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Hegemony Overthrow or Political Power Seizure?
What Comes First?

By Trevor Selvam

23 November, 2010

In India, the presence of the world’s largest middle class---noisily chatting to itself in garish malls, insulated totally from rural India, (except to drive by rural villages on to their “country homes”), making billions of rupees in speculative deals and brain ware sales-- raises some important questions regarding the path towards revolutionary transformation in this country.

“Fighting high level corruption” has become a raucous preoccupation in the mainstream Indian media. Middle class Indians contend that “if you get rid of corruption everything will be OK, because we are a democracy. We have the tools. ” This is a fantasy. What is not understood is that Indian corruption is not simply crony capitalism. It is actually evolved from crony feudalism. Fighting corruption requires acting against the entire superstructure that upholds the public consensus about Indian culture. Corruption is enshrined in Indian mythology, culture and belief systems and no amount of “liberalization” will get rid of it. Caste, creed, servant-ism, gopherism, chamchas, runners, dalals, assistants, juniors etc are embedded in the Indian hierarchical mindset.

What comes first?

Who is a friend and who is an enemy of revolutionary transformation has been at the fulcrum of any analysis of societies. But, what is more important as well is a discussion on what comes first during the process of change. Is it political power seizure first by political (or other means) or is it by first overthrowing the cultural superstructure and the hegemony of consent by which the state exercises its control? Or is a combination of both, to be acted upon simultaneously? Can manufactured consensus be overthrown?

Will India’s post liberalization new middle class, be friends of social change, will they stand in its path or will they effectively shield the big bourgeoisie and disorient the path of progress by erecting a wailing wall of “liberalist” needs, demands, and false consumerist outcries? These are issues that need serious review by those who are building theories of class alliances.

Contrary to what Barack Hussein Obama proclaims quite self-servingly, the new Indian middle class could be a boon for his country, but a disaster for this nation. Driven by a commodity-crazy, ape-the-west, get-ahead-at-any-cost culture —these mall-rats are a phenomenon that require one to re-visit some classical theories on sociological and political transformation and the theories of alignment of classes for a democratic revolution. India is in dire need of a democratic changeover-not the one offered by elections, parliaments, panchayats, block development councils or the judiciary. India needs a fundamental change of values, where a culture is created that respects the right to one’s space, one’s dignity, one’s civil liberties, one’s sanity, a sense of respect and equity towards others--- devoid of caste, creed or color prejudices.

Does size matter?

Yes, it does. This rising new middle class can call the shots, because they are a shrill 300 million who occupy the upper rarified layers of high rises while below them lie squalor-bound putrefying trench towns. In no other country is there such a large conglomeration who do not work in hard core industry, do not work the fields, but yet they consume, they eat, they devour and they change the agricultural landscape to their liking because they have stopped eating roti and dal and instead have discovered muesli by Kellogs. Their purchasing power parity (PPP) is larger than the entire populations of the US and Canada put together. They have clout and demand, worldwide.

Who really foisted them on the 830 million other Indian people who live on an average of Rs 20 per day? Who had the grand plan to expand this huge mindless, but driven, new middle class to energize cash flow in the Indian economy and thus trickle up the margins, rather than trickle down the wealth ( as the older middle classes were led to believe)? Someone, somewhere played a master stroke when they introduced the idea of “liberalization.” Ostensibly meant to ease up controls, ease up business processes, clear out middle men and tariffs it was essentially to open up India to becoming a service based economy and thus bring in billions of dollars of foreign exchange which in turn allowed for money and goods to circulate strictly in a middle class-bound economy. Wealth has neither trickled down, nor has India created significant manufacturing jobs in this much ballyhooed “hot” economy. Even by the government’s own admission, the absolute population of the poor has only increased since 1990. India’s rank in the Human Development Index has slumped to sub-Saharan Africa levels and five thousand Indian babies are dying every day before they are two months old due to malnutrition. A study just released today (November 18th, 2010) reveals that 40% of India’s GDP has been lost to black money since 1948. Surely this figures somewhere in the head of Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and others when they nod their heads in unison with Barack Hussein Obama at their regal gatherings. Surely there is some uneasiness in the head of the crown prince Rahul, when he goes to sleep every night?

Buffer or buffoons?

Is the new middle class slyly used as a buffer, by the handful of the absolutely rich and few (30 Indian family groups contribute to 1/3 of India’s GDP growth) to distract the nation, while it continues its high level corporatization of the Indian state and economy? Notice how suddenly and characteristically, the pudgy Mr. Ratan Tata came up with “experiences of his own” regarding a Minister’s request for bribes, when he wanted to form an Airline. Fueling the fire and undermining the State, in their own subtle ways, such “noble” charlatans step in, so that the Arnabs and the Barkhas can further continue their Glen Beck-style harangue of the same 300 million living in the high rises and new bungalow row houses, who are dying for political hysteria dished out as prime time entertainment. Here is the same Tata who actively organized the sponsorship of the illegal Selwa Judum and other thug para-military forces to sway the vote for grabbing land for their mineral extraction projects. And smugly now, he talks about his experiences with Indian corruption! Well, what did he do when he was asked for the 17 crore bribe? He stayed silent and walked away. Why is he opening up now? Because he wants to undermine the “public” surreptitiously and up the “private.” Public does not work. Private does. This has been their game plan, mantra and song from 1948. Only today, they have the new middle class as their ally to sing in harmony with them.

When one after the other all the recent corruptions scams broke out, including illegal uncompensated India-wide land grabs, Army Chiefs digging themselves into trenches of graft, widespread illegal mining, monumental scams at the Commonwealth Games and finally the biggest scam in the entire history of financial scams-the 2G Spectrum doling out of Ministerial favors to hastily formed companies, who in turn sold their shares to foreign entities---what exactly were we looking at? It seems like mass hysteria for the new middle class to revel in, with the new media orchestrating an orgasmic scream-fest denouncing all the fat cat politicians, the ugly hucksters of the past who hold on to their positions of authority with unintelligent, defensive and bureaucratic responses…dodgy one day, made to resign the next day. Who really is coming out looking good? Not civic society. Not the public services. Not the old middle class. But the handful of controlling business houses and their new middle class allies, the post “liberalization” mall-rats, while the clumsies from the pre-90s, look like they are in an overcrowded sinking trawler.

Base or Superstructure?

In the views held by Antonio Gramsci's any class that wishes to dominate in modern conditions has to move beyond its own narrow ‘economic-corporate’ interests, to exert intellectual and moral leadership, and to make alliances and compromises with a variety of forces. The hegemony of the dominant class can only be maintained through a nexus of institutions, social relations and ideas. In India this nexus is being now well developed by this concerted outcry about corruption and this streaking admiration for “growth.” There is this dichotomy being made ---Old India/New India. As if corruption belongs to the old India.

Characteristically, the new monster love-children of India’s big bourgeoisie, the grey buffer zone, the wailing wall in-between, the air-bags that prevent class collision, have been foisted on India, so that these thirty conglomerates that run India, can quietly walk away with the loot (or squander it) while a mass culture of “growth”, India shining, nano-ingenuity, “infrastructure mantra repeat-itis”, “anti-corruption hysteria” is passed off as the new resurgent India, where democracy is triumphant, where Pakistan is a medieval serpent in our backyard, China is a dragon that wants to devour us, Kashmiris are ungrateful bastards and India’s institutions like parliament, judiciary, bureaucracy and the armed forces are such rock solid institutions that even Empire zealots like Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy must come and visit and pay their dues, all in one year. The story of the garrulous 300 million is the story of India shining.

The Old Hegemony and the New Hegemony of Cultural Control

India started in the year 1990. Nothing existed before that. Or as Barack Hussein Obama may have been spoon-feeding them lately, it was all that “Licence Raj” era, which was the second midnight that we came out of.

It is often necessary to re-analyze small incidents from one’s childhood and past and review the terminology and the culture associated with these incidents to arrive at where we are at now, in terms of the compounded mental make-up of this country. Note the word mental make-up. It is in the final sense the agglomerated mind set of three hundred million or so people, coming from several hundred million households, with flat screen TVs, washing machines, two car garages, latest i-7core laptops, IT techie sons and daughters with back packs and bikes, who swear by pasta, pizza and Haldiram ka halwa, watch Barkha Dutt and Arnab Goswami define and determine the “pulse” of the nation and who have never heard of VK Krishna Menon, JP Narain, Hiren Mukherjee, SA Dange or Charu Majumdar or non-alignment and Bandung, never mind Patrice Lumumba, Leila Khaled or lets say Jangal Santhal or Danny Cohn-Bendit. Why should they even care?

Some have called it superstructure, cultural hegemony, national attribute, leadership by cultural consensus and even civic society norms. On a more down to earth basis, it is the words of wisdom that you were brought up with by your teachers and your superiors, the code words used about caste, religion and hierarchical relationships, about social aspirations and social ladder climbing, including lurid explanations justifying that Indian wonder job space--- servant-ism or butler-ism; whereby from servants, peons, orderlies, underlings, durwans, door-openers, gophers, secretaries, runners and all the way up to Joint Managers, Assistant Joint Vice-Presidents or Deputy General Managers you were convinced about believing in a stratified system of petty bosses and restricted definitions of job scope. You were warned about your sense of “cleanliness and dirt”, your sense of danger and safety, what was imbibed in you to achieve and what was pointed out as negative achievement; what you could do yourself and what servant-ism would do for you and even physical attributes like fairness and darkness, capabilities and incapacities-the entire gamut of racial division in the caste system that was carefully structured in and resulted in the way you addressed others, the language you spoke up to and spoke down to and finally the way you addressed issues of equity, fairness, dignity or the lack of it. Thus you were wheeled and driven around from birth in your middle class household, until your sense of right and wrong matured into a national culture of the middle class. Up to the 80s it did not matter, because the middle class were just a chancre in the grand Indian centralized vision to make a “socialist” economy that would enable successful public enterprise to somehow trickle down wealth to the masses. Land would be distributed-- jai kisan jai jawan, garibi hatao wrung true in some hearts as the sensible program to support and vouch for, in a world where two superpowers clawed at each other and the non-aligned made use of it and extracted better loans and low-cost defense equipment on the one hand and “green revolutionary” technology and second hand technology from the other.

Then came the 90s.

The world has now changed. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the symbolism associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall (11/9) and the re-invention of the United States under an African American President who runs a bankrupt empire that manages to limp along, thanks to the ability to print the only currency that the world finds acceptable, we now have a “globalized” world where a “new” middle class has emerged. They have discovered enormous mobility, wealth and an enormous cultural “don’t care-ism” that is tempted to obliterate the past and the people who are still economically bound to that “past.” In other words we have a huge mass of people, with power, cultural influence and social clout, who reside between the handful of the big bourgeoisie and the 830 million remaining population of India. Our national cultural make-up has changed from what was handed down Upanishad and Das Kapital style, through elders, dadas, gurus and didis to what is handed down through shouting matches in Times Now, CNN-IBN and NDTV.

And so came the era of Rajiv Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Chidambaran, Montek Ahluwalia, Sam Pitroda and things changed. The middle classes of India were born again and a new midnight was passed. Since then there has been no turning back. 2G Scams worth crores, scams in the names of “Kargil heroes,” murders by judges and cops who rape along the way as well, the rotten kids of the nasty and powerful who savagely beat up other kids and get away with mild sentences, half a parliament with criminal cases pending against MPs, crores of rupees spent on shuffling MPs around from hotel to hotel to facilitate horse-trading—this is now a daily dietary requirement of the Indian middle classes like life sustaining breakfast cereals and snacks grown by Kellogs and Pepsico.

We are like that, only!

We are now into a set of belief systems that eventually gets passed-off as “we are like that, only!” in the current era. A mischievously constructed auto-defense mechanism that puts ill-designed diapers on a diarrheic and backward social consent mechanism and passes it off as India’s necessary stages of evolution--a slow, diabolical death sentence for the same 830 million people of this country who live on Rs 20 per day and do not appear in Barack Hussein Obama’s “emerged” India. And all this morphs into a collective consciousness that then permeates through words, expressions, media headlines and ultimately a nationally manufactured consensus or hysteria, if you will, that rules the country, in a more despicable manner, than the political and economic manipulations of the handful of wealthy. It is this large nebulous cloud of political consensus that is a divider, a separator and becomes the line in the sand between bullshit and bullshit made to look like the truth. The rich, the bourgeoisie of India, the 30 families that make up 1/3rd of India GDP growth, quarter after quarter, do not have to foist bourgeois value systems on the nation any longer. Before they had to do it,(remind us constantly to be good entrepreneurs, get MBAs, be engineers, scientists, lawyers and businessmen, how we grew up on the steady diet of the Tatas being clean businessmen, model citizens, while the Goenkas and Mundhras were our favourite whipping boys) or always talking about how private industry was the answer, loosening tariff and controls was essential. Now they don’t have to do that. The three million strong Indian Middle Class army (the largest in the world and the most vociferous promoters of themselves) do the job of creating this buffer zone of a navel-gazing, self-satisfying playing field, so the really rich can quietly and surreptitiously carve the future of this country in their class interests, virtually unnoticed while this new post 90s middle class drums up support for a way of life, an avenue out of the old India.

A deeper reflection reveals that the Indian middle class, the old traditional “central planning/nonaligned period ” era variety, as well as the new “post neo-liberalization” variety have stuck themselves in the middle, between the handful of the rich and the vast majority of the poor as a grey blubbery insulator—like a putrefying silicone mass on the breast plate of India.

Gramsci and after

The Russian Bolsheviks and their followers later on, till today, have held that culture was 'ancillary' to political objectives but for Gramsci it was fundamental to the attainment of power that cultural hegemony be achieved first. Gramsci contended that the big bourgeoisie does not rule simply by manipulating the economy in their favour by political manipulation, but primarily by foisting a superstructure of cultural acceptance and consent for their ways and methods. Overthrowing this cultural superstructure was an essential task that precedes revolutionary power seizure and the politics of change. In India, it is not bourgeois culture that must be overthrown, but the festering new middle class culture that is neither industrial nor entirely feudal. It is this culture that has created an aura about India’s present “growth” and value systems and beliefs that needs to be overthrown, first. And it cannot be overthrown by building base areas in mountains and forests alone. It must be overthrown by a civic society movement that comes to the realization that this cultural hegemony of the newly rich must first go!

Gramsci divides society between 'political society', which is the arena of political institutions and legal constitutional control, and 'civil society', which is commonly seen as the 'private' or 'non-state' sphere. The former is the realm of force and the latter of consent. In the overlap of the two the ruling class is able to maintain hegemonic control. When Barkha Dutt says “the buck stops here” she is really collaborating with this hegemony of ideas by forewarning where the society cannot go, as opposed to the pretence that she is unearthing hypocrisy, backwardness and corruption. She is incapable of elevating the discussion to the point where “law and order”, “fairness and justice”, “social equity”, “gender equality”, “non-violent change” ,“ clean governance” or that enigma “our culture” become redundant phrases that need to be overthrown superstructurally, with the questions “ law and order for who ”, that “the 300 million mall rats are not India’s future” that “ gender equality will not happen until you overthrow the pervasive nature of religious control.”

In today’s hegemonic control, the bourgeoisie fabricates a sense of manufactured consent by implying that fairness exists. That fair politics is still possible. That Niyamgiri tribals can win against Vedanta’s vampire tactics. That Rahul Gandhi is on the side of the tribals. That Jayram Ramesh is a greater environmentalist than Vandana Shiva or Medha Patekar. That Kabir Suman exists in the Trinamool because there is hope. That the government’s own consultative committees declare that the MOUs in the tribal areas are “the biggest land grab since Columbus.” That the Maoist insurgency is inevitable if the government does not implement its own laws and by- laws regarding Posco, PESA or NREGA.

Arundhuti Roy says in an interview, “You don’t have to be a genius to read the signs. We have a growing middle class, reared on a diet of radical consumerism and aggressive greed. Unlike industrializing Western countries, which had colonies from which to plunder resources and generate slave labor to feed this process, we have to colonize ourselves, our own nether parts. We’ve begun to eat our own limbs. The greed that is being generated (and marketed as a value interchangeable with nationalism) can only be sated by grabbing land, water and resources from the vulnerable. What we’re witnessing is the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in independent India — the secession of the middle and upper classes from the rest of the country. It’s a vertical secession, not a lateral one. ”

Hegemony or seizure ?

In the final analysis, those who are contemplating fundamental social change in India, would do well to comprehend that putting out revolutionary deadlines, making fatuous predictions about ultimate victory and seizure of power, without being concerned about overthrowing the complex hegemonic cultural control initiated by the big bourgeoisie in alliance with a new and large middle class would be fraught with frustrations. India, to repeat a cliché, is complex from the get go and is getting more complex every day. The Bourgeoisie of India are extraordinarily wily, well-read, historically aware, culturally advanced enough to plan their own alliances and are miles ahead of the “faces” of the state that the revolutionary opposition is so concerned about “overthrowing.” The hegemonic control over thought, reasoning, habit, impulse, cultural tendencies and the “voice of democratic reasoning” “the indignation about corruption” that the media puts out so cleverly is a more reactionary enemy than the armed forces of the Indian State. Therefore Gramsci’s reasoning that there has to be superstructural overthrow first and the creation of a new consciousness that butts heads with the “new India” is a fundamental requirement. What is crucial to understand also is that the new middle class have the numbers, the greed and the demand. They are however culturally backward. India’s bourgeoisie are not culturally backward and they protect themselves by using this greed as a buffer and furthermore they are only partially dependent, technically and financially, to imperial support and therefore would like to manipulate the national consensus and therefore the government to supply them with the infrastructure (physical and market)they need to expand and corporatize the national economy. They have struck their alliances.

Those who want to change things, need to rethink their alliances, as well, and also the business of overthrow of this specific cultural hegemony that is on the build. While Gramsci talked about the need to overthrow the bourgeois consensus and create an alternate radical consensus, perhaps in this country it is necessary to overthrow the middle class consensus. Without an independent civic society movement this cannot happen.