By Saarang Narayan:
In all the textbooks of capitalism and political economy, one will always find the notion that capitalism as an economic system is accompanied by the ideals of ‘Modernity’. These ideals of modernity include democracy, socio-political equality, the rule of law, basic human rights of all citizens, a scientific and rational outlook and so on. In simpler words, capitalism means democracy, science, rationality etc. This is true for most of the capitalist nations of the 20th-century world economy. However, things are changing. Today, it is more or less the opposite.
In the last four decades or so, post-modernism has surfaced as a critique of ‘modernity’. Critics of modernity have problematised thus, the notions of democracy, science, rationality, justice, universality and so on; they assert that “everything that we think has biases and influences. Thus, nothing is black or white; everything is grey.” As an example, we may look at the case of a post-modern critique of human rights.
In essence, human rights are defined to be universally applicable to all humans. However, post-modern critics point out that ‘Western/Modern’ notions of individualism prevailing in human rights decrease the importance of family values and traditional communal relations in countries of Asia and Africa. This example further indicates that post-modernism has had a special place in the academia in the Third World.
In India, post-modernity encompasses similar critiques of all Modern thought as being a “colonial discourse” or “imperialist project”; labeling everything Modern as Eurocentric is the new trend. However, it has brewed a dangerous cocktail. Today, one may be a Hindu and a Feminist at the same time. The wise thing to do today is to locate ‘science’ in our past; to see how our traditions and heritage is as good and scientific as any other nation: the classic postmodern trope. To a certain degree, I concede this.
But this line of thought goes into far more dangerous territory – the Hindu Right. By placing astrology on equal footing with astronomy, for example, scholars like Ashis Nandy created the academic base for the retention of feudal ideals. The answer to questions like why we still live in a caste-based society is simply that we did not go to the end of the path of modernity; we took a detour that just runs in circles. Instead of, say, legally abolishing caste or derecognising politico-religious groups, we created a space for the hyper-assertion of pre-modern identities.
Besides, there has been a new inclusion into this set of pre-modern ideas. This is the idea of nationalism, or ‘rashtravaad’ to be precise. The antecedent of (falsely) asserting the idea of the Indian nation being present in ‘Ancient’ and ‘Medieval’ times is the hyper-nationalist rhetoric. This has found a space in the urban middle-class consciousness.
But where does Capitalism come into the picture?
The biggest event in recent times, where capitalism came under the scanner, is the 2008 crisis. Many believed that the crisis was a window for change; now things will change forever and never be the same again. Indeed, this happened. But it was very different from what was desired. Big industrialists and corporate houses, especially in America, blamed the state for having too much control over the economy; that there was little freedom for the big banks and companies to function. Since they have influence over some of the biggest lobbies in the global political arena, their voice was heard and accepted by all governments. Thus, the mantra for dealing with the crisis has been ‘back to the basics’. Just like the Arya Samajists, the call was for more ‘marketisation’, abolishing all tariff walls, lesser policy control over capital, intensified workers’ exploitation: back to the roots (of Capitalism)! Thus, it left no scope for the Left or for the Keynesians to have a say.
German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk had noted that it is people like Lee Kuan Yew (the late Singaporean Prime Minister) who would be revered in the new century. This is to say that the new style of highly authoritarian capitalism is what almost all countries have to follow to continue with the capitalistic structures. This is what has been called ‘Capitalism with Asian Values’.
The countries that fared through the crisis better were the ones where this authoritarian form of Capitalism functioned undisturbed and unchallenged. Post-2008, virtually all elections across the globe have been won by right-wing parties that are socio-culturally conservative. The free market has now been married to authoritarianism. Therefore, it is of little surprise that, in India, on the one hand, we have the Modi who wants to “Make in India” for the big capitalists, while on the other hand we have the Modi of 2002, the Sangh ‘pracharak’, the Hindu fundamentalist we have for our Prime Minister. This is post-modernism.
Coming back to the point of postmodernity, the dangerous concoction of lesser democracy and greater ‘marketisation’ must not be seen as an anomaly in the story of Capital. In Europe, capitalism led to the breakdown of feudal ties because they undermined the circulation of Capital. Democracy was seen as a natural ally of Capital, creating a new division of labour. However, in India, a division of labour has always existed in the varna-jati system. The lower castes have perpetually been “sacralised into labour.” No other social group has been involved in rendering services to the rest of society like the ‘shudras’. They were the ones who fought the kings’ battles, built royal palaces, imposing forts and awesome temples, tilled the fields, reaped the harvests, cleaned the drains, washed the floors, carried the shit and burnt the dead. Capitalism doesn’t need to break down any ‘feudal’ ties in India. There was no need to create a new proletariat; there always existed a workforce ready to be exploited. There was always a fissure that has now exploded into a volcano. And post-modernism has justified it.
The space created by post-modernism for the justification of ‘ancient knowledge’ and ‘bharatiya sanskriti’ has reasserted pre-modern identities in the market economy of our parochial democracy. Exploitation of the workforce is justified on grounds of vulgar economic nationalism, the disfigured remnant of the resistance to colonialism. The true message behind Make in India is, “be ready to be exploited, this time in the name of our country so that we may become the new hegemon!” As part of this, workers’ rights have slowly and silently been brushed under the carpet; anybody who dares bring it up becomes a Naxalite and a ‘desh-drohi’.
Is it mere coincidence that the Hindu Right emerged as a major political force at the same time that the Liberalisation of the economy took place in 1991? There is enough evidence to point towards the answer. The market and Capital have one simple logic: the generation and reinvestment of profit by any means necessary, under any structure, any socio-political scenario. There is no need for capitalism to be Eurocentric or Modern. The seemingly stagnant “Asian society” is suitable enough for Capital to operate in.
It is time that our criticism of capitalism and the market changed. It is time for a far more radical critique. Capitalism is now playing the game that its critics once began. Post-modernity has opened the doors of the horrors of pre-modern India to pass into today’s world. In demolishing the ‘Eurocentric’ structures of democracy, justice, equality, secularism and the like, the structures of the ancient and medieval world have been resuscitated. This is the night of the living dead, the zombie apocalypse, as it were!
Hence, we must reflect on this. Today’s hyper-permissive capitalism is very liberal on the face. But it is at its heart, most conservative. It may seem like a structure that allows us to live with freedom to express our true identity. But in playing by its postmodern rules, we often forget the excesses involved in our self-identification. Thus, our critique of Capital must be renewed in a radical manner. For as we have seen, asking for smaller, more immediate changes has only led to the strengthening of Capital, rather than its collapse. The 2008 crisis was its true ‘phoenix moment’: rather than burning out, Capitalism has emerged from its own ashes, stronger and meaner. We must sharpen our sickles and ready our hammers while the iron is still hot. The renewed machine is just feeding us fodder and making us fat before it eats all of us up!