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Current Affairs

Afterword on a movement

Afterword on a Movement
by Prabhat Patnaik

“Combating corruption”, like “promoting peace”, can mean anything to anyone; and precisely because of this “fuzziness” it appeals to everyone. Some join the anti-corruption movement because they are against “corporate loot”; others join because they are against the Nehru-Gandhi “dynasty”; and still others join because they oppose the “corrupt practice of job reservation”. The movement itself has a cathartic effect on all of them, because each comes to it to give expression to his or her pet hate, to overcome his or her sense of private oppression. Their objects of resentment may not coincide, but each gets elated by the sheer numbers of those who have gathered with similar motivations.

The movement itself makes very little demand upon those who have gathered. There are no great intellectual demands: the nuances in the differences between the Jan Lokpal Bill, the official Lokpal Bill and other “civil society” proposals are left happily to the so-called “Team Anna” to mull over. There are no demands in terms of activism either, not even of an organisational kind for running the show, for the food and other arrangements are managed not by volunteers but by contractors. The movement in short brings catharsis at no cost.

But as against this disengaged participation by many is the intensely engaged activism of the one man who is undertaking an indefinite fast. The movement revolves around him. He is the messiah who draws the crowds and brings hope to those whom he draws. His intense activism is the dialectical counterpoint of the non-activism of the thousands around him. They condition one another. He is intensely active because the others are happily inactive; on the other hand, because he is active, the others can be happily inactive. For them, if we slightly modify the words of the German historian Fritz Stern, “the resentment against a disenchanted secular world” finds “deliverance” in the ecstatic expectation that the paradise will soon appear gratis.

The Anna Hazare movement is the very opposite of what one means by a “movement”. It stands the usual concept of a “movement” on its head. By a “movement” one normally means the coming together of people around a set of concrete demands, on which they are more or less agreed and for which they struggle, often at great cost to themselves, under a set of leaders who are respected for their sagacity and integrity but not revered as messiahs. Take, for instance, the Tebhaga movement, an outstanding peasant movement in southern Bengal, straddling both sides of the line of partition, at the time of Independence. Its demands were concrete: not more than one-third of the crop should be given as rent to the landlord by the tenant; it called forth great sacrifices and activism from the peasants; and its leaders, though popular among the peasants, were no messiahs. Who remembers even the name of Kangsari Haldar today (though he was elected to Parliament in the 1957 elections when he was underground)?

The Hazare movement by contrast demands no activism from its followers, not even a clear understanding of the specific demands with regard to the Jan Lokpal Bill. The twists and turns in Team Anna’s negotiations with the government are never explained to the followers, let alone seeking the imprimatur of their approval. And the very “fuzziness” of the movement, which is its strength, also means that almost anything can be passed off as a “victory”. If the Parliament resolution, which was hailed as a victory for the movement and used for calling off Anna Hazare’s fast, had been worded differently, even that could have been construed as a victory. The “fuzziness” of the outcome reflects the “fuzziness” of the movement itself.

Many, including, paradoxically, many in the Left itself, rue the fact that the Left has not been able to build any such movement. What they miss is that the Left must not build such movements. The Left’s movement must be in the nature of Tebhaga, not of Anna Hazare’s. Of course, the fact that the Left has not built movements of the sort it should be building is a matter of concern. But that is a separate issue; the conclusion that the Left should be building movements of the sort that Anna Hazare is doing is totally unwarranted. Many others would like the Left to be with Anna Hazare because that is where “the people” are. But this, too, is a wrong argument. The Left’s role must be to activate people; for the Left to be with a movement that attracts people only to keep them deactivated, on the grounds that it “must be where the people are”, entails ironically a deactivation of itself.

What the Hazare movement can claim to have achieved to date is that it has ensured that some sort of a Lokpal Bill will be passed in the near future, that a piece of legislation that has been hanging fire for over four decades will finally see the light of day. Whether this would have happened without the Hazare movement or the specific turns and forms it took are matters that need not detain us here. Let us accept this claim. The Lokpal will certainly not eradicate corruption; and the fundamental problems of the country such as poverty and unemployment will certainly not disappear if corruption is reduced or even eradicated. (It is a symptom of our intellectual banality at the moment that both propositions, especially the latter, are so seriously entertained by so many.)

Nonetheless, legislation of this sort is essential in a democracy. The real problem is that in ensuring such legislation the Hazare movement has done much damage to the fledgling Indian democracy. Its assault on Parliament, on the grounds that the will of the people is expressed by Hazare rather than the elected representatives of the people, has mercifully been defeated for the moment, with Parliament not caving in to Hazare’s specific demands, but the assault is bound to be renewed in the coming days. The speeches, full of venom and contempt against parliamentarians made by a host of speakers at the Ramlila Ground, have left a residue of anti-parliamentarianism, which is bound to be seized upon by those wishing to enfeeble parliamentary democracy in the days to come.

The case for privileging the will of Hazare over that of Parliament is argued empirically, and there are two distinct but mutually complementing strands of the argument: the first points to the “mass participation of the people” in his movement, which is taken as proof that the people are with him. This is an absurd claim: Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati rightly said, in such a case Hazare and his group should contest elections, enter Parliament in large numbers and get the Jan Lokpal Bill passed. The second strand points to his moral stature and his intuitive connect with the people (“whether they vote for him or not, he knows what they want”). A contrast is drawn here between Hazare and Parliament: Hazare is honest, morally upright, committed to the welfare of the “nation”, and so on, while Parliament consists of billionaires, crooks and ragamuffins; ergo Hazare’s will must be privileged over that of Parliament. To oppose this privileging as anti-democratic, they argue, is not only harmful to the country since it gives a free run to ragamuffins, but is itself fundamentally anti-democratic since if democracy means the assertion of the people’s will then Hazare is a truer representative of this will than those who have been chosen by the people as their representatives.

The issue, it should be noted, relates to privileging, not to Hazare’s freedom of expression or to his right to protest against the government, or to his right to oppose legislation passed by Parliament. Even if, for argument’s sake, the position of the Hazare group about his greater uprightness compared with the parliamentarians is accepted as being empirically true, the argument for privileging his will over that of Parliament is still fundamentally unacceptable. This is because a distinction must be drawn between democracy as the constitutive principle of the polity and democracy as a practical instrument of governance. To privilege Hazare’s will over that of Parliament is to violate democracy as the constitutive principle of the polity; it cannot be justified on empirical grounds, that is, on the grounds that democracy as a practical instrument of governance has proved to be inadequate. For instance, there may well be situations where a king is wiser than parliament and can provide better governance; but to accept monarchy as an institution, even temporarily, is a massive regression in the quest for human freedom.

The institutionalisation of parliamentary democracy as the constitutive principle of the Indian polity represents an enormous advance, nothing short of a veritable social revolution, in a country marked by millennia of horrendous inequality enshrined in the caste system. Whether or not Parliament is full of “thieves and corrupt people”, any undermining of parliamentary democracy represents a huge social retrogression, a counter-revolution against this fledgling social revolution, a reversion to our pre-modernity marked by institutionalised inequality. Many argue, no doubt very rightly, that such undermining is the inevitable outcome of the fact that “thieves and corrupt people” have made their way into Parliament in large numbers, that “we have brought it upon ourselves”; but saying this does not absolve us of the responsibility of opposing firmly any denigration of Parliament.

When Karl Marx (“On The Jewish Question) talked of the “democratic state” as bringing about “political emancipation” (but not “human emancipation”, for which, nonetheless, he saw “political emancipation” as a condition), he was talking of the “democratic state” not as an empirical entity but as the state founded upon democracy as the constitutive principle of the polity. A “democratic state” even in its ideality, let alone as an empirical entity, is not enough since “human emancipation” requires an overcoming of capitalism, but an undermining of the “democratic state” and a reversion to any form of pre-democracy constitutes a setback to the quest for emancipation.

What is dangerous about the current Indian situation is that such a setback has become a possibility. So far I have accepted for argument’s sake the position of those around Hazare that Parliament is full of “thieves and corrupt people”; but this is a canard spread by the elite, expressive of its contempt for the “plebeians”. In a country where a substantial number of people continue to remain illiterate and an even larger number without much formal education, a fact over which the elite, so exercised over “corruption”, is not known to have shed tears, the election to Parliament of persons without much formal education should be a matter of pride, indicative of the authenticity of its democracy; but running it down as a “failure” of our political system is not just ironical, it disturbingly portends a possible elite coup against our democracy. The Hazare movement has been credited by many with having aroused the latent activism among the “youth”, their idealism which had hitherto remained suppressed. But the fact that the “youth” (that particular segment of it that joined Hazare) remains insensitive to the threat of a possible elite coup against democracy, and could even become cheerleaders for such a coup, is one of the most worrying aspects of contemporary India.

To be sure, Parliament must rid itself of “thieves and corrupt people”, but this has to be done by Parliament itself. Accepting the necessity of a messiah standing above Parliament for the purpose of cleansing Parliament itself undermines ipso facto the institution of Parliament, even of the “cleansed Parliament”. Any compromise with messianism is ipso facto an abridgement of the “democratic state”. A positive fallout of the Hazare movement, hopefully, is greater awareness among politicians for effecting steps to cleanse parliamentary institutions. It is said to be dangerous for any revolution to drive its counter-revolution underground, for it then loses its capacity for self-rectification; the counter-revolution thus plays a role in the advance of the revolution, despite its being a counter-revolution. Likewise, the “democratic state” stands to gain from Hazare-type movements, not because of the virtues of the latter, but precisely because the challenge they pose is of a kind that threatens to undermine the “democratic state”; it cannot afford complacency and its self-rectification then becomes a necessity in the face of such challenge.

The real obstacle to self-rectification by the democratic state lies in the political economy of our country. “Fuzzy” middle-class movements of a moralistic kind that touch a chord among large sections of the people and draw participants from other classes are not uncommon in the era of monopoly capital, when skulduggery, or what was called in Lenin’s time “American ethics”, is pervasive. What these movements aim to achieve, and may even tangibly achieve, is usually quite different, however, from the historical role they play. (Even fascism, which began as a petty-bourgeois movement against finance capital, ended up as the terrorist dictatorship of finance capital.) Can one speculate what the Hazare movement may spawn, despite itself, in view of the current state of India’s political economy?

Furore over “corruption” has the effect of delegitimising state expenditure. It becomes easy in such a setting to argue that much of this expenditure “goes down the drain” because of “corruption”, and hence should be cut back. And the typical items of state expenditure that get cut as a consequence are the welfare expenditures and transfer payments to the poor. The deflationary process under neoliberalism already takes its toll on such expenditures anyway; but whatever residual expenditure is incurred under these heads gets further delegitimised in a setting where the state machinery is widely perceived to be corrupt. Just as the public sector was sought to be delegitimised on the spurious argument that it did not make enough profits (though the rationale of the public sector was not necessarily to make profits but rather to curb private profiteering and to enhance “entitlements” of the poor), likewise public expenditure, too, is sought to be delegitimised through the creation of a furore over corruption. Not that corruption is absent, or was ever absent, and not that it does not increase manyfold under neoliberalism; but the beneficiaries of this very increase in corruption under neoliberalism then use this increase itself to delegitimise the state and its expenditure on the poor.

The counterpart of this delegitimisation of state expenditure is the delegitimisation of state taxation. “Why should I pay so much tax to the state since most of it goes into private pockets?” becomes a common refrain for the affluent middle class. Tax cuts, therefore, become the order of the day along with expenditure cuts by the state, which is exactly what successive Republican administrations did in the United States. Since the tax cuts are for the rich and the affluent middle class, while the expenditure cuts are for the poor, this has a directly regressive effect on income distribution.

In addition, however, there is an indirect effect. Since state provisioning shrinks and private provisioning correspondingly expands, the service providers in the private sector have to be appeased through various inducements to ensure that they continue to provide services and expand their operations to the requisite degree. The role of the state then shifts from being a defender of the interests of the poor (which even a traditional bourgeois state does to some extent) to being an exclusive promoter of the interests of corporate and financial capital on the plea that this is socially necessary. For example, if the government stops building hospitals, then it has to provide incentives to the private sector to do so; if a corporate house wants to build a hospital and demands prime land for the purpose, the government hands over this land in “public interest” on a long lease, and that too for a pittance, no matter whether a shopping mall or a swanky guest house comes up next to the hospital. (Incidentally, all such “inducements” will be outside the purview of any Lokpal as long as no direct palm-greasing is involved, no matter how much indirect palm-greasing goes with it.)

The transition from democracy to what some have called “corporatocracy”, which characterised post-Reagan-Bush America, is an integral part of the rise to hegemony of globalised finance capital. This requires an assault on democratic institutions to discredit and delegitimise them. The Hazare group’s assault on parliamentary institutions and exclusive emphasis on corruption within the state machinery, to the exclusion of the corporate sector and civil society groups, could well turn out to be, albeit unwittingly, a part of this agenda of converting our democracy into a “corporatocracy”.

 

Prabhat Patnaik is a Marxist economist in India. This article was first published in the 10-23 September 2011 issue of Frontline; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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