Posts Tagged ‘India’

The body shop

July 11, 2014

From a feature article in last Sunday’s New York Times:

In an era of globalization, the market for children crosses national borders; witness the longtime flow of Americans who have gone overseas to adopt babies from South Korea, China, Russia and Guatemala.

Other than the United States, only a few countries — among them India, Thailand, Ukraine and Mexico — allow paid surrogacy. As a result, there is an increasing flow in the opposite direction, with the United States drawing affluent couples from Europe, Asia and Australia. Indeed, many large surrogacy agencies in the United States say international clients — gay, straight, married or single — provide the bulk of their business…

Together, domestic and international couples will have more than 2,000 babies through gestational surrogacy in the United States this year, almost three times as many as a decade ago.

What, if anything, is to be made of such developments?

A little more than a decade back, a succession of startling innovations in biotech, the turn of a new millennium and Clinton’s ‘New Economy’ boom together spawned a potboiling genre of fanciful prognoses, fretful futurology and journalistic speculation on the fate of the ‘body’, marriage and parenthood, and human reproduction.

This was a publishing bubble of airport literature and Kulturkritik, which various eminences did not eschew.

Habermas Future of Human Nature

Around the same time, Foucault’s ‘biopolitics’ was rediscovered by the Anglophone academy, a narrow seam contributing another rich source of mischief and vapidity for cultural studies.

In the midst of this scene, in 2001 Duncan Foley delivered a clear-eyed scholarly lecture on economic growth and demography. In it, he anticipated the new century bringing ‘opportunities and pressures’ for what he termed ‘reproductive arbitrage’.

The latter, he suggested, would ensue in a world where sub-replacement fertility prevailed in the ageing metropolitan economies, alongside a demographic floodtide of human misery elsewhere, as much of the globe experienced industrial growth insufficient to absorb its massive, stagnant ranks of young and prime-age people into employment.


Planet of Slums - Mike Davis

This reproductive arbitrage — a ‘global market for children’, buying where cheap and selling where coveted, at a premium — would, he pointed out, be something novel.

It was to be distinguished from the traditional migration of underutilized reserves of labour from remote hinterlands to the industrial centre.

The twentieth-first century, at its dawn, heralded a ‘sharp polarization between countries with rich ageing populations which cannot reproduce themselves and countries with poor, younger populations which are growing’:

Productive arbitrage opportunities will arise because the rich countries will have chronic shortages of labour and surpluses of capital, while poor countries will have chronic shortages of capital and surpluses of labour. Arbitrage suggests either the movement of capital to the poor countries through foreign investment, or the movement of labour to the rich countries through migration…

Reproductive arbitrage opportunities will arise because of the tendency for poor countries to specialize in producing children, as the rich countries specialize in producing wealth. Thus, we can expect an explosive growth in the trade in reproduction and its associated services like surrogate parenthood, adoption, and the provision of child-care services between older, richer countries and younger, poorer countries. We have also begun to see the early stages of this phenomenon already.

As its clients have multiplied, treatment of the gestational-surrogacy market by the popular media has been equivocal.

Amid warm applause for the realization of parental dreams long held, misgivings are voiced, shortcomings admitted. Queasiness rarely rises, however, to the level of outright reproach, rejection or, least of all, investigation of underlying causes.

Prurience of the ‘Octomom’ variety carries its share of denunciation and spite, of course. But few right-thinking people would see fit to deny that the technology and ‘bioethics’ of assisted reproductive procedures are the chief matters at stake: philosophy, of a sort, rather than politics.

‘Regulation’, by vigilant international NGOs if not local authorities, is the prescribed salve.

(Not yet accustomed to the ways of the world, earlier journalistic treatment of ‘traditional’ surrogacy [insemination with sperm rather than embryo] was, in the 1980s and 1990s, rather more stringent in its scrutiny of market participants and their claims.)

Typically less given to delicate euphemism, the gurus and think tanks of the libertarian right have maintained a cautious silence on surrogacy’s cosmopolitan turn. Perhaps wary of upsetting a precarious apple cart, they are more likely to have found intervention unnecessary.

Inferences can, however, be drawn from past forthright statements.

In 1977, Judge Richard Posner notoriously proposed ‘legalizing a market for babies’. Affecting bemusement at the outraged response that greeted this calculated provocation, Posner observed in his own defence, and with some justification, ‘we have legal baby selling today… I simply think it should be regulated less stringently than today.’

The University of Chicago’s Richard Epstein, in a 1995 paper on surrogacy and contract law, complained that ‘condemnation of any transaction as “baby-selling” is all too often treated as a conversation stopper’.

A more phlegmatic outlook was called for.

Surrogacy’s ‘commercial aspects’ were ‘a regrettable but necessary part of transactions that yield enormous nonquantifiable benefits to the biological father and his wife, and to their friends and family who have comforted them during their years of anxiety and distress’:

The ability of individuals to handle these transactions with sensitivity and discretion is not precluded because money changes hands. Indeed the success of the venture may be aided if the money allows skilled professionals to ease the transition of both sides.

Meanwhile the industry of international adoption receives promotional services from the likes of Harvard Law School’s Elizabeth Bartholet.

Foley’s remarks were little more than an aside, to which, as the phenomenon he identified has since grown, detail can be added.

What circumstances underpin the global specialization of reproductive tasks, linked increasingly by commercial transactions undertaken for profit?

Relative prices and jurisdictional peculiarities play their part (an Indian surrogate at the most internationally renowned clinic in Gujarat is fortunate to receive a fee of $6500, some others as little as $800, while their North American counterparts fetch around $30 000. Merely donating ova, if their source is an Ivy League graduate, itself attracts $20 000).

Fertility rates are inversely related to female labour-force participation (and per capita output), lifetime births per woman being highest where female paid employment is least, and the costs of child rearing (education, medical care, foregone wages) smallest.

Malnutrition causes half of all Indian women to be anaemic. Nearly half of all Indian children under three are underweight and undersized, and maternal mortality (around 200 per 100 000 live births) is estimated to kill 80 000 Indian women each year, contributing with Nigeria around a third of the world’s annual maternal deaths (most from anaemia, haemorrhage or uterine rupture, eclampsia and septic abortion).

A bare half of all Indian childbirths are attended by skilled health personnel (the figure is around 80% for Indonesia, and 99% for China).

Why is it that ‘poor countries’, seemingly so ill-suited for the task, should today have come to ‘specialize in producing children’ for the industrially developed zones of the planet?

‘Reproduction’ arises as a topic in classical political economy (Smith, Ricardo, Marx) because of the peculiar character of that productive input known as human labour.

The latter is not (as are capital goods) produced as a direct commodity via the capitalist system of production; nor (like land, minerals and similar resources) garnered freely from nature; but must instead be born, reared, trained and socialized, in the domestic household or elsewhere, before it can be hired on the market as employable labour-power.

Thus, in the view of classical political economy, labour supply is induced by demand, growing or shrinking according to demand for employees at a given real wage, caused by variation in productive investment.

Over a few decades, labour supply is flexible or elastic, because employers seeking workers may tap in to external sources (idle pools abroad drawn in as immigrants) or underutilized domestic sources (the unemployed, housebound women, etc.).

Conditions in the slums and shanty towns of today’s Delhi, Jakarta, Lagos, São Paulo, Karachi, Kinshasa, Dhaka, Istanbul and Cairo may thus be compared to those of Henry Mayhew’s London.

In early Victorian times, Britain’s industrial revolution had breached Malthusian limits, detonating population growth and urbanization that, for the moment, outstripped the pace of fixed-capital accumulation and demand for employees.

The London streets of 1840 therefore teemed with petty vendors and sole proprietors (fruit sellers, flower stalls, artisans, prostitutes) whose meagre inventories and simple tools of the trade were of a scale measly enough to be owned by a single precariously placed individual or family, hawked and peddled by day and carried home at night.

With the available workforce more plentiful than the needs of capital owners required, human life came cheaply and the necessities of subsistence were procured in haphazard, opportunistic fashion, as described vividly by Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor, and captured in the crowded tenements of Dickens’s fiction.

Despite rapid growth in productivity, British real wages remained stagnant throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, its urban hordes preserving slack in the labour market.

The Rookery St. Giles's 1851

Nearly two centuries later, in today’s Britain and other advanced economies, shrinking working-age cohorts (15-64 years) support relatively large economically inactive cohorts of the elderly and infirm.

In this metropolitan core, most strikingly in Europe and Japan, mechanization of production has caused output-capital ratios eventually to fall, as the stock of factories and equipment accumulates more rapidly than the number of available employees.

Labour productivity and output-capital ratios in the OECD

Labour productivity over time (US) and space (world)

Beyond the frontiers of the OECD, however, in the less industrially developed countries whose populations comprise the overwhelming majority of the world, Mayhew’s vista of scrounged livings now predominates.

In today’s official lexicon, it is designated as the ‘informal economy’.

Ninety-three percent of the Indian workforce, and 85 percent of the non-farm workforce, is deployed outside the organized corporate or state-owned sector in tiny household enterprises.

These marginal hundreds of millions of South Asian ‘self-employed’ and sub-contractors, whose low business revenue and few tangible assets makes them uncreditworthy to formal lending sources, provide the social infrastructure for those microfinance initiatives that so capture the hopes of well-meaning left-liberals abroad.

More importantly, such vast pools of urban misery — propelled out of the countryside by the Green Revolution, into cities where insufficient investment exists to draw them into paid employment — form a latent reserve of potential employees, thus keeping a ceiling on wage growth.

In Africa, South Asia, Latin America, West and Southeast Asia, low labour productivity corresponds to lesser capital intensity (fewer tangible assets used per worker), high output-capital ratios and a younger population.

Indian agricultural, construction, pottery and textile workers thus perform manual labour whilst their more productive counterparts abroad are assisted by machinery and equipment.

The capital-labour ratio in India is less than one-tenth its level in the United States. The resulting difference in labour productivity yields a stark income divergence: India’s average real wage is one-twentieth that of the USA.

In these circumstances, with the postcolonial prospect of secular ‘development’ and improved living standards having long since receded, those offering otherworldly salvation and similar religious consolations have naturally thrived.

In India, appeals to the devout, and invocations of Hindutva, have multiplied under the impeccably business-minded administrations of Rao, Manmohan Singh and Modi. BJP and Congress alike truckle to local piety while catering to foreign creditors.

Typically backed as an anti-left bulwark by the local security apparatus, favoured as a counterweight to unruly secular nationalism by imperialist intelligence services, and firmly planted in the soil of matrimonial and sexual conservatism, such confessional movements, of whatever stripe, have not looked favourably upon the entry of women to paid employment, female enrolment in public schooling and other novel social roles.

Along with these superstitious revivals, the persistence of archaic social relations  debt bondage, small farms and petty proprietorships, landlordism and sharecropping, patriarchal tyranny, hereditary caste occupation, and various other forms of labour tying  tends to encourage precocious marriage sealed by dowry, relatively early age of first pregnancy, reduced spacing of births and high birth rates.

Nearly half the female Indian population is illiterate; fewer than half receive secondary education.

The wealthier Indian states  Maharashtra, Haryana, Gujarat, Punjab — have the most imbalanced sex ratios, with sex-selective foetal reduction facilitated by imaging technology. The practice of female-specific abortion therefore increased from the 1990s.

Yet the origin of commercial surrogacy in India, Thailand and the former Soviet republics is not simply the penury and devastation internal to these countries, enormous though these are.

The ‘market for children’ depends upon economic and jurisprudential developments pioneered in the advanced regions of North America, Europe, Northeast Asia and the Antipodes.

Trails of commodification are blazed in California.

There, the presence of an advanced biomedical-university complex, a favourable judicial environment, and cultural deregulation to make the rest of the United States blush, have placed the state at the forefront of proprietary and contractual developments governing human somatic material, as well as probate and family law (disputes over inheritance and parental rights).

Efforts by universities and research hospitals to secure intellectual-property claims to their research findings, and to patent the research tools (including biological material) used in obtaining them, have spurred the process.

Moore v Regents of the University of California (1990)  establishing that a patient or donor had no claim to profits derived from use by recipients of his or her own harvested or extracted tissues, cells or gametes  encouraged resort to sperm and ovum donations, and sped development of the ‘oocyte economy.’

The ruling in this case explicitly referred, as a foremost consideration, to its implications for biomedical research, the judges dutifully genuflecting before the needs of industry.

Similarly, to facilitate the practice of IVF, sperm donors are legally held to have relinquished parental rights over biological offspring born as a result of artificial insemination. Californian judges have found that gestational hosts do likewise, in order that surrogacy arrangements should proceed without a hitch.

It is in Sacramento, rather than Ahmedabad, that authorities have been asked to rule on the ownership and disposition of frozen embryos.

And it is in the beating heart of world capitalism that a 1996 article in a legal journal could announce that gestational surrogacy had brought about the ‘demise of the unitary biological mother’. (Its author is now a ‘philanthropy consultant’ who ‘helps charities and brands secure celebrity support for cause-marketing campaigns and fundraising events.’)

Ivy League egg donors


This image of divided maternity (‘demise of the unitary mother’) furnishes an almost parodic example of the fragmentation that follows from commodification or rationalization, as described in the Marxist and Weberian traditions.

Once an activity (such as human sexual reproduction) is drawn into the sphere of production for the market, or a need is supplied as a commodity, the division of labour splits it apart into its specialized aspects or components.

‘Reproductive arbitrage’ and the ‘market for children’, therefore, are symptoms of what Arlie Hochschild calls the ever-advancing commodity frontier, the encroachment of commodity production and the capitalist sector upon ever more elements of human life.

Activities once performed by individuals or households for their own use, for satisfaction of their own needs with both the labour and its output free of monetary cost — become services available for purchase on the market, in return for payment.

The ‘relinquishing of family functions to the market realm’ is hardly novel. The role of the domestic household as a production unit that self-provisions has ebbed for several centuries, its scope annexed and chiselled away since at least Britain’s Agricultural Revolution.

Few households now cultivate their own crops, educate their own children, spin and weave their own textiles, or construct their own houses. Responsibility for all these activities has been transferred to the capitalist sector or the state.

A few residual tasks remain for unpaid housework: the final stages of food preparation, childcare for infants and preschoolers, some custodial care of school-age children, cleaning of residential premises, etc.

The waning role of the domestic sector  and the transfer of production to a capitalist sector that can introduce efficient new techniques, raise productivity and realize economies of scale  has meant a degree of liberation from isolation and household drudgery, freeing up women for paid employment and other social roles.

Yet Hochschild, since The Managed Heart (1993), has drawn attention to recent new incursions by the market into the domestic household, in the fields of emotional intimacy, affective display and attachment.

With supply of these to customers now yielding a profitable return, employees, especially in ‘hospitality’ or service occupations, are obliged to convincingly demonstrate emotion: the solicitousness of the waiter, the empathy of the care worker, the conviviality of the flight attendant, the cheerful verve of the tour guide.

Emotional labour ‘requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.’

Such transactions may be extended, Hochschild has noted, to ‘outsourcing’ (from independent contractors or employees) family functions traditionally performed by women, as mothers and wives, within the domestic household: cook, teacher, nurse, nanny, but also provider of emotional support, companionship and sexual partnership.

Intimacy may be purchased either in spot markets or by entering into long-term bilateral arrangements, with previous methods of attracting mates and forming pair-bonds having now dissolved or become too time-consuming,

A ‘familial role’ is ‘shown to be divisible into slivers, a whole separated into parts.’

Here, too, efficiency gains are made from turning tasks over to dedicated specialists:

Especially in its more recent incarnation, the commercial substitutes for family activities often turn out to be better than the “real” thing. Just as the French bakery may make bread better than mother ever did, and the cleaning service may clean the house more thoroughly, so therapists may recognize feelings more accurately. Even child care workers, while no ultimate substitute, may prove more warm and even–tempered than parents sometimes are.

Thus, in a sense, capitalism isn’t competing with itself, one company against another. Capitalism is competing with the family, and particularly with the role of the wife and mother.

Recoil, if it occurs here, is surely inspired not just by dread of the ersatz, but from threatened fulfilment of the bleakest Frankfurt School visions of the ‘exchange principle’ making human beings fungible and interchangeable.

In the banalization sought by use of the term ‘sex worker’, there is a caricature that mimics and nullifies the earlier hopes of women’s liberation, in the guise of realizing those aspirations.

To be sure, demands to revise the family, and disrupt standard reproductive arrangements, have long featured as a staple in visions of social transformation.

But surrogacy in a dingy Gujarati basement dormitory, or a gleaming Californian clinic, is far indeed from the sexual and matrimonial innovations proposed for Fourier’s phalanstère, Bacon’s New Atlantis or Campanella’s City of the Sun, let alone Firestone’s utopia of ‘artificial reproduction’ and parthenogenesis.

The relationship of gestational host to client is less novel than supposed, as made clear in an anecdote from Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self:

I didn’t want her to think of me as this big rich American coming in with my money to buy her womb for a while. So I did touch her at some point, I think, her hair or her shoulder. I tried to smile a lot.

Through the interpreter I told her, “I am very glad and grateful you are doing this.” I explained that we’d tried to have a baby but couldn’t. I told her not to worry for herself; she would be taken care of. I asked her about her own child.

She didn’t look at ease. It was not the unease of, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” but more the unease of the subordinate meeting her boss.

Of course, the precise relationship is rather presumptuously misspecified: the surrogate is a commercial subcontractor, not an employee. The contracting parties, holding all cards, are the surrogacy clinic and its commissioning clients.

World capitalism is capable of accommodating, and indeed of promoting, those survivals of domestic servitude and patriarchal terror that assist the growth of its latest production lines. The hereditary dynasty of Nehru, not to speak of the lineages of Bush and Clinton, attest to an official capacity for preserving the atavistic: inherited charisma, or family branding, at the head of the bureaucratic state.

Maintenance of a servile pool of Indian women (contractually denied any right to abortion, etc.) thus serves roughly the same social function as does existence of the idle, squandered two billion or so human beings wasting away, on standby, in the slum workshops of Asia’s informal sector, and in the continent-sized skid row of Africa: exiled from capitalist employment yet useful to employers.

Liberal capitalist societies, in ideal form, prohibit certain market transactions (e.g. the sale and purchase of human beings, contracts of indentured servitude).

They offer thereby a more limited scope for commodity exchange than do slave-owning societies. When the Roman civil code was rediscovered in the High Middle Ages, and used as the foundation for European commercial law, a good deal of antiquated material relating to trade in slaves had perforce to be discarded by the glossators.

However, it is a commonplace of Marxist thought that capitalist property relations tend, by their nature, to expand into every available territory, occupy each vacant line of production, and invade any vulnerable social nook. Commercial transactions, and property rights, thus tend to encompass more domains of existence than ever before.

This may be most apparent in the industries of health, physical embellishment and body transformation: repair, modification, procreation and enhancement.

What types of entities and powers may legitimately be alienated, surrendered under the profit motive, or acquired by payment? What parts of the body, or human capabilities, have recently lapsed into chattel status, and may validly be transacted in the market; which of them are murky?

While the United States’ National Organ Transplant Act (1984) forbids the sale or purchase of vital organs for ‘valuable consideration’, some philosophers have recently advocated legalization of payment for kidney sales; another salutes ‘commodification of human body parts’ and, indeed, ‘universal commodification.’

The attitudes of some, it has elsewhere been remarked, betray ‘an underlying fear of treating the human body, or the cellular material that will develop into a human being, as the personal property equivalent of cars or television sets.’ This, ‘although perhaps justifiable on moral grounds’, is unhelpful. All rights, ultimately, flow from proprietary interests.

Thus speaks the wisdom of the age.

It brings to mind the young Marx’s description of the ‘power of money’, which Adam Smith had said conferred the ‘power to command’ labour and the products of labour.

As the productivity of human labour increases, the fruits of the entire world are brought within the grasp of the wealthy, who can through spending remedy all deficiencies:

That which is for me through the medium of money  that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy)  that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my  the possessor’s  properties and essential powers.

Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.

am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness its deterrent power  is nullified by money.

I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame.

I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest.

I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever?

Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, connecting me with nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, also the universal agent of separation? It is the coin that really separates as well as the real binding agent.


The organisation of work and property ownership in India

September 26, 2011

Here’s an interesting article from Deepankar Basu and Amit Basole of the economics department at UMass Amherst.

At times it is a little confused (among other things, Basole is plainly influenced by Lohia’s thinking on industrialization, and Basu not). Past and current debates about Maoism are never far away.

But it tends to let facts speak for themselves, not getting bogged down in the usual pro- or anti-Naxalite boilerplate. Thus it contains a great deal of information about the nature of property holding and unpaid surplus labour in India’s agrarian and urban ‘informal’ sectors.

Indian enterprises

Those characteristics reveal, for contemporary India as for any other human collective, ‘the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state’:

One of the striking features of contemporary Indian capitalism is the predominance, both in agriculture and in industry, of small-scale production. In 2003, 70 percent of all operational holdings in Indian agriculture were less than 2.5 acres in size, with another 16 percent between 2.5 and 5 acres; around half of the produce from these small holdings is kept for family consumption while the other half is sold in the market. Similarly, informal manufacturing is dominated by petty proprietorships, which typically has an owner-employer and an unpaid worker (usually a family member); a large number of such firms neither employ wage labour nor are part of a putting-out system. Thus, while production for subsistence and for sale on small, unviable plots is a key characteristic of the agrarian scene, petty commodity production (or simple commodity production) marked by low productivity and income seems to be a pronounced feature of the non-farm economy. The vast majority of the Indian poor shuttle between these two.

Here, in the miserable tedium of ‘self-employment’ within the small workshop, household plot or home-based production, bound to the tyranny of the domestic patriarch or the local moneylender, is the reality behind journalistic effusions about ‘India’s growing middle class’.

handloom weaver

Quotas and sandal queens

September 12, 2011

Amusing revelations come, from a leaked US State Department cable, about the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Mayawati is best-known internationally for adorning Lucknow with tens of thousands of statues of B.R. Ambedkar, elephants (her party’s symbol) and herself.

Labourers rest under elephant statues made of stone inside the Ambedkar memorial park in the northern Indian city Lucknow

Such icons of recognition and cultural esteem are the fruits of measures supposed to ‘uplift’ India’s Dalits, other scheduled castes, women, ‘backward’ tribes and minorities such as Sikhs and Muslims.

These measures include the reservation system, which allots quotas for parliamentary representation, education and civil-service positions.

The State Department cable thus says much, even if not directly, about many political currents  such as those derived from the social-democratic thought of Ambedkar and Rammanohar Lohia  which see advancing the oppressed through quotas, and the ‘politics of presence’, as the immediate desideratum of political activity.

India’s reservation system is a legacy of reforms made during the latter decades of British colonialism.

Successive viceroys and colonial secretaries used divide-and-rule strategy in the guise of assisting ‘depressed’ layers of society, and of protecting minorities from majority tyranny.

The Indian Councils Act 1909 reserved seats for Muslims in the Imperial Legislative Council. Growth of the All-India Muslim League, a circle of intellectuals which later agitated for partition of the Two Nations, dates from this period.

In 1932 Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald responded to Ambedkar’s statement of claims at the Round Table Conferences with the Communal Award, which reserved separate electorates for Muslims, Sikhs and Dalits.

This led to the famous dispute between Ambedkar and Gandhi, in which Gandhi, to protest dilution of the Hindu vote, begun a fast unto death, only averted by the Poona Pact. (Ambedkar later described Gandhi’s blackmail as ‘a foul and filthy act… the worst form of coercion.’)

Subsequently Ambedkar helped to draft India’s federal constitution and reservation was incorporated as a foundation of Indian political life.

According to the 2001 census, Scheduled Castes and Tribes make up around 24 percent of India’s population.

Especially in the states of South West India and Uttar Pradesh, they form a pool of servile manual labourers in the agricultural sector, bonded workers at stone and slate quarries, open mines and brick kilns, and as handloom weavers, fishermen and potters.

There is little incentive for employers to mechanize these production tasks so long as labour is cheap and plentiful. Dalit workers thus split rocks with hammers and chisels rather than with loaders and excavators made by Caterpillar or Komatsu.

This servile layer is demarcated, and the system of hereditary occupations enforced, by pollution taboos, endogamy, violence and terror, and ‘the dogma of predestination’.

The latter, of course, denies a key bourgeois right: the individual’s ability to determine his or her own life course.

In Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar identified the economic imperative behind the emergence of this fundamental Enlightenment tenet, enshrined by Jefferson in the US Declaration of Independence:

Social and individual efficiency requires us to develop the capacity of an individual to the point of competency to choose and to make his own career. This principle is violated in the caste system in so far as it involves an attempt to appoint tasks to individuals in advance – selected not on the basis of trained original capacities, but on that of the social status of the parents.

The repudiation of equality as a ‘natural right’ thus also denied the principle advanced by Adam Smith in his parable of the philosopher and the street porter:

The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance.

Smith’s contention, and that of the Classical political economy he founded, was that people were equal and adaptable. They were trainable or educatable for any specialized task or branch of activity that their social superiors could do. Thus, in the long run, each human was a full substitute  for the labouring capacity of any other. Labour for this reason constituted a universal and homogeneous (roughly equivalent) input, distributable to any task, industry or line of production.

In commercial society, saw Smith and later Ambedkar, private firms – driven by competition to technical innovation – need to re-allocate labour resources between various concrete tasks and branches of production. This requires horizontal mobility within the labour market.

But this shuffling of people between employment, says Ambedkar, is forbidden under the caste system:

Looked at from another point of view, this stratification of occupations which is the result of the Caste System is positively pernicious. Industry is never static. It undergoes rapid and abrupt changes. With such changes an individual must be free to change his occupation. Without such freedom to adjust himself to changing circumstances it would be impossible for him to gain his livelihood. Now the Caste System will not allow Hindus to take to occupations where they are wanted, if they do not belong to them by heredity… By not permitting readjustment of occupations, Caste becomes a direct cause of much of the unemployment we see in this country.

Given this structural degradation, and the ideology that upheld it, Ambedkar further observed that, under a standard parliamentary-electoral system, various depressed minorities would fare badly.

The composition of parliaments would see Dalits, and others, systematically underrepresented.

In 1947 Ambedkar thus submitted his ideal constitution for a decolonized India, on behalf of the All-India Scheduled Castes Federation, in “States and Minorities”. His plan for the nationalization of agriculture and other basic industries was rejected. (The only sectors reserved for the state were those that, due to the large fixed-capital outlays required, private firms had no interest in: infrastructure, railways, defence, utilities and nuclear energy.)

But ‘safeguards for the Scheduled Castes’ – special representation and affirmative action – designed to ‘uplift’ the Dalits and other ‘depressed’ groups, were included.

What has become of this project today?

Like in every other parliamentary system, the composition of India’s federal and state elected assemblies do not reflect the underlying demographic characteristics of the population from which they are selected. The sitting MPs are unrepresentative of those they purport to represent, whichever attribute one chooses to look at: caste, wealth, gender, age, education, previous employment, ethnicity, etc.

Ambedkar’s principle of ‘reservation’ would appear purpose-built to address this problem. Thus thirty years ago the Indian state elite, following the Mandal Commission, re-affirmed its commitment to affirmative action for scheduled castes and tribes, and, after some delay, extended it to Other Backward Castes (OBCs).

Yet, at the same time, during the late 1980s, the governments of Rajiv Gandhi and V.P. Singh legitimized and cultivated the growth of a noxious communalist movement, the Sangh Parivar. The SP (and its chief party wing, the BJP) appealed to popular grievances and resentment of the preferential benefits enjoyed by minorities, the absence of a Uniform Civil Code, and Muslim ‘personal law’.

The Congress leader’s demagogic appeal to Hindu nationalism in the run-up to the 1989 election led to the Bhagalpur pogroms in which 1000 Muslims were killed; the ‘pale Saffron’ premiership of Narasimha Rao presided over the similarly bloody riots of 1992, following the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque.

All the while the BJP and its Hindutva project rose to national prominence, and from 1998 took the reins of federal power, staging the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 for a grotesque encore.

Myron Weiner, the late MIT political scientist and no Marxist, explains that India’s reservation measures, by tying personal advancement to the fate of a particular caste or similar group, narrow the basis for social solidarity. By thus coralling the potential constituency of any mass mobilization within communal, caste, regional or linguistic borders, the control of ruling elites over a divided populace is strengthened.

Reservation, says Wiener, ‘created an incentive for political mobilization along the lines of caste, religion and language’.

It provides an institutional basis (in schools, lobby organizations, employee federations and political parties) for appeals to caste and religious solidarity, its preferential benefits inducing individuals to identify with their caste or other narrow demographic category as the means to personal betterment. This creates a perceived split in interests between individuals within the employed population and related (i.e. non-propertied) classes. This in turn allows the business elites and political class to mobilize the working poor to further the former’s own interests (either personal enrichment or some broader class project).

There exist many fracture planes at which to work away. Salary and wage earners, peasant smallholders, and impoverished urbanites in the ‘informal sector’ make up the vast majority of the population, but they are divided between Brahmins and Dalits, men and women, Hindus and Muslims, etc.:

Indian politics became the arena within which group identities were sharpened, and individuals sought material benefits through group membership. Factions and parties were often based upon these identities, and leaders vied with one another by appealing to these “fissiparous” tendencies.…

The middle classes within the lower castes promoted their own interests and for the rest there was little more than the psychological benefit promised by the Mandal Commission…

[With] the exception of Kerala, the efforts of states to provide material benefits for the Dalits remain marginal; more to the point Dalit politicians and bureaucrats and Dalit associations and political parties have had little impact on public policies.

The OBCs are better placed than the scheduled castes and tribes in the central and state bureaucracies and in political positions where they can have a major influence on policies and their implementation. Moreover, it has become a widespread practice for newly appointed OBC cabinet members in state government to transfers members of their own castes to senior positions within their own departments and ministries… Nonetheless, there is no evidence that either in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar the lower-income members of the backwards castes have materially benefited from the rising political power of their community.

One explanation is that caste leaders of the OBCs do get what they want. Though most members of the backward castes are agricultural labourers, tenants and small landholders, OBC leaders are drawn heavily from among the better-off owner-cultivators… Their leaders seek reservations for their sons to the universities and for employment in the bureaucracy. The material benefits of OBC mobilization in Uttar Pradesh are landowning Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris whose interests diverge from those of the agricultural labourers from these communities. By emphasising caste solidarity the richer peasants among the OBCs mobilise the poor sections of their castes to further their own caste interests.

Reservation in education and employment… permitted government to pay little attention to primary- and secondary-school education. Because limited financial resources were spent on mass education, the pool of qualified untouchables and tribals who could have entered the universities and obtained employment as a result on an equal basis remained small. The creation of a two-tiered education system – one that is private, but government-funded, with education in English, largely serving the higher castes,  and the other that is entirely government-funded with education in vernacular languages servicing the lower castes – is now so well established that socially mobile members of the lower castes aspire to get into the private system. OBCs and Dalits who can afford it (including OBC politicians and bureaucrats) send their children to private, English-medium schools…

The primary-education system throughout much of northern India serves the Dalits badly, and the rise to power in UP of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a Dalit-based political party, has thus far done little to raise expenditures on primary schools or to improve their quality… Changes in the caste composition of state governments has not led to increases in public investment in primary education.

Paradoxically, as caste has become somewhat less important in determining individual life chances, caste has become more salient as a political identity, and as an institutionalised element of civil society… Caste is institutionalised politically through reservations for scheduled castes and tribes in elected bodies and for all backward castes in government employment and in admissions to educational institutions. The tendency in India is towards institutional structures  based upon caste that are not open and which therefore nurture distrust and conflict between castes… The competition between the castes has become palpable as the political leaders of each caste take note of who is getting jobs and public offices.

In the urban areas, the struggle will be between the middle classes of the OBCs and scheduled castes on the one hand, and the middle and upper castes on the other over reservations and their extension. The middle classes among the forward castes will resist reservations, for they increasingly view reservations as an affront to the moral order they seek to create, one based on equality of opportunity not equality of outcome; and they will be resentful at he demand for jobs from middle-class members of the lower castes (the “creamy layers”) who want benefits for their children. Each of these middle classes, one drawn from the forward castes, the other from the backward castes, will assert its claims by moral appeals, the one to the principle of merit and equality of opportunity, the other to a history of centuries of victimization and a demand for equality of outcome…

[The] material benefits to the lower castes have largely gone to their more advanced members, such that some castes (Yadavs, for example) have benefited substantially, others hardly at all, and that there are growing class divisions within each of the lower castes as the more successful individuals obtain positions in government while others receive few if any benefits. Those who wield political power among the lower castes have tended to use their positions for self-benefit and to provide symbolic benefits for those who have been left behind. One does not see state government controlled by OBCs and Dalits devote new resources to expand mass education so as to provide  greater opportunities for mobility to the poor, or to commit substantial resources for drinkable water, health services and sanitation… The system of reservations simply provides a window within which a small section of the lower castes can enter into the middle class…

A similar description, of cultural surrogates substituting for tangible social improvements, has been made by Berkeley economist Pranab Bardhan:

[The] issue of group dignity comes up in the case of reservation of public sector jobs for backward groups which, as we have said before, fervently catches the public imagination of such groups, even though objectively the overwhelming majority of the people in these groups have no chance of ever landing those jobs, as they and their children largely drop out of school by the fifth grade. Even when these public job quotas mainly help the tiny elite in backward groups, as a symbol and a possible object of aspiration for their children, they ostensibly serve a valuable function in attempts at group upliftment, even though it is a divisive and inefficient way of achieving that objective.

Particularly in North India there seems to be a preoccupation with symbolic victories among the emerging lower-caste political groups; …these groups seem less concerned about changing the economic-structural constraints under which most people in their community live and toil…  So new political victories of lower castes in North India get celebrated in the form of defiant symbols of social redemption and recognition aimed at solidifying their as yet tentative victories, rather than in committed attempts at changing the economic structure of deprivation.

Most recently, India’s Women’s Reservation Bill is designed to extend, to state legislatures and to the Lok Sabha in New Delhi, the 33 percent of seats currently reserved for women in municipal representative bodies. Despite long being mooted, thus far it has not secured passage.

Its main proponents are Congress and the BJP, with its opponents to be found in the self-styled ‘social justice parties’. The latter are the chief inheritors of Ambedkar and Lohia’s thought, and beneficiaries of the reservation system, and find their electoral base among Muslims, Dalits and the Other Backward Classes. Their MPs have demanded a ‘quota within a quota’ to prevent seats for women accruing to wealthy and privileged urbanites from the forward castes, rather than to representatives of rural ‘minorities’: otherwise the bill ‘would perpetuate the dominance of a few political families.’

Obviously enough, the Nehrus-Gandhis, et al., and the mainstream parties, do want to splinter the voting base of the smaller parties. Each party, under the reservation system, tries to secure more privileges (and electoral weight) for that segment of the population with the demographic characteristics of its particular candidates (and voting base).

But the ‘quota within the quota’ argument makes clear that no electoral system can readily secure an elected assembly whose composition is representative, in demographic terms, of its underlying population. If a quota for women will benefit merely a female elite, a quota for Scheduled Castes similarly elects only privileged Dalits.

If the aim truly were to select a representative body of political decisionmakers, this could simply be done by sortition: taking a random sample of the population as with jury selection. Or, through referendum, the population as a whole could assume responsibility for major political decisions; by definition, each group would find its views represented in proportion to its relative demographic weight.

Yet there is no prospect of either option being taken up as a cause or project by the professional political stratum.

The reality is that the Indian state will remain the plaything of remote elites – from whatever caste or religion – hostile and unhelpful to Dalits and other ‘depressed’ layers, and willing to whip up communal hatred, so long as:

  1. People who administer the state hold a position that gives them opportunities to wealth, power, plum posts and perquisites through its capacity to levy taxes;
  2. The scope of state activity depends on its fiscal instruments, i.e. tax revenues from incomes (salaries, profits, rents) in the capitalist sector, and credits (purchase of bonds by rentiers), in order to function;
  3. This dependency forces state managers (politicians and bureaucrats) to be concerned about maintaining the levels of economic activity, regardless of their other goals (whether these be Hindutva, delivery of public services, improving welfare and sanitation, uplift of some minority group, or pursuit of aggressive militarism);
  4. Economic activity is largely dependent on the level of private investment by firms and wealthy individuals;
  5. Private firms make investment and rentiers provide loans based on their confidence and the perceived prospects for profitable returns in the current and near-future environment;
  6. India’s domestic production of textile garments, granite benchtops, etc. is most profitably undertaken using labour-intensive techniques and a cheap, plentiful, semi-servile, debt-bonded and terrorized workforce, marked out as inferior and denied horizontal mobility within the labour market.

Taken together, these factors discipline state managers to formulate and implement policies that favour the continued stable functioning of the capitalist sector, maintenance of the caste system, and reproduction of the existing social order.

The reservation system thus provides no remedy for India’s scheduled castes and tribes.

Those elected, from within their ranks, as ‘the best’ of them (the aristoi), increase the diversity of society’s upper layers, and do little more. Having taken their place at the High Table, they swiftly acquire the usual appetites.

This can be seen from the record of Dalit ‘representatives’ in office.

BAMCEF is an organisation which advertises itself as deriving ‘inspiration from the life and mission’ of Ambedkar and ‘Ambedkarite’ ideology. BAMCEF material states that there must be ‘clear identification and distinction between the ruling castes who are beneficiaries and Backward castes who are worst victims of the existing social system and we should channelise our energy to organise the victims of the system under the banner of BAMCEF. Arya-Brahmins are clever and cunning people…’

In 1984 Kanshi Ram, leader of BAMCEF, founded the Bahujan Samaj [Majority People’s] Party.

The party describes its chief aim as ‘providing a level playing field to the downtrodden to help move forward in their lives with “self-respect” and at par with the upper castes Hindus’.

It advances no programme and describes no methods for achieving the aims of legal equality for Dalits, other than to ‘capture the Master Key of political power, which opens all the avenues for social and economic development’. All economic and social goals are subordinated to this immediate task.

The party’s platform thus consists entirely of advice to elect BSP candidates to office.

BSP’s leadership was later bequeathed by Kanshi Ram to Mayawati. Mayawati has since become chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. She has been described from within the BSP as ‘the Obama of India.’

In the US diplomatic cable mentioned at the beginning of this post, Mayawati is described as a ‘virtual paranoid dictator’ and ‘first-rate egomaniac’.

She is said to be ‘obsessed with becoming Prime Minister’, positioning herself as a ‘powerbroker and perhaps even a king (or queen) maker.’ She has a ‘penchant for personal corruption and a strong authoritarian streak’, with a ‘security entourage to rival a head of state’, and ‘constructed a private road from her residence to her office, which is cleaned immediately after her multiple vehicle convoy reaches its destination.’ She has ‘centralized corruption in her own hands’, demanding ‘competitive fealty payments’ from rival criminal gangs, receiving ‘payoffs and kickbacks from almost every interaction’ of business with the UP government, taps the phones of journalists and civil servants, and forced one insubordinate journalist to do sit ups in front of her. ‘When she needed new sandals, her private jet flew empty to Mumbai to retrieve her preferred brand.’

The State Department envoy continues: ‘Dalits will remain with Mayawati regardless of poor governance, simply because the fact that one of their own is Chief Minister provides them heretofore unimaginable pride.’ The cable concludes that ‘caste remains the DNA of UP politics, and no one has demonstrated more ability at playing caste politics than Mayawati.’

This venality may be explained away as the behaviour of an idiosyncratic personality, or as the result of local conditions.

But it also says something about electoralism, quotas and affirmative action.

In all present-day circumstances and settings  (i.e. where the state provides a stable juridical framework and policy climate for the capitalist sector, and public administration depends on extracting a portion of the social product as tax), such measures produce an aristocracy of the oppressed, who in the name of identity politics style themselves as the representatives of ‘their people’, and thereby attract a faithful constituency for  their own narrow pursuit of privileges and income, and for broader elite projects.

The role of the Australian Greens in Asia-Pacific strife

November 11, 2010

Not naturally curious about the world beyond the core Anglosphere, the Australian political gaze does occasionally drift abroad, bringing some unfamiliar land into sharper focus.

Bumptious, it lacks the breadth of outlook and culture won from wide experience in colonial administration. Such antipodal thought therefore tends to borrow what ideas it has from the imperial heartlands of the North Atlantic.

True as a matter of course for Canberra’s security elite, this holds also for many critical voices on the margins of Australia’s political mainstream. Even the mildest, apparently well-meaning naïf is apt to reproduce generic premises of foreign policy heard originally from the roughest voices in Washington.

Thus the US President, on a recent visit to India, played to local ambition and flattered Delhi’s self-regard, encouraging it to strengthen Washington’s cordon sanitaire around China.

According to Barack Obama, ‘we want India to not only “look East,” we want India to “engage East” — because it will increase the security and prosperity of all our nations.’


On the same day, the US secretaries of State and Defense, on a visit to Australia, secured the local elite’s commitment to a closer military-strategic alignment against Beijing.

Washington’s two departmental heads repeated plans to ‘upgrade the presence of the United States’ in the west Pacific and East Asia.

Hillary Clinton:

[We] are determined to strengthen and deepen our already strong alliances with countries like Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, to build relationships bi-laterally and multi-laterally with other nations to work through these regional organisations. To solve problems, like maintaining the freedom of navigation and maritime security that is essential to trade and commerce throughout the region.

And on this same day, the Australian Greens, a party that lists ‘peace and non-violence’ among its four ‘core beliefs’, demanded ‘strong action’ (including a full trade embargo) from Australia’s government to promote regime change in Burma.

greens assk

Burma, just to remind, is the shortest path between China and the Bay of Bengal. It therefore presents an alternative energy supply route to the US-controlled maritime chokepoints through Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

It’s the site for the new Kyauk Phu and Sittwe container ports, linked by pipeline and highway to Yunnan in southwest China. Offshore sit the Shwe gas fields; farther west are the energy resources of East Africa and West Asia.

In 2007, Indian, US, Japanese, Singaporean and Australian forces staged a massive naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal.

Beijing  ‘concerned’ at what an Indian military think tank called a ‘mammoth war-game in the Bay of Bengal… close to the international sea-routes leading to the Malacca Straits’  ‘sought clarification’ from the participants.

Yunnan itself forms part, with Tibet, of the PRC’s politically vulnerable western frontier; Indian counterinsurgency forces sit permanently poised nearby in Manipur, Assam, Mizoram and Nagaland. 

The highlands of the North-East Frontier, still disputed, provided the occasion for Sino-Indian war in the 1960s.

Today New Delhi and Beijing are hastily constructing road and rail infrastructure to these respective hinterlands.

Control over the hydroelectric resources of the Brahmaptra is a perennial source of contention, recently given ventilation, from the perspective of an Indian strategic think thank, in the Washington Post.

China’s southwest plateau contains the glacial headwaters that furnish the downstream river systems and food production of East and South Asia, ‘an effective bargaining tool and potential weapon’ that ‘gives Beijing enormous strategic latitude with its neighbours.’

tibet rivers

Chinese dam-building in Yunnan spills over the Burmese border: the 6000MW Irrawaddy-Myitsone project is one of seven that will transmit power to Yunnan, as part of Beijing’s regional development program.

The local powers  New Delhi typically backed by London and Washington  have each pursued their regional ambitions by arming and financing respective ethnic proxies, or the central state, in Burma’s relentless internal conflicts.

Given these facts, and the proximity of successive events, it would be selling the Greens short to describe their call for the Gillard government to ‘support the genuine democratic aspirations of the Burmese people’ as merely naive and quixotic.

As Clinton and Robert Gates described it, Australia and the US will be ‘working even more closely together’ over the next few decades as the US ‘re-engaged in a major way’ in the southwest Pacific and east Asia, to counter ‘evolving strategic threats’.

Stripped of euphemisms, the US is no longer satisfied with delegating responsibility for the regional ‘arc of instability’  to the Australian ‘deputy sheriff’.

That strategy, employed for several decades, has failed to slow the rapidly growing influence of Petrochina and the PRC in East Timor, PNG, Fiji etc.

Meanwhile unreliable executives in Canberra and Tokyo (Kevin Rudd and Yukio Hatoyama) were both accused of displeasing the State Department by pursuing strategic goals independently of the hegemon. Each leader was dispatched from office in June, and more deferential replacements installed in the local chancelleries.

Regional protectorates thus brought to heel, Washington can proceed with its agenda.

Its new project, given voice by thinkers from the foreign-policy establishment in the capital and Boston, is for a direct re-assertion of US authority, to maintain its position relative to ascending rivals such as China, in the face of competitive decline of the US industrial base, the diminishing regional weight of its ally in Tokyo, and the increasing scarcity of low-cost energy.

Australia will participate  just as it does in the ‘global war on terror’  to maximize opportunities for local firms, protect the security of the latter’s property and investments, maintain regional influence and secure raw-material supplies against Chinese expansion.

Using the above events as an example, the specific contribution of the Greens to this project may be easily stated.

In the first instance, they will publicly oppose the subordination of ‘Australia’s national interests’ (sic) to US aims. Thus the party’s sole response to the AUSMIN meeting was a press release from new MP Adam Bandt: ‘We don’t want US ships.’

The Greens have gained ‘progressive’ credentials, and the support of some Australian voters uneasy with the invasion and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, by criticizing use of ‘the armed services at the behest of President Bush rather than in the direct interests of our nation’.

The party regularly voices lofty opposition, to no practical avail, against placement of Australian troops under US command.

In response to the longstanding, seamless fusion of Canberra’s external stance with Washington’s, the Greens state that ‘[our] troops should be reserved for our own region of the world. We need a foreign policy based on Australia’s relationships with our region and south Asia, not on a White House strategy.’

What does this mean?

Australian military forces, according to Greens leader Bob Brown, should be concentrated in the south-west Pacific (e.g. East Timor and the Solomon Islands) where ‘instability is rife and our defence forces are already stretched.’

The Greens have had no qualms about identifying such a ‘regional’ focus as an attempt to prevent Chinese infiltration of Australia’s sphere of influence.

In a recent opinion piece, setting forth his party’s military and diplomatic priorities, Brown wrote that ‘we are neglecting neighbours in need like Timor-Leste, which is, this week, exploring new defence ties with China! The Greens’ strategy is to have our defence forces personnel at home to secure our own arc of stability.’

Brown has expressed concern ‘that Australia has so much more to do in terms of economic relationships with places such like Fiji and Timor Leste again who are turning to look at what China has to offer.’

Indeed, Brown tends towards unhinged Sinophobia, the latter supplementing his native anti-communism, as in his warning that ‘the communist bosses in Beijing will exert control over the management of Rio Tinto’s Australian mineral resources.’

More broadly, the moralizing idiom in which the Greens discuss Canberra’s security, diplomatic and external affairs itself serves several ends.

It borrows from Washington’s own preferred salvationist language for presenting its imperial statecraft, taking for granted a Western droit d’ingérence that overrides state sovereignty.

Brown’s 1986 speech on the ‘morality of protest’ found a new application from the late 1990s in international affairs. 

Canberra was duty bound, as government of a wealthy nation, to intervene across borders for humanitarian purposes:

In Australia we are far too shy to act…

How dare we do so little? How can we be so cold-hearted, so frightened for ourselves, so extravagant in the face of such need?

[How] dare we sell our lives so short as to not grasp our privileged position as individual Australians and get much more involved in the planet’s affairs? How dare we not be protesters? All that is needed for the world to disintegrate is for good people to do nothing.

In the manner of a Bernard Kouchner, no less than Paul Wolfowitz, the Greens encourage a nationalistic faith in the local state as a benevolent force for global good: Canberra can, by undertaking ‘strong action’ with moral purpose, advance the ‘genuine democratic interests’ of downtrodden people in Burma and elsewhere.

Joschka Fischer and his German Greens show the likely outcome of this tendency.

The Greens’ electoral appeal, concentrated in a narrow demographic band, exploits well-meaning features of popular opinion. In the manner of Clinton-era diplomatic self-presentation, it translates power politics into a moral-humanitarian idiom.

Popular feeling, stoked via the bien-pensant opinion column, is thereby gathered behind elite policy goals, granting the latter a potent ideological supplement. The constituency for war and regime change, of otherwise limited size and narrow social origin, is broadened and mobilized.

Thus there is legitimate repugnance among the Australian population for authoritarian regimes such as the PRC, Fijian and Burmese leaderships, and widespread popular sympathy for various oppressed groups and ethnic minorities in these countries and others.

The Greens provide an outlet for such feelings, by suggesting that the ‘international community’ or the Australian state ‘do something about it’, using military and diplomatic instruments — with purity of purpose, of course.

Machtpolitik, with UN support, thus becomes ‘humanitarian intervention’.

The public’s concern is absorbed, then connected to the strategies and concerns of the upper layers of society. An elite project thereby assembles a broader ideological programme with which to attract mass support.

The message of the Greens  with their concern for human rights, ‘his holiness’ the Dalai Lama, Tibet and ‘Lady’ Aung San Suu Kyi is pitched at exactly the right frequency for this task.

This is not to say that the party’s electoral platform will become openly pro-war. A large subset of Greens members and voters are, it seems, sincerely interested in the welfare of people in Burma, Tibet, West Papua etc, and would also seem likely to oppose and resist direct Australian power-projection.

But so long as this electoral base lacks, as it does presently,  a principled opposition to armed interventions by imperialist states, it remains vulnerable to manipulation from above, on the basis of a ‘responsibility to protect.’

Here’s Adam Bandt, MHR, in the parliamentary debate on Canberra’s participation in the occupation of Afghanistan:

The Greens do not oppose the deployment in Afghanistan based on any absolute opposition to the use of military force or from any lack of commitment to our troops. We led the call for military intervention in Timor Leste and are proud of the role our men and women played in the struggle for freedom and independence in that country.

Here’s Senator Bob Brown, a few days later, contributing to the same debate:

Australia, a small to moderate nation in terms of international clout, should secure its own region while offering aid through the United Nations to solve greater global problems.  Except in very extraordinary cases, and Afghanistan in 2010 is not one of them, our troops should be available for Australia’s immediate regional security, stability and welfare. We do not underestimate the need for armed services to defend this nation and its neighbourhood.  The Greens urged military intervention to stop the bloodshed in Timor Leste before the Howard Government decided on that justifiable deployment.

The claim by both MPs that Australian military intervention in East Timor aimed to ‘stop the bloodhead’ and secure ‘freedom and independence’ strains credulity.

So, for 30 years Australian governments of all stripes ardently supported the Suharto regime’s annexation, before in 1999 John Howard’s Coalition government stepped in to defend East-Timorese self-determination?

This surely overstates the degree to which Australian government policy in 1999 responded to popular pressure rather than manipulating it. It underestimates the everyday strategic calculations involved: the latter so blindly obvious and universally desirable to elite policymakers that they could remain unspoken, kept safely withheld from public view or media comment.

Canberra’s goal was simply to preserve its local beachhead in an energy-rich outpost of the collapsed Portuguese empire, one with a substantial Chinese minority. (On Beijing’s designs, see this article by the son of José Ramos Horta, a graduate of both the People’s Liberation Army National Defence University and the Pentagon’s National Defense University.)

The Australian envoy Richard Woolcott famously stated in 1974 that ‘a treaty on the oil and gas-rich seabed could be more readily negotiated with Indonesia than with Portugal or independent Portuguese Timor.’ Departmental planners concurred: ‘bear in mind that the Indonesians would probably be prepared to accept the same compromise as they did in the negotiations already completed on the seabed boundaries between the two countries. Such a compromise would be more acceptable to us than the present Portuguese position.’

Minutes published in 2000 record the utter cynicism of the Australian government’s position: ‘The Prime Minister [Gough Whitlam] noted that, for the domestic audience in Australia, incorporation into Indonesia should appear to be a natural process arising from the wishes of its people.’ Whitlam remarked in September 1974: ‘I am in favour of incorporation but obeisance has to be made to self-determination. I want incorporation, but I do not want this done in a way which will create argument in Australia.’

The subsequent Coalition government later operated with the same motivation, Prime Minister Fraser justifying his attitude thus: ‘The government is being subjected to growing pressure from exploration companies with permits in the East Timor area to clarify the legal status of these permits… the fact remains that Indonesia is clearly the only government which is in a position both to conclude and to enforce an agreement with us.’

Of additional concern was maritime control over key regional straits.

In 1976, after Jakarta’s annexation of East Timor, the Ford and Carter Administrations fretted about deepwater naval routes through the Ombai-Wetar straits.

It was declared ‘essential’ for the passage of ballistic missile submarines between the Western Pacific (and Northeast Asia) and Indian Ocean that these straits be ‘controlled by states with which the United States maintains good relations and working modus vivendi, and which have and probably will continue to permit passage for submerged U.S. submarines’:

The two Indonesian straits, Lombok and Ombai-Wetar, might be closed to unannounced underwater passage of U.S. SSBNs in any case because according to Indonesia’s interpretation of the archipelago principle of enclosed waters, they are considered internal rather than international waters.

On the other hand, the United States seems to have a working arrangement with Indonesia for passage of SSBNs through its straits though the Indonesian government has argued that the archipelago principle does not infringe on innocent passage, it requires prior notification of transit by foreign warships and has raised questions about the innocence of supertanker passage because of the danger of pollution.

In spite of Indonesian jurisdictional claims, the United States maintains that the Indonesian straits are international. According to press accounts and Indonesian sources, however, the United States routinely provides prior notification of transit by surface ships and presumably (if only as a practical convenience) relies on some special bilateral navy-to-navy arrangement for submerged passage, consistent with the requirements of concealing the details of SSBN passage from foreign intelligence.

Although this modus vivendi is rather contingent, it satisfies America’s needs as long as an Indonesian government as friendly as that of Suharto is in power.

In August 1976 Australian newspapers reported that US State Department officials had impressed such concerns upon the Australian prime minister, by way of a ‘blunt warning’, on his visit to Washington.

Indonesia maritime chokepoints

The decisive element in Australian strategic thinking on East Timor had not changed by 1989, 1999 or 2006.

The overarching concern remains to protect the security of property rights of Woodside Petroleum and Santos, and with luck to broaden the reach of domestic firms against competitors like ConocoPhillips, Total, ExxonMobil and now Petrochina.

The only change has come in the language in which such calculations are couched: now it is ‘failed states’, the ‘responsibility to protect’, ‘support for democratic aspirations’, etc. And the chief agent of such rhetorical changes was the man who is pictured below, sharing a toast with Ali Alatas as they fly over the Timor Sea in 1989.

Neglectful of such realities, the Australian Greens will electorally absorb any popular anti-war sentiment in ways that allow the local state to continue its unpopular military expeditions without provoking any domestic crisis of confidence or sapping the legitimacy of the political system and its basic institutions.

The proper vehicle for anti-war opposition, the Greens will explain at rallies and on hustings, must remain federal parliament and the electoral system.

The upshot? In return for the ALP’s agreement to the Greens’ demand for a parliamentary debate on the war in Afghanistan, the party recently promised to support the war’s funding for the next three years.