• India 2019: Death of Democracy – An Inevitable Possibility under Capitalism

    Rajan Gurukkal

    October 27, 2018

    Is this the India we want?

    A country in which citizens are murdered or attacked for being rational; for being critical, for raising a voice of dissent; for just being themselves, Muslim or Dalit or women. Intimidation, threats. Hatred. Lynching. Sickening violence. Students and teachers given the choice between being leashed in thought and word, or being hounded as seditious. Institutions built over the years weakened. The economy and development turned into exercises that mock the needs and aspirations of most people. The secularism, the scientific temper and the rights promised in our Constitution subverted every day. Our democracy, our India, frayed.

    But this is our country. It belongs to us, and we belong to it. We have each other for support. We have our poems and songs and films and essays and fiction and art. Our diverse voices.

    What is the India we want?

    We romanticise primitive societies as undifferentiated and egalitarian, Anthropology, however, precludes the possibility of historicising power in them as democratic. Greek democracy is celebrated in history, but it was a class divided, slave society with patricians enjoying greater rights and privileges over plebeians and helots who formed the majority of the population, yet, were not given a human status. Throughout history, we have mistaken oligarchy for democracy and believed that bourgeois democracy could be transformed into real democracy through constitutional reforms. A liberal political scientist even contemplated globalisation of the western liberal democracy and the ‘end of history as imminent1. A total rebuttal of the ‘end of history’ thesis emerged recently, which holds great promise in reawakening history under people’s revolutionary force2. Democracy has always been a goal long way off ever since we conceptualised it. Hoping for people’s resurgence in the form of survival struggles does make sense, and maybe it is reasonable to dream of a European lower middleclass resuscitating their revolutionary democratic values and passions of 1789 or 1848. However, nobody expects North American elites to be enthusiastic again about the 1776 call for liberty and equality.

    Capitalism and Democracy 

    Capitalism denotes means, forces and relations of production facilitating transformation of money into capital through industrial production and profit maximising global exchange. Capitalist development means enhanced accumulation of capital3. Its juridical-political devices were manifest in the post-feudal polity of constitutional monarchy and patriarchy. Colonisation of the New World was an early landmark of capitalist development. It was after the American War of Independence in 1776 and the birth of the USA, that the patriarchal juridico-political system got transformed into bourgeois democracy. Rise of new Europe after the French Revolution of 1789 tended to democratise beyond the middleclass, but the middleclass alliance with the bourgeoisie sabotaged it and substituted it with an absolutist state under Louis Napoleon. Capitalism developed through competitive colonisation often turning the state power into imperialism by waging wars globally. Subsequently, anti-colonial struggles and constitution of liberal democratic nation states as well as dictatorships emerged in Asia where capitalism developed in alliance with both.

    Capitalists fought dictatorships for economic reasons and tried to retain bourgeois democracy – guaranteeing its rhetoric, the freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the right of habeas corpus, for ensuring a laissez-faire state. Both people’s democracy, and free market are part of the rhetoric of capitalism, since   its inexorably outcome is nothing short of oligarchy and monopoly. Capitalists instigated anti-communist bourgeois, democratic struggles, promoted liberal democratic states and put up sustained resistance against communism., The communist revolution gave birth to socialist dictatorships in Russia first and subsequently in China where capitalism was yet to develop. In due course capitalism developed even in communist countries by turning socialism into state capitalism. Despite contrasts between state capitalism and transnational capitalism, the inevitable development of global capitalism has emerged. Under capitalism, perhaps the only moderately democratic model of statehood, since the World Wars, would be the Nordic model established by the Scandinavian countries. However, their social democracy based on privatised Keynesianism has been proved unsustainable, as it demands enhanced collective responsibility.

    Theoretical Engagements

    Karl Marx’s theory, the first historical, critical engagement with the problem of class and production, which explains production as inseparable from its own power relations, makes it clear that democracy can prevail only in communes. Marx’s theory of Capitalism as applied by V.I. Lenin to the state power had brought about the thesis of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism4. Rosa Luxemburg had found imperialism as a theoretical inevitability of the development of the capitalist mode of production through global level capital export and extension of accumulation under monopoly capital5.

    Several scholars have highlighted the cultural strategies of – capitalist expansion, camouflaging imperialist ways of capitalist exploitation and legitimising unequal power relations6. There is an impressive body of literature by Neo-Marxists like Louis Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Fernand Braudel, Andre Gunther Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein, Walter Rodney, Samir Amin and others, who have analysed relations of diplomacy, trade agreements, development treaties and technology transfers, which expose the presence of imperialist state power behind the so-called “democratic governance” of capitalist countries. Their reinterpretations of the staunch Marxist political economy have brought to bear the incompatibility between democracy and capitalism, by demonstrating how capitalist states have created and sustained the underdeveloped world7.

    Neo-Marxists or Post-Marxists like Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Slavoj Zizek, Antonio Negri, Michel Hardt, Jean-Luc Nancy, Partha Chatterjee and others discuss the sad plight of post-colonial democracy against the background of rising global capitalist neo-imperialism8. Their studies provide insights into the politics of caste and ethnicity in post-colonial democracies with crony states, which is at once against the nation state as well as capitalist development. According to Partha Chatterjee, the politics of ethnicity in India, though, apparently an essentialist entity is not a contrast to national democracy9. Neo-Marxist theoreticians do not believe that the nationalist, democratic essentialism is something opposed to democratic ethnic essentialism, because the essentialism of both is susceptible to authoritarianism and subsequently to fascism – a natural manifestation in advanced capitalist development. This is evident in India where caste and ethnic politics ostensibly champion subaltern causes but are susceptible to the dominant communal essentialism.       

    Antonio Negri and Michel Hardt (2000) argue that imperialism under advanced capitalism is not manifesting in the nation state, as one would expect, instead global capitalism has been fast bypassing and undermining the state system. A new global imperialism run by international institutions like IMF, World Bank, and WTO has already out-dated state-driven imperialism. Ever since the open withdrawal of the state from most sectors of people’s welfare, there has been a steady intensification of privatisation of public assets impairing national economic sovereignty. What some states in the developed capitalist countries show is not national imperialism per se but a mere reflection of the capitalist global power. Despite the theoretical truth that the death of democracy is inevitable and imminent as capitalism goes global, we continue to be optimistic about the possibility of sustaining and improving democracy through public criticism of the state system.

    Development Decentralisation

    Several countries of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa introduced decentralisation through constitutional reforms under the World Bank agenda of local level development. Indian states were encouraged to carry out decentralisation for development through local self-governance. Anchored in the social misconception of world development, many people failed to understand the actual meaning of decentralisation. They took it for   democratisation at the grassroots, without knowing that grassroots democracy would not be attainable through constitutionally ordained reforms which only seeks to quicken development administration.

    What could at best be feasible through constitutional reforms is administrative decentralisation without upsetting the local, social power relations, as exemplified by the People’s Plan Initiative10. Constitutionally engendered decentralisation is not democratisation, for it hardly means anything more than localisation of class governance based on status quo. It is well known that democratisation as such brings about no social change in the structural sense as it leads to no institutional development in local administration, which can upset the local power structure11. The general situation in several countries shows that the development of institutions combining public, private and membership sectors aiming for the empowerment of the local poor through better access to power and resources, is at a low ebb.  Actually, democratisation should lead to the development of local institutions and organisations limiting and controlling the state actions and private forces12. However, their structural transformative role will be minimal unless the alternative civil organisations and institutions emanate from the grassroots.

    In India, democratisation has been working as a state induced administrative reform from above and it is no coincidence that there is no indication of institutional development at the grassroots ensuring better access of local resources and power to the weaker sections of society. The existing level, extent and basis of participation relate to the ongoing national democratic system and its pro-middle-class incentives as determined by the power relations of the local society, rooted in the dominant class-caste-community-religion nexus. In fact, this precludes institutional development with enough potential to liberate the locality from exploitative macro structures of bureaucracy and capitalist market.  It is inevitable to go out in search of political ways and means to transcend this theoretical stalemate. However, only active strategies of politicisation and empowerment of the marginalised, facilitating people’s struggle against structural contradictions in local power relations, would lead to grassroots democracy13.     

    Various factors impede politicisation and empowerment of the marginalised and the poor. Deprived of critical thought, they remain largely apolitical and susceptible to ideological coercion by the dominant. Caught up in culturally contingent identity traps of ethnicity, caste and religion, many of them are least amenable to politicisation. In fact, what we call democracy today is actually, centralised governance structured by the dominance of the upper class. The oppressed and exploited poor are unaware of the contrast between the reigning democracy and grassroots democracy. Theoretically, the state machinery, even the truly leftist, ultimately made up of the upper-class instrument, cannot empower the downtrodden much; and presuming anything else is as good as expecting the state to be participating in the class war of the poor; though, many people still believe in clever talk that liberal democracy can resolve the problem of class contradiction through legislation.      

    Crony Capitalist States

    Strictly speaking, today’s nation states of the world over are largely undemocratic, albeit in different degrees, and not altogether totalitarian in each case. They are made up of several orders or hierarchies around uneven economies, yet almost entirely structured by dominant relations and functions under capitalism, irrespective of the distance between the region and the metropolis14. More or less relieved from the pre-capitalist social encumbrances, and placed at the mercy of the market with its freedom to buy and sell, the people are now integrated into hierarchies of bureaucracy attached to the state, semi-state and private enterprises.  Every enterprise is bureaucratic and hierarchical. This unilinear global structure recurs in every nation state, even with numerous culturally contingent specificities.  With its various organs representing diverse groups, relations and interests in society, the state, ideally assumes the central role of overall co-ordination; when in effect, it only acts as per the desired expectations of the middle-class (which constitutes the government) as well as the capitalists who hold the strings of ultimate control15.   

    Following the open withdrawal of the state from most sectors of people’s welfare, there has been a steady rise in privatisation of public assets. This process has pushed developing nations, like India, into a solvency crisis, where public sector disinvestment, under the pretext of reform, is forging ahead, transferring national resources into the hands of an elite few. As is integral to the process of decentralisation, most of the local public assets are being privatised in alignment with the national policy. In the wake of this, all kinds of anti-social concepts such as ‘outsourcing,’ ‘downsizing the public sector,’ ‘multiple stakeholders’ approach,’ ‘non-governmental organisations,’ ‘voluntary agencies’ etc., have become sophisticated expressions exciting no repulsion in the minds of the general public. In countries like India, where capitalism is growing at an unbridled pace, the national political power, though democratically engendered, ultimately remains a mere tool in the hands of corporate houses.  As a crony capitalist state, it allows corporate houses to loot the public and the state revenue under the pretext of contracting services, with better efficiency.

    Today, the state openly operates as an agency, determined to subsidise capitalism and facilitate its expansion at the cost of poor people’s livelihoods. In the process, the state power itself gets privatised, through the selling of public credits or bidding for the job of recovering government loans or through the task of crime investigation, which comes bearing consequences like mafia rule, drug abuse, and terrorism. The major excuses given by the state for choosing privatisation are: incapability of public sector institutions, irresponsible attitude of the public servants, and their apathy for the public, bureaucratic inefficiency, bribery and other forms of corruption. This allows the capitalist minority to loot public revenue under the connivance of the state and its development reforms. This phase is called crony capitalism, of which there are many instances in India.

    The establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) is the most pervasive example of crony capitalism, that operates under the garb of national economic development. SEZ is a major institutionalised form of subsidisation capital, which involves a heavy loss of national revenue (figures to the tune of about Rs. 2.4 lakh crore per year!).  In addition to this, huge shares of public wealth are disposed-off in favour of monopoly capitalists, through various illegal means. Despite incurring heavy revenue losses, SEZs enjoy a private space of sovereign control –, a paradox of sovereign power within sovereignty; crony capitalism of the worst type. The outsourcing of the bank-loan recovery to Assets Reconstruction Company – the Indian counter part of the Assets Management Company of the world, – is yet another instance of crony capitalism. All such revenue related transactions of the crony capitalist state are executed at the apex level in secrecy, and whatever, remains thereof, is made public, in the catchy rhetoric of development. Thus, by coercing the bureaucrats of the crony state to practise functional autocracy over democratic procedures, fascism enters the bourgeois democracy.

    Latest Phase of Capitalism

    The latest phase of capitalism, academically called, ‘Techno-Capitalism’ and popularly known as the ‘Knowledge Economy’, depends on the commodification of technology and science as the main source of capital accumulation. It has been seen as the new version of Capitalism16. The production and exchange of new knowledge as potentially the most valuable commodity, is its main industry. In this process, new knowledge, is alienated from its actual producers; whose creativity or innovativeness is then commodified, and turned into patents and intellectual property rights (IPR), which go on to constitute the industry’s precious intangible assets. Profit-optimising transactions of patents and IPR have made marketable knowledge both commodity and capital today. It has given rise to a new type of ‘commodity fetishism’ centred on knowledge, – an extension of what Marx originally theorised long ago17. Science is being limited to technology, as it is essential for the production of innovative knowledge, capable of securing patents and IPR, and generating enormous profits in exchange. Today, the amount of transactional value that innovative knowledge and related properties generates makes-up for almost four-fifth of the total global returns!

    Techno-capitalist enterprises are a new form of the corporate model, organised by the most sophisticated techno-militaristic units to ensure of monopolistic market control18.  Aiming for innovative knowledge production, corporate houses have built huge research establishments all over in multiple science-tech-hybrid fields of knowledge, such as, functional genomics with automated methods, based on microarray technologies for analysing gene expressions, structural genomics for understanding gene structure through X-ray crystallography and robotic crystallisation procedures, protein structure analysis through high field NMR Spectroscopy, advanced bio-engineered molecular processors, nanotech sensors and transmitters, graphene engineering, synthetic bioengineering, bioinformatics, bio-pharmacology, bio-mimetic, robotics, artificial intelligence, holographic interfaces, cloud computing and so on. In all these fields and several others, thousands of young experts in theoretical research and micro-engineering are employed in the Corporate Research establishments19. These research establishments are powerful techno-military complexes. They have globally adopted adequate juridical measures directed towards confiscating the creativity of the brilliant minds at their disposal, and e enhanced brain drain in such countries20. Techno-capitalist corporations are fast reconstituting the bourgeois democratic state into a ‘’corporatocracy,’’ a government of, for and by corporations.

    Attempts at Legislating Autocracy

    Systematic and steady attempts at passing legislations against democracy have been in progress in India since the 1990s. Legislative measures of liberalisation, structural adjustments, public sector disinvestment and commercialisation of services under the pressure of IMF, WB and WRO after the nation’s signing of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) are examples. The process acquired an added aggression in the sector of services after the nation’s surrender to the WTO by signing the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). In education, health and environment the state under juridical obligation has been enthusiastic about legislating anti-democratic ideas, institutions and practices. India adopted legislative reforms which were recommended by the GATS in the hope that it would stand gain from trade in services.  This, however, only went on to benefit the developed world. Accordingly, several reform bills, as part of neoliberal initiatives for ‘improving’ the country’s higher education sector, have been proposed, and the Private University’s Act 1995 is the first to get legislated among them. Foreign Education Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill 2010, Prevention of Malpractices Bill and the Education Tribunal Bill 2010, National Accreditation Regulatory Authority Bill 2010, and Higher Education and Research Bill 2011 (HE&R) are examples. All these Bills have been pending due to questions being raised over their constitutional validity.

    Another example of an attempt at legislating centralisation in the higher education sector came through the move of replacing the University Grants Commission (UGC) along with other national regulatory councils, with a single authority. It was the Knowledge Commission that recommended a special legislation for establishing an Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE) to set standards and determine eligibility criteria for new institutions. Thus, the National Commission for Higher Education and Research Bill 2011 (NCHER) subsuming all democratic regulatory bodies in higher education – the UGC, AICTE, NCTE and DEC – took form. Following nation-wide opposition against its undemocratic nature, the Government withdrew the Bill on 24 September 2014. However, efforts to reintroduce the Bill for establishing a national authority of higher education ensued. Its latest incarnation is the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), 2018.

    In order to enable hassle free acquisition of land for the ‘Make in India Project,’ amendments to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation Act, 2013 were proposed in favour of corporate houses. A de facto solution was sought by appointing a High-Power Committee on Environment in 2014. The bureaucratic committee innocent of ecology and environmental sciences proposed virtual nullification of all foundational acts of social and environmental justice viz., Indian Forests Act, 1927; Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980; Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981; and Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. It also recommended the constitution of two bureaucratic bodies of National Environmental Management (NEMA&SEMA), thereby, side-lining departments of academic expertise.  Fortunately, both Houses of the Parliament prevented the legislation of this anti-democratic document. Nevertheless, the same Bill was re-introduced with a new name, ie., the ESA Amendments Notification 2015. These are well known examples of the state’s repeated attempts at legislating autocracy and there could be several others that have not been made public as yet.


    Marxist theoretical perspectives of capitalist development inform that imperialism is the juridico-political outcome of advanced capitalism. As capitalism acquires higher dimensions of development, democracy becomes increasingly implausible. It is the political economy of capitalist development, and not the idiosyncrasies of individual political leaders, which leads the state towards fascism. Corporate houses try to restructure the Government by forcing it to become functionally autocratic through bureaucracy and legislating centralisation to substitute democratic procedures.  All these factors align the state perfectly with the growing techno-military global neo-imperialism; consequently, reaffirming the death of democracy – an inevitable possibility under capitalism. 

    1 F. Fukuyama, 1992
    2 Badiou, 2012
    3 K. Marx, 1867
    4 V.I. Lenin tr. 1999
    5 R. Luxemburg, 1913; P. Wolfe, 1997
    6 T.W. Adorno, 1991
    7 I Wallerstein, 1976; A.G. Frank, 1979; W. Rodney, 1983; S. Amin, 1990 & 1997
    8 E. Laclau, 1973; E. Laclau & C. Mouffe, 1985; A. Negri & M. Hardt, 2000; S. Sizek, 2002; J. Luc Nancy, 2007
    9 P. Chatterjee, 1983 and 2011
    10 T.M.T. Isaac, 2001; P.K.M. Tharakan, 2001
    11 M.J. Esman and N.T. Uphoaf, 1984
    12 G. Gran, 1983
    13 R. Gurukkal, 2001
    14 S. A. Renick, 1981; J. McDermott, 1991
    15 A. Vincent, 1988; L. Green, 1988
    16 A. Feenberg, 1991; M. Perelman, 2004; L. Suarez-villa, 2009 and 2012
    17 K. Marx, 1867
    18 McDermott, 1991; L. Suarez-villa, 2012
    19 L. Suarez-villa, 2012
    20 L. Suarez-villa, 2012


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    Read more:
    India 2019: Everything Drowns, Except This Poem
    India 2019: The Nation I Want and the Nation I Don’t Want
    India 2019: In Modern India

    Rajan Gurukkal is a leading Indian social scientist, historian, professor and writer.

    This is a revised and summarized version of the article with the same title published in Economic and Political Weekly, 25 August, 2018, LIII, No.34, pp.104-111.

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