Just as a matter of pure political analysis, it has to be said that we are now entering the politics of “permanent revolution.” Gambling on demonetisation commits the government, one way or the other, to come up with new and radical moves with increasing frequency. If demonetisation fails, the government will have to come up with something equally radical to make up for this loss. If by some chance demonetisation is considered a partial success, it will whet the appetite for more gambling. Either way, expect new googlies from the government with increasing frequency, whether it is on expenditure or the taxation side or institutional reform proposals. The government has stepped on the escalator of seemingly radical disruption; it can only now continue on that path. Whether it is for good or for ill, we shall see.
These disruptions will have more than passing association with the language of permanent revolution. For Marx, permanent revolution was the thought that the working class pursues its interest without compromise. Except now the state will wear the mantle of a discourse where it will present itself above compromise. And the only way to establish this is disruption, often for the sake of it. This permanent revolution of the state will also have a Trotskyist feel to it. For Trotsky, permanent revolution was about force feeding history. It was about how one could create a socialist revolution where conditions for it did not pre-exist. Similarly, the nature of proposals: Cashless economy, for instance, will be about force feeding the march of history. The whole point of this form of politics is to immobilise those pedantic social questions about whether the preconditions exist for success.
Like all revolutionary talk, this doctrine will have nothing but contempt for all bourgeois institutional forms. The fact that there is no governing legislative or statutory provision for rationing money (as opposed to demonetisation of particular series), will not give anyone pause. There is no ordinance, no declaration of a financial emergency. That the RBI’s credibility has been severely decimated will not matter much. It should be truly alarming that a secretary to the government of India, by fiat, can stand up every morning and issue more than a hundred and fifty directives regarding your own money. In the history of independent India, we have not seen this arbitrary a use of state power when it comes to the sanctity of money. The promise on your note “I promise to pay the bearer a sum of X rupees” did not say “only if you keep it in a bank account or only if you withdraw a certain amount a day or spend it in a certain way or in the case of marriage withdrawals give it only to people who you can prove do not have a bank account.” Whatever your substantive moves on demonetisation, the fact that you have rationing without accountability, seems not to bother us. It is not an infringement of liberty or exercise of mad discretion. In the age of permanent revolution, law does not matter, form does not matter. Even the sovereign’s breaking of a promise does not matter; after all, if a sovereign promises, he can also withdraw the promise.
Like permanent revolution, there will be constant switch and bait. So, very subtly, the discourse from government is now shifting from unearthing black money to the fantasy of a cashless economy. The language of permanent revolution works by a constant mobilisation. First, it is mobilisation against anti-nationals. Then we had a new move: A seeming revolution in our Pakistan policy, a claim to a new form of surgical strikes. Never mind the fact that it has done nothing to diminish cross-border shelling and killing of both military personnel and civilians. But the revolution moves on to the next big act of total mobilisation. And there will be more to come. The opposition will be foolish to assume that we are now in an era of conventional politics, whether in form or substance. In fact, one of the challenges of permanent revolution is that combating it by the standard repertoire of arguments — the preconditions do not exist, the law might not permit it — comes across as nothing but an apology for the status quo. That is the magical alchemy that permanent revolution produces.
There will be a new moral language: Permanent revolution is always Janus-faced about the virtues of the people. On the one hand, the people can overcome the absence of initial conditions for a revolution. On the other hand, those who don’t will be enemies of the revolution, and therefore inherently suspect. We cannot decide whether the act of lining up in queues is an act of civic commitment on the part of citizens, or does it reflect widespread complicity and cheating. The revolution started out by declaring the people as virtuous; government directives then ended up declaring them cheats. Permanent revolution begins by appealing to virtue, it ends up using state power.
You hope to god some of this succeeds. For, permanent revolution, as it fails, is usually followed by war of some kind, the last switch and bait. We are a long way from that. But Marx’s warning may not be inappropriate. In the Holy Family he wrote of Napoleon, “Yet at the same time he still regarded the state as an end in itself and civil life only as a treasurer and his subordinate which must have no will of its own. He perfected the terror by substituting permanent war for permanent revolution. He fed the egoism of the French nation to complete satiety but demanded also the sacrifice of bourgeois business, enjoyments, wealth, etc whenever this was required by the political aim of conquest. If he despotically suppressed the liberalism of bourgeois society — the political idealism of its daily practice — he showed no more consideration for its essential material interests, trade and industry, whenever they conflicted with his political interests. His scorn of industrial hommes d’affaires was the complement to his scorn of ideologists. In his home policy, too, he combated bourgeois society as the opponent of the state which in his own person he still held to be an absolute aim in itself.”
So far we have only gone as far as declaring that the prime minister can even pronounce on what public opinion is, on his own app, by his own methodology. But soon the drumbeat of mobilisation will demand more. Uma Bharti is quoted as saying that Modi is fulfilling Marx’s ideas. Perhaps there’s more truth in that characterisation than we realised.