U.S. Imperialism and a Global Green New Deal: Interview with Shouvik Chakraborty
This is part of PERI's economist interview series, hosted by C.J. Polychroniou.
C.J. Polychroniou: You studied economics in India. What drew you into this field of study? Did politics have anything to do with it?
Shouvik Chakraborty: I was drawn into the field of economics by mere coincidence. Coming from a refugee colony in Kolkata, India, there was neither much information about the various disciplines of education nor much opportunity. During my school days, I was lucky to have a mentor, Indranil Chowdhury, who inspired me with his great insights into life. He was also, perhaps, the first in our locality to join an elite university like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. I simply followed the same trajectory. Also, my father was a very open-minded, liberal person. He did not force me to pursue a career in science or engineering, which was fashionable to do at that time. He encouraged me to chose my own path and follow my own interests.
JNU had a considerable influence on me both politically and academically. I became an active member of the Students Federation of India (SFI), a leftwing political student body. It was my first step in understanding the politics of India and complexities that exist in Indian society, especially the institution of caste. Academically, Prof. Prabhat Patnaik, Prof. Utsa Patnaik and Prof. Jayati Ghosh had an immense influence on the development of my thought process. Later, Prof. Prabhat Patnaik became my MPhil and PhD supervisor. The discussions that we had during those days became the building blocks of my academic life. Also, as I was politically active in the university, I was fortunate to befriend many young political leaders and intellectuals. Their advice, guidance and world views serve as a guiding light even today.
CJP: Your work is influenced by heterodox economics as it relates to Marxian economics. Can you describe how you have tried to combine these approaches in your work?
SC: As a student at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU, I was fortunate to be introduced not only to the classical authors but also to Keynes, Kalecki, and Kaldor. Among them, I found the approach and writing styles of Kalecki most fascinating. My PhD thesis was on the topic of the movements in international terms of trade, where I tried to explain their declining secular trends from a Kaleckian framework. The markup pricing model of Kalecki plays a central role in his economic modelling, and I wanted to apply it in this context.
As a student of economics, what disturbed me most, and it still does, is the sharp contrast that exists in the international distribution of income and wealth between the advanced (the North) and the developing countries (the South). As we now know, the widely-held belief of the classical economists that the benefits of technological progress will trickle down to the underdeveloped nations, indeed, turned out to be a delusion. In the post World War II phase, especially after the scholarly writings of Prebisch and Singer in the early 1950s, the issue of terms of trade emerged as one of the most controversial topics in economics discussion. However, it later lost significance amidst statistical juggleries and econometric qualms. I found that stream of literature in the heterodox tradition very inspiring, in particular, to seek explanations for the divergence that exists between the North and South. Later, I applied Marx-Kalecki's framework to develop it further. Prof. Patnaik's writings, especially his classic book Accumulation and Stability Under Capitalism, also served as an essential reference for me to formulate those thoughts and ideas. The writings of other renowned Marxist scholars of India — Prof. Ashok Mitra, Prof. Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Prof. Utsa Patnaik — also helped my understanding of these questions. In my opinion, it's imperative to read the Marxist scholars of the South, if one genuinely wants to understand the various paradigms of heterodox literature deeply, especially on the topic of the North-South divide.
CJP: What do you find useful in Marxist political economy in the 21st century?
SC: Marx's central thesis of class conflicts within capitalism, I believe, should serve as a fundamental tool for any socio-economic analysis. It is essential to realize that at the core of an economic struggle, the primary concern is about who gets the larger share of the pie (the output in the economy). When studied and theorized in a closed capitalist economy framework, it is limited to the relationship between the workers and the capitalists. However, there is an essential element that gets left out in such an analysis — the proletariats in the periphery and their relationship with the core. Historically, it's hard to find an era in the capitalist world system that was indeed a closed one. From its inception, the centre, primarily located in the North, relied on the colonial patterns of trade to exploit the global South for natural resources, either agriculture or minerals. And, the North later used the mighty military to extract and control the global oil market. In fact, the origin of this Marxian literature can be traced back to the writings of Rosa Luxemburg, V.I. Lenin, and others, which focused on the core-periphery relationship. This school of thought somehow receded to the background in the post-1970s world, ironically during a period that saw the onset of the increased flow of finance capital and globalization. Hence, for the scholars of the 21st century, especially in a globalized world, it becomes imperative to take into more serious consideration this open aspect of a capitalist economy. I, therefore, find Lenin's "imperialism" framework very useful.
The other framework that I find particularly useful is the one that looks beyond class into the questions of identities, in particular, those based on caste, race, and gender. I realized the importance of this framework after moving to the U.S. Having been born in an upper-caste privileged Hindu family in India, I was not personally affected by discrimination based on identity politics. In fact, at JNU, there were various discussions on it during political movements, but, at a personal level, those discussions were merely theoretical. You start to understand discrimination when you are impacted by it — when you begin experiencing bias in your daily life based on skin colour or nationality. Understanding this bias made me realize the importance of incorporating this framework as an extension of Marx's classical one in explaining the various scales of social discrimination. In my research on environmental justice in India, I have tried to incorporate those aspects at some level, especially keeping in mind the dimensions of caste and gender. However, I must admit that a lot more needs to be done in this regard, even in my research.
CJP: What about imperialism? Is it dead? Gone? Transformed?
SC: The concept of imperialism has been studied and defined in various ways. I think of imperialism as not only a mere dominance of the worldwide economy through powerful military forces but also the dominance of the global reserve currency as a universal store of value. And, therefore, positioning itself at the top of the currency hierarchy. If one sees imperialism from this angle, it's beyond doubt that imperialism is not dead. The U.S. dollar still dominates more than two-thirds of the global foreign exchange reserves. Military spending in the U.S. is the highest in the world and accounts for 36% of total global military expenditures. So, the United States, in this sense, is still definitely an imperialist country. Of course, many scholars don't agree with this concept of imperialism, including Marxist scholars like Prof. Harvey, who has inspired many of us through his scholarly research.
Recently, Prof. Rohit Azad of CESP, JNU and I started working on the topic of imperialism. We were inspired to work on the subject by the debate that happened among Prof. Harvey, Prof. Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik in the latter's coauthored book A Theory of Imperialism. Prof. Harvey, as one might know, has recently changed his position on this topic. He now believes that the historical draining of wealth from East to West for more than two centuries has been reversed over the last thirty years. In my opinion, it completely misses the point that the "drain of wealth" continues even today. The working class in the periphery — the industrial workers of China, the farmers in India, the miners in Africa — are still at the receiving end of this exploitative process.
Notwithstanding the stark inequality within those countries, the miracle stories of economic growth and high-rise mansions painted by the Western media and scholars present a very different picture of those economies. The reality, indeed, is quite different. And to understand the real scenario, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of reading scholarly works of the progressive authors located in those countries.
CJP: Much of your recent work revolves around "green economics" and climate justice. Can you describe some of the work you have done in this area?
SC: Before joining PERI in 2012, I had never worked on any topic related to environmental economics. The entire credit for introducing me to this field goes to Prof. Robert Pollin. He called me to his office one day and inquired whether I would want to be a part of a global green growth project for UNIDO. I was quite nervous because of my lack of experience in this field. Prof. Pollin was very supportive and guided me through the process. I also was eager to learn more about environmental economics, because I thought that there was a dearth of this kind of literature from the left in India at that time.
The work we primarily do is estimating, using the Input-Output methodology, the number of possible jobs generated from investments in a clean, green energy programme. We have generated these numbers for various countries, including India, in addition to several U.S. states. We also estimate the type of jobs generated based on gender, race/caste, education level and other socio-economic factors.
While working on this topic, I also read Prof. James Boyce's work on the carbon tax and dividend programs. Combining my earlier work on India co-authored with Prof. Pollin, my colleague Rohit Azad and I proposed a Right to Energy Programme for India. We felt that the discussions on climate change in India needed to take into consideration the massive levels of poverty and inequality that exist. We discovered that the major polluters in India are the wealthy, while the poor struggle, even today, to get minimal access to formal sources of energy. To address this injustice, we proposed a carbon tax to fundamentally change the energy mix towards clean, green energy and guarantee universal access to electricity and public transport.
CJP: What would a Green New Deal look like for a large developing nation like India?
SC: India has not had an experience of a New Deal like the U.S. had under President Roosevelt. So, both the "Green" part and the "New" part need to happen simultaneously for a successful Green New Deal in India to occur. In the Indian context, for a large section of the population, even minimal necessities of life like access to proper sanitation facilities, nutritious food, suitable clothing, clean drinking water, pucca houses and reliable electricity are entirely lacking. Unlike the U.S., where these facilities need improvement but already exist, in India, they first need to be constructed. And, these development projects need to be planned in a manner that is environmentally and ecologically sustainable — the green part of the deal. All these would require massive public investment. I believe that with proper policy formulations, resources can be mobilized for such a program. However, for this to happen, the political will of the government in power is vital. The current Indian government is undoubtedly not the right one for such a programme. Its main agenda is to push for a Hindu rashtra (nation), and such egalitarian programs will simply defeat that purpose. It would, instead, nurture this growing inequality, and instigate further communal tensions to divert attention from the real socio-economic issues faced by the marginalized sections in India. It might eventually also help them to achieve this eventual target of a Hindu nation-state. India desperately needs a change based on these alternative visions of socio-economic equality in order to implement the Green New Deal.
CJP: Given the huge disparities between North and South in today's global economy, is there a global solution to the climate crisis that can balance the needs of both the rich and the developing world?
SC: I believe everyone will agree that there exists a massive gap between the standards of living in the North and the South for historical as well as contemporary reasons. There is also a considerable gap in terms of per capita emissions between these two worlds. This shows that climate injustice is inherent in the current capitalist growth process. Since capitalist development has had historically generated two poles — opulence at one end and poverty at the other — a just response to it would be to bridge this gap. Otherwise, it will be unfair to expect one section of the global population to live a life with a little dignity, whereas, the other enjoys all the profligacy. And, bridging this gap also needs to be environmentally and ecologically sustainable.
At the same time, the rich in the South should not hide behind the poor and take advantage of low per capita emissions even as absolute emissions are rising. What eventually matters are the total contributions of greenhouse gases, we, as humankind, are making in the environment. And, the South needs to be especially concerned, because it will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change. Due to poor socio-economic conditions, high population density along coastlines, job dependence on agriculture and other allied activities, the casualties of environmental degradation (arising out of rising water levels, cyclones, and other devastating natural events) in the South are going to be significantly more than the North. So, both worlds need to contribute to battling climate change.
A historically just approach would involve a global sharing of the burden among these countries according to their respective shares in emissions. A comprehensive green energy transition to achieve the targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement requires, according to most estimates, around 2.0% of the global GDP. I have, elsewhere, argued for a differential global carbon tax. The fundamental idea is that countries that are currently emitting less than the global average, in per-capita terms, should receive part of their resources needed to finance this green transition from countries that are presently emitting more than the global average. The latter will consequentially have to mobilize more taxes than their own transition requirements. Although it's challenging to think of any such adjustments in the current global political scenario, it would be the just thing to do. The North needs to remember that such a proposal does not even take into consideration the historical stocks of emissions.
And, hence, I believe that the GND proposed by the progressives of the North is lacking. If the North doesn't make some provisions to support the energy transition in the South, then it would be difficult for the South on its own to facilitate such a change. And, it might continue on its current trajectory. Then, it becomes easier for the climate change deniers existing in the North to shift the blame to the South. They would argue, which they are already doing, that India and China are the major polluters in the world because they burn coal. So, the North should continue to do the same. The whole purpose of the GND becomes self-defeating. And, similarly, the movement against imperialism also gets weakened.
What's required for the working class from both sides of the globe is to realize that they are not each other's problem — their real issue lies with the capitalists on either side. Politically, we need a massive unification of the working class across the globe, irrespective of race, nationality, and other identities. Given the current experience of working-class movements, this is, perhaps, a chimaera. But, I really can't foresee any path other than a globally integrated approach to overcome the climate crisis or the imperialist forces. We are at a crucial historical juncture, and such a unified approach is only possible if, and only if, the "Workers of the world, unite."
Shouvik Chakraborty received his PhD in economics on the topic “Movements in the Terms of Trade of Primary Commodities vis-à-vis Manufactured Goods: A Theoretical and Empirical Study” from the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has published on a variety of progressive economic policy issues, especially in the areas of development banking, international trade, and food security in publications such as Economic and Political Weekly, Journal of South Asian Development, Agrarian South and other edited volumes. Shouvik’s current research focuses on the generation of jobs through investment in clean renewable energy and the impact of crop diversification on food security. He is a member of the World Economic Association.