rich fear the poor and where the majority fear the minority. This inverted logic of violence forced Arjun Appadurai to write this thin volume, what he calls an essay.

This “national culture” is created through propaganda and violence against non-national culture. Thus, the boundary between “us” and “them” is created. This boundary is logically irrelevant, but this irrelevance is the cause of the anxiety of the nation, national leaders and all interest groups to stoke the biases of “us” versus “them”. The majority is created not in terms of quality social relations but in terms of othering the minority. So we have a ‘majority’ with no real feeling of ‘us’ but only feelings of ‘them’.

Let us briefly review the two major points that Fear of small numbers makes. First, the book asserts that globalization has occurred deepest in economics, but not in politics or society. Globalization has considerably evaporated the notion of “national economy”. Nation states feel less and less relevant and, in order to feel alive, they revive the older, imaginary national culture.

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This “national culture” is created through propaganda and violence against non-national culture. Thus, the boundary between “us” and “them” is created. This boundary is logically irrelevant, but this irrelevance is the cause of the anxiety of the nation, national leaders and all interest groups to stoke the biases of “us” versus “them”. The majority is created not in terms of quality social relations but in terms of othering the minority. So we have a ‘majority’ with no real feeling of ‘us’ but only feelings of ‘them’.

Globalization, on paper, should have expanded the geographic boundaries of “us”, but it has done the exact opposite. The majority are actually wrong. The second point raised by Appadurai is the growing inferiority complex among the false majority to contain/control the minority. A certain feeling of incompleteness exhausts the psyche of the so-called majority. They want their community ethos to be a national ethos, which means those who don’t fit their mold must not only be marginalized, but also totally excluded. This anguish of being incomplete despite the greatest number provokes hatred, exclusion and ultimately genocide.

This “national culture” is created through propaganda and violence against non-national culture. Thus, the boundary between “us” and “them” is created. This boundary is logically irrelevant, but this irrelevance is the cause of the anxiety of the nation, national leaders and all interest groups to stoke the biases of “us” versus “them”. The majority is created not in terms of quality social relations but in terms of othering the minority. So we have a ‘majority’ with no real feeling of ‘us’ but only feelings of ‘them’.

It is here that we see the paradox of the “fear of powerlessness” take on its full meaning in the eyes of the readers of Fear of small numbers. The greater the numerical preponderance, the more the majority suffers from the complexity of incompleteness and uncertainty. So, as globalization attempts to liquidate nation states, 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 United States to maintain the unipolar world after the globalization of the 1980s and second, the failure of Hindu men of the dominant caste to keep their masculinity intact. Unfortunately, the book retains these two key arguments as subtext and not as analytical tools to describe “the global war on terror and Hindutva”.

Let me describe what Appadurai has to say about these two phenomena. The whole talk of terrorism is to cover up the violence the United States commits through military expeditions, foreign policy, and economic institutions. Today’s capitalism increases wealth inequality across the world; the global north is getting richer while the global south is getting poorer. Fear of small numbers mentions how (the Hindu elite) desires the wealth of the United States but hates its social values.

There’s also the mention of West’s obsession with Muslim women’s dress while remaining silent (accompanied?) about rampant domestic and sexual violence against white women.

Finally, it 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 a symptom of the insecurity of Hindu males of the dominant caste to retain their traditional power. This achieves its panacea in the demand for proper representation for Hindu OBCs, the so 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 bowed to the logic of a free market economy. Yet it cannot solve growing economic inequalities, and rich Hindus fear poor Hindus. A conspicuous absence is the reference to the plight of Hindu women, say, for example, Charu Gupta’s famous work on Hindu communalism.

Read also : Book Review: Muslims in the Indian Economy by Omar Khalidi

Although I generally agree with the main points raised in Fear of small numbers, a nuanced understanding of the term minority was expected. The term minority, as Sukhadeo Thorat uses it, refers not only to religious minorities but also to social minorities such as Dalits, Adivasis and women. It helps broaden our intellectual horizon to include social groups beyond the immediate victims of violence such as 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 academics do not understand it. After Hannah Arendt, let me say that no evil is trivial enough.

Read also : Book Review: “Muslim Women Speak” by Ghazala Jamil


Zeeshan Husain did BSc (AMU) and MSW (TISS). He is currently pursuing a doctorate in sociology at JNU. His research interests focus on the society and politics of Uttar Pradesh. You can find it on Twitter.

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