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.