Two leaves and a bud
by Kumar David-May 7, 2017, 10:56 am
As you read these lines the French are voting on the run-off for the Presidency between two neo-populists, the more right wing Marine Le Pen and the upstart centrist Emmanuel Macron. The two parties that dominated French politics since the war, Republican Francois Fillon and outgoing President Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party candidate Benoit Haman did not even reach the final; both were eliminated in round one. Fillion, Prime Minister under President Sarkosy from 20007 to 2012, was third in round one with 20% and Haman suffered the indignity of not being placed fourth; he was fifth with a mere 6.5%. As a reminder, Macron and Le Pen polled 24% and 22%, respectively, in the first round. I am not taking a risk in declaring that Macron will win because everyone else is ganging up against Le Pen who is anti-EU, ultra nationalist and too far to the right.
Still, the global neo-populist surge has been stunning – Modi, Duterte, Brexit and Trump. Its class, mass and socio-economic roots need book length treatment. The underlying factor – the destiny of global capitalism – requires more attention than many admittedly excellent studies have provided so far. Though hardly suitable for newspaper treatment I too have pontificated some half a dozen times in this column. An analogy to the populist mass, borrowed from the natural world, is a murmuring of starlings in northern summer skies. Thousands spin and turn, dart and manoeuvre with amazing agility, as though the whole flock is a single robotically steered organism. Trump’s base is a murmur of dim-witted starlings in partisan sync. After 100 days, when every other section of society including the Republican top brass is pissed off, his zealots continue to expresses 96% support. Analogies to herds and birds is well and good as analogy, but what we need is community and workplace based empirical data, investigation and analysis. A new social process is unfolding via twenty-first century populism.
We also need new analytical tools. Technology and social media have given a new edge to class, state and socio-economic factors. Unfortunately the old left and the old-new-left (sic!) are both out of depth in making any sense of the twenty-first century. ‘Old-left’, or ‘Marxist fossil’, was used for died in the wool Stalinists and for golden oldies who intoned rote-learned formulae: ‘interpenetration of opposites’ (no lewd connotation) or ‘Marx-Engels-Lenin, then add Trotsky or Mao depending on party affiliation’. Exasperated with folks like these Marx in his day declared “I am no Marxist”.
An intellectually shipwrecked breed, a stressed out new-left unable to fathom neo-populism, has surfaced. For it Modi, Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Le Pen, Nigel Farange, the whole undifferentiated bundle is fascist. Pudding heads know not fascism nor have an inkling of unfolding processes. I am not making this up, believe me I received an e-mail from an Indian “Trotskyite” saying, in all theoretical seriousness; “Modi is a Hitler”. Sure one dislikes Modi’s Hindu extremism but this sort of pseudo-Marxist muddling is a symptom of a skull with much vacuous space between the ears.
I will make an effort in this essay to deal with a factor underling the upsurge of neo-populism in the last decade. The most widely written about is anti-immigrant anger in host countries aggravated by terrorism, cultural-racial-religious prejudice, decline in income and employment opportunities usually (but sometimes incorrectly) attributed to immigrants, and a desire of communities to live as they have for centuries. This has been extensively discussed and I need say no more here. A second cause and my pet topic is the generalised decline of global capitalism such as the classic falling rate of profit thesis, collapse of manufacturing in the UK and USA, finance capital and speculation, competition from Asia and Mexico and of course the yawning wealth gap. Again I intend to say no more in this essay than these summary sentences.
The third not so often discussed driver of the social imbroglio in the West, and as crucial to understanding the explosion of neo-populism in recent decades as the decline of capitalism per se, is technology and the transformation of the global economy. This is what I am going to take up in the next few paragraphs.
Determinate objective conditions
An occupational hazard of being a Marxist is the urge to look for underlying material changes and technical factors (forces of production) and to analyse international and social factors (relations of production) as drivers of history. “Men make their own history but not as they please, but under existing circumstances already given and transmitted from the past”; you know the quote. The neo-populist surge in the second decade of the twenty-first century, mainly in the West but also in India and the Philippines, surely qualifies as historically significant. Let’s see what technology has done to some folks in the USA.
Rana Foroohar in the Financial Times of 23 April (Silicon Valley Superstars Risk a Populist Backlash) makes a point. The populist revolt is an unconscious reaction to the consequences of the spread of modern technology and it is hitting like a sledgehammer. Let me quote – much edited for length.
“In 1981, economist Sherwin Rosen argued that technological disruptions gave disproportionate power to a few players. He argued that the rise of superstars would be bad for (old industry). A spate of new US research shows that it is not trade or rapacious bankers but technology that is the primary economic driver of the most important political trend of our time — populism”.
“Technological shifts have been dominant in changing labour’s share of the economy. Labour’s share of the pie is at its lowest point in half a century, but (high-tech) is enjoying a superstar effect. Research shows that 10 per cent of companies account for 80 per cent of profits, and the top quintile earns 90 per cent. What is more, those top companies are no longer capital-intensive industrial groups but tech businesses rich in intellectual property. Their platforms have delivered powerful new goods and services to consumers at lower prices, but have not made up for the decline in the workforce share of rewards”.
“What is fascinating is that (technology) has escaped the populist anger that Wall Street or cheap Chinese labour has attracted because its job-disrupting effects are harder to see. Of 6m manufacturing jobs lost in the US between 1999 and 2011, only 10 per cent can be directly traced to Chinese imports — losses concentrated in just a few rust belt communities. The more subtle, dispersed nature of the changes driven by technology makes it a less obvious target for voter rage”.
The moral of the story is clear. The traditional working class in advanced countries is doomed. While America, Scandinavia, New Zealand and a few others fight back with retraining and by extending IT competence and technology to the small business sector, on the whole the shift of economic power to East and South Asia is driven by unstoppable technology promotion and youthful demography*, as much as by lower wages. The story is different country by country – think Japan, Australia and Africa to get a taste of the diversity – hence I see the need for many book length studies. [*For an excellent interactive map of all countries by median age go to: http://world.bymap.org/MedianAge.html%5D
And in time our working class in Lanka will suffer the same impact. Do you remember the kathuru-muwath karaya trudging down the lane, do you recall our lovable old veralu amme at the school gate? How sad the passage of time. But as the old Moor declared in the 1972 Preface to the French Edition: “There is no royal road to science; only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths can gain its luminous summits”. We must face reality since time can’t be reversed.
The working class in traditional establishments such as the harbour, industries and the garment girls will be marginalised by technical advancements in the next decade. I am not confident of progress unless ECTA and investment zones with the likes if China bloom. For that extremist nationalism and the Joint Opposition will have to be crushed first. I am also doubtful if an urban railway will ever see the light of day in Colombo, but if it does it will discipline private bus driver maniacs and decimate three-wheeler operators – good riddance. However, I cannot see technology sweeping away the big brigades of Lanka’s working class as it is hard to imagine a mechanical device to pluck the choicest of two leaves and a bud.