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Developmental Crisis and Dialectics of Protest Politics

There is not just a crisis of development today, but also a crisis of ideas for emancipatory forms of development. What is needed from progressives is a rigorous theory that must acknowledge what is present (class exploitation, imperialism, national and social oppression, profit-driven ecological destruction, gross commercialisation of all spheres of human life including culture and social relations) but also what is absent (collective democratic control over our lives, our planet, our bodies, our destiny, our culture). That should be the start of the process of bringing about fundamental changes in the status quo.

COMMENTARY

Developmental Crisis and Dialectics of Protest Politics

Presenting the Absent and Absenting the Present

Raju J Das

in them. An aspect of the development crisis is, to some extent, a crisis at the level of ideas. This crisis is the collective failure among the progressives to rigorously theorise social relations of development itself with an emancipatory content and intent. Is the development crisis due to a democratic deficit, due to an undemocratic relationship between the governed and those who govern, a nontransparent relationship between the

There is not just a crisis of development today, but also a crisis of ideas for emancipatory forms of development. What is needed from progressives is a rigorous theory that must acknowledge what is present (class exploitation, imperialism, national and social oppression, profit-driven ecological destruction, gross commercialisation of all spheres of human life including culture and social relations) but also what is absent (collective democratic control over our lives, our planet, our bodies, our destiny, our culture). That should be the start of the process of bringing about fundamental changes in the status quo.

Raju J Das (rajudas@yorku.ca) is with the department of geography, faculty of liberal arts and professional studies, York University, Toronto, Canada.

T
he crisis talk is ubiquitous. We are living in an age of crisis. There is a global financial crisis. We were told it was over. But it seems another is on the horizon. In poor countries such as India, there is an agrarian crisis. Some scholars are even talking about the agrarian root of the global crisis. There is a crisis of development.

The development crisis – connected as it is to the agrarian crisis – is interesting. It means, among other things, that people cannot simply survive as they have in the past. Many of them are failing to keep their small asset-base intact, slowly selling their tangible resources (e g, land, cattle, etc). Simple reproduction is becoming difficult. Worse, millions are failing to reproduce themselves and their future generation at the current level (or as they have in the recent past). Many people are simply dying premature deaths, due to hunger or semi-hunger conditions: they die due to illnesses caused by material deprivation of various forms. Many “semi-conscious” bearers of the system

– including educated people managing it – often explain starvation-induced illness/death in terms of the absence of knowledge (or in terms of incorrect knowledge) on the part of the dead: that is, they do not possess the knowledge about how to eat and live. Thousands are just giving up living because they cannot carry on living like sub-humans. Animals in imperialist countries are fed much better than millions of people in poor countries. Animals earn a lot more (subsidies) from the system than millions of humans in our world.

Ideas do not create the current material reality in any straightforward, immediate sense. But a set of ideas can act like a material force, when lots of people believe

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state and its (poorer) citizens? Is it due to remnants of feudal-type and caste-based and patriarchal practices? Is it because of the profit-driven system operating at the national and international scales? Is the development crisis happening because imperialism is crushing the social and economic “rights” of the masses? If all these are true, how are they interconnected? Or, are they? What is the main contradiction underlying the development crisis? At what geographical scale should the main contradiction be theorised: local, regional, national or international, or all of these? Is it possible to resolve fully the non-main contradictions without beginning to attack the main contradiction? We are not adequately and dialectically thinking about all this.

Protest Politics

This sort of intellectual failure is associated with a political failure in some circles. People – including sections of the urban youth – want to change things. But this wanting is often, more or less, limited to: “protest politics” and the campaigns against the Poscos, against this or that case of excess in the system, this or that unfair policy of the government, this or that case of corruption. The quality of democracy would be poorer without these protests. These are necessary. Social theoretically, these suggest, as Anthony Giddens once remarked, that humans will always resist oppression unless they are drunk. But there is little indication that these protests are being seen, in theory and practice, as parts of a system of political-intellectual campaigns against a common, or the central, target (i e, use of society’s resources for limitless private gain). There is also little indication that the ubiquitous protest politics is guided by any notion of radical demands:

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demanding all the things that we need (adequate food, shelter, education, healthcare, culture, democratic accountability, political and intellectual freedom, sustainable environment, etc). These are the things we need in order to live like humans and we need these things now. What they – paid political-intellectual managers of the system – think should not affect our conception of what we need. Even secretive violence – or the threat of it – is used by some, as if this can bring macro social change at local, national and global scales and on a permanent basis. As if it is not true that such a change can only happen through activities of the masses themselves who become acutely conscious of the sources of their vulnerabilities and who do not want to live in the old ways any more.

There is a need for an intransigent theory that lays bare the unbending and unyielding character of the current system of economic and political power relations and at the same charts the possibilities of reforms. It must recognise this: concessions are possible to obtain but seen in a proper time-space perspective, every little concession given now and here is taken back there or in another point in time. The temporal and spatial life of the system is much larger than individuals and groups indeed. The theory must also recognise that every material concession is used ideologically to produce consent in the minds of people to the system, consent to the idea that “the system can be reformed, so please be patient”. Notice the contradiction: the system teaches patience, but it itself is based on an incessant process of money-making. We are told that we need to sacrifice our current satisfaction of needs at the altar of the profit-driven market system which will deliver good things in the future. The system is bathed with a passion, with “revolutionary” impatience, impatient to make as much money (even illegally) in as less time as possible. There is no corresponding revolutionary impatience on the part of the oppressed however. In other words: the system (ruled by the 1%) is impatient, but the bottom 99% does not appear to be (or its impatience is sought to be disciplined both by “protest politicians” and coercive organs of

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the state). Underlying the contradiction mentioned above is a deep hiatus between the system’s concept of time and that of the oppressed. For the system (or, more correctly, the 1% which rules it): things have to happen quickly, money has to be made quickly, labour reforms will have to be passed quickly which will allow companies to fire employees freely, and so on. For the 99%, the idea, more or less, is postponism: that we can wait to be fed better; that we can wait to see a completely new world, and that all we can do now is to ask for some reforms. Notice also another contradiction: between greed of the 1% and asceticism of the 99%. The 1% seeks to make as much money as it can and satisfy its most diverse needs for luxuries. And the bottom 99%? It has to be satisfied with less, with small concessions.

The postponism of the majority and its asceticism are not unconnected with how those who seek to speak on behalf of the majority and in their interest theorise the system, in terms of what is the main contradiction underlying the various forms of the crisis of development. Underlying the belief that we can fight for a change here and there is a deeply philosophical inclination towards a combination of empiricism, presentism and reformism/opportunism: a little visible evidence of some concession here, at the present moment, is used to theoretically mean that the system can deliver significant concessions always: what we see – the system being able to deliver some concessions, some progressive legislation – is mistakenly taken by many to be what is real, i e, what is fundamentally true about the system. The durability of the system – its naturalisation – is enormously helped by this kind of thinking, which, ontologically, reduces what is real to what appears to be real.

Underlying many of the campaigns (protest political activities) is this belief in the potential reformability of the system for the good of all in the long run. We forget that: when, for example, a wage increase is won in one place, it may come at the expense of workers elsewhere, or it may come at the expense of worker’s solidarity in situ (a little wage increase can be granted on the ground that workers

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cannot go on a strike or form an independent union). A theory of wage cannot rule out wage increase. Even when wage increase happens at a larger scale than in a few companies or locally, i e, even if it happens, say, nationally, we must understand two things. One is this that, as Marx remarks in Capital Volume 1 (Chapter 25), it “only means, in fact, that the length and weight of the golden chain the wage-worker has already forged for himself, allow of a relaxation of the tension of it”, that we reproduce ourselves as slightly better-fed slaves who help the property owners accumulate their wealth. The increase in wages “can never reach the point at which it would threaten the system itself”. The system sets the limit on how good our life can be. As soon as the rise in wages interferes with the normal rate of profitmaking, wages start falling. “The rise of wages therefore is confined within limits that not only leave intact the foundations of the capitalistic system, but also secure its reproduction on a progressive scale”. After winning some wage increase due to both favourable circumstances of accumulation and a certain d egree of unionisation, American workers in the auto-industry are now forced to sell themselves for almost half the wage they were used to receive.

A New Theory

What is needed is a theory that is systemic and multi-scalar. This theory must recognise not only what is present (e g, class exploitation, imperialism, national and social oppression, profit-driven ecological destruction, gross commercialisation of all spheres of human life including culture and social relations) ontologically at various levels (i e, levels of structural mechanisms and empirical events, as Roy Bhaskar has stressed), and only this sort of recognition of the present can escape from empiricism (the idea that what is visibly seen is real). This theory must also recognise what is absent (e g, collective democratic control over our lives, our planet, our bodies, our destiny, our culture). The theory must acknowledge explanatorily that what is present is the main cause of what is absent. The theory must therefore recognise politically

COMMENTARY

that what is “absent” has to be presented and what is present has to be absented. And this theorisation has to be performed at multiple scales, and most specifically, nationally and internationally, and with a sensitivity towards the longer timescale at which the system’s tendencies, the mechanisms, operate. Is there a whole lot in between these absenting and presenting practices, in the longer term? Dialectically seen, has the humanity created a possibility for anything really significant between individualist control and collective control, between making money for the sake of money (even fictitious money) and the satisfaction of democratically-defined human needs?

The fight for concessions – including democratisation of the government – is enormously worthwhile. It is worth it if it increases the fighting power of the poor-majority for the ultimate absenting of the present. Surely, someone who has not eaten for days cannot be expected to fight against a law that bans abortion rights or right to form a union. Immediate relief is important. Concessions are also worth fighting for if the process of fighting inculcates an awareness among the masses that there are strong limits to what is possible to gain within the system and if they train the masses the political and intellectual skills necessary to fight (and to manage a different future world: consider how Wall Street occupiers set up public libraries, public healthcare system, public eating places, and so on). Intellectually, progressives can intellectually assess the significance of the fight for reforms on these (and perhaps other similar) grounds. Politically, they can encourage reforms on these and other similar grounds (and of course, the pursuit of reforms must happen through proper organisational means to bear the fruits). But these intellectual and political tasks presuppose the following recognition: the need for the fight for concessions in/ from the system is informed by a proper theory of the system itself. To theorise the system is to unpack its logic of operation, the mechanisms and tendencies.

We should remember that we live in a world where wealth is produced for moneymaking, where we will feed ourselves as long as we feed the system with money, where we work as long as we live and live as long as we work. In the current arrangements, our everyday activities as a species are not directly geared towards the satisfaction of our manifold needs as humans. Therefore, when concessions are given, it is not necessarily because the system wants to satisfy our needs. Much rather it is because the system is a little fearful of the masses (turning more revolutionary). Sometimes even the ultra-rich can ask to be taxed a little, or taxed a little more than they usually are, or they ask for being regulated a little by the government. All this self-abnegation happens purely because of their fear of possible “negation of negation” (expropriation of the expropriators). This temporary self-denial on the part of the ruling elite happens because of their anxiety about their future, not about ours. In other words, concessions are given by the elite to keep the system going so that the product of our work can continue to be taken away from us. Concession-giving is really the opposite of what it appears to be. It is not giving. It is taking. Everything stands on its head in this modern class-divided world, which, as Terry Eagleton has famously argued in his Ideology, as has Slavoj Zizek, has an enormous capacity to create false ideas in our minds. Concessions are a small part of the system. The system determines – sets limit on (in the language of Raymond Williams) – the manner, the form, the magnitude, the timing and spacing of the concessions. Concessions are not an indicator of the goodness or legitimacy of the system. A few benefits wrung from the system do not change much the fundamental character of the system, any more than a few pieces of falling hair make a person bald. Such is the law of quantity and quality in dialectics. And there have been fewer and fewer of these benefits anyway in the recent past.

REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIES
October 22, 2011
Subverting Policy, Surviving Poverty: Women and the SGSY in Rural Tamil Nadu – K Kalpana
Small Loans, Big Dreams: Women and Microcredit in a Globalising Economy – Kumud Sharma
Women and Pro-Poor Policies in Rural Tamil Nadu: An Examination of Practices and Responses – J Jeyaranjan
Informed by Gender? Public Policy in Kerala – Seema Bhaskaran
Addressing Paid Domestic Work: A Public Policy Concern – Nimushakavi Vasanthi
Reproductive Rights and Exclusionary Wrongs: Maternity Benefits – Lakshmi Lingam, Vaidehi Yelamanchili
Reinventing Reproduction, Re-conceiving Challenges:
An Examination of Assisted Reproductive Technologies in India – Vrinda Marwah, Sarojini N
For copies write to:
Circulation Manager,
Economic and Political Weekly,

320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. email: circulation@epw.in

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