India: making history or living in the past?

A trip to Bangalore gives spiked’s editor-at-large a glimpse of the capitalist law of uneven development at work.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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‘A land of contrasts’ is one of the lazy, superficial travel writer/agent’s favourite clichés to describe a country such as India. And having spent a few days gaining my own superficial impression of Indian society, I confess that, unsurprisingly, they have a point. What many miss, however, is an underlying reason for the contrasts, which seems to have rather less to do with the peculiarities of Indian culture or ‘overpopulation’ than with the general laws of capitalist development.

Bangalore in the southern state of Karnataka is one of the richest cities in the new India, a centre of the growing hi-tech and IT industries. It also features in an anti-poverty charity’s UK fundraising adverts, starring a five-year-old girl carrying water and working to support her family.

The new business-class hotel I stayed in advertises itself to international clients as a green beacon of ‘responsible luxury’, the grass growing on the outdoor bar roof intended as a symbol of its eco-credentials rather than a sign of damp. From the business quarter of glass and chrome towers in the sky, it does not take you long to reach a very different Bangalore of poverty and human shit on the street. The often-quoted statistic is that more people there now have access to mobile phones than to flushing toilets. Even my Punjabi newsagent in north-east London dismisses Bangalore as a ‘very dirty place’.

It often seems to be assumed that such contrasts are a peculiar part of life in the strange land of India today, a product somehow of the unhappy marriage of India’s traditional culture with foreign values of money and modernity. During the row over preparations for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, and the uninhabitable state of athletes’ accommodation, a debate even started in the Indian media about the contrast between Indian and Western attitudes towards hygiene and acceptable behaviour – eg, spitting and defecating – in public places.

All of this contrast and conflict should hardly be surprising, however, to students of history. No doubt there are always local and cultural factors involved. But the far bigger factor shaping India today is the global capitalist law of uneven development – or of uneven and combined development, to give it the full title. This was first characterised by Karl Marx in Capital 150 years ago, and the idea was developed by Marxists who followed, notably the Russian revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Indeed Trotsky wrote in 1928 that ‘the entire history of mankind is governed by the law of uneven development’ (The Third International After Lenin). Its workings were witnessed first during industrialisation in Britain and across the West, and now in India, China and the East.

Readers may be relieved to hear that there is no scope here for any attempt at heavyweight political-economic analysis. But in short the law of uneven development rests upon the tension between the dynamic and destructive sides of the capitalist economy. Capital penetrates wherever it can, stimulating economic development everywhere and bringing the world’s economies closer together. This is the process of combined development, and it is worth noting here that among its consequences noted by Trotsky 80 years ago were ‘the industrialisation of the colonies [and] the diminishing gap between India and Great Britain’. Yet at the same time the anarchic workings of the market, driven by capital accumulation and competition, ensure the process of uneven development between different regions, industrial sectors, states and continents, first on a national and then international level.

The consequences of uneven development were clear in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain, in the contrast between the lot of the rural poor driven from the land, the industrial proletariat, and the new bourgeoisie. In its latest incarnation, a similar pattern is now writ large in developing nations such as India and China. It has long been understood that one of the effects of uneven development is that the developing nations, once they can escape the restrictions imposed on them by the old powers, can leap ahead in certain sectors by building on earlier achievements and employing the latest technology, while at the same time large parts of their societies still languish in poverty and in the past. This is what we are witnessing in India today. The effect is as if the country is living through more than one historical epoch at the same time.

Of course much has changed in the world since Marx and his successors developed their understanding of uneven development. The old colonial system for example has been overthrown, allowing nations such as India to take their place on the world stage. The economies of old imperialist powers such as Britain have become more stagnant and dependent on forms of financial parasitism that prey on the productive economies elsewhere in the world – a weakness starkly revealed in the current crisis. Things have even reached the point where many in the sluggish West use the language of environmentalism and sustainability to argue against economic growth and development, as examined elsewhere on spiked. Meanwhile the new industries of the East charge ahead, despite being hit hard by the international recession. Yet they cannot escape history and the law of uneven development.

So it is that India and China have become a global showcase, not just for culture clashes between East and West, but for the contradictions of twenty-first century capitalism. India looks like a living, breathing experiment in the problems of uneven development today.

Just trying to get into the country brought me up against the tension between India’s ambitions to be a leading ‘free market’ economy, and a state bureaucracy that in some ways still seems closer to its old Cold War ally, the Soviet Union. I had been invited to Bangalore to speak at a conference on global issues concerning tobacco, smoking and politics today, as a left-wing critic who is not ‘pro-smoking’ but is strongly pro-liberty and anti-intolerance, demonisation and bans. (These are arguments I and others have often made on spiked – see, for example, Now they’re giving up more than cigarettes.)

In applying for a visa to enter India, however, I was warned first not to mention any conference, as the Indian government has an official monopoly on such gatherings, and second not to confess to being a journalist, since this would ‘set the alarm bells ringing’. Thus it was that I entered India as the world’s most unconvincing ‘salesman’. No doubt this is only the flipside of the hoops an Indian citizen would have to jump through to enter the UK, but it seemed revealing all the same.

Once ensconced in Bangalore, the cool oasis of the top hotel presented an obvious contrast with the hubbub and chaos on the streets without. It is clear that many first-time visitors recoil from their taste of India and retreat into muttering about poverty, pollution and overpopulation. The ceaseless cacophony of the traffic horns and the unmissable rollercoaster ride in a three-wheeler taxi, veering wildly about to avoid scooters and potholes that would look right at home on my local London streets, certainly creates an atmosphere akin to urban madness. Although the locals all clearly thought we were the loonies, as my fellow conference attendees and I stood stranded in the middle of the road while a sea of buses, motorbikes and rickshaws missed us by inches; it was later reported that two people had been killed by buses in Banglore that Saturday.

Yet to me, the underlying feeling amid all of this was of the energy and dynamism of the place, something that attracts rather than repels. Yes there were beggars, the obligatory women with babies and disabled people being pushed in carts, and no doubt the begging and poverty is far worse elsewhere in India. But we saw far more people selling than begging, hawking the wares of the new Indian industries and in the process advertising India’s mass of people as its greatest asset and source of wealth.

The news while I was in Bangalore was a story of change in India. There was some sort of a political crisis in the coalition state government, where a dozen MPs had reportedly run away to the seaside at Goa; the issue appeared to be more about jobs for the boys than political principles, so I felt right at home there. Several high-profile rape trials also dominated the headlines, perhaps as a sign of the changing status of women in India – at least in the cities, where they seem to dominate the news channels just as they do the BBC News.

But the biggest story of all was sport – a new development for India, widely seen as another sign of its international coming-of-age. The Commonwealth Games in Delhi may have begun amid a wave of international criticism and indifference at home. But as India racked up the golds the games soon took off on a wave of wild media cheerleading, culminating in them beating England to second place in the medals table behind Australia. Meanwhile the Indians were beating the Aussies at the cricket in Bangalore, creating real national fervour – even within the bubble of our hotel, where both teams were staying and the great Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar wandered around in a cloud of star-struck admirers. (I tried to explain to nonplussed American guests that this was the Indian equivalent of Babe Ruth appearing in the bar, although unlike the Babe, Tendulkar was not drinking.)

There was also a defensive backlash among the Indian media to all of the stick they got over the Delhi games (see Dirty Tricks at the Commonwealth Games), jumping on any hint of racism from Australian policemen or South African swimmers like the most hyper-sensitive race lobbyist in the UK, albeit with the moral force of anti-colonialism on their side. (Speaking of the aftermath of colonialism, one British guest at a Raj-era hotel said he was surprised to see a plaque for the East India Company still displayed ‘proudly’ on the wall. Nothing to be proud about, I suggested, just another failed British corporation that had to be bailed out by the state, in their case when Victoria sent in the army to rescue them from the Indian rebellion of 1857.)

India may be a ‘land of contrasts’. But the other striking contrast might be between the underlying dynamism over there and the atmosphere of creeping economic decay over here. If I was one for clunky metaphors, maybe we might say that the West is stuck like we were, stranded in the middle of the road, facing the onrushing juggernauts from the East and unsure which way to jump. Yet if we look at things in a wider historical perspective, it is possible to see that the law of uneven and combined development makes the East humanity’s best hope for economic progress.

One last point on uneven development. For all its boasts about being the ‘pub and brewing capital of India’, every legal bar in Bangalore stops serving at 11.15pm – including in the hotels – a throwback to the days of Empire and authoritarianism. Come on, what sort of progress do you call that?

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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