Friday, January 25, 2008

Civil Society Movements and Political Parties

Capitalism and Future of Democracy:A Debate-Part Three

N P Chekkutty: I would like to return to a critical issue of the democratic practice: The role of civil society organizations vis a vis the political parties.

While the existence of the dichotomies of the micro/macro worlds is fine, what seems to be a disturbing phenomenon is the way these micro level efforts trying to upstage or even subvert the larger political process. I am not going to any examples, but recently while going through the IMF/WB discussion papers I saw (World Bank president) Wolfenshon paying glowing tributes to some women’s groups in Andhra Pradesh. Nothing wrong with it, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable knowing fully well about the political agenda behind most of these organizations.

So the question is, who is there to monitor these groups, who are they accountable to?

Let me give an example from our own neighborhood. I used to report from Wayanad for almost 20 years and I have seen the growth of a large number of civil society groups there in these years. Many funded and promoted by church, some by Hindutva forces and others seemingly secular. They were very active in most of the areas and in the process have effectively edged out the political parties.

But what is the net gain of their work? In Wayanad, there has been no improvement in the life of the people. The larger the number of NGOs, the more the number of suicides there.

John Samuel: Good question! First and foremost, these formations, groups, or institutions (which people variously call NGOs, CSOs, Voluntary Organizations, etc) are very heterogeneous. The one thing you can generalize about them is that they can not be generalized. Like there are political parties of all colours and character, these formations too represent the contradictions, tensions, identities and ideological flux. There is a whole history of this process (I have explained this in detail in my book on Social Action: An Indian Panorama) in India and elsewhere and such process has different trajectories. As I have mentioned earlier, I consider such formations as transitional bridges, whenever there is any flux in terms of political process and ideological formations. We are at the moment going through a flux and hence they are relevant (whether someone like them or not). They are even called the Fifth-Estate.

Such process has more than two hundred years of history in India. Organizations like Anti-Slavery International has played a historic role in changing the politics of the world. In the early stages, even socialist and communist parties were very small formations.

The new institutionalized and funded NGOs are also are very, very diverse- in their character, purpose and programmes. So it is not easy to paint all of them with one brush. Also, just because some one has praised some NGO does not necessarily mean that they are bad. While there are indeed some very good NGOs, there are bad ones too (like any other field). There are good newspapers and bad ones. There are good editors and bad ones.

N P Chekkutty: When we launched this debate on capitalism and democracy we started out from a gloomy premise: The (near) impossibility of any radical societal change as Zizek seems to point out (at least that is what I gathered from his article.) Capitalism emerged victorious with its twin sisters, an open and competitive market and liberal democracy. But today, it seems both are facing a reversal as we can see from the wave of protectionism even from the ' liberal' west, and the rising trend of shock and awe tactics. The other hope, socialism, is dead and peacefully buried too.

If one were to look back at the history of democracy, it would appear that it was generally moving forward, from the days of Magna Carta to French Revolution, to the parliamentary system and to more and more liberal ideals like universal human rights. Of course there were setbacks, but they were overcome.

Now from the way things appear, it would seem that the world is going beyond this phase of liberal democracy. No takers for it any longer. Everywhere, the liberal is a species facing threat, a species on the verge of extinction. It is the age of bigots that we see ahead.

So for any politically conscious person, it would appear that this is an age of losing hope, or at best, hoping against hope. If democracy, the last hope, fails what lies ahead?

N C Narayanan: About post modern discourse, it is like the question of 'development'. In post- development debates, we bury the possibilities of 'development' totally and then it becomes a question of development Vs anti-development or post-development. In post-development debates, even the idea of development is taken as subversive and equated to westernization and global capitalism. Though I would go with it to an extent (taking their arguments of environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, etc), this is an extreme position.

To one of my teachers, once I told that I'm pessimistic. His answer was that "You can afford to be pessimistic but not many can. They might have to struggle and dream of a better tomorrow". I think this was a lesson to me to be a structuralist again. I agree with you.

John Samuel: 1. While Zizek has made some valid points, I do not agree with many of his conclusions.

2. As I have mentioned earlier, I believe that we are in the midst of a profound transitions, in terms of ideas, ideological premises, mode of governance, forms of mobilization, etc.

3. As a student of history, I noted that: Mode of technology often determines the mode of communication. The mode of communication determines the mode of thinking. The mode of thinking influences the mode of action. In the years to come, we will feel this more.

4. Few years ago, this kind of discussions would have been impossible. Many of us who are in different parts of the world, involved in different professions, are sharing a space debating, discussing and challenging each other. These too can change the world!

5. The idea of World Social Forum emerged through series of discussions on the net-- soon after the mobilization in Seattle against WTO. As someone who has been involved in such discussions and also mobilizations (Challenging WTO in Seattle, Cancun, Doha and Hong Kong; being a part of the WSF process from the very beginning; and instrumental in organizing Anti-war protest and GCAP), I do not agree with Zizek. There has been substantial change in the Latin America. More than seven governments came in the name of socialism. Tony Blair had to go. Bush is on his way out! Of course, none of them may look like revolution...

6.Yes, the role of political parties have changed. In a liberal democratic set up, political parties are very important -- as they are the chief instruments/institutions to capture state power and sustain state power. But politics is too important to be left to politicians or political parties alone. In the last decades, most of the important legislations emerged out of the non-party political process: Right to Information, Tribal Land Rights Bill, Bill to Stop Domestic Violence, Right to Education, NREGA and many.

7. The digital democracy initiative is also powerful. The entire campaign against Multilateral Agreement on Investment ( MAI) on trade was fought and won on the net. I am happy that I was the one who initiated the campaign against MAI in Asia.

There is an interesting book by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe – ‘The Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’. This book first published in 1985 actually predicted many of the political developments and suggested ways and means for a socialist strategy.

8. In fact, world is at the beginning of an economic turn down, and there will be substantial shift in the political process in India and elsewhere in the next ten years. In India, coalition politics has actually strengthened the quality of democracy.

So I still remain optimistic -- as a participant observer -- in the business of influencing and changing the world. Still not being apologetic about Socialism!

NP Chekkutty: Well, I can see John chuckling at me, the diehard socialist from the 19th century in an age of post-modern political discourse. But I remain an unashamed socialist partisan.

The basic thing, for me, is that the fundamental principle of socialist world view-- the idea of class struggle-- still remains valid. For me, the key to understand the riddles of history and society is the dialectical way, and in this confusing period I am hopeful that Marxism will regain its lost glory once again.

Having said this, I fully agree with the point that human thinking is shaped and influenced by the level of technology available in a given society. It was true in the days of Guttenberg and is true in the days of internet. But that in no way nullify the validity of historical and dialectical materialism.

John Samuel: Dear Chekkutty, we have come to the crux of the matter.

Socialism can mean different things to different people. For me it is an ideal towards creating a political system and policy framework that would ensure 1) Dignity and Equality of all human beings irrespective of caste, creed, gender and location; 2) Economic, Social and Ecological Justice; 3) Right to live with a sense of dignity; 4) Realization of all human rights to all people; 5) Accountability of the State to People; 6) Just and Democratic Governance. While I do not have anything against private property, I am against accumulation of wealth at the cost of others and monopoly of power, military and market. I do not think that Statism is Socialism. Hence I am more of a democratic socialist.

While I am immensely influenced by some of the writings of Marx, I do not believe in a Gospel according to Marx-- neither I think Marx got the last word about the dynamics of human history. His analytical model (dialectical materialism) is very valid in social, political and historical analysis. I have immense respect for Marx, the way I respect Newton or Einstein or Foucault. But I consider him the product of the 19th century economic, political and knowledge milieu.

When was the "glorious" period of Marxism, and where? But let us also not forget that some of the worst atrocities in the history of the world was also committed in the name of Marxism. Pol Pot too claimed that he was a Marxist. Stalin too was a Marxist. The North Korean leader also swears in the name of Marx, the same way his father used to do. When we make a Prophet or God out of a scholar or a thinker, that is a bit of a tragedy at least in terms of the integrity of human search.

The notion of class has undergone tremendous change-- due to number of factors-- in a post-industrial, service economy and information revolution. So the whole dream about ‘class struggle’ and ‘withering away of state’, etc, need further thinking in the changing context

So I am all for the ideals of Marx, Lenin, Gramsci and Che. They were all relevant in their own time and there are many things that need to be learned from them. But I do not consider Marx as the "Last Prophet", I consider him as a scholar and thinker who was also in the business of dreaming, influencing and changing the world!

N P Chekkutty: I leave the last word (and the last laugh) to my dear friend John.

But not without this caveat: Marxism is not the ideology of the ruling classes whether in USSR, China, Korea or Bengal...).
It is the world view of the oppressed and the exploited. It will remain so.

M P Chandrasekharan: So, for the last laugh: If you want more and more people to be Marxist, more and more people should be oppressed. Is that what you mean?

N P Chekkutty: Dear Prof. Chandrasekharan, Sorry for the confusion caused by my off the cuff remark. I did not mean anything like that.

What I meant, and do believe, is this: John had made a scathing criticism of our contemporary experience, the Marxism of praxis in the Socialist bloc, the one we know as the ideology of the ruling class in many places. It is the one the world rejected in the nineties. Djilas described them as the New Class, decades ago. What he said is absolutely true, I have no answer to it. What he referred to are more than devilish experiences of the mankind. So I was just accepting defeat on this point and saying goodbye.

Still, like Oscar Wilde, I could not resist the temptation of making a last remark: That Marxism for me, is something much more than a creed used, misused and wantonly abused by a group of power crazy buggers. For me Marxism is the revolutionary creed of the oppressed and the exploited, and that will remain so till the day there is a class society where human beings are exploited and oppressed by other human beings. That is the glory of Marxism to me.

R V G Menon: There is no denying that there is an inbuilt conflict of interests between capital and labour, even in the modern IT industry, which seems to be a win-win proposition on the surface.As long as this continues, Marxism has relevance, even though its prescriptions, or rather the prescriptions ascribed to Marx by his followers, may not be applicable, verbatim.

But what really frightens me is that capitalism might not fall under its own internal contradictions, as many Marxists seem to believe. On the other hand it displays remarkable powers of recuperation and regeneration. Given its propensity to put profit before not only people, but even before survival of the planet, this is sure to lead to the destruction of our life support systems, as is happening in several parts of the world.

So, I repeat, some kind of social control over the market forces is critical for the survival of humanity. But the neo-liberal forces are acting as if they have rediscovered leisez faire just now. Even the vestiges of social control which were prevailing in the western welfare economies are being dismantled by the neo-liberal advocates. That means 'responsible capitalism' will not be allowed to work, by the die hard capitalist fundamentalists. But what is the way out?

The only solution I can think of, is more democracy, and stronger advocacy by those who believe run away capitalism cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. If the majority were able to identify what is really good for them and their children in the long run, they will not support many of the measures which now enjoy the support of the middle class. For this ardent and informed advocacy is necessary. This is where the new e-media can play a vital role.

Social Democracy (I am yet to find out why or how it became a dirty word among the leftists!), in the sense of a democratic society with social control over the instruments of production, seems to be the only viable alternative. But nobody will vote for state capitalism, as exemplified by USSR.So, we have to think of alternative models of social control. There is no ready-made solution.Each country will have to experiment and evolve an answer suited to its genius.

N P Chekkutty: Thanks RVG, for taking this debate to a higher level.

I agree with your basic position that more democracy would be the only check on the run away capitalism. My contention right from the beginning of this debate has been that for this to happen we need political parties with firm class basis; trade unions for protecting the rights and interests of the working people. We are in the process of disintegration of the trade union activity in the new world. They speak of changing the labour laws. Fine, we need to review those archaic ones. But what is coming in their places? Nobody asks. This can be dangerous.

However, I accept that the trade union activity and its methods itself will have to undergo a deep process of introspection and change. It will have to accept the new realities and adapt itself to them. We need new kind of leaders. This is becoming all the more important with the new realities emerging even from the glamorous areas of new economy like the IT industry. I am sure, a few years from now we will see thousands of cripples coming out of those sparkling edifices called IT parks. It will be a great sad story, which is in the making now. I am not a prophet of doom. I was in some posh ayurveda resorts at Kovalam and Kumarakam as part of a TV documentary programme last month. Some of the best clients they had were those youngsters-- very young, you know-- from the IT industry who came with nagging physical problems. They came with plenty of cash. But tomorrow when they are not earning they will still be left with those problems... No one will be there to take care of them. We will see suicides shifting to a high tech area from our poor farmsteads

Santhakumar V. Nair: Somebody becoming a software chap, making some money, then realizing that it is not so good for my health, and I can do something more relaxing (since I have made some money, as can be seen very often these days) is much better than a situation where educated people see no jobs or can get only meagre salary. Who said that “Our real problem is that nobody is coming to exploit us”?. There is a serious issue of un-freedom in the latter (unemployed) case.

T T Sreekumar: Who said that `our real problem is that nobody is coming to exploit us'?
A Polish economist during the democratic struggle against Stalinism in Poland (quoted by Pranab Bardan in a seminar in CDS.)
Santhakumar V. Nair: Yes TT, I remember it was by a Polish economist, but I may have heard it from someone else, somewhere else.
N P Chekkutty: Dear Dr. Santhakumar, I have no objection to any capitalist coming and investing in anything here, so long as it is legal. They are welcome. My concern is that as one who sell myself, I should get the minimum to keep myself and my family going. In many industries, the present contract raj does not ensure it. It is no exception in most of the IT firms too.
Your Polish economist seems to think that those money bags are doing it for charity, to help us poor wretches out of our difficult plight. How familiar this is... When those missionaries and gun-toting mercenaries landed here and Africa and Latin America, they also said the same thing, that they were discharging the white man's burden. Even in Iraq the other day they said the same thing that they are exporting democracy there.
What a cock and bull story..

Santhakumar V. Nair: I share your concern that sometimes the reward is not adequate. When many people invest our freedom to shift from one master to the other increases. May I know the situation of journalists in Kerala today? Is it not better today since many newspapers and channels compete for them today (and since many boys and girls have options other than journalism)? Getting a higher salary through strikes/ trade unions is not that satisfying always even for the workers. Exiting from one job and taking up another for higher rewards need not be painful always.

N P Chekkutty: As a person who has been subjected to this "freedom of choice" (not for me, but for the boss: I was asked to pack up a few times...) I can assure you that the free market enthusiast in you might face a rude shock when you see the reality of how it works…


1 comment:

chespeak said...

T T Sreekumar writes in an email:

Thank you NPC for this effort. I did not participate in the debate for a legitimate reason-I was reading the book "Infinitely Demanding" when Zizek's review of the book was being discussed here (Nevertheless, I find that my lone comment on the Polish Economist has gone into print!). By the time I finished the book, the decision to publish the discussion was informally announced and I did not want to chip in saying "Hey I read the book".

The review, ostensibly, does not do justice to the book. Nonetheless, this fact in no way reduces the value of the discussion we had in FEC. Several pertinent questions were brought up in the debate and it was a real treat reading the comments in its edited form.

Besides the issue of differential interpretation of the book, the point that I found weird in the review was Zizek's comment about "cultural studies". He identifies as one of the probable defeatist left positions 'a withdrawal into cultural studies', "where one can quietly pursue the work of criticism". I am not reopening the debate. But I do have some questions on the way he constructs this problem. How quietly can we do cultural criticism? What do the words "withdraw" and "quiet" convey here? Is he pointing to an arrogant academic position that 'cultural studies' is perhaps more political than, say, political activism?