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Narrative for productivism? India seeking to return to dogma of 'wartime' economics

By Bhabani Shankar Nayak*
‘To be or not to be productive’ is an old constructed dilemma that surfaces during the coronavirus pandemic. This Shakespearean tragedy is pushing people in two contradictory directions. Despite the initiation of the three-phase ‘unlock’ plan, states and governments are asking “stay safe” even as maintaining physical distancing.
India's “unlocking” plan has apparently come about due to centuries long capitalist socialisation, which has led to the ideal that unproductive indolence is immoral. What policy makers are ignoring in the process is miseries of individuals and communities while looking for ways to recover as the new phase is initiated.
Many commentators on public policy are trying to draw lessons from the wartime economics to create a new narrative for productivism as the foundation of welfare state. Such narratives also glorify workers sacrifices. The glorification of the spirit of work ethics is central to capitalism, which derives its strength from all major world religions.
Religion and capitalism are twin pillars of such a contradictory narrative that promotes productivist society. In such a society, time is considered as money. People compete with each other and with nature to convert their time into money by working hard. It creates an illusion that working hard is a means to pursue one’s own dream and uplift one’s own self from economic miseries.
The desire to recover from economic misery puts people in an illusion that diverts people’s attention from their working conditions and the processes, which controls and exploits their work. The workers work hard in every field and the most productivist people in the world but they suffer the most in miseries.
The productivist societies normalises and naturalises inequalities and exploitation. So, the society based on productivist philosophy is inherently exploitative and unsustainable. The unsustainability of such a productivist system is revealed by this pandemic. The human alienation is the net outcome of both the pandemic and productivism.
The history of productivism as an ideology emerged during early agricultural society based on the growing needs of people. The need-based society was transformed into a desire-based society with the growth of intensive expansion of agriculture for higher production. The production that is not only for consumption requirements but also for sale in the market and export to distant places.
The ideals of productivism became the everyday ideology of the industrial revolution. Productivism continues to be the answer for problems created by the capitalist economy in different parts of the world. The ideology of productivism in 21st century demonstrates three specific dimensions; i) concentration, ii) intensification and iii) specialisation.
These three dimensions have played significant role in destroying environment and weakening the power of labour to serve the interests of the owners of the capital. Both the liberal and neoliberal policy makers use these features of productivism as policy prescriptions during economic crisis.
The global health crisis due the coronavirus pandemic is bringing back these old ideals of productivism for the survival of capitalist system, which further weakens the working classes all over the world. Some countries have already removed protective measure by reforming labour laws, which used to provide safety nets to the workers.
The historical experiences of all productivist societies in different parts of the world expose the limits of productivist ideology, that upholds the interests of the capital and weakens labour power. The productivist ideology of capitalism imposes economic and moral logic to allure the working classes to world of work that diminishes the meaning of life. It individualises the working conditions and production processes which destroys the collectivist foundation of society.
The desire to recover from economic misery puts people in an illusion that diverts people’s attention from their working conditions
It is in this process, workers face all forms of social, economic, cultural and political alienation that is concomitant with the alienation people faced during the pandemic-led lockdown. The outbreak of coronavirus manufactured unprecedented uncertainties in global scale. The capitalist class is trying to capture their lost profit by increasing working hours. Trade union laws are being diluted to serve the interests of the capitalist class.
It is within this context that workers need to start writing their own narratives by disengaging with capitalist productivist framework in which work is individualised, standardised, disciplined and commodified. There is little room for the creative growth of workers and their skills.
Despite the crisis it brought in, the lockdown period should be a lesson on why workers should reject the productivist logic. It should be seen as a period of reflection on life. There is need to understand: Human happiness and health depend on the quality of life, which is denied in the productivist work culture.
The French philosopher Pascal said that “all problems of the humanity come from the inability for the man to sit without doing anything in a room”. It is apt for the pandemic-led lockdown period in which people were made to feel impatient for being idle. One wonders if it is time to understand the vices of productivist life and celebrate virtues of laziness.
Indeed, iconic works like 'On Laziness' by Christopher Morley, ‘An Apology for Idlers’ by RL Stevenson, ‘In Praise of Idleness’ by Bertrand Russell and ‘Why Are Beggars Despised?’ by George Orwell have provided enough justification to celebrate the virtues of being lazy. It gives an opportunity to the workers to consolidate their time and energy for a more meaningful life that is disengaged from the system.
The workers’ non-cooperation with capitalism and its productivist philosophy can only help them make the world more sustainable for the future. The freedom of workers from capitalism depends on the quality of their laziness. It is time to dump the busy schedule in search of collective meaning of life, liberty, individual dignity, equality, humanity and happiness.
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*Coventry University, UK

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