Saturday, March 16, 2013

Re-Envisioning Socialism - Prabhat Patnaik

Capitalism, considered to be a 'self-driven, self-managed, self-acting  economic order as envisaged or described since the time of Adam Smitth, and spontaneous , as added later by Oscar Lange. However, the recent incidents seems to have been shaking the fundamentals of this belief as the leading capitalist economies of the world are witnessing stagnation and many are struggling.  The question has been "What next?'.This had been the leading economic  system of the world since the end of Feudal days, notwithstanding the attack for a short period in the form of Socialism. However, the future is gloomy and the quest for alternate has to begin.

This book, a collections of essays published between 2005 - 2008 , by Prabhat Patnaik, a left thinker and political economist, looks at the topics concerned to the contemporary Capitalism and the relevance of 'Socialism' in the future. Though it seems prophetic ( these papers were all written before the sub-prime crisis and the recession that shook the world), it does look at some of the issues of the world of capitalism, through the eye of a leftist -economics. It, there fore, has a pessimistic view of the current economic world, and trying to find an answer through the envisaged 'new world order' driven by the principles of Socialism.

His argument centered around two major factors. One is on the 'Capital' itself. He calls this as the "International Finance Capital' which through the controlling hands of the neo-colonising powers, try to decide on every socio-economical and political transactions of the world.  To its credit, Capitalism triggered giant leaps in productivity and the progress of society post the second world war, where the measures like labour productivity, employment rates, welfare measures were at the best. This period called "Golden Age of Capitalism" continued over two and half decades, attracting lot more economists in favour of this system.
"The boost to demand created a strong inducement to invest and hence rate of growth unprecedented in the history of capitalism. These were accompanied by high rates of labour productivity growth, resulting in high rates of growth of real wages. These together with social security measures induced by few Social Democratic Governments, made capitalism appear as a humane system."
The contradiction within the system, soon become evident as the period of de-colonisation  ( large number of countries sought independence from the European colonial powers post the second world war) is paved way to the globalisation and the new phase of imperialism( he seems to have meant no political or military control, but control through economical order) order for the control of natural resources.
"Emergence of the globally mobile, international finance capital, there comes into being a 'global financial community'. This community, presiding over vast amount of money capital through its control over banks, and using the capital for diverse purposes as industry, speculation, real-estate business, and buying bonds, including foreign governments. "
"The process of capital accumulation can be conceptually envisaged as occurring in two distinct and alternate ways" a) Accumulation through expansion  b) accumulation through encroachment.


One of the key aspect of the modern capitalism is about the freedom of individual and the democratic order , that is the political choice. Patnaik, argues that ( repeatedly through out the book) that under the capitalism, the individual is treated as an 'object' or as a resource. The 'objectivisation' of the individual according to him is one of the perils of the capitalists order.

The basic point is the incompatibility of authentic democracy where the people are the political 'subjects' with capitalism where they are the object.

It is interesting to note observe the aspect of democracy in this light. As may be noted, the electoral choices in many advanced countries tend to limit the option to a few streams or to two in the case of US. More so, it was known that the democratically elected representative in general are 'the representatives of corporates ( read 'International Finance Capital') in most of the capitalist countries. The case of India is no different, where 80% of the post independent India was ruled by a single family, albeit democratically elected. It is said about the newly liberated or de-colonised countries in Asia and Africa, it was the bourgeois elite, who filled in for the evacuating European power, and not the representatives of the people.  On the other side, we see the individuals in  political power ( in the communist countries, especially China),  gets into the area of industry and business, a 180 deg shift from the capitalist democracy. 
"All the traditional virtues assigned to the bourgeois order, namely democracy, political choice, individual subjectivity and hence freedom, paradoxically, are conspicuous by their absence within this order. And the basic reason for this lies in the fact that in bourgeois societies economics drives politics, and that economics is marked by spontaneity rooted in 'objectification' of the individual."
and elsewhere he quote:
 "The phenomenon of globalization, which many have seen as a means of expansion of freedom and democracy, has the exactly opposite effect, at least in countries like India with functioning democratic institutions in the post colonial era : of constricting the democratic gains already made by the people." 

He summarises :
"The mans of attenuation of democracy in a bourgeois society are several :
1. Ossification of state where the bureaucracy and the standing army become the core of the state apparatus
2. Fragmentation of people into ethnic, linguistic or religious groups
3. Denial of meaningful choices to the electorate
4. Inculcation of insecurity among people
5. Deliberate promotion of the mindlessness among the people by the media and the peddlers of popular culture

"Ideological projection has the advantage that it can use the already existing, substantial racist prejudices in the metropolitan countries. Racism has always been a part of imperialism, Even when it has been driven underground under the weight of democratic assertiveness."


Rooting for a new world order, he says it is time for an order in line with the socialistic thinking. Notwithstanding the earlier experiments and its deduced failure, the situation which the world is today and the future of capitalism, does demand a new deliberation on the possible new thinking in this direction. He says,  "the prospect of such a deepening associated with a transition to socialism are much brighter in todays context, even as the material condition for such a transition are becoming more favorable because of the very phenomenon of globalisation".
"The theory of socialism however grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. Since the theory of socialism stands on its own; since the class analysis upon which it is based has a general ( though concrete) applicability not circumscribed by the class configurations of a particular society or set of societies ; in short, since it constitutes a method of scientific analysis of any society, it has a universal applicability, irrespective of how close the societies in question are to a socialist revolution."
If the demise of capitalism will be triggered by its own internal contradictions, whose signs are already seen,  there has to be a few changes that is witnessed within the same system. He says , most of the ""working class struggles within capitalism could at the best produce trade union consciousness among the workers but not revolutionary class consciousness."

 "The case for a revolution in 'modern times arises from the fact that capitalism as a mode of production is not only based on exploitation, but in also a spontaneous, non-malleable, non-reformable system."
According to him a failure of finding an alternate political and economical order which will grow out of the current capitalism, will yield to the strengthening of the destructive elements in the society, thrived and fuelled by anti-capitalist sentiments, taking shapes in the form of terrorism.

"The question may well be asked: why should we bother about these issues which were debated so long ago by people long dead and gone ? ".....  "But if these issues are shut out of the terrain of discourse , then anti-imperialist praxis will continue to take the destructive and unproductive forms, such as terrorism, that we see before us today."


His points on higher education is something worth considering in the Indian Context.   According to him the current higher education system in the country is aimed at producing what he called 'organic intellectuals'.  It is known that " global capital, after all, is keen to employ Indian skilled labour not out of charity, but out of hard economic calculation.
Ways of producing  Organic Intellectuals of the people can be undermined by the context of globalisation, via the overwhelming need for, and the apparently tempting prospects of, producing what can almost exclusively be called skilled foot soldier for global capitalism."
While it is essential to have a state control on higher educations, the ability and capacity of state to make this large transition in short time is now exploited by the business, giving way to a large number of private institutions to come up, only filling in the demand for quantity, compromising heavily on quality, for lack of trained and skilled teachers. This in turn, is justified by the demand and the reputation of  the State run/managed higher education institutes. On the other hand, even these institute, ended up producing highly skilled 'organic intellectuals' for the world market, seldom being available for the need of the country.  Thus he says, the higher education agenda should have a strong Indian reality .

 "Modelling our institutions after Harvard and Cambridge, which would entail copying their curricula and syllabi, would there fore necessarily means sacrifying to our great cost, the conceptual frame work and the perspective . Quality does not come from aping others. Some of our finest institutions, which indeed have acquired global attention, have done so because of their systematic refusal to ape others, and their strong connection with the Indian Reality.................
The argument for capitalist economy also comes from the argument on the overall improvement of the life, measured by the absolute GDP and eradication of poverty. It is now been clear that despite all these years, we are far from achieving these objectives.

"Even when the rate of growth of output gets pushed up, as in India and China, the rate of growth of labour productivity gets pushed up as well, so that labour reserves remain unexhausted and income distribution continue to worsen.
We also see continued systematical destruction of he peasantry in the under developed countries, mostly driven with a propaganda of improving efficiency and competitiveness in the world market.  On one side, the ever increasing 'urbanisation' takes away large areas of cultivation, converting them in to urban land for housing and industries.

"What is remarkable about the new phase of imperialism is that it justifies the adoption of neoliberal policies, which is a euphemism for bringing countries under the hegemony of international finance capital in the name of 'eliminating poverty'. State-sector assets are privatised in the name of improving efficiency, which is supposed to usher in faster growth and eliminate poverty; state assistance to peasantry is done away with in the name of making peasantry adjust better to the market opportunities opening up, so that it can experience higher growth and hence reduce poverty...."
These steps in countries like India seems ot have produced an opposite effect. "In fact income deflation has taken its toll on the peasantry to a point where even simple reproduction of peasant economy is no longer possible in countries like India, as is evident from mass suicide of peasants." . The statistics put the count of peasant suicide near 200000 over last 10 years..

On his arguments for the new order he says, "The tendency of capitalism as a social system is to dispossess the vast mass of the peasantry. The alternative social system that a transcendence of capitalism must bring about , should be one that defends and promote the peasantry instead of making it destitute."


As the growth in the traditional capitalist world slackens the 'Financial Capital' has to look at other ways of survival. Hence, the need for looking at other frontiers towards accumulation of resources ( capital enhancement through encroachment)  and business.  Which saw the raise of new type of colonisation, by finance capital themselves, or by capitalist states sponsored by the finance capital.

"As the Golden Age of Capitalism passed, not only did the growth rates of the world capitalism plummet, unemployment in the advanced capitalist countries approached double digit figures and remain stuck there, the absolute real wage rate shown a virtual stagnation, the tendency towards decolonisation got reversed, with imperialism making a determined attempt to reappropriate the worlds natural resources, especially oil, for itself.
These expansion of the capital, often called as globalisation, interestingly had gathers a lot of support around the under developed world. On one hand, it gave a momentary increase in the flow of capital, technology and reduction in unemployment, despite the real increase in wages. However, in this excitement to attract capital and creating job opportunities, each of the under developed economy compete with each other, thus constantly bringing down the wages, even if the productivity is increased

In summary the aspect of Capitalism can be made under these seven features

a) International Finance Capital
b) The capitalist state
c) Curtailment of public investment
d) Slowing down of growth in the capitalist world
e) Crisis of petty production
f) Expropriation of land from peasants
g) Systematic attempt at recolonization of the world

The case for Socialism is explained under these lights focusing on the aspect "International Finance Capital" and the 'Objectification of Individuals" and 'true democracy'. He re-iterates,
"The case for socialism is that it alone creates the condition for human freedom by overcoming this objectification, for which a necessary condition is social ownership of the means of production."
"On the contrary, socialism, which aims to overcome the objectification of the people in bourgeois society, is alone compatible with democracy; it alone can create the conditions for the full flowering of democracy".
However, this subject is often dealt with taboo by all. For the capitalist thinkers and supporters any discussion in these lines of social and individual aspect or about humanisation , is immediately identified and associated as communist or leftist thinking. Once marginalised as leftist, it is easy to discount its effectiveness and its open discussion in public. The effective use of religion and race add to the alienation of these thoughts. On the other hand, the 'traditional leftist' ( there are exceptions, Of course) refuses to look at the past and make the necessary changes in the ideology with the new world realities and the potential hazard in terms of destructive tendencies.
"Devalues the theoretical endeavour on the left and discourages creativity. The attitude becomes : Since Marx has said everything of importance that is there to say, what more can I say except finding more evidence of his correctness."
As a social order, one need to see what drives the people to work ?  " In feudal society, people work because of the pressure of customs and tradition, backed by force ( punishment or starvation). In the capitalist society, people work because of the existence of the reserver army of labour, which acts as a coercive disciplining device. If you are not measuring up to the expectation, you are dismissed and someone else takes your place." Patnaik gives the example of the old Yugoslavian method, which work around the peer pressure, which is far from convincing.

"The socialist agenda therefore remains as relevant today as ever. The choice before us today, is between socialism and barbarism, between a solution where the predatory imperialism remain locked in perennial combat with equally ruthless groups of terrorists, thus threatening the very survival of our civilization."
The essay on "Destruction of thought", which might stand on its own in this collection is one which need a lot more discussion. One of the aspect of the modern living, with the overdose of information, which is controlled and manipulated, has its direct impact on free thinking.

"Thought in my view, is informed by social energy and is meant to stimulate social energy aimed at changing the human conditions. Thought is not routine ; thought is context-transcending. Submergence within the empirical reality is the denial of thought.
My knowledge in economics and politics is zilch. Hence, my understanding of these subjects discussed at greater length is constrained by my incompetence. While, he dwelt in detail about the current scenario of the Capitalist Economy and its internal conflict ( lack of growth, the need of survival, the competition within) making it no more an attractive regime with longevity, I for one do agree with him on finding the next alternate. However, I did not find his arguments for the socialist society as attractive and convincing.  What was impressive was the prophetic nature of the book. Very intense book, demands a lot more attention to the aspect and points of discussions. Though I am not in agreement with all his arguments, I found them very informative. Despite it's left leaning ideology, one must read this book, for the shear power of its arguments.


Re-Envisioning Socialism ( 2010)

Prabhat Patnaik

Thulika Books

271 pages

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