People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 01

January 07, 2007

The Destruction Of Politics


Prabhat Patnaik


THERE is a veritable chorus these days: “keep development above politics.” The president of the republic says so. The prime minister says so. Visiting World Bank officials say so. And, predictably, the view is echoed down the line by numerous petty bureaucrats and journalists. Now, politics is about alternative perceptions, alternative world-views, alternative class positions, contending for hegemony. To say that development should be kept above politics amounts to saying that there is a “true” concept of “development,” the one, needless to say, that is currently enjoying hegemony, which should not be challenged by anyone. What it amounts to therefore is a brazen attempt to impose one particular notion of “development,” a notion advocated by international finance capital, on all classes and all political forces. It amounts to an imposition not just of a particular economic regime but also of a particular conceptual regime. It amounts to the promotion of a conceptual dictatorship. 




The attempt to promote such a conceptual dictatorship has always characterised the bourgeois order. In their intellectual struggle against feudalism, bourgeois theorists had invoked the concept of a “natural order” and had couched all their formulations in the form of “natural laws”. This was because they wanted to argue that the functioning of the laissez faire system which they advocated, as distinct from the feudal-mercantile system riddled with monopoly, restrictions, privilege and royal patronage, produced not chaos and anarchy, but order and harmony. It was not enough, however, to show this; it had to be explained. And the explanation they gave was that it was a “law-governed” order, much the way that nature by then had been shown to be. In arguing this, they ended up therefore by asserting a particular proposition, viz, “till now” there have been restrictions and interference which have prevented the occurrence of the “natural state of things” that laissez faire entails; but “henceforth,” once laissez faire has triumphed, the “natural order” will prevail. Karl Marx, in The Poverty of Philosophy, expressed this bourgeois position as follows: “till now there has been history; henceforth there will be none.” This was both the proclamation, inter alia, of a conceptual dictatorship, and the apotheosis, in a Hegelian fashion, of “the present,” in the sense of asserting that that which exists is the end of history (an echo of this can be found in a host of current writers like Fukuyama).


The need for such a conceptual dictatorship is particularly pressing for the ruling classes at present. The fact that the pursuit of neo-liberal policies has resulted in an enormous widening of economic and social disparities, in a severe crisis of petty production, in an increase in the unemployment rate, and in a significant rise in the extent of hunger, can scarcely be denied even in the context of our own country, which is facing, not the usual stagnation characteristic of most other third world countries, but a boom of sorts. The question naturally arises: how does such a reality sustain itself in the midst of democratic elections based on universal adult suffrage? Or putting it differently, how can this economic order, based on the hegemony of international finance capital, survive in a democratic polity? Towards this end a number of strategies are adopted by international finance capital and the domestic collaborating bourgeoisie, one of which is to ensure that, no matter which political formation comes to power through democratic elections, the same neo-liberal economic policies continue to be pursued. 


This is achieved in a number of ways. One is the straightforward fear of capital flight in case a departure is made from the neo-liberal policy path, which is inculcated in all political formations, and which is sustained by the actual capital flights that occur from time to time, sometimes even by being deliberately engineered. Another way is through a massive penetration of the bureaucracy by persons belonging to imperialist agencies, and a massive infiltration into the bureaucracy of neo-liberal ideas through an elaborate system of networking, training programmes, workshops and “capacity building” exercises. The third way which concerns us here is through an enshrining of whatever may be the current practice, in concepts which are given a metaphysical form and proclaimed to be eternally true and in conformity with the “natural order of things,” or with “human nature.” The particular concept of “development,” which everybody is trying to push these days, constitutes an example of this. And this third way is nothing else but an attempt at imposing a conceptual dictatorship. It follows then that the conceptual dictatorship being sought to be promoted, has a direct political role: it amounts to denying people a political choice; it is part of a process of destruction of politics.




There is a dialectical process underlying this destruction of politics. While the conceptual dictatorship, reflected in the apotheosis of the neo-liberal concept of “development,” seeks to deny people a political choice between alternative development trajectories, it is sought to be justified through references to the “abysmal state of politics,” the “self-seeking nature of political parties,” the “corruption among politicians,” and so on. In other words the denial of political choice is sought to be justified by the empirical fact of the poor quality of the practitioners of politics, who are invariably contrasted unfavourably with the “captains of industry,” the “entrepreneurs,” and even, in sections of the provincial press anyway, with the “upright officials,” all of whom, being advocates of the neo-liberal development strategy, are seen as the upholders, the guarantors, the underwriters of “development” in this metaphysical sense. 


The very hegemony of such concepts, however, acts in the direction of pushing political parties, except of course the Left which has a theoretical understanding of the class nature of concepts, towards timidity in proposing any alternative agenda of development. The differences on developmental issues among this broad spectrum of political parties, from the Right to even the Left-of-Centre, disappear into the background, since all them become prisoners of “development” in the metaphysical sense. The conflict between them therefore is resolved increasingly not through people’s choice between alternative agendas, but through the use of money, muscle power, and opportunistic coalition politics. Likewise, since economic agendas take a back seat among these political parties, their ability to draw sensitive and intelligent young men and women into their fold as potential leaders with some degree of social commitment declines sharply. In other words, the very hegemony of the concept of “development” propagated by international finance capital contributes towards a lowering of the quality of the practitioners of politics.




Thus the very phenomenon, namely the low quality of the “politicians” (the exception which the Left constitutes is rarely ever explicitly mentioned) which is used as the justification for apotheosising the neo-liberal concept of “development,” is caused, partly at least, by this apotheosis itself. To be sure, there are basic class-related reasons for the decline in the quality of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois politicians, but the conceptual hegemony of neo-liberal “development” is certainly a contributory factor.


The process of destruction of politics is thus a basic feature of the era of globalisation. It is expressed not only through an elevation of the neo-liberal notion of “development” into a metaphysical truth, but also through an elevation of the underwriters of this development strategy, the “captains of industry,” the heads of MNCs, the so-called “entrepreneurs” and “upright officials” into the status of social role models and even political leaders. It is instructive that both the top political posts in the country today are occupied by persons who have risen from the ranks of the bureaucracy and who not only have had no political past (and have never approached a popular electorate) but are even proud of this fact, which is why they can speak with passion about keeping development above politics. 


The destruction of politics amounts not only to a thwarting of any challenge to the neo-liberal regime, and hence to a perpetuation of the acutely immiserising process of growth that the country has been witnessing; it amounts not only to a denial of democracy, whose very essence consists in the fact that people must have alternative possibilities before them from among which they can choose freely; it consists above all in the fact that meaningful political participation is a means of self-realisation of the people, a part of the process of their transition from being mere objects to becoming subjects engaged in shaping their own destiny. Politics in other words is not just a mere instrumentality for bringing about economic change. It is in itself a form of self-assertion on the part of the oppressed. Globalisation, through its attempt at the destruction of politics, seeks to deny them this. 




Paradoxically, however, even while globalisation seeks to destroy politics, politics reappears in a different garb. Clauswitz had said that war was a continuation of politics in a different form. More generally, as politics in its rational form is snuffed out from its legitimate space, it reappears in all kinds of irrational, violent and unproductive forms, like terrorism and fratricidal conflicts. The struggle against the destruction of politics therefore is simultaneously a struggle against the irrational forms that politics takes when it is sought to be destroyed. The democratic forces have to join this struggle in right earnest.


The beginning of this struggle must be in the realm of concepts, through a resistance against the conceptual dictatorship unleashed by international finance capital, through the insistence on seeing every concept in class terms, through an insistence on the centrality of class to every understanding. This is of course what the Left does anyway; but that practice has to be pursued relentlessly.
It is this insistence on seeing everything in class terms which had characterised Lenin. There is a story of a young comrade from back home coming to visit Lenin when he was in exile in London. As a good host Lenin took him around the sights of London, and pointed these out to him as “look at their Trafalgar square,” “here is their Westminster Bridge,” “you must appreciate their St.Paul’s Cathedral,” and so on. Krupskaya clarifies in her memoirs that when Lenin kept talking about “their,” he did not do so because he and the young comrade came from Russia while the monuments were English; he did so because the monuments were all constructed by the ruling classes. “Their” referred not to the English but to the rulers. The struggle against the destruction of politics must above all take the form of constantly, insistently, and emphatically demarcating ourselves from the ruling classes.