JOHN BELLAMY FOSTER, Editor of the prestigious Monthly Review and Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon, is best known for his contributions to Marxian ecology. He has been influential in reinterpreting Marxism for its ecological concerns, particularly the writings of Karl Marx. His famous article “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift”, published in American Journal of Sociology, introduced the concept of “Metabolic Rift”, which was the term Marx coined to capture the process of destructive changes in the relationship of man with nature under the capitalist system. Foster’s introduction of Marx’s concept of “metabolic rift” and reinterpretation of Marx on ecology significantly contributed to the theoretical integration of ecological concerns with Marxism all over the world.
His book The Vulnerable Planet: A Short Economic History of the Environment has received international attention for its focus on how the present environmental crisis is closely related with and is a part and parcel of the capitalist economic system. The book has been translated into a number of languages all over the world, including Indian languages.
According to Foster, the world environmental crisis is a systemic crisis, a product of capitalism, and requires systemic changes in the capitalist system. He says that environmental sustainability is incompatible with capitalism. Paraphrasing the German communist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, Foster warns that there are only two options before mankind: socialism or exterminism. Relying on his anti-capitalist critique, based on materialist interpretations of the human-nature relationship, Foster stresses the imperative for a sustainable, socialist alternative. “The metabolic rift” in man’s relationship with nature, a feature of capitalist mode of production, can be harmonised only in such an alternative, Foster believes.
You have made popular Marx’s concept of metabolic rift through your famous 1999 article, “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift”, and your 2000 book “Marx’s Ecology”. What actually did Marx and Engels write about nature? Are those ideas still relevant?
As materialists, Marx and Engels saw the materialist conception of history as inherently intertwined with the materialist conception of nature. Moreover, their dialectical perspective meant that this was doubly important. Marx’s doctoral dissertation was on Epicurus’ ancient materialist philosophy of nature. His first article as editor of Rheinische Zeitung was on the law on the theft of wood, related to primary accumulation. His Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts dealt with the alienation of nature as well as the alienation of labour. Grundrisse provided a fundamental critique of the Baconian ruse (that nature can be conquered by obeying her autonomous laws). Capital introduced the concept of social metabolism.
As Kohei Saito has shown in his Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, ecological issues became more and more important to Marx later in his life. Engels, of course, wrote his great, unfinished Dialectics of Nature. Marx’s use of the concepts of “the universal metabolism of nature”, the “social metabolism” and the metabolic rift to understand the connection between society and nature anticipated modern systems ecology, which developed along a similar basis. Likewise, Marx defined socialism as the rational regulation of the metabolism between human beings and nature so as to conserve energy while fulfilling human potential. No one owns the earth, he said, not even all the people on the planet own the earth; they simply hold it in trust for future generations and need to sustain and even improve it as good heads of the household. No other analysis, I would argue, provides as powerful a dialectical framework for understanding the relation between capitalism and the ecology in what are essentially scientific terms.
Of course, this is only a method of critique, and we have to add to it taking into consideration what we know of new ecological and social relations, new ecological crises, and the expansion of human knowledge and capabilities, reflecting the historical specificity of our own times.
During the high days of industrial capitalism, a number of Western thinkers, with their anger against the system, romanticised nature. They were actually making a “go back to nature” argument. How did Marx’s views differ from such criticisms of capitalism and its “evils” with respect to the environment?
It is true that the Romantic revolt—one thinks of Rousseau’s idea of the return to nature and the Romantic poets like Shelley and Wordsworth or early conservationists like Thoreau—evoked a kind of “back to nature” argument. This should not be taken too literally, though, since this was mainly a point of emphasis, in response to the extremes of bourgeois society, rather than an actual call to revert to some earlier form. Indeed, the Romantic critique of the bourgeois destruction of nature was something to take seriously in the sense that they [the Romantics] were protesting against the Grad grinds of Dickens’ Hard Times, who saw nothing but cash value when they looked at the world.
Nevertheless, you are right that Marx’s approach to ecology owed much less to the Romantics than to the materialist science of his day, which was beginning to develop ecological notions and to perceive the destruction in the impact of the capitalist economy on the environment. As a historical materialist, Marx took this issue seriously, exploring capitalism’s systematic degradation of the natural conditions of existence in his theory of metabolic rift. In this respect, he utilised the concept of metabolism as an overarching critical concept, anticipating the later development of systems ecology. Marx’s ecology was thus not derived primarily from the Romantic tradition, even though he admired Shelley, for example, but rather from science, materialism and dialectics. Marx recognised, as Paul Burkett has shown, the necessity of sustainable human development as the defining feature of socialism.
Marxist scholars like you point out that climate change and environmental destruction are part and parcel of the capitalist economic system. How does capitalism produce such havoc, making the possibilities of human survival bleak?
The fact that our present economic and social system, namely capitalism, is threatening not only all the ecosystems in the world but the entire planet as a place of human habitation is not in question today—this is recognised by all of contemporary science. In 2017 November, 15,000 scientists from 184 countries issued a renewed “Warning to Humanity”. The question then becomes, is there something in the laws of motion of capitalism that makes this tendency towards extermination inevitable within the system? The answer is “yes”. As Marx put it, the rule under capitalism is “Accumulate, Accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets!” Under this system, nothing else really matters except the accumulation of capital on an ever-increasing scale, which requires unlimited exponential economic growth. This also requires the commoditisation of everything in existence, reducing the world to the logic of the cash nexus. The result is ruptures or rifts in the biogeochemical processes of the planet—a problem that Marx conceived, much like system ecologists do today, as a metabolic rift.
Capitalism has been bringing about many technological innovations with unprecedented speed. Do you not think that technological developments and advancements could bring a solution to the environmental crisis?
I think there are a lot of misconceptions and mystifications in relation to technology. It is not capitalism, in the sense of a system of private accumulation, that is mainly responsible for the major technological innovations of our time. Nor are they occurring at an unprecedented speed, though they are certainly dramatic enough. The biggest innovations of our epoch are in communications and information technology, now extending to robotics. The breakthroughs in these technologies, like the Internet or drones, were a long time coming and were primarily the products of military research under conditions entirely insulated from private accumulation.
Today we can do a lot of things more accurately, more remotely and more automatically. For example, the United States is modernising its nuclear weapons because the innovations of our times allow more accurate targeting so that nuclear weapons, designed as so-called counterforce weapons, can be more precise and can destroy their targets more effectively with smaller warheads. Some think that this even makes nuclear warfare thinkable for the first time—one of the most dangerous and naive notions ever developed. For most, probably the biggest technological change is the smart phone they carry around with them at all times, which allows them to stay perpetually “connected”.
Yet, when it comes to addressing the ecological rift in the Earth System, none of these technological advances help very much. Production technology is implemented on a capitalist basis, so if it increases efficiency in inputs (or outputs), this is simply used to expand the scale of the system as a whole in line with accumulation (the source of the Jevons Paradox). The Soviet climatologist M.I. Budyko first raised the alarm about accelerated climate change more than half a century ago, and the problem has only got worse since. We have all the technology we need to solve the climate crisis. What we cannot possibly solve technologically is a way of safely perpetuating the goal of the present system, which is to promote unlimited exponential economic growth within the finite limits of the planet for the purposes of the accumulation of capital. Some say we can build carbon sequestration plants, which will pull the carbon out of the atmosphere and allow us to go on as before. But to do this globally at a level that would cut even 20 per cent of global emissions would require a worldwide carbon-sequestration infrastructure about 70 per cent bigger than the current fossil fuel complex that took generations to build—and that would put it on top of the current energy complex.
Even the expansion of solar and wind power—which is one thing we ought to be doing very rapidly—doesn’t solve the problem unless solar power and wind power actually displace fossil fuels—and even then immeasurable problems are created for any attempt to increase the throughput of energy and raw materials on this basis. Nuclear power has its own inherent dangers. In many ways, we are up against the second law of thermodynamics, which limits what we can do. In other ways, we are up against the very narrow logic of capitalism which treats all natural boundaries as mere barriers to be surmounted. Marx called this the problem of “insuperable natural limits”. If we are to shift society massively in the direction of substantive equality and ecological sustainability—something both freedom and the human future require—it will be necessary to change our social relations. And that is the one thing the system cannot accept.
For Marxism, a higher stage of development of productive forces is a necessity in a socialist society. Will it not result in large-scale destruction and exploitation of nature? If that is the case, then what is the ecological concern in Marx and others as claimed by people like you?
Unless one is completely doctrinaire in how one approaches these issues, one has to ask what is meant by the higher development of productive forces and for what purpose. The most important productive force, Marx made clear, is human beings themselves and the development of productive forces is about the development of the division of labour. Ultimately, Marx argued that the associated producers under socialism would need to rationally regulate their metabolism with nature such that they conserved energy and promoted the fullest development of the human potential. This cannot be interpreted as production for production’s sake, or industrialism for industrialism’s sake.
Moreover, as quantitative development occurs at a certain stage, qualitative development must take over. The object is one of sustainable human development. All of this is part of Marx’s vision and of Marxism but was distorted in some circles and, mimicking capitalism, made into a goal of promoting industrial gigantism. In contrast, Marx insisted again and again on sustainability, with the earth as a measure of development.
Though the existence of climate change is being established scientifically all over the world, there are a number of climate change deniers. The current President of the United States holds such a view. They believe that nothing is going to happen to the environment. Why are they not convinced about climate change?
Outright climate change denial, except for religious fundamentalists and those among the wider populace who are uneducated, is mainly a right-wing phenomenon promoted by economic interests. In the U.S., it is heavily funded by the ultra-wealthy and giant corporations, which often put economics first and foremost. It has no basis in science, and the ersatz-scientific views expressed are quite transparently a mere ploy designed to engender “scepticism” blocking any action.
Science itself is as strong on the issue of climate change as it is on the theory of evolution, if not stronger. I think Naomi Klein was correct in This Changes Everything to say that climate change denial on the Right is entirely, and indeed quite openly, the outgrowth of a position that sees any attempt to mitigate global warming, or to place limits on the fossil fuel industry, as a threat to capitalism and on a whole way of life centred on the fossil fuel industry. In this respect, Naomi Klein declared that “the Right is right”, that the movement to stop climate change is necessarily a movement for radical change and anti-capitalist. Her real target, though, was not so much the Right, but the liberal centrists who promote a different kind of climate change denial, equally unrealistic, which pretends that the market and technology can magically stop global warming without a change in social relations.
Donald Trump, of course, has not only denied climate change outright, but the Trump administration has done everything it can to prevent action in this area and to obstruct the science. The motives are quite openly economic. (I wrote about this in my book Trump in the White House, Monthly Review Press, 2017, in a chapter entitled “Trump and Climate Catastrophe”.) And while liberals are uncomfortable with his position, they easily fall into a kind of acquiescence, refusing to fight fire with fire and to go on an all-out attack because they recognise that Trump’s position is that of the system and benefits the capitalist class, to which they too are attached.
Sharing responsibility for climate change is an issue of debate among countries. From the point of view of developing countries, the advanced capitalist countries are historically responsible for the alarming stage of climate change and hence should shoulder the burden. But developed countries demand a check on the development pattern of developing countries like China, which causes increasing pollution. These opposite stands make it impossible to work out any concrete measure to avoid the imminent dangers. What kind of amicable solution is possible?
We are talking about competing capitalist nation states here and a division between the global North and the global South, rooted in imperialism. So “amicable solutions” are almost impossible unless social forces rise up from below. The centre countries of the capitalistically advanced world are responsible for most of the cumulative carbon build-up in the atmosphere; they are the nations with the largest ecological footprints per capita; and they are the countries with the highest standards of living and the ones able to reduce carbon emissions most rapidly and with the least effect on their populations.
There is no doubt that from a moral standpoint, and also from a practical standpoint if we want to save the earth, the biggest reductions per capita have to start there, and they need at this point to be double-digit reductions. But it is also true that this is a worldwide problem and that China and India and other emerging economies have a role to play—given that carbon emissions have to reach zero worldwide very quickly, with immeasurable global catastrophic effects if the world fails to accomplish this. Many scientists now believe that with the U.S. refusing to take a leadership role, the main hope lies in China.
But China is still a poor country in per capita income terms and has a much smaller ecological footprint than the rich countries in the West. Its primary concern is economically catching up with the West and not climate. The unfortunate reality that faces us all is that we will break the planetary carbon budget—that is, reach the trillionth tonne of carbon emissions—in around 18 years under business as usual, according to trillionthtonne.org. Everyone has heard how Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
How do you view the Gandhian approach towards the environment and lifestyle? It is highly critical of capitalist greed and environmental destruction. It advocates a simple lifestyle without harming nature at a personal level by each individual. In India, some major environmental movements are inspired by the Gandhian philosophy. Does Gandhism offer any hope?
I think a lot can be learned from the Gandhian philosophy, which certainly is ecological in many ways, though the solutions that it offers are not adequate for an industrial society. Still, we have to learn from a lot of different traditions opposed to hyper-industrialism and emphasising more rational forms of existence. I live in a country where people have the highest ecological footprint by far of any major country on earth. A strong dose of Gandhism would certainly help in many places.
I studied Gandhi’s writings in college, and I now feel that maybe I have done a disservice to my own students in not introducing them in turn to this thinking as an important tradition. In my research on the great geneticist and Marxist J.B.S. Haldane, I was struck by how he spent his final years in India and how his encounter with Gandhism and Indian philosophy in general affected his Marxism, pushing him further in what we would now call an eco-socialist direction.
Are you optimistic about the environmental efforts and struggles of various environmental movements all over the world? And also the government-level international efforts?
There are no physical or technological obstacles to avoiding the environmental catastrophes that are approaching. But it is impossible to solve these problems under business as usual, that is, in accordance with the logic of capital accumulation. The entire ecological problem is in reality a social problem with social solutions. For example, there is nothing, other than current power relations, to stop the world from carrying out the sharp reductions in carbon emissions that are necessary to mitigate climate change. And it could be done while also improving the conditions of the vast majority of people throughout the planet. But it would require enormous changes in the mode of production (and consumption) and in the social relations of production. And there is the rub.
The obstacle is monopoly finance capital and its day-to-day operations. There are all sorts of realistic solutions. We know hundreds, even thousands, of things to do that are within our capabilities, but they almost all go against the logic of capital accumulation. In the U.S., more than a trillion dollars is spent every year in persuading people to buy things that they don’t want and need, and most of this is frankly junk. More than a trillion dollars is spent every year on the military in what is the most environmentally destructive sector of the entire world economy—and aimed at destruction. I could go on with further examples. None of this is necessary. But to change it necessitates going against the logic of capital.
That does not mean that the capital system needs to be overthrown immediately in order to save the environment—that is simply not possible. But we do need to be uncompromisingly revolutionary in political, economic, cultural and environmental ways and to understand that we are necessarily engaged—if civilisation (in the broad sense) and humanity itself are to survive—in a conflict with the exterminism which constitutes, as E.P. Thompson said, the last phase of imperialism. The world needs to move to zero carbon emissions by 2050, and on top of that we have to find a way to pull a further 150 billion tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere. And that is only the beginning of our problems because we are simultaneously crossing numerous planetary boundaries.
Right now, we have to turn the carbon faucet off and rely on other forms of energy and conservation, creating a more rational society. But this means out-and-out warfare with the logic of capital accumulation. I would not say that I am optimistic, but neither am I pessimistic. Pessimism under these circumstances, moreover, is something humanity cannot afford. A revolutionary response means that we have to change the rules. As Bertolt Brecht said, we have to seek to leave the present “burning house”. And it is in this very struggle that our main hope for the future is to be found.
Inequality is increasing to an alarming level all over the world. Scholars like Thomas Piketty capture its magnitude. How does this process happen in capitalism? Professor Piketty suggests progressive wealth taxation as the solution that would reduce the increasing inequality. What is the impact of this inequality?
Michael Yates and I wrote an article for Monthly Review in November 2014 entitled “Piketty and the Crisis of Neoclassical Economics”. Piketty is interesting for a number of reasons, especially his role as a principal figure in the development of the Top Incomes Database, the largest historical database on income inequality in the world, extending over centuries. The importance of his analysis is related to what this database tells about the unprecedented levels of inequality that are being seen in the world today. Piketty’s argument is that this is because of dynasties in wealth concentration transferred over generations. His solution is a global wealth tax. This is certainly interesting, and the issue of a wealth tax has been raised in the past in Monthly Review. But Piketty, though his work is called Capital in the Twenty-First Century, deliberately mimicking Marx, avoids all the real questions of social and economic power and the need to transcend the system of capital accumulation.
Meanwhile, inequality continues to grow by leaps and bounds, with six men now having as much wealth as half the world’s population, or over 3.5 billion people. Many are going hungry in the world while the results of human productivity and social labour are being concentrated in a very few (a mere handful) hands.
FASCISM AND THE CRISIS OF CAPITAL
The emergence of right-wing fascist forces poses great challenges before progressive and democratic forces all over the world. Thinkers like Slavoj Zizek point out that this right-wing growth creates greater opportunities for a Left revival and the strengthening of Left forces as people at large are really dismayed and looking for an alternative. Can the Left seize the opportunity?
A lot of this is taken up in my book Trump and the White House. Fascism is a definite political structure, with a class basis, that emerges from a capitalist system in crisis. It represents the crisis of the liberal-democratic state and the substitution of a state structure in the fascist genus. The critique of fascism in the 1930s and the 1940s mainly developed within Marxism but was quite widely upheld. It was understood that fascism was a way in which the capitalist ruling class continued to rule without the limits of the liberal-democratic state (though still with the facade of constitutionality). One work I would recommend is Franz Neumann’s Behemoth. Later liberal theorists worked hard, though with endless inconsistencies, at reinterpreting fascism to remove any suggestion of a connection to capitalism—mainly by reducing it to a kind of psychological aberration or conflating it simply with racism minus the historical specificity in which it arose. It is important that we take fascism seriously as a political class structure in order to be able to combat it effectively. As Brecht said, you can’t challenge fascism unless you are willing to challenge capitalism.
In the U.S. and Europe, the resurgence of fascism has to do with the structural crisis of capital within the centre economies. The reappearance in India at the same time is not something on which I am competent to comment, though it is serious and is occurring in other places in the global South on quite different bases. All of this seems to reflect the wider, global structural crisis of capital. I would recommend, for a general view, Amin’s “The Return of Fascism to Contemporary Capitalism” published in Monthly Review in September 2014.
Zizek could be right that the rise of movements in the fascist genus is favourable to a Left revival. One might look back to the Popular Front movements in Europe. What is certain is that history shows that only the Left can effectively fight fascism. Liberals tend to fall prey to the Gleichschaltung (bringing into line) of the Right. Today I think that the anti-fa (or anti-fascist) movements, which are an international phenomenon and have arisen on the Left, need our support.
As a socialist do you see any immediate transcendence of capitalism? Have we reached a new revolutionary conjuncture? What sustains your belief in socialism?
What ultimately sustains my belief in socialism is a love of humanity and the example of hundreds of millions of people who are fighting this barbaric system every day—not to mention those who have given their lives combating it in the past. We owe it to all of humanity, including all future generations, to continue the struggle. To be sure, the capitalist system is not going to be transcended in a day. It took centuries for the bourgeois class to triumph over the feudal class. We need to think in terms of a long revolution. But it needs to be revolutionary at every step of the way since the main lesson of our time is that we have to go against the logic of capital, continually seeking to curtail that logic—if we are even to survive.
Once we could talk about socialism or barbarism; now the choice is between socialism and exterminism. The movement towards socialism has become a necessity—not simply for human freedom but for human survival. More and more of the world’s population are coming to this realisation.
THE OCTOBER REVOLUTION
This is the centenary of the October Revolution in Russia. It actually heralded a new era in world history. What is the legacy of socialist Russia?
The October Revolution was one of the great breakthroughs in human history, representing the first major socialist victory against capitalism. The leadership of Lenin in the first few years of the revolution cannot be underestimated. The October Revolution created a whole new era of human progress and demonstrated how much was possible for humanity. Yet, there were grave problems, too. The Stalin era with its purges took an immeasurable toll on wide swathes of the population, had a negative effect on the course of the revolution itself and promoted internal developments with respect to bureaucracy, authoritarianism and inequality that were all enormously corrosive over the long term.
Nevertheless, looking back, what the Soviet Union achieved was great, given that Russia at the time of the revolution was still an underdeveloped country, and the fact that it had to fight a world counter-revolution. It was invaded numerous times, was compelled to fight a bloody civil war, and had to counter the Nazi onslaught, losing 20 million people in the war. It was the Soviet Union that defeated Nazi Germany, head to head, though at enormous cost. In comparison, the Western allies contributed little to the defeat of Germany in the war.
Following the war, the Soviet Union was faced with the Cold War led by the U.S. as the new world hegemonic power. It was confronted with what in the West was called “containment”, but which was really a policy of squeezing and crushing Soviet-type societies. The Soviet Union had to face a debilitating arms race. Yet, despite that, it was able to promote the education of its people to an astounding degree, to improve living conditions, and to make enormous technological breakthroughs. Its developments in science and technology were remarkable.
For decades, during the post-Second World War period, the Soviet Union played a positive role worldwide in providing support for revolutions around the globe. For us today, the Soviet Union has many positive lessons to teach, not excluding the virtues of economic planning. No less important, it also showed us where a workers’ revolution could go wrong, the mistakes that could be made, the defeats that might have been avoided—lessons that need to be learned today—and one of the reasons for distinguishing 21st century socialism. In the long course of history, I think, the October Revolution will be seen as the first, extraordinary, incomplete, but heroic attempt at the creation of socialist revolution. Its legacy will be fully appreciated only when the next round of world revolution breaks out and when new, lasting victories are achieved.
Now we are in the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of “Das Kapital”. How do you read “Capital” after 150 years?
Marx’s critical-dialectical method and his historical researches into capitalist society make his work unique and indispensable, dwarfing all other contributions to social science over the last century and a half. Rosa Luxemburg once said that as the socialist movement developed in response to changing historical conditions, it would discover new scientific elements in Marx’s thought, going beyond the needs of the movement in his day. This is proving to be the case.
Today those struggling with the central issues of our time are once again finding inspiration in Marx, whether it is the discovery of his value-form analysis; his ecological critique; his explorations (even if limited) into social reproduction; his concept of primitive [primary] accumulation; his investigations into money and finance; his analysis of the concentration and centralisation of capital; his concept of the reserve army of labour; or his notions of precarious labour.
In many ways, Marx set the foundations of critical praxis, and although struggles in our time necessarily take new forms, reflecting the historical specificity of our age, his method endures.
You are the present editor of Monthly Review magazine. The magazine is renowned for its firm commitment to political-economic analysis of the Marxian framework without any new Left approach. How do you evaluate its history and contribution?
Monthly Review’s history and its role in the movement are tied to its origins. It was founded in 1949 (the same year as the victory of the Chinese Revolution). At the time, world revolution was expanding. But in the U.S., the Left had been defeated, with former U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace’s campaign for the presidency (representing the Left within the New Deal) destroyed by Red-baiting. This marked the beginning of what was to become known as the McCarthy era of virulent anti-communism and domestic witch-hunts. For Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy, Monthly Review was initially established as a kind of holding action for the Left at a time of defeat after defeat. Proudly subtitled “An Independent Socialist Magazine”, MR deliberately chose to go against the tide of history in the U.S. in the 1950s.
Albert Einstein wrote his “Why Socialism?” for the first issue of the magazine. Although there were discussions about building a wider cooperation on the Left in the U.S., it was soon decided that there could be no cooperation with Cold War liberals. Hence, the magazine took the stance, articulated by Paul Baran (developing on Lenin’s famous slogan), of “Smaller But Better”. The first three editors, Huberman, Sweezy and Harry Magdoff, were all called up before McCarthyite committees in the 1950s and defied the inquisition at the time. The Sweezy case (Sweezy vs New Hampshire) went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (which eventually decided in his favour) when he refused to name names, to turn over lecture notes (of a lecture at the University of New Hampshire), and insisted on defending himself on the basis of freedom of speech—the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.
Monthly Review was subsequently to focus on anti-imperialist struggles, especially following the Cuban Revolution in 1959. It became a centre for the economic critique of the system, with the publication of works like The Political Economy of Growth by Baran, Monopoly Capital by Baran and Sweezy, The Age of Imperialism by Magdoff and Labor and Monopoly Capital by Harry Braverman. In the last couple of decades, MR has become known for its contributions to eco-socialism. It is this great independent socialist tradition of uncompromising resistance to the status quo and unswerving support for the revolutionary struggles of humanity that continues to inspire those associated with MRboth in the U.S. and around the world down to the present day.
CASTE RELATIONS and conflicts have taken varied forms at different times in Jaffna. The recent conflicts around upper-caste cemeteries in proximity to oppressed caste dwellings resulted in a major protest on May 13th, opposite the Jaffna Bus Stand. In Kalaimathy village in Puttur, historically a Communist stronghold in Jaffna, some 23 villagers are in remand custody and 30 people including 11 women are out on bail, following an intensified struggle against a cemetery in the middle of their village. A Satyagraha campaign is continuing for weeks now in Kalaimathy, calling for the removal of all cemeteries next to people’s settlements. People from other oppressed caste villages are also participating in the Satyagraha and many others are coming to express their solidarity. S. K. Senthivel, General Secretary of the New Democratic Marxist Leninist Party, shared his views on this recent conflict, their work in Kalaimathy village lasting close to four decades and the history of anti-caste struggles in Jaffna.
Q: You have a long relationship with Puttur and particularly Kalaimathy village that is in the heat of struggle today. Could you elaborate on this conflict?
A: The people of Kalaimathy village, which has about 700 families making a population of about 4,500 people, are continuing with a Satyagraha struggle supported by the Mass Movement of Social Justice. With the demand that all cemeteries next to people’s settlements should be removed, large sections of the Puttur people from Kalaimathy village are participating day and night and taking forward a powerful conscientious struggle. These villagers have taken a collective decision, that even as they continue their daily wage work, each day, different persons are taking days off and contributing their energies towards organising this struggle.
Those who observe this struggle, wonder about the commitment of the village people towards this struggle, including the history and tradition of this village. And it is indeed, a different kind of activism here, compared to other villages. While there is one consistent leadership in this village for the Community Centre, Women’s Society, Sports Society and other village institutions, there is also a politics to the thinking of these people. The basis of their struggle is that for hundreds of years, the people in this village have been oppressed on the basis of caste.
Q: Can you speak about the history of this cemetery that people want removed?
A: The cemetery is very old. But in those days, there were no settlements near it. The lands next to it were not used for agriculture with wild over growth. But few decades ago, there was a government settlement scheme which also used some of the cemetery land amounting to 15 lachams (150 perches) and settled some of the villagers. Eventually other villagers also started building houses on the cemetery land as land was scarce and there was no boundary.
As people settled near the cemetery, some practical environmental problems came up in the 2000s. As bodies were burned in the cemetery, the ashes and the smoke began to trouble the people. Animals ran around with half burned body parts that remained. The people began to oppose the existence of the cemetery, and by the 2010s there emerged a widespread opposition to the cemetery. The last body was perhaps burned three or four years ago.
Early this year, one body was brought and it was turned back by the villagers who convinced them to burn it in another cemetery close by, which was distant from people’s settlements. That a dominant caste body was turned back has troubled some people, and they want to prove a point. Next, another family had tried to bring a body, this was of an oppressed caste person but backed by the dominant castes, and this became confrontational. The courts and the police have intervened. The Judge wanted a high wall built with a gas incinerator. As the confrontation escalated, the villagers broke the half-built wall around the cemetery that was being built in defiance, creating a tense situation and further police action.
Q: What is the education level in this village and how do they earn their living?
A: It is only in recent times that students have begun to study O/L and A/L, which reflects the educational backwardness of this village. Until 1975, they could not even attend the Puttur Somaskanda College that was just half a kilometre away, and so their educational access had remained low. They mostly ended their education with grade five, but now there is a young woman who has finished her university education from Kalaimathy. There is now a thirst for education in this village.
The village people are involved in many forms of day wage labour. An interesting characteristic of Valikamam East is that it is a red soil region. But there are stones on top of that soil, and these villagers go as groups of four or five and break and remove the stones and prepare it into farm land. Then there are tree climbing workers. Currently, there are over hundred men who are involved in marketing fish on bicycles. Thus such bodily labour is what they depend on for their incomes. We can also see hundreds of women from this village who go for wage labour in the red soil region of Achchuveli and Valalai.
Q: I have seen women go in groups to work in such farms. What are the social and economic conditions of workers and how are their wages?
A: Agricultural work has been necessary for women, because they are unable to sustain their families with the wages of men. The women are involved in planting and harvesting onions. However, there is a great difference in the wages received by men and women. If men receive around Rs. 900 a day in wages, women may only receive half the wage.
The important issue in this village is that they have been landless. And landlessness, caste oppression and economic deprivation, lead to class oppression including low wages.
In this background, in 1979, there was a serious incident of caste violence. Casteist thugs claimed the oppressed caste people had drawn water from their wells and beat them mercilessly.
The oppressed caste people lived in fear, they would say, we work on their land, we live under their trees, we cannot oppose them.
It was with this incident that our Party started working in that village. About twelve youth from that village, with strong anti-caste views, came and spoke to us about their predicament. We talked to them about possible efforts, and that, without the support of more people from their village, we cannot do anything; we cannot oppose caste oppression, we cannot gain land, we cannot raise the wages.
When they go for work, they are given bread and tea, but tea is given in coconut shells, or half cut bottles. But the people won’t oppose such practices at once. We had to first organise and work with the determined youth, and we advised them to start a community centre. Those youth were convinced, and they formed a youth group and worked with us. The community centre became effective, and was run by both the youth aligned with the Party as well as others in the village.
Q: What kinds of struggles were first taken up in this village?
A: At that time, there were about 500 families in that village, and we saw that they needed a path for the village. If a sick person or a pregnant women had to be rushed to the hospital, they had to be carried on footpaths through people’s gardens before reaching a vehicle. We asked the landowners for the path, we also asked government officials, we even called MPs and asked them, but all of them said nothing can be done.
Then we explained the situation to the village people, we drew a possible map for the road. Some people who had a humanitarian consciousness gave us part of the pathway. Then one night about 1,000 people, both men and women, worked all night. We arranged ten tractors of sand, and in one night laid the road, with the people spreading the sand through the lands of landowners.
The next morning the landowners were shocked and created trouble. They called the police. A woman called Sinnamma was arrested and remanded by the police, but then the women in the village got even more involved with a sense of responsibility. Eventually, the landowners could not do anything. We opened the road and named the village Kalaimathy.
The next struggle was to form a co-operative store in the village, because most of the villagers used food coupons, which had to be used in different shops. But the co-operative officials refused to create a co-operative store. Eventually, we approached the GA at that time, Devanesan Nesiah. He said, he can help us create an AD (Government Authorized Dealer) shop. So, we formed an AD shop and the villagers brought all their coupon stamps to this shop. The shop worked around the clock, including to serve the workers who returned home late at night.
The success of the struggle for the road and the co-operative store, gave the people confidence. They began to believe they can achieve anything with the leadership of those youth, the support and direction of the Party, and the unity of the people. That was a major victory for us.
Q: What kind of struggles were there for land? And how and when did they gain their housing land in Kalaimathy?
A: The people had absolutely no land. Most of the land was owned by a powerful landowning family called Malavarayar. The people who were squatting on their land, even if they gained some savings, and wanted to build even small cement houses, they would not be permitted by the landowners. By the 1990s, the village was mobilised around the land issue, but there were different perspectives on how to approach it. Ultimately, the land deeds were owned by the landowners. So, it was decided that the people would offer to purchase the land. The landowners could also see that the people were organised and they could not be evicted. So, they agreed to sell the land for a small price. The Party suggested a cap of two lachams per family to buy that land, so that all the people in the village could have housing land.
The village had a reputation of high alcoholism and other abusive substances. We tried to direct the village through various activities. We introduced sports in a major way, particularly football and volleyball. We also started adult literacy classes. It is through such daily activities that the village was transformed.
Q: The Communist Party led major anti-caste struggles for temple entry and equal seating in the 1960s and early 1970s. There were struggles in many villages, but anti-caste and progressive mobilisations in many of those villages did not continue. While your party has a base in Puttur, what is the reason for the decline of the Left in the other villages?
A: Long before we started working in Puttur, the Communist Party launched the anti-caste campaign in October 1966. Over one thousand people from various villages participated in those struggles. In villages like Changanai, Maduvil, Karaveddy, Neliyadi, Alvai, Point Pedro, Manthuvil and Polikandy, we had people linked to our party. There were about 15 people who died in those struggles that took place between 1966 and 1971. Rising on the strength of those struggles the Party wanted to launch major land struggles, land for the landless and for livelihoods.
But the JVP insurrection of 1971, resulted in tremendous repression of our Party. Many of our leaders were arrested and many of us went into hiding for close to a year. Tamil nationalism was also on the rise in the 1970s, with standardisation and the rise of the Tamil students’ movement. Next, many backward Tamil nationalists like Amirthalingam, Sivasithamparam and Naganathan lost in the 1970 elections.
They in turn put forward the Tamil Eelam call. They wanted to push a narrow ethnic politics and also defeat the Left with such a call. When Tamil youth took up arms, the already militant oppressed caste youth joined the armed groups that were putting forward Leftist slogans. With the open economic policies, many people from the villages also migrated abroad. With the political space shrinking we used the space where we could. Our work in Puttur focused on the needs of the people and to provide our support to the people. The village people also take their important decisions after consulting us.
Q: What kind of solidarity are you expecting from people of other communities and the South?
A: We are a Left party and we have connections with other Left parties in the South. We have been informing them about our struggles. Just as we support progressive struggles in other parts of the country, we want them to see this struggle and support it. We want them to bring out this issue and put pressure on the Central Government.
This is a just and democratic struggle. It is not just about one village, but about all those who are oppressed by caste in different forms.
This is about the daily life of people, and the people in this village have supported progressive struggles. When a people like that are struggling, Leftists, people who work with peasants and all progressives, have a far-reaching responsibility to support this struggle.
Have you seen The Divide, the British documentary you took part in?
The Divide? I haven’t seen it, no.
Perhaps it’s been a while since you filmed it?
Well, I’m interviewed all the time.
The film looks at what it says are the effects of inequality in the US and the UK. It’s based on the book The Spirit Level, which perhaps you know?
Yes, I remember.
The Divide says the current inequality problem began with the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Do you agree?
It escalated sharply under Reagan and Thatcher, who gave it a kind of ideological framework, but I think you really have to date the turn to the collapse of the Bretton Woods system about 10 years earlier, when the US terminated the convertibility of dollars to gold. This shifted the global economy pretty radically towards financialisation, and rapidly increased speculation.
In the film, you describe people’s belief in the benefits of capitalism as a kind of “religion”, adding that what we have is only an illusion of capitalism in any case. But if the world has got so much worse as a result, why doesn’t everybody realise?
I think people do realise. Just take a look at what’s happening in Europe, the US, Latin America and elsewhere. The general public are between angry and totally furious at what’s taking place. That’s why you have the collapse of the mainstream political establishment and the rise of what are called populist groups at both ends of the spectrum. Democracy in Europe is collapsing. Decisions are made in Brussels, not by national parliaments, and people know that.
Does this mean you’d favour a British exit?
Not really. I’m unenthusiastic about either, but I think probably the worse choice would be Brexit. My sense is that it would probably turn Britain – or maybe England, if Scotland pulls out – into even more of a dependency on the US. And there are a lot of good things that have happened in Europe since the Second World War. Those should be salvaged, and I think they can be.
So have you become more optimistic now you believe a hunger for change is showing itself around the world?
I think we have the seeds of change. They can flourish and address the massive problems we face. They may not. We don’t know. That’s a choice. And we haven’t even talked about the worst problems: the economic problems are bad enough, as are the social problems, but far worse than these are the major threats to the survival of the human species – the threat of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe. Here, if you look at the US primaries, you have to be impressed and appalled by the utter irrationality of the species. Here are two enormous problems that have to be faced right now, and they are almost absent from the primaries. ‘The public is furious at what’s taking place’
Does it give you any hope that some of the super-rich, such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffett, are willing to give away most of their money?
And you’ll notice big tax deductions as well. There have always been benevolent aristocrats. That doesn’t make me fall in love with the feudal system.
What effect would electing Donald Trump have?
It’s hard to say because we don’t really know what he thinks. And I’m not sure he knows what he thinks. He’s perfectly capable of saying contradictory things at the same time. But there are some pretty stable elements of his ideology, if you can even grant him that concept. One of them is: “Climate change is not taking place.” As he puts it: “Forget it.” And that’s almost a death knell for the species – not tomorrow, but the decisions we take now are going to affect things in a couple of decades, and in a couple of generations it could be catastrophic.
If it were between Trump and Hillary Clinton, would you vote for Clinton?
If I were in a swing state, a state that matters, and the choice were Clinton or Trump, I would vote against Trump. And by arithmetic that means hold your nose and vote for Clinton.
You talk about capitalism, politics and inequality a lot. Do you ever tire of it? Do you ever wish someone would ask you about something else? Well, from my point of view, there are two major categories of issues. There are the kind that are humanly important but intellectually pretty shallow. There are the kind that are intellectually quite deep and challenging, but don’t have the immediate human significance. If I had my choice, I’d rather stay on the second, but unfortunately the world won’t go away
Do you not feel you’ve had enough sometimes?
It’s like seeing a child in the street and a truck coming rapidly. Do you say, “Look, I’m too busy thinking about interesting questions, so I’ll let the truck kill the child”? Or do you go out into the street and pull the child back?
Who supports Donald Trump?
The new Republican centre of gravity.
But if it was another child, every day, for decades?
It doesn’t matter. I remember the philosopher Bertrand Russell was asked why he spent his time protesting against nuclear war and getting arrested on demonstrations. Why didn’t he continue to work on the serious philosophical and logical problems which have major intellectual significance? And his answer was pretty good. He said: “Look, if I and others like me only work on those problems, there won’t be anybody around to appreciate it or be interested.”
What would you like to see happen, in that case?
I would like to see serious and significant steps made to put an end to the use of fossil fuels, to create sustainable energy systems and to save the world – as much as we can – from likely environmental catastrophe. I would move very quickly towards de-escalating military confrontations, which are quite serious, and move towards fulfilling our legal obligation to rid the world of nuclear weapons. I would like countries to become democracies, not plutocracies.
How do you turn a plutocracy into a democracy?
It’s not very hard. In the US, it simply means going back to mainstream ideas. To quote John Dewey, the leading US social philosopher of the 20th century, until all institutions – industrial, commercial, media, others – are under democratic control, or in the hands of what we now call stakeholders, politics will be the shadow cast by big business over society. That’s elementary and it can be done.
[The Divide is in selected cinemas now and nationwide on 31 May. The Guardian]
YOU are being regarded as the ruler of a “liberated zone” in Bengal.
[Laughs] Does that create a good impression for a government? There is a liberated zone in the close vicinity of Kolkata, but the West Bengal government is not taking these people seriously. Just imagine the state of affairs.
But, why are you creating trouble for a project that could change the power situation in and around Kolkata?
The government is making fools of these people. The project will not be of any help to the local villages. The grid voltage is a hundred times higher than the local voltage. So, the electricity will have to travel through several substations before reaching the villages. How many substations will they create? Actually, this project is to supply power to neighbouring countries.
The government wants to arrest you at any cost.
If they give in writing that there will be no grid project in high population density areas, and that the project will be withdrawn from here, I will surrender. So, the cost of getting me is very low.
Are you against talks with the government?
Not at all. But, we wanted scientists to be involved in talks to know the impact of the grid on people. The government is engaging the police. Tell me, is this a police subject? The police are trying to bribe villagers, but they cannot be sold.
Why do you think the police is being involved?
This is because the government’s primary objective is to get permission to enter the villages. They [the police] call villagers and tell them to first allow the police to enter. The police would then ask the government to withdraw the project, they say. The villagers are poor and uneducated, but not stupid.
But, the state power minister told THE WEEK that Mamata Banerjee would not let the project happen if the villagers were against it.
She is saying something to her minister and the exact opposite to local Trinamool leaders, who are nothing but goons. She told them that the project has to be completed at any cost.
You said the project was fatal. Why?
Because of the electromagnetic impact and the emission of sulphur hexafluoride gas. The combination could lead to permanent breakdown of the central nervous system and cause damage to foetuses. There are about 273 research papers on this from all around the world. I admit there is no such research paper in India. But, does that mean that we would allow such a risk? Why put people’s lives at stake?
The government wants to get you out of the village. They think the villagers would then crumble under pressure.
Absolutely false. We could fight because the people here are very committed. We are all here to give them support, and necessary guidance.
The police and intelligence officers are tracking your health. They feel you are unwell and your life is at risk. So, they are showing patience.
Yes, they are waiting for me to die. In fact, they would like to spread a lie that I am very sick and not in a position to fight. I would like to tell them, through you, that I am fine and ready for a prolonged fight.
Are you suffering from any ailment?
Yes, I am. I am suffering from Crohn’s disease. I have to maintain a regulated and disciplined life. But, nothing is serious. I am fine.
So, what the police believe is wrong?
I was in hospital for a few days. They could not know that.
Are Maoists helping you?
Maoists do not fight elections. The villagers are. I will not say anything more.
THE concept of imperialism has fallen out of the political lexicon of many leftists in the West, with some deeming the concept irrelevant for understanding the dynamics of contemporary capitalism.
Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik has been one of the leading voices countering this trend. In A Theory of Imperialism, a book he co-authored with Utsa Patnaik, Patnaik explores how a new form of imperialism is at work in the unfolding of the capitalist system.
In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Patnaik states the case for the continuing relevance of imperialism as an analytical construct for understanding and challenging effectively the logic and dynamics of contemporary capitalism.
CJ Polychroniou: How do you define imperialism and what imperialist tendencies do you detect as inherent in the brutal expansion of the logic of capitalism in the neoliberal global era?
Prabhat Patnaik: The capitalist sector of the world, which began by being located, and continues largely to be located, in the temperate region, requires as its raw materials and means of consumption a whole range of primary commodities which are not available or producible, either at all or in adequate quantities, within its own borders. These commodities have to be obtained from the tropical and sub-tropical region within which almost the whole of the Third World is located; and the bulk of them (leaving aside minerals) are produced by a set of petty producers (peasants). What is more, they are subject to “increasing supply price,” in the sense that as demand for them increases in the capitalist sector, larger quantities of them can be obtained, if at all, only at higher prices, thanks to the fixed size of the tropical land mass.
This means an ex ante tendency toward accelerating inflation as capital accumulation proceeds, undermining the value of money under capitalism and hence the viability of the system as a whole. To prevent this, the system requires that with an increase in demand from the capitalist sector, as capital accumulation proceeds, there must be a compression of demand elsewhere for these commodities, so that the net demand does not increase, and increasing supply price does not get a chance to manifest itself at all.
Such demand-compression occurs above all through the imposition of an income deflation on the petty producers, and on the working population in general, in the Third World. This was done in the colonial period through two means: one, “deindustrialization” or the displacement of local craft production by imports of manufactures from the capitalist sector; and two, the “drain of surplus” where a part of the taxes extracted from petty producers was simply taken away in the form of exported goods without any quid pro quo. The income of the working population of the Third World, and hence its demand, was thus kept down; and metropolitan capitalism’s demand for such commodities was met without any inflationary threat to the value of money. Exactly a similar process of income deflation is imposed now upon the working population of the Third World by the neoliberal policies of globalization.
I mean by the term “imperialism” the arrangement that the capitalist system sets up for imposing income deflation on the working population of the Third World for countering the threat of inflation that would otherwise erode the value of money in the metropolis and make the system unviable. “Imperialism” in this sense characterizes both the colonial and the contemporary periods.
We recognize the need for a reserve army of labour to ward off the threat to the value of money arising from wage demands of workers. Ironically, however, we do not recognize the parallel and even more pressing need of the system (owing to increasing supply price) for the imposition of income deflation on the working population of the Third World for warding off a similar threat.
The fact that the diffusion of capitalism to the Third World has proceeded by leaps and bounds of late, with its domestic corporate-financial oligarchy getting integrated into globalized finance capital, and the fact that workers in the metropolis have also been facing an income squeeze under globalization, are important new developments; but they do not negate the basic tendency of the system to impose income deflation upon the working population of the Third World, a tendency that remains at the very core of the system.
Those who argue that imperialism is no longer a relevant analytic construct point to the multifaceted aspects of today’s global economic exchanges and to a highly complex process involved in the distribution of value which, simply put, cannot be reduced to imperialism. How do you respond to this line of thinking?
Capitalism today is of course much more complex, with an enormous financial superstructure. But that paradoxically makes inflation even more threatening. The value of this vast array of financial assets would collapse in the event of inflation, bringing down this superstructure, which incidentally is the reason for the current policy obsession with “inflation targeting.” This makes the imperialist arrangement even more essential. The more complex capitalism becomes, the more it needs its basic simple props.
I should clarify here that if “land-augmenting” measures [such as irrigation, high-yielding seeds and better production practices] could be introduced in the Third World, then, notwithstanding the physical fixity of the tropical land mass, the threat of increasing supply price — and with it, [the threat] of inflation — could be warded off without any income deflation. Indeed, on the contrary, the working population of the Third World would be better off through such measures. But these measures ... require state support and state expenditure, a fact that Marx had recognized long ago. But any state activism, other than for promoting its own exclusive and direct interest, is anathema for finance capital, which is why, not surprisingly, “sound finance” and “fiscal responsibility” are back in vogue today, when finance capital, now globalized, is in ascendancy. Imperialism is thus a specifically capitalist way of obtaining the commodities it requires for itself, but which are produced outside its own domain.
The post-decolonization dirigiste regimes [regimes directed by a central authority] in the Third World had actually undertaken land-augmentation measures. Because of this, even as exports of commodities to the metropolis had risen to sustain the biggest boom ever witnessed in the history of capitalism, per capita food grain availability had also increased in those countries. But I see that period as a period of retreat of metropolitan capitalism, enforced by the wound inflicted upon it by the Second World War. With the reassertion of the dominance of finance, in the guise now of an international finance capital, the Third World states have withdrawn from supporting petty producers, a process of income deflation is in full swing, and the imperialist arrangement is back in place, because of which we can see once more a tendency toward a secular decline in per capita food grain availability in the Third World as in the colonial period.
There is a third way — apart from a greater obsession with inflation aversion and a yoking of Third World states to promoting the interests of globalized finance rather than defending domestic petty producers — in which contemporary capitalism strengthens the imperialist arrangement. It may be thought that the value of imports of Third World commodities into the capitalist metropolis is so small that we are exaggerating the inflation threat from that source to metropolitan currencies. This smallness itself, of course, is an expression of an acutely exploitative relationship. In addition, however, the threat to the Third World currencies themselves from a rise in the prices of these commodities becomes acute in a regime of free cross-border financial flows as now, which threatens the entire world trade and payments system and hence makes income deflation particularly urgent. Hence the need for the imperialist arrangement becomes even more acute.
Not long ago, even liberals like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times were arguing that “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas” (that is, the US Air Force). Surely, this is a crude version of imperialism, but what about today’s US imperialism? Isn’t it still alive and kicking?
The world that Lenin had written about consisted of nation-based, nation-state-supported financial oligarchies engaged in intense inter-imperialist rivalry for repartitioning the world through wars. When [Marxist theorist] Karl Kautsky had suggested the possibility of a truce among rival powers for a peaceful division of the world, Lenin had pointed to the fact that the phenomenon of uneven development under capitalism would necessarily subvert any such specific truce. The world we have today is characterized by the hegemony of international finance capital which is interested in preventing any partitioning of the world, so that it can move around freely across the globe.
Contemporary imperialism therefore is the imperialism of international finance capital which is served by nation-states (for any nation-state that defies the will of international finance capital runs the risk of capital flight from, and hence the insolvency of, its economy). The US, being the leading capitalist state, plays the leading role in promoting and protecting the interests of international finance capital. But talking about a specific US imperialism, or a German or British or French imperialism obscures this basic fact.
Indeed, a good deal of discussion about whether the world is heading toward multi-polarity or the persistence of US dominance misses the point that the chief actor in today’s world is international or globalized finance capital, and not US or German or British finance capital. So, the concept of imperialism that [Utsa Patnaik and I] are talking about belongs to a different terrain of discourse from the concept of US imperialism per se. The latter, though it is, of course, empirically visible because of US military intervention all over the world, in order to acquire a proper meaning has to be located within the broader setting of the imperialism of international finance capital.
Some incidentally have seen the muting of inter-imperialist rivalry in today’s world as a vindication of Kautsky’s position over that of Lenin. This, however, is incorrect, since both of them were talking about a world of national finance capitals which contemporary capitalism has gone beyond.
The concept of imperialism originates with Hobson (who was not a Marxist), but it was Lenin, indeed, that put it at the centre stage of Marxian international political economy. Marx himself did not use the term “imperialism,” but there is plenty in his analysis that anticipates imperialism and globalization. How do you think Marx would interpret today’s dynamics and contradictions of the global capitalist economy? Would he be using the term “imperialism”?
There are, in fact, two Marxes. In Capital (I refer here to Volume I which Marx completed), the focus is on the sphere of production in a capitalist economy, which means an abstraction from its international setting. But in his numerous pieces on colonialism, many of which were written almost at the same time that he was writing Capital, and in his notes, Marx showed an acute awareness of the mechanics of colonial exploitation. He even talks about the “drain” of surplus from India. These writings of Marx, however, are less known; and since colonial exploitation did not get incorporated into the discussion of Capital, there is a general underestimation of the role of imperialism in the dynamics of capitalism even among Marxists, especially in the advanced countries.
It is also true that Marx had to rely on the material available at that time, which was not much and which came largely from colonial administrators with an axe to grind. He also, until quite late in his life, tended to over-emphasize the revolutionary role of capitalism vis-à-vis the earlier modes of production, and the sheer impact of its greater productiveness. For instance, in the Manifesto, he and Engels talk about the cheap prices of capitalist goods being the artillery through which all Chinese walls against their entry are battered down. As a matter of fact, in China itself there was very little demand for the cheap British textiles, even when Marx and Engels were writing this. To balance its trade, therefore (it imported much from China), Britain forced Indian peasants to grow opium and the Chinese to consume it. The Opium Wars were fought on this very issue. Marx’s insights into colonial exploitation are particularly remarkable in the light of the paucity of information he had.
Given his absolute scientific honesty and openness to fresh evidence, I have no doubt that Marx would have given imperialism its proper role in the dynamics of capitalism (as distinct from simply recognizing capitalism’s general annexationist drive, as in the Manifesto). And once this was done, perceiving an imperialist arrangement within the setting of contemporary globalization would have become merely the next inevitable step.
But it is not just fresh historical evidence that Marx would have taken note of. I believe that Marx’s theory itself is incomplete without imperialism. Once we recognize the obvious fact that capitalism is not a vertically integrated system that produces all its required inputs (even if not within the same period) but depends on imports from “outside,” some arrangement for preserving the value of money through an imperialist relationship becomes essential; and Marx would certainly have taken note of this fact.
One final question: How should radical movements and organizations, in both the core and the periphery of the world capitalist economy, be organizing to combat today’s imperialism?
Obviously, the issue of imperialism is important not for scholastic reasons, but because of the praxis that a recognition of its role engenders. From what I have been arguing, it is clear that since globalization involves income deflation for the peasantry and petty producers, and since their absorption into the ranks of the active army of labour under capitalism does not occur because of the paucity of jobs that are created even when rates of output growth are high, there is a tendency toward an absolute immiserization of the working population. For the petty producers, this tendency operates directly; and for others, it operates through the driving down of the “reservation wage” owing to the impoverishment of petty producers.
Such immiserization is manifest above all in the decline in per capita food grain absorption, both directly and indirectly (the latter via processed foods and feed grains). An improvement in the conditions of living of the working population of the Third World then requires a delinking from globalization (mainly through capital controls, and also trade controls to the requisite extent) by an alternative state, based on a worker-peasant alliance, that pursues a different trajectory of development. Such a trajectory would emphasize peasant-agriculture-led growth, land redistribution (so as to limit the extent of differentiation within the peasantry) and the formation of voluntary cooperatives and collectives for carrying forward land-augmentation measures, and even undertaking value-addition activities, including industrialization.
Small Third World countries would no doubt find it difficult to adopt such a program because of their limited resource base and narrow home market. But they will have to come together with other small countries to constitute larger, more viable units. But the basic point is that the question of “making globalization work” or “having globalization with a human face” simply does not arise.
The problem with this praxis is that it is not only the bourgeoisie in the Third World countries, but even sections of the middle-class professionals who have been beneficiaries of globalization, who would oppose any such delinking. But the world capitalist crisis, which is a consequence of this finance-capital-led globalization itself, is causing disaffection among these middle-class beneficiaries. They, too, would now be more willing to support an alternative trajectory of development that breaks out of the straitjacket imposed by imperialism.
[CJ Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His main research interests are in European economic integration, globalization, political economy of the United States and the deconstruction of neo-liberalism’s politico-economic project. He is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project]
In 2016, India is the second most unequal economy after Russia. Inequality is fracturing our economy and the reality is that today 57 billionaires control 70% of India’s wealth. Even International Monetary Fund recently warned that India faces the social risk of growing inequality. As per IMF, India’s Gini coefficient rose to 51 by 2013, from 45 in 1990, mainly on account of rising inequality between urban and rural areas as well as within urban areas. India is currently too dependent on a regressive tax structure of indirect taxes and should move towards a more progressive taxation system that raises more tax revenues from the wealthy to fund more public expenditures on health and education to create a more equal opportunity country.
What have been the reasons behind this growing inequality? Would you say successive governments have failed to address the concerns of the 99%?
Over the last 25 years, the top 1% has gained more income than the bottom 50% put together. Far from trickling down, income and wealth are being sucked upwards at an alarming rate. Like many other countries, in India too policies have not focussed on raising the incomes of the poorest. India’s liberalisation in the early 1990s has seen an explosion in inequality since it created opportunities in a few high end sectors such as banking, IT, telecom and airlines that only created a handful of jobs for the highly skilled and educated. Not many policy reforms have happened either in agriculture or labour intensive manufacturing that could have created millions of jobs and raised incomes of the poor. Furthermore, not much effort has been made to raise more revenues and spend on basic education and health so that the poor could benefit from the opportunities being created.
In the current context of demonetisation, has the problem of inequality aggravated?
India could face significant short-term economic costs from the ban on large-denomination currency notes, with no significant long-term benefits. IMF has just lowered its projections for GDP growth in 2016-17 by a whole percentage point from 7.6% to 6.6% due to the disruption caused by demonetisation. Since the demonetisation has been affecting the incomes of the poor more than those of the rich, it is indeed likely to further aggravate the problem of high and sharply rising inequality in India.
What are some of the false myths around economic growth that the report talks of?
The current economy of the 1% is built on a set of flawed assumptions. Contrary to popular belief, many of the super-rich are not ‘self-made’. Over half the world’s billionaires either inherited their wealth or accumulated it through industries prone to corruption and cronyism.
What policy actions do you think are required to address this growing inequality?
Governments need to stop obsessing about GDP and build an economy for the 99% of humanity instead of the 1%. Inequality can be addressed through initiatives of proper taxation and expenditure policies domestically; complemented by a concerted effort of countries to check some transnational problems, namely tax havens, tax dodging and tax avoidance. The tax havens should be closed and public expenditure on health and education increased. It is time that education for all – with good learning outcomes – is made a reality.
(The Times of India, January 27, 2017, in The Interviews Blog