A Twist in the Tale, or the New Copernican Revolution

KAFILA.ORG Even as the rejection of Vedanta’s application to mine in Niyamgiri is being widely hailed as a victory for tribal rights, there is of course one set of very predictable voices, which has leapt in to start damage control for their corporate heroes. Thus one such cheerleader of Capital tells us that the ‘real twist’ in the script is that the ‘denial of bauxite mining in Niyamgiri’ can mean disaster for the future of a poor region and a poor state!

On the other hand, a statement by the Campaign for Survival and Dignity – a platform of tribal and forest dwellers’ organizations from all over the country has hailed the decision, arguing that: “The project’s main problem was that it violated the Forest Rights Act’s provisions requiring ‘recognition of habitat and community forest rights’ and the consent of the gram sabha prior to taking forest land. This sounds like technical legalisms. But the basic point is that, under the law, the Dongria Kondhs have the power to protect and manage their forests and lands. Simple, but unprecedented; it has never happened before.”

For our scribe however, the “really nuanced” stories of Niyamgiri are not those of the tribals and forest dwellers. They come from “the likes of Raju Sahu who came from Bihar to Kalahandi 10 years ago and runs four tea/food stalls on the state highway that links Lanjigarh – where Niyamgiri and the Vedanta factory are situated – to Bhawanipatna, the district HQ”. Sahu apparently told our journalist-investigator that his business has more than trebled in the last four years since Vedanta started operations there. This is true for any big economic enterprise that gets set up – a large number of small businesses sprout up around it. There would be as many stories about poor people who benefited from the life that grew up around say, giant public sector units – the end of which is celebrated by these cheerleaders of Capital. Will the perishing of those small businesses as a fall-out of the closure of PSU’s be accepted by our nuanced story-teller as a justification for the continuation of PSU’s? Never. For we know that there are always different standards for judging the merits of corporate marauders. You can tell even before you start reading a column by a Shekhar Gupta or a Tavleen Singh or a Saubhik Chakrabarti, what is coming – be it Niyamgiri, Bhopal and Union Carbide, the loot of the Commonwealth Games or the studied silence on matters relating to DIAL and GMR. And sometimes, just sometimes, we happen to know why…

A tribal Arcadia?

But let us return to our story-teller. Asks the incredulous scribe – Can we assume a tribal arcadia? Can Orissa afford the Niyamgiri decision? The two questions do not have any logical connection really. They are linked together by virtue of the fact that in the questioner’s mind, they are part of the same deal. The new consumption utopia of the vulgar globalizing Indian elite is the missing link between the two. Logically speaking, the second question should precede the first, for it is only by first positing that we need to loot and destroy all our natural resources for the sake of an opulent life for some people, can one really even begin to raise the first question. Who will decide about whether there is or is not, should be or should not be, a ‘tribal arcadia’? Who else but those who believe that unbridled consumption is the future that all humanity wants and must want. It is a different matter of course, that these Kalidasas of the modern age cannot even begin to see that this amounts to cutting the very branch that they are sitting on. But this is where the aggressive possessive individualism of neoliberalism comes in useful, for it preaches blind self-aggrandizement. It is a crime in its universe to think of the well-being of others in this or in future generations for example. Just enjoy the loot now; after all, in the long run, you will be dead!

Two other ‘twists’ which are listed, which suggest that “real” tribal interests are not being allowed to come forth in this game where protesters in faraway London romantically staging James Cameron’s Avatar, don the garb of the “Na’vi” and champion the cause of forest dwellers. The author suggests that if the ‘real’ desire’ of the tribals is allowed to come out, then they will all ‘naturally’ opt for the Raju Sahu way. They want to live our lives, don’t they? It is only these romantic radicals (the infamous jholawalas), who are holding the poor tribals prisoners in their state of backwardness!

(Think of the great editorials and columns of the Indian Express – this is the theme song).

“Suffer for the nation”

The real twists lie elsewhere. First: The championing of the tribals’ supposed desire for washing machines and cars cynically ignores the fact that their dispossession is not going to get them anywhere near that desire. In the last 60 plus years, we have amassed a figure of over 21 million (and still counting), of those who have been sacrificed at the altar of Capital. In earlier days there was no pretense. Nehru could candidly call upon the peasants and tribals to ‘suffer for the nation’; he did not pretend that things would be to their own benefit. This small twist IE-style, is a part of a neo-liberal lie – one that has become the most blatant justification of perhaps the most predatory episode of loot and dispossession in human history.

Basically there are two arguments for industrialization in this neo-liberal arsenal: (1) the employment (and progress) argument and (2) the efficiency argument. And never are the two deployed simultaneously.

The employment/ progress argument is deployed when people have to be dispossessed of their land. Characteristically, it is argued that industrialization is necessary for generating employment and more importantly, for progress, so that people may rise above mere subsistence level existence – and for that, such immediate dispossession is a minor price to pay. (Since those making the argument never have to pay a phuti kauri, what does it matter who pays and how much?)

Once the industry is in place, the efficiency or profitability argument that kicks in. Now it is argued that industry is not meant to provide employment – it must compete in the global market and for that to happen, it must shed ‘flab’ – that is to say, the workforce (whose wage-bill is a drain on the corporations’ profits). So, even assuming for a moment that the tribals want to ape the lifestyles of the vulgar New Delhi elite, there is no chance in hell that they are going to get there.

But there is another reason they are not going to get there: they don’t want to, as we shall see below. This is not to say that they do not ever want education or some of the benefits of modern life but they might if we were to reverse the logic of payment of costs and make the elite pay for improving the lives of the poor tribals. Doesn’t that sound just?

At any rate, we are rapidly discovering that despite a some centuries of capitalism, large parts of the world simply do not seem to want to go that way. At least, that is the experience of postcolonial capitalism – bad news for our neo-liberals and the cheerleaders of Capital who are waiting for British history to replay on Indian and ‘third world’ soil. Very simply: the vision presented by the IE author is completely and thoroughly outdated. These people talk of the Left as something that is passe, as belonging to some remote past; they have yet to realize that, having drunk at the same source, they too are at least as outdated as the Old Left – to use their own metaphor of linearity.

The Myth of Homo Economicus

Modern economics rests on the well-known assumption that private enterprise and free market are the most rational economic arrangements because they conform to the most basic instincts of human beings – namely, the acquisitive instinct. If recent scholarship shows one thing beyond any shadow of doubt, it is that there is nothing natural or rational or spontaneous about capital(ism). It shows, further, that there is nothing ‘free’ about the capitalist market. Histories of labour and of the inculcation of work discipline in Europe and Britain, had already shown how ‘labour’ was not simply released from agriculture and employed in industry in some smooth and natural process. Already, in Capital Volume I, Marx had discussed the way the Poor Laws and laws on vagabondage (and the extreme violence they entailed) had functioned to discipline and subjugate labour. Foucault’s studies (especially, Discipline and Punish and History of Madness) showed us how the Great Confinement worked and how the emergence of new disciplines and disciplinary apparatuses and practices worked to produce workers as persons with minimum needs – as docile bodies. The scholarly literature on this field is simply too huge to be recapitulated here.

Later scholarship has demonstrated that not only was ‘labour’ produced through elaborate mechanisms of power, the consumer too was not simply waiting to buy washing machines and cars. The history of consumption and of the production of the consumer too shows how elaborate have been the mechanisms that went to bring forth the consumer – and how much anxiety still continues to surround the precariousness of this mode of being. The huge and exponential expansion of the advertising industry, alongside the rise of what Guy Debord called the ‘society of the Spectacle’ and what Baudrillard called the simulacrum and the hyperreal (the media, advertising etc practically dissolving the order of the real/representation), the lure of credit, the constant beckoning to the individual to become consumer – all point to the same anxieties.

A case in point is the recent debate (September 2009) sparked off by the austerity measures introduced by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, in the wake of the recession in the global economy. These measures, quite mild in themselves, and quite farcical at one level, entailed some shortlived curtailment of expenditure by officials and elected representatives. Sections of the corporate media, that have been actively campaigning for probity in public life and have often exposed the unnecessary squandering of public money by government officials, however, went into a tizzy this time. As our favourite English daily, the Indian Express, put it in an agitated editorial comment, ‘the concern is that now a nominally reformist party and government are trapped into a spiral of moral “correctness” that is rapidly taking on anti-aspiration, anti-“rich” overtones.’ The fear, as the editorial correctly noted, was not about certain party leaders wanting to live simply; it was that in some indirect way, ‘austerity’ and ‘simplicity’ were being exalted. In other words, this step was sending out a message that could potentially discourage consumption. We could ask, if some people want to live in luxury, it is indeed their prerogative, but why all this anxiety about others who want to live in simplicity? The answer of course, is that were this to happen and more and more people were to start enjoying a simple life, the ‘economy’ would be in crisis. For some people to live their obscene lives, the myth of the consuming and self-maximizing individual must be maintained.

In fact, the entire history of modern capitalism is shot through with this anxiety – of producing the true consumer. All through the 20th century, attempts have gone on to ensure that people, especially the workers, consume in a ‘rational’ way.

So, neither labour nor consumption are natural proclivities of the individual. But that is not all. The work of Hernando de Soto, lionized by the neoliberals, and whose services have been enlisted by the government of India recently, indicates to the discerning that even accumulation is not a natural proclivity of human beings. For the burden of his song has been that capitalism has failed everywhere except in the West. And this while the poor all over the non-Western world have ‘accumulated’ huge wealth, shown amazing spirit of enterprise to the extent that often the wealth of the poor is far larger than what is there in capital markets. But alas! says de Soto, all this is dead capital because people do not want to invest these resources (say their houses), put them up as securities and so on. Of course, his argument is that this is because of faulty property systems which – to cut to the point – are still mired in forms of property that are not bourgeois. They are not based on individual ownership, which can facilitate sale and purchase; they are based on ‘archaic’ notions of ownership (common property, family property etc). But the point is that this creation of bourgeois property is not something that comes without the use of force – it is not simply a matter of recording and representing actually existing property forms into deeds and titles, as de Soto seems to suggest. If one were to follow de Soto’s argument – which I think tells us a fundamental truth about capital – it is only through a massive, often violent, process of state intervention, the incorporation of the ‘informal’ economy into the formal, can accumulation of capital actually take the form it did in the West. Thus,

Lesson 1: Capitalism and private property are a state project from the beginning to the end. They have nothing to do with the natural proclivities of human beings. On the contrary, where capital has achieved dominance, it has been through the violence of the state. Liberation from capital can only be based on liberation from its work discipline and its predatory bid to colonize life itself.

The Copernican Revolution

More importantly, something else has happened in the last couple of decades – what Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute called the new Copernican Revolution. The original Copernican revolution, inaugurated in 1543 with the publication of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, completely transformed our sense of the world by making us aware that it was not the earth that was the centre of the universe but rather the sun. It nevertheless took 200 years for this model to replace the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe – and this, when there were no direct material interests involved in holding on to the old model. That was the combined force of ignorance and prejudice.

The new Copernican revolution that has now been underway for sometime, does something similar in relation to our understanding of the social world. The disciplinary knowledges of the 19th century, especially political economy/ economics and marxism colluded in instituting the economic as the larger totality of which the ecology was a mere subset (as natural resources to be mined and exploited for human consumption). The new Copernican revolution completely reverses that order. It tells us that, on the contrary, it is the economy that is a subset of ecology rather than the other way round. Global warming, climate change and the serious energy crisis facing today’s world underline this fact as never before. So much so that important economists and even neo-liberal propagandists like Thomas Friedman have now begun to recognize the impact of this revolution. But such is the combination of prejudice, ignorance and material interests that propaganda machines like the Indian Express work overtime to peddle lies about this crucial question. On an earlier occasion, we have commented upon its lies in the case of say, the Green revolution and the water crisis of Punjab. But there are many such instances – and this is not the only newspaper or news channel indulging in such propaganda with the complicity of sections within government.

What this change of paradigm (the new Copernican revolution) demands of us is nothing short of a rethinking of the fundamentals of economics itself – including its notions of externalities. Costs of production can no longer be calculated by merely adding up wage bills and costs of raw materials, for example. They must include the costs of polluting and depleting the water resources of Plachimada (in the case of Coca Cola), of the damage done to lives of generations of people in Bhopal (in the case of Union Carbide). Costs must include the costs of water and air pollution, of dangers posed to the health of the unsuspecting populace in the vicinity of industries. And given the history of the last two decades of loot with impunity of public and common resources, let it be clear, there can be no argument left in favour of unrestrained private enterprise. As we have said, ‘free market’ was the biggest fraud propagated by Capital and its apologists. The question however, is not one of replacing private with state enterprises but of placing private enterprise – especially corporations – under the strictest regulations of the sort that Vedanta has ultimately been subjected to.

Lesson 2: Economics and economists can no longer preside over a truth they claim to be objective, and decide what is best for the world. The days of unrestrained corporate capitalism are over and the most vicious battles of coming decades will have to be fought on the matter of reclaiming the world from its vampire-like grip. The new battles are about decolonizing life from the stranglehold of blood-sucking capital.

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