Of Market, State and Culture

Brij Bihari Pandey

(The ninth national conference of Jan Sanskriti Manch is scheduled to be held in Ranchi , Jharkhand, on 2 and 3 October, 2004 . The theme of the conference is “For a culture of new resistance against the culture of market domination”. The following article is related to the above theme.)


“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” – this is what Marx had commented on the philosophical scenario one and a half centuries ago in his celebrated ‘ Theses on Feuerbach '. Later on, some intellectuals resented the ‘overemphasis' laid in the above statement on ‘changing' and instead suggested that both interpreting and changing may assume a primary role in their turn, depending on circumstances. That is because they claimed that the circumstances in their own period had made ‘interpretation' their primary task. Well, that is understandable. Presently, however, it seems a good section of established intelligentsia in the field of literature and culture has even stopped interpreting the world. Instead they have now confined themselves just to ‘describing' or ‘depicting' the world. Despite all their ‘analytical' exercises, what they end up doing is precisely defending the status quo.

Take for instance their approach towards market. An editor of a renowned Hindi literary magazine says that the market is the biggest instrument, or system, to make us free, because it gives us freedom to choose. It reminds one of Chidambaram's eulogy: earlier we had to choose between Ambassador and Ambassador, now we can also choose Toyota – only because market has transcended geographical boundaries. Though our editor agrees with Marx that the market, reaching every nook and corner of the globe, breaking all the barriers, turns an individual into a submissive creature who can offer little resistance, or register even feeble protest. Nevertheless he doesn't deny the emancipatory role attributed to market. The same is the case with the bourgeois media, in his eyes, which in its market-worthy role, plays a liberator. One should not forget that the media is increasingly adopting an aggressive role on behalf of the market to mould consumers' mentality, needs etc. Yet the protagonists of market claim that by making consumer and producer jointly decide issues of production, market forges a democratic system.

In fact this view is based on the TINA axiom. According to this premise, privileges of entities like advanced nationality, upper caste, male identity etc. get shattered once they come in contact with the market. Thus backward nationalities, (mainly tribals), lower castes, (mainly dalits), and women find market to be an outlet to gain freedom. All oppressed (or, in the discursive lexicon, marginalised) entities do have something to sell. In its turn, market processes them into a product, for instance women's “cultured” body, displaying which the variety of bourgeois products are sold. In this way, even the feminist discourse is utilized by the masculinist market. Or for that matter, tribals are portrayed as tableau, performers, strange and exotic singers. Their situation becomes, in the words of Viren Dangwal:

“After getting trapped

The body, strength

and those teeth of the elephant are used by the owner

That the elephant had nurtured for itself

With much effort and love

Before it was trapped.”

What is the harm if they do it in order to earn freedom and come to occupy the centre-stage? A socialist alternative would certainly have been much better, they agree, but that is out of sight, and moreover, is embroiled with disputes. More brazen pleaders for the market say that the market being class neutral, encourages free competition by rewarding skill and punishing lack of creativity and skill. Is it not a fact that MF Hussain's one hundred paintings, sold at the rate of Rs One Crore each, fetched him one billion rupees in a single deal!

This kind of logic simply overlooks the history of the market in general and that in a country like India in particular, which has been an imperialist colony for long and is still entangled in semi-colonial bondage. It was not market but brute force accompanying it which ruined Dhaka 's muslin weavers. It was slave trade that arranged the supply of cotton to Manchester mills. And since the Nehruvian era, establishment of factories and building of dams has been achieved only by driving millions of tribals into homelessness. What kind of freedom is then ensured by the market to the destitute?

Market strives solely to make profit and increase its rate by expanding the consumer base. However, in this course not only are tribal communities broken into classes, class contradictions are intensified so acutely that one section of the tribe starts killing others with the help of the state. Recruitment of a privileged section of tribals into the “mainstream” is necessary only to extend various tentacles of market – mines, factories, dams, and trade centres – while keeping vast sections of oppressed and exploited tribals under check.

All this has its impact in the field of culture. A privileged section (which may have been their vanguards as well) of marginalised entities – nationality, caste, gender, etc. – increasingly isolates and insulates itself from the roots. It becomes the vehicle of cultural imperialism while the overwhelming majority loses the prospects of progressive cultural upgradation. Free market restricts democracy and encourages meritocracy instead. Restrictions on economic sovereignty leads to restriction of political sovereignty as well. And without political sovereignty there can be no effective cultural autonomy.

The net of market is so wide and intricate that even the rebellion of marginalised entities is subsumed by it, not to speak of the “newsworthy” performances by Robin Hoods like Veerappan or semi-anarchist outfits like PWG and MCC.

In the days of industrial capitalism Marx wrote, “National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.” He never said that capitalism achieves this feat on the basis of equal partnership. There remain relations of domination within this “world culture”. But post-modernism, which refuses to set any criteria of truth, for good and beautiful aspects of culture, overlooks the relations of inequality and domination as well. Everybody knows how much emphasis Lu Hsun and Premchand had laid on the setting a welfarist criteria for culture.

Here one must be very clear whether the market is forcing its options on the consumers and changing their mindset, or whether it is truly reflecting popular choice. In fact the domination of market has reached the extent that the product much demanded by the public suddenly disappears from the market and is replaced by another, which consumers are forced to try. As post-modernists say, it is hard to decide the case, because they do not believe in any criteria, neither for judging the objective qualities of a product nor for subjective taste. For instance, Hindi language is getting increasingly deformed in film and media, but they say this is what the public demands.

Failing to realise any freedom in the market, where can the people go to counter the onslaughts of market? The readymade answer is: the state. However, results of the patronage of state in the field of culture are no better than the results in the field of economy or politics. Yet a section of progressive intellectuals rest their hopes on this institution, and to this end they hobnob with ruling parties. The limitations are more than one. Most importantly, with the advent of globalisation, privatisation and liberalisation, the Indian state is progressively withdrawing from social sectors like education and health (which even the developed western countries have not). This not to overlook its capacity to dictate or influence the curricula and subject matter, as was witnessed in the days of the saffronisation of education. But largely, private capital invested in education finds its own ways to circumvent any such curricula. Secondly, in the ultimate analysis it is market forces, the multinationals, who manipulate the state itself by installing governments of their own choice. All this makes state-led education more or less ineffectual in building the mindset of the new generation.

It is because of this reliance on the State rather than the people, that despite the defeat of saffron fascists in the elections, market forces do not find their feathers clipped, nor has the stranglehold of global capital and associated forces loosened a bit. On the other hand, saffron fascist education network remains unscathed, to influence the new generation as before.

Apologetics of bourgeois modernism and post-modernists are unanimous in concluding that the market is ideal, free, neutral, immutable and final. In this sense they correctly say that post-modernism is just an extension of modernity. Therefore they feel no compunction in absorbing Western influence uncritically (they don't support the idea of value-based criticism at all!). In their eyes, if one opposes “free” play of international market forces and integration at the world level, it is a way of keeping chauvinism alive in a radical garb.

One must not overlook the fact that the gradual transition from joint family to nuclear family, and then crumbling of family also helped capitalism to expand its network tremendously, apart from minimising the scope of resistance on the part of consumers, who now become only individuals (consumer protection societies in a handful of metropolises do not reverse this process). On the other hand, corporate houses are themselves moving towards mergers. Even a single capitalist controls a big joint stock company with a small percentage of the total share capital. There is no denying the fact that women are the most oppressed entity bearing the brunt of the old family structure. And oppressed nationalities, religious minorities, castes and communities are living in an atmosphere of subjugation in this geographical entity, a nation-in-making called India . Yet global capital cannot be allowed to roam freely and transform everything in the name of “liberating” these groups, imposing a global identity and encouraging particularist identities at the same time.

The modernist (bourgeois) and post-modern response is to wait till consumerism introduces gross instability in society with increasing fragility of relationships as an impact of globalisation. This would result in loneliness of the individual, with all sentimentality wiped off, finally leading the individual to worry about his identity. This, they think, would be the first blow to consumerism. Naturally the individual in their mind is a member of middle class.

It must be probed deeply: is there a way out? What should be the orientation and guiding theme of such a resolution? It would be an isolationist and foolhardy approach to completely deny the scope of resistance and subversion in the present market, media to be precise. After all, we are not living in an epoch where in contrast to court poets, Kabir, Raidas, Nanak and other Bhakti poets relied directly on the masses. However, as opposed to the reliance placed on market or state by the status-quoist intelligentsia, we must not be overawed by the universality of capitalism. Instead we must constantly seek a socialist alternative to overcome the national and global profit-sucking demons.

We have to tread cautiously in this difficult terrain. Children of globalisation have scant sense of tradition and history. Various traditions and morals are nowadays acquiring new meaning. Not to speak of the independence struggle, even Emergency and the JP movement is not part of the memory of this new group. Is it a good thing that they don't have any such hangover?

The past is not just a spent commodity. New things are derived only by probing the past, like depths are fathomed to catch pearls. Mightiest of trees have their roots farthest/deepest down the earth. Communism has its source in the first natural human society – primitive communism. Subsequent class societies have progressively undermined this community aspect with the ascent of market, finally individualising everything in capitalism – and in its most recent avatar – globalisation. In contemplating a socialist project against the domination of market, recall of the communitarian aspect is imperative.

It would be interesting to note what Marx wrote on January 1882, in the preface to the Russian edition of Communist Manifesto: “Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina (village community), though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the west, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common property of land may serve as the starting point for communist development.”

Thus a socialist perspective that is revolutionary, linked with the endeavour of transforming society, constitutes decisive battle against dominance of market. For this we have to be committed, in the words of Nagarjun,

To repudiate the mad rush of narrow ‘self'

Against the impetuosity of the unscrupulous crowd

To guide on the right course the deaf and blind

To extricate myself too repeatedly from illusion

Yes, I am committed, a hundred times committed!