Sunday, June 24, 2007

Capitalism-Marxism Brew

28 January, 2007
The Statesman

Should we congratulate the West Bengal government for resolving one of the great dilemmas that caused so much trouble to the world in the 20th century - that is, the schism between capitalism and Communism? Ever since the Russian Revolution of 1917, it seemed that the divergence between the two ideologies would lead only to violence, war and bloodshed.
And so it proved. The clash between those who believed in private enterprise and those who sought salvation in the “socialisation” of industry was aggravated as the century wore on. The early years of the Russian experiment inspired a whole generation of idealists with the tangible proof of the perfectibility of human society, while capitalism continued to wallow in depression, poverty and injustice.
The future, it seemed, belonged to socialism, just as Marx had prophesied. The war against Nazism and Fascism, which allied the West with the Soviet Union, reinforced the idea that “progressive” forces were in the ascendant. After World War II, the formal decolonisation of the old European empires proceeded at an accelerating pace. Almost all these countries claimed adherence to a socialist ideology of social justice, the defeat of poverty and a degree of self-reliance. Capitalism yielded ground to these realities; and the Western democracies set up their welfare states, to attach to themselves populations which might have been tempted to vote for a socialism which, even in 1945, seemed to the “advanced” countries to be at least as likely to deliver the goods as a capitalism scarred by war, impoverishment and inequality. The fight between these two ideologies shaped the lives of the world’s people, sometimes as Cold War, sometimes ~ in Korea and Vietnam ~ as bloody and brutal conflict.
There are few stories in history as dramatic and compelling as the rehabilitation of capitalism in the second half of the 20th century; so much so, that socialism crumbled and was swallowed up by the very injustice and inequality which had given birth to it. In the competitive struggle with the Soviet Union, capitalism created the consumer society - a rising standard of living that transformed Western society and re-landscaped it, so that it became a kind of parodic after-life which socialism could only dream of. In the process, the achievements of socialism looked drab, pinched and austere.
Little by little, the rest of the world opted for what had appeared in 1945 doomed and vanquished, and a regenerated capitalism swept all before it. The banners of socialism, tattered and faded, were consigned to the scrap-heap. I was in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in 1991, when the dictator Mengistu, supported by the Soviet Union, was deposed. In a public park, I came across a pile of statues of Lenin and rusty metal red stars, the iconography of a fallen Communism reduced to chunks of broken masonry and twisted metal. For Communism was, and always had been, only a heretical version of industrial society. Marx never quarrelled with the industrialisation of the West ~ he had, as the Communist Manifesto attests, the greatest admiration for the “miracles” wrought by industrial society, which, in his view, overshadowed all the wonders of the ancient world.
The quarrel was not with industrial society, but with capitalism, which distributed its rewards with such promiscuous disdain for the rights of humanity. For Marx, the ownership by the people of the means of production and distribution would be the solution to the injustices of capitalism; and it was this doctrine that set the destiny of the workers at odds with the fate of a capitalism which, Marx believed, would bring about its own ruin. It would be wrong to attribute any great novelty to the thinking of the ideologues of West Bengal in their re-hash of Marxism. Their capacity for original thought should not be over-estimated. They have been inspired by the Chinese Communists who, all too aware of the fate of their sometime Soviet allies, were too smart to lose control of power.
They maintained the authoritarianism of Communism, and married it to a version of the free market. The spectacular runaway economic success of China is there for the world to see.
It is this model that has inspired the leaders of West Bengal to mimic the Chinese version of Communism, which is no such thing. West Bengal has a democratically elected government, but so secure and self-confident has it become after three decades of unbroken rule, that it behaves as though governing were its natural right. And in consequence, it exhibits as little concern for human beings as the unelected ruling powers of its mentor, China. West Bengal therefore exemplifies, within India the mending of the old sectarianism of industrial society. There is no conflict between capitalism and Communism ~ the struggle, violence and bloodshed of the past were all in vain. There is now commitment only to a single form of industrialism. Capitalism has triumphed, and the West Bengal government acknowledges this by its actions, though its rhetoric may not yet be ready to fall in step. The breach is healed. There is no more conflict. Capitalism and socialism can lie down together, and of this monstrous pairing, who can tell what levels of injustice, inequality and cruelty may not be begotten? Will the efficiency of capitalism be joined to the justice of socialism, or will the ruthlessness of capitalism attach itself to the brutality of totalitarian ideology?
It is in this light that the melancholy events at Nandigram and Singur, and in all the other places marked out for “development” in West Bengal should be understood. It seems clear that West Bengal is in the process of getting the worst of both worlds. The leaders of the State project themselves as being in the vanguard of progress ~ what could be more progressive than China with its industrial might, the majesty of Pudong, the Three Gorges dam and all the other soaring paraphernalia of development?
There is a flaw in this sunny second marriage of capitalism with communism. The fall of the Soviet Union revealed crisis in industrial society, but this was masked by the triumphalism of the West. We have won, they cried. Actually, they might just as plausibly have said the planet has lost.
The weight of global, industrial society upon the earth becomes heavier by the day. The “footprint” of humanity threatens to smash the fragile globe beneath its industrial jackboot. The precious, irreplaceable riches of the world, including its waters and its forests, have all been transformed into raw materials. These are to feed an economic growth without end, because humanity, no longer limited by what it needs, has been set in an infinite chase after all that it desires.
And because this is boundless, it will trample the constraints of a finite world with the same heedlessness as a flock of domestic animals trampling the hedge between pasture and crop. In the inexorable advance of this majestic progress, anyone who stands in its way will be destroyed. The message to humanity is don’t be a farmer, do not seek subsistence, do not be a herder or a nomad, do not be self-reliant, do not be an indigene, do not be a slumdweller, do not be poor or old or sick: if you are any of these things, you are dispensable, and will be compelled to make way for monuments to an industrialism, whose wealth and power are sustainable only up to the point where the resource-base of the earth collapses; a moment which draws nearer with each passing day.
The people of Singur, Nandigram, Kalinganagar and all the other sites to be expropriated, are the only people standing in the way of these malevolent processes. They deserve the support of all who value the survival of humanity above the survival of capitalism; among whom, alas, the Communists no longer can be counted.

(The author lives in Britain. He has written plays for the stage, TV and radio, made TV documentaries, published more than 30 books and contributed to leading journals around the world.