It rarely happens that in reading a particular piece of literature I end up finding beyond perfect articulations of some of my own unstructured ideas. It can be liberating and feels, even, cathartic! Or it might just be that I am learning.
This post is about one such recent reading experience.
I’ve been associated and working with several organisations that have taken up the cause of struggles of the underprivileged. These activities, predominantly, have been from a class antagonism point of view — that which many would attribute as Left-leaning. While I have understood and empathised with these organisations, I simultaneously held a strong opinion that there was something in the lacking in their primary focus. The classical class antagonism — say between the labourers and the employers that is so crucial to these struggles — have certainly brought hard earned rights to a large part of the working class (more evident in the Nordics, less so in India where the struggle is ongoing). However, such fundamental and visceral class antagonism — with an image of a worker in a factory floor being brutally exploited — is no longer the most relatable formulation of why we are embroiled in dire crises, like economic disparity, massive poverty and climate change!
I’ve been unable to clearly point out what was lacking in these struggles, but I was able to identify and have been vocal about some symptoms of the crises.
For instance, the legitimacy that is given to manic and unscrupulous consumption in today’s world is mind-boggling. The compulsive behaviour to purchase stuff for the sake of it and not defined by its usefulness, and by the want of it and not the need of it, is deeply unsettling, to say the least.
Another instance that I was able to clearly disapprove was the notion of indirect taxation. In India, a goods and services tax (GST) was levied on almost all of the goods and services. While I am all for direct and progressive taxation at source, heavy indirect taxes have always seemed unfair to me. Think of a person who earns INR 3000/- per month paying the same 18% or whatever GST for a basic commodity, as does a person earning INR 30,000/pm or INR 300,000/-. This is plain stupid.
This can, of course, be extended to other essential services like healthcare, education and public transport, which are rendered unaffordable to a massive section of the population.
The labourer-employer based class antagonism driven struggles do not directly and effectively address these issues. Of course, these aspects are discussed at the peripheries, but my complaint has been these are never the primary focus.
While I have been grappling with these issues, I ended up reading David Harvey’s excellent treatise on the contradictions that are innate in capitalism. While I won’t get into all the seventeen contradictions he presents, the first category of contradictions that he brands as the foundational contradictions, elucidate a larger problem that encapsulates the severe discontent I have held.
In his book, he leads the readers to understand, how, by construction the modern globalised societies that, for the most part, are capitalistic thrive by dispossessing a vast majority of people. Like the ugly headlines that says 26 richest people possessing as much wealth as 50% of global population. This is still within the paradigm of class antagonism but taken well beyond the work place.
The hard earned rights and benefits at the work place are now extorted outside the workplace as exorbitant rents for housing, unaffordable healthcare, expensive education (and commodification of many such essentials) and even State interventions as skewed indirect taxation and austerity measures! David Harvey sums up this construct as the accumulation by dispossession. And he clearly makes a case for contemporary struggles to be driven by the politics that recognises and fights against the system that allows a handful of people to appropriate massive wealth at the expense of dispossessing rest of the human population.
A coherent framework that links several global crises as manifestation of accumulation by dispossession was the improved articulation of my unstructured concerns.
Book: David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and end of Capitalism