A slightly modified version of a talk delivered at the Conference on ‘Democracy, Socialism and Visions for the 21st Century’, 7-10 March, at Hyderabad
Today we stand at a moment of history that is very different from the conjuncture at the turn of the 1980s and onset of the 1990s, which marked the collapse of actually existing socialism and the eventual victory of neo-liberalism. ‘Capital’ looked victorious and invincible and everything that was associated with socialism stood discredited. This is no longer the case today. The struggle for a new kind of left imagination, for a re-signification of the idea of socialism, is now evident in large parts of the world. The neo-liberal emperor has been revealed to have no clothes. Many neoliberals, incidentally, still live in the 1990s, sincere in their belief that History had come to an end at that moment. Simply because twentieth century socialism stood discredited, it was assumed that that meant the end of popular struggles and challenges to capital’s domination over the world. Today, two and a half decades after the collapse of socialism and the victory of neoliberalism, the latter stands challenged as perhaps, never before.
The difficulty however, is that while the spirit of the Left animates struggles and movements, an actual programmatic vision is still not quite in sight. The weight of dead generations still weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Revolutionaries have long conceded defeat and accepted that capitalism is the only salvation and that they too must build capitalism wherever they are in power, even if rhetorically, they still hold on to the idea of transcending capitalism. The problem has little to do with the intentions of the revolutionaries; it is fundamentally a matter of a vision that is predicated upon the productivist and ‘progressist’ imagination of the past three centuries or more. In our contemporary everyday language, we could even call it the growth-fetishist vision – a vision that fails to differentiate between cancerous growth of capital on the social body, and the all round improvement in the lives of ordinary people. The fact that twentieth century socialists too remained captive to that vision is perhaps the reason they could not pose any serious challenge to capital.
Productivism and Progress
This productivist imagination was put in place over a few centuries through the conjunction of a range of new bodies of knowledge – moral philosophy, Lockean political theory and political economy – later economics. At one level, the twentieth century socialist imagination too partook of the fundamental assumptions that lay behind this modernist vision and sought to defeat capitalism on its own ground. That was an impossible task. It was impossible for it never radically questioned the fundamentals of the new capitalist creed, namely economics. Economics was and remains a discipline constituted by capital and ‘socialist economics’ is, strictly speaking, an oxymoron. For, apart from the ecological imperative, to which I will turn in a moment, the discipline was fundamentally hostile to all but bourgeois forms of property and production.
Progress meant the destruction of all other forms – which in its blinkered view were merely providers of the ‘factors of production’ – land and labour. We know from our own very ferocious struggles in contemporary Indian around the question of land acquisition that both land and labour are tied here in a far more serious relationship embodied in living cultures. Economics assumes that the ‘enclosure of the commons’ has already taken place, the land acquired, and the mass of people already thrown into the labour market with nothing but their labour power. That was, in a sense, Marx’s assumption too, even though he felt deeply revolted by the violence that this process entailed.
Today, the struggle for the re-signification of the idea of socialism must steer clear of that productivist and progressist imagination for another reason – namely, the ecological. A new ‘Copernican Revolution’ is now underway. If the earlier Copernican revolution overturned the way we saw the relationship between the sun and the earth, the new one does no less: it transforms the very way we today must conceive of the relationship between the economy and ecology. The advent of modernity instituted what many philosophers have called the ‘great divide’ – the separation of ‘humanity’ from ‘nature’, of humans from nonhumans. In that modernist vision ‘nature’ was reduced to a mere object of consumption, whose forces were to be harnessed for the Progress of humankind. Progress, in turn was defined as that which drew us away from the state of natural existence – a vision that emphasized the so-called ‘cultured-ness’ of the bourgeois as opposed to the rusticity and idiocy of ‘rural life’. Industry had to replace the so-called natural economy.
It was this division that framed our understanding of ‘capital’ itself. That is why, when Marx was writing about ‘capitalism’, he saw the source of ‘surplus value’ only in unpaid labour. The entire logic of accumulation or expanded reproduction, in his view, rested on the surplus that was saved after payment of wages, as the capitalist’s profit. Nature was the mere provider of natural resources which came into the production process as raw material. Thus the capitalist was left with a significant amount of money that he could reinvest for accumulation on an expanded scale. It did not and could not have occurred to Marx, before the ongoing Copernican revolution, that in the capitalist production process, one more cost remains unpaid: The capitalist pays the cost of raw materials but has never been made to pay what many thinkers have insisted are the ecological costs of production – the cost of polluting the air and water of the local community where production is located, the destruction of the environment, the dangerous spread of radiations in the atmosphere and so on. Once we factor in these costs as well, into the cost/s of production, we can see how difficult it will be to sustain the idea of a so-called immanent ‘logic of capital’ – of its endless accumulation and expansion. The ‘labour theory of value’, thus, was a very specific nineteenth century European invention. Today we need to have a much more complex one that factors unpaid ecological costs as well – in order to be able to calculate costs.
After all, we know how in recent decades, capital has been forced to move out production and jobs from first world countries to those in Asia or Africa, largely due to a combination of high wages and strict environmental regulations. Long before the issue of the environment became a serious accounting issue, scholars were already talking of the ‘profit squeeze’ and the ‘accumulation crises’ in the West. That was what spurred capital to move out into the ‘third world’ where there were hardly any infrastructural facilities available but wages were low and it was thought that it will be easier to bribe politicians and bureaucrats and get environmental clearances – things that may seem increasingly difficult and very costly in the home countries. Thus, once we start factoring in these costs as the unpaid debt that capital owes society, a different picture begins to emerge.
Thus, we need to work towards making capital pay. Equally importantly, we need to recognize that if the decisions of a corporation say, regarding technological choices and investment are going to adversely affect the world at large and the local community, its vital decisions cannot be let to its internal Boards who simply profit from them. All stakeholders must be party to such decisions.
One of the other consequences, we may note in parenthesis, of the productivist imagination has to do with the question of waste that neither economics nor unfortunately, socialist thought takes into account. It seems to me, however, that if the past two centuries have been obsessed with production, the twenty-first century will have to be centrally concerned with how to deal with the excrements of that ‘productive economy’.
The other difficulty in spelling out a vision of a future post-capitalist society has to do with the statist imagination in which the twentieth century experiment was rooted. It is clear from its massive failure that today no socialist project that depends entirely on the state and the vanguard party to be realized can succeed. The new socialist project, if it has to succeed, has to be a molecular process – a process that allows things to develop in tandem with some of the practices that already exist in society at large.
Modern economics and capitalism claim that private enterprise and free market are the most rational economic arrangements because they conform to the most ‘basic instinct’ of human beings – namely, the acquisitive instinct. If recent scholarship shows one thing beyond any doubt, it is that there is nothing natural or rational or spontaneous about capital(ism).
It shows that there is nothing ‘free’ about the capitalist market. Histories of labour and of the inculcation of work discipline in Europe and Britain had already shown how ‘labour’ was not simply released from agriculture and employed in industry in some smooth and natural process. Already, in Capital Volume I, Marx had discussed the way the Poor Laws and laws on vagabondage (and the extreme violence they entailed) had functioned to discipline and subjugate labour. Foucault’s studies (especially, History of Madness but also Discipline and Punish) showed us how the Great Confinement worked and how the emergence of new disciplines and disciplinary apparatuses and practices worked to produce workers as persons with minimum needs – as docile bodies. There is now a vast body of literature that shows how the labouring body was produced as one that would be free of fatigue – an endlessly productive machine – through a whole range of new sciences (physiology, physics, ergonomics, hygiene etc).
Those were the early years of capitalism. Later capital was to be seized with the very opposite anxiety – that of consumption. How to make workers consumers of the industrial commodities they produced? More recent scholarship has demonstrated that not only was ‘labour’ produced through elaborate mechanisms of power, the consumer too was not simply waiting to buy washing machines and cars. The history of consumption and of the production of the consumer too shows how elaborate have been the mechanisms that went on to bring forth the consumer – and how much anxiety still continues to surround the precariousness of this mode of being. The huge and exponential expansion of the advertising industry, alongside the rise of the ‘society of the Spectacle’, the lure of credit, the constant beckoning to the individual to become consumer – all point to the same anxieties.
If neither labour nor consumption are natural proclivities of human beings, nor is accumulation. The work of Hernando de Soto, lionized by neoliberals the world over, and whose services have been enlisted by the government of India recently, indicates despite himself, that in most parts of the world ordinary people do not ‘naturally’ take to accumulation. For the burden of his song has been that capitalism has failed everywhere except in the West. And this while the poor all over the non-Western world have ‘accumulated’ huge amounts of wealth and have shown an amazing spirit of enterprise, so much so that according to de Soto and his Institute of Liberty and Democracy, this wealth created by the poor is far larger than what is there in national capital markets. But alas! says de Soto, all this is dead capital because people do not want to invest these resources (say their houses), put them up as securities and so on. Of course, his argument is that this is because of faulty property systems which – to cut to the point – are still mired in forms of property that are not bourgeois. They are not based on individual ownership, properly documented and legally recognizable, which can facilitate sale and purchase but are based on ‘archaic’ notions of ownership (common property, family property etc). But the point is that this creation of bourgeois property is not something that comes without the use of force – it is not simply a matter of recording and representing actually existing property forms into deeds and titles, as de Soto seems to suggest. Everywhere, wherever the bourgeois property form has established sway, it has been through a process of violent annihilation of older forms. If one were to follow de Soto’s argument – which I think tells us a fundamental truth about capital – then it is only through a massive process of state intervention and the incorporation of the ‘informal’ economy into the formal, that accumulation of capital can actually take the form it did in the West.
Although all this is true, it is also true that capitalism builds on certain age-long traditions of enterprise and a certain degree of the acquisitive instinct that it has itself institutionalized. A socialist alternative cannot afford to simply dismiss all kinds of individual enterprise as inimical to its cause. Indeed, it is important to recognize that individual enterprise, innovation, commodity production and trade have existed for centuries before anything like capitalism was anywhere on the horizon. We need to be careful not to reduce all of them to a mere prehistory of capital.
For a Different Left Imagination
The task of reversing the growth-centric productivist imagination is, in my reckoning, a task that involves a different kind of Left imagination. For the time being, for want of a better term, I call it molecular socialism. If the disastrous experiences of twentieth century socialism tell us anything, it is that no project of social transformation that is driven by the state or a vanguard party can survive because it simply cannot deal with the diversity of social and economic practices on the ground. It is also important to recognize that that variant of socialism was merely an extreme form of the project of the modern state – that of rendering the heterogeneity of the social legible to itself by bringing it under a single modernist frame.
‘Capitalism’ was the most durable manifestation of that project, which involved the institution of bourgeois private property as the universal form, by eliminating all other forms and transforming everything from human labour to ‘Mother Earth’ herself, into a saleable commodity. The documentation and codification of property and its regulation for purposes of taxation was as much an imperative of this state project as it was of what we recognize as the capitalist class – a class that was often produced as a consequence of this intervention. That this entire project was lodged within a larger narrative of ‘Progress’ gave it the normative justification to violently uproot communities and people whose life practices did not fall within this unitary logic. And this included not only the agricultural or indigenous populations but also people involved in the informal economies in the cities.
Any new kind of Left politics in the twenty-first century must start from the recognition that unemployment is a creation of capital itself; and that therefore capital cannot be its solution. The alacrity with which even Marxist governments appease capital actually shows that we have not yet understood this fundamental point. As a matter of fact, if governments were to simply allow ordinary people the freedom to ‘do business’ just as they allow the capitalists to do so, people would (and do) find their own ways of earning. This is precisely the experience of urban life in countries like India. The poorer people’s livelihoods are constantly under threat and being destroyed by the governments – in the name of regulation and management of the city.
Precisely for this reason, the new Left must begin to think in terms of multiple forms of ‘property’ and ‘use’ or access of such ‘property’. It must start from the recognition that animated Marx in his last days, when he was studying the Russian peasant communes: not all ‘pre-capitalist’ forms are ‘feudal’ or reactionary and certain kinds of common ownership can become a far sounder basis for a new kind of socialism.
In a somewhat similar vein, I want to argue that socialism today can only begin to make sense once again if it builds on popular practices that already exist in the form of an ethic of sharing and cooperation. This incidentally, is the basis of what Kalyan Sanyal (Rethinking Capitalist Development, 2007) calls the need economy, where people work in enterprises that function not on the logic of accumulation but for the fulfillment of livelihood needs. If we look at economic practices from this angle, we might want to ask another question – what special value is there to a work ethic that is geared to accumulation? ‘Work’ – alienated or un-alienated – is not something to be valorized but to be recognized as drudgery, which is why there is so much resistance even among poorer sections to becoming wage-slaves. A new kind of Left politics must be able to think beyond this valorization of work in the direction of an economic life where people have the choice of rejecting the false world of ‘consumer choice’ for which they must first reduce themselves to automatons.
For Marxists, it must mean something more. It must mean that the idea that labour is ultimate realization or the fulfillment of the human potential must be fundamentally rethought. For Indian Marxists, additionally, labour or work needs to be rethought in the light of caste, for almost all of our attitudes to working with our hands are structured through caste. The connection between caste and work is inextricable. That is why Ambedkar started off by forming an Independent Labour Party and attempted to combine the two the way he took up trade union issues. And very astutely, instead of valorizing prescribed work (unlike Gandhi) he advocated abandoning it, fleeing it. By valorizing it, we end up freezing the identity and location of the worker. Fleeing for Ambedkar was not a simple non-political act. It was not about ‘exit’ from a particular vocation or from the community of Hindus. Rather, it was a political act in every sense of the term. In a manner of speaking leaving the world of work can become an equally political act if it is combined with what I refer to as molecular socialism.
Occupy and Contaminate
It might be useful to think of a post-capitalist transformation itself as something that must happen in a molecular way, in all parts of society. Our political interventions need to be everywhere any purist idea of abstention can only make entire arenas inaccessible to the difficult task of transformation. In economic and social terms, just as ‘capitalism’ during its rise transformed social relations in all domains to such an extent that eventually the state and political power too had to transform, we must understand the idea of ‘building socialism now’ in such a radically transformative way.
In the first place, this means that we must begin to think of multiple forms of ownership. The notion that all forms other than bourgeois private property are ‘backward’ have to be abandoned. We need to recognize not merely forms like the commons but also other forms of non-documented ‘property’ that are based on notions of access and use. We need to boldly experiment with cooperative forms (in industry as well) that unfortunately are tried only when industrial units are in a state of terminal decline. We need to recognize institutions and practices that resist or violate the bourgeois ethic of accumulation and consumption and those that instantiate an ethic of sharing so that the illegitimacy bestowed on them can be challenged. Secondly, once we are able to do this, we might be able to see how a whole range of popular practices at an everyday, molecular level, are based on such a socialism-in-practice. This molecular socialism has nothing to do with the state and is perfectly compatible with a certain sense of individual ownership. We can see how much of life in societies like India’s actually lies outside the domain of capital, if we begin to look at things in this way. This is a ‘resource’ that makes it possible for us to survive in the face of all odds. It is a resource upon which a lot can be built. To recognize this is not to romanticize popular practices in general but to recognize how much of our everyday social intercourse is still conducted outside the ‘cash-nexus’. This is where spaces of production in noncapitalist mode (say, cooperatives) can be combined with a measure of autonomy. This is where those fleeing from work can engage in creating new livelihoods by experimenting with different forms of production, different kinds of ownership and for purposes other than the capitalists’ profits.
The Left project certainly needs to be reinvented, which is to say, it must open itself out to a whole range of new political assertions that have appeared on the horizon – precisely in the period of the crisis of the Old Left. We have seen the emergence, in the past few decades, of a range of gender based issues and movements, just as we have seen the rise of ecological struggles and movements against mass displacement. In India, the rise of the dalit movement – both as a political and a cultural force – too carries elements of radicalism that can only enrich the vision and understanding of the Left. While it is true that the question of capital remains in some sense central to the Left project, it cannot but engage with the multiple structures of power and oppression that pervade society.
The points where the project of the Old Left revealed itself to be the weakest was precisely in its (mis)understanding of these multiple structures of patriarchy, caste and developmentalism. Its reduction of all other structures of oppression to mere effects of capital and its inability to understand their specificity left it completely isolated from the new currents, which it then dubbed as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘imperialist’ inspired. The way in which the Left has dealt with for instance, the queer movement and the question of sexuality on the one hand and the dalit movement or feminism on the other certainly needs to be radically changed. At some level, in practice the change already seems to be taking place but the relationship still remains difficult.
The idea that there will be one grand front against capital (and other forms of oppression), under the leadership of some particular party is a facile one in today’s universe. First of all, there may not even be the need for a grand front against capital anymore – for that was a strategy based on the idea of capture of state power. Every capitalist enterprise today must be subjected to a social audit through a formal public body comprising not merely its workers but also the local community whose water and air it uses up and pollutes. Its technological choices too must submit to such a public audit. Undoubtedly these call for massive public campaigns to make the idea acceptable to the wider sections of society but that will be something very different from a ‘grand front’. Secondly, the likelihood as we can see in the instance of the current movements in the West, may be of relatively more loose coalitions that assemble and disperse as and when need arises. Equally importantly, it is possible that while dalits struggle against caste-based exclusion and feminists struggle against patriarchy, ecological struggles take up ecological issues, they may not often be working towards the same end. Sometimes, they might even be working at cross purposes. That is where we need to develop another way of relating, another language so to speak, so that we can continue with our disagreements without giving up on our solidarities. The idea of vanguardism does not allow us to find such alternative languages and ways of relating to each other.
A certain kind of Left vision animates new struggles mediated by the new media where open channels of conversation have already begun to yield fruit. This open conversation across different movements needs to be carried from the virtual domain to the actual practice of organizations. The whole culture of radical politics is rapidly changing. New forms have not yet emerged but there is little doubt that this lack is unable to hold back the desire to act in concert.
 Ecological costs, or more precisely, ecological debt, has been discussed by ecological economists like Juan Martinez-Alier (and many others) in the context of what the global North owes the global South, but not to my mind in relation to something that related to production itself.