Why Socialism: South Asian Context – OpEd
By Ambassador Kazi Anwarul Masud
In May 1949 Albert Einstein wrote an article titled WHY SOCIALISM? It gave indeed an insight into the philosophy of life of one the greatest human beings of the 20th century. At the end of the article Einstein declares: “I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society”.
The “evils” to Einstein is the monopolization of productive forces by a few oligopolists who have lost “inner equilibrium” who are at the same time a solitary being and also a social being craving for the love and recognition of other human beings in society. “ The individual” writes Einstein “is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society—in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence—that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society”.
Yet some in the society constitute a huge community of producers who are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules which are, even today, controlled by the elites who either directly or indirectly contribute to the framing of the rules. We have to remember that Albert Einstein in the thirties of the last century abhorred the wage given to the workers who had nothing to sell but themselves not determined by the real value of the goods he produced but by his needs and the employers bargaining power with the hordes of unemployed people willing to do the job at the minimum wage the employer agreed to pay. In Einstein’s words: the enormous power of the oligarchy is because “the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population”.
How 1949 Einstein’s world is any different from ours when he describes “Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers’ goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions”.
A decade earlier Bertrand Russell In praise of idleness and other essays (1935), a self-proclaimed socialist, did not regard “Socialism as a gospel of proletarian revenge, nor even, primarily, as a means of securing economic justice. I regard it primarily as an adjustment to machine production demanded by considerations of common sense, and calculated to increase the happiness, not only of proletarians, but of all except a tiny minority of the human race”. While Bertrand Russell in defining socialism wanted economic power- as a minimum, land and minerals, capital, banking, credit and foreign trade-but political power should be democratic. Russell argued that since without popular consent production would only enrich the State and not the people their consent in a democratic manner was essential. Though it is taken for granted that exercise of voting is an integral part of British life as most recently demonstrated by Brexit which has put the European Union into a very difficult negotiation process with Britain. This contest between the EU and United Kingdom is not a battle of ideologies but one of getting the best deal for their citizens.
The world has got so used to democracy that we have forgotten that economic development is not necessarily dictated by democracy. China is an example, already the second largest economy in the world, aiming to best the US in the coming decades. Chinese economic development would get comfort from Hobbes’ (1558-1679) that democracy is inferior to monarchy and that neither the people nor the politicians are well equipped to chart out the best legislation for the benefit of the people. “Many public choice theorists in contemporary economic thought expand on these Hobbesian criticisms. They argue that citizens are not informed about politics and that they are often apathetic, which makes room for special interests to control the behavior of politicians and use the state for their own limited purposes all the while spreading the costs to everyone else. Some of them argue for giving over near complete control over society to the market, on the grounds that more extensive democracy tends to produce serious economic inefficiencies”( Stanford Encyclopedia on democracy).
In the Indian sub-continent socialism came hand in hand with the independence movement from the British rule. Mahatma Gandhi called himself a socialist so long it was practised with non-violence. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister also believed in socialism. But educated as he was in England his brand of socialism was more akin to the Fabian Socialism “to promote greater equality of power, wealth and opportunity; the value of collective action and public service; an accountable, tolerant and active democracy; citizenship, liberty and human rights; sustainable development; and multilateral international cooperation” (Wikipedia). He detested Nazism and Fascism because they believed in brutality and violence and caused the Second World War. Whether Nehruvian socialism was a success story is a different issue. In fact till Dr. Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister in 1991 and then as Prime Minister for ten years propelled India to 8.5% economic growth. This fast economic growth perhaps led President George Bush to offer India a seat in the nuclear club, ending nuclear apartheid and also persuaded Barrack Obama to promise US support to India for a UN Security Council seat.
Today Indian economy is booming, though demonetization (refuted by the government) might have slowed the pace of development. GDP (purchasing power parity) is estimated to be $8.7 trillion in 2016; growth rate is 7.6%; per capita income is $ 6700(PPP)-in GDP composition services sector leads followed by industries and agriculture. Irfan Habib, Professor Emeritus of Aligarh Muslim University in a lecture states: “It must be recognised that India is now a full-blooded capitalist country. The urban population now nearly equals, and by the Census of 2021 would probably exceed, the rural population. Peasants produce only about a sixth of gross domestic product, and much of peasant agriculture is influenced by capitalist relations, as in many areas ploughs and scythes have been replaced by tractors and harvesters employed on hire. The key industrial and communications sectors are dominated by great semi-monopolistic firms with deep links to international finance capital” ( Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust Lecture on August 22 2017).
The basic premise with which this article started with was the growth model that countries like Bangladesh should follow to achieve middle income country status by 2021. Is the mixed economy model now being followed will take us there or the capital intensive policy that will inevitably lead to concentration of wealth in few hands and increase inequality if demographic dividend cannot be utilised by producing a techsavy workers capable to handle the demands of the foreign investors? The assumption is that the future world will be technology based making a large portion of humanity redundant bringing about a refined scenario of Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The world does not have to be Planet of the Apes. China, Japan and South Korea have demonstrated that rapid industrialisation and export oriented policies coupled with technological development can bring about “convergence” phenomenon—a tendency for less developed countries to catch up with developed economies because rich countries have faster diminishing returns than the less developed ones. India too is a shining example.
In conclusion we should target to achieve sustainable development goals, prevent extreme concentration of wealth in too few hands, and ensure that benefits of development is fairly distributed among all the people so socialism does not become a question or an answer.
Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Ambassador and Secretary of Bangladesh.