Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When Resistance Becomes Surrender...

Capitalism and the Future of Democracy: A debate--Part One

This is the edited version of an online debate that took place at Fourth Estate Critique, a Google discussion group. The participants (in the order of their appearance) are:

John Samuel, international director of Action Aid, Bangkok, and editor,;
N P Chekkutty, executive editor, Thejas daily, Kozhikode and former director of news, Kairali TV, Kochi;
K Satchidanandan, eminent poet and critic, former secretary, Sahitya Akdemi, New Delhi;
R V G Menon, former president of Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad;
P J Cheriyan, director, Kerala Council for Historical Research;
M P Chandrasekharan, former principal, National Institute of Technology, Kozhikode;
D K Warrier, scientist at C-DAC, Thirvuvananthapuram;
V Sasikumar, scientist at Centre for Earth Sciences Studies, Thiruvananthapuram;
N C Narayanan, economist, Hyderabad;
Santhakumar V. Nair teaches at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram;
& T T Sreekumar teaches at the department of social sciences, Singapore National University.

John Samuel: Here is an interesting piece from Zlavoj Zizek-- a rather provocative one.(Resistance is Surrender, London Review of Books.) Those who are interested in discussions on the role of left in the context of the new capitalism and changing world may be interested to read, challenge and comment.

My own sense is that we are going through one of the profound transitions-- in terms of ideas, institutions and political process in the history of the world. It is also most like living in those "rupture points" of history. Hence, there is a flux of ideas, action, ambivalence and confusions-- both in the world of capitalism (the emerging pan-global identity politics) and that of the left. Where do we go from here?

N P Chekkutty: Thanks for bringing this article of Zizek for discussion here. Last week when I read it at the London Review, I had the same feeling you share, that our politics need to have a thorough re-examination. It is very clear that what we used to describe as radical in the past is no longer so. Even those who spent life time in this kind of politics seem to think that it is nothing more than a benign form of fascism. It is sad indeed, but instead of sulking, one should make a thorough and deep analysis of the ways politics is evolving in our times.

My feeling is that instead of accepting the liberal face of left wing politics which some of our reformists from M A Baby to Budhadev Bhattacharya seem to favour, what we need is a political party that is more conscious about its class nature. A party of the working class and the peasantry is what we need today as liberating the established left from the tentacles of the middle class is next to impossible.
K Satchidanandan: That was interesting reading. At the end of it all I begin to wonder how difficult it is to separate realizable goals (practical demands) completely from unrealizable dreams (impossible demands). When we begin to think of demands within the realm of the possible, are we not collaborating with the State whose reasoning is always confined to the realm of the possible (possible Vs impossible)? Will we not finally end up endorsing the reformist agenda that the State claims it is pursuing, but is finding it difficult to implement due to practical constraints imposed by reality? May be as a poet I dream of the impossible and will never understand the argument! What we need to do is perhaps to keep on enlarging the realm of democracy and of the so-called possible so that what seems impossible gradually enters the realm of the possible and the marginalized sections who are outside the present working of democracy enter the process, slowly changing the very nature of democracy. Since anyway the State has no plans of withering away, we may at least give it a tug and try to change its nature and make it more inclusive: a limited 'social democratic' agenda?

RV G Menon: Personally, I think there is nothing wrong in fighting for ‘realizable’ goals, keeping the ’immediately unrealizable goals’ as a long-term ideal. Come to think of it, most ideals are unrealizable in this imperfect world. Our commitment to such ideals should not prevent us from attempting what is possible, at the risk of appearing to be compromising.
It depends on what we want.
If we want to die with a ‘clean image’ --that of a person who never compromised on ideals-- well and good. But if we want to make a teeny weeny bit of a difference to the lot of the poorest and the most miserable, we must accept what is possible, as an immediate goal.
At the same time, we should pitch our long-term goal further and higher, towards the ideal.
I don't think these two are inconsistent. The ‘best’ should never be the enemy of ‘the better’.

John Samuel: Thanks for the comments. 1. The analytical categories like ‘class’ and other markers of identity may not be necessarily eternal or even universal. Because these analytical categories and many others are based on some key assumptions as well as the predominant economic-technological, social and cultural paradigm of a given time. So though we use the term ‘class’ or even ‘working class’, the exact notion may not be the same as that of Germany or Britain of the early 19th century in the context of old industrialization, urbanization, etc. Even the notion of the Nation-State is a relatively new concept-- after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. These notions and ideas-- particularly the social and political ones-- keep changing their character over a period of time. So the Athenian notion of democracy is actually far removed from the character and notion of democracy today. In a post-industrial situation or that of new economy or information/media driven politics, these categories also may undergo change.

2. Ideals and the zest for the perfect seem to have a universal appeal. That is why in theology, philosophy and even science, these notions recur over a period of time: from Vedas, Buddhism, Old Testament, Gospels, the sayings of Muhammad, Socrates, Plato, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel and Marx. I do not think one should put a full stop in any one person ( Philosophers or "Gods", the last Prophet) in our perennial search for ideals and perfection. Such a search is what makes beauty-- poetry as well as political ideals. When we realize there is no Gospel according to Marx or Newton, or Einstein...our search will continue: always trying to negotiate between the real and the ideals, keeping our feet on the ground....raising our eyes to the end of horizons, spreading the wings to fly....that search for perfection, that curiosity for ideals…that is what makes us creative...the art of breaking the shell of egg...and making ideas and action alive-- dreaming of ideals...and doing things that are possible...hence politics is both the art of the possible as well as the art of the is the art of selling dreams as well as making oneself relevant with certain amount of impact...

3. Every institution is a product of its time: Communist Party is an Institution. So is Catholic Church. Each Institution with survival instinct will redefine itself or perish in the wave of time and new realities. So while the Communist party of the USSR got smashed up by its own contradictions, the Communist Parties of China and Vietnam redefined themselves to survive as well as to keep some core ideals alive even at the cost of mortgaging those ideals.

4. So it is a bit unrealistic to think the Communist Parties of India will have the same ‘class’ base of 1940s 0r 50s. Because the world has changed; the notion of ‘class’ too changed. Many of those from the erstwhile working class became Middle class in Kerala and many of the middle class became rich (either through global labour market or through the emerging service sector). So while I can understand what Chekkutty says, the fact of the matter is Kerala is by and large a middle class and mediocre society: all political parties (in spite of the claim or colours) will reflect the contradictions, aspirations and competing identities of the middle class in Kerala. So it is natural for the left parties in Kerala to try and be relevant to the competition and contradictions of India and Kerala. They are still relevant in the larger tragedy and comedy of the Indian Politics. So Left parties also signify the tragedy and comedy of the Indian politics in all its size, shape and smell....What is the big deal about it?

P J Cheriyan: What is important is to have discernable goals may be even 'unachievable’!. To cherish 'unachievable' goals has always been there: Thomas Moore termed it as 'Utopia' - dreams of heaven that could never exist on earth.

I remember reading a lecture by Immanuel Wallerstine on 'Utopistics' --he invented that word as a substitute to Utopia –Utopistics, he says, is the serious assessment of historical alternatives. It is the sober rational evaluation of human systems, the constraints on what they can be and the zones open to human creativity. e adds Utopistics is about reconciling what we learn from science, morality and politics about what our overall goals should be.

N P Chekkutty: The question of class has come up often here in these discussions. It is good that it is back again because for any discussion to move ahead, we should know what we are talking about.
Earlier in another note Sachi master, in the context of Nandigram, had pointed out that he was not using the term class in the pure classical Marxist sense and he is including the social class also in this category. I too share the view that the 19th century understanding of class is not sufficient to explain our new world. There is no doubt also that in India when we think of working class we will have to take into account the millions of subaltern castes like the dalits. So I have no quarrel on the inclusive nature of the term class.

But my main concern is the erosion of the fundamental left wing values. Of course you aim for the moon, but are happy with the mango. However, simply because our left politics has to contend with contemporary realities, we cannot wish away the reality of class antagonism and class exploitation that appear in a thousand different ways. Earlier it might have been the working class, but today it is the peasants, the unorganized workers, the landless and many others. Simply because those who came to the communist parties in the seventies, like myself who came from the poor rural peasantry today find a middle class existence, we cannot say that the whole life has changed. It is not so. A few weeks ago I was at my village and I find little has changed even among my own friends and relatives who were not lucky to go for a higher education.

So they do exist out there. Only that the leaders of our own times seem to forget; they forget their own past and the present of the majority of our people.

I think this is the crux of the problem. A part of the communist party's rank and file is making real progress, progressing from subaltern to the mainstream and are influential at all levels of the social and political spectrum, while the party itself remains, in paper, a working class entity. But most of the ranks think it is no longer their own party. So I eagerly submit that unless we go for an ideological battle within the working class party to regain its original ideals, we will be allowing the party's own disintegration and in the process, accepting that the mindless violence of the Maoists or the fundamentalists is legitimate and there is no alternative but to take up arms.

John Samuel: In India, all political parties, with a mass base, are in the business of capturing or sustaining the State Power. Revolution itself is more like a promise eternally postponed....Ideology is more like a veneer. Power has its own logic; and the state power has its own magic! Why do you think Communist Parties are capable or competent to absorb or address the issue of social class or subaltern politics? If so why Shiv Sena managed to absorb some of the very same social and economic classes when the leadership of the socialist and communist parties in Maharashtra faded away and my childhood hero George Fernandes took refuge in the Sangh Parivar?

Why do you have high expectations from the CPM or CPI? They too need votes, they too need media, they too need funds and friends, when they are in the business of capturing and sustaining the state power? Revolution has taken long holiday and Che is the most celebrated logo on tea-shirts in the market place. Is it what we call Tragedy? Or is it a comedy?

A translation in Malayalam of this debate is available in the Mathrubhumi Weekly, dated January 27,2008.

(To be continued.)

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