February 14, 2016

Commodities and Democracy

Prabhat Patnaik

CAPITALISM is a “spontaneous” system, in the sense that it is a self-driven entity propelled by its own immanent tendencies. There is no human agency shaping its dynamics, and even the human beings who are at its helm, viz, the capitalists, do not act on their own volition but are coerced into acting in specific ways by the logic of the system itself, so much so that Marx had called the capitalist “capital personified”.

Democracy on the other hand is supposed to ensure that people shape their own lives, including their economic lives, consciously through their collective political intervention. But since they cannot possibly shape their own lives if they are trapped within a system that is spontaneous, it follows that capitalism and democracy are fundamentally incompatible: democracy cannot possibly be realised under capitalism, given its spontaneity.

An obvious example today is the world capitalist crisis, a result of the spontaneous operation of capitalism, which afflicts the working masses. But the effects of this crisis cannot be shaken off by merely changing governments through elections, unless this spontaneity itself is overcome. People in other words cannot shape their own destiny, in the present example escape the effect of the crisis, through political intervention, unless such intervention takes the shape of overcoming the spontaneity of the system itself.

Capitalism, not surprisingly, invariably feels threatened by democracy which it fears could undermine its spontaneity and hence its existence. And because it feels threatened by democracy, it is always engaged in enfeebling, attenuating and subverting democracy. These efforts are not necessarily conspiratorial, though conspiracy (in the form for example of financing coup d’ etats from time to time for undermining democratic regimes) is by no means ruled out; but many of the defence mechanisms of capitalism against democracy are themselves spontaneously arrived at, without anyone planning them.




An obvious example can be cited from the neo-liberal context. Since capital is globalised in the era of neo-liberalism, while the State remains a nation-State, whose government gets elected by the people under the democratic arrangement, in the event of the people electing a government that threatens the spontaneity of the system, capital tends to leave the shores of that country en masse, causing a financial crisis there. And this very possibility acts as a restraint upon the different political parties, ensuring that all of them without exception follow precisely those policies which keep globalised capital happy (unless they have the gumption to delink themselves from such “globalisation” altogether). Despite the form of democracy in this case, which of course is not unimportant in itself, there is a hollowing out of its content, since no matter whom the people elect, exactly the same policies tend to get pursued. (Greece where even a Left-wing government was made to follow “austerity” measures against its own election promises, is but the latest example of such a spontaneous enfeebling of democracy that occurs under “globalisation”).

But the overpowering of the nation-State by globalised capital is not the only means through which democracy gets spontaneously enfeebled. In an even more fundamental sense, the commodity-form itself, which is central to capitalism, is a potent cause for the spontaneous enfeebling of democracy.

The essence of the commodity form lies in competition. Since a commodity ceases to be a use-value for the seller and becomes a pure exchange value, ie, simply so much money, the sellers do not have the option of withdrawing from the market and simply consuming the commodity which they might otherwise have sold. Their very existence in other words depends upon their being able to sell, ie, on their being able to compete against other sellers. Such competition therefore fractures the sellers, individualises them, and pits them against one another. Even when they enter into a collusion to fix the price, they do so as individuals, each concerned with his or her own interest. They form coalitions in other words, but coalitions among them do not constitute a collective; they remain coalitions among individuals.

Now, unless one makes a completely untenable distinction between the economic and political terrains, it follows that individuals who are fragmented, separated from one another, and pitted against one another as commodity sellers in the realm of the economy, are not going to form a collective in the sphere of politics; they would remain fragmented, and separated from one another in the sphere of politics too. As a result they become incapable of launching a collective challenge to the spontaneity of capitalism, and hence of shaping their own destinies through political intervention, which must necessarily have to be collective. The commodity-form in short ensures that despite the institution of universal adult franchise under the democratic arrangement, democracy remains too feeble to pose any serious threat to the system itself.

Karl Marx had visualised an overcoming of the individualisation of commodity sellers imposed by the commodity-form, through “combinations” among one particular group of commodity-sellers, namely the sellers of labour-power. These “combinations” that began in the form of trade unions were made possible by capitalism, but occurred despite its inner logic to fragment people, indeed in subversion of it. What set such “combinations” apart is that they were not coalitions, but represented the emergence of a collective. In a famous passage in The Poverty of Philosophy Marx had discussed how “combinations”, initially formed for increasing wages, ie, initially joined by each worker for promoting his or her self-interest, soon became an end in themselves for the workers, who sacrificed a part of their meagre wages in the form of contributions to keep the “combination” going even when it did not succeed in getting them any wage increases. This was when the “combination” transcended being a mere “coalition” and became the precursor to the formation of a new “community” that would overcome individualisation altogether.

“Combinations” leading to the formation of a new “community”, in overcoming the individualisation imposed by the commodity-form, have the capacity ipso facto to overcome the enfeeblement of democracy, the fragmentation imposed on the people in the sphere of politics itself. It follows therefore that class struggle is a condition for overcoming the enfeeblement of democracy, for giving it life and meaning. In the absence of class struggle, there can at the most be “coalitions” among individuals, each motivated by the desire to promote his or her self-interest, which give rise to “identity politics” and bargaining for larger benefits for oneself, via larger benefits for the particular identity-group one belongs to, at the expense of other identity-groups. But there can be no authentic democracy in the sense of people becoming, through collective political action, masters of their own destiny, including their economic destiny (which requires an overcoming of the spontaneity of capitalism). Put differently, within the confines of the commodity-form one can at best have democracy characterised by “identity politics” but not authentic democracy which overcomes the spontaneity of the system.

All this is obvious and should hardly need reiterating. But an impression is given these days by bourgeois commentators and corporate-controlled media which runs contrary to this; and a segment of even progressive opinion falls prey to it. They argue that since democracy consists essentially in the practice of people electing their own government, once they have done so, this government is perfectly justified in reducing, or demolishing, the “combinations” among the workers that exist; indeed it should do so for the sake of “development” or for the “national good”.

The current Modi government’s attempt to introduce “labour market flexibility”, which confers on the employers the absolute right to fire workers at will without so much as a notice-period, is precisely such an exercise for demolishing “combinations” among workers. To endorse this on the grounds that the Modi government, being democratically elected, has the mandate to do what it likes for the “nation’s good” is tantamount to arguing that a government elected under the democratic arrangement has the right to abrogate democracy itself.




More generally, there is an assiduous attempt on the part of the bourgeois commentators to define democracy exclusively in terms of its “form” and to dissociate it from its content, which must necessarily involve collective political praxis on the part of the people. Anything that undermines “combinations” among the people, or forms of collective praxis among the working masses, even in spheres other than the political, is ipso facto destructive of democracy, whence it follows that in a country cherishing democracy every measure must be judged on the basis of whether it advances or restricts collective praxis.

Arun Jaitley who is about to present a new budget is reportedly planning in this budget to privatise a whole set of public enterprises, or at any rate to reduce the share of government equity (which amounts to a “soft” privatisation). And such a move is sought to be justified in terms of restricting the size of the fiscal deficit. But quite apart from arguments, such as the vacuity of the principle of “sound finance”, that revenue could be raised through other means like taxing the rich who pay very little tax in this country anyway, and that the role of the public sector is important for preserving economic sovereignty and self-reliance which are essential for the freedom of the people from the hegemony of imperialism, there is an additional and powerful argument. And this consists in the fact that workers’ “combinations” are more significant in the public sector than in the private sector, that the proportion of workers unionised for instance is much higher in the public sector than in the private sector, not just in India but all over the world. Since “combinations” are essential for giving meaning and content to democracy, it follows therefore that the decimation of the public sector is an anti-democratic act, apart from everything else.

To believe that democracy is a “thing” which we are in possession of as long as there are elections every once in a while, is to fall prey to the hegemony of bourgeois ideology. The realisation of democracy requires above all an overcoming of the fragmentation and individualisation introduced by the commodity-form that is central to capitalism; and this can be achieved only through collective praxis in socio-economic life as a whole.