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Molecular Socialism – A Possible Future for Left Politics

August 3, 2012

The end of the twentieth century saw the collapse of soviet-style state-socialism and the beginning of neo-liberalism’s triumphal march, which has ravaged the planet in a little over two decades. The destruction of the earth has proceeded with renewed vigour since, as has the dispossession of the poor. Cities have been re-made for the luxury living of the rich and the upwardly mobile middle classes. And for their luxury, for their ‘free movement’ across the city and beyond, settlements of the poor have had to make way, as shopping malls, freeways and expressways began defining the new imagination of the city.

If it took soviet-style socialism close to six-seven decades to finally face mass rejection, the neoliberal order has taken far less time. Faced with major opposition movements across the Western world, from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Indignados in Spain and Greece and powerful new political formations in many parts of South America, the neoliberal order no longer seems as unchallengeable as it used to till just some time ago. Its advent on the horizon came as a new kind of theology that brooked no dissent. It came to us apparently telling us some elementary truths about ourselves and the world we inhabit. And it was quite amazing to see the speed with which the new religion gained converts in those early years.

The Seduction of Neo-Liberalism

Fundamentally, the power of the neo-liberal dream that propelled the new vision came from its offer of a seductive new way of being – at least to those who could afford it or were at the margins of middle class life. As opposed to the Nehruvian (and soviet-socialist) vision of austerity, the new vision was predicated upon the idea of individual aggrandizement and consumption. If the earlier vision was based on the idea of ‘saving’, the new vision was based on  ‘credit’. Two things fundamentally transformed middle class relationship to ‘capital’.

First, the emergence of a capital market that provided a much more risky but often financially more rewarding way of investing directly in corporate enterprises – as opposed to saving in banks. Second, the easy availability of credit and possibilities of hire-purchase alongside a transformation of the old commonsense of “living within one’s means”. Living on credit and borrowing for current consumption, far from being scandalous, was produced as the normal, even desirable way of life. For most middle class people just a generation ago, it was positively immoral to live beyond their means – taking loans to live a luxurious life was the last thing you wanted to do. Now you not only had access to credit, a whole new discourse emerged that legitimized living on credit. The high point of this new form of credit-living emerged with the credit card and other forms of electronic or virtual money.

The seduction of neo-liberalism also lay in the fact that it freed the ordinary middle class person of any sense of responsibility towards others or towards society at large. The new mantra was simple – consume. For the more you consume, the more you contribute to growth by raising demand, spurring industry and thus creating employment. Individual fulfillment, then, was the way towards fulfilling social responsibility. In cultural and philosophical terms, this was a huge transformation.

‘Privatization’ and ‘free market’ (which are actually very different entities) were the twin slogans that accompanied this new discourse – and even to this day, there are people who can be seen chanting these as mantras, as if these were the panacea for all ills. The ‘consumer’ who was sold the fairy-tale that s/he was the new sovereign, had actually very little role to play in anything, except buying whatever capital sought to sell her.

However, the reason why the dream had such power over people was largely because of its conjunction with a set of fortuitous circumstances.

A ‘new time’ was beginning to emerge.

The ‘New Time/s’ of Globalization

This ‘new time’ was the time of media explosion, where old forms of information-control started rapidly collapsing as new communication technologies opened out information flows in ways unimaginable earlier. Crucial to the new context was the arrival of the internet and new digital technologies. The arrival of these new technologies transformed the entire landscape of the world in the last years of the twentieth century, and critical here was the role played by ‘networks’ that were essentially global in character. Information flows could no longer be restricted within the frontiers of any nation-state.

Given that the organization of capital was already undergoing a major reconfiguration around this time, the advent of these new technologies and global networks gave capital a new opportunity to tide over an imminent crisis.Though neoliberalism always had global ambitions, given its emphasis on free international trade, its global spread at that particular moment was hardly something many neoliberals themselves would have anticipated. However, the fact that global communication networks enabled the neoliberal project to acquire a specific shape and form does not mean that there is any necessary connection between the two. Just as there is no necessary connection between the collapse of soviet-bloc socialism and neoliberalism’s worldwide ascendance, although the former enabled the latter’s global power and legitimacy through its own utter failure.

In other words, it should be clear that there is nothing inherently neo-liberal about these media forms and technologies, which have been as effectively deployed in the service of new-style capital as they have been used by anticapitalist movements across the globe.

Among the transformations that marked those times were also big changes in the organization of capital itself. The older Fordist factory, based on a certain fixity of capital, which brought together thousands of workers in giant enterprises, was turning out to be incompatible with the newer challenges. One of these challenges was the competition that US automobile companies for instance, faced from their Japanese counterparts, which were much more mobile, had less ‘flab’ – that is to say, did not have a huge workforce that they would have to account for even in bad times. Entering later into the scene, the Japanese companies did not have the dead weight of older forms to carry and could innovate, based on newer technologies.

It has also been observed that Fordism belonged to an era of endless optimism that market demand would never diminish; nor would there ever be a shortage of natural resources. It was an organizational vision that stood on the idea of endless growth based on limitless exploitation of the planet’s resources. All that had rapidly changed, starting with what Western economists call ‘the first oil shock’ in 1973 [it was certainly not a shock for the oil producing countries!]. Very soon, it had also become clear that western markets had become saturated in certain respects. The need was to move to open up other markets. Capital would have to move now to other locations then, for more reasons than one. But all this required liberation from space; it required high mobility and flexibility.

Thus the move towards decentralized, subcontracting forms of production organization. With the spread of these new technologies, the new organization through networks became the norm. What we saw increasingly now were networks of production rather than a single-ownership factory.

A lot of scholarly work in recent times (including that of Marxists like Manuel Castells) maps how networking proceeds through the interaction of a number of processes that have reinforced each other in the preceding two/ three decades:

“Large corporations decentralize themselves as networks of semi-autonomous units; small and medium firms form business networks, keeping their autonomy and flexibility while making it possible to pull together resources to attain a critical mass, enabling them to compete in the market; small and medium business networks become providers and subcontractors to a variety of large corporations; large corporations, and their ancillary networks, engage in strategic partnerships on various projects concerning products, processes, markets, functions, resources…” [Manuel Castells in Castells and Gustavo Cardoso (eds) The Network Society. From Knowledge to Policy: 8-9]

Consequences for Labour

It is this new form of the decentralized capitalist enterprise, with networks of semi-autonomous or autonomous units, that has had the most significant consequences for labour in ‘third world’ societies like India’s. For this is the great move towards outsourcing jobs and relocating production that led to the expansion of new forms of employment in India (call centres, for example).

There were two challenges that capital had begun to face in the West: the profit squeeze due to high wages began to be compounded by the strict environmental regulations and an increasingly assertive public that was aware of the ways in which corporations damage the local environment. Thus, moving production to the ‘third world’ where both labour and environmental regulations were lax and where it was far simpler to buy up politicians to get clearances, seemed an eminently suitable idea. That was where sweatshops would be located, that was where for the next two decades, natural resources would be ravaged.

This move also heightened policy conflicts between different segments of government and capital in the United States and in the West in general. Western governments wanted to keep their capital and industry in the home country while capital wanted to move out jobs and production to countries with low wage and little regulation of environment. Capital wasn’t really concerned that this would lead to severe job losses in the home country – but it was something the governments could ill afford, given unemployment’s potential for causing social unrest.

One of the ways in which Western governments sought to regulate the flight of capital to poor countries was through what came to be known as the ‘social clause’ in international trade negotiations.  The idea was simple: Western government wanted a ‘level playing field’ where labour and environmental standards would be equally rigorous. That would take away the advantage of relocating jobs. And in the pursuit of this aim, many of them became champions of labour rights in the ‘third world’.

Thus it came to be, that the fate of the new technologies became entangled with the fate of neoliberalism and something called ‘globalization’.

It is important to note that ‘globalization’, strictly speaking had nothing per se to do with the neoliberal project. It was rather the new condition that emerged with the emergence of new technologies, networks of communication and new kinds of political subjectivities. The collapse of the nationalist imagination, the uncoupling of the nation and the state (in what was the nation-state), the consequent political emergence of many smaller repressed political identities (as a consequence of the collapse of nationalisms) – all these arose is some fashion as a consequence of ‘globalization’ and had little to do with neoliberalism.

With freer flow of information across borders of different kinds, came increasing distrust of states and state elites. In India, the idea of the ‘non-party political process’ enunciated in the 1980s, captured to some extent, the already growing disenchantment with the state and the formal political domain. New assertions such as the ecological movements and movements against mass displacement through mega-development projects, eventually began challenging the very idea of the state’s sovereignty. The so-called ‘eminent domain’ was called into question though positing of the right of local people to local resources.

The state, its planning bodies, the vanguard party – all had come to be viewed with suspicion. This seemed to be a much more general phenomenon – extending far beyond the soviet-bloc to other societies that have seen some form of an interventionist state – such as in India. In such a situation, the market as a replacement for the state seemed like an eminently sensible idea to many. It also seemed to go pretty well with democracy: both being essentially based on choice, as much of the rhetoric of those days had it.

This rhetoric is deeply misleading, because it is only half the story. At one level, the high modernism of neoliberalism is evident in its project of ordering cities through zoning; the desire of eliminating all other forms of property (peasant, commons, non-bourgeois) and instituting in its place the single form of bourgeois private property; the project of eliminating the chaotic non-formal economy and subsuming it all under the umbrella of the formal capitalist economy. All these were essentially the high points of capitalist modernism that continue with renewed vigour with neoliberalism.

But the other half of the story remains to be told. While modernism in the political and economic domain was the project of capital, neoliberalism was only apparently in sync with the new ethos. For being the unalloyed modernist project that it is, neoloiberalism is actually in deep conflict with the ethos of the new times. It is deeply anti-democratic (as we can see when it comes to land acquisitions or in the way in which the neoliberal lobby responds to workers’ issues) and even deeply anti-market. The free-market rhetoric of neoliberalism notwithstanding, it has functioned everywhere through buying up political representatives, taking over political decision-making and eventually making the state perform its job for it.

As such, neoliberalism was bound to come into conflict with popular practices. It is no accident therefore, that deregulation for capital at the top was inevitably accompanied by more and more regulation of the economic activities of the poor. Rickshaw-pullers, vendors and hawkers thus became neoliberalism’s prime target as it set about  ‘rationalizing’ and bringing order into cities and the economy.

But life rapidly slipped out of neoliberalism’s control. The ghost of capital came to haunt capital itself. No sooner had capital rid itself of the burden of the working class by moving towards flexible, ‘post-fordist’ production, than it was faced with the new challenge: its own cheap copy, contraband capital in the form of ‘piracy’ seemed to appear everywhere. And ‘piracy’ very simply, is the activity that people undertake among themselves either of sharing (say photocopied or digitally copied material) or simply doing business and providing for people at the lower ends of the market. This is another form in which popular livelihood practices become a pervasive threat to capital.

Ironically, however, neo-liberalism’s victory was not simply that it managed to enlist the support of the wider middle classes for capital. Its great victory lay in the fact that it managed to enlist the erstwhile opponents of capital – the communists across the world – in the service of capital. From the Communist Party regimes in China and Vietnam to elected CPI(M) regimes in West Bengal and Kerala, the communists everywhere became the biggest votaries of neo-liberal style ‘accumulation by dispossession’, rolling out the red carpet for capital.

For a Different Left Imagination

Any project of rebuilding the Left project, it seems to me, must take into account these developments. In the first place, it must recognize that ‘capitalism’ is but another name for the modernist project of the modern state.

The developmentalist/ modernist project is unviable today for one obvious reason – the ecological imperative. It is abundantly clear that ‘development’ or ‘growth’ fanaticism is what is leading our planet to catastrophe. The ecological challenge forces us to ask fundamental questions about the desirability such a vision.

But this project must be rejected by the Left for another, equally fundamental reason. I will not expand on this theme here but a whole new body of scholarship traces the connections between the discipline of economics, the institution of markets and the violent imposition of the private property form as integral to capitalism. If we believe that these features can be separated from ‘capitalism’ we are sadly mistaken. We are barking up the wrong tree if we think that by implementing such a programme, communists in power will be laying the basis for some fantasy of a democratic revolution (bourgeois, people’s, new or national – choose what you want).

If we believe that this way of destroying all other ‘property’ forms and instituting bourgeois property in their place is some kind of sign of historical progress, that too will reveal itself to be a chimera. If there is any lesson to be drawn from the demise of old-style communist parties and the way newer left-wing formations have emerged, it is that the new visions of the Left must completely abandon the productivist/ progressivist imagination if we are to reinvent ourselves.

Any new kind of Left politics in the twenty-first century must start from the recognition that unemployment is a creation of capital itself; and that therefore capital cannot be its solution. If the governments were to simply allow ordinary people the freedom to ‘do business’ just as they allow the capitalists, people would (and do) find their own ways of earning. But what happens is that first, people are dispossessed from their land and livelihoods in the interest of capital, leaving them with nothing, and then we are told that capital is necessary for creating employment!

Capital has never eliminated unemployment anywhere. The Left must begin to think in terms of multiple forms of ‘property’ and ‘use’ or access of such ‘property’. It must start from the recognition that animated Marx in his last days, when he was studying the Russian peasant communes: not all ‘pre-capitalist’ forms are ‘feudal’ or reactionary and certain kinds of common ownership can become a far sounder basis for a new kind of socialism.

Talking of ‘socialism’, it is perhaps necessary to clarify that if what I have been arguing is right, socialism of the old style can simply not be resurrected. It is neither possible nor desirable. In fact, socialism can only begin to make sense once again if it becomes a molecular activity – something that already exists in popular practices in the form of an ethic of sharing. At this stage it is also necessary to make two additional points (though we cannot go into them in any detail):

1. ‘Socialism’ (or whatever else we might want to call it) needs to be reconceptualized through a radical reconceptualization of capital itself. It seems to me that all kinds of private entrepreneurship and commerce should not be reduced to ‘capital/ism’ or its prehistory. Private entrepreneurship, markets and trade have existed for centuries without capitalism and will perhaps continue to do so long after it. If we can think of socialism ultimately as an ethic of sharing that has a wide basis in popular practices, we might be able to think of a postcapitalist future very differently.

This incidentally, is the basis of what Kalyan Sanyal (Rethinking Capitalist Development) calls the need economy, where people work in enterprises that function not on the logic of accumulation but for the fulfillment of livelihood needs. If we look at economic practices from this angle, we might want to ask another question – what special value is there to a work ethic that is geared to accumulation? ‘Work’ – alienated or un-alienated – is not something to be valorized but to be recognized as drudgery, which is why there is so much resistance even among poorer sections to becoming wage-slaves. A new kind of Left politics must be able to think beyond this valorization of work in the direction of an economic life where people have the choice of rejecting the false world of ‘consumer choice’ for which they must first reduce themselves to automatons. Clearly this also calls for shedding the cognitive arrogance of the moderns that they alone know what is good for everybody.

But for Marxists, it must mean something more. It must mean that the idea that labour is ultimate realization or the fulfillment of the human potential must be fundamentally rethought. For Indian Marxists, additionally, labour or work needs to be rethought in the light of caste, for almost all of our attitudes to working with our hands are structured through caste. The connection between caste and work is virtually inextricable.  That is why Ambedkar started off by forming an Independent Labour Party and attempted to combine the two the way he took up trade union issues. As very astutely, instead of valorizing work (unlike Gandhi) he advocated abandoning it, fleeing it. By valorizing it, we end up freezing the identity and location of the worker. Fleeing for Ambedkar was not a simple non-political act. It was not about ‘exit’ from a particular vocation or from the community of Hindus. Rather, it was a political act in every sense of the term. In a manner of speaking leaving the world of work can become an equally political act if it is combined with what I refer to as molecular socialism below.

2. The idea that capitalism can only be transcended by taking over state power means nothing anymore, for we know that every communist attempt to take over the state has ended up with communists simply building capitalism under one pretext or another.

In my opinion, it might be more useful to think of a post-capitalist transformation as something that must happen in a molecular way, in all parts of society. Just as ‘capitalism’ during its rise transformed social relations in all domains to such an extent that eventually the state and political power too had to transform, we must understand the idea of ‘building socialism now’ in such a radically transformative way.

In the first place, this means that we must begin to think of multiple forms of ownership. The notion that all forms other than bourgeois private property are ‘backward’ have to be abandoned. We need to recognize not merely forms like the commons but also other forms of non-documented ‘property’ that are based on notions of access and use. We need to boldly experiment with cooperative forms (in industry as well) that unfortunately are tried only when industrial units are in a state of terminal decline. We need to recognize institutions and practices that resist or violate the bourgeois ethic of accumulation and consumption and those that instantiate an ethic of sharing so that the illegitimacy bestowed on them can be challenged. Secondly, once we are able to do this, we might be able to see how a whole range of popular practices at an everyday, molecular level, are based on such a socialism-in-practice. This molecular socialism has nothing to do with the state and is perfectly compatible with a minimal sense of individual ownership. We can see how much of life in societies like India’s actually lies outside the domain of capital, if we begin to look at things in this way. This is a ‘resource’ that makes us survive in the face of all odds. It is a resource upon which a lot can be built. To recognize this is not to romanticize popular practices in general but to recognize how much of our everyday social intercourse is still conducted outside the ‘cash-nexus’.  This is where spaces of production in noncapitalist mode (say, cooperatives) can be combined with a measure of autonomy. This is where those fleeing from work can engage in creating new livelihoods by experimenting with different forms of production, different kinds of ownership and for purposes other than the capitalists’ profits.

The Left project certainly needs to be reinvented, which is to say, it must open itself out to a whole range of new political assertions that have appeared on the horizon – precisely in the period of the crisis of the Old Left. We have seen the emergence, in the past few decades,  of a range of gender based issues and movements, just as we have seen the rise of ecological struggles and movements against mass displacement. In India, the rise of the dalit movement – both as a political and a cultural force – too carries elements of radicalism that can only enrich the vision and understanding of the Left. While it is true that the question of capital remains in some sense central to the Left project, it cannot but engage with the multiple structures of power and oppression that pervade society.

The points where the project of the Old Left revealed itself to be the weakest was precisely in its (mis)understanding of these multiple structures of patriarchy, caste and developmentalism. Its reduction of all other structures of oppression to a mere effect of capital and its inability to understand their specificity left it completely isolated from the new currents, which it then dubbed as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘imperialist’ inspired. The way in which the Left has  dealt with for instance, the queer movement and the question of sexuality on the one hand and the dalit movement or feminism on the other certainly needs to be radically changed. At some level, in practice the change already seems to be taking place but a difficulty still remains. And this difficulty arises out of the notion of vanguardism that refuses to take other subjectivities seriously.

The idea that there will be one grand front against capital (and other forms of oppression), under the leadership of some particular party is a facile one on today’s universe. First of all, there may not even be the need for a grand front against capital anymore – for that was a strategy based on the idea of capture of state power. Every capitalist enterprise today must be subjected to a social audit through a formal public body comprising not merely its workers but also the local community whose water and air it uses up and pollutes. Its technological choices too must submit to such a public audit. Undoubtedly these call for massive public campaigns to make the idea acceptable to the wider sections of society but that will be something very different from a ‘grand front’.  Secondly, the likelihood as we can see in the instance of the current movements in the West, may be of relatively more loose coalitions that assemble and disperse as and when need arises. Equally importantly, it is possible that while dalits struggle against caste-based exclusion and feminists struggle against patriarchy, ecological struggles take up ecological issues, they may not often be working towards the same end. Sometimes, they might even be working at cross purposes. That is where we need to develop another way of relating, another language so to speak, so that we can continue with our disagreements without giving up on our solidarities. The idea of vanguardism does not allow us to find such alternative languages and ways of relating to each other.

If the mass movements of the past few years tell us something it is this:  The Left vision is alive and kicking, but outside the structures of the institutional Left.

That Left vision animates struggles mediated by the new media where open channels of conversation have already begun to yield fruit. This open conversation across different movements needs to be carried from the virtual domain to the actual practice of organizations. The whole culture of radical politics is rapidly changing. New forms have not yet emerged but there is little doubt that this lack is unable to hold back the desire to act in concert.

It is however, clear that if and when new forms emerge, they will have to be based on this new emergent culture of equality on the Left.

I am grateful to Prabir Bhattacharya for prodding me to write this piece for a series he has been planning for the Bangla newspaper Ekdin. A shorter version of this article will be appearing in Bangla in Ekdin.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2012 9:28 PM

    I believe that one critical problem for Soviet bloc countries was that they accepted the “logic” of capital, and sought to out-compete capitalist countries. Centrally planned economies based on heavy investment did lead to rapid growth (must faster than in capitalist countries during the early phases) and a creation of an industrial base where none had previously existed.

    But rather than democratize their economies, the Soviet bloc countries continued to use this same model of rapid industrialization after they had become industrialized. The under-development of light industries; the inability of state planning and distribution agencies (such as Gosplan and Gossnab) to be able to cope with their enormous responsibility; indifference to the environment in a mad dash to out-compete the capitalist bloc and fulfill growth figures; and the alienation that accumulated as now-educated societies were by and large shut out of decision-making by party and government bureaucracies were among the results of a failure to modernize.

    And, as Aditya eloquently pointed out, Left movements in general failed to incorporate the many liberation (gender, racial, sexual) movements that should have been seen as intertwined with the more traditional economic-oriented movement. That, too, was a byproduct of static interpretations of theory that over time congealed into bureaucratic dogmas.

    I would like to add an additional point to the discussion of the rise of neoliberalism. The “opportunity” for neoliberal ideas to take root and become dominant arose from the contradictions of Keynesian capitalism. When U.S. capitalists became dominant at the conclusion of World War II, they could tolerate rising wages because profits could be maintained through expansion of markets, and also the memory of the union, socialist and communist movements of the 1930s, which required they make concessions, was still fresh. But once Western Europe and Japan regained their competitiveness, profit margins came under pressure, and the transfer of production to the developing world became a way of buoying profits. The increased unemployment from that transfer also served to make labor more docile. http://wp.me/p2cpPS-N.

    When markets can’t be expanded at a rate sufficiently robust to maintain or increase profit margins, capitalists cease tolerating paying increased wages. Neoliberalism is the ready-made ideology that need only be pulled off the shelf to justify what capitalists naturally wish to do.

    Aditya writes: “In my opinion, it might be more useful to think of a post-capitalist transformation as something that must happen in a molecular way, in all parts of society.” Indeed, I believe we have to think outside the logic of capital. Cooperative ownership, rooted in and accountable to local communities, should be a crucial component. Other types of ownership as well, but always run on a democratic basis (with all workers sharing in decision-making and electing their own management) and socially accountable, and I would agree that the finances of all enterprises has to be available for public inspection at any time. I’d add that prices should be set by negotiation, rather than by markets — one more reason for the necessity of financial reports.

    Equality in every respect — including when we are at work — has to be the bedrock on which a better world is built.

  2. August 4, 2012 12:38 AM

    “If the mass movements of the past few years tell us something it is this: The Left vision is alive and kicking, but outside the structures of the institutional Left.” Very true.
    But this concept of molecular Socialism seems to be far fetched.
    Who are this ‘we’ who will “boldly experiment with cooperative forms (in industry as well) ” ?

    • Aditya Nigam permalink*
      August 4, 2012 9:13 AM

      Sigh! Arun, this post is addressed to those who have a certain familiarity with both the post-soviet debates within the Left and with notions of the ‘molecular’ in a particular tradition of marxism. Please take the help of google – it is a long story that cannot be repeated here. Perhaps, I will come back to it some other time, inshallah!

      • Papia permalink
        August 5, 2012 10:20 PM

        Yeah we have all seen the “bold” experiments with cooperatives! All of them have failed! Socialism is a dead concept. Accept it and move on with life. People by nature are competitive and work hard only when they have the right incentive whether in monetary form or fame. Socialism goes against basics of nature by insisting that there shld be no disparity in pay based on ability or hard work. It works for a few years after which the system collapses because everyone realises that they needn’t work or strive to do better since they wld anyways get the same pay. Why do you think govt PSUs are some of the worst performers? The govt teachers/faculty some of worst in the country? Pathetic condition of govt healthcare?

      • Aditya Nigam permalink*
        August 6, 2012 9:29 AM

        Papia, Much as you would wish to the contrary, the idea of some form of socialism is clearly alive and kicking. It animates a whole new resurgence of anti-capitalism in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Yes, one form of its twentieth century experiment has failed and the new experiments are based on a clear recognition of this fact.
        Actually, the fact of the matter is that for milions of people all over the world (including India), the quest has to continue because they can simply not ‘move on with life’ as you suggest as long as the capitalist machine is crushing them. I suppose it is just that there are different interests and therefore different ways of seeing the world that are issue here.
        As far as natural instincts are concerned, your understanding is deeply flawed. The way I see it in my everyday interactions even today is that most people are really contented with very little. That has in fact been the main worry of most reformers right from the early twentieth century: how to make people desire more, how to make them the acquisitive ‘modern man’. This has been the worry because the idea of ‘national progress’ demands that people not be contented and work more, produce more etc. And this worry continues with much more anxiety in the neoliberal age.
        How natural it was to make people work according to the capitalist work ethic, to make them consumers and so on is now the subject of so much work that I cannot even begin to recount it here. Similarly, there is a lot more work now on the cooperative movement globally that you might perhaps want to look at. Some of them like the huge Mondragon in Spain have weathered the ongoing economic crisis with practically no losses. South Africa is yet another place where the cooperative movement has made significant impact, aside of course from the ‘solidarity economy’ in South America. In India too we have some interesting examples – not very many but working nonetheless.
        Your poser about PSUs is of course neither here not there, because it is based on an a priori ideological belief. PSUs have had a mixed history in this country – they have often been very inefficient – even exapseratingly so. But on the whole they have, especially in insurance, banking been very dependable unlike the private sharks who fleece us now on a daily basis. And in health even at its worst, an AIIMS is a better bet for the ordinary person, anyday in comparison to the Maxs, Fortiss and Appolos. The world just looks a bit different from where I stand:)

  3. August 4, 2012 11:39 AM

    Primary Aim

    Primary aim of dominating social cultural norms, civilization, state, market and revolution is to bring two poles of work and worker together. If society and state have to function normally, then they have to be Brought Together. However, like two north poles of different magnets they get away from each other more easily than coming together.

    The Distinction between Work and Human Activity

    Singing, dancing, playing, hospitality are simple human activities. As soon as these activities turn into source of our livelihood, they become work. Instead of playing a game it becomes our career. It becomes potentially a part of Sports Industry. Singing and dancing become Entertainment Industry. Hospitality becomes Hospitality Management. History of Civilization is the history of turning more and more human activities into work (-flows).

    When it is about celebrating festivals and communal activities, like the tribal communities , our energy knows no bounds. At the end of the day what elites called civilization was work for ( in the true sense, against ) us. What else is the impersonal, organized power and violence other than impersonal, oorganized control over our work and its products ? We are against all work-pyramids covertly operating in the name of countries, companies, parties, families and identities. We are for self-determined human activities which is not possible without abolition of our existence as wage-workers or serfs. We are for non-hijackable, non-hierarchical and coercion-free communities.

    Hence the name Coalition Against Work, Representation and Civilization in South Asia: anhilaal (CAWRC).

    anhilaal prakaashan samuh, Delhi, India, 2012

  4. August 4, 2012 12:36 PM

    anhilaal *: antibeing is the precondition of our being

    if you exist
    you exist only against yourself
    longer you exist
    longer you exist only against yourself
    lesser you exist
    lesser you exist only against yourself

    if you work
    you work only against yourself.
    if you work less
    you work less only against yourself
    if you work more
    you work more only against yourself
    if you work hard
    you work hard only against yourself

    if you destroy
    you destroy only against yourself
    if you create
    you create only against yourself
    if you do nothing
    you do nothing only against yourself
    if you do anything
    you do anything only against yourself

    no way
    no way out for us
    solong we
    our children
    our grandchildren
    our friends
    and relatives
    all
    exist as workers.
    golamar, november 2011
    ( translated from urdu by golamar)

    November 2011
    Released by anhilaal*

    Forwarded by :
    Gangadin Lohar, Alaknanda, Vilas Sukhadeve, Rabbi Shergill

  5. August 5, 2012 4:51 PM

    “…If the governments were to simply allow ordinary people the freedom to ‘do business’ just as they allow the capitalists, people would (and do) find their own ways of earning. But what happens is that first, people are dispossessed from their land and livelihoods in the interest of capital, leaving them with nothing, and then we are told that capital is necessary for creating employment!”

    completely disagree. wish things were so simple. where is this wisdom coming from ?

  6. Third world engineer permalink
    August 5, 2012 11:31 PM

    “Western government wanted a ‘level playing field’ where labour and environmental standards would be equally rigorous. That would take away the advantage of relocating jobs. And in the pursuit of this aim, many of them became champions of labour rights in the ‘third world’.”

    Just wanted to add my two cents on this. The Western government also wants the markets in the third world to become more accessible to capital, which can then become not only a source of cheap labor, but also a market on its own where produces can be sold. With in the inflow of the capital in the third world countries, there will obviously a new swelling middle class who can then themselves become active consumers. This will obviously cause an increased demand and will require additional labor. It can then be conveniently argued that that the decision to source cheap labor is actually creating more demand, which is in turn creating more jobs for the benefit the western economy. They will also coerce the third world governments to remove the safety nets which are meant to protect local small scale producers by cutting down the subsidies and by allowing investments in all sectorss without any imposed limit.

    • Third world engineer permalink
      August 6, 2012 7:53 PM

      I am sorry, but I find observations made by Papia in one of the post above on PSU and Govt faculties highly offensive. At any time and on any day, graduate engineers from IITs and even NITs, one of which is this blogger’s alma mater, will be far better than those from any of these funky private technical universities in Greater Noida and Hyderabad. By the way this is not my assumption – one can to do a research on hiring polices of Indian operations of Google, Microsoft or Amazon to find out how much of value a degree from IITs and even NITs commands in their recruitment process. Or just see how many IIT graduates actually present the product feature in these companies’ annual meets (like google I/O). Or how much of research conducted in these institutes…..Just google on google I/O to find out….
      On PSUs, if they are so inefficient, why and how they have become golden gooses for Indian Govt, whose eggs, a.k.a. stocks, they can sell any time to so many prospective buyers to collect funds? Are the private corporations buying these stocks are driven by philanthropy? I doubt – I think they buy as they see how profitable these organizations could be. Deliberate intendment to make an organization sick in collusion with private capital is an art mastered by Indian Govt – this is in addition to their day to day meddling in the affairs of these organizations, about which they do not have much of a clue. One can study the strange case of Air India to see how a profitable organization can be brought on its knees.

  7. August 6, 2012 5:11 AM

    A very well written article with lots of new ideas, although it would be great if Aditya expands this in some more detail in a future work. The central neo-liberal idea of “private property” as the only legitimate form of ownership is flawed. Ownership or the extent of it is defined by what the owner can do with the property, or what changes he is allowed to impart on it. e.g. a small shareholder of a company does not own a part of the company, in the sense that he cannot influence the decisions about its business; he only owns a share which he can sell (and hence the value attached to it). Thus, even within the core of the neo-liberal ideology, we find that ownership is limited by what changes one can impart to the property. This, then, can be turned on its head that extent of ownership can be restricted by creating barriers to what changes the owner is allowed to impart on the property. As Aditya pointed out, environmental regulations (at least in the west) is one such barrier, another which springs to mind is heritage buildings owned privately, which can be sold, but cannot be torn down.

    One question needs to be answered though. If this is to happen at a molecular level, how is a social audit going to work, given that we are talking about regulating large complex structures? Would a diffuse entity be able to audit or do we need a centralized structure? Does this project involve dismantling large complex structures, so that a molecular level checking mechanism can be developed? If so, what happens to the issue of efficiencies of scale?

    One more thing: technological innovations have lowered the entry barrier to trade in some markets, newspapers being the prime example. How can the left project be coupled with active pursuit of such innovations or their applications so that barriers to entry can be reduced in more and more fields?

  8. rajphys permalink
    August 6, 2012 5:37 AM

    Ownership is defined or rather circumscribed by the agency to impart changes to the property. If someone owns a few share of a large company, that person has no ownership of that company, since (s)he has no agency to affect its business. The only change that can be imparted is selling the share and in that sense (of the value of the share) (s)he owns the share. A classic example is a heritage building, which can be sold, but cannot be torn down. This can be turned on its head to include ideas of access etc. as forms of ownership.

    However, if we are to talk about social audit of large complex structures, how would this be achieved at a molecular level? What sort of institutional structures are required for that? Or if institutional structures are shunned, how would a diffuse entity provide an audit of a large complex structure? Otherwise, does this project involve dismantling large complex structures (which of course takes it on a path of old Soviet style primacy of capture of state power)? It would be great to hear more from Aditya on these issues, fleshing out the ideas he has put forward.

    Finally, technological innovations have lowered the entry barrier in a bunch of fields, newspapers being the prime example. How can this be coupled with these new ideas? Is an active pursuit of new innovations which lower barriers to entry in other fields a part of this project, or does it run counter to it, in the sense that these innovations have reduced the power of traditional labor movements, as was pointed out by Systemic Disorder?

  9. Marcus Taylor permalink
    August 6, 2012 8:06 PM

    Interesting ideas, as always.
    I wonder, however, if the novelty of ‘molecular socialism’ isn’t a little overstated here. Surely one of the fundamental points of much ‘classical’ Marxist writing was that the socialist values of cooperative labour outside existed precisely within industry: that the cooperation and coordination of workers in the factory was the ‘molecular socialism’ that could overthrow the anarchy of a competitive division of labour predicated on accumulation.
    However, in this piece, incipient socialism has undergone a migration and is now to be found not in large-scale industry, but in the micro-level household enterprises of the informal sector. This ‘need economy’ is organised to maximise employment of household members rather than to pursue the accumulation of capital, and is strongly embedded in a range of social networks and value orientations which are not profit-orientated. This appears to the author to offer glimpses (at least to some degree) of ‘socialism in practice’.
    I think there are two problems here. First, the reader could be forgiven for believing that the piece might suffer from a gross romanticisation of the informal sector (despite protestations to the contrary). Far from the bastion of socialistic cooperation, informal sector firms are often characterised by terrible labour conditions, exploitation (of both self, familial and hired labour), all mixed in with the solidarity, cooperative aspects the author wants to highlight. The notion that the ‘cash nexus’ doesn’t apply here is bizarre. It may well be that cash has more direct purchase (no pun intended!) here as an instrument of power than the formal world of capital, where credit rules (perversely).
    Second, given that the author is no doubt very aware of the everyday experience in India (not to mention bountiful literature) that demonstrates this, I worry why there is so much energy placed into dichotomising ‘capital’ and ‘non-capital’ with the latter artificially validated as the reservoir of our hopes for a better future and the former dismissed as outdated and disgraced as a source of potential social forms for the future. There is undoubtedly much to learn from practices undertaken within the ranks of ‘outcast labour’. But perhaps we should also not be so hasty to reject other forms of ‘molecular socialism’ even if it seems sullied by its association with ‘old left’.

    • Upal Chakraborty permalink
      August 7, 2012 11:53 PM

      I agree with Marcus . There are certain industries which just cannot exist in “molecular” form e.g. Oil refining, Steel, Metals, etc. It is the ownership which counts – those who produce wealth should own and manage them.
      There is no reason to believe that the small retail shop across the road is less exploitative than Walmart – though am not holding a brief here for FDI in Retail . The only positive feature of the SME sector is lies in its wider distribution of wealth and income – a number of small chips manufacturers vs.one Pepsi

  10. August 9, 2012 3:46 PM

    Thought provoking article indeed. However as some of the discussants have shown, the idea of molecular socialism as a form of economy that has the potential of replacing capitalism is still quite vague. In my view, in the short term, say over the next decade or so, the left in India can only fight for greater human development and social inclusion. This means fighting for basic health and education, better implementation of rural development schemes and policy measures that protect the vulnerable sections of the society. It can also take up issues of greater transparency of governance and reduction of corrupt practices which affect the poor in India. Along with this the left can take up the cause of decentralisation of power to the local governments, which has been guaranteed in the Constitution of India but is not implemented in different states. Local governments at present functions as agents of a centralised state and implements programmes designed from above. In fact devolution of powers to the local level can open up possibilities of robust local level ‘molecular’ economic practices in future. Without decentralisation of state power it is unlikely that ‘molecular socialism’ will emerge.

  11. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    August 10, 2012 11:57 AM

    Marcus, Upal and Debraj,
    Thanks a lot for the engaging comments. I think some of the issues that you have raised need some more thought on my part. However there are some matters that demand some clarifications, given that these were only dealt with somewhat cryptically in the original post. Let me try going over these, point by point:

    1. First the idea of the ‘molecular’ is not to be a substitute for the ‘micro’. At the risk of being repetitive, let me cite how I understand this idea (from a paper I have written elsewhere): I use the term ‘molecular’, here in the Gramscian sense to mean that they exist in a ‘diffused’ or scattered state, that they are not necessarily tied into some overall larger logic that determines them (See Prison Notebooks). In this sense, it also ties up with a particular inflection provided by Deleuze and Guattari, whereby the ‘molecular’ is seen as that which escapes the codes of ‘macropolitics’ or macroeconomics. In their rendering, “the molecular, or microeconomics or micropolitics, is defined not by the smallness of its elements but by the nature of its ‘mass’ – the quantum flow…” (Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand Plateaus: 217). They suggest that “From the point of view of micropolitics, a society is defined by its lines of flight, which are molecular. There is always something that flows or flees, that escapes the binary organizations…and the overcoding machine” (Ibid: 216). This specific Deleuzian twist to Gramsci’s idea is important from my point of view, for it draws attention to something more than the ‘diffused’ and ‘scattered’ state of these economies – to the dynamism that underlies their constant escaping or fleeing from the ‘overcoding machine’ that seeks to arrest them and assign them a specific place in the ‘structure’ that is ‘capitalism’.
    The idea of molecular economies runs against well-entrenched orthodoxies – both in mainstream bourgeois economics and in marxist theorizations. Mainstream economics understands capitalism – which it disingenuously calls a ‘market economy’ – to be the most ‘rational’ system to which all economies – and governments – must aspire. Molecular economies are anathema to economists because they are supposed to be some mythic ‘remnants’ of an undeveloped past, always ever ‘selling apples to each other’ i.e. not creating any wealth, not paying taxes and violating the law. Typically, such molecular economies emerge in the interstitial spaces of the planned modernist city, violating the segregated ‘zoning’ of Master Plans, often even accessing a range of civic amenities ‘illegally’. In smaller towns these kinds of businesses are in fact, the dominant form.
    For me the idea of the molecular is also important to underline that the idea of socialism can only work if it is recenoceptualized as something that is in tune with popular practices. Capital’s claim that it is the only rational system because it builds on what it calls ‘essential human nature’ of acquisition and self-maximization, I believe, is patently false but it does give it an appeal that seems to be true on the face of it. My point is that as along as socialism is either the business of an all-powerful and authoritarian state or based on a heroic notion of politics, it is doomed. Unless socialism can become part of the ordinariness of everyday life, there seems no way to recover its appeal.

    2. I think I should also have clarified that when I talk of recognition of multiple forms of ‘ownership,’ that includes state property. In my response to some of the comments ahove, I have underlined the importance of public enterprises. I certainly think that in many key sectors – education, health, insurance and banking at the very least – state enterprises, despite all their weaknesses, have so far ensured that the mass of the people are not thrown to private sector wolves. Similarly for some of the industries mentioned by Upal, I would imagine, state ownership is crucial. My only point is that it is only by recognizing the multiplicity of ownership forms that we can even think of a popular basis for any idea of socialism.

    3. As for the informal sector, I do not agree with the reading you present Marcus. You are perhaps right that use of the expression ‘lying outside the cash nexus’ in this context is perhaps misleading. What I mean is not that there are no cash transactions here but that life here is not governed by cash transactions. And this I certainly stand by. I am always surprised by how much poorer people in India are prepared to do, going out of their way, even for complete strangers – and without any expectation of financial remuneration. I do not want to burden you with examples, but even in big cities in India today, so many elderly middle class people manage to survive because of networks of support. And the expectation of money increases as you go up the ladder from the noncapital end to the capital end of the continuum. The richer you get the more you begin to demand cash compensation for even the most ordinary ‘service’ you render. Further, I am not arguing that the situation of many of these small scale enterprises are all rosy. There are indeed many of these small enterprises which barely scrape through life – and despite that they prefer that life to wage slavery. The term ‘self-exploitation’ has become something of a joke in many marxist accounts of the informal sector. The fact is that ranging from hardboiled ideologues of capital like de Soto to many others (say Solomon Benjamin’s work in India), there is now mounting evidence that large segments of the informal sector generate huge amounts of wealth but are nonetheless forced to live on the edge because they are criminalized. My point is not to freeze the informal sector where it is but to indicate that, at least for left-wing political formations, a recognition of its potential can mean providing its enterprises governmental support – given that they alone generate employment today, notwithstanding the pressures of global recession. In this sense, to my mind a new kind of ‘municipal socialism’ (something the PT in Brazil seems to have partially experimented with) can provide these enterprises with a range of possibilities of upgradation. Just as we need to think of different economic forms, we also need to think of different political forms – of which some kinds of party-based electoral interventions too form a crucial part. The problem is that since no thought has been given to what left formations can do when in power, they seem to just follow the ‘spirit of the age’ as it were.The idea of municipal socialism also ties up with Debraj’s suggestion about decentralization as well.

  12. August 12, 2012 9:09 PM

    Readers of this might be interested in article I recently wrote, “Memories of the Future,” on a time when there actually was still a future. Engages with a number of recent writings on the subject by Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Slavoj Žižek, T.J. Clark, Owen Hatherley, Chris Cutrone, Max Ajl, Asad Haider, Salar Mohandesi, Ben Lear, and Malcolm Harris, which have been published by AK Press, Zero Books, Jacobin, New Left Review, and others. In case anyone might want to check it out.

    Feel free to cross-post in its entirety if you’d like.

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