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Mapping the Footloose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Migrants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Written by Pratyush Chandra

November 20, 2015 at 3:25 am

Proletarian class determination: epistemology or ontology?

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“Class determination of knowledge means that we do not know whether determination actually takes place in reality as the proletariat depicts it, since this class only knows reality through that facet of the prism corresponding to its collocation in the social structure. In a sense, therefore, the proletariat imposes its view of reality upon this latter so that determination is first of all an epistemological concept rather than an ontological one. This, however, calls for neither idealism nor absolute relativism since, from the point of view of the proletariat, its view does come from (is determined by) concrete reality and has inherent in itself the possibility of knowing reality correctly, as shown by verification. In short, the point of view of the proletariat is that each class secretes its own knowledge (class determined relativism of knowledge) and that within this view only the proletariat has the possibility of gaining a correct knowledge of all (and not only some) aspects of reality because of this class’s position in the societal labour process (class determined supersession of knowledge’s relativism).

“We do not claim that the proletariat depicts real processes as they take place in reality (reflection). But we do claim that this class’s view has the objectively determined possibility of being correct, to find a ‘match’ with the reality it depicts. It is in this sense that determination can be referred to as an epistemological calling into existence. And, it is in this sense that our view differs from the ‘reflection’ theory and can be called non-reflective realism: knowledge is not determined simply by material transformation, but by this transformation immersed in specific social contexts, that is, by the real concrete.”
–Guglielmo Carchedi, ‘Problems in Class Analysis: Production, knowledge, and the function of capital

To be read, in my view, as a crucial theoretical explication of Lenin’s axiom of truth being partisan, and Marx’s Eleventh thesis on Feurbach. Particularly the latter, on account of it being much abused as a shibboleth by vulgar ‘Marxian’-pragmatists. Justice can be done to Marx’s privileging of changing the world over interpreting it only if one grasps this affirmation of world-change rigorously in terms of Marx and Engels’ concept of “the real movement” and Marx’s conception of “practical materialism” that he derives through his critique of Feurbach’s “contemplative materialism” in The German Ideology and Theses on Feurbach. Thus Marx’s critique of interpretation, which is basically a critique of materialism articulated in contemplative terms, is not only a rejection of the primacy of contemplation but is also, by the same token, a severe criticism of decisionist pragmatism, which is contemplation reconstituted at the practical level of abstraction. Clearly, Marx’s privileging of world-change over world-interpretation is a dialectical critique of contemplation by having the modality of contemplation brush itself against its own grain. A theoretical, and philosophical, move that does not abandon knowledge and epistemology but radically alters their conception and status. And in this regard, Althusser’s explication of “overdetermination” and “epistemological void” (in ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’) and his conception of “limit-form” (in ‘Marxism is Not a Historicism’), together with Badiou’s concepts of “metaontology” (in Being and Event) and “politics-as-its-own-thought” (in Metapolitics) are also indispensable.

Written by Pothik Ghosh

August 19, 2015 at 4:55 pm

Posted in capitalism, Marxism, Working Class

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Labour Mapping through Workers’ Inquiry

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(Preface to a report on labour mapping exercise in Odisha)

Here is a report of an exercise in labour mapping undertaken in specific regions of Odisha in the last couple of years. Over the years, committed indigenous and rural activists have seen a tremendous deradicalisation of the old modes of organising and mobilisation. They have been made complicit in ritualism and clientilism of competitive democracy. Neoliberalism that vows to counter an activist state has in fact further extended the ritualistic clientilist character of the state. It has accommodated private civil players in its network by putting out several state functions to them. The rampant localisation and ngoisation of activism is in fact one of the chief characteristics of the political process under neoliberalism – it minimises the state formation, but infinitely extends its magnetic impact.

The purpose of labour mapping has been to understand rural social relations in several districts of Odisha – Jharsuguda, Sambalpur, Dhenkanal, Angul, Cuttack, Jajpur, Jagatsinghpur, Nayagarh and Boudh – from the perspective of labour. The dynamics of rural transformation under neoliberalism has changed the character of rural struggles and there is a need to seriously engage in the task of programmatic refocusing of rural mobilisations. As rural Odisha is being transformed increasingly into a labour reserve, agriculture and other allied rural economic activities are now less concerned with their profitable nature, rather they are increasingly becoming means to sustain surplus population. In this situation, labour mapping becomes essential to reconnect activism with everyday struggles of the “rural” population – to visualise their footlooseness as a ground for new kinds of peoples’ struggles. In this report, workers, activists and researchers (in most cases all these identities converge in same individuals involved in this inquiry) have tried to trace self-activism and organisation in the everydayness of workers’ struggle for survival. The choice of population clusters for inquiry is made on the basis of their location in the organisational networks of these activists, so that self-inquiry becomes possible.


At the very inception, we should make it clear that this engagement was not a voluntary choice made by researchers to fulfil some project requirements. The aim and the means had roots in the exigencies of activism. It was a task that emerged out of the organic experience of activists who were involved in the mobilisation and struggles of indigenous population and oppressed communities in parts of Odisha since the late 1990s. At that time the entry point to grasp the everyday lives of these people was their identities.

One must remember that the 1990s was the period when throughout India the developmentalist politics around exclusion that had dominated the political discourse since independence, especially since the 1960s, suddenly encountered the neoliberal novelty of network, that changed the character of socio-political discourse overnight. Now nothing seemed to be excluded, rather everything was found differentially included. Activists became less concerned with a share in the pie, rather they found themselves confined in its sticky layers. But as they struggled more and more to free themselves from this mire, witnessed in the numerous spirited struggles against primitive accumulation, to preserve indigeneity against global corporatist onslaught, to maintain and increase the distance, the novel networking of neoliberalism revealed itself by subsuming their moves as mere means of determining the levels of differentiality in its global system of inclusion.

The very entry-point to grasp the everyday lives of the indigenous and backward class population seemed superfluous. It is not that the specificities collapsed, but specifics became mere shades in the constitution of the general. Those who remained stuck to this entry-point, they succumbed to existentialist politics – either trying to survive in marginality, as voices helping or forcing the system to develop checks and balances, or by accepting the role of agencies of inclusion as neo-elites within respective communities. Identitarianism lost its critical edge; in fact, it affirmed the rainbow configuration of neoliberalism.

It was this deficiency of identitarian politics in sustaining the task of anti-capitalist transformation that led many groups of indigenous and other social activists to grasp the limits of identity politics and endeavour a leap beyond. Activists who resisted succumbing to the lures of the system, were mostly those who already had found themselves engaging mainly with the ‘subalterns’ within the identities. Thus, objectively they had started finding identity politics insufficient in rendering meaning to their experiences. In fact, now the question of indigeneity too could not be explained in its own terms – in terms of its exclusivity, its internal culture and history. Rather, it became important to grasp how and why “the greatest leveller,” capital as social power, reproduced and instrumentalised such exclusivity. Now, it was important to grasp the question of indigeneity and other forms of identities in terms of social processes within capitalism.

The languages of subalternity, which were founded only in specificities of identitarian oppression and devoicing could not satisfy these new subalterns. In fact, those languages themselves became means of reification and labelling to fashion the general capitalist language of competition. Any attempt to restrict these subalterns to the discourse of identity became part of the general capitalist mode of increasing competition among the segments of the general class of new subalterns across identities, the class of workers, i.e., the working class. It was the social process of classification that broke open the reified homogeneities of competing identities. However, this process did not do away with identities, rather it provided them a new significance, a new role – of both waging class struggle and obfuscating it. That is to say, identities provided the hegemonic capitalist class a tool to compose itself through competition between particular (identitarianised) capitals where other classes are invested as supporting masses – thus constructing the field for democratic and political competitions, the heightening of which is war. This dampens the class struggle by decomposing the working class, by increasing competition among identitarianised segments of workers. But this dampening is what can be termed as “class struggle from above,” as this helps in reproducing the hegemony of capital. This way identity politics in fact contributes in constructing the terrain for class struggle and conflict, in shaping up capitalism’s superstructure. It further contributes in the political recomposition of the working class by politicising the intra-class inter-segmental relations. Thus, working class politics too could not be envisaged by avoiding differences and internal conflicts, which are invested as socio-technical composition of labour for capital accumulation. Any organisational effort to unite workers from outside by wishing away such composition, its inherent divisions and conflicts will reproduce the capitalist agencies within the class. The working class recomposes itself politically only through these conflicts, by utilising the fissures in the socio-technical composition of labour, by re-envisaging it as a new terrain of class struggle.

The crisis of identitarian politics against exclusion during neoliberalism led to a focus on the process of proletarianisation, even if the direct reference to the working class was and is still generally resisted. But the ideological legacy of identitarianism and its revalorisation in the capitalist polity tends to keep the understanding of the phenomena of dispossession, alienation, etc., at mere experiential levels, as invasion, colonisation and onslaught, not as part of the internal reproduction of capitalism through originary accumulation, not as continuously shaping the successive regimes of capital. The ideological baggage and objective advancement frequently come into conflict. The duality of exclusion/inclusion and politics around it are rendered asunder by this refocus, as the process of proletarianisation is both exclusion and inclusion. It is by excluding people from the ownership of means of production that they are included in capital relations. Honest activists in the resistances against primitive accumulation in the 1990s and 2000s without class focus found themselves now and then betrayed by the mainstreamisation of popular aspirations – which seemed to resist exclusion to bargain for better ‘inclusion’ or compensation.

It was around the mid-2000s that we see once again the struggle for entitlement, inclusion and compensation becoming attractive for NGOs and social activists. And this time the language of labour was found enticing but it was itself identitarianised in the process. This new discourse of labour was administered by various commissions, government pronouncements and legislations that sought to ready the neoliberal regime to face the effects of the global economic crisis with fragmentary dosages of age-old welfare state measures. Those who accused Marxists of talking about workers and not about other identities and small producing classes in rural India suddenly were engaged in organising workers – and the trick was done by various labour legislations for the unorganised sector that proliferated in the neoliberal era. These legislations were brought to help market forces to sustain labour supply – flow and reserves – in those sectors where demand and supply are always volatile. More than labour laws regulating employment relations, they were social laws that constructed welfare boards and other basic support system which in effect kept labour reserves and supply intact. Construction labour legislations, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) etc came, in which essentially the role of organising and struggle was to register workers in the respective welfare boards, for provisioning of I-cards and tools and the functioning of schemes. It was really about endowments and entitlements of a class as a group of people but not at all about class struggle, not about the struggle of a class, which is congenitally bound in a conflictual relationship and exists only in the diverse strains of that relationship.

Any talk about labour politics and working class without grounding it in class relations and struggle amounts to a depoliticisation of these relations. It becomes all about individuated workers being endowed and exchange-entitled in accordance to their endowments. It is about the uplifting of those workers, giving them voice without allowing them to question the very structure of work relations in which they are workers. They are simply deconstructed into sections of population – social stratum with numerous sub-strata. And, everybody inches towards becoming closer to the ideal of an average man – generally referred to as a middle-class. The structure of work-relations are taken for granted. Specific relations are sometimes focussed only to ensure that they continue to sustain the fairness of exchange-entitlements.


The purpose of labour mapping in our case is to understand the digits of changes in specific work-relations, and how much their averaging is taking the shape of a generalised structure of fundamental social relations. It is a cartographic exercise to recognise on the one hand how elements of indigeneity and identity become specifications of the general structure in a particular socio-cultural context, i.e, how the dominant mode of commodity production and exchange is overdetermined by diverse modes and relations of production and exchange. On the other, it is a process mapping of the neoliberal network of production and exchange that subsumes and connects various levels of activities in which labourers are simultaneously and consecutively engaged. It is the cartographic tracing of the nomadic hordes of the (post)modern working class and accounting for its footlooseness. This perpetual footlooseness which was earlier considered to be a mark of an insufficient actualisation of the subsumption of labour by capital is valorised in the post-fordist regime of capitalism as an essential endowment of labour that could help sustain capital mobility and the flexibilisation of the work processes.

The task of labour mapping was undertaken to overcome the problems that neoliberalism posed before some of the peoples’ organisations and social movements in Odisha. Once it is realised that the rural indigenous population too is internally differentiated and sections are differentially included in the system, and that it is the mobilisation of labour through local state apparatuses and agencies of capital that has become central to the rural economy in Odisha, there is a strategic refocusing to overcome the existential crisis that the neoliberal regime of accumulation has created for older organisational forms grounded in perspectival dualism – exclusion/inclusion, we-don’t-have-this/we-want-this. It is a return to the original organisational principle that saw self-organisation as a multiple of conflictual relationships between labour and capital, on the one hand, and associational relationships among labourers, on the other. In other words, diverse organisational forms are found in the operation of these relations – which organisational form(s) will eventually succeed in constituting the revolutionary expression of the working class is the age-old question of class praxis and is an issue for militant investigations or inquiries.

This brings us to the notion of workers’ inquiry. Inquiry here is not an objectivist exercise by a sociologist which reduces workers to an object, ultimately resonating with the theories of human resource management and mainstream economics that reify workers simply as inputs in the commodity economy (thus, any activism on their part is a deviance to be controlled or managed). Rather, central to the notion of inquiry is the understanding of the workers as a subject-object. Therefore, inquiry is about developing “a reflective community of workers-organisers”. Operaismo (workerism), a major tendency within Italy’s workers’ movement in the 1960s-70s, saw the practice of workers’ inquiry as “joint research” between workers as militant researchers and workers in capital-labour relationship. For Operaistas inquiry was an antidote to the ossified vanguardist practices of the established organisations that throttled self-activism and self-organisational abilities of the working class. Antonio Negri, a prominent Italian Marxist, who was one of the major militants of operaismo, explains:

“The practice of joint-research was simply the possibility of knowing, through inquiry, workers’ levels of awareness and consciousness as productive subjects. If I go into a factory, get in touch with the workers and carry out with them an investigation into the conditions of their labour, the joint-research is obviously the description of the productive cycle and the identification of the functions of each person within that cycle. But at the same time, it is also a general evaluation of the levels of exploitation that each and every one of them suffers, of the workers’ ability to react in relation to their consciousness of exploitation in the system of machines and before the structure of command. This way, as the research advances, the joint-research creates outlooks of struggle in the factory and defines threads or devices of cooperation beyond the factory. Evidently, this is where the hegemony and centrality of praxis in research reside: this praxis helps our understanding of the cycle of production and exploitation and is enhanced when it determines resistance and agitation, which is to say, when it develops struggles. Thus, it is practically possible to constitute an antagonistic subject, because this is what the argument is about.”

The endeavour to map labour right from its initial mobilisation, in production and circulation spheres through workers’ inquiry is actually a recognition of the existential crisis of organisational forms sanctioned from above and an attempt to redefine social activism in the everydayness of class struggle, of struggle between labour and capital.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

July 17, 2015 at 3:14 am

Stalin on “aristocratic attitude towards the masses”

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Our Stalin institutionalists and anti-Stalin fanatics can quibble over the meaning-fulness or -lessness of the following, but it is definitely one of the texts which would make the Manichean officials within the radical Left uncomfortable. It is also an evidence of infinite possibilities during the course of the Russian Revolution, even in 1924. In fact, when I quizzed one of my comrades about the authorship of the text, he could even imagine Victor Serge writing it!

This is taken from Stalin’s speech on Lenin delivered at a Memorial Meeting of the Kremlin Military School January 28, 1924. It is published in volume 6 of his Collected Works, pp 54-66. In this text he deals with “a few facts to bring out certain of Lenin’s characteristics as a man and a leader.” He identifies these characteristics as: “the mountain eagle” (“who knew no fear in the struggle, and who boldly led the Party forward along the unexplored paths of the Russian revolutionary movement”), “modesty”, “force of logic”, “no whining”, “no boasting”, “fidelity to principle”, “faith in the masses”, and of course, ultimately, “the genius of revolution.” It was indeed very refreshing and even nostalgic to read the text – almost a guide to Marxist spirituality (perhaps Roland Boer will illuminate on this in his forthcoming book on Stalin).

At the time when our comrades in their ghettoised complexes boast of their every action as historical, it is of course good to see an attempt to codify “no boasting in victory” and “faith in the masses” as revolutionary values:

Theoreticians and leaders of parties, men who are acquainted with the history of nations and who have studied the history of revolutions from beginning to end, are sometimes afflicted by a shameful disease. This disease is called fear of the masses, disbelief in the creative power of the masses. This sometimes gives rise in the leaders to a kind of aristocratic attitude towards the masses, who, although not versed in the history of revolutions, are destined to destroy the old order and build the new. This kind of aristocratic attitude is due to a fear that the elements may break loose, that the masses may “destroy too much”; it is due to a desire to play the part of a mentor who tries to teach the masses from books, but who is averse to learning from the masses.

Lenin was the very antithesis of such leaders. I do not know of any other revolutionary who had so profound a faith in the creative power of the proletariat and in the revolutionary efficacy of its class instinct as Lenin. I do not know of any other revolutionary who could scourge the smug critics of the “chaos of revolution” and the “riot of unauthorised actions of the masses” so ruthlessly as Lenin. I recall that when in the course of a conversation one comrade said that “the revolution should be followed by the normal order of things,” Lenin sarcastically remarked: “It is a pity that people who want to be revolutionaries forget that the most normal order of things in history is the revolutionary order of things.”

Hence, Lenin’s contempt for all who superciliously looked down on the masses and tried to teach them from books. And hence, Lenin’s constant precept: learn from the masses, try to comprehend their actions, carefully study the practical experience of the struggle of the masses.

Faith in the creative power of the masses—this was the feature of Lenin’s activities which enabled him to comprehend the spontaneous process and to direct its movement into the channel of the proletarian revolution.

The text is available online too at

Written by Pratyush Chandra

June 16, 2015 at 1:13 am

On the question of class mentality and politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Pratyush Chandra

April 30, 2015 at 1:42 am


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Pratyush Chandra

November 4, 2014 at 5:26 am

Posted in India, Labour, Orissa, Working Class

Tagged with

Lilliputian Leninism: A Progeric Disorder

with 16 comments

About a year back, we had written an editorial for Radical Notes about workers’ struggle in Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant. And other videos and commentaries were posted too, which critically analysed the dominant perception among pro-worker forces regarding the pre-and-post July 18 struggle of Maruti workers. A comrade associated with Bigul Mazdoor Dasta came heavily against our position, and wrote a 7500-word essay to rebut the dangerous anti-“Leninist” strand that seemed to emerge from our position. To demonstrate the need to combat “new philosophers”, he found anarcho-virus, that we were carrying, in other organisations and groups too, so presumably he saw some kind of ‘anarchist’/’libertarian’ consolidation (alas!) happening in India. The urgency of the polemic is furthermore emphasised by the conclusion that he makes:

All the energies of the revolutionary intelligentsia today must be directed towards building … a revolutionary party. Lest, the moment of Socialism will pass, the “new philosophers” will continue to remain prisoners of their seductive philosophical ruminations, and our punishment will be fascism.

What is most interesting about this piece is the ability of the author to spend so many words to assert one single point – that the “new philosophers” in their fling with Maruti workers are rejecting the role of the vanguard (and thus, Leninism), and how could they? And he is forcing his readers to refer to wikipedia back and forth, to know the influence of real devils behind such rejection – Rosa Luxemburg, Tronti, Negri, Holloway, Castoriadis, Operaismo, Autonome, Johnson-Forrest Tendency… Oh, I forgot to add, Paul Mattick and Pannekoek. Tch…I missed two more, Badiou and Zizek. This new trend that he finds is “a childish mixture” of all these and has eventually congealed into “one single tendency of anti-party revolutionism”. For the convenience of his readers (and to demonstrate that The Vanguard is already aware of all of them), he has put them in bold black letters. We are really grateful to him for providing us a reading list that will help us in understanding and articulating our own position well.


Well, comrade, we don’t reject the vanguards (anyway, do we really need to do that, and more importantly, who are we to do that?), we are simply saying that they must cease to behave like competing Lilliputians – daring to bind and pull the working class in spite of their own progressively constipated constitution, and doing all sorts of gymnastics to draw its attention towards them.

Gulliver and Lilliput Warriors

Gulliver and Lilliput Warriors


In your passion to exorcise the devils, you have forgotten that Lenin had spells and counter-spells too, depending on his immediate polemical and rhetorical needs. Some of these devils have understood that aspect of Lenin better than the Lilliputian Leninists. Let me start with an example that uses the words that you abhor:

“…it is a fact that the spontaneous awakening of the masses of the workers … has been taking place with astonishing rapidity during the past few years. The “material elements” of the movement have grown enormously…, but the conscious leaders … lag behind this growth.” (Lenin, “A talk with Defenders of Economism”, 1901, emphases added)

That great and very creative exponent of Leninism, whom we all admire, too has something for a devilish use. He has time and again warned against the Leninist tendency of making the party-form and vanguardism into “an immutable fetish”.

“For it is of the essence of history always to create the new, which cannot be forecast by any infallible theory. It is through struggle that the new element must be recognized and consciously brought to light from its first embryonic appearance. In no sense is it the party’s role to impose any kind of abstract, cleverly devised tactics upon the masses. On the contrary, it must continuously learn from their struggle and their conduct of it. But it must remain active while it learns, preparing the next revolutionary undertaking. It must unite the spontaneous discoveries of the masses, which originate in their correct class instincts, with the totality of the revolutionary struggle, and bring them to consciousness. In Marx’s words, it must explain their own actions to the masses, so as not only to preserve the continuity of the proletariat’s revolutionary experiences, but also consciously and actively to contribute to their further development. The party organization must adapt itself to become an instrument both of this totality and of the actions which result from it. If it fails to do this it will sabotage developments which it has not understood and therefore not mastered. Therefore, all dogmatism in theory and all sclerosis in organization are disastrous for the party. For as Lenin said: ‘Every new form of struggle which brings new perils and sacrifices inevitably “disorganizes” an organization ill-prepared for the new form of struggle. It is the party’s task to pursue its necessary path openly and consciously – above all in relation to itself – so that it may transform itself before the danger of disorganization becomes acute, and by this transformation promote the transformation and advance of the masses.’” (Lukacs, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought, 1924)

We are simply pleading, nothing more and nothing less, that workers can and do discover something new through their class instincts, in both political and organisational terms. For both Lenin and Lukacs, more urgent was the “party’s” task of recognising the new, bringing it to light and preparing itself for “new perils and sacrifices”, so that it catches up with and does not “lag behind” the growth of the “material elements of the movement.”


We do understand Lenin’s conjunctural compulsion to use Kautsky’s quote in What is to be done? about the relevance of bourgeois intellectuals to point out that workers need to educate themselves, to understand capitalism and capitalist strategies, to understand their own potentiality, and not just react to their immediate experience (in fact, grasping the richness of this experience requires a science). But we are suspicious of the use of Kautsky’s quote by Lilliputian leftists to defend their own bourgeois outsidedness and the practice of sermonising the proletarians – reducing their experience to subalternity and confusing this revolutionary class to another sack of potatoes aggregated externally and waiting for deliverance. In fact, Lenin’s footnote to Kautsky’s quote transforms the recognition of the “outside” into the Brechtian process of distanciation whereby the revolutionary class can comprehend the capitalist totality and critique its everyday life that would help it in designing its self-activities beyond the evolutionary guerrilla battles – and in the process create its own theoreticians – Weitlings and Proudhons. As Lukacs says, “‘from the outside’, that is, theoretically” – that’s all.

Lenin makes himself furthermore clear, when he says (in the footnote that the Vanguard seemed to have memorised, without understanding its real import):

it is necessary that the workers do not confine themselves to the artificially restricted limits of “literature for workers” but that they learn to an increasing degree to master general literature. It would be even truer to say “are not confined”, instead of “do not confine themselves”, because the workers themselves wish to read and do read all that is written for the intelligentsia, and only a few (bad) intellectuals believe that it is enough “for workers” to be told a few things about factory conditions and to have repeated to them over and over again what has long been known.” (emphasis added)

Yes, we are stressing exactly the same – instead of going on telling the workers that they “do not confine themselves” (and since we are your “outside”, we will tell you what to do), we have been telling our vanguards that the workers “are not confined”, and they must not dare to confine them to their consciousness-raising sermons and “cleverly designed tactics”.


The other related charge that our vanguard makes on us is that of celebrating spontaneity. We do agree with him that celebrating spontaneity is really bad, but we must add, denigrating it is worse. Celebration is bad because it reduces spontaneity to pristine purity and subalternity, making it incomprehensible, aborting the pregnant possibilities and squeezing away the radical political vigour inherent in it– its anti-systemic contentiousness. But its denigration is fascistic – since it takes away the agency of the working class and puts it in the hands of a few “comedians of the vanguard party”, as CLR James used to characterise his erstwhile Trotskyist comrades. In fact, celebration and denigration go together in fascism – it is like a bandar-madari game – the instinct of the monkeys and the duce‘s manipulation.

The issue for us is to understand spontaneity and its richness, its potentialities. They are, in the words of (y)our Lenin, the “material elements”. However, there is no pure spontaneity. In fact, as Gramsci would say, such spontaneity “does not exist in history”, and the difference between the spontaneous and the conscious “is a ‘quantitative’ difference of degree, not one of quality.” The recognition of spontaneity helps us in understanding the movement – its historical necessity. This recognition shields us against its disparagement as a cooked-up venture and against the charge of voluntarism, and establishes the matter-of-factness of the revolutionism of the working class.


Lenin very aptly described word-chasing “comedians” in his own party (60-70% of the Bolsheviks).

“Comedians! They chase words, without thinking about how devilishly complicated and subtle life is, producing entirely new forms, which we only partly “catch on” to. People for the most part (99 per cent of the bourgeoisie, 98 per cent of the liquidators, about 60–70 per cent of the Bolsheviks) don’t know how to think, they only learn words by heart. They’ve learnt the word “underground”. Firmly. They can repeat it. They know it by heart. But how to change its forms in a new situation, how to learn and think anew for this purpose, this we do not understand.” (Lenin to Inessa Armand, 1913)

The same has happened with “vanguard”, “party”, “outside”, “spontaneity” etc., whose particular meanings or forms were removed from the contextual and conceptual matrices in which Lenin used them, and were then essentialised. Our neo-“Bolsheviks” have learnt them firmly, and keep on repeating them, without understanding that these words or concepts are pregnant with meanings or forms which could help in developing a language of revolutionary praxis in the changing dynamics of class struggle. They have reduced Leninism to a language which is a mere routinised expression of their organisational existentialism. It has become a vehicle to justify their own bureaucratic congealment – existential outsidedness, voluntarist symbolism and competitive sectarian stinginess.

However, Marx has already given us a mechanism to measure the worth of Lilliputian acrobatic contests vis-a-vis “the real workers’ movement”.

“The development of the system of Socialist sects and that of the real workers’ movement always stand in inverse ratio to each other. So long as the sects are (historically) justified, the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historic movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity all sects are essentially reactionary. Nevertheless what history has shown everywhere was repeated within the International. The antiquated makes an attempt to re-establish and maintain itself within the newly achieved form.” (Marx to Friedrich Bolte in New York, 1871)

Our “vanguards” should do some reality check, whether they are already in Marx’s list of “the antiquated”. It might be that they suffer from premature senility or some variety of progeria – hence, when they compare themselves with others, they find the world full of childishness and infantile disorder.    

Written by Pratyush Chandra

August 13, 2013 at 9:46 pm

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