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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 22, New Delhi, May 16, 2020

The Return of ‘State Socialism’ in the Post-COVID-19

Sunday 17 May 2020

by Badre Alam Khan & Sanjay Kumar 

‘[The] Virus is a product of nature; the crisis is a product of neo-liberalism’
 [(Salas and Silverman, 2020); Cited by Vijay Prasad, EPW, March 2020].

The Covid-19 lockdown has not posed serious challenges in health and socio-economic sectors, but also curtailed civil liberties and freedom of speech (especially dissenting voices of subaltern masses) in the so-called both democratic and authoritarian regimes across the world. Before coming to the present fatality of coronavirus, let us look at the social history of epidemics which occurred in 19th and 20th century. In this respect, Professor like Frank M. Snowden (who is currently emeritus professor at Yale University in the US) in his book, “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present”, which appeared in 2019 has reminded us that if we look at epidemics from the historical perspective, most of the epidemics (like tuberculosis TB, plague, Spanish influenza of 1918, Smallpox, Ebola and current ongoing Covid-19,) had been seen as a product of ‘Industrial Revolution’, modern capitalist/imperialist model of development and globalization which had achieved tremendous economic growth(without equity and social justice) at the cost of environment and natural biodiversity. It is to be noted that due to influenza which took place in the late 20th century, in which approximately one crore 80 lakhs people had lost their lives and one-third populations of European countries were completely destroyed. While contextualizing epidemics historically, Prof. Snowden (who was also mildly affected by Covid-19 later has recovered from the deadly virus after spending time in quarantine) said that Covid-19 is the first pandemic product of current from globalization (based on neo-liberal capitalism) that encourages unrestraint economic growth at the cost of environment and biodiversity. To explain the points, Prof. Snowden says:

 “I would define Covid-19 as the first pandemic of globalization. The niches it exploits are massive population growth, crowding and megacities; an industrial model that encourages rapacious growth without counting the environmental cost. By destroying biodiversity and animal habitat, we are bringing human beings into relationships with animal reservoirs of disease that humans hardly encountered in the past”. (See, interview given by Frank Snowden over Skype from Rome to “The Hindustan Times, dated 1 May 2020,accessed on 11th May 2020)

 Contrary to popular common sense, most of the epidemics have had not been produced by ‘nature’ or by the ‘divine force’ (as traditionalists and conservatives groups across religions have had often spread among the masses) but, the product of particular kind of the ‘socioeconomic’ systems and historical instances like, an industrial revolution, wars and now globalization which have promoted human greed and desires to the large extent. In this respect, Prof. Snowden has also said that without understanding the ‘historical change’ and ‘development’ like wars, revolutions, we cannot understand the spread of epidemics properly. As he writes in his introductory chapter,

 “This hypothesis is that epidemics are not an esoteric subfield for the interested specialist but instead are a major part of the “big picture” of historical change and development. Infectious diseases, in other words, are as important to understanding societal development as economic crises, wars, revolutions, and demographic change”. (See Prof. Snowden, “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present”, Yale University Press, 2019, p-2.

 In short, it is wrong to assume that endemics have had been emerged in a vacuum devoid of socio-political, historical context and imposed by external mainly devine forces because of human beings are not following commandments of divine forces. Contrary to that most of epidemics took place because of modern industrial development which had created disharmony between environment and development. Having said that let us come to current problems like decline of democratic space and civil liberties as witnessed across the world including in a society like India.

 According to the report of the Freedom in the World 2020, “established democracies are in decline” in recent times. And it could be seen in both authoritarian and democratic regimes like China, Russia, Iran, the USA and India too. However, democratic regimes have had earlier good records in comparison to authoritarian regimes to protect human rights and civil liberties, as enshrined in their democratic Constitutions. “While protest movements in every region have illustrated widespread popular demand for better governance, they have yet to reverse the overall pattern of declining freedom”, further adds the report. The report has also underlined that there is an erosion of values like pluralism, political rights and civil liberties which are essential characteristics of the liberal democracy. As a result, ethnic, religious and other minority groups are facing a flagrant violation of human rights often by the ‘state apparatus’ in both democratic and authoritarian regimes, as pointed out by the Freedom report. In this respect, India ( theoretically is the largest and most populous democratic state in the world) is also falling to safeguards the rights of social minorities like Dalit, Adivasis, women and religious minorities especially Indian Muslims, as several national and international human rights organization reports have underlined.

Ever since the Hindu nationalist government led by PM Modi captured state power in 2014, discriminations, demonization, mob-lynching and attack on civil liberties and democratic rights of religious minorities are continued unabated. Take for instance, under the false pretext of the Tablighi Jamaat for having organized a congregation knowingly and unknowingly at Nizamuddin Markaz (amidst-COVID-19); Indian Muslins and Islam as a whole has been attacked and demonized by a section of electronic media and communal leaders who are associated with the ruling establishment. In addition to this, the students and social activists who registered their protest against an anti-constitutional discriminatory citizenship Act like CAA (which had been passed by the Indian Parliament on 11 December 2019) and unnecessary expensive exercise of the NPR-NRC; it is highly unfortunate to note that they are now being harassed and arrested under the draconian Act like UAPA, [Unlawful Activities ( Prevention)Act] for being allegedly involved in Delhi Riots, took place in February 2020, at a time when the country is passing through extremely difficult times. In this respect, Freedom in the World 2020, report rightly observes,

“As a part of the pattern of Hindu nationalist policies under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India issued an exclusionary citizens’ register in one state and adopted a discriminatory citizenship law [take for instance, anti-constitutional Act like CAA] at the national level, then used aggressive tactics to suppress the pretest that ensued’’. (See,‘Freedom in the World 2020’)

 To be precise here, the recent decline of democratic values and civil liberties across the world including in the case of India ( amidst COVID-19 lockdown) has created more intense fear and distress in the minds of the vulnerable, destitute and migrant workers including activists and students. Rather than protecting the citizenship rights ( to note that the present ruling dispensation and its leaders have often taught us about ‘duties’ and ‘responsibility’ of the citizen towards nation rather than emphasize on citizenship rights of people, enshrined in the Constitution of India) and freedom of speech, currently under the pretext of containing deadly viruses ‘state surveillance’ has been now rudely exercised by the ‘state apparatus’ such as by police forces and its investigating agencies, to suppress the civil liberties and democratic rights of students and social activists and migrant workers. Besides, just a few days back, the communal forces and a section of media have allegedly attacked Dr. Zafarul Islam khan (who is currently holding the post of Chairman of the Delhi Minority Commission) under the false the pretext of politicizing the problems of Indian Muslims at global forum especially in the Arab world. For targeting the sincere, tolerant, hard-working and a socially committed personality like Dr. Khan simply because of, he carried a Muslim identity, is very unfortunate and must be condemned in the larger public domain.

 The US and India are the largest democracies in the world which supposed to provide solutions related to lives and livelihood of migrant workers and India’s poor in the socioeconomic and health sector. Contrary to democratic regimes, the countries having socialist orientations states Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, a state like Kerala (located in India) are doing well to contain the spread of deadly coronavirus along with addressing the socioeconomic and the health crisis of the poor and vulnerable section of society.

Keeping these stark realities in mind, in what follows, we argued that a kind of democratic form of state socialism, as put forward by Babasaheb Ambedkar in his book ‘State and Minorities’ around 1947, is much needed now to overcome socio-economic and health problems confronted by the poor and underprivileged class in our society in the post-COVID-19. It is to be noted that Ambedkar’s idea of Constitutional state socialism is not based on the crude orthodox Marxist understanding of the ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ dichotomy and crude ‘economic determinism’. Babasaheb notion of state socialism was based on democratic, non-violent and moral values to achieve an egalitarian society through promoting liberty, equality and fraternity rather than the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and annihilation of ‘class enemy’ by using violent means, as experienced in several erstwhile socialist and Marxists regimes.

 Like Ambedkar, Nobel laureate Prof. Amartya Sen, Vijay Prashad and Kanwal Bharti all have recently echo almost similar views that democratic and social welfare state based on ‘Constitutional democracy’ (not having bourgeois economic order based on neo-liberalism and unfettered capitalism) will be more relevant in the current scenario especially to fight challenges posed by Covid-19. For Amartya Sen, democratic regimes which respect freedom of the press and provide space for the full participation of the public in governance (not merely electoral democracy) have had good relatively records to fight against ‘pandemic’ and ‘famine’ in the distant past rather than authoritarian regimes, as experienced by people in colonial India when a massive ‘famine’ took place in 1942. In short, democratic form of ‘state socialism’ with the nationalization of industry, basic health facilities, agriculture and farming (followed by taxations levied on super-rich) will be able to provide long-term solutions of India’s poor and migrant workers rather than adopting the means of charity/philanthropy especially given by a tiny section of Corporate. While commenting on these issues, a left-leaning scholar like Vijay Prashad has recently said, “what the world needs is taxation, not philanthropy. If somebody donates money to a hospital, you’re expected to pray to them, you have to name the hospital after them. Philanthropy is not democratic; it is monarchical. Taxation is democratic”. (See Prashad, “A Socialist Cry for Civilisational Change: COVID-19 and the Failure of Neo-liberalism”, EPW, dated 22 March 2020)

 Critique of Neo-Liberalism

  Amidst corona pandemic, a section of the left and progressive academics have started critiquing fiercely and highlighted the failure of the neo-liberalism and global imperial capitalism which has now reached the zenith of crisis. To note that threat of Covid-19 is a universal in nature and humanity as a whole is facing unprecedented challenges in all walks of lives. The economists have emphasized that the landscape of the current crisis is more dangerous than the ‘Great Depression’ and ‘Recession’ which took place in the distant past during the 1930s and 2007-2008. Hence, we cannot find solutions through adopting a policy like ‘protectionism’ and ‘economic nationalism’ in isolation or at the individual State level. We need to brush aside for a moment to ‘maximize individual interests’ and unlimited profits as classical economists and utilitarian’s used to put forward. Now, it is high time to take ‘collective actions’ based on shared interests for the sake of ‘public goods’ like health education and employment. It is only possible through democratic state socialism not under the neo-liberalism based on unstrained capitalism to counter ‘coronashok’ that has created huge economic and social unrest among subaltern masses. As a result, large numbers of migrant workers and homeless people have forced to leave megacities to their respective homes. However, most of them are still stranded in big cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmadabad who are now waiting for the end of the national lockdown to move their respective villages. Keeping these problems in mind, the government has started the Shsramik Trains for carrying the so far stranded migrant workers to their respective native places.

  To be very precise here, the neo-liberal economic policy based on ‘market fundamentalism’ has increased hugely socio-economic inequality especially in developing countries. For decades ago, India had also accepted neo-liberalism as public policy during 1990 by then the Prime Minister Narsimha Rao to implement the IMF and World Bank guidelines of a free-market economic policy with minimum state interventions in economic activities which have had created more profits to the MNCs, corporate elites. The economic development based on neo-liberal agenda and unrestrained implementation of LPG (liberalization, privatization and globalization) have so far provided more profits to big bourgeoisie and industrial class at the cost of subaltern masses. Under the guidelines of the IMF and the WTO, the respective states including India had adopted Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) to reform the economy (which was came under the crisis because of overt license ‘Permit Raj’ and due to corrupted bureaucratic fiefdom) on the lines of neo-liberalism to achieve economic growth, however, sans equity and social justice which envisioned by socialistic economy adopted by Nehruvian State. After four decades of neo-liberal economic policy, it is plausible to say that said economic policy has undermined greatly the idea of ‘substantive democracy’ (to note that during the neoliberal times, the so-called ‘electoral democracy’ has been continued unabated but, it has not delivered any substantial relief to the poor and vulnerable class, rather benefited to upper caste/class in our society) which supposed to address the problems like freedom from hunger and unemployment to India’s Dalits, Adivasis, poor women and minorities.

According to a 2017 report, which was published by Oxfam, (an International Confederation of agencies fighting problems like poverty) the richest 10 per cent in India used to control nearly 80 per cent of the nation’s wealth. Besides, the top 1 per cent used to own 58 per cent of our country wealth. In 2020, the ILO (International Labour Organization) has reported that around 1.25 billion people are currently out of work. In addition, 2.7 billion people, or 81 per cent of ‘global workforce’ has been severely affected by the stringent national lockdown, as reported by the ILO. The gap between the developed and developing nations has also widened over a period of time and due to economic policy like neo-liberalism that followed by accumulation of wealth through dispossession and exploitations of labourers.

 Keeping extremely depressing situations and drawing the lesson from the experienced like the Great Depression and ‘Recession’ in mind (which took place around the 1930s and 2007-08), one could argue that the bourgeois-democratic states used to manage the economy for a short period of time (for instance, by adopting Keynesian’s welfare economic model which advocated ‘state interventions’ in the economy within the broad capitalist structure after the 1930s) but have not completely overcome economic crises in the long run. In both developed and developing countries, currently neo-liberalism and bourgeois economic order is facing huge challenges because of the spread of deadly viruses (followed by unplanned national lockdown) has created situations like ‘Coronashock’, as pointed by Vijay Prashad. (See Prasad, op., cit, EPW, dated 22 March 2020).

 Return of State Socialism

In a globalised world, International organizations like the IMF (International Monetary Fund), World Bank and WTO (World Trade Organization) have had continued to advocate a neo-liberal economic policy which has been based on “maximum market freedom and minimum state intervention” as stated briefly above. The so-called democratic governments across the world in including in India willingly and unwillingly have so far benefited to “the interests of the well-off” section of society who used to control the government economic activities and often defend the neoliberal economic policy and private property for their vested interests. To sharpen the agenda of the LPG (Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization) under the pressure of the MNCs (multinational companies), India had also adopted the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1991 which has been pursued with full commitment by the successive governments over the last four decades. The neo-liberal economic policy was initially adopted by then the PM P.V. Narasimha Rao and subsequently followed by A.B. Vajpayee (National democratic alliance, NDA) and Dr. Manmohan Singh government led by then the UPA. To note that it was Dr. Monmohan Singh who as a then the Finance Minister in 1991 had played a vital role in reforming and restructuring economy on lines of the neo-liberal policy with the so-called human face.

Currently, PM Narendra Modi government has been following neo-liberal economic policy even more aggressively than the earlier regime. As a result of this unfettered economic policy adopted by the successive governments since 1991, the socio-economic inequalities have enormously increased with unintended human consequences. With the introduction of the NEP in 1991, the larger implications have now become starkly obvious in the public sphere. It is not exaggerated to say that neo-liberal economic policy has now widened the ‘economic fissures’, as a result of this, numbers of billionaires in India have increased dramatically. However, the material conditions of subaltern masses (mostly include, Dalits, Tribals, and minorities) that constitute more than 70 per cent of India’s population (who used to earn even less than Rs 20 per day), as more than a decade ago documented by Dr. Arjun Sengupta report in 2007.

 During 2014 general elections, PM Modi had put forward the Margaret Thatcherite’s rhetoric (who had first adopted the neo-liberal economic policy after the oil crisis around the 1970s in the context of Europe) of ‘minimum government and maximum governance’ which was one of the central planks of his elections campaign. Currently, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led Modi government is pushing towards the corporate-led model of the economy by initiating the programmes like Jan Dhan and Mudra loans for small enterprises that strengthened the process of digitalization of financial services. In this respect, the BJP government has articulated its plan to link ‘cultural nationalism’ with the economic policy and the slogans like ‘one nation’ and ‘one ration cards’ is currently put forward in the public domain.

 Given the huge scale of crisis, amidst Covid-19 lockdown, the status-quo and existing pattern of neo-liberalism and bourgeoisie economic order will be no longer continue further. We have to Search for an alternative to counter the current ‘irrational capitalists order based on neo-liberalism. In doing so, we must put forward the agenda of democratic state socialism (that advocates an egalitarian social and economic order, as reminded by Babasaheb during the Constituent Assembly debates) which have been now foregrounded by several left-leaning scholars like David Harvey and Vijay Prashad, amidst Covid-19 lockdown. While emphasizing the relevance of socialism over capitalism amidst the spread deadly coronavirus, Prashad writes,

“In a pandemic, a rational person would much rather live in a society governed by the norms of socialism than of capitalism—a society where people rally together to overcome a virus. A society where fear pervades and where stigmatization becomes the antidote to collective action cannot be the norm”. (Vijay Prashad, “A Socialist Cry for Civilisational Change: COVID-19 and the Failure of Neo-liberalism”, EPW, dated 22 March 2020)

 To note that Babasaheb,s proposal for state socialism was not seriously considered during the making of Indian Constitution especially in the Constituent Assembly deliberations. However, for a section of Dalit capitalists (DCs) including the ruling establishments who often have misinterpreted Babasaheb and said that he was not against capitalism per se and therefore, it is good for middle-class Dalits to follow the path of capitalism because it will help to reduce caste discriminations and untouchability. Hence for them, Babasaheb was not indented to nationalize lands, industry, health, agricultures and farming rather he was in favour of the’ free market’ economic policy. However, these arguments have been heavily criticized by the scholars like Anand Teltumbde, Prof. Gopal Guru and by Kanwal Bharti. Contrary to the ruling dispensation and Dalit capitalism (DC), Bharti writes,

 “On 15 March 1947, Dr. Ambedkar gave a Memorandum to the Constituent Assembly for implementing “state socialism” through the Constitution. He wanted the Indian Constitution to mandate the nationalization of industry, agriculture, land and insurance, and collectivization of farming. But the Constituent Assembly did not let this happen” (See K. Bharti “Why Constituent Assembly disagreed with Ambedkar’s democratic socialism”, FORWARD PRESS, December 21, 2018, accessed on 1st May 2020).

It is to be noted that after more than 50 days of the stringent national lockdown, experts have expressed that the positive outcome of the lockdown is gradually getting surface and curve is expected to get flatten possibly in the coming days. Till date, the government has identified three zones like ‘Red Zone’ will remain under strict lockdown, ‘Orange Zone’ will be given a limited relaxations and ‘Green Zone’ will be given more relaxations so that economic activities will be put on the track. Meanwhile, norms like social distancing (however, Dalit-Bahujan thinkers are uncomfortable with the phrase like social distancing, instead, they want to replace this phrase with ‘physical distancing’) and wearing masks, washing hands and sanitizing etc., precautionary measures will be put in place.

 To conclude here, given the world-wide increasing tendency of ‘protectionism’ and ‘economic nationalism’ mainly pursued by developed countries (rather than building common solidarity in the post-COVID-19), India must seriously considered the proposal put-forward by Babasaheb in his book ‘State and Minorities’ around 1947. However, his proposal was not accepted by then the Constituent Assembly (henceforth CA) because of most of the CA members (to note that members in the CA were elected not on the basis of ‘universal franchise’ but by the limited franchise, only given to property owing class, and subaltern masses did not entitle to cast their votes, until 1952 when the first general elections took place) were landed gentry who belonged to the upper caste mainly dominated by the Congress party.

 In short, given the international and national socio-economic crisis amidst COVID-19; the current neoliberal economic policy is failing to address the problems confronted by migrant workers and India’s poor in both economic and health sectors. Like earlier epidemics (plague, influenza and tuberculosis) were a product of historical events like industrial revolutions and wars etc,. took place in the 19th and the 20th century. Similarly, the Covid-19 is a product of the current form of globalization, as pointed out by Prof. Snowden in his interview and book too. Besides these problems, the so-called democratic regimes are also falling to protect the civil liberties and human rights of dissenting voices. As a result, Dalits, Adivasis, women and minorities are ‘doubly discriminated’ on the one hand for being materially deprived and secondly on the basis of their caste, ethnicity and religious identity on the other. Keeping these problems in mind, it is time to return towards a kind of democratic ‘State Socialism’ (especially in the post-COVID-19) as proposed by Ambedkar during the making of Constitution. However, it is ironical to note that his proposal was not accepted by the CA members and opposed by the upper-caste members who were associated with mostly the then Congress Party.

 Badre Alam Khan is Research Scholar University of Delhi and Sanjay Kumar was formerly Post-Doctoral Fellow at JNU.

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