Readings in Chapter XXV
War and the need of Economic Unity
Towards the end of World War I, saner minds of the West were contemplating the dynamics of some sort of international union. It was presumed that factors like "military necessity, pressure of war between nations and the need for prevention of war by the assumption of force and authority in the hands of an international body, World-state or Federation or League of Peace" would "drive humanity in the end towards some sort of international union'.(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 485) Sri Aurobindo pointed out that behind the usual factors; another more powerful factor was becoming more and more explicit, the commercial and industrial necessity born out of economic interdependence. (Ibid) It was perceived that economic interdependence facilitating inter-State trade would end war and usher peace. Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850), French classical liberal theorist and political economist, had observed much earlier, "if goods don't cross borders, soldiers will". It seems that trades give States economic incentives to avoid wars. Since 1970's, students of political economy have been evaluating to what extent economic interdependence has been successful in inhibiting conflict behaviour. However it has also been suggested that even if liberal States might not engage in militarized conflict, that does not necessarily mean that they would desist from non-militarized conflicts. (Gartzke et al: Investing in the Peace: Economic Interdependence and international Conflict, International Organization 55, 2, 2001, pg. 394; pages.used.edu/-egartzke/publication/..) The ambivalent relations with China and its trading partners in the 21st century is being watched with interest by both industrialists and analysts!
Some sort of economic interdependence between heavily populated nations became explicit since the sixteenth century. The classical example is how Spanish America and Japan went on a silver production spree after China's silver demand increased manifold following conversion of her monetary system to silver standard by the early sixteenth century. Researchers have shown that subsequently during the second half of eighteenth century, a "tea and opium" cycle propelled British fortunes.( Dennis O. Flynn & Arturo Giraldez : Cycles of Silver: Global Economic Unity through the Mid-Eighteenth Century, Journal of World History,Vol.13, No.2,2002,pg 391; muse.jhu.edu?article/18461)
However the Post-World War I presented a changed scenario for two important factors had gained prominence by this time:
(a) The rise of Industrialization, and as its corollary,
(b) The establishment of Commercialism not only as an objective phenomenon but as an increasingly global mind-set.
The new mind-set shaped by commercialism was not a small affair; it was a gigantic change that "affected profoundly the character of international relations" and "is likely to affect them still more openly and powerfully in the future". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 487).
The question is can commercialism as we know it today; sustain its role as deterrent to international conflicts? In this chapter Sri Aurobindo traces the growth of the mind-set of commercialism to answer this query.
Triumph of Labour
The month of September, 1917 was a hectic month as very shortly the Russian revolution would culminate in the first decisive triumph of labour. Lenin finishes his treatise titled "The State and Revolution" in this month wherein he poignantly expresses the hypocrisy in democracy:
"Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich - that is the democracy of capitalist society...Marx grasped this essence of capitalist democracy splendidly when....he said that the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament!
"Democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e., exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and and oppressors of the people - this is the change democracy undergoes during the transition from capitalism to communism.
"Only in communist society, when the resistance of capitalists have disappeared, when there are no classes...only then the state...ceases to exist", and "it becomes possible to speak of freedom".(From the Chapter: The transition from Capitalism to Communism in The State and Revolution by Vladimir Lenin).
In the same month when Lenin completes the writing of his treatise in exile in Finland (which would be published in 1918), Sri Aurobindo, in his self-exiled seclusion at Pondicherry writes how the economic motive surpasses and modifies the quest for wisdom and the zeal for expansion so that Capital and Labour move forward at expense of the literati and the aristocracy:
"The phenomenon of modern social development is the decline of the Brahmin and Kshatriya, of the Church, the military aristocracy and the aristocracy of letters and culture, and the rise to power or predominance of the commercial and industrial classes, Vaishya and Shudra, Capital and Labour. Together they have swallowed up or cast out their rivals and are now engaged in a fratricidal conflict for sole possession in which the completion of the downward force of social gravitation, the ultimate triumph of Labour and the remodelling of all social conceptions and institutions with Labour as the first, the most dignified term which will give its value to all others seem to be the visible writing of Fate" (Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 486). How correctly he provisioned the outcome of the revolution the very next month when for the first time a government would be formed without capitalists, money-lenders and the royalty! Communist Bolsheviks under the stewardship of Lenin created the Soviet Union in October, 1917. Those who were present but did not participate were told by Trotsky to consign themselves in the dustbin of history! After seizing power on October 25th, 1917, Lenin does not waste time and on October 26th, issues the decree on Land for the abolition of private ownership. What Sri Aurobindo anticipated as "the visible writing of Fate" barely a month back had become a tangible reality.
Commercialism - Rise and Fall
Writing a month before the culmination of Russian revolution in 1917, Sri Aurobindo previsions that the age of commercialism would be strengthened by two paradoxically different movements inherent in the development of an industrialized society:
(a) "the service of bourgeois capitalism", and
(b) "the office of a half-involuntary channel for the incoming of economic Socialism".(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 487)
It is interesting that these two issues were at their height of consideration just before the October Revolution and Sri Aurobindo catches the fervour of that time while in seclusion. It was a time when the workers representing the proletariat were entirely socialized in the European market while the ruling bourgeoisie went on accumulating wealth. Marx had envisaged that the conflict between Capital and labour would lead to a classless society, an egalitarian society of equality and social coherence. The Marxian concept of classless society had a decisive influence in the 1917 revolution.
The point to note that while a classless society was being dreamt by Marxists where the State was expected to wither away , Sri Aurobindo was indicating that the "incoming economic socialism" and its adversary, "bourgeois capitalism" would actually usher and strengthen the age of commercialism as they were in the end, serving the same saga of industrialization. Subsequent events in world-history proved his apprehension was correct. A large middle class emerged between the bourgeois and the proletariat whose expectations for better living were cunningly manipulated by market forces that did not spare nations who swore by Marxism. In the psychological perspective, human beings are intrinsically more competitive than any other creature in the planet and some sort of hierarchy would always appear. At best a fundamental equality could be gained but an absolute equality would be a chimera.
The age of commercialism coloured everything including culture and religion. Even science is being sponsored not so much for fundamental research but more for industrial and utilitarian research. Modern Gurus of India and elsewhere have become successful business entrepreneurs or even management leaders. Sri Aurobindo describes how the thought-power or almost the soul-power of the modern society is held captive by the media which is "primarily an instrument of commercialism and governed by the political and commercial spirit and not like literature a direct instrument of culture". (Ibid) Free thought itself is free to the extent it is allowed by the market forces to be free.
Fall of Commercialism
Sri Aurobindo also cautions that the way out is difficult. The spirit of commercialism has affected profoundly the character of international relations and "there is no apparent probability of a turn in a new direction in the immediate future". He stressed, "Certain prophetic voices announce indeed the speedy passing of the age of commercialism. But it is not easy to see how this is to come about; certainly, it will not be by a reversion to the predominantly political spirit of the past or the temper and forms of the old aristocratic social type. The sigh of the extreme conservative mind for the golden age of the past, which was not so golden as it appears to an imaginative eye in the distance, is a vain breath blown to the winds by the rush of the car of the Time-Spirit in the extreme velocity of its progress". (Ibid, pg. 487-488)
However, there is still space for optimism. Sri Aurobindo makes a very important statement which has to be understood in the context of the unrolling of historical events:
"The end of commercialism can only come about either by some unexpected development of commercialism itself or through a reawakening of spirituality in the race and its coming to its own by the subordination of the political and economic motives of life to the spiritual motive".(Ibid, pg. 488).
He also indicated that there were signs pointing to that direction. The foremost of such signs were:
(a) a revival of the religious spirit and lost traditions ,and
(b) The broadening of the secular concept to endorse an idealism where spirituality would not be left out of purview (Ibid).
In short, as early as 1917, he was pre-visioning the coming of postmodernism! Postmodernism valued all inclusive faiths, denounced the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and steered a sizable global youth mind-set towards New Age Religion. Many years later, in 2001, the destruction of the twin towers, the iconic symbol of America's commercialism served a warning that spiritual values were more important than the display of economic prowess.
Capital and Labour
Though he envisaged a resurgence of spirituality in future, Sri Aurobindo was practical enough to acknowledge that the propelling impulsion of the post-World War I scenario was "towards the industrialising of the human race and the perfection of the life of society as an economic and productive organism".(Ibid, pg. 488) He was also emphatic that that spirit was growing and was not going to be exhausted very soon as it had become imbibed with modern Socialism.
A month before the October revolution of 1917, Sri Aurobindo writes, "Socialism proceeds on the Marxian principle that its own reign has to be preceded by an age of bourgeois capitalism of which it is to be the inheritor and to seize upon its work and organisation in order to turn it to its own uses and modify it by its own principles and methods". (Ibid) This insight shows that it would be difficult to segregate Capital from Labour in the long run. [Capitalism would not be able to disregard free thinking and Labour would have pains to sustain without Capital in future where industries, fostered with new ideas, would change character.]
Though the professed aim of Socialism was to replace Capital by Labour as the master, Sri Aurobindo doubted if this could be feasible at all. Both Labour and Capital revolved around economism. A change from one to the other would merely be a change of denouement. It would not serve a greater vision of a change from economism to some higher motive of human life. A substitution of Capital by Labour would only mean "that all activities will be valued by the labour contributed and work produced rather than by the wealth contribution and production". (Ibid)
In a footnote added three decades later, Sri Aurobindo noted: "The connection between Socialism and the democratic or equalitarian idea or the revolt of the proletariate is however an accident of its history, not its essence. In Italian Fascism there arose a Socialism undemocratic and non-equalitarian in its form, idea and temper. Fascism has gone, but there is no inevitable connection between Socialism and the domination of Labour".(Ibid)
In his 1917 write-up, Sri Aurobindo had commented that the change from Capital to Labour would pose either a greater aid or a greater difficulty to international unity. Indeed the change became a difficulty when Fascism substituted Marxist internationalism by the particularity of nationalism and racialism giving rise to a socialism with a capitalist veneer (Richman, Sheldon: http://econlib.org/library/Enc/Fascism.html). But the pressure for human unity was strong and the economic unity through commercialism was an avenue to be pursued. Subsequent events showed that modern Capitalist States embraced certain principles of Socialism. On one hand, modern States that thrive on free market also have State-sponsored public welfare schemes. On the other hand, the global trend has forced Communist China to embrace the free market of commodities but it has yet to inculcate a free platform that fosters exchange of ideas. As economy becomes increasingly enriched by knowledge, we would get ready for what Sri Aurobindo envisaged - "a change from economism to the domination of some other and higher motive of human life". (Ibid, pg. 488-489) Only then a true international unity could manifest.
Researchers on China have also noted that paradoxically, China's transition to Capitalism has opened pathways to its own cultural roots (www.cato.org/policy-report/januaryfebruary-2013/how-china-became-capitalist). This would be an early though premature indicator of what Sri Aurobindo had written in September, 1917 that from within the annals of commercialism itself would rise a revival of past values and a reawakening of spirituality.(The Idea of Human Unity, pg. 488).
Commercialism and War
The classical liberals of the mid nineteenth century believed that international trade would usher peace, abolish wars and bring unity of mankind. That attitude was epitomized in the French economist, Fredrick Passey's statement in 1840s that mankind would be united by continuous transactions to form one market, one family. However economic nationalism coupled with political collectivism dealt a death blow to that concept in the battle fields of World War I (Ebeling, RM: https//mises.org/library/can-free-trade).
In the aftermath of that Great War, in 1917, Sri Aurobindo examined the irrelevancy of the 19th century liberal ideas: "in the past, the effect of commercialism has been to bind together the human race into a real economic unity behind its apparent political separativeness. But this was a subconscient unity of inseparable interrelations and of intimate mutual dependence, not any oneness of the spirit or of the conscious organised life. Therefore these interrelations produced at once the necessity of peace and the unavoidability of war. Peace was necessary for their normal action, war frightfully perturbatory to their whole system of being. But because the organised units were politically separate and rival nations, their commercial interrelations became relations of rivalry and strife or rather a confused tangle of exchange and interdependence and hostile separatism. Self-defence against each other by a wall of tariffs, a race for closed markets and fields of exploitation, a struggle for place or predominance in markets and fields which could not be monopolised and an attempt at mutual interpenetration in spite of tariff walls have been the chief features of this hostility and this separatism. The outbreak of war under such conditions was only a matter of time; it was bound to come as soon as nation or else one group of nations felt itself either unable to proceed farther by pacific means or threatened with the definite limitation of its expansion by the growing combinations of its rivals". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 489)
Rationalists believe that free trade cannot prevent wars as long as men no longer believe in peace. From the Aurobindonian perspective, a peace in the mind has limited value unless supported by a larger consciousness, a soul-faith or by the Spirit that moves among nations and peoples. In fact, Sri Aurobindo, as a student of history, rightfully surmised that the last war determined solely by political motives was the Franco-German war of 1866, where France lost to the German states under the leadership of Prussia and influenced the unification of Germany. Since then, subsequent wars in history have always contained elements of commercial conflicts, business interests, trade imbalances and exploitation of commercially virgin fields. As Sri Aurobindo pens decades before World War II, "Not the political subjugation of Serbia which could only be a fresh embarrassment to the Austrian empire, but the commercial possession of the outlet through Salonika was the motive of Austrian policy. Pan-Germanism covered the longings of German industry for possession of the great resources and the large outlet into the North Sea offered by the countries along the Rhine. To seize African spaces of exploitation and perhaps French coal fields, not to rule over French territory, was the drift of its real intention. In Africa, in China, in Persia, in Mesopotamia, commercial motives determined political and military action. War is no longer the legitimate child of ambition and earth-hunger, but the bastard offspring of wealth-hunger or commercialism with political ambition as its putative factor". (Ibid, pg. 489-490)
Industrial Organization and War
Wars have always been fought between nations throughout history and there have always been commercial rivalries between politically separate nations but World War I was unique as it was held in the background of a changed historical scenario marked by two new characteristics:
(a) "the industrial organization of human life", and
(b) "the commercial interdependence of the nations". (Ibid, pg. 490)
As a result the intolerable effects of the war were felt not only by the warring nations but also by the neutral countries who had not directly fought in the war. The anger that erupted naturally got consolidated in the demand for ban and boycott of the perpetrating nations. Sri Aurobindo, writing in the aftermath of World War I pointed that this justified reaction was yet not enough and there was an inner truth of the whole phenomenon that was more important. Even if the nations were not fighting outwardly, a state of peace can actually be a facade for a covert war. Thus an outward peace was not a guarantee for a battle of the scale of the World War I. At that point in time just at the end of the World War I, there seemed to be two possibilities to prevent the physical shocks of war:
(a) The regulation of the inevitable rivalry by a state of law through the formation of a centralized World-State (though in extreme cases such principle of enforced arbitration could fail resulting in war); and
(b) The overhanging threat of international pressure like economic blockade. (Ibid, pg. 490-491)
Within a nation, the weapon of commercial pressure is manifested through a "pacific" struggle like strikes and lock-outs "which are on one side a combined passive resistance by the weaker party to enforce its claims, on the other a passive pressure by the stronger party to enforce its wishes". (Ibid, pg. 491)
Between nations, the corresponding means to enforce pressure "would be the refusal of capital or machinery, the prohibition of all or of any needed imports into the offending or victim country, or even a naval blockade leading, if long maintained, to industrial ruin or to national starvation. The blockade is a weapon used originally only in a state of war, but it was employed against Greece as a substitute for war, and this use may easily be extended in the future. There is always too the weapon of prohibitive tariffs".(Ibid)
Commercial pressure can indeed be a tremendous weapon, especially if used as an aid during war. That is how Germany was humiliated in World War I and there were proposals to continue the economic blockade even after the cessation of war to cripple Germany so as to be ruined as an industrial rival. A similar type of blockade was also in force at one time against Bolshevik Russia.
However, Sri Aurobindo, in that 1917 write-up also explained that a weapon like economic blockade needed to be finally executed by a "firm international authority" (Ibid, pg. 492) so as not to be abused by a single or combine of powerful nations for unjust domination of the world. "Force and coercion of any kind not concentrated in the hands of a just and impartial authority are always liable to abuse and misapplication". (Ibid)
Sri Aurobindo mused that an ideal World-State would not only have to consolidate military prowess but the commercial, industrial and economic life of the race. It would have to initiate, maintain and control the whole ambit of international commerce. "Since industry and trade are now five-sixths of social life and the economic principle the governing principle of society, a World-State which did not control human life in its chief principle and its largest activity would exist only in name".(Ibid, pg. 492-493)
Date of Update: 27-Jul-23
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu