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Beyond Resistance And Cooption

By C.R Bijoy

02 January, 2009

Resisting privatization and promoting a people’s agenda for reclaiming and controlling public services in this era of neo-liberal globalization cannot be achieved under the neo-liberal frame!

Public services are services that governments provide to its citizens for social and political reasons, either directly through the public sector or by financing private provision of services subject to regulation beyond those applied to economic sectors. These are based on a social consensus, usually expressed through democratic elections, that certain services should be available to all, regardless of income, social status and geographical location. They are provided, directly and indirectly, by a government to its citizens, such as public utility that maintains the infrastructure for a public service subject to various forms of public control and regulation ranging from state-wide government monopolies to governmental departments and agencies, local governing bodies and local community-based groups.

These public services are ‘public goods’. They include water, energy, essential supplies, environment and sanitation, health, education, transportation, infrastructure, information and knowledge. These public goods are a part of the ‘institutional commons’ which in turn is a part of the ‘commons’ that also consists of the ‘biodiversity’ or ‘genetic’ commons, ‘physical or environmental commons’ and the ‘knowledge commons’. The commons are the fundamental basis for existence of communities - their public space, their culture sphere, and their heritage - for society to function harmoniously. These commons are inherited from the past generations and are to be held in trust for future generations with the state as a trustee providing sustenance, security and independence. This requires the peoples to operate on a collective rather than an individual basis.

Neo-liberal globalization seeks to enclose these commons – to commodify them – with fences and borders as private property to be policed and protected. It invades the commons, appropriating them and transferring them from communally managed resources to the ‘market’. The commodification into privatized properties of the global commons is a recurring theme of neo-liberal globalization. It creates, perpetuates and intensifies disputes, resistance and consequent violence. The state takes on the role of an instrument of capital and market, to contain and repress peoples’ resistance.

It is not the ‘tragedy of the commons’ that we are told of, but the ‘tragedy of enclosure’ that are at the roots of scarcity, deprivation and unrest. Neoliberalism empowers transnational corporations, weakens governments and relegates citizens to being servile consumers.

The Changing Contours of Neo-liberal Globalization

Popularly ‘globalization’ is a notion of increasing market extension, an apparently all-encompassing 'condition' in which market rules and competitive logics predominate. At the same time, politically the nation-state recedes into irrelevance. The political project of neoliberalism visualizes not only a free-market utopia, but downsizes nation-states and enlarges the space for private accumulation and market forces. Globalization and neoliberalism are often entwined. Both emphasize the need for corporations, governments and social actors to adjust to the new 'realities' of global competitions; both visualize the role of markets as apolitical, largely compassionate and integrating forces; both depict governmental bureaucracies and social collectivities as obstacles to economic progress; and both actively foresee and engineer a global process of upward convergence to establish a new 'era'. Neoliberalism invokes globalization with unstoppable market hegemony advancing the case of government sell-offs and privatization, fiscal austerity, financial and labour market deregulation, trade liberalization, welfare cutbacks and so on.

The economic tale of globalization and the political script of neoliberalism are both simple - of limitless markets and competitive freedom in clean fanatical terms of unmediated market hegemony, cultural homogenization and institutional convergence with the single most best way in corporate governance. They explicitly depict countervailing interests or oppositions as unrealistic and outmoded. The results of globalization are politically negotiated and mediated. Neoliberalism is also differentiated. Its discourse, produced in the ideological centres such as the US and UK, are constantly extended and mediated in other parts of the world. They are also contested and challenged through resistance. The contours of neoliberalism too are constantly redefined.

The Washington Consensus, clearly reflecting the geo-economic interests of the global north, has been forged, modified and redesigned in a wide variety of contexts - from the structural adjustment programmes in developing countries, to the Asian financial crisis and the shock treatment strategy in Chile. The elements of neo-liberalization are cleverly crafted onto quite distinctive state structures with the use of state power to restructure the political economy, intensifying neoliberal impulse resulting in unevenness in its development.

Neoliberal projects have varied in their concrete shapes across time and space - from the ‘proto-neoliberalism’ of ideological formulation in the pre-1980s, to the 'roll-back neoliberalism' of deregulation and dismantling of Keynesian-welfarism in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the current 'roll-out neoliberalism' of active institution building such as regulatory bodies for under-regulated markets besides authoritarian governance.

During these three phases of its transformation, the dominant discourse has moved from state failure to deregulation and decentralized governance and to paternal authoritarian state, rights-based participatory development and free economy. The modes of political rationality shifted from ideological critique to ideological projects to that of technocratic management. The sources of resistance moved away from Keynesian orthodoxy of welfarist state and socialism, to organized labour and sectoral mobilization and to cyber-activism. The dominant intellectual frontier shifted from monetarist economics to supply-side economics and now to bourgeois sociology. The principal agents who were theorists and philosophers gave way to politicians and now to policy functionaries and technocrats. The service delivery was subject to spending cuts followed by privatization and now to marketization. The phase of fiscal crisis was met with systemic indebtedness and now we are in the phase of debt repayment. The intellectual approach moved away from confrontation to conciliation and now to cooptation.

The Ideological Cooption of Resistance

Key economic decisions are no longer the subject of democratically accountable politicians, but left to the operational independence of financial institutions embedded in international laws as that of WTO rather than national laws. Bourgeois democracy and its political system are unfolding into a tragic farce and deception. The ‘roll-out neoliberalism’ seeks to transfer social relations from the public spheres that are subject to public governance to the power of capital expressed through market discipline. It also introduced participatory approach and engagement with poverty agendas, arguing that, along with these, freer trade and market liberalization represents tools for development of poor countries. Political appointees were replaced by technophiles. The roll-out neoliberalism has also created a complex inter and extra-local policy networks, national and international institutional circuits, and political structures to reorganize institutional and state structures.

The social and economic upheaval of the earlier phase and government failures were also attempted to be mitigated by ongoing marketization and the promotion of public-private partnership where the public sector is to absorb the political-economic risk, while the private sector absorbs the profits. Where there are no ready profits such as welfare, education, water and sanitation, the public-public partnership is promoted to absorb the political-economic risk.

The underside of high-growth economy is tragical. A few weeks ago International Food Policy Research Institute of the US released the State Hunger Index. India ranked 66th out of 88 developing countries in the Global Hunger Index with countries like Rwanda, Malawi, Nepal and Pakistan ahead of India. Even countries whose per capita GDP is 2.5 times less in comparison to India such as Cameroon, Nigeria, Sudan and Kenya are better off on this index. The US business magazine, Business Week (1 July, 2008), which resolutely advocates globalization and deregulation categorically rejected India’s economic trajectory saying ‘India is becoming a dangerous social cauldron’. It forecasts a ‘serious meltdown scenario that may end up in India reverting to 1991 status’. At the same time, the wealth of India’s 35 billionaire families exceeds that of 800 million poor peasants, landless rural workers and urban slum-dwellers. The Economic Survey 2007-08 shows that per capita food-grain availability has dropped substantially since 1991.

The Great Crash

The global march of neo-liberal globalization and the high-growth trajectory predictably hit the wall no sooner than it took off impressively. The US economy went into a tail spin beginning with the sub-prime blow out that is cascading into a systemic financial melt down, much worse than the 1929 Great Depression, not withstanding the $1 trillion total bailout package offered to the culprits, the private financial markets. The collapse is pulling down with it the edifice of the globalized financial system including that of the so-called 'center-left' new 'revolutionary regimes' of 'post-neoliberal' democracies of Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia and Nicaragua. The Chinese government is coughing up vast amount of money to workers in compensation for unpaid back wages with a wave of closures in industrial centers to stave off political outburst of its teeming workers thrown out onto the streets besides a $570 billion stimulus package. Governments after governments are rolling out unprecedented huge bailout packages desperately to plug the burst hoping to contain it into a recession rather than a devastating tsunami.

Trade surpluses evaporate into thin air, reserves dry up, fiscal deficit skyrocket and revenues decline. The government will now resort to cutbacks, firing of public employees, wage reductions and large-scale reductions in public investments. The assault on the commons and its public goods and public services will intensify. Social resistance and anger will spill over and the state, with its burgeoning security machinery in the name of combating global terror, will turn on the spreading resistance to crush it most repressively.

Retracing Steps and Moving Forward

Under neo-liberal dispensation, the space of resistance moved away from the ideological arena to issue-based and sectoral mobilization; and further to creative engagement and participation; campaign, advocacy and lobby mode; and anti-globalization and anti-privatization rhetoric. What is striking is that the apolitical approach to resistance increasingly got co-opted, enclosed and confined to event management exercises within the progressively marginalized democratic space, rather than taking on to revolutionary transformatory politics.

More than ever before, reclaiming public services mean finding ways to recover the commons and its governance, and the state from the clutches of capital. It also means the recovery of social movements from neo-liberal ideologies of cooption to which they have slipped into. The alliance between various concrete existing social movements for ending exploitation - caste, gender, racial, class and any social group as a community - is not possible as long as they do not forge themselves into a struggle of revolutionary peoples. But concrete movements may not envisage the alliance for a struggle as revolutionary people as long as they remain confined within their ‘enclosures’ and not break away into a cohesive coming together for the creation of the new society as human beings. They cannot forge ahead if they do not recover once again the ideology of revolutionary transformation.


[A modified version of the key note address at “Resist Privatization, Reclaim Public Services’, Asia-Pacific Research Network Annual Conference, November 24-28, 2008, Bangalore, India]

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