Throughout the difficult times of the ongoing economic crisis, Indian policy makers were talking about the robust banking sector that sustained the economy. Pranab Mukherjee when he was the Finance Minister used to boast about “a robust banking sector working under an efficient regulatory framework”, which other economies affected by the crisis didn’t have. But the scene doesn’t seem to be so good with “Rising bad debt hit[ting] PSU banks’ health”, on the one hand and financial sharks calling for trade in debts, on the other…
For several quarters analysts and bankers have warned about the deteriorating financial health of state-run banks. But policymakers have maintained that the worst was over, and that things would improve as the economy gathers steam. Drastic measures to nurse the banks to sound health are rarely talked about and the preference is for short-term steps to paper over the wounds.
“Indian banks are unlikely to reduce their problem loan ratios in 2015-16 but the new non-performing loans will probably decline,” Moody’s Investors Service said, based on findings of a poll.
For the banking sector as a whole the NPA situation is as bad as it was more than a decade ago when some radical steps – from one-time settlement to setting up asset reconstruction companies – were initiated. The global economic boom and the rapid growth in India too helped banks clean up their books. The economic slowdown and the failure of several projects to take off have once again hurt the asset quality in banks. The problem is more acute in public sector banks as they had to lend to companies and restructure loans after the 2008 financial crisis when the private sector virtually walked out of the market.
The rising levels of NPAs and capital constraints, along with low demand for loans, have forced these lenders to be very selecting in lending, something that may not augur very well for overall economic growth. “Public sector banks are facing multiple challenges. They have asset quality issues, require huge amount of capital and there are management issues. The huge recapitalization requirement has led to risk aversion and they are not growing their balance sheet significantly. Going forward we expect them to lose business because of this,” said an analyst at a leading brokerage.
Although bankers would tell you that they don’t have to deal with calls from the finance ministry any longer, the pressure of lending to various target groups and pushing government schemes is enormous. And, they have limited operational freedom. For instance, in April, HDFC Bank sold its loans of Rs 550 crore extended to Essar Steel at a 40% discount, something that an executive at a state-run bank can’t even think about. “The moment we do something there will be a CBI enquiry or a vigilance case,” said a banker.
I have never been comfortable with lamenting over the marginalisation of Marxism in academia, in which many comrades time to time indulge. In fact, there is no such marginalisation happening globally – just look at the publishing projects of Marxists throughout the globe, with books priced exorbitantly. Of course, this Marxism is not meant for activists – they can be fed with free blogs and free tweets/fb entries (even these are accessible to a tiny minority only)! A senior ‘Marxist’ in Delhi once told a students conference in the early 1990s, how much she and her colleagues have contributed in Marxism – the only job left for leaders and activists now is to put that knowledge in use. Perhaps the neoliberal rightwing assault on this academic comfort (and liberalism, which liberalised Marxism too) gives an opportunity to liberate Marxist theorisations, regrounding them in real class struggle and proletarian practice (even in academia).
David Laibman correctly historicised this state of Marxism and its implications in his 1997 book, Capitalist Macrodynamics:
The shifts in political and economic power have… been accompanied by ideological transformations as well. Marxism, having been largely removed from its earlier position of influence in the labor movement and other social spheres, has taken refuge in the academy. There, under intense intellectual pressure, a certain fragmentation has taken place, as the formerly unitary Marxist world view has conformed to the disciplinary specialisations: thus we have ‘Marxist sociology’, ‘Marxist economics’, and so on. The unifying generalizations of historical materialism have also come under continuous fire, as Marxists have retreated to more ‘defensible’ positions.
It is strange that the collected works of one of the most important Marxist revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg, have just begun to be translated and published in English – that is almost a century after her murder! More strangely, but quite understandably, the Chinese who seem to ride ahead of everyone in the economic race of capitalism, immediately got ready to publish the translation of Rosa’s works in Chinese. But in India in spite of rich and varied left political traditions in India, there hasn’t been such endeavours.
It is not at all surprising that Rosa Luxemburg’s writings are referred mostly to explain and critique crises in the political movements of the working class. Throughout her theoretical and practical struggles she was a staunch defender of the primacy of workers’ self activism, in which the organisational question and the issue of the revolutionary transcendence of capitalism must be grounded and resolved. It was this conviction that allowed her to comprehend the dialectic of spontaneity and organisation against the dualistic discourse that dominated the working class politics, which overstressed and celebrated organisation as a given institution, which fits and filters spontaneous class impulses, rather than as being made and remade in class self-activism. Her experience in the revolutionary movements of Poland and Germany armed her with a sensitivity towards the unevenness of the material ground of workers’ politics and their consciousness. It was this sensitivity that sharpened her critique towards the reformist and the revolutionary vanguardist tendencies within the world social-democratic movement, deconstructing them in terms of the specificities and exigencies of class struggle in particular spacetimes.
The mesmerising successes of revolutionaries in acquiring state power in countries with dominant peasantry and semi-proletarians in the early decades of the last century, without similar successes in advanced capitalist countries led to a dilution of the lessons of the Paris Commune, and even of the workers’ soviets, which symbolised the class self-capacity of the proletarians. Instead the vanguardist and statist tendencies became powerful which substituted the self-emancipatory activities of the working class, or at the most instrumentalised them in building up a strong state. The prime task now was simply to develop a powerful apparatus of the party that would acquire state power, competing with other political forces. What was lost in fact was the revolutionary project itself – of the dissolution of the capitalist power entrenched in the State and the simultaneous building up of workers’ power from below through their self-activities, in which the dialectic of spontaneity and organisation operated. Those who critiqued this situation found a powerful theoretical guide in Rosa Luxemburg in their endeavours to save and shape the emancipatory task of working class politics.
In the Indian subcontinent, the revolutionary movement since its inception was entrenched with nationalist ideologies and wedded to the immediate task of developing a United Front to attain national independence. This curtailed every possibility of an independent emergence of working class politics in the region. However, recently a lot has been done in history writing to chronicle and trace the trajectory of working class self-assertion with and without the classically recognised forms of workers politics. The unavailability of Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas in vernacular languages, except filtered through the self-censorship of South Asian revolutionaries and scholars, who could not question the institutionalised leadership and successes of the Second World, made it impossible for dissidents to use the resource of rich conceptualisations found in Rosa Luxemburg’s writings to organise and strengthen critical tendencies within the local revolutionary and working class movements. Hence, we find them mired in the same polemical and sectarian milieu. In fact, the general image of Rosa Luxemburg that prevails in our part of the world – a great tragic revolutionary heroine, a mighty eagle with whom chicken couldn’t compete in flying high, but who could and did sometime stoop a little lower than chicken. Definitely not less than a great martyr, but not more.
It is a pity that almost a century has past since Rosa Luxemburg’s death, but her works are still unavailable in vernacular languages of India. Definitely, with the post-soviet collapse and the rise of neoliberal globalisation, interests in her contribution in the critique of political economy have arisen tremendously, which we witness in scholarly writings coming even from the institutionalised left community. However, what is still lacking is her political understanding equipping activists and workers who are steeped into the labour movement and who can appreciate the full import of her writings. For this to take place, her writings must be made available to them in their languages, in the languages of workers themselves, for whom Rosa Luxemburg wrote.
Moishe Postone in a 2006 paper states that post-modernism ontologises indeterminacy, so does the notion of overdetermination employed by Althusserians.
To the degree we choose to use “indeterminacy” as a critical social category, then, it should be as a goal of social and political action rather than as an ontological characteristic of social life. (The latter is how it tends to be presented in poststructuralist thought, which can be regarded as a reified response to a reified understanding of historical necessity.) Positions that ontologize historical indeterminacy emphasize that freedom and contingency are related. However, they overlook the constraints on contingency exerted by capital as a structuring form of social life and are, for this reason, ultimately inadequate as critical theories of the present. Within the framework I am presenting, the notion of historical indeterminacy can be reappropriated as that which becomes possible when the constraints exerted by capital are overcome. Social democracy would then refer to attempts to ameliorate inequality within the framework of the necessity imposed structurally by capital. Although indeterminate, a postcapitalist social form of life could arise only as a historically determinate possibility generated by the internal tensions of capital, not as a “tiger’s leap” out of history.
(Preface to a report on labour mapping exercise in Odisha)
Here is a report of an exercise in labour mapping undertaken in specific regions of Odisha in the last couple of years. Over the years, committed indigenous and rural activists have seen a tremendous deradicalisation of the old modes of organising and mobilisation. They have been made complicit in ritualism and clientilism of competitive democracy. Neoliberalism that vows to counter an activist state has in fact further extended the ritualistic clientilist character of the state. It has accommodated private civil players in its network by putting out several state functions to them. The rampant localisation and ngoisation of activism is in fact one of the chief characteristics of the political process under neoliberalism – it minimises the state formation, but infinitely extends its magnetic impact.
The purpose of labour mapping has been to understand rural social relations in several districts of Odisha – Jharsuguda, Sambalpur, Dhenkanal, Angul, Cuttack, Jajpur, Jagatsinghpur, Nayagarh and Boudh – from the perspective of labour. The dynamics of rural transformation under neoliberalism has changed the character of rural struggles and there is a need to seriously engage in the task of programmatic refocusing of rural mobilisations. As rural Odisha is being transformed increasingly into a labour reserve, agriculture and other allied rural economic activities are now less concerned with their profitable nature, rather they are increasingly becoming means to sustain surplus population. In this situation, labour mapping becomes essential to reconnect activism with everyday struggles of the “rural” population – to visualise their footlooseness as a ground for new kinds of peoples’ struggles. In this report, workers, activists and researchers (in most cases all these identities converge in same individuals involved in this inquiry) have tried to trace self-activism and organisation in the everydayness of workers’ struggle for survival. The choice of population clusters for inquiry is made on the basis of their location in the organisational networks of these activists, so that self-inquiry becomes possible.
At the very inception, we should make it clear that this engagement was not a voluntary choice made by researchers to fulfil some project requirements. The aim and the means had roots in the exigencies of activism. It was a task that emerged out of the organic experience of activists who were involved in the mobilisation and struggles of indigenous population and oppressed communities in parts of Odisha since the late 1990s. At that time the entry point to grasp the everyday lives of these people was their identities.
One must remember that the 1990s was the period when throughout India the developmentalist politics around exclusion that had dominated the political discourse since independence, especially since the 1960s, suddenly encountered the neoliberal novelty of network, that changed the character of socio-political discourse overnight. Now nothing seemed to be excluded, rather everything was found differentially included. Activists became less concerned with a share in the pie, rather they found themselves confined in its sticky layers. But as they struggled more and more to free themselves from this mire, witnessed in the numerous spirited struggles against primitive accumulation, to preserve indigeneity against global corporatist onslaught, to maintain and increase the distance, the novel networking of neoliberalism revealed itself by subsuming their moves as mere means of determining the levels of differentiality in its global system of inclusion.
The very entry-point to grasp the everyday lives of the indigenous and backward class population seemed superfluous. It is not that the specificities collapsed, but specifics became mere shades in the constitution of the general. Those who remained stuck to this entry-point, they succumbed to existentialist politics – either trying to survive in marginality, as voices helping or forcing the system to develop checks and balances, or by accepting the role of agencies of inclusion as neo-elites within respective communities. Identitarianism lost its critical edge; in fact, it affirmed the rainbow configuration of neoliberalism.
It was this deficiency of identitarian politics in sustaining the task of anti-capitalist transformation that led many groups of indigenous and other social activists to grasp the limits of identity politics and endeavour a leap beyond. Activists who resisted succumbing to the lures of the system, were mostly those who already had found themselves engaging mainly with the ‘subalterns’ within the identities. Thus, objectively they had started finding identity politics insufficient in rendering meaning to their experiences. In fact, now the question of indigeneity too could not be explained in its own terms – in terms of its exclusivity, its internal culture and history. Rather, it became important to grasp how and why “the greatest leveller,” capital as social power, reproduced and instrumentalised such exclusivity. Now, it was important to grasp the question of indigeneity and other forms of identities in terms of social processes within capitalism.
The languages of subalternity, which were founded only in specificities of identitarian oppression and devoicing could not satisfy these new subalterns. In fact, those languages themselves became means of reification and labelling to fashion the general capitalist language of competition. Any attempt to restrict these subalterns to the discourse of identity became part of the general capitalist mode of increasing competition among the segments of the general class of new subalterns across identities, the class of workers, i.e., the working class. It was the social process of classification that broke open the reified homogeneities of competing identities. However, this process did not do away with identities, rather it provided them a new significance, a new role – of both waging class struggle and obfuscating it. That is to say, identities provided the hegemonic capitalist class a tool to compose itself through competition between particular (identitarianised) capitals where other classes are invested as supporting masses – thus constructing the field for democratic and political competitions, the heightening of which is war. This dampens the class struggle by decomposing the working class, by increasing competition among identitarianised segments of workers. But this dampening is what can be termed as “class struggle from above,” as this helps in reproducing the hegemony of capital. This way identity politics in fact contributes in constructing the terrain for class struggle and conflict, in shaping up capitalism’s superstructure. It further contributes in the political recomposition of the working class by politicising the intra-class inter-segmental relations. Thus, working class politics too could not be envisaged by avoiding differences and internal conflicts, which are invested as socio-technical composition of labour for capital accumulation. Any organisational effort to unite workers from outside by wishing away such composition, its inherent divisions and conflicts will reproduce the capitalist agencies within the class. The working class recomposes itself politically only through these conflicts, by utilising the fissures in the socio-technical composition of labour, by re-envisaging it as a new terrain of class struggle.
The crisis of identitarian politics against exclusion during neoliberalism led to a focus on the process of proletarianisation, even if the direct reference to the working class was and is still generally resisted. But the ideological legacy of identitarianism and its revalorisation in the capitalist polity tends to keep the understanding of the phenomena of dispossession, alienation, etc., at mere experiential levels, as invasion, colonisation and onslaught, not as part of the internal reproduction of capitalism through originary accumulation, not as continuously shaping the successive regimes of capital. The ideological baggage and objective advancement frequently come into conflict. The duality of exclusion/inclusion and politics around it are rendered asunder by this refocus, as the process of proletarianisation is both exclusion and inclusion. It is by excluding people from the ownership of means of production that they are included in capital relations. Honest activists in the resistances against primitive accumulation in the 1990s and 2000s without class focus found themselves now and then betrayed by the mainstreamisation of popular aspirations – which seemed to resist exclusion to bargain for better ‘inclusion’ or compensation.
It was around the mid-2000s that we see once again the struggle for entitlement, inclusion and compensation becoming attractive for NGOs and social activists. And this time the language of labour was found enticing but it was itself identitarianised in the process. This new discourse of labour was administered by various commissions, government pronouncements and legislations that sought to ready the neoliberal regime to face the effects of the global economic crisis with fragmentary dosages of age-old welfare state measures. Those who accused Marxists of talking about workers and not about other identities and small producing classes in rural India suddenly were engaged in organising workers – and the trick was done by various labour legislations for the unorganised sector that proliferated in the neoliberal era. These legislations were brought to help market forces to sustain labour supply – flow and reserves – in those sectors where demand and supply are always volatile. More than labour laws regulating employment relations, they were social laws that constructed welfare boards and other basic support system which in effect kept labour reserves and supply intact. Construction labour legislations, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) etc came, in which essentially the role of organising and struggle was to register workers in the respective welfare boards, for provisioning of I-cards and tools and the functioning of schemes. It was really about endowments and entitlements of a class as a group of people but not at all about class struggle, not about the struggle of a class, which is congenitally bound in a conflictual relationship and exists only in the diverse strains of that relationship.
Any talk about labour politics and working class without grounding it in class relations and struggle amounts to a depoliticisation of these relations. It becomes all about individuated workers being endowed and exchange-entitled in accordance to their endowments. It is about the uplifting of those workers, giving them voice without allowing them to question the very structure of work relations in which they are workers. They are simply deconstructed into sections of population – social stratum with numerous sub-strata. And, everybody inches towards becoming closer to the ideal of an average man – generally referred to as a middle-class. The structure of work-relations are taken for granted. Specific relations are sometimes focussed only to ensure that they continue to sustain the fairness of exchange-entitlements.
The purpose of labour mapping in our case is to understand the digits of changes in specific work-relations, and how much their averaging is taking the shape of a generalised structure of fundamental social relations. It is a cartographic exercise to recognise on the one hand how elements of indigeneity and identity become specifications of the general structure in a particular socio-cultural context, i.e, how the dominant mode of commodity production and exchange is overdetermined by diverse modes and relations of production and exchange. On the other, it is a process mapping of the neoliberal network of production and exchange that subsumes and connects various levels of activities in which labourers are simultaneously and consecutively engaged. It is the cartographic tracing of the nomadic hordes of the (post)modern working class and accounting for its footlooseness. This perpetual footlooseness which was earlier considered to be a mark of an insufficient actualisation of the subsumption of labour by capital is valorised in the post-fordist regime of capitalism as an essential endowment of labour that could help sustain capital mobility and the flexibilisation of the work processes.
The task of labour mapping was undertaken to overcome the problems that neoliberalism posed before some of the peoples’ organisations and social movements in Odisha. Once it is realised that the rural indigenous population too is internally differentiated and sections are differentially included in the system, and that it is the mobilisation of labour through local state apparatuses and agencies of capital that has become central to the rural economy in Odisha, there is a strategic refocusing to overcome the existential crisis that the neoliberal regime of accumulation has created for older organisational forms grounded in perspectival dualism – exclusion/inclusion, we-don’t-have-this/we-want-this. It is a return to the original organisational principle that saw self-organisation as a multiple of conflictual relationships between labour and capital, on the one hand, and associational relationships among labourers, on the other. In other words, diverse organisational forms are found in the operation of these relations – which organisational form(s) will eventually succeed in constituting the revolutionary expression of the working class is the age-old question of class praxis and is an issue for militant investigations or inquiries.
This brings us to the notion of workers’ inquiry. Inquiry here is not an objectivist exercise by a sociologist which reduces workers to an object, ultimately resonating with the theories of human resource management and mainstream economics that reify workers simply as inputs in the commodity economy (thus, any activism on their part is a deviance to be controlled or managed). Rather, central to the notion of inquiry is the understanding of the workers as a subject-object. Therefore, inquiry is about developing “a reflective community of workers-organisers”. Operaismo (workerism), a major tendency within Italy’s workers’ movement in the 1960s-70s, saw the practice of workers’ inquiry as “joint research” between workers as militant researchers and workers in capital-labour relationship. For Operaistas inquiry was an antidote to the ossified vanguardist practices of the established organisations that throttled self-activism and self-organisational abilities of the working class. Antonio Negri, a prominent Italian Marxist, who was one of the major militants of operaismo, explains:
“The practice of joint-research was simply the possibility of knowing, through inquiry, workers’ levels of awareness and consciousness as productive subjects. If I go into a factory, get in touch with the workers and carry out with them an investigation into the conditions of their labour, the joint-research is obviously the description of the productive cycle and the identification of the functions of each person within that cycle. But at the same time, it is also a general evaluation of the levels of exploitation that each and every one of them suffers, of the workers’ ability to react in relation to their consciousness of exploitation in the system of machines and before the structure of command. This way, as the research advances, the joint-research creates outlooks of struggle in the factory and defines threads or devices of cooperation beyond the factory. Evidently, this is where the hegemony and centrality of praxis in research reside: this praxis helps our understanding of the cycle of production and exploitation and is enhanced when it determines resistance and agitation, which is to say, when it develops struggles. Thus, it is practically possible to constitute an antagonistic subject, because this is what the argument is about.”
The endeavour to map labour right from its initial mobilisation, in production and circulation spheres through workers’ inquiry is actually a recognition of the existential crisis of organisational forms sanctioned from above and an attempt to redefine social activism in the everydayness of class struggle, of struggle between labour and capital.
पुराणमित्येव न साधु सर्वं
न चापि काव्यं नवमित्यवद्यम्।
Every old poem is not good because it is old; nor is every new poem to be blamed because it is new; sound critics, after examination, choose one or the other, the blockhead must have his judgement guided by the knowledge of his neighbours.
Kalidasa’s Malavikagnimitram (CH Tawney’s translation)