Class and the ‘common sense’ of Thinking Beyond Class

Pratyush Chandra & Ravi Kumar

[Note: This is in response to a review article entitled “Rhetoric and reality in critical educational studies in the United States”, written by a well-known U.S. critical educator, Prof Michael W. Apple and published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education (Vol. 27, No. 5, November 2006, pp. 679-687). Apple’s article is available at Prof Peter McLaren’s blog. A pdf version of the present response is also available there. I am posting it here because it provides my ideas on the relationship of class and identity in a nutshell.]

Like everywhere, in India too the celebration of diversity has always been present as political aesthetics underlying the hegemonic stability. We have always been taught about India being a marvellous realisation of ‘unity in diversity’, despite the crudity in which this diversity is often realised – with the islands of opulence (population-wise these might seem vast) surrounded by the sea of deprivation and hunger. Within this politico-epistemological paradigm conflicts are taken to be socio-cultural gaps, which can never be bridged but definitely an equilibrium point or harmony can be engineered. The success of any hegemony is dependent on its capacity of reproducing this diversity without disturbing the equilibrium “graph”. So there is nothing new in this continuous babbling which we hear in political and academic circles about multiplicity, about conflicts. The only change that we can discern is in the multiple innovative ways in which this commonsensical discourse is presented. After all it is all about différance – about deferring and differing signs.

We must admit that our interest lies more in exposing our indigenous Apple “look-alikes” than Apple himself, who nevertheless with his erudition provides an occasion to understand the basic nature of this community (which is hegemonic even within the mainstream Indian left circles informing their status quoist accommodation). A defining characteristic of this leftism is that it accepts reality as it is given by capitalism, i.e., in its appearances. The empiricist description of the reality, as this left experiences, is enough for forming its agenda. Thus the systemic logic of capitalism is fragmented and reduced to the realpolitik division of economics, politics, education etc and class is reduced to the category of an identity among a plethora of identities, like caste, race, gender etc.

It is forgotten that whenever you ‘identify’ class, as a group of people, as an identity, you don’t really identify it but rather you describe various groups of people, i.e., manual/mental worker, organised/unorganised labour etc. On the contrary, class is a relational entity that can be grasped only in the process of its formation. The point is to unfold how class formation, dynamics and struggle constitute the apparent reality – realised in identity conflicts, “social movements” etc; in short, how “essence must appear”. Only during the course of continuous open/hidden class struggle, class realizes itself, “across [identity] lines”, across groups of people. ‘Apple look-alikes’ simply refuse to recognise the logico-historical structure of the reality in their description and celebration of apparent relativities – they go on repeating that there are many determinations of reality but cannot understand that there is “no democracy of determinations” in this structuring of reality.

It is this sociology of relativities or differences that leads Apple and his ilk to admire the Right’s chameleon character. They definitely “have much to learn from the forces of the Right” – how antagonistic becomes mere “disparate”, and how left can takeover the right by emulating the latter’s capacity of brokering “alliances” across “disparate groups”, “across ideological differences”.(1) Hence, the status quo of differences is effectively maintained – peace and harmony prevail. This admiration of near-fascistic social corporatism has been the hallmark of the tired and accommodated left everywhere. They have become cynical towards every leap in societal development – drastic and violent break. They preach nothingness in their flashy rhetoric, like Apple’s “non-reformist reforms” (-1+1=0), just to insist that they are still different, which Apple time and again explicitly claims in his review article.

In India, during the post-independence stage of planned capitalism, which needed analytical tools to inform the intensification of capitalism “from above”, a sort of Marxist historiography in the academic circles (which tilted more towards nationalism) was absorbed eclectically within the overall positivist atmosphere.(2) The economistic notion of class was used to the extent that it could help in identifying the historical forces developing under the impact of capitalist development, but it was effectively embedded within the discourse of national developmental needs asking for popular sacrifices in the interest of national goods. Thus, the left sacrificed “class”. Despite being more aware of class processes and being conscious of the effectiveness of class as a category of analysis as well as mobilisation, the political left in India was subservient and attracted towards the homogenising nationalist goals because of the leadership’s hangover for united front, nationalist struggle and peasant/petty-bourgeois class interests. This led to the betrayal of the revolutionary simmering that gripped the Indian working classes and peasantry in the 1960s-70s.

The 1970s is the historical turning point when we see multiple identity conflicts flaring up throughout India, which were until now networked either by the democratic nationalist discourse or by their articulation within the communist politics in terms of the classical notion of national self-determination, or were generally despised like Hindu-Muslim conflicts. There arose caste identities competing for a greater representation in bureaucracy and state institutions and regional identities competing for a greater share in capital allocation, developmental funds and rent. On the one hand, this was symptomatic of the intensification of capitalist development that led to the rise of rural and sub-regional bourgeoisie with their aspirations to share power in the Centre – which could be possible only by confronting the upper caste rentier landlordism and its alliance with the monopoly bourgeoisie brokered on the eve of Independence. On the other, with the lack of any attempt on the part of the political left to organise the growing mass of the unemployed (especially among the educated sections) and the vast section of the underemployed informal sector workers (whose organisation would have to transcend the pecuniary logic of legalist trade unionism), the class resentments of the exploited were effectively fragmented and thus organised on caste lines and other competitive identities. Some sections of the educated unemployed could be appeased and accommodated in the mainstream sector with the extended affirmative action measures, which effectively derailed the need for politically organising the reserved army of proletarians. In the process occurred a vertical homogenisation, which provided a stable field for the competitive ‘democratic’ realpolitik reducing class assertions to rights discourse and lobby politics, which were eventually promoted by the internationally funded Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

However, the most revealing aspect in “the retreat of class” in the left discourse both in direct politics and academia has been the easiness with which the notion of class could be replaced by other identities. In India, especially caste and minority-majority discourses became pivotal for determining the political agenda of the left, as for other status quoist forces. And this happened because traditionally class was not taken as a process unfolding itself in diverse appearances but rather was understood simply as another identity, different only to the respect that it possessed economic overtones, thus allowing the later critics of class to dub the concept of class as economistic. This notion of class was definitely sufficient for the pragmatic needs of leftism in the colonial phase, but with its entrance in the postcolonial liberal democratic set-up where it competed with other bourgeois political formations to sell its agenda as more accommodative of ‘diversity’, the notion of class, as traditionally understood, could not satisfy its new priorities for winning the elections.

In social theory the impact of ‘post-ism’ was felt heavily and the analysis in educational studies, without any exception, carries this trait. The debate on inequity is not so much in terms of class (no doubt ‘poor’ are mentioned as do all ‘development sector’ reports) but on lines of the ‘Indian reality’, that of multiple realities. It is caste, gender, race and religious communities, which are deprived and marginalised. Consequently, the reality that social identities are mere instrumentalities related with the particular stages of development and that their specific functions are defined in the political economic context constituted by capitalist accumulation and class dynamics are comfortably ignored. Identities, though touted as democratic due to their heterogeneity become homogeneous occulting the class differences within. It successfully pushes class to back burner and celebrates the democratisation which ultimately, and in fact, is for the dominant elite within the identity, which becomes or aspires to be accommodated in the ruling segment of the society and state. Empirical works have very sharply shown this phenomenon.

Within this framework, if one locates the possibilities of anti-systemic political movements what one finds is that until and unless the crisis of accumulation reaches an unsustainable level, the counter-hegemonic oppositions are generally channelled into identity assertions and even, social alliances “across ideological differences” – a crisscrossing of class interests. Only at a revolutionary stage, classes congeal themselves qua classes in their finality, and are ready to seize the moment when either revolution disarms the counter-revolution or the counter-revolution disarms the revolution. However, unless there is an unrelenting effort to deconstruct the identitarian political processes in terms of class processes as part of the conscientisation and organisation of class militants while readying them for the revolutionary seizure, the counter-revolutionary fragmentation of the uprising and even at times the rise of a totalitarian fascist power are inevitable (bundling the ‘disparate’ forces together by force). In fact, German revolutionary Klara Zetkin “described fascism as the product of a political situation, itself shaped by the ‘decay and the disintegration of the capitalist economy’, which combined with ‘the standstill in the world revolution’, to enable a capitalist offensive. It was this context which enabled fascism to grow.”(3)

The rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India can be understood in these terms. On the one hand, it represented the failure of the secular democracy to manage the popular fallouts of the capitalist development especially at the time of a neoliberal consensus. Thus, the neoliberal offensive required a militant “executive committee of the ruling class”, which eventually had to rely on the Hindu Right after the failure of Indira Gandhi’s attempt to establish an authoritarian rule in the 1970s. However, it was mainly the remarkable inability of the traditional Indian left in preparing its own mass base and establishing a unity between the working class and the poor peasantry for a revolutionary assault against the Indian state that provided a greenfield for the rightist manipulations. This left the popular resentment vulnerable either to the manipulation of the localist, regionalist and identitarian petty bourgeoisie and neo-bourgeoisie or to the militant right, which effectively used trade unions and voluntary organisations for selling its social corporatist agenda.

In fact at the turn of the 21st century, like everywhere, the agenda of the Right in India and the Centre-Left fidelity to democratic-secularist consensus to outpace the Right seem to be bound with one another in a kind of perverted “negation of negation”: “in a first negation, the populist Right disturbs the aseptic liberal consensus by giving voice to passionate dissent, clearly arguing against the “foreign [immigrants/Islamic/Pakistani/Bangladeshi] threat”; in a second negation, the “decent” democratic center, in the very gesture of pathetically rejecting this populist Right, integrates its message in a “civilized” way – in-between, the ENTIRE FIELD of background “unwritten rules” has already changed so much that no one even notices it and everyone is just relieved that the anti-democratic threat is over.”(4)

Definitely this is true even for the more “decent” left, which would agree with Apple: “we have much to learn from the forces of the Right. They have shown that it is possible to build an alliance of disparate groups and in the process to engage in a vast social and pedagogic project of changing a society’s fundamental way of looking at rights and (in)justice. Radical policies that only a few years ago would have seemed outlandish and downright foolish are now accepted as commonsense. While we should not want to emulate their often cynical and manipulative politics, we still can learn a good deal from the Right about how movements for social change can be built across ideological differences.”(5)

(1) Apple’s review article (see the note in the beginning)
(2) However, there are a significant number of Marxist historians and political economists in India who have successfully transcended the identitarian, nationalist and third-worldist enticements, like D.D. Kosambi, A.R Desai and Rajnarayan Chandavarkar. On the other hand, another critical school of historiography, the subaltern school essentially emerged as a critique of the nationalist school, but quickly graduated into the community of “Apple look-alikes”, postmodernists and post-colonialists with their stress on the relative autonomy of the subalterns.
(3) Renton, Dave (1999), Fascism: Theory and Practice, Pluto Press pp.58
(4) Zizek, Slavoj (2003), The Iraq War: Where is the true danger?
(5) Apple’s review article (see the note in the beginning)


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