Virtual Money, Material Queues and Dystopic Democracy

Demonetisation has forced a cultural process of organised assembly into existence – outside banks, post offices and ATMs.

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People queue outside a bank to exchange their old currency notes. Credit: Shome Basu

The demonetisation of the Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency notes that was initiated by the government of India, has been accompanied by RBI advertisements and ‘public interest’ appeals to shift to e-cash, virtual banking and online living. The central bank even suggested that this shift would make one feel “empowered”. The irony in this proposed cultural shift from hard currency to virtual currency is supreme.

In order to continue trading, buying and living, the old currency needs to be deposited or exchanged and the new currency withdrawn. This has meant people have had to stand in long queues inside – or more accurately, outside – banks. Thus, the bid to ‘whiten’ black money, to make the virtual visible, requires the physical act and manifestation of individuals waiting in lines. There is a materiality to this waiting. Bodies of the people perform a community of ‘waiters’, so to speak. People in the line perform an identity, in other words, of ‘those who need currency’.

It could be argued, according to Judith Butler, that this is “an embodied form of calling into question the inchoate and powerful dimensions of reigning notions of the political”. Butler, of course, is referencing protest demonstrations and makes the case that these bodies assembled in public spaces draw attention to “the struggle with precarity and persistence”, for “the body that is on the line, exhibiting its value and its freedom in the demonstration itself, [is] enacting, by the embodied form of the gathering, a claim to the political”.

The warm bodies lined up from 5 a.m. onwards outside banks and ATMs speak of the embodied nature of demonstrating a crying need for cash. This is not virtual, because the bodies and the waiting are not virtual. Thus the irony is that the shift from material to virtual can only be purchased through an embodied material process.

There are other forms of the “return of the material”. People hire individuals to mark their place in queues. Tea and water suppliers do business – with difficulty in finding loose change and currency – at such venues. Some individuals died waiting – marking an end to their material existence. A barter system emerged in other places. An entire apparatus of embodied waiting has been put in place.

Over the years, we have seen reports of the quantum of black money stashed away in onshore and offshore accounts of benami transactions. This invisible and parallel economy is also virtual, in the sense that we know it by its effects, including its presence as some kind of ‘ghost’ in election speeches. Virtual and illegal money is ghostly but real.

The demonetisation process and policy that has been carried out in the name of the people demands that the people first make the physical and embodied effort themselves. Thus, what is carried out in the name of the public requires embodied participation by the public, which, of course, is not asked whether it wishes to engage in this rather horrendous participation.

Needless to say, there is a gap between what the public wants and what the elected representatives say the public wants, or what happens in the name of the public. The elected representatives and the government have reduced the people to numbers. There is a virtualisation of the material when individuals are reduced to statistical anonymity.

The assembly outside banks ensures a reversal of this numerical strand of democracy – we see the public responding as the public, responding to what has been done in the name of the public. Where the government declares every policy ‘in the name of the people’, it in fact, as Butler suggested, “abbreviates, quantifies, something we might call the will of the people.” It is this abbreviation that has been declared null and void. The people queuing up are not – as the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka said about humanity in general – abstract.

This form of assembly is in sharp contrast to the lines outside polling booths on the day of the election. These latter lines, covered extensively in newspapers as indexing the glory of Indian democracy, are constitutive of the democratic process and are central to the social and cultural imagining of what we understand as the election of public representatives. What, then, do the non-electoral lines outside banks signify in terms of a new cultural practice?

These new lines are to be read as a signifier of democracy, but a dystopic one. Yamuna Sangarasivam, in writing about dystopic democracy, argues “the idea of staying whole is tied up with maintaining the integrity of a dystopic democracy that needs to suppress political, economic and military information from the public under the guise of national security”. That the process of demonetisation was kept a secret from the public is no secret now. That it was done with the idea of strengthening democracy is also a part of government lore today. Yet, this is why it embodies a dystopic democracy.

The forced culturatisation of the public into turning up at banks at unearthly hours, exchanging old currency for new, or waiting outside defunct ATMs, suggests a twist in the very idea of the public and in the conventions of belonging and citizenship. That is, where democracy is built on the electoral lines to elect public representatives, these new lines capture the anxieties, frustrations and panic of this same public that waited in lines a couple of years ago.

Sangarasivam argues “within a dystopic democracy, abjection is integral to the process of developing the docile bodies of a politically unconscious citizenry to celebrate and defend the nation-state that demands a condition of wilful ignorance to demonstrate patriotism and national belonging”. The public is indeed being called upon to endure this hardship in the name of patriotism and national welfare. Yet, doing so requires being rendered abject through queuing. One demonstrates one’s national belonging by uncomplainingly waiting for legitimate currency. Or so one would assume.

It has been argued by theorists of the epistemic model of democracy like Alvin Goldman that the informed decisions essential to democracy demand the circulation of politically relevant information. The cultural effects of demonetisation have included the precise opposite phenomenon. Rumours and questionable information jostle for space alongside government directives, RBI instructions and notices from banks. This culture of questionable and unreliable information circulates virtually, by word-of-mouth and in sharp contrast to the printed and telecast directives on official policy. Yet, there is no gainsaying the effects of rumour – effects palpable in the panic rush to banks by individuals and even, in some cases, entire families.

Rumour, described as “fugitive speech”, reveals the “layers of lived experience and thus embedded affect that are otherwise occluded from view.” But they also generate an “intersubjective, communal adhesiveness”. They constitute social relations and recast identities outside the political ones. This is precisely the point made above: beyond the quantified identity of the public, the rumours and consequent embodied waiting bring people together in their anxieties, panic and information asymmetry.

This is dystopic democracy at its best – founded on panic, rumour and information unreliability, all leading to a collective coherence, however anomic, in the form of waiting crowds. Like the circulation of virtual specie (coins) and the invisible black money, both of which have clear effects, rumours are now generic to the cultural effects of demonetisation.

To ‘demonstrate’ is to prove or establish. It comes from ‘monstrare’ which is itself derived from ‘monstrum’ meaning divine omen, wonder and is the root of the word ‘monster’. The ‘demos’ of democracy and the ‘demon’ of demonetisation seem to demonstrate a frightening monstrosity of the public queue or the monstrosity of democracy revealed in the form of the public queue.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.