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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.


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.


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,

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)


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.


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.”



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

On the Labour Politics of ‘Immediate Effectiveness’

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Interestingly, recent years have seen a tremendous increase in activism on pure workers’ issues. In fact, there is an euphoric gearing up towards unionism among NGOs and independent social activists. However, they continue to rail against the essentialism of the working class and politics associated with it, which in their perception excludes the politics of recognition of multiple identities. Their own justification with regard to this apparent self-contradiction is obviously that they are committed towards the cause of the vulnerable sections of the society, and there are workers who can be counted among these and hence their concern. I think this is a fair and valid self-assessment to the extent that politics over vulnerability cannot but view working class as a collection of workers hierarchised according to the degrees of vulnerability and privileges. Of course, segmentation within the working class is multidimensional, and interestingly, the assessment of vulnerability and privileges is subjective to what one wants to do with segments. Hence, what we find in this new unionism, if that is what they would like to dub their endeavours in order to differentiate themselves from more centralistic trade unionism linked with political parties, is a blatant confirmation of what unions have been reduced to in the phase of neoliberalism.


Centralised trade unions graduated as negotiating agencies under labour aristocracy in the age of Keynesianism and big government, justifying segmentation within the working class by simply avoiding it or at the most calling it a division of labour (not division of labourers). Their political tenor represented divisions and subdivisions within the hegemonic politics – right, left and centre. It was through them that labour politics was abstracted from the acts of labourers themselves, and the bureaucracy that emerged in this alienation reproduced ideologically the homogenised abstraction of labour, that capital undertakes for accumulation, in the labour movement – a mere, however, essential component in the process of capitalist accumulation. These unions negotiated from this position of abstracted essentiality, and sought to strengthen the caste-divided working class, a win-win situation for everyone, proportional advancement of all. The pyramidal industrial structure that defined Fordism was replicated in the union structure to facilitate negotiation and corporate integration. In this manner, the corporatist compromise that secured “trade union integration in the economy,” (Panitch 1977: 4) could sustain capitalism’s post-World War II golden age. It was this compromise that structured the public welfare system.

With the crisis in the 1960s-70s, a new industrial regime emerged on the basis of the geographical and technological advancement of capitalism (the emergence of newly industrialised countries and a revolution in electronics and information technology). It was characterised by lean production, financialisation and neoliberalism. It made the vertical and horizontal integration that constituted the industrial pyramid redundant. The centralised corporate structure of trade unions came into crisis with the proliferation of a flattened industrial hierarchy based on networking – outsourcing and offshoring. These trade unions had abstracted themselves from the specificities of segments while arranging them in a neat compartmentalised hierarchy. In the age of dispersed Fordism or post-Fordism, the specificities carved their own identity, segments as separate productive units negotiated – conflicted and compromised – daily to reaffirm the structural integration of spatially dispersed production through inter-and-intra-industrial exchange, which could now never be taken for granted.

Segments found themselves further segmented and in direct conflict with one another – we see discourses of formal/informal, organised/unorganised, individual contracts, contract/casual/permanent on rise that stressed on dualities, multiplicities and divisions everywhere, and these divisions found life of their own. The segments are further perpetuated and ossified through the legal mechanism and discourse. The changes that took place in the labour regime found their way in laws, where separate legal structures for specific groups of workers became the focus, akin to the initial phase of capitalism. Law always lags behind the actual changes, whose legitimacy law seeks. New initiatives in trade unions are products of these times and these discourses. Unions, new or old, continue to be agencies of negotiation for legal and institutional adjustments between groups of labourers and state – they straightjacket the acts of labourers in the form of demands formulated in the language that the latter understands. But the kind of recognition and redistribution these old and new unions help realise are apparently opposite.

New initiatives that emerged in the 1970s, at that time, represented a crisis of industrial unionism of the old type. We see the latter’s inability to cope with the technological changes and their redefinition of the workplace, and much celebrated “employee unionism” was more effective in this regard. But there was another aspect of the crisis – which could be understood through the emergence of the figure of the mass worker, the unskilled immigrant workforce that represented the generalisation of capital-relations throughout the society, that related every productive, distributive and reproductive domain to capital. Identitarian assertions and politics become most vigorous only when the sameness of all identities becomes most stark. Similarly, segmented labour struggles become most intense when segmentation itself is in crisis. De-skilling, same skilling and structural semblance of diverse work-processes across society have created a crisis for segmentation leading to a precarisation of workers throughout the social division of labour. This precarity has increased competition on identitarianised lines, with workers themselves trying to preserve and rationalise the logic of segmentation at the social and political levels. The NGOisation of unions and social unionism that have become fashionable terminologies in recent years are in fact articulation of this identitarianism in the labour movement. The talk of unity and alliance building in this age is of course unlike the old call for unity which represented colour blindness in the old labour movement. But it is exactly its opposite – a systemic blindness, it doesn’t see the underlying system in the discursive horizontalisation of hierarchy and its cacophony.


Scholars and activists have rightly pointed out the prime importance of articulations of the question of recognition in the centre of most of the struggles in recent years. If we see a hegemony of struggles framed in terms of the issues of distribution in the era of embedded liberalism and Fordism, it is not at all false to assert that the struggles under neoliberalism, including those concerned with distributive claims, mostly emerge as struggles for recognition. The proliferation of vocalised segments diminishes the possibility of universalist struggles, but it divides, subdivides and hence universalises evermore intensively the struggle for competitive recognition, which is frequently packaged as intersubjective negotiation, defining “the moral grammar of social conflicts”. However, in the transition from the moral to the legal grammar, all kinds of recognition issues necessarily get morphed into issues of redistribution. Hence, any dichotomisation of redistribution and recognition is actually false, but equally false is any monistic prioritisation of one of these immediate categories. These exercises are scholastic obfuscation of the task of critiquing and exposing the “spirit” or system that defines and binds moral to the legal, recognition to redistribution.

It is the distributive effects of the present system that overwhelms the vision of all varieties of unionism, even if they are articulated in the language of recognition. To the extent that their approach does not touch the systemic structure, where essence and appearance must be discriminated, however, internally-related, they tend to depoliticise the critique that could emerge from various movements and struggles. It is not that those who profess to uphold the notion of class politics are untouched by this approach. Those who prioritise class, but only as a more inclusive social identity or even meta-identity, too are mired in the same identitarianist sociological pigeon-holing that displays an inability to understand the meaning of class-as-process and class analysis. In other words, most of the time it is their adherence to redistributionism that reduces the richer structural and processual notion of class to a vulnerable identity competing with other identities to share the distributive pie. Thus, in appearance at least civil society eclecticism and intersectionalism seem much more inclusive, advanced and free of vanguardism than traditional classism that understands the working class as have-nots and as having “nothing to lose but chains” in a literal sense. While the former tends to base on the relativity of sectional claims in their own relative expressions, the latter focuses on the absoluteness of the proletarian identity in which it subsumes all sectional claims. But both understand social conflicts under capitalism in a redistributionist framework – as struggles over endowments and entitlements. Therefore, they fundamentally form one single horde of the left which helps maintain the political balance in the system, by reproducing in the labour movement the fetishistic divide between politics and economics that capitalism perpetuates generally. Redistributionism and new Chartism that have shaped both old and new forms of labour politics transcend everyday “economic” confrontation between labour and capital by the discourses of grievance and demand.

The distinction between affirmative and transformative redistribution that Nancy Fraser makes is definitely useful in order to describe the distinctive features of so-called new unionism and social unionism that claim to work at the intersection of recognition and redistribution, where segmental claims averaging themselves in negotiation becomes the ground for new social movements. Affirmative redistribution is achieved through two kinds of income transfers, “social insurance programmes” subsidising “the costs of social reproduction for the stably employed” and “public assistance programmes provide means-tested, ‘targeted’ aid to the ‘reserve army’ of the unemployed and underemployed.” Fraser (1997:25) rightly points out:

“Far from abolishing class differentiation per se, these affirmative remedies support it and shape it. Their general effect is to shift attention from the class division between workers and capitalists to the division between employed and nonemployed fractions of the working class. Public assistance programs ‘target’ the poor, not only for aid but for hostility. Such remedies, to be sure, provide needed material aid. But they also create strongly cathected, antagonistic group differentiations.”

To this we must add that in a society like India where we already have various levels of social differentiations inherited through history, affirmative redistribution tends to incorporate them to internally structure the “reserve army” and the working class in general, creating levels of segmented consciousness unknown to the western societies. On the other hand, transformative redistribution, Fraser claims, is revolutionary if properly adjusted with the questions of recognition.

“Transformative remedies typically combine universalist social-welfare programs, steeply progressive taxation, macroeconomic policies aimed at creating full employment, a large nonmarket public sector, significant public and/or collective ownership, and democratic decision making about basic socioeconomic priorities. They try to assure access to employment for all, while also tending to delink basic consumption shares from employment. Hence, their tendency is to undermine class differentiation. Transformative remedies reduce social inequality without, however, creating stigmatized classes of vulnerable people perceived as beneficiaries of special largesse. They tend therefore to promote reciprocity and solidarity in the relations of recognition.” (25-26)

If we don’t assign too much value to the epithet “transformative”, this is a correct characterisation of the policy measures that the old left and the marginalised non-neoliberalist labour organisations propose. For Fraser, these remedies are associated with the struggles for socialism, and that is why they are transformative. We know in this regard Fraser is not alone. Without indulging in the tempting exercise of defining socialism, we would limit ourselves to say that these remedies remind us of the Keynesian faith too. These remedies do constitute a policy perspective that definitely questions market fundamentalism and neoliberalism, but history confirms it is not at all anti-capitalist. And we have seen the revival of this perspective once again with the crises in this century, however, in a very diluted fashion.


In India, there has been a continuous attempt since the late 1970s to attack or “reform” labour laws to free the labour market, to empower companies so that they are able to take advantage of abundant supply in the labour market. But simultaneously, there has been a trend to legislate labour laws, especially after the 1990s, that target special segments of the workforce – “the poorest of the poor”. However, these laws do not touch industrial relations in which these segments engage, except in circumstances where those “industries” themselves are stigma or hindrance to capital mobility, such as, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Otherwise, these laws concentrate mainly on providing remedies and relief to cushion the existence of specific segments of workers in the labour market. It is not accidental that even the government prefers to pose these laws as welfare laws rather than industrial laws. Prominent among these laws are the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 and the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008 along with other supporting laws and rules that provide relevant infrastructure for their implementation.

As indicated earlier, legal changes are basically stabilisation, systematisation and institutionalisation of the circumstantial changes that have already taken place. So the laws mentioned above definitely provide hitherto unavailable reliefs for specific segments of workers, but the nature and mode of these reliefs are based on the already institutionalised consensus and are grounded in the larger structural framework of neoliberalism. This consensus does not include just those who openly support neoliberalism, and those who politically compete to mobilise and structure social anxieties that the structural changes unleashed. It includes those who vocalise their politics of labour and recognition from the margins of the protective regime that was being toppled, who voice the diversity that the elite but homogenous protectionist and developmentalist paradigm excluded. But more interestingly, the consensus includes those too who defend the old regime. As they seek to guard themselves against the taunt of being privileged and aristocratic, they pose the issues of systemic inequality and differential endowments. In order to present protection as a necessary socio-legal principle, they type segments according to relative degrees of precariousness and their wont of protection. Even radicals, who still sustain their romance for transformation, line up themselves in the spectacular competition of mobilising anxieties, are employed to measure the depth of social vulnerability and its perniciousness. Guy Debord rightly describes such a situation in his classic, Society of the Spectacle (1967):

“By rushing into sordid reformist compromises or pseudo-revolutionary col­lective actions, those driven by an abstract desire for imme­diate effectiveness are in reality obeying the ruling laws of thought, adopting a perspective that can see nothing but the latest news. In this way delirium reappears in the camp that claims to be opposing it.”

Redistributionism by itself cannot provide a transformative programme that goes beyond capitalism, but it can definitely help transform capitalism, provided capitalism itself requires such transformation. Redistributive claims can also sharpen the labour-capital conflict, but only if they do not depoliticise the economy of conflict by limiting and instrumentalising it within the logic of state formation and policy-making which is essentially the institutionalisation of the fetishistic separation between politics and economy that happens in capitalism. They must not reproduce this separation.

Affirmative redistributionism is admittedly an extension of the neoliberal project seeking to individuate and designate segments, thus making them incapable of asking any systemic question. In other words, it openly seeks to depoliticise economy and sustains this separation. On the other hand, so-called transformative redistributionism professes to invert this relationship, by recognising the deficiencies of market and hence, the need for intervention. But here too the fetish of separation is admitted and therefore, the logic of state formation is not exposed, how it is itself grounded in capital relations.

The labour politics that dominated during the phase of embedded liberalism and Fordism sought to abstract itself from the concreteness of labour-capital relations. Thus, it built a phantom figure of the worker and negotiated its place within the system. In the phase of neoliberalism and dispersed Fordism, labour-capital relations exploded in open, and the phantom evaporated. What was exposed was heterogeneous forms of relations, and the politics of labour that emerged negotiated from the ground of separation – with the state and also with other segments. The sense of the system of which they were internal was lost, and the only sense that prevailed was distance from the system – which was experienced only in terms of the pain of social exclusion and the gain of inclusion. Moishe Postone (2009) succinctly summarises:

“In an earlier global transition of capitalism, Marxists frequently opposed general rational planning to the anarchic irrationality of the market. Instead of necessarily pointing beyond capitalism, however, such critiques frequently helped legitimate a subsequent state-centric capitalism. Similarly, the contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity, doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism, but can serve to veil and legitimate a new global form that combines decentralization and heterogeneity of production and consumption with increasing centralization of control and underlying homogeneity.”


The politics of workers’ inquiry is to explode the myth of separation. It demonstrates the internal relationships between abstract and concrete labour, between politics and economy. It exposes how these relations have a fetish-character that generates fetishism of separation. It demonstrates how various specific expressions within the labour movement are manifestations of and intrinsic to this separation and do not and cannot comprehend and question the very ground of their generation. Various organisational and political forms are unable to think in-against-and-beyond capital relations. The redistributionist framework which we discussed earlier informs these forms which forces them to comprehend and tinker only with the symptoms of the system.

On the other hand, workers’ inquiry as political practice is both affirmative and negative. it regrounds what exists in the flux of becoming. What exists becomes relevant and irrelevant at the same time. Historicising of political forms that are expressions of workers’ self-organisation and activism – this is what workers’ inquiry does. It registers the changing contours of class struggle through self-reflections of various segments of workers. And here the importance of objectivity comes, as these subjective expressions must be objectively handled, not celebrated nor denigrated. It is important to measure the heat of class relations, which these expressions reflect. Workers’ inquiry critiques the material process of abstraction not from the margins of the system, but from its very core by mapping its coordinates in the daily work-processes. The political forms of understanding and activity that constitute workers’ inquiry are really the “old moles” that destroy while they master the laying out of the system – their critiques do not form spectacles, as they “know how to wait.”



Guy Debord (1967 trans. Ken Knab), Society of the Spectacle, Rebel Press.

Nancy Fraser (1997) Justice Interruptus, Routledge.

Axel Honneth (1995) The Struggle for Recognition, MIT Press.

Leo Panitch (1976) Social Democracy and Industrial Militancy, Cambridge University Press.

Moishe Postone (2009) History and Heteronomy, University of Tokyo Centre of Philosophy.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

December 25, 2015 at 6:40 am

Mapping the Footloose

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The word “mapping” in the phrase “labour mapping” is a combination of its cartographic (map-making) and mathematical usages. On the one hand, it is an attempt to accomplish typological cataloguing of labour in local economies, representing the diversity of labour processes coexisting at a given time and place. On the other, it is an exercise to trace the movement of labour in the geography of socio-economic dynamics and to follow the steps of the footloose labour affected by the push-and-pulls of the neoliberal economic structure. To put it more simply, we locate and name the points on the map keeping in mind their interrelationships and mutual positioning.

We define “labour mapping” as a method of locating labour in the value chain that constitutes the geo-economy. Of course, when we talk about such a value chain, it is unlike separate value chains that are linked with individual commodities or services. It is not even the sum of these individuated value chains. It is literally a whole that is far more than a sum of its parts. It is the value chain that constitutes the social factory. Now what is the social factory? It can thus be defined or rather contextualised, as Mario Tronti does:

“The more that capitalist development advances, that is, the more the production of relative surplus value penetrates and extends, the more that the circle-circuit production-distribution-exchange-consumption is necessarily closed. That is, the relation between capitalist production and bourgeois society, between factory and society, between society and State achieves, to an ever greater degree a more organic relation. At the highest level of capitalist development, the social relation is transformed into a moment of the relation of production, the whole of society is turned into an articulation of production, that is, the whole of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination to the whole of society.” (“Factory and Society”)

If we refer back to Marx’s conceptual ammunition, the concept of “social factory” seems to be a derivative of his concept of social capital or capital in general. It is the no-escape real subsuming of living labour and social relations by capital throughout the economy. The formal autonomy of particular labour processes is allowed to the extent that they help identify exploitable resources for further exploitation and accumulation.

Like in cartography, conceptual mapping too requires a definite purpose that helps to arrange the perceived hyper-chaos of the appearance. Hence, labour mapping can be called an attempt to sketch the design of the ever-evolving social factory for the purpose of locating or enumerating various existent labour processes. Further, as labour is always relational at diverse levels, the task extends to include these relations in which labour constitutes itself.

“Before the worker had sold the disposition over his labour capacity, he could not set the latter in motion as labour, could not realise it, because it was separated from the objective conditions of its activity. This separation is overcome in the actual labour process. Labour capacity now functions, because in accordance with its nature it appropriates its objective conditions. It comes into action because it enters into contact, into process, into association with the objective factors without which it cannot realise itself. These factors can be described in entirely general terms as means of labour. But the means of labour themselves fall necessarily into an object which is worked on, and which we want to call the material of labour, and the actual means of labour, an object which human labour, activity, interposes as a means between itself and the material of labour, and which serves in this way as a conductor of human activity.” (Marx, Collected Works, Vol 30: 55-56)

However, as Marx, stresses, “The means of labour, in contrast to the material of labour, comprise not only the instruments of production, from the simplest tool or container up to the most highly developed system of machinery, but also the objective conditions without which the labour process cannot occur at all…” While enumerating “the objective conditions”, Marx restricts himself to mention material objects like houses or agricultural fields, that do not directly enter into the labour process. This restriction is apt to the extent that Marx is enumerating all possible “means of labour.” However, “conditions” of labour need not just include “objective” ones or material objects, but social relations too that compel or induce workers to engage in particular labour processes. So, we must take into account these actuating conditions of labour in our exercise of labour mapping. But labour itself is relational, a social relation in itself, on the basis of which the structure of the whole society is established. It is what produces and reproduces the society itself. Thus, labour mapping is not just about enumeration and even description, where just the detailing is important. On the contrary, its main focus, as far as it is concerned with the praxis of the working class, is to comprehend the structure of labour relations with internalised segmentations and hierarchies. It is not a two-dimensional mapping that treats all variables and their inter-relationships horizontally, rather it is their multi-layered ordering.

So far so good. But as labour activists, why do we need to engage in such research? We engage with real workers and real problems. Why do we require to abstract ourselves from them and talk about labour in general? Where do their self-activities fit in?

Labour mapping, as we define it, is a two way affair, where the cartographic abstraction is an attempt to generate a model of the dynamic concrete in which individual workers find themselves. Concrete is not just an appearance, but a structure that is composed of diverse levels of interdependent sub-structures. Now, the theoretical blindness of immediate practice that activism many times displays keeps it mired in localist bias and fetishisation of self-activism, misreading its specificities as un-subsumed, accidental and, thus, emancipatory, in a messianic sense. The flip side of this blindness is vanguardist conservatism that in its attempt to avoid the uncertainties of class self-activism, try to straightjacket them in accordance of the “historical and organisational lessons” of the movement. The practice of labour mapping helps activists transcend the oscillation between celebration and denigration of class self-activism, locating it in the structure of dynamic concrete and historicising it as a new ground for re-envisaging emancipatory class politics. It establishes a bridge between theory and practice – giving legs to the former and eyes to the latter, so that purposeful action emerges out of the everyday reactions to drudgery and doom.


Capitalism has always thrived on insecurity of labour. Labour rights are secured to the extent that they don’t infringe upon capital’s control over labour. If these rights are results of labour struggles and meant to empower workers, they are also mobilised by the ruling class and the state as instruments to ascertain a certain structure of the labour market to satisfy the production function appropriate to a particular constellation of technologies. Labour laws are institutional mechanisms through which this structure is formalised. The filters that these laws provide to regulate entry and exit segment workers, creating a field for division and competition among them. Of course, when these laws are not enough to ensure a required structure, an informal regime develops to secure labour demands of capital. This informal regime becomes a benchmark to propose labour reforms. It is interesting to see how the persistence and expansion of this informal regime controls the efficacy of the trade union movement, as the latter is always relegated to a defensive position and a reactive mode. Ultimately, it appears as a conservative force, accused of sticking to an irrelevant labour regime and of not being up-to-date in their understanding of labour-capital relations. In fact, so far as it represents the interests of particular organised segments of workers, who constitute its stable membership, it views other unorganised segments as threats. These threats are of course to be minimised either by sealing them off or, in the end, by attracting them to its fold. This leads to an aggregative strategy that does not question the structure of the labour market. This strategy might succeed temporarily in sustaining a corporatist truce between various segments, but is meaningless in challenging the hegemony of capital, as it refuses to confront the segmentation among workers that reproduces this hegemony. In fact, this corporatist truce normalises this structure and nurtures sections among workers who have interest in its reproduction, thus ultimately become agencies of capital internal to the labouring classes.

In recent years, in India too there has been a growing demand to liberalise labour regulation to induce investment. What does it really mean? Has the labour market been very regulated, as some of the Western economies? Those who have not even read “economics for dummies” would know it was not the case. There has always been a vast reserve of unskilled labour force, which was never secure and persisted in the seamlessly deepening informal and relatively small-scale economies. Many pro-labour legislations that we find in India today were either products of the competition between British and Indian manufacturers when the colonial state was forced to favour the former by blunting the competitive edge of the latter, which was based on cheap natural and human resources. Others were products of the stage in economy when there was a need to secure skills for industrial development, as there was a scarcity of skilled labour. Since the 1970s, however, there has been a call and endeavour to remove this security because the overall technological development, along with educational and training investments have removed this dearth, and now, in fact, there is a supply surplus. It is this surplus that nurtures the so-called dualism in the labour market and industrial composition. In fact, with the help of this surplus the structure of employment becomes multilayered, which can thus be diagrammatically expressed:


Underemployment in the garb of self-employment and other kinds of work arrangements that don’t fit in classical wage relations is what characterises the informal economy. Jan Breman clearly puts,

“rather than generating more work of higher quality, as the proponents of unrestrained flexibilisation would have it, informality is a mode of employment meant to exploit and marginalize labour. The promise of inclusion notwithstanding, the informal workforce is used as a reserve army of labour floating around between town and countryside and sectors of the economy in search of meagre livelihood.” (pp 7)

The said dualism between formal and informal is never a Cartesian one, rather formal and informal work processes are mutually embedded. The dualities in capitalism are actually representative of its transitoriness and dynamics. The posing of antagonism in the apparent shape of duality gives capitalism a means to be resilient, a mechanism to determine the internal course of development in productive forces – technological and managerial. All the stages of capitalism are chracterised by combinations of absolute and relative surplus value extractions (characterising labour-intensive and capital-intensive labour processes), on the one hand, and, on the other, of formal and real subsumption of labour by capital (the informal economies of diverse kinds networked through finance, and modern capitalist industries). But these combinations actually are not dualistic ones, where the simultaneity is contingent. Rather, they are organically combined or dialectically united. They form a structure. The spatial distribution of these elements creates an illusion of separation and disunity. It definitely creates a segmented consciousness among labourers, competing to survive.


Paraphrasing Marx, we can also assert that, in late capitalist countries the dead feeds on the living. In other words, capital in these countries profits on the dead by using it to feed on the living. Thus, in India, if we see “vestiges” thriving, it is not in spite of capitalism, but due to capitalism. It is the specific nature of the logic of capital to historicise itself in particular scenarios by mobilising or accumulating local structural resources. The colonial foundation of modern capitalism in India that we see post-1857 provides a unique ground. As many historians have pointed out, direct colonialism in India negated the possibility of capitalist accumulation based on and geared towards local markets. It was globalised from the beginning.This definitely added some unique features to Indian capitalism.

Marx while summing up colonialism’s contribution provides a panoramic view of global capitalism, pointing out the locations of colonial powers, colonies and their interrelationships. He says, ‘A new and international division of labour, a division suited to the requirements of the chief centres of modern industry springs up, and converts one part of the globe into a chiefly agricultural field of production, for supplying the other part which remains a chiefly industrial field.” (Marx, Collected Works, Vol 35 (Capital):454) But he had expressed already in his 1850s writings on India, other aspects of colonialism as specification of capitalism as “the living contradiction”.

Of course, it was for his extractive needs that the British created a whole structure of government in which the natives were accommodated. The subsumption of local ruling interests in the hegemonic colonial designs led the lawmakers to innovate an elaborate centralised structure of political economic management where interests themselves were passively revolutionised. The land tenurial systems that were introduced on the lines of various European systems were, according to Marx, forms of agrarian revolutions and “distinct forms of private property in land — the great desideratum of Asiatic society.” (Marx, Collected Works, Vol 12, 218) But they were “abominable” and “made not for the people, who cultivate the soil, nor for the holder, who owns it, but for the Government that taxes it.” (Ibid, 214) These land tenure systems emerged as “many forms of fiscal exploitation in the hands of the [East India] Company.” It was the contradictory character of various changes effected by the colonial system that led to the manifestations of diverse interests in the First War of Independence in 1857.

This war politically materialised a cacophonous solidarity against “the solidarity of human woes and wrongs.” It was only with the industrial classes, which slowly emerged via contradictory processes that Marx so aptly described in his writings on India, that nationally coherent interests that could challenge the British powers emerged.

All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people….The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindoos themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether. (Ibid, 221)

While explaining the political economy of endowing India with railways, he reiterates the exclusive extractive intent of the English millocracy. But as a revolutionary, he was more interested in understanding how these “crimes of England” were founding the material premises for social revolution in Asia. “The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.” (Ibid, 132) So he thus notes the chain effect of the introduction of railways,

“I know that the English millocracy intend to endow India with railways with the exclusive view of extracting at diminished expenses the cotton and other raw materials for their manufactures. But when you have once introduced machinery into the locomotion of a country, which possesses iron and coals, you are unable to withhold it from its fabrication. You cannot maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion, and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately connected with railways. The railway-system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry. This is the more certain as the Hindoos are allowed by British authorities themselves to possess particular aptitude for accommodating themselves to entirely new labor, and acquiring the requisite knowledge of machinery.(Ibid, 220)

The unevenness or socio-spatial hierarchy (the division of labour represented spatially), that colonial capitalism’s articulation with local realities generated, perpetuated differential inclusion. It identitarianised the inter and intra class struggles on regional, communal and caste lines. Decolonisation did not do away with this hierarchy. The scale to which it persisted was a challenge, or perhaps, even a barrier for capitalist expansion. But, as Marx says, “since capital represents the general form of wealth— money—it has a boundless and measureless urge to exceed its own limits. Every boundary is and must be a barrier for it.” (Marx, Collected Works, Vol 28: 259) These barriers specifies or historicises capitalist development and expansion. It is interesting to see how capital in its “urge to exceed its own limits” instrumentalises political agencies that profess to go against capital.

Coming back to what has happened after decolonisation in India, we find a continuity which gave a specific trajectory to capitalist expansion locally. Even though the focus changed to reconstructing the national economy, the domestic industrial, agrarian, financial and mercantile interests that constituted the capitalist class (despite their inherent contradictions) were so strong and hegemonic to political processes at the time of independence that it would be delusional (rampant among the statist left) to imagine any autonomous capacity of the Indian state to choose development strategies, like in South Korea and other economies, where the so-called developmentalist states emerged.

When Marx talked about the territorial “division of labour” he was taking it as a necessary outcome of how interactions – both competitive and collaborative – between industries took place. The predominance of particular kinds of industries in a location determined its relations with other locations, having different composition of industries. But these relationships constantly shifted due to both local and trans-local factors. The loci of agriculture and other extractive industries in the overall value chain determine the status of the geographical regions where they are located. The intra-industrial hierarchy of produces is also significant, and so is the hierarchy of forms of production, in determining this status.


The division of labour between formal and informal sectors too must be understood in this perspective. However, as mentioned above, this complementarity works more as a means to regulate the labour market or flow of labour power. That is why we find this division multidimensional and operational at diverse levels – intra-industrially (within industries) and inter-industrially (between industries), within firms and among firms, within jobs and between jobs. Hence, informality is better understood in terms of a process, as informalisation. As Jan Breman has explained, “informality is a mode of employment meant to exploit and marginalize labour.” He further defines the whole informal economy “as a regime to cheapen the cost of labour in order to raise the profit of capital.” (pp 1) However, this definition does not really help in pinning down the exclusivity and specificities of the informal economy. Every regime of capitalism is concerned with the need to decrease the necessary labour time that determines the resource allocation to variable capital which is utilised to reproduce labour power in the society. A decrease in variable capital can have multiple significance:

  • it can mean an absolute wage squeeze by giving less wages.
  • it can mean the squeezing of variable capital relative to the sum of constant capital and surplus value. But this too can be achieved through two different means: by increasing the length of the working day (absolute surplus value) or by mechanisation that increases the surplus labour time within the same working day, thus decreasing the necessary labour time (relative surplus value)
  • it can mean cheapening of wage goods necessary for the reproduction of labour power, which again depends on absolute and relative surplus value extractions in the industry that produce these goods.
  • it can mean subsidising of wage goods by allowing their non-capitalist production and distribution. As it happens in many economies, this is accomplished by the state becoming a buffer between producers and consumers instead of allowing the market to regulate this relationship. Alternatively, non-capitalist production of these goods can also help in accomplishing this purpose, as cost of production in this economy is not determined by capitalist calculation. This economy involves mainly self-exploitation or pre-capitalist labour processes formally subsumed by capital.

Where is the informal economy placed in this multi-layered structure of cheapening labour? Till recently, the division between informal and formal was understood in their exclusivity, not just in their internal structuring, but also historically – one was considered primitive, archaic or at least transitional. Therefore, capital and labour in the informal economy were considered to be waiting to be absorbed in the “formal” setup. However, such discourse was frustrated with the advent of post-fordist or neoliberal labour regime, when the economic processes became evermore hyper-intensive with financialisation taking control. Still, “all that is solid melts into air”, but this melting is so quick that form-ality has no real significance – and it is informality that is generalised and becomes the organising principle, the benchmark to define work processes most responsive to the supply and demand in the product and labour markets. Stability and permanence are considered conservative and against the spirit of market and capitalism. Informality that depends on the footlooseness of workers allows the automatic entry and exit principle (hire and fire in the labour market) that capital seeks to nurture for its accumulative needs. Flexibilisation is worshipped under neoliberalism.

From the perspective of labour, we can claim that informal economy harnesses the labour power of footloose labour and reserve army of labourers. Their footlooseness allows capital to practice use and throw quite easily without any legal obligation to sustain the workforce even when not in “use”.

“Forced to remain footloose, they drift along a large number of worksites without undergoing the steady rotation of employment as a drastic change. To their mind, all those instance are concerned with majuri kam, that is, unspecified, unskilled, and occasional jobs that tax the body and sap the energy to exhaustion.” (pp 46)

It is this labour which Italian Marxists in the 1960s-70s termed “mass worker” and “social labour” toiling in social factory that we defined in early pages. Our labour mapping concerns this entity as her whereabouts and self-activism approximate the expanse of capital which has subsumed the whole society and all social relations, and is very unlike the formal labour which could easily be traced in workshops. The conceptualisations of these Italian Marxists played a powerful role in placing those workplaces and work processes which were not considered significant in economic discussions and which were hidden from apparent capitalist subsumption in the centre of political mobilisation. The questions of the reproduction of labour power and the locus of reproductive labour were considerably important in defining this labour. These questions provide a key to understand labour segmentation and the significance of hidden, informal economy in the overall capitalist reproduction.


Labour mapping must not be reduced to a survey if the purpose is to understand the “autonomy of labour”, of class activism and struggle. Workers are not mere elements of production, like land, machines and raw materials as the classical trinity formula or the managerial notion of “human resources” seeks to project. They are not just reactive agencies or passive recipients of capital’s onslaught, as the voluntarist political activism of both radical and NGO varieties makes them to be. If we take the self-emancipatory mission of the working class seriously, it is necessary to assess its capacities and self-organisational ability.

However, these class capacities are not an aggregation of individual capacities of workers. Wright defines class capacities as the “social relations within a class which to a greater or lesser extent unite the agents of that class into a class formation.” (Quoted in Savage:40)This definition if deployed in isolation is not sufficiently explanatory. It reduces this concept to a mere introvert description of class, which is itself reduced to relationships between its individual agents. In fact, the working class can never be comprehended inwardly, it is always found in its relationship with capital. Even “social relations within a class” are structured by this congenital relationship. In other words, capital and labour are “internally related.” This relationship finds expressions at two levels. At the first level, working class collectivity directly confronts capital at various points of value production and distribution. At the second level, agencies of capital become internal to the working class through segmentation and competition among workers. Hence, capacities of the working class must be grounded in this relationship between the collective worker and capital – which can never be externalised. Class capacities depend on the degree of heat in this relationship. It is pertinent to mention that in the vanguardist trade union movement the internalised capitalist hegemony is rarely confronted, the working class unity is not envisaged through this internal struggle. It is systematically avoided in the name of unity, and any anti-segmentation endeavours are considered divisive.

In simpler terms, the purpose of labour mapping for us is to assess the degrees of class capacities by tracing the composition and recomposition of the working class in its confrontation with capital. We can say that “social relations within a class” are established in this conflict, aligning the agents of that class to transform the everyday experiences of their confrontation with capital into class antagonism – transforming the technical composition of labour that capital institutes to subsume labour into a ground for a class recomposition that poses a revolutionary challenge against capital. It was this aspect of class formation that Marx captured in his famous manifesto when he talks about how “the isolation of the labourers, due to competition” is replaced “by the revolutionary combination, due to association.”

Labour mapping is an attempt to capture this dynamics of political recombinant and recomposition. But this cannot be accomplished in a neutral survey, that is undertaken in the name of objectivity and science. It can only happen in the practice of social transformation – co-research and workers’ inquiry which are rightly termed as “militant investigations.” They take the relationship between capital and labour as congenitally conflictual. In other words, they refuse to position workers as mere victims and even reactive, reacting to capital’s acts. The critical ‘scientific’ understanding behind this is obviously that it is capital’s problem or crisis to subsume labour, not vice versa. Tronti termed this as Copernican inversion of the “common sense” of the official vanguardist understanding within the workers’ movement:

“It is the specific, present, political situation of the working class that both necessitates and directs the given forms of capital’s development”. (“Lenin in England”)


Below we present a typological exercise on occupations that footloose workers undertake to survive. This inquiry was accomplished in one village each in three districts of Odisha – Angul, Dhenakanal and Keonjhar. Since the participating organisations in these districts are mainly working with indigenous communities, we chose those villages which were exclusively tribals. Although, we emphasised on the methodologies of co-research and workers’ inquiry, which take workers as agencies of self-organisation and activism, it was difficult to convince activist-researchers not to take the exercise as a survey, i.e., just taking account of the plight of workers in various work-processes. And in this regard, we will say that this exercise was severely handicapped, as it was difficult to break the barriers that old modes of organisation and activism have perpetuated. Even though these activist-researchers were workers themselves and were internal to the local communities, the methodology that has till now informed their activism makes them ineffective to confront the challenges that footlooseness of labour poses. The workers in their everydayness are far more advanced, experienced and knowledgeable of new work processes than the organisations and activists who want to straightjacket them in the archaic identity of poor victimised half-peasant workers, suddenly thrown in the labour market.

Agricultural Labour As expected agricultural labour is the most prevalent form of wage labour in rural areas. The extent of its prevalence is such that often it leads to an erroneous image of rural workers as synonymous to agricultural labour. Since paddy cultivation is predominant in the region, its work process includes ploughing, seed sowing, transplanting, weeding and harvesting. Further, harvesting includes cutting, carrying to the harvesting yard and final harvesting. These jobs are available in villages mainly during a particular season, i.e. June to December. The labourer starts looking for work in his own village and nearby villages. Many times landowners themselves try the mobilise labourers for work on his fields. As there are plenty of labourers in the village and due to lack of irrigation facilities, it is generally single crop farming in most of these areas, the demand for labour is very low. Therefore labourers do not get job always in the village. Wages in agricultural work are very low in comparison to other jobs. Sometimes they get only Rs.40/- per day. Working hours too are comparatively more and not fixed. Sometimes workers have to wait for months to get their wage dues. Child labour (12/13 years) is quite rampant in agricultural work, and child labourers are rarely paid monetary wages for their work, mostly they are given just food.

Timber logging or harvesting As these areas are occupied by forests, logging in forests and private lands is another important job available. This work involves tree felling, cutting timber logs into planks and in sizes so that they can be used in house construction and furniture purposes. Sometimes private owners of the dried trees hire these skilled labourers for cutting logs into different sizes. Many times labourers themselves cut timbers in forests secretly with the help and also encouragement from forest officials. This work depends on the local demand for construction work which is never very high. As there are risks in doing this work they are not easily obtained. Very often workers work on contractual basis and suffer tremendous work pressure with highly irregular remunerations. As mentioned, forest officials and the local police exploit these workers, threatening them with penal charges, siphoning away a major share of whatever remunerations they are able to secure. Since much of these jobs is illegal, they are very often undertaken in dense and deep forests, and during very odd hours – woods are carried to the villages early in the morning or in late afternoon hours.

Construction work Road construction (both kuccha and pakka roads), bridge construction, house construction. In this there are jobs of diverse levels of skills involved – skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled, for which different individual workers are hired. Some of the specialised works can be identified as masonry, labour, helper, carpenter, pitching, rod binding, centring etc. Most of the time, contractors hire different workers specialising in one or more skills on daily/weekly wage basis for these works. But many times these workers approach the contractors for obtaining jobs. Sometimes but very rarely, they get hired in villages for house construction. The daily waged labourers do not get these types of work during the rainy season. During this period they are compelled to remain unemployed or partially employed in agricultural fields. The contractors do not pay regularly. Sometimes labourers lose their payment if they leave that contractor. The contractors always keep a portion of their payment to avail the same labourer again. The labourers have to work for 10 to 12 hours. Their dues are not calculated properly. Sometimes for theft of any material, labourers are charged.

Under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) a family obtains a hundred days of work. The works are generally related to construction (Road, bridge, ponds, irrigation dams etc.), and plantation. Though the Act envisages an employment which is free from the exploitation of workers by middlemen and contractors, but there are hidden contractors in this work who manage job card holders in such work. The work provided under this programme is not regular and it does not operate during the rainy season. To get job through the panchayat office is a tedious process, that encourages people to prefer obtaining work through a contractor. This preference is further induced by severe irregularities of payment for the job obtained under MGNREGA. Sometimes it takes months to get the wages. Receiving money through bank or post office is also another problem for the illiterate tribals. The hidden contractors take a portion of the wages from the labourers. The contractors also maintain fake job cards for such work and employ labourers on a considerably lower wage rate.

Animal Husbandry This mainly involves keeping goats and poultry. They are kept at home in which family labour is engaged. Their products are undervalued, as this work is generally undertaken due to poverty this job and severely lack bargaining power

In occupations like forest produce collection there are tremendous difficulties. These are seasonal jobs and production varies year to year, Most of the times collecting workers indulge in overexploitation of their physical energy, and what they get by selling the produce is much lower than the wages they would have earned if they had engaged themselves in some other jobs for the same amount of time. As poor forest dwellers have kuccha houses and lack any specialised storage space, very often their collections are damaged even before they are able to bring them to the market, There are some products which must be dried before preserving it and in the absence of any technology any unfavourable changes in the climate drastically affect their income. Due to poverty these workers sell their products during the harvesting time when market rates for these produces are terribly depressed, and they lack any power to bargain which traders exploit to their full advantage. Very often they are indebted to these traders-cum-moneylenders or mahajans whom they are obliged to sell these products at whatever rates they are offered. Sometimes while collecting forest produces these collectors are attacked by wild animals in the forest. There is rarely any state-owned collection centre for forest produces which would have provided them remunerative prices and a freedom from the greedy clutches of these local petty traders.

Preparing & selling liquor The production and selling rice beer (Handia and Rasi) and mahua (madhuca longifolia) liquor is quite prevalent in these areas. These are prepared at home and require access to nearest streams or other water sources. Liquor producers are highly vulnerable. Since liquor production is considered illegal, it is secretly undertaken by bribing the local police. Sometimes locally influential persons or goons collect liquors from these poor sellers by threatening them. The excise department sometimes raid villages and destroy facilities of these liquor sellers. Handia selling is generally done openly, but selling mahua liquor is done secretly by bribing the police, excise and forest department officials. Sometimes penal cases are lodged against liquor sellers and they are arrested.

Brick kiln work Preparing clay, shaping it into brick-blocks, drying them in the sun, putting them in the kiln for baking, and preparing them for shipping. The work in a brick kiln is occasional and done on a contract basis. Workers skilled in these tasks have to work as agricultural labourers on other days. As payments in a brick kiln is very irregular and are piece wages, workers tend to work for unspecified hours without any compensation for overtime.

Loading and unloading labourers This work generally involves loading soil, stones, sand, cement, rods, bricks etc. on tractors and mini trucks in the village, and unloading them. Labourers for this jobs are hired by contractors who get these jobs from various clients. Sometimes labourers themselves approach a contractor and/or tractor/truck drivers for such jobs. As the supply of labourers in these areas for such jobs are very high, many times labourers fail to obtain them or do them on payments far lower than the prevalent rates.

Transportation (Drivers and Helpers) Generally, tractor owners in the locality hire these drivers, not necessarily in their own villages. As there are less tractors in the area in comparison to the number of drivers, most of the drivers do not get jobs. They are paid on monthly/daily wage basis. But most of the times payment is irregular in both the cases. There are no holidays when a driver is hired on the monthly basis. He has to work for 10 to 12 hours in a day without having any overtime compensation for it. Sometimes if accidents happen damages to the vehicle are recovered from the salary of the drivers. At times, drivers get opportunities on small passenger vehicles (SUVs, etc). There is no fixed work-time in this work, and wages are quite low (at the most 4000/- per month).

Livestock grazing This job is mainly of two types. Firstly, in a village there are one or two families who do this job professionally. They take cows and goats from other families on a contract basis (Rs.20/- to 30/- per month per cow). Sometimes they collect food from hiring families. Secondly, some rich families in the village hire individual workers for the job on an annual contract, who look after their cows and do other jobs of these families. This job is not readily available in the village. Many times these people do not pay the agreed amount to cow grazers, . There is also irregular payment in this job. The amount they get is very low in comparison to the amount of their work. The annual contract labourers are exploited in many ways (no fixed time of work, unhealthy conditions of staying in the houses, low quality of food given to them, sometimes they are charged for theft of goods and damages etc).

Cooks in schools This is one of the rarest jobs in the village. This is obtained by lobbying with the elected members of a panchayat or legislators, government officials etc. They even have to indulge in bribing the officials for getting these jobs. Sometimes conflicts happen in the villages over obtaining this job position. They are not permanently aided jobs in the villages. They are posted on contractual basis and their salary is very low. They have to bribe even the school teachers or officials to continue the job and sometimes a part of their salary is siphoned away by the headmasters of these schools.

Anganwadi helper Only one person in a village gets this job. Their problems are similar to those of cooks described above. Most of the times, there are disputes in villages for getting this job. Their salary is very low and irregular. Anganwadi workers, supervisors and higher officials engage these helpers in other unrelated tasks and sometimes a part of their salary is kept by the anganwadi workers.

Carpenter A carpenter obtains work on a contractual basis, or on a daily wage basis generally by approaching the persons who require their work. Sometimes contractors and house owners hire these carpenters for construction and furniture making work. The demand for their labour is not always available in the village for which very often they have to remain either unemployed or engage as agricultural labourers. There is also an irregularity in payment for this work. Many times local forest officials take bribe from these carpenters.

As Migrants

As evident from the profiles for jobs available in the village given above, rural unemployment and underemployment are rampant phenomena, which lead workers to lead life in footlooseness and as migrant workers. Generally a part of family moves out seasonally, mostly male members, while others toil in the village. Our activist-researchers profiled the following jobs that rural workers undertake when they migrate.

Construction work The nature and problems of work is same as detailed above. Workers are either mobilised by contractors or through acquaintances who work with those contractors. Many times it is difficult for a new worker to get a job with the contractor, if he does not have proper contacts. The situation of masons is also similar – they obtain work through contractors and friends. Sometimes these masons have to work as unskilled labour in case of unavailability of work. Very often they remain unemployed during the rainy seasons, as construction work goes down during that time. But in recent days as industries are coming up in the proximity, construction workers are regularly engaged by companies through contractors. They work inside the campus of companies. Contractors hire workers from villages by sending vehicles. The wage rates are low in comparison to the amount and quality of work. Payments are irregular and a portion is generally kept by the contractors so that these labourers are readily available for subsequent days. Working hours are more than 10 hours. The journey from villages to the workplace is very risky and has to be done in overcrowded vans.

Brick kiln workers As we have already discussed the nature of work in a brick kiln, we would just mention that migrant brick kiln workers include those who cook for other workers. The contractor hires these labourers and sometime workers go in a group to other districts with their friends who work with particular contractors. Their working and living conditions are very low.

Security guard This involves watching the campuses of offices, companies, projects, petrol pumps, houses, construction sites etc. These jobs are obtained through friends working in the company and other sites. Sometimes workers have to appear for interviews to obtain such jobs. They do not get jobs easily. They have to wait for months in the town to get these jobs. They are paid less and irregularly. Their overtimes are not calculated properly. The supervisors and security officers exploit these guards. They are very often charged for theft of materials, which are then recovered from their salaries.

Sponge iron plant worker They get this job through their friends working in the plant. Only a few are able to avail these jobs. Although they are paid on monthly basis, yet they have to work for more hours. They do not get necessary support during accidents in the factory or for any health problems. They have to work for 10 to 12 hours daily for the same wages.

Plastic plant labourer They work there as construction workers or on some daily wage work of carrying load, packing etc. They get these jobs through their friends already working there. Only few get these jobs. They are paid on a monthly basis, but working hours are generally extended and not remunerated.

Dhaba work This generally involves working as a Dhaba boy – cleaning plates, supplying water by carrying it on the shoulders, killing and dressing chickens etc. Such job is obtained through personal contacts. Only few get this job as there are limited dhabas in the area. The wage rate is low and working time is more than 14 hours a day. The payment is also irregular. The conditions of staying are very unhealthy, dues are rarely cleared on time by the owner, who regularly mistreats the worker.

Drivers This is mainly for driving trucks, tractors and sometimes for driving small passenger vehicles. These jobs are generally availed through friends and acquaintances who are themselves involved in such jobs. Sometimes workers approach the vehicle owners personally, and not rarely, they are even promoted from being helpers to drivers on same vehicles or on other vehicles. As this is a skilled job, a few are able to engage in it. Getting a driving license is another problem for qualifying for this job. The payment is irregular and working hours are not fixed. They are charged for damages to vehicles in accidents etc. The owners very often misbehave with the drivers.

Work at Stone Crushers This involves carrying loads, breaking big stones, loading and unloading works etc. A crusher owner comes to the village for hiring labourers. Sometimes old workers at the crusher are sent by the owner to their own villages for mobilising labourers for the crusher. The crusher has limited capacity to absorb labour for which a few can get such jobs. Irregular payments, more working hours etc. are general problems.

Kabadi (scrap) collection This involves collecting kabadi materials for kabadi shopkeepers in townships and urban areas. Workers have to approach personally for this job. This is a rare job. Only one person in the areas surveyed has got the job. Although the payment is on a monthly basis, yet it is quite irregular. No fixed time for such work. The dues of the labourer is not cleared always.

There are other odd jobs that some workers from these villages have undertaken, like working in car painting workshops and in an Ashram’s cow shed. These jobs are obtained through contacts, have no fixed working hours, payments are very irregular and low. Workers work and stay in unhealthy conditions.

There are some cases of occupational hazards suffered by sponge iron plant workers, drivers, helpers and construction workers. For instance, there are two persons in the area who suffered injuries in sponge iron plants, one of them lost one eye and another suffered injuries in his leg. The worker who lost his one eye could only get Rs. 20,000/- from the owner and was sent back to the village. The other person got only Rs.10,000/- for his injury. More shocking fact is that due to illiteracy, these labourers do not know even the names of their companies where they worked. The drivers and helpers very often suffer accidental injuries for which they hardly get any proper compensation from vehicle owners. On the contrary, many times despite injuries suffered by them, any damage to the vehicles in these accidents are recovered from their salary. Some construction workers who suffered injuries did not get any compensation, except that they obtained some first aid help and were transported back to their respective villages.


Jan Breman (2013) At Work in the Informal Economy of India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volumes 12, 28, 30 and 35, Progress Publishers, Moscow.

Michael Savage (1987) The Dynamics of Working Class Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mario Tronti, “Factory and Society” (1962) & “Lenin in England” (1964), Available online on several websites.

The last section is essentially a joint work as it is the summary of a labour mapping exercise undertaken in a few extremely poor villages of Odisha in the year 2013, in which local activists linked with the network of Shramjibi Vichar Kendra Odisha were involved.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

November 20, 2015 at 3:25 am

Marxism in academia – don’t lament, but fight!!!

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I have never been comfortable with lamenting over the marginalisation of Marxism in academia, in which many comrades time to time indulge. In fact, there is no such marginalisation happening globally – just look at the publishing projects of Marxists throughout the globe, with books priced exorbitantly. Of course, this Marxism is not meant for activists – they can be fed with free blogs and free tweets/fb entries (even these are accessible to a tiny minority only)! A senior ‘Marxist’ in Delhi once told a students conference in the early 1990s, how much she and her colleagues have contributed in Marxism – the only job left for leaders and activists now is to put that knowledge in use. Perhaps the neoliberal rightwing assault on this academic comfort (and liberalism, which liberalised Marxism too) gives an opportunity to liberate Marxist theorisations, regrounding them in real class struggle and proletarian practice (even in academia).

David Laibman correctly historicised this state of Marxism and its implications in his 1997 book, Capitalist Macrodynamics:

The shifts in political and economic power have… been accompanied by ideological transformations as well. Marxism, having been largely removed from its earlier position of influence in the labor movement and other social spheres, has taken refuge in the academy. There, under intense intellectual pressure, a certain fragmentation has taken place, as the formerly unitary Marxist world view has conformed to the disciplinary specialisations: thus we have ‘Marxist sociology’, ‘Marxist economics’, and so on. The unifying generalizations of historical materialism have also come under continuous fire, as Marxists have retreated to more ‘defensible’ positions.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

July 27, 2015 at 3:58 am

On the question of class mentality and politics

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Considering the casual drafting of my last post, a comrade from Odisha, Satyabrata has rightly demanded a clarification. With his due permission I am quoting from his letter:

The difference between what you have called “existential mentality of any normal individual worker with or without a regular employment.” and the “peasant/petty bourgeois mentality of the left leadership and intellectuals that does not allow them to see such a simple fact” is not clear, since individual thinking capacities of the left leadership and intellectuals can also be seen in the same lines as the workers. That being the case, we would have a workers movement as ‘desired.’

When I say “existential mentality”, it is representative of a worker’s individual material need to reproduce labour – as himself and his family. One can reasonably ask what happens to double freedom that capitalism bestows on labour once a worker becomes propertied. But what does this freedom do? It creates an ever growing mass of surplus population from and to which workers are drawn and expelled. But this reserve must be sustained. In the West and other classical capitalist economies, this is generally accomplished by providing doles and other anti-poverty measures by the State. However, in the late capitalist economies where there is an excess of surplus “freed” population, the chattel must graze on its own. Effectively, the postmodern slaves are triply free – they are free to fend for themselves when nobody seeks their labour. Whether as genuinely unemployed, i.e., as floating surplus, or as petty commodity producer, i.e., as latent surplus, or, even as beggars, looters, shirkers and vagabonds, i.e., as lumpen proletarians, they must survive.

When we talk about the petty bourgeois/peasant mentality, it too represents survivalism – but of small and dwindling capital in the competitive race of capital accumulation. It seeks to overcome its pettiness against all other big and small capitalist interests. Therefore petty-bourgeois interests are difficult to combine, but when they do get represented, they feed the most reactionary politico-ideological position in bourgeois polity – that of anti-capitalist capitalism.

The leftist politics in India has emerged as united frontism – of combining petty bourgeois interests with the existential needs of the individuated sections of the working class. This unity results into a nationalist, anti-monopoly (now anti-corporate) politics. The working class consciousness acquired in the operation of capital-labour conflicts is effectively fragmented, class experience becomes sectional and is reduced to individuated narratives of victimisation and powerlessness, and workers are made one with the ideal of bourgeois political economy – of an average (petty) bourgeois citizen.

It is interesting to note that in Marx’ writings there is generally an anti-representationist conception of the working class, the only class capable of self-emancipation, and therefore of emancipating the humanity. On the other hand, the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry are “sacks of potatoes”, “incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name”‘ but whose “political influence…finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.”

Rabid statism and the bloody internecine competition to acquire the throne of the True Representative are the hallmarks of Bonapartism, be it of left or right varieties. They must reduce all the classes to a mere mass “formed by the simple addition of homonymous magnitude.” Of course, they can’t accomplish this in reality, and definitely not permanently, but it is possible to attain this at least in their own imagination, i.e., ideologically. In the imagination of the Left too, even the working class as a mass “cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above.” The Leninist leftists have forgotten even Lenin’s time to time recognition of continuous anti-statism as the constant of proletarian politics and revolution, even when in a particular context state power is thrust over the revolutionaries as a historical necessity.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

April 30, 2015 at 1:42 am


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This is a note for a TU workshop in Odisha to be held in December (2014)

1. The mobility of capital and precarity of labour characterise the neoliberal transition of the economy. It is the fear of capital’s mobility that regiments governments to do everything in their capacity to make capital stay. Odisha’s government has similarly demonstrated its willingness to submit the tremendous natural wealth in the state to attract corporate capital, disregarding and even crushing every popular opposition.

2. In these more than two decades of implementing neoliberal policies, entailing a process of accumulation by dispossession has transformed the rural areas into an appendage to this developmental process. The dispossessed communities have been mobilised to support this process in the name of employment generation.

3. However, what we see today is a complete transition of rural areas into a vast reserve of “relative surplus population”, completely at the beck and call of corporate interests as cheap and dispensable workforce. This has changed the character of social and land relations in these areas. The integration in neoliberal capitalism has reinforced the subsistence character of agriculture. Instead of the productivistic and industrial character of capitalist agriculture, which can be found in restricted pockets, we find the function of the village economy being predominantly to sustain surplus population – to subsidise the cost of reproducing labour power of the floating and latent reserve army of labourers, thus ensuring an abundant supply of cheap labour force. This is statistically evidenced by the fact that Odisha is among a few states where the primary source of rural income is wage-labour, not profitability on agriculture.

4. It is this context in which the new social movement must be recognised and strengthened. The intensified process of proletarianisation that made various segments of population anxious in the 80s-90s and provided a ground for the rise of competitive identity struggles, is now rendering an opportunity for coordination and networking across identitarian and segmental divides.

5. The hegemonic institutions and ideologies continue to enforce divisions, of which Odisha has been a hotbed in recent years. But the prospect of countering this too has become stronger. Those who were working with tribals, dalits, forest dwellers and other marginal sections of the society, asserting their traditional exclusivist rights and livelihood are increasingly realising the re-signification of their work in the new context.

6. For instance, the institution of MGNREGA, whatever be its role in realpolitiks and in the management of migration, has made a drastic contribution in reenvisaging rural struggles. Wage and employment suddenly emerged at the core of rural struggles, and rural workers their vanguard. This fact has given new meanings to the activities that these workers do to sustain themselves – in forest, on land, in cooperatives, in SHGs, as migrants. A continuum can be easily visualised across reproductive and productive engagements of these workers that can provide an opportunity for recognising forms of struggles and organisations that can coordinate with one another. It is this critical awareness about workers’ struggles and organisations which needs to be strengthened and disseminated. This awareness is not something that can be reified and frozen, it needs to be transformed into a constant alertness and sensitivity towards the dynamism of class struggle.

7. Organisational forms are frameworks through which we try to grasp the daily struggles of the working class, which are waged at various levels of collectivity. When we talk about the “unorganised” nature of the working class today, it is essentially the crisis of existing organisational forms which are finding it difficult to comprehend the patterns in daily class struggle and in new forms of self-organisation and self-activity that evolve within these struggles. This crisis is productive in the sense that it gives an opportunity to the institutionalised labour movement to reground itself in the new conjuncture of class struggle characterised by informalisation, casualisation and contractualisation of the work process, which has drastically recomposed the working class.

8. As stated earlier, today in Odisha, too, we find a stable State totally committed to neoliberal development and industrialisation systematically transferring the infrastructure and natural resources for corporate profiteering. It is a tremendous task before the already marginalised labour movement here to organise itself to confront this sudden expansion of capitalist hegemony in every sector of economic activity. We find an intensification of primitive accumulation through old methods like land acquisition, deforestation, etc, coupled with new instruments of financialisation (chit funds etc.). This has intensified the process of proletarianisation, which along with an expansion of urban and semi-urban economies has drastically transformed the role of the village economy and agriculture – that of predominantly sustaining surplus population or footloose labour.

9. The increasing population of unemployed and underemployed youth being exploited as cheap and casual labour is an important element of the recomposed working class today. With no job security and an intensified competition for jobs of cheap, casual and contractual nature, today’s workers are vulnerable to all kinds of manipulations by state agencies (that includes political formations) which are reflected in sectarian conflicts on communal/caste lines, between ‘native’ and ‘outsiders’ etc. A recent significant case of such manipulation was visible in Talcher where the old contractor and the new contractor of loading/unloading activities in Talcher mines who were associated with main parliamentary political parties in Odisha used workers for violently settling their scores. It is in this lethal situation that the labour movement finds itself today, already mired by marginalisation and fragmentation on political lines. It poses the importance of autonomous workers’ organisations grounded in daily conflicts between labour and capital.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

November 4, 2014 at 5:26 am

Posted in India, Labour, Orissa, Working Class

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Introducing Marx’s “Wage Labour and Capital”

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This text in Hindi has been written to introduce the Oriya translation of Marx’s “Wage Labour and Capital”. It mainly emphasises on the political reading of the text and of Marx’s other “economic” writings.

परिचय: श्रम और पूंजी के बीच सम्बन्ध – अर्थशास्त्र और राजनीति
(Introduction: The Labour-Capital Relationship – Economics and Politics)

मार्क्स की एक बात जिसे सबसे गलत ढंग से समझा गया है वह है उनका आर्थिक मूलाधार का सिद्धांत – कि तमाम मानवीय गतिविधियों का मूलाधार आर्थिक है. विरोधियों ने इस बात को पकड़ कर यह साबित करने की कोशिश की कि मार्क्स पूरे मानवीय सामाजिकता को आर्थिक संरचना का ऊपरी ढांचा मात्र मानते हैं. अतएव उनकी नज़र में मानवीय सोच और व्यवहार पूरी तरह से अर्थ-तंत्र द्वारा निर्धारित एवं परिभाषित हैं, उनकी अपनी कोई आन्तरिकता नहीं है, उनके विकास का अपना नियम नहीं है, उनकी स्वतःस्फूर्तता और अभिव्यक्ति पूर्णतः आर्थिक सन्दर्भ का नतीजा है.

दूसरी तरफ, मार्क्सवादियों ने मार्क्स के बचाव में कई तरह की व्याख्याएं दीं जिनका निचोड़ बस इतना है कि मार्क्स की समझ में आर्थिक मूलाधार होते हुए भी वह सब कुछ नहीं है. ग्रंथों पर ग्रन्थ लिखे गए मार्क्स के समझ की समृद्धि दिखाने के लिए – यह दर्शाने के लिए कि उनकी संस्कृति, साहित्य, राजनीति आदि की समझ कितनी समृद्ध थी. अवश्य ही इन सब से मार्क्सवाद और पैना हुआ तथा उसका अथाह विकास जो हम आज देख रहे हैं संभव हो सका.

परन्तु एक ज़रूरी चिंता जो इन तमाम बौद्धिकताओं के नीचे कहीं दब सी गयी – वह थी मार्क्स के चिंतन प्रक्रिया में आखिरकार आर्थिक मूलाधार का अर्थ क्या था. अधिकांश मार्क्सवादी पंडितों ने भी आर्थिक को अर्थ-शास्त्रीय चश्मे से ही देखा, जबकि मार्क्स का पूरा “सैद्धांतिक व्यवहार” अर्थ-शास्त्र की आलोचना पर टिका था. उन्होंने यह समझने की कोशिश की कि कैसे अर्थ-शास्त्रीय नियोजन मानवीय समाज की अस्तित्वपरकता को, उन मौलिक संघर्षों को, जिनके आधार पर पूरी सामाजिक आर्थिक संरचनाएं बनती और बिगड़ती हैं, ढांपता है. मार्क्स ने अपनी आलोचनाओं द्वारा उन शास्त्रीय और व्यवस्थापरक पर्दों को हटाकर पूंजीवादी सामाजिक-आर्थिक संरचना में गतिमान मानवीय श्रम – उसकी रचनात्मकता – पर आधिपत्य के लिए होते दैनिक संघर्षों के धरातल और नियमों को समझने की कोशिश की. उन्होंने पूंजीवादी व्यवस्था के तहत, उत्पादन के साधनों के ऊपर निजी और अपवर्जनात्मक अधिकारों से पैदा हुए मानवीय श्रम और उसकी रचनात्मकता के बीच अलगाव को समझा. उन्होंने दिखाया कि पूंजी वह सामाजिक सम्बन्ध है जिसके तहत जीवित श्रम को संचित श्रम की मूल्य रक्षा और वृद्धि के साधन मात्र में तब्दील कर दिया जाता है. पूरी सामाजिक संरचना – आर्थिक और राजनैतिक व्यवस्था – इसी सम्बन्ध को कायम रखने में मदद करती है.

मार्क्स की इस समझदारी ने अवश्य ही कई परिष्कृत सिद्धांतों को जन्म दिया, पर ये सिद्धांत कोई सैद्धांतिक अटखेलियों के लिए नहीं थे, बल्कि वे मार्क्स के राजनैतिक पहल का नतीजा थे. उनके लिए यथार्थ हमेशा सम्बन्धात्मक और गतिमान होता है, जिसमे अंतर्विरोधों की नियामक भूमिका होती है. यही वजह है पूंजी और श्रम के बीच के अंतर्विरोधात्मक परन्तु गतिशील सम्बन्ध की विशेषताओं के अध्ययन को वह आवश्यक समझते थे. जहां अर्थशास्त्री पूंजी-श्रम के सम्बन्ध को महज तकनीकी और प्रबंधकीय समझते हैं, वहां मार्क्स इस सम्बन्ध में अंतर्विरोधात्मकता को दिखाकर उसके राजनैतिक स्वरूप को उजागर करते हैं.

उन्नीसवीं सदी पूंजीवादी-औद्योगिक विकास के वैश्विक फैलाव और उसके बढ़ते अंतर्विरोधों का दौर था. कई तरह के सामाजिक विद्रोह पैदा हो रहे थे – अधिकांश तबकों का सर्वहाराकरण हो रहा था और मजदूर वर्ग सुसंगत शक्ति के रूप में ऐतिहासिक पटल पर पहली बार उभर रहा था. मार्क्स का दार्शनिक और राजनैतिक विकास इसी दौर में, यूरोप के क्रान्तिकारी मजदूरों के सरोकारों के बीच हुआ. इसी ने उनके वैचारिक चिंताओं को जन्म दिया.

“मजदूरी श्रम और पूंजी” मार्क्स के इसी राजनैतिक और सैद्धांतिक परिश्रम का आरंभिक नतीजा थी. उन्होंने पुस्तिका के आरम्भ में ही यह साफ़ कर दिया है कि किसी भी आन्दोलन का, “चाहे उसका लक्ष्य वर्ग-संघर्ष से कितना ही दूर क्यों न मालूम होता हो,” प्रगतिशील निष्कर्ष इस पर निर्धारित है कि उसमे मजदूर वर्ग की हिस्सेदारी किस प्रकार की है – वह कितनी निर्णायक है. मार्क्स की आर्थिक विवेचना इसी वर्ग-संघर्ष के मौलिक धरातल को समझने का, वर्गों के आपसी संरचनात्मक एवं विरोधात्मक सम्बंधों में परिवर्तनकारी संभावनाएं देखने का प्रयास है. यह विवेचना अर्थ-तंत्र की निष्पक्ष जाँच नहीं है, बल्कि ऐसी निष्पक्षता का दावा करते सामाजिक और आर्थिक “वैज्ञानिकों” का माखौल उड़ाती है. मार्क्स दिखाते हैं किस प्रकार आर्थिक तत्वों के तकनीकी पक्ष दिखाने के नाम पर इन पंडितों ने ज्यादा से ज्यादा सतही प्रक्रियाओं को ही दिखाया है – उन्होंने उनमे छिपे मानव सम्बंधों और संघर्षों को पूरी तरह से नज़रंदाज़ ही नहीं किया, वरन तकनीकी शब्दावलियों और विश्लेषणों के परत पर परत चढ़ाकर उनकी सच्चाई को ढांप दिया.

मार्क्स अपने विश्लेषणों द्वारा इन्ही संबंधों और संघर्षों की जांच करते हैं और उनकी मौलिकता को उजागर करते हैं. वह दिखाते हैं किस प्रकार से इन संबंधों और संघर्षों के तहत एक तरफ पूंजी मानवीय श्रम का अधिकाधिक जीन्सीकरण करने को उतारू (या कहें मजबूर) है, क्योंकि इस प्रक्रिया के फैलाव और गहनता में ही उसका जीवन है. इस प्रक्रिया के तहत श्रमिक श्रम-शक्ति देने वाला महज एक मशीन बन जाता है – श्रमिक के श्रम और उसकी रचनात्मकता को ही निचोड़ कर पूंजी को सतत नया जीवन मिलता है. परन्तु मार्क्स के लिए यह प्रक्रिया निश्चित नहीं है – वह संघर्ष है क्योंकि श्रमिक अपने मशीनीकरण, अर्थात श्रम-शक्ति से श्रम खींचने की प्रक्रिया, का लगातार चेतन-अवचेतन तौर पर विरोध करता है.

यह संघर्ष केवल उत्पादन प्रक्रिया में ही नहीं होता, बल्कि पूरे सामाजिक स्तर पर होता है. आखिरकार श्रमिक को श्रम बाजार में भी तो लाना होगा – जिसके लिए उसे मजबूर करना होगा. श्रमजीवियों का मजदूरीकरण अथवा सर्वहाराकरण ज़रूरी है. उसको भूमि और अन्य साधनों के बंधनों से मुक्त करना ज़रूरी है, तभी वह अपनी श्रम-शक्ति का व्यापार करने को मुक्त होगा. श्रम की यही “दोहरी मुक्ति” पूंजीवादी समाज व्यवस्था की नीव है. यही मुक्ति मजदूर-दासता की शुरुआत है. इस व्यवस्था के कायम रहने के लिए इस दोहरी मुक्ति को बनाए रखना आवश्यक है. श्रमिक के पास इतना हो कि वह अगले दिन काम के लिए तैयार हो पाए, और बस इतना ही हो कि वो काम के लिए तैयार रहने के लिए मजबूर हो. अतः उत्पादन प्रक्रिया की तैयारी में ही संघर्ष के तत्व मौजूद हैं, जो अपने दूसरे तेवर के साथ उस प्रक्रिया के अंतर्गत दिखाई देते है.

मुक्ति ही दासता है, सहमति ही जोर-जबरदस्ती है – पूंजीवाद की विशिष्टता उसके अंतर-द्वंद्व हैं, उसका दोहरापन है – पर यह द्वंद्व अथवा दोहरापन असल में पूंजी और श्रम के बीच हो रहे संघर्ष की सामरिक भाषा है. पूंजी के लिए मुक्ति, श्रम के लिए दासता है. मार्क्स इसी संघर्ष को पूंजीवादी समाज का आर्थिक मूलाधार मानते हैं – दूसरे शब्द में कहें, यही उनका आर्थिक मूलाधार का ‘राजनैतिक’ सिद्धांत है.

“मजदूरी-श्रम और पूंजी” एक ऐसी अनूठी पुस्तिका है जो कि मार्क्स की एक अधूरी कृति होते हुए भी पूंजीवादी विकास के भिन्न अवस्थाओं में नीहित श्रम-पूंजी संघर्ष की केन्द्रीयता को पहचानने में मदद करती है. भारत में अब कोई ऐसा कोना नहीं बचा जो पूंजीवाद से अछूता हो, और हम एहसास कर सकते हैं तमाम व्यक्तिगत और सामाजिक संघर्षों में पूंजीवादी अंतर्विरोधों को. मगर उन्हें पहचानने और इन संघर्षों के बीच सम्बन्ध स्थापित करने के लिए मार्क्स द्वारा विकसित सैद्धांतिक हथियारों की आज भी ज़रुरत है. “मजदूरी श्रम और पूंजी” भी कुछ ऐसे महत्वपूर्ण हथियार प्रदान करती है.

नोट: हिंदी में इस पुस्तिका का अनुवाद “उजरती श्रम और पूंजी” के नाम से किया गया है.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

August 6, 2013 at 12:35 am

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