The two week absence of the Left~write column was caused by the sudden death of my brother-in-law in a road accident in the city of Baroda (India). A young man of 42, he leaves behind an uncomprehending daughter who is not yet seven, a distressed wife and distraught parents. It is difficult to come to terms with the hurt and loss this has caused, especially since it seems so avoidable and inexplicable. ‘Why?’ is the question in everyone’s mind. But even in our moment of sadness it is sobering to realise that close to a 100,000 people die in similar road accidents in India each year. Each death a catastrophe for the family. Globally close to 800,000 people die annually in road accidents, a figure that is expected to touch a million by 2010.
While it is impossible to answer this question, ‘why this loss?’ at a personal level, at the larger, global, level it is not difficult to identify that these lives are lost to the demon of speed and recklessness, a demon nourished by our constant urge to go faster, reach our destination quicker and outdo the competition.
Modern industrial civilisation is almost obsessed with the need for speed, of constantly going faster, higher, and stronger than earlier. This need for speed is not merely in terms of travel, but has now permeated almost all local cultures and ideologies. This idea of going faster, reaching higher and becoming stronger is not context-driven or based on the specific needs of the particular situation. It is universally present in the mental architectures of people across national boundaries, political affiliations, social relations and cultural mores. It is one of the truly global ideologies and one that is rarely, if ever, questioned. And it is rarely, if ever, questioned because this universalisation of the context-less desire for faster, higher, and stronger is the psychological counterpart of the ideology of constant, context-less economic growth, it is the true ideology of the cancer cell.
To speak against the ideology of faster, higher, and stronger is not to argue that there is never any need to increase speed, reduce the time taken for a particular process nor is it a call to secede from industrial society and return to some agricultural/pastoral idyll. I am not arguing that there is never a need for increasing the speed of processes, travel or communication. Nor am I saying that there never is a need to go beyond what has previously been achieved. But this has to be context-driven. This context-less longing for faster, higher, and stronger is merely the expression in mass psychology of the economic imperative of constant growth, which itself is based on capitalism’s need for extended reproduction. Not only does the material base of such an economic regime foster the psychology of faster, higher and stronger, but the embedding of this desire is also central in nurturing human beings who can function efficiently within such an economic structure.
Human societies have all been marked by the intense desire to excel, to increase our knowledge of the world and to better the achievements of the previous generations. This innate desire is almost what makes us human. All human achievements, the very achievement of becoming human from ape is a testament to this desire to actualise fully the potential hidden within us – both individually and as a community. There can be no argument against this, and neither does this column do that. This desire has been present in all human societies and has been expressed in various ways. Unfortunately, human history is also the story of how we have – both individually and in our community – curtailed the possibilities for us to actualise our potential. Shackles of low technology, ignorance, patriarchy, social stratification and hierarchy, religious and caste discrimination, etc., have curtailed the possibility of its members achieving their full human potential possible.
The dawn of the industrial age, with its harnessing of the power of hydrocarbons, removed the material shackles on achieving our potential as humans. But the fact that this industrial revolution, perhaps necessarily, happened in the context of private property meant that industrialisation could not be divorced from capitalism. And capitalism is not only a method of organising economic life, it subverts all other facets of human existence to the economic. The economic bedrock of capitalism is the need to make a profit. Without the drive towards profit, there can be no capitalist economy. But as economists have shown, there is a tendency for the rate of profit to constantly fall, unless the size and the scale of production is simultaneously, constantly increased. To keep profits in the pocket from falling, there needs to be constant increase in production scale and size – what Karl Marx called extended reproduction. It is this extended reproduction which is at the root of capitalism’s spiral of constant economic growth, which itself is the origin of this mass psychology of faster, higher, and stronger.
From the moment that industrial capitalism emerged, there have been people and movements that have railed against the ‘dehumanising’ and ‘soul-sapping’ speed of modern life. Unfortunately, these ‘philosophies’ and ‘religious cults’ that speak against this demon of speed, who reject these twinned desires of faster, higher, and stronger, are those that consciously cut themselves off from the material world. They posit some a-historical, non-industrial idyll that is unachievable and thus become no more than an asylum for the self-consciously slow, those who have accepted defeat in the rat race of life. This is not an alternative to the world of faster, higher, and stronger since these can never become the ‘way of life’ for all people, not even for the majority of the people, as these ‘idylls’ survive on the material foundation of industrial societies. They are parasitical on industrial capitalism not only for their physical survival, but also provide a safety valve to capitalism by offering an ‘idyll’ to those who do not like to continue in this rat race. They block possibilities for real change in the material conditions of life, which make this desire for faster, higher, and stronger so universal and impose the ideology of constant, context-less economic growth on this planet of limited resources.
There is, at present, no materialist ideology that is self-conscious in its rejection of the ideology of constant economic growth and its cultural/psychological expression. Karl Marx and his ideas, as they have developed in these many decades of study and struggle, provide the starting point for building an ideology that can counter the ideology of faster, higher, and stronger and the ideology of constant, context-less economic growth. But it is not enough. We cannot remain hidebound in the knowledge discovered and given to us by Marx. We need to move on.
As Ernesto Che Guevara, that brilliant revolutionary, said
One ought to be ‘Marxist’ with the same naturalness with which one is ‘Newtonian’ in physics, or ‘Pasteurian’ in biology, considering that if facts determine new concepts, these new concepts will never divest themselves of that portion of truth possessed by the older concepts they have outdated. Such is the case, for example, of Einsteinian relativity or of Planck’s quantum theory with respect to the discoveries of Newton; they take nothing at all away from the greatness of the learned Englishman.
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This article was published in The Post on 03 October, 2007 under the title “The Need for Speed”.