Questioning the Underlying Structures of Property and Power is “Off the Table” – Vijay Prashad on Reality Asserts Itself (2/4)
In part two of Reality Asserts Itself, Paul Jay and Vijay Prashad discuss the limits imposed on questioning the roots of inequality and how those who own the majority of property set the terms for everyone else
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
We’re continuing our interview with Vijay Prashad. And you can find a full biography of Vijay somewhere down below the video player. But just to remind you quickly, Vijay is this year’s Edward Said Chair at the American University at Beirut. He’s written many books. His most recent is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.
Thanks for joining us again.
VIJAY PRASHAD, PROF. INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, TRINITY COLLEGE: Pleasure. Thank you.
JAY: So we left off with this idea that this book, Resurrection by Tolstoy, kind of shook you, you wrote me once, made you realize the limits of good intent. What was it? Like, you know, good intention paves the way to hell, the idea that this kind of notion that as long as you do something that makes you feel like you’re doing something good for the poor and all of this, you know, like, that’s enough, even though before your eyes nothing serious changes. But some people get to that point in their thinking, and then they decide, well, then all I can really do is look after myself, look after my family perhaps, maybe those close to me, but I can’t do anything else really about the rest of the world, so sort of to hell with it, except maybe some nice rhetoric. You didn’t come to that conclusion.
PRASHAD: You know, that conclusion is fair enough. I don’t judge somebody coming to that conclusion, because it’s a way to survive. A lot of people will say, I’m distressed with the world, I see that it’s not going anywhere, I see that any contribution from me is Band-Aid, notional, whatever. We’ll do some of it just to maintain our humanity, but then we’ll go ahead and live our lives, you know, the way we would like to. I don’t judge that. That’s–somebody wants to make that decision, that’s their decision.
I had a different road, largely because I think the disillusionment with liberalism came early in my life.
JAY: Let me quickly just go back again. Would you define liberalism as we’ll do what we can for the poor within a framework of modern capitalism, but I’m not going to question the framework of how things are owned and who has power, ’cause I’m not going to go there, either ’cause of my interests, my beliefs, or whatever? But, I mean, is that what you mean when you say liberalism?
PRASHAD: That’s a pretty good–that’s a very good definition. And, you know, of course, classical liberals will say it’s about, you know, having individual rights and individual freedoms, which actually amounts to the right of property to assert itself in the world. And so from classical liberalism you come back to exactly what you said, which is that if we say that property is inviolable, you cannot change the relations of property, in other words, we won’t question the foundations of capitalism, if we keep that off the table, all we can do is change a few things, make a few people happier. And, you know, again, given the context in which–how harsh the world is, it’s very hard to begrudge people from having a little joy in their lives.
JAY: Just sparks an idea in my head, and it’s a little bit off-topic, but it just makes me think of President Obama when he–on health care, everything’s on the table, of course, except that–
JAY: –how things are owned. When it comes to foreign policy, like with Iran, all my options are on the table, of course, except questioning empire. But let’s forget that [crosstalk]
PRASHAD: But that’s precisely the issue is that in general, liberalism says that changing the structures of the world, that’s off the table; everything else can be discussed.
But you’ve actually left off the most important aspect for discussion, which is how did things get here. And in that sense, the journey that I personally took, and, of course, others take–you know, people who move left take this journey, and the journey we take essentially is come to the root of the question why are things the way they are. I mean, that is why generally the word radical should be kept for the left. You can’t really have right-wing radicals, because radicalism in its origin means getting to the root of something. And typically the right don’t get to the root of things. You know, they want to keep the roots buried and deal with surface phenomena. But because there is a temptation in some of us to go to the root of the question, to ask the basic question–.
JAY: I’ll just–for the sake of any right-wing viewers, and we have some–hi. How are you? You occasionally write on our comments. They would counterargue their route is–and it’s hard for me to do, ’cause I’m not right-wing, but I would guess they say their route is human nature, then individual rights. They would say God, perhaps, a religious route. We don’t need to get all into that right now,–
PRASHAD: Okay. Let’s leave that aside, because–.
JAY: –but I take your point. Go on.
PRASHAD: Yeah, let’s leave that aside, because that is another debate about whether human nature is actually the root of anything. You know, it could very well be–.
JAY: I’m trying to give them a voice here. But go ahead.
PRASHAD: Fine, and welcome to their voice. That’s not my voice.
My voice is you ask why does something become the way it did does. And here the thinking of somebody like Marx is crucial, because Marx’s general approach to the world runs through what I would consider liberal ideology. I mean, one of Marx’s early books written with Friedrich Engels was The German Ideology, where they took the best mainstream thinking of the time in Germany, the best liberals, the best what in those years would have been socialist, utopian socialist, etc., they took the best thinkers, and they demonstrated how they were incomplete. They were not able to see what was driving, you know, inequality in the world. You know, Charles Dickens saw that there was inequality in the world, but what he didn’t necessarily see was why this was so, why this reproduced itself. And that was Marx’s project.
And that’s really the reason why I find Marx even today to be a earth-shattering approach. You know, his approach is earth-shattering to understand the world, because it suggests that if you go through liberalism, you can understand its incompleteness. And then if you try to understand how the system is operating, you can have a much more complete, much more robust picture. You can understand, for instance, how the fact that small numbers of people arrogate to themselves the right to hold property, you know, and because they hold property, they’re able to disenfranchise people and make people make judgments based on the fact that they have no property, so then I, having no property, have to come to you who have property and say, give me a job, and then you set the terms in which I’m employed.
You know, that is the root problem of how inequality is, you know, you know, constantly reproduced in our society, that those with property get to set the terms by which the rest of society live. And, you know, if you don’t come to that, if you don’t grasp that, which is the essence of Marxism, then you’ve not understood how we can constantly have discussions, every generation can have a discussion about what to do with poverty, you know, how to solve poverty. Can we raise enough money to solve poverty? Well, you can raise a lot of money, you can eradicate malaria, you can give to people, you know, a laptop computer, but they’re still not able to set the terms themselves of how they should live. And that is the core lesson of Marxism. Unless people are able to set the terms in which they can live, they’re not going to be free.
JAY: Okay. A lot of people listening to this, if you grew up particularly in North America and went through the Cold War, but not just the propaganda of the Cold War, but also the reality of what the Soviet Union was, became, this is not a place where one thinks of this kind of freedom you’re talking about. And, you know, in India, you know, growing up with the influence of the Soviet Union in books and there’s–you know, and for people that don’t know, there’s a very, very strong communist movement in India, and still is. I mean, there never really was a kind of Cold War in India like there was here, and the communist movement has various shades and types and ideologies, but it’s a big mainstream movement, essentially, that has power in various Indian states. But the Soviet Union is not a model in most people’s minds of any place they want to live. When does that become clear to you? And then what of it? What is the significance of what happened there?
PRASHAD: Well, you know, in India the approach toward the Soviet Union was very sophisticated. In the largest communist movement in India, the largest party, the Communist Party of India, Marxist, in 1964 when it was formed was formed decisively with the view that the Soviet Union isn’t, you know, the beginning and end of any kind of Marxist experiments, of communist experiments. It’s simply one approach. It’s one [incompr.] experiments with social reality. It’s not the path that should be followed. Moscow doesn’t determine what you do in India or in Indonesia or wherever. So in India there was a lot of space, there was a lot of latitude to understand that Marxism, communism were polycentric. They had many centers, many different experiences.
On the other hand, there was also, I think, a much fleshier understanding of the Soviet Union. You know, I didn’t grow up with the view of the Soviet Union as being the antithesis of history, you know, the worst possible set of arrangements. In fact, there were some things in the Soviet Union that we need to go back now and look at seriously, you know, for instance that much of what we consider the basic needs of society were socialized. Imagine in the United States if we were able to socialize the things that we now carry as private burdens. You know, we would not have so much economic difficulty.
I’ll give you a simple example. Right now, American workers have to bid up their wages so that American workers are much more expensive than workers in many parts of the world. You know, that is why corporations prefer to source their labor from outside the United States. There is no necessary reason for American labor to be this expensive. One of the reasons American labor is so expensive is that everything is privatized, you know, that I am responsible for insurance for transportation, for health care, for my children’s, you know, everything. So because everything is privatized, the bill is with me. So I have to bid up my wages. But imagine–.
JAY: If you can,–
PRASHAD: If you can. Exactly.
JAY: –’cause wages aren’t going very far.
PRASHAD: Exactly. Wages are not going–. So you put a lot of pressure on individual households to deal with the basic facts of life. If on the other hand we had excellent public transportation, decent health care, good schooling, you know, decent schooling, if these things were provided by the state, if there were some socialization of these things, then we would not need to bid up, you know, or put pressure on wages in order to survive. We could put pressure on wages because we want to have an imagination, we want to have more leisure, you know, we want to enjoy our lives, not just for survival. And that was a major advance in the Soviet Union.
Now, one of the great tragedies of the Soviet experiment was it was relatively humorless, that you had your basic needs taken care of, but leisure was not properly attended to, you know, joy was not properly attended to. You know, these are very important aspects of the Soviet experiment in the 1920s, where art was an important facet, where drama was important. The Soviet Union lost its ability to understand the importance of the imagination and of joy.
So I wouldn’t–I didn’t have the idea that the Soviet Union was all bad. I can say even now that there were sections of the Soviet experiment which are very important and I think need to be understood by people, which is that people should not have to work in order to survive. People can work and want to work harder for enjoyment and to enrich society.
JAY: But there’s also, I mean, if we’re going to get into it, we need to understand what went wrong in the Soviet Union. I mean, the economy started to ossify. The bureaucracy, not only did it get so centralized and corrupt in many cases; it was incapable of managing a modern economy, really, even though they had made great strides earlier. You know, the Soviet Union got to space first, and after getting–what is it?–27 million people killed after World War II, rebuilds relatively quickly. But the system starts to implode. And, you know, the Soviet Union didn’t fall because of external pressures primarily, and it wasn’t ’cause they went into Afghanistan primarily. You know, something wasn’t working there.
PRASHAD: Yeah. I mean, you know, it is illogical to assume that very small numbers of people can manage an entire economy. I mean, let’s take Libya or Cuba, societies were almost all economic activity was centralized around the state. You know, why should barbers, hairdressing salons be run by the state? You know, everything does not have to be run by the state. You know, very large sections of economic life should be released into the creativity of the population, and other sections of economic life should be cooperatized. You know.
I mean, increasingly in the West, as people find it harder and harder to run small businesses or don’t want to go and become a cog in a big corporation, increasingly we find more and more cooperatives emerging. You know, I saw some statistics about cooperatization in America. Very large growth in–not a large number of cooperatives, but the growth rate has been dynamic. These are ideas that we need to inject into a future sort of socialist kind of society where cooperatives have to play a big role. Some private initiative must be allowed.
JAY: Yeah, I agree with that. But if we go back to segment one, which we started talking about identity, there is the feeling in the West that you can assert your individual identity. Now, I say feeling ’cause a lot of it is you are a cog in the wheel at work, in–you know, there’s very few of us–and, you know, I’m one of the lucky ones, as are you. I mean, some of us are involved in creative work, where we get–to a large extent assert who we are. Most people at work don’t. You’re on an assembly line, or even if you are in management, you are a cog in a big corporation. But when you get home, you can choose your own music, you can do this. A lot of this sense of asserting identity is actually through consumerism. But still you have this feeling that you are free to do that, where in the Soviet Union, at least the outside perception of the Soviet Union was you weren’t, that you were only a cog in a big wheel. You know, when you get home, you could kind of do something with your family. Now, the truth is, I know in the Soviet Union most people actually had more connection to sophisticated culture than people do here. People listen to music–
PRASHAD: Classical music.
JAY: –and read and theater and the rest. But there was a feeling of grayness. I mean, I wasn’t actually in the Soviet Union, but I was in Eastern Europe several times, and, you know, when the wall fell, most people, I think, were more than happy it fell. They had all kinds of illusions about what was going to come next. And I don’t think a lot of of people, unless they cashed in on the privatization, are all that happy with what came next.
But that being said, socialism was supposed to do–you know, sort of do two things: liberate people’s productive potential, so you had this explosion of imagination and productivity–and in the final analysis it kind of didn’t; and two, it should give this balance between the collective good, which is supposed to create conditions for individual good and individual self-expression, and it kind of didn’t, unless you were in the elite.
PRASHAD: I agree. I mean, none of this will I disagree with.
What I take from the Soviet experiment was principally the precondition whose fruit was not realized socially, the precondition being that you should provide that basic necessity where people don’t feel that if I don’t go and take any job, I’m going to starve. You know, that has to be taken off the table for human beings. Human beings should know that we have advanced sufficiently over history, and we are capable of making sure that you have a basic, you know, livelihood available to you–medicine, transportation, etc. Now, please go out and work.
And by the way, this idea is not just in Marx. It was in John Ruskin, the art critic who greatly influenced Gandhi. In one of his books, called Unto This Last, Ruskin said that everybody in society should be paid exactly the same wage. Once you take that off the table, you will allow people to do what they want. They’ll find their place in the world.
Now, people say, well, but who’s going to clean the toilets? Well, Ruskin’s answer to that and Gandhi’s answer to that is everybody should do some level of menial work. It enriches our society. If you have even the most cerebral people joining in for cleaning, joining in, you know, to take care of the basic needs of society, everybody is addressed. I’m mean, you know, the Scandinavians used to talk about one reason to remove the day from an eight-hour day–previously it was unlimited, then ten-hour day, eight-hour day. Let’s move it to a six-hour day. So you work six hours at your job, you know, with your cerebral work, and then you got three hours to contribute, you know, cleaning up here or volunteering in the library, etc. There is a way in which you can contribute to society which is not monetarized, which is not about your wage.
JAY: And there were some attempts of that in China. There’s–I mean, with pretty limited success, I think. But let’s say. But let me go to one thing you say, ’cause I think this is, in terms of why socialism didn’t work in the Soviet Union–and I think it’s still a weakness in Cuba, and I don’t know where this came from–why on earth should everybody get paid the same? The range, obviously, like, between a manager at a worker has to be within limits. But I know when I was, you know, in Eastern Europe and I did a film there, and one of the greatest complaints of workers was: that guy over there sits on his ass all day long, and nobody can fire him ’cause it’s like a guaranteed job. I work like a dog, and we get paid the same. You know what? I’m not going to work either. And in fact productivity started to go down. And the same thing. Like, I mean, I want to go to Cuba and do a series there, and my first question’s going to be: why the hell can’t you guys feed yourself?
PRASHAD: But, Paul, let’s put it this way. I agree with you that incentives are very important. And I think the Soviets in the darkest period of their history, when they had to build their productive capacity, decided to make incentives about praising the great worker, [[email protected]’kAnoUwaIt], you know, that kind of thing. He’s the–who is going to be the greatest worker? It’s a little bit like, say, Walmart, where you have worker of the week, worker of the day, worker of the hour.
JAY: Yeah, the whole idea was moral incentives, not material incentives.
PRASHAD: Yeah, exactly.
JAY: ‘Cause somehow that’s going to corrupt you and turn you into a capitalist.
PRASHAD: Yeah. I–.
JAY: Can I just add one thing? The elites of the party always got paid very well, and if they didn’t get paid well, boy, they ate well.
PRASHAD: Yeah. So these were actual problem. But let’s deal with the question of incentive. How do you create incentives in the world? I mean, I feel like in the places like Cuba or the Soviet Union, you know, history or these revolutions never took place in societies of affluence. They took place in societies of deprivation. And in Marxist theory, until the 1880s, when Marx began to, you know, having understood Russia, understood the populace, began to change his mind a little bit, until then, Marx assumed that the major revolutions would happen in places of, you know, plenty, in Germany, England.
JAY: They said socialism has to be built in advanced capitalist countries.
PRASHAD: Absolutely. So in a place of plenty, then you can transform the social relations. But in a place of deprivation, it’s very difficult. So I understand that there are some material constraints that the Soviets face, which is why one has to [incompr.] as you say, the question of productivity is a central question. The question of incentives is a central question. If there was a standard of living available to everybody, then, you know, you may not have to say in a factory, we need to rush the assembly line, especially in a society today where in factories robots are running the assembly line. You know. So our question now is separate from the question that the Soviets had to face in the ’20s, ’30s, etc., where you had–.
JAY: But it was something deeper than that, ’cause they could have afforded a modest difference. Someone who works hard gets A, someone who works B gets a little less, and someone who sits on their ass gets even less.
PRASHAD: But Soviets, they didn’t have only one salary.
JAY: For workers? Yes they did.
PRASHAD: They had a range.
JAY: No, not for workers. Workers, if I understand it correctly, everybody at one level got the same. Management got slightly more.
PRASHAD: Ah, yes. Okay.
JAY: But the point here is that workers were demotivated. And it was all from this idea that you could only have moral incentives, ’cause if you had a material incentive, then you’re–.
PRASHAD: You corrupt people.
JAY: Well, you’re [incompr.] capitalist ideology. Again, it’s hypocrisy, because the elites did get more. But Marx never even said that. Marx said from each according to their work.
JAY: He never said everybody should [crosstalk]
PRASHAD: I would say that what if everybody in each society–.
JAY: To each according to their work, I should say.
PRASHAD: Yeah. What if everybody in the society, you know, bosses down to workers, let’s say, got within a very narrow range? I don’t exactly accept the view that incentives are either material, in other words more money, or that they’re moral. I think that there are other incentives that are possible.
PRASHAD: You know, that there are incentives of understanding that you work because you like your work. I mean, you know, it’s a problem of–.
JAY: Well, yeah. I’ll tell you, at The Real News, that’s the motivation. It sure ain’t money.
PRASHAD: Exactly. I mean, look, most of the things that I do, many of the places I write for, I don’t get paid for. I do it because I love it. So the question isn’t how to, you know, make you work harder; the question is we have a very poor system of people finding jobs that they like. Why? Because right now that basic substratum of needs is not taken care of, so people have to take these jobs whose principles are determined by property owners, so that Amazon or whoever it is will determine what your job is going to look like. You have no role to play in fashioning your job. You know.
And what I’m very interested in in these new collective forms of work that are emerging is people are trying to construct, you know, interesting ways of developing their incentives. You know, in Northampton there is a collective that picks up your trash. They are called the Pedal People. They ride bicycles to people’s homes. They’ve rigged up, you know, a certain device to put trash out. And then they bicycle it to the dump. They do this in the rain, in the winter, you know, right through the year.
Now, what’s the incentive to go pick people’s trash? They have an ecological vision. They have an understanding of what they’re doing. You know, one day I accidentally put a lightbulb in my trash. I got an email from them saying, you can’t put a lightbulb in your trash. You know, they have–they are inspired to work for something greater than morality. They are not judged. They don’t judge each other, necessarily. And by monetary incentive. But they have a vision of what they’re doing. They determined the way they want to work. You know, they have conversations with each other.
JAY: But the thing is, people have to come to that voluntarily,–
JAY: –and you can’t tell other people, you must work this way and you’re going to get paid all the same, and if you don’t, you’re, you know, like, disloyal or something.
PRASHAD: Well, you know, it’s a debate about how social change of this magnitude happens. You know, what we’re seeing in the United States or in Western Europe or in India, the development of small collectives, these are at a very small scale.
JAY: Okay. We’re going to completely switch topics in the next segment, because this is the beginning of the discussion, and it’s a big discussion, and it kind of picks up a little bit with what we were talking about with Chris Hedges in the last series we did. Hedges said in one article the biggest weakness of the left is they haven’t articulated a viable vision of socialism for America, or you can extrapolate the same thing for Canada or anywhere else, most other places, for that matter. I think that discussion is going on a little bit more concretely in Latin America right now. And I don’t know if it’s happening much anywhere near the Latin American level in other places. But it’s a whole ‘nother conversation, and we’re going to have it. And Vijay, I hope, is going to come back before he heads off back to–goes to Beirut. If not, we’ll do it on WebCam.
But we’re going to switch topics for the next segment, and what we’re going to talk about is Mr. Manning and his convictions. But more importantly, we’re going to talk about the lessons of the Nuremberg trials and the issue of international law and do we have international law anymore. And this is a topic that Vijay has spent a lot of time on. And so we’ll also help you get to know a little bit more about him.
So please join us for the next segment of Reality Asserts Itself with Vijay Prashad on The Real News Network.
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