From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Sun Aug 15 2004 - 19:38:54 EDT
EPW Book Review July 31, 2004 Class Impact of Policy Transition and Development in India by Anjan Chakrabarti and Stephen Cullenberg; Routledge, New York and London, 2003; pp 360, $ 90.95. Stephen Resnick Transition and Development in India can take its place among the few books that forces one to rethink comfortable ideas and confront new areas of research. Its co-authors have produced an important and - in the best sense of the term - controversial book in Marxian economics and its application to economic development. For those interested in or curious about postmodern Marxian theory, including its conception of economic development, this book will serve as a useful guide. In fact, this may be the only book published that applies the notion of class, conceived in Marxian terms as the organisation of surplus labour and the logic of overdetermination, to economic development as an object of analysis. Let me begin this review with a story for it helps to illustrate the central theme of this book. Several years ago a graduate student arrived at my office to discuss how a particular Latin American country might achieve a higher level of economic development. Our conversation went well save for one sticky point. On the one hand, I shared the student's desire for economic development - call it securing a wealth-need - to alleviate the poverty for vast numbers of very poor rural and urban populations there. On the other hand, I also wanted him to understand if not share my different desire - call it securing a class-need - to eliminate class exploitation. These are two distinct, although related needs. Policy not only has to address the pressing issue of poverty, but also the outrage that arises out of different forms of class exploitation suffered by many of the same poor rural and urban populations. I thought that securing one of them would certainly impact the other, but not necessarily in a mechanistic cause and effect way. The student felt strongly that securing the wealth-need for these populations was by far the more important of the two development priorities. The need for a radically changed class structure could wait. Hence dealing with poverty came first and dealing with class came very much later. Unfortunately, at the time I lacked the theoretical apparatus to specify clearly and with enough conviction a relationship between eliminating class exploitation and increasing wealth, while enabling its wider distribution. Nor did I have a good enough feel for the contradictions embedded in the relationship between these two differing social needs. What I lacked at that time was precisely what this book offers: a desired Marxian notion of progress or, simply put, 'good economic development'. The book provides a way to achieve both these different needs, while recognising and elaborating the contradictions and potential conflicts these relationships present. It provides the theoretical apparatus, and even to a degree, the associated politics for such a strategy. That strategy involves a Marxian policy focused on two different struggles as set forth in the book's title: a transition from a class exploitative society to one without class exploitation and the development of wealth to secure the needs of the poorest and often most neglected segments of rural and urban populations. This transitional goal adds to the social agenda of the 21st century, that which Marx had given to us in the 19th: namely, reorganising society's enterprises and households to ensure that those who collectively produce surplus labour also are its first appropriators and distributors. Hopefully, successful struggles over class and wealth would move society to a more collective, communal, shared, and fairer life. In effect, what I call their 'good economic development' combines together two different historic entry points on the left - class in surplus terms and wealth production and distribution, even while recognising the contradictions and potential conflicts such a combination presents. Contradictions may arise because an improved production and distribution of wealth in society can be accompanied by even more severe forms of class exploitation. The economic history of western countries provides sufficient examples. In addition, eliminating class exploitation - in the Marxian sense of eliminating the (class) position of those in society who appropriate but do not produce surplus labour - provides no guarantee of a higher level of wealth production and/or even a fairer wealth distribution. The new economic objectives and offered policy solutions of Transition and Development in India are for different from those formulated in traditional import or export substitution industrialisation programmes carried out in countries around the world, since the end of second world war. What the state does in terms of market regulations or their dismantling must be evaluated in regard to their complex impact on class exploitation - again conceived in surplus labour terms - and the basic wealth-needs of the population. Hence any proposed policy (and its associated cost-benefit analysis) to change tariffs, taxes, state expenditures, interest rates, or state enterprises would have to consider the contradictory impact on these two related but different needs. At this point I would like to raise some issues and pose some questions in regard to their 'good economic development'. The first issue relates to their concept of transition, i e, encouraging a movement from a more to a less exploited society. A postmodern notion of transition, as used in this book, is both stronger and weaker than the traditional notion. It is weaker in the sense that the authors cannot single out any specific change or set of changes that would bring about the desired transition. The reason is that the logic of overdetermination requires that any change in society be understood to produce an infinity of contradictory consequences. Hence, the use of this kind of causal logic carries with it the impossibility of ever measuring an endless set of contradictory interactions within society and thus of arguing for any particular change that necessarily moving society in one or another particular direction. The price the authors pay for the use of this logic is the affirmation of a radical uncertainty when discussing transition policy. Yet it is also stronger in the sense that each process, relationship, and society is conceived to exist in transition, for that is how each of these sites is discursively constructed when using the concept of overdetermination. Logically, each site in society is constituted as a locus of different determinations emanating from all other sites; the latter are conceived to exist in a similar way. As a combined site of diverse determinations each is propelled - pushed and pulled - in different (contradictory) directions. Quite literally each class relationship or organisation of production is constructed to exist in (contradictory) change or transition. Hence the authors need not look for any change as causing the transition, for society and its sites already exist in transition. How then can their argument present in any meaningful way a transition from one kind of society to another - from a more exploitative and unjust society to a less exploitative and more just society - if their own logic renders it impossible to delineate a boundary between the two? It would seem that the authors embrace of this Hegelian logic would undermine at least part of their project. My guess is that their answer to this postmodern conundrum would be to argue that theorists always must choose a particular subset (of the admitted infinite set) of processes overdetermining structures of class and production in order to provide an explanation. That choice of a subset of societal processes enables them to specify a boundary between one kind of class and production structure and another. Of course, it thereby excludes the determinations emanating from non-chosen processes and hence violates their own logic of overdetermination. Yet, communication or theorising requires that such a closure (articulation) be made and, thereby, creates discursive problems and opportunities. Since all closures are biased in this way, that is, in the arbitrary choice of the subset of processes examined, what theorists can provide are explanations of why they chose one rather than another set of processes to formulate their argument. What is it that strikes the authors as interesting or relevant about those that are chosen and hence necessarily prioritised in the rendered transition story? In this book, desired changes in class and wealth-needs become two of these prioritised processes. A second issue arises when the book becomes concerned with how securing of the often desperate wealth-needs of the poorest segments of the population interacts with and contradicts class changes. In fact, I think the specific concern in this regard is part of a more general issue of the contradictions that arise when non-class parts of life interact with class parts. Consider, for example, an individual and/or enterprise taking some portion of its value flow and distributing a portion of it to provide a gift or welfare to others, or even to engage in some kind of extravagant consumption. The gift may be in the form of direct sustenance to children, the disabled, the aged, the needy, or even a willingness to contribute additional taxes - beyond the legal requirement - to the state or to some local community council. Assume that such gifts or additional taxes secure, as the book argues, some basic set of human needs. Alternatively, a portion of distributions may involve extravagant consumption such as the purchase of several homes in various countries or a thousand pair of shoes. This kind of consumption may be thought of as exceeding what society deems necessary, in some cultural sense, to socially reproduce any individual. These kinds of distributions throw into crisis an enterprise's or individual's revenue position. In the case of surplus values appropriated (the particular class object analysed in the book), a redistribution of appropriated surplus to secure a non-class objective of need or fairness in society or, in extending their argument, to secure extravagant consumption in the above sense throws the class structure into crisis. The reason is that such distributions violate the logic of the Marxian theory used in the book: such distributions by assumption no longer secure any condition of the existence of the surplus appropriated. Conditions of existence are a summary expression for those processes whose different determinations constitute the surplus value in question. While such redistributions secure a described wealth-need or satisfy extravagant consumption, they also ensure that some of the necessary processes are not being reproduced. The conclusion is stark: surpluses cannot be redistributed to achieve specific non-class goals of need (or of extravagant consumption), without jeopardising the existence of those very surpluses. To their credit, the co-authors recognise this problem in discussing how to secure social wealth-needs; they do not consider a similar problem arising from securing other kinds of private wealth-needs, including that of extravagant consumption. Focusing on the former, they aptly name such distributions 'leakages', the sum of which comprises what they define as a 'social surplus'. In other words, children, the aged, the very poor and so forth need to be cared for in the form of revenue flows - perhaps even substantial flows - to sustain them out of the 'social surplus'. However, I also think they may underplay the problem such ubiquitous leakages create for reproducing a class structure. Receivers of value flows, whether workers, farmers, industrial capitalists, landlords, bankers, merchants, or state officials may well be involved in spending at least some portion of their received flow to secure processes that are not the conditions of existence of those same flows. If in fact life partly involves altruism in securing the survival of children, the elderly, and the very poor; wisdom in saving for a future life; and gluttony in seeking the thrill and high that extravaganza can bring, then the reproduction of any revenue flow, including those that sustain class structures, is quite fragile. A third issue of importance arises from the book's systematic and sustained criticism of the traditional Marxian notion of historical materialism and of the newer subaltern studies as both apply to the world of economic development. From the Marxian postmodern perspective, the older historical materialist approach and the newer subaltern studies are faulted for their common but differently posed essentialist logics. Their common essentialism serves to produce historicism in both, even though very different and competing causal essences operate in each. Whereas historical materialism crowns the forces of production as the ultimate determinant of social change, subaltern studies replace them with power as the determinant. An old and contentious battle on the left reappears in the world of economic development: a desired change in the relations of production, and hence development in a particular direction, requires either a radical development in the forces of production or a radical change in the power wielded by the few over the many. Each theory offers its respective essential change that governs all other changes: economics or technology of the mode of production in traditional historical materialism, versus politics or the power of the superstructure in the newer and critical subaltern studies. There is much to be admired and learned from the authors' sustained critique of these two different yet profoundly similar determinist approaches to development. Their critical analysis of the Marxian concept of mode of production, and particularly its assertion of forces of production as the origin of fundamental change, ranks among the best I have read. Their critique of all forms of economic determinism that have haunted Marxism enables a much more open and radical use of Marxian theory, one liberated from seeking causal origins in society, whether they are found in the inevitable forward march of the forces of production or in struggles over control of property or people and their decisions. One of the more interesting aspects of their critique stems from their examination of the history of thought focused on the Marxian concept of modes of production in India. In fact, an important by-product of this book will be is its role in enabling some readers to learn, perhaps for the first time, of a sophisticated and fascinating debate on the mode of production that occurred in India after second world war. In its discussion and analysis, the co-authors contribute to Marxism's long and proud history in India. Theirs is a truly brilliant rendition of class analysis in India, when those engaged in this debate turned to examine the mode's relations of production. Especially recommended to any reader having some interest in the class analysis of society is the book's perceptive chapter three and its critical analysis of class formation and false consciousness. The argument also contrasts nicely and sharply implications stemming from a postmodern analysis of class as a process in society and class in its more traditional usage, as a noun. For example, the authors show how radically different images of the category of peasantry result from each of these differing uses. Used as a noun, individuals in rural areas are grouped into a class of peasants who typically are poor and exploited. Used as a process, individuals in rural areas participate in several different and shifting class and non-class processes, thereby occupying different and ever-changing class and non-class positions and giving rise to different and changing interests. Hence it would be and is political folly to reduce them along with their contending and contradictory interests to merely one position and its related interest. In effect, they show how and why such constructs as 'peasantry' or any other similar grouping of individuals grouped as a noun cannot be sustained in postmodern Marxism. A final issue involves the application of the notion of class as a process of surplus production appropriation and the logic of overdetermination to analyse the new economic policy of liberalisation in India, or simply its export substitution industrialisation. For those more interested in a concrete theorisation of society, these chapters will be the icing on an already rich cake. Especially impressive are (1) a sustained analysis of the contradictory consequences set in motion by any change in state action in India and (2) linking such consequences to class structures in India. One needs to keep in mind that today both defenders of free trade policies and their opponents share in common a neglect of class conceived in surplus terms and an affirmation of essentialism, even though the underlying essences of defenders and opponents often differ. The book presents neither an argument for nor one against free trade in India, but rather shows how tariff, credit, and tax reforms, as part of the state's new economic policy, both enhance and undermine differently located class structures. Such contradictory effects on class and, by extension, all other economic entities make it impossible for the state's industrial or agricultural policy to achieve a specific set of goals, for the benefits and costs of any change in state expenditure, reform, or law are infinite in number and always contradictory in their impact. In addition to their implicit postmodern critique of policy, the authors' Marxian agenda involves explicitly adding class effects to the infinity of consequences. For them, consideration of societal costs and benefits emanating from a change in state action must include the contradictory impact on class structures throughout society. However, this class-impact is precisely what is absent from the arguments of politicians and economists who are for or against free trade: rising rates of exploitation are a social cost and reduced, if not eliminated, class exploitation is the social benefit. The authors also argue that this class concern is what is needed by many leftists, rather than an almost fetish like support of the state over private enterprises. Too often state enterprises are deemed socialist, not because of their mode of surplus appropriation, but rather because of their location in the state. Surplus appropriation is neglected thereby, and in that sense, radical and neoclassical economists, in India and elsewhere too, share much in common. That shared neglect can help to sustain the very class exploitation in question. © Copyright 2001 The Economic and Political Weekly. All rights reserved.
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