People's Democracy

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


No. 24

June 12, 2011


Commodities and Corruption


Prabhat Patnaik


CAPITALISM is supposed to bring in modernity, which includes a secular polity where “babas” and “swamis,” qua “babas” and “swamis”, have no role. Many have even defended neo-liberal reforms on the grounds that they hasten capitalist development and hence our march to modernity. The Left has always rejected this position. It has argued that in countries embarking late on capitalist development, the bourgeoisie allies itself with the feudal and semi-feudal elements, and hence, far from dealing the requisite blows against the old order, reaches a modus vivendi with it that impedes the march to modernity; it is only those social forces that seek to transcend capitalism which can also carry the country to modernity.




If the rapid GDP growth rate of the country, its new found “prestige” in the international arena, and the globalisation of its elite had created an impression that the Left position was wrong, the episode of Baba Ramdev’s fast-unto-death against black money should have dispelled it. The episode did not just underscore our lingering pre-modernity; it expressed something infinitely more disturbing, namely that neo-liberal India, far from countering pre-modernity, is actually strengthening it. We have seen a revival of khap panchayats, and now we have had the spectre of a “Baba” demanding constitutional amendments of his personal choice under the Damocles’ sword of a fast-unto-death.


True, Ramdev’s fast was terminated by the government, but not before it had deployed four senior cabinet ministers to appease the “Baba,” even to the point of meeting him at the airport when he arrived in Delhi to start the fast. If, instead of appeasing him, the government had opposed the Baba’s plans from the beginning and placed before the people a perception of the threat to our democratic order that such fasts-unto-death for amending the constitution posed, then the denouement would have been better than what it has turned out to be in at least three distinct ways. First, the violence that occurred when the fast was terminated, after having been allowed to start, would have been prevented. Second, a public debate on the wisdom of such actions would have been started which would have raised democratic consciousness all around. And third, a halo of martyrdom would not have been provided to the “Baba,” the dangers of whose project have still not been explained to the people despite his fast having been terminated. The opportunism of the present government becomes clear if we ask ourselves the question: would Jawaharlal Nehru have rushed four cabinet ministers to appease a “baba” who was on a constitution-amending spree?


The fact that the government has fallen so low is, paradoxically, not despite its economic “success” but because of it. The economic trajectory being followed is one which necessarily embroils the entire bourgeois political class in “corruption.” It devalues politics, and hence leaves the field open for all kinds of “babas,” “swamis,” “godmen” and self-styled messiahs, who are accountable to no one, and who are not even themselves necessarily free of corruption, to move in and impose their own agendas that have no social sanction upon the state. The devaluation of politics is necessarily an attenuation of democracy, and a throwback to the pre-modernity against which our freedom struggle was fought.


But how is “corruption” linked to our economic trajectory? What is called “corruption” refers to payments for services which are illegitimate because such services are not supposed to be commodities at all; or to payments in excess of the prices which happen to be fixed for certain goods and services, to ensure that they are actually obtained in excess of what would have otherwise accrued in a system of rationing (which accompanies fixed prices). If I have to pay a bribe in order to get a telephone connection for which I have already deposited what is legally necessary, then that is a case of “corruption” of the first kind. If my child does not get admission into college (i.e. is rationed out), but I get him admission by paying an amount over and above the admission fee, then that is “corruption” of the second kind. Most cases of “corruption” can be classified under either one of these categories. But the basic point is this: underlying the concept of “corruption” there is a distinction between two spheres, a sphere of free commodity exchange, and a sphere outside of free commodity exchange. We do not talk of “corruption” in the realm of free commodity exchange. “Corruption” arises when in the sphere designated to be outside of free commodity exchange a price is charged as if it belonged to the sphere of free commodity exchange. The elimination of “corruption” simply means that the boundary between these two spheres must remain intact, must not be transgressed. Is this possible?




One of the deepest insights of Karl Marx was that under capitalism there is a pervasive tendency towards commoditisation, i.e. there is a tendency for everything to become a commodity. The boundary between the sphere of free commodity exchange and the sphere outside of it is forever being pushed outwards. But if this boundary is legally fixed, then this pushing outwards occurs in violation of the law, i.e. becomes “corruption”. In the pre-neo-liberal era, i.e. under what is called the “license-quota-permit raj”, there was a palpable legal fixing of such a boundary. This provided an easy explanation of “corruption” (on the grounds that the boundary was wrongly and arbitrarily fixed) and created the impression that if this boundary is pushed out through neo-liberal reforms then “corruption” will disappear or at least get minimised.


This argument missed two obvious points: first, no matter how far outwards we push the boundary, a legal boundary will always have to remain, for a society in which literally everything is for sale is simply inconceivable (imagine what would happen if examination results became a commodity); and if any such legal boundary remains then the immanent tendency under capitalism to push it outwards will necessarily still generate “corruption.” Secondly, the force with which the tendency to push the boundary outwards beyond its legal delineation operates depends upon the degree to which “money-making” becomes respectable, i.e. capitalist values become pervasive. Neo-liberal reforms have made such values pervasive; the force with which “corruption” has entered our public life has accordingly multiplied. And since the ultimate responsibility for the executive enforcement of the existing legal boundary of free commodity exchange lies always with the political personnel of the State, the logic of capitalism makes the bourgeois political class the most significant practitioners of “corruption.”


The idea that “corruption” can be weeded out by simply making it legal is flawed --- not just ethically but also analytically --- because a boundary for the terrain of commodity exchange must always remain, and in a world of pervasive capitalist values, this would still breed “corruption.” For instance, even if medical college admission is made a commodity sold to the highest bidder this would still not end “corruption” in medical colleges, since examination results will then be surreptitiously bought and sold. The idea that a mere Lokpal bill will end corruption is flawed, because again in a world of pervasive capitalist values the Lokpal office itself will become an abode of “corruption”: as a senior Supreme Court judge recently explained, in the current environment the desire for post-retirement “sanctuaries” (which are at the government’s discretion) makes sitting judges curry favour with the government through judgments in its favour.




The point is not that the scale of “corruption” is absolutely invariant to all measures and can never be decreased; the point is that the entire discussion of the spreading capitalist values, the passion for money-making, the intrusion of commoditisation into every sphere of life, all of which are integrally linked to our current economic trajectory, has receded into the background, and in its place all kinds of facile quick-fix solutions are being sought to be rammed down the throat of the nation by parvenu godmen and self-styled messiahs; and the bulk of the political class opportunistically acquiesces in their doings to the detriment of democracy.


To be sure, everybody in a democratic society, including swamis, godmen and messiahs, has a right to have views on what is good for the nation and to fight for those views. But, two caveats are necessary: first, fasts-unto-death, though justified in certain cases for getting redress against personal victimisation, cannot be a legitimate weapon for demanding specific public policies in a democratic society where there are constitutionally stipulated mechanisms for determining such policies; second, a mobilisation for a political end, namely demanding a particular set of public policies, cannot be done on the basis of non-political loyalties. If a person commanding the loyalty of millions of devotees for religious, spiritual or other reasons, uses that loyalty to mobilise them behind political demands, then we have a subversion of the secular polity. A government appeasing such a person is abetting that subversion.


Contemporary India alas is threatened with such subversion. Baba Ramdev’s fast-unto-death may have been terminated, but other swamis, and babas, not to mention Ramdev himself, are likely to come forward in the days to come with their own demands and press them under threats of fast-unto-death. Such a tendency, no matter how fine-sounding the demands, will undermine our democracy and secularism, which have been our biggest achievements in the last two millennia.