Molecular Socialism – A Possible Future for Left Politics
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.