September 28, 2014

The Spectre of Social Counter-Revolution - II

Prabhat Patnaik

THE fourth factor impinging on caste-contradictions in a neo-liberal economic regime arises from the tendency of this regime to get into crises and periods of prolonged stagnation. Growth under a neo-liberal regime depends essentially upon the formation of “bubbles” in asset prices. When such bubbles get formed, especially in the economy of the United States, which is the leading capitalist power in the world, the entire world capitalist system, and with it Indian capitalism as well, experiences high growth. In addition, there may be domestic bubbles which also add to the growth performance based upon world capitalist booms. But when such bubbles collapse, growth also collapses and stagnation sets in until a new bubble gets formed, which is exactly what the current experience of the world economy, and of the Indian economy too, demonstrates. Whenever crisis and stagnation set in, the need for the system to manage politically the contradictions they generate becomes acute. And such political management is effected typically by pitting the middle classes against the poor, the intermediate castes against the oppressed castes, and the majority religious community against the minority community. All these stratagems seek to divide the potential opponents of the hegemony of the corporate-financial oligarchy that constitutes the dominant force in a neo-liberal regime. The fact of all these divisions being simultaneously promoted underscores the point made earlier about the integrity of the social counter-revolution. And these divisive stratagems constitute steps in the direction of fascism. The political support of the middle class, some of whose members are beneficiaries of the neo-liberal regime, and others hopeful of following in their footsteps, is crucial for the sustenance of this regime. Presenting the crisis of neo-liberalism as being caused only because of “corruption” (whose prevalence is detached from neo-liberalism) or because of “populist policies” (which are often portrayed as a variant of “corruption”), prevents any middle class disaffection with the neo-liberalism, and keeps alive middle class hopes for better times around the corner in the event of the victory of an anti-“populist” political formation. Likewise, the anti-poor rhetoric which merges with an anti-dalit rhetoric becomes attractive to the intermediate castes who are both hostile to the dalits and opposed to schemes like the MGNREGS that are perceived to increase the assertiveness of rural labourers. And communal-fascism of course has always had a soil in post-independence India. Altogether therefore an anti-poor, anti-dalit and anti-Muslim agenda becomes an effective instrument for countering any challenge to the hegemony of the corporate-financial oligarchy in the context of the economic crisis of neo-liberalism. But it is not a matter of political management alone. To the extent that the challenge to the hegemony of the corporate-financial oligarchy is warded off, and on the contrary the need to boost their “animal spirits” is presented as being essential for overcoming the crisis, and to the extent that “populist pampering” of the poor is presented as a cause of the crisis, it becomes easier to push the corporate agenda even more ruthlessly. The process of dispossession of the tribal population in the name of locating “development projects” in areas inhabited by them becomes easier; the process of restricting trade unions in the name of the resumption of “development” becomes easier. In short, the “development” agenda, which is a pro-corporate agenda, gets further boosted through the ushering in of the social counter-revolution. The crisis becomes the occasion for heightened caste antagonism, and a means of exacerbating socio-economic inequality. It may be thought that since in the absence of a new bubble (whose effects too would at best be temporary) the crisis would persist, this very fact would make people realize the absurdity of the argument that justifies an increase in socio-economic inequality as a panacea for economic distress. It may be thought that they would reject social counter-revolution when they see its futility as a means of ushering in economic “development”. It may be thought that the steps towards fascism would be reversed when fascism fails to produce the “development” it had promised. This however is erroneous for at least two reasons. First, in a caste-ridden society, a social counter-revolution has its own intrinsic appeal to a segment of the population, irrespective of whether it produces an economic revival. And secondly, the very disillusionment with the political forces that promised “development” but did not achieve it, would make these forces resort to even more divisive and hence socially counter-revolutionary measures. In other words, “false consciousness” when it is demonstrated to be “false” does not spontaneously reverse itself; it does not spontaneously lead to the achievement of “true” consciousness. It gets manipulated so that it persists and is further exacerbated. What is required therefore is an alternative agenda for struggling against this “false” consciousness. V What would be the components of such an agenda? Since I have been arguing that capitalist development in societies like ours, especially in its neo-liberal incarnation, leads to a social counter-revolution, the conclusion must be that a reversal of this counter-revolution requires a transcendence of neo-liberal capitalism. And since neo-liberal capitalism is the shape that contemporary capitalism takes, and represents the highest form of the development of capitalism to date, it must mean a transition towards a social formation transcending capitalism itself. I certainly hold this view, but I do not invite agreement on it from others. Let me confine myself to a set of minimum steps on which I would invite general agreement, that must be taken to reverse this tendency towards a social counter-revolution. If these can be achieved within the capitalist system in our country, then so be it; if not, then the people can be united around them, to push the system, for achieving them, to a point where it can even be transcended. Central to such an agenda must be the introduction of a set of universal justiciable rights for every citizen. At the very minimum, these rights must include: the right to food, the right to employment, the right to free and quality healthcare, the right to free and quality education (at least up to school level), and the right to an appropriate amount of old age pension and benefits for the disabled and those unable to work. It may be thought that this is what we have been introducing in this country anyway. But that is erroneous. We do not have a universal right to food or a universal right to employment (or a living unemployment allowance in its absence); we do not have a universal old age pension scheme of an appropriate amount; we do not have free public healthcare of quality; and we do not have free State- provided education through a set of neighbourhood schools of quality. These are provisions that capitalism in several metropolitan centres had made in the post-war period, and, despite their progressive attenuation under the neo-liberal dispensation, they continue to survive in many of these countries. In India we have never introduced such a general scheme of universal economic rights. A universal scheme of rights, as distinct from targeted programmes for the poor, is devoid of any hint of “charity” and confers on the beneficiaries the dignity of being “citizens”; and it cannot be used for pitting one section of the people against another since everyone is entitled to these rights. Such a scheme carries forward the creation of a terrain of “citizenship” transcending all caste, communal, gender and ethnic divides. It carries forward India’s democratic revolution by fulfilling the promise made during the anti-colonial struggle, and moving towards the realization of the dreams of the social emancipation struggle. The question will be immediately asked: how can we finance such a scheme? I believe that around 10 percent of the GDP would be required as additional funding for implementing such a programme. India happens to have one of the lowest tax-GDP ratios among all the countries in the world, around 14 percent taking the centre and the states together. Even if the entire programme is to be financed through the mobilisation of additional tax revenue, all it requires is that the tax-GDP ratio has to be raised to 24 percent, which is approximately the ratio in the United States. In other words pushing up the tax-GDP ratio even to the level that prevails in the most powerful capitalist country in the world, would be quite enough to bring about a fundamental change in the socio-economic landscape in the country. There should, however, be no illusion that this would be achieved easily within a neo-liberal framework. On the contrary, the introduction of such a programme would necessitate a whole series of other changes. There would be, to start with, severe objections to such a programme from the corporate-financial oligarchy and from international finance capital with which it is closely integrated. Since their displeasure will manifest itself in a capital flight out of the country, the imposition of capital controls will be necessary to free the country from the adverse fall-out of this displeasure. This in turn will necessitate, willy-nilly, the pursuit of an alternative development trajectory. At least two features will be central to such an alternative trajectory: one, the use of the public sector and of the co-operative sector as a counterweight to private capital, so that State action is freed from the obsession to maintain the “animal spirits of the capitalists”; and two, an expansion of the home market, not just through the institution of the universal rights I have mentioned earlier, but additionally through a shift towards a more egalitarian income and asset distribution. Land redistribution remains the crux of any programme of egalitarian asset redistribution, but it will have to be supplemented by progressive wealth taxation which at present is almost entirely absent in India. Together with land redistribution, a re-engagement of the State with peasant agriculture in a supporting, protecting and promoting role, and the formation of cooperatives, including of agricultural workers, are essential. This is because the development of the productive forces in agriculture and in rural India generally determines crucially the size of the home market and hence the size of the total output and the resources available to the State. But we must not fall victims to the illusion that economic factors alone can overcome caste prejudice, caste consciousness and caste oppression. To believe this is tantamount to recreating the earlier illusion that capitalism would automatically overcome the old caste-based social structure. There has to be a conscious and direct assault on the inherited structure of social inequality which calls for a socio-cultural revolution (whose immediate aim inter alia must be the restraint of khap panchayats and the enforcement of individual freedom in choosing one’s spouse). All progressive forces must join that revolution; but the institution of a set of universal economic rights is in my view a necessary condition for advancing such a socio-cultural revolution. (Concluded)