DESTRUCTION OF THOUGHT : Prof. Prabhat Patnaik

On 26th May, 2015, the Modi government completed one year. In this one year a lot of things have happened and a lot of issues have been raised but, primarily the Central Government has unleashed an attack on numerous national programmes.

 The concept of the Planning Commission was first initiated by Subhash Chandra Bose on being persuaded by MeghnadSaha as ‘National Planning Commission’. This was in 1938. After independence utilising this basic idea of the National Planning Commission, Jawaharlal Nehru and PrashantMahalanobis set up the Planning Commission in 1950. The Planning Commission has now been dissolved and in its place, the new government has introduced the ‘NitiAayog’. You might feel that, this arrangement is fair. One national institution has made way for another national institution of the same kind. But, the importance of the NitiAayog and the hold it has over the matters of planning are questionable. In a recent report in the ‘Times of India’, it said that, in most meetings of the NitiAayog, the Central Secretaries do not show up rather send lower ranking officials from their offices. The NitiAayog is not being taken seriously at all. 

There used to exist a National Development Council wherein the state Chief Ministers and the central government ministers would sit down with the Prime Minister. When Jyoti Basu was the CM of West Bengal, all of the debates he had regarding centre-state relations were held at these National Development Council meetings. A group of nine or ten state CMs formed a conclave and had demanded that, the states be given more powers. This too was made possible due to the existence of the National Development Council. But, this National Development Council also ceases to exist now. In its place exists a governing council under the NitiAayog.  But, since the NitiAayog fails to be effective, how will a governing council under it continue to function effectively. 

Many institutions like the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Indian Council of Historic Research (ICHR), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Children’s Film Society of India, Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), etc are coming under attack. Dr. Anil Kakodkar, famous Indian Nuclear Scientist, has dissociated himself from his position of Chairman of the Board of Governors at IIT-Bombay. It is popularly believed that, he resigned because he found the constant interference by the HRD ministry, a hindrance to his work. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, eminent historian, resigned from his post of the journal which, the ICHR publishes. His resignation was soon followed by the disbanding of the 21-member advisory committee to the ICHR which comprised the likes of RomilaThapar and IrfanHabib. Mr. Bhattacharya’s resignation came because he was unhappy with the ‘direction’ ICHR was taking, following Y.SudarshanRao being appointed as chairman of the ICHR. Thus, we see that, all government or semi-government institutions are being subject to interference from the centre. The particular targets are cultural and educational institutions. Now, your argument could be that, every time a new government is formed we are privy to favouritism. So, how is the UPA regime appointing a chairman to the ICHR any different from what the NDA is doing? But there are differences. Firstly, to be appointed to an important position like the Chairman of the ICHR, some minimum qualifications are called for. It would have been justified if, they had appointed an eminent historian who, aligned his/her thought process according to their principles like, MSG Narayanan. We would then have respected our difference in viewpoints but, could not have undermined his acclaim or contribution to the field of history. But, presently this cannot be said because nobody identifies the present Chairman. Other examples of such appointments are PahlajNihalani as the Chairperson of the CBFC, MukeshKhanna as the head of the Children’s Film Society of India and more recently GajendraChouhan’s appointment as the Chairman of the FTII, Pune which, has sparked a protest amongst the students’ community allover the country. Secondly, that the appointment of members in decision-making posts must be inclusive, exists as a rule in case of the ICHR (but should be followed elsewhere also). But evidently, this rule is being flouted. The NDA’s justification for disbanding the advisory committee, appointing Y. SudarshanRao, even dropping the external eminent advisors is that, all previous appointments were offered to Marxists. Thus, with respect to the mode of functioning of the institutions and the nature and distinction of the persons being appointed to the various important posts, the tactics of this new government is absolutely different from that of the earlier government. And following their methodology will eventually give rise to the destruction of these institutions. 

Now, the question arises, why are they planning a step-wise destruction of institutions? It is my belief that, the destruction of institutions is a part of the process of destruction of thought. Whenever, fascism has been on the rise, it has brought along with it the process of destruction of thought. Marxist Philosopher, Georg Lukacs wrote a book called ‘Destruction of Reason’. In the book he says, for the emergence of classical fascism, there is some preparation required and this preparation occurs through the destruction of reason. In our country presently, fascism is on the rise and that fascism requires a process of destruction of thought. Destruction of thought occurs in two ways. The first step, was already happening in our country i.e. the commoditisation of education. The second, the communalisation of educationis slowly starting in our country.  

What is the commoditisation of education? This process entails that, if education were to be a commodity then, its products i.e. the educated students were also commodities. So, commoditisation of education is only a step in the process of commoditisation of the product of education. To understand this process of commoditisation, let’s take an example. I go to my local convenience store to buy a packet of biscuits which, costs Rs.12. Now, I only have Rs.10, so since, the shopkeeper knows me as a regular, he says, ‘Fine, you can give the Rs.2 later.’ He says these knowing full well that, the ‘later’ might never come given that, he or I might forget the next time I come to the shop. The reverse could also be true, say the biscuit costs Rs.14 and I have Rs.15 but the shopkeeper does not have the Re.1 which, he needs to return as balance so, I say, ‘Fine, we’ll settle the Re.1 later.’ Again I know that, this ‘later’ might never come. This is not an example commoditisation. Commoditisation is the absence of any personal relation in the act of exchange. The shopkeeper, on the basis of knowing me as a regular will not say, ‘Fine, Sir you give the Rs.2 later,’ but will insist that I pay up the entire amount at once or I don’t buy the packet of biscuits. If you go to any American Supermarket or even the multi-brand Indian retail stores, a shirt is priced at say, $23.99 or Rs.1299. Now, the stores will charge you $23.99 only or exactly Rs.1299 and will not accept if you decide to pay $23.90 or Rs.1290. thus, in this act of exchange, the personal relation ceases to exist.

According to Marxist theory, a commodity has a reuse value and an exchange value. An item which is broken that you choose to use and another item which, comes with a price on it. The two qualitiesascribed thus are the commodity reuse value and exchangevalue. Commoditisation is impersonal because for the seller, commodity is only exchange value i.e. only money. The goods that remain unsold at Walmart, they are not taken home to their families by the Walmart employees. But such is not the case at say, your local sweet shop. The owner will pass onto his son a few extra samosas if they remain unsold. So, in case of commoditisation, for the seller, in the transaction he/she only expects pure money. Therefore, the commoditisation of the process of education means it is pure money. The product of education is not interested in the education per-se but, is interested in the money and the command over the commodity that, education offers him. This process of commoditisation of education has many implications. The first one is quite obvious. If education is a commodity and it is produced by the private sector, they will do so to make a profit out of it and therefore, will charge a high amount of money to impart this education. Thus, the students coming from poor house-holds will not have access to this education. So, as a result of this implication, the economically weaker sections of the society will be excluded from the system. Maybe, children from these families will go to some run-down schools which will have limited resources or they may not have access to even that. So, ultimately they will have no access to a proper education. 

Another implication of commoditisation of education is that, if education is only evaluated in terms of money and is thought to be only a means of finally earning then, the students will be deprived of the excitement of thought, creativity and grandeur of ideas. Thus, education ceases to promote creativity on its commoditisation.

 Thirdly, if the final aim of obtaining an education is the amount of money that, I will earn from this education then, in the realm of education, critical education will also cease to exist. This is because if one criticises then, one is unlikely to land a job and in turn will not be able to earn money. Terry Eagleton is a renowned British Marxist intellectual and writer, and in one of his articles he writes of his visit to South Korea (which is also being subject to commoditisation of education not unlike India and the rest of the world because it is a component of contemporary capitalism) where, the Vice-Chancellors of the universities are called Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) (another example of the extent of commoditisation of education). So, the CEO of the university took Mr. Eagleton around the campus showing off the high-end laboratories and the beautiful, clean campus. Then, Mr. Eagleton complimented him on the impressive campus but asked where they taught the critical subjects. The VC was befuddled and looked to his assistant. So then, Mr. Eagleton repeated himself, saying that, by critical subjects he meant the humanities. Then, the VC had a quick chat with his assistant again and replied saying, ‘We will look into the matter.’ This again is an example of commoditisation of education which, in turn leads to the absence of critical thinking. So, evidently this is a part of the process of destruction of thought and it is happening all over the world.

In the past, education was not commoditised in this manner because in the pre-war period there were the pressures of the working class owing to the feudal systems. In the post-war period due to the Socialist governments in Western Europe and other social pressures, the capitalists could not prevail and there was certain open-mindedness to higher education and the poor had more access to it. But due to contemporary capitalism or globalised capitalism this inclusive nature of education is getting lost. The rampant commoditisation of education is in keeping with the feature of new-age globalised capitalism of commoditising everything, be it protest or resistance to even food and drinking water.

Now, owing to the global capitalist crisis and its adverse effects also, affecting our country, we are seeing the development of a corporate-communal alliance. You must have already heard that Modi’s public relations (PR) expenditure in the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections was more than what President Obama spends on his PR. Where did all this money come from? It came because of massive corporate donations. Following the Indian government’s decision to adopt neo-liberal policies of economy, the workers have not benefitted much from it. In fact, if you were to compare wages of the organised workers in the 1980s to their wages now, they have decreased a little. The farmers have also not benefitted, over two lakh farmers have committed suicide owing to the agrarian crisis. Thus, the workers and peasants have been victims of the government’s neo-liberal policies. But, we cannot negate the fact that certain sections of the society, especially the upper middle class, has benefitted from these policies. Thus, looking at these few people doing well, the other sections of the society who are not actually getting any benefits of the government policies (mainly the other sections of the middle class), are hopeful that they might eventually reap the benefits and do well for themselves. But in the light of the impact of the world capitalist crisis whichwhich has befallen us in the last 3-4 years (a good 3-4 years after the capitalist crisis hit the world in 2008), the general public suffers from a certain insecurity and an anger directed towards the government, not fully understanding the actual problem at hand. The corporate capitalists utilising this insecurity and anger of the common people, put a clever twist on the entire scenario. They said that, yes the country’s economy was going down the drain. But that apparently had nothing to do with the global capitalist crisis. They made it out to be a crisis of governance, deeming the UPA-II and Manmohan Singh as PM, no good. The corporate capitalists kept emphasising that, our country’s increasing economic crisis had nothing to do with the global capitalist crisis and had nothing to do with the structural features of the world economy but, was a crisis of governance. They offered a solution also, saying that, put a strong political personality in power and then we could evade the present crisis. Thus, with this argument, the corporate world promoted Narendra Modi as the Prime-ministerial candidate for the 2014 elections. The 56-inch chest and the idea of him being the ‘development man’ as compared to the indecisive and inadequate governance that, the people were being subject to then, was also part of the promotion. But, merely this argument would not win Modi the elections; it had to be accompanied by some ground level work.  A part of this ground-level work, were the Muzaffarnagar Riots, which led to a communal polarisation in the state of UP and thus, Modi won a large number of seats. But, it was seen that, as soon as the communal harmony was restored and the polarisation was lost, the NDA lost seats in the region. Thus, this periodic communal unrest initiated by the BJP itself, which leads to a polarisation among the people along communal lines, helps the BJP to garner the votes of the majority community. Now, the corporate capitalists are known to use fascism to protect themselves and in our country they utilise this communal fascism owing to the history of our country. This is exactly what happened in the 1930s also. Corporate capitalists used fascism in the midst of the world depression in order to protect themselves owing to the imminent crisis which the working classes faced. But, in the present circumstances, they are using fascism to maintain their hegemony. 

So, due to the prevalence of this corporate-communal alliance, on one hand you see the privatisation of education and on the other hand you see the communalisation of education and there is no conflict between them because both of these processes are a step ahead on the path to destruction of thought. These two processes are also very important components of the corporate-communal alliance ruling our country presently. I am not saying that, India has transformed into a fascist state because if such were the case then I could not be delivering this lecture and you could not be present here listening to it. The whole idea of the corporate communal alliance is that, how within the form of democracy that we have, the corporate capitalist hegemony is preserved and, to do so they have forged an alliance with the communal-fascist government. 

Now, to discuss the impact of this alliance on education, there is a difference between knowledge and skill. The corporate capitalists are looking for skill and not knowledge because knowledge of the society will give rise to thought (which, we have seen that, they are afraid of). But they don’t encourage the basic knowledge of a discipline also because that knowledge they will import from the US and the UK. So, they are satisfied if you pass out as an engineer from IIT or as an administrator from IIM, but this education at IITs or IIMs should not give rise to any critical or fundamental work because that kind of work requires an atmosphere of freedom which is not possible here. Also for any fundamental research or work some degree of autonomy of the institution and universities is required. Now, a new proposal is coming up where in the government is suggesting a common syllabus for all central universities. So, when I go to teach my students at JNU, I will not be able to teach them what I believe but will have to teach a prescribed syllabus by someone from outside. Thus, if this is to be the case then, why do you need me or anyone else as a faculty? This is the third aspect of destruction of thought which is taking place not only here but, all over the world. All over the world the number of teachers is coming down. In the USA, two-thirds of the faculties in universities are adjunct faculties. They are temporary and very ill-paid and so they are all very insecure and thus, they cease to resist against the authorities even when their principles might push them to. The other one-third of the faculty is very highly paid and has permanent positions and so, over the years they have become part of the establishment and thus, ceased to resist. Thus, very methodically, universities cease to be ‘places of resistance’.  This phenomenon is seen in India also. A large number of universities are continuing to function with a large number of ‘guest’ faculty members. In one of the UGC committee meeting that, I sat in on; the Economics Department from Utkal University had applied for a grant. We asked them what all do you teach, they said M.Sc’s, M.Phil, Ph.Ds, etc are all being taught. So we asked them, ‘How many faculty members do you have?’, so they said three. We were very surprised as to how they were able to manage such a huge student load amongst only three faculty members and on asking them about the same, they said, ‘We ask the students to study on their own.’  This is happening in a large number of universities. 

So, on the one hand you have privatisation, commoditisation, and public institutions being completely run down and now you have a communal-fascist government which is looking to introduce this poisonous toxin of communalism into everything. All of these processes add up to a scenario of the destruction of thought. So, it would be inaccurate to think that it is only institutions that are getting destroyed but, thought itself is getting destroyed. For any major change to take effect, not only revolution, but for change of any sort, there is the requirement of thought. Karl Marx writes in Capital that, “...a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” Thus, for any social change to be brought about there must be a thought guiding it. There would have been no anti-colonial struggle in this country if there were no thought. First came the thought that, India was missing out on trade revenue, there was rampant unemployment, following which a political struggle for freedom ensued. So, the destruction or thought for any society is extremely damaging. The idea of fascism is to fore-close politics which, they are managing by this destruction of thought. 

There is a belief among people that, with the new government, the states are becoming more empowered. If you were to look into the financial allocations granted to the states, you would realise that on the contrary there is enormous centralisation that is taking place, an example is the dissolution of the National Development Council which, had space for state representation. These days most of the decisions are taking place in the PMO and the respective cabinet ministers do not have much say, so how does it matter if your education minister is not highly educated. There is also a centralisation of resources that is taking place. But, these facts are opposite to the idea being presented which is that there is a strengthening of the states from the centre and there is a strengthening of the federal nature of our government. The money from the centre to the states comes in three parts – from the finance commission, the planning commission and in the form of various miscellaneous grants. Now, the money being sent by the finance commission may have increased but, the money that was being sent by the planning commission has decreased. This increase in the finance commission funds does not compensate for this decrease and thus, overall there is a decrease in the funds reaching the states. If one were to compare the budget of estimates of states from last year and this year, this year lesser money has gone to the states in terms ofproportion of the GDP. So, the assault on the individual institutions extends as an assault on our federal polity due to this enormous centralisation. 

Now, our job is to resist against this assault. But our resistance is not in terms of individual events, for instance, the resistance that is being offered by the students of FTII, Pune, right now. Resistance must be there, resistance to centralisation of syllabus, resistance to appointment of incompetent people, resistance to privatisation of education and resistance to any attack on the democratic right of students. But, in addition to this resistance, bodies like the SFI must be sensitive to another thing, that it is important to have a life of thought. If they are out to destroy thought, we have to preserve thought, not only ours but thought as a whole. Karl Marx once said to somebody that, “I would not have found the satisfaction that, I found on debating with John Stuart Mill, had John Stuart Mill not been present...” The job of a student bodies like the SFI is a much bigger job than defending individual incursion into university autonomy or appointments or into democratic rights (these are of course its responsibilities) but, additionally such a body must defend the freedom of thought. Since, if there is a destruction of thought we can forget about all social transformation. It is in fact a job of the left, to defend the society at large from fascism and therefore to defend society at large from this destruction of thought.