Transition and Development in India by Anjan Chakrabarti and Stephen Cullenberg

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

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

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

© Copyright 2001 The Economic and Political Weekly. All rights reserved.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Wed Aug 18 2004 - 00:00:01 EDT