Friday, Oct 07, 2022

Colonialism, Neo-liberalism, and the Prime Minister

Why should one concern oneself with what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to say at Oxford when receiving an honorary D.Litt? Not just beca...

Why should one concern oneself with what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to say at Oxford when receiving an honorary D.Litt? Not just because he is the Prime Minister. True, what the Prime Minister of India has to say even on a quasi-academic occasion is not without significance. But then the speeches of heads of state are often drafted by overworked speech-writers liable to make the most appalling howlers, so ordinarily one does not get worked up over speeches made on such occasions.

The reason one has to take Manmohan Singh’s speech seriously is that, apart from being the Prime Minister, he is also the leading neo-liberal intellectual in the country. His speech is not an example of a faux pas committed by speech writer working against a deadline. It is an indication of neo-liberal thinking on the subject, and since the thinker is also the Prime Minister, it is an indication of the shape of policy which Manmohan Singh and others would like this country to follow.

But what, it may be asked, is wrong with his speech? He talked after all of the deleterious economic impact of colonial rule in India. And as regards his suggestion that modern universities, a professional civil service, research laboratories, ‘‘rule of law’’ and ‘‘a free press’’, all of which ‘‘we still value and cherish’’, were the result of India’s meeting the “dominant empire of the day”, hadn’t Karl Marx himself talked of the dual impact, including a ‘‘regenerating’’ one, of British rule in India? Indeed Manmohan Singh himself, or his staff, may well cite Karl Marx in his defence in the coming days if the furore over his speech begins to snowball. One may not even be surprised if Marx increasingly gets dragged, over the coming months and years, into the defence of the neo-liberal argument as a whole, since many on the neo-liberal bandwagon, not just here but in Washington DC as well, began their careers as Marxists of some description. It is imperative, right at the outset therefore, to rescue Marx from such possible abuse.

India did not ‘‘meet’’ the dominant empire of the day (as Manmohan Singh’s quaint phraseology suggests). India was conquered and colonised, her economy plundered, and her people as a whole, irrespective of class, converted for the first time into inferior beings in their own country. Whenever a materially superior mode of production subjugates an inferior one, it simultaneously brings to the latter advanced methods, technology, and practices. It does so not out of kindness, but as a fact of historical inevitability, independent of its own specific will and consciousness. The Spanish conquistadores decimated a large segment of the Amerindian population when they entered the New World, but at the same time brought to the victims the use of gun powder and firearms, not because they willed to do so but as a matter of historical compulsion. When Marx was talking about the ‘‘regeneration’’ of India under British rule, he was referring first of all to the fact that the material premises for India’s advance were being l aid down, though the actual advance on the basis of these premises could be realized only by the Indian people themselves, after they have thrown off the colonial yoke. Moreover, he was emphasising the fact that British rule was the unconscious agent of historical change, even while it was ‘‘dragging individuals and people through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation’’.

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To call this role of British rule in being an unconscious tool of history even as it ‘‘drags people through blood and dirt’’ an act of ‘‘good governance’’, a benign arrangement whose virtues even the subject people of India had apparently recognised and articulated during their freedom struggle, is not just an objectionable statement, but represents a basic confusion between the historical and the moral.

‘‘Good governance’’, to the understanding of any ordinary mortal (matters are different for neo-liberals as we shall see later), presupposes an intention on the part of the rulers to be “good”, which they carry out in practice. But every act of the British that was historically progressive in India, whether it is the laying down of the railways, or the founding of universities or the creation of a politically unified India under Pax Britannica, was meant to serve rapacious colonial interests. The bureaucracy was meant to provide the ‘‘steel frame’’ of a colonial state whose primary objective was to siphon off surplus from the Indian economy in the form of commodities that Britain could use. The universities were meant to provide the training ground for recruitment into this bureaucracy, and more generally into the ranks of an intelligentsia subservient to colonialism and acquiescing in colonial exploitation. The railways were meant to bind India firmly in the colonial division of labour. (Even Ian Macpherson, a Cambridge economic historian of no radical inclinations, argued many years ago that the main purpose of building the railways was the extraction of raw materials needed by Britain). And Marx who was so hopeful about the role of the railways in the ‘‘regeneration’’ of India, repeatedly also referred to the railways as being ‘‘useless’’ for the Indian people.

This paradox, of something vital for the ‘‘regeneration’’ of a people being at the same time ‘‘useless’’ for them, illustrates the distinction between the ‘‘historical’’ and the ‘‘moral’’. The fact that railways would help the regeneration of the Indian people was a historical inevitability; at the same time it was also a fact that the railways were built by the British for their own selfish interests and not for those of the Indian people for whom they were ‘‘useless’’. Not to see this distinction, to telescope the concept of ‘‘historically progressive’’ with the concept of ‘‘morally desirable’’ is the first basic flaw in Manmohan Singh’s argument.


The second flaw consists in glossing over the ‘‘blood and dirt’’ mentioned by Marx. Precisely because colonialism was not all about ‘‘doing good to the Indian people’’, precisely because even its historically progressive consequences were the unintended consequences of a fundamentally rapacious regime which dragged people through ‘‘blood and dirt’’, which unleashed famines killing millions (and congratulated its functionaries that tax collections in the famine-stricken districts had been kept up to the mark), which unleashed de-industrialisation and unemployment on a massive scale, and whose dispensation squeezed the peasantry to a point where the agrarian economy witnessed unprecedented retrogression; precisely for these reasons, to emphasise essentially its historically ‘‘progressive’’ consequences (quite apart from the fact that these consequences themselves are mistakenly interpreted as following from a benign will) is utterly illegitimate and callous.

To be sure, Manmohan Singh referred to Angus Madison’s estimates showing a sharp decline in India’s share of world income over the period of colonial rule, but that estimate per se says nothing about exploitation: it is silent on the question of whether India merely grew more slowly than the world, or whether India retrogressed when the rest of the world grew.

Of course, Manmohan Singh was speaking on an occasion when a degree of diplomacy had to be exercised and hence a litany of complaints against colonialism did not have to be provided. But diplomacy cannot excuse glossing over exploitation; and if mention of the latter had to be eschewed then there was no need for giving colonialism certificates for ‘‘good governance’’ either. Indeed Karl Marx’s writings on British colonialism, imbued as they are with a deep sense of history, are nonetheless full of a deep sympathy for the suffering of the Indian people, which one fails alas to find in Manmohan Singh’s speech.


All this, however, is not an oversight or a slip of judgement. It is a part of neo-liberal thinking in which the concept of ‘‘governance’’ is detached from exploitation. A ruthlessly exploitative regime according to this thinking can still earn kudos for ‘‘good governance’’. So, when Manmohan Singh praises the colonial regime for ‘‘good governance’’ he is actually being true to neo-liberal thought. We have so far seen why Manmohan Singh’s arguments should not be defended on any allegedly Marxian grounds. Let us now look at his argument as a sui generis representation of neo-liberal thought.

There are two basic premises of neo-liberal thought. First, no matter what the degree of inequality in society (which is a euphemism for exploitation), if the economy grows rapidly enough then the benefits of this growth are bound to ‘‘trickle down’’ to the lowest level, from which it follows that the focus of attention should be on growth and not inequality (read exploitation). Second, the way to promote growth is by creating the appropriate conditions for ‘‘enterprise’’ to flourish. And these include appropriate infrastructure, a set of well-defined bourgeois property rights, a legal system to enforce these rights (‘‘rule of law’’), political unity and stability, freedom and ease of movement of resources and capital, an efficient bureaucracy providing the right setting, and above all free markets. All this is captured under the rubric of ‘‘good governance’’.

It is a part of the logic of this thinking that ‘‘good governance’’ is detached from the fact of exploitation. Even a regime under which there is rapacious exploitation can be legitimately congratulated for providing ‘‘good governance’’ and the case would be made that with such ‘‘good governance’’ the edge of exploitation would bet blunted anyway.

There can be little doubt that the colonial regime built railways, introduced posts and telegraph, created a bourgeois legal system, created private property in land and other assets, and introduced free markets to a point where no country in the world can claim to have witnessed over any period in its history as much of a regime of free trade and free markets as colonial India prior to World War I. (Matters changed a little in the inter-war years under the triple impact of the Great Depression, the rising National Movement, and the declining position of Britain in the world economy). Britain did so for its own purposes, to further the exploitation of the Indian people. But to a neo-liberal it must represent ‘‘good governance’’.

Indeed Manmohan Singh’s argument in a curious way supports what the left has been saying all these years. We say that neo-liberalism is a means of recolonisation of the economy, of opening up our country to intensified exploitation by imperialism and its local collaborators under a new international regime, which is reminiscent of the old colonial order. Manmohan Singh vicariously agrees with this: we oppose neo-liberalism because it recreates the horrors of colonialism; he denies (implicitly) the horrors of colonialism because he supports neo-liberalism. His Oxford speech should serve to convince all who are skeptical that the struggle against neo-liberalism is but a continuation of our struggle for freedom.


Courtesy People’s Democracy, the journal of the CPI(M). The writer is an economist

First published on: 18-07-2005 at 12:00:00 am
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