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One of the most fashionable terms in rightwing economics is the word ‘reform.’
Listen to any corporate voice on primetime television and the word is thrown at us like a mantra. We are shamed into believing that whoever contests the term is both a boor and an enemy of ‘progress.’
But, we may nonetheless give ourselves the right to consider and question how and why this word should have come to have just one, monologic reference, namely, to reorient economic policy to suit the ‘free market,’ when its semantics simply connote the idea of change.
The Age of Reform
As ‘free-market’ capitalism seeks uncontestedly to appropriate the meaning and content of the notion of ‘reform’ it is instructive to take a peek into the early history of industrial capitalism, if you like, the ‘factory age,’ in Victorian England, cited in economic and social history as ‘the age of Reform.’
And what we find there are parliamentary and extra-parliamentary endeavours not to intensify the crude indifference of Capital to the lives of the populace but to orient government policies and laws to curtail the excesses of government and ameliorate the lived conditions of swathes of oppressed and exploited sections of the people.
Thus in the first half of the 19th century, a litany of transformations were made by the state in England to protect common labouring people, working women, children in factories and mines from the rampant ravages effected by the new economic model of capitalism.
One after the other, impelled by pressure within parliament, the writings of progressive social and economic thinkers, and of social movements in town and city, the British parliament was to ‘reform’ policies to lessen and humanise the callous burdens heaped on dispossessed millions by the new lust for profit-making. Bills came to be passed to rationalise working hours in factories, to protect children doomed to work in chimneys, mines, housemaids and seamstresses in sweatshops in conditions of slavery, to provide avenues of redress in the matter of ill health, and finally, to pass the landmark Education Act of 1870.
One only has to read the work of such English writers as Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Gaskell, and the reports from ground zero of such pioneering journalists as Mayhew and Chadwick, not to speak of the literature produced by the Chartists to understand how the ‘condition of England’ (to use Carlyle’s redolent phrase) came to be, as ‘reform’ both by the state and humanist intellectuals became the chief concern of government policy.
Most instructively, ‘reform’ came to impinge on the expansion of democratic rights, both of franchise and institutional morality, leading to the passing of three monumental ‘Reform Bills’, in 1832, 1867, 1884 that strenuously laid the foundations of British democracy as we know it. Not to forget how the momentum of those century-long ‘reforms also led to the successful conclusion of the suffragette revolution that finally gave the English woman the right to vote in 1928.
Clearly, ‘reform’ bore a connotation quite the opposite of what we are told everyday ‘reform’ must mean.
Only as capital began to grow and centralise into a force that began to covet full control over the operations of the state did the impugned word come to be interpreted as an activity calculated to negate the role of the state in the matter of its will or capacity to cater first to the livelihood concerns of the broad mass of people in favour of swelling the political and economic clout of private money-making.
In an epochal twist of phrase, all that tended to aid the downtrodden came to be dubbed not ‘reform’ but ‘ideology,’ and all that tended to fatten the fat became ‘national endeavour.’ Exactly as in our time, culturally, thinking for the betterment of the minorities constitutes ‘appeasement‘ but catering to the majority comprises ‘nationalism.’
To return to the argument, democracy was sought to be made a phenomenon wherein the legitimacy of governments was drawn from popular vote, but the fruits of governance passed on to a handful who rarely bothered to exercise franchise.
Little wonder that throughout the 19th century the ‘elite’ (a term first coined by the economist Parreto) had fought tooth and nail to restrict the right to vote to as few people as could be. Exactly as in the democratic history of the United States of America the reformist provisions of the constitution have constantly been sought to be nullified by organised ‘voter suppression.’
Reforming India’s agriculture
As India’s farmers strike a new monumental blow to resist the operation of the ‘Reform’ Bills passed by parliament without consultation and without a vote, it is not as though they do not seek ‘reform.’
It is simply the case that their view of ‘reform’ does not tally with the definition sought to be put upon the term by a government patently working in the interests of crony capitalists who seek now to appropriate the right to plough the farming sector into commercial profit-making.
Of course Indian farmers wish for ‘reform’ such as would truly improve and enhance the fruitfulness of their intrepid labour. They may be excused for asking the question as to how it has transpired that their share of the GDP should have come down from some 50% to a measly 15%, even as some 60% of the population continue to comprise the farming community, remaining still the biggest employment provider of the republic.
Thus how is it that adopting the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission which stipulated that farmers be compensated for the cost of production including family labour (C-2) and be assured a return of 50% over and above is not thought to constitute ‘reform’? Instead, how is it that ‘reform’ only means throwing the food-grower open to the cut-throat vagaries of a so-called ‘free-market’ always in the clutches of the corporate?
Just a thought: has there been a greater ‘reform’ in modern Indian history than the adoption of the Constitution in 1949 – that gave to us universal adult franchise, the right to own the land we till, and sundry fundamental rights to protect the citizen from the excesses of the state? Were not the passing of the Right to Information, Right to Education, Right to Work ‘reforms’ beneficial to the idea of an equitous and democratic republic? Can it be the grouse of the wealthy 1% that the other 99 have been fatally damaging their prosperity?
The current contention thus bears squarely on the ownership not just of goods and assets but of definitions and vocabulary. Remarkably, this once, the most ordinary of farmers is now sentient to the trickery sought to be played on him in the name of ‘reform,’ and that knowledge lends to the ongoing farmer’s resistance a strength and intellectual force not seen before.
Indeed, it may be in order to say that this is a contention that interrogates the nature and content of the state itself, and that raises historic questions as to the career of Indian democracy per se.
These questions go to the phenomenon of the hollowing out of democratic decision-making within state institutions, and to the relegation of the voter to a mere loyal and passive receiver of autocratic governance that seems to see its best interest in paying lip-service to the claims of the electorate that provides it the legitimacy to be in power while working to benefit the 1% who own some 70% of the nation’s wealth.
This is truly a potentially watershed moment; it may either harden the Bonapartist state into further democratic regression, or, may we hope, bring home to it the need to rethink its relation with the mass of oppressed Indians.