IS SOCIALISM DEAD?
One would certainly think so. The Russians were driven out of it by bankruptcy and via the sad path of crony-mafia capitalism, the Chinese have found their cat that can catch mice, the Cubans matter only because the Americans think so and the Indian Left is finally right. At least in West Bengal, where they really matter. The Buddha shines, the Karats spew sound bytes on TV which only they (may) believe in. And then we have the very likeable Sitaram Yechury — he is oh-so-adorably uncomfortable when he has to mouth ideological inanities!
But the world is not so simple! Whether this evokes a ‘sigh’ or a ‘thank God’ depends on your state of mind. But really, no human idea ever dies. Some say there is actually a ‘world of ideas’ where ideas have always existed and the human mind merely taps this world. So to answer our question more intelligently, let us step back in space and time — let us transcend!
When Karl Marx brought out his magnum opus on political economy, the world was a global economy centred on the British Empire. This globalisation was characterised both by free and open trade and an implicit global collaboration of the ruling classes. This created a ruthlessly exploitative system where capitalism and the capitalists thrived on extracting surplus out of natural resources and human labour (or should I say ‘natural resources including human labour’?). Unlike what is made out in most mainstream history books, the working class in Britain was not spared. One only needs to read Tata’s comments on the conditions in British cloth mills. Nor is it true that all classes in the colonies suffered equally.
In fact, the French Revolution, the War of American Independence and indeed India’s struggle for freedom were not really aimed at eliminating privilege but simply at delinking privilege from race and nationality. The French had a new elite that was formalised by the ascendance of Napoleon and the U.S.A. became a real democracy much after India did (the blacks got the vote only in 1960). In India, we had a better deal due to an enlightened elite. Not only did a bunch of people from the now reviled ‘Brahmin’ community elevate a ‘lower-caste’ Ambedkar to chair the the Drafting Committee of Constituent Assembly, they actually handed over power to the people on a platter in the form of universal suffrage (much to the continuing consternation of bigoted people both in India and in Britain).
Back to Marx’s era. The time indeed seemed ripe to urge the workers of the world to unite against globalised capital. Then what went ‘wrong’? Well, a lot of things — and this is what makes humans and human society so marvellously unpredictable!
First of all, India’s Freedom Movement unleashed a string of similar movements throughout the colonies of Britain and other European countries. The forces of globalisation were made to recede to allow the people of the newly-independent nations to catch up (the East Asians and, later, the Indians actually did) and the working classes got co-opted by temporarily forgetting their exploitation in the process of ‘nation-building’.
The second contributing factor was, ironically, the rise of ‘socialist’ states: the Soviet Union, the reluctant East Europe, the indifferent Central Asia, the isolated Cuba and the rising-dragon China. Each of them rolled back globalisation. Each of them attempted to create ‘socialism in one country’ with the fond — and now belied — hope that they will set an example to the working classes in the rest of the world.
What killed the hope is the path that the rest of the world took. They simply co-opted the working class in the fight against socialism. This co-option was fortuitously easy. First of all, it was made out as a fight against individual freedom — which it was, but only in a sense — and against atheism which was stupidly embraced by the new ruling classes of the socialist states (there is a difference between religion and religion-based exploitation which cannot be ascribed to religion per se; the Indian leftists agree to this, perhaps reluctantly, by participating in Durga Poojas). Secondly, the rise of technology enabled increasing productivity of goods and services which reduced their real price and made them affordable to an increasingly larger number of people. The third important reason was the rise of the invention of the limited-liability corporations and the stock market. This invention exerts a continuous pressure on the corporations to grow. Thus, the economy grows and, the pie to be shared being larger, benefits the workers as well. The emphasis shifts from egalitarianism to poverty reduction and ensuring a minimum socially-acceptable living standard for all.
The complete suppression of individual economic initiative in the socialist countries quickly set their economies back in comparison to the ‘free’ world. The workers in the capitalist world prospered and those in the socialist world languished. To contain rising discontent of the workers, the socialist states clamped down violently on individual freedom. This further reduced the credibility of the socialist model. Finally, the arms race crippled what was left of the socialist economy.
As the socialist countries of the world took to economic reforms (a euphemism for abandoning the socialist model), there was euphoria with grandiose visions of ever-increasing prosperity for all. What spoiled the party was the very invention that had sustained capitalism.
As we saw before, the twin inventions of the limited-liability corporation and the stock market provide a great impetus for economic growth — enlarging the pie. The fine print is that the pie belongs to the shareholders and what the workers get depends on the other forces at work. In the era of the Cold War, the workers had to be co-opted but now there is no such compulsion — any mention of socialism only evokes a derisive response.
In such a near laissez fare situation, all stops are removed from unlimited pursuit of maximising ‘shareholder-value’. The economy — essentially the set of corporations — has started globalising again.
The difference from the colonial era is that the poorer countries are actually benefiting. This is because today’s economic growth is driven not by natural resources but by technology. So the countries that benefit are those that have lots of people — the sheer power of the laws of large numbers ensures that they also have most of the brain power. Since capital flows are dictated by the imperative of shareholder value, they are inexorably in the direction of the likes of India and China. The resulting prosperity of the workers in India and China and the relative impoverishment of those in the ‘advanced’ countries will continue till wealth and poverty are more evenly distributed in the world.
The resurgence of globalisation should actually make the leftists happy. After all, we are restoring — in essence — the base which enables the call for workers of the world to unite. But — alas! — the left is stuck with the fancy of ‘socialism in one country’. If only they abandon this discredited idea, they would welcome (and not oppose) multinational corporations, capital inflows and the globalisation of Indian companies. The last bit is important because it is necessary to free the control and ownership of global corporations from the bounds of nationality and race (no caste system!).
To understand the dilemma of the left, however, let us see what is the mandate in this globalising world for government, politicians and society at large. Well, simply put, it is to enhance the knowledge and skills of as many people as possible because this will accelerate the flow of capital into the country. It is to rapidly improve the infrastructure since this will improve productivity by saving time and effort. It is to provide affordable healthcare to all; this too will increase productivity. Finally, it is to engage — and not boycott — the WTO so that Indians have a level-playing field.
But all this does not sound like a particularly leftist agenda. In fact it is quite ideology-neutral. In short the left, qua left, have nothing much to do! At least not now. Well, too bad, the march of history will continue inexorably.
What will a ‘fully’ globalised world look like? Well, ideally, there will be completely free movement of both capital and labour. Will this be Utopia? Very unlikely. In fact, the movement of both capital and labour is likely to engender a gut-wrenching sense of alienation. Unrestricted capital flows will keep everyone in a permanent state of anxious uncertainty. The option of geographical relocation, if exercised, will lead to a sense of cultural uprooting and systematic destruction of societies. Truly a labour-capital dichotomy. A ripe situation to resurrect the call for all workers of the world to unite!
But there are obstructions in the path. The worst is the growing tendency for ‘political correctness’ which essentially demands that no opinions are expressed because everything is a matter of ‘individual choice’. What it really means is that all opinion creation is left to the influence of mass media which are under the (indirect) control of corporate interests. We are tending to a situation where everyone is so much of an ‘individual’ that there is no trust and social control is exercised by indoctrination through the media. Welcome back to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four!
In such a seemingly hopeless world, the left will have something to do: unite workers of the world! But this will require a reworking of Marxist theory. After all, the workers will not really be destitute or even lacking a decent lifestyle. But they will be suffering a kind of spiritual vacuum.
Well, there is your silver lining: spiritual development. In this essay, we have confined ourselves to the material world (or the material manifestation of the universal consciousness). What if we develop spiritually? From what has been recorded of the experiences of the rishis (of all hues, including, of course, Christ and Mohammed) — and ably summarised by Vivekananda — the possibilities are limitless! To start with, we will be able to look at the material world from a transcendental perspective — which is usually the only way to solve seemingly insurmountable problems.
But even at the material level, we should look at Japan and check out the possibilities of globalising their model. Quite a possibility, if only the Japanese work on this instead of worrying about the inevitable loss of their position of comfortable subservience to the U.S.A.
Closer home, we can study the Tata Group — an institutionalised implementation of Mahatma Gandhi’s trusteeship model.
It is time for Social Scientists to get back into action. History is far from dead!
15 May 2007
Please write to me your comments about the above article.
Dr. Sunil D. Sherlekar is the Chief Scientist of Embedded Systems Group at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and a member of TCS Corporate Technology Board. He is also one of the Founders and Head of Research of Computational Research Laboratories Ltd., a subsidiary of Tata Sons Ltd. engaged in High-Performance Computing.
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