Bondage, Vestiges and Capitalism

Following paragraphs are taken from a review that I wrote for Labour File in 2008:

It is important to understand Marx’s conception of “wage slavery” here. The usage of this phrase was not at all allegorical or rhetorical, as many tend to believe. It conceptualised the unfreedom or coercion inherent in the dual freedom of labour (from physical compulsion and from the means of production). On one hand, this dual freedom creates an ambience that compels a labourer to sell his/her labour power. On the other hand, once labour power is sold for a period, the labourer has no control over its expenditure for that duration. It should be remembered though the custom is to pay the wages after labour-power is exercised, wages are, in fact, already advanced prior to the labour process not only for the purpose of records, but also as capital required for production – i.e., it constitutes variable capital that is required to buy labour-power and put it to work. In the circuit of capital given below, Money (M) is advanced to buy Means of Production (MP) and Labour Power (LP) before Production (P) can take place.


In fact, “whether money serves as a means of purchase or a means of payment, this does not alter the nature of the exchange of commodities”.(Karl Marx, Capital, Penguin, pp. 279) As “a means of purchase” money is advanced to the sellers of labour power prior to production, while as “a means of payment”, it remains as the worker’s “credit to the capitalist” until production is completed to be paid as wages afterwards. Functionally it hardly makes any difference – “this does not alter the nature of the exchange of commodities”. And both institutionalise labour vulnerabilities in their own way – advance (partial or whole) can easily be transformed into debt, creating liabilities that shape bondage, while wages can be delayed or even lost (when the capitalist goes bankrupt). In fact, the delay in receiving wages is a significant reason for indebtedness among workers. If in Marx’s England debt played a part in tying the worker more to a shop as a consumer, or to sustain the “truck system”, it can instigate other systems, too, to institute labour vulnerabilities. Ultimately the purpose is to increase these vulnerabilities and thus, reproduce the hegemony of capital over labour. The report remarkably succeeds in showing how this is done in various parts of India through debt bondage.

Here are some more observations that I made during that time:

A. The process of proletarianisation to which the majority is subjugated, not the number of ‘ideal’ proletarians or wageworkers, defines capitalism. The actualisation of this process – and thus the degrees of proletarianisation or the “dual freedom of labour” differs according to the concrete contexts defined by the needs of capital and class struggle. More technically, this process is a long thread (not necessarily historical) between the formal subsumption to the actual subsumption of labour by capital – its two ends. At various junctures archaic unfreedom, like slavery, which generally characterised pre-capitalism is formally adopted (more aptly, exapted as explained in B) and transformed according to the conjunctural needs of capitalist accumulation. If we don’t recognise this processual aspect of capitalism, we will be lost in the miasma of overproduced forms and appearances in capitalism.

B. Stephen Jay Gould’s conception of exaptation, I believe, is very useful in understanding the dialectical internalisation of “vestiges” by new stages in evolution – both biological and social. Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba in their 1982 paper defines exaptation as (i) “a character, previously shaped by natural selection for a particular function (an adaptation), is coopted for a new use”; and, (ii) “a character whose origin cannot be ascribed to the direct action of natural selection (a nonaptation), is coopted for a current use”. This concept allows us to comprehend the reproduction of “vestiges” as a process internal to the new stage in development, not as something hindering the ‘complete’ realisation of the new stage.

C. The “purist” idea that “vestiges” obstruct (not shape or contextualise) capitalist development has for a long time informed the theory and practice of Marxism in the so-called third world countries – engaging the revolutionaries in the fruitless exercise of fighting the “vestiges” before taking on the basic system, thus investing their revolutionary vigour in the reformist project of the capitalist development. It is interesting to note that this is not only true about the “Leninists” and “Maoists”, as some “anti-Leninists” allege. Many anti-Leninists and anti-Maoists present more vehement denial of the feasibility of any socialist project in “backward” countries. Their conceptualistion of revolution not only goes against the thesis of “revolution in permanence” – “the downfall of all the privileged classes, and the subjection of these classes to the dictatorship of the proletariat by maintaining the revolution in permanence until the realisation of Communism, which is the final form of organisation of human society” – but is also an unconscious reinforcement of the notion of “socialism in one country”, which they profess to hate.

A general discomfort about Narayanpatna

1) The federal structure of India’s polity in the neoliberal phase has emerged as a unique mechanism to administer the internalisation and intensification of the general logic of capitalist accumulation at every location – with its great ability to subsume and network all forms of social relations under the command of this logic. The identitarian/territorial separations and exclusions are transformed into a differential inclusion within this logic forming the uneven terrain of the evolving capitalist geography in India. Commercialization and the subsumption of local social relations into this larger logic have recontextualised the social divisions through which the class struggle is refracted locally. So we find identity struggles… yet, they are class struggles!

2) The national club of Indian activists and intellectuals became aware of the movement at Narayanpatna only at the moment of its retreat. Even if they were aware of it, they hardly cared about it. There was nothing like another anti-land acquisition movement against the big “outside” of the corporates, which temporarily (if I may say so) almost seemed to homogenise the ‘affected’ village India against ‘non-Indian’ imperialism and its Indian agencies – a romantic India against the pragmatic world of capitalism (some name this, Bharat vs India) – a dream struggle for oneness with the pristine simplicity which capitalism wants to destroy.

3) However, at the time of its retreat, people inside and outside did try to paint the reality in Narayanpatna according to the images that sell today. But the truth is that Narayanpatna divides people – it represents that politics which emerges out of the divisions that constitute India, not just between the outside and the inside, the rural and the urban, not simply between the upper caste and the lower caste, but between the whole ‘glocal’ network of capital (which unites the global with the local, not just extensively, but intensively too) and the insistence of the indigenous section of the local labour to self-valorise, not to be subsumed by capital and its personified agencies.

4) The Narayanpatna movement was against both the asset-rich and the asset-poor who engaged in that grand network of capital. People were uncomfortable with this movement because it brought forth the fundamentals of the reality – of the deep divisions that constitute rural India. So in Narayanpatna all assumptions about rural movements went topsy-turvy – we saw intra-‘poor’ and community-level conflicts. This movement was against everybody that alienated and sought to alienate the forces of production and reproduction from the “tribals” – their labour, its means and its objects.

Source of neoliberalization in India

“It was not the US, furthermore, that forced Margaret Thatcher to take the pioneering neoliberal path she took in 1979. Nor was it the US that forced China in 1978 to set out on a path of liberalization. The partial moves towards neoliberalization in India in the 1980s and Sweden in the early 1990s cannot easily be attributed to the imperial reach of US power. The uneven geographical development of neoliberalism on the world stage has evidently been a very complex process entailing multiple determinations and not a little chaos and confusion.”

(David Harvey – A Brief History of Neoliberalism, pp9)

The Economic Function of Terrorism?

And why not? At the time when a global recession is on its way, there is a need to increase public spending to revive the economy. And Baba Keynes himself told us once – “Pyramid-building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth, if the education of our statesmen on the principles of the classical economics stands in the way of anything better”. What is better than a war on terrorism which never ends – it will lead to a constant militarisation, and an expansion of the security and armaments industries necessary for boosting effective demand.

Is this really a conspiracy theory?

Financial Meltdown – A Last Resort?

Finance Capital in general holds the whole economy and public saving to ransom, then why cannot its poor agents kidnap a child for ransom?

2 MBA students held for kidnapping teen
25 Nov 2008, 0341 hrs IST

NEW DELHI: In a shocking fallout of the financial meltdown, two part-time MBA students who had apparently lost heavily on investments in stocks and real estate decided to make good their losses by joining in a plot to kidnap a 15-year-old south Delhi boy. The operation went awry when the mastermind, a cousin of the victim, panicked and dumped him at Okhla from where a passerby brought him home.

Arjun Jhamb Verma, a Class IX student of Gyan Bharati School in Saket, was kidnapped on his way to school on the morning of November 20. By Sunday night, the south Delhi police had arrested the two MBA students along with four others, including the kingpin who is an electronics and real estate dealer. The others include an inter-state extortionist and his accomplice as well as a hair-stylist.

Both MBA students were pursuing their course through correspondence. Police said Piyush Jain (24) had enrolled in IMT Ghaziabad and also dabbled in shares. His close friend Rohit Chopra (24), who is doing an MBA from Ignou, is a property dealer in Gurgaon. He had apparently lost a lot of money due to the slump in prices of flats. Rohit had also invested in the stockmarket at Piyush’s insistence.

Rohit’s father is a general manager at a leading hotel in the capital while Piyush’s father is an established graphic designer with his own setup in Karol Bagh.

Courtesy: TOI

The Financial Crisis – The Crisis of Not Finding Barbarians?

There is so much anxiety everywhere. Till recently the neoliberal world prospered by spreading insecurity and inculcating the feeling of ‘what comes next’ among the working class. This fragmented the class consciousness and competition thrived. Didn’t our good old Marx and Engels taught us the following?

“In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market…[T]he “organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves… The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers.”

But Marx understood that competition among workers is essentially a representation of competition among capitalists. There is a theory of displacing crisis, anxiety etc, that gives a patient reason to survive. In economic theory it is called the theory of external markets. Capital and capitalists thrive only by externalising/selling/’exporting’ commodities, crisis etc, to labour and other nations (or capitalists)… Rosa Luxemburg stressed on this aspect in her understanding of imperialism. The crisis period is that period in the political economic life of capitalism, when this export meets with obstinate hurdles.

Economists tell us that the present crisis is due to an unrestrained financialisation that the neoliberal globalisation has triggered. But then, hasn’t this radical financialisation diminished every external space? As soon as externality is posed, we find it accommodated and submitted to the larger global structure. Then in the above perspective, this is the crisis and the reason for anxiety! For the time being, there is no place to ‘export’ crisis – this is the biggest crisis!

More than a hundred years ago, a prominent Greek poet C.P. Cavafy wrote the following which clearly presents what is happening today – a crisis of not finding barbarians!

– Why should this anxiety and confusion
suddenly begin. (How serious faces have become.)
Why have the streets and squares emptied so quickly,
and why has everyone returned home so pensive?

Because night’s fallen and the barbarians have not arrived.
And some came from the border
and they say the barbarians no longer exist.

Now what will become of us without barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

(‘Waiting for the barbarians’ in The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy, Translated by Aliki Barnstone, WW Norton & Company (2006), p 29)

ET Debates – Globalisation impedes labour mobility?

The Economic Times

Anti-immigration laws are enforced not to stop but control new settlements and to legitimise the use-and-throw logic that characterises neo-liberalism. This increases labour vulnerability economically and politically — by differentially including the immigrants and ghettoising the local consciousness against them.

Throughout the world — in Maharashtra, in Assam, in the US, everywhere — the same ghettoised psyche comes coupled with the trans-politicisation of economy, which has relegated people to passive receptors of global mobility of capital.

Specific identitarian conflicts today are various realisations of the competitive ethic that underlies a market-oriented political economy. With the entrenching of this ethic in every corner of the society under globalisation, such conflicts are bound to multiply.

What the market does essentially is that it perpetuates fragmentation and individuation, thus posing every division in a horizontal competition. Even those conflicting interests, which could be resolved only by structural transformation, are preserved through their metamorphoses into competing groups and lobbies.

Arguably the greatest Indian philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal understood this when he said, “Fanaticism is nothing but the principle of individuation working in the case of group”. In other words, regional/national fanaticism that defines anti-immigration today is the product of individuation that competition necessarily poses.

Under neo-liberal globalisation, I agree, the “global village” has become a virtual reality. However, in this village citizens are reduced to “much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes”.

They are thrown into a large “stagnant swamp”, where they desperately try to save themselves and stand up in whatever way they can — even if at the expense of others. So anti-immigrant upsurge and its legitimacy are nothing but a vent to this desperation. It is a commodified deformation, in the socio-political market, of structural conflicts.

Hence, the question is not whether globalisation impedes labour mobility, but how through various means it impedes labour’s ability to challenge capital.

A volte-face – Neoliberals and the Crisis

Recently, Finance Minister P Chidambaram boasted about the strength of India’s banking system and its “negligible exposure” to speculative practices like sub-prime lending. He proclaimed the banking system in the country to be “well regulated” and thus a protection against the full-fledged effect of the global financial crisis.

Again, his junior minister Pawan Kumar Bansal dubbed “any anxiety or uncertainty in India” to be misplaced. Why? Because “only a very small portion of our total population, less than two per cent, has any sort of exposure to the stock market”.

Ironically, till recently all these, which are being measured as India’s strength today, were considered to be the basic obstacles in India’s economic growth. Those who criticised financial liberalisation were dubbed conservatives, who did not like India’s new global image.

Though it is still very early to assess the ultimate impact of the crisis on India’s economy, or to proclaim an end to neoliberalism but the crisis has significantly shaken the self-confidence of the neoliberals in the country. The events have not been very kind to them from the very beginning. Amiya Kumar Bagchi rightly notes:

“Fortunately, despite all the attempts of successive governments at the Centre since 1991 to force the pace of ‘economic reforms’, the worst of their designs could not be carried through. These include full capital account convertibility, complete privatisation of the banking and insurance sectors, and total abolition of the distinction between banks and non-banking finance companies. Every time either major international crises or electoral compulsions have stayed their hand. In 1997 and this time around, financial crisis in Asia and the global financial crisis have prevented the enforcement of capital account convertibility”.

Capitalism and Caste

Economist Nirvikar Singh in his latest column in Mint questions the exclusive focus on the rural-urban divide in policymaking. He points out at a more “pernicious” “social and economic divide” – which divides even the villages.

At the bottom of the heap are India’s Dalits, whose traditional social status is so low that they are outside and below the country’s complex caste hierarchy. Even when government spending reaches down into villages, the Dalits, living in segregated neighbourhoods, with the worst access to health and education facilities, may see little of the benefits.

However he finds that “Capitalism is beginning to break the caste system”. In fact, Dalits in India have more opportunities than African Americans in the US (the latter being permanently stigmatised due to their colour) because

Dalits in cities far from home have the opportunity to change their names and reshape their identities. This may be the first step in getting an education, participating in stronger social networks than their own, and eventually climbing the economic ladder.

So Sanskritization – cultural aping – is of course according to Singh an opportunity for Dalits!

Singh acknowledges that “capitalism is not a guaranteed destroyer of discrimination”, but he also stresses capitalism’s potentiality to neutralize caste. Once again he quotes Chandra Bhan Prasad that “Economic expansion is going to neutralize caste in 50 years. It will not end caste.” He concludes,

Maybe neutralizing caste is good enough: Caste can remain like the markers of national origin (Irish-, Italian-, or Indian-American)in the US, without being a basis for oppression

Singh is correct – capitalism does neutralize every difference to the extent that under this system based on generalised commodity production

Everything becomes saleable and buyable. The circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as a gold-crystal. Not even are the bones of saints, and still less are more delicate res sacrosanctae, extra commercium hominum [consecrated objects, beyond human commerce] able to withstand this alchemy. Just as every qualitative difference between commodities is extinguished in money, so money, on its side, like the radical leveller that it is, does away with all distinctions.

As Singh himself says, migration (“circulation” of human beings as “variable capital”), along with Sanskritization, will have “positive knock-on effect”. Definitely the qualitative difference is extinguished between castes, they are all equally levelled as labour inputs. Castes are increasingly reduced to “markers” as of a 100 dollar note, a 10 dollar note etc – they are all ultimately various quantities or denominations of the same currency, the dollar…

But then the difference between a 100 dollar note and a 10 dollar note does remain – these “markers” allow the system to locate you within itself according to your ‘worth’. The difference between the excluded and the included is ‘extinguished’ – everyone is ultimately included even if differentially.

Yes, Singh and Prasad are correct – the caste system will be perhaps finished as the hierarchy of status in “next 50 years”, as a new caste system has already emerged based on the competition between “markers” – as between Godrej, Lux, Rexona and Palmolives.

This is

in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

However, should we give Singh the benefit of doubt that as an economist he knows that these “markers” have vital roles to play in construction and dynamics of the labour market?

Beyond anti-capitalism

The following statement from an ML leader is obviously in right direction – trying to deconstruct the Singur movement, identifying various forces in it. However, in my view, a further ideologico-practical move has to be made – mobilising the ‘new’ working class evolving around these neoliberal projects – an unorganised multitude which neoliberalism is bound to proliferate. Only this will stop us from being trapped in the mire of ‘nostalgic’ anti-capitalism, and encourage us to move ahead in the direction of beyond-capitalism.

Kolkata, September 4 At a time when Naxal groups are demonstrating along with Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee against the Tata Motors’ small car factory in Singur, CPI-ML (Liberation) — the largest Naxal party — vociferously criticised the Mamata brigade on Thursday.

The party criticised Mamata and her followers for siding with land owners, without sparing a thought for the landless labourers and unrecorded bargadars (those with no-eviction rights).

“She is only speaking about land owners in Singur. Why are they silent about the landless labourers and others? Those who are demonstrating in Singur and claim to be Naxals should fight for landless labourers,” said Kartik Pal, Politburo member of CPI-ML (Liberation).

According to a survey conducted by the party, there are 300 people who are either landless labourers or unrecorded bargadars in Singur.

“A number of them are absentee landowners who have already received payment for their land. But the agricultural labourers have got nothing. Neither Mamata Banerjee nor the state government is thinking about them,” Pal added.

At present, small Naxal groups are sharing the dias with Mamata in Singur. They include CPI-ML (SOC) led by Purnendu Bose and Dola Sen, CPI-ML (ND) led by Paltu Sen.