Earlier this week, while waiting for the dinner to finish cooking, I turned on the television and caught a programme that seemed to say so much about the international division of labour in the world today that I felt I had to write something about it. Inspired by the success of the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the programme makers had taken a group of British B list celebrities to an up-market former private mansion (‘The Real Marigold Hotel’) in Rajasthan with the ostensible aim of helping them decide whether they would like to retire to India.
Shown on a day when it was being reported that asylum-seekers entering some European countries were having their jewellery confiscated while those being refused entry to Britain were being tear-gassed in Calais, the contrast was vivid. These British migrants were waved easily across the border, with nobody questioning their right to enter the former colony and help themselves to the benefits of living there. And of course allowed to travel by air – no rubber dinghies on choppy waters for them.
This comes at a time when the baby-boomers in the UK are entering retirement, boosting the elderly population, while social care budgets are being savaged. The question of how to survive in old age has come into sharp focus for a generation brought up to believe they’d never had it so good. In an era of globalisation, if politically-imposed constraints on immigration make it increasingly difficult to bring the world’s poor to Britain to care for them in their old age, why not export the elderly to their home countries instead, where they can be looked after in a state where somebody else picks up the cost of bringing up the next generation?
India has long been swelling the ranks of the global servant class: its call centre workers patiently taking abuse from irate English-speaking customers of global corporations, its hotel workers providing tourists with luxuries they could never afford at home, its ex-pats providing nursing, child-care and cleaning services as well as a myriad technical and professional services across the world. But, as this programme clunkily underlined, it also has a special place in the baby boomer imagination as a site of spirituality and exoticism, romantically counterposed to the consumerism and materiality of the West.
In the part of the programme I watched, this was voiced most explicitly by the dancer Wayne Sleep who said that, after a brush with cancer, he ‘wanted to get in touch with his spiritual side’. The group was taken to a temple and introduced to a guru, traipsed round various beautiful and exotic locations and and taken to meet, first a poor but upwardly mobile man from a Dalit caste and then a Maharaja who had cashed in on the family history by turning the family palace into a luxury hotel. They were then encouraged to mouth platitudes about the extreme contrasts between rich and poor and how different this was from the egalitarian society they were used to back home in Britain. No mention, of course, of how that imagined equality, which had some basis in reality in the post-war period when they were young, has now given way to growing social polarisation back home in Blighty too (and may in fact be diminishing in India with its growing middle class – though India too has a large share of the world’s billionaires).
Thus was denial piled on denial. Airbrushed out of the story was not only the appalling contrast between the free movement of capital, services and rich tourists across national borders on the one hand and, on the other, the savage constraints placed on the free movement of workers and refugees, but also the dramatic growth in inequality within the developed world. And no mention of the destruction of the welfare state and how that might form their choices about seeking alternative places to be cared for in their declining years.
I did not watch to the end of the episode and will miss future instalments because I will be travelling pretty continuously for the next few weeks, and I am not sure anyway that I could contain my anger long enough to see the series right through, but if any readers of this blog have enough self control and semiotic curiosity to do so, I would be interested to learn how it turns out.