Volume 2: Number 1 November 1, 1998
|The Biggest Corporate Takeover Basav Sen|
|Vanaik Book Review Vijay Prashad|
|Taxi Strike Biju Mathew|
SAPs, Dust, and Hot Air: Gail Omvedt and Liberalization
by Balmurli Natrajan, Ciarán ó Faoláin, and Kavita Philip
Is there a new Gail Omvedt on the scene? Omvedt's recent, apparent endorsement of liberalization has caused much consternation in left circles. There has been talk of Omvedt's abandonment of the Marxist camp and her "sellout" to multinational interests. Below we examine some of the most recent debates between Omvedt and her Marxist critics and try to unpack some of the conceptual baggage that seems to us to underlie these debates over liberalization.
The complexities of Omvedt's position are displayed in a recent newspaper editorial:
Internal liberalisation before external liberalisation? This is a dangerous slogan because in
most cases it means giving full scope for state-dependent and inefficient Indian
industrialists to control the internal market at the cost of consumers, while putting all
kinds of barriers to export in the way of Indian farmers, food processors, garment
manufacturers and other exporters
. If swadeshi is to mean anything for the vast
majority of people, it should mean support for their production and marketing, not for
those of the Ambanis and Bajajs.
In this one quote, Omvedt speaks at once on behalf of the farmer who seeks to export, the small producer who does subsistence agriculture, the small industrialist, as well as the penurious craftsman practicing a traditional craft. Her main enemy in this endeavor is the all-interfering Indian state represented by the bureaucracy. She is not a mere laissez-faire proponent of liberalization: rather, she deconstructs the BJP's swadeshi sloganeering and calls for a rethinking of globalization, not as an evil but as something "within" which alternatives must be found. Yet, her arguments easily efface the class contradictions of the very people she claims to speak for. It is this point which we seek to explore in this following essay.
In our reading, Omvedt has a poor understanding of the class determinants of her own positions, while at another level she shows little self-consciousness about her location within larger ideological-discursive frames. These two factors have contributed to the general confusion surrounding where precisely she stands on liberalization, global capitalism, and grassroots resistance. Ultimately, we see a continuity between her earlier and later positions: both are grounded in uninterrogated notions of authenticity that work to present sectarian interests as universal.
One lesson that we derived from this exercise, as academics and/or activists, had to do with the value of self-reflexivity and internal critique within the left. The liberalization/global capital debate is not a simple one to resolve, and Gail Omvedt is in many ways a model of the activist academic, given her long history of engaging with farmers' struggles and her consistently impassioned academic contributions. Thus our intention is less to nitpick than to educate ourselves about the pitfalls that lie at the intersection of theory and praxis--while fully acknowledging that though this intersection is fraught with contradictions, it is a place at which we often find ourselves. The task of being critical and self-reflexive can and must be made a collective effort, and we make this contribution in the hope that FOIL will continue to grow as a progressive collective that will strive to foster friendly yet constructive contestation within and beyond its ranks.
II. The BCAS Debate
In a recent debate on the pages of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (BCAS), Omvedt finds herself pitted against an impressive constellation of Marxist scholars, who take her to task for her pro-liberalization position. Omvedt defends herself by calling for a more detailed understanding of the constitutive components of liberalization. We can grant the need for analysis of the elements of structural adjustment packages; however, Omvedt's call for analytic specificity is selectively applied and thus does not recognise the need for a corresponding analytical breakdown of class interests and their relations to the nation-state.
Omvedt offers the following guidelines for understanding liberalization:
1. The role of internal actors (such as the Indian state and the indigenous bourgeoisie) should be given greater emphasis. Thus we should recognise that although the IMF and the World Bank impose "bad" policies "at times," they and other international institutions (UNICEF, UNDP, IFAD) have undergone sweeping reforms; moreover, the Indian state is equally to blame for the ills of liberalization because of its elitism, corruption, and urban bias.
2. We should explore the potential for "[structural] adjustment with a human face" (choosing better prices for cash crops, and food security without cutting on health, education and welfare), and direct our struggles towards the creation of "market socialism" as a meaningful alternative to socialism tout court.
Why does Omvedt repeatedly
avoid a radical,
class-based critique of both
national and global capital?
3. Negative critiques from the Left disable the "actual fight on the ground" over the "direction of liberalization." Further, such Left critiques create an "emotional economic nationalism," which benefits the religious right (42).
In response, her opponents offer critiques along the following lines:
1. Hari Sharma points out that the internal in the contemporary world always contains the external (57). Thus the new imperialism of the WB and IMF is already tied to the internal forces such as landlord-kulak lobbies, industrial bourgeoisie, and so on. The mere fact that internal factors exist should not be grounds for letting the IMF/WB off the hook.
2. The structural adjustment programs do not offer the "human-face" option, argues Sharma, because the policies of adjustment derive from the interests of the institutions themselves, whose development model is "still based on transnational corporate investment, privatization of public enterprises and capital intensive industry." Further, Paresh Chattopadhyay points out that "market socialism ultimately turns out to be a capitalist alternative to capitalism" (56) because, retaining wage-labor and commodity production at its heart, it does not eliminate the alienation of producers from their products. In fact, communitarian, decentralized, democratically organized societies could, pace Omvedt, function efficiently without a market for allocation/distribution. Omvedt's admission that she "simply cannot imagine" (62) any democratic, non-market mechanisms for allocation/distribution is especially surprising in light of her claim to embrace a "new" radical-democratic politics.
3. In arguing against Omvedt's accusation that the Left disables an "actual fight on the ground," Chattopadhyay points out that the 'on-the-ground situation' includes the reality of "those who own no means of production and are obliged to seek employment as wage-earners" (55). Thus Omvedt's desire to pick and choose from the liberalization menu is "well intentioned" but "naively utopian," he contends, because it ignores the persistence of class as a relevant category of analysis, and refuses the possibility of a radical Marxist critique.
Why does Omvedt repeatedly avoid a radical, class-based critique of both national and global capital? One clue lies in her embrace of the "new social movements" model of democratic politics associated with Laclau and Mouffe, which we discuss in the following section. However, this is only part of the answer. We still need to ask what "internal factors" are guiding her promotion of particular class interests and her simultaneous occluding of class differences in the agrarian sector. We argue in section IV that Omvedt stages a scenario in which the sectional interests of large producers are represented as universal, thus effectively consolidating their hegemony in the field of agricultural production.
III. New Social Movements
In a recent article Omvedt suggests that new social movements are voicing a radically new critique of the state and articulating new models of development. She argues that NSMs are organized not around class but around overlapping communities. Critical of the vanguardist position accorded the factory-based proletariat, Omvedt insists that a "new path of development" is being blazed by "women, dalits and other low castes, peasants, [and] tribals" (47).
Omvedt argues that these new social movements offer an alternative to traditional left models that adopted the uncritical 'catch-up' approach to Western industrial progress. However, Omvedt herself does not seem to have a radical critique of industrial development, and seems to ignore or disregard the various arguments (from environmentalists, marxists, and feminist political philosophers) that have been made against catch-up models such as those based on Rostow's 'Stages of Growth.' Consider the model propounded in the following passage:
Third World countries cannot possibly attain the per capita fossil fuel energy which was available to Europe and North America ... at the time of their industrial "take-off" at the end of the 19th century. ... However, they can attain this much and more energy in biomass production with a scientifically and technologically upgraded development of traditional methods of production.
This is the direction coming out of new movements.(47)
Here Omvedt seeks merely to replace 'Western' with 'traditional' sources of energy, while keeping the goal constant: nineteenth-century Europe's industrial take-off. While the units of analysis have supposedly changed, her investment in the development paradigm remains. Omvedt's voice 'from the grassroots' here seems to offer only hackneyed arguments (romanticising of tradition combined with a catch-up model) under the cover of an appeal to authenticity. In her argument for liberalization, too, a similar appeal serves to obscure the fact that she is only serving up old apologies in new bottles.
Omvedt credits Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy with articulating a new vision of democratic politics in which new social movements transcend class interests (41). Such an argument is commonly used by 'post-marxists' to argue that the notion of class struggle is obsolete, or rendered irrelevant by the diversity of 'marginal' struggles. However, Omvedt is not merely jumping on a fashionable academic bandwagon. The idea that community transcends caste echoes arguments that she has made many times in her influential work on dalit and women's movements. For instance, elsewhere she reads Phule's account of caste as a theory of community-based politics:
In contrast to a class theory, communities become the basis for contradiction (the shudra-atishudra peasantry versus the brahman bureaucracy and religious order.
Omvedt argues, further, that economic distinctions and categories such as middle-class, petty-bourgeois and kulak should be abandoned in favor of a distinction between rural and urban:
What is the significance of
Omvedt's insistence on eliding
class in favor of an undifferentiated
What is the significance of Omvedt's insistence on eliding class in favour of an undifferentiated "peasant" community? A recent debate in the Journal of Peasant Studies suggests where her class allegiances lie, in practice. This suggests why she has a blurred vision of class-differences within the agrarian sector.
IV. Omvedt's Class Allegiances and the JPS Debate
As we saw in section II, the points debated in the BCAS debate are indeed important in terms of characterizing the Washington Twins and the SAPs born out of their relationship. However this debate does not yet touch upon the organicity of Omvedt's positions. By organicity we refer to the fact that Omvedt, in keeping with her own proclamation of "having her feet on the ground," indeed allows us a glimpse of the various political and strategic pressures that shape how she speaks and inform her authoritative statements. Hence, we briefly discuss an earlier debate in which the influence of these pressures upon Omvedt's position comes more clearly into view.
In this debate, the central issue (as with BCAS) is Omvedt's call for an alliance between peasants and agricultural labor on the platform of a struggle of "all peasants" against the market/state nexus in order to get better prices for agricultural products. Omvedt claims theoretical support for such a position on the grounds that it is based on the "organizational and political strategies" being considered and/or adopted by a number of political parties and non-party "peasant" organizations such as the Shetkari Sanghatana and the Bharatiya Kisan Union (139). The critique by Jairus Banaji, which prompted Omvedt's response, argues that her position denies a historical and theoretical understanding of the nature of agricultural production, and instead promotes a peasantist worldview of the larger society's present and future.
Banaji's critique draws parallels to an older debate in Marxist analysis, articulated most prominently by Karl Kautsky and Engels, on the Agrarian Question in Germany (and France and Italy). The debate centred around the correct political position that Socialists should press the Social Democrats to embrace in regard to the Populist policy of "protection" of small producers (Bauernschutz ). This policy of "protection" was contested by Kautsky and Engels on two grounds:
1. It promoted an illusion (that small producers can exist as small producers in the face of capitalism's inevitable trajectory).
2. It endorsed "state socialism" (also referred to in other works of Marx and Engels as Lasallean socialism), wherein the state appears as the "Master from above" and protects the petty-bourgeoisie (small producers, petty businesses, artisans) from the onslaught of proletarianization by private capital.
In the present Indian context, Banaji argues that while Omvedt's anti-statism argues against protection and is therefore the diametrical opposite of the classical Agrarian Populist position, both positions derive their force from a non-recognition of the class differentiation of the peasantry.
In her reply, Omvedt makes two outrageous claims:
1. Most agricultural laborers also hold some land.
2. The buying and selling of labour power is not to be emphasized over other forms of production relations.
Leaving aside the statistical verification of the concentration or lack thereof of land in India, Omvedt's position finally allows us to note another contradiction (only implicitly acknowledged by Banaji in his article): that between large producers aspiring to be farmers producing in a capitalist organization and free market economy, and small producers also using wage labour but seeking better protection from the State. It is this contradiction, and not that between peasants and agricultural laborers, that Omvedt elides in her statements regarding liberalization and its benefits.
Of the three strata of agricultural producers, it is large producers, not small producers or agricultural laborers, who are most likely to benefit from free-market-style agricultural production in India. We argue that it is this first group that Omvedt ultimately speaks for, although her rhetoric (as is to be expected in such a charged atmosphere) forces her to appear as the representative of all the groups without allowing their class contradictions to come to the fore. Thus Omvedt's anti-statism, which has been identified by the BCAS scholars as her main position, must be complicated by the fact that small producers need protection from the state, while large producers seek the decentering (at the very least) of the state from the market monopoly.
How can Omvedt represent both these goals without obfuscating her class- contradiction-ridden constituencies? Posing such a question allows us to actually view the role of ideology, operating through the discourse of intellectual-activists such as Omvedt, in the shaping of political movements. This enables us to view the organizations such as the Shetkari Sanghatana as crucial sites from which class itself gets to be viewed not as a normative concept flowing from a normative class interest, but as ideologically and culturally produced. It is only in this manner that we will be able to concretely understand and contest Omvedt as an important actor. As part of this task, in the next section we turn to an interrogation of some of the rhetorical foundations of Omvedt's political position.
V. Old Omvedt in New Matkas
While recent debates assume an apparent shift in Omvedt's position from anti- to pro-liberalization, we see, as we have already suggested, some strong continuities between her earlier and later work. In order to see these, however, it will be necessary to focus not only on the
While Omvedt's activist commitment
is undoubtedly sincere,
it is useful to remember that
a claim to `subaltern' authenticity
can just as easily slip into an
engaged political critique as into
an uncommitted relativism.
To the extent that our reading carries weight, it is appropriate to ask how it is that Omvedt's writing has managed to trouble the anti-liberalization consensus within the Indian left. Has the left granted her positions a full and even quasi-sympathetic hearing because of the intellectual force of her arguments, or, as we believe, because of the more pointedly rhetorical force of her own self-representations and concomitant self-positionings? We argue that her strategic self-identification with 'native voices' has functioned as a cover for her failure to think through a range of positions around class, gender and even 'race,' with the result that it is not even clear that her overall trajectory has in fact had a liberatory character.
As we saw in the Omvedt-Sharma disagreement over the relative importance of "internal" versus "external" factors, Omvedt readily resorts to dichotomous thought forms ("If you leftists criticize the WB/IMF, you preclude the possibility of criticizing the Indian State," she suggests). Similarly, she suggests a split between the "theory" and the "practice" of liberatory struggle. This is all the more surprising since Omvedt is known as both theorist and activist in Dalit, peasant, and women's struggles in rural Maharashtra. In thus forgoing the opportunity to allow theory and praxis to inform each other, she resorts to a crude 'masses vs. intellectuals' line, in which she identifies left discourse either with corrupt Party politics or with abstract 'academese,' while lionising pragmatics and compromise as constituting 'real' activism. It is by associating herself as a political actor "on the ground" with 'genuine subalterns' ranging from the Harijan "jungli" woman Kaminibai in WWSP! to peasant leaders such as Sharad Joshi, and not by offering cogent arguments, that she seeks to authenticate her political positions. This recourse to authenticity-as-argument in turn functions as a substitute for thinking through her own locational politics. While Omvedt's activist commitment is undoubtedly sincere, it is useful to remember that a claim to 'subaltern' authenticity can just as easily slip into an engaged political critique as into an uncommitted relativism.
Recall that Omvedt first encountered the Maharashtrian "Other" as a UC-Berkeley graduate student in Sociology. Chicago School notions of a static "Village India" inform her early work; notions that look very much like those propagated by Friedman and other neo-classical Chicago economists shape her more recent pro-liberalization stances. How is it that a vociferous proponent of Dalit liberation could end up ventriloquizing dominant conservative arguments? In what follows we suggest that we need to look not only at at the explicit assertions she advances--as we have tried to do in previous sections--but also at the representational politics that shape those assertions.
It is her own account of herself as participant-observer that is perhaps most revealing in this connection. In the "Introduction" to WWSP!, a 1979 account of Maharashtrian women's movements, Omvedt takes pains to present herself as an observer whose own theoretical assumptions in no way intrude on the "vital and living portrait" she paints "of the variety of Indian women I was privileged to meet" (5). She divides this "portrait" into three parts: i) the voices of "authentic" women in the main text; ii) "analyses made by three Indian organizations" in appendices; and iii) material that is "more theoretical... (including my own)," and which she has "given as Bibliographical Notes" (5). It is clear that she regards the evaluative aspect of her research as separate from the lives of the people she seeks to represent. This might explain her hostility to the more theoretical perspectives in the BCAS and JPS debates, and her recourse to arguing from the 'authenticity' of her alliances.
Beginning her voyage of discovery as an anonymous face in the crowd, Omvedt is brought up short when Untouchable women zero in on her outsider status. This incident, which threatens to make an issue of the observer's self-styled anonymity, is duly reported by Omvedt, only to be tidily contained when the women recognize the inevitability of her leadership role. The incident begins when we read that the women, despite the fact that they "know that there are things that they don't know" (17),
are even ready to be cynical about me ... "She'll write something ... and some educated person, some children, will read it to us, and we know nothing." (18)
Omvedt the researcher makes no comment; instead the scene abruptly shifts to a kitchen in which she is served lunch; when she emerges from the kitchen, the same women seem to take a
In attempting to generalize a
specific peasant interest to a
universal marginal viewpoint,
Omvedt must resort to tropes
that can slide over all
We return to more discussion of the same themes, problems of poverty, caste issues, the possibility of united action. We discuss the idea of a women's organization. Where could they get time? Where could they find leadership?
Strategically using the passive voice, Omvedt continues:
These are the questions raised, the questions to which I have no immediate answer. Kaminibai says again that she would follow, that she is ready to do something, but she must have help. When will I return to Bori Arab? That I don't know. (19)
Omvedt's own seeming reluctance is consistent with her declared deference to authenticity in the field. Nevertheless, a few short paragraphs later, it seems that fate, in the form of technology, intervenes to sweep her into a leadership role. Because of her tape recorder's power to carry the sounds of revolt, she is the only person, it seems, who can represent the voiceless. At a school meeting,
a boy from the back of the room who was one of those sitting around the edge of the women's meeting, rises to plead, 'Play the songs.'
... And so, with some trepidation, in the schoolroom of a village dominated by seven landlords where the poor have not yet found any strength of organization but only 'endless sorrows,' I play a song of revolt. (20)
In this paragraph, Omvedt is transformed from dangerous American outsider to revolutionary insider, player of a song proclaiming: "We will cut the throats of the rich!" The chapter strategically ends with these words, which, written and sung though they are by anonymous labourers, can be heard only through Omvedt's (technological) agency. The rest, as they say, is history. The remainder of the book unsubtly suggests what Omvedt does not say explicitly--that she has accepted the leadership role thrust upon her by the initially skeptical masses.
We saw above how a casual stroll through a dusty village served as packaging for Omvedt's apotheosis as revolutionary peasant leader. In the following passage, a similarly 'casual' encounter becomes the occasion for Omvedt to ventriloquize her positions on statism and colonialism. Here again it is the naive authenticity of Untouchable women which serves to guarantee the empirical truth of these theories. Bhimrao, a poor laborer in whose kitchen she lunches, functions here as her translator:
"In the time of the English--was that government better than this one, or not?" asks Bhimrao.
There is a chorus: yes, yes. Kaminibai elborates: "We were small then, bai, but we were getting everything, grain, food, everything. Money was less but our stomachs were full. Tell me, if there is no grain, if there is nothing for our stomachs, what have we to do with the state? Nothing at all. We condemn it."
While they feel able to castigate the state when comparing it to British colonialism (which appears positively benevolent here), these same women suddenly and implausibly lose confidence in their critical capacities when called upon to evaluate the same state in the global context:
Bhimrao tries to ask if India really does have independence, to talk about economic dependence, foreign ownership of factories, neo-colonialism.
"What can we understand of that? We don't know how to read and write, we have no information about the country, about who runs the factories. We have no information." (17)
Such a position authorizes Omvedt's recent pro-liberalization stance: neo-colonialism and economic dependency are abstract, academic concepts irrelevant to the lives of the peasant masses. Statism is the primary evil.
But what, then, does this investment in allegedly authentic positions actually mask--or, to put it another way, what is the nature of the continuities we have found between Omvedt's earlier and later output, on each side of this imagined shift on the liberalization issue? The connection we see lies in her having in each case internalized a hegemonic American representational apparatus: one anthropological, the other economic.
If the women in the above encounter offer us the anthropologized outlines of Omvedt's 1995 pro-liberalization position, the following kulak testimonial sets out the same position in explicitly economic terms. Omvedt is at Kathod Farm in Northern Ahmednagar, whose recent history she describes as follows:
* it is a huge, 1,200-acre farm run like a plantation or factory by a Bombay textile magnate, who has leased 800 of these acres from medium landholders;
* it is on factory-run, cash-crop-centered farms such as this one that communist and socialist labor organizing first occurred.
* This "normal" and predictable connection between capitalist farming and socialist organizing is being disrupted by three "not so normal" developments: i) lands are being returned to their original peasant owners, ii) peasant owners are "reverting" [sic] from cash crop to food crop production, and iii) jobs are being lost, and union organizations which once transcended the semi-feudal relations of production are now being riven again by caste divisions.
This is the context in which she investigates the causes of low wages for women:
Why has the farm been broken up, I ask. Because it's not profitable, say the managers. Land ceiling laws put too much pressure on them and make it impossible to maintain big holdings , while the high prices of fertilizers and other inputs versus the low prices of even the best crops make capitalist farming insufficiently profitable.
This serves as the basis for Omvedt's point: namely, that rich peasants find it difficult to make profits from farming due to state restrictions limiting the efficiency of capitalist farms. Recall that this anti-statist argument--down to the details regarding the desirability of cash crops over food crops and the need for a healthy market free from the suffocating strictures of state regulation--figures in Omvedt's more recent pro-liberalization work.
In attempting to generalise a specific peasant interest to a universal marginal viewpoint, Omvedt must resort to tropes that can slide over all marginal categories. Thus, time and again, she has relied on tired tropes of authenticity to stand in for the hard analytical work of Marxist theorising. But the desire for authenticity is itself a symptom of ideological conservatism. Thus it is not surprising that she ends up falling back on a number of conservative positions which are readily available to her precisely because of her own training in unreflexive methodologies that are not sufficiently suspicious of their own procedures. These betray strong overtones of orientalizing anthropological discourses, and an implicit investment in free-market ideologies that serve so poorly the contexts she claims to represent.