Industrialisation and forms of struggle: Or, should industrialisation be opposed?

Raju J Das

Industrialisation is understood narrowly in the sense of manufacturing and broadly in the sense of the application of modern science and technology to the transformation of raw materials from nature. It is necessary for national development, as the economist Gavin Kitching and others argued decades ago. Industrialisation adds value to unprocessed goods extracted from nature and thus increases society’s income. Often owners of land – peasants – do not earn more – or do not earn much more — than those who work in industry as wage labourers. Industrialisation makes possible the production of a vast range of goods, which are directly used by people: clothes, materials required to build houses, traditional and western medicines, consumer durables, cultural items such as books and music instruments; the different types food that go through the manufacturing process, and so on. And, industry indeed produces the means of production necessary in both farming and industry itself. Industrialisation holds out the possibility of ending want and material suffering. It provides employment to the increasing population, including through forward and backward linkages. It makes it possible to reap scale economies and specialisation in ways not possible in agriculture. In part because of the above, industrialisation increases labour productivity, one of the fundamental indicators of progress, prosperity, and economic development in the society at large. Industrialisation breaks the mutual isolation of producers: this happens as they now work in great numbers in large cities and towns. Their geographical concentration will potentially allow them to fight for justice and equality in society, both on their behalf and on behalf of other oppressed groups. Industrialisation, connected as it is to science, promotes a culture of rational thinking and can potentially undermine the basis for superstitious and obscurantist ideas and practices. Given these and many other advantages of industrialisation, the Left – at least the Marxist left — cannot be opposed to industrialisation (although sections of the postmodern/populist Left are, as industrialisation is seen by them as a sign/carrier of modernity that supposedly destroys an authentic pre-modern culture). The question is: what form of industrialisation should the Left endorse in theory and practice? What happens when, for example, a proposed SEZ (special economic zone) displaces thousands of peasants? Should industrialisation be endorsed under this situation?

To answer this question, one may start with agriculture. Land is the most important means of production in agriculture, at least at the current stage when farming is relatively less capital-intensive. Fertility of land is a product of natural forces as well as human investments. It is normally the case that human investments in land to raise land fertility happen closer to existing centres of population and commerce than away from these. Fertile tracts of land therefore are generally located closer to existing centres of population and commerce. Now, owners of industry need also land. But their need for land is different. They need to locate their factories on: land is not used as an input in the way it is used in farming. And in a market economy, they need land in a specific location: industry tends to be located closer to existing centres of population and commerce for the reason that greater profits are made possible by greater geographical accessibility. Therefore, the fight over industrialisation often becomes a fight between owners of industry and owners of land (including peasants). This fight is over not just an absolute piece of land but over its location.

To be able to understand the on-going struggles over industrialisation, we have to carefully distinguish between industrialisation per se which is necessary in all modern societies from its various historically specific forms, and we need to also distinguish between various forms of struggle over industrialisation.
There is a strong logic to locating industry on the land which is not currently cultivated or irregularly cultivated, in relatively less accessible locations and away from the locations of fertile land on which peasants are currently dependent on or which may soon be used. Why? Firstly, as mentioned above, industry does not need fertile land as an input. Location of a factory on or close to a fertile land destroys natural fertility of soil which is almost impossible to manufacture in industry. It is indeed a great social cost to use a fertile land for industrialisation which does not need it. Secondly, forcing the industry to locate in these areas (e.g. relatively less accessible areas, away from fertile land) will result in the development of new means of transportation and communication (which will also create jobs). Industrialisation in these less accessible locations will also give an impetus to agriculture. It is unfortunate that when industries could be located in more remote locations on land that is relatively less fertile, they are being located on currently cultivated fertile land. This must be fought against. This is one form of struggle over industrialisation.

If, however, a fertile land currently being cultivated must absolutely be used for an SEZ — and whether this must be the case should be democratically decided and not decided by business — several conditions must be laid out. The value of the land as a compensation to the family must be determined in relation to what the value of the land would be after the industries have come up. Under no circumstances must the living standards of the families losing the land and the families losing access to employment on that land (farm labourers, tenants) be allowed to be worse than what they were before the change in the use of the land. Indeed, because industrialisation will make possible greater production of wealth and because this is possible only by displacing the people who currently occupy the land and depend on its use, it must be an absolute precondition of displacement that their material and cultural needs (adequate food, clothes, shelter, education, health care, etc.) are satisfied (including by giving employment to at least a single person from every affected family with a living wage in the industry) and that environmental sustainability of the place and nearby-places is maintained. Investment must be made in the lives of the people who are affected before the investment is made in the SEZ itself. This will not happen automatically. This requires democratically mobilised struggle. This is the second form of struggle over industrialisation.

Peasants as peasants have been involved in heroic battles over dispossession from their land – in Bengal, in northern Orissa, in Maharashtra, and so many other places. This is not the decisive battle against the industrialist class (domestic or foreign), however. The decisive battle against it cannot be, and will not be, fought by peasants as property owners against dispossession, although local and temporary success is possible. The battle against unjust dispossession can only be successfully fought by urban workers in an alliance with peasants and rural workers. Note also that the issue of peasants being separated from land is not a single separable visible act of a group of industrialists, backed by the state. Given, for example, the high costs of farm inputs which come from the industry and given the decreasing prices of farm products from which industry benefits, millions are going into debt, and to clear their debt, peasants are selling their land. Many are leasing their land to better-off farmers, including those who enter into contract with industrialists, domestic and foreign, to produce farm products for industrial processing. There is therefore a potential site of struggle against this insidious form of dispossession from land. The industrialists who set up an SEZ by displacing peasants from land and the industrialists who benefit from high prices of goods sold to peasants which contribute to their economic unviability and separation from land are both members of the same family. The fight against high prices of industrial goods used by peasants is therefore an important part of the fight for a particular form of industrialisation, one that would seek to remove the differences between peasants and industry and the relations of oppression between them.

There is still another form of struggle over industrialisation. Peasants turned into the proletariat in the SEZs, in newly industrialising areas – whether located on fertile land, displacing peasants or in remote locations — will and must fight against the monied class, initially for better wages and working conditions. One may respond by saying that the SEZ framework of industrialisation does not allow for the working class organisation. But then who said that the SEZ must be a necessary form of industrialisation? Or if it does, who said that an SEZ – understood as an industrial cluster — must be one where workers are to be alienated from their democratic right to organise? If business has the right to make money, then surely, and in the interest of democracy, workers have the right to organise to demand a decent life? This is the fourth form of struggle over industrialisation, the struggle that connects workers of different industrial clusters and cities politically and that demands that industrialisation must be of a particular form such that those who do the work must be fully able to meet their social and cultural needs. An SEZ, an industrial project is not based on a one-time act of separating people from their land and livelihood. Much rather, the particular form of industrialisation that is in question is based on a continuous separation: separation of people from the product of their labour, from their blood and sweat. It represents endless money-making at one pole and limitless misery at another. This form of industrialisation does not just produce things that are of potential use. It reproduces an invisible relation of separation of masses from their lives, a relation between them and those who control their lives at work (and outside). So because separation of people from their land creates a ground for the second form of separation, the struggle against the former must be connected to the struggle over the latter, and can only be fully successful if it is connected that way.

Protecting the peasants does not necessarily mean protecting the peasant property. If industrialisation can better the conditions of peasants (i.e. outside of farming), perhaps ‘sacrificing’ their property to make room for industrialisation can be favourably considered. Everyone must be provided with an opportunity to live a life with dignity. Whether it is in industry or farming should, ordinarily, be beside the matter. But there is an ‘if’, as in ‘If industrialisation can better conditions of life of peasants…’. Industrialisation, whether led by state-capital or private capital has not done much for millions of peasants. And it won’t unless it is a site of contestation.

The current struggles around SEZs and displacement appear to be a little narrow. They are often too defensive. The message of these struggles seems to be: ‘don’t take away our land, leave us alone (to our misery)’. The struggle against displacement should be a part of larger family of struggles, i.e. struggles over industrialisation as such. This is because the objects of struggle are objectively inter-connected. The fight against SEZs must be a fight against a particular existing form of industrialisation which leads to double dispossession: political acts of dispossession or primitive accumulation and dispossession through market mechanisms (rising prices of industrial goods leading to debt). A part of the fight should also be within SEZs (and other industrialised areas). Seen in another way, the fight against SEZs and displacement is a fight for a certain form of industrialisation, which, in turn, is a fight for (deepening) democracy and for the satisfaction of social, cultural and ecological needs of those who are displaced to make room for industries, those who lose land because of rising prices of industrial goods, and those who work inside the industrial areas.

Raju J Das is an Associate Professor at York University, Toronto, Canada. Email: rajudas@yorku.ca

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