By Kumar David –
The reason for borrowing the title of Marcel Proust’s seven volume autobiography is to contrast the extraordinarily different scene in which the world finds itself on this Christmas Day with the left’s halcyon days of the 1960s and 70s, through which we, the post NM, Colvin, Pieter, Dr Wicks, second generation passed. Two features of today’s universe of are the rebuff of “actually existing capitalism” at the hands of swathes of the world’s population, and concomitantly, the rise of new-populism. I have often drawn attention to the latter but it took Brexit, Trump, defeat at the Italian referendum and resignation of Mateo Renzi and the impending danger of a Le Penn presidency to get mainstream commentators to wake up. I used many stratagems to draw attention to this unprecedented trend; fractal symmetry of left and right, return of a neo-Mussolini phenomenon, blinkered nativism, throwback from internationalism, and the Trump bedlam-index. Nevertheless I refused to equate this upsurge of nihilism with the lunacy of inter-war fascism because it is not a farcical rerun of a previous tragedy; it is something new and must be confronted as such.
Now great names add their handwringing to that which only few outside the Marxist left foresaw. One is Stephen Hawking of cosmological fame writing recently in the Guardian.
“Whatever we might think about the decision by the British electorate to reject membership of the European Union and by the American public to embrace Donald Trump, there is no doubt in the minds of commentators that this is a cry of anger by people who felt abandoned by their leaders; the moment when the forgotten spoke, finding their voices to reject experts and the elite everywhere. I warned before the Brexit vote that it would damage scientific research in Britain, that a vote to leave would be a step backward. The electorate took no more notice of me than of political leaders, trade unionists, artists, scientists, businessmen and celebrities.
Should we, in turn, reject this as an outpouring of crude populism and circumscribe the concerns it represents? That would be a terrible mistake. The underlying concerns about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are understandable. We need to put this alongside the financial crash which brought home that a very few individuals in the financial sector accrue huge rewards and that the rest underwrite that success and pick up the bill when their greed goes astray. We are living in a world of widening, not diminishing inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living disappearing. It is no wonder that they are searching for a new deal which Trump and Brexit appear to represent”.
Hawking is famed as cosmologist not political commentator, nor can he supplant Einstein as a consistent spokesman on public affairs. The old sockless relativist was a diehard socialist who never hid this agenda in a black-hole. Hawking is not wrong, but his solutions are platitudes. Is it not clear that the time for good intentions and noble words is past? He says, “We must work together, break down barriers, share more, leaders must care more”. Instead must not the substance of economy and society change? It is repetitious for me to preach the futility of the liberal agenda and boring for you to tune into the old song, but aren’t we past anything less than social change unless we want the world to blow up in our face?
“Those were the days my friend . . .
You cannot open any grandee economics page in the press today but see a lament on the failure of the global system; the opposite of what we have been force-fed for decades. It amazes me that the great and the mighty of established economics are competing with each other to stand on their heads! Events have emphatically verified that the working and lower-middle classes are in revolt. Though liberals are lost at the crossroads, their wailing about a hopelessness predicament is a response to real conditions. To borrow from another context, the anger and the anguish of the new-populists “is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. It is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions”. But the rage and nihilism of new-populism is hopeless; it has no programme, it will be pulverised on the rocks of internationalism and globalisation.
Has Modi let the gene out of the bottle?
A sign of unstable times is that things start for one reason but other imperatives push it to another goal. Consider Modi’s demonetisation and ponder where it may end. To people of my genre it’s odd to be on the same side as Modi on anything. Isn’t he the chap who vowed unmitigated capitalism nationally on the Gujarat model? Wasn’t he complicit in anti-Muslim carnage? Didn’t he start life in the RSS? Yes to all three! But the world does not pan-out according to a pre-set script. Where the genie Modi has released will lead is not predictable; it will run beyond his control; its impact could destroy or lionise him. He is quivering on the brink of orgasm and cannot pull back.
An op-ed in China’s state-run Global Times said, “More time is needed to see if Modi’s new policy will turn into a huge blow against corruption in India. The hard truth is that the corrupt and fraudulent don’t conduct shady deals using cash only, but with gold, real estate and overseas assets”. This echoes what I have been saying from mid-November. He will be forced by upsurge and conflict to go after black property transactions, hidden treasure and Swiss bank accounts. The passions whipped up cannot be side tracked. Modi’s official web-poll claims 90% support for demonetisation, independent sites say 55%. I am at a loss how to square either with horror stories of desperation and death in queues. My Indian leftie friends are quaintly predictable and piously averse to the empirical – “stats are bogus, BJP election gains an aberration”! They see their country as the land of the oddest rope tricks.
The loadstar and the phases of the moon
There is a seamless flow between things past and future. To some of us, physically, these are the final hours of the dance of death but to the great universal, global crisis is the forerunner of the mysterious power of life to recover from what has been taken away. Let me locate the passage of time in personal signposts. It was 63 years ago that I was drawn to Samasamajism by the 1953 Hartal; it was 46 years ago that I joined a dozen others in Vama Samasamajaya. There have been huge local and global changes since; much has changed, but much has not. One personal lodestar has been constant; I have remained a Marxist. I have not for one moment thought it necessary to drop historical materialism as an analytical category, the dialectic as a science, or internationalism as my orientation. I have become a more profound (pardon the smugness) Marxist as I deepened the ways in which I thought. But abandon Marxism – no ways, perish the thought, nothing else seems half way as plausible. What has been gratifying in these years is bridging the two halves of my intellectual being; Marxism and Science.
. . . we thought would never end”
While the loadstar stayed bright the phases of the moon have been ever changing. Revolutions rose and fell, the global and domestic left drifted into recess and there is need for clarity about socialism. Gamini Kulatunga said of my 18 December piece: “Your pose the question Whither Socialism? Socialism is withering not in the sense of withering away but as prelude to a new birth. To borrow a metaphor from tea manufacturing, withering is followed by fermentation to yield quality tea. Change is the only constant, so I fondly believe socialism is also withering positively”. This is fine but can one say with a little more concrete content what this future socialism will turn out to look like?
I see three concrete options. One, expanding social democracy where the productive powers of society, not just consumable output but material and financial power, transit to an expanding circle of the populace. Two, is the revolutionary overthrow of the state and proletarian seizure of power (classic Leninism) and the third option is prolonged state-capitalism – China style. If liberal capitalism is in existential decline these are three conceivable alternatives. The leaf must mature into elegant broken orange pekoe, or full bodied red for working-class kahata, or green leaf to gulp from China-porcelain.
Two questions arise and the former does not pre-empt the latter; (a) what do we prefer and (b) what will the objective correlation of forces compel upon us, our wishes notwithstanding. The middle option is no longer viable; the world has changed in the century since 1917. So it’s social democracy or state-capitalism. In advanced nations creeping social democracy will erode capitalism, not in a straight line as the perils of new-populist diversions warn, but in the long-run (Keynes was wrong). State capitalism will engulf less developed parts of the world where capitalism was dead before birth and social democracy too rarefied to take root yet. However with the shrinkage of the globe into a unified polity, state-capitalism and its ancillary, authoritarianism, will wither away.
One is asked “What is socialism according to Marx? What did he envisage?” and the simple truth is that apart from axioms and quips he laid down no blueprint or draft. If you collect everything Marx said about the socialist future and collate it, you will be hard pressed to come up with half an A4 sheet – and this from the man whose (with Engels) complete works (MEGA), will reach 120 volumes when done. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (probably lifted from the Acts of the Apostles); “Free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”; “Capital is the property of all members of society”; the usufruct of the fruits of social labour belong to all; classless society and withering away of the state (same thing); abolition of countries and nationality, and a few other epigrammatic one-liners. That’s it! (Ch. 2 of the Manifesto is a tame set of transitional demands).
Marx did not lay out an outline for what society should be in 150 years. The promises and packages of governments go belly-up within 150 days of taking office these days! Perspectives are the Marxists signposts; values the guidelines, and the indispensable third ingredient is intelligence. The seventh (last) volume of Proust’s autobiography was Time Regained. What the first and second generation of the left marched for is evergreen; time is eternally regained. Those were the days my friend but right now these too are no less days my friends. I remain confident that the perspectives, signposts and values of socialism remain not one jot less relevant today than on 18 December 1935 or the halcyon days of the 1960s and 70s, so let me wish you a Merry Christmas on this sprightly note.