There-Is-An-Alternative, Let’s Build It Now

Ravi Kumar

Michael Lebowitz, Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, Monthly Review Press, New York (Daanish Books, Delhi), 2006. 

“In the various struggles of people for human dignity and social justice, a vision of an alternative socialist society has always been latent. Let us reclaim and renew that vision” (p. 60).

The crisis of capitalism could not be more overt and exposed, but the instruments of survival at its disposal – both material and ideological – are also very effective with growing financialisation, commodification and consumerism. There are stark similarities in the way the welfarist face of the State has been on wane, along with its increased instrumentalisation in favour of global capital, in the so-called developed world and the inappropriately coined euphemistic developing world. At the level of movements too, if at one moment and place we hear sagas of popular and sustained confrontation against the global capital, the next we see a fragmented and weakened struggle against capital.

Latin American countries have been “continuing” their march towards leftist politics; conglomerations of people worldwide are voicing the possibilities that ‘another world is possible’ and ‘socialist’, and ‘communist’ organisations/candidates are assuming power everywhere. Yet, the hegemony of capital culminates into attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, and as threats to Iran. Agitating workers at Hindustan Motors are cruelly caned in a left ruled province in India. Workers struggling against their pathetic condition in the Hero Honda factory in India are brutally beaten up. People are killed and raped if they protest against the acquisition of their land for setting up Special Economic Zones (SEZs). The informalisation of labour force is the order of the day, driving down the living conditions of a vast section of the population. Isn’t the barbarism of capitalism stark enough for a movement to emerge – a movement that aims at transforming the State along with the production relations?

Welcome to the world of neoliberal capital, where the agenda of social transformation takes a back seat in light of the “booming” economy.  The Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) driven economy has generated such demands that most university departments in humanities and social sciences have just a handful of students for research courses. Impressions generated about the success of the economy and the scarcity of qualified and ‘good’ labour force combine to deliver us the dream of a ‘people’s economy’ under capitalism! Unemployment is there but capital complains (in unison with many of the ‘progressive’ comrades) that they are short of ‘good’, ‘able’ people in their firms. As Nasscom Chief Kiran Karnik suggests, there should be Special Educational Zones (SEZs), exclusively maintained by the private capital without any state intervention. The Indian State is also enthused.

Problems, discontentment with the system and growing concerns at loss of jobs, precariousness in the labour market, insecurity, privatisation led ‘initiatives’ in health and education are noticeably voiced in different quarters. But they are not seen as emerging out of a system, where capital dictates.  Increasing inequity in society, in terms of social security or welfare, is not seen as an outcome of the efforts of capital to maximise its profits. The dissent instead takes the existing social relations and production process as given, a priori and immutable. The boundaries of struggle remain defined by capital.

As Michael Lebowitz puts, “Our greatest failing is that we have lost sight of an alternative. And, because we have no grand conception of an alternative (indeed, we are told that we should have no grand conceptions), then the response to the neoliberal mantra of TINA, that There Is No Alternative, has been: Let’s preserve health care, let’s not attack education, and let’s try for a little more equality and a little more preservation of the environment. Because of our failure to envision an alternative as a whole, we have many small pieces, many small no’s; indeed, the only feasible alternative to barbarism proposed has been barbarism with a human face” (p. 43).

Lebowitz’s work holds great relevance today because of significant issues that it puts forth before us:

(1) It grounds its arguments for a socialist future in the critique of past experiences.
(2) It lays down broad contours of anti-capitalist alternatives and suggests strategies to control and push back capital.
(3) It demonstrates how economic and social equality can be achieved along with the generation of political consciousness that would sustain the anti-capitalist offensive.

II

Lebowitz develops the idea of human development – i.e., the “development of rich individuality” and the “absolute working out of his creative potentialities” – that runs through Marx’s work. But this can happen only in a society where people are not alienated, where interdependence is recognised and everybody cooperates. In capitalism on the other hand, inequality and unfreedom are inbuilt, where despotism at the workplace constitutes the system of surplus extraction and accumulation. Here, producers neither control the production process nor have “property rights in the product that results from their activity” (p.17).

Build it Now explains how in capitalism “the needs of capital stand opposite the needs of human beings.” Capitalism is “an expanding system that both tries to deny human beings the satisfaction of their needs and also constantly conjures up new, artificial needs to induce them to purchase commodities – a Leviathan that devours the working lives of human beings and Nature in pursuit of profits, that destroys the skills of people overnight, and that in the name of progress thwarts the workers own need for development” (p. 26).

Lebowitz asserts that capital is the product of working people, “our own power turned against us”. Capitalism is reproduced till we accept capital. The need is to go beyond capitalism. The alternative society will be one in which “the relation of production would be that of an association of free producers. Freely associated individuals would treat “their communal, social productivity as their social wealth”, producing for the needs of all” (p.30).

One of the principal features of the book is that it constantly reminds the reader about the realities of the capitalist framework and system. The Venezuelan experience is the context in which Lebowitz places his work. He asserts that challenge can be posed to neoliberalism through “endogenous” development. He accepts that it is not an easy task as capital attacks through different means and a diverse range of institutions. Since governments lack sufficient resources to be self-dependent, it is difficult to defeat internal and external enemies. However, “the central question will be whether the government is willing to mobilize its people on behalf of the policies that meet the needs of people” (p.40). It is also important that the governments free themselves from the ideological domination of capital.

In this context, Lebowitz deals extensively with the Keynesian alternative, which does not take humanity beyond the capitalist quagmire. The lineage of Keynesianism is reflected in the social democratic ideological plank. Its proposal for endogenous development suffers from the serious flaw that it does not break ideologically or politically from its dependence on capital. “Endogenous development is possible – but only if a government is prepared to break ideologically and politically with capital, only if it is prepared to make social movements actors in the realization of an economic theory based upon the concept of human capacities. In the absence of such a rupture, economically, the government will constantly find it necessary to stress the importance of providing incentives to private capital… The policies of such a government inevitably will disappoint and demobilize all those looking for an alternative to neoliberalism…” (p. 42). The new model must focus on human development and on investment in development of human capacities, i.e., not only education and health but also other factors that develop human potential.

There is an implicit argument throughout the book for building a collective unity, especially when Lebowitz stresses that it is the chain of human activities, whose ultimate result is the “reproduction of human beings.” However, in the capitalist world “[i]nstead of valuing our relationship as human beings, we produce commodities, we value commodities; instead of understanding this chain of human activity as our bond and our power, we understand only that we need these commodities, that we are dominated by them” (p. 44).

Lebowitz comes back to the serious challenge posed by the There is No Alternative ideology that pervades contemporary societies. This ideology not only kills the possibility of movements but also creates uni-focal ideological discourses that look at capitalism as the only possible form of society – with some modifications and improvements as and when required. “We need to recognize the possibility of a world in which the products of the social brain and the social hand are common property and the basis for our self-development – the possibility in Marx’s words of “a society of free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth.” For this reason, the battle of ideas is essential” (p. 50-51). In this battle of ideas, we must expose the nature of capitalism, which would allow people to understand that poverty is not the fault of the poor or exclusion does not happen because of the excluded, that wealth is the result of the chain of human activity. Lebowitz asserts the need to reclaim a socialist vision. “In the various struggles of people for human dignity and social justice, a vision of an alternative socialist society has always been latent. Let us reclaim and renew that vision” (p. 60)

All the existing forms of oppositions – whether in Seattle or against TNCs or against neoliberal ploy to reduce wages etc., must be supported, “but in and by itself this is an opposition to specific policies and practices of capitalism rather than to capitalism as such” (p. 53). This TINA syndrome owes its origin to the “two great failures of the twentieth century: the experiences in those underdeveloped countries that strove for rapid industrialization through a hierarchical system they called socialist… and the failure of social democratic governments… in the developed world to do any more than tinker with capitalism as an economic system” (p. 54).

In this world dominated by markets, capital and dominance of property relations, is it ever possible to go beyond capitalism? Lebowitz definitely thinks so, but he differs from those who simply wish away the role of state power in the task of “changing the world”. The Bolivarian transformation in Latin America brings the classical question of “state and revolution” back on the agenda. As Marx stressed, “workers need the power of the state to create the conditions for a society that could end capitalist exploitation” (p.62).

III

Reading Build it Now in the Indian context provides us not only with deeper insights into why things are as they are but also poses certain questions to grapple with.  India started showing signs of desperate change since the early 1980s when the so-called welfare State came under increasing criticism for its stiflingcharacter. However, it was the early 1990s when the neoliberal offence of capital really took over. What has also been significant during the period since then is the declining support base of the Indian left of all hues and colours, increasing diversification of forms of discontent and dissent through apolitical funded organisations (illusorily called movements).

While capital came on offensive through an active State, certain ideological-political developments occurred in the movemental arena, too. The foremost was the ideological disassociation of socio-economic problems from the systemic processes. For instance, displacement of millions of people due to Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and so-called developmental projects in India never came to be seen as a natural offspring of a system that facilitates expansion of capital. Hence, “[w]hat they all want is competition without the pernicious consequences of competition. They all want the impossible, i.e. the conditions of bourgeois existence without the necessary consequences of those conditions.” (Marx’s letter to Annenkov, December 28, 1846 ) Similarly, the withdrawal of the State from education and health sectors has not been analysed in terms of how privatisation of education facilitates reproduction of human machines that serve the needs of the system, culminating into profit maximisation.

In the world where the inevitability of capitalism is accepted, it is important that the struggle for an alternative State and society becomes a paramount agenda of the anti-capitalist forces. An alternative, as Lebowitz asserts, is possible. The vision of building socialism, lost in social democratic politics and localist NGOism, must be rekindled and our politics must not be blurred by the illusory and temporal emergence ofsymptoms, which seem to push back the agenda of class struggle. After all, dialectical and historical materialism demonstrates how small, micro, apparent, and fragmented realities in themselves do not represent the real face of capitalism. They must be interlinked and visualised in the context of the logic of capital – its articulations and crisis. Lebowitz, through his precise and lucid work, sufficiently enthuses the readers to dream and work towards the goal of achieving the socialist future. Build it Now is one of the strongest and most radical denunciations of the TINA doctrine.

[Michael Lebowitz, Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2006. Amazon/MR. In South Asia, contact: Daanish Books, A-901, Taj Apartments, Gazipur, Delhi-110096, Tel:             011-5578 5559      , 2223 0812, Cell:             +91-98685 43637      , E-Mail:daanishbooks@gmail.com]
Ravi Kumar is Fellow, Council of Social Development, New Delhi. He can be contacted at ravi@csdindia.org.

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