Back to a Better Version of Reform

Although the custodians of ‘ruling ideas’ seek always to lend ‘universal’ weight to concepts that suit them, it remains a truism of common human experience that the same words across changing histories do not mean the same thing.  The same script and the same words come to yield a different language. As we know, Derridean post-structuralist theory was to put this common perception on a sound theoretical footing, beginning some three decades ago, even as the redoubtable Raymond Williams was to catalogue semantic transformations  of language -use in his painstakingly remarkable work, Keywords (1976).

When capitalism still struggled with older forms of social organization, the word ‘love’ was frequently used to imply love of other human beings—or of god.  Rarely did such loving have  conquest for its telos; often its richness of content had to do with selflessness and sacrifice (witness the Hindi cinema of the 1940s and 1950s).  Some sixty years after, the noun phrase ‘I love’ is likely to indicate for its predicate a new brand of soft drink, or shoes, or automobile.
As to other human beings, we now do not ‘love’;   we enter into ‘relationships’ with due thought to securing  individual preoccupation and  individual ‘space.’
Think that the word ‘sentiment’ likewise has come to be dissociated from human contexts and attached to the stock market—bullish or bearish ‘sentiment’ as the case may be. Gone are the days when novelists wrote the novel of sentiment, or sportsmen and women played games for fun.  Indeed, just as ‘sentiment’ has gone over to Wall Street and other bourses, ‘players’ now have reference to tycoons who plough the exciting world of Capital.

Or the word ‘subtle’: often when Shakespeare used the word, as in a ‘subtle Venetian’, the inference to be drawn was one of fickleness and deception. Now we know subtlety to be a valorized virtue, a subtle argument always preferable to a blunt assertion.  Likewise, at one time being ‘competitive’ carried largely negative connotations, implying a  tendency to snatch and grab, till the culture of capitalism raised it to mean ‘efficient.’ To be competitive suggests a will to ‘win’.  And in a somewhat unsubtle American parlance, where the world is seen to be divided between   ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, always better to be ‘competitive.’ Always better to win—at any cost, one must add.

What about the word ‘reform’ that now screams at us routinely from newspaper leads and television sound bytes?  ‘Reform’ we are meant to understand connotes just that single sum of political perceptions which came to be encoded in the ‘Washington Consensus’ of 1990.  At the heart of its ten-point iteration resides the following article of belief:
   â€œDevelopment—economic, social and sustainable—without
   an effective state—not a minimal one—is central to
   economic and social development. . .States should work to
   complement markets, not replace them.”
   (World Bank Report, 1997, p.18)

Thus ‘reform,’ allegedly applicable the world-over, is foregrounded  uncontroversially as the single , inevitable precondition of the advancement of the human race. ‘Reform’ we are to understand requires neutering the State, replacing it by the Market, transfering wealth from public to private control, eliminating investment in the social sector, and reducing fiscal deficit ideally by curtailing employment in the first place. And if such ‘reform’ exacerbates poverty and inequality we are equally to understand that this is but a necessary stage to the Eldorado  that ‘growth’ untrammeled by social concerns promises to everyone.

And yet, at the inaugural moment of industrial capitalism (1830s onwards), the demand for ‘reform’ meant just the opposite of what it has come to mean today.

Assessing the humongous economic and social distress caused by the new dominance of manufacturing over agriculture (as England was coming to be the ‘workshop of the world’), many distinguished writers and thinkers who endorsed the idea of ‘progress’ nevertheless enjoined upon the State to exert itself on behalf of the ‘losers’.  One of the first to write a three-volume history of the French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle veritably screamed his caution that if the new ruling class in Britain ignored ‘reform’ what had happened in France was surely waiting to happen in Britain.  So did Charles Dickens, the Christian and Utopian Socialists, and the more canny among the ruling Whigs. ‘Reform’ became a battle cry not for the liquidation of  the State but for the exercise of its powers to effect ‘amelioration’ in what Carlyle captioned ‘the condition of England.’  Even the good Tory, Disraeli, noted that, infact, England was no longer one nation but two—torn between the haves and the have-nots, underlining a useful role for the State in the circumstances.

Fortunately, at that point neither the IMF nor the World Bank existed, and the neocons of the day had somewhat greater  human sensitivity than their  progeny of the 21st century .  All that helped produce the great Reform Bills of 1832, 1867, and 1887.  Together, through such legislative measures backed up by consonant executive actions, the State extended franchise, granted rights of unionisaton (where ‘Combination Acts’ had repeatedly sought to curb association),   narrowed income disparities, raised wages, passed the first Education Act (1870) to regulate a brutalized and commercialized private school system, and reduced unemployment. Cunningly, such measures helped put British capitalism on a more secure footing.  (See Patrick Bratlinger, The Spirit of Reform: British Literature and Politics, 1832-1867, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1977).

As the learned Indian Prime Minister comes away rather shell-shocked by what he has heard and seen in Vidharba, a cotton-growing region of the prosperous state of Maharashtra where farmers have been committing suicide by the hundreds, it is time perhaps for the great economist to recall that ‘reform’ need not mean just what the ‘Washington Consensus,’ inspired by trans-national corporations and their front international finance agencies, says it does.  Certainly, the non-specialist intellectual, Nehru, seemed to have a far more canny understanding of the role of the State in devising ‘reforms’ appropriate to  a country like India.  What Manmohan Singh needs to recognize, especially after his traumatic Vidharba visit, is that the conditions that Nehru was addressing may have improved for some miniscule percentage of Indians under the aegis of the ‘Washington Consensus’ version of ‘reform’ but have worsened immeasurably for the majority.  This recognition ought to be compelling enough to switch from the current notion of ‘reform’ to an earlier and better one.

 Indeed, this will involve reforming the notion of ‘reform’ itself—much in the sense in which Martin Luther had sought to ‘reform’ the corrupted Church, to wit, to ‘restore’ the institution to a lost purity of purpose. In this case, the instituton of the State itself.

 A continued uncritical devotion to the current notion of ‘reform’ could also, of course, produce the cosequence that Carlyle had spoken of in the 1830s: it could yield the French Revolution here at home, even if through the ballot box, although one can never tell.  Our admittedly humane and piety-ridden head of government then has the task of persuading his scholarly finance minister and the rather jauntily free-marketing vice chairman  of planning as well that the State has uses that do not pertain merely to fattening the fatsos and repressing the labouring, but  sparing some thought towards those who produce wealth for the nation.

  It is also noteworthy that the President of the party to which the Prime Minister belongs seems far more attuned to the Indian zeitgeist than the government he runs.  Something for the government to think about before it is too late.

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