The Importance of the “Economic”
by Prabhat Patnaik
The world today is witnessing a rather novel phenomenon, namely a pervasive tendency towards political uprisings by the urban middle class. Not just the leaders, but even the bulk of the participants in such uprisings are educated, are reasonably well-off, and make extensive use of social media channels for keeping in touch with one another.
To be sure, educated middle class uprisings are not new; the worldwide student movement of the late sixties was a classic example of such an uprising. But the current middle class uprisings differ from the sixties student movement in at least three ways: first, that movement was theoretically inspired by Marxism, though by somewhat different strands of Marxism from what had been foregrounded since the Comintern days, and saw capitalism at the core of the “structures” that it was opposing. Contemporary middle class uprisings, in contrast, generally shun theory (some even pride themselves upon this fact), are not motivated by any desire to overthrow the capitalist system, and may even consider all this talk of “capitalism versus socialism” as irrelevant and outdated.
Second, the 1960s student movement saw the necessity of forging links with the working class for carrying forward its resistance to the “structures” of capitalism; and, for a while in France in May 1968, it even succeeded in forging such links. The current middle class uprisings however, though they may be supported by the working class as in Egypt during the “Arab Spring”, self-consciously remain middle class.
And, third, the 1960s’ resistance was proximately occasioned by the Vietnam War, which laid bare in a palpable manner the morally abhorrent nature of capitalism; the moral springs of the middle class uprisings of today, by contrast, lack any specific or clear location. Their abhorrence is directed against a dictatorship in one place (Tunisia, Egypt), against “corruption” at another (India), and even against State support to the peasantry at another (Thailand). One could take these three examples as representing three different movements altogether and hence refuse to attribute any common characteristics to middle class movements as a whole on this basis. But they do have something in common, no matter how much we may admire one and deplore the other; and this consists in the fact that all of them are fuzzy, amenable to pulls in diverse and diametrically opposing directions (including even fascist ones), and hence are also subject to manipulation in general (and not just particular fractions of them) by corporate or even imperialist interests.
To say all this is not to debunk such uprisings, but merely to emphasize that, no matter what our attitude to each such uprising may be, this phenomenon is something the like of which has never been seen before. It is a sui generis phenomenon; and it immediately raises a basic question for any Marxist.
Marxist theory holds that the so-called intermediate strata, whether defined as consisting of both the urban middle class and its rural counterpart, the middle and rich peasants, or of the urban middle class alone, is incapable of wielding State power, and more generally of establishing its hegemony in the realm of the polity. Does the middle class upsurge that is occurring all over the world today, and is so reminiscent of the workers’ uprisings that were such a striking feature of capitalist societies until not very long ago, suggest that this basic Marxist understanding needs to be revised? Is the current middle class activism a precursor of a new epoch when the middle class can indeed emerge as the dominant political class in lieu of both the capitalist class and the working class? Or is it the case that the middle class upsurge acts only as a stepping stone towards something else, either a reconsolidation of bourgeois hegemony under the leadership of the corporate-financial oligarchy (if this hegemony is challenged at all in some specific existing form), or a transition to a more basic challenge to the system through the formation of a worker-peasant-middle class alliance? And if it is such a transitional arrangement then what determines the direction of its transition, i.e., where exactly it would be transiting to?
To be sure, this issue is usually not discussed in this manner at all, because even in the case of the most progressive middle class-led uprisings, such as the “Arab Spring” (i.e., where the middle class-led uprising is not palpably promoted either by imperialism or by domestic corporate-financial interests, but is even seen as a potential threat by them), the discussion invariably remains confined to the question of “democracy-versus-dictatorship”, which is important but insufficient. “Democracy”, which itself has diverse shades, is a form of class rule; and which shade of “democracy” is attained through these uprisings, or whether they succeed in attaining any form of democracy at all, depends upon the kind of class hegemony they lead up to. Hence the real issue is what sort of class hegemony these middle class uprisings can lead up to. And the answer to this question has to be sought in the realm of the “economic”.
The reason why the middle class (or the petit bourgeoisie) can never acquire hegemony is because it lacks any coherent economic agenda. It can have at best a nostalgic yearning for some past form of social organisation, but no concrete agenda for the future. Even the slogans one often comes across in today’s middle class uprisings, such as ridding society of “corruption” and “crony capitalism”, or “reducing inequality in wealth and incomes”, never address the question: what is the form of social organisation within which all these “improvements” are to occur? And this fact makes all these suggestions for “improving” society mere wishful thinking, for two obvious reasons.
The first reason is that capitalism is a “spontaneous” system, which has an inner logic of its own and is driven by it. Interfering with that logic necessarily entails that this interference has to be carried forward, as “one thing leads to another”. For instance, if wealth inequalities are reduced through a wealth tax, then the capitalists will cut back on their investment plans, precipitating mass unemployment and a crisis. What will be the response of the State that imposed the wealth tax in the first place to such a situation, if it is not merely to succumb to it by withdrawing the tax? Will it then start public sector units to make up for the investment shortfall caused by the loss of “confidence” of the capitalists?
In short, any major interference in the functioning of capitalism cannot be a piecemeal affair. It will have to be sustained through further interference in a recursive fashion, and this will necessarily have to go on until the system itself gets transcended; or alternatively the original major interference will have to be rolled back. The middle class uprisings do not face up to this problem (not even to the extent of challenging this conception). They do not address it because they do not even enter into the task of formulating any coherent economic agenda.
The second reason is that we live in an age of “globalised” capital, when capitalism has reached a stage where the process of centralisation of capital has given rise to the formation of an international finance capital. The State, however, even when it has a democratic form, remains a nation-State. Hence using the nation-State to interfere in the working of globalised capital becomes particularly difficult in this situation, which is in addition to the problem mentioned above of interference in the functioning of capital per se. Middle class activism does not address itself to this question at all because it lacks any economic agenda beyond mere pious wishes.
Precisely because it lacks any economic agenda, and any concrete perspective on how to “interfere” in the functioning of capitalism and how to carry this “interference” forward, but rather pins its hopes only on some piecemeal measures, at best, in the totally unwarranted expectation that the system will simply accept such measures without protest or opposition, it also gets ultimately assimilated by the system. Even in its most pro-people incarnation, and even when it does manage to achieve some political success, this success remains only temporary. Without attacking, with an appropriate strategy which includes a concrete economic agenda, the hegemony of the corporate-financial oligarchy (which is integrated with international finance capital) over the economy, it is forced to accept either the jettisoning of democracy altogether, or shades of “democracy” that are “suitably” enfeebled by such corporate hegemony.
Let us leave aside those middle class uprisings which are promoted by imperialism and the domestic corporate oligarchies, and which pass under names like the “orange revolution” or the “tulip revolution”. Even where the middle class uprisings have been pro-people, and have sought to establish democracy against ruthless imperialist-supported dictatorships, like in the Middle East and elsewhere, their triumph has generally been short-lived, not because any such triumph runs the risk in any case of being short-lived, but because of their own inner structural limitations, viz. the absence of any concrete economic programme to go with the political changes they wish to usher in.
It follows that the middle class uprisings, if they wish sincerely to make a difference to the people’s lives, have to contend with the hegemony of the corporate-financial oligarchy through a concrete economic agenda, which can then form the basis of a worker-middle class-peasant alliance (akin to the “worker-peasant alliance” of old). Such an agenda, even when it is confined to “Welfare State” measures, if it remains true to itself, will necessarily have to take recursive steps that lead towards a transcendence of capitalism, exactly as Marx had reasoned.
To say that there is no going beyond Marx is not to deify him, but merely to emphasize that he discovered certain essential truths about capitalism which remain valid as long as the system lasts. Closing one’s eyes to these, as middle class uprisings tend to do, only undermines one’s project if it is at all emancipatory; it does not lead to any breaking of new ground. True, Marxism has always got to be developed further to cope with new situations, but this development must necessarily be predicated upon certain truths about capitalism discovered by Marx.
Prabhat Patnaik is a Marxist economist in India. This article was first published in People’s Democracy 39.7 (30 November 2014); it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.