December 21, 2014

The Meaning of Neo-Liberal “Development”

Prabhat Patnaik

NARENDRA Modi is “marketed” these days as the “development” man. The BJP’s electoral successes, such as they are, are attributed to the fact that everyone wants “development”, which the other political formations, caught up in appeasing this or that “sectional group”, are alleged to have been ignoring until now. And taking a leaf out of Modi’s book, others too have started talking about prioritising “development”. Some Congressmen have even gone to the extent of saying that their Party lost the elections because it went for “pro-poor” programmes like the MGNREGS, instead of focusing on “development”. How exactly the BJP won the election, whether the so-called agenda of “development” played any role in swaying any segment other than perhaps a section of the urban middle class into voting for the BJP, or whether the patently fascistic tactics of fomenting communal riots just prior to the elections to bring about a consolidation of “Hindu votes” for the BJP, was the more decisive factor, are matters that I shall not enter into here. The issue to which I address myself is the following: the term “development” has certainly entered the political-intellectual discourse in the country in a big way. What does it mean? APPEASING THE CORPORATE-FINANCIAL OLIGARCHY The fact that this “development” does not mean an improvement in the living conditions of the people, especially of the working poor, is obvious, for if it meant that, then it would be absurd to cut MGNREGS expenditure, which directly benefits large segments of the working poor, in the name of promoting “development”. What it means, in quantitative terms, is an increase in the rate of growth of the GDP, since the proponents of “development” unanimously and unambiguously hail the “growth rate”. But it does not mean just that; it means, more specifically, an increase in the GDP that is brought about through a policy of appeasing the corporate-financial oligarchy. This may appear at first to be a rather unfair and extravagant claim. But its validity is borne out by the fact that even though Gujarat has had a lower growth rate of per capita GSDP than, say, Bihar and Tamilnadu over the years 2004-05 to 2011-12, and a roughly similar growth rate to Kerala’s, it is held up as a model of “development”, while no neo-liberal economist has, even by mistake, ever talked of Bihar, Tamilnadu or Kerala as such “models”. In other words the term “development” is reserved only for such increases in growth rate as are effected through a policy of “encouraging” investment by the corporate-financial oligarchy (and the multinational corporations). Since such “encouragement” typically requires facilitating the corporate take-over of land from peasants and the tribal people, a curtailing of the rights of workers (by introducing what is euphemistically called “labour market flexibility”), and a tilting of the distribution of income away from not just the workers, both organised and unorganised, but also from the vast mass of petty producers, towards the corporate-financial oligarchy, this neo-liberal concept of “development” necessarily refers to a situation characterised by “primitive accumulation of capital”, and even the absolute immiserisation of large sections of the population. The “development” which is being eulogised in short and of which Modi is held out to be a “messiah”, is not just an increase in the GDP; it is an increase in GDP associated with the pursuit of a particular path which entails a progressive dispossession of traditional petty producers on the one hand, together with a progressive enrichment of the corporate-financial oligarchy on the other. All this is pretty clear and there is not much need to belabour the point. What is often not appreciated however is that movement along this path, or the pursuit of “development” in the neo-liberal sense, also entails the pervasive creation of self-seeking individuals, a massive effort to inculcate the trait of bourgeois acquisitiveness in society at large. Such acquisitiveness is not an innate characteristic of individuals. Individual acquisitiveness for instance does not characterise traditional societies. Classical economists like Adam Smith and Ricardo, through their assertion that the bourgeois system corresponds to a “natural order”, had suggested that such self-seeking behaviour was essential to the people, and found its authentic expression eventually only within the bourgeois society which removed all restrictions upon it (through its pursuit of laissez faire). But this is the kind of unhistorical view that classical economics typically espoused, namely that the bourgeois society was the “end of history”, that it represented the arrival of mankind in a state which entailed the removal of all fetters upon the “natural order of things”. Marx by contrast saw the emergence of the “isolated individual” as a product of history, as part of the process of capitalist development. He wrote in the Grundrisse: “Only in the eighteenth century, in ‘civil society’, do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social … relations”. The “isolated individual” in short is the product of a historical development. But this development, of which bourgeois society is the outcome, creates an “individual” who is acquisitive, for whom it is not only “private purposes” that matter, but “private purposes” that are necessarily associated with competition. Marx saw this world of isolated acquisitive individuals that capitalism sought to create, being subverted by another outcome of capitalism, namely its assembling large masses of workers for production in one place, the factory. This brought about the “combination” of workers against capital, initially for private gains, which however developed subsequently into something that was valued so highly by the workers as a means of resistance that they made sacrifices to keep it going even when there were meagre prospects for achieving any material gains. Such “combinations” acquired increasingly a political character. It is part of capitalist development in other words to produce an “individual” different from the “individual” that existed earlier. And the “development” that neo-liberals celebrate is seeking to do that in our country. Even the vocabulary that is used these days to justify such “development”, namely the increase in the level of “aspirations” of the people, necessarily foregrounds the acquisitive individual. To be sure, the aspiration for better material living conditions among people, most of whom are desperately poor, is a welcome development; but the term “aspirations” is used in such discourse in a specifically bourgeois sense. It does not refer to the aspirations of people to live in a “better society”, to be free of communal tensions, to be part of a humane social order, to be able to realize and develop their potential, in short to lead better lives; for if it did so, then Modi who presided over the Gujarat pogrom and who is trying to usher in “development” through a squeeze on the poor, would not appear to be the messiah he is being projected to be. The term “aspirations” used in this discourse refers exclusively to the acquisition of goods. A very important component of the “development” agenda being pushed by contemporary neo-liberalism therefore relates to the development of a society peopled exclusively by acquisitive individuals; it relates in short to the creation of the bourgeois “individual”. IRONICAL CONDITION There is however an irony here. Given the fact that capitalist development in our country, even in the era of neo-liberalism, does not break with the feudal and semi-feudal structures, but rather tends to build upon them and even strengthen them, the bourgeois “individual” being created through neo-liberal “development” cannot marry a spouse of his or her choice, is bound by caste practices, is under thralldom to religious beliefs, and is to a significant extent a carrier of a whole bundle of casteist and communalist prejudices. And he or she is so devoid of any scientific temper that the messiah of such “development” can even assert that the mythical Ganesha was a product of plastic surgery without inviting any derision for such a remark. He or she in other words is both a bourgeois individual and yet not a bourgeois individual, marked by the acquisitiveness of the bourgeois individual but not by the “modernity” of the bourgeois individual. This “modernity” to be sure is often overstated even in the context of the advanced capitalist economies, where “creationism”, patriarchal attitudes, and prejudices of all kinds, including above all racist prejudices (spawned by imperialism), are quite pervasive. Even so, however, there is a noticeable difference between the lack of modernity of the bourgeois “individual” of a country like India and what characterises the bourgeois individual in an advanced capitalist country. What EMS Namboodiripad used to say in the mid-seventies, namely that if India ever sent a person to the moon, then before the mission started there would be a puja for its success, holds true even today, indeed especially today. This has an implication for Left praxis. Given the fact that the coming into being of the “individual” is arrested by the khap panchayats and other feudal and semi-feudal structures, which the bourgeoisie, far from breaking, is actually adjusting to and reinforcing even in the neo-liberal era, the Left has to spearhead the struggle for the development of the “individual” in this sense, ie, the struggle for “modernity”. But at the same time the Left has to struggle against the development of the acquisitive individual. In other words, in contrast to capitalism which develops the acquisitiveness but not the modernity of the individual, the Left has to struggle for the modernity but against the acquisitiveness of the individual, which at the same time is a pre-requisite for collective praxis. Indeed the struggle for modernity can itself be a means for struggling against acquisitiveness, ie, for a transcendence of individual acquisitiveness, and the development of a social sensitivity. The development of such sensitivity was both an objective and a legacy of the anti-colonial struggle, as well as of the social struggles of Phule, Ambedkar, Shree Narayan Guru, Periyar and others. The Left has to carry forward that legacy, as against neo-liberalism whose “development” agenda seeks to destroy it.