The Global Commons Today — Issues and Challenges

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Keynote Address presented (slides are here) the International Conference on the Global Commons, organised by Department of Politics and International Relations, Pondicherry University and the Faculty of Law, Social and Political Sciences, University of Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris-Cite. Thanks to Prof. Mohanan for the invitation.

I don’t have a written talk. And I have also taken some slides from Tejal Kanitkar’s Manthan presentation for my use here  for making a different, though quite related, argument.

 

 

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“Spontaneous System” or Dialectical “Totality”?

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Recently some Marxist writers in India have started claiming that one of Marx’s fundamental contributions to the study of capitalism was “his insight into a basic characteristic of the system, that it is a spontaneous system. ” This is a rather curious formulation, especially in the year of Marx’s bicentenary, since neither Marx or Engels ever used the term. This merits the following observations:

1) Marx uses the word spontaneously in two senses in his work. In the Grundrisse, he predominantly uses it in the sense of referring to the beginning of some phenomenon, meaning arising of its own accord, as contingency rather than necessity. Later when the phenomenon or process of self-reproduction establishes itself, then the spontaneous (or natural which he uses alongside) becomes transformed into the historical presupposition (or precondition).

2) In Capital, Marx uses it in the sense of the objective reality of processes in society including economic, social, etc, that take place behind the actors’ back as it were, without the actors’ being aware of it.

3) It has been suggested that “spontaneous system” means that the system is driven by its own “immanent tendencies”. That is true of any mode of production. In fact it is true of any totality, because there is nothing “outside” a totality. In this sense to call capitalism a spontaneous system is a tautology, unless a “god” or something like that interferes from outside, which makes matters even worse.

4) In this view, “spontaneous system” is used to suggest that the capitalists as a class have very little or no freedom within capitalism to choose different courses of action. This is patently untenable since the trajectory of capitalist growth varies widely across countries with very different implications for societies and peoples.

5) At the same time, the underlying logic of capital constantly reasserts itself and is realized through the actions of actors, including both capitalists and the working class. Thus the struggle for the length of the working day is part of the working of capital and not a struggle happening outside of the logic of capital. The “spontaneous system” view therefore has a one-sided view of the tendencies in capital’s development and does not see its inherent contradictory development.

6) The dialectical view of the whole or a “totality” is a much richer view, showing how the abstract and the concrete are related, showing how the individual and the universal are related, showing how the whole and the parts are related. Understanding totality in a dialectical way involves the painstaking tracing of the development of the whole in all its richness of detail from the essence, with its unity of opposites. Marx puts down the key elements of this approach in the section titled Method of Political Economy in his Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

7) The “spontaneous system” view however follows really the path of metaphysical abstraction, where understanding totality amounts to a jump from some microeconomic explanations to a set of macroeconomic explanations (emptied of detail), where the former may eventually even be given up in favour of the latter. It is in this kind of abstraction that Marx appears the same as Keynes at the macro level while admittedly different at the microlevel. In this view Keynes may be forgiven his neglect of exploitation since he really understood, at least partially, some aspects of the spontaneous system of capitalism.

7) It is Marx’s view of totality that leads to the concept of absolute rent as Lenin so simply explains and no idea of spontaneous system will be of any use in such an explanation. Similarly the transformation problem or how, in a full capitalist economy, values are transformed into prices, can be understood only in a dialectical view of “totality” that Marx works out in the Grundrisse and explains (through the efforts of Engels) in volume 3 of Capital. This has been understood and explained by a host of Marxist economists and even by some mainstream economists such as Baumol.

8) In the year of Marx’s bicentenary our task, in my humble opinion,  should be to revisit and relearn Marx’s dialectical viewpoint primarily from his study of capitalism in Grundrisse and Capital and stand up to the renewed attempt to draw metaphysical conclusions from a dialectical Marx.

Marx on Science

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It is a remarkable fact that at Marx’s funeral, his life-long friend and comrade-in-arms Friedrich Engels chose to eulogise his friend’s commitment to revolution in terms of his passion for science. Engels noted, “Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force. However great the joy with which he welcomed a new discovery in some theoretical science whose practical application perhaps it was as yet quite impossible to envisage, he experienced quite another kind of joy when the discovery involved immediate revolutionary changes in industry, and in historical development in general. For example, he followed closely the development of the discoveries made in the field of electricity and recently those of Marcel Deprez.” But to note only this part of Engels’ speech, would be to limit Marx’s vision of science.

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Utopian Rhetoric on Global Warming

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Book Review: Vijay Parshad (ed.), “Will the flower slip through the asphalt: Writers Respond to Capitalist Climate Change,” Leftword Books, New Delhi, 2017.

P:ublished in the Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 52, Issue No 20, 20 May, 2017.

Amidst the increasing outpouring of literature on global warming and what the world should do about it, there is very little that is written from the perspective of enquiring into the relationship between capital and global warming. This is obviously not the same as writing on the economic or socio-economic dimensions of the problem or even writing that is passed off under subject headings such as the “political economy of climate change” or “politics of climate change.” To write about capital and global warming is clearly to adopt a viewpoint that sees capitalism as the essence of the global political, social and economic order, evoking clearly a critical Marxist view of how capitalism structures the relationship between human society and Nature. Expectedly the literature from this viewpoint on global warming is very sparse. Which is why this book will undoubtedly arouse the expectations of many who come across the title.

This slim volume counts among its more well-known contributors Naomi Klein, John Bellamy Foster and Amitava Ghosh, alongside others from various parts of the world. The main contribution is the essay by Naomi Klein, with a number of short comments on this by the others, and an introduction by Vijay Parshad. Klein’s essay is in fact her Edward Said lecture of 2016, available widely on the internet. Apart from this none of the comments appear to convey anything novel or particularly insightful that has not been published before, a possibility that is in any case curtailed by the format of brief comments. The volume as a result is not particularly attractive to those who are fully engaged with the issue of global warming, nor, given the brevity of contributions, particularly useful to those who would like to know more of the subject under discussion. Whatever may have been the original intent, one is left with the uncomfortable feeling of a public relations exercise for Naomi Klein and her brand of “Left” rhetoric on the issue of global warming. It is this last point that should perhaps engage us more seriously.

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Environmentalism: Utopian and Scientific

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While many nineteenth century thinkers, revolutionary leaders and working class movements had a vision of a just society, Karl Marx and his comrade, Friedrich Engels, writing more than a hundred and fifty years ago, underlined how the ideal of socialism could be realised only through a scientific study of the current economic order of society, namely capitalism, and its contradictions. And precisely in the study of these contradictions would the “necessity” of socialism, and the means of its realisation, be established (as surely as the contradictions of the pre-capitalist era had marked the “necessity” of the rise of capitalism), taking it beyond the mere utopian desires or dreams that had until then marked the vision of a society free from exploitation.

A great majority of working people across the world today recognize that any view of a better, more just and equitable society, must also include the vision of an environmentally viable and sustainable one. And more particularly, for the politically conscious working class, the contemporary view of a socialist future most definitely includes a balanced, non-exploitative relationship between human society and Nature. A hundred and fifty years on from the appearance in print of Marx’s Capital, his path-breaking study of capitalism and its contradictions, there can be no other way that humanity can face its environmental crisis, except by tracing the same kind of scientific path that led to a scientific view of socialism. And such a scientific view cannot but begin with the insights of Marx himself.

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Demonetization – Black Money and the Hindutva Obsession

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Demonetisation is not merely  a  shocking miscalculation by  Prime Minister Narendra  Modi and his troupe of sycophants and followers,  but is also a new and dramatic  manifestation of the obsessions and obscurantism that is intrinsic to the genetic makeup of Hindutva. Perhaps it is the sheer scale of this exercise of unreason, where the entire economic activity of one of  the world’s largest nations and economies, home to almost a fifth of the world’s population, should be seized and disrupted by such a move, that has kept attention away from this dimension of demonetisation. The traditional  obscurantism of Hindutva, thus far restricted to the glorification of mythology as science, has had serious consequences for education.  Hindutva’s majoritarian communalism relies in a fundamental  way on obscurantism, particularly in the realm of history, and has been the source of much  suffering ever since it emerged on the political scence in current form. But with demonetisation, both these manifestation pale before this new dimension of Hindutva obscurantism that has opened up before us.

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Trump’s shadow over COP22 – Putting the politics back into climate, seriously

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As I head  to Marrakech, the gloom from COP22 is palpable, thanks to the global media, even before I reach the venue. What on earth is going to be discussed there, if Donald Trump is going to be the arbiter of US climate policy? One plank of Trump’s policy is dismantling whatever little Obama had done. Mind you, the US has not done very much proactively so far either. Its emission reductions are to essentially emerge from the long-term trends in the structure of its economy and its markets, with perhaps some helpful prodding now and then. Trump would disallow even this prodding, dismantling all the planned moves in the energy sector, that the EPA  was yet to fully deploy. In any case, even the meagre actions that were proposed have been indicted as inadequate to meet the already diluted targets that the US had promised to take up through its ratification of the Paris Agreement (please note the double negative). The billions of dollars that Trump claims is being pumped into climate action by the US is a figment of his imagination as far as Third World countries are concerned.

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A Final Response

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This is the final full-length reponse to Subin Dennis’ rejoinder  to the earlier posts. There were further exchanges but not quite as substantive in nature as these earlier ones. This one was posted on Facebook on Oct 27th, 2016 (https://www.facebook.com/thiagarajan.jayaraman.5/posts/1199779353394829)

Here is the post.

I am not going to reply or debate Subin’s last post (available at
https://arthavichaaram.wordpress.com/…/to-de-link-or-not-t…/) in detail. For the moment, I think positions have been marked out and others may take the view they want of it. And there will be I am sure other occassions where this debate will continue. Just a couple of points though.

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“Silly” questions on Globalisation – A Response to a rejoinder from Subin Dennis (II)

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(a) Globalization I repeat is an amorphous term – that does not illuminate or provide some analytical insight. Even in Subin’s explanation – it is the set of processes and policies associated with era of neo-liberal capitalism – in short everything. So why not call it neoliberal capitalism (though it will end up the same – an amorphous term)? In an earlier avatar of this kind of writing, the reference used to be made to three phenomena together — liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. This at least had the merit of dividing the subject of discussion into three aspects – introducing some kind of specificity.  All too often  discussions originating in the Left reach this state of amorphousness – where anything wrong/unpleasant/bad can be attributed to globalization/neoliberalism. There is indeed no motivation to reach specific conclusions but fall back on presenting one formulaic slogan for all manner of issues.  Indeed the current epidemic of the use of the term globalization and/or neoliberalism is similar to the crude structural explanations of an earlier era.

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“Silly” questions on Globalisation? – Response to a rejoinder from Subin Dennis

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The following is a response to Subin Dennis’ post following mine, both of which can be seen at https://www.facebook.com/sunand.sfi/posts/10208663247551383. Subin’s post can also be read at https://arthavichaaram.wordpress.com/2016/10/24/on-globalisation-critique-or-nostalgia-a-rejoinder/

Let me get out of the way some of the later issues that Subin  raises  before the main issue of globalisation.

i) I have of course read the entire People’s Democracy issue on Brexit including Subin’s own piece. I am sorry to say I disagree with all of them except for the editorial  in which I recognize a much more nuanced stance than that of Prabhat Patnaik (PP) and Subin. But even in the editorial there is the implication of “Britain”  at the receiving end of the EU bureaucracy, an implication that tends to turn attention away from the role of the British ruling class in the pro-Brexit ranks. I also disagree with the core understanding of the editorial, “Through Brexit the  British people have taken a step forward to recover their rights and democratic choice.”  I think that in  general the results of Brexit are grossly misinterpreted by sections of the Left in a misleading and speculative discourse that overstates the role of the working class in the Brexit camp. I dont have the time to go chapter and verse on this — and there is quite a bit written on this.  But before I am to change my position on Brexit, I will have to be convinced by something weightier than authority being thrown at me (“before you make your discredited arguments, first go and read People’s Democracy” – really!!).

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