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The Taming of the Shrew: India’s Left in the 2019 Elections

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“…the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”

– Bertolt Brecht

“Procrustes, or the Stretcher …had an iron bedstead, on which he used to tie all travellers who fell into his hands. If they were shorter than the bed, he stretched their limbs to make them fit it; if they were longer than the bed, he lopped off a portion. Theseus served him as he had served others.”
– Bulfinch’s Mythology

1. Elections are procrustean rituals in an institutionalised democracy to contain and channel the social (over)flow and productivise it to manufacture a government and its legitimacy. By recursive re-discretisation of the social flow into manageable units, the citizenry is recomposed. In these elections, it is not the public that elects the government but the state that reassembles the public to produce the government. This reconstituted public gets the government that it deserves.

2. In the elections of 2019, against the right wing politics of communal polarisation, the left liberals in India have been seeking to pose a different sort of polarisation. Either you are on this side or that side. It doesn’t matter even if some who are on this side, earlier they were on the other and next time again they may fall there, whenever the juggling of elections happens and post-electoral alliances are made. For them, the poles are poles, stuck to the ground.

3. Hence, there is more to the 2019 elections for our nationalist left liberals. As they themselves say, it is a historic moment. And it is indeed something historic that liberal manichaeism seeks to achieve. If BJP is, what they say, a fascist party, then the liberals are imagining something unique in these elections – of defeating fascists in the elections. The fascist regimes, classically, might have come through elections, but have never been eliminated in them.

4. Now, the only strategy that seems to achieve this is by ensuring that votes are not divided (for which a Manichean binary is necessary). Marx’s dictum that all such phrases of not splitting votes and that the reactionaries might win because of the split are meant to dupe the proletariat seems outdated for the doomsday New Left. They want to defeat neoliberal authoritarianism through the procrusteanism of liberal democracy, while the right seeks to synchronise them.

5. However, by posing and making these elections as a two party contest, our marginalised left liberals are binding themselves to the dangerous game of attracting the median voter. In a bipolar contest the result is a more and more identity of opposites. And when much of the opposition is already centred on non-oppositional disagreements rather than based on any principled opposition, the difference is internal. You are but an image of your opponent.

6. They identify the hindutva brigade as a fascist pole, against which they want to see everyone else together. However, this ideal has never been realised, perhaps fortunately for the benefit of the left liberals themselves. The divided regional forces whether in NDA or outside are the only respite against homogenised authoritarianism in the country. From within liberal democracy, the intensification of regionalist localism, along with institutionalised parliamentarianism are the only safeguards left against the hindutva brigade. This is what left liberals don’t realise when they indulge in their anti-fascist rhetoric. Anyway, with this rhetoric they don’t impress anyone but themselves. The major regional forces whenever they take up this rhetoric seriously, they use it merely as a bargaining chip against centrism.

7. The right wing forces have been the main agencies to recompose the relationship between state and civil society across the globe – of combining authoritarianism with liberal democracy. Only by a complete profanation of institutions that emerged in earlier regimes of accumulation that capital can reproduce the state in the neoliberal conjuncture. The barriers must be broken time and again to refinancialise the social factory – the neat divisions between different socio-economic spheres, between productive and reproductive regimes are obsolete and costly. These barriers that managed the surplus/ superfluous population through much-acclaimed welfarism are not required now – they must integrate to form a continuous reserve army. The desacralisation of liberal social-administrative spheres is part of this process. In recent years the right wing attack that directly concerned the left liberals has been in academia. The academia is increasingly made market friendly, not allowing any section of population to take perpetual “study leave”. It is not the quality that matters but quantity – production for production’s sake. Ultimately all of us produce data, and are data ourselves.

8. The left in the name of defending the “gains” is caught up in a contradictory position of defending the status quo. The right-wing forces, on the other, by attacking those gains show far more clear understanding of the contradictions that they expose. They defend the status quo by eliminating those contradictions and expose the brutal structure in its naked form. But this naked coercion would need a new regime of legitimation, because a long-term overexposure of its coercive apparatus can be a doom for the whole system. One of the gains of the right wing onslaught is to regiment the progressive forces and make them complicit in preserving the status quo, by bringing legitimation back to the structure. The cover-up of gains and incremental progress provides the structure a long life. ‘Defending the gains’ doesn’t always need to be a defence of the socio-administrative structure that provisioned those gains. They can be a ground to recognise, expand and generate more cracks in the structure, and create more crises for its reproduction. And in this negation develops a new grammar of social relations. But for left liberals there is no alternative (TINA) – Liberal democracy or Fascism!

9. In an interview to New Left Review in 1975, Communist thinker and leader K Damodaran lamented the failure of Indian left to differentiate between state and government, and hence, their inability to understand their relationship too. There are some who confuse between state and government to pose the impossibility of immediate political actions and there are others who find this confusion very productive, when haloed as the relative autonomy of the state and the political, to justify indulgence in bourgeois polity.

10. In fact, this confusion is one of the means through which the state avoids an overexposure. It is how it camouflages itself in the everydayness of governmentality. The state’s mood fluctuations, given a constant reshuffling in the relationship between the political and the economic, emerge as multiple political fetish-forms, as political forces, and even regimes. You can worship the state in whichever form you like – if nothing suits you, you pronounce it, you will get what you need – a new form! The spirit of state is fathomless and boundless – all political forms, their enthronement, dethronement or re-enthronement combine to constitute “the rhythm of the spirit”. The magic of capitalist state works on only one principle, which Prince Tancredi Falconeri pronounced –

“Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è bisogna che tutto cambi” (“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”) – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard (Il Gattopardo)

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

May 2, 2019 at 11:12 am

Why a Marx-Inspired Materialist Historiography cannot Afford to be Historicist and yet it often is

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A historically determinist (or hitoricist) historiography takes root when the line shifts from construing the discursive inscription of the immanent forces of history-as-movement as their limit, to making sense of such inscription as teleology. It’s this historical determinism as Marxism — which is arguably the result of reading Marx as if he was Hegel than retroactively read Hegel as Marx (i.e. read Hegel against his grain) — that has been the stageist bane of Marxist political interventions in the so-called non-European societies such as ours. The result: Marxist political discourse in the tropics has become a discourse tailor-made for the legitimation of the ideology of liberalism that can ‘survive’ and ‘succeed’ only by instituting its own materiality, which in this late capitalist conjuncture can, paradoxically, be nothing save neoliberalism.

All politico-ideological pleas of formal equality — all leftist struggles to win various violated or un-enforced juridical rights amounts precisely to that — can today succeed only by reinforcing the exchange-principle, and its basis in value-relations as the qualitative equalisation of qualitative differences through their quantitative differentiation. This would mean the reinforcement of value-relations through reinforcement of exchange-relations in their increasing precarity. And since this increasing precarity of value-relations would, in being reinforced, still be animated by the realisation or expression of value as qualitative equalisation in and through quantitative differentiation, such reinforcement of value-relations in its increasing precarity can only amount to increasing oppressiveness. The neurotic simultaneity of oppression and resistance — which is manifest in our current society and polity as the hegemony of competitive identity politics and lobby politics (both in their secular and so-called pre/non-secular forms) — is evidence of that.

In such circumstances, if one reads the Marx of Capital, in terms of his Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume I, one will clearly see how Marx reverse-shifts the line, as it were, from teleology to limit, in his reading of history. That, arguably, is what his materialist operation on the Hegelian dialectic — the extraction of the rational kernel (of the dialectic) from its mystical shell (of a prioiri orientation) in his famous, and by now much-abused, words — amounts to. This is precisely the moment of Marx’s complete liberation from historicism. It’s this that gives us the Late Marx, who speaks affirmatively, for instance, of the ‘pre-capitalist’ Russian mir as the germ of a possible Russian road of historical development that could bypass capitalism, which for historical determinists was/is a necessary and un-bypassable milestone.

What does this non-teleological historiographical approach of Late Marx — which comes out of his explication of the logic of historical development in its bare and abstract form in Capital — amount to? It means the incompleteness of capital at particular spatio-temporal locations, once capital has come into being anywhere or everywhere else, is already an integral part of capital. Thus, struggles even at those locations that have the discursive appearance of pre-capitalism must be against capital. Which is to say, those struggles have to seek to abolish all teleology, including their own that will be imposed on them as their respective limits by their respective determinate locations. In terms of a philosophy of history, it means one approach each and every moment of history as being internally divided or schizzed between two temporalities — that of contingency and necessity (or, difference-as-differing-away and difference-as-identity). More precisely, it means every moment of history is an internal division between the time of form in and as its contingent instantiation (event) and the time of form as the concrete mediation of its structuring or being-placed. Walter Benjamin adumbrates precisely this as the historical materialist approach to historiography in his ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’, particularly theses V, VI and VII.

One should, however, have no qualms in admitting that even Late Marx’s historical vision is haunted by a tension between historicism and non-teleological history. Considering that Marx envisaged his critique of historicism (the Hegelian dialectic) — as any seriously radical and profoundly engaged critic ought to – from within such historicism, his battle against historicism is always conducted under the ineluctable shadow of the latter.

Marx’s constant endeavour in Capital is to show how capital — which is nothing but historicism in concrete action — is, in its, objectivity, a moving contradiction and thus constitutively neurotic. That is because Capital shows how commodity, which is the basic unit of capital (capital in its cell-form), is an objective demonstration of itself as the mobilisation of its own immanent critique or negativity — what with commodity being qualitative difference that is use-value in its sheer bodily form embodying or phenomenalising its own negation, which is value as the substance of qualitative equalisation. We can, in other words, say that capital for Marx is qualitative differences or use-values and their respectively singular concrete labours in their limit. But precisely in not being recognised in their limit, use-values are rendered neurotic commodities, wherein use-values in their qualitatively different (or singular) bodily forms embody, in and as the equivalent pole of an exchange-relation or value-form, the substance of qualitative equalisation (value) that is their negation as singularities.

As a result, the conception of limit – which belongs to a rigorously materialist historiography – would, in Marx, often find itself encoded in the historicist language, and, at times, even conception, of destiny and inevitability. The most infamous example on that count is the little that Marx wrote on the Latin America of his times. Be that as it may, we ought to read such ‘Eurocentric’ articulations of Marx, pace Jose Arico, as the exception to the rule of materialist historiography that is definitively posed, if not also instituted, by the approach that Marx’s Capital articulates.

In such circumstances, it would not — and should not — at all be an anathema for a Marx-inspired materialist historiography to deal with questions of culture, consciousness and mentalite as a history of phenomenology of difference. But where it would differ from both the established historigraphes of culture, consciousness and mentalite on one hand; and the equally canonised historically determinist historigraphy of the so-called Marxist historians from South Asia on the other, is in its demonstration of how such differences (as subjective experiences) are both themselves and already always their own limit, and thus subsumption into regimes of necessity. It’s in this sense that a radical Marxist historiographer could – in fact, necessarily should — draw as much from the historiographies of culture, consciousness and mentalite as from the various strains of determinist ‘Marxist’ historiography. For, only in drawing from both these kinds of historiography – by thinking difference and its subsumption together, but in their separateness — will he/she be able to complete the incomplete materialism that orients both those historiographical approaches. This rigorously comprehensive materialist historiography — which is exemplified by the historiographical practices of such rarely found historians as C.L.R. James (in Black Jacobins), Timothy Mason and Arno J. Mayer — is a synthesis of both the aforementioned historiographical approaches. And in being such a synthesis the materialist historiography in question breaks with the historiographical horizon constitutive of this duality.

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