The Business of Social Justice under Neoliberalism

Ravi Kumar

Those who celebrated the death of universals and the triumph of the particular have been shown repeatedly by history the myopia of their understanding. The experiences of particulars have been determined in ultimate analysis by universals. The fallacious understanding that the upholders of social justice would be different from their opponents has been exposed time and again. Those who thought that the backward caste and dalit ‘upsurge’ in north Indian states were revolutions that would subvert the system were repeatedly confronted with the dynamics of identity politics that used such mobilizations in the interest of the emerging elite of these castes. The formation of classes within the caste system has reached a new stage and the contemporary identity politics reflects that amply and starkly. This politics helps in containing the class conflicts and corrupts the anti-casteist ‘guerrilla fights’ against social segmentation by their sublimation to competitive identity assertions.

The universal of capital has been in control of the state of affairs in India for quite some time now. Those who deny the universality of capital deny the centrality of the labour-capital conflict, determining the shape and tenor of various other social conflicts. Thus, they neglect the existence of an integrated coherent social formation in India under capital’s command providing meanings and functions to various forms of exploitation and oppression (both new and old).

It is this universality of capital that brings together the authoritarian, repressive and outrightly neoliberal United Progressive Alliance (UPA) with other political formations when the Right to Education Act is passed in Parliament or when the health system is commodified through National Rural Health Mission or when Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan becomes the flagship programme to give a substandard education (!) to every poor and deprived Indian.

Those who supported the Right to Education Bill (and there were none in the Parliament to oppose the flaws of the new Act) included not only the politicians of all hues and colours but also the amorphous civil society actors. Not even a month has elapsed since its implementation and there are concerns at why the Ministry of Human Resource Development wants to turn the School Management Committees (SMCs) into advisory role in aided schools. Through the proposed amendments the Indian government declares that

‘let there be democracy, participation and empowerment of community happen only in the government schools while the other schools be allowed to become centres of manipulation which would give a hoot to what those who should actually control the schools – the people – think and want’.

These amendments have been proposed on suggestion of politicians who fear that the original role of SMCs may affect minority schools adversely. It is surprising that while one form of identitarianism is culminating into taking away whatever representation the democratic aspirations of people had within the suffocatingly commodified school system, there is another form of identity politics that wants to hand over the health system in rural areas to private capital. Yes, in Uttar Pradesh the Bahujan Samaj Party has opened doors for big health sharks – Max, Rockland, Fortis and Apollo – to manage, upgrade, operate and maintain the rural health sector. In the initial phase there will be four district hospitals, eight community health centres, twenty three primary health centres and 210 sub centres.

School Management Committees have been seen in positive light because they are potentially believed to bring Dalits, women and other underprivileged groups into the core of a control group that would manage schools. Though there are a lot of questions regarding how effectively would it work looking at the past experiences of the Village Education Committees (VECs) which many states in India already have. How could they be made more effective is a matter of separate debate but their existence as an instrument to democratize the school education at local level bases itself on the principle that there are sections (seen primarily as social identities) in our society which have been systematically excluded from roles of managing institutions meant for masses. Hence, an idea of operationalising social justice and bring about equity through the model of identity politics constitutes the bedrock of such endeavours. And the recent proposal to amend the Right to Education would dissolve even that possibility.

On the other hand, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), whose existence has been based on the politics of social identities, has very effectively demonstrated through its politics how neoliberal capital can use such a politics to further its agenda. Laced with the idiom of social justice and equality for the Dalits, BSP’s politics has always implied a disjunct between economic and social justice. Given the nature of a wide economic disparity in Uttar Pradesh it cannot be part of any social justice imagination to hand over the health services to private capital. It can only be in the interest of capital and not the people who have been time and again mobilized on the basis of their social and economic deprivation. This becomes starkly clear when one looks at the statistics. According to the NSSO survey carried out in 2004 – 2005, the average monthly capita consumption expenditure (MPCE) in rural UP was Rs.532.63 and in urban areas it was Rs.857.05. However, MPCE of 78.6% of the Scheduled Caste (SC) population in rural areas was below the average MPCE of the rural population of the state and 81.6% of SCs in urban areas had less than the average MPCE of urban population. These figures tell a lot about the purchasing capacity of the Scheduled Caste social group of the state. Identity politics, then, becomes an important tool for the expansion of capital while it continues to weave a web of illusion that it represents the interests of those on the margins of the society.

Hence, we have in front of us two apparently different forms of political streams. We have a UPA, which unabashedly pushes the agenda of neoliberal capital through its policies and programmes and also validates the need for identitarian politics through slogans of justice and equality when its ‘young’ marshal sleeps and eats with ‘dalits’. On the other hand, we have the Bahujan Samaj Party which has survived through identity politics of different forms and content and is gradually moving towards becoming an effective agent of neoliberal capital. What lies as a common ground between them, and in Indian politics in general today, is the perpetuation of competitive identity politics that mutilates the anti-systemic possibilities inherent in the generalized social crisis borne out of the ongoing process of capital accumulation. Identity politics creates a façade of an equal and horizontal competition for “social inclusion”. Social identity becomes the easiest possible means to mobilize the masses whenever the need arises. In fact, it becomes an important means for particular stages of capital accumulation to sustain and expand their regimes. Hence, whosoever holds the reign of political power the winning slogans of social justice and equality, with all its farce, are important cards wrapped under its belt to be flashed whenever required. They would act as agents of neoliberal capital while flashing those cards, singing the song of liberation of downtrodden and oppressed, keeping the dangers of a class war at bay. Identitarianism becomes the new tool for neoliberal capital to expand itself by obscuring the vertical divide in the society and by intensifying horizontal competition. This keeps the working class politics at the margins, “as the organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers”. While it becomes easier to identify the perils of such a political conjuncture, it is becoming, surprisingly, difficult for the working class politics to wage a battle for social justice and equality as principles essentially located outside the neoliberal fold.

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