Decay of Liberalism and Withering Away of the Left
The technology-driven revolution is fundamentally affecting the relationship between capital and labour. This fundamental change is driving right-wing populism across the globe. The left, on the other hand, has remained a laggard, and will have no future if it continues to be opiated by liberalism. While, with liberalism as its political ally, the imperial “gentlemanly capitalism” has killed millions for resources and profits in the 20th century, the 21st-century “surveillance capitalism” with the far right as its political hitman is likely to be more lethal and ruthless.
The left is facing existential loneliness. It is a political outcast, experiencing a deep sense of ideological emptiness, an intellectual void. Its spiritual connection with politics is weakening. It had long realised that the struggle for emancipation and equality was a mere dream. The thought of prioritising collective survival over individual identity was a utopia. Then, why is the left in agony again? One reason for the left’s recurring pain is the worldwide meteoric rise of a far right that is turning the old-style mainstream politics and the old liberal order upside down. More importantly, liberalism—the left’s saviour and silent killer—is in decay. The little left simply does not know as to what is to be done: dance or die?
During the Cold War, when capitalist assault on the radical left increased, liberalism with its welfarist façade offered a cozy refuge. The left gained entry into the liberal mansion by abandoning class war, its first love, and accepting civil liberty as its new soulmate. This was considered the best answer to mitigate exploitation of humans by humans. The left slept with the enemy, and allowed liberalism to gnaw at its roots.
When the Berlin Wall crumbled in the 1990s, the left’s political pain worsened. It found liberalism, its soulmate, celebrating with capitalism and jumping onto the neo-liberal bandwagon. The left scurried into a corner of the “liberal” mansion, silently chanting the human rights, “self-determination,” secularism, and constitutionalism mantras. The concerns of the poor masses and glaring inequalities in the society, the centre of left politics, were expediently brushed under the carpet. The irony is that, three decades later, the roof over the liberal mansion has vanished and the left lies exposed.
Liberalism in Decay
The relationship between the left and the liberals hinged on convenience. For the former, the liberal path was less arduous and challenging than the revolutionary struggle that communism proposed. For the liberals, speaking socialism was a part of strategy to keep communist tendencies at bay. The liberal heart, anchored in individualism, yearned for capitalism, finding it more fulfilling than communism.
The left–liberal merger was a by-product of the Great Depression. The relationship resulted in the emergence of a new political species, in the capitalist world, which identified itself as Progressives, New Dealers, or Fabians. Their ideas were an eclectic mix of John Maynard Keynes, Karl Marx, and Adam Smith’s theories.
A peculiar thing about the New Dealers and Fabians was that they avoided using the word socialism. The “deception of never calling socialism by its right name was an integral part of Fabian political ideology” (Bhardwaj 2019: 65). Jawaharlal Nehru, whose socialism largely flowed from Fabianism and the New Deal, added an “ic” to “socialist” in his doctrine of the “socialistic pattern of society.” Nehru successfully created the myth that he was an ardent socialist without giving up his allegiance to the class that he was born in. According to Sudipta Kaviraj (1980: 23), Nehru
- excelled in political uses of ambiguity—but curiously with uninterrupted luck. Under his leadership the Congress declared a socialistic pattern of society as its objective. But the ingenuity with which it was pursued led to actual increase in inequality.
Nehru, the father of left-liberalism in India, was a “New Dealer.” He employed FDR’s techniques to reform the Indian communist movement by claiming to be a socialist and a friend of the Soviet Union. Explaining his policy on tackling the Indian communists, Nehru told the heads of India missions in 1955,
Adding a socialist tinge to liberalism was essential to save capitalism in times of the growing impact of communism in the 1930s. Capitalism could not allow communism to be the sole torchbearer of the masses of the world. Stuart Chase, “an economist and member of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s (FDR) ‘brain trust’” (Sullivan 1985) who advocated government planning and intervention in business, wrote in his 1932 book, A New Deal (1932), “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking a world?” And, FDR achieved this, according to Conrad Black’s book, Franklin D Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (2003), by stealing the socialist arguments and depriving the left of the possibility of political success.
- Our foreign policy has helped us internally as well in that it has completely confused the Communist Party of India. In view of the appreciation shown by the Soviet leaders of our foreign policy, Indian communists find it difficult to criticise the government. The stature India has gained abroad has given the common man a certain pride in India. CPI, therefore, finds it difficult to undermine the reliance the common man places in government. (Noorani 2002)
Elaborating further on his strategy Nehru informed the envoys:
- Our intelligence services have to watch communist activity, though from outside there has been very little. In fact the Indian communists have been told privately not to embarrass our government. The publicly expressed appreciation of the Indian government is another way of making it difficult for the Communist Party of India to embarrass the government. (Noorani 2002)
The roots of Nehru’s socialism lay in “peace and internationalism,” rather than in anger against the exploitation of the working classes” (Economic Weekly 1964: 1219). As E M S Namboodiripad (1966: vii) had said,
- The dominant section of the Congress leadership consisted of confirmed enemies of socialism and their acceptance of the socialist pattern, whatever it may mean was simply a political manoeuvre.
On Nehru’s socialism, the Economic Weekly (1964: 1219) had commented that it was a “rather weak and hollow reed in which one can blow almost any kind of music.” Nehru was a master politician and a myth-maker. The manner in which he managed the left–liberal merger in India spoke about his political acumen. The Indian left that Nehru defanged, today, stands steadfast in protecting the remnants of the Nehruvian myth.
A Technology-driven Revolution
All was going well for the liberals, the believers in Francis Fukuyama’s “the end of history” theory. Globalisation brought fruits for the super rich and a tiny minority composed of liberal and right-wing middle-class families. The calamity fell when, in 2008, the United States (US), the Mecca of capitalism, encountered economic meltdown and severe depression. However, unlike in the 1930s, capitalism did not resort to strengthening liberalism to tackle discontent. In fact, it decided to jettison liberalism and selected far-right populism as its chief political ally. The inherently conservative capitalist class has unceremoniously abandoned liberalism because it faces no threat from communist or any other ideology. Another compelling reason is located in the dynamics that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR) is unleashing both in the realm of capital as well as labour.
At the core of the FIR lay the power of artificial intelligence, automation, and the internet of things (IoT). The new technologies have opened up endless possibilities to change the way goods are produced, consumed, and transacted. The FIR is converting paper money into digital money, thus changing the way money is stored and moves. The “cashless economy” ensures that all money in circulation remains within the system. No government will ever need to resort to demonetisation to bring the hidden money into the system. Banks will always be flush with funds. The big question is, who will control these massive cash flows in the system? Who will earn profit from it? Will national currencies get merged into a universal currency? These questions are important because they will go on to define not only the character of the international political economy, but the entire financial edifice on which the international order rests.
The technology-driven revolution is fundamentally affecting the relationship between capital and labour, a legacy of the first industrial revolution, when the machine in the factory could not operate without human intervention. It had required both the blue-collar and the educated white-collar manager to run the shop floor. The latter, because of their education, were placed in a higher wage bracket than the former. The first industrial revolution accentuated the urban–rural divide and sharpened the divide between manual and mental labour. The mental labourer, who was more loyal to the factory owner than the manual labourer, emerged as the middle class, a buffer between the rich and poor. The tiny bunch of capitalist owners had no option but to rely on the middle class to run the show on their behalf. In return, the middle-class worked to justify capitalism. The pattern was similar to what was witnessed towards the end of the 15th century, when a new economic society with its capitalistic motive emerged. This society promoted the idea of liberalism and helped the middle class rise to political and economic dominance, primarily for “confiscating the wealth of the church, open the way to the new secular conceptions of individual freedom and opportunity and of scientific control over nature” (Knickerbocker 1937: 120).
The need for liberalism increased when capitalism, in the age of mass production of goods, needed more workers. Liberalism, with a communist tinge, helped in managing the politically aware, militant working classes in factories. However, capital continued to consider labour as a necessary evil. In the 1970s, the Western capitalist grabbed the opportunity to shift production centres to China and South East Asia, where cheap labour was available in abundance. This helped the capitalist circumvent labour laws and taxes imposed by the liberal order to maintain tranquility within the metropole.
The FIR by bringing in robots and 3D printers is giving the capitalists a new opportunity to eliminate labour as well as the manager from the manufacturing process, losing the chains constraining the capitalist’s profits. The advent of driverless cars may enable Uber, the car hiring service company, to obliterate human drivers from its software programme. Similarly, the 3D printers may bring us to a stage where Apple would produce its mobile phones in worker-less factories located in the US, without any need for Indian or Chinese labour.
The right-wing intellectuals have been quick to comprehend the emerging technological trends and identify the social and political needs that the new economy will demand. It is well understood that the FIR would lead to an age of joblessness. A jobless society would demand subsidies to survive, which could be provided directly into the mobile wallets of the needy through the “universal basic income” (UBI) schemes. However, the innate capitalist greed would limit the number of people under UBI. The maximum reduction of social burden is what the capitalist order demands from politics. Liberalism with its advocacy of multiculturalism and extended populism cannot meet this objective. Right-wing, racist organisations that thrive on segregation of communities are what the global capitalist class want in order to restrict the scope of populism. The amount of support provided by the Indian capitalists to Narendra Modi’s election campaign since 2012 is a case in point. It is for this reason that US President Donald Trump’s recent attacks on non-white Democratic congresswomen, asking them to go back to their home country, cannot be analysed through liberal theories on racism. One needs to wear a Marxist lens to view this rampant polarisation drama being enacted, across geographies, from New York to New Delhi. The basic purpose of the right wing’s anti-immigration drive is to delegitimise as many people as possible from the “universal basic income” net.
Racism, casteism, communalism, and nationalism are age-old ideas that capitalists have used as tools to garner and hoard vast resources of the earth for a tiny minority. With liberalism as its political ally, the “gentlemanly capitalism” killed millions in imperial wars waged for resources and profits in the 20th century. The 21st-century “surveillance capitalism” with the far right as its political hitman is likely to be more lethal and ruthless.
The left is a laggard, having failed to appreciate the speed at which the FIR-induced changes are sweeping the globe. The left will have a zilch future if it continues to be opiated by liberalism. Its fight against internet technology is restricted to demanding “privacy,” when it should be in the vanguard of finding ways to appropriate the new means and modes of production and transaction for the larger good of the human race.
- Bhardwaj, Atul (2019): India–America Relations (1942–62): Rooted in the International Liberal Order, London: Routledge.
- Economic Weekly (1964): “The Socialist Legacy,” Vol 16, Nos 29–31, pp 1219–25.
- Knickerbocker, Frances W (1937): “The Decay of Liberalism,” The Sewanee Review, Vol 45, No 1, pp 120–22.
- Kaviraj, Sudipta (1980): “Apparent Paradoxes of Jawaharlal Nehru,” Mainstream, 15 November, pp 23–30.
- Namboodiripad, E M S (1966): Economics and Politics of India’s Socialist Pattern, New Delhi: People’s Publishing House.
- Noorani, A G (2002): “The Nehruvian Approach,” Frontline, Vol 19, No 2, https://frontline.thehindu.com/static/html/fl1902/19020810.htm.
- Sullivan, Ronald (1985): “Stuart Chase, 97: Coined the Phrase ‘A New Deal,’” New York Times, 17 November, viewed on 12 March 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/1985/11/17/nyregion/stuart-chase-97-coined-phrase-a-new-dea.html.