Classical political economy had seen capitalism as the end of history, prompting Marx’s remark in The Poverty of Philosophy that according to it, hitherto there has been history, but henceforth there will be none. The closure of history also meant a closure of politics, in the sense of a replacement of transformative politics by a politics of “no-change”. Politics from then on was to take the form only of tinkering around with the bourgeois system, getting rid of residual restrictions on laissez faire to bring it into greater conformity with what was supposed to be “human nature”, but nothing beyond that. Marx broke this “closure” of politics by drawing attention to the condition of the proletariat and to its potential capacity, recognizing in it an agent of change that could bring about a transcendence of the capitalist system, and working politically towards this end.
In spite of the growth of the working class movement after Marx’s time, a similar “closure” of politics was gradually, and rather surreptitiously, effected by the long pre-First World War boom in world capitalism, with the workers’ movement itself becoming routinized to constitute a part of this scenario of “closure”. This fact of “closure”, invisible at first, became glaringly evident during the First World War, when in every belligerent country “patriotic feelings” united all political formations, including those representing the working class, into supporting the war. Communists like Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and others, broke this “closure” of politics by opposing the war (though their individual positions were not always identical). Communism was thus reborn amidst the resounding slogan, “Down with chauvinism”.
The progress of the revolutionary movement, in short, has always been associated with a break with the “closure” of politics, with a liberation of political praxis from the straitjacket of conformism and “no-change”-ism into which it is continuously sought to be confined. Indeed, the politics of liberation consists precisely in the liberation of politics, from the confines of such “closure”.
There is, of course, a problem here. Breaking out of this “closure” of politics and sustaining the permanence of resistance necessarily involves intense struggle, for which the forces of resistance must organize themselves as a disciplined fighting unit, a concept that underlies the Leninist party. But this also creates the risk of bringing about an alternative scenario of “closure” of politics, owing to excessive centralism in the organization of the forces of resistance. The very organization, in other words, that is supposed to make the resistance effective, can also have the effect of promoting conformism and lack of initiative, and hence stagnation and stasis. This is why the movement of resistance has the extraordinarily complex task of combining within itself both “organization”, which is required for making it effective, and also an element of “disorganization”, which is required for undermining conformism and for unleashing initiative and creativity. How to combine these two, however, is not our concern here.
The neo-liberalism of today produces a “closure of politics” that is more claustrophobic than any “closure” at any other time in the history of capitalism. The reason for this “closure” of politics under contemporary neo-liberalism can be seen as follows.
Capital, especially finance capital, has become globalized today, while the State remains a nation-state. Every nation-state in this situation, in every country drawn into the vortex of globalization and open to capital flows, must willy-nilly adopt policies that cater to the caprices of globalized finance capital; for otherwise such capital would leave the shores of the country in question, plunging it into a financial crisis.
Now, the set of policies approved by finance capital has a well-known uniformity. It includes controlling the fiscal deficit, while giving tax concessions to the corporate-financial elite, which means effecting cut-backs in welfare expenditures; and promoting a process of what Marx had called “primitive accumulation of capital” through privatizing State-owned assets for a “song”, through squeezing petty producers, and through letting the multinational corporations and the domestic “entrepreneurs” encroach on common property and tribal property in the name of “development”. No matter which political formation constitutes the government, as long as it remains entrapped within the vortex of globalization, it pursues this uniform set of policies, which characterize the neo-liberal agenda.
But if all political formations follow the same set of policies, then it means that politics reaches a “closure”. The electoral choice that people exercise makes no difference to the set of policies that are implemented, having an impact on their material lives. Their choice, in short, not only makes no difference to their material lives, but does not even promise that it would. Their choice cannot even be presumed to bring in an alternative agenda promising to make a difference to their lives (like Indira Gandhi’s Garibi hatao had promised to do).
This “closure” of politics is apparent in India today. The two main contenders in the electoral arena, the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance, are both wedded to neo-liberalism. The UPA has been the main instrument for the implementation of the neo-liberal agenda; and even as it is quitting office, with little prospect of making a comeback, its main preoccupation has been with pushing this agenda still further, by reducing, for instance, the weight of the public sector in the insurance business and throwing it open for foreign domination. The NDA on its part, is accusing the UPA of “poor governance”, and hence, by implication, is blaming the current economic travails of the people not on the pursuit of the neo-liberal agenda but rather on the feebleness of that pursuit. It is promising in its place a more “muscular” neo-liberalism symbolized by a man known for his ruthlessness. And even the Aam Aadmi Party, which had captured the imagination of many with its offer to break this “closure” of politics by putting in place a new agenda, whose elements, however, other than combating “corruption”, had remained unclear, has now expressed itself in favour of neo-liberalism. Arvind Kejriwal’s speech to the Confederation of Indian Industries, where he argued that the government should have no business in business, has now clarified that he stands for a sort of “corruption-free” neo-liberalism. The “closure” of politics is thus almost complete.
Such a “closure” of politics not only freezes the vast bulk of the people in their abysmal state of material life, but is also fundamentally anti-democratic. If democracy is meant essentially to enable people to change their lives through collective political intervention, then a “closure of politics”, where the different political parties, when in power, pursue exactly the same policies, which moreover are policies that favour multinational corporations and the domestic corporate-financial elite, cannot but be anti-democratic.
Besides, such a “closure of politics” creates fertile grounds for the emergence of fascism. The people’s loss of faith in the possibility of a change in their lives through the normal functioning of democratic institutions makes them look for a “saviour”, a “messiah” who can miraculously deliver them salvation. And since in today’s world such “messiahs” are typically manufactured by the corporate-financial elite and the media controlled by it, this yearning for a “messiah” is used to usher in corporate rule through an attenuation of democracy. Even though the “messiah” does not project any agenda other than the neo-liberal one, an irrational faith in his extraordinary powers is created so that the same agenda pursued by him appears liberating. Fascism appears as a way out of the “closure” of politics, not because it actually projects any different agenda, but because it projects a captivating mysticism around the same agenda, contributing to which is the build-up of prejudice against a hapless minority community.
The carrying forward of the emancipatory project in today’s context must mean breaking out of this “closure of politics”, a liberation of politics from this “closure”. And this must mean not a catering to the consciousness of the people as they are, which in Lenin and Luxemburg’s time would have meant falling in line with national chauvinism, but placing before them an alternative that can change their consciousness. This requires not a preoccupation with immediate electoral prospects but going beyond electoral calculations.
There is no mystery about the constituents of such an alternative agenda. I have written earlier about the economic elements of such an agenda, involving for instance the institutionalization of a set of universal and justiciable rights, such as the right to food, to free healthcare, to employment, to free education and to adequate old-age pension and disability assistance. But quite apart from the economic component, it must project the elimination of the caste system and of patriarchy as concrete objectives. It must unite different streams of “identity resistance politics” of the marginalized. Class politics consists not in shunning “identity resistance politics”, but in uniting its streams into a larger project of social transformation.