This article is the first part of a series on the Indian left.
Li, Lau and Liu committed suicide by jumping off a building in 2010 in China. While Liu was 18 years old, Li and Lau were in their early twenties. They were employees at Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturing company which manufactures products like the iPhone, iPod, Kindle, and Xbox, to name a few. How sure are you that the device on which you are reading this article has not passed through the hands of a worker younger than yourself who ended up killing himself after realizing that his employment was akin to paid slavery and with his set of skills it is the only possible thing he can do for the rest of his life?
If you have cared to persist with the article you would have guessed that the writer is probably a leftist who is going to go on a lyrical rant about the ills of capitalism. I am not a leftist for merely writing this article. But, yes, I do not also subscribe to the ways of the ‘Right’ as well. In a world of binaries, can one choose to not belong to either front? The answer surely does not lie in being labelled as a ‘Centrist’. Our political ideologies are not defined by the label we put on ourselves, but by our actions which carry political undertones. The problem is that there is no clear definition per se which captures the true essence of what is it being a Leftist or a Rightist in the modern scheme of things. I mean, teen-age grad students are the only people who believe that the world is either red or blue. We all realize at some point in our existential introspection that just like our relationship with the world, the politico-economic system is not as simple as well. The wish to assert one’s ideology has resulted in a common denominator in the list of things that both the opposing ideologies want – Power. And once the quixotic pursuit of pure ideological power begins, detours to the netherworld are commonplace. This warrants a discussion that what is communism and when does a person submits to the ways of the Right, or is it really a submission?
When Eve Span
Leftism is synonymous with being a communist. While this cannot be said to be completely wrong, it is not correct either. Communism is older than the concept of modern-day economic system and even the State structure which the world runs on today. John Ball is historically considered as the first “communist”. John Ball was an English priest who was instrumental in starting the peasant revolution of 1381 in England. There is a famous passage which is associated with him; it states:
“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.“
As one would notice, it was not about the economic system but about the oppression of the many by the few which John Ball was against. This was said by John Ball in an open-air sermon in 14th century England. This need for freedom from oppression, philosophically and morally, forms the basis of a ‘leftist’ from the political point of view of the word. Therefore, if we look back further into history we shall find there have been more such major political movements whose roots have been buried in the need for equality. One such major political movement, albeit now religious in modern day understanding, was the birth of Christianity. Christianity, if one oversimplifies its historical upbringing, was a slavish movement in search of political recognition and equal civil status in the Roman empire. So, the largest and geo-politically the most profound religious doctrine was, arguably, the religious step-child of the philosophy which forms the bedrock of communism.
Since the Biblical figure of Jesus, barring John Ball, there have been many people who have advocated against the tyranny of the few leading to the oppression of the many. The two most famous of them being Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Smith, a professor of Moral Philosophy, propagated that men are the best judge of themselves, which includes their ability to sell their skill and labor. Therefore, when economic power is concentrated in hands of the few it leads to an unjust, extractive society where men are doomed to be slaves of the rich and the powerful. It needs to be remembered that back in the 15-16th century, the rich and powerful were the same set of people – the monarchs, the feudal lords, and the powerful merchants who administered merchant guilds. Smith believed that freedom of the many merely needs to be guided by State authorities and not completely governed by them. But then something happened which changed the very building block of our civilization – The Industrial Revolution.
Industrial Revolution and Freedom
Freedom affords us a chance to be truly happy, and a chance to be better, as Albert Camus would say in the 20th century. Freedom of trade leading to one’s prosperity was duly acknowledged by the society on the basis of trade economy being shifted to self-interest from one which founded its basis in the State’s need. But little did the proponents realise that one’s freedom is always in a context, as was obliquely pointed out by Karl Marx in the 19th century.
There is never a starting point in history as each and every moment of the past which culminates into the present is one which in itself made up of multifaceted, unaccountable heterogeneous details. To truly understand the gifts Capitalism has bestowed upon us and the ills it has plagued us with, an understanding of the industrial revolution is of vital importance. A perfunctory reading on the subject out of self-interest will make anyone aware that industrial revolution was one face of the wide-ranging changes the world faced from 17th till the 20th century. This change was not only on an economic level but on a cultural, political and even on a spiritual level. The Church, though an economically super powerful unit, started losing its omnipotence in the ways of the world with the onset of scientific thinking in the 16th century. What this meant was a very gradual decline in a culture based on the customary way of life, and along with a movement towards a culture with the general tendency of individuals questioning their place in the society and valuing themselves for who they could be and not who they were prescribed to be.
Any nerdy undergrad law student living in a common law country who would have spent his leisure time reading on the law of contracts would know that the origin of ‘the law of contract’ was when a custom based approach to trade-offs was replaced by a contractual, agreement-based approach. In the larger scheme of things, this meant that the time of serfdom and feudal authority was coming to a close as people did not see the glory in maintaining a status quo and rising up a pre-defined social ladder which was originally crafted by the whims and fancies of institutionally powerful overlords. A scientific and moral nail to the coffin of this slavish politico-economic set up came with the publication of a book by a Scottish professor of Moral Philosophy. In his pioneering work, Wealth of the Nations, Smith, by studying the economic system of nations on a macro level proved that an economic system based on slavery is inefficient and practically useless as compared to a system based on wages and efficient division of labor. This was not an insight upon which the industries capitalized but more of a confirmation of practices already in place since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the early 18th century. A contractual work culture allowed people to be ‘slaves’ to the freedom of monetary benefit, rather than merely gaining recognition within community confines. So, instead of being bystanders to the economic system, they became a central part of it by being consumers of their own produce as well. Coupling this with the entrenchment of Protestant virtue in Western Europe, it lead to an establishment of a civil society which started viewing money and wealth as a positive virtue which could be earned and not always ordained. With the growth of scientific temper, advancement in technology, the contractual possibilities of earning wealth and rising up the ladder of society and polity became endless. This perfectly complimented the mercantilist economic structure.
Though this reformed the feudalist system completely, which ended up yielding power to individuals more than archaic institutions, the harsh reality was the starting line for venturing into this system was different for each individual of the populace. An unimpeachable aspect of capitalism which still stands true for our times is that capital always builds upon itself. People who owned large tracts of land, who had pre-existing estates in the urban part of the country, people who because of their lineage could garner not only favor with the authorities but alsothe trust of the people were the people who got a head start in the game. This head start was the existence of capital in itself. The agrarian economy started dissipating as due to technological advancements someone with a large tract of land could exponentially increase their growth in production as compared to a peasant who owned a piece of land equivalent to everyone else. This led to surrender of one’s own land to an individual who owned a larger estate and work for that individual in return for wages. This work might not be limited to farming only as the growth of technology and decline of governmental interference gave a free hand to the entrepreneurial spirit of the individuals. This was for a long time particularly limited to England, due to which England got an upper hand at the most important aspect of the whole system – conquering the ocean.
Serfdom was replaced by wage laboring, which led to the concentration of population to economic centers to fulfill another important aspect of modern day economic system – the economies of scale. No one was complaining, as menial traditional slavery got replaced by diverse industrial slavery but with the idealistic possibility of rising up the social ladder with the accumulation of wealth. As the system grew, so did its demand and so did its supply. From successfully fulfilling the needs of the population the system graduated to satiating the wants of the people. This is where the innovative aspect of capitalism came into being which arguably was a boon and a bane for the world at the same time. As industrialization grew, so did the industrialists in their legal, social and political outreach. The way of life changed, so did the thoughts; the wants of people changed, so did their will and idea of the surrounding world.
To this thesis of capitalist culture, an antithetical thought was born out its discontents, as for how Hegelian dialectic would put it. This thought was the modern-day idea of communism. Not that it never existed before, but it was resurrected back to life by a stocky, bearded Prussian philosopher – Karl Heinrich Marx. A force was awakened by his ideas, which would end up challenging the hegemony of Capitalism in the times to come.
Sujoy Sur is an advocate at Delhi High Court. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.