The State on the Couch

April 21, 2011

by Sunil Gupta

A remarkable thing about the secret US cables disclosed by the WikiLeaks was their predictability. From India’s vote against Iran in the IAEA, ouster of Manishankar Iyer from oil ministry, vote on the nuclear bill in the Parliament where strange bedfellows made deals murkier than the one between India and the US, to the domestic ones: BJP leader’s admission that Hindutva was a facade or Buddadeb’s playing the over-eager usher to Dow – the routineness of revelations starts to disappoint. And indeed, the questions that Hillary Clinton asked about the incoming finance minister Pranab Mukherjee should be asked by every citizen. Whose interest will he serve, which business house, to be precise? Why is the old hand Montek Singh Ahluwalia being superseded? Our media do not ask them. The silenced questions and suppressed scandals are now finding their strange ways of leaking out.

While we Tiresiases listen to the blabbering of the patient on the couch and congratulate ourselves for having perceived the scene, some related matters may be considered.

Cynics, specially those of the left, have always been suspicious of the government and its subterranean links to the USA and multinational corporate interests. If Mitrokhin archives are to be believed, Soviet Russia should have shared part of the suspicion too. But those suspicions were not probably vindicated, shoddy deals not laid bare, on such a massive scale before. Assange observes, “…we can see these operations as fulfilling the caricature that South American Marxists gave of the State Department in the 1960s” (article in The Hindu). Like all caricatures the cables tell us things which we knew, but were not able to depict as we are not cartoonists.

One reason behind the huge scale of the leak is the widespread use of electronic data transmission. Communications have become dependent on it. This has opened up abundant possibilities of subversion. Notwithstanding the formidable protection and secrecy surrounding the communications, hacker activists have proved to be smarter than the US government.

The critical role of technology came to the fore during the Radia tape episode as well. Admittedly, Radia episode was a little less predictable compared to the WikiLeaks. The latter had MP purchase, IAEA vote, Dow sops etc., many of which have been on the news. Ms. Radia, on the other hand, was heard few times during the Singur showdown, for she was handling the public relations of the Tata group. But to the aam aadmi she was an unknown quantity. It is entirely possible that the powers that be had leaked the Radia tapes after making its own calculations – conspiracy theories have been weaved over WikiLeaks as well. But that does not take away the salience that technology has played in making us privy to the collective unconscious.

This may nudge one to declare that the age of technological anarchy has arrived. Capitalism develops and deploys technology, reorganises production and therefore society, with the aim to enhance profits. But the process is famously dialectical. When commodity production underwent a transition from putting out system to factory system, the hunt for bigger profits presented an opportunity to the dialectical opposite of capital. The factory brought the proletariat into a single place, it consolidated them. This was crucial to build organisations and enforce collective bargaining with the capitalist. Increasing dependence on communication technology gives an opportunity to even the seemingly harmless nerds to access information of critical importance.

But one cannot be too optimistic about it. The claim that social media played a decisive role in the revolts of Middle East and North African countries appears to be an exaggeration ( Technology is an important component of forces of production. As it evolves, society undergoes changes. But the answer to the question if technological advancement will effect transformation of relations of production or the entire edifice of superstructure cannot be deduced linearly. Technological change presents an opportunity, an instrument to expose the emperor. How far will this translate into political change depends on how ripe the conditions are. There are no short cuts.

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