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Friday, April 08, 2016

Socialism calling

Back to serious writing again.

This time I am going to write at some length about some of my political and economic views.

Let me start off by saying that I am a socialist, albeit of the liberal/democratic persuasion, and I remain committed to the ideal, despite all the history of horror I have read, the failed experiments, the legions of loonies and perverts it has always attracted, and all the black comedy – ‘In capitalism, man exploits man. In socialism, it’s just the reverse’, ‘Socialism is the longest and most tortuous route from capitalism to capitalism’ and that sort of thing. I do believe that, with some essential corrections, it remains the only hope for our long-term survival and civilization. And I am glad that with barely four decades of late-capitalist triumphalism (dating from the death of Mao ze Dong, the rise of the Thatcher-Reagan consensus in the Anglo-Saxon world and the demise of the Soviet Union – it all happened within just fifteen years!), the world is already feeling it’s time to give a hearing again to voices that convey a common message of sanity, voices as diverse as Jane Goodall (see the interview in the March 2016 issue of Reader’s Digest) and Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis – voices that say, essentially, that you cannot have infinite growth in a finite world, that obsessive materialism is a serious sickness, that greed is not good and glorious, that the 95% of the human population that will never be rich matters, that ‘trickle-down’ is neither civilized nor necessarily our best bet for progress, and that only children (of all ages) and men with vested interests believe technology can solve all our problems, so we don’t need politics.

First off, there are a lot of people (especially among those below forty) who simply don’t know that socialism arose once upon a time (mid-19th century onwards) as a ‘cure’ for all the sickness that unbridled capitalism brought about, and no matter what the naysayers claim, all the nominally ‘capitalist’ countries from the US to Britain, Germany and Japan became more civilized because they were forced to make wide-ranging reforms in the face of the huge socialist threat – by way of legislation in favour of the weak and poor (right to form unions, minimum wages, humane working conditions, etc etc), income- and wealth tax on the rich, publicly supported health care and education and infrastructure building (transport, subsidized housing, water supply, sanitation and sewerage, street lighting), pensions, insurance, unemployment allowances, child care … the list is endless. This point bears repetition: the chances that without the socialist challenge to handle all these countries would have taken all such progressive steps on their own are small enough to be laughable: anyone who doubts that only needs to read about the early Poor Laws in the UK, the tragedy of the Paris Commune, the writings of Dickens, Steinbeck, Sinclair and Llewellyn or even Frederick Forsyth (The Dogs of War), John Grisham (The Street Lawyer, The Testament), or Jeffrey Archer’s priceless short story The grass is greener, the movies of Charlie Chaplin, and the kind of political resistance that FDR faced while trying to push through the New Deal to kill the demon called The Great Depression in the 1930s. Indeed, as soon as the great socialist threat retreated in the 1980s, all the above countries, dominated by rampant and unrepentant capitalists once more, have to a greater or less extent started rolling back all the privileges hard won by the not-rich over a century and a half, so that unemployment and poverty and gross inequality have started demonstrably ballooning again everywhere, and Everyman is in many ways less well off and safe than his grandfather was. If that is not a shame, what is? Ignorance is a great evil, willful blindness even worse.

Despite honourable exceptions who have made vast charitable contributions to public welfare (but that too was often done to assuage bad consciences, mind you, as with Alfred Nobel, or because otherwise death duties and inheritance taxes would take away big chunks of their fortunes anyway, as with the likes of Bill Gates – did you know that? Honestly?), your average capitalist (and I have read hundreds of biographies, seen hundreds in real life up close) is only ugly, coarse, greedy and utterly uncaring about the common weal, his credo being ‘I’ll make money by hook or by crook, stop me if you can’ – whether it be through flesh trading or drug running or organizing oil cartels or protection rackets or fixing stock markets or exploiting monopolies or bilking banks of vast sums in the name of doing business (they call them non-performing assets in India, it’s grown into a mountain – and the skunks accuse politicians of feathering their nests while using the same politicians to make and protect all that easy and dirty money!), denuding forests and decimating wildlife in order to live the high life. They do legitimate business for humble profits and for the common good only if that is the only avenue for money-making available (and that is why the need for social control arises); they much prefer Ponzi schemes if they can get away with it. What most people don’t know or forget is that the so-called father of modern apologists for laissez-faire capitalism, Adam Smith himself no less, wrote ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices’! And Jeff Bezos as a slave driver could put a lot of 19th century robber barons to shame: only the current ambience allows him to boast about it!

Secondly – this is the best kept secret – capitalists and their ‘ism’ cannot even survive without socialism of a certain degree. Everywhere the police and the lawcourts exist primarily for their protection. Governments, even in nominally ‘free-enterprise’ countries, fund the kind of education and research and infrastructure that allows capitalist enterprise to flourish (the roads are always built and maintained by governments, while private businessmen make the cars!), yet social control (bureaucracy by another name) gets unrelentingly bad press. Most tellingly, businessmen are gung-ho about ‘free’ enterprise only when the going is good – when bad times come, they are the first to scurry for governmental protection and revival measures, though, they claim, it is always only in the interest of the larger common weal. Between 1929 and 2008, the pattern hasn’t changed. Just wait for the next recession/depression to loom on the horizon…

Thirdly, capitalism, while all the time claiming to encourage creativity and competition, egalitarianism and efficiency, actually runs counter to all the above claims in a lot of different ways: always done. For one thing, it fosters a global outlook of ‘every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost’. That is not competition, it's called dogfighting. Not good for the prospects for civilization, given that honesty, moderation, genuine cooperation (not just to make some money!), fellow feeling and altruism are things that civilization can’t do for long without. For another, it cultivates an obsession with buying things – masses of often trivial or even completely useless things (gold wc-s, diamond studded watches, hundreds of pairs of shoes that often never get worn, surgery to ‘improve your smile’, birthday bashes for kids in luxury resorts, motorbikes fitted with car engines) – just buying them and accumulating them and flaunting them, not even enjoying the use of them (changing phones once every few months) – and with working like maniacs and/or stealing/cheating right and left to make money to the exclusion of all other possible goals in life (love, justice, art, literature, music, charity, real sport for the fun of it, caring for animals, science for the purpose of knowing rather than just manipulating for profit, philosophizing, without which we are just highly sophisticated beasts) so that one can keep on buying things, the whole thing being justified by the insane argument ‘how else will the economy keep running?’ (as though humans must live and die so the economy can keep running, instead of the other way round. Tagore used to say religion must exist for mankind, not the reverse. How true that has become for the capitalistic system!).

It rapes nature to extract every possible resource she can provide for our ‘development’. At one time – for a very long time – that might really have been good for us, all mankind living so close to destitution most of the time. Now that a billion people are seriously obese, and the land and air and water so polluted, and we already produce so much that if things were shared out a little more fairly nobody would have to know grinding poverty at all (again, did you know that?), and we know that it hurts and ruins so many lives, do we have to carry on forever instead of looking for something better?

Next, think of the inequality I keep talking about. First, let us accept that in capitalism it is inevitable – we might debate whether the poor get poorer or not, but there’s no doubt at all that the rich keep getting richer. That is because the system is rigged in favour of the rich – firstly, because the employers and top management are allowed vastly higher earnings than the average employee, secondly because they pay proportionately much less in taxes (I have this on the authority of Warren Buffett), thirdly because they are allowed to leave huge fortunes to their progeny, and worst of all, because the mega-rich acquire power to manipulate the entire machinery of lawmaking and governance in their own (increasingly anti-social) interest. Now I am no subscriber to ideas of absolute equality: in fact I strongly support a dispensation where one man may earn ten or twenty times another (provided the other gets at least a living wage) – a surgeon compared to a ward boy, for instance, a general manager compared to a clerk, a senior lawyer compared to a trainee – but thousands, even tens of thousands of times? If that is not obscene, what is? You really believe that Lionel Messi is so much more ‘valuable’ than, say, Einstein or Florence Nightingale, Mukesh Ambani than any of his engineers? How well does the much vaunted ideal of egalitarianism sit with this state of affairs, either? Who but a fool argues that a tycoon and his chauffeur have become ‘more equal’ because they both have smartphones?

Consider some other social ramifications of this order of things. For one thing, if you remember that beyond basic needs all material wants are largely social constructs (you want them because they are being constantly advertized, and your neighbours have got them already), it creates an atmosphere where most people are always unhappy, not because they are starving, but merely because they are not making enough money as compared to people they know (and nothing is ever enough – I have heard that in contemporary Silicon Valley the man who makes a mere million dollars a year and has a Merc in the garage of his four bedroom fully airconditioned house complete with swimming pool, which puts him among the richest 0.001% of the human population, feels miserably poor because so many of his neighbours make more than a hundred million). It makes for a world where people are mostly motivated by three of the lowest human instincts – jealousy, fear and greed. It talks about people being ‘appropriately rewarded’ for their talents, guts and dogged hard work, but funnily enough, apparently it’s only businessmen who ‘need’ to be rewarded on such a bloated, monstrous scale: so many other people, from soldiers to teachers to zoo keepers, seem to be able to do very good work without! And who will ever explain to me how the spouses and children of successful entrepreneurs, very often the most despicable and useless specimens of humanity, ‘deserve’ such wealth, glamour and power? Besides, in this atmosphere most children from the lower and middle classes grow up into adults convinced beyond repair that there cannot be any goal in life other than making money, no way of measuring success other than by the money one makes – who cares how it is made? And what is sillier and more hypocritical in this social atmosphere than beating our collective breasts every now and then over why so many people are turning to crime and corruption to make money?

Imagine what that is doing to the social need for judges and policemen, teachers and writers and environmentalists, nurses and every other kind of care giver! See what it is doing to education, when people have become increasingly convinced that it has no purpose other to train youngsters in ways of making money, and to the book publishing trade and universities and hospitals, now that they are being increasingly run by ‘managers’ with specializations in sales and finance, who don’t give a damn what the ‘product’ is, shaving blades or hotels, condoms or music. And what it is doing to social tastes, when the only kind of ‘artist’ who ‘succeeds’ is one who performs like a demented monkey on stage in sartorial states far more vulgar than mere nudity (think everything from Madonna’s ‘style’ to SRK doing the lungi dance), given that humans in the large have the greatest appetite for piggery, and that is what capitalism under a democratic-consumerist dispensation most encourages and provides for, simply because it is most profitable, and there cannot be a higher god than Profit!

Finally, look at what this ‘false consciousness’, to use Marx’s once-famous phrase, is doing to culture and manners. Everything has now become commodified and put on sale, from pleasure to marital relationships to the human body itself (I won’t even waste time talking about how feminism, and the great real need for it, has been derailed by the virus of consumerism: I know a lost cause when I see one). And I have to deal day in, day out with creatures who, because they have learnt to chew gum, wear jeans, speak pidgin English and own cars, imagine they have the ‘right’ to talk to me as an equal, though they have brains the size of peas, and slightly less ‘talent’ than some pet dogs I have seen. In the absence of social restrictions of the sort ours was the last generation to be taught (it used to be called civility) only the fear of my tongue keeps them in their places. My favourite old boys will know exactly what I am talking about.

Any sane reader – by which I mean anyone who feels we are not living in the best of all possible worlds – will of course be entitled to ask questions. I can anticipate several: is there really an alternative? Can socialism work? Hasn’t it proved to be a big disappointment, sometimes in horrifying ways? Are there real-world models I can recommend? I believe I can answer every one of them reasonably and with some hope. About that, in the next post. This one is already getting too long and dense for the average reader reared on comic books and twitter…


Navin said...

Dear Sir,

This is an excellent piece. I really like the bit about the implications on happiness and joy which a capitalist mindset entails. When I hear people that they do not have enough, I simply cannot take them seriously. Evolutionarily, this is the only generation of people who have food security and we may be loosing out on many traits which helped us get here.

with regards,


Aritra Chatterjee said...

Dear Sir,

Excellent piece on Socialism. However hasn't India tried socialism and failed ? In the book "India Unbound" Gurcharan Das speaks as to how Nehru used to dismiss profit as a dirty word. Our PSUs used to be neck deep under losses simply because government used to take away their profits. Under socialism our fiscal deficit used to widen and our economy was in actually a very poor shape. Granted there are a lot of ills that come with capitalism but don't we remember how in an era of no competition and high taxes we had to wait in long queues in banks, BSNL offices and other government offices simply because they had no incentive to serve us better. Now with the deregulation of the telecom and banking sector we can avoid long queues and get better services which includes paying our phone, television and bank bills over the internet which until a few years ago would have been impossible. Capitalism makes corporations work harder.
The point about CEOs getting a lot more money is very valid but would companies open shop in a country if government plans to take away part of their profits just because the CEOs are earning obscene amounts ? Basic microeconomics demonstrates how imposing tariffs and quotas by the government resulted in a deadweight loss for the economy. The book 'Freakonomics' also beautifully captures it in a much simpler way. If a high earning CEO opens up a factory or production unit in India and an unemployed Indian youth manages to earn something out of it is it too bad ? I have personally seen so many young people gain employment because of flipkart and Amazon. Occupation also keeps crime rates at bay. Granted that they might make a fraction of what the CEO is making but isn't it better that now they are making something rather than nothing. They either work in e-commerce hubs/warehouses or deliver the products. We can talk about profit in pejorative terms but it is the very desire to profit that motivates companies to move beyond borders and invest in countries. Personally Amazon/Flipkart has made my life a lot easier. Some of the rare books that I don't find in Durgapur stores are shipped free by amazon right to my doorstep. Adam Smith himself wrote in his book "Wealth of nations" that "It (profit) is the compensation, and, usually, it is no more than a very moderate compensation for the risk and trouble of employing the stock. The employer must have this compensation, otherwise he cannot, consistently with his own interest, continue the employment." What and how much he meant by moderate has come to change with time. Regarding your point about private sector not building roads India has completed 100 PPP projects and 165 are ongoing as of March, 2014 in the highway sector. Granted the returns are spread over a longer period of time but most of these are done using the BOT (Build Operate Transfer) model. Regarding the low quality Bollywood movies I feel it's wrong to blame capitalism but rather it's a trademark of Indian mentality. Most Indians derive utility out of crappy things and for that we should blame the people themselves. But then once in a blue moon we often get some decent movies too :). If capitalism were at fault then US which is also a capitalist country would not have been able to produce some of the finest movies that we have seen. Please do correct me in case I have missed out something.

Warm Regards,
Aritra Chatterjee
Batch of 2008

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for commenting, Aritra.

No, India 'hasn't tried socialism and failed'. She did too little, and gave up too soon.

As for what Adam Smith really said, I won't go into technical details, but basically you are wrong. What he said holds only under something called 'long run general equilibrium', which, as it can be mathematically demonstrated, does not even exist except under impossibly restrictive conditions, which never apply in the real world. Besides, as Lord Keynes said, it is almost entirely irrelevant, because 'in the long run we are all dead'.

But the crux of the matter is that the men you and I admire, despise and sympathize with are very different. Maybe you will change your mind after twenty or thirty years of adult experience of the world. Then again, you may not.

Anyway, your comment has helped me to decide how the next post should go. So thanks again.


Rajarshi said...

Dear Sir,

I am commenting on your blog after a long time and since I always had a fair idea about where you stand with your economic ideas from years of reading your blog, this insightful post makes me put a few questions/comments which probably get answered in your subsequent posts.

First, socialism will essentially mean increase in government spending, a welfare state (a nanny state, in words of neo-liberals), the sort which exists in many countries you cite as examples. That and the need to reduce obscene amounts of income inequality will inevitably mean need to tax the rich higher than what they are today, which in my book is a very good idea. But will that not kill the incentive for investing (I am not talking about mindless growth and consumerism) and hence the government’s only source of revenue, taxation? How does one address the growth-welfare/social justice conundrum? I have read too little economics to understand how it can be addressed without a bloated government doing everything from manufacturing telephones to running hotels. Or is there no conundrum here and it is just a construct of laissez-faire economists?

Proponents of socialism often cite the example of how successful Cuba has been with its healthcare and education systems but considering the fact about how an impoverished Cuban would rather risk the boat across the Gulf of Mexico than stay in the country, one wonders how much of 'Cuban model' is propaganda.

Second, in India's context, I think the complexity increases manifold just because of the size of our population. So, what the UK could do with NHS is so much more difficult to do in a country like India. Today, I was reading an article on how RTE Act implementation has been so ineffective in India with private schools doing everything from going to courts to blatantly violating the law to prevent economically marginalized kids to be enrolled under the 25% quota reserved for them. Middle class parents don't want kids of their drivers or cooks to study in the same school as theirs. I wonder if there are some problems unique to India.

Third, in my opinion any socialist model in India should address the appalling rural poverty first - from addressing agrarian crisis to land reforms. Meaningful land reforms have never happened in India and is unlikely to ever happen. Govt. interventions in rural economy is either of the sort where they waive-off farmers debts or raise the minimum support price of crops which again results in a few big farmers cornering the gain while the average landless, rural worker has to seasonally migrate to the nearest big city. Thus, government’s response is often ad-hoc and does nothing to address structural issues. Only exception I can think of NREGA, which happens to be looked upon with contempt by every neo-liberal. As journalists like P. Sainath have reported since years, rural poverty has been the biggest failure of Indian state since independence.

Lastly, a comment on Aritra's comment above without meaning to be condescending or offensive to him. Having entered the job market just when the post-liberalization economy was taking-off, I could see a much younger me in his arguments and quoting of Gurcharan Das and Freakonomics. It took almost a decade and half of reading and a bit of seeing the world to make me somewhat understand how structural inequalities perpetuate themselves.

Will comment on your subsequent blog posts if I have anything meaningful to say, add or question.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

It's Rajarshi Roy, isn't it?

Welcome back. So delightful to hear from the likes of you, who know the crucial difference between arguing (a feast for the soul) and bickering (enrey torko we call it in Bangla), which is insufferable irritation. And so sad that though I know from the pageviews counter that there are many thoughtful and sympathetic readers like you, the best of them write in as rarely as you do...

Your first question I have addressed with a rhetorical question of my own in the blogpost itself - why should businessmen alone 'need' monstrous compensations to keep them working, when so many socially useful others don't? ... and obviously they are not exactly starving in the countries I have named approvingly, so? If they don't like paying high taxes, tell them to go away, and see how many do, as long as there are profits to be made in your country!

But that does not exactly mean I want a 'nanny state', mind you. My motto would be 'help those who cannot help themselves (old, handicapped and poor people, for instance), and those who do significant good to society (stipends for artists and scientists, pensions for policemen and soldiers and teachers). For the rest, let them fend for themselves. Would you call that bad, or too harsh?

And oh, yes, of course, India's sheer size poses almost unique problems. Which is why I am a strong votary for federal devolution of state power, all the way down to the cities and districts ... I think that would accelerate progress very strongly. Empower grassroot units to look after themselves as best as they can, knowing their own needs and priorities much better than a remote central authority ever could - so long as they don't begin to show centrifugal tendencies that might pull the nation apart.

As to rural poverty, I agree with Gandhi, Sainath, and you. So long as that giant issue remains unaddressed, it will be only 'progress of, for and by the urban upper classes', not India's as a whole, and as to how much longer such a model can be sustained remains at best an open question. They are being kept quiet with cellphones and bikes and TV: the modern equivalent of bread and circuses.

As for the likes of Aritra, I can wait ten years or longer for them to change their minds. Let's see, shall we? boyoshta akhono nehaat i kaanchaa, na?

I hope reading the next two posts in the series will encourage you to raise more issues.

Best wishes.