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On Rights Politics and Migrant Workers

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These notes were prepared for a discussion in Delhi on a report on the condition of migrant workers in Delhi, Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu (October 6 2017).


1. The two significant aspects of demand and right politics are – firstly, they are grounded in the immediate social needs that are framed within a structure. Secondly, they are attempts to establish a discourse with the state machinery – hence they are discursively circumscribed within the field of social relations. Thus, they are necessarily reform oriented, but they need not be reformist. The questions of rights, reforms and demands are unavoidable guerrilla struggles, which build the capacity of workers to organise larger movements. But do these struggles mean deferring the final movement that targets the very structural and superstructural setup that give language to those social needs? No, because they also test the vulnerabilities of the system and can become endeavours to burrow through it the final escape or emancipation. Every moment is a moment for both reform and revolution, and also reaction. When a movement is able to transcend its initial demands, to go on to attack the present social relations and to reorganise them then it becomes revolutionary. When the movement attempts to take the leap, but fails, then reaction happens. When the movement is not ready to take any leap beyond or reneges at the last moment, reform and/or reaction can happen, depending on the level of crisis in the system.

2. However, because the rights politics in itself is concerned with achievements of the rights and demands, at its own level will be geared towards negotiations and bargains, and impressing upon the state machinery, rather than changing the social relations themselves. Even the trade union politics is embedded in this kind of relationship. There is nothing in these forms that makes them question the structure of that relationship between workers and capitalists, or in the former case between workers and the state. The danger of reformism comes from this. But once again, as a conscious part of the larger movement against the structure of present social relations they play a crucial role of waging guerrilla struggles. But what does this signify? Then how do we define the working class politics? Also what will be the organisational question which balances between reform and revolution?

3. When we talk about workers’ politics, it is grounded in the dialectic of competition and collectivity. Marx captured this very aptly, when he said: “Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association.” The politics that is premised upon the segmentation of the workers vs the politics of ever-expanding combination and association, that is grounded in the everyday interaction among workers. The latter is not a mechanical aggregation or unity of isolated workers with similar grievances or demands, but a combination or network that is built in their daily conflict with state and capital. Only an expansion of this network has the capacity to refuse to be subsumed by capital and its network. In this, demands are definitely raised but are incidental. In this framework, demands and rights play the role of testing the system’s vulnerabilities and the organisational strength of the expanding combination.


4. Migration is not just a fact, but also an act. It is not fully incidental that a word for migration in Hindi is पलायन (the more formal word is प्रवास). The former is very rich, often used as a stigma – one of its meaning being running away or an escapist act. In my view, it is this sense that renders the act of migration politically rich. Migration is not just a spatial fix, a response of the weak to the immediate contingencies of life. It is also a rebellious withdrawal, an escape, a long march against “the current state of affairs.” It is an act of refusal, non-acceptance of the lot. As an immediate spatial fix it demonstrates the weak agency of the migrant – a weakness in mastering the system. But it also has a utopian element that makes any human agency restless, that may come one time as an escape, another time as an emancipation, especially when individual weakness becomes a ground for collective subjectivity. Wasn’t this Ambedkar’s intention when he advised dalits to escape villages?

5. Legal Unionism is bound to consider migrant and mobile workers unreliable for their purpose – it simply cannot rely on them. On the other hand, social unionism which seeks to overcome the limits of traditional unionism is caught up in the discourse of non-conflictuality and negotiations with state (which in turn is problematically conceptualised). Hence for this school too it is always about accommodation – creating space for the migrants, not about problematising the whole space itself which is the etatised field of labour-capital relations. Therefore the vagrancy and mobility of proletarians are something to be shed off, not to be made a ground to imagine an overhauling of social relations and ideologies. Hence migrants as migrants are suspects, to be always put in the peripheries of organised politics. But different revolutions have shown how it was mostly settled workers’ organisations, afraid of losing their accumulated privileges, developed petty bourgeois tendencies and were unable to go beyond the legal fights when required, unless workers revolted and autonomously organised themselves.

6. Right from Karl Marx, Marxists have understood the relationship of workers mobility and their political consciousness. Lenin provides an insight into the poltical meaning of migration and demonstrates how to think about workers beyond their victimhood and our philanthropist vanguardism:

“There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.”

“Thus, Russia is punished everywhere and in everything for her backwardness. But compared with the rest of the population, it is the workers of Russia who are more than any others bursting out of this state of backwardness and barbarism, more than any others combating these “delightful” features of their native land, and more closely than any others uniting with the workers of all countries into a single international force for emancipation.

“The bourgeoisie incites the workers of one nation against those of another in the endeavour to keep them disunited. Class-conscious workers, realising that the breakdown of all the national barriers by capitalism is inevitable and progressive, are trying to help to enlighten and organise their fellow-workers from the backward countries.”

7. In recent years, Negri (and Hardt) repeats the same in the language of our times:

“Traditionally the various kinds of migrant workers, including permanent immigrants, seasonal laborers, and hobos, were excluded from the primary conception and political organization of the working class. Their cultural differences and mobility divided them from the stable, core figures of labor. In the contemporary economy, however, and with the labor relations of post-Fordism, mobility increasingly defines the labor market as a whole, and all categories of labor are tending toward the condition of mobility and cultural mixture common to the migrant. Not only are workers are forced to change jobs several times during a career, they are also required to move geographically for extended periods or even commute long distances on a daily basis. Migrants may often travel empty-handed in conditions of extreme poverty, but even then they are full of knowledges, languages, skills, and creative capacities: each migrant brings with him or her an entire world, Whereas the great European migrations of the past were generally directed toward some space “outside,” toward what were conceived as empty spaces, today many great migrations move instead toward fullness, toward the most wealthy and privileged areas of the globe…

“Part of the wealth of migrants is their desire for something more, their refusal to accept the way things are. Certainly most migrations are driven by the need to escape conditions of violence, starvation, or depravation, but together with that negative condition there is also the positive desire for wealth, peace and freedom. This combined act of refusal and expression of desire is enormously powerful…. Ironically, the great global centers of wealth that call on migrants to fill a lack in their economies get more than they bargained for, since the immigrants invest the entire society with their subversive desires. The experience of flights is something like a training of the desire for freedom.

“Migrations, furthermore, teach us about the geographical division and hierarchies of the global system of command. Migrants understand and illuminate the gradients of danger and security, poverty and wealth, the markets of higher and lower wages, and the situations of more and less free forms of life. And with this knowledge of the hierarchies they roll uphill as much as possible, seeking wealth and freedom, power and joy. Migrants recognize the geographical hierarchies of the system and yet treat the globe as one common space, serving as living testimony to the irreversible fact of globalization. Migrants demonstrate (and help construct) the general commonality of the multitude by crossing and thus partially undermining every geographical barrier.”


Written by Pratyush Chandra

October 24, 2017 at 2:16 am

Notes on Rohith Vemula’s Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marx pushes the argument further by inserting:

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

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

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


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

Written by Pratyush Chandra

February 19, 2016 at 10:50 pm

The Standpoint of the Unemployed

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Our task in this note is to locate the unemployed in the social structure of capitalism and its dynamics. We cannot undertake this without simultaneously identifying them as forming a social subject that contributes in the critique of capitalist political economy. It essentially means relating the subject position with what it does. In a more sophisticated language, it means deciphering in this particular case the locus of the unemployed in the dialectic of the technical and political composition and recomposition of the working class. It is our contention that the standpoint of the unemployed as a social subject provides to the critique of political economy and labour politics access to the darkest and invisible corners of capital relations. This standpoint emerges from the unemployed’s apparent marginality in the capitalist system, their peculiar positioning within capital relations – their compulsion to sell their labour power, but inability to do so. (Dinerstein 2001)

The Marxist treatment of unemployment goes much deeper than the economics of unemployment which treats it at the level of appearance as cyclical and a problem of market clearance. Marx relates it to the logic of capitalist accumulation and treats it as “a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production.” Here we rely on Marx’s analysis of “the reserve army of unemployed paupers” and relative surplus population. Through our deliberation upon the informal economy, we seek to demonstrate that the informalisation of work processes in the era of globally dispersed Fordism has brought the unemployed to the centre of labour politics.


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

When Proust lends himself to being read through Marx

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“…sometimes a man will appear in society for whom it has no ready-made character or at least none that is not being used at the moment by somebody else. First they give him one that doesn’t suit him at all. If he is a man of real originality and there is nothing his size in stock, incapable of trying to understand him, society ostracizes him; unless, of course, he can gracefully play the young juvenile who is always in demand.”
–Proust, ‘Fragments from Italian Comedy’ (Pleasures and Regrets)

This “man of real originality” that Proust presents us with is meant to articulate the exorcism of his very own predicament – the predicament of his writerly practice to be precise. How does one enter “society”, and mingle in it, in order to be able to critically reveal it for what it is: an economy of fetishised appearances? That is, how does a writer such as Proust ensure that his critique of “society”, as an economy of fetishised appearances – a regime of exchange-values or value-relation, to take recourse to Marx’s terminology – in being situated within that economy of value relation is not itself reduced to a fetish; an ideology?

But then who or what is this “man of real originality”? Marx writes in Capital, Volume I: “Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use-values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use-values, but use-values for others, social use-values (And not only for others, without more. The mediaeval peasant produced quit-rent-corn for his feudal lord and tithe-corn for his parson. But neither the quit-rent-corn nor the tithe-corn became commodities by reason of the fact that they had been produced for others, whom it will serve as a use-value, by means of exchange.) In that light, we can perhaps say that Proust’s “man of real originality” is someone who produces himself only in order to have that production of the self serve the fact of its own existence. He is one who “directly satisfies his wants (to be or to exist) with the produce of his own labour (the labour of producing himself as his own being or existence).”

Clearly, therefore, he is as that “man of real originality” a use-value and its creator, but not a commodity and its producer. And that is because by virtue of being a “man of real originality”, somebody for whom “there is nothing his size in (society’s) stock, he is not a “social use-value”. That is to say, his existence or being is not something that has “been produced for others, whom it will serve as a use-value, by means of exchange”.

The fact that Proust’s “man of real originality” is so precisely because “there is nothing his size in (society’s) stock” is an apposite demonstration of him being a use-value that is, however, not a commodity. Which is to say, he as his own existence or being is a use-value that cannot and does not enter his historically contemporary relation of exchange, or value relation. That “society ostracizes him” symptomatises precisely that. His being a “man of real originality” is doubtless a use-value, but one that is not a “social use-value”. That is to say “a man of real originality” is the singularity of means as its own end.

Proust’s “man of real originality” is being or conation as determinate subtraction, and thus destructive excess, from the economy of fetishised appearances, or exchange/value relation. For, no ostracisation (or exclusion) by society can ever be truly and fully accomplished as long as society exists to identify, and thus include, the ostracised as thus ostracised. Clearly then, full ostracisation of something or someone by society can be truly accomplished only when society as a historically concrete realisation of the mode of valorisation and identification – that is, as the mode of exchange relation and value relation – ceases to be. That Proust’s affirmation of a “man of real originality” is also his affirmation of ostracisation by society thought to its farthest extremity is amply evident when he envisions, in ‘A Young Girl’s Confession’ (in Pleasures and Regrets), “the option of solitude” as “the final decision”, “the choice”, “the truly free act”. And such solitude, as the affirmation of ostracisation by society thought to its farthest extremity, would be a radical solitude, which in turn, would be nothing save communism as the universalisability of the singular.

An observation on why Spinoza’s conception of the ethical is materialist

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“We see that this natural Divine law does not demand the performance of ceremonies—that is, actions in themselves indifferent, which are called good from the fact of their institution, or actions symbolizing something profitable for salvation, or (if one prefers this definition) actions of which the meaning surpasses human understanding. The natural light of reason does not demand anything which it is itself unable to supply, but only such as it can very clearly show to be good, or a means to our blessedness. Such things as are good, simply because they have been commanded or instituted, or as being symbols of something good, are mere shadows which cannot be reckoned among actions that are the offspring, as it were, or fruit of a sound mind and intellect.”
–Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise

A rather obvious reading of the above passage would be to see it as a version of the fantasy of pure reason. But then we could also follow in Macherey and Althusser’s ‘Spinozist’ footsteps and read this quite differently. Spinoza’s god is the singularity of being and reason — a la the Spinozist conatus. His conatus or being can, therefore, be construed as the uninterruptedly, as opposed to sequentially, continuous excess of symbols that are deposited in and as the determinate moments constitutive of precisely this infinitely excessive, and thus dispersive and non-teleological movement, and which as those symbolic deposits tend to acquire a life of their own by getting instituted as commands (or, as Spinoza would say, human laws). That Spinoza conceives of being as a willing-knowing singularity becomes evident if we follow, later in this text, his explication of god as the concomitance of willing of things that come to comprise the world and the knowledge of those things.

Read in this manner, this Spinozist ‘version of the fantasy of pure reason’ can be envisaged, as it indeed is by Althusserians, as a theoretical mode to ground the practice of ideology-critique, which as that practice is derived from Marx’s articulation of his dialectical method as the theory of critique of political economy. Following Marx, who adopted Hegel’s dialectic only to see it precisely as the inverted reflection of the antagonism to the dialectic itself, Althusserians, particularly Macherey, would read ideology — which Althusser quite correctly characterised as the movement of its own displacement — as the image, or symptom, of its own absence, void or impossibility. And this is an approach that can arguably be read off Spinoza, including from his unambiguous suggestion here that “symbols of something good, are mere shadows” of that good.

The reason why Spinoza is open to such a reading is possibly because his thinking of being a la conatus — which for him is also, at once, “the offspring, as it were, or fruit of a sound mind and intellect” — precludes the need for it to be the ground for some kind of a moral law. In Kant, on the other hand, we have the moral law kick in as retroactive rationalisation (read metaphysicalisation) — and thus prospective regimentation — of multiple instantiations of pure reason as practical reason.

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