A Proposal

Whither Social Movements?

Soumitra Ghosh

One of the biggest and most visible problems plaguing the anti-capitalist social movements of today is the statist framework which conditions, shapes and governs their thoughts and actions. Thus the political praxis which should ideally be moored in a post-capitalist (hence post-state) vision of society, is seldom reached, and the movements are stuck in the morass of extremely limited actions informed by their purely normative and emotive thoughts about how the present society should function. The war-cry of justice is aired, millions take to the street demanding it, yet this 'justice' is rarely explained in terms of the real and the grounded. It is taken for granted that the state will be transformed from its overtly pro-capital avatar to a more radical one by this means or another because the movements want it to change: what is forgotten is that history has seen hundreds of experiments with such 'changed' states—each one of which failed in the long run, and led to a more coercive rule of capital.

Also, today's social movements are non-violent and democratic, which in reality means that they prefer working within the framework of parliamentary democracy, and where that is absent, fight for it. Once again, the history of the institution of parliamentary democracy is forgotten: willy-nilly, it's ignored that historically—more so going by today's neo-liberal situation—such democracy is intrinsically linked with capitalist production systems and the hegemony of capital in both societies and polities.

This belief in 'democracy' assumes a belief in the so-called democratic state—one guesses that this is largely due to the prevalence of welfare capitalism in the post 2nd world war era; it offered (to a greatly altered extent—still does in some parts of tie world) mitigation of the more poignant excesses of capitalist profiteering in terms of glorifying and protecting labour, instead of brutally exploiting it, which in turn translated to increased wages for all, an all-encompassing social security net and so on. Though for the left, true democracy was only achieved when the state mutates to its socialist avatar, the institutional left operating within the democratic state systems started believing in it. In time, this naive belief killed it—the trade union movements were the first victims. Capital mutated to the post-modern or the neo-liberal, the manufacturing sector was gradually dismantled and its centralized production processes disbursed all over the globe, and as to even the core rationale of capitalism's being, its unbridled profiteering, it depended more on the little-understood and often obtuse hokey-pokey of speculations in the finance capital sector.

Because capital mutated, the state mutated too, and the grand dream of a sustainable capitalism held perpetually in check perished—none but the government leaders and the international institutions comprising them remotely talk about it these days, and nobody believes in it any more, with the unfortunate exceptions of social movements. Among social movements, corporation-style NGOs which serve capital and help it in its corporate social responsibility tasks or those which the state overtly and covertly floats or supports are excluded. By social movements here what is meant is only those movements and groups which critique the neo-liberal profiteering and the state's mutated role as a crony supporting and facilitating that.

Do the social movements have a problematic at all? If defensive manoeuvres against various forms of neo-liberal aggression occupy most of their time, and if such defence comes mostly in seeking relief from the state (demanding 'justice' in abstraction as well as legislative reforms and judicial action) as well as various international bodies like the UN and the World Bank, how could the movements be expected to frame the problematic of how the capitalist production system has to be challenged, and a credible alternative has to be posited?

Doing both of the above means doing away with the belief in state and international bodies as a dispenser of justice in bulk and abstraction and also in small doses over for a longish period of time. It needs to be understood that nothing but profit matters any longer—capitalism as a political system has embarked on a death-run of self-destruction; it can neither regulate nor mutate itself in a way which will help or favour the toiling people, the victims of state-capital aggression. Small relief can be possible in states which are relatively weak and the movements are in a political position to influence it—but even those can prove transitory if the state is expected to safeguard them : pro-people legislative reforms can be taken back, a progressive policy can turn regressive with a change in the government.

When one says that capitalisjn has embarked on a course of self-destruct, no time-frame is attached to it. This can still take a long time, depending on the system's capacity to survive the insurmountable challenge of climate change and also, the resistance from its victims, both nature and human societies. Neither nature nor labour can be appropriated ad infinitum, nor can all resistances be perpetually co-opted or subjugated. Mitigation and adaptation are possible only to a given extent—after that the fall is bound to come.

However, because all these are still in the future, and the movements need something more tangible than a faith in history, they tend to look forward to relief: from coercion, from poverty, from displacement and natural disasters. Working endlessly on a defensive—relief mode sap the movements of the capacity of effective political reasoning-sometimes they simply fail to create a long term vision for themselves and the society at large, and sometimes the necessity of the moment exhausts them. Thus, such movements keep on living, praxis-wise, in a de-historicized and de-contextualized vacuum, in a besieged present that refuses to end. This creates desperation, out of which three possible results emerge:

(1)   The movements become staunchly relief-centric, which, whether they like it or not, make them more dependent on state. The final expression of this, politically speaking, is such movements' becoming active participants in a parliamentary democracy governed by capital and its crony state, preceded by the belief that they can usher in 'systemic' changes by contesting elections,
(2)  Organizationally and politically, the movements start suffering from an inertia, and ultimately lose its resistant edge, and
(3)  An outright rejection of non-violent democratic form of movement and organization in favour of covert armed insurrection.

Among the three, the last merits a discussion here—this can take various forms and shapes starting from the slightly dated leftist guerrillas to globally more widespread ethnic and religious armies. In many cases, failure to obtain desired relief within the parliamentary democracy framework leads to emergence of such movements. However, except the leftist forces(for instance, the Maoists in India), other armed insurrections have often no (or very limited) political goals vis-a-vis changing the present status quo comprising capital and state—mostly it's a question of controlling key (commercially profitable) natural resources (for instance, in middle-east), and seizure of state power (in some cases, creation of new nation-states/autonomous regions). Even in the case of leftist forces, the insurrection is projected as a revolutionary war that aims at seizing state power, and replacing the capitalist state with a revolutionary republic. But there are enough lessons about how such republics of the past had functioned. Not going into the details, it can be said that mere seizure of power by an armed group of people can never be taken as an example of transformative politics. What is important is how actual changes had taken place in the production systems, and more importantly, how durable those changes were.

Unless and until the right problematic is framed/found, the movements of anti-capitalist resistance cannot be expected to act as effective agents in bringing in social and political transformation. Short-term or immediate goal sets will not sustain the movements, if they fail to situate themselves within the larger political context. If anything this larger political context is not limited to the present time-space, it is something that has to be understood through dialectical reasoning, by encompassing the follies/achievements/lessons of the past and the challenges/probabilities of the future. Rather than emotive and normative, it has to be realized in an unbiased objective manner, even if it means no immediate relief, and has promises hidden deep inside only of a murky and apparently uncertain future.

Given the current level of dominance and visibility of capital, a socialized production system functioning within the market economy framework might sound paradoxical and utopian. However, the success of social movements depends on their capacity to show/establish/defend various models of socialization of the means of production, and an economy which is based neither on private property nor state subsidies. According to the present hypothesis, the movements knowingly or unknowingly defend/practice a non-capitalist, often post-capitalist system of economy. Hence, these cannot be defined or categorized in terms of typical trade union movements, which had got stuck in the somewhat hopeless economism of endless wage negotiations with capital and state; in the neo-liberal era trade union practices can at best raise a pitched demand for a return to a more humane and welfare face of capitalism. And this sounds more Utopian than the present hypothesis of establishing socialized/non-capitalist production systems, and putting nature and human labour at the center of those systems instead of profit. Which means decisively and consciously moving away from the orthodox framework of wage-profit and labour-capital while arriving at the praxis: today's wage workers-being consistently rejected and undermined by the neo-liberal—should not limit themselves to demand a share of capitalist profit in form of increased wages, but take the battle inside the core grid of capitalism and become the owners of the means of productions wherever possible. As capital moves away from the tangible manufacturing sector and the task of producing 'productive assets' to the intangible and virtual economy of software-driven high frequency stock trading and various forms of speculative trading in financial derivatives, the manufacturing sector economy itself can be taken over and rebuilt by the erstwhile wage workers and small and primary producers like peasants, artisans, forest dwellers, coastal and mountain communities. There is no point in endlessly demanding relief/incentives/subsidies from a state which is increasingly losing whatever regulatory powers it had over capital.

As things are the present organizational state of social movements as well as more orthodox versions of anti-capitalist movements like trade unions and the institutional/party left, can one reasonably expect such a convergence and reorien-tation of anti-capitalist movements?

Several pertinent questions can be raised about the practicality of the hypothesis. What, for instance, will the state do as the movements embark on the collective task of transforming the capitalist society? Will or will not the affected millions of wage workers and the jobless, the displaced and the threatened peasants and other nature-dependent communities be protected by the state against the predatory capital? Will or will not the movements demand state protection any longer? Can the state, with its centralized bureaucracy, and in many places, increasingly stronger military apparatus, be dismantled and replaced by voluntary confederations of independent collectives of free producers? Will the inter-movement solidarity be potent enough to resist both state and capital?

As it is only a hypothetical construct, all such questions cannot be possibly answered. How will state respond to a movement which it cannot assess nor bring to a negotiation framework? It depends largely on whether the state in question is aware of the political design of the movements and feels threatened by it. One can come across many instances of movements which could successfully evade more brutal and coercive kind of state response for decades through a judicious mix of common sense and an objective analysis of the nature of the state. That the state might be on the warpath against non-violent democratic movements has to be a given; at no point of time, the state can be taken for granted. However, even in the neo-liberal crony capitalist era, the relationship between state and capital in various societies is neither homogenous nor linear; and despite great military-bureaucratic centralization, not all states remain perpetually strong. If movements could assess the state's points of political vulnerability (there can be many), an effective strategy of engaging with the state can be formulated without compromising the political objectives.

Vol. 47, No. 22, Dec 7 - 13, 2014