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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 52, New Delhi, December 12, 2020

Crises in the Congress Party and the Total Loss of the Self | Murzban Jal

Friday 11 December 2020

by Murzban Jal

As for the individual, everyone is a child of its time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes. If a theory transgresses its time, and builds up a world as it ought to be, it has an existence merely in the unstable element of opinion, which gives room to every wandering fancy. 

G.W. F. Hegel.

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

Milton Friedmann.

Philosophy is the child of its own time. This is what one learns from Hegel. But then so too is politics the child of its own time. Once upon a time, to rescue capitalism and to see that communism does not take over Europe, fascism was conjured to save capitalism. But then capitalism no longer needed fascism. The fascists went. Liberal democracy ruled the roost and Francis Fukuyama’s infamous “last man” sprang on the scene of history announcing history’s very “end”. But then the crises of capitalism sprang up once again and Fukuyama’s infamous “last man” giving sermons on the virtues of liberalism suddenly disappeared. And with the disappearance of Fukuyama’s liberal democrat, the fascists are once again seen marching all over the globe.

What do we learn from this? We learn that historical circumstances must be recognized and that from time to time unusual characters spring on the scene of history, characters that surprise and astonish everyone. Nothing is permanent, but change. Yet bourgeois political leaders never recognize this simple fact. They sit on their thrones and when there are no thrones left, they imagine that thrones yet exist, just as they imagine that their kingdom can one fine day be reclaimed. Nostalgia, of course, is a good thing. But nostalgia which has lost track of reality is nothing but psychosis.

While it is well documented, especially in the field of psychoanalysis, that psychotics and schizophrenics hear voices in their heads, voices that are totally imaginary, voices that haunt the unfortunate individual; there are also sane voices that must be heard. Thus the voices from a certain section of the Congress party on the crises of leadership must be heard, for they hit the nail on the head. Yet while hitting the nail on its unfortunate head, there is a deep structural flaw seen in the Congress party that no banging of nails can ever solve. What are these structural problems?

One must recognize the fact that the Congress was once a mass-based party that could grip the imagination of the Indian masses in the struggle against colonial Britain, despite the critiques of the communists and Ambedkar that the Congressmen were nothing but upper caste elites and thus nothing but native elites who intended to replace the colonial elites. But this hegemony remained only till the early 1990s and that it were the erstwhile successors of Nehru who abandoned Nehruvian socialism for neoliberal capitalism. Indian sovereignty in the names of Constitutional Democracy and “we the people of India” was handed over to the forces of globalization and neoliberal capitalism. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) became the New Sovereigns. The delinking from the masses thus began.

While this shift in sovereignty was taking place the clear pro-soft-Hinduva turn of the Congress party was also taking place with the breaking of the locks of the Babri mosque which allowed the Hindutva right-wing to capture the imagination of the masses with L.K. Advani riding on the top of a Toyota van modeled after a chariot of the Indian epic hero Ram. One recalls the celebrated limerick:

There was a young lady of Riga,
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And a smile on the face of the tiger.

While Herbert Giersch in his Reforming the Welfare State mentions the above limerick when discussing the welfare state hitching itself on the market, like the young lady from Riga riding on the back of the deadly and uncontrollable tiger [1], clearly it was Manmohan Singh as the original Indian lady from Riga (with Advani ironically sitting on his back) who stands out amongst all Congressmen seen riding triumphantly on the tiger, not knowing that he would soon be eaten up. While Advani had probably heard of the limerick and thus jumped aside, thus not being consumed by the tiger, it was the Congress led then by the good doctor of neoliberal studies who took on the role of this unfortunate lady. The question of the resurrection of the Congress thus turns to the question of removing the lady from the belly of the tiger. But this is to first recognize and confront this very tiger. So who is the tiger?

Turn to the 24 July 1991 when the then Finance Minister, the good Dr. Manmohan Singh working under the even better Narasimha Rao the then Prime Minister, heralded globalization and the political economy of neoliberalism in India said the following:

We are committed to adjustment with a human face. [2]

The good doctor was however mistaken. He forgot that:

If money comes... into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt. [3]

Neoliberalism which Manmohan Singh was officially heralding in India is not a magical pill produced in the factories of USA which when taken allow societies of the Third World to somehow develop and drag millions of peasants and workers from abject poverty. Like capitalism in general it has no human face. This is because neoliberalism is not merely “late capitalism” (to use a phrase of Ernst Mandel), but is late imperialism in permanent and terminal crisis. Its face is that of Mr. Hyde, covered with blood and dirt. This again, the good doctor Jekyll did not understand. The good doctor did not understand that neoliberalism has absolutely nothing to do with economic development, especially development in the Asian, African and Latin American nations.

After all, neoliberalism is grounded not in Indian democratic and constitutional values, but in Friedrich August von Hayek’s anti-socialist, anti-Keynesian ideas that germinated in the Mont Pelerin Society which comprised thinkers like Ludwig von Mises, Karl Popper, Frank Knight and Milton Friedman. Its initial ideology in 1938, when this ideology was being born, was of total rule of unbridled capitalism under the rubric of “free enterprise”, which is pitted not only against communist economics but also against Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and other forms of planned economics. “Planned economics” is a curse term for the neoliberals. Thus on whose command the Planning Commission in India was abolished in 2014 replaced by the ultra corporate NITI Aayaog immediately after the BJP took power is evident. While these forms of anti-communist and anti-planned economics remain its essential core, neoliberalism now takes a more lethal form in Milton Friedman’s idea of crisis and radical disruptions which helps in the accumulation of global capital. In a nutshell in takes the form of what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine”. [4] Neoliberal capitalism is essentially based on shocks. Thus the abolishing of the Planning Commission, demonetization, GST, Covid-19, the panoptic lockdowns and the Farm Laws, all which have created unbearable havoc, are examples of how neoliberal capitalism in India functions by consistent and continuous shocks and multiple crises.

It must be noted that neoliberal capitalism was first experimented in Chile with the 1973 CIA sponsored coup against the socialist president Salvador Allende and the installation of General Pinochet. In order to be member of the hallowed imagined “international community” residing in Washington the complete liberalization and privatization of the economy and the withdrawal of the welfare state has to be necessary.

The neoliberal model initiated by Washington was that of militaristic dictatorship. “Free enterprise” in this sense is a joke, an illusion, a comic illusion, or at best a tragicomic illusion. The essence of neoliberalism is not the individualistic individual free from all constraints aspiring to be an entrepreneur. Robinson Crusoe (and the myth of the individualistic individual) belongs only to 19th century English literature. And anyway in the 20th and 21st centuries he is useless. Pinochet is much better. But did the good doctor as the Finance Minister in the early 1990s not understand this simple fact that capitalism has absolutely outlived itself and in its even more deadly form as neoliberal form cannot resurrect the Indian economy? Did not he know that resurrection of capitalism can work better when it is organized through militaristic and fascist ways? Why then is the Congress apprehensive when capitalism is indeed being saved, albeit through militaristic and fascist ways? Are they against authoritarian politics, but for authoritarian political economy? Or do they want to become socialist and attack both authoritarian politics and destructive economics? If this is indeed so, then why do they not openly say so? Why do they not talk of the ills of capitalism? Why not once do they talk of fascism? This is because they are bourgeois through and through. For instance they will not allay with the Left Front in Kerala, but in secret alliance with the BJP try their best to unsettle the left there. Or as seen as in the Bihar state elections they try to act as big brother, when this role is already taken away from them. Why is this so? This is so because of their politics of dependency to capitalism. They cannot see beyond capitalism. They cannot imagine another world where humanity is free from the dictates of capitalism.

In the early 1990s aware that that the Stalinist Soviet Union had imploded within its own dictatorial weight, the Indian elites turned quickly to Washington for help. Before 1991 the Indian political elites hovered between Moscow and Washington. Now that Moscow was freezing and the sun was shining on the American Empire, it was best to turn to Washington for help. The speeches by the good doctor in the 1990s that there was a looming debt crisis which would be followed by hyper-inflation were without any foundation. The problem was that the Indian freedom movement which created the stalwarts to govern independent India had the burden of being native elites whose ideology was borrowed from the cranium of the colonial elites. India in 1947 needed independent revolutionary thinking, thinking that was independent of Stalinism and Washington.

The Nehruvian elites imagined that they were “non-aligned”. In actuality it meant that there was no independent thinking and that they had to be subservient to the dominant powers of the day. As just said, they hovered between Moscow and Washington. The fact that in 1991 they could jump from the boat of Nehruvian planned economy to free trade implied that they had no commitment to their own Nehru-inspired ideology. The problem was that Nehru instead of investing in the masses, invested in the bureaucracy. In the early 1990s the good doctor decided to invest in the global capital market. This what he said in his 1991 Budget speech:

The new Government, which assumed office barely a month ago, inherited an economy in deep crisis. The balance of payments situation is precarious. International confidence in our economy was strong until November 1989 when our Party was in office. However, due to the combined impact of political instability witnessed thereafter, the accentuation of fiscal imbalances and the Gulf crisis, there was a great weakening of international confidence. There has been a sharp decline in capital inflows through commercial borrowing and non-resident deposits. As a result, despite large borrowings from the International Monetary Fund in July 1990 and January 1991, there was a sharp reduction in our foreign exchange reserves. We have been at the edge of a precipice since December 1990 and more so since April 1991. The foreign exchange crisis constitutes a serious threat to the sustainability of growth processes and orderly implementation of our development programmes. Due to the combination of unfavourable internal and external factors, the inflationary pressures on the price level have increased very substantially since mid-1990. The people of India have to face double digit inflation which hurts most the poorer sections of our society. In sum, the crisis in the economy is both acute and deep. We have not experienced anything similar in the history of independent India. [5]

The crisis that Manmohan Singh was referring to was caused not by the lack of capital, but was caused by capital itself. By inserting more capital, the crisis would deepen. The good doctor did not understand that capital had reached its limit and that now the barrier to capital was capital itself [6]. If the good doctor had indeed studied the history of capitalism, he would not have plunged into the den of global capitalism, thereby moving from one crisis to another. Did not the doctor know that neoliberalism destroyed all the democratic gains made in the 20th century? Did he not fathom that it would destroy the public education and health systems? Did he not know that privatizing important state enterprises would inevitably hurt the Indian democratic system?

What happened was that with the domination of finance capital, neoliberal capitalism destroyed agriculture and industry, destroyed organized labour and workers’ rights and consequently destroyed the trade unions. It created the aura of the policy of Fiscal Policy and massive curbs on public finding and let international finance capital take control on the Indian economy especially with the policies of Foreign Direct Investment. That neoliberalism is nothing but the dictatorship of finance capital and that finance capital was not going to be democratic never occurred to the heirs of Nehru. But neoliberalism also created an unprecedented crisis that the Congress party and the votaries of liberal democracy could never imagine. One recalls Gramsci here who says that: “a “crisis of authority” is spoken of: this is precisely the crisis of hegemony, or the general crisis of the state.” [7] It is this very crisis of the liberal state that had given rise to the latest version of the BJP. Neoliberalism created the crisis of the legitimation of the Nehruvian liberal order. The Nehruvian liberal order had to go. It went.

There is no need of being nostalgic about this loss. Nor should there be any illusions that the Congress could quite possibly rejuvenate itself by mere change in leadership and the move from the Gandhi family to democratic grassroots leadership. This is because neoliberalism with which it is totally wed will not allow it.

A balance sheet will have to be made on how the Congress has sunk its own ship. From phraseology of socialism, from claims on being the vanguard of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) and the support of the heroic resistance of the Palestine people against the Zionist state of Israel to recognizing this very Zionist state and the Nuclear Deal with imperialist USA has been quite a long march for Congressmen which no one would want to remember. The problem with the Congress, since at least the 1990s, is that it imagined that it would take on the role of the manager of neoliberal capitalism in India. It forgot that a better manager could be found. And yes the manager has indeed been found. And how!

Despite knowing all this, romantic supporters of the Congress think that the grand old party can be revived and that one fine day the sun will shine of this old man. Since they imagine that a rejuvenation of leadership is necessary and that young Turks can emerge from somewhere and can make the old man walk again, they now start writing letters to an imaginary audience and cry out for new leadership. But the problem is not about leadership pf the Congress. It is about the essence of the Congress. Bereft of political ideology and concrete programme, it is hurling to its own demise. Attempts to imagine a new Congress is nothing but mere nostalgia, reminiscent of seeking souls from the netherworld to guide them.

The global contradiction and conflict is between capital and labour, imperialism and world socialism. Where does this leave the Congress? The answer is obvious—into nothingness! While Martin Heidegger’s applauded the rise of Hitler in 1933 claiming that the Nazis would save western civilization from the curse of Bolshevism, and then claimed rather innocently that the existentialist individual is thrown into what he called “Being” (Sein), the Congress in not having a clue in understanding the onslaught of capitalism and the consequent rise of fascism is thrown into nothingness.

Gandhi wanted to dismantle the Congress from a very romantic rural socialist perspective akin to the Russian Narodniki revolutionary ideology of the 19th century. His heirs have indeed dismantled it from a very capitalist perspective. This is the irony of the Congress party. And in this irony, we see the shadow, nay the ghost of the grand old party walking the lonely nights, not quite different from the eerie ghost-walk of Hamlet’s murdered father screaming of his foul and unfortunate murder. And with his screaming, we hear also the lament of his unfortunate neoliberal son:

Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Hamlet: Murder?
Ghost: Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
Hamlet: Haste me to know’t, that I, with
wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge. [8]

[1Herbert Giersch (ed.), Reforming the Welfare State (Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 1997), p. 17.

[2Manmohan Singh, Budget Speech, 24, July 1991, Last seen 24 November 2020.

[3Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), pp. 711-712.

[4Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (London: Penguin, 2008).

[5Manmohan Singh, op. cit.

[6See Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. III (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1986), p. 250.

[7Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York, International Publishers, 1987), p. 210.

[8William Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet’, in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (London: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 949.

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