The word “mapping” in the phrase “labour mapping” is a combination of its cartographic (map-making) and mathematical usages. On the one hand, it is an attempt to accomplish typological cataloguing of labour in local economies, representing the diversity of labour processes coexisting at a given time and place. On the other, it is an exercise to trace the movement of labour in the geography of socio-economic dynamics and to follow the steps of the footloose labour affected by the push-and-pulls of the neoliberal economic structure. To put it more simply, we locate and name the points on the map keeping in mind their interrelationships and mutual positioning.
We define “labour mapping” as a method of locating labour in the value chain that constitutes the geo-economy. Of course, when we talk about such a value chain, it is unlike separate value chains that are linked with individual commodities or services. It is not even the sum of these individuated value chains. It is literally a whole that is far more than a sum of its parts. It is the value chain that constitutes the social factory. Now what is the social factory? It can thus be defined or rather contextualised, as Mario Tronti does:
“The more that capitalist development advances, that is, the more the production of relative surplus value penetrates and extends, the more that the circle-circuit production-distribution-exchange-consumption is necessarily closed. That is, the relation between capitalist production and bourgeois society, between factory and society, between society and State achieves, to an ever greater degree a more organic relation. At the highest level of capitalist development, the social relation is transformed into a moment of the relation of production, the whole of society is turned into an articulation of production, that is, the whole of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination to the whole of society.” (“Factory and Society”)
If we refer back to Marx’s conceptual ammunition, the concept of “social factory” seems to be a derivative of his concept of social capital or capital in general. It is the no-escape real subsuming of living labour and social relations by capital throughout the economy. The formal autonomy of particular labour processes is allowed to the extent that they help identify exploitable resources for further exploitation and accumulation.
Like in cartography, conceptual mapping too requires a definite purpose that helps to arrange the perceived hyper-chaos of the appearance. Hence, labour mapping can be called an attempt to sketch the design of the ever-evolving social factory for the purpose of locating or enumerating various existent labour processes. Further, as labour is always relational at diverse levels, the task extends to include these relations in which labour constitutes itself.
“Before the worker had sold the disposition over his labour capacity, he could not set the latter in motion as labour, could not realise it, because it was separated from the objective conditions of its activity. This separation is overcome in the actual labour process. Labour capacity now functions, because in accordance with its nature it appropriates its objective conditions. It comes into action because it enters into contact, into process, into association with the objective factors without which it cannot realise itself. These factors can be described in entirely general terms as means of labour. But the means of labour themselves fall necessarily into an object which is worked on, and which we want to call the material of labour, and the actual means of labour, an object which human labour, activity, interposes as a means between itself and the material of labour, and which serves in this way as a conductor of human activity.” (Marx, Collected Works, Vol 30: 55-56)
However, as Marx, stresses, “The means of labour, in contrast to the material of labour, comprise not only the instruments of production, from the simplest tool or container up to the most highly developed system of machinery, but also the objective conditions without which the labour process cannot occur at all…” While enumerating “the objective conditions”, Marx restricts himself to mention material objects like houses or agricultural fields, that do not directly enter into the labour process. This restriction is apt to the extent that Marx is enumerating all possible “means of labour.” However, “conditions” of labour need not just include “objective” ones or material objects, but social relations too that compel or induce workers to engage in particular labour processes. So, we must take into account these actuating conditions of labour in our exercise of labour mapping. But labour itself is relational, a social relation in itself, on the basis of which the structure of the whole society is established. It is what produces and reproduces the society itself. Thus, labour mapping is not just about enumeration and even description, where just the detailing is important. On the contrary, its main focus, as far as it is concerned with the praxis of the working class, is to comprehend the structure of labour relations with internalised segmentations and hierarchies. It is not a two-dimensional mapping that treats all variables and their inter-relationships horizontally, rather it is their multi-layered ordering.
So far so good. But as labour activists, why do we need to engage in such research? We engage with real workers and real problems. Why do we require to abstract ourselves from them and talk about labour in general? Where do their self-activities fit in?
Labour mapping, as we define it, is a two way affair, where the cartographic abstraction is an attempt to generate a model of the dynamic concrete in which individual workers find themselves. Concrete is not just an appearance, but a structure that is composed of diverse levels of interdependent sub-structures. Now, the theoretical blindness of immediate practice that activism many times displays keeps it mired in localist bias and fetishisation of self-activism, misreading its specificities as un-subsumed, accidental and, thus, emancipatory, in a messianic sense. The flip side of this blindness is vanguardist conservatism that in its attempt to avoid the uncertainties of class self-activism, try to straightjacket them in accordance of the “historical and organisational lessons” of the movement. The practice of labour mapping helps activists transcend the oscillation between celebration and denigration of class self-activism, locating it in the structure of dynamic concrete and historicising it as a new ground for re-envisaging emancipatory class politics. It establishes a bridge between theory and practice – giving legs to the former and eyes to the latter, so that purposeful action emerges out of the everyday reactions to drudgery and doom.
Capitalism has always thrived on insecurity of labour. Labour rights are secured to the extent that they don’t infringe upon capital’s control over labour. If these rights are results of labour struggles and meant to empower workers, they are also mobilised by the ruling class and the state as instruments to ascertain a certain structure of the labour market to satisfy the production function appropriate to a particular constellation of technologies. Labour laws are institutional mechanisms through which this structure is formalised. The filters that these laws provide to regulate entry and exit segment workers, creating a field for division and competition among them. Of course, when these laws are not enough to ensure a required structure, an informal regime develops to secure labour demands of capital. This informal regime becomes a benchmark to propose labour reforms. It is interesting to see how the persistence and expansion of this informal regime controls the efficacy of the trade union movement, as the latter is always relegated to a defensive position and a reactive mode. Ultimately, it appears as a conservative force, accused of sticking to an irrelevant labour regime and of not being up-to-date in their understanding of labour-capital relations. In fact, so far as it represents the interests of particular organised segments of workers, who constitute its stable membership, it views other unorganised segments as threats. These threats are of course to be minimised either by sealing them off or, in the end, by attracting them to its fold. This leads to an aggregative strategy that does not question the structure of the labour market. This strategy might succeed temporarily in sustaining a corporatist truce between various segments, but is meaningless in challenging the hegemony of capital, as it refuses to confront the segmentation among workers that reproduces this hegemony. In fact, this corporatist truce normalises this structure and nurtures sections among workers who have interest in its reproduction, thus ultimately become agencies of capital internal to the labouring classes.
In recent years, in India too there has been a growing demand to liberalise labour regulation to induce investment. What does it really mean? Has the labour market been very regulated, as some of the Western economies? Those who have not even read “economics for dummies” would know it was not the case. There has always been a vast reserve of unskilled labour force, which was never secure and persisted in the seamlessly deepening informal and relatively small-scale economies. Many pro-labour legislations that we find in India today were either products of the competition between British and Indian manufacturers when the colonial state was forced to favour the former by blunting the competitive edge of the latter, which was based on cheap natural and human resources. Others were products of the stage in economy when there was a need to secure skills for industrial development, as there was a scarcity of skilled labour. Since the 1970s, however, there has been a call and endeavour to remove this security because the overall technological development, along with educational and training investments have removed this dearth, and now, in fact, there is a supply surplus. It is this surplus that nurtures the so-called dualism in the labour market and industrial composition. In fact, with the help of this surplus the structure of employment becomes multilayered, which can thus be diagrammatically expressed:
Underemployment in the garb of self-employment and other kinds of work arrangements that don’t fit in classical wage relations is what characterises the informal economy. Jan Breman clearly puts,
“rather than generating more work of higher quality, as the proponents of unrestrained flexibilisation would have it, informality is a mode of employment meant to exploit and marginalize labour. The promise of inclusion notwithstanding, the informal workforce is used as a reserve army of labour floating around between town and countryside and sectors of the economy in search of meagre livelihood.” (pp 7)
The said dualism between formal and informal is never a Cartesian one, rather formal and informal work processes are mutually embedded. The dualities in capitalism are actually representative of its transitoriness and dynamics. The posing of antagonism in the apparent shape of duality gives capitalism a means to be resilient, a mechanism to determine the internal course of development in productive forces – technological and managerial. All the stages of capitalism are chracterised by combinations of absolute and relative surplus value extractions (characterising labour-intensive and capital-intensive labour processes), on the one hand, and, on the other, of formal and real subsumption of labour by capital (the informal economies of diverse kinds networked through finance, and modern capitalist industries). But these combinations actually are not dualistic ones, where the simultaneity is contingent. Rather, they are organically combined or dialectically united. They form a structure. The spatial distribution of these elements creates an illusion of separation and disunity. It definitely creates a segmented consciousness among labourers, competing to survive.
Paraphrasing Marx, we can also assert that, in late capitalist countries the dead feeds on the living. In other words, capital in these countries profits on the dead by using it to feed on the living. Thus, in India, if we see “vestiges” thriving, it is not in spite of capitalism, but due to capitalism. It is the specific nature of the logic of capital to historicise itself in particular scenarios by mobilising or accumulating local structural resources. The colonial foundation of modern capitalism in India that we see post-1857 provides a unique ground. As many historians have pointed out, direct colonialism in India negated the possibility of capitalist accumulation based on and geared towards local markets. It was globalised from the beginning.This definitely added some unique features to Indian capitalism.
Marx while summing up colonialism’s contribution provides a panoramic view of global capitalism, pointing out the locations of colonial powers, colonies and their interrelationships. He says, ‘A new and international division of labour, a division suited to the requirements of the chief centres of modern industry springs up, and converts one part of the globe into a chiefly agricultural field of production, for supplying the other part which remains a chiefly industrial field.” (Marx, Collected Works, Vol 35 (Capital):454) But he had expressed already in his 1850s writings on India, other aspects of colonialism as specification of capitalism as “the living contradiction”.
Of course, it was for his extractive needs that the British created a whole structure of government in which the natives were accommodated. The subsumption of local ruling interests in the hegemonic colonial designs led the lawmakers to innovate an elaborate centralised structure of political economic management where interests themselves were passively revolutionised. The land tenurial systems that were introduced on the lines of various European systems were, according to Marx, forms of agrarian revolutions and “distinct forms of private property in land — the great desideratum of Asiatic society.” (Marx, Collected Works, Vol 12, 218) But they were “abominable” and “made not for the people, who cultivate the soil, nor for the holder, who owns it, but for the Government that taxes it.” (Ibid, 214) These land tenure systems emerged as “many forms of fiscal exploitation in the hands of the [East India] Company.” It was the contradictory character of various changes effected by the colonial system that led to the manifestations of diverse interests in the First War of Independence in 1857.
This war politically materialised a cacophonous solidarity against “the solidarity of human woes and wrongs.” It was only with the industrial classes, which slowly emerged via contradictory processes that Marx so aptly described in his writings on India, that nationally coherent interests that could challenge the British powers emerged.
All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people….The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindoos themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether. (Ibid, 221)
While explaining the political economy of endowing India with railways, he reiterates the exclusive extractive intent of the English millocracy. But as a revolutionary, he was more interested in understanding how these “crimes of England” were founding the material premises for social revolution in Asia. “The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.” (Ibid, 132) So he thus notes the chain effect of the introduction of railways,
“I know that the English millocracy intend to endow India with railways with the exclusive view of extracting at diminished expenses the cotton and other raw materials for their manufactures. But when you have once introduced machinery into the locomotion of a country, which possesses iron and coals, you are unable to withhold it from its fabrication. You cannot maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion, and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately connected with railways. The railway-system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry. This is the more certain as the Hindoos are allowed by British authorities themselves to possess particular aptitude for accommodating themselves to entirely new labor, and acquiring the requisite knowledge of machinery.(Ibid, 220)
The unevenness or socio-spatial hierarchy (the division of labour represented spatially), that colonial capitalism’s articulation with local realities generated, perpetuated differential inclusion. It identitarianised the inter and intra class struggles on regional, communal and caste lines. Decolonisation did not do away with this hierarchy. The scale to which it persisted was a challenge, or perhaps, even a barrier for capitalist expansion. But, as Marx says, “since capital represents the general form of wealth— money—it has a boundless and measureless urge to exceed its own limits. Every boundary is and must be a barrier for it.” (Marx, Collected Works, Vol 28: 259) These barriers specifies or historicises capitalist development and expansion. It is interesting to see how capital in its “urge to exceed its own limits” instrumentalises political agencies that profess to go against capital.
Coming back to what has happened after decolonisation in India, we find a continuity which gave a specific trajectory to capitalist expansion locally. Even though the focus changed to reconstructing the national economy, the domestic industrial, agrarian, financial and mercantile interests that constituted the capitalist class (despite their inherent contradictions) were so strong and hegemonic to political processes at the time of independence that it would be delusional (rampant among the statist left) to imagine any autonomous capacity of the Indian state to choose development strategies, like in South Korea and other economies, where the so-called developmentalist states emerged.
When Marx talked about the territorial “division of labour” he was taking it as a necessary outcome of how interactions – both competitive and collaborative – between industries took place. The predominance of particular kinds of industries in a location determined its relations with other locations, having different composition of industries. But these relationships constantly shifted due to both local and trans-local factors. The loci of agriculture and other extractive industries in the overall value chain determine the status of the geographical regions where they are located. The intra-industrial hierarchy of produces is also significant, and so is the hierarchy of forms of production, in determining this status.
The division of labour between formal and informal sectors too must be understood in this perspective. However, as mentioned above, this complementarity works more as a means to regulate the labour market or flow of labour power. That is why we find this division multidimensional and operational at diverse levels – intra-industrially (within industries) and inter-industrially (between industries), within firms and among firms, within jobs and between jobs. Hence, informality is better understood in terms of a process, as informalisation. As Jan Breman has explained, “informality is a mode of employment meant to exploit and marginalize labour.” He further defines the whole informal economy “as a regime to cheapen the cost of labour in order to raise the profit of capital.” (pp 1) However, this definition does not really help in pinning down the exclusivity and specificities of the informal economy. Every regime of capitalism is concerned with the need to decrease the necessary labour time that determines the resource allocation to variable capital which is utilised to reproduce labour power in the society. A decrease in variable capital can have multiple significance:
- it can mean an absolute wage squeeze by giving less wages.
- it can mean the squeezing of variable capital relative to the sum of constant capital and surplus value. But this too can be achieved through two different means: by increasing the length of the working day (absolute surplus value) or by mechanisation that increases the surplus labour time within the same working day, thus decreasing the necessary labour time (relative surplus value)
- it can mean cheapening of wage goods necessary for the reproduction of labour power, which again depends on absolute and relative surplus value extractions in the industry that produce these goods.
- it can mean subsidising of wage goods by allowing their non-capitalist production and distribution. As it happens in many economies, this is accomplished by the state becoming a buffer between producers and consumers instead of allowing the market to regulate this relationship. Alternatively, non-capitalist production of these goods can also help in accomplishing this purpose, as cost of production in this economy is not determined by capitalist calculation. This economy involves mainly self-exploitation or pre-capitalist labour processes formally subsumed by capital.
Where is the informal economy placed in this multi-layered structure of cheapening labour? Till recently, the division between informal and formal was understood in their exclusivity, not just in their internal structuring, but also historically – one was considered primitive, archaic or at least transitional. Therefore, capital and labour in the informal economy were considered to be waiting to be absorbed in the “formal” setup. However, such discourse was frustrated with the advent of post-fordist or neoliberal labour regime, when the economic processes became evermore hyper-intensive with financialisation taking control. Still, “all that is solid melts into air”, but this melting is so quick that form-ality has no real significance – and it is informality that is generalised and becomes the organising principle, the benchmark to define work processes most responsive to the supply and demand in the product and labour markets. Stability and permanence are considered conservative and against the spirit of market and capitalism. Informality that depends on the footlooseness of workers allows the automatic entry and exit principle (hire and fire in the labour market) that capital seeks to nurture for its accumulative needs. Flexibilisation is worshipped under neoliberalism.
From the perspective of labour, we can claim that informal economy harnesses the labour power of footloose labour and reserve army of labourers. Their footlooseness allows capital to practice use and throw quite easily without any legal obligation to sustain the workforce even when not in “use”.
“Forced to remain footloose, they drift along a large number of worksites without undergoing the steady rotation of employment as a drastic change. To their mind, all those instance are concerned with majuri kam, that is, unspecified, unskilled, and occasional jobs that tax the body and sap the energy to exhaustion.” (pp 46)
It is this labour which Italian Marxists in the 1960s-70s termed “mass worker” and “social labour” toiling in social factory that we defined in early pages. Our labour mapping concerns this entity as her whereabouts and self-activism approximate the expanse of capital which has subsumed the whole society and all social relations, and is very unlike the formal labour which could easily be traced in workshops. The conceptualisations of these Italian Marxists played a powerful role in placing those workplaces and work processes which were not considered significant in economic discussions and which were hidden from apparent capitalist subsumption in the centre of political mobilisation. The questions of the reproduction of labour power and the locus of reproductive labour were considerably important in defining this labour. These questions provide a key to understand labour segmentation and the significance of hidden, informal economy in the overall capitalist reproduction.
Labour mapping must not be reduced to a survey if the purpose is to understand the “autonomy of labour”, of class activism and struggle. Workers are not mere elements of production, like land, machines and raw materials as the classical trinity formula or the managerial notion of “human resources” seeks to project. They are not just reactive agencies or passive recipients of capital’s onslaught, as the voluntarist political activism of both radical and NGO varieties makes them to be. If we take the self-emancipatory mission of the working class seriously, it is necessary to assess its capacities and self-organisational ability.
However, these class capacities are not an aggregation of individual capacities of workers. Wright defines class capacities as the “social relations within a class which to a greater or lesser extent unite the agents of that class into a class formation.” (Quoted in Savage:40)This definition if deployed in isolation is not sufficiently explanatory. It reduces this concept to a mere introvert description of class, which is itself reduced to relationships between its individual agents. In fact, the working class can never be comprehended inwardly, it is always found in its relationship with capital. Even “social relations within a class” are structured by this congenital relationship. In other words, capital and labour are “internally related.” This relationship finds expressions at two levels. At the first level, working class collectivity directly confronts capital at various points of value production and distribution. At the second level, agencies of capital become internal to the working class through segmentation and competition among workers. Hence, capacities of the working class must be grounded in this relationship between the collective worker and capital – which can never be externalised. Class capacities depend on the degree of heat in this relationship. It is pertinent to mention that in the vanguardist trade union movement the internalised capitalist hegemony is rarely confronted, the working class unity is not envisaged through this internal struggle. It is systematically avoided in the name of unity, and any anti-segmentation endeavours are considered divisive.
In simpler terms, the purpose of labour mapping for us is to assess the degrees of class capacities by tracing the composition and recomposition of the working class in its confrontation with capital. We can say that “social relations within a class” are established in this conflict, aligning the agents of that class to transform the everyday experiences of their confrontation with capital into class antagonism – transforming the technical composition of labour that capital institutes to subsume labour into a ground for a class recomposition that poses a revolutionary challenge against capital. It was this aspect of class formation that Marx captured in his famous manifesto when he talks about how “the isolation of the labourers, due to competition” is replaced “by the revolutionary combination, due to association.”
Labour mapping is an attempt to capture this dynamics of political recombinant and recomposition. But this cannot be accomplished in a neutral survey, that is undertaken in the name of objectivity and science. It can only happen in the practice of social transformation – co-research and workers’ inquiry which are rightly termed as “militant investigations.” They take the relationship between capital and labour as congenitally conflictual. In other words, they refuse to position workers as mere victims and even reactive, reacting to capital’s acts. The critical ‘scientific’ understanding behind this is obviously that it is capital’s problem or crisis to subsume labour, not vice versa. Tronti termed this as Copernican inversion of the “common sense” of the official vanguardist understanding within the workers’ movement:
“It is the specific, present, political situation of the working class that both necessitates and directs the given forms of capital’s development”. (“Lenin in England”)
Below we present a typological exercise on occupations that footloose workers undertake to survive. This inquiry was accomplished in one village each in three districts of Odisha – Angul, Dhenakanal and Keonjhar. Since the participating organisations in these districts are mainly working with indigenous communities, we chose those villages which were exclusively tribals. Although, we emphasised on the methodologies of co-research and workers’ inquiry, which take workers as agencies of self-organisation and activism, it was difficult to convince activist-researchers not to take the exercise as a survey, i.e., just taking account of the plight of workers in various work-processes. And in this regard, we will say that this exercise was severely handicapped, as it was difficult to break the barriers that old modes of organisation and activism have perpetuated. Even though these activist-researchers were workers themselves and were internal to the local communities, the methodology that has till now informed their activism makes them ineffective to confront the challenges that footlooseness of labour poses. The workers in their everydayness are far more advanced, experienced and knowledgeable of new work processes than the organisations and activists who want to straightjacket them in the archaic identity of poor victimised half-peasant workers, suddenly thrown in the labour market.
Agricultural Labour As expected agricultural labour is the most prevalent form of wage labour in rural areas. The extent of its prevalence is such that often it leads to an erroneous image of rural workers as synonymous to agricultural labour. Since paddy cultivation is predominant in the region, its work process includes ploughing, seed sowing, transplanting, weeding and harvesting. Further, harvesting includes cutting, carrying to the harvesting yard and final harvesting. These jobs are available in villages mainly during a particular season, i.e. June to December. The labourer starts looking for work in his own village and nearby villages. Many times landowners themselves try the mobilise labourers for work on his fields. As there are plenty of labourers in the village and due to lack of irrigation facilities, it is generally single crop farming in most of these areas, the demand for labour is very low. Therefore labourers do not get job always in the village. Wages in agricultural work are very low in comparison to other jobs. Sometimes they get only Rs.40/- per day. Working hours too are comparatively more and not fixed. Sometimes workers have to wait for months to get their wage dues. Child labour (12/13 years) is quite rampant in agricultural work, and child labourers are rarely paid monetary wages for their work, mostly they are given just food.
Timber logging or harvesting As these areas are occupied by forests, logging in forests and private lands is another important job available. This work involves tree felling, cutting timber logs into planks and in sizes so that they can be used in house construction and furniture purposes. Sometimes private owners of the dried trees hire these skilled labourers for cutting logs into different sizes. Many times labourers themselves cut timbers in forests secretly with the help and also encouragement from forest officials. This work depends on the local demand for construction work which is never very high. As there are risks in doing this work they are not easily obtained. Very often workers work on contractual basis and suffer tremendous work pressure with highly irregular remunerations. As mentioned, forest officials and the local police exploit these workers, threatening them with penal charges, siphoning away a major share of whatever remunerations they are able to secure. Since much of these jobs is illegal, they are very often undertaken in dense and deep forests, and during very odd hours – woods are carried to the villages early in the morning or in late afternoon hours.
Construction work Road construction (both kuccha and pakka roads), bridge construction, house construction. In this there are jobs of diverse levels of skills involved – skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled, for which different individual workers are hired. Some of the specialised works can be identified as masonry, labour, helper, carpenter, pitching, rod binding, centring etc. Most of the time, contractors hire different workers specialising in one or more skills on daily/weekly wage basis for these works. But many times these workers approach the contractors for obtaining jobs. Sometimes but very rarely, they get hired in villages for house construction. The daily waged labourers do not get these types of work during the rainy season. During this period they are compelled to remain unemployed or partially employed in agricultural fields. The contractors do not pay regularly. Sometimes labourers lose their payment if they leave that contractor. The contractors always keep a portion of their payment to avail the same labourer again. The labourers have to work for 10 to 12 hours. Their dues are not calculated properly. Sometimes for theft of any material, labourers are charged.
Under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) a family obtains a hundred days of work. The works are generally related to construction (Road, bridge, ponds, irrigation dams etc.), and plantation. Though the Act envisages an employment which is free from the exploitation of workers by middlemen and contractors, but there are hidden contractors in this work who manage job card holders in such work. The work provided under this programme is not regular and it does not operate during the rainy season. To get job through the panchayat office is a tedious process, that encourages people to prefer obtaining work through a contractor. This preference is further induced by severe irregularities of payment for the job obtained under MGNREGA. Sometimes it takes months to get the wages. Receiving money through bank or post office is also another problem for the illiterate tribals. The hidden contractors take a portion of the wages from the labourers. The contractors also maintain fake job cards for such work and employ labourers on a considerably lower wage rate.
Animal Husbandry This mainly involves keeping goats and poultry. They are kept at home in which family labour is engaged. Their products are undervalued, as this work is generally undertaken due to poverty this job and severely lack bargaining power
In occupations like forest produce collection there are tremendous difficulties. These are seasonal jobs and production varies year to year, Most of the times collecting workers indulge in overexploitation of their physical energy, and what they get by selling the produce is much lower than the wages they would have earned if they had engaged themselves in some other jobs for the same amount of time. As poor forest dwellers have kuccha houses and lack any specialised storage space, very often their collections are damaged even before they are able to bring them to the market, There are some products which must be dried before preserving it and in the absence of any technology any unfavourable changes in the climate drastically affect their income. Due to poverty these workers sell their products during the harvesting time when market rates for these produces are terribly depressed, and they lack any power to bargain which traders exploit to their full advantage. Very often they are indebted to these traders-cum-moneylenders or mahajans whom they are obliged to sell these products at whatever rates they are offered. Sometimes while collecting forest produces these collectors are attacked by wild animals in the forest. There is rarely any state-owned collection centre for forest produces which would have provided them remunerative prices and a freedom from the greedy clutches of these local petty traders.
Preparing & selling liquor The production and selling rice beer (Handia and Rasi) and mahua (madhuca longifolia) liquor is quite prevalent in these areas. These are prepared at home and require access to nearest streams or other water sources. Liquor producers are highly vulnerable. Since liquor production is considered illegal, it is secretly undertaken by bribing the local police. Sometimes locally influential persons or goons collect liquors from these poor sellers by threatening them. The excise department sometimes raid villages and destroy facilities of these liquor sellers. Handia selling is generally done openly, but selling mahua liquor is done secretly by bribing the police, excise and forest department officials. Sometimes penal cases are lodged against liquor sellers and they are arrested.
Brick kiln work Preparing clay, shaping it into brick-blocks, drying them in the sun, putting them in the kiln for baking, and preparing them for shipping. The work in a brick kiln is occasional and done on a contract basis. Workers skilled in these tasks have to work as agricultural labourers on other days. As payments in a brick kiln is very irregular and are piece wages, workers tend to work for unspecified hours without any compensation for overtime.
Loading and unloading labourers This work generally involves loading soil, stones, sand, cement, rods, bricks etc. on tractors and mini trucks in the village, and unloading them. Labourers for this jobs are hired by contractors who get these jobs from various clients. Sometimes labourers themselves approach a contractor and/or tractor/truck drivers for such jobs. As the supply of labourers in these areas for such jobs are very high, many times labourers fail to obtain them or do them on payments far lower than the prevalent rates.
Transportation (Drivers and Helpers) Generally, tractor owners in the locality hire these drivers, not necessarily in their own villages. As there are less tractors in the area in comparison to the number of drivers, most of the drivers do not get jobs. They are paid on monthly/daily wage basis. But most of the times payment is irregular in both the cases. There are no holidays when a driver is hired on the monthly basis. He has to work for 10 to 12 hours in a day without having any overtime compensation for it. Sometimes if accidents happen damages to the vehicle are recovered from the salary of the drivers. At times, drivers get opportunities on small passenger vehicles (SUVs, etc). There is no fixed work-time in this work, and wages are quite low (at the most 4000/- per month).
Livestock grazing This job is mainly of two types. Firstly, in a village there are one or two families who do this job professionally. They take cows and goats from other families on a contract basis (Rs.20/- to 30/- per month per cow). Sometimes they collect food from hiring families. Secondly, some rich families in the village hire individual workers for the job on an annual contract, who look after their cows and do other jobs of these families. This job is not readily available in the village. Many times these people do not pay the agreed amount to cow grazers, . There is also irregular payment in this job. The amount they get is very low in comparison to the amount of their work. The annual contract labourers are exploited in many ways (no fixed time of work, unhealthy conditions of staying in the houses, low quality of food given to them, sometimes they are charged for theft of goods and damages etc).
Cooks in schools This is one of the rarest jobs in the village. This is obtained by lobbying with the elected members of a panchayat or legislators, government officials etc. They even have to indulge in bribing the officials for getting these jobs. Sometimes conflicts happen in the villages over obtaining this job position. They are not permanently aided jobs in the villages. They are posted on contractual basis and their salary is very low. They have to bribe even the school teachers or officials to continue the job and sometimes a part of their salary is siphoned away by the headmasters of these schools.
Anganwadi helper Only one person in a village gets this job. Their problems are similar to those of cooks described above. Most of the times, there are disputes in villages for getting this job. Their salary is very low and irregular. Anganwadi workers, supervisors and higher officials engage these helpers in other unrelated tasks and sometimes a part of their salary is kept by the anganwadi workers.
Carpenter A carpenter obtains work on a contractual basis, or on a daily wage basis generally by approaching the persons who require their work. Sometimes contractors and house owners hire these carpenters for construction and furniture making work. The demand for their labour is not always available in the village for which very often they have to remain either unemployed or engage as agricultural labourers. There is also an irregularity in payment for this work. Many times local forest officials take bribe from these carpenters.
As evident from the profiles for jobs available in the village given above, rural unemployment and underemployment are rampant phenomena, which lead workers to lead life in footlooseness and as migrant workers. Generally a part of family moves out seasonally, mostly male members, while others toil in the village. Our activist-researchers profiled the following jobs that rural workers undertake when they migrate.
Construction work The nature and problems of work is same as detailed above. Workers are either mobilised by contractors or through acquaintances who work with those contractors. Many times it is difficult for a new worker to get a job with the contractor, if he does not have proper contacts. The situation of masons is also similar – they obtain work through contractors and friends. Sometimes these masons have to work as unskilled labour in case of unavailability of work. Very often they remain unemployed during the rainy seasons, as construction work goes down during that time. But in recent days as industries are coming up in the proximity, construction workers are regularly engaged by companies through contractors. They work inside the campus of companies. Contractors hire workers from villages by sending vehicles. The wage rates are low in comparison to the amount and quality of work. Payments are irregular and a portion is generally kept by the contractors so that these labourers are readily available for subsequent days. Working hours are more than 10 hours. The journey from villages to the workplace is very risky and has to be done in overcrowded vans.
Brick kiln workers As we have already discussed the nature of work in a brick kiln, we would just mention that migrant brick kiln workers include those who cook for other workers. The contractor hires these labourers and sometime workers go in a group to other districts with their friends who work with particular contractors. Their working and living conditions are very low.
Security guard This involves watching the campuses of offices, companies, projects, petrol pumps, houses, construction sites etc. These jobs are obtained through friends working in the company and other sites. Sometimes workers have to appear for interviews to obtain such jobs. They do not get jobs easily. They have to wait for months in the town to get these jobs. They are paid less and irregularly. Their overtimes are not calculated properly. The supervisors and security officers exploit these guards. They are very often charged for theft of materials, which are then recovered from their salaries.
Sponge iron plant worker They get this job through their friends working in the plant. Only a few are able to avail these jobs. Although they are paid on monthly basis, yet they have to work for more hours. They do not get necessary support during accidents in the factory or for any health problems. They have to work for 10 to 12 hours daily for the same wages.
Plastic plant labourer They work there as construction workers or on some daily wage work of carrying load, packing etc. They get these jobs through their friends already working there. Only few get these jobs. They are paid on a monthly basis, but working hours are generally extended and not remunerated.
Dhaba work This generally involves working as a Dhaba boy – cleaning plates, supplying water by carrying it on the shoulders, killing and dressing chickens etc. Such job is obtained through personal contacts. Only few get this job as there are limited dhabas in the area. The wage rate is low and working time is more than 14 hours a day. The payment is also irregular. The conditions of staying are very unhealthy, dues are rarely cleared on time by the owner, who regularly mistreats the worker.
Drivers This is mainly for driving trucks, tractors and sometimes for driving small passenger vehicles. These jobs are generally availed through friends and acquaintances who are themselves involved in such jobs. Sometimes workers approach the vehicle owners personally, and not rarely, they are even promoted from being helpers to drivers on same vehicles or on other vehicles. As this is a skilled job, a few are able to engage in it. Getting a driving license is another problem for qualifying for this job. The payment is irregular and working hours are not fixed. They are charged for damages to vehicles in accidents etc. The owners very often misbehave with the drivers.
Work at Stone Crushers This involves carrying loads, breaking big stones, loading and unloading works etc. A crusher owner comes to the village for hiring labourers. Sometimes old workers at the crusher are sent by the owner to their own villages for mobilising labourers for the crusher. The crusher has limited capacity to absorb labour for which a few can get such jobs. Irregular payments, more working hours etc. are general problems.
Kabadi (scrap) collection This involves collecting kabadi materials for kabadi shopkeepers in townships and urban areas. Workers have to approach personally for this job. This is a rare job. Only one person in the areas surveyed has got the job. Although the payment is on a monthly basis, yet it is quite irregular. No fixed time for such work. The dues of the labourer is not cleared always.
There are other odd jobs that some workers from these villages have undertaken, like working in car painting workshops and in an Ashram’s cow shed. These jobs are obtained through contacts, have no fixed working hours, payments are very irregular and low. Workers work and stay in unhealthy conditions.
There are some cases of occupational hazards suffered by sponge iron plant workers, drivers, helpers and construction workers. For instance, there are two persons in the area who suffered injuries in sponge iron plants, one of them lost one eye and another suffered injuries in his leg. The worker who lost his one eye could only get Rs. 20,000/- from the owner and was sent back to the village. The other person got only Rs.10,000/- for his injury. More shocking fact is that due to illiteracy, these labourers do not know even the names of their companies where they worked. The drivers and helpers very often suffer accidental injuries for which they hardly get any proper compensation from vehicle owners. On the contrary, many times despite injuries suffered by them, any damage to the vehicles in these accidents are recovered from their salary. Some construction workers who suffered injuries did not get any compensation, except that they obtained some first aid help and were transported back to their respective villages.
Jan Breman (2013) At Work in the Informal Economy of India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volumes 12, 28, 30 and 35, Progress Publishers, Moscow.
Michael Savage (1987) The Dynamics of Working Class Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Mario Tronti, “Factory and Society” (1962) & “Lenin in England” (1964), Available online on several websites.
The last section is essentially a joint work as it is the summary of a labour mapping exercise undertaken in a few extremely poor villages of Odisha in the year 2013, in which local activists linked with the network of Shramjibi Vichar Kendra Odisha were involved.
“To deny poverty is to deny the absence of the Kingdom in the present system. It is to affirm the existing system as the Kingdom of this world. To affirm the poor, on the other hand, and to serve their eventual liberation, in the structures and in history, is to witness the presence of the Kingdom in the satisfying of the poor and to the absence of the Kingdom in the imperfection of society. The poor are the epiphany of the Kingdom or the infinite exteriority of God.
“It remains to distinguish between the inorganic multitude and the people as the emerging subject of history (Gen. 41:40), and the People of God as Church (Acts 15:14) called to a special role in history:
Come out of her (Babylon), my people, lest you take part in her sins (Revelation 18:4)”
–Enrique Dussel, ‘The Kingdom of God and the Poor’ (Beyond Philosophy: Ethics, History, Marxism, and Liberation Theology)
It must be stated quite explicitly here that the bleeding-heart, underconsumptionist politics of poverty alleviation — something that is preponderant among South Asian radicals, Marxists included — is precisely what we ought to, pace Dussel, characterise as denial of poverty. Such ‘Marxian’ underconsumptionism, and its concomitant ideology and politics of philanthropy and reformism respectively, is no more than the obverse of neoliberalism, which denies poverty in as many words. From a position that is rigorously Marxian, and is thus conceptually premised on overproduction/overaccumulation, poverty must be affirmed; neither denied, nor, for that matter, alleviated. Affirmation of poverty would be constitutive of politics proper — politics as the excess of all that which exists and which will come to exist — because such affirmation would amount to the affirmation of the condition of being unmeasured.
For, what else is poverty other than the condition of being unmeasured in the face of a system of quasi-objective measure (or value). This condition of being unmeasured, thanks to it being the condition of the absence of measure, and thus the condition of the limit of measure, makes measure possible. Hence, it is the limit of measure that is nevertheless constitutive of it. In that context, affirmation of poverty as politics would amount to affirmation of the limit of this system of quasi-objective measure or valorisation so that the latter is destroyed even as the former abolishes itself as the constitutive limit of that system of measure to emerge on its own terms as the immeasurable. In more clear strategic terms, such unsentimental affirmation of poverty would be, in Pasolini’s immortal words, unrelenting antagonism, without a shred of dialectical respite or reconciliation, towards the subsumptive value-relational system of quasi-objective measure in its concrete appearances.
Underconsumptionist ‘radicalism’, on the other hand, seeks to alleviate and thus deny poverty. The denial of poverty and suffering implicit in the apparent radicalism of struggling precisely for the alleviation of poverty and suffering stems from its underconsumptionist theoretical presupposition, wherein poverty and suffering are made sense of not as a crisis of the system of measure, which is precisely produced by this system in order to keep itself going, but as a curse of not being measured; or, not being fully subsumed by the system of measure. Such politics of alleviating poverty and suffering, needless to say, reinforces the system of quasi-objective measure (or valorisation) that produces poverty and suffering — which is the condition of being unmeasured — precisely in mobilising this limit of measure to found and (re)found itself as that system. It is not surprising that Pasolini, who was unflinching and unsentimental in affirming poverty as a revolutionary virtue, would see such underconsumptionist ‘radicalism’ as an unforgiveable handmaiden and ally of “neo-capitalism”.
Pasolini, in his characteristically counter-intuitive manner, repeatedly criticised such politics for undermining the revolutionary project. Here is an excerpt from his Lutheran Letters:
“The sin of the fathers is not only the violence of power, Fascism. It is also this: the dismissal from our consciousness by us anti-Fascists of the old Fascism, the fact that we comfortably freed ourselves from our deep intimacy with it (the fact that we considered the Fascists ‘our idiot brothers’; secondly and above all, the acceptance (all the more guilty because unconscious) of the degrading violence, of the real, immense genocides of the new Fascism.
“Why is there such complicity with the old Fascism and why such an acceptance of the new Fascism? Because there is — and this is the point — a guiding principle common to both, sincerely or insincerely: that is the idea that the greatest ill in the world is poverty and that therefore the culture of the poorer classes must be replaced by the culture of the ruling class.
“In other words, our guilt as fathers could be said to consist in this: that we believe that history is not and cannot be other than bourgeois history.”
Clearly, such politics, if we follow the train of Pasolini’s reasoning and analysis, effects the subjective embourgeoisement of the proletariat even as it not only leaves intact, but also actually reinforces, the proletarian condition in its sheer objectivity. This is arguably what Pasolini sought to argue when he insisted that “neo-capitalism” was a form of fascism more pernicious than political fascism that Europe had already experienced. And that, according to Pasolini, was because the latter was (is) characterised by, among other things, the continuance of “economic class struggle” even as the antagonistic class struggle between bourgeois and proletarian cultures had lapsed and disappeared. Pasolini’s “neo-capitalist” fascism — which he acutely demonstrated as being more insidious and more dangerous than the political fascism of yore — is nothing but our conjuncture of neoliberalism. This conjuncture is characterised by the state of exception having become generalised. So much so that struggles claiming to be anti-fascist are, precisely in asserting those claims, rendered fascistic in their own right. Thanks to ineluctable objective conditions, fascistic politics today is easily – and, as a matter of fact, invariably– operationalised precisely in the very moment of liberal-democratic juridicality, and in its political register.
It is in this context that the following contention of Dussel’s becomes extremely pertinent from the point of view of thinking an effective revolutionary strategy by way of articulating a thorough critique of underconsumptionism:
“It remains to distinguish between the inorganic multitude and the people as the emerging subject of history (Gen. 41:40), and the People of God as Church (Acts 15:14) called to a special role in history:
Come out of her (Babylon), my people, lest you take part in her sins (Revelation 18:4)”
Cyrus Bina is correct when he notes that the radical left suffers from the dualism of capital and territory, taking them as separate logics. This dualistic framework vacates “the ground from beneath the theory of value as both a theory of class polarization and a theory of commodity valorization. Such dualism in the face of valorization of (raw) geography under capital – and unity of the two as a social relation – turned Marx on his head. Parallel with the analogy of “spacetime” in modern astrophysics, it would be methodologically incorrect to separate the valorization of land (and sub-surface) from the valorizing capital. The fabric of valorization does not allow for fencing off the land and capital. The theory of value is analogous to the fabric of spacetime where neither the time (social relations) nor the space (land, sub-surface, geography or territory) has independent existence. Theory of value is simply a universal measure for all measures, so to speak.” (Oil: A Time Machine, 2011)
If we look at radicalism as prevailing in the socalled Global South, and take it at its face value, we will find people are judged radicals by assessing how deep they are entrenched in this dualism. Anyway, the analogy of spacetime is crucial as it gives us a hint to treat territory or specificities as located in the spatiotemporal matrix of capital as social relations. Didn’t Marx himself hinted at it time and again when he stressed and showed that socio-historical phenomena or events, howsoever “remote from the class struggle [their] objects might appear,” were embedded in the dynamics of capital relations?
Some provisional notes on the materialism of thought, and modernism as “an aesthetics of necessary failure”
The fundamental question, insofar as modernism is concerned, is what does modernism make its diverse forms say about themselves. Depending on what modernist forms say about themselves — i.e. whether those forms construe, envisage and articulate themselves as myths of non-meaning, non-cogitation and non-thought; or, allegories (in Benjamin’s sense) or symptoms of the same — we need to internally divide modernism into two temporalities, two periodisations and two politico-aesthetic trajectories: fascist (or postmodernist, that is, neoliberal) and critical. And yet, as ‘consumers’ who are already always producers, even the fascistic and/or postmodernist politico-aesthetic temporality of certain modernist forms — something those forms speak as the intentionality of their producers — we need to brush against their own grain.
Brecht brilliantly anticipated that through both his intervention in the famous realism/modernism debate, and through the dramaturgy of his theatrical productions. So, the problem, from where I stand, is not whether a phenomenology of thinking haunts an aesthetic form. The problem for me, instead, is whether or not such a phenomenology is able to found itself in and as its own materiality by finding its own historical index and historicity. This is precisely where Benjamin’s post-phenomenological thinking — contrary to the dominant poststructuralist current that seeks to interpretatively assimilate him to difference-thinking — stands rigorously and radically distinguished from both Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenology of thought. The ‘Convolutes N’ of his The Arcades Project unambiguously declares that. And it is precisely such post-phenomenological thinking — in its radical separation from the phenomenology of thought — that Badiou, following Althusser, rightly affirms as the materialism of thought.
What, therefore, needs to be stated here unambiguously is the following: post-phenomenological thinking, or the materialism of thought, is not some premature abandonment of phenomenology of thought. Rather, it amounts to the extenuation of what is sheer phenomenology precisely by traversing it to its post-phenomenological antipodes, wherein it stands realised as its own materiality in and as the institution of its own duration and historicity. Conversely, sheer phenomenology of thought in its existence is – from this Benjaminian-Badiouian perspective — the incompleteness of its realisation as the post-phenomenology or materiality of thought, and thus the incompleteness of its own extenuation. [As an aside, it must be said here that this reveals how the line that separates mystified revolution, which is mysticism of difference (Fascism, Bonapartism, social democracy and/or neoliberal postmodernism) from revolution as difference demystified is perilously thin.]
If we attend closely to Badiou’s conception of “fidelity to the event”, we will see that what underlies this conception is precisely the move of extenuating phenomenology of thought by traversing it to its post-phenomenological antipodes, wherein it is its realisation as its own materiality. The event, for Badiou, is not truth, but an interiorised subjective illumination. And yet the event is, for him, indispensably crucial because it enables what he terms fidelity to the event, which in and as its own actuality is the truth of the event in its forcing. That is why, for Badiou, even as the event is not truth; truth is the truth of the event in its forcing. So, for Badiou truth is not the thought of the event. Instead, truth is the event as its own thought in action. And this event as its own thought in action is already the thought or the truth of the event in its forcing. That is precisely why Badiou thinks the event — contra phenomenology of difference and poststructuralism — as neither event of being nor being of event; but as the supernumerary supplement to being that in being identified thus is already always integrated into being. Therefore, for Badiou, the post-phenomenology or materiality of thought is not an out-of-hand rejection of phenomenology of thought. Rather, phenomenology of thought is for him not sheer phenomenology, but is the post-phenomenology or materiality of thought as already always its own limit and thus the already always crossing-of-that-limit.
As a consequence, Badiou’s post-phenomenology or materiality of thought — unlike the post-phenomenology of poststructuralism such as Foucault’s genealogy or Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic ontology – is not a future-anteriority that is retrospectively constructed in, as and through the production of phenomenological effects, which as those effects are no different from the effects produced by Hegelian and Left-Hegelian phenomenologies of identity-as-identity and identity-as-change-of-identity respectively. Badiou’s post-phenomenology is, therefore, clearly, not hermeneutics. Rather, it’s a future-anteriority that is an adventure of construction in being an anticipatory, prefigurative ‘hermeneutic’ thought in action.
Materiality, therefore, cannot be the rejection or abandonment of the idea. That would merely be the inversion of the constitutive diremption — or idealist dialectic — of idea and matter, taking us towards a positivist and vulgar materialism that would continue to confine us within the structure and/or force-field of idealist rationalism. Rather, materiality is the singularising rupture — or rupture as singularity — with that constitutive diremption. This means materiality is the moment of the idea in its emerging as the instantiation of its own absence as the cause of such emerging. In other words, materiality is about the inseparability — and thus singularity — of matter and its idea. Hence, it’s also the movement that is constitutive of prefiguring the overcoming of its interruption by anticipating the limit this movement generates by virtue of precisely being that movement. Materiality then is, as its own (immanent) thought, the already always grasping of its own limit.
This, in my view, is what one learns from the poems of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, particularly Alberto Caeiro’s; Badiou’s rigorously engaged reading of the same, and Adorno’s explication of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure.
In fact, it is in this context of materiality being its own (immanent) thought as the already always grasping of its own limit that Adorno’s conception and explication of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure needs to be situated and made sense of. Modernist forms as forms of non-meaning, non-thought and non-cogitation, vis-à-vis the forms of historical-realist meaning and sense, do not call on us to approach them in a melancholic contemplation imbued by “aecidia” — something that Benjamin warned against. Such forms call on us, instead, to approach them, as Benjamin would have us believe, by intensifying our contemplation of them to such an extent that such contemplative thought turns into its radical opposite: the thought of historcisation that is, therefore, thought in action. This is thought immanent to being now-time; or, ontological subtraction as its own thought in action. Therefore, to grasp modernist forms in terms of Adorno’s conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure is to see how such forms call on us – regardless of what the intentionality of their respective producers is or was – to grasp themselves as something that must already always be exceeded.
Clearly, Adorno’s conception of modernism is in line with Benjamin’s deployment of Schlegel’s romantic conception of aesthetic criticism, wherein a work of art is, at once, itself and an articulation of its own criticism. This is also what Brecht, through the conception and practice of his V-effect, points towards, as does Badiou through his “inaesthetic” conception of art as the real of reflection.
Benjamin’s aforementioned approach to the question of art is, admittedly, from the side of the producer. And that is largely true of Brecht too. But do such approaches of Benjamin and Brecht not, therefore, imply that the consumer is already always the producer, and that he/she thus reads forms not as forms, which would reduce the question of form to that of sheer style, but as modes. To read form as mode is to read form as the transparency of its own formation. We would do well to pay attention to Andre Breton’ glass-house in Nadja, the one he wished to inhabit as a writer, and which Benjamin also affirmatively alludes to in his essay on Surrealism. Thus, to read a form as a mode is to grasp it as the determinate excess of form, and subtraction from the abstract logic of formalism that the concrete form, which is being thus exceeded, mediates.
To read form as mode is to grasp a form as articulating its own criticism, and thereby already always being its own excess and voiding. Adorno’s conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure, not unlike Badiou’s inaesthetics, amounts precisely to that. What Benjamin and Brecht merely imply for the consumer’s side through their insistence that the producer of a form have that form articulate itself as mode, stands cogently formulated as the consumer’s task in Adorno’s conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure.
Clearly, Benjamin and Brecht on one hand, and Badiou and Adorno on the other, together complete the asymmetrical or singular dialectic of productive consumption and consumptive production that Marx clearly indicated while laying bare that same dialectic as the symmetrical and thus idealist dialectic of capital.
In such circumstances, I don’t feel like quibbling much when I am confronted with a certain heuristically recursive reading of this conception of aesthetics of necessary failure as itself a necessary failure. Nevertheless, I cannot stop myself from saying that this conception as the concept that it already is, operates at the modal, not formal, level of abstraction. As a result, this theory is an affirmation of itself in and as its singular temporality and mode by already always being an articulation of the criticism of its own discursive-formal specificity that interrupts its singularity precisely in instantiating it. So, unless one’s insistence about the Adornoesque conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure itself being a necessary failure proceeds through such specification, it runs the risk of becoming a theoretical argument for founding a ‘new’ historicist aesthetics – or, an aesthetics for a ‘new’ historical realism.
Of course, I have my share of problems with Adorno. The way he explicates his concepts of negative dialectics and constellation demonstrates the dialectic as the mode of presentation of its own negativity. This clearly points us towards thinking the dialectic as the affirmative mode of determinate presentation of its own void, and thus excess, in its limit.
In other words, Adorno’s concepts of negative dialectics and constellation clearly point towards thinking (and envisaging) a new order of affirmation that is non-productive. And yet Adorno himself is not able to fully see what his concepts point towards, and walk that path of thinking (and envisaging) affirmation as a non-productive order of ‘being’. His concepts of negative dialectics and constellation show he understands that negativity can escape from its Hegelian dialectical inscription only if it’s thought in terms of the uninterruptedness of destruction. And yet he cannot understand how such an (im)possibility can actually happen. That is because he is unable to think of negativity in terms other than that of destruction. In other words, we find him unable to think negativity in terms of adventurous constructionism of subtraction as an actuality, which would be the actuality of destruction in its uninterrupted ceaselessness. It is not for nothing that Badiou conceptualises and envisages subtraction as that which is the articulation of destructive antagonism towards the sublationary force-field of the (idealist) dialectic. This is why Badiou terms his subtractive affirmationism political negativity.
In such circumstances, Adorno’s failure to think the happening of the (im)possible, which his “negative dialectics” conceptually articulates, can possibly only be ascribed to the limit imposed on his thought by its objective conjunctural location. This failure of his to draw the non-productive affirmative consequences from his own concepts of negative dialectics and constellation is clearly evident in his melancholic conception of the “totally administered society”. Something that then risks generating its own obverse: the Heidegger-like affirmation qua the irrationality of poetic-thinking, and the deconstructive infinite finitudes. And yet, unless we are able to arrive at this criticism of Adorno by showing how his concept of negative dialectics frees negativity of determination from being merely the negation of determination to become its own moment of presentation as negativity, we won’t be able to think and envisage the non-productive order of affirmation in and against the productivity of capital. And that, ironically enough, would make us bring the Heideggerian deconstruction, we strive to throw out of the front door, back in through the rear window.
The heuristic-recursive insistence that we see Adorno’s modernist conception of aesthetics of necessary failure as itself a necessary failure unwittingly risks upholding the ways of deconstruction, and the infinite regress that is concomitant with it. This, as far as aesthetic production within a Marxist field is concerned, could easily compel artists to submit their productive activity, paradoxically enough, to a kind of Lukacsian aesthetic imperative of historical realism.
The question of religion cannot be adequately posed and articulated outside the frame of politics as the actuality of historically concrete forms of oppression and determinate struggles for and/or against the concrete operations of social power. This is precisely why any insistence on taking a hermeneutic and historicising approach to that question deserves to be attended to with some seriousness. However, such seriousness will be contingent, first and foremost, on how effectively one is able to work towards freeing such a hermeneutic approach from the grip of institutionalised liberal academics — a secure world it currently inhabits in utter innocuousness deprived of its subversive sting — and mobilised by the militancy of political struggles to be rendered their indispensable and integral strategic component.
And for that, revolutionary political militancy will need to be equally, and dialectically, suspicious of both academicism and its own ideology of pragmatism. An effective response to religion/s as ideologies of nationalist and other forms of identitarian bigotry and oppression — something that capitalist class power articulates in order to reinforce and reproduce itself — depends perhaps on how much one is able to move away from viewing religions as ahistorical and merely self-enclosed institutionalities, forms and representations of power. This is a presupposition that is shared by both (liberal) secularists, and their communitarian ‘opponents’ such as the infinitely banal Ashish Nandys of the world. The way forward lies, rather, through the rigours of working a historicising materialist hermeneutic that grasps religions as internally divided and divisible terrains of quotidian social power and political struggles.
It will, therefore, probably be productive to make a small detour here in order to briefly clarify and distinguish the various theoretical approaches at stake in the articulation of liberal-secular and communitarian political projects, as also the project that one is attempting to propose as a radical departure from both.
First, the project of liberal historicising that is undepinned and guided by the approach of Hegelian historicism. This approach seeks to reveal the historical gap between the performative and the epistemological in the conception and practice of religion/s. It then goes on to insist that precisely on account of such a gap — which is to say, due to the historical incapacity of religious systems to render their performativity epistemologically transparent to themselves – religion as a form of social practice ought to be designated traditional, pre-modern and backward, and abandoned. What such an intellectual paradigm proposes, instead, is the social form that is inhabited by the subject of such historicising inquiry, which is external to the social form of the religious that is its object, ought to displace the latter as the form of social practice and thus politics. This is the modality of liberal/secular politics at its rigorous best. The most distinguished and radical exemplars of such an approach would be Romila Thapar, and even D.D. Kosambi.
Second, the genealogical approach to historicising of systems and forms of social being and practice underpinned by the religious conception. This approach too registers the gap between the performative and the constantive (read the ideological). But then it goes on to suggest that as far as pragmatics go this gap does not really matter. Its argument being the performative dimension of the religious, regardless of whether or not such performativity is epistemologically transparent to itself, is self-sufficient in overcoming the gap between itself and its ideological knowledge. What it overlooks is the fact that ideology and knowledge are not purely cognitive and that they are a materiality that frames and articulates the performative, causing it to undermine itself in its effects. This is the sum and substance of the politico-theoretical articulation of ‘weak thinking’ that is integral to the philosophical approach of genealogy. As a consequence, what it yields by way of politics is an ethics of the self, whose effect is, at best, the political project of radical communitarianism if not communitarian populist reaction.
In both these approaches, theory and the problem of epistemology, in the way their deployment is envisaged, remain an externalised normativity. The politics of historical knowledge they produce is, as a consequence, one of anachronic interpolation.
That brings us to the historical-materialist approach to historicising – something that is often confused and conflated with liberal historicising of a Hegelian historicist vintage by the best among its self-declared practitioners. In this approach, historical moments are sought to be grasped in terms of concrete instantiations of rupture with History but also, simultaneously, how such concrete instants of rupture are once again subsumed by the dialectical machine that is history, rendering those moments of rupture their very opposite. Historical materialism — which seeks to inquire into History by thinking the dialectic and the anti-dialectical difference together, but in their separateness — also seeks to reveal the gap between the performative and the epistemological in the historical conception and practice of religion/s. In this it’s no different from liberal historicising rooted in historicism. But then it also attempts to make sense of and explain the reason behind this unbridgeable gap. Thence, its modes-of-production narrative. As a result, what it proposes, unlike the project of liberal historicising, is not that religious forms ought to be designated traditional, pre-modern and backward; and that they be considered reactionary as forms of social practice. Rather, by revealing the gap between the performative and the epistemological in the historical operation of religious forms — and demonstrating the limit-reason as to why that gap is not sought to be closed in and by that historical operation of the religious – it seeks to arm the religious subjects of various so-called pre-modern spatio-temporalities, in the here and now of the contemporary, with the knowledge of the performative dimension and temporality that religion/s are in their historical operation.
That way, historicising of the religious, if it is truly historical-materialist in approach, will work towards enabling religious subjects to grasp the religious forms they inhabit, and which interpellate them as those subjects, in terms of its historically performative dimension. This, needless to say, is meant to politically impel those religious subjects to deploy the religious register of their everyday life in terms of the knowledge of the performative dimension of the religious in its historical operation. Something that would render what is a practico-inert ideological register in the here and now of lived experience into a positive ideological register that instantiates and materialises the science of subversive performativity in that very moment of lived experience of the religious subject in its concrete everyday specificity. That would, therefore, not amount to, like in the intellectual project of liberal historicising and its concomitant politics of secularism, an out-of-hand rejection of the discursive resources constitutive of the religious as a register and form of transformative social practice and politics. On the contrary, it would imply the deployment of religious discursive resources to forge an organic idiom of transformative politics that in its deployment causes the religious register and form of social being to internally mutate through a sharpening of the material cleavages internal to that register as a homogenising ideological appearance.
Hence, the question that all those committed to a political project against various customary forms of religio-communal oppression need to ask is how have discursive resources of religion/s become constitutive ideologies of bigoted oppression, class domination, and hegemony of capitalist modernity. Concomitantly, they also need to ask, how, and in what concrete circumstances, can religious discursive/ideological resources — and what kind of resources — be mobilised as idioms of political struggles for emancipation from power. For, in such struggles what is at stake is not secularism but a militantly materialist and thus historically grounded atheism. This is the politico-theoretical lesson that comes to us from Marx’s critique of liberal-secular atheism, particularly that of Feurbach and such Young Hegelians as Bruno Bauer. Or, Engels’ analysis of different Christianities — of Martin Luther, Jan Hus and Thomas Muenzer — in terms of their different material bases and operation in his, The Peasant War in Germany.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the liberation theology movements of Latin America, and the theologically-inflected but politically militant theoretical interventions of Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch (his ‘Atheism in Christianity’ is a telling example), Jacob Taubes, Swami Sahajananda Saraswati (‘Maharudra ka Maha Tandav’, ‘Gita Hriday’), Rahul Sankrityayan (remember his polemic on Ram rajya with Karpatri Maharaj), Maulana Bhasani, Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri, Roland Boer, Enrique Dussel and Aziz Al-Azmeh — to just name a few — point precisely in such a strategic direction.
“It is said that the true reason why Galileo Galilei was summoned before the Holy Inquisition, and had to recant, was not his inclination to the Copernican system, but his thesis that the observed appearance of physical objects tells us what they actually are. Which violates the doctrine of transubstantiation: if the wafer broken at the altar appears to be a baker’s product and if there is no experiment by which one may distinguish between the bread before and the bread after the transformation, then, so Galileo maintained, the bread on the altar was bread and nothing else.
“— Galileo has gone too far. Now he must retreat.
— He has gone no further than the natural sciences today. What he says is one of the core assertions on which science is based.
— But he cannot cut open the holy bread with a knife to see if blood comes out. What would he do, if the bread really does bleed?
— He often did try that at night, in Venice, on extraterritorial soil. There was no blood.
— He could not have known that beforehand. The next time he cuts it open he will find that he has sinned. Then he’ll be burned.
— He did recant, after all.”
–Alexander Kluge, ‘Galileo, The Heretic’ (The Devil’s Blind Spot)
This “novel in a pill-form” by Kluge astutely reads Galilean empiricism as, to use Pasolini’s Epicurean-Marxist concept, “heretical empiricism”. And this, for Kluge, is accomplished first by Galileo’s assertion of empiricism as the natural-scientific truth and then by his recantation of the same before the Holy Inquisition, a theological (and thus metaphysical) tribunal. What these two coupled acts emphasise is the absolutely undeniable importance of effects, but not as expressivist meanings of a prior cause but precisely as instantiations of disavowal of such a hidden cause and its expressivist meanings.
Therefore, even as Galileo’s assertion “that the observed appearance of physical objects tells us what they actually are”, disavows the prior cause of transubstantiation of baker’s bread into Christ’s flesh, his recantation of the same is a continuance of the same disavowal of a priori knowledge that a bread transformed by the Church ritual of Eucharist is only a baker’s bread and hence will not bleed if sliced into. This must be read as Kluge’s brilliant allusion to radical fidelity — or, difficult commitment — to the heretical essence of Galilean experimental science. This is, to all intents and purposes, Kluge’s rearticulation of his teachers’ (Adorno and Horkheimer’s) concept of the dialectic of Enlightenment. One that, among other things, transforms the conception of experimental science and practice from a heuristic process of falsification to a conception of dialectical process of truth and error.