Monday, January 13, 2014

Fashioning a vision of the future

As the AAP begins to push ahead, the demand for a clearer understanding of the nature of society and its aspirations would certainly become acute

Very legitimate concerns have lately been expressed whether the new phenomenon on India’s political horizon, the Aam Aadmi Party, has evolved any theoretical perspectives on how to engage with the massive and complex problems of the vast country. Aside from the manifold issues of foreign policy, relations with neighbours, problems of caste, religion, communalism etc., what is its vision for the future economic growth of the nation? On the face of it, the AAP leadership does not appear to have given thought to these and does not appear to have a cogent, comprehensive theory to guide its actions. 

Yet, all actions do have some theoretical perspectives implicit in them, irrespective of the actors’ conscious formulation — or even awareness — of these. What perspectives inform the AAP’s recent chaotic actions?
One major theoretical presence during much of the twentieth century was the Marxist theory which postulated social and economic transformation from one stage of development to another — from feudalism to capitalism to socialism, etc. Each transformation would be complete and comprehensive, replacing all preceding structures of the economy, polity, even modes of thought and behaviour; there were no shared spaces between one and another. 

Yet, history has demonstrated the existence of common spaces and the “transformation” from one “stage” to another was highly qualified by the continuing presence of older “structures” into their replacement. One of the decrees passed by the Assemblée nationale in Paris on 11 August, 1789, in the wake of the French Revolution, brazenly announced that “feudalism stood abolished from today”, heralding the onset of the bourgeois regime. Yet, as several historians have shown, so much of the preceding “feudalism” had survived that the term “Revolution” had lost a great deal of its sheen. In our own living memory, the Soviet Revolution in 1917 substituted socialism for the bourgeois “stage” in its totality; yet, after seven long decades of absolute dominance, socialism could not eliminate its predecessor which had obviously survived underneath with enough power to overthrow it in one swift move in 1990-91. 

Therefore, a different theory had to evolve, one that drew us away from binary oppositions. Interestingly, several recent experiments in Latin America in theory and in practice are exciting precisely because these modify both capitalism and Marxism. If Marxism posits social progress through contradictions, necessitating the elimination of one mode of production to ensure the installation of another, capitalism premises its (and society’s) growth on maximisation of private profit, never mind society’s urgent needs — especially the needs of those with minimal purchasing power — and the need to limit exploitation of natural resources to preserve ecological balance. Thus, when Venezuela placed an obligation on its big entrepreneurs to produce what the poor of the country required for subsistence even as the entrepreneurs earned legitimate profits, and when Ecuador granted a constitutional right to its ecology, the “contradiction” between capitalism and socialism was being modified. Socialism here did not predicate the abolition of capitalism and capitalism could no longer walk the free street of unfettered exploitation of natural resources for maximisation of profit.
“Bio-socialism” is the beautiful term they have coined for this scenario. Representative democracy is also being complemented with participatory democracy in several countries to the extent of forcing governments to rescind laws already passed or decisions already taken. 

In other words, the existing institutions and systems need not be replaced by alternative sets of institutions and systems; these can be deployed for meeting society’s needs from the bottom upwards. The promises of liberal democracy, which had been defeated by the unfettered and unregulated growth of capitalism, as Noam Chomsky and several other thinkers have been arguing of late, can be met from within the system by reworking it. The urgent need at the moment is to implement the promises made by many democratic constitutions around the world instead of seeking to overthrow these bodies. 

Deliberation needed

The AAP leaders clearly have not sat down to deliberate on these issues; but their slogans and actions have the appearance of holding the Constitution and institutions to their promises to the people of India, something along the lines of what’s happening in Latin America. When the movement started some two years ago at Ramlila Ground, the frightened political class first denounced it as a challenge to the venerable democratic institutions and then sought to sabotage it by making promises it had no intention of fulfilling. “Laws are made in Parliament and not in Ramlila Ground” was its war cry, typically seeking to mislead public opinion. “These unelected and unelectable men are insulting the temple of democracy, i.e. Parliament,” screamed leaders of the government and the Opposition in unison, even as for weeks and months together Parliament’s routine functioning was disrupted by them. Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal had never sought the substitution of Ramlila Ground for Parliament, but demanded that it pass a Bill in accordance with the will of the people. Mr. Kejriwal and his comrades have taken oath to honour the Constitution of India, not to abolish it and they are seeking to embed all their actions within the framework of given laws and institutions, but with a turn that had been ignored, even denied for so long. Clearly, the same institutions can be turned into the facilitators of or the stumbling blocks for society’s progress. That seems to be the perspective at work. 

How far will this take us? Some good distance, yes, but soon the demand for a conscious and clearer understanding of the nature of society and its aspirations and the modes of meeting them would certainly become acute. It is clear that any given model picked from somewhere and blandly enforced here would defeat itself. A long-term and sound vision alone can lead us to that distant land called the future. We cannot quite arrive there by kicking stones that lie as we walk; a clearer path needs to be laid out. 

Harbans Mukhia
 (The author is National Fellow, ICHR)

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