Prabhat Patnaik

Prabhat Patnaik is an Indian Marxist economist and political commentator. He taught at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning in the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, from 1974 until his retirement in 2010.

The abuse of the concept of “populism”

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ALL regimes based on class antagonism require a discourse to legitimise class oppression and this discourse in turn requires a vocabulary of its own. The neoliberal regime too has developed its own discourse and vocabulary and a key concept in this vocabulary is “populism”. This concept is given great currency by the media, which is peopled by members drawn from the upper middle class who have been major beneficiaries of the neo-liberal regime and have therefore developed a vested interest in its continuation. So pervasive is the reach of this concept that even well-meaning and progressive members of the literati have fallen victim to its abuse and employ the term with the pejorative connotation typically imparted to it by the corporate-owned media.

The term “populism” of course is not an invention of the neo-liberal intelligentsia. It has been used much earlier but with a meaning very different from what is given to it now. The Russian Narodniks for instance were called “populists” by Russian Marxists, including Lenin, but the term was used to denote the fact that the Narodniks did not make class distinctions within the mass that they indiscriminately called the “people”. The idea was not to discredit the use of the term “people”, for Lenin himself used the term “working people” to denote workers and peasants; it was to avoid the obliteration of distinctions among them which needed to be theoretically drawn. Under neo-liberalism, however, the term is used to refer to any appeal made to any segment of the working people, whether to mobilize them on grounds of religious chauvinism or by making fiscal transfers to them.

The term “populism” in its current use, therefore, covers both fascist and semi-fascist appeals to the people on issues that deliberately camouflage their oppression, as well as all attempts to secure some gains for them to alleviate their oppression. The former is sometimes called “Right-wing populism” while the latter is called “Left-wing populism”. The ideological obfuscation is obvious here: not only is there no class perspective behind the use of the term, but by treating both “Left-wing” and “Right-wing” populism on a par as unwholesome tendencies, there is a privileging of the “middle”, i.e., a liberal bourgeois position as the only “sensible” one. A concept used in a rigorous theoretical critique with regard to the cognition of a mass entity, as was the case with the Russian Marxists, has now been converted into an apotheosis of the liberal bourgeois position.

This is not just a case of obfuscation; it is positively misleading as well. The hallmark of the fascist, neo-fascist and semi-fascist positions that are labelled “Right-wing” populism is that they have nothing to offer by way of economic benefits to the masses. By contrast, what is called “Left-wing” populism demands welfare state measures, and, at the very least, economic transfers to the people; by putting the two on a par and debunking “populism” in general, the dominant discourse essentially debunks all economic transfers to the people. It, therefore, advances a position according to which any economic concessions made to the people must be eschewed and the government’s focus must be entirely on the growth of the GDP; since transfers to the people eat into resources that could have been used for making investments which would have accelerated growth, such transfers are a waste, made under duress only because of electoral compulsions, but otherwise utterly unwise. An extension of this logic is the argument that any attempt on the part of the government to reduce economic inequality in society is also unwise.

This discourse is perfectly in keeping with a neo-liberal regime. Before it was introduced, nobody would have been critical if an agenda of reducing inequality and eliminating poverty had been advanced. In fact, Indira Gandhi won an election on the slogan of Garibi Hatao; of course, she did not do it, but the criticism against her was not that she advanced the slogan but that she did not do it. Amartya Sen had argued long ago that devoting just 5 per cent of GDP would eliminate poverty in India and that the country should do it by foregoing total consumption by an amount equal to just one year’s GDP growth (which was then about 5 per cent per annum). Reduction in inequality and the elimination of poverty were thus considered primary tasks before the economy during the dirigiste period; but not so now, even though there has been a massive increase in income and wealth inequality under the neo-liberal regime. And recourse to the pejorative use of the term “populism” is a means of debunking all such demands for greater egalitarianism, an ideological weapon in the hands of corporate capital and the burgeoning upper middle class to beat down all proposals for economic transfers to the poor.

Prioritising economic growth has always been a feature of bourgeois economics, but with a difference. Adam Smith had argued for the removal of state interference that, he believed, stood in the way of economic growth, even though he knew perfectly well that the benefits of this growth would not come to the working class. In his view an increase in the wealth of the nation was an important goal per se; where he differed from his predecessors was in arguing that this wealth consisted not in the acquisition of gold and silver but in the accumulation of capital stock that could be used for producing goods. David Ricardo too was all for the accumulation of capital stock and hence for the growth of output, even though he knew that there was a limit to such accumulation. (Indeed, Karl Marx had lauded Ricardo for advocating accumulation even though the latter believed that such accumulation would run into a cul-de-sac when what was called a stationary state was reached). Ricardo also believed that the working class would not be benefitted by such accumulation.

The reason why both Smith and Ricardo thought that the working class would not be benefitted by such accumulation is because any improvement in its condition tended to bring forth an increase in its population. The only way that workers could benefit from capital accumulation, therefore, was if they restricted their propensity to procreate. But that was a matter that they alone could influence, though the classical economists were in favour of their becoming better off through restricting their population growth. The classical advocacy of growth however was independent of whether workers benefitted from it.

The current advocacy of growth is different. Nobody today believes that the conditions of the working people are miserable because they procreate too much; nobody believes that their conditions cannot be improved through the efforts of the State by bringing about income transfers in their favour. And yet such transfers are sought to be avoided by neo-liberal bourgeois economists on the grounds that they would jeopardise economic growth. The classical advocacy of growth is taken over by modern neo-liberals, but without the classical economists’ sympathy for the working class. Thus, the bourgeoisie’s class animosity against the working class is now reflected in the attitudes of the economists as well.

The emphasis on growth to the exclusion of economic transfers to the poor, which are sneeringly labelled as “populist measures”, is doubly offensive to the poor. On the one hand it prevents an improvement in their living standard that could have been achieved if the transfers had taken place; on the other hand, the quest for growth invariably involves a number of projects that entail the ousting of peasants and labourers from the land that they cultivate, and of people at large from their habitats, which leaves them even worse off than they were to start with. True, employment is created on such projects and also in downstream activities created by them; but the displaced are scarcely the beneficiaries from such employment generation, and even the employment that is created often falls short of the employment that is destroyed. And rehabilitation of the displaced people that is promised when the project is undertaken is scarcely ever realised. If growth was being effected under the aegis of collectives of the people themselves, through for instance peasant collectives themselves starting industrial projects, then matters would be different; but that is not the way that growth occurs under capitalism.

The debunking of welfare state measures by referring to them pejoratively as “populist”, and emphasising GDP growth exclusively as the objective of state policy, are cynically anti-people; but that is the hallmark of neo-liberalism.

Falsity of Poverty Estimates

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The Global Hunger Index (GHI) for 2022 has just come out, which shows India occupying the 107th position among the 121 countries for which the index is prepared (countries where hunger is not a noteworthy problem are left out of the index). India’s score on the hunger index is 29.1 which is worse than the score of 28.2 it had in 2014. (The lower the figure the less is hunger). One is so bombarded these days by official talk about India being among the fastest-growing economies of the world, India within sight of becoming a $5 trillion economy, and India being an emerging economic power, that news such as the GHI brings one down to earth. Ironically, the only country in South Asia that is below India on the hunger index, and that too only marginally, is war-ravaged Afghanistan (rank 109); the rank of crisis-hit Sri Lanka is 64, of Nepal 81, of Bangladesh 84 and of Pakistan 99.

The GHI news however should come as no surprise. The fact that hunger in the country is acute and growing, has been pointed out by several scholars. They have used data on per capita daily calorie intake, and per capita annual foodgrain availability to make this point. And they have argued that since growing hunger is a symptom of growing poverty, a proposition that the Planning Commission had originally accepted, the period of neo-liberalism which has seen secularly growing hunger culminating in this year’s GHI, despite the much lauded high GDP growth, must also be a period of growing absolute poverty.

The evidence on secularly growing hunger in the neo-liberal period is quite overwhelming. If we take 1993-94 and 2011-12, the first an NSS “large sample” year closest to the beginning of neo-liberalism, and the second the last NSS “large sample” year for which data have been released by the government, we find that the proportion of the population below 2200 calories per person per day in rural India increased from 58 to 68 per cent; the corresponding figures for urban India where the benchmark was 2100 calories per person per day increased from 57 to 65 per cent. The figures for 2017-18, another NSS “large sample” year, were apparently so appalling that the government decided to suppress them altogether, and even to discontinue the NSS in the old form. But leaked data show that per capita real expenditure for rural India as a whole had fallen by 9 per cent between 2011-12 and 2017-18.

There is however a powerful view among many researchers that this apparently growing incidence of hunger should not be taken as evidence of people becoming worse off over time. There are two strands of this argument. One states that because of pervasive mechanisation, the drudgery of manual work has declined over time, so that working people these days do not need as many calories as they used to earlier. They spend less on food than they used to, and diversify their spending towards other ends. The second strand does not mention the decline in the extent of arduous work, but simply states that people are voluntarily diversifying their expenditure away from such elementary goods as foodgrains, towards both more refined and sophisticated food items, and also towards other commodities like children’s education and proper healthcare.

On both these counts according to them, the decline in per capita foodgrain absorption is symptomatic not of a worsening living standard as of an improvement in living standard; hence to draw conclusions about growing poverty from what appears at first sight as growing hunger (but in fact is a voluntary reduction of foodgrain consumption as part of a better life), is entirely illegitimate. The incidence of poverty, it follows, is not growing but declining, as the government and the World Bank have been claiming (though the latter has recently talked of a rise in poverty during the pandemic).

To repeat, there is no dispute about the decline in per capita foodgrain consumption in India, taking both direct and indirect consumption together, the latter through processed foods and animal feeds; nor is there any dispute about the decline in per capita calorie intake. The real difference is whether this signifies growing poverty or a diversification of consumption away from foodgrains that is symptomatic of a fall in poverty. The fact that an increase in poverty would cause greater hunger is not in doubt; the point is whether the reverse is true, whether reduced ingestion of foodgrains can be taken as proof of growing poverty. The Global Hunger Index becomes useful here.

If reduced food intake was indeed a symptom of an improvement in the condition of life, then we should be expecting many more countries whose growth-rates appear impressive to join India at the bottom of the GHI table. But the countries in India’s neighbourhood on the GHI table, where our rank is 107, are Rwanda (rank 102), Nigeria (103), Ethiopia (104), Republic of Congo (105), Sudan (106), Zambia (108), Afghanistan (109) and Timor-Leste (110). All these are countries that are generally regarded as poor countries, so that their being at the bottom of the table is no surprise. By contrast, countries with which we would like our economic performance to be compared, such as China, are at the top of the table. China appears within the top 17 countries which are collectively, rather than individually, ranked. Its GHI score of less than 5 is way better than India’s 29.1.

The fact that not a single one of the so-called high-growth economies figures alongside India underscores the complete vacuity of the arguments that emphasize a change in tastes (greater keenness for children’s education) or a reduction in “drudgery” (through mechanisation) as being responsible for a (voluntary) reduction in foodgrain consumption. The reduction in “drudgery” owing to mechanisation, or the desire for children’s education, are not characteristics specific to the Indian people; they are universal phenomena. Then why should India alone among the high-growth economies figure near the bottom of the GHI table?

It may be argued that while the desire for children’s education and proper healthcare may be common to people everywhere, in India these are expensive services while in China they may be cheaper. Because of this, parents in India enrolling their children in the more expensive schools may have to cut back on their food consumption, while in China schooling being less expensive, there is no need to cut back on food intake for educating children.

But that is precisely our point, and it has nothing to do with any “change of taste”. Everywhere, parents are keen on their children’s education, but if in a particular country putting them to school requires having to forego food, then this foregoing is symptomatic of an increase in poverty. It indicates an increase in the price of one of the goods in the basket consumed by the people, and hence an increase in the cost of living which is not accompanied by a corresponding increase in money incomes, and leads to a cut in foodgrain consumption. This cut in foodgrain consumption, which means an increase in hunger, is therefore a reflection of a rise in cost of living and hence of a reduced real income; and that exactly is what one means by an increase in poverty.

Put differently, any increase in real income must mean some increase in the consumption of every good in a basket of goods on which this income is spent (or some substitute good for one of these goods). An increase in real income, as cross-section data within India and across countries show, invariably means a rise in foodgrains consumption, not direct consumption alone but direct and indirect consumption taken together. But if there is a decline in the total direct and indirect foodgrain intake, as has been the case in India, then that must mean a decline in real incomes of the majority of the people, and hence a rise in poverty. The link between growing hunger and growing poverty therefore remains valid.

The reason why poverty according to official and World Bank estimates appears to have declined in India, on the basis of which it is claimed that the link between poverty and hunger no longer holds, is because they use a “poverty line”, a particular level of per capita money expenditure below which people are considered poor, which is updated by using a cost-of-living index. But the index as constructed in India does not reckon with the rise in cost of living owing to the privatisation of services like education and health. Therefore the true rise in cost of living is not taken into account, and the poverty line that is updated by using it, keeps falling below what it should have been. This underestimates the magnitude of poverty and the elite laps up this estimated, supposedly-declining, poverty ratio. The Global Hunger Index exposes the falsity of such poverty estimates.

Views expressed are personal