A Review of “The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution”

Bhumika Chauhan

Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution, Haymarket Books, 2010.

Whenever the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system have developed into an overt crisis, the unevenness of capitalist development has acted as a sort of pressure-release mechanism. In our neoliberal times, the unevenness can be seen on many levels – from the formal labour-informal labour binary to the so called North-South divide. To maintain its rate of profit in the face of proletarian struggle (and/or the tendency of the rate of profit to fall), the capitalist class found, like always, new avenues to exploit. When the accumulation of absolute and relative surplus value became problematic, like it so often does, capitalism turned yet again to its so-called ‘originary moment’ – primitive accumulation. As such, primitive accumulation is still very much a part of our present. For instance, today in India, the capitalist system is turning to those pockets that it had kept in reserve (literally) for so long. In backward, agrarian and/or tribal regions, plans are in motion for the acquisition of resources.

A few centuries ago, when capitalism first took over Western Europe, the whole of India was one such pocket, which the British managed to tap. In coming ouLowy's bookt of colonialism, the bourgeois leadership of the Indian National Movement took the road to capitalism (albeit via a ‘maturing’ period, which we traditionally call the ‘mixed economy, in which the state systematically developed infrastructure that was handed over to private ownership in 1991). That very road has led us here: unevenness of capitalist development within the same country, and the colonisation of one part of the country by another.

Was there any other route that would have possibly evaded the destruction that the chosen path cannot seem to leave behind? Could India have leapfrogged over the ‘capitalist stage’? The various communist parties of India did not seem to think so at the time (most, if not all, do not even now). The ‘iron laws of history’ would not allow any form of a leap over capitalism, and into socialism. This was the view, in fact, of the entire Communist International and its participant parties since the death of Lenin, as we shall see below; and this, despite the success of the Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917.

Half-a-century before a ‘free’ India took to capitalism, Leon Trotsky was contemplating questions about the possible roads out of feudalism for Russia. Marxist though he was, Trotsky’s conclusions defied what had become common sense in Marxist circles. This common sense believed in the objective necessity of capitalist development before socialism. Against this view, that history progresses through fixed, determined stages, Trotsky, and later Lenin, began to argue for the possibility that Russia might not have the same historical trajectory as the western capitalist countries for which Marx had produced the schema of feudalism-capitalism-socialism. In fact, according to Trotsky, the unevenness of capitalism was a pre-condition for a possible leap towards socialism for Russia.

It is one of the arguments of Michael Löwy’s book, that it was Trotsky’s and Lenin’s dialectical understanding of history, and the consequent direction it provided to the 1917 revolution, that the objective possibility was transformed into an actual socialist revolution. In demonstrating this, the book undertakes the very relevant and important theoretical task of evaluating Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in the context of the situation in countries peripheral in the capitalist system. The essence of the argument is that the same unevenness that in times of crises helps capital recuperate is also potentially its grave. If escape routes become enemy camps capital would have nowhere to run.

It is this belief in the possibility of one uninterrupted, combined and permanent revolution from the pre-capitalist to the socialist stage that disappeared somewhere between Trotsky and Lenin, and Stalin. The ‘permanentist’ perspective of the Comintern under Lenin, for revolution in all backward countries, was also replaced by the ‘stagist’ ‘neo-Menshivism’ of Stalin. It was again asserted that capitalist development under bourgeois leadership was a necessity for all countries before a socialist revolution becomes possible. The Indian communist leaders too thought that they should give their complete support to the bourgeoisie in the anti-imperialist struggle. Undoubtedly, this would have had a weakening influence on the working class movement on the ground. And ever since Independence, the mainstream communist parties, as a consequence, have struggled and failed to move beyond social-democratic reformism. That has been on account of their inability, or unwillingness, to pose the question of democratisation, which in India doubtless continues to be the principal political question, as one of overcoming capitalism (see note-1).

Of course, there is no more any question of India or any other country skipping the capitalist stage and entering socialism; we are now completely immersed in it. The relevance of the theory of permanent revolution still holds because the capitalist world continues, as is its wont, to be uneven. Michael Löwy’s book may be considered a first step towards regrounding Trotsky’s theory in the present context.

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Löwy’s exposition of the theory of permanent revolution begins with Marx and Engels. The first chapter discusses their writings with the purpose of determining how much Trotsky really deviated from the essence of the perspective and method of Marx and Engels. In the process, Löwy also attacks those readings and critiques of Marx and Engels that attribute to them a mechanical economism and evolutionism. Löwy convincingly argues for the essentially ‘permanentist’ tenor (which increased with time) of Marx and Engels’ writings. Although many passages can be quoted, without distorting their meaning, that lend support to a stagist understanding of history, in the very same writings as well as others, Marx and Engels do shift towards permanentism.

The concept of permanent revolution appears in their writings mostly in the form of ideas and intuitions, not as a coherent theory. The most coherent statement of their view of permanent revolution is to be found in The Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. While condemning the alliance with the bourgeoisie, the Address champions the common action between the proletariat and the democratic parties of the petty-bourgeoisie. This alliance too must be made keeping in mind the larger aims of the proletariat: ‘to make the revolution permanent’. The Address already contained three themes that would become fundamental to Trotsky’s theory: ‘(1) the uninterrupted development of the revolution in a semi-feudal country, leading to the conquest of power by the working class; (2) the application by the proletariat in power of explicitly anti-capitalist and socialist measures; (3) the necessarily internationalist character of the revolutionary process and of the new socialist society, without classes or private property’ (15).

After demonstrating that the basic underpinnings of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution are in fact to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels, Löwy, in the next two chapters, explores how the theory was developed with the experience of ‘living revolutions’. While doing so, Löwy juxtaposes Trotsky’s perspective with that of his contemporaries (and also later commentators). This helps bring the stagist and permanentist perspectives in stark contrast as these influential thinkers embody one of the perspectives in their deliberations on the revolutions of their age; sometimes this binary emerges as different moments in the political thought of the same person. Löwy identifies Plekhanov, Kautsky and the Mensheviks, and later, Stalin and the Comintern leaders under his leadership (all in theory but not in practice) as giving voice to the stagist perspective. They believed that a semi-feudal and backward country like Russia must first witness a bourgeois revolution to be led by the bourgeois class itself, undergo capitalist development to its ‘exhaustion’, and then finally welcome socialism. It was to be an automatic, step-by-step process. The level of ‘maturity’ for socialism might vary slightly in each conception, but they all agreed that some capitalist development was essential.

Lenin and Luxemburg too had characterised the 1905 revolution as a bourgeois revolution with necessarily bourgeois tasks, again a stagist view of history. They did not, however, believe that the revolution would be led by the bourgeois class, but by the proletariat and the peasants. By 1917, both had begun to agree with Trotsky, that the revolution would be led by the proletariat, with support from the peasantry. More significantly for Löwy, since he puts great effort in countering what he calls Stalinist distortions of Leninism, Lenin had made a permanentist turn after his philosophical engagement with the dialectical method in 1914. Under his leadership (and Trotsky’s, who had joined the Bolsheviks in 1917), the Bolshevik Party led a revolution that let its logical development carry itself towards socialism, not in spite of Russia’s relative backwardness but because of it. To understand what this statement means is to understand the essence of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

Trotsky’s starting point, Löwy writes, was Labriola’s dialectical and anti-dogmatic Marxism. Labriola’s emphasis on totality and his appreciation of the essentially critical nature of Marxism are evident in Trotsky’s theories and the ease with which he could contradict Marxian orthodoxy. It is his grasp of the dialectical method that sets him apart from the somewhat static and mechanical evolutionism of Plekhanov and Kautsky.

Löwy presents five fundamental features of Trotsky’s method that form the basis of the theory of permanent revolution.

  1. Unity of opposites: Trotsky saw a dialectical unity between the ‘democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants’ and the ‘socialist dictatorship of the proletariat’. Consequently he criticised the early Bolsheviks for drawing rigid distinctions between the two, and also the Mensheviks for their even more stagist view.
  2. The viewpoint of totality: For Trotsky, the maturity of capitalism, and a country for revolution, was always to be assessed on an international level. When capitalism has bound the whole world in one mode of production, then class struggle too must become a world-process rather than be restricted by ‘national economic determinism’ (49).
  3. Anti-economism: Unlike Plekhanov’s unmediated reduction of all social contradictions to the economic infrastructure, Trotsky’s dialectics grasped the importance of the ‘subjective’, and rejected the notion that the revolution depended ‘automatically’ on a country’s technical development and resources.
  4. Historical method: Trotsky’s study of social formation was concerned with the possibilities of a revolution. His is an open historicism, not fatalistic like Plekhanov’s. That is, Trotsky saw historical development as a contradictory process where alternatives are posed at every moment. He saw ‘permanent revolution towards socialism as an objective possibility…whose outcome depended on innumerable subjective factors as well as unforeseeable events…’ (Italics original, 50). Success or failure was not inevitably assured by any one factor. Thus revolutionary praxis had a central place in Trotsky’s politico-theoretical system.
  5. Russian social formation: Most Russian Marxists tended to deny the specificities of Russia’s social formation in their fight against the Narodniks, and insisted on its similarity with Western European development. Trotsky, however, achieved ‘a dialectical synthesis of the particular and universal, of the specificity of the Russian social formation and of the general tendencies of capitalist development…[He] was able to simultaneously transcend-negate-preserve (Aufhebung) the contradiction between populism and Menshivism, and to develop a new perspective, which was both more concrete and less unilateral’ (italics original, 51).

Using the above methodological guidelines, Trotsky’s analysis of Russia and its class structure was quite different from that of the thinkers mentioned above, and so were his strategic conclusions. Parvus, a very important contributor to the development of Trotsky’s thought, had already (in 1904-5) realised the peculiarities of Russian social formation: that early Russian towns and cities were administrative-bureaucratic in function rather than economic, and hence the artisans and petty-bourgeoisie, the base of revolutionary democracy, were weaker than in Western Europe. With capitalist development in the nineteenth century, the factory concentrated the proletariat hugely within urban centers. Trotsky found the Russian bourgeois class to be small in number and mostly of foreign origin, and hence isolated from the people. Therefore, for him, the Russian bourgeoisie, small and weak, and more afraid of the armed proletariat than of the Cossacks, was not revolutionary and would betray the democratic revolution whenever it went beyond its control or against its interests. Compared to the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, the socio-political weight of the Russian proletariat was much more. Thus the proletariat was the only true revolutionary class. Hence, Trotsky proposed the following formula in 1905: ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry’.

This went against the Menshevik insistence on a bourgeois leadership and revolution, which was based in mechanical economism. It also goes against Lenin’s 1905 formula of the ‘democratic dictatorship’ of the proletariat and peasantry. Trotsky’s objection to this formula was that it might restrict the revolution to the level that the peasantry was comfortable with; it would have remained a bourgeois revolution (35). In Trotsky’s scheme the proletariat was to be decidedly hegemonic, that is, it would not stop short of supporting the workers’ interests in the town and the village. And this alliance, in his scheme, was decidedly transitory. Löwy writes that for Trotsky, the proletariat could count only on the passivity and ignorance of the peasantry to gain its support but that too only till the ‘rich peasants’ realised what the revolution was heading towards. When the proletariat state applies its uncompromisingly socialist policies, just as Trotsky believed it should, it would lose the support of the landed peasantry and a counter-revolution would be inevitable (55-56).

The solution to the problem, Trotsky believed, lay in the international working class movement: the Russian revolution must be extended to the rest of Europe if the proletarian state in Russia is to survive the loss of its allies. The fate of the socialist revolution in Russia was to be decided less by its economic backwardness than by the politics of national and international class struggle.

As has already been indicated, Trotsky did not differ from the Mensheviks and the early Bolsheviks only on the issue of the ‘class nature’ of the revolution; he also differed from most Marxist thinkers of the time over the issue of the ‘historical tasks’ of the revolution (54). Not only did he believe that the proletariat would lead the revolution, he also thought that the revolution could and should combine democratic and socialist tasks into one combined, uninterrupted, permanent revolution. Why? Because by logically extrapolating the dynamics of class struggle in a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship’ led by the proletariat, Trotsky concluded that the revolution could transcend bourgeois-democratic limits and take anti-capitalist and socialist measures. Trotsky pointed out that when the proletariat comes to power it would be compelled by the ‘very logic of its position’ to implement ‘collectivist’ measures, unless it were to betray its own class (something the pre-1917 Bolshevik policy would have done). For instance, in meeting even its ‘minimum democratic programme’, if the state supported workers’ strikes, it could lead to widespread lock-outs by the capitalists and the cessation of production. This would necessitate that the proletarian state take over the factories and organise production. Basically, ‘the political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with economic enslavement’ (Trotsky as quoted on p.54). Löwy, at several points in the text, highlights how the political is given its due weight vis-à-vis the economic in Trotsky’s dialectical model.

When 1917 came, Löwy writes, Trotsky’s 1905 predictions came true. The bourgeoisie and their Mensheviks supporters were incapable of completing the national-democratic revolution (see note-2) and satisfying the revolutionary democratic aspirations of the peasant masses. Only the proletarian victory was able to accomplish the crucial tasks of the democratic revolution and emancipate the peasantry from feudalism. Also, once in power the workers’ government of the Bolsheviks, now headed by Lenin and Trotsky, and unwilling to betray its class, could not restrict itself to democratic reform. It was forced by the dynamics of class struggle to undertake socialist measures. Without the dogmas of the Second International, the 1917 Revolution saw two distinct phases of an uninterrupted and combined revolution: ‘from its (unfinished) bourgeois democratic phase in February to its proletarian-socialist phase in October’. For Lenin, the second phase resolved the contradictions of the first phase. ‘With the support of the peasantry, the Soviets combined democratic tasks (the agrarian revolution) with socialist tasks (the expropriation of the bourgeoisie), opening a “non-capitalist road” for transition to socialism’ (63).

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It is on these same lines that Lenin and the Comintern now attempted to frame a general policy for revolution in colonial, semi-colonial, dependent or backward countries: the national liberation movements of the ‘Orient’ must aim for the establishment of soviet-based workers’ and peasants’ power, towards socialism without capitalism. Thus, although specific tactics within each country, especially with respect to alliance with the bourgeoisie, remained controversial, the orientation of the Comintern leadership from 1919 to 1922 to revolutionary movements in the dependent world was in line with the theory of permanent revolution.

It can be seen in Löwy’s exposition how the change in the Comintern’s above orientation was the beginning of the generalization of the theory of permanent revolution to the dependent parts of the world. From 1925 onwards, with the Stalinist doctrine of ‘socialism in one country,’ and the adoption of the ‘four class bloc’ or ‘popular front’ policy for the colonial and semi-colonial world by the Comintern, and the experiences of their repercussions for the Second Chinese Revolution, Trotsky gained certain insights that gave the theory of permanent revolution in countries of peripheral capitalism a very strong dialectical foundation. These insights are scattered in Trotsky’s writings after 1928, The Permanent Revolution and The History of the Russian Revolution being the most important ones. Löwy takes us through a number of these writings, drawing out relevant details from each text to elaborate on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

The first thing to note is the similarity in the empirical situation of the dependent, colonial and semi-colonial countries with that of Russia and China: the indissoluble dependence of the national bourgeoisie on the imperialists and the landowners, the political weight of the proletariat disproportionate to its numerical strength, the impossibility of an autonomous political role of the peasantry. Also, the very existence of the USSR had its own implications for proletarian revolutionary aspirations and the bourgeois counter-revolutionary tendencies. Having realised these situational factors, Trotsky set out to extrapolate his theoretical understanding of the Russian Revolution to the countries of peripheral capitalism.

The most important historical-theoretical principle for a general theory of permanent revolution however was the law of uneven and combined development, which was fully elaborated in The History of the Russian Revolution (1930). The development of world history becomes qualitatively different once capitalism becomes a world-system. Looking at capitalism as a totality, one will realise that ‘although compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order’; it tends to skip and leap over stages that the early capitalist countries went through. ‘The development of historically backward nations leads necessarily to a peculiar combination of different stages in the historic process’ (87). The very existence of unevenness, of advanced and backward countries (and the socio-economic linkages between them), creates a situation in which history progresses through sudden leaps and contradictory fusion.

From this universal law of unevenness derives another law – the law of combined development, a drawing together of the different stages of development. The appearance of modern industry alongside pre-capitalist or semi-capitalist rural conditions creates the objective possibility for the leading role of the proletariat at the head of the rebellious peasant masses. The unevenness of this development becomes the structural foundation for the combination of democratic and socialist tasks in a process of permanent revolution. The advanced capitalist countries solved certain common democratic tasks: abolition of autocracy, liquidation of feudal survivals in agrarian relations of production, establishment of parliamentary democracy based on universal suffrage, and national unification/liberation. Due to uneven development of capitalism, and the existence of imperialism, the democratic tasks of backward countries are similar but not the same. Yet they must be solved through a democratic revolution, or even a bourgeois-democratic revolution since these tasks are quite compatible with bourgeois society. This is not to say, however, that it will have to be led by the bourgeoisie, or that the revolution cannot transcend capitalism.

Uneven development means contradictory combinations of national and international, modern and traditional, ruling classes. Löwy gives the example of China, where at the bottom of the economy, the agrarian capitalists were ‘organically and unbreakably’ linked to feudalism, while at the top, capitalists were similarly linked to world finance. As such they could never have broken these links with landlords and imperialists because they were always more fearful of the proletariat. Hence, the national bourgeoisie could never fully accomplish its democratic tasks. The only condition on which Trotsky would have accepted any (short-term, for long-term alliances were out of the question) alliance with the bourgeoisie was to have no illusions that they would ‘lead a genuine struggle against imperialism and not obstruct the workers and peasants’ (Trotsky quoted on p.92).

In universalizing the theory of permanent revolution Trotsky stressed the role of the peasantry. They were important not only in the fight against feudal productive relations but, as the overwhelming majority in backward countries, they were central to the task of establishing democracy as well. Hence the proletariat had to ally with the peasants to complete the democratic phase of the revolution. Due to their heterogeneous and intermediate character the peasants could not play an independent political role, but had to choose between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The incapability of the former to solve the peasantry’s problems made it possible for the proletariat to acquire their support.

According to Löwy, Trotsky’s view of the peasantry contained ‘a very deep political truth’ but if understood in sociological terms, it was contradicted by the course of historical events in many dependent countries. There are instances when Trotsky commits the error of ‘sociologism’ in his understanding of the peasant (93-94). For example, he remained pessimistic about the revolutionary nature of the peasant movements in 1930 China. He also tried to deduce the political nature of the Red Army from its social nature. Since most of them were peasants, Trotsky did not think them to be true communists. Though at some moments he did perceive the anti-capitalist nature of peasant insurgency in China, in general Trotsky does seem to have believed that the peasantry could not acquire a communist consciousness before a proletarian revolution.

Löwy thinks this to be due to the classical Marxist attitude towards the peasantry as a ‘sack of potatoes’. He argues that Trotsky, like other western Marxists, generalised his assessment of European peasantry to the peasantry of dependent countries. Many of them possess very different structural features, such as ‘collectivist village traditions, massive uprootedness resulting from capitalist penetration, very high rates of demographic growth, proletarian or semi-proletarian status of rural laborers on the great plantations’ (96). Thus Trotsky was less perceptive of the specificity of the rural class structure of non-Western countries, and of the revolutionary capacity of their peasantry. Nevertheless, in one of his last works, he wrote:

‘The Narodniks saw in the workers and peasants simply “toilers” and the “exploited” who are equally interested in socialism. Marxists regarded the peasant as a petty bourgeois who is capable of becoming a socialist only to the extent to which he ceases materially and spiritually to be a peasant…It is, of course, possible to raise the question whether or not the classic Marxist view of the peasantry has been proven erroneous…Suffice it to state here that Marxism had never invested its estimate of the peasantry as a non-socialist class with as absolute and static character’ (Trotsky quoted on p.97).

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In the beginning of the fourth chapter, ‘Conclusions’, Löwy presents us with many cases of revolutions strangled due to the stagist and ‘four class bloc’ strategy of the Comintern. The hold that the Comintern and Marxist orthodoxy had on the communist leadership of many such movements, it is contended, restricted them to the bourgeois-democratic phase, and a moderate attitude towards and alliance with the bourgeois class made them vulnerable to coups and attacks. In Spain (1931-1937), Guatamala (1952-4), Chile (1938-47 and 1973), and most starkly in Indonesia (1965) the blind faith in the intentions of their allies, the refusal to arm the proletariat, and the refusal to follow the revolutionary path to its logical conclusion, despite mass support, led to many a bloody defeat.

Furthermore, Löwy adds to his (and Trotsky’s) attack on stagism the fact that no non-European, dependent, peripheral capitalist nation has been able to find stable solutions to national-democratic tasks (see note-2; consider India for instance). Agreeing with Ernest Mandel, Löwy points out that no dependent country has actually become ‘ripe’ for a purely socialist revolution through its process of development like the advanced capitalist countries have; they still have not been able to accomplish the democratic tasks which the advanced countries had completed decades ago. Also, the process of ‘semi-industrialisation’ in the Third World seems to be making it more dependent on imperialism rather than more autonomous. However, Löwy warns against underestimating the ability of bourgeois- and petty bourgeois-led revolutions to accomplish important reforms and establish stable states. To take for granted the instability of these regimes would be to commit the error of political fatalism. Knowing the capabilities of such regimes, the revolutionary, Löwy hopes, would be more determined to prevent their stabilisation, and to struggle for an alternative future.

On the other hand, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution has been proven correct by the revolutions in Russia, China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and Cuba. While three of these were always under proletariat leadership, the Russian and Cuban revolutions started under bourgeois leadership but were soon taken over by the proletariat. All of them had a bourgeois-democratic moment but the democratic tasks in each of them were completed only in the socialist moment of the revolution. This edition of the book does not carry the details of these revolutions that would explain the process of the combined revolution. However, Löwy does discuss the Nicaraguan revolution of the 1960s.

Nicaragua saw a popular insurrection against dictatorship with mass peasant and worker participation. The leadership was largely petty bourgeois but through its struggle, it had developed an anti-imperialist and anti-autocratic programme. Due to the precedent set by the Cuban revolution, and direct support from Cuba, the Nicaraguan revolution developed along communist lines. According to Löwy, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSNL) took radical steps: it dissolved the old army and established its own army with soldiers from the guerilla army and the militia, it organised the masses into unions and other organisations, and it enforced its anti-capitalist policies. (Löwy had written this back in 1979. Since then the FSNL has weakened and it would be interesting to know how Löwy explains its trajectory now.)

Löwy, after establishing that Trotsky’s politics passes the test of history, moves on to his ‘sociology’ – his analysis of the roles of the social classes (and social categories). In discussing these – the national bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, intelligentsia, peasantry and the proletariat – Löwy clarifies some of the finer points Trotsky makes on the subject, and tries to make certain amendments in his perspective. It is here that Löwy’s (admittedly slight) departures from Trotsky, some of which we have already come across, become even more clear.

Löwy agrees with Trotsky about the usually moderate nature of the bourgeoisie. Most advanced democratic revolutions, it is asserted, were under petty bourgeois, not bourgeois, leadership. However, he does briefly note that Trotsky, at times, underestimated the indigenous bourgeoisie, especially in the case of India. With respect to the petty bourgeoisie, Löwy agrees with Trotsky that they must eventually choose between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. On the question of whether the petty bourgeoisie could play a significant role in the revolution, Löwy points out the leading role they played in many Third World countries, at times even going against capitalist interests. Though only for a limited time, petty bourgeois regimes, contrary to Trotsky’s belief, did manage to hold power and forge their own distinctive policies, which Löwy calls a sort of petty bourgeois Bonapartism.

Trotsky had, by and large, ignored the role of the petty bourgeois (and increasingly proletarianised) intelligentsia. Löwy believes the ideology of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia to be a sort of Jacobinism combining ‘plebian democracy and romantic moralism’, like in Rousseau. In peripheral countries, their radicalisation is stronger, compounded by imperialist penetrations, conciliatory position of the national bourgeoisie, and the success of socialist revolutions.

Adding to his disagreements with Trotsky on the question of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry in dependent country which have already been noted, Löwy goes on to highlight the greater uprootedness of the peasantry of the third world due to uneven development and imperialism, which leads to greater radicalisation. Most post-1917 revolutions had the peasants as their main social base. However, here he also complicates the term ‘peasantry’, which tends to conflate a broad and heterogeneous body. The rich or big peasants are usually neutral or hostile to communist revolutions. Borrowing from Hamza Alavi’s analysis of the Hunan struggle (and events in Russia, Cuba, Mexico, Vietnam and Algeria), Löwy argues that in the initial phase of the movement, the greater material security of the middle and small peasantry, allows them to attack the oppressors. Their complete dependence on their overlords holds back the poor peasant and the landless labourer until the struggle has already shaken the local authorities and the landlords. The presence of the Red Army in China, for instance, encouraged the poor and landless peasants to join the struggle. But once they joined, they proved more radical than the middle peasants. This external force that pushes the peasant to rebel and gain a socialist consciousness (even prior to a socialist revolution) still came from the urban intellectual and the proletarian communist vanguard. Without this the peasant struggle may have remained local and ineffective.

However, with increasing industrialisation in the dependent countries, Löwy expects the struggle to shift to the cities, with the working masses playing a more central role, like in the ‘classic’ October revolution. In 1917, the revolution was ‘directly’ proletariat, that is, the Bolshevik Party, was proletariat not only in ideology but also in social composition. In subsequent revolutions, the working class played a seminal part in the initial phases but was largely absent during the seizure of power. In China, Vietnam, Cuba and Yugoslavia, the peasantry was the main social support. To explain this absence, Löwy points to the heavy repression the working class encountered in the early phases of all these revolutions, and also the insistence of communist parties to ally with the bourgeois class. These revolutionary parties were indirectly proletarian, that is they were proletarian in their ideology.

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The last chapter of the book is a 2010 interview of the author with Phil Gasper, which seeks to apply the logic of uneven and combined development and the theory of permanent revolution to the present context. Löwy points out that the capitalist system is still very much characterised by the centre and periphery distinction, and since this is so the theory of permanent revolution remains a topic of central importance. The essence of the theory, its dialectical approach to analysis and the uncompromising praxis that this entails, holds true even though the form of unevenness has changed. When Trotsky first formulated the theory in 1905, Russia had a modern urban industry and a backward rural area. Today we can find advanced and backward elements in both urban and rural regions, as well as among nations (what is figuratively called the North-South divide). This unevenness has given birth to many a movement for autonomy at all levels – local, regional and national. Though there are reactionary tendencies, there are also radical ones whose anti-imperialism has taken international proportions with several nations, in Latin America primarily, combining their efforts for autonomy.

Michael Löwy is quite optimistic about such developments, and also about the so-called global justice movement. Although acknowledging the definite liberal, moderate, and even Keynesian tendencies in the global justice movement, Löwy highlights the stated anti-capitalist goals of the World Social Forum. Although anti-capitalist does not necessarily mean socialist, let alone Marxist-socialist, Löwy enthusiastically claims that many of the participants do indeed hope to create socialism. For Löwy, the kind of international solidarity that is fostered by this movement is not one based on sympathy but more on convergences in the ‘common struggle against a common enemy, neoliberalism’.

The reason for his faith in the global justice movement and the WSF is that he sees it as a forum for combining anti-imperialist, agrarian, democratic and anti-capitalist struggles, none of which can succeed without the others by the logic of the law of uneven and combined development. Whether he is right in his expectations from the global justice movement or the WSF will need further study. However, even if they do not meet the potential that Löwy identifies in them, his general argument would still hold: ‘if movements for national liberation, or agrarian reform, or radical democratisation do not develop, in an “uninterrupted” process, into a socialist revolution, they will sooner or later be defeated’ (154). This is only a ‘conditional’ perspective. But with no Stalinism (read as: restrictions from within the workers’ party), the primary conditions that determine the trajectory of the international movement is the class structure of the participant local movements, an analysis of which is not offered in this book. Without class analysis, the arguments for the possibility that this ‘movement of movements’ could develop into something significant are somewhat hollow.

* * *

The entire length of the book, in delineating the features of Trotsky’s theory, argues for the possibility of permanent revolution in backward, dependent capitalist or non-capitalist nations. In this it primarily uses cases, like of Russia and China, which can no longer be called socialist or post-capitalist. But does the failure of permanent revolution here tell us that the theory is erroneous? It does not. The predictions or hypotheses derived from the theory are, true to its dialectical method, contingent on the political developments in the situation: whether the revolutionary ‘fervour’ can push its leadership (even despite themselves) into following the flow of the process towards an uninterrupted, combined revolution. That is, whether the leadership can see the logical development of a bourgeois-democratic revolution led by the proletarian vanguard into a socialist revolution. But for the various factors pressing on the Soviet leadership (the theoretical and practical Menshevism is the only factor Löwy discusses; there might be others given the spread of the same ideas among most of the Comintern leadership), Trotsky might have been proved right and we might have seen a socialist revolution radiating from Russia. It is characteristic of Trotsky’s dialectical approach to not impose determinist diktats on reality – the political trajectory of a revolution is always too complex and overdetermined for that.

This edition of the book is an abridged version of a much longer book originally published in 1981. What has been reproduced is Part One of the two-part book. Replacing the second part is the 2010 interview of the author that makes for a helpful supplement to the chapters that are republished, though perhaps not a substitute for the chapters that are not. Löwy explains in this interview that Part Two, which contained analyses of events in Russia, China, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Cuba on the basis of the theory presented in Part One, has become ‘outdated’. Although there still is considerable, albeit scattered, historical analysis in this edition, one cannot help but feel deprived (due, in part, no doubt to references, which were not edited out, to the unpublished chapters that make promises of more in-depth study to come). When historical events are discussed they do sufficiently concretise some of Löwy’s assertions. However, a more detailed study would have demonstrated what is meant, for instance, by the ‘dialectics of totality’ within uneven and combined development and its significance for revolutionary praxis. To better explain how the interests of the peasants are bound to the proletarian revolution, or how the interests of the workers of one nation are bound to those of workers of all nations, and most importantly, how these can be successfully translated into revolutionary praxis, an analysis of the class structure of societies under transformation in the past would have been invaluable.

A great deal of what Löwy has to say on the subject seems to imply that the demise of the Russian and the international working class movement was the result largely of Stalin’s ideological distortions, or at least of the failure of the communist leadership to see what Trotsky and Lenin saw. Would the working class movement have remained strong if it were not for Stalin and the Comintern’s fallacious understanding of history and socialism? The international communist leadership in its entirety might have been convinced that socialism could thrive in one country, while other nations must necessarily embrace capitalism first. But were there really no other factors that worked for the detriment of the working class movement, along with the definite suffocating repercussions of the leadership’s conservatism? The only way to be sure and accurate is to do a detailed class analysis of the conditions in which the proletarian struggle weakened in Russia and other countries where Löwy holds the Comintern leadership directly responsible. One wonders whether the historical analyses in the original edition would have been helpful in this respect as well.

An updated historical analysis would go a long way in not only strengthening the theory of permanent revolution, but also in understanding recent class dynamics, and formulating new revolutionary strategies. For instance, what contingencies created the situations that led to China’s capitalist turn in the ’70s, or even to Cuba’s recent economic ‘reforms’? Would it be right to suggest, as Löwy does for Russia, that the still predominantly stagist and economistic credo of the communist parties is the primary cause?

For us here in India, lessons from Trotsky take on significance in view of the hesitations, on various grounds, of the various communist parties to organise on the basis of proletarian hegemony. Some seem to believe that there is a need to stay with the bourgeoisie until capitalism exhausts itself, while others are still fighting semi-feudalism alongside the rich peasantry, both of them alienating the proletariat in the process. Much of what Löwy says about the inability of the bourgeoisie to fulfill the three national democratic tasks (see note-2) fits the Indian situation like a glove. There is social unrest and mass movements resulting from the failure of the capitalist economy and state on each of these counts. Löwy is also right about the ability of the bourgeoisie to create a more or less stable state despite these failures, if the revolutionary forces do not develop within these locations of unrest and push them towards an alternative.

This book is not only a very helpful introduction to Trotsky’s work but also an important step towards contemporizing the theory of permanent revolution. Löwy limits himself to applying Trotsky to international social (not necessarily socialist) movements. It is obvious that much is still needed. Löwy does not omit the moments of real or apparent contradictions in Trotsky’s work. Attempts to explain these contradictions are convincing on most occasions if not all (perhaps someone more familiar with Trotsky’s texts and his time would be a better judge). But the reader will undoubtedly realise that Löwy’s loyalties, like Trotsky’s, lie with explicating the possibilities of permanent revolution rather than with particular persons or texts.


Notes:

(1) Capitalism, as an ever-expanding social totality, is constitutively contradictory and is thus, in essence, uneven. Such unevenness renders the deficit of democracy (a la primitive accumulation) as much a constitutive part of capitalism as the democracy of competition (a la normal accumulation through market-based economic means and mechanisms). The failure of most Indian communists to grasp this essence of capital is the key reason for their inability to realise that struggles against all forms and kinds of democratic deficit cannot any longer be struggles against feudalism and for the ushering in of capitalism. Instead, such struggles for democratisation must be re-envisaged as movements to unravel capitalism, as a total network of democratic and undemocratic space-times, to go beyond it towards socialism.

(2) A national-democratic revolution according to Trotsky comprises of the following tasks:

  1. The agrarian democratic revolution: the bold and definitive abolition of residues of slavery, feudalism and ‘Asiatic Despotism’; the liquidation of all pre-capitalist forms of exploitation (corvee, forced labour, etc.); and the expropriation of the great landowners and the distribution of the land to the peasantry.
  2. National liberation: the unification of the nation and its emancipation from imperialist domination, the creation of a unified national market, and its protection from cheaper foreign goods; the control of certain strategic national resources.
  3. Democracy: for Trotsky this included not only the establishment of democratic freedoms, a democratic republic and the end of military rule, but also the creation of the social and cultural conditions for popular participation in political life by the reduction of the working day to eight hours and through universal public education.” (89)

Rethinking the Popular: Investigating the Who/What/Why of the Anti-Corruption Campaigns

Subhashini Shriya

We recently saw the middle class rise up to the occasion to bring about, what in a flourish was termed, a “Revolution” against corruption. While the emotions and the anger that informed the launch of such an offensive against the regime can hardly be denied or dismissed, the “revolutionary” potential of the movements led by Ramdev and Hazare were grossly suspect and revealed a tendency to preserve rather than change the status quo. Is there another way to address the chagrin the middle classes feel against the dysfunctional state of the system, something they encounter and experience in the rising pressures on their everyday life as examples of corruption? Are instances of corruption aberrations in the functioning of the state or are they, instead, central to its very logic of monopolising the control over common resources in the process of mediating their appropriation by the forces of capital? Can corruption be eliminated without ridding politics of the concept of a nation-state and the capital it serves? And what would the logical orientation of a movement that seeks to address the issue of corruption as a problem integral and intrinsic to a capitalist organisation of the social and the economic be?

The centrality of the malaise of corruption in the self-image of the country has had a long history. Through the all-pervasive bureaucratic regime of the licence-permit raj to the increasingly privatised neoliberal economy that has emerged over the past two decades, corruption has been most readily identified as the primary cause of the failure of the state to deliver on promises of social welfare: the decrepit infrastructure in most parts of the country, the inefficiency of the state, the unyielding and indifferent attitude of the bureaucracy towards the people and much else. Seen as the misuse of public office for private profit, the issue has sounded the death knell of powerful regimes such as that of the Congress in 1989, post Rajiv Gandhi’s alleged involvement in the Bofors scam. That, however, has always been just as far as the discontent of the masses would drive their agenda of much dearly felt need for ‘change’. The mass disillusionment with the functioning of the state repeatedly gets articulated in the form of disenchantment with the functioning of this or that government, mostly resolving into some patching up in the superstructure of the existing regime of accumulation so that the regime is increasingly insulated from the impact of the political. As a result, this politics of mass disillusionment and disenchantment remains pigeonholed within the electoral democratic process; what with capital and the institutionalised embodiment of its logic in the state reconfigure themselves to accommodate the limited demands of such movements and/or destroy the movements by sheer brute force. The anger frustrated, finally fades away till the time another major expose is fed to the people by the mass media and the Opposition takes its place firmly by the side of the people, ready to take its turn on the other end of the equation between the ever-thwarted masses and the ever-triumphant state.

A quick look at the recent scams to have rocked the country, be it the one over allocation of 2G spectrum to telecom companies or that involving Reliance India Ltd. and the petroleum and natural gas ministry over the extraction of natural gas in the Krishna Godavari basin, makes it amply clear that the core of the debate here is not the small amounts that an average middle-class citizen of the country forgoes at every interface with the government in the form of bribes, but the misappropriation of huge sums of money and transactions between members of the state and multinational corporations and big businesses capturing the resource base of the country by means that appear to be outside the pale of the law. What becomes the benchmark of acceptability within such a perception of corruption is a law which, even on its own terms, is designed for facilitating access of big international capital to the natural resources of the country (in the form of laws such as the Land Acquisition Act 1894) and a state fully integrated in an international economy geared towards private profit-making and ever-intensifying accumulation of capital.

What gets obscured in such an understanding of the phenomenon is that the rule of law, which most anti-corruption impulses and movements pose and derive their legitimacy from, is as much intrinsic to the system of capital accumulation as the absence of the law is indispensable to it. Capital as a historically specific social system is programmed to maintain and reproduce itself through its constant expansion and intensification, thanks to the structure of its power being political-economic. That is the heart of the reason why capital is always on the lookout for fresh terrains of investment and profit-making that is constitutive of an ever-heightening process of commodification of resources. It is this process of perpetual commodification that has through history, starting as far back as the movement to enclose the agrarian/pastoral commons in 13th century England, given unto us the capitalist system or dynamic that is inherently driven to constantly militate against its own boundaries, articulated in the form of laws to regulate the twin-processes of production and reproduction, to maintain itself through its expansion and intensification. Clearly, the law and its exception constitute, in their mutual complementarity, capital and its historically specific process of accumulation. In fact, every violation of or exception to a law is almost always the founding gesture of a new law. That is the self-cannibalising essence of capitalism called creative destruction through which it beats its multiple crises in the specificity of its respective historical moments to recreate and reinforce itself. In that sense, the illegal exception to the law is not outside or beyond its ambit but is its constitutive, founding essence. This is the specific (bourgeois) historicity of the rule law with regard to the other historicities of political rule.

What is then ‘beyond’ the ambit of this law also comes to pose itself as beyond the scope of so-called capitalist accumulation through market-based competition and becomes one of the many kinds of primitive accumulation that we witness today. The state machinery being the custodian of all resources within the geographical/political boundary of the country becomes the inevitable mediating agent for capital in making this leap from the ambit of the legal to that beyond. The use of influence, both monetary and political, that big capital exercises over governments and the repressive state apparatuses under their control to acquire land and other associated common resources – thereby appropriating the means and conditions of production – for them at prices way below that of the market renders evident the limitations of formulating the question of corruption within the discourse of neo-liberal legality, a critique of corruption therefore revealing the potential to mount an effective critique of such a legal system and the state that embodies and enforces it. Such an addressing of the issue of corruption would necessarily compel movements directed against that problem to drastically alter their social orientation and appearance. That would mean those movements end their current isolation from struggles centred on questions that pose a far more direct challenge to the capitalist organisation of social life, and integrate with them. The hostility that current anti-corruption movements exhibit towards movements that are working class in character, at any rate objectively, prove that radical transformation of the system is the last thing on their agenda. That, among other things, reveals the class character of those anti-corruption movements. It is only if the politics of anti-corruption is reconfigured in those terms can the debate around corruption develop any truly revolutionary potential.


 

With the present condition of the revolutionary working class movement being one of retreat, such a formulation on the phenomenon of corruption is conspicuous primarily in its absence. In its place, proliferate a spectrum of responses directed by various petty bourgeois impulses characterised by an internal differentiation reflective of the variegated and oscillating nature of the petty bourgeois class position. This internal differentiation in tendencies can be identified in terms of their different degrees of affinity and antagonism towards big capital that dominates the state machinery, apparently subverting it by corrupt means.

The first can be seen as the urban middle-class, white-collar, salaried worker mobilised mostly under the leadership of Hazare. This section of the middle class remains more or less attached to big capital as its managerial and clerical cadre and sees itself as having access to enough mobility within the system to remain invested in its interests. The discursive, qualitative nature of resources that comprise the cultural capital of this section are, by dint of its urban location, common to that of the global big bourgeoisie. This allows it to find a greater resonance with the globalised, ‘westernised’ cultural idiom that is increasingly coming to dominate society. Consequently, the emphasis here remains limited to the efficiency of the state system with an eye on even the most minor of corruption practices and an elaborate law proposed as a concrete solution to the problem. The movement allows for every possibility for the state to effectively address its concerns and co-opt, more precisely subsume, it within its existing logic without much danger to the status quo.

The second is the small-town mercantile sections of the petty bourgeoisie, particularly from western Uttar Pradesh, whipped up by Ramdev. This section of the suburban petty-bourgeoisie can be understood in terms of its location outside organised corporate capital and its concomitant political marginalisation by the forces of big capital at both the central and the state level. It, however, experiences its antagonism with big capital primarily through phenomena like the constantly increasing cost of living, the centralisation and corporatisation of their occupational spheres like certain services and retail, increasing unemployment even among the educated, and other such forms of social domination that are far more indirect than those experienced by wage workers occupying lower rungs of the social ladder.  Also, having seen days of greater political and economic influence (at least at the local level) there exists among those sections an aspiration to integrate themselves with the dominant sections of the capitalist mainstream, albeit with much lower chances of actually making it than the urban professional.

The split elaborated above within a constituency that appears to have forged a broad consensus and unity on the issue of corruption is reflective of a deeper contradiction within the petty bourgeois class situation itself. The expansion of capital constantly polarises society, further splitting every terrain it enters into a section that experiences an upward mobility of sorts within the system and another which is pushed further towards proletarianisation. The petty bourgeoisie, which provides the basis for movements like that of Hazare and Ramdev, is perched precariously close to the edge of the precipice, forever vulnerable to that arbitrary sleight of hand with which capital might push it into what it itself recognises as the ‘working classes’, or the class subordinate to them. This leaves them suspended in a realm of constant competition, where every instance of consolidation of their class position and privilege gives way to another moment of threat and instability due to the constant reconfiguration and expansion of capital. At the same time such a class position is ideologically characterised by a strong aversion towards identifying with the working classes or a working-class position, not allowing the petty bourgeoisie the luxury to pose a problem without any regard for the preservation of their own position in society like the working class can. The challenge they pose to the system, therefore, always remains circumscribed by the logic of the system itself, understood only in terms of their immediate questions and demands thereof. Such petty-bourgeois movements thus always limit themselves to merely seek change of regime and not a political-economic reorganisation of society itself. Consequently, the change that such movements bring about reinforces the totality of the capitalist structure of social relations instead of demolishing it.

The difference between the socio-economic constituencies of the two leaders was not only evident in the particular kind of rhetoric employed by each one of them but also in the posing of their primary demands. Far from a detailed legislative road map to end corruption, the followers of the Baba rallied behind the much broader and ambiguous demand of “bringing back to the nation the Rs 400 trillion black money which is a national wealth”. On the other hand, much more clearly articulated have been demands pertaining to the redressal of the condition of peasants labouring under the burden of sterile and input-intensive genetically modified crops, breaking the hierarchy between English and vernacular education, propagation and encouraging of indigenous knowledge etc. On the whole, what these demands reflect is the aspiration of a section of the petty bourgeoisie, which despite having access to limited resources (such as medium-sized plots of agricultural land and higher education among others) is finding itself increasingly at a comparative disadvantage vis-a-vis another section of the petty bourgeoisie – the urban middle class of salaried workers – with an awareness, albeit inarticulate, of the losing battle it has been forced into fighting with those above it, those below and even itself.


What is needed in such circumstances is an open challenge to the capital-effected segmentation of the working class, which would indeed be a challenge to capital itself. This logic of segmentation is, however, internalised in the very processes through which different sections, including the various sections of the working class, inhabiting the capitalist social order reproduce themselves. The competitive capitalist logic of segmentation and division of the working class is integral to their modes of socialisation, education, cultural training and ambition. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the petty-bourgeois class position lies not only outside the working class but is pretty much integral to its social being as well. The self-perception of the petty-bourgeois sections within the larger working masses is grounded in their objectively identifiable social, economic and thus cultural superiority vis-à-vis the more proletarianised sections of the working masses. And this subjectivity identifies as the working class only those social strata that are subordinate to the stratum that comprises the petty-bourgeois position within the working class and which shapes the subjectivity in question. The consciousness that emanates from such petty-bourgeois subjectivity of the working class fuels the political ambition of those petty-bourgeois sections to obtain to class positions above them. Such a deadlock calls for the presence of subjective forces strong enough to expose the routine and bring this section of society, already subsumed by capital and made a part of the internally-segmented working class, to the realisation of the inevitability of such competition and vulnerability and the impossibility of consolidating their current position within capitalism. One cannot therefore overemphasise the fact that the fight against corruption has to be posed as mediating the larger fight against capitalism and the bourgeois nation-state and not reinforcing these categories as is being done by the current anti-corruption movements.

Alternately, the absence of opposition to the logic of capital in its entirety might drive such mass-populist upsurges to attempt resolving the question of segmentation through constantly displacing their anger towards the system on to a culturally constructed “other” reinforcing the national chauvinism and strong moral self-righteousness that already functions as its primary ideological vehicle. At cross purposes with the basic impulse informing its emergence, such othering only allows capital further options to transfer its crisis from one section of the same class to another, perpetuating its domination.

Indeed, the insecurity stemming from the tension between possible assimilation and imminent rejection by big capital is reflected in the particular brand of culture that different sections of the petty bourgeoisie deploy to construct the concept of national identity commensurate with the specificity of their respective cultural identities that, in turn, are contingent on the specificity of their respective socio-economic locations. Such petty-bourgeois cultural constructions, irrespective of the discursive differences due to their respective socio-economic contingencies, share the same contradictory orientation and the concomitant sense of moral superiority and cultural victimisation with regard to the globalised cultural idiom that is without doubt the ideology of big capital. At the foundation of the strong strain of cultural nationalism characteristic of Ramdev’s Bharat Swabhiman Manch lies an essentialised “Indian” identity steeped in Hindu symbolism and constructed as much in opposition to a global/’western’ cultural idiom as that of cultural minorities within the country. Such a conceptualisation of culture as identity denies one of its most significant roles — that of mediating a group’s experience of social reality in tandem with its position within the differentially inclusive capitalist organisation of production and reproduction. It only reinforces the fissures within the already stratified working class, undermining any possibility for various groups with interests antagonistic to those of capital to come together on a solidaristic, as opposed to a merely pragmatic aggregative, basis. That, needless to say, preserves and even aggravates the competition within the working class. Strong nationalist sentiments conveniently engulf both sections of the petty bourgeoisie – the Ramdev-led suburban mercantile classes and the Hazare-led urban middle classes – currently in political play offering one the hope of getting protection from the competition with big capital from a “neutral” democratic state and the other to extend the logic of competition to global proportions vying with other states for political and economic influence. The heady mix of God, godmen and parliamentary democracy is, therefore, far from allowing a critical demolition of the very logic of capitalism. If anything, it merely serves as a palliative, helping to internalise and rationalise the alienation engendered by it. This makes it increasingly easy for the movement to develop a fascistic tendency, not to suggest that such a tendency will necessarily get realised in a fascist regime.

Bourgeois morality remains of little practical significance for both the big bourgeoisie, too unscrupulously engaged in the pursuit of profit to bother with any fidelity to morals that might act as a barrier to accumulation; and the working class, which despite being ideologically hegemonised by such morality witnesses its hollowness and hypocrisy in their daily struggle with capital in the factories and on the streets. The only people for whom this remains a real concern are precisely our middle classes and the petty bourgeois, whose entire relationship with the larger capitalist system is ideologically justified by such moral categories as honesty, discipline, commitment to hard work. Such moral virtues are, however, far from being absolute and transform themselves in keeping with the economic (in the broad sense of the dominant mode of production and reproduction of life) impulses dominant at a time. In premising their entire ideological edifice on a morality so essentially changeable in nature, such movements attempt to also ossify and reify morality, transforming what are essentially political phenomena into political categories. This renders moral functions such as honesty, efficiency etc opaque, corruption as a transcendental sin, with no historicity or material/ political-economic basis, foreclosing the possibility of seeing the political economic processes that go into their construction, which ultimately is also the only key to their deconstruction and destruction. Moreover, the law becomes the guarantor and protector of such morality and becomes as absolute and transcendental as these values appear to be, only being further reinforced by such movements rather than being effectively challenged.

The recent widespread mobilisation against corruption that one witnessed remains in the very way it has articulated itself a limited and definitely non-revolutionary project. The impulses that guide it can, under the leadership of the working class, move towards an actual resolution by following the logic of what constitutes corruption and addressing those rather than shadow-boxing with corruption at the level of its isolated appearance. Given that the working class is not and cannot be seen as external to the current mobilisation and also the increasing segmentation within the petty bourgeoisie itself, the possibility of such a transformation of the movement remains the function of the strength of existing subjective forces to guide the blow to the heart of the matter.

Needless to say, envisioning a fight against corruption led by the working class would entail locating it in the broader continuum of class struggle, amidst a whole set of other agitations to expose and counter capital in all its operations. A struggle against corruption in itself can, therefore, never suffice as a revolutionary campaign without being closely linked to movements against unemployment, price rise, work hours and wages etc. A primary question that such a revolutionary reconceptualisation of the problem would have to deal with is that of form. This is to say that such a movement would have to clearly distinguish itself from mass movements led by petty bourgeois tendencies constitutive of the current campaigns mounted by Ramdev and Hazare. Such distinction would arise primarily from the mobilisation of a different constituency: the proletarianised sections of the working class who have nothing to lose in seeking to decimate capitalism. The agitational methods of such a movement would differ radically from the current campaigns restricted to symbolic hunger strikes and civil society-speak and could take a variety of militant forms such as the gherao of public offices charged with corruption, active mass mobilisations against reduction of rents and prices in working-class neighbourhoods and for better access to social wages such as health, sanitation and so on and disobeying all laws and policies that enable the exploitation and domination of the working masses by legitimising continuous expropriation of their means and conditions of production, including the reconfiguration of social space and time and so on. Most importantly, such a movement can arise only in conjunction with a spontaneous upheaval of the working class. Spontaneity here suggests a high degree of class consciousness in the working class where it is able to invest the movement with an organic creativity and is not led by the top, it would only then be able to make the journey from being a  mass-populist movement it currently is (and which very much functions within the bounds of hegemony, actually strengthening it) to being a popular movement (which reflects the counter-hegemonic will of the working class that poses the social not as a stabilised juridical system of segmentation but as one of continuous “real movement”).

This, however, is not to dismiss or belittle the importance of a vanguardist force to organise that spontaneity and channel it to revolutionary ends, the development of class consciousness itself being dialectically bound with the strength of subjective forces. Last but not least, the possibility of such a movement can only be envisioned where the working class has already been extensively organised and mobilised by the revolutionary forces. This condition in itself makes necessary the raising of issues closer to the everyday lives of the working class for whom the oppression of inhuman hours of work and crazy work load is much more crucial than issues of corruption and for whom such issues would have to be the primary basis for organising. Having developed its own subjective strength as a class, the working class led by a revolutionary organisation/party can address concerns such as corruption as part of an offensive against capital and the state instead of playing on the defensive and being forced to join a bandwagon led by essentially compromised forces functioning within the limited logic that capital allows it access to. The alliance forged with the petty bourgeoisie in such a scenario will emerge from the common struggle against capital and not the dependence of a Communist organisation on petty bourgeois mobilisation in the absence of an extensive independent mass base. That is something that some so-called radical communist groups, which have frenetically rushed to either join the Hazare movement or seek through their completely bankrupt ideological contortions a popular element in the Ramdev movement, would do well to remember. The fight against corruption then would have to be not just against the small-time government clerk or the bureaucrat, waged through the means of legislative amendments, but also against such ploys as the Lokpal Bill. Such struggles must surely not be about re-instilling public faith in farces such as the bourgeois law and parliamentary democracy, but must, instead, envisage the decimation of such discourses and practices of cooptative politics as its principal task.

Neoliberalism, Education and the Politics of Capital: Searching Possibilities of Resistance

 Ravi Kumar 

That the instruments of imparting education extend beyond the classical notions of classroom learning is a fact few can disagree with today. It is, however, not enough to realise that the process of educating a human being transcends the limited universe of whatever form of formalised institution of teaching-learning transactions and is finally linked to the approach that one adopts to comprehend the processes of knowledge formation. This process of education is also closely linked to the desires of the dominant social structures to limit our view of the complex processes of knowledge creation. A limited and fragmented view of the world not only hides the systemic contradictions but also makes possible a process of regimentation. For instance, one can never fully appreciate the fact that the elite castes of India – not unlike the entrenched hegemonic class interests in any social order – need to segment the processes of education so that it in turn sustains the segmentation of the social order. Not unless one overcomes one’s ideological myopia to grasp the link between the processes of knowledge production in a society and its larger logic of production.  It is this myopia that compels us to explain the teacher-taught relationship through the undemocratic metaphor of teacher as god. It is the intrinsic uncritical appeal of such a metaphor that leads us even today to claim that the teacher reveals the path to the kingdom of god. And it is this belief in the existence of a particular kind of system that celebrates the existence of gods – which bases itself on uncriticality and opposition to dissent, and concomitant subordination to spiritual and/or temporal authorities – that is responsible for our failure to understand how, for example, the Dronacharya-Eklavya relationship, by virtue of it being embedded in class-caste relations, is an expression of the segmentation of society along class lines through segmentation of education. And this holds true as much for ancient India, as for us in our times, wherein a vision of understanding educational processes as going beyond classroom and institutionalised structures is seldom encouraged. Even if it is done the connections between the mode of production and educational systems is rarely explored.

This further results in the absence of an analysis that would try to understand the impact of neoliberalism on education and its implications for the working class. Even the most progressive voices/analyses of the so-called education sector (such divisions are in themselves yet another attempt to fragment the world view) fail to overcome these limitations. The problem areas that, as a consequence, emerge with regard to understanding the processes of education and knowledge creation are the following:

1. There is a tendency towards generating a dehistoricised understanding, i.e., denying conjuncturality of different stages of development of capital and the nature of educational discourse and conditions on the ground.

2. There exists a disjunction in the understanding of education and the comprehension of social structures/ relations.

3. Education, therefore, is not seen as a battlefield where a part of the everyday class struggles is waged. As a result, it is discounted as a site of accentuating class struggle.

4. There is a serious absence of reflection on the issue by the Indian Left.

5. Because of the above-mentioned factors education becomes a classroom-based affair shorn of class politics and outside the ambit of labour-capital conflict.

6. Consequently, education acquires a kind of autonomy and an agency of its own and, therefore, none of the educational alternatives in India have managed to establish themselves as real working class counter-narratives to the capital-driven discourse and practice of education.

7. Due to these drawbacks the notion of empowerment, which cannot be seen as something outside the ambit of class struggle, within the educational field becomes problematic.

A comprehensive understanding of the developments taking place today with respect to education and knowledge-formation at large can emerge only if the above-mentioned factors are taken in to account. It is only then that one can understand how neoliberalism does not only affect the institutions, moulding them to its own end, but also radically alters the way even welfarist, social-democratic forces understand education. Such an approach that enables us to see education as a terrain of class struggle would, for instance, reveal rather clearly how and why capital must alter the classical idea of a classroom in its neoliberal epoch. This conjuncture necessitates not only the emergence of schools without teachers/instructors, but ‘places’ where teaching-learning happens online and even through mobile phones or satellite television. In other words, when the state offers alternatives such as online education; or when private enterprises tell us through their advertisements that it does not matter if you miss classes because there is a virtual classroom; or when Abhishek Bachchan graphically shows how classrooms can happen anywhere (which would even mean, at the cost of exaggerating it, that child labour can go hand in hand with education), what with lessons being imparted through mobile phones; or when the new symbol of humane, concerned and conscientious India – Aamir Khan – tells you that education is possible even through satellite channels there is an underlying commonality in their visions.

What they are telling us is that equality of access to education is possible even within neoliberal capitalism. They are suggesting that access need not always be seen in direct person-to-person or person-to-institution contact, and that it can be impersonalised. The sum and summary of what they are suggesting is this: why do we always need to locate the question of equality within a framework of class relations or consider the state as the provider of educational means and facilities. The point they are making is that profiteering or mindless urge to accumulate surpluses can go hand in hand with the principle of equality and justice. In a nutshell, it is a denial of conjuncturality of capital-labour contradiction with the issue of knowledge formation and dissemination. This denial appears, in not so stark and unabashed a manner, when the progressive voices and forces uncritically get nostalgic about reviving the lost world of welfarism. In other words, they, unknowingly or otherwise, adopt the approach of ensuring equality or justice outside the ambit of class struggle, and thus fail to envisage this absolutely desirable quest of theirs, which is doubtless urgent, in terms of problematising the intentionality of capital at different moments in its history.

Emergence of the Neoliberal Order

Finally, it has arrived and made itself the dominant paradigm of our everyday life. It is unabashedly shrewd, callous and calculating. It uses the instruments of consensus as well as coercion with utmost dexterity, becomes part of our individuality and has all possible designs at its disposal to alienate us from our collective working class consciousness in such a way that for sometime the battlefield can become quite hazy with the mirage that the system offers all kinds of possibilities to resolve our problems and all we need to do is work hard and give our lives to it. This is the age of neoliberalism that represents the tyranny of capital in the most organised and atrocious manner and India’s economic and political scenario for last one-and-a-half decades represent this tyranny. It is a stage or a moment in capital accumulation that leads to an unprecedented expansion of capital by bringing into the commodified zones even aspects which have been considered as non-commodified such as education and health during the pre-neoliberal phase of capitalism. Simultaneously it uses its aggression to push further its aim without any hitch.

This phase of capitalism is especially intractable for those committed to resisting the rule of capital. In fact, there has been a neoliberal consensus evolving across diverse political formations and amply clear in the situation post-2009 general elections (Kumar, 2010). The rhetoric of social justice, demands for equity built on the premise of identitarian politics as well as the hollowness of a market driven purportedly by justice and equity have been exposed. What, then, remains as the subject of concern for all of us is: (1) to comprehend the logic and strategy of capital in the current conjuncture; (2) inquire into the way this is manifest in the arena of education; and (3) evolve ways of resisting this onslaught of capital. Towards achieving these tasks this paper tries to understand the idea of neoliberalism and what does it do.

To say that there has been a marked decline in ‘social sector’ spending by the Indian state would be stating the obvious. It would, however, be erroneous to reiterate that decline without analysing it as a consequence of the persistent battle between capital and labour. The mutilations in the education system are no more than embodiments of this conflict in the arena of state, economy and polity. The state becomes an agent of capital assisting in its expansion and, whenever/wherever necessary, repression – physical as well as intellectual. In other words, apart from the mere physicality of the neoliberal impact there are very dangerous and more powerful mental and intellectual instruments working overtime to consolidate the already gained grounds for capital or creating possibilities for newer grounds to be captured. This character of the neoliberal phase of capital accumulation emerges out of the specific historical moment in which it was born. It was the crisis of accumulation in “embedded liberalism” that paved way for this new system to emerge after the option of deepening “state control and regulation of the economy through corporatist strategies” (Harvey, 2007, p.12) became problematic because the Left, which had forwarded this idea, “failed to go much beyond traditional social democratic and corporatist solutions and these had by the mid-1970s proven inconsistent with the requirements of capital accumulation” (Harvey, 2007, p.13). Obviously, the increasing influence of Left was also becoming problematic for the unhindered expansion of capital. The influence of Left unions and mobilisations were strengthening. One finds the vibrant movement of the Left flourishing during the era of welfare capitalism even in India. Trade unionism as well as other forms of resistance to the rule of capital did pose a substantial challenge to the politics of the ruling class. The resistance in these two different phases also becomes a matter of relative comparison as we are confronted with moments of declining resistance to the politics of capital in the neoliberal era. It was this imperative of curtailing the challenges to capital accumulation that compelled neoliberalism to become a political ideology as well.

Hence, we find neoliberalism giving “priority to capital as money rather than capital as production” and by doing so it allows “policies to be adopted which clear the decks, removing subsidies and protection, and freeing up capital from fixed positions” intensifying the pace of restructuring. “It allows capital to regain mobility, dissolving the spatial and institutional rigidities in which it had become encased” (Gamble, 2001, pp.131-32). State, which was welfarist, and had undertaken campaigns of nationalisation and promised to take care of the health and educational concerns of its people started saying that it was not possible for it to bear the burden of educating every child or taking care of the health needs of its citizens. Consequently, it comes up with analysis that would suit its market logic. For instance, it argues, in context of secondary schools, that “the doubling of the share of private unaided schools indicates that parents are willing to pay for education that is perceived to be of good quality” (GOI, 2008, p. 15).  And the extension of this argument results in involving more and more private players in running the education system as a business. Consequently, the government plans to open model schools that “will be managed and run by involving corporates, philanthropic foundations, endowments, educational trusts, and reputed private providers” (GOI, 2008, p.17). This tendency to open up new avenues or withdraw from certain roles and responsibilities that till now were strictly considered the state’s domain has been intrinsic to the character of the neoliberal state. “The contribution of neoliberalism to the restructuring of capitalism was, therefore, to provide a means by which capital could begin to disengage from many of the positions and commitments which had been taken up during the Keynesian era.”(Gamble, 2001, p.132)

Even Neoliberalism talks of Dignity, Freedom, Autonomy and Well-Being – Where does the Problem lie

Neoliberalism functions on the premise that the “human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (Harvey, 2007, p.2). It uses the principle of freedom andjustice but as concepts that apply to individuals treating them as autonomous beings outside the social relations within which they are embedded. Hence, neoliberalism looks at the role of the state as a body that creates and preserves institutional frameworks that ensure this project of capital. The state has to not only “guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money” but also set up structures of coercion “to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets” (Harvey, 2007, p. 02). State intervention in management and regulation of market becomes negligible. It only has to facilitate its functioning but not intervene in what it does or wants to do. The quintessential example of this is found in the two simultaneous developments in India: (1) the state expenditure on education has been on the decline and the share of private sector in it has been on the rise because capital thinks that the education ‘sector’ needs to be liberated from the clutches of statist structures and principles; and (2) over Rs 40,000 crore have been spent on organisation of a game show (Commonwealth Games) with which neither the Indians relate nor did they want it because for them priorities could well have been health and education. It is happening because the post-recession Indian industry needs as many shows as possible like this one. These two developments show how the state creates opportunities for market and for this it withdraws and creates space for private capital in certain areas whereas it subsidises the expansion of private capital at the cost of its masses. However, it chooses not to spend on education and health to make them accessible to everyone.

It has been argued that liberalism had made life suffocating for people. Mongardini cites Burdeau who argues that it ceased to be ‘the hope of a whole people’ and had rather become ‘the ideology of a class: the bourgeoisie’. The state under bourgeoisie had been transformed into ‘into a closed power’ (Burdeau quoted in Mongardini, 1980, p. 318). In other words, under liberalism, state, rather than resolving the tension between the individual and the state, had made latter “the natural enemy of liberty” (Mongardini, 1980, p. 318). Neoliberalism is seen as defending the social rights of individuals. It “seems to begin as a civil reaction against the invasion of politics and bureaucratic machinery, of little groups against large groups, the private against the public. It is, however, from another point of view also an attempt to reestablish at ground level that relationship of political representation which has been broken and to recreate consensus on a new ideological platform which restores certainty to individual and social action” (Mongardini, 1980, p. 321). Hence, what one finds is that the ideals of human dignity and individual freedom have become the driving ideology, as the slogan, of neoliberal thought and “in so doing they chose wisely, for these are indeed compelling and seductive ideals. These values, they held, were threatened not only by fascism, dictatorships, and communism, but by all forms of state intervention that substituted collective judgements for those of individuals free to choose” (Harvey, 2007, p.5). And obviously, the agency to ensure this freedom and dignity has always been the market for neoliberal ideologues and states.

The idea that neoliberalism is dedicated to ensuring the well-being of human beings, through ensuring equity and justice has been instilled into our common sense. It is done through a variety of ways:

(1) There are arguments and theories of development, which never look at the political-economic aspects of development and, therefore, create a well-thought-out disjunction between, for instance, market, state and development. They tell us how equity and justice are attainable even within neoliberalism without transforming fundamentally the social relations that give rise to these inequities. Herrera arguing against the development economists points out how the softer development economists get away as critics of the system, which, in fact, “is a serious misunderstanding, because neither of them recommends rebuilding the welfare state, modifying the ownership structure of capital in favor of the public sector, applying a policy of income redistribution, or promoting public services—much less arguing in favor of state-led planned development. In spite of a few nuances or subtleties, their arguments always imply that the state should fully submit to the dominant forces of global capital and help its capital accumulation” (Herrera, 2006). Citing the example of Stiglitz, Herrrera argues how during Stiglitz’s regime as the chief economist of the World Bank, the international financial institution published its report on “Knowledge for Development” in 1998-99, which talked about “cooperation” with the private sector “in the fields of information and telecommunications: privatization, dismantlement of public research (even the transformation of research institutes into joint stock companies), and marketization of education (even by helping the poor to pay for their studies)” (Herrera, 2006). Amartya Sen, on the other hand, locates, in an occulted manner, the social and political rights within the ambit of market. “Without a liberal-style market, Sen seems to say, none of the other freedoms can work.” (Harvey, 2007, p. 184)

(2) Competition has been made the guiding ethics of everyday life. This ethics is not only based on the farcical idea that everyone has the equal opportunity to participate and perform in the competition but it also generates a desire among individuals to be part of this system, which, apparently, demonstrates thepossibility of equal probability to achieve the goal. This sense of competition, which wrongly presumes equal access to required information and which ignores the differential material conditions that go into the formation of an individual or group, though being essentially misplaced, generates a sense of constant involvement within the system. This not only complicates, and therefore delays, the task of mobilisation along class lines but also gradually fosters a misplaced sense of fidelity towards the system. While the ethics of competition cultivates fantasies, aspirations and generates possibilities to achieve them, it also encourages individuation and, therefore, diminishes sense of solidarity. This ethics becomes a part of us through the pedagogical experiences of everyday life under the rule of capital.

(3) There is a vast network of ideological apparatuses, which are at work to legitimise the neoliberal system as well as to garner support for it. While a great deal has been written about how media becomes an effective instrument of propaganda there are misrepresented and fallacious analyses carried out by intellectuals in favour of the neoliberal order. One very obvious example is the work of James Tooley, who argues, following Oxfam Education Report, that “private schools are emerging for the poor in a range of developing countries” (Tooley, 2004, p.06). While he quite intentionally ignores the same Oxfam Report when it also says that “while private schools are filling part of the space left as a result of the collapse of State provision, their potential to facilitate more rapid progress towards universal basic education has been exaggerated. They are unable to address the underlying problems facing poor households, not least because their users must be able to pay, which the parents of most children who are out of school often cannot do” (Watkins, 2000, p.230). Not only this but the whole argument forwarded by likes of Tooley, based on ‘evidence’ from India and elsewhere that “there is considerable evidence available…that suggests that private education is more beneficial to the poor than the government alternative, and hence that parents are making rational decisions by sending their children to private schools” is misplaced and out of context. It not only refuses to analyse the basic and fundamental causation behind the flourishing of sub-standard (or otherwise) private schools across India but also forwards an argument to encourage privatisation of education when it says that “the making of profits is an important motivation for entrepreneurs to enter the education market, and hence it may have some desirable impact, leading to the provision of schools that poor parents prefer to the government alternative. Without the profit motive, this suggests that there would be fewer private schools available, hence the choices available to poor parents would be severely limited” (Tooley, 2004, p.16).

They take the notions of competition, performance and achievement as a priori categories and begin their studies from those already given premises (Tooley, 2004; Tooley and Dixon, 2005). In that sense, their whole argument and research is designed to serve the system that is furthering that particular kind of education system, which rejects critical insight as an essential constituent of educational process or which trains students to dream of alternatives. Apart from such intellectuals working overtime to generate sufficient grounds for private capital to expand, the state has also been quite ‘sensitive’ to the needs and demands of private capital. Knowledge Commission, a body of recognised intellectuals, for instance, very clearly points towards the need to recognise the role played by private educational institutions and suggests that “those providing quality education should be encouraged, especially when they cater to less privileged children”. It also suggests that the government bureaucracy should not harass them and “it is necessary to simplify the rules and reduce the multiplicity of clearances required for private schools….” (GOI, 2009, p.48). These are mechanisms to generate consensus among masses in favour of the restructuring of the economy. And these processes, as Harvey Notes, have occurred globally:

“So how, then, was sufficient popular consent generated to legitimize the neoliberal turn? The channels through which this was done were diverse. Powerful ideological influences circulated through the corporations, the media, and the numerous institutions that constitute civil society–such as the universities, schools, churches, and professional associations. The ‘long march’ of neoliberal ideas through these institutions that Hayek had envisaged back in 1947, the organization of think-tanks (with corporate backing and funding), the capture of certain segments of the media, and the conversion of many intellectuals to neoliberal ways of thinking, created a climate of opinion in support of neoliberalism as the exclusive guarantor of freedom. These movements were later consolidated through the capture of political parties and, ultimately, state power” (Harvey, 2007, p.40).

(4) Neoliberalism weaves a world of fantasy around each individual as well as collectivities of achievable possibilities, thereby confining their imaginations to function within the operational regime of capital. The delusional mind becomes unaware of the labour-capital dialectic. For it the possibility of becoming one day what some people around him/her are or owning what they own has a blinding effect. That individual herself is located within that labour-capital dialectic never appears so to her. Capitalism, in general, through breaching the possibilities of solidarity among the working class creates the expansion and sustenance of neoliberalism possible.  What adds to this process is simultaneity of all of the above-mentioned socio-economic and political processes.

Education and the Politics of Capital -This is how Neoliberalism looks like

Neoliberalism, in general, is firmly entrenched today in India and with the tide of resistance getting lower at this moment its virulent form and tenor is visible in nearly every sector. The education sector is one of the ideal types, which demonstrates how the neoliberal assault works. The nature of changes, which have been brought about over the past few years and with particular vigour during the past one year have shown how neoliberal capital operates. The above-cited four factors that generate consensus and common sense about neoliberalism have been quite obviously active in the Indian context. A host of committees and commissions have been set up to establish how there cannot be any possible alternative to capitalism and, therefore, it is better to work within it. In terms of operationalisation, the state has been formulating policies that institutionalised discrimination – as different kinds of schools and colleges are established in accordance with the differential purchasing and socio-political power of the customers – that draws in more and more private funding in education sector and which denies equality of access to educational facilities of similar kind to everyone. The best example of such efforts to create a consensus in favour of neoliberalism can be found in the Yashpal Committee report, which has sanctioned everything that the neoliberal capital would like to put into place for its expansion. In other words, drastic changes in the form and content of the so-called education system are taking place due to the onset of the neoliberal stage. Hence, the developments inpolicycontent and form of education need to be seen in conjunction with the changing forms of capital accumulation. Following have been some of the manifestations of this development in the country.

1. Education is more than the formal institutional structures and classroom transactions. It is an arena that reflects the agenda and need of the dominant class interests in a society. Therefore, to understand whatever happens in education it is important to understand the class politics, or the labour-capital conflict, characterising a society. But due to this lack the character of the state is seldom questioned in the Indian education discourse. It, many a times, ends up being a nostalgic, illogical discourse that demands a neoliberal state to become welfarist. (Though I would admit that nostalgia has a potential, here, to generate a radical impulse as well.)

2. Capital in India never felt the need (during the past 60 years) to spread education (meaning democratise accessibility to education) because (a) the requirements of labour force were being met by an unequal system; (b) it was able to segment the educational levels of people in congruity with the segmented labour market thereby regulating the educational apparatus-labour market linkage as well.

3. Even today neoliberal capital cannot afford to democratise accessibility to education because it would amount to its decommodification.

4. Quite naturally, neoliberal capital destroys institutions that hamper its progress or appear not to make profits. It also curtails the pedagogic processes that potentially generate a critical perspective against the system – the decline of social sciences and fundamental researches in sciences is an example along with technicisation of science and popularisation of new ‘professional’ (skill-obsessed) courses in the social sciences.

5. In this scenario class manifests itself in following ways in education: (1) there is a particular kind of class formation that the education system foments; (2) the education system becomes an effective ideological state apparatus (ISA) evident in the way capital dominates over labour in their conflictual relationship even in the time of such a serious economic recession; and (3) the possibilities of transcending the capitalist mode of production through creating new imaginations of a world beyond capital becomes difficult and impossible thereby establishing the inevitability of capitalism.

6. Education, if located in the matrix of labour-capital conflict, unfolds as the battleground of competing classes. The constituents of this location – teachers or students remain workers whose realisation of their class position is delayed by the character/orientation of this location.

7. While education remains the most vital link for capitalism to sustain it also remains the location where the link can be broken because it is where the workers (when they realise that they are workers) are also in control of the kind of product that they produce to a great extent (though this freedom is diminishing and is differential across the uneven terrain of educational landscape).

When the Congress Party came to power along with a host of regional formations after General Elections in 2009, the Ministry of Human Resource Development made it amply clear that voices of dissent were not welcomed. Whether it has been the issue of passing Bills to further the expansion of capital or the issue of standardising the functioning of academic institutions such as universities for better control and better manipulation, all decisions are being taken unilaterally and without any attempt at consensus building. One example of how decisions to alter the syllabus or examination system, frame new service conditions for faculty members or completely transform the physical infrastructure have been taken in an undemocratic fashion can be seen in the University of Delhi where the faculty members as well as the students have been protesting for months. It has been happening in other universities as well but there is hardly any opposition. The tenor of the human resource development minister has been one of an outright corporate honcho. Irrespective of whether the Indian Institute of Technology faculty members were justified in demanding more salaries than faculty members of other institutions, the minister on hearing their demand remarked, “I am meeting some people from IITs and will ask them for a roadmap for the autonomy. If they tell us how much money from private investors they can get for the next five years, then we will give them more autonomy. They can take more projects and become private.” (Business Standard, 2009) What gets reflected in this statement is the way terminologies such as autonomy, freedom and choice are used. It is autonomy in sense of getting freed from barriers that would impede flow of capital. It is freedom from different kinds of restrictions, ranging from state policies to the ones posed by unionisation. “The neoliberal notion of academic freedom arises from viewing knowledge as a commodity…and education as a path to income generation that must be privatized and made profitable in order for it to be maximally effective.” (Caffentzis, 2005, p. 600) While the elementary education is in dire straits as the state fails to ensure that each child, irrespective of its class, caste or gender background, gets education of similar quality, higher education is moving towards becoming more and more inaccessible.

The neoliberal assault on education in India is different in terms of its trajectory compared to the West. In the UK or the US, for instance, thanks to concerted struggle by masses and also because of the needs of capital in those particular moments of history, laws and policies that made school education universally accessible to children were enacted. It was the phase of, what Harvey calls, “embedded liberalism” or what many others call Keynesianism. The crisis of the Keynesian model of accumulation was also reflected in the sphere of education when the governments of these nations began the process of withdrawal and started creating spaces for private capital within sectors where state control was entrenched. This pattern does not have much similarity with the Indian situation because the development of capitalism here has had a different trajectory. However, the welfare state that came into being, post Independence, did not create an education system on the lines of what Gandhi and others during our anti-colonial freedom struggle had conceived. It was a system designed to perpetuate class biases. The Indian state created distinction in terms of ‘elite’ institutions – the first IITs were born in early 1950s and the IIMs started in early 1960s – and the other institutions of higher education. Similarly, different types of schools were established by the Indian state for different sets of people. Even before these developments, the Indian Constitution could not include Right to Education as a Fundamental Right, which very well reflected the priorities of the state. Though included, more as a tokenism, in the Directive Principles of State Policy, expansion of education and ensuring equality of access were not the priorities for the welfare capitalism that was established under Jawaharlal Nehru. The needs of a skilled workforce were limited and the limited number of institutions was sufficiently meeting those needs. More than this nothing else was required. The intentions of equality and social justice were being defined in the limited sense of what could have served the needs of capital. It was a notion of equality and justice falling within the mandate provided by that particular stage of capitalism. Hence, it is not only fallacious to get nostalgic about the ‘great’ days of welfare state but it is also myopic in terms of analysis because it falls short of tracing the relationship of capital, in different forms and at different moments, with the education systems.

An extension of this fallacy is manifest in the way the arguments for a better educational system or efforts at establishing alternatives, which have emerged at different points of time, have always failed. There is an intrinsic relationship between the educational processes and the social processes of reproduction. The two cannot be separated. “Accordingly, a significant reshaping of education is inconceivable without a corresponding transformation of the social framework in which society’s educational practices must fulfill their vitally important and historically changing functions.” (Mészáros, 2009, p.216) In other words, it is important to locate oneself in terms of class position before formulating educational analyses or alternatives. One cannot formulate an alternative from the vantage point of capital and claim to fight alongside labour or claim to establish a socially and economically just education system. “The objective interests of the class had to prevail even when the subjectively well-meaning authors of those utopias and critical discourses sharply perceived and pilloried the inhuman manifestations of the dominant material interests.” (Mészáros, 2009, p.217) The reason behind the failure of efforts at changing the educational maladies and institute an alternative has been that they “reconciled with the standpoint of capital” (Mészáros, 2009, p.217).

Transforming the Education through Class Struggle – the only Alternative

In order to establish an alternative and build a movement towards it, it is important to recognise that this alternative could happen only outside capitalism. In this era of neoliberal capitalism, when the offensive of capital has pushed the resistance on the backfoot, a counter-narrative has to be rewritten. This counter-narrative has to be a comprehensive battle plan that would include educational transformation as well.

“Our educational task is therefore simultaneously also the task of a comprehensive social emancipatory transformation. Neither of the two can be put in front of the other. They are inseparable. The required radical social emancipatory transformation is inconceivable without the most active positive contribution of education in its all-embracing sense…. And vice-versa: education cannot work suspended in the air. It can and must be properly articulated and constantly reshaped in its dialectical interrelationship with the changing conditions and needs of the ongoing social emancipatory transformation. The two succeed or fail, stand or fall together” (Mészáros, 2009, p. 248).

There are a lot of alternatives being put forth against the so-called neoliberal assault. The most radical of these alternatives find marketisation of education, increasing commodification, consumerism and subservience of education to corporate houses extremely problematic. The authors of these alternatives also lament the transformed culture of the new education system that is coming into existence. These concerns appear quite justified. However, the problem begins when (1) the analysis of the situation is undertaken – in terms why these tendencies emerge and not so much in terms of how they operate; (2) what can be the alternative; and (3) who will be the driving forces of transformation. There is a tendency to enumerate the symptoms without indicating or identifying the socio-economic processes that give rise to them. Hence, even if such critiques of neoliberalism argue for alternatives the thrust is on reinstating the welfare stage of capitalism. The location of the problem within labour-capital dialectic always remains absent. Welfare state and its institutions become the possible alternatives as if the idea of exploitation and inequality was absent in such a stage.

Such critiques are forced to remain silent witnesses at moments when the neoliberal state adopts a welfarist stance on some of the issues. This happens because there is a distinct failure to uncover how and why certain institutions or policies come into being at particular moments in history and how those moments have also not been exclusive of class antagonism. Therefore, scholars and activists alike begin imagining that a particular state institution within capitalism can have the potential of being revolutionary and anti-state (read anti-capitalist). Such an understanding destroys the possibility of systemic transformation without which an education system, which is liberating, is impossible to achieve. What can be more naïve than to think that capitalism would allow its education systems to produce critical, self-reflexive and radical beings who would question the basic premises of the system founded on the principles of private property, exploitation and mindless race for accumulating wealth. Unless scores are settled with this naiveté of the ‘radical-progressive’ agenda of back to welfarism, which discounts class struggle as the only possible alternative for transforming iniquitous education or health ‘sector’, the battle cannot become sharp enough to threaten capital and its neoliberal epoch.


References:

Business Standard (September 26, 2009), Kapil Sibal rules out salary hike for IIT faculty, available athttp://www.business-standard.com/india/news/kapil-sibal-rules-out-salary-hike-for-iit-faculty/371345/, downloaded on 12th January 2010

Caffentzis, George (Dec., 2005) Academic Freedom & the Crisis of Neoliberalism: Some Cautions, Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 32, No. 106, pp. 599-608

Gamble, Andrew (Autumn 2001) Neoliberalism, Capital and Class, No. 75, pp.127-134

Government of India (2008) Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-2012), Volume II, Planning Commission, Oxford University Press: New Delhi

Government of India (March 2009) Knowledge Commission: Report to the Nation 2006-2009, Knowledge Commission: New Delhi

Harvey, David (2007) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press: Oxford

Herrera, Rémy (May 2006) The Neoliberal ‘Rebirth’ of Development Economics, Monthly Review, Vo. 58, No.1, available at http://www.monthlyreview.org/0506herrera.htm, downloaded on 10th August 2010

Kumar, Ravi (Winter 2010) India: General Elections 2009 and the Neoliberal Consensus, New Politics, Vol. XII, No. 4, Whole Number 48 pp. 107-111

Mészáros, István (2009) The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time: Socialism in the Twenty-First Century, Aakar Books: Delhi

Mongardini, C. (1980) Ideological Change and Neoliberalism, International Political Science Review, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 309-322

Tooley, James (2004) Could the Globalisation of Education benefit the Poor?, Occasional Paper No.3, The Liberal Institute of the Frierdrich Nauman Foundation: Potsdam

Tooley, Jame and Dixon, Pauline (2005) Private Schools Serving the Poor, Working Paper: A Study from Delhi, India, available at http://www.ccs.in/ccsindia/pdf/Delhi-Report-Tooley-new.pdf, downloaded on 12th May 2010

Watkins, Kevin (2000) The Oxfam Education Report, Oxfam GB: Oxford

Communalism, Business Houses, Citizenship and GUJURATE

Raju J Das

The reason for the power of saffron politics is only partly political. India’s business class is not unconnected to this. The power of saffron politics also raises troubling questions about the sense of citizenship.

Some commentators focus on the political factors behind the success of the saffron electoral-machine. One argument has been that Congress has played a ‘soft’ hindutva (for example, by giving tickets to some disgruntled members of hindutva forces as in Gujarat). Others say that Congress’ secularism has not cut much ice with the voters who fall for the communal propaganda. There is some truth in the political interpretations of electoral success of communal politics. What is neglected in these discussions – both on TV and in newspapers – is often what tends to be neglected in many discussions of India’s polity as such: the role of business. What is the possible connection between the business houses and communal politics? Are the business houses – the so-called corporate citizens – a secular force? This issue needs to be more thoroughly investigated. I can only indicate a few things.

At the national level and in the States, the business class, by ushering in the neoliberal regime, has cleared the ground for a specific kind of electoral politics. This is one which is not oriented towards development: here development is seen in the sense of development for/of the poor, a process which is not primarily based on the idea that development of the poor can happen only when the business class prospers, by the so-called trickle-down mechanism. By forcing all political parties to take the free-market approach, by forcing them to pursue neo-liberalism, India’s business class (in solidarity with its brothers/sisters in the advanced world) have contributed to the erasure of any substantive difference between them. In terms of economic policies there is practically little difference between Congress and BJP. Even, the Left parties are not further behind in terms of following neo-liberal policies. When economic policies stop being the differentiators of political parties, when all parties pursue more or less similar pro-business policies, they choose cheap identity politics to divide the electorate and win elections: hindutva, regionalism, linguistic identity, caste-ism, etc. By making jobs scarce, by making it difficult for ordinary toiling masses to earn a decent livelihood, neoliberalism creates the usual kind of jealousy and spirit of nasty competition among labouring people, which take religious (and other) form. The rise of the religious right in the last 15 years or so and the rise of corporate power under neoliberalism are not isolated from one another. Let’s now come to Gujarat more specifically, which combines religious politics and neoliberalism.

Modi & co. has used the veneer, the appearance, of a specific style of ‘development’ and has resorted tohindutva to sell his communalism agenda and to benefit his business-class mentors. The veneer of development is about, among other things, bijlisadak and pani. It is also about attracting industries and creating some jobs. It is about creating what can be called Guju-rate (the Gujurat-style rate of economic growth). Behind all this lies the fact that business houses remain attracted to Gujarat and invest there with huge subsidies from the government which increase their profit and competitive position vis a vis businesses located elsewhere. They have poured in millions of rupees in the last five years. They like Gujarat’s resources which are happily made available by its governing regime. They like Gujarat’s labour, made quiet by the decisive and strong regime – it is for nothing that Modi is seen as the CEO of Gujurat – a regime that boasts of the lowest person-days lost in labour conflict among all the States. The good business climate of Gujarat making Guju-rate possible is created by Modi’s ‘determined’ and ‘strong’ character. The business houses enjoy a cosy relation with the regime. And this happens, despite the fact that the regime is widely seen as one that was complicit in the 2002 carnage of a given section of Indian citizens on religious grounds. The idea of so-called corporate social responsibility does not worry the business houses at all. Their business is the business of doing business. If business requires doing business with a regime that is communal and fascistic, so be it. It does not matter. To the extent that the business houses have been heavily investing in the State in their own interest which the regime boasts of – whether this ‘development’ helps the rural and urban poor in any significant and economically and ecologically sustainable manner is another matter (just look at social-human indicators of development in this State) – and to the extent that the ‘development’ veneer as well as communal propaganda in the electoral campaign have helped the regime return to power, the business houses cannot be seen as unconnected to the political success of the regime.

In addition to this material ‘support’ – one must also know where Modi got the money to fight elections, who funded Modi’s communal agenda – there is also an ideological support for the man and his regime which came from business houses. Ratan Tata has said: Modi will not have to attract people to Gujarat, it will be stupid if you are not here. Anil Ambani was all praise for his Modi Bhai, whose various achievements he counts including the Narmada (as if all the fight against the Narmada by India’s civil society by Medha Patkar and others was non-sense). It is this sort of business-inspired ideological support for Modi – that is indeed used during electoral campaign – that has propped up Modi in ‘popular’ imagination. This requires a detailed analysis.

If the business forces are really for a country free from communalism, have they ever seriously considered an investment strike – at least a threat of it? A slight indication of the trouble of class politics in a State (look at what happened in West Bengal earlier) makes the business class look elsewhere. But communal politics? It can survive with it much better than class politics perhaps. In part because communal politics helps the business class divide any possible opposition to itself from the workers’ side, and because communal politics produces the sort of rightwing decisiveness that obliterates any possibility of anti-business opposition, business houses tend to enjoy a comradely relation with the communal regime.

Communalism thrives on a specific irrational politics of rejection: the idea that a person will reject his/her fellow citizens who are different from him/her in terms of religion. India’s business houses  – like global business houses that enjoyed doing business with South Africa’s erstwhile apartheid regime – do not mind doing business with a communal regime. How will the same business houses respond if the consumers start rejecting their products – a Reliance mobile or  a Tata car, for example – because they are associated with a regime which spreads hate and the politics of rejection of the religious other?

This then leads me to my second point. This is about us as ordinary citizens. What does the success of communal politics (including Modi’s electoral win) say about us as citizens? What does it say about our democracy and the institutions of the state that are supposed to protect the secular fabric of the constitution? How can a person kill someone next to her just because she may have different religious views? How can one believe in the lie created by a few people that one is worse off because of his/her religion? What has happened to our education system – indeed our whole ideological apparatus – that is no longer able to encourage citizens of different religious identities to live in peace? What is it that makes citizens believe Modi-type character when he treats every criticism of him as a criticism of an entire region/province (e.g. Gujarat)? What is it that makes one feel proud to be a citizen of a country when her fellow citizens are treated as second class citizens? What has happened to our sense of citizenship? The quality of one’s citizenship depends on how one’s fellow citizens are treated. If they are treated (and killed and tortured) as second class citizens by a state of whose citizen one is, then does one’s citizenship not stand devalued? And what can we say about the entire set of state apparatuses, including the judiciary, that has allowed the gradual process of capture of parts of the state and civil society by communal forces, the forces that live by spreading the idea of violence on religious grounds?

Let’s not be obsessed with explaining the rise of these communal forces by the failure of the Congress, the premier party of Indian business houses. Both are elements of a system, and both of them have to be explained by the dynamics of the political-economy system as such. The rise of the communal power is not merely an electoral rise. Therefore, to fight against them is not to be merely an electoral fight. The fact that the communal forces have carved out a space within our polity as such, within the state itself, and within civil society, has to be explained. In this explanation, the silent role of the business houses and changing ideological nature of the sense of our citizenship must be understood, and the business houses must be made to reconsider how they deal with communal regimes. They must be asked to take side: are they on the side of communal forces or secular forces?

Raju J Das is an Associate Professor at York University, Toronto, Canada.

Capitalism, Labour and Politics in Rural India

 Pratyush Chandra  

This paper was prepared for Odisha Shramjivi Union (a joint initiative of various local tribal organisations in Orissa) as a perspective note for building strategies for rural labour mobilisation. 

In recent years, rural Orissa has been the hub of rural struggles. While many of these struggles are explicitly linked with the displacement drive initiated by neoliberal competition for attracting corporate capital investment in which the political elite of various regions, including Orissa, has been engaged, their trajectory too – the forms and contents of rural mobilisations and organisations – is defined by the internal, but open-ended, political economic configuration of rural Orissa. We must try to develop an understanding of this configuration that can help in formulating a framework for comprehending the nature of these rural struggles. We cannot take these struggles at their face value, satisfying ourselves with the vocalisation of internal perceptions – of their leadership or any segment within; rather we must locate them in the larger political economy and its contradictions. It is not that these perceptions, motivations and ideologies do not matter, but they have to be understood in terms of the composition of these struggles and the context. In fact, we start with a brief critique of these perceptions, which will help us introduce our theme and initiate our discussion.

Here we have relied extensively on the NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation) data to obtain an overview of rural differentiation in India in general and Orissa in particular. However, the focus is clearly to comprehend the conceptual and political implications of the evolving rural scenario in India.

1. Capitalist transformation in rural areas – What does it signify?

Generally, when we talk about capitalist development in a society, our focus is on industrial progress – on the growth of industries. Commercialisation and monetisation of the economy are definitely taken into account, but they are considered to be, and rightly so, tools of the expansion of capitalism, not the capitalist system itself. So for many, the recent reckless drive to sell off resources in Orissa to corporate capital seems to be heralding capitalism. It is forgotten that such formidable will to industrialise is dependent at least to some extent on the political economic interests organically grounded in the Oriya economy, which are now attracting global capital market.

Even when agriculture is discussed, measurements of capitalist penetration are essentially the extent of mechanisation, capitalisation and proletarianisation (number of landless wage workers, i.e., in absolute terms). A strong presence of petty tenant farmers, simple commodity producers, the exploitation of the unwaged (bonded or family) labour, extra-“economic” means of exploitation (labour extraction) and oppression are all considered, by a large section of experts, to be symptoms of lack of capitalism in Indian agriculture. These “non-capitalist” modes and relations of production demonstrate the inability of Indian capitalism in transforming the rural economy – testifying its “semi-feudal”, “comprador”, compromising attitude towards the non-capitalist political economic rural elite etc. On the other hand, there are many scholars and activists who foreground the articulation of “the other” in this lack – the resistance of Indian peasantry and subaltern to the processes of primitive accumulation and capitalist penetration. In regions like Orissa where we find a strong presence of tribal communities, this resistance is conceived not as derived from locally grounded contradictions in which these communities are themselves enmeshed, but as resilience derived from the incompatibility of their cultural economy with the “external” forces of capitalism.

The political-organisational leadership of rural struggles have largely been informed by these two approaches. So they have implied drastically different political economic programmes and intellectual outputs. However, there are subtle similarities too. Firstly, they adhere to a purist and a stagist conception of capitalism. Their concept of the non-capitalist nature of the rural economy (even if they themselves sometimes call it petty bourgeois) and its political economic persistence (in their view, resistance) poses a notion of “pure” capitalism. As an abstraction, the idea of non-capitalism can definitely help in modelling the internality of local structures; however to pose it as an autonomous concrete having an external-internal relationship with capitalism brings in the notion of pure capitalism from the backdoor. How even seemingly non-capitalist structures come to embody capitalist relations (which include their contradictory nature) is not a question that becomes their object of study. For them the persistence of non-capitalist structures is the effect of their ability to resist.

Secondly, both approaches put agriculture on the receiving end of capitalist development, and stress on the rural-urban divide; however, they obviously differ as regard to the moral of the capitalist teleology. A concomitant product of this stress is the perception of rural homogeneity. At this level, theoreticians and practitioners of the first approach will object, because they profess to question and fight semi-feudalism, thus recognising the reality of rural stratification. But since the “stage” of their struggle is purportedly anti-feudal, anti-comprador, anti-bureaucratic, for all practical purposes their analyses are lost in the task of identifying feudal elements and comprador agents, thus constructing a homogenised revolutionary other – the narod(people).

Let us confront these approaches a bit more in order to approach our primary task of understanding capitalism in Indian agriculture.

It is a truism that rural and urban are unequal spheres, both compositionally and relationally.  They have different internalities (formed around two very different kinds of production spheres – agriculture and industry), which make their exchange unequal. Relationships between different sectors within an economy can never be equal, since they are competitive. So the “divide” is definitely present – it is this divide which is termed as inter-sectoral competition in capitalism. Through competition, value is transferred from one sector to another, from one industry to another. This transfer is inevitable under commodity relations, but it cannot be called exploitative, unless the subordination of a sector entails an unmediated mobilisation of unpaid surplus labour (value) from direct producers (unwaged or waged). Hence exploitation has to be located intra-sectorally. The rural-urban divide and the transfer of value from agriculture to industry that it entails cannot be understood in terms of exploitation, as defined above. The divide and the transfer are competitive and competition redistributes value (and therefore, profit) across society.

One can object to this perception by posing the example of usury and mercantile capital, which have been the bulwarks of capitalist penetration in agriculture and rural economy. But their penetration becomes exploitation only when they are internalised by the agrarian structure. If they are financiers of the agrarian capitalists who are the main organisers of production, their relationship with the latter is redistributive. At the most it can be extractive, but not exploitative. However as part of “social” capital their relationship with labour, even if the latter directly works for an agrarian capitalist, is definitely exploitative. But the financiers’ relationship with petty or simple commodity producers who engage in family labour is a bit subtle. It can be both extractive and exploitative, depending on the former’s ability to influence or control the production process.

Understanding the internality or internal structure of the rural economy and the mode of its (re)production becomes very important in order to comprehend the terrain from which a rural struggle emerges, and which defines its character. In a class-divided rural society, posing the rural-urban divide as victimisation and talking about rural homogeneity is ideological, using the exploited ones, the labourers, as cannon-fodder in the competitive and concession fight of the rural elite. It is at this level that perceptions, motivations and ideologies find meaning.

As mentioned earlier the persistence of non/pre-capitalist “modes” of production in India has long mesmerised the progressive intellectuals and activists, a vast majority of whom consider its existence as a reminder of the amphibian (semi-feudal, semi-capitalist) nature of India’s political economy and its underdevelopment – overloaded with pre-capitalist “vestiges,” while others call them subsistence economies, challenging mainstream capitalism. We believe that the notion of “separate” non-capitalist modes of production is problematic if it is not predicated upon an understanding of a capitalist socio-economic formation that accommodates these modes as relative forms of accumulation and exploitation feeding the social reproduction of capitalism. This paper while discussing the specificities of rural economy will also demonstrate how vestigial forms acquire new meanings within larger political economic processes of capital accumulation and social reproduction. Only this will allow us to interpret rural struggles and recognise their potential strength in protecting the interests of labour against capital.

Passive Revolution and Agrarian Transformation

Unevenness is intrinsic to capitalist development. The unevenness of geographical developments in general reflects

…the different ways in which different social groups have materially embedded their modes of sociality into the web of life, understood as an evolving socio-ecological system…Capitalist activity is always grounded somewhere. Diverse material processes (physical, ecological as well as social) must be appropriated, used, bent and re-shaped to the purposes and paths of capital accumulation. (1)

In the grounding of capitalist activity this diversity materialises into geographical unevenness. David Harvey writes further in his Limits to Capital:

The upshot is that the development of the space economy of capitalism is beset by counterposed and contradictory tendencies. On the one hand spatial barriers and regional distinctions must be broken down. Yet the means to achieve that entail the production of new geographical differentiations which form new spatial barriers to be overcome. The geographical organization of capitalism internalizes the contradictions within the value form. This is what is meant by the concept of the inevitable uneven development of capitalism.(2)

The subcontinental nature of the Indian economy is bound to house various “geographical differentiations.” The unevenness of capitalist development in India is at least partly due to the diverse forms that the institutionalisation of economic relations took during colonial times. The plethora of land tenurial arrangements that the British effected in rural areas led to “the regionalization of class and factional struggle,” which essentially implied territorially based alliances and conflicts between various factions of capital, the local state, and social classes. During the struggle for Independence and after its attainment we find this regionalisation shaping the contours of political economic institutions. The highly differentiated social infrastructures that independent India inherited were largely kept as they were.

Orissa, which was constructed out of many princely states along with areas under the direct control of the British, is an uneven terrain of social relations. There were diverse forms of production relations that had to articulate with one another.

After independence, the political setup in India was constructed by accommodating various regional class configurations, without directly challenging the local hegemonies. The unitary tendency emanated from their articulation within the national economic development by market integration through an intensified monetisation and commercialisation of the local economies. This process was aided by the straitjacketing of regional hegemonies in the discursive milieu of anti-colonial nationalism and democratic political competition. Rajni Kothari has correctly pointed out:

The role of the centre and in particular of the Indian National Congress in mediating the various coalitional strains in the states has been profound in weaving together the heterogeneity of Indian society into a common national political framework. At the same time, the consolidation of state power in the framework of an increasing formalization of the federal constitution has made for typical patterns of institutional diffusion and decentralization. The result is a “mix” of centre peripheral relationships.(3)

Indian federalism was the result of the “coalition-making” at the time when India got its Independence. Autonomy in regional politics and mobilisation provided space and time to the regional class interests and hegemonies to adjust with the larger political economic processes in the country. The Indian state, as the embodiment of the generalised interests of the hegemonic forces in the country, relied on a gradual trickle-down, along with transitive Midas’ effects of socio-economic changes, to integrate the local and peripheral hegemonies.

Apparently, after Independence and especially from the 1970s, the Indian polity witnessed a tremendous upsurge in casteist and identitarian competition, which in our view, was not really a crisis; rather it represented the success of the Indian political economy in transforming the traditional caste hierarchy into a ground for waging a competitive struggle for the accumulation of economic and political power. This competition is representative of the inclusive nature of development in India – however, as competition is unequal, so is the inclusion. Underneath the surface structure of caste and identitarian conflicts (a competition for representation), there lay a deep structure of intra/inter-class conflicts that marked political economic transformation in the country.

Though the anti-zamindari laws against rentier landlordism (which was concentrated among the upper castes) were formulated, they were not implemented systematically. But the agencies of the market did breed the classes of rural bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, who specialised in market-oriented production or distribution. They challenged the hegemony of upper caste landlords – including their control over state bureaucracy and politics.

On the other hand, there emerged an underclass majority under the effect of market-induced pauperisation and proletarianisation. Various sections of this class too have frequently associated themselves on identitarian and caste lines; however, it will need a vast historical analysis to assess the impact of class struggle on caste conflicts and vice versa, a task which we cannot undertake here. In the following section we discuss some statistics that help us in understanding class formation, especially the character of the ‘underclass’, in rural India.

2. Rural Differentiation – A Statistical Survey

Even before independence, nationalist leaders like Acharya Narendra Deva who were involved in the creation of a homogeneous peasant organisation to pose a united front against the British domination in rural India were aware that, “the peasantry is not a homogeneous class. It has many class divisions”.  Furthermore, “the number of landless peasants is ever on the increase and if today these internal conflicts have not come to the surface, in the coming days they are bound to accentuate. Class divisions within the peasantry will slowly mature…”(4)

Swami Sahajanand Saraswati who was one of the main proponents and organisers of a united Kisan movement in the country, was more blunt in regard to the problems of imposing homogeneity, when he noted in 1944:

They (middle and big cultivators) are using the Kisan Sabha for their benefit and gain, while we are using or rather trying to use them to strengthen the Sabha, till the lowest strata of the peasantry are awakened to their real economic and political interests and needs and have become class conscious… It is they, the semi-proletariat or the agricultural labourers who have very little land or no land at all, and the petty cultivators, who anyhow squeeze a most meagre living out of the land they cultivate and eke out their existence, who are the kisans of our thinking…and who make and must constitute the Kisan Sabha ultimately.(5)

Post-independence India shows three typical effects of development on the rural population – a gradual fragmentation of landholdings, increasing landlessness and the creation of footloose labour. Let us discuss the statistics regarding these phenomena, but keeping in mind the warning that Kautsky and Lenin voiced a century ago:

…if agricultural statistics are taken in general, and uncritically, it is quite easy to discover in the capitalist mode of production a tendency to transform modern nations into hunting tribes.(6)

Land Marginalisation

Throughout the so-called third world countries (which includes India), rural areas still accommodate the majority of their population. The obvious conclusion is that in these areas agriculture continues to be the major source of employment, income and livelihood. Furthermore, in this situation of rural overpopulation, land marginalisation and the consequent domination of small farms is bound to happen. Thus, the average farm size in Africa and Asia in the 1990s was 1.6 hectares. It is assumed that the increasing subdivision of land holdings indicates the absorption of the rising population into agriculture. Though apparently true, it also suggests that an ever-increasing portion of the agrarian population has to supplement their farm income by engaging in waged or other non-farm activities.

Operational Holdings

In India too, the average size of operational landholdings has been declining unabatedly, which, according to the National Sample Survey’s estimation, stood at 1.06 hectares in 2002-03 (however, the census figure in this regard, was 1.32 hectares in 2000-01). As evident from Table 1, the average size has fallen by around 60% from 1960-61. However, the rate of growth in the number of operational holdings has significantly slowed down in the recent years (it was 24.5% in 1981-82, 31.5% in 1991-92 and 8.4% in 2002-03).  Table 1 demonstrates that over the years the peasantry has been pauperised, with 63% of the operational holdings being of less than 1 hectare, and around 82% below 2 hectares. According to the Census, in 2000-01, the average farm size for the marginal category was 0.40, for the small category it was 1.41, for the semi-medium category 2.72, for the medium category 5.8 and for large farmers it was 17.18. (7)

Table1

Table2

However, in order to present a better picture of the rural scenario, one must include those rural households which do not operate any land in the distribution. In fact, such inclusion of the operationally landless drastically alters the picture of rural society as presented in Table 1. Table 2 shows that the only class of households that witnessed an increase in percentage distribution during 1991-2003 was the “nil” category, i.e. that the category containing those households which have zero operational land. The data records a drastic increase in the rate of growth of landlessness, which affects severely the percentage share of other categories in the distribution of household. While from 1971 onwards there had been a progressive decrease in the percentage share of the “nil” category, from 1991 onwards we find a 10% increase.

Even if we accept the apologia of the NSSO that the 2002-03 data might have been affected by the fact that it was collected only during the kharif season, the enormous size of the “nil” category cannot be accounted for fully by any correction (though it could have presented a better picture of the marginal category, which too declined like other higher categories in the following table). On the whole, 79% of rural households throughout India either does not operate any land or are of marginal farmers; the figure exceeds 90% if we include small farmers.

If we take absolute alienation from land as a measure of proletarianisation, it is now established that there is a continuous increase of rural landlessness in the country. In 1987-88 the proportion of the rural landless (who did not have any access to land) among the total number of rural households in India was 35.4%, which increased to 38.7% in 1993-94. In 1999-2000 the figure was 40.9.(8) The following data (Table 3) further corroborates the intensity of proletarianisation among total number of agricultural labour households (which includes the class of poor peasantry – i.e. those who have some land but have to rely on wage labour or “self-employment” for their subsistence):

Table3

Let us now try to understand the scenario in Orissa. Table 5 shows a very high increase in the share of marginal farmers in the distribution of operational holdings in Orissa. If we reconstruct the data by including the landless and subdividing the category of marginal farmers, the picture is slightly different from the all India level. In Orissa, there was a marginal increase in the number of the landless, but the number of the poorest among marginal farmers saw a formidable growth (!). In Table 4 marginal farmers have been divided in two classes – the size class of 0.002-0.5 and of 0.5-1.0 ha. It is the first size-class that bulged the most from 1991-92 to 2002-03.

Table4

Table5

A cursory comparison of Table 1 and Table 5 shows that quite unlike the all India level, the concentration of operational holding is quite low in Orissa. In Table 6 we give a comparison of Gini’s coefficient of concentration at the national and Orissa levels. This is a comment on the state and function of the rural society in Orissa – the predominance of landholdings of unviable sizes.

Table6

Ownership Holdings

Let us now examine the land ownership data. At the all India level 10% of the rural households were landless (in terms of ownership). The average area owned per rural household is 0.725 hectare. If we exclude the landless households, then the average area owned is 0.806. On the other hand, in Orissa, landlessness is 9.56%, while the average area owned per rural household is considerably low in comparison to the national average. Including the landless, it is 0.483 ha, and excluding them, it amounts to 0.534 ha.

Table7

Table 7 shows the overall skewed nature of the size distribution of ownership holdings at the all India level. Around 50 % of the total households own just 2% of the total area, around 60% own less than 6 percent, and around 80% of the total households own only 23% of the total area. Further, around 9.5% of the rural households own 56% of the total land. This demonstrates a formidable concentration of ownership holdings, measured by Gini’s coefficient.

In Orissa, on the other hand, we find 85.50% of the owner households under the marginal category, and they own 41.52% of the total area (Table 8). If we break the marginal category in size classes, as in Table 10, we find that 71.5% of the households own less than 0.5 ha each. More than half of the households in this latter size class (0-0.5 ha) own a negligible amount of productive land. Their ownership is restricted mainly to homestead land. If we exclude homestead land from our calculation, ownership landlessness increases to 38.5% from the meagre figure of 5.65% when we include homestead land. As shown in Table 11, without the homestead, the size classes above the “nil” category and up to 0.40 ha are almost emptied.

Similar is the case at the all India level. Table 9 shows that around 67 percent of households own less than 0.5 ha. Furthermore, if we exclude homestead land from our calculation (Table 11), the percentage of the landless rises to 41.6.

Table8

Table9 

Table10 

Table11 

The Extent of Proletarianisation

Now we come to the last part of our statistical study of the process of proletarianisation in Orissa and rural India in general. Today, even according to government data, wages have become an important source of income for farmer households, as shown by the tables 12, 13 and 14. For the landless and marginal farmer households (whose average land size is 0.40 ha.) it is the most significant source of income. At the all India level we find that for farmers in the size class <0.01, wages constitute around 78 percent of their income, and they constitute 11.62 percent of the total number of farmer households. For another 34 percent of the farmers (operating 0.01-0.40 ha of land per capita) 60 percent of their income comes from wages. But these figures include only farmer households, which are defined as households operating land. Thus, they exclude the landless (with zero operational land) whose inclusion in the data would conclusively demonstrate that in rural India a staggering majority is dependent on wage labour.

In the case of Orissa, the preponderance of wage labour is more evident. The most important source of income in the entire rural economy of the state is wages. As shown in Table 13, around 54 percent of the rural income comes from wages. The whole class of marginal farmer households, which accounts for around 82 percent of the total number in Orissa, depends mainly on wages. In fact, interestingly, possibly due to the dire state of agriculture in the region, even for a small farmer, wages constitute around 43 percent of his total income. Needless to reiterate, these figures do not speak for the totally landless wage labourers.

However, there are tremendous inter-state variations in the proportion of wage in the total income of farmer households (Table 14).

These data are definitely insufficient for explaining to us the true nature of class relations on the land, as “net receipts from cultivation” includes sharecropping income too. In recent times the nature of sharecropping arrangement has changed increasingly. The sharecroppers are being reduced, more and more, to the status of mere labourers on the land. It is the principal owner who provides capital (for buying inputs) and takes decision regarding what to produce and how to produce. The sharecropper is a labourer who indulges in self-exploitation and whose remuneration is subject to climatic and market fluctuations. Similar is the case of “receipts from non-farm business” which may include many piece rate jobs and so on. It requires detailed micro-level researches to understand the forms of labour relations in the countryside and in the areas where rural immigrants find work.

Table12 

Table13 

Table14 

3. On the impurity of rural labour

The centrality of wage-labour in defining capitalism has generally been accepted. And the above statistics show, in a definite manner, that in India (including in one of its most backward states, Orissa) too, wage labour has acquired a preponderant status. However, what has really confused scholars and activists is theimpure nature of labourers in India. Firstly, the majority of Indians are still rural. Secondly, most of them seem to be in possession of some or other kinds of means of production – land etc, which give them asemiproletarian character, instead of that of being real proletarians.

In mainstream sociological analyses, individuals are fitted into strict pigeonholes and then their numbers are counted to classify them. This is what can be termed as methodological individualism. Surely, in this regard, even in many advanced capitalist countries a large section of workers will fail the test of purity. Hence, proclamations like that of “the death of the working class” and the “rise of the middle class.”

However, what exactly is the nature of this impurity? It is generally found that the income that theseindividuals draw comes, at least in part, from non-wage sources. Furthermore, we find individuals, or their families, engaged in both waged and unwaged labour. Similar issues were raised during the debate in the feminist movement in Europe and the US over housework, in the 1960s-70s. The centrality of wage labour was now understood not in terms of how many wage-labourers were to be found in society, but to what extent it re-signified all kinds of labour relations and economic activities that constitute a given socio-economic formation. Proletarianisation was understood as a process – a process of subsumption of labour by capital. This subsumption can be purely formal or even invisible, not actual/real or visible like wage employment of labour. In fact, the uneven process of labour subsumption is the basis of the labour segmentation that we find in capitalism. Massimo de Angelis points out in his recent book, The Beginning of History: Value Struggle and Global Capital:

…the division between waged and unwaged activities, between public and private, between working for money and “in your own time,” between production and reproduction, between work and housework, between what is valued by capital through a corresponding price tag and what is not, is the true material basis upon which the realm of the invisible that is at the basis of capital’s exploitation is constructed. Because if…it is true that surplus value is the invisible value that is extracted from waged workers’ labour and appropriated in the form of profit, it is also true that waged workers need to reproduce themselves, and this implies that they as well need to access the products of others’ labour. Their dinner is prepared, their clothes washed, their health preserved thanks to invisible, objectified workers. (Emphasis original) (9)

Archaic forms of labour relations are subsumed for the benefit of capitalist accumulation. Who does not know that American slavery was the basis of the development of capitalism in the US? These forms are preserved till they become hindrances to further accumulation. The invisibility of these pre/non-capitalist forms is the basis on which visible forms are actually subsumed.

Even the impurity of individual labourers, whose labour process is divided between waged and unwaged phases, can be understood in this framework. As Angelis notes in the above quote, “waged workers need to reproduce themselves,” and unwaged labour contributes in this reproduction. But this reproduction implies access not only to the products of “others’ labour,” but one’s own labour too. To paraphrase, she needs to prepare her dinner, her clothes have to be washed and her health preserved; this is provided for “thanks to invisible, objectified labour” – but not just others’, but hers own too. This schizophrenic but real division of an individual worker is considered impurity.

Let’s take a typical case. A migrant worker, who stays in a town, while his family stays back in his village, toiling on a small piece of land, is considered an impure worker – a semi-proletarian. Why? His wages are not sufficient to sustain (or reproduce) him or his family throughout the year, and have to be compensated by the unwaged labour of his family or his own, toiling in their own field. Hence, the function of the unwaged component of his labour (along with that of his family members) is needed to reproduce him and his family.

Under neoliberalism – an ideology of policy design that the Indian state has adopted, casualisation and contractualisation of the work process are the major methods of arranging production (and even circulation). This has led to a rapid expansion of the informal sector, which was already quite big in the pre-neoliberal phase of development in India. This assumes a vast reserve army of proletarians or surplus population, which can be “casually” used and thrown away, without many social consequences. As the data above shows, as rural India is increasingly being integrated into the neoliberal expansion of Indian capitalism, much of it is being reduced to a deposit of surplus population. The rural population in this process emerges as a vast, latent and stagnant, surplus trying to subsist (or reproduce) in the face of neoliberal land acquisition, agrarian crisis and underemployment. Subsistence agriculture in this phase is nothing but a mechanism to stabilise this surplus population, which engages in cyclical and irregular employment that the informal sector creates.
As the above analysis shows, much of the peasant community is directly linked to capital as part-time or seasonal wage labour. Harry Cleaver says aptly in his Preface to the Mexican edition of his now classic work,Reading Capital Politically (1979):

It is clear that peasants are often linked to capital quite directly through part-time waged labour. This is the only role usually recognized…as a “working class function.” The problem with the usual analysis is partly methodological. There is an attempt to classify people into one category or another by their dominant role. If a worker works most of the year in a factory then that worker is classified as a member of the working class. If a person lives on the land most of the time, then that person is a peasant, not a worker. This is stupid. What we should see is that there are many roles or functions played by the working class in its relation to capital, and that individuals move from one function to another at different points in time. When a worker is in the factory, that worker is a productive worker. When that same worker is at home doing housework or working on the land in subsistence agriculture, the function has changed – now we are in the sphere of the reproduction of labour power – but the worker is still a worker, still part of the working class.

When a peasant takes a few days or weeks to look for waged work, that peasant passes from the latent to the floating reserve army. If there are no jobs, after a while the worker will pass back from the floating to the latent role. If there is a job, then for a while the worker will be part of the waged labour force instead of being unwaged. There is no change in class status here, only a change in the form of the relationship with capital! All persons who are forced to work for capital – either reproducing themselves as labour power in the latent or floating reserve army or actually producing a product – are part of that working class. The form of the imposition of work is secondary.

But what, some may ask, of the peasants who produce a surplus they sell on the  market? Are these not petty bourgeois producers and outside the working class?The answer is that they are still very much part of the working class if the result of their work is only self-reproduction. (Emphasis added)(10)

4. Political Implications

Identity and Class

If disparity among geographical locations or sectors or communities is the ground for rural mobilisation and struggle, then the political strategy that evolves will not be geared towards structural transformation, but towards creating parity. It will be restricted to fighting for social inclusion. Such struggles will tend to hide internal differentiation, and will depoliticise local conflicts, while stressing on homogeneity at the identitarian level – on the basis of locations, community or sector etc. On the other hand, the centrality of labour and class struggle allows us to radicalise popular mobilisation and struggle by making every conflict and contradiction into a node for politics. Classes are not internally homogeneous – however, class struggle unlike identity struggle does not require homogeneity. Even labour market segmentation can be a ground for class struggle, by which the internalised hegemony is questioned – a struggle against the whiteness of the white worker, waged by the black working class, is a fight for working class unity and against the internalisation of hegemonic structures by the working class. This perspective on class struggle gives us the opportunity to understand and engage with identitarian movements too.

Ambedkar’s understanding of the caste system is very relevant in this regard. He did not consider the struggle against caste a struggle for identity assertion, or for mutual toleration among diverse communities. It was not a struggle for mere representation. He called for the “annihilation of caste.” In fact, Ambedkar had a subtle conception of caste, which could help us transcend the dichotomy of caste and class. During his days in his Independent Labour Party (ILP) and in his piece “Who were the Shudras?” (1946), Ambedkar viewed caste not as a purely cultural edifice, but as the carrier of specific work functions. The caste system transformed “the scheme of division of work into a scheme of division of workers, into fixed and permanent occupational categories.” So the annihilation of the caste system will pave the way for the transcendence of the material and ideological division of workers. But it is important to reassert that the class or the “labour” perspective cannot remain blind to the internal configuration of the class. Class unity is posed not by wishing away the internal divisions within the working class; rather it is a product of class struggle, of struggle against the foundation of those divisions – of intra-class competition and hierarchisation.

The Land Question

As our statistical analysis, coupled with the conceptual issues that we discussed above, indicates, the majority of rural Indians are today proletarianised, in the sense that they toil for self-reproduction, alternating between wage employment and subsistence self-employment.  This fact can give a new insight into the nature of rural struggles today. It is definitely true that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) that the Indian state has provided to the rural poor gives them a tremendous opportunity to come out of their invisibility. By a single act of legislation, a vast rural labour market has become visible, with millions constituting a surplus population which is emerging out of its latency. But the partial guarantee that this bestows on the rural poor has only marginally altered their invisible status – as the hidden underemployed, and the footloose labour alternating between wage employment and subsistence self-employment.

Another important implication of the above analysis is that it redefines the whole land question. The land issue has generally been associated with the peasant question – peasant hunger for land. But now, with the emergence of a new perspective, the land issue is increasingly been posed as a question of labour, associated with workers’ need to self-reproduce. A poor tribal who tills a small plot illegally in the forest area is doing so not to satisfy his hunger for land, but in order to survive.

Earlier the land question was posed as an issue which relates to the development of agriculture – would land redistribution increase productivity or would concentration work better?

…the many popular struggles over land today are driven by experiences of the fragmentation of labour (including losses of relatively stable wage employment in manufacturing and mining, as well as agriculture), by contestations of class inequality, and by collective demands and actions for better conditions of living (‘survival’, stability of livelihood, economic security), and of which the most dramatic instances are land invasions and occupations. There is now a revival and restatement of the significance of struggles over land to the social dynamics and class politics of the ‘South’ during the current period of globalization and neo-liberalism… Contemporary land struggles are significantly different from the (‘classic’) peasant movements of the past, and are much more rooted in the semi-proletarian condition: that of ‘a workforce in motion, within rural areas, across the rural-urban divide, and beyond international boundaries’. (emphases added)(11)

This is not to say that land is now exclusively a labour question. Far from it. The dominant discourse in movements against land acquisition, like the POSCO struggle in Orissa, still poses it as an issue of “agriculture” versus “industry”, “rural” versus “urban”. The only submission that we make here is that regions like coastal Orissa have high rural differentiation, and the homogeneity that we witness today might be temporary and even deceptive. Within these land movements, a working class viewpoint is emerging towards land and development in general, which is not vocalised by the leadership.

Notes:

(1) David Harvey (2005) Spaces of neoliberalization: towards a theory of uneven geographical development, Franz Steiner Verlag, p. 60.

(2) David Harvey (1982) Limits to Capital, Verso, p. 417.

(3) Rajni Kothari (1970) Politics in India. Originally published by Little Brown and Company, reprinted in The Writings of Rajni Kothari, Orient BlackSwan, 2009, p. 124.

(4) “Presidential Address at All India Kisan Conference (9 April 1939)”, Selected Works of Acharya Narendra Deva Volume 1, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (1998)

(5) Quoted in Arvind N. Das (1982) “Peasants and peasant organisations: The Kisan Sabha in Bihar”, Journal of Peasant Studies, 9(3):40-87

(6) VI Lenin, “Capitalism in Agriculture”, in Utsa Patnaik (2007), The Agrarian Question in Marx and his Successors Volume 1, LeftWord, p. 299.

(7) Vijay Paul Sharma (2007) “India’s Agrarian Crisis and Smallholder Producers’ Participation in New Farm Supply Chain Initiatives: A Case Study of Contract Farming”, IIM Ahmadabad.

(8) CP Chandrashekhar and Jayati Ghosh (2004) “The Possibilities of Land Reform”, MacroScan.

(9) Massimo de Angelis (2007) The Beginning of History: Value Struggle and Global Capital, Pluto, p. 57.

(10) Harry Cleaver, Una Lectura Politica de El Capital, México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1985.

(11) Henry Bernstein (2004) “Changing Before Our Very Eyes’: Agrarian Questions and the Politics of Land in Capitalism Today’, Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol.4 Nos. 1&2.

Is ‘It’ Over? A Look at the Current Economic Crisis

 Rohit

Hyman Minsky, an American Economist, had written a book titled ‘Can It Happen Again’ with ‘it’ standing for the Great Depression of the 1930s, the biggest and the longest economic crisis in the history of capitalism. The answer to this question today seems to be in the affirmative if one takes a deeper look at the events that have unfolded in the financial markets in the United States and the other advanced countries over more than two years. The extent of this crisis, in particular in the US, has led the economic pundits to describe the present financial crisis as something similar to what happened during the 1930s. Despite all the signs of recovery, we believe it is too early and erroneous to assume that the crisis is over and that the government should withdraw the stimulus package.

Theoretical Overview

To place the issues in perspective, it is important to reflect upon the economic ideas that developed regarding growth and crisis under capitalism since the 1930s. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes, a British economist and Michal Kalecki, a Polish economist, had written extensively on its causes as well as its remedies. Though their political orientation was very different (Kalecki was a Marxist while Keynes was not), both argued that it was the absence of direct intervention of the government in the working of the economy and financial markets that led to the Great Depression. The remedy that Keynes suggested was a categorical rebuttal of the principles of Laissez faire since he asked not only for a regulation of the financial markets but for a direct government intervention to boost the demand in the economy through positive fiscal stimulus. The fiscal management (1) on the lines of the Keynes-Kalecki produced the Golden Age of capitalism in the 1950s and the 1960s in the advanced capitalist countries which saw the longest period of booms in these countries and distribution of income moving partially in favour of the working class.

In the early 1970s, this model broke down and there was a resurrection of the old ideology of free market and finance. It is interesting to note the complete reversal in economic ideas as well as policies despite having learnt the lesson the hard way in the 1930s. It seems almost as if the Keynes-Kalecki were erased from history. But the real answer to this reversal comes out quite clearly in Kalecki’s writings. Kalecki, unlike Keynes, looked at capitalism as fundamentally an antagonistic system. Kalecki (1943) argued that even though it is theoreticallypossible to attain high levels of employment and growth through government spending, it cannot go on in the long run. He argued that a prolonged period of low unemployment increases the bargaining power of the workers due to the declining reserve army of labour. Why this would lead to problems in maintaining such a growth process is for the following reason,

“[T]o maintain the high level of employment. . . in the subsequent boom, a strong opposition of ‘business leaders’ is likely to be encountered. . . lasting full employment is not at all to their liking. The workers would ‘get out of hand’ and the ‘captains of industry’ would be anxious ‘to teach them a lesson’.

[U]nder a regime of permanent full employment, ‘the sack’ would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined and the self assurance and class consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. . . ‘discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more appreciated by business leaders than profits. Their class interest tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view and that unemployment is an integral part of the normal capitalist system.”

So, the reserve army of labour is a necessity under capitalism to maintain the correlation of class forces in favour of the capitalists and rentiers. Accordingly, one could argue that the so-called golden age of capitalism was more of an aberration than a rule under capitalism. Seen in light of this argument, the present crisis, its severity notwithstanding, is actually not an exception but a rule under capitalism. We would like to argue, therefore, that this crisis should not be seen only in the light of the failure of the financial system for it could actually be just a signal of deeper malaise in the real economy. This distinction between real and financial crisis is very important because a sizeable majority in the academia and policy circles are arguing that if only the financial markets could be controlled, such crises would not take place. In other words, capitalism otherwise is a stable system provided the financial markets are regulated. Our argument is that crises of this nature can and do take place under capitalism independent of whether the latter were regulated or not. Unregulated financial markets add to the severity of the crisis.

Let us concentrate on the sources of malaise in the real economy. Unfettered development of capitalism leads to greater monopolisation by big business. Greater monopolisation of the market ensures a downward rigidity in prices and, therefore, a guaranteed profit margin. On the other hand, there are continuous efforts to improve labour productivity so as to keep the wage costs low. Downward rigidity in prices and continuous increase in labour productivity results in a tendency towards increasing profit share in the total output. While this strategy sounds good for an individual capitalist, it has seeds of its own destruction inbuilt into it.

A higher profit share for the economy as a whole leads to a decline in the domestic market. This is so because workers consume a higher proportion of their income than the capitalists and any shift of total income away from workers would ipso facto lead to a decline in overall consumption demand in the economy (2). Since private investment is the main source of growth under capitalism, such a signal of declining consumption in the market exerts a downward pressure on the rate of growth. This is the typical realisation crisis in Marxian terminology. This is an imminent tendency under capitalism because there is no spontaneous mechanism of coordination of investment decisions of the capitalists to avert such a crisis. The reasons for why the system is not underperpetual crisis but faces it only intermittently have to be found elsewhere but this tendency exists all the time. The factors which counter this tendency could be state intervention, export-led growth, capitalists’ consumption led growth. Each of these factors has different consequences on the trajectory of the growth process, some of which we would focus on later in this article.

Just as the pre-Golden Age, the current period is also not fundamentally different. Inequalities in income and wealth have been rising dramatically since the late 1970s across the world, except for the possible exception of France and Japan, creating conditions for realisation crisis. The genesis of the present crisis lies precisely in the factors which had kept the growth going even when such a tendency existed. Therefore, to understand the present crisis, we need to analyse the economic booms that the US has witnessed in the present decade and the previous one.


Growing Inequality

There has been a dramatic increase in inequality in the US since the early 1980s. What the US is witnessing today in terms of inequality has only one parallel in its history i.e., the period during the Great Depression (see fig 1). The inequality is such that the top 10 % of the population earns close to 40% of the total income. The inequality has increased in the US since the early 1980s primarily because of two reasons. On the one hand, the income of the poor has got squeezed due to a decline in the legal minimum wages, unionisation rates and increased globalisation, all of which have decreased their bargaining strength. On the other hand, the payrolls of the top executives, especially CEOs, has increased manifold in the absence of either the wage controls of the World War II or the social norms of the Golden Age period which restricted the growth of high-end wages.

Figure 1

The increase in equality is not restricted to income alone but there is a growth in wealth inequality too as shown in Table 1. While the top 1% of the population owned 33.8% of the total wealth of the economy, the bottom 40% of the population owned less than 1% of the total wealth in 1983. The wealth inequality increased by 1995 to such an extent that the top 1% owned close to 40% of the wealth while the bottom 40% owned a mere 0.2%.

Table1

A major part of the increase in the wealth of the rich during this period has been through the increase in the stock market prices of the financial assets that they own. Since the ownership of stock market assets itself is extremely skewed in favour of the rich, an increase in the prices of the shares has an asymmetric effect in favour of the wealth of the rich.

 The Boom of the 1990s  

From the point of view of classical political economy, such a growth in inequality should have led to stagnation in the economy instead of a boom as witnessed both in the late 90s and the present decade (prior to the current crisis). If that is the case, then why did the growth of inequality lead to an increase in the growth rate in the US in the late 90s and 2000s?

As mentioned above, at least theoretically, there could be three ways which can help avert this tendency towards stagnation into becoming a reality. First, the government could prop up the domestic demand through fiscal management. But this route was practically unavailable given the right-wing dominance in the policy circles which wanted to restrict the role of the government in the real economy (3).

Second, the stress of growth could divert in favour of export-oriented strategy. Again to do that, one needs to be internationally competitive both in terms of technology as well as wage costs, neither of which was in favour of the US. The US had been left far behind in terms of technology by its European counterparts, especially Germany and Japan in Asia.

Third, consumption of the rich could more than compensate for the declining share of workers’ consumption through injection of consumption demand independent of the current stream of income, say through the wealth effect coming from the asset price markets. Furthermore, new methods of enticing even the workers to consume through credit financing could also act as a counter to this tendency. It is the third route which the US has adopted in the last two booms which we focus upon in the rest of the paper.

The way this third route worked is the following. Stock or housing market booms led to a growth in the ‘notional’ wealth of the rich which had a positive effect on the consumption of the rich, a phenomenon called the ‘wealth effect’. Increase in consumption due to wealth effect was an external injection of demand into the economy independent of the redistribution of income between the rich and the poor. Though the exact effect of an increase in wealth on consumption in the US has been estimated to be not more than 3 cents per dollar, i.e., out of every dollar increase in wealth only 3 cents are spent on consumption, the sheer magnitude of the wealth increase due to the stock market boom of the late 1990s was such that it had a huge impact on the overall consumption. The argument can be better understood if we look at the exact increase in the wealth of households which increased by 50 percent within a span of five years between 1995 and 2000. The increase in consumption as a proportion of GDP was close to 1.5 percent during these years. Therefore, this increase in wealth alone explains the increase in consumption of the household during this period.

A more interesting question, however, is not why the consumption increased but how was this consumptionfinanced? To understand that, we need to explain how the increase in the wealth was ‘notional’? It was purely ‘notional’ to the extent that its value had increased due to higher valuation in the stock market so that the increased wealth could not be realised from the stock market by all the stock holders at the same time. Any attempt to ‘realise’ the increased value of the wealth in the stock market by selling the stocks at their higher prices by all the investors at the same time would have meant a collapse in the stock market itself. Thus, the increase in wealth was merely notional. That being the case, any increase in expenditure on consumption based on this increase in wealth had to be financed by taking more debt based on the increased collateral in the form of enhanced value of wealth. It is here that the debt spiral began in the US. Therefore, the debt spiral became a necessity for the economy to compensate for the imbalances in the real economy.

During the 1990s, the household debt stood at 95.6 percent of the total disposable income of that sector (see table 2). In other words, the household debt was almost equivalent to the total income of the sector as a whole in the 1990s. Such high levels of debt-income ratio were ominous signs for the US but the Federal Reserve did not pay heed to the dangerous growth in the debt-income ratios, instead they were busy propagating the argument that the US economy had entered a new phase of ‘new economy’ where business cycles were a thing of past.

Table2

Such sleight of hand by the mainstream economics, however, had to face the reality when the economy witnessed the Dotcom bubble go burst in 2001. The business cycle was back as indeed it is a part of the working of any normal capitalist economy, contrary to the claims of the new economy enthusiasts. A decline in the stock market meant a decline in the wealth of the households too and the increased wealth effect was bound to reverse but the debt taken against the increased wealth earlier remained nonetheless.

 The Mortgage Boom of the 2000s and the seeds of destruction

In the event of the stock market meltdown in 2000, the financial speculators moved away from the stock market to some other avenues where they could make a quick buck and the best opportunity they found was in the housing market. Such a huge diversion of funds from the Dotcom bubble to the housing market had a positive effect on the housing prices just as it had on the stock prices of the IT sector during the late 90s.

An increase in the housing prices made housing into a profitable venture for the household sector because in common perception it was thought to be a safer asset that the stocks, little was it known that it was merely a shifting of one bubble to another. As happens in the stock market, the increase in buyers of houses led to a further increase in prices of housing much beyond its cost of manufacture.

The policy of the government in the post-2001 phase was multi–pronged to provide a boost to the household demand (either in consumer durables or expenditure on housing) which had been responsible for the growth in the 1990s. First, there was a major tax cut by George W. Bush announced on June 7, 2001. Bush, in his remarks in Tax Cut Bill Signing Ceremony, argued that the magnitude of the tax cut that his administration was announcing can only be comparable to the Reagan Tax cut of the 80s or the Kennedy Tax cut of the 60s. This tax cut had a definite impact on increasing the consumption of the rich because they were the biggest beneficiary of the Bush Tax Cut. That is why despite the meltdown in the stock market which had driven the consumption during the 90s, consumption of the household did not decline as would be expected based on the wealth effect (after increasing for over two decades, the consumption share after 2001 remained stagnant instead of declining despite the meltdown in the stock market). The declining wealth effect was compensated to an extent by the easing tax effect during this period.

Second, after the stock market crash of 2000, which had its repercussions well into 2002, the Fed was looking for other ways of stimulating consumption demand because that had been the bedrock of growth in the late 90s. In the absence of another equity price bubble, the housing market provided an opportunity of such an alternative. The prices in the real estate market had been increasing since the mid–90s but it was still a sideshow to the stock market boom of the 90s. It was only in the early years of the present decade that they started picking up. The reason for this housing market run was quite obvious. The stock market crash led the investors to look for alternative measures of keeping their money and real estate seemed a good opportunity because its demand was going high so there was always a potential of making capital gains (p.92, Pollin (2005)). A Special Report (2005) of The Economist had the following to say about the magnitude of the housing market boom in the US or perhaps the entire developed world,

“[T]he total value of residential property in developed economies rose by more than $30 trillion over the past five years, to over $70 trillion, an increase equivalent to 100% of those countries’ combined GDPs. Not only does this dwarf any previous house-price boom, it is larger than the global stock market bubble in the late 1990s (an increase over five years of 80% of GDP) or America’s stock market bubble in the late 1920s (55% of GDP). In other words, it looks like the biggest bubble in history.” [Emphasis added]

The extent of speculation in the housing market can be measured by the ratio of the housing prices to the rental applicable to the houses. This is similar to the Price-equity (P/E) ratio of stocks because the income that can be imputed from owning a house comes from the rental that it would fetch in future. Let us see what happened to this ratio. Weller (2006) presents the data comparing the Housing Price Index to Rental and the CPI (see fig. 2).

Fig2

While the ratio of HPI to rentals remained stable for more than two decades since 1975 (as shown by the dashed line in fig. 2), there was a sharp increase in it since 2000. This is further corroborated by the fact that in 2004, 23 percent of the homes bought were purely for investment purposes while 13 percent were bought as second homes. ‘Investors [were] prepared to buy houses they [would] rent out at a loss, just because they [thought] prices will keep rising–the very definition of a financial bubble.’ (Report (2005)). In Miami, nearly half of the original buyers resold their apartments in an attempt to make capital gains.

In such a situation of high speculation, the Fed pushed aggressively for an easy monetary policy which meant a drastic decline in the federal funds rate (short term interest rate set by the Fed) even below the rate of inflation resulting in negative real funds rate. The real federal funds rate remained negative from the mid-2002 to early 2006 which meant a real heavy dose of easy money for more than three years. This kind of monetary policy has not been seen in the recent past in the US. The household sector responded very positively to this easy credit policy because the mortgage rates also declined. They increased their expenditure on housing which further increased its prices and the spiral started building up. This was the other bubble building up as Pollin (2005) writes (p.92),

“As the upward price momentum continued through the middle of 2002, the Wall Street Journal, among other observers, began warning of the dangers of a housing “market bubble” in which “stretched buyers push mortgages to the limit.”

The “limits” to which the buyers were “pushed” can be estimated by the growth in the Financial Obligation Ratio (FOR) and the Debt Service Ratio (DSR) of the household sector during this period.  Debt Service Ratio (DSR) is the ratio of debt payments on outstanding mortgages and consumer debt to the disposable income of the household sector. We also present data of a more inclusive concept of the debt obligation that the household sector holds. This measure is called the Financial Obligation Ratio (FOR) which, apart from the repayment of interest charges on outstanding mortgage and consumer debt, includes the automobile lease payments, rental payments on tenant-occupied property, homeowners’ insurance, and property tax payments.

Fig3

Some important conclusions can be drawn about the financial condition of the household sector based on these two ratios. In panel (a) of fig. 3, it clearly shows that both DSR and FOR have been rising since the early to mid–1990s. If we differentiate between the debt payments on account of home mortgages and consumer durables, we get panel (b), which tells us another interesting story behind this debt growth. As expected, for the 1990s, which is characterized by stock market boom, it is the consumer durables debt payments that play a central role in driving the FOR up whereas the home mortgage debt payments were declining for that decade. After 2000, however, when the real estate boom replaced the stock market boom, it is the home mortgage payments which determine the FOR for the households.

The Federal Reserve during this period had its priorities chalked out pretty well which was to give a boost to the housing prices, just as in the 90s, it was most interested in maintaining the stock market boom. This can be seen from the minutes of the Federal Open market Committee (FOMC) meeting of this period. Minutes of the FOMC (2004) meeting held in June say,

“The members continued to report a high level of housing demand in numerous parts of the country, with housing construction described as a notably robust sector in many regional economies. The strong performance of the housing industry continued to be attributed in large measure to the lowest mortgage interest rates in several decades.” [Emphasis added]

Third, given that the growth of the economy now was driven by the growth in residential investment financed primarily by debt, there was an increasing tendency by the lenders to indulge in predatory lending practices. The norms of lending were broken at will to keep the real estate boom alive and the Fed, despite being aware of the precariousness of the situation, allowed it to happen under its nose just as it did not intervene during the speculative run in the stock market boom of the 90s.

Lending norms were twisted in myriad ways, especially in the Sub-prime mortgage market (4). First, the norm of mortgage was changed for rich borrowers who could use up to 50 percent of their income for their mortgage payment whereas earlier the norm was only 28–32 percent (p.92, Pollin (2005)). Second, new forms of loans were introduced which had no requirement for down payments. As high as 42 percent of the first time borrowers and 25 percent of all borrowers were exempted from making any down payment (Report (2005)). Third, a new form of financing was introduced which was the Adjustable Rate of Mortgage (ARMs), according to which the overall interest payment could be spread over years so that the initial interest payments might seem very low but the debt burden would increase as you go further into future. This was used to sell loans with ‘hidden costs’. Fourth, the borrowers could get up to 105 percent of the buying cost as loan and no documentation of borrower’s income or employment was required (Report (2005)). Fifth, the borrowers were allowed to pay only a part of the interest amount due while their unpaid interest amount and the principal get added as debt, a form of loan which has been termed as ‘negative amortization loans’. One third of the total loans in the US in 2002 were either interest–only loans or negative amortization loans (Report (2005)).

The housing market boom had a logic of its own which was in some ways similar to a stock market boom. Since the housing prices were increasing, it provided a good opportunity to make money at the margin by buying low and selling high, just as in the case of equities. Moreover, increasing prices of houses also increase the net worth of the owners of the houses which further increases their capacity to borrow and hence to speculate even more, which was reflected in people buying more than one house. But since all the buy is financed through debt, it puts the household sector on a knife–edge position. On the one hand, if the prices of the houses declined then the value of their collateral declines and further borrowing becomes less likely. In the worst situation, if the prices fell drastically, even the possibility of repaying the debt by selling the house might itself disappear leading to foreclosures. On the other hand, if the interest rates increase eventually, they would increase the debt burden in future, especially if the loans have been taken under the ARM scheme. In effect, it is the real mortgage rate that matters which is the difference between the nominal mortgage rate and the capital gain through a housing price rise (Weller (2006)).

Even though it was obvious that the housing prices were primarily speculative in nature, Alan Greenspan, the then Chairman of the Federal Reserve, while addressing the Joint Economic Committee on June 9, 2005, had rubbished all claims about the housing boom being a speculative bubble by arguing that,

“[T]here can be little doubt that exceptionally low interest rates on ten-year Treasury notes, and hence on home mortgages, have been a major factor in the recent surge of homebuilding and home turnover, and especially in the steep climb in home prices. Although a “bubble” in home prices for the nation as a whole doesnot appear likely, there do appear to be, at a minimum, signs of froth in some local markets where home prices seem to have risen to unsustainable levels…

Transactions in second homes … suggest that speculative activity may have had a greater role in generating the recent price increases than it has customarily had in the past.

The apparent froth in housing markets may have spilled over into mortgage markets. The dramatic increases in the prevalence of interest-only loans, as well as the introduction of other relatively exotic forms of adjustable-rate mortgages, are developments of particular concern. To be sure, these financing vehicles have their appropriate uses. But to the extent that some households may be employing these instruments to purchase a home that would otherwise be unaffordable, their use is beginning to add to the pressures in the marketplace.

The U.S. economy has weathered such episodes before without experiencing significant declines in the national average level of home prices. In part, this is explained by an underlying uptrend in home prices…

Although we certainly cannot rule out home price declines, especially in some local markets, these declines, were they to occur, likely would not have substantial macroeconomic implications.” [Emphasis added]

It would be really surprising to note that the same Greenspan had an altogether different take on the Depression of the 1930s. Greenspan (1966) wrote,

“When business in the United States underwent a mild contraction in 1927, the Federal Reserve created more paper reserves in the hope of forestalling any possible bank reserve shortage… The excess credit which the Fed pumped into the economy spilled over into the stock market-triggering a fantastic speculative boom. Belatedly, Federal Reserve officials attempted to sop up the excess reserves and finally succeeded in braking the boom. But it was too late: by 1929 the speculative imbalances had become so overwhelming that the attempt precipitated a sharp retrenching and a consequent demoralizing of business confidence. As a result, the American economy collapsed.” [Emphasis added]

If we say that ‘the excess credit which the Fed pumped into the economy spilled over into the housing market–triggering a fantastic speculative boom’, then how different would that be from what his argument is? If not, then it sounds puzzling as to why he did not apply his own argument about the Great Depression to the policy of the Fed under his chairmanship. Whitney (2005) writes the following about the policy of the Fed and its former chairman,

“Greenspan knows all about “irrational exuberance”; he’s its primary champion. The Fed seduces the public with cheap money, so that credit spending increases and, then, “presto”, millions of Americans slip inexorably into indentured servitude.”

Given the delicate balance that the household sector was maintaining vis-à-vis the housing market, it was obvious that any meltdown in these markets would be disastrous not only for the US economy but for the world economy as well. This possibility was further precipitated by the fact that dual pressure fell on the borrowers. On the one hand, the Fed decided to increase the federal fund rate, which increased the interest burdens especially for consumers who had opted for ARMs or negatively amortized loans. On the other hand, decline in housing prices decreased the value of their collateral and thus increased the possibility of bankruptcy which indeed were quite high in this period. This would especially have serious consequences for the US economy, as can be seen today, because 90 percent of the growth witnessed during 2001-05 was due to increased consumption and residential investment of the households.

Till now we have presented a macroeconomic picture of the housing market but it is obvious that such a market has the potential of having an asymmetric effect on households depending on their income category. For the poorer households, the effect of an increase in the real mortgage rate would be more severe than a richer household.

Some broad pattern can be drawn about the different categories of households (see table 3). First, the bottom quintile was not a part of the recent run in the housing market since 2001. The value of home as a proportion of income increases the most for the middle quintile. Second, contrary to the general perception, the main customers of ARMs appear to be the richest households and not the poorer ones. This could be because of the fact that the rich were buying the house only for the purposes of selling it later and were financing it through ARMs. A housing market meltdown would, thus, have an asymmetric effect on these categories depending on their relative exposure to the credit market.

Table3

The fact that the growth process in the last two decades was dependent on asset price markets can be substantiated if we plot the movements in economic activity with respect to these markets. We attempt to plot the business cycle of the 1990s and 2000s against the cycle in the stock market and the housing marker respectively in figure 4.

fig4

It can be seen that in both the cycles the movement of GDP is closely linked to the movement in these markets. In fact, the GDP cycle follows the asset price cycles. This gives us some empirical evidence on the theoretical proposition made above. In Keynes’ words, the growth processes had become ‘bubble in the whirlpool of speculation’.

 Is ‘it’ over?

A lot is being written about the end of the crisis or at least ‘the worst is over’. But we believe, given the magnitude of the crisis, it is premature to think so. When we say the crisis, we do not mean the subprime crisisper se. By end of the crisis, we mean the delinking of the growth process’ dependence on the speculative booms in the asset price markets. It is very possible that in the short term we have another asset price bubble which will provide some respite to the economy but only to aggravate the systemic problem in the long run.

Let us first examine the economic variables which can tell us about the present recovery process. To examine the extent of recovery, we have to first examine the components of the recovery. Since the US economy is facing a crisis of inadequate aggregate demand in the economy, the path of recovery has to somehow solve this problem. Its failure to do so would not only prolong the crisis but any premature withdrawal of the government stimulus would further aggravate the very problem it is seeking to address. Aggregate demand in any economy comprises of the consumption of the household sector, investment made by the household sector (residential investment), investment made by the corporations (non-residential investment), government expenditure and net exports (trade surplus).

Not only has the residential market plummeted seriously, there has been a decline in the share of consumption too in the present crisis for reasons well known. Together they form a deadly combination of declining investment and the income multiplier. Therefore, the path to recovery has to be dependent on the last three components of aggregate demand, i.e., non-residential investment, government expenditure and trade surplus. Let us look at what is happening to these three factors at present (see figure 5).

fig5

Non-residential investment or the corporate investment in ‘real’ capital continues to decline as a proportion of GDP, which itself is serious because it means a lower rate of growth in investment than the GDP. But this is a general trend during the periods of crisis. In any crisis, the first factor that is affected is the corporate investment precisely because of the crisis of confidence of the capitalists. So, this by itself is not novel to this crisis, especially if we see it in the light of the magnitude of the present crisis.

The stimulus package that Obama administration has injected into the economy has led to increase in the second factor mentioned above, i.e., government expenditure. This automatically has the effect of propping up demand and thus, the GDP. But its magnitude is crucial, especially in crises like these. First, it has to compensate for the decline both in residential and non-residential investment. Second, even if that is taken care of, the net effect of that increase would be dampened if the income multiplier is decreasing as a result of declining share of consumption (as explained above). Therefore, the increase in government expenditure has to take care of both these factors which demands far more than what President Obama has announced so far.

Finally, the third factor, i.e., the trade balance, can also play a role in the recovery. In fact, as we will see below, the most crucial factor contributing to whatever little recovery that the US is witnessing today is directly linked to what is happening in their current account. Though it might seem contrary to common perception that current account balance in the US, which has been running record deficits for the last two decades, could actually be a catalyst to recovery. But if one looks carefully, if the rate of increase of trade deficit is low compared to the rate of decline in growth of GDP, it could actually play a positive role in recovery. In other words, if the ‘leakage’ of income from the economy in the form of net imports declines during the crisis, it will put less downward pressure on the rate of growth. This is what seems to be happening in the US. The share of trade deficit in the GDP has declined during the period of the crisis giving a positive impetus to an otherwise declining rate of growth.

A decline in the trade deficits could happen if there is an increase in the share of exports in the GDP or a decline in the share of imports or both. Or, at least the decrease in the share of exports in the GDP is lower than that of imports if both are decreasing. Declining trade deficit has taken place during this period in the US due to a sharper rate of decline in imports than exports. Further categorization of imports reveals that two factors, namely, industrial supplies and materials (except petroleum and products) and automotive vehicles, engines, and parts together have accounted for more than half the decline in imports in these quarters. This nature of decline in the share of imports in the GDP seems more to be of a short term character than a policy response by the US to increasing trade deficits, which makes this component of recovery even for a medium term suspect.

After analysing various components of demand and their behaviour during the ‘recovery period’, we can say that the increased government expenditure in the US through the fiscal package has still not been able to stimulate the economy to the extent of alleviating the problem at hand. On the one hand, consumption has stagnated, thereby, terminating the route to recovery through an increase in the multiplier. On the other hand, neither the residential investment nor the non-residential investment is showing any sign of recovery, especially, since the level of confidence of the corporations to invest is still quite bleak. Therefore, to withdraw the stimulus package now would be far from prudent. The lessons of the Great Depression remind us that the decision to withdraw the stimulus, on the basis of initial signs of recovery, ended up prolonging the crisis to almost a decade.

 Conclusion

We have argued in this paper that growth in the US economy in the recent past has entirely been driven by either consumption spending or residential investment. Both of these were driven by asset price inflation of one kind or the other. While consumption was driven by the stock market boom of the 90s, residential investment was driven by the housing price boom. Such a growth path, however, has serious problems as already being witnessed in the US. First, it would require asset price inflation of one or the other kind to sustain the wealth driven growth. Second, it would be a highly volatile growth path because it would be dependent on the vagaries of these asset price markets. Third, it would invariably force the government to act in the interests of the finance capital because they hold the key to growth in the economy as happened in the bailout package endorsed by the US Congress earlier. The monetary as well as fiscal policy would have to be tethered to the developments in the asset price markets.

The current economic crisis that capitalism is faced with is of far greater magnitude than was envisaged even a few months back precisely because of the extent to which the machinations of the globalized finance capital has spread across the world. This is the time to categorically reject ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) paradigm of the neo-liberalism and reassert alternative policy prescriptions which would be beneficial to common people.


Notes:

(1) It is another matter that the nature of state intervention was militarist in nature. Therefore, it would be simplistic to argue that the state intervention was primarily pro-people. In fact, the initial reversal in the economic activity after the prolonged period of Great Depression came after the World War II started. This led to increased fiscal expenditure on part of the government, which pushed the growth up. It is important to note that this growth was purely militaristic in nature. But post-1950s, there was an attempt to pop up the growth and employment by what was later came to be known as ‘welfare capitalism’. It is of course a contentious issue as to how much of the growth even in this period was welfare oriented.

(2) The argument underlying the negative linkage between growth and inequality can be found even in Marx when he talks about the underconsumption crisis. Josef Steindl, Baran and Sweezy and Kalecki revived this view in the field of Economics.

(3)This policy response was best exemplified by Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK where they proposed small governments to allow free markets to functions uninhibitedly. It should be kept in mind, however, that despite the opposition to government intervention in social sectors, they did not have any problems with burgeoning military expenditure. So, the argument effectively was to keep the ‘unnecessary’ government expenditure under check.

(4) With every passing day results of the investigations into the financial sector are getting murkier. A recent example of this is the recent case against the Golman Sachs (NY Times Editorial, 17 April 2010). Goldman Sachs Group Inc has been charged with fraud by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over its marketing of a subprime mortgage product. It argued that Goldman Sachs was involved in malicious practice of creating and selling mortgage-backed investments and then placing financial bets that those investments would fail.

References

FOMC (2004): “Meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee,” Discussion paper, Board of the Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Greenspan, A. (1966): “Gold and Economic Freedom,” The Objectivist.

Kalecki, M. (1943): “Political Aspects of Full Employment” in Selected Essays on the Dynamics of The Capitalist Economy, Cambridge University Press, 1971

New York Times Editorial: “Watch This Case”, April 16, 2010 available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/17/opinion/17sat2.html?hp, accessed on April 17, 2010

Piketty, T., and E. Saez (2003): “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118, 1–39.

Pollin, Robert (2005): Contours of Descent: US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity. Verso.

Report (2005): “In Come the Waves: The Global Housing Boom,” The Economist.

Weller, C. E. (2006): “The End of the Great American Housing Boom: What it Means for You, Me and the U.S. Economy,” Discussion paper, Center for American Progress.

Whitney, M. (2005): “Pop Goes the Weasel: Greenspan and the Housing Bubble,” Monthly Review.

Doing In-Against-and-Beyond Labour

John Holloway

(1)

At the heart of the social movements of recent years, at least in their more radical variants, is a drive against the logic of capitalist society. The so-called social movements are not organised as parties: their aim is not to take state power. The goal is rather to reverse the movement of a society gone mad, systematically mad. The movements say in effect “No, we refuse to go in that direction, we refuse to accept the mad logic of the capitalist system, we shall go in a different direction, or in different directions.”

The anti-capitalist movements of recent years give a new meaning to revolution. Revolution is no longer about taking power, but about breaking the insane dynamic that is embedded in the social cohesion of capitalism. The only way of thinking of this is as a movement from the particular, as the puncturing of that cohesion, as the creation of cracks in the texture of capitalist social relations, spaces or moments of refusal-and-creation. Revolution, then, becomes the creation, expansion, multiplication and confluence of these cracks.(1)

How do we conceptualise this sort of revolution? By going back to a category that was of central importance for Marx, but has been almost completely forgotten by his followers. This is the dual character of labour, the distinction between abstract and concrete labour.

The social cohesion of capitalism against which we revolt is constituted by abstract labour: not by money, not by value, but by the activity that generates the value and money forms, namely abstract labour. To crack the social cohesion of capitalism is to confront the cohesive force of abstract labour with a different sort of activity, an activity that does not fit in to abstract labour, that is not wholly contained within abstract labour.

 (2)

This is not a dry theoretical point, for the starting point for considering the relationship between abstract and concrete labour is and must be rage, the scream. This is empirically true: that is actually where we start from. And also, rage is key to theory. It is rage which turns complaint into critique because it reminds us all the time that we do not fit, that we are not exhausted in that which we criticise. Rage is the voice of non-identity, of that which does not fit. The criticism of capitalism is absolutely boring if it is not critique ad hominem: if we do not open the categories and try to understand them, not just as fetishised expressions of human creative power, but as categories into which we do not fit, categories from which we overflow. Our creativity is contained and not contained in the social forms that negate it. The form is never adequate to the content. The content misfits the form: that is our rage, and that is our hope. This is crucial theoretically and politically.

(3)

In recent years, it has become more common to cite Marx’s key statement in the opening pages of Capital. “this point [the two-fold nature of the labour contained in commodities] is the pivot on which a clear comprehension of Political Economy turns” (1867/1965:41). After the publication of the first volume, he wrote to Engels (Marx, 1867/1987:407): “The best points in my book are: 1) the two-fold character of labour, according to whether it is expressed as use value or exchange value. (All understanding of the facts depends upon this. It is emphasised immediately in the first chapter).”

It is important to emphasise this statement, against the Marxist tradition which buried it for so long, and with quite extraordinary success. It is important to emphasise it because it takes us to the core of Marx’s critiquead hominem, understanding the world in terms of human action and its contradictions. The two-fold nature of labour refers to abstract and concrete or useful labour. Concrete labour, according to Marx, is the activity that exists in any form of society, the activity that is necessary for human reproduction. Arguably, Marx was mistaken in referring to this as labour, since labour as an activity distinct from other activities is not common to all societies, so it seems more accurate to speak of concrete doing rather than concrete labour. In capitalist society, concrete doing (what Marx calls concrete labour) exists in the historically specific form of abstract labour. Concrete labours are brought into relation with other concrete labours through a process which abstracts from their concrete characteristics, a process of quantitative commensuration effected normally through the medium of money, and this process of abstraction rebounds upon the concrete labour transforming it into an activity abstracted from (or alienated from) the person performing the activity.

 (4)

It is thus the abstraction of our activity into abstract labour that constitutes the social cohesion of capitalist society. This is an important advance on the concept of alienated labour developed in the 1844 manuscripts: capitalist labour is not only an activity alienated from us, but it is this alienation or abstraction that constitutes the social nexus in capitalism. The key to understanding the cohesion (and functioning) of capitalist society is not money or value, but that which constitutes value and money, namely abstract labour. In other words we create the society that is destroying us, and that is what makes us think that we can stop making it.

Abstract labour as a form of activity did not always exist. It is a historically specific form of concrete doing that is established as the socially dominant form through the historical process generally referred to as primitive accumulation. The metamorphosis of human activity into abstract labour is not restricted to the workplace but involves the reorganisation of all aspects of human sociality: crucially, the objectification of nature, the homogenisation of time, the dimorphisation of sexuality, the separation of the political from the economic and the constitution of the state, and so on.

 (5)

If we say that revolution is the breaking of the social cohesion of capitalism and that that cohesion is constituted by abstract labour, the question then is how we understand the solidity of that cohesion. In other words, how opaque is the social form of abstract labour? Or, rephrasing the same question in other Holloway - Crack Capitalismwords, is primitive accumulation to be understood simply as a historical phase that preceded capitalism?  If we say (as Postone (1996) does) that labour is the central fetish of capitalist society, then how do we understand that fetish?

Marx, in the passage quoted above, refers to the dual character of labour as the key to an understanding of political economy. He does not refer just to abstract labour but to the dual character of labour as abstract and concrete labour, and yet the commentaries that focus on this point concentrate almost exclusively on abstract labour, assuming that concrete labour (concrete doing) is unproblematic since it is entirely subsumed within abstract labour, and can simply be discussed as productivity. This implies that primitive accumulation is to be understood as a historical phase that was completed in the past, effectively establishing abstract labour as the dominant form of concrete labour, thus separating the constitution of capitalism from its existence. It implies the understanding of form and content as a relation of identity in which content is completely subordinated to form until the moment of revolution. This establishes a clear separation between the past (in which concrete doing existed independent of its abstraction) and the present (in which doing is entirely subsumed within its form), effectively enclosing the analysis of the relation between concrete doing and abstract labour within the homogenous concept of time that is itself a moment of abstract labour. This takes us inevitably to a view of capital as a relation of domination (rather than a contested relation of struggle) and therefore to a view of revolution as something that would have to come from outside the capital relation (from the Party, for example).

However, it is not adequate to understand the relation between abstract labour and concrete doing as one of domination. Rather, abstract labour is a constant struggle to contain concrete doing, to subject our daily activity to the logic of capital. Concrete doing exists not just in but also against and beyond abstract labour, in constant revolt against abstract labour. This is not to say that there is some transhistorical entity called concrete doing, but that in capitalist society concrete doing is constituted by its misfitting, by its non-identity with abstract labour, by its opposition to and overflowing from abstract labour.

This means that there can be no clear separation between the constitution and the existence of the capitalist social relations. It is not the case that capitalist social relations were first constituted in the period of primitive accumulation or the transition from feudalism, and that then they simply exist as closed social relations. If concrete doing constantly rebels against and overflows beyond abstract labour, if (in other words) our attempt to live like humans constantly clashes with and ruptures the logic of capitalist cohesion, then this means that the existence of capitalist social relations depends on their constant reconstitution, and that therefore primitive accumulation is not just an episode in the past. If capitalism exists today, it is because we constitute it today, not because it was constituted two or three hundred years ago. If this is so, then the question of revolution is radically transformed. It is not: how do we abolish capitalism? But rather, how do we cease to reconstitute capitalism, how do we stop creating capitalism? The answer is clear (but not easy): by ceasing to allow the daily transformation of our doing, our concrete activity, into abstract labour, by developing an activity that does not recreate capitalist social relations, an activity that does not fit in with the logic of the social cohesion of capitalism.

 (6)

This might seem absurd, were it not for the fact that the revolt of concrete doing against abstract labour is all around us. Sometimes it takes dramatic proportions when a group like the Zapatistas says “no, we will not act according to the logic of capital, we shall do what we consider important at the rhythm that we consider appropriate.” But of course it does not have to be on such a large scale: the revolt of doing against abstract labour and the determinations and rhythms that it imposes upon us is deeply rooted in our everyday lives. Pannekoek said of the workplace that “every shop, every enterprise, even outside of times of sharp conflict, of strikes and wage reductions, is the scene of a constant silent war, of a perpetual struggle, of pressure and counter-pressure” (2005:5).(2) But it is not just in the workplace: life itself is a constant struggle to break through the connections forged by abstract labour to create other sorts of social relations: when we refuse to go to work so that we can stay and play with the children, when we read (or write) an article like this, when we choose to do something not because it will bring us money but just because we enjoy it or consider it important. All the time we oppose use value to value, concrete doing to abstract labour. It is from these revolts of everyday existence, and not from the struggles of activists or parties that we must pose the question of the possibility of ceasing to create capitalism and creating a different sort of society.

 (7)

Not only is there a constant revolt of concrete against abstract labour, but there is now a crisis of abstract labour. Abstract labour cannot be understood as something stable: its rhythms are shaped by socially necessary labour time. Since abstract labour is value-producing labour and value production is determined by socially necessary labour time, there is a constant redefinition of abstract labour: abstract labour is a constant compulsion to go faster, faster, faster. Abstract labour constantly undermines its own existence: an activity that produced value a hundred (or ten, or five) years ago no longer produces value today. Abstraction becomes a more and more exigent process, and it becomes harder and harder for people to keep pace with it: more and more of us misfit, and more and more of us consciously revolt against abstract labour. Abstraction becomes an ever greater pressure, but at the same time it becomes a more and more inadequate form of organising human activity: abstraction is not able to channel effectively the activities of a large part of humanity.

The dynamic of abstraction comes up increasingly against a resistance that splits open the apparently unitary concept of labour and poses the struggle against abstract labour at the centre of anti-capitalist struggle. Anti-capitalist struggle becomes the assertion of a different way of doing, a different way of living; or rather, the simple assertion of a different way of doing (I want to spend time with my friends, with my children, I want to be a good teacher, carpenter, doctor and work at a slower pace, I want to cultivate my garden) becomes converted into anti-capitalist struggle. The survival of capital depends on its ability to impose (and constantly redefine) abstract labour. The survival of humanity depends on our ability to stop performing abstract labour and do something sensible instead. Humanity is simply the struggle of doing against labour.

 (8)

It is in the context of the crisis of abstract labour that the discussion of abstract labour acquires importance. It is important, that is, if we focus not just on abstract labour, but on the dual character of labour, the antagonism between doing and labour. If we focus just on abstract labour and forget concrete doing, then we just develop a more sophisticated picture of capitalist domination, of how capitalism works. Our problem, however, is not to understand how capitalism works but to stop creating and recreating it. And that means strengthening doing in its struggle against labour.

It is not theory that brings about the splitting of the unitary concept of labour. The splitting of the unitary concept has been the result of struggle. It is a multitude of struggles, large and small, that have made it clear that it makes little sense to speak just of “labour”, that we have to open up “labour” and see that the category conceals the constant tension-antagonism between concrete doing (doing what we want, what we consider necessary or enjoyable) and abstract labour (value-producing, capital-producing labour). It is struggle that splits open the category, but theoretical reflection (understood as a moment of struggle) has an important role to play in keeping the distinction open.

This is important at the moment when there are so many pressures to close the category, to forget about the antagonism the category conceals, to dismiss the notion that there could be some form of activity other than abstract labour as silly, romantic, irresponsible. In capitalist society, access to the means of production and survival usually depends upon our converting our activity, our doing, into labour in the service of capital, abstract labour. We are now at a moment in all the world in which capital is unable to convert the activity of millions and millions of people (especially young people) into labour, other than on a very precarious basis. Given that exclusion from labour is generally associated with material poverty, do we now say to capital “please give us more employment, please convert our doing into labour, we will happily labour faster-faster-faster”?  This is the position of the trade unions and many left political parties, as it must be, for they are organisations based on abstract labour, on the suppression of the distinction between labour and doing. Or do we say “no, we cannot go that way (and we do not ask anything of capital). We know that the logic of faster-faster-faster will lead to ever bigger crises, and we know that, if it continues, it will probably destroy human existence altogether. For this reason we see crisis and unemployment and precariousness as a stimulus to strengthen other forms of doing, to strengthen the struggle of doing against labour.” There is no easy answer here, and no pure solution, because our material survival depends, for most of us, on subordinating our activity to some degree to the logic of abstraction. But it is essential to keep the distinction open and find ways forward, to strengthen the insubmission of doing to labour, to extend the rupture of labour by doing. That is the only way in which we can stop reproducing the system that is killing us.


John Holloway
 is a Professor in the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico. His publications include Crack Capitalism (Pluto, 2010),Change the World Without Taking Power (Pluto, 2005), Zapatista! Reinventing Revolution in Mexico (co-editor, Pluto, 1998) and Global Capital, National State and the Politics of Money (co-editor, Palgrave Macmillan, 1994).


Notes:

(1) For a development of this argument, see my forthcoming book, Crack Capitalism.

(2) I take the quote from Shukaitis (2009:15).

 

References:

Holloway, John (2010) Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto Press)

Marx, Karl (1867/1965), Capital, Vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers)

Marx, Karl (1867/1987), ‘Letter of Marx to Engels, 24.8.1867’, in Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Collected Works vol. 42 (London: Lawrence & Wishart), p. 407

Pannekoek, Anton (2005) Workers’ Councils (Oakland: AK Press)

Postone, Moishe (1996) Time, Labour, and Social Domination: A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Shukaitis, Stevphen (2009) Imaginal Machines: Autonomy and Self-Organisation in the Revolutions of Everyday Life (New York: Autonomedia)

Forest Areas, Political Economy and the “Left-Progressive Line” on Operation Green Hunt

 Shankar Gopalakrishnan

As central India’s forest belts are swept into an ever-intensifying state offensive and resulting civil war, there has been a strong convergence of left, liberal and progressive arguments on Operation Green Hunt. This note argues that this ‘basic line’ is problematic. The line can be summarised as:

  • The conflict is rooted in resource grabbing by corporate capital, in the form of large projects, SEZs, mining, etc.
  • Such resource grabbing leads people to take up arms to defend themselves, resulting in the ongoing conflict.
  • The conflict thus consists of a state drive to grab people’s homes and resources, with people resisting by taking to arms as self-defence.

Supporters of the Maoists’ positions now often conflate these points with the more orthodox positions on the necessity for “protracted people’s war” in a ‘semi-feudal semi-colonial’ state. Liberals in turn tend to deny these orthodox positions and instead advocate the resource grab – displacement – corporate attack issue as the “real” explanation. Both, however, accept this as the predominant dynamic at the heart of the current conflict.

But at the heart of this line lies an unstated question: why are forest areas the main battleground in this war? While the conflict is not coterminous with the forests – most of India’s forest areas are not part of this war, and the conflict extends outside the forest areas in some regions – forests are both politically and geographically at its heart.

Most answers to this question are either over-specific – “the minerals are found there” – or over-general – “these areas are backward / remote / marginalised, a creation of uneven development, and the state is weak there.”  The latter are all correct generalisations, but in themselves they beg the question: why are these areas backward, marginalised and under-developed? This note argues that we need to engage with the political economy of forests and the nature of accumulation in these belts before we can accurately answer this question. Such an engagement, in turn, reveals political risks in the standard narrative.


The Forest Areas

Some basic features of the political economy of forest areas are outlined in a sketch here. The key defining feature of these areas is one legal-political-institutional complex: India’s system of forest management. The British initiated the current system of resource control in forest areas in the mid nineteenth century, and it reached its present form around the turn of the 20th century. The system has since then maintained a remarkable continuity for more than a century, an indicator of its importance to India’s ruling classes.

This system has its roots in the requirements of British industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century, for which timber was a key raw material, both within India (for the railway networks that strengthened imperial control and allowed extraction of resources) and in the UK itself (particularly ship building). The systems of forest control that existed in India at the time, where village communities, religious institutions, local rulers and tribal societies operated multiple and complex systems of management, did not permit such easy extraction. They also did not serve British interests, since timber trees were naturally not given high priority in such management systems. As a result, the British instituted the Forest Department and passed a series of three Forest Acts – in 1865, 1878 and 1927 – to essentially bring India’s timber resources under their control and provide a legal-institutional form for their management. The 1927 Act remains India’s main forest law.

The British Forest Acts were based on the principle of expropriation: any area could be declared to be a government forest, whereupon rights in this area would have to be respected / settled (the process varied over the course of the three acts). The form of such rights was whittled down to essentially individual land rights by the time of the 1927 law, and even these were subject to the decision of a forest settlement officer. The resulting failure to record even the individual rights of adivasis, Dalits and most other forest dwelling communities is well documented. This process continued and was consolidated after independence, excepting in the Northeast.

But this was not merely a question of administrative failure. The forest laws had three key consequences for production relations. The first was that, as with enclosures anywhere, they sought to reduce what were essentially territories and landscapes to commodities, in this case exemplified by timber. The variations in pre-colonial management systems notwithstanding, none of them was based on principles of commodity management; though often far from democratic or egalitarian, they were concerned with regulation of use and (at most) extraction of revenue. Their purpose did not revolve around the extraction of a single commodity; this was an innovation of the British. The result of this process was to bring Indian forests into a specific position within the global capitalist commodity circuit, servicing the industrial needs of transport sectors within the imperialist bourgeosie.

But, unlike the classical enclosures of England, in the enclosure attempt in India’s forests failed – bringing about the second consequence. The attempt to seize most of central India’s forests met with fierce resistance, being one of the triggers for a series of adivasi uprisings across central India (the tribals of the Northeast having largely fought off British control from the beginning). The British lacked the force to clear these areas of people and suppress their management systems, and the post colonial Indian state – despite its ever increasing reserves of repressive power – has also lacked the ability to do so. The result has been that one reality exists in the world of law, where forests are uninhabited wilderness, and another exists in reality, where millions use and depend on them for survival. More important than the fact that these uses are illegal is that they are not recorded, and as such outside the knowledge of the state system.

This produced the third and most important consequence: a distorted system of property relations, from the point of view of classical ‘capitalism’. In short, security of private tenure does not exist in the forests. Enclosure, rather than creating and defining the rule of private property, has produced a chaotic situation of competing claims, de facto management systems that clash with de jure ones and state policies that are based on a combination of fantasy at the time of policymaking (Project Tiger, for instance) and brutality in implementation. These apply to all resources in the area, not only to land.


Integration into India’s Political Economy

A lack of defined property relations has, in turn, further shaped both the integration of these areas into Indian capitalism (1) and the forms of resistance adopted by people in these areas. First, accumulation in these areas is simultaneously constrained and driven by the direct exercise of state force. Close relations with the formal state machinery are a precondition for acccumulation in forest areas, whether one is a tendu leaf contractor, a landlord, a tea estate, a forest guard or Vedanta. This is accumulation by dispossession as a continuous process.

Such a situation obviously poses risks both to legitimacy and to ‘orderly’ accumulation. But it also proves to be a useful compromise in a context where state force alone simply cannot exterminate or remove the entire forest dwelling population. The current situation provides direct benefits to large sectors of India’s ruling classes. On the one hand, the continuous subsidy to capital that is created by the provision of free or cheap minerals, water, timber and land from forest areas has contributed an untold and inestimable amount to India’s capitalist ‘development’, both earlier and in the recent neoliberal era. It is no accident that most large projects at all stages since independence have involved forest land. On the other hand, this situation has produced a partially proletarianised population of crores of people – mostly, but not only, adivasis – whose traditional productive resources (particularly forest produce) have been expropriated, and who are now vulnerable to super-exploitation as migrant workers. Nor are the consequences limited to present day forest dwellers; the resulting desperate reserve army of workers has had a historical and geographical ‘ripple effect’, diminishing the strength of the working class as a whole (most visible in the heavy and increasing use of adivasi migrant labour across India’s “developed” capitalist belts).


Resistance in Forest Areas

The consequence of this is that the link between capital, the state and the use of force is thus blatantly obvious in forest areas in a manner that it is not elsewhere. If hegemony consists of the combination of consent with the armor of coercion, it is the armor that forest dwellers see. This, together with the reality of ill-defined property relations, has had consequences for the way people have fought back.

Indeed, I would argue that the persistence and reproduction of collective property relations among adivasi and tribal communities is not the result of some kind of historical exceptionalism, or relics of a “past culture” or “feudal mode of production.”  Rather they are a reflection of the concrete combination of weak private property relations and state repression on the other. In the forest and tribal areas, the nature of capitalist exploitation makes collective production both concretely possible and a key source of resistance (since it is the subject of direct repression), and as a result these forms of production are being reproduced. Indeed, the communities with the strongest systems of collective production in India today are the tribal communities of the Northeast, such as the Nagas, the Mizos, the Garos and others, who have literally been at war against expropriation attempts continuously since the colonial period. In central India, where such struggles have been less successful, the state suppression of community management systems has progressed much further – but they remain alive in such phenomena as community forest management (practiced by thousands of villages in Orissa and Jharkhand), collective gathering and management of minor forest produce, collective grazing systems, etc.

Where internal differentiation has occurred, as it has in all communities, such differentiation has also been ‘distorted’. It has produced small elites, generally among those close to the state machinery (including beneficiaries of reservations, panchayat leaders, JFM Committee members, etc.), who are polarised against large masses of people on the brink of destitution. This is also true among non-adivasi forest dwelling communities, most of whom were already integrated into a greater degree of private property relations prior to the declaration of state forests, but among whom similar processes have operated in forest areas.
 

Forms of Resistance

The net result of this has been to produce a situation where the state is both strong and weak. The strength, of course, stems from the availability of force and the lack of integration into the mainstream political system, which ensures that any agitation is met with inhuman repression. But the weakness stems from the lack of hegemony and the very clear boundary between “rulers” and “ruled.”  In the forest areas, the binary of “state vs people” has a glaring reality that people experience in their daily lives. The state both is and is seen to be the direct agent of exploitation.

The result is that struggles in these areas have often given space for more radical formations, and for raising more fundamental political issues, than in other parts of India. This is not just true of the CPI(Maoist), but of the history of struggles in adivasi areas generally, both before and after independence. Often phrased in millenarian and revivalist language, the adivasi uprisings of the nineteenth century demanded not just the exit of the British but the reconstruction of their entire society. Closer to the present day, the undivided CPI found some of its strongest bases among adivasis, as have both the CPI(Maoist) and the democratic mass organisations. The longest running armed conflicts in India – the struggles in the Northeast – are also marked by the same dynamics. Meanwhile, the weakness of the state has also made it the target of other struggles in forest areas. For instance, practically all streams of the Indian left – from the parliamentary parties through the armed groups and the mass organisations – have staged their most successful drives for land occupation (i.e. land takeovers by the landless) on forest land.


Forests and the War

It is incorrect, in this light, to see forests as either separate from Indian capitalism or society or to see them as simply the more remote or backward parts of that society. Rather, forests and forest areas function within a specific politico-economic space as a result of the manner in which they are integrated with the Indian economy. It is not that there are no similarities between this space and that of other parts of the Indian socioeconomic formation; there are parallels with the role of the state in urban areas, for instance, or with the nature of oppression among the landless peasantry. But the specificity of forest areas, produced by their role within the current socioeconomic formation, is still valid. As said earlier, most of the current discussion on Operation Green Hunt does not recognise this fact, and instead seeks to both over-specify it and, more importantly, over generalise it.

The tendency to over-specify is visible in a factual error made by nearly all current cirtiques: the argument that the conflict is over corporate projects. Displacement by corporations and projects covers a huge area in absolute terms, but this is only a small part of India’s forests and adivasi areas. The vast majority of adivasis and forest dwellers, including in Maoist areas, are not threatened with displacement, and will not be threatened with it, however intense the corporate offensive may become.

To fail to see this is to open an obvious factual contradiction that is easy for the state and its supporters to attack. If the armed struggle is a question of self-defence against displacement, the Digvijay Singhs immediately ask why the CPI(Maoist) did not so strongly oppose displacement-inducing projects earlier. Others demand to know that if the only issue is corporate projects, why are some of the most intense struggles being fought where there is no project visible? Moreover, say the news anchors, if the war is one of self-defence against corporate displacement (which after all does not apply to most of India), is the CPI(Maoist) being delusional when it talks of overthrowing the Indian state? Indeed, by over-emphasising the displacement issue, many reduce the Maoist movement to precisely the kind of formation that they are most critical of: an issue based anti-displacement struggle, with all its ideological and political vulnerabilities.

The answer to all of these questions, of course, is that the struggles (armed and unarmed) in forest areas are not a response to displacement alone; they are a result of the continuum of state-driven repression and expropriation that dominates in these areas, of which corporate projects are but the most extreme example. Operation Green Hunt may have been initiated due to corporate pressure, but the war as a whole is much older and much broader.

But to accept this is to, in turn, open another flank for attack. If displacement and “annihilation” are not the issue, can it be said that there is “no choice” but to take up arms? If oppression in the forests is the problem, many mass organisations have worked in these areas before the Maoists, and many such struggles continue both there and elsewhere. True, most of these organisations have resorted to physical self-protection when attacked – the vast majority were and are not Gandhians. But there is a gulf between such “violence” and the strategy of protracted people’s war.

In order to respond to this, many abandon over-specific arguments, but instead fall into over-generalisation – using simplified versions of traditional Maoist positions. In this view, the war in the forests is the “leading edge” of working class struggles in the country, a result of the intensification of “neo robber baron capitalism” (2). This war is here presented as the most radical response to a brutal state intent on expropriating everything from its oppressed, and the rest of India’s working class should, in this view, look upon the war as both model and inspiration. The CPI(Maoist) itself tends to adopt this position in its recent public statements (being clear, after all, that it is not fighting an anti-displacement struggle).

But it is not clear how a struggle that currently has its deepest roots in forest areas – with their specific history – can be described as the “leading edge” of a new democratic revolution. There is no linear manner in which the forest areas can be placed on a continuum of backwardness from the other areas of India; their configuration is specific to them, with some similarities but many differences with formations in other parts of the country. Sweeping claims of being a “leading edge” would only be true if the war in the forests is obviously generalisable, in the sense of developing a praxis that is extendable to other areas and configurations of exploitation in the country. This is not clear in either Maoist statements or in the external analyses that adopt this line.

Indeed, one might note, as a “stylised fact”, that in some senses the Maoist organisations have undergone the opposite journey – from having their core base among sectors of the landless and the marginal peasantry, who are more within ‘normal’ state functioning and property relations, their centre has moved into the forest areas. Even within the forests, the majority of communities and areas are not within the Maoist fold. The party has shown less ability to expand in regions such as western Maharashtra, south Gujarat, western Madhya Pradesh, etc., where – due to regional social processes and struggles – the forest economy has shifted more towards a “normal” peasant configuration. Thus, overall, the party appears to have moved from areas of stronger hegemony to ones of weaker hegemony. This does not strengthen belief in the ability of “people’s war”, as they frame it, to be a strategy of struggle in areas where binary “state vs people” modes of exploitation do not exist so concretely.

And it is here that the more fundamental danger arises. Posing the question of people’s war as an inevitability, a choice between a marauding state intent on annihilating people and a revolutionary force whose promise lies in making a “better state”, does not correspond to the political reality of most of the oppressed in India today. For all its venality, brutality and inhumanity, the Indian state retains a weakened but still very real hegemonic status in most of the country. For most working class Indians, bourgeois democracy may have failed to deliver its claims, but it is not a lie; and to merely declare that it is one is not going to make it so.

To ignore this, and focus only on the state’s coercive operations in the forests, makes the conflict appear either irrelevant or, worse, alien to the majority of the population. It converts oppression rooted in Indian capitalism into the problem of some remote far off area, a war between “tribals” and “corporates” in what seems to be a foreign land. This, ultimately, only serves the government’s purposes; what better way to ensure that opposition to Operation Green Hunt, outside the conflict zones, fails to develop a mass character? Instead of weakening state hegemony, we thus find ourselves reinforcing it.


Alternative Possibilities

If we are to place Operation Green Hunt accurately within our own analyses, it is important to stress theconnections and parallels between the forest conflict and oppression in other areas, without slipping into over-generalisations. These parallels operate at different levels. One instance is the increasing use of law as a direct tool of accumulation, such as through Special Economic Zones, anti-encroachment drives in urban areas, etc. There are strong similarities between these processes and the use of forest law; exposing this function of law in turn exposes the class nature of the state. Another similarity is the continuous process of enclosure and extermination of systems of common production, often using the law, but also through other methods.

Which parallels are relevant and how are, of course, matters of separate debate. In this of course there will be sharp differences the various left streams on our understanding of the present socioeconomic formation. In general, however, such connections need to be exposed and analysed to build both a broader praxis and an understanding of how, in each sphere of struggle, hegemony can be weakened. But to simply overlook the political positioning of forest areas and continue with over-specific or over-general arguments is to risk strengthening the government’s narrative – with attendant dangerous consequences for us all.


Notes:

1. In this note, I am not entering into the debate as to whether this is genuine autonomous capitalist development or that of a compradore bourgeoisie; for the limited purpose here, there is little difference.

2. An example of the former is Saroj Giri, “‘The Dangers Are Great, the Possibilities Immense’: The Ongoing Political Struggle in India“; for the latter see Bernard D’Mello, “Spring Thunder Anew“.

India’s Move to the Right

Pothik Ghosh

This is not a practical joke. Something really outrageous has happened. The overwhelming victory of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the 15th Lok Sabha elections has meant an unqualified triumph for the sangh parivar’s ideological agenda. Of course, if one were to look for the emergence of an electoral centre consonant with such an ideological triumph – as the one symbolised by the Congress in the first two-and-a-half decades of Independence – one would find nothing to substantiate this. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is, with regard to the UPA, the second-largest coalition by far. One cannot, therefore, be faulted for dismissing the above claim as a product of an exaggeratedly apocalyptic imagination that loves to poop a glorious party.

But such, alas, is the irony of the situation that the BJP no longer needs to emerge as the leader of Parliament to culminate the sangh’s programme of establishing a majoritarian national political centre. And wasn’t this the RSS’s cherished dream after all, something that prevented it from seriously pursuing the project of backing a political party of its own for the first few decades of its inception? Well, that dream has come true when the sangh parivar least expected it, needless to say, despite the RSS and its political face.

No sense can, however, be discerned in this seemingly quixotic explanation unless the victory of liberalism, which the Congress’s thumping electoral win signifies, is located in its current historical moment. Otherwise, it would imply an uncritical acceptance of certain pre-given notions of liberalism. The Congress today, thanks to its current electoral revival as a strong centre of Indian polity, is similar to its post-Independence predecessor only in appearance. The consensus that has driven its current re-emergence is significantly and qualitatively different from the one that underpinned its earlier Nehruvian-liberal edition, and which collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions through the ’60s and’70s to unfold into Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and the Jayaprakash Narayan-led anti-Congress movement.

Development is the new shibboleth of the current Congress consensus and the liberal political centre it has purportedly propped up. And this new avatar of development has played, and will continue to play, a crucial role in shaping the social content of this consensus, even as it leaves its political idiom of liberal-secular citizenship intact. The aggressively competitive political-economic ethos of this neo-liberal form of development – which is geared towards socio-economic restructuring through alienation of people from their assets that are their means of life and/or livelihood – has come to increasingly determine what this constitutionally-ordained idea of liberal-secular citizenship actually amounts to in the everyday lives of individuals.

This process of total commodification of hitherto non-commodified or semi-commodified sectors of society and economy through coercive politico-economic and legislative practices – which Marx termed primitive accumulation of capital and which American economic-geographer David Harvey has redefined for our late capitalist times as “accumulation by dispossession” – will continue to shape the inner socio-political contours of the ideology of liberalism with renewed political legitimacy. The secular idea of a culturally neutral citizenship will, in such circumstances, become even more contingent on who gains from, and therefore naturally backs, this kind of development.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that competitive identity politics, which has always driven electoral competition in Indian society but which has never received overt sanction in its liberal-democratic polity, has of late been turning into a politically legitimate impulse of neo-liberal development that thrives on and encourages competitive dispossession of some socio-political groups by others. For, how else does one explain myriad incidents of land acquisition, effected through legislative changes and other repressive means by various state and central governments that enjoy the support of certain configurations of socio-economic and cultural identities which gain from such development?

That, however, is not the only way in which competitive dispossession, which is the dominant spirit of the reigning neo-liberal orthodoxy, has played out in this country. More indirect and legislatively less ‘legitimate’ means, not directly attributable to governments and their developmental agenda, have also been in evidence. The impulse of certain sections of the Hindu middle class of Gujarat to loot and destroy Muslim businesses, with a little more than tacit support from the BJP-led state government, during the 2002 post-Godhra carnage can, for instance, be located in socio-political, economic and cultural anxieties fostered by an intensely competitive ethos of a preponderantly expropriative political economy of neo-liberal development.

Clearly, citizenship, and its entitlements, remain as culturally neutral and secular as before but the access to development that enables the acquisition of such liberal-secular credentials is paved, now more legitimately than ever, with the bloody bricks of socio-economic and cultural cleansing of some identities by others.

That even the struggles of those socio-cultural identities, which have been at the receiving end of such dehumanising development, have failed to transcend the logic of competition and expropriation intrinsic to this neo-liberal developmental programme, proves there has been no political questioning of that model of development. Their struggles, whenever they have had the opportunity to move beyond defensive positioning, have ended up being contests where the subalterns have vied with the elite social groups to corner the privilege the latter enjoy. Those struggles, even as they have been directed at privileged and socially dominant groups and identities, have failed to focus on the neo-liberal logic of development that such elite groups both embody and are a function of.

This failure of subaltern groups to transform the competitive nature of their challenge – which is how such challenges are bound to be posed to begin with – into a critique of the current political-economic system and its model of development has ended up shattering their initial anti-elite solidarity, evident right through the JP movement up to the Mandal period and the ascendancy of the V P Singh-led National Front government in 1989. That has led to the degeneration of their politics into a regressive battle of social domination among themselves. The ideological expression of such degeneration is, for instance, evident in recent popular cultural histories written by various Dalit and backward-caste intellectuals of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the service of their politics of assertion. Not only do those historical accounts – some of which have been collected by social historian Badri Narayan into a book called Upekshit Samudayon ka Atm Itihas (Self Histories of Marginalised Peoples) – not question the idea of structuring society around a strong centre, they seek to build such centres to assert their caste dignity through their supremacist historiographies. Worse, they do so by often enough adopting the traditional terms and idioms of the exclusivist and oppressive Brahminical social discourse.

The decline in politico-ideological independence or electoral fortunes of various lower-caste, minority and regional political forces – which also includes the CPI(M)-led Left Front – in this Lok Sabha election is merely a manifestation of this troubling competitive identity politics within the subaltern camp. That has led to the gravitation of some of those outfits, and the ‘natural’ support base of the others, towards either the Congress or the BJP. A strong bipolar tendency in Indian polity, which the decline of such third forces portends, is nothing but a disturbing sign of consolidation of the neo-liberal consensus.

The current ascendancy of the Congress, given that it coincides with the emergence of such a strong bipolar political tendency, is especially disturbing. Both the real and imagined victims of neo-liberal development under this new Congress-led dispensation would, in the absence of any strong current of independent subaltern politics, come to rely on the BJP to politically articulate their competitive quest for development. That, needless to say, would prompt the BJP to pose the idea of liberal-secular citizenship, and the question of access to expropriative neo-liberal development that frames this idea, in consonance with the competitive aspirations of social groups it would seek to represent. That the ideology the BJP would deploy at the grassroots to electorally mobilise its potential support base for this battle for modern development and secular citizenship would be cultural nationalism is a no-brainer. In fact, the shift in BJP’s political-ideological tack, post Babri, anticipated precisely this peculiar sort of rightward movement in Indian polity. Since the late nineties the party stopped posing the Muslim as a dangerous alien to the Hindu community of this country, and has instead taken to mounting a zealous defence of a culturally deracinated but majoritarian national identity, and a form of modern development that produces it, from the depredations of groups that it emphasises has originated from within certain “backward” cultural identities (jihad-backing Muslims or Maoist-supporting Dalit Christians of Orissa). It has obfuscated the real causes of socio-economic dispossession and politico-cultural disenfranchisement that underpin such phenomena. That the BJP has forged the secular/pseudo-secular distinction, appropriating the first category for itself while ascribing the second to its opponents, shows there need exist no contradiction between liberal theories and revanchist political practices today.

The electoral pressures that such politics of the BJP would inevitably generate for the Congress and other non-BJP forces in a system of representative democracy, especially one tending towards bipolarity, cannot be overstated. That would, among other things, bolster the ongoing process of socio-ideological homogenisation of policymaking and lawmaking, even as normative, party-based differences are belaboured ad nauseum. The eerie similarity in legislative and policy rhetoric across the political spectrum – especially vis-à-vis questions of development, “jihadi” terror and Maoist insurgency – shows how the BJP-sangh’s ideological project, with more than a little facilitation from the global neo-liberal programme and its local secular backers, has indeed been universalised.

In such a situation – where the current neo-liberal form of development is constitutive of a majoritarian conception of modern political identity that gets projected as democratic — politics conducted in terms of the traditional secular-communal divide is, at best, useless and, at worst, perilously misleading.

What India would see more and more now is aggressively competitive identity politics at the grassroots, often culminating in civil violence, and the winners of such amoral competition rising up to be legitimately welcomed by a normatively liberal-secular political centre as ‘authentic’ and ‘enterprising’ citizens of the nation. This is, doubtless, the epoch when fascism and liberalism not only come to each other’s rescue, as Gramsci had observed, in their respective moments of regulatory crises, but co-exist in harmonious complementarity in the same temporal moment at the social and political levels respectively.

It is nobody’s case that the Congress and the liberal Indian polity were innocent about the ways of identity politics in their post-Independence heyday. Identity management, through competitive and differential distribution of patronage at the societal grassroots by a liberal polity, was the hallmark of the Nehruvian Indian National Congress — which was supported by the Brahmin-Muslim-Harijan combine in UP and Bihar, and the Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim coalition in Gujarat — till at least the advent of Emergency. But all grassroots Congress leaders, who emerged in legislative and parliamentary politics by dint of their victory in such identity struggles and the concomitant management of such intra-party competition, were ultimately tamed and chastened by the liberal-secular ethos of the party and polity. In other words, the identity loyalty of a particular leader that had launched him from the grassroots to the national polity was perforce sacrificed by him/her at the altar of liberal-secularism – still organic to the relatively more democratic culture of a pre-Independence, anti-colonial Congress – while participating in the business of policymaking and legislation. Clearly, competitive identity politics, and the differential distribution of patronage it entails, existed as the hypocritical and illegitimate unconscious of the Nehruvian Congress and its post-Independence polity. And it was precisely this contradiction – ineluctable in political liberalism, thanks to the political-economy of capitalism from which it emanates – that led to the collapse of the original Congress consensus.

Now, of course, it is a different story. The liberal ideas of culturally neutral citizenship and secularism are empty concepts into which any social content, no matter how illiberal, undemocratic or retrograde, can be poured and legitimised. Identity-based patronage politics, which had either been eyed with contempt or concealed shamefacedly by mainstream political parties, all of which practiced it, is now getting sanctified as inclusion (obviously differential and unequal) by its blessed contact with the neo-liberal dogma of competitive development. The competitiveness that is intrinsic to such politics is no longer an ugly and reactionary secret that liberal politics needs hide in its messy social closets. Given that globally acceptable neo-liberal development is driven by something similar, it is openly celebrated. Such competitiveness constitutes the developmental dynamic that shapes the internal configurations and contours of the liberal form. Unlike in the period of the Nehruvian Congress, caste- and community-based leaders, irrespective of their party affiliations, are not tamed by the liberal idea of secular citizenship. Instead, they fundamentally redefine that idea, with regard to policies and laws, in terms of the interests of the social groups they represent.

‘Democratic’ competition, in the absence of an impulse to socio-ideologically contest the status quo, ends up strengthening the system and its twin-logic of political domination and economic expropriation. That is particularly true in this neo-liberal epoch, which is determined by the operational primacy of finance capital. Before the onset of the neo-liberal era, a subaltern struggle, even if it was waged in the register of competitive identity politics, still had some fighting chance to posit a critique of the political economy of capitalism. Such competition for a slice of the developmental pie, by virtue of being directed at the state, automatically targeted the real sector of the economy that this state regulated. And considering that the real sector can respond more effectively to the autonomous needs of a society the less determined it is by the exigencies of international finance capital, the chances that competitive identity politics of subaltern groups in pre-neo-liberal times could democratise the socio-economic system by seeking to democratise the state and polity were much more than today.

Similar identity-based competitive struggles for a share in neo-liberal development have served to deepen systemic inequality and lack of democracy the more they have succeeded. That is because the real economy of India, ever since it started opening up to the world, has come to be increasingly subordinated to the speculative and profit-seeking demands of international finance capital. The intensified financialisation of the Indian economy this has resulted in has ensured the country’s real sector responds, not what members of Indian society would democratically and autonomously aspire to and demand, but what would yield profits in sectors on which international finance capital has placed its heaviest bets. As a consequence, the entire world of demand-and-supply, and the socio-economic realm of work and leisure constituted by it, has become totally administered, sometimes through repressive force but mostly through ideological production of consent. Development happens to be the mantra of that operation. In such a scenario, any social or political movement that seeks a share of such development cannot deepen democracy, not even objectively. It can only keep consolidating the system and its intrinsically undemocratic and inegalitarian political economy.

The Left – including its CPI(M)-led parliamentary bloc, and its various semi- and extra-parliamentary groups – has completely failed to recognise this peculiar impact of neo-liberalism and financialisation on Indian polity. Not surprisingly, they have continued to press ahead with their time-worn paradigms of politics. Subjective intervention by various Left groups, when it occurs through their pro-active engagement with the disaffections and aspirations of various dispossessed and disempowered socio-economic and cultural groups, can transform the competitive identitarian idiom of their struggles into a fundamental critique of the neo-liberal model of development. Only that, when it happens, can possibly yield, a real counter-hegemonic politics of resistance and restore to the Indian Left its lost political relevance.

Of course, the rejection of the CPI(M)-led Left Front’s authoritarianism by the electorates of Kerala, and particularly West Bengal, which brought its Lok Sabha tally down from 60 in 2004 to 24 this time around, must be hailed, especially since it has also failed to pose an alternative political-economic model of development to the current neo-liberal one, which it has all but normatively accepted. Yet, what must not be lost sight of is the LF’s political degeneration has been challenged and supplanted, not by tendencies from within the progressive tradition of working class politics, but by the Trinmool Congress-Congress coalition, which will be an integral part of the next Union government. In such circumstances, the electoral decimation of the CPI(M)-led Stalinist Left has only accelerated and strengthened Indian polity’s right-ward move.

Such a working-class challenge to the CPI(M) and its front is still desperately awaited to wipe out whatever remains of this degenerate Left, so that revolutionary politics can once again reclaim the trust of the broader toiling masses and mobilise them for an anti-neo-liberal, anti-capitalist battle. But for such a politics to emerge, genuine working-class forces, many of whom are still part of the LF constituents, need to be clear-sighted about what actually went wrong with the CPI(M)-led Left Front. The reactive anti-CPI(M) position, which many Left groups and individuals hold, would be of little help on that score.

We must, for starters, understand that the LF’s attempt to aggregate various anti-Congress, anti-BJP forces in the run-up to the 15th Lok Sabha polls, contrary to what the neo-liberal spinmeisters of our mainstream media have been contending, was not opportunist per se. The challenge, no matter how transient, posed by some caste and regional parties against the two principal political protagonists in question is actually a reflection of the disaffection of social identities that have been rendered provisionally subaltern, vis-à-vis the more privileged social groups patronised by those two parties. Considering that those privileged groups represent socio-economic and cultural domination – which the neo-liberal developmental agenda engendered by a political system hegemonised by the Congress and the BJP has created – any competitive challenge posed to them and their two parties by the provisional subalterns and their outfits is, to begin with, also an immanent and implicit critique of the hegemony of the entire system, and the competitive and expropriative political-economic logic of development that constitutes it. Such implicit critique posits the possibility of producing a rupture in the given neo-liberal conjuncture and thereby effect a complete social transformation.

However, if the immanence of this critique is not recognised and it is not consciously expressed by the movements that pose them, it ceases being the first unavoidable step towards counter-hegemonic politics, and ends up consolidating the hegemonic logic of competition, domination and monopolistic centre-building. The LF’s failure to engage with such implicit critiques so that they can be taken to their logical anti-systemic denouement, has always been responsible for delivering one or the other of these anti-Congress, anti-BJP outfits to either the Congress-led UPA or the BJP-led NDA as a client or junior partner, depending upon the pragmatic calculus of immediate interests and benefits such forces embody. It is this failure of the LF that has always rendered all its attempts to forge an anti-Congress, anti-BJP front opportunistic. And the failure stems from the LF’s fatally inverted mode of politics. Its tactics of sewing up such a third front would be electorally brilliant only if it was preceded by serious struggles that engaged with the disaffection of the subaltern support bases of anti-Congress, anti-BJP political forces and enabled them to articulate them in an anti-systemic and critical idiom of social and political transformation. Such an engagement would, as a matter of fact, make such front-building politically redundant for the CPI(M)-led Left Front’s political advance.

The LF, however, seems obsessed with the absurd idea of driving social change through electoral politics and alliance-building for votes. And that, very clearly, is a symptom of its social-democratic malaise, which it contracted nearly three decades ago when it decided to give up the strong immunity of working-class struggles. It is this social-democratic degeneration that has prevented the LF to envision development as something that needs to fundamentally transform society and its constitutive political-economic logic by re-imagining the hierarchical and alienating configurations of power that are both envisaged and embodied by the modern state in all its different forms, including the liberal-democratic.

The LF’s social-democratic cretinism — constitutive of the process of institutionalisation of the various working-class movements from which it emerged — is manifest not only in the growing authoritarianism with which its constituent parties and state governments are run, but also in its excessive reliance on a broad-based system of dispensing patronage to keep those governments going. Such wide, cadre-based distribution of political patronage is an inevitable regression of the social-democratic imagination. One that envisages social progress and the well-being of the working people and the poor essentially as a question of distributive justice, which it believes is achievable by merely regulating equitable distribution of a given basket of socio-economic entitlements. In such a ‘Leftist’ scheme there is no place for interventionist and transformative politics because the state, which is the instrument of such efficient regulation and equitable redistribution, is treated as a passive and neutral entity that only needs to be controlled.

The upholders of such social-democratic Leftism make no attempt, as a consequence, to rethink and transform the structure of the modern state through a process of constant critique and struggle directed against the political economy that makes such an alienated and coercive institution of power possible. From there to neo-liberalism it is, as we have seen, merely one small step. And what use can working-class politics possibly have for such ‘Leftists’ or their ‘Leftism’?

Revolutionary May Day Greetings!

Saswat Pattanayak

Relevance of this day never was greater than it is today – as a celebration of collective human progress, as a reminder of historic labour struggles, as an occasion to reaffirm class allegiance with the working poor, and the majority strugglers.

Not an allegiance to exploitative ruling class demarcations of geographical boundaries drawn and redrawn through manipulative gestures of status-quo diplomacy. Not an allegiance to standards of academic, material, knowledge society thus distinguished and rewarded by the handful corporate czars to effectively facilitate their spheres of influence. Not an allegiance to normative philosophies of spiritual and religious practices aimed at bringing calm and internal peace through aggrandizing state of ignorance, indifference and ineptitude.

An allegiance to organized human labour necessarily requires obliterations of several convenient divisions mapped thus by the ruling class combines, while recreating new necessary ones.

Class allegiance in action must uproot the notions of purity attached with the cultural high-handedness in the form of canonic texts, classical arts and holy scriptures. Owing to lack of time from life’s labour, indulging in critical reflections on societal upbringings often becomes impossible or inadequate. As a result, the majority’s thought processes of any time are mostly conditioned by the simplistically offered explanations of recognized experts, not reshaped through rigorous testing by the self of acquired knowledge and incidental experiences. Such a propensity towards contentment by not subjecting oneself to question the foundations of belief systems helps maintain the glorification of cultural produces that puts the peoples in their oppressed places: that is, at the level of passive observers.

Authoritative texts irrespective of how patriarchal, discriminative and violent they are – all religious scriptures fall into this category – are passively consumed as holy and irrefutable. Ongoing texts of necessary collective resistance do not find a publishing house or a review on the mainstream liberal media. Classical as well as postmodern arts depicting both the royal past and confused future are heralded as containing “high” artistic value, while realist arts depicting peoples revolutions in the past or existing organized working class movements are discarded as socialist propaganda. Labour union songs, films portraying human labour as protagonist, and books about organized revolutionary history are forced out of circulation. If elite culture is limited to incomprehensible museums, popular culture is defined in terms of vulgar exhibits of indiscriminate media consumption. After dumbing down people through trivia overloads, they are praised for being free to choose what works best for their lives. After conditioning popular thoughts through uncritical materials, subjects are offered options to choose – between Coke and Pepsi, Disney and James Bond, McCain and Obama, Drama and Romance, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres, Rock and Pop. Choices vary only by degrees, because they simply cannot vary by kind. Such wide array of similar choices offered by corporate greed must necessarily be a substitute for the limited options necessary for establishment of a classless society. They cannot be supplements.

Classical/postmodern and socialist/realist choices cannot co-exist harmoniously. In their realized state, the monumental and fundamental conflicts must surface. Just as haves and the have-nots cannot co-exist peacefully. In their emancipated states, revolutionary struggles must take over. Political systems that claim otherwise and preach possibility of peaceful coexistence between economically disparate classes merely work overtime to deceive their subjects through propagandist media which conveniently redefine economic classes (hence, a creation of “Middle Class”) and reposition boundaries of dissent by forming among themselves mutually respecting groups of liberals and conservatives – as a result, annihilating the possibility of communistic discourse around property relations.

Political systems such as these – the wide array of “Democracies” rule over a comfortably numb, blissfully ignorant, uncritically religious, and eternally grateful mass of people who are preached the merits of self-centric career growth, domestic peace and personal saving accounts over the high costs they cause – endless cycles of poverty, unemployment, lack of healthcare, absence of socially relevant education, continuation of escalated wars, and unquestioned acceptance of accumulation of private wealth as a necessary virtue. This hegemonist worldview not only widens its own sphere but in the process closes the alternatives. As a result, individual comforts take precedence over collective good and external aggression is justified in the name of internal peace. The wealthy section is heralded as deserving, the poor as resulting high-crime neighborhoods. The rich are rewarded with tax-breaks and bank loans while the poor are condemned to be credit-unworthy and liabilities. The true majority comprising the working class is treated as a minority when it comes to effecting administrative changes, policies governing education, house ownerships, business labour practices and environmental concerns. The true minority consisting of the historically privileged and their recent elite cronies express and install the legislations that suit their interest while masquerading them as national interests. Hence the president of a given country declares wars in these times under the advice of the friendly military-industrial lobby without taking into account the interest of majority of people in the world. What is worse, the majority of people are in fact attributed as the ones who wanted to go to war in the first place. After all, in the democracies – the system where the leaders are elected by virtue of how much money they have gathered – people deserve the kind of government they elect. Since people have exercised their voting options – no matter how uninformed they were kept in their choices not just to vote one leader or the other but about their stance on the process of farcical elections themselves – the leaders carry out most heinous of acts relegating the consequences of responsibilities to the masses.

Under the conditioned pretense of being active deciders of their destinies, people support their elected heads in all unfortunate decisions – just as inside houses the children do not question their reactionary parents, students do not confront their ignorant teachers, followers do not challenge their religious preachers. In effect, narratives of socioeconomic history are authoritative when they speak through the ruling class lenses. Students grow curiosity about the hairstyles and handbags of the First Ladies of White House, than pose critical questions concerning the reason why their own working mothers toil so hard and yet feel they do not deserve the similar treatments as the rich presidential wives or their corporate guests at grand banquets. A “free” society based on rhetoric of individual liberty suffers from being inherently an unfree, ignorant, selfishly passive one. Women are defined by gender roles prescribed to them by men. Their loyalty is defined in terms of how much of the body they cover, and their freedom is defined in terms of how much of the body they expose. From their menstrual cycles to pregnancy months, their status as workers is defined as a liability by norm and disability by law. When the entire workforce strives to accentuate the greedy private capitalist bank accounts, the sense of contribution to societal developments is felt through the merciful charities – disguised as tax evasions – of rich individuals, and through painfully slow legislations of judicial systems that offer drops of justice from time to time. Legal amendments to grant freedoms to minorities – that conveniently divided group of oppressed world majority – offer quotas in lowly paid jobs in form of so-called affirmative actions and reservations. Not as reparations to the historic damages.

Demands for reparations lead to revolutions. Revolutions are prevented by means of granting of charities. Status quo of the privileged is maintained through shedding of material grants, and guilt, from their surplus. World Bank loans and grants to the landless in the world is an act of charity on behalf of the greedy bankers, financiers who put their poster-boys at the helm of political power just to prevent any step toward reparations. In these days as always in the past, private bankers help their political weapons to rule over the people. They do so by granting credits and loans to people for essential needs that otherwise should be taken care of by the governments. Instead, availing of housing, healthcare and education facilities are privatized in order to keep people debt-ridden throughout their lives. Debts and interests accrued on them create a majority population that is unable to conceptualize the demands of reparations. On a May Day today it is only important to note that Bank of America which has received billions of taxpayers money not only spends them for its own profit motives by pursuing a credit war on the hapless consumers; it also lets the CEO Ken Lewis receive $35 million salary in the past two years; and what is worse, it fires thousands of employees who cannot avail of the so-called Employees Free Choice Act – yet another false promise from the American President Obama, known better as the lasting friend of the corrupt banks.

It is not enough to say the economic class war on majority of world’s peoples is an indictment for the freedom and equality envisaged for our world. Indeed, it is only natural that in order to keep the world unfree and unequal, it is important that the economic class war waged by the rich upon the poor continues in this manner. For the ruling class of individualistic corporate, political, judicial, academic, religious profiteers who assume the world does not need revolutionary replacements whereby they must be prepared to give up their private houses, businesses and mansions, it is necessary for them to continue exploiting people – directly and indirectly- by preaching peace while waging war, teaching lies while educating the youths, celebrating private properties while pretending to be moral and religious.

Those of us who must realign or strengthen our class allegiances with the oppressed and the exploited, must sympathetically understand why the ruling class does what it is doing. Only then can we unite together to transcend barriers and divisions instilled among us by the exploiters and empathetically revolt for the classless society that we strive for. May Day is an occasion to stop wondering in surprise. Only yet another day we need to rise above and beyond the divisions. And working class must still continue to unite even more and reach out to those workers who have doubts choosing which side they must be on.

Laal Salaam!