August 31, 2014

“Depending On the State”

Prabhat Patnaik

RAJASTHAN chief minister Vasundhara Raje is planning to reduce several government schemes of social support to the poor because she says that the “people should not become too dependent upon the State”. If she was only re-casting the schemes, or getting rid of some schemes to put in place others with similar intent but greater effectiveness, or removing support to the poor in one form to provide it in another form, then her proposals might merit scrutiny; and a discussion at an empirical level might ensue on which of the alternatives would be more effective. But hers is a general position, and, since, under her chief ministership, Rajasthan is leading the rest of the country in reactionary economic policies (she has for instance taken the lead in introducing “labour market flexibility” which means eliminating workers’ hard-earned rights, and smashing trade unions), the vacuity of this argument, that people should not become “too dependent upon the State”, needs to be exposed. Even liberals like John Rawls for whom the individual is the starting point and who see the State as resting upon the consent of the individuals, would argue that there should be “justice” in society to ensure that the least well-off still enjoy a certain minimum standard of life. This minimum can only be provided by the State, for in the absence of such State intervention, individuals participating in the process of market exchange, ex hypothesi fall below this minimum. Now, if State intervention occurred in the domain of “flows”, such as income support, or provision of price subsidies, then it would have to occur in every period. And if State intervention occurred in the domain of “stocks”, i.e., by transferring assets to the people so that the flow incomes from these additional assets in their possession raised them above the minimum, even then, while the intervention itself would have been once-for-all, it would have had consequences that manifested themselves in every period. In short no matter what the mode of intervention, even liberal theorists visualise the need for State intervention by way of supporting the poor that is perennial, in the sense of having consequences in every period. They visualise a state of affairs in which the poor’s “dependence” upon the State is evident in every period. MEANINGLESS ARGUMENT The right-wing’s opposition to Welfare State measures typically takes the form of its arguing either that the support provided to each beneficiary is too much, or that it is provided to too many beneficiaries. Any such argument however, even to have any meaning, must specify some benchmark for judging what is “too much” or “too many”. The standard right wing argument never provides any such benchmark, which is why it is meaningless; and exactly the same is true of the Rajasthan chief minister’s argument. Since she provides no benchmark for who should be the beneficiaries and by how much, her argument is meaningless. It is not just a matter of whether it is acceptable or not; it is a question of whether it has any meaning at all, other than merely expressing in a camouflaged manner the view that the State should not come into the picture at all, which is no more than a prejudice that violates even a liberal perception of the State. But this view, that the State should not come into the picture at all is false as well, since the State is already everywhere in the picture anyway. An individual is born into society, into social arrangements for organising production, that already exist. There is no individual that is ontologically prior to society. The individual is not the starting point of history, but rather, in a manner of speaking, its product, since it appears as a category only after the dissolution of feudalism and the institution of free competition capitalism. But the coming into being of this individual is also only an appearance. As Marx had written in the Grundrisse: “In this society of free competition, the individual appears detached from the natural bonds etc., which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory of a definite and limited human conglomerate.” But this appearance must not blind us to the fact that “Individuals producing in society-hence socially determined individual production- is of course the point of departure” (emphasis added). The material condition of life of the individuals, no matter whether this condition constitutes a state of poverty or a state of immense wealth, is determined by the social arrangement within which the individual produces, i.e., by the immanent tendencies of the particular system of socially determined individual production. To be sure, an individual may choose to remain unemployed, or may choose to retreat into a jungle to live like a hermit, in which case the individual’s material condition of life gets detached from the prevailing system of social production, or, to use the more common term, the prevailing “mode of production”. But when we are talking not of such exceptions but of the people at large, then it is not their individual volitions that determine their conditions of life, but the social arrangements within which they produce, which also necessarily have mechanisms for coercing individuals to work, i.e., mechanisms that make their volitions largely irrelevant. For instance to say that an individual is poor because he or she is lazy, apart from being factually wrong and morally abhorrent, is also false because the social arrangement hardly leaves any choice to anyone to be “lazy”: under feudalism the monseigneur’s whip was liberally used to deny this choice; under capitalism where there is apparently a choice to be “lazy”, choosing to be so entails being consigned to the ranks of the unemployed and destitute, with such horrendous consequences that nobody except the odd hermit or drop-out would dare to exercise it. It follows therefore that even under capitalism, where the individual appears “free” and hence apparently the architect of his or her own fortune, he or she is ironically a victim of the “spontaneity” of the system, coerced into playing out a certain assigned role within the production arrangement, and suffering the consequences of the immanent tendencies of the system. Whatever happens to an individual in the realm of the material conditions of life is essentially therefore the outcome of the working out of the social arrangement within which the individual produces. If an individual is poor then that is an outcome of the social arrangement within which he or she lives; if an individual is rich then that too is an outcome of the social arrangement within which he or she lives. Underpinning these social arrangements is the State, whence it follows that the State is always there “in the picture”. There is no question of bringing the State gratuitously into “the picture”, or of people becoming “dependent” upon the State. They are already, even if negatively, “dependent” upon the State, in the sense that their material conditions of life, governed by the social arrangement under which they live and which is invariably sustained by the State, are already ipso facto “dependent” upon the State. PROMOTING THE INTERESTS OF CAPITAL To say that the State should follow a “hands off” policy, really amounts to saying, since the State’s hands can never be “off”, that it should intervene in one particular way rather than in another (including by pursuing so-called non-intervention which after all is also a particular form of intervention). It amounts to saying that instead of intervening to ensure a certain “flow” income to all, which is what even liberal theorists would want, the State should either do nothing in this regard, or intervene to “make the system work better” which means intervene to promote the interests of the capitalists by providing them with “incentives” and transfers payments. Decrying the fact of people becoming “dependent” upon the State therefore is tantamount to making the State “free” to pursue policies that promote the interests of capital, which means above all the interests of the corporate-financial oligarchy. This orientation of the State is sought to be camouflaged by the pretense that what happens to people depends upon their own actions, and that therefore they should, if they want to overcome their abysmal poverty, “mend their ways” and “stand on their own” instead of becoming “dependent” upon the State. The fact that an individual is not responsible for his or her state of material existence, which is a product of the social arrangements into which he or she comes into being, is of course the starting point of socialist theory. But since the distribution of products which is an important determinant of the material condition of life of individuals, is already presupposed in the distribution of the ownership of the means of production, any basic change in the material conditions of life of the individuals cannot be effected without changing the ownership of the means of production. And since the State that defends a particular mode of production will not bring about such a change, it is necessary to remove that State. But the existing State has to be removed because it cannot change fundamentally the material conditions of life of the people, not because it is none of the State’s business to meddle in these matters, “making people dependent upon it” as the right wing claims. Indeed from the beginning to the end, the State is perennially engaged in meddling with these matters, and the need for its removal springs precisely from this fact. Putting it differently, to see individuals as being responsible for their own conditions, is tantamount to treating social arrangements as transcendental. It amounts to saying that the prevailing social arrangements are “ideal”, and if the people are miserable under it, then it must be their own fault, in which case, if the State comes to their rescue, then it is only perpetuating this fault, making them “dependent” upon it instead of rectifying their own fault. This is a standard right-wing argument that apotheosizes the existing social arrangements and provides a justification for harnessing of State exclusively for the promotion of the interests of the corporate-financial oligarchy. We are hearing this argument for the first time in India from a major political functionary. We shall hear more of it no doubt in the days to come.