Vijaya Kumar Marla
Youth and Capitalism
a guest post by Vijaya Kumar Marla
Paper submitted for the Workshop on ‘Hegemony, Civil Society and Democracy’ held at Chandigarh, 6th, 7th and 8th, February 2015.
The world has come a long way in the last 3 decades. The Leftist movements worldwide were plunged in despair, with the disintegration of the socialist block. Capitalism and more specifically, Neo-liberal New World Order appeared triumphant. The Thatcher-Regan duo delared that ‘There Is No Alternative. (TINA)”. The only glimmer of hope was Cuba and Fidel Castro declaring that ‘I will be the last communist on this earth’. His vehement defense of Socialism and Marxism-Leninism had raised the spirits of communists worldwide.
In a few years, Venezuela had elected a leftist government, which declared its defiance of US domination. The slogan of TINA was met with SITA (Socialism Is The Alternative). Since then, more than half a dozen leftist governments have been elected in Latin America. The imperialist propaganda machine began propagating the message that in these countries which have elected leftist governments, will not last long and that these rogue states will be disciplined. But it had not happened. In the last 15 years, these leftist governments had embarked up on policies that are aimed at ending US hegemony in Latin America and also delinking themselves from the grip of neo-liberalism. Countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia had many successes on the Human Development front. They were experimenting with what they call, “Bolivarian Socialism” of the 21st Century, a clear break away from what was practiced as socialism in the 20th Century in Soviet Union and China (before their reforms). This new phenomenon was not confined to Latin America.
Rise of youth movements
Just 2 years ago, we thought that the younger generation is not interested in struggle against capitalism and that they don’t care about what is going on around them. At least, this is what the neo-liberal propaganda was about. It appeared as if the younger generation was happy and content with the gadgets provided by modern technology. But reality had bitten the youngsters on their backs. The neo-liberal restructuring of world’s economies in the last 3 decades had brought about high economic disparities, rising inflation, reduction of welfare and more importantly, rising unemployment in country after country. Realization dawned on the young people that they have no place in this world and all avenues for their survival are being closed.
Youth revolts had erupted in the Arab countries and in Brazil, Turkey and even in Iran. What was significant about the struggles in the Arab countries was that the demands were a clear break away from religious fundamentalism and were essentially about social and economic issues. More and more young Muslim women had taken center stage in these struggles. It is a welcome development. Another significant development is the leading participation of trade unions and the spirit of solidarity between the young agitators and the workers. Though ultimately, there was not much of success in the Arab struggles and the US was successful in diluting the impact of the struggles by fostering new lackey governments in Egypt and Libya, the very fact that such a movement had taken place is very significant and it will have a great impact on the future struggles in the Arab World.
The Occupy movement that erupted in USA was a rude and unpleasant surprise for the US oligarchs. What is more significant is that a new wave of radical movements have overtaken Europe. Youth struggles against unemployment, austerity and high cost of education had exploded in country after country in Europe. Where is today’s youth revolt heading? What are the key debates developing within the movements? What are the prospects for, and responsibilities of, the Left in this time of crisis and resistance?
Impact of neo-liberal restructuring on the younger generation
Perhaps more than any other section of society, young people around the world have been made to bear the brunt of the capitalist crisis. Throughout Europe, youth unemployment is at epidemic levels.
For one thing, the politics of popular protest emerged as the only possible way out of the crisis facing young people and workers. This in itself is a big advance. A radicalization rooted in a deep economic crisis suggests that today’s struggles will begin to challenge capitalism itself in a much more profound way.
Today’s students are more directly connected to the working class, and their grievances in relation to campus life are more oriented on questions of the political and economic priorities of society as a whole, rather than on questions specific to campus life. It is not difficult to understand why the new movements have consciously reached out to the organized working class. Every working class family feels the brunt of unemployment in their family. Having sacrificed their everything in the hope that their sons and daughters will grow up to a better off life, now they see no light at the end of the tunnel. The jobs simply are out of their reach.
As for social media, everyone agrees that these new technologies and means of communication certainly have made an impact. The very same toys that the youngsters could be content with, such as Smart phones, Face book, Twitter and Skype playing idle chit-chatting endlessly as was made to believe by the ruling elite, had been now turned by the youngsters into weapons for raising mass awareness and help mobilization of protestors. Police repression was instantly captured on cell phones and transmitted to networks, thus bringing international focus to the struggles. This is an entirely new phenomenon and will have wider repercussions on future struggles.
Many activists and commentators have placed a great emphasis on the role that social media can play in the new movements of today, creating horizontal networks of activists that bypass formal organizations and leadership. While the talk of online “horizontal networks” replacing the need for traditional organization sounds good, it’s simply not true. Any ongoing struggle requires painstaking organization, meetings, discussions, and debates over which way forward. Hence the General Assemblies and the working groups in the Occupy movement in every American city. Moreover, the basic cause of the discontent that produces social struggle is not social media. Each struggle has decades of conscious and painstaking effort by activists in organizing workers, peasants and youth. It is on this basic organizational infrastructure that the new popular movements were based. Why people back a cause is based on many factors and relates to what is happening in the offline world.
Political impact of the youth struggles
One distinguishing factor is that many of the protest movements of the past decade have been defined by the involvement of what is called “the modest middle class”, who have often been beneficiaries of the systems they are protesting against but whose positions have been eroded by neoliberal economic policies that have seen both distribution of wealth and opportunities captured by a tiny minority. As people have come to feel more distant from government and economic institutions, a large part of the new mass forms of dissent has come to be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate ideas of “citizenship”. Civil Society has come to mean something entirely different from what the bourgeoisie defines it.
Ideology and the organized left
Marxist theoretician Eric Hobsbawm said of the Occupy Movement, ‘if there is no party, then there’s no future.’ The struggles cannot remain spontaneous and unorganized. Naturally, an organizational form emerged, surprisingly quickly out of these youth protest movements such as SYRIZA in Greece and PODEMOS in Spain. These organizations had been founded by Leftist intellectuals with close links to the workers’ movements and they had captured the imagination of the masses in their respective countries. Now both these movements are on the threshold of power and we find similar awakening in Portugal, Italy, France, Slovenia and Holland. What is without doubt is that the very political picture of Europe is going to change for good. But at the same time, one should not underestimate the rise of neo-fascist parties in country after country in Europe. It clearly shows that the ruling class is desperate to cling to power and fascism is their last resort.
Though the forces of the organized left are weak, they must be ready to meet this challenge. Now, with the emergence of sustained mass struggles that are beginning to pose a concrete alternative to the status quo, left-wing political alternatives have the potential to grow to an extent unseen in decades.
A look at the developments in the Indian context
As Antonio Gramsci had said, “when the old system is in its death throes and a new alternative system fails to materialize, then, all kinds of grotesque deformations of Capitalism, such as fascism and religious fanatism will raise their head.” This is exactly what we are witnessing after the recent Parliamentary elections. The BJP and its Sangh Parivar want to turn this country in to a Hindu country. Plans are put in place to attack the minorities and Dalits and backward castes, in the name of “safeguarding Hinduism.” There is every danger that this dispensation holding power at the Center can rapidly deteriorate in to a fascist dictatorship. The pronouncements and actions of BJP, RSS, VHP and other Sangh organizations are increasingly turning offensive, undermining the very foundations of secularism and democracy.
Modi had come to power riding on the wave of euphoria created by big-biz media and the support of corporates. Added to this is the miserable failure of the UPA dispensation to stem the rising inflation, corruption and stagnation of industrial and agricultural sectors. The discontent over UPA worked to the advantage of BJP. Modi had promised to bring back black money and distribute Rs. 15 lakhs to each and every Indian, within 100 days of coming to power. Now it is proven that such a miracle is not going to materialize. Added to this is the propaganda that 10 crore jobs will be created by making India the manufacturing hub of the world. But the fact is that modern industry is no longer a job creator on mass scale and if you want to build up world class industrial infrastructure, you cannot create jobs on a mass scale. Morover, you require 90 crore crores to build up the industrial infrastructure and even that is going to create a meager 50 lakh jobs. Presently, India’s share of world’s FDI is a paltry 2%. If Modi wants to realize his promise of making India the world’s manufacturing hub, he has to attract about 900 times the present FDI inflows and 6 times the total FDI in the world for 7 years. He had opened his innings by attacking the rights of the working class and officialising land grabs in the name of development. To cover up their false promises, the BJP forces are trying to fan communal tensions and thus divert attention from their failures.
It is more than apparent that the youth of this country are simmering with anger and frustration. With almost 2/3 of the country’s working age youth facing some form of unemployment, underemployment or partial unemployment as well as seasonal unemployment, the young voters believed in the ‘acchhe din’ promise of BJP and voted them to power. But it will not be long before their hopes will be dashed. In fact, neither the party in power at the center nor any other party ruling in the states can escape the wrath of the youth. Neo-liberalism thrives on increasing exploitation of workers and armies of unemployed workers. Creating large scale employment is against the class interests of the ruling elite.
The Unemployment connundrum
It is estimated that to clear the backlog of unemployment, we have to create 2 crore jobs every year for the next 10 years. About 13 lakhs of youth are joining the ranks of unemployed every month. Heavy industry is no longer a large scale employment generator. It is only through the creation of high-tech rural employment that we can solve the large scale unemployment that is facing the youth. In India, today only 20% of professional graduates are able to get some sort of employment, that too at ridiculously low wages. The position of graduates is much worse. Only 10% among the can hope to get some job.
But the fact is that a developing country such as India has a very small formal sector. About 92% of the workforce is employed in the informal sector, with little or insignificant impact of modern technologies. The increased precariousness of their jobs, often as contract jobs, makes it ever harder for them to seek improvements in their pay and working conditions; it in fact degrades the living conditions day by day.
Agriculture in the developed economies is based on capitalist methods and it is increasingly unsustainable. Anyway, hardly 2% of the total workforce is engaged in agriculture in these countries and the profits are captured by multinational corporations. The ruling class in India wants to introduce similar capitalist agricultural practices and want to drive out 50% of India’s population away from agriculture and drive them to cities. Imagine what kind of a catastrophe awaits us if 50% of India’s population are deprived of their land and thrown into cities!
We have to evolve strategies to create Hi-Tech jobs in rural areas, by modernizing small scale industry and traditional craft based production. To sum up, India’s millions of technically trained youth have to be deployed for India’s development, not to earn profits for MNCs.
We are going to witness mass scale protests of youth for livelihoods in the coming days, with disenchantment setting in among the youth and workers. But the moot question is “is the Left in this country equipped to meet this challenge?”
The renewal of Indian Left – an urgent task
The Indian Left, mainly the mainstream parties (CPI (M), CPI, …) have to come out with alternatives (specific to India’s conditions) to the neo-liberal economic system. Unless they do that, they will surely sink into the quagmire of ideological confusion and class compromise.
Anyway, it not too late for the Indian Left to learn a few much needed lessons from the recent developments in West Bengal, Kerala and the rest of the country. This requires that we critically reconstruct an Indian path to socialism from below, abandon the reformist approach and understand that a revolutionary and democratic transformation of society can only be achieved by organized mass struggles of workers, agricultural labour, youth and other oppressed peoples. Can the Left ever manage to combine parliamentary practice with active mass struggles? This has always been asserted in successive National Conferences of both the CPI and CPI(M), but largely abandoned in practice.
The Left parties can reverse their decline and strengthen themselves only through candid self-criticism and by returning to mass work over the coming years. The Left can see any hope only if it enunciates a clear revolutionary vision of social transformation by going back to the basic tenets of Marxism, offers a radical alternative to neoliberal economic and destructive social policies to suit the present conditions, follow innovative and relevant political mobilisation strategies, and widens its appeal by participating in struggles on issues that deeply concern the toiling masses.
To do this, the Left needs to update its analysis of Indian society and evolve a contemporary vision of development and relate this to its political programmes and policies. This calls for a number of changes, including a shift away from a literal belief in the inevitable development of the productive forces and the idea of a “two-stage” revolution. Equally necessary is a rejection of the presumed inevitability and intrinsic desirability of industrialisation, especially along the classical Western pattern, which can lead to slippage into an “industrialisation at any cost” position.
As it was emphasized above, all is not lost. We can learn from the experiences and victories of the Left forces in Latin America and Europe and struggle for a revival of Left in India.
The necessity for a new kind of Left is all the more pertinent in the present situation, what with the reactionary and communal forces winning the reins of power. There will surely be an intensification of struggles against oppression and the tyranny of big capital. In most of the struggles that had taken place in the recent past, the Left was conspicuous by its absence. The possibility of the emergence of newer formations and coalitions in the coming days, need to be kept open. Those who have steered the Left so far failed to show any vision; now they have lost all credibility as well. If the present attitude of the Left leaders continues in the same fashion, there is every danger that the Left as a force will disappear from the Indian political scene. There is an urgent need to reinvent a new Left. This must be done on a firmly Marxist foundation.
I want to conclude with an oft cited quotation of Prof. Micheal Lebowitz:
In the famous book, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, the Cheshire Cat tells Alice, “If you don’t know where you have to go, any road will take you there.” But Lebowtz says, “in the case of Marxists, if you don’t know where you have to go, no road will take you there!”
The Left in India has to reinvent itself, shedding old outdated concepts and age-old biases and evolve a new culture of openness and active dialogue with the toiling masses. We have to have a vision about our goals and program. Otherwise, NO ROAD will take us to our goal.
(Vijaya Kumar Marla is the director of the All India Progressive Forum, an organization initiated by the Communist Party of India.)