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The Economics of India’s Cow Fetishism

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I think what intensified bovine politics in India is achieving is a sort of primitive accumulation in the livestock industry. It goes remarkably well with the concentration and centralisation of money and tax economies through the more formal measures like GST and demonetisation. These measures kill the autonomy of dispersed economic structures and fit them to the suction nodes of the neoliberal net of finance capital. The liberal and Keynesian economists have criticised many of these measures on the ground that they will destroy local economies and federal autonomy. Same well-meaning experts are criticising the way livestock policies have recently been formulated. The fascistic nature of their implementation is quite evident. However, the tangible structural change that is being effected through these measures are lost sight of in the overpowering moralism in these criticisms.

In a recent article in The Mint, some relevant statistics have been brought together. The authors rightly contends,

“It emerges that economics rather than religion drives cattle ownership in India. After adjusting for wealth inequality, cattle ownership shows a similar pattern across religions. Expectation of milk yields is what drives cattle ownership in India.”

They provide pertinent facts about the livestock economy and the negative impacts that the new policies and bovine politics have made on this economy.

“Female animals under two years would be expected to grow into milk-giving cattle. Breeding cows are still in their milk cycle. Everything else apart from these two categories can be described as non-milk animals. Only 15% of households own non-milk animals in India. This is half of the overall cattle ownership figure of 30%. Again, the figures are not very different across religions. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to guess where the non-milk bovines end up. They are the supply for India’s multi-billion dollar beef industry. It has been an unacknowledged but convenient arrangement. Most owners sell their non-milk cattle without asking questions about the end use. This is why the local cattle trade is crucial for India’s livestock economy. A government ban on sale of animals for slaughter in local markets, and vigilante mobs attacking those transporting cattle in the name of gau raksha, can destroy this arrangement. Everybody with stakes in the livestock economy would suffer as costs go up due to a pile-up of non-milk animals.”

However, the destruction of this existing arrangement is bound to proliferate new arrangements in the livestock industry. The unconcentrated dispersed cattle ownership based industry might lead to a greater degree of concentration and centralisation. The “local” cattle trade and meat businesses may give space to a more centralised livestock, meat and milk industry.

Hence, if till now it was economics, not religion that shaped cattle ownership and trade, then we must admit that it continues to be so. The economics behind restrictions, banning and lynchings must be recognised and revealed.


Written by Pratyush Chandra

August 28, 2017 at 1:33 pm

Kashmir beyond the Child Psychology of Partha Chatterjee

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The argument that Partha Chatterjee peddles in his latest article in Telegraph on the ongoing Kashmir uprising is quite mainstream. It is of course presented in a subalternist language and with a lot of sympathy. But in its assertion of the autonomy of the subaltern masses, the subalternist sympathy becomes generally like that of those parents who find every action of their children to be revelatory about their uniqueness. And if other children seem to show some unique characteristics, these parents always find them resembling their own children.

Being a Bengali historian, Chatterjee reserves this feeling of empathy only for Bengali subalterns. Obviously this allows him to connect with other parents, sympathise and advise them. This is what Chatterjee is doing in this article – imploring other parents (Indian and Kashmiri) to recognise the crossroads in their children’s lives and help them pass them successfully, without sliding to “worst outcomes.”

Chatterjee finds Kashmiris resembling Bengali mourners at the funeral of Kanailal Datta in 1908, who shot at a renegade in the courtroom, and was hanged by the Britishers. He quotes an official report of the time,

“An extraordinary scene was witnessed at Kalighat at the time of the cremation of Kanai… Crowds thronged the road, people pushing past one another to touch the bier… Many women, to all appearances of a highly respectable class, followed the funeral procession wailing, while men and boys thronged around shouting ‘ Jai Kanai’!””

According to Chatterjee, the Kashmiri act of mourning and rioting for an ‘Islamist terrorist’ similarly “perplexed” the officials and others. A proud father is always ready to dispel people’s perplexities towards other kids, by flaunting his own wisdom of parenthood remembering the childhood of his children.

Thus, continues the wiseman’s argument, where patronising eventually takes a more mainstream turn. Subalterns always perplex non-subalterns. Hence, they need specialised experts to interpret their actions and language. Left to themselves, the innocence of subalterns makes them vulnerable to all kinds of manipulations. Actually, they always look for “figures of love and reverence” and “pure selflessness.” Hence, the Kashmiris themselves are innocent and victims of “bad” manipulations by the two neighbouring states and “routine politicians.” What is happening is now an outrage against these manipulations constituting “the crossroads.”

So, Chatterjee asserts, “Kashmiri nationalism stands at the same crossroads where Indian nationalism stood a hundred years ago.” Pure subalterns wanting to be tended with love, care and self-sacrifice are looking for the figures that epitomise them. If “democratic nationalism” is not “given a genuine chance”, there will be a slide –

“Given the bankruptcy of the politics that has tried so far to accommodate Kashmir’s national aspirations within the Indian federal system, there is a tendency now for the young to adopt an Islamist idiom to vent their demands. If this trend gets stronger, the best result might be a new popular movement, Islamist in temper but with deep roots in local communities…The worst outcome would be the burgeoning of jihadi groups that no one will be able to control.”

Hence, as subalterns are bound to be instrumentalised or domesticated, why not channelise their energy for some good cause, which protects them and mobilises them in the interest of progress and democratic nationalism, thus saving them from an uncontrollable jihadi sectarianism?

But that leaves the story twisted – not just in Kashmir, but also that of the early twentieth century Bengal. Chatterjee does not tell us what happened to Indian/Bengali nationalism “beyond the crossroads”, at least not in this piece. In fact, he does not clear the ambience at “the crossroads” too. He talks about outcomes without talking about the processes. And outcomes are explicitly seen as sliding to worse, if they are not short circuited by “democratic nationalism”. “The bankruptcy of the politics” leads “to a tendency …to adopt an Islamist idiom”, which if not saved through “democratic nationalism” would result into “the worst outcome.”

Actually, the Bengali bhadralok has never been able to cope with the partition of his Bengali nation. The year 1971 soothed him but the scar that 1947 gave runs very deep. Historians like Chatterjee do understand it, but dil hai ki maanta nahin. How could the Islamic enticement to integrate with Pakistan ever be stronger than the Bengali brotherhood?

Hence, azadi is fine as it can be variedly interpreted, and one clever interpretation is that of the Indian left, which Chatterjee articulates so well:

“Azaadi is not the name for a blueprint of Kashmir’s future political state. Rather it is a rejection of India’s armed occupation and the declaration of the right of the Kashmiri people to decide its own future.”

It is all due to the intransigence of India and Pakistan that no breakthrough is happening. They see Kashmir as a site for their competition. Chatterjee goes ahead and talks about progressive constitutional options as tried in Canada to resolve the Quebec question. All these must be tried or things will slide to “the worst outcome.”

“To stop that slide, democratic nationalism in Kashmir must be given a genuine chance.”

It is the same Bengali hangover that seems to play its role here – pitting “democratic nationalism” of Sheikh Abdullah against Islamism/Pakistan. Chatterjee seems to judge everything according to tangible historical outcomes and options, rather than in terms of the processes that might lead to multiple outcomes and options. Azaadi is of course “not the name of a blueprint”, but a movement that houses many contesting blueprints.

Why not? It could also be about the redefinition of South Asia – a movement against thinking in terms of established states and institutions. It could be a signal to subsumed nationalities in the region to revolt against internal segmentation of politico-economic agencies, against differential surplusing and inclusion/exclusion of populations. It could be a struggle against the evolving framework of regional political economy that hierarchises peoples, while including some and reserving/surplusing many, to keep the structure under control and “human resources” competitive.

But most importantly, why are we not considering the stone throwing and infinitely resilient, yet defiant Kashmiri youth a sign of the times – the evolution of a popular subjectivity of the precariat leading a real movement that abolishes the present state of things. Why is Chatterjee bringing an example from the Bengali history that seemingly demonstrates innocence and malleability of the masses? Crossroads are about the opening of new horizons too. And definitely, the people’s history of early twentieth century Bengal is extremely rich in this regard. It is unbelievable that Partha Chatterjee is unaware of the complexity of those times. But perhaps the subalternist notion of subalternity doesn’t allow him to render any overt political agency to subalterns except as fodder for the two sides in the Manichaeism of mainstream institutional politics.

There, were far more interesting things happening than a funeral march, which was just a symptom, a temporal spectacle. Beyond spectacularity, while Bengali bhadralok radicals were mired in the voluntarist and masochistic interpretation of Bhagavad Gita, a new Islam was rising in Bengal that gave radical meaning to the everyday struggle of people providing a ground to the evolution of popular subjectivity. In this regard, let me extensively quote from a recent article on MN Roy written by a very astute historian of communism in Bengal, Suchetna Chattopadhyaya, published in the first volume of Communist Histories (Left Word, 2016, pp 45-46), edited by Vijay Prashad:

“The ‘new’ Islam of the early 1910s, in its populist political form, took shape in the backdrop of the ‘new’ plan to sharply alter the physiognomy of the city, the Balkan Wars as a ‘prelude’ to the First World War, and the emergence of a new set of preacher- leaders known for their radical rejection of loyalist positions. One of the aims of pan-Islamist campaigners was to protect Islamic shrines and monuments in the Ottoman Empire, under jeopardy in the climate of Balkan Wars. These efforts by a segment of the intelligentsia resonated, stirring empathetic response among the masses. The immediate material context of this identification was the aggressive and invasive implementation of colonial construction plans that had disturbed conurbations from Kanpur to Calcutta. Though public protests in Calcutta revolved around the issue of mosque demolitions by the authorities, the submerged feelings at a popular level reflected social anxieties and anger over looming evictions. The anti-demolition meetings, including those directed against the Port Trust authorities in Khidirpur, saw large participation of cooks, waiters and small traders. The protestors experienced and envisaged uprooted neighbourhoods, destroyed settlements and forcible expulsions from their dwellings. In the backdrop of such a large-scale offensive from the top, pan-Islam, and popular protests interacted and forged political combinations. With the coming of a major conflict, and British declaration of war against Turkey, the pan-Islamist support for the Ottoman Caliphate came to be echoed in mosques and bazaars, in prayers and conversations and in the texture of everyday life.”

Whatever the limits of historical languages and institutions inherited by the people be, the organic political process (not necessarily around formal state apparatuses) grounded in popular everydayness renews the subjectivity of the multitude, always exploring and exploding the limits that temporally bind it. Subalternisation should be seen as procrustean endeavours of the State apparatuses to depoliticise the everydayness and alienate this subjectivity. However, pure subalternity is never achieved, the multitude accepts new bondages only to master and destroy them. Hence, assuming any innocence on the part of the “subalterns” in Bengal and Kashmir in the process of the “slide” that Chatterjee talks about is not only factually wrong, but politically meaningless and even dangerous. Such assumption autonomises political practices and ideologies from the real political ground and reduces them to mere objects of the elitist and statist operation of naming and shaming.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

July 28, 2016 at 2:14 am

What “Fataha” means in Anti-Capitalist Politics

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[O]ur army is very different from others,
because its proposal is to cease being an army.
– Subcomandante Marcos

1. SYRIZA’s initial electoral victory in Greece generated much hope among the European left and elsewhere too. The Europeans did not need to look zealously and jealously at the advancements in Latin America and elsewhere now. They suddenly found themselves advancing. But much of optimism, and also scepticism, looked at this political event as a phenomenon in itself which either had to be toasted for or condemned outrightly. They were either waiting for the SYRIZA experiment to be successful or defeated. Such sentiments have much to do with the way political formations are taken as voluntary forces judged in terms of their open or hidden programmes and agendas. They transcend and replace the movemental and other societal processes of which they are mere moments or symptoms. Political formations like SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain in this way are autonomised from the specific grounds of global class struggle.

2. Reactions to SYRIZA’s ‘success’ replayed the reactions to Latin American struggles and incidents of state empowerment in the last decade. Similar was the nature of remorse later. Such reactions I think rely too much on statism and less on its critique. They judge every success in the political field not as a beginning, but as a victory. Subsequently, the whole analyses that were being peddled were about what would SYRIZA do to sustain itself in state power, the task which we all know essentially is nothing but the state’s mode of reproducing itself through such agencies. It was good that SYRIZA’s every move was watched and debated, but to what purpose – just to wait for its success or defeat, not to generalise what its initial ‘success’ represented – the crisis of the old. You can’t wait for the barriers to become limits – this transformation requires not waiting, but hoping. As Ernst Bloch once said, “Against waiting, only hoping helps, which one must not only drink, but cook somewhat too.” (1)

3. Thankfully, in SYRIZA’s case there was a spoiler from the very beginning – it was SYRIZA’s alliance with ANEL, a rightist political formation which too stood against austerity, but for its own nationalist petty bourgeois reasons. The much-tested old wisdom is justified to consider such an alliance evil in its very constitution – it has a social corporatist nature, and any commitment around it must have a reactionary character seeking not to sharpen but obliterate the contradictions that might lead to the progressive transformation of the national and European political economy. Of course, at least, a critical mass of the polemicists were always online trying to dissuade people from considering electoral victories and state activism more than what they were. But even then the question remained – could SYRIZA have done better? So the object of analysis stayed – what SYRIZA did or didn’t do. And, hence, the conclusion: it was their opportunity, and they messed with it. But in reality, SYRIZA-like formations are definitely locally limited, yet globally linked. It is generally forgotten that their survival as radical forces depends on this balance. And this indicates at the responsibilities of both insiders and outsiders – who are equally located inside the structure of the global class struggle of which the Greek experience is an intrinsic part.

4. Similar was the euphoria, both positive and negative, when the Maoists in Nepal triggered a republican transformation, an overthrow of the royalty in the landlocked country, heavily dependent on Indian capital and its demands. A party-power struggle ensued in which even the revolutionaries were caught – every political party in Nepal has become a medium to pose different permutations and combinations of political groups to acquire or bargain power. The only stable political element that exists in Nepal is India trying to be the regional puppeteer using every political, social and cultural mechanism to fine-tune Nepalese politics to the advantage of the regional capitalist accumulation under its protection. Obviously, the presence of China is an irritant that Nepalese politicians utilise to claim some manoeuvrability. But what is interesting to see how all the blame for the failure of Nepalese communists/Maoists to mobilise republicanism under their leadership is put on them and their corruption. This blaming business is a reflection of the same voluntarist understanding of politics and state power that we see in the discourse over SYRIZA. It is not understood how within the dichotomised political/economic frame their failure was sealed from the very beginning. They definitely intensified the vocalisation of divided interests in the Nepalese society, which the royalty had suppressed in the name of unity. But limited to a national-state understanding of the Nepalese society they were evermore mired in the stagism of bourgeois-democracy. They on their own could not transform the political economy of the region of which Nepal was a mere part. Any local statist motivation in the Indian neighbourhood will not be very different from winning a few seats within the Indian Parliament. It is the benevolent nationalism of Indian communists that never allows the envisaging of a realistic transformation in the region. In fact, it scuttles any revolutionary potential in the local challenges like in Nepal or Kashmir. It is the big brotherly Indian radicals who are blind to any opening or opportunity in regional ripples.

5. The Nepalese movement was never simply to establish what they call “a modern state.” Reducing the many decades of the Nepalese movement to the unique and static question of state formation (which again is reduced to the royalty-or-republic frame) is the hegemonic mode of subsuming and dissipating the protracted struggle of the Nepalese toiling masses against the network of political economic power which India presides. Even republicanism must be understood as a concentrated, yet temporal reflection of the everyday struggle of the Nepalese people.

6. Fataha is an Arabic word meaning to open, to grant, to be victorious etc. It forms the root for Al Fattah, which is one of the names of Allah and means the Opener. What makes this term, fataha, interesting is the combined dialectical sense that its diverse meanings render. The way it celebrates, yet humiliates the victorious is quite fascinating – the victory or triumph is nothing more (and nothing less) than an opening. I think the heroic tragedies in history are mostly in forgetting this lesson. The so-called conscious social agencies often are oblivious of the dialectical truth of transience – they as missionaries, which definitely they are, think they have put the society to the desired pathway to the future, when it was just a mere possibility, one of the many possibilities. In fact, they have done nothing but opened Pandora’s box, bringing the society to the brink of possibilities (and uncertainties). What usually happens is that the phenomenality of the victory preoccupies everybody, it is reified.

7. The Paris Commune “inaugurated” the “glorious movement”, “the dawn of the great social revolution which will for ever free the human race from class rule.” It was the concrete beginning of coherent revolutionary politics of the working class that continues to train generations of world revolutionaries, despite recurrent reversals as revolutionary advancements are time and again consolidated in the form of nationalistic successes and gains. Even though locally the Paris Commune was crushed, “the presence of the threatening army of the proletariat of the whole world gathering in the rear of its heroic vanguard crushed by the combined forces of Thiers and William of Prussia” “attest the hollowness of their [the enemies’] successes.” (2, italics mine)

8. The October Revolution in its initial years was always taken as a mere “opening” for the European Revolution at least, if not the world revolution. Revolutionaries in Russia were aware of the need for the expansion of the revolution for the deepening of the revolution. And outside Russia, the revolutionary solidarity forces were intensifying their own struggles, which were understood as building upon the successful “opening.” It was when the world revolutionary movement subsided with alternative statist capitalism and techno-social corporatism competing with it that the “opening” became conscious of its distinction, its own being and endeavoured to survive as a government and a state. The Great Depression and the subsequent New Deal economics sealed the peaceful coexistence and competition between the two political-economic systems – the Cold War.

9. The Chinese Revolution too emerged as an opening for the revolutionary upsurges in various colonial and post-colonial peasant societies that questioned the teleology of market-oriented European capitalism. A planned nationalist transition with a controlled competitive regime, unimpeded by the imperialist politico-economic demands gripped the socialist imagination in these backward societies. We see large revolutionary movements and people’s wars rising in various parts of the world, especially on behalf of the pauperised peasantry and the precarised youth. These movements again saw the Chinese revolution just as an opening. But eventually the crisis of welfarism and statist capitalism, on the one hand, and the Cold War bipolarity, on the other, led to the reduction of various new de-decolonised states into self-hating rentier-bureaucracies, which bargained with the two poles and eventually became the ground for the neoliberal regime of economic restructuring. Ultimately, the Chinese state itself threw away the mantle of the Opener, and entered the fray to attract financialised capital huckstering upon the local institutions, resources and labouring population cheaply available.

10. On a much smaller scale, the Cuban Revolution too emerged as an opening for the Latin American revolutionaries and in Africa. Most of the time both Cuban and Chinese revolutions combined to inspire peasant revolts. Che Guevara epitomised this opening, lending himself to replicate the Cuban experience across continents – Congo and Bolivia, but to remarkable failures. What he lacked, unlike the Maoist conceptualisation of the protracted war, was the ability to keep politics in command. His guerrilla practices were extreme forms of voluntarism and subjectivism. On the other hand, the Maoist practice internationally suffered from both conceptual and practical overgeneralisation, which came from the legitimate practice of developing “base areas.” The territorial militarist symbolism and existentialism of localised peasant struggles overpowered the political sense of these movements. This led to the subservience of every expansion to secure base areas, which were increasingly surrounded and squeezed by the globalised networks of the capitalist circuit. Hence, the base areas remained central to revolutionary survivalism, while becoming marginal to the overall anti-capitalist movement of the working class. Guerrillas became identities in themselves, rather than “masses in arms”, as Kwame Nkrumah used to define a guerrilla. These movements could never become threats to capitalism, but always remained as actual scapegoats to impose global McCarthyism.

11. In fact, it was this marginalisation and deadlock that the movements like Zapatistas in Mexico apprehended in the 1980-90s, and were forced to envisage struggle and solidarity beyond instituted territorialities and state power. It was a recognition of the implausibility of the statist imaginary of post-capitalist transformation in the age of financialised transnational capital regimes. The critique of militarism and vanguardism presented by movements like the Zapatistas was the clarity that “you cannot reconstruct the world or society, or rebuild national states now in ruins, on the basis of a quarrel over who will impose their hegemony on society.” (3) The impetus to recognise and build a world of many worlds was not a simple rhetoric to revert to some united front tactics. It was a result of a deeper critique of relative “human conditions” and a self-critique of revolutionary practice, that was fixated upon the pre-determined goal of capturing state power. The critique of vanguardism that the Zapatistas presented was an affirmation of the vanguard as constantly (re)composed in the diverse levels of struggle – “We do not want to monopolize the vanguard or say that we are the light, the only alternative, or stingily claim the qualification of revolutionary for one or another current. We say, look at what happened. That is what we had to do.” (4) Of course, by relinquishing the aim of state power, they affirm themselves to be only a subset of the protracted global struggle. The Zapatistas provided an opening for the movemental critique of capitalism and capitalist state-formation, but the hypostatisation of the movement form that happened subsequently externalised this critique and reduced it to a dualism of state and civil society, that the process of state formation has always sought to pose. The powerful Zapatista experiment was eventually circumscribed within the NGOised civil society discourse – lobbyist rights, localist self-help politics and difference assertion which suited the neoliberal political economy based upon an infinite discretisation of human capacity and lean politics. The solidarity politics and economy that was envisaged in the Zapatista movement was abandoned in favour of identitarianist assertions, rights discourse and lifestyle autonomy. Leave aside its negation in practice, the state question itself was avoided.

12. If the post-Keynesian neoliberal counterrevolution professes to minimise the State by proclaiming it out of bounds from economy, it is simply vocalising the given divide between the economic and the political that characterises the capitalist system itself. What this divide means is the politics of depoliticisation of exchange relations – therefore, economy is always political economy, even if it is depoliticised. Whichever state form that has existed in the history of the modern state has come into being to facilitate the reproduction of exchange relations. The function of state in all its forms is to soak away the organic emergence of class struggle in these exchange relations, and limit it to the political superstructure. If Zapatistas exposed the crisis of valorisation on the margins of exchange relations and they could effectively practice “the idea of simply turning our back on the state,” their practice could not become more than an inspiration for those who found themselves enmeshed in exchange relations. John Holloway notes, “…there is no golden rule, no purity to be sought. Thus, for example, the Zapatistas in Chiapas make an important principle of not accepting any support from the state, whereas many urban pro-Zapatista groups in different parts of the world accept that they cannot survive without some form of state support (be it in the form of unemployment assistance or student grants or – in some cases – legal recognition of their right to occupy a social centre).” (5)

13. It was in the particulars conditions of urban and semi-urban locations at the very heart of exchange relations, that the risky in-the-state struggle became once again important. Especially in those countries where extractive industries are at the centre of economy and/or where the stark instrumentalisation of state institutions by glocal agencies of capital through purported neo-colonial mechanisms scuttled the local capacity to self-determine, the “opening” that Chavez’s Venezuela epitomised was significant. This revived the ground for people-oriented nationalist/statist efforts, but with a difference – there was a strong apprehension toward the statist primacy. Of course, the question of state power was posed by the barrios themselves, but with an evident sense that the state itself can never be transformed, but destroyed. The issue was to rein in state power to unleash a constant drive towards collective self-determination, rather than a pre-determined complete self-determination circumscribed within the instituted territoriality. The situation of dual power must be constantly posed, where popular autonomy is distrustful and vigilant towards the state, while class conflicts continually politicise exchange relations at every level and extend the reach of solidarity economy beyond territorial limits. Any slippage in this regard is an advantage to statism which eventually reduces dual power to the duality of the political and the economic – allowing capital to technicise the political recomposition of the working class to bring back exchange relations and capitalist accumulation on track.

14. The lessons of the Bolivarian revolution in South America are once again very elementary that until and unless these revolutions or events are taken as mere openings to deepen and expand the revolution, they will implode. Rosa Luxemburg reminded us a long time ago, “Either the revolution must advance at a rapid, stormy, resolute tempo, break down all barriers with an iron hand and place its goals ever farther ahead, or it is quite soon thrown backward behind its feeble point of departure and suppressed by counter-revolution. To stand still, to mark time on one spot, to be contented with the first goal it happens to reach, is never possible in revolution.” (6) In this age of the permanent crisis of capitalism and of generalised precarity, we will face numerous such reversals and can only hope to emerge every time a bit wiser.


(1) Ernst Bloch [1969 (2006)] Traces, Stanford University Press, Stanford, p. 1-2.

(2) Karl Marx [2011 (1872)] “Resolutions of the Meeting held to celebrate the anniversary of the Paris Commune,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, p. 287.

(3) Marcos quoted in Alex Khasnabish (2010) Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global, Zed Books, London, p. 83.

(4) Marcos quoted in Alex Khasnabish (2010), p. 64.

(5) John Holloway (2005) Change the world without taking power: New Edition, Pluto Press, London, p. 235.

(6) Rosa Luxemburg (1918) The Russian Revolution. Available at

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’

with one comment

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

Affirming poverty, or, how to radically break with fascistic underconsumptionism

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“To deny poverty is to deny the absence of the Kingdom in the present system. It is to affirm the existing system as the Kingdom of this world. To affirm the poor, on the other hand, and to serve their eventual liberation, in the structures and in history, is to witness the presence of the Kingdom in the satisfying of the poor and to the absence of the Kingdom in the imperfection of society. The poor are the epiphany of the Kingdom or the infinite exteriority of God.
“It remains to distinguish between the inorganic multitude and the people as the emerging subject of history (Gen. 41:40), and the People of God as Church (Acts 15:14) called to a special role in history:
Come out of her (Babylon), my people, lest you take part in her sins (Revelation 18:4)”
–Enrique Dussel, ‘The Kingdom of God and the Poor’ (Beyond Philosophy: Ethics, History, Marxism, and Liberation Theology)

It must be stated quite explicitly here that the bleeding-heart, underconsumptionist politics of poverty alleviation — something that is preponderant among South Asian radicals, Marxists included — is precisely what we ought to, pace Dussel, characterise as denial of poverty. Such ‘Marxian’ underconsumptionism, and its concomitant ideology and politics of philanthropy and reformism respectively, is no more than the obverse of neoliberalism, which denies poverty in as many words. From a position that is rigorously Marxian, and is thus conceptually premised on overproduction/overaccumulation, poverty must be affirmed; neither denied, nor, for that matter, alleviated. Affirmation of poverty would be constitutive of politics proper — politics as the excess of all that which exists and which will come to exist — because such affirmation would amount to the affirmation of the condition of being unmeasured.

For, what else is poverty other than the condition of being unmeasured in the face of a system of quasi-objective measure (or value). This condition of being unmeasured, thanks to it being the condition of the absence of measure, and thus the condition of the limit of measure, makes measure possible. Hence, it is the limit of measure that is nevertheless constitutive of it. In that context, affirmation of poverty as politics would amount to affirmation of the limit of this system of quasi-objective measure or valorisation so that the latter is destroyed even as the former abolishes itself as the constitutive limit of that system of measure to emerge on its own terms as the immeasurable. In more clear strategic terms, such unsentimental affirmation of poverty would be, in Pasolini’s immortal words, unrelenting antagonism, without a shred of dialectical respite or reconciliation, towards the subsumptive value-relational system of quasi-objective measure in its concrete appearances.

Underconsumptionist ‘radicalism’, on the other hand, seeks to alleviate and thus deny poverty. The denial of poverty and suffering implicit in the apparent radicalism of struggling precisely for the alleviation of poverty and suffering stems from its underconsumptionist theoretical presupposition, wherein poverty and suffering are made sense of not as a crisis of the system of measure, which is precisely produced by this system in order to keep itself going, but as a curse of not being measured; or, not being fully subsumed by the system of measure. Such politics of alleviating poverty and suffering, needless to say, reinforces the system of quasi-objective measure (or valorisation) that produces poverty and suffering — which is the condition of being unmeasured — precisely in mobilising this limit of measure to found and (re)found itself as that system. It is not surprising that Pasolini, who was unflinching and unsentimental in affirming poverty as a revolutionary virtue, would see such underconsumptionist ‘radicalism’ as an unforgiveable handmaiden and ally of “neo-capitalism”.

Pasolini, in his characteristically counter-intuitive manner, repeatedly criticised such politics for undermining the revolutionary project. Here is an excerpt from his Lutheran Letters:
“The sin of the fathers is not only the violence of power, Fascism. It is also this: the dismissal from our consciousness by us anti-Fascists of the old Fascism, the fact that we comfortably freed ourselves from our deep intimacy with it (the fact that we considered the Fascists ‘our idiot brothers’; secondly and above all, the acceptance (all the more guilty because unconscious) of the degrading violence, of the real, immense genocides of the new Fascism.
“Why is there such complicity with the old Fascism and why such an acceptance of the new Fascism? Because there is — and this is the point — a guiding principle common to both, sincerely or insincerely: that is the idea that the greatest ill in the world is poverty and that therefore the culture of the poorer classes must be replaced by the culture of the ruling class.
“In other words, our guilt as fathers could be said to consist in this: that we believe that history is not and cannot be other than bourgeois history.”

Clearly, such politics, if we follow the train of Pasolini’s reasoning and analysis, effects the subjective embourgeoisement of the proletariat even as it not only leaves intact, but also actually reinforces, the proletarian condition in its sheer objectivity. This is arguably what Pasolini sought to argue when he insisted that “neo-capitalism” was a form of fascism more pernicious than political fascism that Europe had already experienced. And that, according to Pasolini, was because the latter was (is) characterised by, among other things, the continuance of “economic class struggle” even as the antagonistic class struggle between bourgeois and proletarian cultures had lapsed and disappeared. Pasolini’s “neo-capitalist” fascism — which he acutely demonstrated as being more insidious and more dangerous than the political fascism of yore — is nothing but our conjuncture of neoliberalism. This conjuncture is characterised by the state of exception having become generalised. So much so that struggles claiming to be anti-fascist are, precisely in asserting those claims, rendered fascistic in their own right. Thanks to ineluctable objective conditions, fascistic politics today is easily – and, as a matter of fact, invariably– operationalised precisely in the very moment of liberal-democratic juridicality, and in its political register.

It is in this context that the following contention of Dussel’s becomes extremely pertinent from the point of view of thinking an effective revolutionary strategy by way of articulating a thorough critique of underconsumptionism:
“It remains to distinguish between the inorganic multitude and the people as the emerging subject of history (Gen. 41:40), and the People of God as Church (Acts 15:14) called to a special role in history:

Come out of her (Babylon), my people, lest you take part in her sins (Revelation 18:4)”

Some rough-and-ready critical observations on the ‘redoing’ of the subalternist approach by Derridean-Marxists

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In a recent polemic directed at one of the doyens (Partha Chatterjee) of the Subaltern Studies project, I had contended that subalternist politics does no more than end up reproducing capital as a structure of constitutive duality of subalternity and elitism through its continuous expansion and intensification. This, I had further insisted, was because the proponents of subalternism presuppose that radicalism lies in envisaging politics in terms of affirmation of sheer subalternity. A move that, I had argued, continuously reproduces the structure of measure and valorisation, together with its constitutive limit or crisis. I had also sought to demonstrate in passing that this contention of mine stemmed from the fact that subalternity is the determinate limit or crisis of the structure of measure and/or valorisation in its suturing on to that very structure.

Among the many criticisms levelled at this polemic, I am choosing to respond, at some length, to one in particular here. I am doing this because I think by responding to this particular criticism I will be able to make certain clarifications, albeit only provisionally, with regard to how the structure (or, more precisely, the architectonics) of capital is to be grasped from the Marxian vantage-point of critique of political economy. More importantly, this response of mine will, I hope, go some way in revealing the rather insidious defence of subalternism and its pernicious politics the criticism in question mounts.

The aforementioned criticism of my position begins by arguing that “Subalternity cannot be preassumed to be a node around a capital centric suture…”. It then goes on to contend, against my argument, that “The evacuation of politics and ignoring of political economy can only be presumed if one *begins* with the assumption that economy is coterminous with capitalism, and capitalism is defined around markets and uber-structure of a globe as per the Young Hegelians rather than through production relations as per Marx”. Now, I entirely concur with my critic’s implied insistence that capitalism is not coterminous with economy. However, my reasons for doing so are diametrically and fundamentally opposed to hers. When my critic suggests that capitalism is not coterminous with economy, she clearly implies the economy is much bigger than capitalism. The latter being restricted, as far as she is concerned, to the markets of the globe. My concurrence with her assertion, on the other hand, is based on making sense of economy as merely markets, and thus grasping capital as political economy, which is much more than what global markets per se signify.

Clearly, my critic, in suggesting the economy is greater than capital, is, in all likelihood, equating capital with the global markets. For all practical purposes, she is the one who, in effect, shares with the Left-Hegelians the presupposition that capitalism is exhausted by markets. The only thing that putatively distinguishes her from the Left-Hegelians is her conception of the economy, which is the dynamic of intercourse of capital-as-markets with a vast sphere that, in her estimation, lies outside capital. This is clearly on account of her avowed affinity with a so-called Marxian theoretical approach that claims to have rethought capitalist development in those terms. Insofar as forging a political strategy is concerned, this approach has, in the name of anti-capitalism, yielded all sorts of compromising, complicitous and cooptative manoeuvres. In fact, it can be demonstrated without too much difficulty that this so-called anti-capitalist strategy suggested by my critic and others of her ilk is no more than a Left-Hegelian politics of social-democratic reformism by ‘antihumanist’ theoretical means. But more on that later. For now, let us not get ahead of ourselves.

To conflate capital with its sphere of exchange, where it is only expressed, would surely amount to a Left-Hegelian move, which, thanks to its basis in an anthropologised dialectic, renders the structure of capital fully congruent with the markets of the globe, even as it renders those global markets an uber-structure. The strategy of ‘transformative’ politics that emanates from such Left-Hegelian dialectical anthropology is, needless to say, one of continuous democratisation of exchange relations, or juridical relations. It is by no means not geared towards suspension of the iron-cage of social relations of production, which are merely represented by those juridical or exchange relations. In more specific political terms, such a strategy is tantamount to the thwarting of the radical potential of concrete struggles and, as a result, reduces them to being competitive and reformist manoeuvrings.

Insofar as capital is the actuality of value-relations, the sphere of exchange-relations (read markets) is merely the moment of expression of value and does not, therefore, exhaust capital. The condition of possibility of exchange-relations that are the phenomenal sphere of its expression is — as Marx rigorously demonstrates in the famous first chapter of Capital, Volume I — value-relation. And this is founded entirely politically in the abode of production and is hidden precisely by its phenomenality, or appearance, of free exchange. It’s in this precise sense that capital is, from a Marxian standpoint, political economy.

The question then is, when one grasps and conceptually designates capital as a structure, is it always the case that one is necessarily thinking of capital as being coterminous with market? In other words, is conflation of capital (read value-relations) with its expressivist sphere of exchange relations — which would thereby render global markets into a transcendental structure — the only way in which one can possibly think and conceptually designate capital as a structure? Or, is it possible to explicate and conceptualise capital as a structure – more precisely, a dialecticalised structure and thus an architectonic – from the Marxian standpoint of value-relations (social relations of production)? In fact, it’s precisely from such a Marxian standpoint, which understands and defines capital in terms of value-relations (or social relations of production), rather than merely in terms of the ‘uber-structure’ of global markets, that one can arguably come up with a more rigorous and politically productive conception of capital as a structure. My critical explication of subalternity as a capital-centric suture presupposes capital as a structure in precisely those terms of value-relation or social relations of production.

My critic has, however, shown she is incapable of comprehending that. Her theoretical standpoint, which allows her to hastily misread the conceptual presuppositions of my polemic against subalternism in order to then arrogantly dismiss my critical explication of subalternity as misplaced Left-Hegelianism, is precisely the cause of her paradigmatic blindness on that score. Her theoretical standpoint, as she has herself clearly indicated, derives from the “far better redoing of the subalternist approach” in the work of Stephen Cullenberg, Anjan Chakrabarti and Anup Dhar. She probably forgets to mention the work of two other front-ranking figures of this ‘redoing’ fraternity: Ajit Chaudhury and the late Kalyan Sanyal.


Since my critic has not spelt out how this fraternity of, what I choose to call, Derridean-Marxists ‘redoes’ the subalternist approach from a supposedly Marxian political-economic standpoint, let me do the honours. Of course, it’s not possible to go into the details of the work done by each of its various celebrated scholar-heroes here. I will, therefore, have to restrict myself to briefly stating its central thesis. This synoptic restatement of its central thesis here will, I guess, have to suffice for now. It will, hopefully, be adequate for the purposes of articulating a pertinent critique of its conceptual presupposition, and the strategic political orientation that consequently flows from it. This central thesis is arguably shared by all the proponents of this ‘school’ of Derridean-Marxism, notwithstanding the difference in nuances and stresses in their respective theoretical articulations.

The theoretical approach of these Derridean-Marxists is derived from Derrida’s “hauntological” reading of Marx, and the so-called anti-essentialist reading of Marx by Stephen Resnick and Rick Wolff. Their central thesis, which is underpinned and thoroughly informed by this theoretical approach of theirs, is the following: there is a vast outside of capital that the latter commands in order to reproduce itself without, however, subsuming this outside into its value-relational horizon of exploitation (or, extraction of surplus value). Another famous Derridean, with close ties to the Subaltern Studies project, would likely affirm this as a conception of ‘outside in the capital machine’. And this is what my critic also probably has in mind when she speaks of the “far better redoing of the subalternist approach” by some of those Derridean-Marxists. Without doubt this is, indeed, a redoing of the subalternist approach; one that rescues its restorative politics, which is based entirely on affirmation of sheer subalternity, by garbing it up better in the radical idiom of Marxism.

In fact, it is not at all surprising that my critic should assume that the only way in which one can think of capital as a structure, and subalternity as a capital-centric suture, is by presupposing that capital is coterminous with its phenomenalised and expressivist sphere of exchange-relations. Considering that her likely theoretical point of departure is this thesis of capital reproducing itself by commanding a vast outside without, however, subsuming it into its value-relational horizon, she could hardly think otherwise.

At this point, it must, however, be admitted that the work produced by these Derridean-Marxists is exceedingly rich in inquiry-based studies that have laid bare a whole host of socio-economic transactions, and the digits of power relations that underpin those transaction as their constitutive dynamic, especially in the geographical specificity of the Indian subcontinent. That is doubtless an important contribution on their part to the Marxian political-economic project. However, the theoretical framework within which those studies are situated robs them of much their revolutionary-transformative productivity. The only way those studies can be reclaimed for revolutionary-strategic purposes are by freeing them from the Derridean-Marxist conceptual framework in which they are embedded. That can only be accomplished through a process of sustained critique of that conceptual framework.


This Derridean-Marxist thesis, I wish to contend right away, is erroneous. Its error is arguably the result of not fully coming to terms with the lessons in critique of political economy that the Marx of Capital, particularly its first volume, has to offer. If one were to grasp value and its equation — following the Marx of Capital — in terms of congelation of human labour in the abstract, and the objective abstract labour time concomitant with it, then the abstraction of concrete labour and its own singular concrete time into a qualitatively equalisable objective measure comes across wholly as a question of politics. This is politics as class struggle, which is revealed by the objective dynamic of social relations of production. The politics of class struggle is constitutive of primitive accumulation — which is fundamentally the abstraction of concrete labour and its respectively singular concrete time in accordance with the objectively equalising measure of labour time through its extra-economic regimentation – and the resistance against it of that concrete labour and its respective use-value, which are a qualitative difference. This struggle is, therefore, over the degree of regimentation of concrete labour. For, the socially necessary labour time determined for a concrete labour that creates its respective use-value – something that through such determination is rendered equalisable as human labour in the abstract whose congealed yield would now be commodity as value – is a direct function of the degree of extra-economic regimentation of that concrete labour and its repository or potential. The latter being the vendible commodity of labour-power.

So, here we have in the ‘mind’ of capital – if one is allowed to talk in those terms for the sake of analysis – the resumption of qualitative difference (concrete labour/use-value), which is the limit of the horizon of qualitatively equalisable and thus quantifiable value-relation, precisely in and as its subsumption into that horizon of qualitative equalisation and measure. In other words, in the blind ‘mind’ of capital, it is the resumption of its limit in and as its subsumption into it. Here then we have a situation, wherein the limit of capital in its determinateness is, in the blind ‘mind’ of capital, not its limit but a barrier to be overcome. In this articulation of the limit of capital as a barrier by capital itself, the former gets sutured on to the latter to become its constitutive crisis or constitutive limit. In this context, subalternity, following Gramsci’s Marxian explication of the same, is precisely a historically concrete position of determinate limit of the horizon of value-relations thinking itself, not in its own terms, but in terms of its articulation and animation by that horizon. My contention that subalternity is a capital-centric suture is meant, contrary to what my critic presumes, in this precise sense of it being the constitutive limit/crisis of the horizon or structure of value relations or social relations of production.

Let us now approach the problem of value-relation as a structure from a slightly different angle. Let us begin by asking, how can there be an equation if there is no difference? More simply, the question of exchange arises only when there are qualitative differences (use-values). To paraphrase Marx, 20 yards of linen exchanged for 20 yards of linen will be no exchange at all. It will be a tautological absurdity. But an equation, thanks to its tendency to qualitatively equalise qualitative differences (singularities) tends to endanger precisely its own existence as that equation by tending to erase difference tends to preclude its own condition of possibility. The equation can, therefore, exist only when it’s a qualitative equalisation that nevertheless has to allow qualitative difference in order to be that qualitative equalisation. This paradox is the very heart of the algebraic logic of equation. And capital, or the law of value-relation, as the historical operation of this paradoxical logic of equation — or, qualitative equalisation of qualitative difference (singularity) — is, as Marx correctly states (particularly, in Grundrisse), a “moving contradiction”. This is precisely the reason why value as qualitative equalisation, in being represented by the quantitatively differentiated determination of exchange-value, instrumentalises the qualitatively different use-value component, or sheer bodily form, of a commodity to be embodied and thus realised as value. That capital for Marx is, indeed, a “moving contradiction” becomes amply evident when he unambiguously demonstrates right at the beginning of Capital that even as value in its representation by exchange-value has not an atom of use-value, use-value is the necessary material depository of value/exchange-value. Clearly, what Marx reveals to be the “two-fold nature” of commodity as the basic unit of capital is actually the germ of capital as a “moving contradiction”.


For this reason, capital offers itself to be read as both itself (a totalising value-relational structure), and as a symptom of its own immanent crisis and thus impossibility. That is because every moment of subsumption of qualitative difference or use-value and the concrete labour unique to it is also the moment of resumption of that qualitative difference or singularity, and thus the determinate moment of displacement and excess of subsumption. In such circumstances, it can hardly be the case that there is an outside of capital that capital commands without subsuming it in its value-relational structure. In fact, what this reveals is that capital is a structure of subsumption/totalisation that resumes itself as that structure precisely by (re-)commencing its own limit and thus excess. In other words, there is no outside in the capital machine. It is, instead, all about being inside capital precisely by virtue of being against it. The so-called absolute outside of capital in being commanded by the latter is already always subsumed within it.

Therefore, an effective strategy against capitalist class power (the value-relational structure of subsumptive exploitation) is not, as my critic and her Derridean-Marxist friends would have us believe, the resistance of the outside or the other of capital to its coercive, oppressive command. For, this type of resistance can only be thought and envisaged, as it indeed is by the Derridean-Marxists, in terms of the sequentially continuous affirmation of ontologised difference. An effective strategy against the horizon of capitalist class power would, instead, be the affirmative deployment of the qualitative difference (or singularity) — which is the determinate limit of capital that capital always needs to resume only in order to subsume it – in a manner that it in its actuality tends towards suspending or totally negating the subsumptive value-relational structure that is capital.

This particular anti-capitalist strategy is a constructionist manoeuvre to affirm itself in its subtraction from the subsumptive-exploitative structure of value-relations by tending towards destroying or totally negating that structure in the process of constructing and affirming itself as that subtraction. The strategy posited by our Derridean-Marxists is affirmation of singular-universality as the (successively sequential) infinity of ontologised difference vis-à-vis capital as the horizon of the law of value. On the other hand, the anti-capitalist strategy that emerges from a rigorous fidelity to the lessons of critique of political economy offered by Marx in Capital, is arguably universal-singularity as the construction of a subtractive ontology by way of simultaneity of infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference. This conception of universal-singularity as the construction of subtractive ontology by way of simultaneity of infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference has been rigorously conceptualised and explicated by Alain Badiou.

Hence, an effective practical critique (affirmative critique) of capital cannot be envisaged by articulating it as the resistance of an absolute outside of capital to capital’s non-subsumptive command of it. Such resistance of the outside of capital — which is premised on the thesis that capital reproduces itself by commanding this absolute outside without subsuming it — is all about envisaging struggles against capital as withdrawal, or lines of escape, from it. Therefore, struggles animated by this strategy of resistance of the outside, or the other, of capital to its non-subsumptive command would evidently do nothing to suspend capital as a subsumptive horizon of value-relations. All that such struggles of resistance would do is puncture the horizon of capital causing it now to reproduce itself as its own open and permanent crisis. Clearly, the so-called anti-capitalist strategy of infinition of ontologised difference (or finitudes) is, in objective terms, really a politico-ideological articulation of neoliberalism. An effective practical critique can, instead, materialise only when capital is grasped in terms of its own internal critique or crisis – the determinate moment of resumption of the limit of capital – so that such moments of crisis internal to capital are sustained against their susbsumption through an anticipatory construction of those moments into a constellation. This constellational construction would be the uninterrupted process of what Badiou would call the mutual partaking of generic singularities, which, as a consequence, would articulate destructive antagonism towards the subsumptive-valorising structure of capital. This would, therefore, be the construction of the ontology of subtraction from within the subsumptive structure of value-relations, and in destructive antagonism to it. Hence, this subtractive ontology, in and as the adventure of its own construction, would be the Badiouian “singular-multiple” or “universal -singularity”. Marx and Engels’ conception of communism as “the real movement” – or, Marx’s conception of revolution as “revolution in permanence” – is precisely this.

In this context, the anti-capitalist strategy that derives from the conception of “in and against capital” of Mario Tronti, early Antonio Negri and certain other Italian workerist and post-workerist militants and intellectuals is clearly more rigorous, by far, than the Derridean and Derridean-Marxist strategy of ‘outside in the capital machine’.

At this point, we also ought to demonstrate how this wokerist/post-workerist strategic conception of in and against capital is fundamentally distinct from politics as the affirmation of sheer subalternity. Subalternist politics, unlike the workerist/post-workerist politics of in and against capital, is not able to countenance the fact that the limit of the horizon of measure, valorisation and/or representation is in its determinate resumption already always subsumed within that horizon or structure. In fact, proponents of subalternist politics do not realise that what they designate as subalternity, in order to envisage emancipatory politics in terms of its sheer affirmation, is this moment of resumption of the determinate limit/excess of the horizon of measure and valorisation as already always the moment of its subsumption. For this reason, the strategy of subalternist politics as the affirmation of sheer subalternity — not at all unlike the political strategy envisaged by our Derridean-Marxists in their ‘redoing’ of the suablternist approach — is envisaged in terms of infinition of ontologised difference.


It would perhaps not be out of place here to suggest that this Derridean-Marxist strategy of an absolute outside of capital haunting capital through its resistance against the latter’s non-subsumptive command amounts to mere dissemination. Now, dissemination, in spite of its radical antihumanist theoretical presuppositions, produces political effects that are, objectively speaking, hardly any different from the liberal-reformist and social-democratic effects produced by the Left-Hegelians, thanks to the latter’s humanist theoretical presuppositions. Repetition with a difference – or differance – does not, as we have observed earlier, suspend the objective horizon of value-relations. As a result, it amounts to no more than the puncturing of that horizon. Hence, it would not be entirely incorrect to insist that the political subjectivity articulated by this hauntological strategy of resistance is the Moses Hess-Proudhon-type of ethical-socialist subjectivity, which now stands refounded in tandem with the specificity of our late capitalist conjuncture: a conjuncture of barbarism that is characterised by capital existing as its own permanent and open crisis even as revolutionary-proletarian politics is in retreat. In other words, this is a neoliberal political subjectivity of radical communitarianism, which, in the objectivity of the neoliberal conjuncture, merely amounts to some kind of competitive reformism and identity politics. In this sense, it is a close kin of the pernicious political project of subalternism.

What must also be emphatically asserted here is that both subalternists and their Derridean-Marxist retrofitters are completely in the wrong when they insist that the so-called pre-political is actually political in its own right because it is absolutely autonomous, and thus a radical alterity, vis-à-vis the dominant political. Of course, the so-called pre-political is not actually pre-political. It is, without any dispute, political through and through. On that not a quarter ought to be yielded to the dominant historicist and stagiest tendency within both theoretical and political Marxisms. That said, one ought to also recognise that the so-called pre-political is actually political not because it is absolutely autonomous, and thus a radical alterity, vis-à-vis the dominant political. Rather, it’s as much political as the dominant political precisely because its relationship with the latter is constitutive of a structure that generates the political both in its dominant and subordinate instantiations. If capital is the structure of value-relations as the qualitative equalisation of qualitative difference, and is thus represented by quantitatively differentiated determinations of exchange-values, it is, in its world-becoming as that structure, manifest as combined and uneven development. In such circumstances, the political is neither the dominant nor the subordinate in any moment of this combination of unevenness. Rather, the political is the dynamic of the relation between the two, which is constitutive of their combinatory or structure. In this sense, the dominant political and that which, as a result, is produced and designated as ‘pre-political in that qualitatively equalised and thus quantitatively differentiated relationship are both equally political.

Now, let us focus on the workerist/post-workerist conception of being in and against capital in order to figure out how it is radically distinct from the modality of subalternist politics. The proponents of this strategic conception while envisaging the determinate resumption of qualitative difference (use-value/concrete labour) – which would be the determinate instantiation of excess of the structure of measure and valorisation — anticipate its subsumption. As a result, their strategy — premised on this conception of determinate resumption of excess as already always its subsumption — seeks to concretely prefigure the exceeding of the limit that the resumption of the excess in being determinately envisaged is anticipated to come up against. Clearly, this is a strategy of constructing subtraction – Badiou’s “subtractive ontology” to be precise – vis-à-vis the subsumptive horizon or structure of value-relations, which starts getting destroyed as a consequence of such subtractive construction, and in tandem with it.

This subtractionist strategy – which is as much integral to Badiou’s post-Maoist Maoism as arguably that of certain tendencies of workerism and post-workerism – is based on grasping capital through a process of dialectical reversal: capital, which is the subsumption of its determinate limit, is grasped as, and rendered, the limit of the determinate moment of its excess. Althusserian overdetermination, which is an explication of capital from the side of proletarian politics and in its strategic terms, affords precisely such a dialectically-reversed reading and conception of capital.


The ground for this was, however, cleared by Marx himself who anticipated this subtractionist strategy and its theoretical presupposition of being in and against capital. It was precisely because Marx grasped capital as a moving contradiction that he was able to rearticulate Hegel’s dialectic against its totalising mystifying grain, which “seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things”, as a “rational” dialectic that was “a scandal and an abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable break-up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence…”. This shows, among other things, that when one thinks capital as a structure – as one certainly should – one thinks of it as much as an abstracted totality as the discursive demonstration of its determinate excess. After all, the story of capital as a structure, if it’s seen in its longue duree, has so far been a story of its unraveling. However, this two-sided thinking of the dialectic – and the structure of capital – is bound to be lost on Derridean-Marxists because they do not fully grasp Marx’s demonstration of capital as a “moving contradiction”, wherein the inside of capital is that inside precisely in opposing capital by tending to exceed it as a subsumptive-exploitative structure of value-relations (or social relations of production). As a result, they do not see how the structure can be thought, and envisaged, as both a totalising closure, and precisely for that reason, as a discursively articulated exceeding and unraveling of the same.

It is this that compels them to make sense of oppression and social domination in terms of capital as a historically concrete horizon of social relations of production commanding its absolute outside in order to reproduce itself without, however, subsuming this outside into those relations of production. And it is precisely for this reason that someone like my critic cannot imagine that one can think of capital as a structure without either necessarily rendering the structure a transhistorical closure, or grasping it merely in terms of global markets.

When structure is grasped, or conceived, from the side of capital, we have structure as a totalised closure. This is structure as an abstraction. But when the same structure is thought, and/or envisaged, from the side of its immanent critique, then what we have is structure as the discursively demonstrated or articulated limit of the excess of structure as an abstraction. The fact that capital as a structure reproduces itself through expansion and recomposition shows it is not a stabilised totality. Precisely for this reason the structure of capital ought to be thought, not in terms of transcendental infinite totality, but as infinite totalisation. And this is the schizz of capital as a total structure. Therefore, to grasp, and envisage, capital as a structure is not necessarily to grasp it in terms of a transcendental or uber totality but to grasp it as totalisation (as opposed to totality), which must always begin as that totalisation precisely because in thus beginning it is constantly unravelled as the totality it tends to be. Clearly, the emphasis, when one grasps capital as a structure from the side of its immanent critique, is on the counter-tendency of resumption of its unraveling, or opening up, rather than its tendency of subsumption and closure.

In this context, Althusser and Macherey’s conception of structure (or the dialectic) as the limit-form of its own displacement, because it’s an effect and thus a symptom of its own “decalage” (void), demonstrates that their articulation of capital as a “structured totality” – contra capital as an “expressivist totality” – is from the side of its immanent critique. A similar but more advanced rearticulation of the structural dialectic (of infinite totalisation) from the side of its immanent critique that renders it a “historical dialectic” (of “infinite thought” in action) is to be found in Badiou’s “metaontological” (re)articulation of the structural dialectic as the Real in its limit: the Real being the happening of the impossibility of conceptualisation and/or structuring, and thus its excess. Even a Hegelian-Marxist such as Moishe Postone in coming up with his conception of capital as structure clearly does so from the side of its immanent critique. He explicates his conception of capital as a “blind subjectivity” of totalisation in terms of this totalisation being an effect of precisely the determinate overcoming of social mediation (or totality). Postone arrives at this conception of totality/totalisation, thanks to his radical deployment of the Hegelian dialectic by pushing it to its extreme, and thus against its own idealist grain.

Clearly, emancipation is, and must be, an antidialectic. But the antidialectic of emancipation, if the same is to be thought rigorously and not in the fancy-free non-dialectical manner of so-called difference-thinking, can be actualised only through dialectical thinking as its own action. As both Postone and Badiou have shown from their respectively distinct radical-Hegelian and Althusserian points of departure, this antidialectic of emancipation cannot be ontologised, and can only be an immanently constructed constellation. This fundamentally distinguishes Badiou’s metaontological affirmation of the antidialectic of emancipation, for instance, from the ontologising and thus non-dialectical affirmation of the antidialectic in phenomenology of difference and Heideggerian-Levinasian deconstruction.


We have so far articulated our critique of the Derridean-Marxist position in terms of the bare abstractions of the dialectic and the structure. We would do well now to critically examine their central thesis — capital commanding an absolute outside without subsuming it — in more concrete political-economic terms.

Let us begin with Marx’s conceptions of productive and unproductive labour in his Theories of Surplus Value, Part I. While critically engaging with Adam Smith’s conceptions of the same, Marx writes: “Only labour which produces capital is productive labour. Commodities or money become capital, however, through being exchanged directly for labour-power, and exchanged only in order to be replaced by more labour than they themselves contain. For the use-value of labour-power to the capitalist as a capitalist does not consist in its actual use-value, in the usefulness of this particular concrete labour – that it is spinning labour, weaving labour, and so on. He is as little concerned with this as with the use-value of the product of this labour as such, since for the capitalist the product is a commodity (even before its first metamorphosis), not an article of consumption. What interests him in the commodity is that it has more exchange-value than he paid for it; and therefore the use-value of the labour is, for him, that he gets back a greater quantity of labour-time than he has paid out in the form of wages.”

Marx then goes on to further explicate his conceptions of productive and unproductive labour through his continued critical assimilation of Smith: “…this distinction between productive and unproductive labour has nothing to do either with the particular specialty of the labour or with the particular use-value in which this special labour is incorporated. In the one case, the labour is exchanged with capital, in the other with revenue. In the one case the labour is transformed into capital, and creates a profit for the capitalist; in the other case it is an expenditure, one of the articles in which revenue is consumed.”

The domain of the absolute outside of capital, which capital commands in order to reproduce itself without at the same time subsuming that outside into its value-relational structure, is, for our Derridean-Marxists, possibly constituted by a range of practices of unproductive labour as defined by Marx in the passage above. There are, undeniably, a whole range of labouring activities (including heavily gendered care work in the domain of social reproduction), which yield products that are acquired not to be competitively exchanged for profit through transfer of value, but for immediate consumption. As a result, the domain of ‘production’ constitutive of such labouring activities involves no extraction of (surplus) value – or (surplus) labour time. Rather, what is involved, as far as such unproductive labour is concerned, is extraction of surplus use-values for immediate consumption. The forms through which such extraction of surplus labour (surplus use-values) — as opposed to extraction of surplus labour time (surplus value) – is operationalised are, more often than not, extra-economic or semi-extra-economic. That is perhaps why such forms can, at times, come across as ‘pre-capitalist’ (feudalism, slavery, bonded labour and so on in their various permutations and combinations) at the level of their discursive appearances. If one were to confine oneself strictly and purely at this level, one would be correct to observe that capital as a value-equational structure of social relations of production institutes socio-economic transactions with an outside of unproductive labour by way of extra-economic or semi-extra-economic command. Such unproductive labouring activities can be easily construed as the outside of capital because the products they yield are not value-embodying commodities in the strict sense, and such labouring activities are, for that reason, not integrated into the value-equational horizon of production relations.

However, from the vantage-point of Marx’s critique of political economy, such an analysis would be patently unrigorous and incomplete. To claim that such labour-practices constitute the unproductive outside of capital because the products they yield are not value-embodying commodities because they are merely use-values meant for immediate consumption, is to analyse the situation merely in terms of its immediate empirical appearance. To analyse such a situation more rigorously and accurately, one must attempt to grasp and reveal the concretely precise functionality that this immediate appearance of unproductive labour – labour producing use-values for immediate consumption – has with regard to the value-relational horizon of capital and its productive labour. And here the following excerpt from Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, becomes crucial: “The whole world of “commodities” can be divided into two great parts. First, labour-power, second, commodities as distinct from labour-power itself. As to the purchase of such services as those which train labour-power, maintain or modify it, etc., in a word, give it a specialised form or even only maintain it – thus for example the schoolmaster’s service, in so far as it is ‘industrially necessary’ or useful; the doctor’s service, in so far as he maintains health and so conserves the source of all values, labour-power itself – these are services which yield in return ‘a vendible commodity…’, namely labour-power itself, into whose costs of production or reproduction these services enter.”

Seen in this context, labour-practices that are unproductive in their immediate appearance, emerge as productive in the final analysis, in terms of their rearticulation and refunctionalisation by the causality of the structure within which they get situated precisely by virtue of producing only use-values for immediate consumption. The use-values such labour produces for immediate consumption effectuate, in being thus consumed, the production of the “vendible commodity” of labour-power, which, according to Marx, is “the source of all values”. Such unproductive labour, which produces use-values for immediate consumption, would, according to Marx, be “services” that enter into the “costs of production and reproduction” of the vendible commodity of labour-power. So, in the ultimate analysis, such labour is productive. Autonomist Italian Marxist-Feminists – particularly, Leopoldina Fortunati in her pathbreaking book, The Arcane of Reproduction – have developed this important insight of Marx to an advanced level of theorisation with regard to the familial domain of unwaged care work. Of course, one will not be able to grasp the full import of such work if one seeks to understand value merely in terms of calculation of its magnitude.

Value is, first and foremost, about politically instituting an equalising measure or rationality. Only then is it a calculable magnitude in accordance with this politically founded measure or rationality. Marx demonstrates that with great acuity in Capital. By seeking to explicate unwaged and thus apparently unproductive labour in the familial domain of reproductive or care work in terms of its integration into the capitalist value-chain of productive labour, Italian Marxist-Feminists such as Fortunati have revealed the constitutive crisis that value essentially is, at the level of its very appearance. They have shown how the unwaged, custom-based extra-economic familial domain of care work demonstrates value in and as the irrational (political) founding of itself as a rationality (economy). Therefore, in their theorisation, value is not merely a rationality or measure, but is, rather, a measure or rationality in and as its own constitutive crisis of the irrational and the unmeasured. In terms of bare logical abstraction, what they are suggesting, and with profound accuracy at that, is the following: the unmeasured is not only the constitutive limit of measure that makes the latter possible, but, precisely on that account, measure is the limit-form of the immeasurable. That primitive accumulation is not merely a one-time historical occurrence, but is constitutive of every moment of so-called normal, economic accumulation is rigorously substantiated by the work of these Italian Marxist-Feminists.

Our Derridean-Marxists with their conception of capital commanding its absolute outside without subsuming it cannot, unfortunately, understand that. They are unable to grasp and explicate capital as a structure, which for them can only and necessarily be an exitless totality that precludes all attempts to think a viable and effective strategy of emancipation. It is this that has arguably led them to think of capital in terms of it commanding an absolute outside to itself, and which this outside resists. This, they believe, is the only possible way through which one can develop an effective anti-capitalist strategy. It is precisely for this reason they think, like my critic here, that anybody who grasps capital as a structure is necessarily a Left-Hegelian thinking in terms of an transcendental structure created by global markets. And this, in turn, is, as we have seen earlier, due to their inability to grasp Marx’s explication of the value-relational structure of capital as a moving contradiction. This prevents them from understanding capital as the horizon of value-equational relations of production in terms of internal dialectics. As a result, they are incapable of seeing how the dialectic as a structure is not merely the totalising subsumption but is, precisely for that reason, the limit-form of its own antagonistic asymmetry. In other words, they do not realise that the inside of capital, a value-relational structure, is not merely this inside. That the inside of capital is that inside precisely as the limit or interruption of its determinately asymmetrical antagonism is something that completely eludes them. Their failure, or unwillingness, to countenance capital as a structure in its two-sidedness also obstructs a proper understanding of political economy in its concrete operation. They are unable to grasp how unproductive labour, whose apparent function is the creation of use-values for immediate consumption, is already always subsumed within capital’s value-relational structure of productive labour precisely by virtue of being such a producer of use-values for immediate consumption.

What the thesis of capital’s non-subsumptive command of an absolute outside also fails to account for is how labour-practices, which are apparently unproductive, fulfil yet another productive structural-functionality over and above the one demonstrated above. People, who apparently do unproductive labour in order to only reproduce themselves, constitute the “relative surplus- population” or the “industrial reserve army” (Marx, in Capital, Volume I). This reserve army of labour works to regiment the productively employed labour-power and increases the latter’s productivity, thereby leading to a concomitant increase in the extraction of surplus value and capital accumulation. In the ultimate analysis, this renders the apparently unproductive labour of the unemployed and underemployed reproducing itself, systemically productive.

The labour that is unproductive in an immediate sense must be grasped in terms of how its unproductive functionality is productively articulated by the structured totality of social labour within which it is constitutively situated. That is precisely what Marx does while explicating his concept of the “industrial reserve army”. He writes: “If the means of production, as they increase in extent and effective power, become to a less extent means of employment of labourers, this state of things is again modified by the fact that in proportion as the productiveness of labour increases, capital increases its supply of labour more quickly than its demand for labourers. The over-work of the employed part of the working-class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to over-work and to subjugation under the dictates of capital. The condemnation of one part of the working-class to enforced idleness by the over-work of the other part, and the converse, becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalists, and accelerates at the same time the production of the industrial reserve army on a scale corresponding with the advance of social accumulation.”

This Marxian conception of industrial reserve army has become even more significant in this neoliberal (or, late-capitalist) conjuncture. That is so because this conjunctural moment is characterised by accelerating rates of same-skilling across the various segmental and sectoral divides of the working class, and an equally rapid diminution in the quantity of productively employed living labour due to a significant diminution of socially necessary labour time. All of this, thanks to an unprecedented and overall increase in the organic composition of capital. This, in turn, has brought into being the footloose and precarious “mass-worker”. Its ranks ceaselessly burgeoning with an ever-increasing rapidity. The mass-worker is clearly as much a part of the apparently unproductive reserve army of labour as he/she is productively employed in the production of value. The Derridean-Marxist thesis that there is a vast outside of capital that capital as a value-relational horizon non-subsumptively commands in order to reproduce itself is even more difficult to sustain in the face of the rise of the mass-worker, and its characteristically indeterminate and precarious positionality.

In fact, the crisis that capital has progressively been running into due to the increasing and accelerating diminution of living labour in the production of value has compelled it to turn towards the affective realm of ‘non-work’ socialisation in order to render its various moments sites for direct extraction of value. The rise of social media is a prime exemplar of that. This is “affective capital” – or “biocapitalism” – demonstrated and explicated with quite a bit of clarity by the Italian post-workerists, among others. This is life itself in its living as production of value, and thus productive work. This has led Negri, together with many other post-workerists and autonomist-Marxists, to come up with the conception of social factory. In this light, our Derridean-Marxists need to be asked, once again, where is this absolute outside of capital that capital commands without subsuming it? Where is it, indeed?


At this point, it would perhaps be appropriate to underscore the importance of rethinking the problem of transition. Such rethinking is indispensable if one wishes to rigorously come to terms with the strategic conception of positionality. My critic, thanks to her affinity for the Derridean-Marxist theoretical approach, deploys this conception in the most slipshod fashion while criticising my polemic against Partha Chatterjee and his subalternist approach to politics. I had argued, while dwelling on Chatterjee’s rather troubling position on India’s occupations of Kashmir and its so-called north-eastern states, that “…this so-called criticism of colonial occupations by subalternists such as Chatterjee is not the determinate critique of political economy it ought to be in order to realise and fulfil its radical potential. And anti-colonialism and/or anti-occupation, in the discourse and thinking of such intellectuals, stands completely evacuated of all politics of class struggle to become no more than an idiom of competitive ethno-nationalisms and ‘militant’ reformism. Precisely through such a politico-theoretical move is the anti-colonial and/or anti-occupation politics of, say, Kashmir ostensibly affirmed only to be rendered a little nationalism or sub-nationalism that then serves to legitimise and reinforce India’s federalist-unionist big nationalism, which is the ideology that serves its imperial project of politically managing the South Asian moment of the globalising late-capitalist conjuncture. This particular modality of deployment of the language and ideas of anti-colonialism is nothing but their revisionist rearticulation, which is precisely what postcolonialism is.” I had also gone on to assert that “…this is not simply hypocrisy on Chatterjee’s part. It is something far more pernicious. It is neurosis that inheres in the very structure of his thinking and discourse.”.

The response my critic came up with is the following: “The critique of Chatterjee here sort of exculpates (him) by presuming the issue has something to do with the in-built limit of their analysis. I actually think that this is not so — which makes it worse. This is not a lapse because the analysis cannot go there. It is a lapse because we (I include my self here, as I don’t think I have worked this out for my own self) retain a nationalist presupposition coming from our positionality. Sort of like how whiteness works (so not inherent TO analyses of race that they cannot handle the transitions between racial formations from slavery to capitalism, but a blockage from the whiteness side of it…).”

A more disingenuous articulation would be difficult to come by. She attempts — with the surreptitious dexterity of a seasoned professional academic — to turn the tables on my polemic by suggesting that I provide Chatterjee with an exit route just because I seek to critically locate his pernicious position on Indian occupations in the limit internal to his structure of thinking and discourse. Well then, let me return the favour by laying bare in even more unqualified terms the political complicity of her theoretical approach in India’s occupation of Kashmir; among other things.

Even as she insinuates that my polemic against Chatterjee’s position on Kashmir and the so-called Indian Northeast is actually an apologia on his behalf, she goes on to suggest that Chatterjee’s problem is entirely an ethical problem of not being able to grapple with the “nationalist presupposition” of his positionality at the level of his self. By making this problem of positionality purely into a question of ethics, or practice of the self, my critic seems to be clearly suggesting that the politics of emancipation can be no more than a politics of reform – one that will compel people occupying dominant and oppressor positionalities to ethically grapple with the presuppositions of those positionalities to change the state of affairs by simply changing themselves. In making this utterly status-quoist political move – dressed up in the idiom of radical theory – not only does she naturalise the conception of positionality, but consequently ends up reinforcing the hegemony of the structure as the constitutive duality of dominance and subordination.

We would do well, at this point, to remind my critic, and her ethically-inclined Derridean-Marxist friends, what Marx says in the ‘Preface to the First German Edition’ of Capital, Volume I: “I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of our society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.”

My critic’s complicit and compromised position is arguably on account of how she understands the Marxist problem of transition. If one were to rethink the problem of transition in the light of how capital as a value-relational structure refunctionalises unproductive labour as productive, one would probably realise that the transition from various pre-capitalist modes of production to a capitalist one does not always necessarily involve alteration in the discursive appearances of the socio-economic forms that instantiated those pre-capitalist modes of production in their own respective times.

More often than not, such forms are carried into capitalism in their ‘pre-capitalist’ discursive appearances through a process of their rearticulation, reanimation, and/or refunctionalisation by the capitalist mode of production, or the value-relational structure that is capital. We already saw that when we were earlier dealing with how extra-economic or semi-extra-economic extraction of surplus use-values gets rearticulated into a productive relation. In such circumstances, apparently pre-capitalist social relations of race, caste, community, gender and so on are preserved at the level of their respective discursive appearances only and precisely through a process of their productive refunctionalisation in and by the value-relational structure of capital. Hence, race, caste, community and gender relations in their ‘pre-capitalist’ appearance operate as integral constituents of the value-relational structure of capital. They are now, therefore, fully capitalist in their structural-functionality.

In such a situation, the oppressed positionalities of, say, Blackness, Dalitness, Femaleness, Muslimness, or, for that matter, Kashmiriness can emancipate themselves from the oppression embodied in the oppressor positionalities of, say, Whiteness, Brahminism, Maleness, Hinduness, or, for that matter, Indiannness, only by seeking to unravel the value-relational structure of capital within which such oppressive relations are situated through their productive refunctionalisation by that structure.


In the case of Kashmir, for instance, the Indian occupation retains the discursive appearance of classical colonialism. But the way it serves capital in its late, neoliberal conjuncture is significantly distinct from how classical colonialism served capital in its early conjuncture of so-called embedded liberalism. It might not be entirely misplaced to argue that the main function of Indian occupation of Kashmir now, thanks to the de-development it has wrought on the occupied territory, is that of rendering and maintaining the population of this territory as a reserve or pool of migrant labour with regard to certain economic sectors, and segments (mostly cognitarians) of the productive labour market in the Indian mainland. This is even truer of the Indian occupation of its so-called Northeast. The degree and extent of this phenomenon can, however, be revealed only through militant inquiries by politically committed activists and radical intellectuals within the Kashmiri movement against Indian occupation

This contention of mine should not, however, be taken to mean that certain other territories such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which have historically been an integral part of the Indian national project in its formation, have not been de-developed to function as labour reserves for the industrial economic centres of the country. What it simply means is that Kashmir and the so-called Indian Northeast have been functionalised as labour reserves through the historical process of occupation that is specific to them. Bihar and UP too have been similarly functionalised, but through different historical processes specific to their respective socio-economic and political geography. Besides, the economic sectors and labour segments the Kashmiri reserve serves, for instance, is not fully congruent with the economic sectors and segments served by the Bihari or Uttar Pradeshi reserves. There is also likely be a whole range of differences, both at the subjective-experiential plane and at the level of objective quantification, among the members of those diverse labour reserves in their operations in the social factory on the Indian mainland. What cannot, however, be disputed is the historical form of colonial occupation — which has been specific to the dynamic of relations between India and Kashmir, or India and its so-called Northeast — continues to perpetuate itself; and in doing so functionalises those regions as pools of migrant labour for different economic sectors, and segments of its productive labour market, on the Indian mainland.

Also, the occupation, by being a live demonstration of India’s imperialist hegemony vis-à-vis its south Asian neighbourhood, tends to bolster, both politically and ideologically, the nationalist consensus in the mainland thus preventing the accentuation of class contradictions there. Of course, such occupations, not unlike classical colonialism, continue to extract and appropriate resources and raw materials native to the occupied territories. But this arguably is no longer its primary structural-functionality. Rather, it is a discursive appearance that has been retained from its specific historical past and which is now an epiphenomenon that wreaks and sustains de-development in the occupied territories to functionalise them as migrant labour pools with regard to the mainland. All of this together, however, amounts to no more than a considered hypothesis. One that will, once again, have to be substantiated through militant investigations by activists and radical intellectuals in the anti-occupation struggles being waged in those areas.

The short point of all this hypothesising is that every struggle against its respectively specific form of oppression has to envisage its strategy in a manner that each of them in the determinateness of militating against its concrete form of oppression begins articulating the destruction of the value-relational structure of capital. Anything less would be reformist and restorative identity politics, which would rob those struggles of their radical potential, and render them competitive and reformist. This would make those struggles into reproducers and recomposers of precisely the same oppressive structure of the constitutive duality of domination and subordination they have been militating against. The reproduction of that structure, by way of its recomposition through such struggles, will amount to those struggles throwing up new layers of systemically-coopted elite intermediaries and subjugated subalterns of their own.


In this context, my critic’s theoretical move to delink the question of positionality from the problem of transition leads her to a thoroughly ethicalised conception of politics, whose preponderant strategic register is that of privilege-calling. The problem with this strategic register, if we carefully attend to the political language it generates, is that its emphasis is more on calling people out on their privileged positionalities than on strategising the unraveling of the value-relational structure of capital that is the condition of possibility of this constitutive duality of privileged and underprivileged positionalities.

This is, therefore, a strategy of “ressentiment” (Nietzsche). Underpinned by “slave-morality” (Nietzsche), it’s a strategy tailor-made to serve neoliberal capital. If on one hand, it is about struggle as a politics of competitive bargaining and cooption; its obverse, on the other hand, is that people occupying dominant/oppressor positionalities do no more than ethically grapple with those positionalities in their instantiations at the level of merely their selfhood. Collective politics, in this context, becomes a big laugh: it’s about the ‘collectivity’ of various selves ethically grappling with their oppressor positionalities to overcome them. This clearly implies that the structural condition of possibility of such mutually constitutive positionalities of the oppressor and the oppressed is left intact. Worse, the idiom of solidarity becomes, as far as the oppressor/dominant positionality is concerned, a register of philanthropic empathy and sympathy for the ‘less-fortunate’ occupiers of the oppressed/subordinate positionality. As a result, the idiom of solidarity becomes a systemic ideology, enabling not merely the reproduction of the structural condition of possibility of oppression as such, but perpetuating and deepening the same forms of oppression too.

This is, however, not to suggest that a political strategy orientated towards unraveling the value-relational structure of capital will have nothing to do with questioning privileged positionalities. To thinks that is preposterous, to say the least. Any strategising that seeks to unravel the value-relational structure of capital will have to envision how movements against specific forms of oppression can concretely articulate themselves as the simultaneity of “struggle in unity, unity in struggle”. This strategic conception and credo of Mao Zedong clearly shows that privilege-calling is integral to revolutionary-political movementality, and thus does not need to exist as an independent strategic register and/or political idiom. After all, what else can it mean when people are called on to struggle in the process of coming together in unity? Mao’s credo of “struggle in unity, unity in struggle” is all about envisaging strategy as the constellational construction of subtractive ontology in Badiou’s sense of the term. And it is not as if this is devoid of ethicality. In its revolutionary-proletarian conception, politics is the singularity of the ethico-political. This means it is no longer simply about ethics as the grappling with one’s positionality in its instantiation at the level of one’s self. Politics as the singularity of the ethico-political implies, instead, that ethics is integral and internal to concrete political struggles against concrete forms of oppression or social domination. This is manifest in the future-anterior orientation of those struggles that they seek to actualise from the determinateness of their respective concrete locations in striving to unravel the value-relational structure of capital while struggling against the specific forms of oppression they are faced with. According to Badiou, there cannot be a Marxist ethics, but there is an “ethics of Marxism”. And this ethics of Marxism is the revolutionary-proletarian subjectivity as the simultaneity of “unity in struggle, struggle in unity” in its actualisation amid and through concrete struggles against concrete forms of oppression.

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