By Kumar David –
A number of factors constrain the functioning of capitalism, at least in the form in which we have known it for about three centuries; the world has reached a tipping point. I am no starry-eyed dreamer forecasting imminent socialism nor a youthful romantic swayed by visions of instant revolution. My case is more plastic and prosaic. I only argue that population dynamics in most parts of the world (Western Africa may be an exception), the change of lifestyle intrinsic in modern technology, exploding productivity (including digitisation, IT, AI, Chat GPT etc), the dire threat of global warming unanimously forecast by the scientific community and its consequences, and environmental degradation cum loss of biodiversity, all of this taken together predicates that an economic arrangement propelled by profit as its raison-d’tre cannot coexist comfortably with this emergent world.
To put it simply I will try to show that de facto twenty-first century social boundaries and an economic order whose primary rationale is profit are in conflict. Capitalism, propelled primarily by markets and profit contradicts the emerging rationalities of the planet. Capitalism as we know it is on life support.
Population: The broadly held view is that the world’s population is too large. In response to this China launched its one-child policy half a century ago and Rajiv Gandhi offered transistor radios as a gift to males who agree to neuter their marbles. (My guru Professor R.H. Raul took the trouble to explain: “This in nonsense you must spade females; castrating males is pointless. If you miss one randy fellow, every bitch in town will be loaded. But every sterilised bitch is one litter less every season”). Demographics cries out for population control but market economics counsels that declining population equals falling demand. What they mean is that the consumer base for the sale of output, and hence realising surplus value, is constrained. Without a market into which goods are sold there is no way that owners of the means of production (capitalists in simpler terms) can gather profits. This is the reason why population decline frightens the captains of capital.
The Communist Party of China, the champion of one-child practices, has done a volte-face and is encouraging population growth in part to enable Provincial Governments and Chinese capitalists to enhance economic market activity. It is, of course, also in part to offset practical problems that an aging population creates such as the need for care-homes and family income pressures arising from an inverted demographic profile when women enter the work force, choose to pursue education or to breed less.
Similar factors are at work all over the world both in developed and poor nations. In some instances, like the USA and Scandinavia it is the practical problems of an inverted population pyramid that is troubling, but in others, it is the realisation of profit that is the concern of capitalist governments and main-stream (bourgeois) economic apologists.
Technology and productivity: True the bourgeoisie has in its brief reign created marvels that put Egyptian pyramids and Chinese Walls to shame. The capitalist mode of production has created conditions that render capitalism itself redundant. The same is true of every previous mode of production the world has passed through. However, the vestiges of all prior social orders remained visible after its demise – for example the remnants of feudalism are visible even in contemporary land tenure. The capitalist mode of production is a powerful one and its rationale will linger long after its domination of society is past. For example, the rationality of competition in efficient distribution of productive and natural resources (what a mess the Soviet command economy made of things), and its easy compatibility with social democracy (China, Cuba and Venezuela are counter examples). Vestiges of the capitalist mode of production will survive till mankind escapes from “the domain of necessity to the domain of freedom”, or to put it in less grandiloquent terms, for a long time.
To return to down to earth technology, IT has come into powerful prominence. One simple yardstick is that large numbers of “arts” degrees in Sri Lanka’s universities now offer an add-on IT option; an IT-minor as it is called elsewhere. Technology is creeping in through every pore. (Unlike the chemistry, physics and biology labs of conventional science, even resource inhibited village schools can offer microprocessors and a small software budget) and younger generations of science teachers are not technology dumbos. The next generation will be techno savvy. My regular three-wheeler driver is damned smart with his handphone in navigating the internet, downloading stuff, knowing when to turn mobile-data on or off and things that were unknown at the time I retired from the engineering deanship of Hong Kong’s largest Engineering Faculty 15+ years ago!
The relevance of all this to my column today is that thanks to the productive powers immanent in social labour and in human ingenuity, and the drive of the capitalist mode of production (thank you) humankind has arrived at a stage where its ability to produce material commodities has brought it to the brink of plenty. Enough milk, butter and agricultural commodities can be produced to feed all the world’s hungry, but cannot be produced because the market will crash due to super abundance and capitalism will self-negate its existence! What a paradox? I should have entitled this essay ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’.
President Ranil’s strategy and the NPP-JVP: I would like to move the discussion a little nearer home and the contradictions and constraints facing President Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) on one side, and social-democrats and leftists on the other side, as the former attempts to fit into formulae prescribed by the IMF and wriggle around an election dilemma. IMF dictates make RW unpopular with the poor but they are clear-cut. An example is that as I predicted long ago the rupee may strengthen to better than 280 to the dollar in the next period. Nevertheless, RW cannot postpone Local and Provincial elections indefinitely; his excuses have already made him an object of ridicule. He seems to have zeroed in on of holding Presidential Elections by about the end of this year as his best strategy. This requires a constitutional amendment to advance the election which is due only in November 2024.
If the ruling parties go along with this gambit and endorse the amendment, can RW defeat the NPP (National Peoples’ Power)-JVP candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake? RW has the support of the elite, the business community, some minority voters, and urban and rural conservatives. Anura will make a strong showing among youthful voters, less privileged castes in certain provinces, radicalised middle-class intellectuals and leftists. It is too early to make predictions but let’s watch how the campaign hots up if RW secures his constitutional amendment. He will of course promise the Rajapaksas the sun and the moon and assure the clan that Namal will be the post-election prime minister and the next presidential candidate. However, the moron can be undercut at the right moment. There are wheels within wheels.
The NPP-JVP’s dilemma is its glaring inability to produce a programme. Many people, this writer included have been demanding a draft for months. Interminable procrastination makes it clear that the NPP is incapable of writing programme on its own. There are comrades and associates of the NPP who can help it to produce intelligible to ordinary people drafts of say 10 pages on any and every critical topic. Jayampathy Wickremeratne (JW) and Lal Wijenayake for example can readily prepare proposals for constitutional amendments; both have been involved in drafting national constitutions. JW belongs to a study circle which should write a 10-page document for wide public education about necessary constitutional changes. We have had a 21-st Amendment, a 22-nd Amendment and I don’t remember what else. The pubic is lost in this asinine maze.
There are youthful economists well qualified to submit economic plans to the NPP’s governing body but they are politically immature and incapable of writing credible programmatic documents. There are dozens of sympathetic economists and technologists, who if they get down to it, can prepare useful drafts but again they are political novices. It’s high time the NPP sets in motion teams to prepare proposals for submission to its decision-making council. Nothing is being done; the NPP is paralysed.
RW’s fear that the NPP-JVP will do better at a parliamentary election than any coalition he can cobble together is correct. Analysts envisage a plurality of seats, say one-third or more, going to the NPP-JVP, and say a quarter of the seats in Parliament to a RW-SLPP alliance. These analysts are dismissive of prospects for Sajith’s SJB – maybe a dozen seats. If we remember that about 25 seats will be won directly by Tamil and Muslim parties, over all the maths adds up to 225.
So, are we looking at a hung parliament? Well that’s the talk and it makes the NPP’s ability to splice together a well-constructed, credible, programme with broad appeal doubly important in winning over allies in the next parliament if it fails to secure an absolute majority by itself as may be the case.
The JVP’s attitude to the minorities is immature. Anura spoke at a well-attended meeting in Jaffna recently and was pleased as punch that the bigwigs of Jaffna politics were in attendance on front row seats. The JVP seems to have made the jackass assumption that Tamils will vote for it in droves even if it says nothing about devolution, redressing grievances of Tamils and Muslims, returning to their owners private Tamil homes occupied and trashed by the military, and the nagging issue of the “disappeared”. The legislation proposed by the RW government to replace the PTA is more draconian than the original. One-time Tamil militants have been imprisoned interminably on flimsy grounds but Anura has made no promise that a JVP government will release them.
Repealing Sinhala Only legislation and repealing the chapter on Buddhism in the Constitution are more complicated. In the interim RW, the shrewd old fox, has issued a flurry of executive orders designed to show the minorities that he is concerned about their worries. Unfortunately, some minority community voters outside the North and East will buy it. The UNP is by far the party of anti-Tamil pogroms (e.g. the 1983 carnage) and the patron of racist cultural outrages (burning the Jaffna Public Library) but because of the influence of conservative Tamil leaders and the gimmicks of the community’s upper castes many Tamil voters follow slavishly.
Neither the UNP nor the JVP will get many Tamil or Muslim votes in the principal areas of these people’s domicile (people will vote for their own kind). In other areas minority communities may vote for RW and/or the UNP because the JVP is making a jackass of itself as mentioned two paras above. As an NPP member I find it depressing. I hope the NPP grandees will bistre themselves and wake up.
[Unspecified apology: Last week in my piece on Edible Economics I borrowed a longish passage about the USA form some source, I cannot recall what source or what portion, nor did I place it within quotation marks. Apologies to my readers, the lost source and anonymous author]