Sunday, February 18, 2007

The war for Earth

Probably I am more politicised than most Indians, but I thought I should build a primer Political ideas and their relation to International politics – basically about a set of patterns that politics follows in most countries. I also believe there is a giant fight looming ahead (I compare this to the War for Middle Earth).
The reason I focus somewhat on America is because the fight there is well defined; the positions are well marked; and the internal politics there has repercussions across the world. I believe the same war is going on in India, but here it is more at a visceral level than at the level of ideas.
We know that most developed countries have a two-party system – in UK it is the Conservative and the Labor. In the USA it is the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Very soon after the USA became the world’s first constitutional republic in 1776, the leaders of the revolution split out and formed the Republican and the Democratic parties. For a hundred years after that the Democrats represented the Southern slave-owning white farmers; while the North got more and more industrialized and was heavily supportive of the Republican party. In the runup to the elections of 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the Republican candidate.
How did the Republican party move from being the party of Lincoln to the party of Bush?
To understand this we have to consider the flow of ideologies since the Industrial Revolution.
The Ideas of the Modern Era
Voltaire, prior to the French Revolution had come up with the idea of human rights – that all humans are basically created equal; that the they had the freedom to express their opinions; that governments were formed from the consent of people; that they had the rights to pursue life and liberty.
This was a departure from the then prevalent ideas of a government as an aristocracy. Government became an arrangement that people would form themselves; that they would choose a set of people among themsleves to take care of forming policies; and implementing them.
This was in line with the pure forms of democracy and self-government that had existed all around the world (not just in the West). In Africa, in China, India, the counties of England and in the puritan societies of 17th century New England – there existed village councils. These were adminsitrative and regulatory councils whose members were generally elected; in which most male members of the society could debate decisions.
So, the idea of human rights was radical; but that of self government was not. But both of these combined to inspire the founding fathers of the USA.
At this same time, philosophy of secularism had also originated (and reflected in the constitution of the United States). That government ought not to discriminate against citizens of minority religions or races was expressed in the constitution (but not fully realized until the 20th century).
Adam Smith had published his “Wealth of Nations” by this time. There was a consciousness of the market and its cycles. Capitalism was recognized as a mechanism of creating wealth. Immediately, there was tension between two sets of ideas in regulating economy – Adam Smith was of the opinion that since the market regulates itself, government ought not to interfere in business. This is the idea of “laissez faire” capitalism. It means “leave alone” in French. The people who believed in laissez faire, believed that governments ought not to step in and regulate business at all – if they do so, they will upset the market dynamics. They COULD cause a less capable business to survive better than a more capable business. This will, as an end result, affect consumers. Laissez fare capitalists also believed that government should stay out of business – that is the government itself should NOT run any business. They believed it would be inefficient to do so and would again go against the laws of the market. (This is what we call in India as a move towards privatization). As an example, laissez fare capitalists will not approve of the Government of India running the Indian Railways.
The opponents of laissez fare thought businesses, if unregulated, would completely pursue profit by all means and thus ignore public good. For example, a business would not respect protection of the environment and would completely exploit resources and labor unless it is regulated. Some of these opponents also believe that the government SHOULD run some services – such as transportation or water supply.
As a summary, we see a set of ideas taking shape in the world of 18th century – democracy, constitutional republics, human rights, self-government, secularism, and ideas of economics and regulation. Some of these ideas existed before – but they were crystallized in the constitution of the United States.
Let us consider one more pivotal idea before moving on to the 19th century – the concept of a commune.
In the 16th century, the “Utopia” was published. This book talked about a mythical land were people live in a small “commune”. They do not own priivate property. They all work together and share the fruits of such work. Since the Utopia came out a small group of philosphers contributed more to the idea of “communism” and thought this is where human society should head for.
It is critical to understand that Utopia was meant to be a GOAL that the world should work towards. The ideal of communism at that point had not been associated with labor and the revolution.

The Effects of the Industrial Revolution
The sum of ideas explained above were radical; for example secularism was a major departure from previous ideas of government policy. When these ideas originated, they were immediately met with opposition. The idea that all humans are created equal meant slaves would have the same rights as their owners. In the beginning of the 19th century, the United States was going through a period of religious revivalism. Mormonism was founded around mid 1800s. The Mormons challenged the idea that government could interfere in private beliefs. If government could regulate economy, could it control who owned guns and who did not? There were obviously limts of government regulation. Opinions varied from zero regulation (that is the philosophy of small government or Libertarianism) to complete regulation. For example Libertarians in the USA do not believe that drugs should be banned; they believe government should NOT control individual use of drugs.
So, the ideas of democracy, secularism and government’s own role were being challenged already. Meanwhile, industrialization was creating a new class of humans – Labor.
At this time, of course, the world was in the grips of powerful colonizers such as Britain and Spain. Colonialism and racism were being justified by intellectuals across the world.
In this specific context, Karl Marx published the “Communist Manifesto” along with Engels.

We should remember that although Karl Marx’s name evokes strong reaction around the world, he is still respected as one of the three great economists of all time (along with Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes). Marx’s theories are taught in top economic schools around the world; and they have not really been refuted. Marx was first and foremost an economist – then a philospher.
When Marx analyzed the economics of Industrial world, he came to the conclusion that the world was heading towards complete exploitation of labor by capitalist businesses. He wrote that businesses, in their natural process, tended towards complete control of the three means of productions – Capital, Resources and Labor.
This led to the frightening scenario of a world dominated by huge corporations that “owned” the labor – a complete polarization of the haves and the have-nots.
In order to prevent this, he advocated revolution – organization of the labor into unions; and collective bargaining. He also thought ultimately such a revolution would create a world in which private property will not exist; the market will not exist; and “the State will wither away”.
The difference between communism and capitalism is summarized in these statements – Capitalism advocates from each according to his need; to each according to his capability. Communism advocates from each according to his capability; to each according to his need.
This is just a hint of his opinons; Marx also had wide ranging thoughts on colonialism; imperialism;even the Indian caste system.
Marx was chased from country to country for organizing labor and advocating communism.

The idea of socialism is that government should play a major role in making sure that resources of a country are spread equitably. Socialists may not be opposed to the market or private property; provided government meets the above objective. The modern ideas of universal free health care for all citizens, public transportaion, social security and pensions are all in the socialist spectrum.

The Formation of the Left
Broadly, the philosophies of communism, socialism, liberalism, progressivism, environmentalism (the greens) come together to form the leftist spectrum of ideas. What do typical leftists believe in?
They believe in democracy – they believe that government should be representative. Contrary to popular beliefs, even communists believe in democracy.
They believe in decentralization – atleast most do. In the Indian context, they believe that states should have more powers. Leftists such as me believe that states should give more powers to panchayats and city councils.
They believe in strict government regulation of the economy and businesses. They believe businesses should be environment conscious; not allowed to exploit their emloyees. The whole idea of corporate citizenship that is being promoted is rightist. Leftists hate that idea.
They believe workers have a right and a say in the businesses. They believe in trade unions and collective bargaining (such as negotiations on bonuses).
They believe that government should run basic services – for free. They should do this by taxing the rich heavily. Governments should provide free health care for all; build public hospitals; build public schools; run public transportation.
Governments should protect what are called “public commons” and never give it to private ownership. An example is water bodies.
Governments should NOT discriminate against any religion or race. In fact governments should provide special protection to minorities and allow them to flourish.
For leftists such as me, nationalism and patriotism are worthless ideas. In an ideal world, nations will not have borders restricting immigration, because it prevents an equal distribution of resources.
Leftists do not believe in Free Trade – they believe that this is calculated to promote the products of richer countries; and they believe it is anti-poor.
Leftists also believe in consumer protection.
Leftists are generally against capital punishment (the death penalty). They believe prisons should be reformed.
Leftists believe that corporate ownership of media is wrong.
Leftists oppose huge defense budgets; any aggressive war.

As an example, I oppose sending an Indian manned mission to the Moon – I believe it is a fruitless exercise of nationalism; and also that with that budget we can provide free primary education for all in India.

As you can see above, the broad thrust of leftist philosophies is based on the belief in human rights; the belief that humanity is a common brotherhood; and the belief that human nature is basically good and it is the duty of society to provide the right conditions for development. As Harold Lasky said “Liberty is that state in which a man can realize his full potential”.
Now ranged against these are rightists – but rightists do not share a common thrust as leftists do. A collection of groups challenged by leftist philosphies form rightists – such as
Religious right – these (in any country) consider their religion as threatened. They consider the leftist philosphy of secularism as evil and unacceptable.
The Corporations – these are challenged by regulation,and cannot fulfill their goal of profit maximization.
Capitalists – these consider the path to wealth fastest if government has a small role; and also consider any regulation of the market as dangerous.
Nationalists – these consider their nation to be exclusive; unique and exceptional. They pursue importance in world affairs and believe in geo politics as ameans of gaining power. They are challenged by the left’s denial of borders; promotion of immigration; and the assertion of universal brotherhood.
Racists – these are similar to nationalists.
Fascists – These believe in unbridled corporatism and militarism. They are challenged by the left’s insistence on human rights.
Libertarians – who believe in small government and zero regulation.
Colonialists and Imperialists – Those who believe that their countries have the right to attack and conquer resources (including labor and markets).

We should remember the following while staking out the above positions:
Leftists are organised in a spectrum – for example, progressives believe that in the fight, we do have the right to comment on certain indvidual beliefs – for example, a progressive has no problem saying a religious person should be corrected. A liberal would balk at this position because of its judgemental attitude. Leftists fight as fiercely among themselves as with rightists.
The United Nations (other than the Security Council) is organized in the principles of liberalism. The United Nations Charter is a good expression of liberal beliefs.
The constitution of India is based on liberal beliefs – Sections 36 to 41 of the constitution are called the Directive Principles of State Policy; these are clearly liberal.
Gandhians are leftists.
Nazis were rightist.
Some of the first laws passed by the Indian Parliament were for labor protection.
Most leftists agree that there should be a market – they just think it should be strictly regulated.

Given the above let us walk through the war over the last hundred years playing out all around the world.

The 20th Century and the War Against the Right
In the beginning of the 20th century most of the world was faced with wars; racism; unbridled capitalism; and colonialism under which a billion people lived. Meanwhile, Gandhi had started the Satyagraha in South Africa – he had expressed interest in civil disobedience.
Meanwhile the “suffargatists” were fighting for voting rights for women and all adults in the USA and Britain
Meanwhile there was an armed revolution in Russia and the establishment of the first Socialist state.
Meanwhile the First World War had started and ended killing millions. Fascism as a movement was born in Italy and Germany.
Meanwhile the Great Depression was under way in the United States.
It was obvious that the prevailing governance model in the world could not be sustained.
There was a global consciousness of community mobilisation – that people had to come together as a community and fight for their rights. In the USA, both the left and the right were organising well – the left for civil rights and desegregation and the right for racial purity.
It was at this time, as the USA was coming out of the depression that Roosevelt announced the New Deal. The New Deal basically established Social Security; more than that it was a giant acknowledgement of the leftist ideal that society has to share its resources equitably. With this, the developed countries started incorporating more and more socialist principles in their public policy.
The Right fought back – while it won some, it lost many. The Left won the battle for civil rights (for blacks) in the USA. The Left won abortion rights for women. The Right has tried to hit back at Social Security repeatedly – seeing it as opposed to capitalist ideals. But it has failed till now.
Most developed countries are more leftist than the USA – Sweden has tax rates upto 60% and provides free health care, free education and good public transportaion for all. Sweden, Canada and Newzealand have the best living standards among nations and have the highest Human Development Index.

The Corporations, on the other hand, have also tried to fight back; they lead the fight for Free Trade and Globalization. The World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – all have highly secretive unelected members and all have played havoc in developing countries with policies such as “Structural Adjustment”. The IMF policy of privatising education has directly led to the current plight of thousands of students in India. McKenzie consulting’s restructuring advice in Andhra Pradesh led to the thousand of farmer suicides there.
The Religious Right in the USA is now in direct alliance with corporations – the Right successfully mobilised voters to put George W. Bush in power.

Developing countries are trying to cut down on public expenditure – water was privatized in Bolivia; this caused riots to break out. Genetically Modified (GM) crops have been banned in most European countries – and still the Indian government appoves them.

Thus there is a global war going on, right now between the Right and the Left. In India, most people are not aware of this war. The Indian middle class has trite beliefs – that “Socialism is dead” even though it is the principle by which most Western governments are run.. They readily believe in the superpower myth created by the media. They do not understand what philosophies have survived; been proved good; and what have lost.


subbu said...

This is the post i was looking for all these days.A clear definition on all the -isms that matter.Thanks for that.

I would like to add one more to the list:
a leftist believes that there are two kinds of people in the world:
one obviously is leftists and all others are fanatics.

Sridhar said...


That was a good article. India as a culture wouldn't strongly subscribe to the right or the left, a small group of politicians could temporarily sway it one way or the other. For some 30 years since independence, it leaned towards socialism and now it is to the right. A reasonably sensible and assertive leader knows what and when to shift to the right or left. Nehru's socialism was probably the right thing at that time. So, was Rajiv, Narashimha Rao and Vajpayee's shift to the rigt. In the next thirty years it might be a combination of both.

Even during the time of socialism, Tatas could build a steel empire and also cared like a good government by setting up schools and hospitals in the remote parts of Bihar.

I had this bizarre dream this morning that Karnataka Government announces that all land dealings in the city shall be frozen; Don't ask me what it means, it was just a dream. The interesting part was Narayanamoorthy approves it as the right move to stop rising land costs while the media oppose it.

I am bit confused on things that are to the left like human rights. Let's talk about it when we meet.

- Sridhar
Visit my blog at

Ramiah Ariya said...

I do believe I have made clear two things:
1) The analysis only applies to people who are political. Most people go through life without being either leftist or rightist or being active in a political sense. So I would say among political people, there are two types: leftists and rightists.
2) Do I think all rightists are fanatics? No - I have again made it clear that there are also nationalists who clearly think they can do something for the nation (although they believe their nation is the greatest). Among political people, leftists have facts, history, logic and pure human decency on their side. That is the situation.

Ramiah Ariya said...

Thanks for commenting. My effort was to clarify where we stand in a global clash of ideas. I am just trying to place it in context as seen from a political science perspective. The better we understand ideas, the better informed we will be to make decisions and create change.
We will talk about this when I get back.

Peoples Movement said...


solidarity greetings to you.

It is a brilliant peice of work that gave us a down-to-darth simple analysis of a complex thing that too with historical perspective. Please do think of bringing this work into a good publication so that it reaches the masses. Developments in Latin American conttries, India are important to have a perspecitve on the neo-liberal economy in developing countries.