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Angry Voices from the West

This year’s volume, the thirty-third, of this reputed left-wing academic journal, comes to the Indian readers with its low-priced Indian edition. Like Monthly Review, such reprints greatly facilitate their accessibility to a large avid readership — academics, political commentators and all those eager to keep abreast with academic discussions and debates on Marxist theory and practice world over.

The volume brings together a collection of 15 papers, of mostly academics teaching in Universities across Asia, Europe and North America. The collection provides interesting reading with the wide variety of topics it covers. Though equally disparate in the contributors’ ideological preferences, one can say that a common socialist concern is exhibited by all. However, setting the orientation of the volume, Leo Panitch, the editor of the volume puts it rather skeptically that do alternatives exist at all to the present neo-liberal model. This is the starting point, as he claims the collection reflects, for a ‘ruthless criticism of the dynamics, depredations and contradictions of today’s global capitalism’ rather than ‘blithely asserting that they are alternatives’. However, as one reads along, some of the contributors do assert such alternatives more like schematic textbook models, if not as plain utopia, defying the ‘socialist necessity of connecting the explanatory with the transformative’.

For instance, the very first paper by Gregory Alto titled ‘A World Market of Opportunities? Capitalist Obstacles and Left Economic Policy’. He proposes a 10-point alternative economic model based on democratic governance for market disengagement, which he reveals is essentially based ‘around a set of economic principles that have been emerging out of the Left and Green movements’. In one of the points he makes about trade and protectionism, he misplaces the essence of proletarian internationalism by being equally critical of the Left debate which, according to him, recognises free trade as a neo-liberal project but shies from its rejection with the fear that protectionism of domestic workers will come at the expense of workers abroad. Another point of his model, an alternate employment policy suggests the development of local planning or community administration for generating employment. This common grassrootist refrain stems from his criticism that the state’s role in managing centralised aggregate demand has failed and hence as a priority decentralised employment policies would work. Chronic unemployment has been a structural problem of globalising capitalism and the dominant economic model of neo-liberalism has failed to come up with any solution. Without questioning the inherent flaw of this model, to suggest mere readjustments of priorities at the local level while the same state still remains intact will only enable the state to abdicate its responsibility of ensuring right to work. His 10-point economic model, a concoction of disparate ideas from various political streams, tells us little of the politics needed for actualising such an economic model or the nature of state or the system under which he proposes it to work. Without its links with the politics and political-economy of the present such an exercise only leaves it as another addition to such meaningless academic critiques of globalisation, liberalisation etc. that is flooding the academic world these days.

In the set of first four papers on economics is ‘Green Imperialism: Pollution, Penitence, Profits’ by Larry Pratt and Wendy Montgomery. This paper provides an interesting view of the growth of the environmental industry in the West and its growing involvement in the ecological affairs of developing countries. It provides some interesting facts: the leading 50 environmental corporations in the world, all North American, West European and Japanese, represent close to $75 billion in revenues which is 18% of the market share; the transnationals that manufacture Asia’s new coal-fired power plants also produce the air pollution control equipment that limit the acid rain and respiratory problems by the use of coal; the financing that flows from Northern states for the technology for CFC substitutes ends up as subsidies to the same transnational chemical firms that developed and used the CFCs; Asia is the world’s leading market for the air pollution control equipments with a 37% share of an estimated $15 billion total and almost 60% of all sales of flue gas desulpherisation equipment and electrostatic precipitators for new power plants and heavy industries. This market for environmental technologies in the Third World has been driven by the waves of environmentalism mostly led by de-politicised urban petty bourgeois activists who share the West’s conception of Third World environmental crisis, and the governments also making the required changes in legislation and enforcement. Green causes are noble in themselves of course. But, ironically, it is also true the environmental industry cannot flourish without a strong environmental movement and a wide network of NGOs demanding for more technological substitutes for the environmental problems in the Third World. In the end the authors note that the environmental problems of the Third World countries is also a social problem with roots in class exploitation, poverty and the unequal control of resources and political power. The brazenly interventionist policies of the global environmental watchdogs and international trade institutions (in the case of trade sanctions against Third World for the latter not meeting up to the West’s unrealistic environmental standards etc.), offer ‘little more than the greening of global reach, a new colouration of the same old imperialism’. Will our green activists please take note?

Among the next set of papers mainly looking at the political situations in various countries, the one on India, Toronto-based Ananya Mukherjee-Reed’s ‘The State as Charade: Political Mobilisation in Today’s India’, tracks the ascendancy of the ‘Hindu Right’ on the Indian political scene. Probably, scripted for the reader abroad, it can have a startling effect on the Indian readers. We are told of ‘the violent communal riots that occurred in the north Indian city of Ayodhya on December 6, 1992’ and about the United Front which is a ‘coalition of the Congress and the Left Alliance’, etc. One can only hope that articles on certain other countries by different authors would not be equally profound!

In any case her study of the rise of the Hindu Right is selective and partial and only to the extent to substantiate her a priori contention that the politics of the Hindu Right has a basic commonality with the ‘past strategies of political mobilisation’. For example, she states, the similarity between Gandhian strategy of counterposing ‘indigenous’ vs. ‘tradition’ has been built on by the Sangh Parivar; while the former used it ‘as a rhetoric with which to resist British capital’, the latter ‘uses it for a more complex task of legitimating a somewhat ‘bastard’ form of neo-liberal capitalism demanded by the contemporary bourgeoisie’. She draws a few more such ‘similarities’ but it hardly leaves the reader enough to see the complete picture of the comprehensive rightwing character of BJP’s political mobilisation today.

In their attempts to provide ‘explanations’ to the phenomenal rise of BJP, many academics have ended up in probing some inherent potential in religion that lends itself to fascist mobilisation rather than focusing on the correlation of class and political forces. Before ultimately landing into this kind of approach the author underlines the inadequacies of some direct socio-political explanations. Some of the several important variables that may explain BJP’s electoral success but which are only now beginning to be researched include “a series of pre-election populist measures like soup kitchens and shelters for the poor and the resort to widespread conversion to Hinduism in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan.” Notwithstanding such brilliant ‘explanations’ the author rightly criticises the postmodernist perspective which rejects the secular nation-state as a Western ideal inappropriate for India. The postmodernists reject the principles of modern secular state viz. liberty, equality and neutrality and its uniform civil code as an infringement of minority right — the right against governability, i.e. a right not to offer reasons for being different. Instead each religious group is to publicly seek and obtain from its members consent for its practices insofar as those practices have regulative power over their members. The author correctly argues that such a state cannot legitimately protect its citizens from any abuse in the name of religion. “Is one to expect democratic procedure in a religious forum which is governed by religious laws, where the power to interpret these laws is restricted?”, she asks. A valid question to be answered by postmodernists, including a section of feminists, who have recently come out against UCC.

Among the other writeups on various countries there are two that deal with the failure of Social Democrats: Vincent Navarro’s ‘The Decline of Spanish Social Democracy 1982-1996 which probes the decline with an empirical study on the changing socio-economic situation and the political realignment of class forces in this period; and Paul Cammack’s ‘Cordosso’s Political Project in Brazil: The Limits of Social Democracy’ takes an ambivalent position at judging the social-democrats who went into an alliance with the forces on the Brazilian-right to come to power but concedes apprehension for further neo-liberal reforms of the populist state.

Also included in this volume is an article by Gerard Greenfield and Apo Leong, China’s Communist Capitalism: The Real World of Market Socialism, which is an extreme view that says China’s market socialism leads the workers towards barbarism. Such onesided and rabid ultra-left writings in the volume stand in sharp contrast to some other relatively more level-headed articles.

Scott Forsyth, a noted film critic, in his paper ‘Marxism, Film and Theory: From the Barricades to Post-modernism’ takes a trip through film history and its Marxist reading and while making a stop-over at Hollywood finds that the century-old institution ‘remains ideologically and aesthetically important to American capitalism and imperialism, and how it understands its place in the world’. The string of thrillers churned out in the recent past , True Lies, Mission Impossible, Die Hard etc. and now made easily accessible through home videos and downloading from internet, all have the typical mix of spectacular special effects, massive budgets, ‘aestheticised violence’ etc. Even ideologically these films of today have a commonality with the productions of the 80s when they were termed as ‘Reaganite entertainment’ like Rambo, the super-masculine hero pressed into service in Vietnam, or others like the super-smart CIA moles fighting commies. Today, the same hyper-masculine heroes thwart nuclear blackmail, Islamic terrorism, or now increasingly some movies have targeted the ‘Japanese’ threat. Curiously he omits mention of the recent string of anti-China movies, possibly because of his own Trotskyite bias.

However, inspite of the triumphalism that these films depict, there is also a portrayal of the vulnerable security of the American society. Interestingly many of the present films portray the bad guy as the corrupt, rogue or even psychopathic CIA man going against America itself. The post-cold war years have implicitly produced such unemployed anti-socials who were trained by these institutions like CIA to do the demolition job elsewhere, but these films end up exonerating these institutions by showing them cleaning up their organisations of such villains. In a sense the continuity in theme reflects what the author calls ‘perpetual war against perpetual insecurity’. Omnipresence of this insecurity is shown by these representative films as ‘depoliticised, resistance mutated into criminality and madness with violence its primary motive’.

On the technical side, the advancement in film-making through digigraphics and screen pyrotechnics, have qualitatively blown up the awesome might of imperialist war machinery and its wealth to monstrous proportions, often extending its territorial wars to the frontiers of space. Here, Forsyth takes the example of the latest multi-million block buster Independence Day, which like other such Hollywood mega-releases was dubbed in Hindi and pushed down the urban Indian cinema market with fierce promotional campaigns. The film which he says is the ‘complete and extreme culmination’ of the ideology of ‘authoritarian American Nationalism and egregious xenophobia’, is also the American depiction of cultural globalisation when in the film the whole world celebrates July 4th. But the other side is also true — the shaky invincibility of America whose audiences cheered the demolition of the White House by the attacking aliens.

But amidst this Hollywood fare corporate America also accommodates (and even successfully markets) liberal feminism in women melodramas, racist tensions in family dramas showing the absorption capacity of such contradictions within the decadent American family values, ‘proto-feminist super-women’ in action thrillers, interesting critiques of the ugly-face of capitalism like homelessness, civil society’s violence and crime in aesthetically presented scenes of grotesque brutality. Or even the film Born on the Fourth of July where a mutilated Vietnam war veteran joins the ranks of anti-war protesters embarrassing Nixon over America’s ‘one-time’ mistake.

Finally, there is an article by Aijaz Ahmad, Postcolonial Theory and the ‘Post’-Condition’ where the author joins issues with Francis Fukuyama, Alexander Kojeve, Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak in his critical evaluation of postcolonial theory with his by now familar arguments. In this era of globalsiation one good thing is that the academic left literature from the West which has hitherto remained not so easily available to the Indian reader is now more widely accessible.


Home > Liberation Main Page > Index Page October 1997 > ARTICLE