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A quiet coup?

Following globalisation, states have been reduced to handmaidens of the investor class, says Aseem Shrivastava. Interceding between the state/corporations and the public are layers of NGOs, many of which are converting the million mutinies of contemporary India into harmless ‘partnerships’ with corporations or state

We live in strange times indeed when our intelligentsia and educated elites have no trouble accepting that society is little more than the “social sector”, a head under which expenditures are allocated (primarily for health and education) by the state. When did such a designation gain currency? One cannot recall that it existed a generation ago. ‘Society’ in those days was a term of relative sanctity, invoking an obligatory sense of regard. Today, it is an all-but-forgotten beast, remembered only in times of elections, or if there is the annoyance of a more serious crisis than the usual ongoing ones we are all accustomed to. 

“A market economy can exist only in a market society,” warned Karl Polanyi, writing several decades ago. The great economic anthropologist predicted that subjugation to the laws of the market was destined to lead to “the demolition of society”. Society would lose its very “substance” when labour and land (technical terms for human beings and nature) become mere “fictitious commodities”, “factors of production”, accessories to the profit-maximising calculus of businesses. Little wonder then that society has been whittled down to the “social sector”. It is relevant only insofar as it is an item of cost on the negative side of government and business ledgers. The irony is that the private sector is in actual fact a subset of society, not the other way around, a fact well-forgotten today. And a fact charged with destructive possibilities. 

Prior to 1991, India was a society. Since that date it has been rapidly transformed into a market -- to be milked by corporations with global reach. We must come to terms with the fact that globalisation has changed the very terms in which public discussion of every kind is conducted nowadays. 

The globalisation juggernaut   

Globalisation, after all, is not just a designation for a specific set of economic arrangements. It is unabashedly a prescription for a particular way of life centred around consumption. For, if human beings can’t be universally converted into eager workers and greedy consumers, corporate globalisation does not have a future. The entire advertising industry is dedicated to this perpetual project of turning human beings into consumers willing to slave and buy in order to make corporations wealthier. This is their assigned duty. To refuse to slave and consume is to invite the worst name-calling. 

The end of the Cold War made way for what came to be called “globalisation”, American and western economic dominance over the world under a new imperial rubric. It was launched two decades ago over the heads of the public in virtually every country. Major policy departures were made by national political elites at the beckoning of the so-called international financial and multilateral institutions, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. This is what formed “the Washington Consensus”. The public was never part of the consultations and deliberations which led to what has appropriately been named “stealth reforms”. Democracy -- understood as political processes well beyond periodic voting -- was conspicuous by its absence from the decision to globalise. 

National governments have been made hostage to policy directives serving the interests of global investor elites, the bulk of whom reside in the western world. As a result, there has been a definite shift in the locus of power from the state to the corporate sector. Looked at another way, the state itself has changed character. From being the overarching institution guaranteeing security, human liberties and the pursuit of fairness and justice, it has become a handmaiden of the investor classes. It has become an enterprise for “political entrepreneurs” and “business leaders”. It is now managerial and corporatised, democratic rhetoric and rituals (like elections) being a mere façade for its corporate patronage. This too is the case only in formally democratic societies like India and those of the western world. 

Following from the above, there is a growing blurring of the time-honoured boundary between the public and the private realm. A “revolving door” appears to exist between positions in the government and in the corporate world. Like in the US, many of the top planners in government today are unelected officials, unaccountable to the people whose lives they affect directly through the decisions they take. The distinction between the public and the private realms is not only sacrosanct for a democracy. Indeed it has traditionally been a healthy operating principle for any political set-up, keeping in check potential abuses of power. Violation of this principle is leading to a predictable rash of such abuses these days. 

Interceding between the state and the corporations on the one hand and the teeming public on the other are to be found growing layers of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Their political status is uncertain, since they are not technically accountable to the public. If anything, their funding norms oblige them to report to their funders and patrons. Through the “partnerships” that they form with people’s groups, they often inadvertently do the work that their corporate patrons would like them to do. Today, NGOs are made up of the widest possible range of organisations -- from business associations and lobby groups to community-based and self-help groups, advocacy groups, coalitions and campaigns of various kinds, not to forget that important species “movement-based NGOs” which appear to sponsor social and political movements themselves! What Arundhati Roy has called the “NGO-isation of politics” is thus an obvious corollary of the evolving institutional pattern. 

Movements have traditionally been the springboard of social change. In fact, it is difficult to see how democracy itself could have emerged in the western world without the long history of people’s struggles in that direction over the past few centuries. The “NGO-isation of politics” has essentially meant that the “million mutinies” that is India today are sought to be somehow converted into harmless “partnerships” with corporations or the state. The political fact that there is a legitimate contestation over spheres of decision-making is ignored under such a view, thus reinforcing the injustices that make up the status quo. 

According to the Washington Consensus, domestic state actions in the economy are meant to shrink, making way for “the free market”. Wherever there are deficits, NGOs have come to be seen almost everywhere as substitutes for state support of social services like health and education, when in fact they are at best complements

It need not be emphasised that these trends continue in the face of what is probably history’s greatest “market failure”: the great financial and economic crisis that has engulfed the world today. Despite historic state interventions in every economy in the world, few doubts are being expressed from the high offices about the essential correctness of the world-view that has been bequeathed by the Washington Consensus. 

And yet, doubt is very much in order. For what is one to make of the celebrated doctrine of “consumer sovereignty”, the boast of microeconomic theory and liberal individualism alike, when it is actually “investor sovereignty” which calls the shots everywhere, as the approach of various governments to the present financial and economic crisis testifies so amply? When it is corporate supply, and the capitalist imperative to sell, rather than consumer demand, which drives the key economic policy decisions of most governments around the world? When corporations are all too often being seen as “too big to fail”, aren’t they, as many people have found fit to say, simply “too big”? Or as others have said “too big to be private”? Moreover, let us not forget that the corporation has the legal status of a person in US law since the late-19th century. 

Civil society in the age of globalisation 

The term “civil society” is of ancient lineage. In classical times it was used to denote a “good society”, usually indistinguishable from the state itself. In Socratic Athens, for instance, it meant resolving public issues through open dialogue and discussion. Civility consisted in the proper discharge of one’s duties as a good citizen. 

Modern usages, dating from the time of Tocqueville, make a sharp distinction between “civil society” and “political society”. Classical liberalism believed that the latter was part of the structure of the state, and given to excesses of power, while the former constituted the realm of “democratic sentiments”, where people could express their views and sort out social conflicts in a rational manner, often standing against the state in order to do so. 

Living in arguably the most illiberal phase of European history, Antonio Gramsci was more sceptical that civil society could perform this designated function. To him, civil society was essentially the locus around which the cultural and ideological conceptions suited to the hegemony of capital cohered in the public imagination. 

What has to be asked in the phase of history that we are living through -- in India as much as in the world as a whole -- is whether the reigning theory and practice of civil society (and its institutions) is performing the liberal, possibly radical, role that Tocqueville expected it to. Or is it the case that the cultural, ideological and institutional role of civil society has essentially become one of legitimising the unjust socio-economic order of global capitalism?  

The question cannot be answered in a theoretical manner, since it is ultimately an empirical one. We have to look around us today and see whether the myriad organisations, institutions and forums which constitute the thickly-braided fabric of civil society are decisively supportive of people’s struggles for justice. Or do they simply constitute a smiling mask which knowingly or inadvertently reinforces the hegemony which sustains the routine injustices we can all see?

Infochange News & Features, November 2009