August 23, 2011
This portmanteau article consists of two contributions on the anti-corruption issue:
1. Where are the popular classes? – Saroj Giri
2. How the Anti-Corruption Movement can be Radicalized – Deepankar Basu
Where are the popular classes?
In Venezuela, when the right-wing upper middle classes attack the progressive government, the popular classes come out in militant defence. Why is this not the case in India?
By Saroj Giri
The ongoing anti-corruption movement is dominated by social-network yuppies, YFE kind of rightist caste-supremacist anti-reservationists and Muslim-haters, Ramdev-Ravishankar followers, people who don’t vote and want Modi’s rule. Right or wrong? Right. It has touched a deep chord with vast sections of the popular classes. Right or wrong? Right.
The thing is, unlike Left intellectuals, popular classes do not as it were check the (right-wing) credentials of a person or movement before joining it – ‘joining’ here is not ‘an intellectual decision’, a choice. So rejecting the movement by reading the CV of its leaders or checking its formal declarations and credentials, can amount to a sterile radical posturing. Don’t give up on the popular classes just because they are today running behind Anna Hazare – for if anything it is not your denunciations of the right-wing, but precisely these classes that can possibly prove the right-wing’s undoing. And news is, India’s democracy and Parliament are not the allies of the popular classes – at least not when the latter are out in the streets and are feeling political.
News is also that the government’s social justice does not inspire the popular classes to now come to its defence and confront the selfish, authoritarian upper middle classes. I was imagining a vast militant rally of Dalits, Muslims, adivasis and the working classes in defence of ‘India’s democracy’. Or maybe something like the suspension of Operation Green Hunt and a historic alliance of the government with the Maoists and all those on the left, a popular front against the right-wing upper middle class onslaught! Or is it that instead the government will ultimately reconcile with the so-called right-wing middle class mobilization – which only means so much of affective energy and agonizing over the government-Hazare conflict is contrived. There is a lot of inter-elite shadow boxing happening – so there are no sides to be taken here and the only intervention can be one of retrieving the political agency of the popular classes.
Coming back: so yes, the anti-corruption movement definitely has an upper middle class right wing core, with a cross between a Modi and a Lee Kuan Yew as inspiration. Yet, call it the constraints of seeking hegemony, this movement is nothing without the participation of the popular classes – without the involvement of the popular classes, the dabahwalas and autowallahs, the legitimacy of this movement would drastically shrink. The RSS might be mobilizing for this movement but this is an anti-corruption movement and not a movement for Ram temple. There is always a gap beyond the control of RSS functionaries. These are the constraints of what is called ‘hegemonic politics’. Team Anna has to and does speak, for their own good, in the name of the nation – and the nation includes (thankfully!) classes that might prove dangerous for any right-wing agenda (and for a left-wing agenda too if ‘the right’ successfully mobilizes).
What is clear today is that the popular classes are not with the Parliament and its democracy. The way to fight the so-called authoritarianism of the middle classes is therefore not to defend the rotten Parliament and democracy but to increase the assertion of the popular classes beyond Team Anna.
Some Dalit leaders and left activists have rightly denounced the right wing core of this movement. However we must ask why it is that Dalits and other popular sections do not feel inspired to be proactive in defending social justice, defend the Parliament and Indian democracy. Thus here you have the most decisive indictment of Indian democracy and its progressive avatar – the basic orientation of these social policies for the poor and the marginalized were to contain them and their resistance in order to ease the passage of neoliberal policies. Instead of any real politicization of the popular classes, they at best led to interest groups and pro-state factions within deprived or marginalized communities – so that even social movements were so focused on getting this or that progressive social policy passed, as is the case today where the Left is supposed to back the best version of the Lok Pal Bill.
The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela has an interesting way of not reducing the popular classes to mere recipients of benefits but of keeping them politicized, so that they have their own political subjectivity. Hence they fight right-wing upper middle class mobilizations, defending Chavez and the government often with great militancy.
In India, however, the popular classes have sensed that the Parliament and the political dispensation here (precisely in its democratic best) is more interested in democratic containment than any real ‘empowerment’ of the masses. Even if the democratic spaces provided by Parliament can be sometimes used to further develop the progressive movement, the government’s basic orientation is to favor a right-wing agenda. Moreover, Indian democracy has been opportunistic right since its inception in and around 1947. It can be shown for example that it was really to contain the demand for separate electorates that secularism for minorities and reservations for Depressed Classes were adopted. Today the proponents of Indian democracy talk about secularism and reservations as though they emanated from a singular and definitive commitment to these ‘values’. Similarly it is only to defuse the situation after the Telangana armed struggle that bhoodan (land redistribution) was carried out. More recently you have for example the Home Secretary saying that Forest Rights Act is necessary in order to contain the attraction adivasis have for the Maoists. So it is not entirely inexplicable that the popular classes rally behind the so-called authoritarian upper middle classes than defend the present Parliament and its democracy.
And yet, were the dangerous classes to assert themselves, the right-wing middle classes will most likely go over to gang up with the Parliament and the government – the default mode. They are extremely chummy on intensifying Operation Green Hunt, on the question of terror, privatization, relations with the US-Israel axis and so on. That is, both ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘democracy’ would be on the same side – no real divide between the two.
This shows that this divide cannot be sustained in any real sense. It is only when the dangerous classes lie low that the dominant classes enter into internal conflict and disagreements even though their fundamental class interests are the same. Thus, the so-called authoritarianism of the middle classes is merely a continuation of the authoritarianism of the Parliament and the ruling classes.
This is not to deny that there is a fight for now between authoritarianism and democracy. This fight is about the hawkish middle class telling the government to shed off the democratic garb and tone down mass politics and instead usher in ‘clean governance’, technocratic rule and fast growth. Thanks to Parliament and its democracy, the dangerous classes are internalized and included enough to no longer require reservations, rights, social justice, mass democratic politics and the like. How long will inclusive democracy, reservations and so on continue? If democracy and reservations continue beyond what is necessary to contain the poor and the marginalized, then they become part of corruption: vested interests, vote banks, appeasements and so on.
Social justice is equal to corruption. That is the equation the right-wing middle class is trying to establish. Hence the best way to fight the social justice and push the free market agenda is to say merely that you are against corruption. Those opposing NREGA are not going to tell you that they are against the poor or that they are against social justice. They need only self-righteously say that they are against corruption and that will do the trick. For, isn’t it established, the argument goes, that NREGA leads to corruption, vested interests, and ultimately to vote bank politics?
The crucial upshot: the poor can not only be deprived of the benefits of social justice policies but can also be mobilized for the same, all in the name of the apparently just cause of fighting corruption! So if the popular classes are so coopted, so internalized and included in democracy, then why bother with social justice and representative democracy and so on. Bring about Modi style rule all over the country with high growth, public amenities, and a happy people about to transform India into another Hong Kong or Singapore!
Social justice is about democratic containment (by the Parliament and the government)
Anti-corruption is about technocratic containment (pushed by the right-wing forces).
Since technocratic containment is pushed in the name of a benign sounding anti-corruption movement, the popular classes get enrolled in this right-wing agenda.
The left response cannot be to choose ‘democracy’ (read democratic containment) over ‘authoritarianism’ (read technocratic containment) since they are really two sides of the same coin, just two modalities of rule. That is, there is a link and continuity between the Parliament, the authoritarian middle classes and the present version of the anti-corruption movement. The conflict within the dominant classes (the Anna Hazare versus government stand-off) is about the hawkish upper middle class trying to push the government to bite the bullet and usher in a full-fledged technocratic regime.
Lastly, imagine: the Maoists publicly announce that they are sending (and they actually can!) one lakh adivasis (ok unarmed) to Ram Lila Maidan to join the fight against corruption. What impact will this have? Will these new ‘participants’ simply dissolve and become part of the right-wing agenda or will their intervention radically change things? For the political impact to take place, the Maoists do not even need to actually send them: only give a call and see what follows. The point is to grab the initiative instead of counting our beads and getting depressed by the right-wing character of this movement. Clearly this means we are neither for this or that so-called best version of the Lok Pal Bill. The only way forward from the viewpoint of the popular classes is to take the anti-corruption movement in new directions (the CPIML Liberation has taken a step in this direction). Anti-corruption cannot be separated from the question of social transformation. Can we take this idea forward?
Corruption As Double Surplus Extraction, or How the Anti-Corruption Movement can be Radicalized
By Deepankar Basu
What lies behind the sudden upsurge and growing strength of the anti-corruption campaign in India? Here is a hypothesis worth considering: this anti-corruption movement is the political expression of the growing economic power of the middle class.
One of the main beneficiaries of the quasi neoliberal economic reforms of the past three decades has has been a group which we can call the middle income group (the middle class, in popular parlance). Steady and high growth for two and a half decades has caused their incomes and wealth to rise substantially; in short, their economic power has increased. The anti-corruption movement is the political expression of this phenomenon. It is an attempt by this rising middle class to assert their power in the political domain, to push the State to provide services that they need. In a figurative sense, one could probably sum up the primary thrust of the movement, so far, as follows: the middle class has bought the cars, and now it wants the roads to drive the cars on. And they will push the State to build the roads. So far so good.
But there is a vast section of the population which has been more or less completely bypassed by the economic reforms. This is the working class of the country, what the late Arjun Sengupta had termed the poor and vulnerable. The slogans of the campaign have, so far, not moved to issues that concern this group, the working class, the poor, the vast majority of whom inhabit the informal sector. Their conditions of work and livelihood are marked by extreme precariousness and uncertainty. They work for very low wages, often under dangerous and unhygienic conditions. They do not, usually, have collective bargaining rights, and their employers do not provide any job security or social security. If the anti-corruption movement mimics the neoliberal growth process and bypasses the concerns of this section, the vast informal working population, then it will be ineffectual. Only if issues that concern the daily lives of this vast majority of informal sector workers are incorporated into the anti-corruption movement, is there any chance for the movement to become a peoples’ movement.
For, in the ultimate analysis, corruption is a means of siphoning off “extra” surplus from the working people. By whom? By state employees, politicians, criminals and bureaucrats. It is “extra” because the primary surplus would have already been extracted when the worker sold his labour power to the person she works for, or sold his product to the middleman (if she is a petty producer). The income of her employer already contains the surplus extracted from her labour. Within a corrupt system, now she has to pay even more from her paltry income for services that the State (using her tax revenues) needs to provide to her and her family members. That is why it is extra; it is surplus over and above the surplus that has already been extracted. To be concrete, think of a poverty stricken family which has to pay a bribe to get a BPL card, or a peasant who has to pay a bribe in a state hospital for the doctor to take a look at his ailing daughter, or has to pay a bribe to a SBI official to get his loan application reviewed. Or, think of the panwallah (or the rickshawalla, or the thelawalla), in short the petty producer, who has to regularly pay bribes, out of his already measly income, to the local police and municipal authorities and the musclemen of the local politician.
So, what are the issues that could radicalize the anti-corruption movement? Regular employment contracts for informal sector workers with collective bargaining rights, affordable housing and public transportation, health care centers which the poor can access, schools for their kids (with mid-day meals or other such provision), employment guarantee schemes for the rural and urban poor, no forcible land acquisition for corporate sector projects, a Public Distribution System that works, RTI to make state employees accountable, and similar issues. In short, to press for the creation of the rudiments of a welfare state that is responsive to the needs of the working people.
Middle class participants in this movement have often raised a valid point: the rich have no real stakes in the anti-corruption movement. The rich are not bothered too much about corruption, they can buy their way through the system. If at all, corruption is minor irritant. For a middle class person, the stakes are higher, the loss much more real. That is true. But it is a hundred fold more important to the poor. The middle class participants have so far only looked to the rich for comparison; now, they need to look towards the poor.
The same point that the middle class participant raises about the rich can be turned into a point for him to think about. The middle class household can send her kids to a school which functions like a school; the informal sector worker or the small peasant cannot. The middle class person can at least buy health care services from the private nursing homes; the poor worker cannot. If the state hospitals do not function, the worker has nowhere else to turn to during medical emergency. For the poor, in short, all the services that even a rudimentary welfare State would provide are far more costly, often impossibly so, for her to purchase in the market.
If a political force can re-orient the raging anti-corruption campaign and bring the concerns of the working poor front and center, then the campaign has the potential to develop into an important political movement. Adopting the surplus viewpoint would be helpful in radicalizing the movement.