Friday, May 16, 2008

Where’s the World Heading? Neo-cons, Neo-libs and the Crisis in Democracy

AFTER THE fall of Soviet Union, there was much excitement in the western world about the future course of history: many thought it was going to be a unipolar world in which the United States and its allies would rule the roost. That gave an unrealistic assessment about the global power relations and perhaps this fantastic notion of no-challengers gave rise to the muddled world view of the neo-conservatives who took over the US Administration after Clinton, who embarked on their ruinous mission to crush the little monsters who were proving to be an eyesore.

Now at the end of a disastrous second term of the Bush Administration, when America licks its deep wounds and looks for a way to get out of its killing fields in West
Asia, one wonders what went wrong. Perhaps it was simply hubris. Often little men successfully fight off behemoths descending on them accompanied by ‘shock and awe’, even defeat them, with their grit and determination added with their intelligence. It was unlikely that Bush & co had read something about the travels of Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians or about how Ulysses handled the Cyclops…If he had, perhaps the history of our world would have been different, one thinks. Now the question is, as history sweeps these cobwebs, will it also sweep away the modern empire along with it? Political scientist Fareed Zachariah says it won’t, because unlike the British Empire that went bust in the middle of the last century, the US of today is still very strong in its fundamentals and what is lacking is a less muddle-headed leadership, he argues in a recent article.

Anyway, there was a recent debate in which some of these concerns came up. Excerpts:

N P Chekkutty: I know that in the present circumstances, when everyone is a 'neo-con' baiter, it is dangerous to say anything in defense of them. Personally I am an ardent neo-con hater and my pet subject is the neo-con madmen and one woman in the Bush administration making a mess of Iraq and the whole world.

But let me ask: Why neo-conservatism became such a hot idea in the past ten or fifteen years? What gave them currency, respectability and acceptance?

If we look at the history of ideas in the contemporary world, we will see that neo-cons came to limelight so suddenly as liberalism came to a dead end. It was not only liberalism that came to a dead end, but the connected ideas of democracy, welfare state, etc, also had come to a serious crisis. It was in such a situation that market came to take over the whole world and, hey presto, all our thinkers, leaders, opinion-makers became pro-market. Manmohan Singh who wrote the South Commission Report became the author of Indian globalization. And many others like him...

So why not ask some serious questions as to why and how neo-conservatism came to rule the roost and now why it is also facing a crisis?

John Samuel: Political liberalism as an idea and a discourse always co-existed with various shades of conservative politics.

There is a rather vast spectrum of liberal discourse as well. Right from the time John Locke wrote his Two Treatises of Civil Government in 17th century, there has been a whole range of liberal discourse, primarily dealing with the questions related to Liberty and Equality.

There is a school of progressive liberalism (primarily represented by Social Democratic parties in Scandinavian countries), deriving its legacy from T H Green, Keynes, William Beveridge, John Rawls, etc. I would also locate Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom) as a part of this progressive stream of liberalism that try to balance between the questions of individual liberty with that of equality (and sometimes equity).

The works of Hayek (The Road to Serfdom, 1944, The Constitution of Liberty,1960, The Fatal Conceit: Errors of Socialism, 1988), Milton Freedman (Capitalism and Freedom, 1960, Free to Choose, 1980) and Robert Nozik (Anarchy, State and Utopia) shaped the discourse of neo-liberalism. In fact, Hayek took the lead to form the Mont Pelerian Society in 1947 and this academic and advocacy group played a very significant role over a period of forty years in shaping the neo-liberal discourse. By mid eighties they (usually called the Chicago School) penetrated various academic institutions and policy making forums. But it is important not to confuse this with neo-conservatism.
With the rise of conservative political leaders such as Reagan, Thatcher, Paul Johnson and consequent emergence of the New Right, the neo-liberal economics began to converge with the neo-conservative politics. However, there were many neo-liberal activists/policy wonks opposed to neo-conservative politics. Though Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs etc may be termed as some of the key proponents of neo-liberal policy framework (Washington Consensus), they are explicitly opposed to neo-conservative politics.

While Manmohan Singh conveniently oscillated between the progressive liberalism (till the eighties) and neo-liberalism, I do not consider him as a neo-conservative. He is indeed a political liberal. Even within the Congress Government the progressive liberalism (represented by the likes of Mani Shankar Aiyer, Arjun Singh and may be Antony as well) coexists with active neo-liberalism. This uneasy mix is partly responsible for the confusing responses of the UPA Government.

However, the streams of political liberalism (as distinct from neo-liberal economics) and progressive liberalism (both as politics and economic framework) are very much active across the world. If it was not there, there would not have been any NREGA and a few other progressive legislations. The various left leaning governments in Spain, Brazil and different parts of Latin America (Bolivia, Argentina, etc) also clearly show that Progressive Liberalism is still a very important and strong movement against neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism.

It is with the rise of Bush that neo-conservatism began to swallow neo-liberal economics and both of them together became a rather hegemonic political-policy framework (primarily operating through WB, IMF and WTO).

In fact, the neo-liberal economic framework is already getting saturated (over a period of twenty years) and redundant. The neo-conservative politics and policy framework (unilateralism, new protectionism, subversive politics of exclusion based on identity, etc) are still in operation. But my sense is that there will be a new wave of political and progressive liberalism as well as socialism. While we need to challenge the neo-conservative politics and neo-liberal economic framework, we also need to develop viable alternatives of progressive democratic socialism based on liberal principles of equality and liberty.

N P Chekkutty: I do not dispute the point made by John that conservatism and liberalism are two different streams in our democratic political thinking.

But my concern was about the crisis in democracy witnessed in the past two decades, and the resultant neo-con tendencies in politics and even in economic policy-making. As John himself admits, the neo-liberals in economic thinking were swallowed by the neo-cons eventually as most of the key decisions taken by this trigger-happy crowd had the tacit support of neo-libs. For example, Tony Blair was a liberal (after all he was the leader of the Labor Party!) and what better neo-con fellow-traveler there can be? And again, Hillary Clinton can never be accused of being a neo-con, but who supported the Iraq invasion whole-heartedly and now regrets it half-heartedly?

Then, Manmohan Singh. John says he is a liberal. Yes, he is. In his personal faith and beliefs, I should add. But in practice, he is the most pro-US Indian prime minister and his efforts to take this country to the US camp had been rebuffed by the nation. We can't forget that fact, though his arguments about the economic gains of the nuclear deal with US may have much weight in itself. But economics and politics are not isolated entities, they are twins.

John Samuel: Yes, I agree that economics and politics are not isolated entities; they are twins.

I have tried to trace different trends because of the fact that many of ideas and concepts are often used in a very generalized and erroneous manner in the political discourse and media discussions in Kerala. For example, many of our journalists and political leaders use terms such as ‘imperialism’, ‘neo-liberalism’ and ‘neo-conservatism’ almost as synonyms. Then they tend to link all these things to ‘West’, ‘America’, ‘Bush’, etc. Such kind of quick populist rhetoric do not help to understand or appreciate the nuances and also help to address these issues in a clear manner.

The entire dynamics of international economic and political relationship and the notion of national interest, etc, are a function of various factors. ‘Realism’ has been the sort of predominant trend in international politics and power relations. Such dynamics are often shaped by the self-interest of the nation-states (read the ruling elite of a country) in relation to other nation states. So the shift in India's positioning in the international relationship too is a function of various factors (not merely ideological) including the erosion of NAM, rise of China, economic calculations, etc. This trend has been there for the last fifteen years.

Prof. K Satchidanandan: My little devil seems to be getting nastier day by day. What do I do with that arrogant nincompoop? Just this morning he was playing neo-con/neo-lib/neo-col by putting on different masks and speaking in different voices. But strangely all of them were saying almost the same thing in different tones and seemed to know one another quite well. He feels there is an unwritten alliance among all the three when it comes to the fate of what is called 'aam aadmi' in these parts, that is the common man who is losing all his hold on things since the distance between power and powerlessness, between those who take decisions and those who have to suffer those decisions, has increased enormously. Sitting in Geneva or Washington, bureaucrats have the power to decide the fate of millions. Connections seem to be getting lost somewhere in our age of specialized knowledge, including the connections between politics and economics, economics and culture, science and history, knowledge and power. My devil says -- is he Gandhi's monkey? -- we have to snatch our futures back from the experts and academics and economists and people who really want to kidnap or capture things and carry them away to their lairs and protect them from the unauthorized gaze or understanding of the passers-by. We don't need any economics that Gandhi, for example, would not understand, he says. The expert tells the ignorant: I am an expert on something that you may not understand. My expertise is vital to your life, so let me make the decisions. So not only in fiction, but in social life or history too, the question who tells the story is very important; who calls the shots can change everything. And it has become difficult for experts to hide from the people what corporate globalization has done to the people below, for their suffering teaches them a bit of real economics. Who does not know that the move to corporatize agriculture, the whole business of genetically modified foods, pesticides, cash crops like cotton or soybean are crushing the Indian agricultural sector? In Madhya Pradesh anger is building up against the privatization of the essential infrastructure like power and water that is strangling the agricultural community. In Punjab the lands irrigated by Bhakra Dam is becoming saline and water-logged. We have the ground water problem in Plachimada that had been caused, if not entirely, partly, by the Cola plant. They say 59 million people have been displaced by big dams in India, and the government does not even have a proper statistics, let alone accounts of their rehabilitation. My devil says he reads the poetry of Neruda or Nazim Hikmet, or the novels of Saramago or Pamuk when he is serious; and to relax he reads fiction, that is, Milton Friedman and co. He has watched Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11, Jehane Noujaim's Control Room and Aradhana Seth's DAM/AGE and several other films and says they have taught him better economics in its inter-layering with politics. He speaks of the connections too, between religious fundamentalism, state repression and corporate globalization. He also has read some Chomsky that has turned his head. He hates Saddam, but he hates Mr. Bush even more as Bush's terrorism is not confined to one place... and recalls he had been friends with Saddam and had also given a helping hand to Bin Ladin. He does not believe in violence in the least, but says he can understand it when it comes from the poor whose non-violent resistance has gone unheeded. And by refusing to respond to non-violent resistance, the State or whoever holds power is actually promoting violence, they are responsible for violence from below. I do not know, he says, and continues to say....For example, that 580 billionaires in the world have greater income than the GDP of the 135 poorest countries! Can this be true? Who created this disparity? Cannot be God, he knows very little economics and cannot tell between a dollar and a euro....

A final note: This is an unending debate. Perhaps tomorrow everyone on the face of this planet earth might have something to add; if they could gather enough strength to raise their voice…

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