The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 14, 2001

A different analysis of social structure
Review by Harjinder Singh

The Alternative to Capital’s Social Order
by Istvan Meszaros, K P Bagchi & Company, Kolkata, pp. 116, Rs. 100.

TO most ordinary people the failure of the erstwhile Soviet bloc countries is the collapse of a system of political governance that in the name of serving the poor allows no freedom to people. It is not so obvious to many that the political stability of any country in the world is not a question that can be seen in isolation. The interplay of economics, politics and social order is a complex phenomenon, and its understanding requires years of learning. Karl Marx through his voluminous writings provided an analytical approach to investigate this linkage between politics and economy and its impact on the behaviour of collective social formations.

Though microeconomics and econometric methods are essential to understand how the economic systems evolve in today’s world of speedy communication and mobile capital, much of our social characteristics retain forms that can be explained using Marxian methods. Unfortunately it involves a lot of technical jargon, more so today as the mobility of capital is intricately connected to the process of globalisation.


In the days of Marx, the western capitalist economies were primitive in nature. The nature of imperialism was visibly and explicitly militaristic and expansionist in terms of territory. All that is changed now. Imperialism as it was - territorial occupation and colonialism, is defeated. Yet there is a sense of profound loss in any conscious individual anywhere in the world. While in west, there is an alienation that is often understood in terms of a loss of a social community, in the underprivileged majority, the loss is multiple. There is a loss of identity, a loss of culture and of course, the same old loss of capital.

Ironically, this sense of loss coexists with a fantasy, especially in the middle class that everyone is going to live under a capitalistic ‘global government.’ This illusion is based on the myth that capitalism had evolved in such a way so as to ameliorate its contradictions, and the world was progressing in an evolutionary and peaceful manner. This myth was strengthened in the first half of the twentieth century as the concept of a welfare state evolved using what economists call the Keynesian intervention.

After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, however, the welfare state is crises-ridden in the western European nations and the hopes of its coming out of it are disappearing fast in the third world countries. Thus a social order dictated by the ‘free’ market and yet, ironically, ‘determined’ by the globalised capital is fast imposing itself as a fate accompli.

What is social order? Put simply, the capitalistic social order is a kind of caste system, where an individual’s role in society, ambitions, desires, achievements and essentially your identity are determined by the money one has and how much of it he or she can invest in the global capitalistic game.

Michel Foucault has shown how our common-sense understandings of identities, bodies, characteristics and relationships are the result of long-term social processes of definition and categorisation, processes by which dominant institutions define the boundaries of acceptability, label anything outside those boundaries deviant, and organise and impose discipline upon individuals and groups who fail to comply with the "normal". As the world - the globe - is claimed by the new capital, the deviant and the normal are being redefined. It is he who drinks the coke or the pepsi that the dil mange more, who is normal, not the one who drinks the gunnkaras. Get lost if you do not believe in the pepsi freedom and make way for the neo-consumerist tradition of a ‘free’ world of mental slaves.

Are there alternatives to this? What do Marxists say? Istvan Meszaros, one of the foremost Marxist intellectuals, professor emeritus at the university of Sussex, where he held the chair of Philosophy for fifteen years, writes in his new book on his vision of the alternatives using Marxian analysis. The title of the first chapter, "Implications of Ongoing Developments: The Coming Century of ‘Socialism or Barbarism", shows how perceptive the author is. In the world after Sep 11, 2001, most thinking people are looking at the future in terms of these two clear choices - first stated by Rosa Luxemburg, ‘socialism or barbarism.

Meszaros writes, " ... now the catastrophic dangers that would go with a global conflagration ... are self-evident even to the most uncritical defenders of the (capitalist) system .... no one in his or her right mind could exclude the possibility of the eruption of a deadly conflict and with that the destruction of humankind. Yet, nothing is really done in order to resolve the underlying massive contradictions that point in the fateful direction. On the contrary, the continued enhancement of the economic and military hegemony of the one remaining superpower - the United State of America - casts an ever darkening shadow on the future."

From the combination of imperialism, capital, military and terrorist methods - name any one component and we face contradictions galore. Bin Laden — a creation of the CIA of the USA, today declared USA enemy number one of USA (even before the attacks on World Trade Center and the Pentagon Bin Laden gained that status; Bill Clinton ordered his assassination while in office as president); thousands die at the center of capitalism but someone or some people gain from the overnight conversion of $ one hundred and twenty four thousand to eight million dollars; the countries that were enemies a decade ago are allies in a joint war; desperation to declare that Islam created to defeat Russians in Afghanistan is not Islam anymore - it is merely terrorism; all the horrors known about Taliban that were ignored are now widely publicised (like the movie, ‘Beneath the Veil’ shown on CNN after wide publicity) and so on and so forth.

One cannot but pitifully smile at the pundits who go on blowing the trumpet of capitalism using their undeserving positions of expertise. To quote Meszaros, "It should be of no surprise that under the present conditions of crisis the siren-song of Keynesianism is heard again as wishful remedy, appealing to the spirit of the old ‘expansionary consensus’ in the service of ‘development’". Bail out American Airlines $ 5 billion dollars in cash and $ 10 billion in loan, rebuild the towers.

"However, today that song can only sound as something very faint, emerging through a long pipe from the bottom of a very deep Keynesian grave."

Meszaros provides technically sophisticated explanations in a common sense manner, though using appropriate jargon. "The fundamental problem is that the sectional plurality of labour is closely linked to the hierarchically structures conflictual plurality of capitals, both within every particular country and on a global scale. If it was not for the latter, it would be much easier to envisage the successful constitution of labour’s international unity against unified or unifiable capital." Yet one reason for hope is that "while capital’s dependency on labour is absolute - in that capital is absolutely nothing without labour which it must permanently exploit - labour’s dependency on capital is relative, historically created and historically surmountable."

Meszaros looks at these issues with keen elaboration and presents convincing arguments. Those with serious interest in the relationship of capital’s structural crisis and the changes in the political nature of imperialism will find the chapter on ‘The Potentially Deadliest Phase of Imperialism’ a classic work. Here the author analyses the political developments in international relations in the past few decades and establishes an analytical relationship with capital’s social order.

Likewise, those with interest in the politics of socialist tendencies, the Section on ‘Historical Challenges Facing the Socialist Movement’ should be very useful. It may not be possible to convince those who are doomed to seek Nostradamus, but to the small set of thinking minds left with possibilities to expand the size of their tribe, this book is recommended as an essential reading.