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Notes on Rohith Vemula’s Suicide

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1. “It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear, with these immortal words uttered on a similar occasion by Vaillant, a French anarchist martyr, do we strongly justify this action of ours.” These were the opening words of the leaflets that Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt threw after bombing the Central Legislative Assembly in New Delhi on April 8, 1929. By the massive reaction across India to the suicide committed by Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student at the Hyderabad Central University, it is not an exaggeration to say that this action of his was justified – as a loud voice or explosion that we all heard. If murder is justified as a politico-legal act (in case of executions, as legal murders), why not self-murder? It is ethically far superior or noble too as it is directed towards oneself – as a samadhi, both in brahminical and anti-brahminical traditions.

2. One might say that the revolutionary terrorism of Bhagat Singh challenged the state, by openly defying its laws. One might further admit that in revolutionary terrorism, the nobility of the cause is objective and evident. Revolutionaries are distant to their acts and their effects, which are fully under their command. It is for the emancipation of humanity, workers or nations that the revolutionary terrorists live and die – a mark of extreme selflessness. They standout among the masses, they are heroes whom we all look up to – kind of supermen. If they are democratic and responsive to people, it is their humility, which further adds to their stature.

But suicide? How can it be revolutionary? It is an act of extreme selfishness and cowardliness. It is this belief that shows up slyly even in the massive pro-Dalit and Dalit responses to Rohith’s suicide, even in their bid to disprove it. Of course, they will not call this act selfish or cowardly. They will explain it to disprove all this, but ultimately the paradigm to demonstrate its something else-ness is same, whether you sanctify it as a kind of protest, in which you must add, suicide when nothing else works or call it an “institutional murder”, or a desperate act of a depressed individual. Rohith must be either a victim (of the system or of groups/individuals) or depressed or even, at least for the status quoist forces, a desperado.

3. Marx had published a peculiar write up in 1846 on suicide, which is not much studied. Till recently it was thought to be merely a translation of a French police administrator, Jacques Peuchet’s work on suicide cases. The fact that why on earth Marx translated a piece on suicide too was not touched upon. It was its retranslation in English, its comparison with the original one by Peuchet along with short studies by Kevin Anderson and Eric A Plaut revealed the importance of the text. Marx’s omissions, commissions and editorialisation in his translation transformed it into a very significant text where Marx directly deals with women’s issues, bourgeois family and a generalised system of alienation. He twisted the text which was already very graphic and condemning with his powerful unattributed insertions. One of them is:

“Those who are most cowardly, who are least capable of resistance themselves, become unyielding as soon as they can exert absolute parental authority. The abuse of that authority also serves as a cruel substitute for all of the submissiveness and dependency people in bourgeois society acquiesce in, willing or unwillingly.”

What Marx does in the text is to show how cowardliness and impotence of people in authority and power lie in their inability to make sense of suicide. Marx thus translates Peuchet:

“What characterises courage, when one, designated as courageous, confronts death in the light of day on the battlefield, under the sway of mass excitement, is not necessarily lost, when one kills oneself in dark solitude. One does not resolve such a difficult issue by insulting the dead.”

Marx pushes the argument further by inserting:

“One condemns suicide with foregone conclusions. But, the very existence of suicide is an open protest against these unsophisticated conclusions.”

4. At least the state, as the collectivity of ruling interests, is well aware of the lethality of the self-afflicted terror, suicide. It knows how this act is a powerful means of undermining it. That’s the reason, suicide is a crime. Foucault succinctly put, suicide was a crime “since it was a way to usurp the power of death which the sovereign alone, whether the one here below or the Lord above, had the right to exercise.” He proclaims, “This determination to die, strange and yet so persistent and constant in its manifestations, and consequently so difficult to explain as being due to particular circumstances or individual accidents, was one of the first astonishments of a society in which political power had assigned itself the task of administering life.”

5. An act is not just its grammar, it is a performance – when, where, who, before/against whom etc all characterise it. Hence, the divide between revolutionary and reactionary acts. A “revolutionary suicide” is an act enmeshed in politics of experience, like any self-murder. It is a response grounded in the personal self-full experience of the perpetrator. It is devoid of the nobility and selflessness of a declassed revolutionary or a self-flagellating noble liberal, volunteering to think about them who can’t think for themselves. Only a black revolutionary could have conceptualised this concept, and a Dalit can very well understand it. When “bereft of self-respect, immobilized by fear and despair, [an individual] sinks into self-murder”, it is, according to Huey Newton, “reactionary suicide.” On the other hand, revolutionary suicide is not a result of “a death wish”, therefore, it is a suicide which is not even suicidal. “We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible.” The desire is so strong that we seek to satisfy it “even at the risk of death” – “it is better to oppose the forces that would drive me to self-murder than to endure them.”

Addendum

6. Pitting knowledge and reason against experience constitutes what can be called an arrogance of determinism and abstraction. It is immaterial if scholars are aware of this or not. Until and unless this abstraction is re-derived from experience, that is until this duality is resolved in the dialectic of practice, it will have an affinity to the brahminical Cartesian prioritisation of abstracted science. This is where many theorisations and historicisation of oppressed identities fail them. In their attempt to explain the experience of caste and race in terms of its determinations, many times they simply write off the question of the reproduction of the caste system or identitarian hierarchy in everydayness – how it is reproduced in social practice, where, let’s admit, it is nothing short of a conspiracy.

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

February 19, 2016 at 10:50 pm

The Standpoint of the Unemployed

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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.

1

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.

2

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)

3

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.

4

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.”

(DRAFT)

References:

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 [1982]) Limits to Capital. London: Verso.

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Collected Works. Vols. 34, 35 & 42.Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

January 15, 2016 at 10:13 am

Class Struggle, Development and Revolutionary Politics

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1. What happened in China? Isn’t it capitalism that is being nurtured by the ‘Maoist’ party in China?

The course of development is determined by class struggle (at least the Chinese communists were emphatic about it, when they said that this class struggle goes on in their own ranks as well). The Chinese economy where it stands today too is not a result of any linear development; without deliberating on contradictions of the development process that revolutionary movements trigger, we generally tend to impute successes/failures of the revolutions or movements to the subjective choices of the leadership – their goodness and badness.

2. What is happening in Nepal? The Nepali Maoists are quite vocal about their aim to nurture capitalism in their country.

Even in the case of Nepal, we should try to understand the Maoists, by grounding their politics in the wider political economic processes which limit their ‘dream’ of an uninterrupted revolution, of ‘bypassing capitalism’. Their problem is at least partly our patriotism – like the anti-patriotic Zimmerwald Conference we should first of all decry and call for the defeat of the Indian state and capitalists who virtually hold half of the Nepali economy to ransom; then only can we see a proper anti-capitalist revolution emerging in landlocked Nepal. We should just go through news reports of the past five years, how threats from Indian capital and state (which Indians, including the leftists, generally understand as an expression of big brotherliness, rather than that of imperialism, because we ignore the economic basis of India-Nepal relationship) have regulated the Maoists’ radical initiatives.

3. What is the development strategy of the Maoists in India? Don’t they profess to compensate for lack of capitalism?

About our Maoists, I believe, our so-called movement people are waiting for their failure to be the proof of their wrong ideology, strategy, tactics or even ignorance about the development process. But that is not the way for the revolutionaries – they have to understand every struggle caught up in the particularisation of class struggle in various localities, first by affirming it to be part of the same movement. What will be the development strategy ultimately is determined by the articulation between various local (particular) struggles, and the class hegemony that directs that articulation.

4. How have non-Marxist socialists in India faired on this count?

The socialist movement (here I include many communist organisations too) in India today – because of their populist political base and vision (‘populism’ in a definite theoretical sense) is caught up in the cartesian binaries of big vs small, agriculture vs industry, village vs city, india vs bharat etc etc, in which the hierarchised composition – internal differentiation – of the preferred half (the ‘small’ or the agrarian community etc) are simply wished away, ultimately for the benefit of the well-to-do within this ‘small’/agrarian community (in practical terms increasing their bargaining power). (A parallel example in the urban areas could be the trade unionists protecting sectional interests or labour aristocracies by not taking account of labour segmentation). We have seen how socialists in rural areas have been reactive to any talk of class differentiation, and independent labour mobilisation, since they tend to divide, not unite the rural community.

5. But don’t you think every movement has to have a central focus that can broaden its base? A peasant movement will be homogeneous in this regard.

I think within the peasant movement, even before Independence, there were a few socialists who were quite clear about the complexity of the peasant question – how differentiation within peasantry determined the trajectory of even seemingly “homogenized” peasant struggles: to name some of them, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati (see his “Maharudra ka Mahatandav”) and Indulal Yagnik/Dinkar Mehta (in Gujarat) who understood the task of re-envisaging the rural struggles around rural labourers (which include those sections of the “landed” peasantry who simply reproduce their labour-power by engaging in farming). For a historical review of this aspect please read Jan Breman’s “Labour Bondage in West India”. The recent overstress on peasant homogeneity is phenomenon which is related with a definite rise of the kulak lobby (I am using this term in a purely objective sense).

6. At least the socialists have a clear vision about alternative development.

Yes, the socialists have a clearer vision about development alternatives, but much of that has to do with their dualistic conceptualisation; they can remain happy with utopian anti-capitalism, by choosing one pole in the binary. The problem with communists is that they try to develop a labour standpoint – and labour-capital relationship does not constitute a cartesian contradiction, they are opposites in a dialectical contradiction – “capital is labour”/”labour is capital”, as Braverman said, “working class is the animate part of capital”. The development strategy is constituted through this continuous contradiction, through a generalisation or a political systematisation of the alternatives emerging in the daily experiences of the working class. The question here is to go beyond capitalism, to overcome capital as accumulated labour dominating the living labour – to overcome the subsumption/ alienation/ accumulation of various forms of labour by capital (capitalism expands not just by wiping away the “vestigial” forms of production and exploitation, but also by resignifying them). We cannot have a predetermined development strategy in this struggle, except that which will sharpen the class struggle.

7. But class struggle between capital and labour too leaves aside many other conflicts.

Not exactly. The issue before us perhaps is to understand how ‘other’ struggles (struggle between classes, not just labor and capital but other classes also; struggle within classes; struggles against the State, caste and gender struggles) are related to capital-labour conflicts. Why cannot they be seen as particularisations of capital-labour conflict? Labour does not mean just wage labour. Labour-capital relationship resignify the whole stratification of the society, even castes and gender are posed as specifications of that relationship:

a) Ambedkar can be helpful in understanding the caste system in this regard, when he talked about caste as not just a division of labour, but a division of labourers. In this framework, anti-casteism becomes a working class struggle to create unity among labourers.

b) An Italian-American activist-scholar, Silvia Federici has succinctly put:
“If it is true that in capitalist society sexual identity became the carrier of specific work-functions, then gender should not be considered a purely cultural reality, but should be treated as a specification of class relations…In capitalist society “femininity” has been constituted as a work-function, masking the production of the work force under the cover of a biological destiny. If this is true then “women’s” history is “class history”.

8. So are you against community level struggles, as communities are generally composed of diverse class interests?

A “Community” is not simply an aggregation of horizontal interests; it arises out of an articulation (which includes hidden and open conflicts) between various levels of interests. Its critical edge is determined by the nature of interests that dominate that articulation. We are not even hostile towards the idea of rural community, but the point is to see how it is internally constituted, and which class interest dominates it.

(I thank comrades, interacting with whom I wrote much of the text.)

A general discomfort about Narayanpatna

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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.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

December 16, 2009 at 2:06 am

The Meaning of Anti-Casteism

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Ambedkar clearly defined the meaning of the struggle against the caste system. For him it was not simply a petty bourgeois assertion of identity, a struggle for mere representation, as many exponents for and against the dalit movement have propounded. In his ILP days and again in “Who were the Shudras” (1946), Ambedkar essentially viewed the origin and function of caste (and therefore casteism) as conversion of “the scheme of division of work into a scheme of division of workers, into fixed and permanent occupational categories”. So the revolt against caste system (or casteism in a capitalist society) is a revolt against the material and ideological division of workers, against labour market segmentation, against the individualist-competitive ethic (a petty bourgeois tendency) among workers (which frequently takes identitarian forms). Only by questioning and destroying the whiteness of the “white” workers, a larger united working class movement could be posed in the racist societies like the US. Similarly in a casteist society like India, only by attacking the “upper/middle-caste-ness” among workers, a working class alternative could be posed. A drastic reorientation of the dalit movement (and therefore of the working class movement) is needed if it has to pose a real challenge to the caste system and casteism, as Ambedkar understood them. Dalit Movement has to re-emerge as the vanguard of the working class movement.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

January 16, 2009 at 1:52 am

Capitalism and Caste

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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?

Written by Pratyush Chandra

September 8, 2008 at 12:58 pm

Untouchability and Indian capitalism

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Below is an interesting story published by The Observer. It shows how stratification specific to a society is reproduced and even intensified under capitalism, with competition being generalised. Caste, race and all other hierarchical identities of yesteryears are transformed into competitive identities, as well as inducing market segmentation – the upper caste/race seeks to maintain its supremacy utilising every brutal means, while the lower caste/race tries to assert itself. A schematic radical would call this situation semi-feudal, as it seems to him/her an aberration to “pure” idealised capitalism. Is there anything like that? But who can argue with the convinced ones – ever afraid of dropping the coloured glasses that their fathers lent them? This forces him/her to go in all kinds of ‘bourgeois democratic’ alliances – in order to sweep away the “vestiges” of “pre-capitalism”, before removing capitalism and the capitalists. So much for his/her utopianism and idea-lism.

India’s untouchable millionaire

Entrepreneur who escaped the rigid caste system warns that it is becoming more divisive as India grows richer

Amelia Gentleman in Agra
Sunday May 6, 2007
The Observer

As a child, Hari Pippal slept alongside his six sisters and eight brothers on a stretch of pavement. As a teenager, he pedalled a bicycle rickshaw to help feed the family. Now the owner of a large, profitable private hospital, a shoe factory, a motorbike dealership and a successful restaurant, Hari Pippal has become a symbol of the enormous possibilities available in new India to anyone with entrepreneurial flair.

The fact that this self-made millionaire has risen to the top despite being a Dalit (an untouchable) has prompted some to promote his achievements as proof that, as India races towards economic transformation, a more egalitarian society is emerging. Magazines feature him as a Dalit success story. Pippal, however, is uneasy with his status as poster boy for a casteless modern India. He believes his triumphs have come in spite of his caste and warns that, as India becomes richer, caste divisions are becoming ever more pronounced. At the headquarters of his business empire, he said: ‘As a rule India’s economic boom is only enjoyed by high-caste people. This is a great tragedy for India, because so much talent is being excluded. I feel real despair.’

The Hindu concept of untouchability was abolished in 1950, but the challenge of eradicating prejudices dating back thousands of years has defeated successive governments. Last week in Delhi the issue of caste-related inequalities divided politicians as they argued over the merits of extending affirmative action programmes in universities for backward castes. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has compared the caste system to apartheid South Africa. ‘Untouchability is not just social discrimination; it is a blot on humanity,’ he said.

Pippal believes that the government needs to force the blossoming corporate sector to introduce positive discrimination schemes of the kind which have existed in the public sector for decades.

‘The government believes the scheduled caste [the official term for Dalits] is coming up, that the caste system is disappearing. That is wrong. The gap between the scheduled castes and the higher castes is increasing,’ Pippal said. ‘Lower castes are still very poor. Without money it’s hard to take advantage of the new opportunities, so they stay poor and everyone else gets richer.’

Pippal became conscious of his status on the first day at school. His teachers would mutter in his direction: ‘You people are ill-educated, badly dressed and don’t know how to behave’. Consigned to do the jobs no one else wants – latrine-cleaners and roadsweepers – Dalits have traditionally been forbidden from touching the food or water of upper castes. Pippal, 56, remembers how teachers would never ask him to bring them water or invite him to eat with them, as they did other higher-caste pupils.

‘I responded by deciding I had to be better than the others – cleverer, better dressed, better behaved, more successful,’ he said. But the snubs and subtle insults have lasted a lifetime. His surname identifies him as a Dalit, so when he opened his first company he called it ‘People’s Export’ – which sounded about the same, but did not have the same negative connotations.

When he opened his hospital in 2004, it was difficult to recruit high-caste doctors, many of whom would not contemplate working under him. Because the hospital, a few kilometres from the Taj Mahal, swiftly gained a reputation, attitudes changed and he now employs 25 upper-caste doctors. Even now, several of the Dalit doctors avoid revealing their surname, relying on initials so that they don’t alarm higher-caste patients.

When the oldest of his five sons said that he was engaged to a girl from a higher caste, Pippal was happy that his son had found someone he loved. Her parents, too, made no objection to the match, but a few days later about 100 people from her community arrived at Pippal’s flat, threatening to kill the girl’s parents if the marriage went ahead. ‘I told my son that he would destroy their whole family if he persisted in the marriage, and he understood,’ Pippal said. The son recently married a Dalit doctor from his father’s hospital. ‘Now I believe my children should marry within their caste. It’s better that way.’

India has a number of Dalit role models who have battled their way to the top. This year KG Balakrishnan was sworn in as chief justice of India, the first Dalit to hold the post. Narendra Jadhav, the chief economist of India’s central bank, is a Dalit. Yet the social mobility which usually accompanies rapid economic growth has barely touched this 150 million-strong community, the bulk of whom remain deprived and oppressed. Dalits die sooner and are more likely to be malnourished, unemployed and murdered than others.

Pippal knows how exceptional his life has been when he meets his contemporaries from primary school. ‘All of my school friends of my caste are still sitting on a pavement making shoes,’ he said. ‘They are angry with the system, but what can they do?’

Written by Pratyush Chandra

May 7, 2007 at 10:11 am

Posted in Caste, Economy, Identity, India

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