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Russian Revolution and Luxemburg’s Approach

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Even being a direct observer of the happenings in Russia and being critical of Bolshevik practice, Rosa Luxemburg could keep a far more objective and materialist understanding of the problems of the Russian Revolution, in comparison to the theo-sectarian polemics around facts and counter-facts that is being exercised today globally during the centenary celebrations. In a letter to Adolf Warski written less than a couple of months before her assassination, Luxemburg comments on the two most crucial problems of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik practice, refusing to subjectively analyse them. It is this objectivity that generated her revolutionary “optimism of will”. She writes:

The use of terror indicates great weakness, certainly, but it is directed against internal enemies who base their hopes on the existence of capitalism outside of Russia, receiving support and encouragement from it. With the coming of the European revolution, the Russian counter-revolutionaries will lose only support [from abroad] but also – what’s more important- their courage. Thus the Bolshevik use of terror is above all an expression of the weakness of the European proletariat. Certainly, the agrarian relations that have been established are the most dangerous aspect, the worst sore spot of the Russian Revolution. But here too there is a truth that applies – even the greatest revolution can accomplish only that which has ripened as a result of [historical] development. This sore spot also can only be healed by the European revolution. And it is coming!

George Adler, Peter Hudis and Anneliese Laschitza (ed), The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, Verso (2011), pp 484-85

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

September 21, 2017 at 1:43 pm

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.

References:

(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 marxists.org

Notes on Rohith Vemula’s Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marx pushes the argument further by inserting:

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

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

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

Addendum

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

Written by Pratyush Chandra

February 19, 2016 at 10:50 pm

On the Labour Politics of ‘Immediate Effectiveness’

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

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.”

4

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.”

(Draft)

References:

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

Charlie Hebdo Attack: Who will criticise the critics?

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What would criticism of heaven be without criticism of the earth? And what does one do when criticism of heaven fails to be a criticism of the earth and becomes complicit precisely in conserving and/or reproducing the earth as it stands? Is that not the question that comes to us via Marx’s critique of Bruno Bauer’s secularist criticism of Jewish religioisity, or Feurbach’s (liberal and partial) atheism? Shouldn’t, therefore, the criticism of heaven begin with criticism of the earth — a criticism that is as much a critique of heaven as a critique of those whose criticism of heaven serves, unwittingly or otherwise, to conserve and reproduce the earth as it stands?

To paraphrase and slightly modify comics-artist Alan Moore in Watchmen:who will criticise the critics? In other words, shouldn’t criticism of murderous fanaticism in the name of Islam, if such criticism has to be really effective, locate it in its condition of possibility that is capitalist modernity, even as it unsparingly condemns the concrete operations of such murderous fanaticism. In the event of criticism of murderous religious fanaticism failing to achieve such comprehensiveness, which would admittedly be a tortuous and complicated articulation, it becomes no more than liberal breast-beating. In the current instance of the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo, such liberal breast-beating and the attendant politics of condemnation from an Archimedian point participates in, whether it admits to itself or not, the prevailing climate of Islamophobia. However, the class culpability and complicity of such politics of liberal-secularist breast-beating, which smacks of utter political irresponsibility, is equally in play when such politics seeks to confront the mobs of lumpenised unwashed masses rallying out in favour of majoritarianisms of different kinds.

Such liberal, secularist politics, which is supposedly pacifist and for peace, is against the violence of fanatical mobs — whether minoritarian or majoritarian — not because such fanaticism is religious but because through opposition to such fanaticism this politics seeks to ensure that the utterly unequal and iniquitous class structure, and its inherent structural violence, is left undisturbed and in peace. Clearly, what bothers the purveyors of such politics most is how such violence openly manifests the violence and inequality always inherent in and foundational to the structure that makes possible their privileged peace. It’s precisely on account of the adoption of such secularist politics of dubious peace by even those who project themselves as champions of revolutionary leftist politics of social transformation that the eruption of structural violence into the open inevitably comes to have a mystified-fanatical direction, whether in a minoritarian or a majoritarian idiom.

In having adopted such liberal secularist politics of dubious peace in their fight against majoritarianism(s), our so-called revolutionary leftists have been rendered incapable of nurturing the violence internal to the iniquitous structure of capitalist-modernity against that structure. And that is at the root of their failure to mobilise and articulate the open eruption of structural violence in a revolutionary-messianic, structure-unravelling direction.

It’s, therefore, only to be expected that most such liberals in revolutionary-leftist garb should ambivalently oscillate between unwitting (if not deliberate) Islamophobia, and condemnation of majoritarianism(s). That many of those liberals in revolutionary-leftist clothing should, in the context of the Charlie Hebdo affair, be found making statements that are serving to strengthen the prevailing Islamophobic consensus, is thus not surprising at all. In fact, even those who are not exactly doing that are being driven to make weak, ambivalent statements such as we condemn the attack but we also condemn the fetihsation of secularism and so on and so forth. What more can a politics impelled and guided solely by the registration of condemnation of iniquities of modernity be expected to deliver? To say that such ambivalence, and ambidexterity of ‘on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other’, is no good for forging an effectively concrete politics of anti-capitalism is a no-brainer. An effective anti-capitalist politics would be one that in the face of iniquitous multiplicity that is modernity targets capital as the structural condition of possibility of those historical iniquities in the process of targeting those iniquities in their empirical concreteness. The politics of condemnation as criticism, driven as it is by the tendency to horizontalise all iniquities wrought by the global and globalising system of modernity as the manifest operation of the capitalist structure of differential inclusion, can do precious little than reproduce precisely that structure and its iniquitous systemic operation in and through history.

So, yes condemn the murderous attack on the French satirical periodical by all means. Because the condemnation of all such vengeful acts of violence — which are immersed in ressentiment, reactivity and slave morality — is the first step of divine violence. But what is perhaps more important if we truly wish to begin abolishing such vengeful violence is to focus on making sense of such acts of violence in terms of elaborating their structural causality, which ought to also include the elaboration of how the western phenomenon of satire of Islam — and its liberal, supposedly anti-fundamentalist mediatic ideology — is a key enabler of that differentially inclusive structure of capital that as its realisation in and through history is the systemic iniquity of modernity. Without such elaboration divine violence gets hypostatised as its first step of condemnation to undergo an absolute reversal to become an integral dimension of the law-constituting and/or law-preserving violence that is as vengeful, if not more, as the overtly murderous violence it is meant to be a criticism of.

And yes, this is roughly how I would want to approach not only the recent massacre of children in Peshawar by the TTP but also, and more importantly, the global outrage and condemnation that followed.

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