An earlier version of this essay was published in Outlook magazine
“The young students are not interested in establishing that neoliberalism works – they’re trying to understand where markets fail and what to do about it, with an understanding that the failures are pervasive. That’s true of both micro and macroeconomics. I wouldn’t say it’s everywhere, but I’d say that it’s dominant.
“In policymaking circles I think it’s the same thing. Of course, there are people, say on the right in the United States who don’t recognise this. But even many of the people on the right would say markets don’t work very well, but their problem is governments are unable to correct it.”
Stiglitz went on to argue that one of the central tenets of the neoliberal ideology – the idea that markets function best when left alone and that an unregulated market is the best way to increase economic growth – has now been pretty much disproved. Read the full report by Will Martin here
One often hears over-zealous warriors of neoliberalism say of Leftists that they live in a time- warp; that the world has long changed and that the disappearance of state-socialism has finally proved that all their beliefs were little more than pipe-dreams. They talk as though history came to an end with the collapse of actually existing socialisms and the global ascendance of neoliberalism in the early 1990s. As though all thought came to an end; as if the distilled essence of everything that could ever be thought, or need be thought, was already encapsulated in the neoliberal dogma.
And so it happens that the neoliberal continues to inhabit the world of the 1990s, when most defeated Leftists too had bought into the idea of the end of history, at any rate, the end of thought. And for some time it did seem that neoliberalism provided the ultimate horizon of what was possible. If the CPI(M) in West Bengal and Kerala represented one pole of that defeated Left, the Blairite ‘third way’ New Labour in Britain represented the other: their defining feature was the surrender to the neoliberal dogma, and to the belief that no new thought was possible any more. And in the way it had been posed by the twentieth century, the choice was stark – between ‘the state’ and the market’. Since the failure of state socialism had rendered the first choice null and void (or so it was then believed), ‘the market’ (disingenuously used to stand in for untrammelled corporate power) appeared as our only saviour. I say ‘disingenuously’ because discerning critics have always recognized that there is a world of a difference between being ‘pro-market’ and being ‘pro-corporate capital’. In a strange way, both Marxism and neoliberalism (and its precursors) had colluded through the twentieth century, to produce this mythical coincidence between ‘the market’ and corporate power.
State versus Market: Beyond the 20th Century Poser
Very soon it became clear how central the state was to the success of the neoliberal project, the crux of which can be described in one phrase: corporate take-over of life (of the natural and intellectual commons, of state property, of farmers’ private land but also of your health and life and death, literally). None of these can simply happen on their own, without the active intervention of the state. But it also soon became clear that the question of state intervention was not simply a matter to be settled with reference to some immutable laws of the economy. It was already becoming clear, even in the beginning of the 1990s, that the so-called ‘logic’ of ‘the economy’ could no longer be allowed to trump all other concerns, including ethical ones. And in 1992, with the holding of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, twenty years after the Stockholm Conference (1972), the environmental crisis and the climate agenda came to occupy attention as a matter of urgent intervention – of both state and non-state actors. In more recent time, even someone like Bill Gates has had to acknowledge that left to the private corporate sector, the challenge of climate change cannot be met. (Read the original interview here)
At least at a normative level, the question of climate justice has underlined the need for tough environmental regulation by the state, especially of corporations with their scant regard for the ecological destruction wrought by their activities. In fact, the recent decision (technically an ‘advisory opinion’) of the international tribunal on Monsanto, which held its hearings in thee Hague in October 2016, underlined the need for regulation at an international level. The judges from five different countries, in their judgement, underlined the need for changes in international laws governing multinational corporations. What is more,
The judges also concluded that despite the development of regulations intended to protect the environment, a gap remains between commitments and the reality of environmental protection. International law should now precisely and clearly assert the protection of the environment and establish the crime of ecocide. The Tribunal concluded that if ecocide were formally recognized as a crime in international criminal law, the activities of Monsanto could possibly constitute a crime of ecocide.
It goes without saying that a crime like ‘ecocide’, even though it needs to be defined at the international level, has to also be recognized as a crime, justiciable in the domestic legal framework in different countries. The large-scale ecocide conducted under the directives of various states across the world, often by simply handing over forests, mountains, rivers to predatory corporations, will all then have to be factored in, into our understanding of what the right to a healthy life means. Thus the question of the state’s role in economic life is by no means a settled issue, as the champions of neoliberalism would have us believe.
At another level, it also needs to be recognized that the market and private entrepreneurship are not co-terminus with the corporate take-over of life. Many forms of market and private entrepreneurship are as compatible with a reconstructed left-wing vision of the future as they are incompatible with a neoliberal one which recognizes only one kind of property as legitimate. It has become very clear in the course of the recent struggles across the world that the well being of the majority of people has become incompatible with the take-over of life by powerful corporations and banks. A reconstructed Left vision, on the other hand, has to recognize that the co-existence of different forms of property, ranging from the commons with wide-ranging usufruct rights, to cooperative and state ownership and even non-corporate private property, must be the key to a just and equitable future.
So it is necessary to set aside, once and for all, the ideological shibboleths of the twentieth century that necessarily reduced our economic choices to oversimplified ones between ‘the state’ and ‘the market’.
New Solidarities, New Formations
The question must, of course, be asked as to what the agency or modality for the actualization of such a vision would be. Such a question would certainly be very pertinent given that conventional communist or Marxist parties everywhere have reduced themselves to irrelevance due to their refusal to change. A moment’s reflection, however, should however make it clear that it is not that conventional Left parties have not changed (at least in India); just that they have changed in the wrong way, by surrendering to Capital, by buying into its vision of the future – of the new consumption utopia. Where they have not changed is in taking on board questions of ecology, caste, gender, sexuality not just as matters of political expediency but as questions that would actually recast their theoretical frameworks. Conventional communist parties, with their rigid, top-down organizational forms, have found themselves singularly incapable of entering into any meaningful dialogues with movements around the questions of caste, gender, sexuality, mass dispossession and ecology – which is really where all the action is. In a strange way, alongside radical-sounding anti-capitalist rhetoric, these parties have espoused a politics of social conservatism. On the one hand, they have constantly avoided taking on forces of patriarchy and Manuvaad and on the other, refused to rethink their fascination with productivism and take seriously the question of climate change.
It is important however, to emphasize that none of the above questions reduces the significance of ‘class’. But what it does demand of the intellectual and political Left is a recognition and serious understanding of the way questions of class always appear in real life as ‘overdetermined’ by other questions – never in their ‘pure’ laboratory form, so to speak. In the emerging scenario, therefore, it is legitimate to expect that the new Left formations of the future will take the shape less of single, ideologically focused parties and more of coalitions or platforms. Parties themselves may take a coalitional form with different political tendencies existing within them in creative tension, or there may be actual platforms that emerge through struggle, where different segments participate as equals.
There is no room in such an imagination for any ‘revolutionary vanguard’ giving leadership to a monolith of a movement because such coalitions can only emerge through struggles. This is where the Left parties and their affiliates face their biggest challenge: the challenge of developing an ethic of solidarity where they learn to participate in sectional struggles without trying to take them over or control them. Something of this kind has been happening with Left groups participating say, in the post-Una Dalit struggle in Gujarat. Over the years, big changes have taken place in Indian universities where the political presence of large sections of Dalit Bahujan students (and debates with them) has led to a churning among left-wing students’ groups as well. Universities, in this sense, provide a unique space for the confrontation of conflicting ideas, for debate and thus for learning from opponents as well. Little wonder then, that it is universities that have been in the eye of the storm – where everything from critiquing the anti-ecological thrust of ‘development’, debating Kashmir and death penalty, to worshipping Mahishasura, have been seen as threats to ‘nationalist’ order. And it is here that a new kind of Left discourse has begun to take shape that attempts to establish connections with radical currents that are not easily represented by Left parties.
No less important and pertinent is the question of the modality of transformation/s. Is it possible today to carry on with the twentieth century imagination of revolution? Twentieth century revolutions, where a group of determined revolutionaries led their parties to capture state power, simply instituted profoundly anti-democratic political systems, and ended up either imploding (as in the Soviet bloc) or building capitalism in some form (as in China and Vietnam). That experience suggests there is not much there worth repeating.
It was by rejecting this experience of twentieth century socialisms that the Latin American experiments with ‘socialism in the twenty-first century’ emerged. There emerged attempts by a range of new Left parties and movements that sought transformation through the democratic process – in Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador. These Left formations and movements have different histories but they all share one common feature: they have emerged, responding to the actual needs of their respective societies, drawing on popular traditions of their own societies. An important feature of twenty-first century socialism is that, unlike its modernist and productivist twentieth century predecessor, it takes indigenous traditions and forms of communal governance very seriously and draws on them in terms of formulating its own philosophy. The Ecuadorian idea of buen vivir (living well) for instance, actually draws on the cosmology of the Quechua people of the Andes in order to spell out a vision that is community oriented, ecologically balanced and culturally sensitive – a vision now enshrined in the Ecuadorean Constitution. Perhaps the most important and radical part of this cosmology, now adopted by many Latin American movements is that humans are not and cannot be owners of the earth and nature’s resources; at best they are its stewards and managers. This runs fundamentally against the grain of corporate take-over of the earth’s resources and the drive towards commodification of everything from land and forests to water and air.
Capital, Democracy and the Law
While these experiments have had a significant impact in terms of improvement of lives of millions of people, they have not always managed to challenge the entrenched power of corporate capital. These experiments too stand thwarted, to an extent, under the combined assault of big corporations and the propaganda machines of the big media. The recent impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the former Workers’ Party President of Brazil, by a highly corrupt cabal of white elite corporate players, backed by an orchestrated campaign by the corporate media, is a case in point. All these experiments, even in their ‘failure’, underline that there are no short cuts in the process of democratic transformation, just as they point to the inescapable need to take on corporate power frontally.
Taking on the power of big corporations, their violations of the law, their behind-the-scenes operations of subverting the law, their surreptitious takeover of the political process itself, their plunder of the natural commons – all these have been at the centre of many recent mass struggles and movements. From the Indignados in Spain and Greece to the Occupy Wall Street movement across the United States of America to important strains within the anti-corruption movement in India, what was common was this feeling that politics and the political process being hijacked by the powerful. The call for ‘real democracy’ resounded everywhere; and political parties across the board, along with the entire formal political process, began to be seen as thoroughly corrupt and deeply compromised. Many of these movements were succeeded by new kinds of political formations and we may have different understandings of what happened to them and how they fared but that is really not the point here. For most of these are experiments – attempts at finding a language and political forms adequate for our times. They should be seen as a sign of the fact new forms are yet to emerge.
New languages have yet to evolve that will make it possible to reclaim the political process from the grip of corporate power and enable us to understand democracy afresh: To see democracy as that untamed, unruly excess that escapes the domesticated confines of liberal parliamentarianism that enabled its hijacking in the first place. This should not be understood to mean a rejection of the law and ‘due process’ but rather as an acknowledgement that law and justice are not always symmetrically aligned. It is precisely to ensure that the law functions as a means of justice and not as an accomplice of the powerful that this unruly excess has to occasionally manifest itself, often outside the formal political domain. It is thus that a Singur or a Nandigram revolt opens out new possibilities, new ways of thinking about ‘development’ and the land question: A new land acquisition law is framed, the Supreme Court directs the return of the land acquired by the government from the Singur peasants, and economists too begin to think of enlisting the peasants as shareholders in projects built on their land – rather than dispossessing them.
It is in this sense that the movements against corporate and bank bailouts with tax payers’ money has now become a big issue and even though they did not win in the United States and UK, the matter is now on the table. The movements have not simply disappeared without residue. That is why the Supreme Court in Iceland upheld, in October 2015, the government’s decision to subject the bankers involved in the Kaupthing bank market manipulation case, to the same laws that applied to other citizens. The Kaupthing bank, which collapsed in 2008, virtually crippled Iceland’s economy. Iceland decided not to bail out the banks, and to weed out and try corrupt, criminal elements at the top, and in the process, protect peoples’ savings. The Supreme Court thus sentenced twenty six top bankers and financiers to decades in prison. Contrary to the widely accepted common sense, Iceland’s economy did not collapse as a result. Rather, it bounced back rapidly to its earlier vibrant form, giving the lie to the argument made by the bankers, and accepted in the US and UK, that bailouts with tax payers’ money were the only way to keep the economy from collapsing.
What is important in the Iceland case is the acceptance of an important principle: corporations and banks have to bear responsibility for actions they undertake in their pursuit of super profits. That is where much of the future struggle against corporate take-over of life will, in all likelihood, be directed. For, as reverberations of the Iceland case were heard in other countries like UK, it was clear that the anger of the ordinary people had to be contended with. There was talk of enacting new laws to deal with such powerful sharks, even though there was widespread skepticism regarding them, given the belligerence of bankers:
…Chancellor [of the Exchequer] George Osborne said he understood public fury towards the sector. He talked tough, comparing rogue bankers who rip off ordinary people with shoplifters who go to prison, but claimed laws were not in place during the crash to allow regulators and lawmakers to pursue criminal charges against wrongdoers. ‘Some criminal charges have been brought, but not as many as would have been the case if the laws were better.’
New laws to make prosecution of bankers easier are welcome, with offences for reckless misconduct and rigging markets. Only time will tell if these prove effective. But just a few months ago the chancellor indicated he wanted an end to ‘banker bashing’, then days later the aggressive head of the City’s watchdog was ousted after saying he would ‘shoot first’ and ask questions later.
Whichever way one wants to read the statement above, there is little doubt that it is a clear manifestation of the new class struggle – not in the sense of struggle between classes but of struggle against certain dominant class interests. In this struggle, a new juridico-normative frame is emerging that is not very different from the one enunciated by the Monsanto tribunal. The claims here are being made not in the name of any class in particular but are, rather positioned as claims of society – and of a ‘eco-humanity’ at large – against those of a particular class.
It is important, in conclusion, to also note that all this is happening at a distance from the formal business of politics and while the setbacks and reverses at the political level (in the victory of a Trump there and a Modi here), the logic of this struggle is not reducible to the political. This fight has to continue irrespective.