Beyond Capital

Polemics, Critique and Analysis

Labour Mapping through Workers’ Inquiry

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(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.


Written by Pratyush Chandra

July 17, 2015 at 3:14 am

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