In an earlier article, ‘Rights and the economy’ published in these pages on August 4, 2019, we presented one side of the debate that argued that despite contradictions, economic growth requires investment in human development (particularly education and health) and improved skills development for labour, so there may be some complementarities between the rights-based approach to development and economy-oriented perspectives.
Today, in this article, we focus on the contradictions between the two approaches, or widen the debate to bring in the power relations that often underline economic relations.
It was of course Marx who comprehensively analysed the role of coercion and power relations in the genesis of capitalism. He writes in Capital Vol 1, “Colonial system, public debts, heavy taxes, protection, commercial wars, &c, these children of the true manufacturing period, increase gigantically during the infancy of Modern Industry.” Academic followers of the political economy approach have kept the tradition alive. Some leading political economy research on India has underscored the importance of caste, location, gender, and some such other variables in organizing the process of accumulation of capital in modern times.
The bottom line is that, as per one set of literature, the process of capitalist production and reproduction does not follow the neatly compartmentalized categories of the supremacy of rule of law and impersonalized governance, as often assumed. Rather it works, as per another set of research, through the existing societal constructs of caste, ethnicity, gender, and others to advance its purpose. As I have written elsewhere as well, Arundhati Roy in her interview in Boston Review back in January 2019 has called out the big capital in India that reinforces itself, undermines genuine democracy, and weakens resistance by using racism, sexism, and caste-ism.
The erstwhile liberal values and order have bred the present avalanche of authoritarianism in many places of the world, according to another Indian thinker Pankaj Mishra. Inequality and exploitation of labour are the necessary prerequisites for capitalist production. However, as capitalism matures and wages increase gradually, the standard of living of the labour does improve, at least to a limited degree, and the theatre of production shifts elsewhere in search of cheap labour.
This has been played out in terms of industrial production shifting to South East Asia and China from the more developed economies some decades ago, and lately again shifting to countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam from China in the recent past, as wages comparatively rise in China.
There has also been rise and consolidation to what has been called in literature as ‘illiberal democracies’ around the world. Narrow-minded politics is being built on calling attention of voters and constituents to primordial identities. Identity politics can be a lever of both organizing resistance against tyranny, as well as spreading bigotry in the name of caste, race, ethnicity, and others.
Unbridled promotion of capitalism did not redistribute the gains of the liberal capitalist order to the majority of people, and it has led to discontent, as argued by Mishra. States in the capitalist and peripheral capitalist states also failed to effectively regulate the private sector and did not to a large extent protect the public interest, particularly of the poor and less well-to-do classes.
The economic growth under capitalism is invariably based on the exploitation of labour, natural resources, and other public goods. So rights are trampled upon while pursuing economic growth under capitalism, at least with a higher magnitude in its initial phase. However, once a country has achieved a certain level of socioeconomic growth, wages do increase in comparative terms.
At the same time, to achieve a certain level of economic growth, there is need to invest in education, health and skills development, amongst others, as argued in an earlier above-mentioned piece. It is the chicken and egg causality issue: do human development and rights take preference first or economic growth?
Since rights are ‘inalienable’ and form the bedrock of the state’s legal relationship with the citizens, they should be ensured under all circumstances. In the process of capitalist economic growth, various vested interests benefit disproportionately more than the common citizens.
There is a need for public representatives in a modern state to watch out for the interests of the citizens against cartels, paid lobbies, and special interest groups; and make sure that the fruits of economic growth (which itself is invariably based on exploitation) are dispersed widely to the majority of the population.
The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist.