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The Sacred Cow

The early years of the Left Front government in West Bengal in the late seventies had been marked by severe power cuts in Calcutta (as it then was) and elsewhere in the state.  One evening as “load-shedding” began, a little urchin in a slum neighbouring a high-rise jumped up and down clapping his hands, shouting: “Babuder alo gyalo re.”  The slum to which he belonged was devoid of power supply and hence not affected by the power cut, while the high-rise was; in his excitement that urchin was expressing an important truth: power supply, and hence by inference the concept of “infrastructure” itself, has a class dimension.

Any particular growth trajectory requires infrastructure specific to it.  The advent of colonialism, for instance, which entailed a growth trajectory for the economy that was totally different from what had obtained earlier, meant the building of a whole new type of infrastructure, such as ports, railways, and urban metropolises around ports, and the decay of the infrastructure that had existed earlier.  Gaur and Murshidabad declined as Calcutta came up, Thanjavur and Warangal became marginalized as Madras flourished, and Pune and Satara became minor cities as Bombay occupied the centre stage.  The investment undertaken for this new infrastructure was part of the promotion of a new growth trajectory, and hence ipso facto in the interests of the classes that stood to benefit from this trajectory and against the interests of the classes that became its victims.  The term “infrastructure” therefore cannot be seen as an undifferentiated catch-all category which is always “socially necessary” and investment which is always “good for the people”.

But then isn’t it the case that since the shifting growth trajectories have the effect of developing the social productive forces, the investment in the shifting infrastructure requirements for these changing growth trajectories is simply part of historical progress?  Doesn’t looking at this historical progress merely in terms of being beneficial to some classes and against the interests of the others amount to the adoption of a rather narrow and moralistic perspective, to the exclusion of an overarching view based on the development of social productive forces?  Who for instance would deny that the introduction of railways in India, though motivated by the colonial regime’s need to open up Indian markets to foreign goods and to cart Indian raw materials off to the world market, nonetheless played a remarkably positive role in the development of the Indian economy and society?  And given this role, isn’t it churlish to cavil at the particular class interests that brought the railways into existence in India?  Isn’t looking at the development of infrastructure through the prism of class interests then an altogether unjustified occupation, especially for Marxists who take a “longer view” and measure social progress in terms of the development of the social productive forces?

Karl Marx interestingly had made a most remarkable statement.  Talking about India he had written in a letter to Danielson in 1881: “What the English take from them annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless to the Hindus; pensions for military and civil servicemen, for Afghanistan and other wars etc. etc. — what they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India . . . amounts to more than the total sum of income of the sixty millions of agricultural and industrial labourers of India!”  The same Karl Marx who had written elsewhere that the “railway system will . . . become in India . . . the forerunner of modern industry” had no compunctions about calling the railways “useless to the Hindus”.  The development of the productive forces in his perception in other words, could never be looked at in isolation from the class character of this development.

The matter acquires a special pertinence when we are looking at the development of the productive forces not just in the context of history, but in the midst of a struggle over the mode of development of productive forces, i.e. when this development is itself a matter of class struggle, as is the case now.  Bourgeois spokesmen would argue that something called “infrastructure”, as a supra-class, supra-growth-trajectory entity, is essential for society, and that investment in it must be encouraged at all costs.  The expenditure of Rs.35,000 crores on developing the “infrastructure” in Delhi to cope with the Commonwealth Games is socially necessary, and that there should be a political consensus on such investment in general.  Their attempt is precisely to deny that infrastructure has a class character as well.  The development of expressways has a rationale only in a society where the car population is increasing rapidly; it benefits only the car-owning population, and no matter what its long-run benefits for society as a whole, it is “useless” (in Marx’s sense) for the bulk of the people of the country.

“Infrastructure” as a catch-all category, being made into a sacred cow which must be worshipped by all irrespective of political differences and class perspectives, is therefore a bourgeois subterfuge to pass off the interests of the beneficiaries of the current neo-liberal growth trajectory as the “social interest”.  True, the development of infrastructure even in this sense may stand society in good stead at some indefinite future date even after the current growth trajectory may have passed.  But that cannot be an argument for supporting expenditure on “infrastructure” indiscriminately, for that would mean an abdication of the espousal of the class interests of the oppressed, and an endorsement of the prevailing growth trajectory itself.

Once we see “infrastructure” as having a class dimension, we must distinguish “infrastructure” that is in the interests of the people at large and “infrastructure” that uses social resources for the benefit of the few.  While economists have been surprisingly chary of drawing this distinction, artists, at least some of them, have been more forthright.  The late Habib Tanvir in a play called “Sadak” had lampooned the obsession with expressways, “useless” to the people but of benefit only to the rich or to the State, (reminiscent of the Nazi autobahns), that the country had acquired.

To be sure, as long as the specific growth trajectory continues, not developing infrastructure appropriate for it would cause contradictions, bottlenecks and inconvenience.  On the other hand, distinguishing between different kinds of infrastructure, ensuring that expenditure on infrastructure “useless” to the people is curbed, even if it causes inconvenience to the beneficiaries of the current growth trajectory, and using the resources for meeting instead the health and education needs of the people at large, for universalizing the public distribution system and other such ends (for all of which the government pleads scarcity of resources), is not only socially desirable in itself, but may even become the first step in an overall attempt to change the growth trajectory itself.  To treat as a sacred cow something that is an integral part of a specific growth trajectory is an endorsement, whether consciously or unconsciously, of this trajectory itself.  Rejecting this sacred cow can be the start of a struggle against this trajectory itself.

The little urchin who had clapped at “load-shedding” could implicitly draw a distinction that Karl Marx had done explicitly.  Do we have the courage to draw this distinction today?


Prabhat Patnaik, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.  This article was first published by MacroScan on 23 August 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.




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