A Review of “The Republic of Hunger and Other Essays”

Manish Kumar Shrivastava 

Utsa Patnaik, The Republic of Hunger and Other Essays , Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2007. ISBN: 81-88789-33-XX, pp. 232, Price (PB): Rs. 250.

“It is necessary for development…..some people have to pay the price for the time being……Once we are developed and become superpower everybody would be benefitted.”

There can be different reactions to this statement. For somebody following the development discourse from a people’s perspective, this kind of argument doesn’t come as a surprise. Rather, a routine reaction follows—oh, here comes another neo-liberal. But one has to take it with pinch of salt if it comes from a 12 year old boy in a small town of Madhya Pradesh. This boy was arguing in favor of large dams, Sardar Sarovar in particular. The argument then went further, supporting all sorts of displacements of people due to so-called ‘development’ projects. His argument was supplemented by more than a dozen other boys and girls of his age who were visibly excited by the idea of becoming a ‘superpower’ one day. They were convinced that only dams and shopping malls mean development and unless Indian has them it cannot become a superpower. There were also a handful boys and girls, little younger, who didn’t seem convinced with this idea of development and tried to articulate their concerns and doubts, but they certainly lacked the language and information. They could not understand how the electricity produced at the dams would improve the lives of those who have been displaced. Those who don’t have houses anymore wouldn’t need that electricity in the first place. They lost the battle of words despite applying their minds to an extent their parents don’t expect them to (or may even don’t want them to). Those who were dumb otherwise parroted what is available in plenty in electronic and print media, won the battle.

The incident is not about the half baked arguments and big words coming out of little mouths. It indeed is a miniature of a much larger issue that faces the progressive politics. The biggest lacuna of progressive politics, today, at least in India, is the lack of a language which can communicate with the majority of population whose thinking process has been enslaved by the neo-liberal propaganda. The words—development and growth—have become a holy cow which cannot be questioned even when thousands of farmers continue to  commit  suicide and more than 70 % of the population is living at less than Rs. 20 per day. The essays collected in the volume ‘The Republic of Hunger’ come across as an attempt to fill in for the lack of a language that would enable even a non-expert to argue with the so-called ‘experts’ writing and shouting continuously in the media. In these essays, Utsa Patnaik has tried to sort the threads of wool called economics.

One very easy explanation for the underdevelopment that catches the public imagination instantly is the growing population. Media and policy makers keep on harping what a monster population is for developing countries. That it puts immense pressure on scarce natural resources and it cannot be sustained. People are dying because there is not enough food and so on. Such a simplistic logic, which is nothing but a truism, gets easy acceptance among those who have no access to information and who genuinely believe in what the governments say in media. Utsas Patnaik unfolds this argument and shows that access to food or any other facility is not primarily a question of limited supply but it is essentially a question of politics, which in order to safeguard the interests of powerful creates and constructs such economic systems where less powerful are forced to give up their resources even at the cost of compromising with their own basic minimum needs.

In the essays collected in this volume, Utsa Patnaik has tried to explain the phenomenon of wide-spread hunger in the developing countries. Her analysis focuses on Indian case but she also generalizes it by citing cases of other Asian, Latin American and African countries. The central claim of this volume is that the wide spread hunger in the developing and under-developed countries is an inherent constituent of the centre-periphery relationship among the West and the rest of the world. Patnaik argues that the present day situation is nothing but a re-incarnation of the colonial era where the high standards of living in the West are maintained at the cost of declining nutrition levels and incomes in the developing countries (p.25). In her analysis, she equates the end results of colonial rule and free trade.  She argues that the inability of the West to produce a wide range of agricultural products due to climatic reasons necessitates their need to get free and easy access to the agricultural products of Tropical countries. This leads them to have either a direct political control over the resources of developing countries, as they did during the colonial period or an indirect economic control through the propagation of free trade dogma. She argues that the theoretical exercises done by Smith and Ricardo and many more contemporary neo-liberals, to show that free trade is equally beneficiary to all parties are fallacious as they overlook the uneven distribution of productive capacities.

One striking aspect of this volume is the similarities it draws between the colonial period and the present times. The similarity in the mechanisms through which per capita food grain output as well as availability declines in the colonies, which are now developing countries, shows that the exploitation of these countries has not stopped by any means, only its form and articulation has changed. The pattern of agricultural activity today is similar to that of colonial times. The agricultural sector is witnessing a shifting cropping pattern away from domestic food grain requirements and a focus on export of primary products, which were also the critical component of colonial policy in India and other countries. Another critical similarity between colonial rule and present neo-liberal rule is the steep decline in the purchasing power of the masses through deflationary policies—a complete withdrawal of the government from the social expenditure.

One of the conclusions that Patnaik draws in her work is that the complete trade liberalization, withdrawal of price support and subsidy cuts mean that the “protection of mass livelihoods and guarantee of subsistence have ceased to be the aim of state policy.” It is important, however, to note here that if one looks at the role of state the state policy seems to be more concerned about its people in the West as against this absolutely ‘callous’ attitude of the state in developing countries. Patnaik has repeatedly highlighted that the developed countries have not only maintained subsidies to their farmers but have, in fact, improved the protection while the developing countries have been following blind deflationary policies.

The second conclusion that Utsa Patnaik arrives at concerns loss of food security in the developing countries. She argues that the misery of Third World is necessary for the economic and social stability of capitalism in the developed world (p.89) and the material gains of the capitalist system that the West has achieved can be sustained only by squeezing the rights and livelihoods of the Third World population.

Consequent to this is her third conclusion, which is about the necessity to reject the capitalist model in order to ensure the food security for all. She demonstrates with the help of two examples – through the consequences emanating out of the shift from a socialist planned economy to a capitalist economy after the debacle of USSR and the second being the peasant resistance in the Chiapas region of Mexico against the neo-liberal policies. She argues that after the collapse of USSR, the social security went completely haywire as unemployment and mortality rates shot through the roof due to blind privatization of public sector. On the other hand, after Mexico became a part of NAFTA and imposed the neo-liberal policies, the impoverished peasants in Chiapas province rose in revolt against NAFTA. They forced the Mexican government to setup a ‘National Commission for Integral Development and Social Justice for Indigenous People’ and also drew up their own plans for the ‘restoration of land to campesino, abolition of debts…[and] have set up new organizational forms of cooperation among the diverse groups in the area’ (p.95). In other words, she argues that the neo-liberal model of privatization, deflationary policies and export promotion inevitably leads to the break-down of social security which forces the masses to revolt against it and set up a cooperative system against the dogma of competition.

Manish Kumar Shrivastava is a research scholar with the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

A Review of “Labour Bondage in West India”

Pratyush Chandra  

Jan Breman, Labour Bondage in West India: From Past to Present , Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, ISBN:9-780195-685213, pp. xii+216, Price (HB) Rs. 525.

The combined socio-economic development in India has been an enigma for the political economists. It defies any strict characterization in terms of a single mode of production. Any alternative analysis needs to provide a coherent semantics of the capitalist adoption and oft-times perpetuation of the ‘outmoded’ modes of exploitation. Jan Breman’s contribution in unfolding the political economy behind the dynamic persistence of labour bondage and other ‘non-capitalist’ forms of subordination of rural labour has been widely recognized. His conceptualization of ‘footloose labour’ substantiated by his empirical studies of the phenomenon of rural-to-rural migration and non-agricultural occupations in rural Gujarat provides a formidable picture of how (post)modernity perpetuates informal sector and “neo-bondage” in the age of neoliberalism.

The present book complements Breman’s other works by focusing “on the historical antecedents of the ongoing subordination of rural labour in what has come to be hailed as a booming economy”.(x) It provides a historical survey of the changing nature of land rights, rural bondage and conflicts, embedded within the wider political economic transformation since pre-colonial times. The book also contains a couple of very interesting chapters giving a class analysis of the agrarian unrest and anti-colonial struggle in South Gujarat, while exposing the cyclic subaltern and open assertion of rural labour within these movements.

The book begins with an analysis of the structure of the traditional rural economy, how the domestication of indigenous population and their allocation within the Hindu social hierarchy took place, how all these socio-cultural changes had a direct link with “the advent of sedentary agriculture”. Breman succeeds in demonstrating a continuous dynamic reshuffling within this supposedly rigid structuring, at least among the landed castes. Political changes, changes in tax regime, and the changing linkages of the rural economy with the wider economy all affected the local socio-economic relations and even caste-class nexus. In fact, “[t]he peasantry continued to be highly mobile until deep into the second half of the nineteenth century, and the situation stabilized only when, with the twentieth century in sight, all land fit for agriculture had been taken up for cultivation and the colonial administration had restricted the power of landlords”.(12) Also, Breman “contradicts the assumption that the village economy was a closed circuit that functioned solely to meet the needs of the inhabitants”.(28) He recognizes the limited, yet definite role of monetization in connecting the local economy with the outside world. The most important role of the British colonization was that it completed the process of land and labour enclosures, putting an end to the frontier nature of the agricultural economy in the region, sedentarizing every nomadic community and its activity, thus permanently allocating the local communities in the dominant economic structure.

The second chapter deals with the standpoints of various relevant social and class forces on halipratha or the system of bonded labour – masters, servants, the colonial and legal views, etc. The chapter begins with providing a glimpse of the basic hegemonic ideological make-up that justified the system of bondage and patronage – how masters and servants both had their own logic to exist in these relations. The colonial administrators and reporters, well-versed in western capitalist liberalism, saw this system essentially as transitory labour arrangement, which would eventually give way to free labour. Breman discusses a prominent historian Gyan Prakash’s critique of the colonial view. According to Prakash, the colonial view reduced the system of bondage – a “manifestation of social hierarchy” – to an economic transaction, classifying it as a form of debt bondage. Prakash concludes that this bondage “was constructed by the colonial discourse of freedom”, thus disconnecting it from its “pre-modern” roots. Breman though sympathetic to the idea of halipratha as a patron-client relationship, strongly departs from the postmodern tendency, evident in Prakash, of reducing various levels of determinations of this relationship into a single horizontal level, of discourse. Breman stresses that there was an “awareness on the part of both landowners and landless that the unequal relationship between them was clearly given an extra dimension by the subjugation that secured a far-reaching and permanent claim on the labour power of the hali”.(46-47) Also, Breman, as noted above, does not take the pre-colonial local economy as a closed one. Thus he finds debt-bondage in the time of the British as a continuity – a means of permanent claiming of labour power. However, there was definitely a radical intensification in this relationship during the colonial period, a decisive factor being “the gradual increase in production for the market, and the monetization of economic exchange that inevitably accompanied it”.(59)

The third chapter deals with the Bardoli movement (1922-28), which has been posed as the success story of peasant mobilization and struggle under the Gandhian nationalist leadership of the Indian National Congress. It shows how this leadership remained loyal to the ruling classes, becoming an agency to vocalize the landed class interests, while policing and crushing the assertion of the landless and halis. Even at the level of discourse, leaders like Sardar Patel used outrageous casteist rhetoric to encourage the unity and assertion of the landed gentry, while alienating and silencing the subaltern, in the name of homogeneous nationalism. The issues of land reforms and bondage were effectively sidelined.

The next chapter completes the canvas of class struggle that marked rural Gujarat, correcting the hegemonic perceptions within the nationalist movement. The landless, Dublas, halis were not “as passive and docile as these perceptions seem to suggest”. In fact, they have long practiced passive resistance by indulging in so-called ‘indiscipline’ and insubordination. Even in the Bardoli campaign of 1928, the vertical solidarity was not so much prominent as professed by the campaigners and chroniclers. There were voices even among Gandhians who were aware of the upper caste-class orientation of the movement and tried to resist it.

The nationalist voices concerned with tenancy rights and anti-landlordism united to form the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) at the country level in 1936. Despite a stress over an all-peasant unity evident in the name of the organization, it was a tremendous leap towards uniting the forces conscious of the need for a radical reconstruction of the rural society. At least in the ryotwari areas like Gujarat, where the AIKS was formed under the leadership of Indulal Yagnik and Dinkar Mehta, its programmes were directly translated into the mobilization and agitation of the poor peasantry and the landless including the bonded labour, the halis. Breman notes the clarity of the AIKS leadership in its understanding of the hali system especially for its conception of the halis’ masters as capitalist farmers! Despite a tremendous resistance on the part of the capitalist farmers and their nationalist leadership, the AIKS in Gujarat succeeded in posing the halipratha, landlessness and poverty as material issues rather than issues for “self-improvement” and spiritual development of the rural poor as Gandhians and upper caste-class biased leadership posed. Even the Congress leadership had to address the issue, even though reluctantly. On January 26, 1939 Sardar Patel announced the formal end of the halipratha system on the terms agreed upon by the landowners, which tilted very much on their side, especially with regard to wages etc. But the subsequent events showed the intensification of conflicts on the issue of implementation. Remarkably, despite the fact that the Congress was running the government in Bombay Province since 1937, the leadership did not insist on a government order or legislation banning bonded labour, thus allowing the landowners freedom to sabotage the agreement.

The final chapter deals with whatever happened to the various legislative measures taken for land redistribution and the continued presence of landlessness and unfree labour after independence. Ultimately, “[t]he halpatis benefited in no way at all from the land reforms. The few tenant farmers among them generally lost the land that they had sharecropped on an informal basis”. In fact, even with regard to the uncultivated land not under private ownership to which everyone had free access, “this access would be increasingly restricted as a result of the widespread trend to privatize the land”.(166) Breman thus concludes his review of land reforms in post-colonial India: “they were designed and implemented in such a way that social classes like the Halpatis were denied access to agrarian landownership…. Increasing the share of land owned by landpoor farmers was given priority above allocating plots of land to the landless masses”.(167-68) The mechanical notion widespread among the leadership with regard to the transition from agriculture to industrial development – that the rural poor has to be shifted ultimately to the urban centres – also weakened the voice for formulating and implementing any radical measure for land reform.

With regard to unfree labour too, the tremendous resistance to any abolition of the hali system at the ground level on the part of the landowners, along with the impotent nationalist leadership which was more subservient to the landed interests, broke every resolution to gain freedom for and by the landless. With the repression and disappearance of the AIKS activists from the scene, the Gandhian reformers were the only ones left to ‘represent’ the interests of the halpatis, and they had no concrete strategy for serving them except to act as middlemen using the tactics of persuasion. “The halis had no other choice than to go back to work under the old regime”.(169) Despite the announcements to the effect, even after Independence, “getting rid of unfree labour was not seen as a government responsibility but, as in 1938, was once again left to the free play of social forces. These forces were represented, on the one hand, by a class of farmers who had not only consolidated their power base at the local level during the process of independence but had further reinforced it, and on the other hand by a large mass of landless labourers whose labour power was only required in full strength for certain parts of the year.” (175) Ultimately the effect for the landless was either more indebtedness, or they had to seek employment outside agriculture. The hegemonic social forces including their political representatives were free from any responsibility in this “free play of social forces”. Breman discusses how the one-sided class struggle over the legislative measures like the fixing of minimum wages too were effectively emasculated, leaving the rural poor unrepresented.

The book goes on to discuss how the tools of repression were utilized to deradicalize the rural poor. In fact, “[t]he Congress party, which had come to power after Independence both at the central level and in the separate states, put an end to the pressure that had been placed on the leaders of the nationalist movement for decades to pursue a rural policy in the interests of the landless and landpoor peasants.”(180) Breman narrates how the halis and tribals fared when they were “henceforth [placed] under the protection of the Gandhian reformers”. Even the moderate and conciliatory measures of these reformers were resisted by the landed classes.

In the end, the book elaborates on the reasons behind the gradual disappearance of bondage, discussing the seminal contributions of Daniel Thorner, “who portrayed the development of the underclass in the agricultural economy of South Asia in the 1950s and 1960s”.(188) With the gradual capitalist development in the region and the intensification of local class struggle, the bondage as practiced till then became both economically and politically untenable. “Bonded labour came to an end not because of government intervention but because employers and employees, for different reasons, wanted it that way…The disintegration of the halipratha system was an expression of the resistance of the landless underclass to the ideology and practice of inequality”.(193)

In my view, the most important contribution of the present book has been to trace the trajectory of class struggle over the issue of bondage. In this process, Breman is able to deconstruct the anti-colonial politics, legal, legislative and social reforms before and after independence as expressions of multi-level struggles between various classes. Nothing is conceded by anyone without resistance from others. Even the chronicling of these struggles has been sharply influenced by the conflicts of interests, and this book succeeds in presenting a holistic picture of these discursive conflicts from the standpoint of the exploited and downtrodden.

(A slightly modified version of the article was published in the Indian Journal of Labour Economics 50(1), 2007)

There-Is-An-Alternative, Let’s Build It Now

Ravi Kumar

Michael Lebowitz, Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, Monthly Review Press, New York (Daanish Books, Delhi), 2006. 

“In the various struggles of people for human dignity and social justice, a vision of an alternative socialist society has always been latent. Let us reclaim and renew that vision” (p. 60).

The crisis of capitalism could not be more overt and exposed, but the instruments of survival at its disposal – both material and ideological – are also very effective with growing financialisation, commodification and consumerism. There are stark similarities in the way the welfarist face of the State has been on wane, along with its increased instrumentalisation in favour of global capital, in the so-called developed world and the inappropriately coined euphemistic developing world. At the level of movements too, if at one moment and place we hear sagas of popular and sustained confrontation against the global capital, the next we see a fragmented and weakened struggle against capital.

Latin American countries have been “continuing” their march towards leftist politics; conglomerations of people worldwide are voicing the possibilities that ‘another world is possible’ and ‘socialist’, and ‘communist’ organisations/candidates are assuming power everywhere. Yet, the hegemony of capital culminates into attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, and as threats to Iran. Agitating workers at Hindustan Motors are cruelly caned in a left ruled province in India. Workers struggling against their pathetic condition in the Hero Honda factory in India are brutally beaten up. People are killed and raped if they protest against the acquisition of their land for setting up Special Economic Zones (SEZs). The informalisation of labour force is the order of the day, driving down the living conditions of a vast section of the population. Isn’t the barbarism of capitalism stark enough for a movement to emerge – a movement that aims at transforming the State along with the production relations?

Welcome to the world of neoliberal capital, where the agenda of social transformation takes a back seat in light of the “booming” economy.  The Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) driven economy has generated such demands that most university departments in humanities and social sciences have just a handful of students for research courses. Impressions generated about the success of the economy and the scarcity of qualified and ‘good’ labour force combine to deliver us the dream of a ‘people’s economy’ under capitalism! Unemployment is there but capital complains (in unison with many of the ‘progressive’ comrades) that they are short of ‘good’, ‘able’ people in their firms. As Nasscom Chief Kiran Karnik suggests, there should be Special Educational Zones (SEZs), exclusively maintained by the private capital without any state intervention. The Indian State is also enthused.

Problems, discontentment with the system and growing concerns at loss of jobs, precariousness in the labour market, insecurity, privatisation led ‘initiatives’ in health and education are noticeably voiced in different quarters. But they are not seen as emerging out of a system, where capital dictates.  Increasing inequity in society, in terms of social security or welfare, is not seen as an outcome of the efforts of capital to maximise its profits. The dissent instead takes the existing social relations and production process as given, a priori and immutable. The boundaries of struggle remain defined by capital.

As Michael Lebowitz puts, “Our greatest failing is that we have lost sight of an alternative. And, because we have no grand conception of an alternative (indeed, we are told that we should have no grand conceptions), then the response to the neoliberal mantra of TINA, that There Is No Alternative, has been: Let’s preserve health care, let’s not attack education, and let’s try for a little more equality and a little more preservation of the environment. Because of our failure to envision an alternative as a whole, we have many small pieces, many small no’s; indeed, the only feasible alternative to barbarism proposed has been barbarism with a human face” (p. 43).

Lebowitz’s work holds great relevance today because of significant issues that it puts forth before us:

(1) It grounds its arguments for a socialist future in the critique of past experiences.
(2) It lays down broad contours of anti-capitalist alternatives and suggests strategies to control and push back capital.
(3) It demonstrates how economic and social equality can be achieved along with the generation of political consciousness that would sustain the anti-capitalist offensive.


Lebowitz develops the idea of human development – i.e., the “development of rich individuality” and the “absolute working out of his creative potentialities” – that runs through Marx’s work. But this can happen only in a society where people are not alienated, where interdependence is recognised and everybody cooperates. In capitalism on the other hand, inequality and unfreedom are inbuilt, where despotism at the workplace constitutes the system of surplus extraction and accumulation. Here, producers neither control the production process nor have “property rights in the product that results from their activity” (p.17).

Build it Now explains how in capitalism “the needs of capital stand opposite the needs of human beings.” Capitalism is “an expanding system that both tries to deny human beings the satisfaction of their needs and also constantly conjures up new, artificial needs to induce them to purchase commodities – a Leviathan that devours the working lives of human beings and Nature in pursuit of profits, that destroys the skills of people overnight, and that in the name of progress thwarts the workers own need for development” (p. 26).

Lebowitz asserts that capital is the product of working people, “our own power turned against us”. Capitalism is reproduced till we accept capital. The need is to go beyond capitalism. The alternative society will be one in which “the relation of production would be that of an association of free producers. Freely associated individuals would treat “their communal, social productivity as their social wealth”, producing for the needs of all” (p.30).

One of the principal features of the book is that it constantly reminds the reader about the realities of the capitalist framework and system. The Venezuelan experience is the context in which Lebowitz places his work. He asserts that challenge can be posed to neoliberalism through “endogenous” development. He accepts that it is not an easy task as capital attacks through different means and a diverse range of institutions. Since governments lack sufficient resources to be self-dependent, it is difficult to defeat internal and external enemies. However, “the central question will be whether the government is willing to mobilize its people on behalf of the policies that meet the needs of people” (p.40). It is also important that the governments free themselves from the ideological domination of capital.

In this context, Lebowitz deals extensively with the Keynesian alternative, which does not take humanity beyond the capitalist quagmire. The lineage of Keynesianism is reflected in the social democratic ideological plank. Its proposal for endogenous development suffers from the serious flaw that it does not break ideologically or politically from its dependence on capital. “Endogenous development is possible – but only if a government is prepared to break ideologically and politically with capital, only if it is prepared to make social movements actors in the realization of an economic theory based upon the concept of human capacities. In the absence of such a rupture, economically, the government will constantly find it necessary to stress the importance of providing incentives to private capital… The policies of such a government inevitably will disappoint and demobilize all those looking for an alternative to neoliberalism…” (p. 42). The new model must focus on human development and on investment in development of human capacities, i.e., not only education and health but also other factors that develop human potential.

There is an implicit argument throughout the book for building a collective unity, especially when Lebowitz stresses that it is the chain of human activities, whose ultimate result is the “reproduction of human beings.” However, in the capitalist world “[i]nstead of valuing our relationship as human beings, we produce commodities, we value commodities; instead of understanding this chain of human activity as our bond and our power, we understand only that we need these commodities, that we are dominated by them” (p. 44).

Lebowitz comes back to the serious challenge posed by the There is No Alternative ideology that pervades contemporary societies. This ideology not only kills the possibility of movements but also creates uni-focal ideological discourses that look at capitalism as the only possible form of society – with some modifications and improvements as and when required. “We need to recognize the possibility of a world in which the products of the social brain and the social hand are common property and the basis for our self-development – the possibility in Marx’s words of “a society of free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth.” For this reason, the battle of ideas is essential” (p. 50-51). In this battle of ideas, we must expose the nature of capitalism, which would allow people to understand that poverty is not the fault of the poor or exclusion does not happen because of the excluded, that wealth is the result of the chain of human activity. Lebowitz asserts the need to reclaim a socialist vision. “In the various struggles of people for human dignity and social justice, a vision of an alternative socialist society has always been latent. Let us reclaim and renew that vision” (p. 60)

All the existing forms of oppositions – whether in Seattle or against TNCs or against neoliberal ploy to reduce wages etc., must be supported, “but in and by itself this is an opposition to specific policies and practices of capitalism rather than to capitalism as such” (p. 53). This TINA syndrome owes its origin to the “two great failures of the twentieth century: the experiences in those underdeveloped countries that strove for rapid industrialization through a hierarchical system they called socialist… and the failure of social democratic governments… in the developed world to do any more than tinker with capitalism as an economic system” (p. 54).

In this world dominated by markets, capital and dominance of property relations, is it ever possible to go beyond capitalism? Lebowitz definitely thinks so, but he differs from those who simply wish away the role of state power in the task of “changing the world”. The Bolivarian transformation in Latin America brings the classical question of “state and revolution” back on the agenda. As Marx stressed, “workers need the power of the state to create the conditions for a society that could end capitalist exploitation” (p.62).


Reading Build it Now in the Indian context provides us not only with deeper insights into why things are as they are but also poses certain questions to grapple with.  India started showing signs of desperate change since the early 1980s when the so-called welfare State came under increasing criticism for its stiflingcharacter. However, it was the early 1990s when the neoliberal offence of capital really took over. What has also been significant during the period since then is the declining support base of the Indian left of all hues and colours, increasing diversification of forms of discontent and dissent through apolitical funded organisations (illusorily called movements).

While capital came on offensive through an active State, certain ideological-political developments occurred in the movemental arena, too. The foremost was the ideological disassociation of socio-economic problems from the systemic processes. For instance, displacement of millions of people due to Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and so-called developmental projects in India never came to be seen as a natural offspring of a system that facilitates expansion of capital. Hence, “[w]hat they all want is competition without the pernicious consequences of competition. They all want the impossible, i.e. the conditions of bourgeois existence without the necessary consequences of those conditions.” (Marx’s letter to Annenkov, December 28, 1846 ) Similarly, the withdrawal of the State from education and health sectors has not been analysed in terms of how privatisation of education facilitates reproduction of human machines that serve the needs of the system, culminating into profit maximisation.

In the world where the inevitability of capitalism is accepted, it is important that the struggle for an alternative State and society becomes a paramount agenda of the anti-capitalist forces. An alternative, as Lebowitz asserts, is possible. The vision of building socialism, lost in social democratic politics and localist NGOism, must be rekindled and our politics must not be blurred by the illusory and temporal emergence ofsymptoms, which seem to push back the agenda of class struggle. After all, dialectical and historical materialism demonstrates how small, micro, apparent, and fragmented realities in themselves do not represent the real face of capitalism. They must be interlinked and visualised in the context of the logic of capital – its articulations and crisis. Lebowitz, through his precise and lucid work, sufficiently enthuses the readers to dream and work towards the goal of achieving the socialist future. Build it Now is one of the strongest and most radical denunciations of the TINA doctrine.

[Michael Lebowitz, Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2006. Amazon/MR. In South Asia, contact: Daanish Books, A-901, Taj Apartments, Gazipur, Delhi-110096, Tel:             011-5578 5559      , 2223 0812, Cell:             +91-98685 43637      , E-Mail:daanishbooks@gmail.com]
Ravi Kumar is Fellow, Council of Social Development, New Delhi. He can be contacted at ravi@csdindia.org.

A Review of “The Darker Nations”

Saswat Pattanayak 

Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, The New Press, New York, 2007. Hardcover, 384 pp. Amazon/NP 

The Darker Nations is a critical historiography of the Third World. Vijay Prashad’s deeply instructive as well as occasionally mordant looks at events and processes that made up the history of oppressed peoples in the 20th century comprise this brilliant work. It is a book profound for being peremptory, and absolutely necessary for being so relevant today that it is imperative for activists and researchers alike.

For one, the various assumptions that form a dominant paradigm of Eurocentrism need radical reproving. Yet that would merely amount to a criticism of the thesis itself. Prashad goes beyond that and proposes an alternative narration to the history – not just of the Third World, but also through its lenses, the peoples’ history of the world during the last century. Darker Nations in some ways could be appositely used to speak for aspirations of the oppressed everywhere. In this sense, the book is a celebration of collective hope, even as it traces the demise of a grand project based on it.


The thesis of the book circles around the Third World as a unique project on its own. Even as there have been far too many usages of “First” and “Second” Worlds in contrasts, the reader is never lostdarker nationsto the main point: that is, the Third World was not merely in response or reaction to the prevailing ‘cold war’ grand narration, but it was more importantly an independent culmination out of unique historical necessities to combat neocolonialism and to promote internationalist nationalism.

To that extent, the author has conducted painful researches and unearthed valuable and often less quoted documents. The book thus does justice to the Suez Canal nationalization controversy and credits Nasser for his motives beyond cold war considerations. It brings Nehru alive through his letter drafted for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that argued against nuclearism, appealing to both Kennedy and Khrushchev. The book researches Che Guevara’s UN speech that assumed a necessary political standpoint for all oppressed countries: “As Marxists, we maintain that peaceful co-existence does not include co-existence between exploiters and exploited, between oppressors and oppressed.”

What, then, was common to the Third World? For the nationalist leaders, the fact that they were all colonized. Prashad writes, “For them, the nation had to be constructed out of two elements: the history of their struggles against colonialism, and their program for the creation of justice….The Third World form of nationalism is thus better understood as an internationalist nationalism.” (p.12)

Prashad’s assessment of “neopatriarchy” and domestic capitalism in the third world is quite worthwhile. This book is clearly a critical document for collective introspection of the oppressed peoples than an empty glorification of a united umbrella. In this sense, it is a necessary and long awaited work, which while marking the sites of struggle does not lose sight of the continuing struggles.

The author has cleverly named the chapters after the various sites of significance. Clever, because the chapters (Paris, New Delhi, Bali etc.,) have less to do with specific descriptions of the cities of those times than they have to do with bringing these otherwise disparate places together in context – at times stretching the contexts well out of bounds of the chapter title; at times celebrating the specificity with a poem by Neruda. One would be tempted to verify the header of the page several times while going through the texts just to make sure that she is in the right page. Yet such deliberate discursions are wisely scheduled to make for chapters that elucidate points contextually, rendering Prashad into a master narrator.

Illustratively, the author makes clear the intent of the book at the end of “Paris” chapter and perhaps leading one to wonder how much of the chapter was actually devoted to Paris. Of course that’s the idea of a project, the professor would convince us: each section needs to have scope for a flow into the next without exhausting every specific reference. It’s a project after all. A process, not a few events.

The book covers all that it promises to: Brussels meeting of “League against Imperialism”, Afro-Asian gathering at Bandung, Women’s conference at Cairo, NAM at Belgrade and Tricontinental Conference at Havana.

Prashad unearths the role of international communists in formation of the Brussels conference – a landmark event patronized by Einstein and attended by 37 countries/colonies. He writes about Pan-Africanism, Pan-Americanism, and Pan-Asianism in the context of colonial dominations, along with deconstructing the Kuomintang massacres of communists that might have contributed to severance of the ties between the Comintern and several nationalist leaders.

Prashad quotes W.E.B. DuBois in relation to Pan-Africanism within the Brussels context, although he omits Paul Robeson’s solidarity with the colored peoples at Bandung. It was in 1955 that Robeson sent his famous greetings to Bandung: “…peoples come from the shores of the Ganges and the Nile, the Yangtse and the Niger. Nations of the vast Pacific waters, greetings on this historic occasion. It is my profound conviction that the very fact of the convening of the Conference of Asian and African nations at Bandung, Indonesia, in itself will be recorded as an historic turning point in all world affairs.” Heralding it as a history-making conference, Robeson expressed, “Indeed the fact that the Asian and African nations, possessing similar yet different cultures, have come together to solve their common problems must stand as a shining example to the rest of the world.”

Prashad aptly summarizes what Bandung achieved: “a format for what would eventually become Afro-Asian and then Afro-Asian-Latin American group in the UN.” He also takes a stab at the inherent weaknesses of the member countries that lost moral grounds because of several reasons, from murdering communists to hoarding weapons, despite agreeing on some basic precepts of “cultural cooperation”.

“Principle Problem” of Raul Prebisch is explained in context to economic policies, in the crucial introduction to the role of UNCTAD, of which he was the founding general secretary. If Buenos Aires is visited for economics, Tehran is the metaphoric site of cultural struggles. Khrushchev’s betrayal of cultural workers in face of opposition to Shah regime is well articulated in a chapter that describes “roots of the Third World intellectual’s quandary was how to create a new self in the new nations”, thus reinforcing nationalism, democracy and rationalism.

Prashad’s political argument that the relationship between Third World and Second turned tumultuous after the demise of Stalin may draw some criticisms, but he amply demonstrates its foundations. He argues that the “new leadership led by Khrushchev and Bulganin adopted peaceful co-existence and pledged their support to the bourgeois nationalist regimes (often against the domestic Communists). The unclear situation suggested that the USSR seemed keener to push its own national interests than those of the national Communist parties to which it pledged verbal fealty” (p. 97).

Prashad makes a point that is vital to understanding of the Third World formation and crisis. In the Soviet Union, the Second World indeed “had an attitude toward the former colonies that in some ways mimicked that of the First World.” But this did not necessarily require pitiful stance at the Third World recipients. Prashad argues quoting Sauvy and Nkrumah that the Third World was not “prone, silent or unable to speak” before the powers. It was an independent political platform on its own, which according to Nehru stood for “political independence, nonviolent international relations, and the cultivation of the UN as the principle institution for planetary justice.”

So he asks, “What about the two-thirds who remained outside the East-West circles; what of those 2 billion people?” The narration of the author is instructive in a poetic sense. As obviously gigantic is the scope of such an inquisitiveness, he offers a plethora of factors/voices that could have been representing this Third World.

The book analyzes the various complexities of state politics in the Third World countries. It correctly mentions the several betrayals of communist workers in the hands of Moscow and Peking leaderships in the aftermath of Stalin and Mao. The book describes accurately the growing militarization of the developing nations. Prashad, while upholding the vision of the Third World, well encapsulates the elements of utopianism inherently present in some of the documents.

As an instance, the Arusha Declaration validated the twin principles of liberty and equality, individual rights and collective well-being. Prashad argues, “The main problem with the Arusha-TANU project, however, came not in its goals but in its implementation.” Though defying academic limitations, he does not give away credence to neoliberal economists/politicians like Rajaratnam of Singapore. Even as he describes the feud between Singapore on one extreme and Cuba on another, Prashad instructs us wisely about the pitfalls of economic liberalization. “The abandonment of economic sovereignty lost the national liberation regimes one of their two principal pillars of legitimacy. When IMF-led globalization became the modus operandi, the elites of the postcolonial world adopted a hidebound and ruthless xenophobia that masqueraded as patriotism”, Prashad writes.

Succinctly enough, Prashad encapsulates the present scenario: “The mecca of IMF-driven globalization is therefore in the ability to open one’s economy to stateless, soulless corporations while blaming the failure of well-being on religious, ethnic, sexual, and other minorities. That is the mecca of the post-Third World era.”


Prashad’s ending of the book with an obituary to Third World would have perhaps perplexed the writer he invokes in the beginning of his work: Franz Fanon. He even quotes the prophetic statements from The Wretched of the Earth: “The Third World today faces Europe like a colossal mass whose project should be to try to resolve the problems to which Europe has not been able to find the answers.”

Prashad’s persistent declaration in the book about demise of the Third World may bring back nostalgic chords, but would not undermine Fanon’s question. Have the problems that bore out of colonialism been resolved? The answer is no. Has Europe or the USA been able to find the answers yet? The answer is no.

In that case, is it not too early to declare the Third World a dead project? Moreover, is the author at times tending to air the lost leaders’ voices over the struggling peoples’?

No doubt, Prashad’s book is unique in its stress on women’s movements in the Third World – an aspect that’s comfortably overlooked when such taxonomies are applied to political texts. In his Cairo chapter, Prashad examines the role of women in Third World liberation struggles – from Rameshwari Nehru to Aisha Abdul-Rahman. This is significantly noteworthy, as women have joined the guerrilla wars as well as street protests in almost all of the Third World countries. And yet many progressive forces have difficulties in understanding gender relations, thereby resulting in mere “state feminisms”. However, was this chapter written because Cairo had women members on its podium necessitating a mention/discussion, or because a tribute to women activists is necessary to understand the Third World project? In either way, the book does not employ a lens of the women to understand the movement, although does a commendable job at understanding women struggles through the lens of the Third World. Considering that only this chapter has a portion devoted to a few women activists in context to Cairo, while the rest of the book mostly quotes the three “titans” or famous “fives” in explaining the history, I would say there are quite a few questions unanswered still.

The chief criticism against this work would primarily come from two quarters: One, from a strictly Third Wave (interesting how the growth of Third Wave coincides with the recognition of the Third World) feminist critique: independent struggles by women could have been much better encompassed within this book, given its scope. Prashad does a cursory mention of the alternative movement (considering that third-world women had a movement within, and against the larger movement) limiting it to a chapter and focusing on a couple of eminent speakers. Would the Third World have been different had the precepts for it not written by the “titans” and “giants”, but by women comrades who were voices of resentments against the hierarchies of nationalist and communist parties? Prashad does not dwell on this aspect.

Two, the criticism may become more scathing from the perspectives of militant activists. Third World, like Rome, was not built in a day. And certainly not through some leaders of few countries. Prashad is arguably right in crediting the giants and bringing forth the canons, but at the same time, these very leaders certainly rode the wave of success utilizing the larger unrest that was recognized by the anti-status-quo forces, often united through guerrilla wars, and almost going unnoticed after making vital impacts. Would the Third World have been different had the precepts for it not written by the giants, but by the larger oppressed peoples engaged in organized and otherwise struggles? We do not know for sure, but it would have been worthwhile to ponder over that a bit more than the book does.

The more crucial question then, is if such precepts were actually already written (or worked on with) by the peoples who did not find mentions in the historical documents that Prashad cites towards the book’s end spanning 60 pages. The focus of the book, although is in continuance of Prashadisque tradition of Afro-Asian unity, is slightly away from Africa. In fact, Mandela is mentioned just once in the book (that too as a pure travesty – citing a Ruth First memorial). The truth is Third World texts had been written in South Africa as well as in Nepal. However, such underground struggles went largely amiss from the work. Sure, the book by the author’s admission is inexhaustive and merely illustrative, but even a 300-page work could have inculcated some unknown peoples’ movements than chronicling lesser known leaders’ engagements.

Ironically enough, before proceeding to Havana chapter, Prashad mentions “From the early 1960s to the late 1970s, the rhetorical denunciation of imperialism reached its apogee even as the Third World began to lose its voice”. This is a dangerous statement to make if one considers that indeed from the 1970s onwards, the peoples voice in the Third World had immensely proliferated. No doubt the leaders – those giants who we find exalted throughout the work – had fallen to deaths or arrests, but the period thereafter also signaled the end of dominant and diplomatic voices, and somewhere alongside highlighted the obscure and powerful ones.

People who spoke truth to power were the people on the streets that challenged the nationalist parties which came to power in the pretext of newfound freedom from the foreign rulers. The growth of domestic capitalist classes in comfortable alliance with these nationalist parties were indication enough that the new powers were no less different from the old ones, except in their make-up and “patriotism”. In fact, these illusive weapons of nationalism and patriotism helped strengthen exploitative capitalism on basis of trusts of the “own” people. Such betrayals of faiths, notwithstanding goodwill of the famous leaders, were also being fought against on a daily basis in the Third World. Beyond the conferences and meetings and gatherings of Third World leaders under different names, there were large-scale protests of poverty and unemployment. Beyond the famous rhetoric of anti-nuclearism (while proliferating conventional weapons domestically) and socialist development (while harassing voices of dissent at home), people had on their own formed two classes in the society. The haves went to the ruling elites that apparently “voiced” the Third World for few years, and the have-nots remained with the unknown millions of peoples whose only commonality was their resentment against the power-grabbers. Be it Nehru or Indira in India, Sukarno or Suharto in Indonesia, the popular imagination went beyond such leaders that treaded the careful path all the while claiming to be representing the Third World.

Third World was neither the name of a place nor merely a documented project. And certainly it did not die. Considering that its origin was a necessity in itself, a necessity borne of conditions of colonialism, about which Sartre (another contextually grand omission from the book except for one mention – his writings on neocolonialism were far more instructive) writes in the preface to Albert Memmi’s ‘The Colonizer and the Colonized’: “Colonialism denies human rights to people it has subjugated by violence, and whom it keeps in poverty and ignorance by force, therefore, as Marx would say, in a state of ‘sub-humanity’.” This sub-humanity does not see its history changing with the midnight bells of colonialist departures. It takes quite a while for the real freedom to be conquested for even after the colonialists are gone. This is why South Africa’s period of struggle just began after Mandela came to power. South Africa’s Third World status will not die anytime soon.

So the assumption that “the Third World began to lose its voice” may have been made a little too early. Keeping in line of the eloquent narration of events as Prashad has done (for example, referring to revived “armed struggle not only as a tactic of anticolonialism but significantly as a strategy in itself”), the book perhaps wished away the Third World before examining its overbearing presence today. Do we have a Second World? I have no answer to that. But if the name Third World was admittedly accepted by the oppressed people of several continents basing on their historical heritage, then the phrase is as relevant today as it was before. Perhaps some countries would want not a place in it. Earlier, China was a question. Today, Singapore is. All the same, for the rest of the countries, nothing much has changed, except that the capitalist exploitation has intensified and expanded manifold, the national regimes have lost faith and people are more politically conscious.

If the Third World was imagined out of former colonies and if the colonial problem was chiefly an economic one, then the Third World has become even all the more relevant today. Simplistic as it may sound, there is a greater need for Afro-Asian-Latin solidarity today in the world than ever before. And Prashad, a remarkably profound scholar who gave to us treasures of arguments through his previous works about the need for alliances of the oppressed, would be among the firsts to acknowledge the necessity of such unity.


However, apart from remaining in want of more comprehensive analysis of women’s movements and of peoples’ liberation movements (both-dually oppressed by former colonizers as well as the nationalist rulers,and more importantly conflicted between the both – male and female comrades), the book also offers cursory looks at the external roles played by the First World in maintaining indirect subjugation of the Third.

Prashad rightly critiques the predominant views held by leftists about the role of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He argues that such a minimalist assumption renders people of the Third World insignificant and often passive audience in the larger world stage. Whereas he is absolutely correct in this critique – largely identified by the radical feminist movements worldwide – there is no harm in going through the roles of the CIA that have been well documented in a work that does chronicle interactions of the Third World “leaders” with the First World instigators. Many conflicting situations have been initiated and fuelled through CIA interventions in the Third World politics and that should have found a deserved mention. For instance, a critique of the Nixon administration vis-à-vis the Third World (including the recently released notes with Kissinger) is found lacking.

One need not subscribe to conspiracy theories to gain insights about how the First World allies in the “neocolonial” period have acted towards the Third World: less through coercion, and more through lucrative measures such as economic aids, western education and religion. Prashad misses out on the role of the Catholic Church that was the first body to significantly recognize the Third World as an entity worth pondering over. The large money, the pool of debts that would crumble the economic backbone of the Third World came from the consent of the Vatican during the early 1960s.

Prashad mentions religion quite casually, when he describes how “Mother Teresa would soon get more positive airtime as the white savior of the dark hordes than would the self-directed projects of the Third World nationalist governments.” Immediately following this, he goes on to make references to military invasions and embargoes.

Here the book could have made a crucial connection between the recognition of the Third World by the First World through the Catholic Church decisions. Mother Teresa’s airtimes were neither incidental nor were to be seen only through a liberal critique. The missing piece is that Vatican Council II which was the 21st ecumenical(general) council of the Roman Catholic Church was crucial to recognition of the Third World in an official manner.

In fact this council brought the most far-reaching reforms within the Catholic Church in 1000 years. This most significant reform movement in the world’s leading religion was brought forth during its four sessions in Rome during 1962-1965 (the first Council after its suspension in 1870). The idea was to aim for aggiornamento(renewal and updating of Catholic life and teaching). Such a vital step was taken by the Vatican as a result of emergence of the Third World. This council altered the nature of the church from being a European-centered institution to become a worldwide one so as to acknowledge the Third World countries, where it counted most of its followers. Mother Teresa and her likes were thus byproducts of this acceptance of the third force in the world.

Prashad says that Nehru, Sukarno and Nasser among other leaders did not use Third World to describe their domains, but does not corroborate their reasons, if any. For the framework of this book, the constant usages of “First World”, “Second World” and “Third World” is imperative, but considering that Prashad is eager to lash out against the “camp mentality” or “East-West” conflicts, he does avoid a critical exposition of the limitations that such three “Worlds” may bring for the readers.

One way to understand why the three “worlds” were not sufficient explanations (although necessary at many junctures) is to detail how the three worlds could not be thus compartmentalized either in degree or by their types. More importantly, the countries thus categorized under such headings definitely had uniquely different histories (colonial and otherwise), treated differently by their respective partners in their perceived specific worlds. On the one hand, Singapore had a different colonial experience than India. On the other, China’s Security Council membership put it on a unique platform, and there is no comparing between Soviet Union and Hungary. What is vital to this discussion is also the fact that there was not a yardstick that was used to specify categories either for the First, the Second or the Third. As much as the Third World was a movement against colonialism, such a usage of categories would still render it as a site affected by Eurocentric worldviews.

Prashad says Nehru et al., instead of calling themselves to be part of the Third World, “spoke of themselves” as the NAM, G-77 or the colonized continents. Although accurate, here the author’s own argument that kickstarts the book will be subject to questioning. Prashad says in the first line of the book, “The Third World was not a place. It was a project”. And yet he compares the project with some conferences and places (continents) to bring home the point that the leaders evaded “Third World”. Certainly there were other reasons why all Third World titans did not prefer the phrase (if at all). And that, we are still unsure of.

The author writes: “The phrase ‘East-West conflict’ distorts the history of the Cold War because it makes it seem as if the First and Second Worlds confronted each other in a condition of equality.” He contends that the USSR was socially and economically way behind due to its unique recent history. “The dominant classes in the First World used the shortages and repression in the USSR as an instructive tool to wield over the heads of their own working class, and so on both economic and political grounds the First World bore advantages over the Second.” Whereas this could be one truth, it does underscore the fact that more countries on the earth joined the Second World than they could be declared as the First World also because of the lacunae starkly evident in the First World. Whereas massive racism was predominant in the First World, economic depression and political censorships in the capitalist countries also contributed to popularity of the Second World.

A connection between the third world “project” and the United Nations (UN) is well established in the book. What perhaps amiss is a discussion on manners in which either of them might have contributed to the downfall of the other. Prashad says, “Today there is no such vehicle for local dreams”. The larger question then would be if the United Nations played a role in obliterating its dependant. On the other hand, a stark reality in the post-Iraq scene is the redundancy of a forum such as the United Nations today that effectively has no role either in shaping a collective conscience or implementing a pro-people agenda. Least of all, the UN has failed to safeguard the sovereign nations from external aggressions. It has failed to overcome the elitism of its Security Council, almost unquestionably letting the powerful countries to run their own little League of Nations inside the UN. Amidst such cynicism that the UN has contributed to, what responsibilities must the Third World project shoulder.

Amidst several responsibilities, the Third World still has to its credit a Non-Aligned News Agencies Pool (NANAP), a fact that is missing a mention in the book. Over 40 news agencies in non-aligned countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe have pooled their resources for the exchange of news reports and information to defy the vertical information flow of corporate media. The “Pool” was adopted at the Fourth Summit Conference of Non-Aligned Countries, held in Algiers in 1973. During that period, the New World Information and Communication Order was also proposed to democratize the knowledge domain of the world. No doubt, UNESCO was criticized by the American and European intellectuals, but the MacBride Commission succeeded in recognizing the divergent voices of the Third World in order to challenge the media hegemony world over. Responsibilities of the Third World still include an informed opposition to militarization, providing alternative channels to western corporate media, campaigning for need-based distribution of world resources, and most of all, representing the popular voices of dissent, opposition and celebrations. One wonders if the struggles to attain the above has waned any bit, if looked from the peoples’ perspectives. And in this context, the Third World still holds hopes, possibilities and victory. One is perhaps disappointed if the Third World is perceived to be voicing only a limited elite constituency – often opposed to the peoples’ dissents.


Hence, finally, the book questions not the constitution of the Third World itself. If it was brought around through its various leaderships under certain historical period, what expectations should we have of this “project”? Were such leaders to be expected to play the truly internationalist roles, and to what avail? In the preliminary draft thesis on the National and the Colonial Questions, for the Second Congress of the Communist International, Lenin wrote: “Petty-bourgeois nationalism proclaims as internationalism the mere recognition of the equality of nations and nothing more. Quite apart from the fact that this recognition is purely verbal, petty-bourgeois nationalism preserves national self-interest intact, whereas proletarian internationalism demands, first, that the interests of the proletarian struggle in any one country should be subordinated to the interests of that struggle on a world-wide scale, and, second, that a nation which is achieving victory over the bourgeoisie should be able and willing to make the greatest national sacrifices for the overthrow of international capital.” Between the elite internationalism founded on peaceful co-existence and peoples’ internationalism based upon rejection of the international capitalist order, did the Third World got somewhere hijacked or we refuse to acknowledge its existence because we already defined its proponents?

Needless to state, the criticisms above demand for more literature for inclusion into the book, than specifically target the author’s works. Such a case arises only because the book is an extraordinarily brilliant effort that is bound to encourage readers to plunge more into the relevance of the subject. All of that credit goes to the humanely written, accessibly crafted work that shuns academic elitism and genuinely attempts at a peoples’ history of the oppressed world.

A Review of “Adam’s Fallacy”

Arindam Mandal

Duncan Foley, Adam’s Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006. Hardcover, 265+xviii pp. Amazon /HUP

In the era of staunch support for neoclassical economic strategies or neoliberalism, it is heartening to see the publication of a book like Adam’s Fallacy. A ‘postmodern’ characteristic of this era is its announcements regarding many end-s – the end of history, the end of ideology, etc. Anything that cannot feed into the mainstream euphoria of global marketization is discounted altogether. This does not mean relative identities in the universal market are disallowed; rather they are celebrated as itemized competitive exotics. Everything exists for and in hucksterage. But, histories behind those commodities are no more. So what goes in the making of the items on sale does not count. Anything that exposes the universality/particularity of capitalist expropriation and exploitation behind relative commodities or commodified relativities, even if they differ only in labels and packaging, is forced out of fashion. That is why discussions on economic thought per se or its history do not constitute a concentration of the most saleable academic discipline of economics. These discussions would have exposed all pretensions of the newness of market fundamentalist ideas. Adam’s Fallacy attempts to do exactly that, by exposing the essential “fallacy” that underlies the theory and practice of economics throughout its history.

Economic thought remained an interesting area of study till the third quarter of the twentieth century. Especially after the fall of Communism in Soviet Russia, the study of economic philosophy almost has become a foster child of mainstream economics, as the fall seemed to dawn an end to ideological clashes that gripped the world throughout the twentieth century. Duncan Foley’s effort to bring the subject back to the forefront is formidable. He seeks to revive an interest in economic thought that motivates economic management and policies. The book also ascertains that this revival is possible only as a critique of economics and political economy – i.e., of economic theology.

As the title suggests, Adam Smith and his The Wealth of Nations is the main stage around which the author develops a coherent story of the journey of economics from the heyday of classical economics to the current neoclassical economics and further. However in the beginning itself it has been made clear that “This is not, however, a book on the history of economic thought proper. It uses a historical perspective as a happy way to organize a complex set of ideas into a coherent and understandable story… [Rather this book is more about] my own imaginative reconstruction of debates behind the debates”.(xii)

According to the author, Adam’s fallacy “lies in the idea that it is possible to separate an economic sphere of life, in which the pursuit of self-interest is guided by objective laws to a socially beneficent outcome, from the rest of social life, in which the pursuit of self-interest is morally problematic and has to be weighed against other ends.”(xiii) No doubt the assumption of selfish pursuits aggregating to social good is a basic foundation on which modern day economics stands. The separation of the economic sphere from other spheres seems essential to ideologically justify a society based on competition and profit-making. This separation is the basis for the constitution of modern academia with its disciplinary divisions and hierarchy. For example, modern ‘positive’ economics, in its insistence for positivist ‘objectivity’ banishes the issue of fairness and ethics from the overall economic framework, delegating them to other obscure branches of social sciences. Foley’s patient account of the reality of this design is a formidable assault on the scientific pretensions of this separation, exposing its “theological” nature.

The book is organized into six broad chapters. The first chapter explicitly deals with the philosophy of Adam Smith as propounded in his acclaimed The Wealth of Nations. Adam Smith’s conceptualization of the ascendance of capitalism is carried forward by two subsequent political economists – Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, whose ideas are discussed in the second chapter. The third chapter is concerned with Karl Marx and his critique of capitalism. Marx’s critique played a major role in shaking up the economic thought as propounded by Smith to Ricardo, revealing capitalism’s subtle anatomy and its barriers, thus informing Marx’s anti-capitalist revolutionary politics. The rise of “pure economics”, i.e., “marginalist” or neoclassical economics, in a sense can be understood as an attempt to transcend these political possibilities in Smith and Ricardo’s political economic thoughts. The fourth chapter gives an account of this sanitized economics, i.e., the growth of neoclassical economics. It shows how the neoclassical framework embraced Adam’s fallacy in its purest form through mathematization.

But theories cannot preempt the real possibilities. With the turn of the twentieth century, the world witnessed a long-drawn crisis of the capitalist system through two World Wars and the Great Depression. A revolution in Russia and other nationalist upheavals against colonial/neo-colonial capitalism, with a stress on a non-capitalist path, throughout the globe constituted a grave political crisis for the expansion of capitalist economy. To inform the rescue of capitalism came three most prominent thinkers of the twentieth century economics – John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich von Hayek. Chapter 5 of the book deals with these three thinkers and their efforts to bring the capitalist regime of accumulation on track. The final chapter gives an overall summary and the author’s conclusions.

While discussing Adam Smith’s work, the author gives a concise description of his contributions. It is made very clear in the beginning that Adam Smith’s book was not famous because of technical discoveries, as there were political economists who already talked about these things. What made Smith’s book unique was its ability to “put forward a clear vision of how capitalist society might develop” and to address “more directly than anyone else the central anxiety that besets capitalism – the question of how to be a good person and live a good and moral life within the antagonistic, impersonal, and self-regarding social relations that capitalism imposes…[B]y being selfish within the rules of capitalist property relations, Smith promises, we are actually being good to our fellow human beings”(2). This is the crux of Adam’s fallacy and “neither Smith nor any of his successors has been able to demonstrate rigorously and robustly how private selfishness turns into public altruism.”(3).

The author goes onto discuss the different facets of Smith’s work starting with the division of labor followed by the Theory of Value. He exposes the inconsistencies in these theories, which were a result of Smith’s concern for presenting “key ideas and insights of political economy” more than “with constructing a consistent framework for these ideas”.(42) However, these “inconsistencies betray a tension between his economic theology and his good sense. As a theologian of capitalist social relations, he is willing to remove traditional moral constraints on the pursuit of self-interest through the accumulation of capital… But another side of his character recognizes the damage that this license to pursue self-interest can do to society as well.”(44)

Then Foley moves on to explain in his second chapter how Malthus and Ricardo carried the flagship of Smith but with many qualifications in order to remove Smith’s inconsistencies – turning “Adam’s vision” into the basis of their “gloomy science”. Also, Malthus and Ricardo diverged in conflicting directions due to their different positions in the intra-hegemonic class conflicts in Britain between the landed aristocracy and industrial bourgeoisie. While expounding his theory of geometric population growth and its consequent effects on agricultural production and prices, Malthus doubted the viability of laissez-faire capitalist development. Foley, in his exposition of Malthusian theses, explains their politico-ethical consequences in the context of Malthus’ confrontations with Godwin’s perfectibilism, which envisioned a possibility of eliminating all human misery in social transformations occurring at the wake of the nineteenth century.

On the other hand, Ricardo, a representative of the rising industrial and financial bourgeoisie, was much more hopeful about the prospects of capitalism. He was an enthusiast of the laissez faire capitalism and defended free trade against welfare programs and during the historic debates on rent laws. Ricardo eliminated the inconsistencies in Smith’s value theory in favor of a labor theory of value, which became a precursor to Marx’s conceptualizations. He propounded the theory of comparative advantage on which is founded much of international economics today. He gave definiteness to theories of wages, rent and profit. Foley ends the chapter with a note on how Malthus and Ricardo opposed the idea of providing charity to the poor. According to him, their attitudes on this point “show the extremes that Adam’s fallacy can reach”.(84) Their argument about charity being self-defeating, as it allows the poor to reproduce without producing employment, involves a method that contrasts “the immediate effects of action (charity relieving the sufferings of the poor) with indirect, systemic effects (charity expanding the population and lowering the standard of living of the poor). Its burden is the necessity of resisting beneficent and moral impulses – do not give to the poor lest you actually create poverty.”(85).

One thing that really sets this book apart is its simplicity. Perhaps this feature becomes more glaring in the third chapter where Foley takes up the Marxist criticism of capitalism. His explanation of Marx’s historical materialism along with explanation of other Marxist concepts like surplus value, modes of production, base and superstructure, circuit of capital and accumulation cannot be simpler. Further in his brief discussion on the theory of commodity fetishism, Foley notes that Marx “takes on Adam’s Fallacy directly in elaborating” this theory. “The pursuit of self-interest, even in the context of private property relations regulated by law, is no path to the good life. On the contrary, it blinds the individual to the true conditions of his own existence (ironically, precisely the division of labor that Adam Smith so clearly describes), and prevents humanity as a whole from confronting both its real conditions and the real possibilities for social change that technology and the division of labor make possible.”(112)

Though a major emphasis of the chapter is to provide a thorough feel of the severity and sharpness of Marx’s critique of capitalism, this does not prevent Foley from criticizing Marx and also in pointing out where Marx has fallen short in his explanations. While succinctly presenting the elegance of Marx’s vision of socialism, especially as found in his critique of the Gotha program, Foley finds “devastating gaps in Marx’s argument, gaps that grew into some of the worst features of the revolutionary socialist project in the twentieth century. Marx seems completely unaware of the problems of institutional power that are inherent in his brief phrases describing the social control of the surplus product.”(134-35) The problem of institutional specificities for deciding and regulating the production and distribution of the surplus product remains unresolved in Marx. “Either Marx had no answers to these questions, or he thought they were trivial and secondary administrative problems that would be solved in the actual evolution of socialism. The experience of twentieth-century socialism, however, underlines the critical importance of these questions for the socialist project, and the terrible inadequacy of Marx’s analysis to suggest viable answers to them.”(135) Further, “[d]espite his vigorous critique of the commodity form of production, Marx’s concrete vision of socialism carries with it a lot of capitalist baggage”, which sometimes seems to relegate the socialist regime to “a kind of collective capitalism”.(151)

Foley provides a very holistic view about what Marxist practice has contributed in terms of social change in the twentieth century. “In the twentieth century Marx’s ideas of class, exploitation, and revolutionary social change played an important historical and ideological role, but not one centered on actual proletarian revolution…. [In many countries,] Marxism, on the other hand, provided an alternative which promised a route to modernization, that is, the destruction of traditional cultures and social relations, without surrender to the hegemonic claims of world capitalism.” (145). Revolutions that did happen especially in Russia and China, according to Foley played an important role in transforming these societies from an “unsystematic, traditional political and economic system into some version of modern capitalism, as a stage of social development which was necessary preliminary to socialism.” (146).

Chapter 4 is concerned with the development of marginalist economics and the attempt of the economic thinkers to make economics a hard science. It evolved to serve the ideological needs of capitalism in the 1860s, when Adam’s Fallacy needed new shoes. Under the new circumstances characterized by a formidable intensification of class struggle between capital and labor, which was consciously organizing itself, the historical and inductive method of classical political economy was becoming counterproductive. “Ricardo’s language and conceptual framework when applied to these issues [of class struggle] look uncomfortably like – well, like Marx”. William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger, Vilfredo Pareto, John Bates Clark, Irving Fisher and Leon Walras came as rescuers. They “labored to create an axiomatized, mathematical political economy that could endow the social relations of capitalism with the aura of “natural laws” that guaranteed the stability and rationality of economic life”.(157)

He complements this with his short survey of Thorstein Veblen’s ideas, which heavily relied on evolutionary biology. Veblen, who is frequently counted within the “heterodoxy” for his unconventional ideas, “is the Ecclesiastes of Adam’s Fallacy, conveying the human distortion and cost of capitalist social relations in a mordant and stylish prose.”(175) Further, “[w]hile the evolutionary approach does much to dispel the mathematical aridity of marginalist economics, it does not do a great deal to return human beings and their moral concerns to the center of economic thinking”.(177)

The turn of the twentieth century brought many crises for the capitalist development especially in the form of two World Wars and the Great Depression. According to Foley, three visions that contended for supremacy in political economy in this period, centered on the thinking of John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich von Hayek. All of them attempted to resolve in their own way the “crisis of confidence in capitalist political and economic leadership”, with the imperialist rivalry leading to world wars and economic depression. Keynesianism succeeded in establishing its supremacy, as it justified state interventionism required for refurbishing the machinery of capitalist accumulation after the Great Depression and provided a credible framework for policy formulations. It provided an antidote to the popularity of central-planning socialism, while stressing on “reforming capitalism to make it function better through a great expansion of the economic role of national governments and central banks”.(183)

Hayek on the other hand, being a representative of the Austrian school of economic theory was trained in a vigorous defense of the laissez fair capitalism against every sign of collectivism. Much of the first half of the last century was not conducive for such ideas. Hayekian misadventure of attacking Keynesian support for activist government is indicative of the age. Also, simultaneously there was a rise in the concept of market socialism (which is “just another statement of Adam’s Fallacy”), which found “no difference between a socialist and a capitalist organization of the division of labor except for the formal legal mechanism that support the market, and perhaps the distribution of income”.(205) Much of Hayek’s theses which became the foundation of neoliberalism were formulated in his attempt to thwart the socialist appropriation of market. Thus he reproduces Adam’s Fallacy in a pure and unadulterated form – “It is not, according to Hayek, the market form that is critical to organizing the division of labor; it is the content of the market as a clash of personal interest that actually drives things forward”.(206) But only during the 1970s, when capitalism needed a new regime of accumulation in the aftermath of slowing down of the ‘welfarist’ economies, Hayek could emerge “from his bruising theoretical defeats at Keynes’s hands in the dark days of the Depression to fight again and climb back to occupy the ideological high ground of capitalist society.”(209)

While Schumpeter sympathized much with Marx’s critique of capitalism, he devoted “his considerable rhetorical and analytical powers to injecting Marx’s theory of technical change into the marginalist framework as a corrective to the equilibrium-fetish of neoclassical economics”.(210)

The final chapter recapitulates the various incarnations that Adam’s Fallacy has made throughout the development of capitalism. Further, Foley summarizes some of the lessons that can be drawn from the economic debates. He notes, “All sides in these debates have important lessons to teach about the logic and limited functionality of the social world that capitalism has created.”(213) The conclusion that Foley draws “from surveying the high peaks of political economy” is that dualisms in political economy – normative vs. positive, value-free scientific analysis vs. policy analysis – are futile. “The attitudes promulgated by the great political economists toward capitalism and its social logic cannot plausibly be separated from their analysis of its workings.”(215)

The rejection of dualisms along with their perpetuator, Adam’s Fallacy, clears away “grand illusions” about capitalism. It allows us to historicize our existence – eliminating the most fundamental distortion that this fallacy perpetuates by representing “capital accumulation, with its accompanying technical and social revolutions, as an autonomous and spontaneous process that is somehow inherent in the expression of “human nature”.”(224)

Foley draws two lessons “from the history of political economy for our globalizing era”. Firstly, “moral and social conflicts are part and parcel of capitalist economic development”. The societies that have recently come into the fold of capitalism “do not benefit from vague sermons on the power of capitalist development to raise masses of people from traditional poverty – sermons which at best tell only half the story.”(227) Secondly, with the unevenness of capitalist processes, it is dubious to talk about any unique path to capitalist development. These lessons are particularly important in today’s context when the neoliberal path is being imposed through international negotiations between transnational institutions supported by the hegemonic powers and local agencies in the underdeveloped countries.

An important aspect of Foley’s work that distinguishes it from other works on economic thought is the identification of a single central theme. The whole narrative revolves around the phenomenon of Adam’s Fallacy, analyzing its reproduction or reincarnation throughout the development of political economy and economics. This allows the reader to grasp the foundation of the discipline, instead of being awestruck by its apparent edification with esoteric conceptualizations. Further, the book forces the reader to question the neutrality of the economic theory and practice, of their being above all political and ideological conflicts that mark every society. In fact, it shows how the very foundation of economics is not only ideological, but theological too.

Arindam Mandal is a PhD student in Economics at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany. He is a labor union activist with the Graduate Students Employees Union (GSEU)/CWA-1104.