Our task in this note is to locate the unemployed in the social structure of capitalism and its dynamics. We cannot undertake this without simultaneously identifying them as forming a social subject that contributes in the critique of capitalist political economy. It essentially means relating the subject position with what it does. In a more sophisticated language, it means deciphering in this particular case the locus of the unemployed in the dialectic of the technical and political composition and recomposition of the working class. It is our contention that the standpoint of the unemployed as a social subject provides to the critique of political economy and labour politics access to the darkest and invisible corners of capital relations. This standpoint emerges from the unemployed’s apparent marginality in the capitalist system, their peculiar positioning within capital relations – their compulsion to sell their labour power, but inability to do so. (Dinerstein 2001)
The Marxist treatment of unemployment goes much deeper than the economics of unemployment which treats it at the level of appearance as cyclical and a problem of market clearance. Marx relates it to the logic of capitalist accumulation and treats it as “a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production.” Here we rely on Marx’s analysis of “the reserve army of unemployed paupers” and relative surplus population. Through our deliberation upon the informal economy, we seek to demonstrate that the informalisation of work processes in the era of globally dispersed Fordism has brought the unemployed to the centre of labour politics.
Much of what is called the informal economy is constituted by processes and institutions built upon labour or activities that are termed self-employment, and whatever workers do to survive in the absence of what they consider decent jobs according to their skills. That is why these activities were considered transitory jobs or no jobs at all. And they still exist so in the minds of workers at least. Materially, too, the transitoriness is evident, which was never the character of the jobs themselves, but of labour that undertakes them, whose footlooseness these jobs re-enforced and productively channeled. Workers undertake these activities to reproduce themselves so that they are able to continue hunting for “jobs”. It is this tentativeness, casualness and ephemerality of informal labour that when disciplined becomes a positive economic virtue called flexibility.
Labour flexibility is among the most significant features of the informal economy that sanitises informality of its hideousness. By all standards flexibility sounds better than rigidity, which now comes to encapsulate the chief characteristics of formal employment and welfarism. Isn’t it interesting, insecurity is called flexibility, while security is dubbed rigidity? Flexibility is adventurous and forward looking, while rigidity is, of course, boring and conservative.
Labour is flexible here in all its possible senses – no standard wage, no insurance, no stability, use and throw policy etc. As clear from above, this feature is actually the nurturing and harnessing of alienation and homelessness or nomadism that workers experience in these economic engagements.
What dispersed Fordism or post-Fordism has accomplished is to mainstreamise or formalise this informality. Interestingly, this formalisation does not do away with the specificities that characterise this informality, rather the informal gets embedded in the formal network of production and distribution. This embedding incidentalises the labour intensive nature of the informal sector which was considered necessary in the pre-neoliberal phase of capitalism. The processuality that informality acquires destroys its dualistic separation from the formal. In fact, it loses its phenomenal nature. Thus, informalisation grips even the most skilled work and technologically advanced sectors of the whole economic system. The network economy that this process builds is not between the formal and the informal, which are losing any meaning as separate phenomenal entities, but between diverse levels of labour intensive and capital-intensive work processes, where insecurity dubbed labour flexibility or informalisation is the general tendency of the economy. Only this could allow requisite technological rationalisation of the production process to garner competitive advantages from available resources. As Marx had identified a hundred fifty years ago, the principle behind this rationalisation is quite simple, i.e., “the difference between the value of the machine and the value of the labour power replaced by it.” Harvey (2006:124) explains this,
“At times when the industrial reserve army becomes massive, capital will have abundant incentives to go back to labour-intensive techniques (hence the contemporary revival of the sweatshop even in advanced capitalist countries). The stimulus for more complex forms of technological and organisational change is certainly blunted at times of chronic labour surplus.”
However, what we see today is networking and complex layering of work processes involving multiple levels of technological and organisational forms in every economic activity. An extreme, but significant example, comes from the electronic industry. This industry today has attained a very high level of automation. However, almost every significant and sophisticated electronic device needs tantalum capacitor to control current flow inside miniature circuit boards. This metallic tantalum is made from the ore called columbite-tantalite or coltan, which is mined in African countries, especially Congo, through extremely primitive mechanisms. So we find a simultaneity of different degrees of labour/capital intensity forming a chain of exploitation that makes globalisation sensible, which is actually nothing more than the globalisation of the whole circuit of capital. This is not the simultaneity of non-simultaneous which defined the unevenness in the history of modern capitalism, and which could be mapped as vestiges or temporal and social lags. Non-simultaneous have been reduced to cosmetic shades. Now, “everything has reached the same hour on the great clock of development or rationalization.” The diverse work processes are homogenised as the realisation of capitalist expediency that is dependent on “the difference between the value of the machine and the value of the labour power replace by it.” And this difference is regulated on the basis of the extent and composition of the industrial reserve army or surplus population.
Capitalism is a system of intensification and expansion. The intensity and expansion increase what Marx calls surplus population. This surplus forms a reserve army from which workers are drawn whenever needed. The intensity of accumulation leads to what Marx calls floating reserve. The technological changes that produce this intensity make skills and the skilled redundant. Similarly, the expansion of commodity relations erodes the autonomy of modes and regimes of production redefining them within the logic of capital relations. It is not that this internal redefinition is anywhere accomplished without resistance. In fact, this resistance itself is instrumentalised to assign its ground a place value within the system. Even the refusal is taken care of, if not as criminal, then as exotic or erotic. Whatever be its face value, howsoever it is holy, capitalist valorisation profanes it by placing it in systemic relations. Primitive or original accumulation (re)produces the essential conditions for capitalist accumulation to take place. And among these the most important is the abundant supply of living labour to be subsumed.
“But if a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus population becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalistic accumulation, nay, a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, that belongs to capital quite as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost. Independently of the limits of the actual increase of population, it creates, for the changing needs of the self-expansion of capital, a mass of human material always ready for exploitation.” (M&E, Vol 35 [Capital 1]:626)
The relative surplus population includes every unemployed and half-employed. Though it can have many “periodically recurring forms” generated during the ups and downs of a business cycle, there are some permanent forms, which Marx identifies as floating, latent and stagnant. The floating surplus consists of those workers who are pushed and pulled in the normal operation of the supply and demand in the labour market. They float with the regular movement of capital, they emigrate where capital emigrates.
The latent surplus population is what feeds the flows between agriculture and non-agricultural sectors, between the countryside and towns. It is this surplus that supplies for the peripheral industrial employment and infrastructure building. With the progressive capitalisation of agriculture, the whole countryside is slowly transformed into a labour reserve. The latent character of this population is derived from the fact that it is hidden under the “half-employment” or self-employment in rural (agrarian and forest) activities. On the other hand, the “surplus” nature of this population is ensured by keeping their “one foot already [and always] in the swamp of pauperism”, by allowing depressed remunerations in these employments, whether as agricultural wages or as returns in exchange of services and produces. “The extent of [latent surplus population] becomes evident only when its channels of outlet open to exceptional width.” (M&E, Vol 35 [Capital 1]: 636-37)
Then comes the stagnant surplus which consists of all those are engaged in “extremely irregular employment,” toiling in the ‘domestic industry’ and under “the system of middlemen and sweaters.” “Its conditions of life sink below the average normal level of the working class; this makes it at once the broad basis of special branches of capitalist exploitation. It is characterised by maximum of working time, and minimum of wages.”(M&E, Vol 35 [Capital 1]: 637) It is worth quoting Marx’s words at length to define these forms of organising production. Marx describes the ‘domestic industry’,
“as one of the most dreadful forms of production existing, a form which is only brought to an end by the introduction of machinery, and in comparison with which the formal subsumption of labour under capital appears as a redemption. The immense surplus POPULATION created by large-scale industry in agriculture and the factory system is exploited here in a way which saves the “capitalist” a part of the production costs of capital, and allows him to speculate directly upon the misery of the workers. It is so in JOBBING WORK, the system under which some of the tailors, cobblers, NEEDLEWOMEN, etc., are employed in London. The surplus value created here depends not only on overwork and the appropriation of surplus labour, but also directly on deductions from wages, which are forced down far below their normal average level.
“The system of MIDDLEMEN and SWEATERS follows on from this one. The actual “capitalist” distributes among the MIDDLEMEN a certain quantity of raw material which is to be worked on, and they in their turn distribute these materials among those unfortunates, living in cellars, who have sunk down below the average level of the normal workers who are combined together in TRADE UNIONS, etc., etc. Thus the profit of these MIDDLEMEN, among whom there are often in turn further MIDDLEMEN, consists exclusively of the difference between the normal wage they let themselves be paid, and the wage they pay out, which is less than normal. Once a sufficient number of workers of the latter kind is organised through this system, they are often directly employed by capitalist No. I on the same conditions as those under which the MIDDLEMEN employed them.” (M&E, Vol. 34 [Marx’s Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63]:120)
These forms are what we today define as the system of sub-contracting or outwork and dispersed factory system. It will not be an exaggeration to claim that post-Fordist informalisation actually mainstreamises this, while neoliberalism justifies it as market expedient. In fact, even at the level of public policy design, the issue of its “abolition” is transcended, and what are actually sought are politics that can “foster the informal sector to mainstream, without loosing its inherent advantages.” (GDRC, http://www.gdrc.org/informal/about-informal.html)
Besides these three categories of surplus population, Marx identifies a section dwelling in the sphere of pauperism, which he defines as “the hospital of the active labour army and the dead weight of the industrial reserve army.” Exclusive of the dangerous class of actual lumpen-proletarians, this category includes, firstly, those who are pushed into employment only at the time of prosperity; secondly, “orphans and pauper children,… candidates for the industrial reserve army”; and, thirdly, “the demoralised, ragged, and those unable to work, chiefly people who succumb to their incapacity for adaptation, due to the division of labour; people who have passed the normal age of the labourer; the victims of industry, whose number increases with the increase of dangerous machinery, of mines, chemical works, &c, the mutilated, the sickly, the widows, &c.” (M&E, Vol. 35 [Capital 1]:637-38)
The resemblance of the experience of the informal economy in late capitalist economies like India with Marx’s analysis and description of the relative surplus population and unemployment is not accidental. It only evidences the cruciality of Marx’s analysis of the logical structure of capitalism and its rounding up of socio-historical resources for its realisation to comprehend the developmental specificities of these economies and their integration in the capitalist globality. However, we must assert that the difficulties that Marx confronted, due to many aspects of the logic of capitalist accumulation still unrealised during his time, led him to indulge in descriptivism leading to ambiguities in his expressions. Essentially, it led to a blurring of the division and relationship between the logic and history of capitalism. A sociologistic and evolutionary reading of Marx’s critique of political economy led to its normalisation as Marxian economics and another policy framework. In politics, it sustained reformism and class collaborationism.
Many later readers have not been able to grasp the conceptual centrality of primitive accumulation and the industrial reserve army in the logic of capital. A historicist reading of Marx’s Capital leads to the dilution of the richness of these concepts and reduces these categories to specific teloses of capitalism – to describe the development and/or underdevelopment of national and regional economies. The teleological understanding of capitalist development served well in the formative periods of the labour movement when the erosion of pre-capitalist relations seemed to have a redemptive value, allowing workers to focus on the requirements of the class struggle and organise themselves into a class. It exposed the reactionary socialisms of “Narodism” and Proudhonism that rampantly infested anti-capitalism – one wanting to bypass capitalism and the other “beneath the cloak of freedom and anti-governmentalism or anti-authoritarian individualism …are in actuality preaching vulgar bourgeois economics”, wanting to have capitalism without capitalists. This helped in battling the hegemony of those workers “who as workers in luxury trades are, without realising it, themselves deeply implicated in the garbage of the past.” (M&E, Vol.42 [Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann In Hanover, 9 October 1866] :326) It freed the labour movement from the dominance of the petty-bourgeois economism and directed it toward the political struggle against capital for reform and revolution.
But the teleological fallacy in later periods led to the reproduction of the same ideologies that it successfully combatted initially. The epithets of “vestiges”, “backwardness” etc bestowed upon various forms of social relations eventually became hurdles in grasping how these forms were instrumentalised in grounding and specifying capital relations in concrete locations. Although as the teleology had to fail and capitalism did not seem to proletarianise the labouring masses and sweep away the non-capitalist relations, with the teleology the primacy of class struggle too had to be abandoned. The working class became another identity and hence, the discourses of intersectionality and relativism. What has left of the teleology as capitalist development fails to adhere to the timeline is mere state fetishism and welfarism.
It is our contention here that the analysis of surplus population and reserve army that Marx’s make in his writings is crucial to understand the technical composition of the working class, providing an insight into the constitution and processes of different regimes of accumulation. Hence, its cruciality for understanding the possibilities and processes in the political recomposition of the working class. Marx already hints at this when he says:
“The demand for labour is not identical with increase of capital, nor supply of labour with increase of the working class. It is not a case of two independent forces working on one another. Les dés sont pipés [The dice are loaded]. Capital works on both sides at the same time. If its accumulation, on the one hand, increases the demand for labour, it increases on the other the supply of labourers by the “setting free” of them whilst at the same time the pressure of the unemployed compels those that are employed to furnish more labour, and therefore makes the supply of labour, to a certain extent, independent of the supply of labourers. The action of the law of supply and demand of labour on this basis completes the despotism of capital. As soon, therefore, as the labourers learn the secret, how it comes to pass that in the same measure as they work more, as they produce more wealth for others, and as the productive power of their labour increases, so in the same measure even their function as a means of the self-expansion of capital becomes more and more precarious for them, as soon as they discover that the degree of intensity of the competition among themselves depends wholly on the pressure of the relative surplus population; as soon as, by Trades’ Unions, &c, they try to organise a regular co-operation between employed and unemployed in order to destroy or to weaken the ruinous effects of this natural law of capitalistic production on their class, so soon capital and its sycophant, political economy, cry out at the infringement of the “eternal” and so to say “sacred” law of supply and demand. Every combination of employed and unemployed disturbs the “harmonious” action of this law. But, on the other hand, as soon as (in the colonies, e.g.) adverse circumstances prevent the creation of an industrial reserve army and, with it, the absolute dependence of the working class upon the capitalist class, capital, along with its commonplace Sancho Panza, rebels against the “sacred” law of supply and demand, and tries to check its inconvenient action by forcible means and State interference.” (M&E, Vol 35 [Capital 1]:634, emphasis ours)
Despite its alleged “backwardness”, informality has not just survived but has infiltrated the formal spaces, and is still spreading its tentacles. The institutionalised labour movement started by taking it as a transient phenomenon, attesting to its understanding of unevenness as “the simultaneity of non-simultaneous” and as a problem of insufficient development or underdevelopment, which capitalism would overcome in due course by its expansion or by the agency of the state, which was externalised and considered autonomous from capital relations (and many a times as a mere neutral instrument or agency which behaved according to who wielded it).
Informal workers being of transient identity, therefore, never became a concentration of trade unions, because their job profiles did not comply with the legalist definition of “workmen” whom trade unions organised. It is not that this was just a result of their choice, but was mainly due to their legal-structural accommodation which shaped their understanding and activities. Of course, these trade unions have always supported the struggles for the demand of “employment”, but organising on this issue never became a concern for them as these struggles were outside the purview of industrial relations. They could organise sporadic demonstrations to petition the state demanding employment or some social scheme to support the unemployed, but organising the unemployed and half-employed in their daily struggles for survival and as workers could never become one of their concentrations.
However, this drastically changed with the crises of Keynesianism in the 1960s, when the distance between informal and formal economies was eroded. They were not only networked together, informalisation became internal to factory work processes. The employment of casual and contract workers challenged the old school organising of industrial unions that based itself on stable, even if not permanent, workforce. The obvious and initial reaction of course was to assert privileges as qualifications that came with particular job profiles, experience and struggles. A part of this “new” unstable workforce was viewed as apprentices, still in a transitional stage, who would perhaps gain these qualifications with experience and become part of the regular workforce. Others would remain disqualified. These underprivileged would revert back to the reserve, as they didn’t have the core skills required for particular industries. In India, this industrial structure was codified through various legislations that established various kinds of filters segmenting the jobs and workers. But the telos was still there as the defining legal, political and economic ideology which saw everything moving towards the goal, the centre.
It was the Contract Labour Act of 1970 that recognised the crisis of this teleological structure in India. The division between jobs of the perennial nature and the incidental nature, between regular and temporary workforce were not just codified in this Act, but more importantly it sought to curb the centripetal teleology of welfarism by relativising the centre itself as another zone of difference, perhaps a privileged one, but not a goal. It might be surprising why the Act was celebrated among trade unionists, given what it demolished, but the competitive anxieties of the stable workforce that were increasing got some definite respite in the Act.
In 1960, the Supreme Court in The Standard Vacuum Oil Refinery Company v their Workmen (1960 AIR 948) sought to discourage and even abolish contractualisation especially in the public sector. This triggered a spate of cases brought before industrial tribunals to regularise workers. The Indian state was understandably rattled, as the verdict seemingly strengthened the existing labour institutions and curbed any capital-friendly flexibility in the labour market. The state was very much aware of the emergence of the new regime of accumulation based on labour informalisation and flexibilisation that started in the 1960s. This new regime sought to take advantage of the growing labour reserves to counter the economic downturn. Post-colonial India saw an increase in all types of labour reserves, and it would be inexpedient to be unable to use this as an advantage. The Contract Labour Act that the Indian State brought in1970 tried to address the crisis posed by the judiciary. It sought “to regulate the employment of contract labour in certain establishments and to provide for its abolition in certain circumstances.” But instead of any provision clearly directed towards the abolition of contract labour, the Act provided time filters for post-performance determination of the nature of work. It provided for specific welfare measures too. But the essential purpose was to alienate the conflict over contract labour from regular industrial relations, and empower the state and its bureaucracy to decide upon the characterisation of a particular work, whether it is of perennial or intermittent/casual nature.
This act was of course a recognition of the system of contract labour, but not so much to abolish it, which it couldn’t, given the changes in the regime of accumulation globally. It definitely had provisions for the regularisation of the workforce, but the same provisions in effect secured the system, which could not be trespassed but could be extended unlimitedly. The provisions of the Act did not apply to establishments employing less than twenty workmen, and those establishments “in which work only of an intermittent or casual nature is performed.” If in an establishment some work “was performed for [less than] one hundred and twenty days in the preceding twelve months” and in case of a seasonal work if it was “performed for [less than] sixty days in a year” then they were unambiguously considered to be of an intermittent nature. But most importantly, the Act clearly said, “if a question arises whether work performed in an establishment is of an intermittent or casual nature, the appropriate Government shall decide that question after consultation with the Central Board or, as the case may be, a State Board, and its decision shall be final.” Period. It codified and institutionalised a caste like division among labourers.
The Contract Labour Act definitely recognised the rights of the permanent employees as undisputed privileges and thus garnered the support of the trade unions. These trade unions remained and kept their members under the grip of the myth of teleology and state fetishism. They thought themselves to be the future of the insecure youthful mass worker, when in reality they were being “implicated in the garbage of the past.” The telos has long been reversed; nay, in fact, it has been demolished.
As labour reserves – unemployed and underemployed – surviving in the informal sector found fending for themselves in everyday politics and economics of work, they found the philanthropic patronising attitude of the shrinking mainstream useful sometimes to access privileged entries. The funded NGOs and social organisations mushroomed to take care of the volatile nature of this section. They dignified these workers by organising them as positive identities, as self-employed and in self help groups – a world of the third: neither capitalists, nor workers.
As the sense of permanence and stability was diminished, anxieties increased, leading to an open struggle – to defend privileges. Of course, side by side the issue of “organising the unorganised” was definitely posed. They have to be organised separately was the view of the new unions, who saw the specificities of the new “industrial” workforce in contradiction to the old stable workforce. On the other hand, old unionism stressed on the unity, and considered any new attempt to be divisive. In its opinion, the new unionist attempts displayed the immaturity of the informal workforce (perhaps due to its incomplete proletarianisation). It wanted these “new” workers to be subsumed in the established organisational setups. Overall the two sides stood united in taking the segmentation within the working class for granted.
They are unable to comprehend the process of informalisation that brings various segments together and binds them in hyper competition for redistributive claims. But it is thus that the caste boundaries too become porous. Capitalism has brought labour reserves in the centre of working class politics by generalising precariousness which today all segments of the society face. All segments within the working class have their one foot in the surplus population. In other words, with the informalisation of labour and associated precarisation becoming the general tendency of the economy, the intensity and seamlessness of the production and circulation networks trans-personalises the confrontation among labour and with capital. Even though we find precarisation and instability intensifying identity conflicts, leading to rampant violence over competitive redistributive claims, the trans-personalised cooperation against capital once achieved to a degree, which essentially politically recomposes the technical composition that capital has mobilised, becomes relatively immune to such conflicts.
When Marx says that every combination of employed and unemployed disturbs the harmony of capitalism, he is clearly referring to trade unions as self-organisations, where they were not agencies to accumulate claims, but to organise day to day cooperation against capital. At the time when these forms have been legally incorporated, they acquire defining legal roles which can only straightjacket or police these cooperations – so that they are systemically “productive” cooperation, not destructive. Organising the unemployed has to be an anathema for the system and its apparatuses, except to mitigate their plight in such a manner that the unemployed are reproduced and the system is perpetuated. Let us end this note with a quote from Ana Dinerstein (2001:223) who has worked extensively on Argentina’s unemployed workers movement,
“Rather than a lack, unemployment is an intensified form of capitalist work where the dematerialisation of labour becomes apparent. Although invisible, this dimension of dematerialisation is a dimension of struggle which is problematic for capital not because it separates subject from object, but because… it asserts itself in the form of the unrealised, the ‘unborn’. The subjectivity of labour emerges not as the means to unifying what has been separated, but as a disruption of the arrangement between the abstract and the concrete aspects of labour. Subjectivity recomposes and redefines the forms of the concrete and the abstract and thus opens the possibility for the unborn to be born, for the unrealised to be realised. The struggle over subjectivity is as much a struggle over the concrete and visible forms of domination-resistance as it is a struggle over the invisible aspects of that relation. In the condition of unemployment, the struggle over subjectivity appears to be a struggle over a non-relationship, therefore, it asserts itself mainly as a refusal to be made invisible.”
Ana C Dinerstein (2001) Regaining Materiality: Unemployment and the Invisible Subjectivity of Labour. In The Labour Debate: An Investigation into the Theory and Reality of Capitalist Work, Ana C Dinerstein & Michael Neary (eds). Ashgate.
David Harvey (2006 ) Limits to Capital. London: Verso.
Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Collected Works. Vols. 34, 35 & 42.Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Interestingly, recent years have seen a tremendous increase in activism on pure workers’ issues. In fact, there is an euphoric gearing up towards unionism among NGOs and independent social activists. However, they continue to rail against the essentialism of the working class and politics associated with it, which in their perception excludes the politics of recognition of multiple identities. Their own justification with regard to this apparent self-contradiction is obviously that they are committed towards the cause of the vulnerable sections of the society, and there are workers who can be counted among these and hence their concern. I think this is a fair and valid self-assessment to the extent that politics over vulnerability cannot but view working class as a collection of workers hierarchised according to the degrees of vulnerability and privileges. Of course, segmentation within the working class is multidimensional, and interestingly, the assessment of vulnerability and privileges is subjective to what one wants to do with segments. Hence, what we find in this new unionism, if that is what they would like to dub their endeavours in order to differentiate themselves from more centralistic trade unionism linked with political parties, is a blatant confirmation of what unions have been reduced to in the phase of neoliberalism.
Centralised trade unions graduated as negotiating agencies under labour aristocracy in the age of Keynesianism and big government, justifying segmentation within the working class by simply avoiding it or at the most calling it a division of labour (not division of labourers). Their political tenor represented divisions and subdivisions within the hegemonic politics – right, left and centre. It was through them that labour politics was abstracted from the acts of labourers themselves, and the bureaucracy that emerged in this alienation reproduced ideologically the homogenised abstraction of labour, that capital undertakes for accumulation, in the labour movement – a mere, however, essential component in the process of capitalist accumulation. These unions negotiated from this position of abstracted essentiality, and sought to strengthen the caste-divided working class, a win-win situation for everyone, proportional advancement of all. The pyramidal industrial structure that defined Fordism was replicated in the union structure to facilitate negotiation and corporate integration. In this manner, the corporatist compromise that secured “trade union integration in the economy,” (Panitch 1977: 4) could sustain capitalism’s post-World War II golden age. It was this compromise that structured the public welfare system.
With the crisis in the 1960s-70s, a new industrial regime emerged on the basis of the geographical and technological advancement of capitalism (the emergence of newly industrialised countries and a revolution in electronics and information technology). It was characterised by lean production, financialisation and neoliberalism. It made the vertical and horizontal integration that constituted the industrial pyramid redundant. The centralised corporate structure of trade unions came into crisis with the proliferation of a flattened industrial hierarchy based on networking – outsourcing and offshoring. These trade unions had abstracted themselves from the specificities of segments while arranging them in a neat compartmentalised hierarchy. In the age of dispersed Fordism or post-Fordism, the specificities carved their own identity, segments as separate productive units negotiated – conflicted and compromised – daily to reaffirm the structural integration of spatially dispersed production through inter-and-intra-industrial exchange, which could now never be taken for granted.
Segments found themselves further segmented and in direct conflict with one another – we see discourses of formal/informal, organised/unorganised, individual contracts, contract/casual/permanent on rise that stressed on dualities, multiplicities and divisions everywhere, and these divisions found life of their own. The segments are further perpetuated and ossified through the legal mechanism and discourse. The changes that took place in the labour regime found their way in laws, where separate legal structures for specific groups of workers became the focus, akin to the initial phase of capitalism. Law always lags behind the actual changes, whose legitimacy law seeks. New initiatives in trade unions are products of these times and these discourses. Unions, new or old, continue to be agencies of negotiation for legal and institutional adjustments between groups of labourers and state – they straightjacket the acts of labourers in the form of demands formulated in the language that the latter understands. But the kind of recognition and redistribution these old and new unions help realise are apparently opposite.
New initiatives that emerged in the 1970s, at that time, represented a crisis of industrial unionism of the old type. We see the latter’s inability to cope with the technological changes and their redefinition of the workplace, and much celebrated “employee unionism” was more effective in this regard. But there was another aspect of the crisis – which could be understood through the emergence of the figure of the mass worker, the unskilled immigrant workforce that represented the generalisation of capital-relations throughout the society, that related every productive, distributive and reproductive domain to capital. Identitarian assertions and politics become most vigorous only when the sameness of all identities becomes most stark. Similarly, segmented labour struggles become most intense when segmentation itself is in crisis. De-skilling, same skilling and structural semblance of diverse work-processes across society have created a crisis for segmentation leading to a precarisation of workers throughout the social division of labour. This precarity has increased competition on identitarianised lines, with workers themselves trying to preserve and rationalise the logic of segmentation at the social and political levels. The NGOisation of unions and social unionism that have become fashionable terminologies in recent years are in fact articulation of this identitarianism in the labour movement. The talk of unity and alliance building in this age is of course unlike the old call for unity which represented colour blindness in the old labour movement. But it is exactly its opposite – a systemic blindness, it doesn’t see the underlying system in the discursive horizontalisation of hierarchy and its cacophony.
Scholars and activists have rightly pointed out the prime importance of articulations of the question of recognition in the centre of most of the struggles in recent years. If we see a hegemony of struggles framed in terms of the issues of distribution in the era of embedded liberalism and Fordism, it is not at all false to assert that the struggles under neoliberalism, including those concerned with distributive claims, mostly emerge as struggles for recognition. The proliferation of vocalised segments diminishes the possibility of universalist struggles, but it divides, subdivides and hence universalises evermore intensively the struggle for competitive recognition, which is frequently packaged as intersubjective negotiation, defining “the moral grammar of social conflicts”. However, in the transition from the moral to the legal grammar, all kinds of recognition issues necessarily get morphed into issues of redistribution. Hence, any dichotomisation of redistribution and recognition is actually false, but equally false is any monistic prioritisation of one of these immediate categories. These exercises are scholastic obfuscation of the task of critiquing and exposing the “spirit” or system that defines and binds moral to the legal, recognition to redistribution.
It is the distributive effects of the present system that overwhelms the vision of all varieties of unionism, even if they are articulated in the language of recognition. To the extent that their approach does not touch the systemic structure, where essence and appearance must be discriminated, however, internally-related, they tend to depoliticise the critique that could emerge from various movements and struggles. It is not that those who profess to uphold the notion of class politics are untouched by this approach. Those who prioritise class, but only as a more inclusive social identity or even meta-identity, too are mired in the same identitarianist sociological pigeon-holing that displays an inability to understand the meaning of class-as-process and class analysis. In other words, most of the time it is their adherence to redistributionism that reduces the richer structural and processual notion of class to a vulnerable identity competing with other identities to share the distributive pie. Thus, in appearance at least civil society eclecticism and intersectionalism seem much more inclusive, advanced and free of vanguardism than traditional classism that understands the working class as have-nots and as having “nothing to lose but chains” in a literal sense. While the former tends to base on the relativity of sectional claims in their own relative expressions, the latter focuses on the absoluteness of the proletarian identity in which it subsumes all sectional claims. But both understand social conflicts under capitalism in a redistributionist framework – as struggles over endowments and entitlements. Therefore, they fundamentally form one single horde of the left which helps maintain the political balance in the system, by reproducing in the labour movement the fetishistic divide between politics and economics that capitalism perpetuates generally. Redistributionism and new Chartism that have shaped both old and new forms of labour politics transcend everyday “economic” confrontation between labour and capital by the discourses of grievance and demand.
The distinction between affirmative and transformative redistribution that Nancy Fraser makes is definitely useful in order to describe the distinctive features of so-called new unionism and social unionism that claim to work at the intersection of recognition and redistribution, where segmental claims averaging themselves in negotiation becomes the ground for new social movements. Affirmative redistribution is achieved through two kinds of income transfers, “social insurance programmes” subsidising “the costs of social reproduction for the stably employed” and “public assistance programmes provide means-tested, ‘targeted’ aid to the ‘reserve army’ of the unemployed and underemployed.” Fraser (1997:25) rightly points out:
“Far from abolishing class differentiation per se, these affirmative remedies support it and shape it. Their general effect is to shift attention from the class division between workers and capitalists to the division between employed and nonemployed fractions of the working class. Public assistance programs ‘target’ the poor, not only for aid but for hostility. Such remedies, to be sure, provide needed material aid. But they also create strongly cathected, antagonistic group differentiations.”
To this we must add that in a society like India where we already have various levels of social differentiations inherited through history, affirmative redistribution tends to incorporate them to internally structure the “reserve army” and the working class in general, creating levels of segmented consciousness unknown to the western societies. On the other hand, transformative redistribution, Fraser claims, is revolutionary if properly adjusted with the questions of recognition.
“Transformative remedies typically combine universalist social-welfare programs, steeply progressive taxation, macroeconomic policies aimed at creating full employment, a large nonmarket public sector, significant public and/or collective ownership, and democratic decision making about basic socioeconomic priorities. They try to assure access to employment for all, while also tending to delink basic consumption shares from employment. Hence, their tendency is to undermine class differentiation. Transformative remedies reduce social inequality without, however, creating stigmatized classes of vulnerable people perceived as beneficiaries of special largesse. They tend therefore to promote reciprocity and solidarity in the relations of recognition.” (25-26)
If we don’t assign too much value to the epithet “transformative”, this is a correct characterisation of the policy measures that the old left and the marginalised non-neoliberalist labour organisations propose. For Fraser, these remedies are associated with the struggles for socialism, and that is why they are transformative. We know in this regard Fraser is not alone. Without indulging in the tempting exercise of defining socialism, we would limit ourselves to say that these remedies remind us of the Keynesian faith too. These remedies do constitute a policy perspective that definitely questions market fundamentalism and neoliberalism, but history confirms it is not at all anti-capitalist. And we have seen the revival of this perspective once again with the crises in this century, however, in a very diluted fashion.
In India, there has been a continuous attempt since the late 1970s to attack or “reform” labour laws to free the labour market, to empower companies so that they are able to take advantage of abundant supply in the labour market. But simultaneously, there has been a trend to legislate labour laws, especially after the 1990s, that target special segments of the workforce – “the poorest of the poor”. However, these laws do not touch industrial relations in which these segments engage, except in circumstances where those “industries” themselves are stigma or hindrance to capital mobility, such as, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Otherwise, these laws concentrate mainly on providing remedies and relief to cushion the existence of specific segments of workers in the labour market. It is not accidental that even the government prefers to pose these laws as welfare laws rather than industrial laws. Prominent among these laws are the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 and the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008 along with other supporting laws and rules that provide relevant infrastructure for their implementation.
As indicated earlier, legal changes are basically stabilisation, systematisation and institutionalisation of the circumstantial changes that have already taken place. So the laws mentioned above definitely provide hitherto unavailable reliefs for specific segments of workers, but the nature and mode of these reliefs are based on the already institutionalised consensus and are grounded in the larger structural framework of neoliberalism. This consensus does not include just those who openly support neoliberalism, and those who politically compete to mobilise and structure social anxieties that the structural changes unleashed. It includes those who vocalise their politics of labour and recognition from the margins of the protective regime that was being toppled, who voice the diversity that the elite but homogenous protectionist and developmentalist paradigm excluded. But more interestingly, the consensus includes those too who defend the old regime. As they seek to guard themselves against the taunt of being privileged and aristocratic, they pose the issues of systemic inequality and differential endowments. In order to present protection as a necessary socio-legal principle, they type segments according to relative degrees of precariousness and their wont of protection. Even radicals, who still sustain their romance for transformation, line up themselves in the spectacular competition of mobilising anxieties, are employed to measure the depth of social vulnerability and its perniciousness. Guy Debord rightly describes such a situation in his classic, Society of the Spectacle (1967):
“By rushing into sordid reformist compromises or pseudo-revolutionary collective actions, those driven by an abstract desire for immediate effectiveness are in reality obeying the ruling laws of thought, adopting a perspective that can see nothing but the latest news. In this way delirium reappears in the camp that claims to be opposing it.”
Redistributionism by itself cannot provide a transformative programme that goes beyond capitalism, but it can definitely help transform capitalism, provided capitalism itself requires such transformation. Redistributive claims can also sharpen the labour-capital conflict, but only if they do not depoliticise the economy of conflict by limiting and instrumentalising it within the logic of state formation and policy-making which is essentially the institutionalisation of the fetishistic separation between politics and economy that happens in capitalism. They must not reproduce this separation.
Affirmative redistributionism is admittedly an extension of the neoliberal project seeking to individuate and designate segments, thus making them incapable of asking any systemic question. In other words, it openly seeks to depoliticise economy and sustains this separation. On the other hand, so-called transformative redistributionism professes to invert this relationship, by recognising the deficiencies of market and hence, the need for intervention. But here too the fetish of separation is admitted and therefore, the logic of state formation is not exposed, how it is itself grounded in capital relations.
The labour politics that dominated during the phase of embedded liberalism and Fordism sought to abstract itself from the concreteness of labour-capital relations. Thus, it built a phantom figure of the worker and negotiated its place within the system. In the phase of neoliberalism and dispersed Fordism, labour-capital relations exploded in open, and the phantom evaporated. What was exposed was heterogeneous forms of relations, and the politics of labour that emerged negotiated from the ground of separation – with the state and also with other segments. The sense of the system of which they were internal was lost, and the only sense that prevailed was distance from the system – which was experienced only in terms of the pain of social exclusion and the gain of inclusion. Moishe Postone (2009) succinctly summarises:
“In an earlier global transition of capitalism, Marxists frequently opposed general rational planning to the anarchic irrationality of the market. Instead of necessarily pointing beyond capitalism, however, such critiques frequently helped legitimate a subsequent state-centric capitalism. Similarly, the contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity, doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism, but can serve to veil and legitimate a new global form that combines decentralization and heterogeneity of production and consumption with increasing centralization of control and underlying homogeneity.”
The politics of workers’ inquiry is to explode the myth of separation. It demonstrates the internal relationships between abstract and concrete labour, between politics and economy. It exposes how these relations have a fetish-character that generates fetishism of separation. It demonstrates how various specific expressions within the labour movement are manifestations of and intrinsic to this separation and do not and cannot comprehend and question the very ground of their generation. Various organisational and political forms are unable to think in-against-and-beyond capital relations. The redistributionist framework which we discussed earlier informs these forms which forces them to comprehend and tinker only with the symptoms of the system.
On the other hand, workers’ inquiry as political practice is both affirmative and negative. it regrounds what exists in the flux of becoming. What exists becomes relevant and irrelevant at the same time. Historicising of political forms that are expressions of workers’ self-organisation and activism – this is what workers’ inquiry does. It registers the changing contours of class struggle through self-reflections of various segments of workers. And here the importance of objectivity comes, as these subjective expressions must be objectively handled, not celebrated nor denigrated. It is important to measure the heat of class relations, which these expressions reflect. Workers’ inquiry critiques the material process of abstraction not from the margins of the system, but from its very core by mapping its coordinates in the daily work-processes. The political forms of understanding and activity that constitute workers’ inquiry are really the “old moles” that destroy while they master the laying out of the system – their critiques do not form spectacles, as they “know how to wait.”
Guy Debord (1967 trans. Ken Knab), Society of the Spectacle, Rebel Press.
Nancy Fraser (1997) Justice Interruptus, Routledge.
Axel Honneth (1995) The Struggle for Recognition, MIT Press.
Leo Panitch (1976) Social Democracy and Industrial Militancy, Cambridge University Press.
Moishe Postone (2009) History and Heteronomy, University of Tokyo Centre of Philosophy.
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.