Brecht and Workers’ Self-Inquiry


The lucidity of Brecht’s journal entries is remarkable. He is a master of aphorisms, yet he never allows forms to stifle the richness of content. The meaning overflows through the pores of the condensed entries of his journals. Every entry is a bombshell, which fractures appearances and reveals the structure of the real, putting it into a crisis.

In 1936 he wrote an entry in which a worker’s almost instinctive refusal to work and the right to leisure are articulated. It shows that “incipient class consciousness” is already there among workers in work relations and the feeling of solidarity emerges right there.

The worker in this entry is Brecht himself. He is working as a scriptwriter in London, where he came to “learn to write for films”, but he ends up “learning something different”.

Although his boss or superior treats him as “an absolute equal, the nature of the work” is such that he feels “like an employee”. But a worker’s refusal is not about unfairness, or even formal and informal inequality at the workplace. It is about work itself. “i have not chosen the subject i am working on for myself, i can’t relate to it and i don’t know what will happen to my work when it comes on the market. i only have my labour to sell, and what is done with it afterwards has nothing to do with me.

But it is also not just about being disinterested towards the subject. Work is the whole material structure of work relations which is intrinsically class polarised. Workers’ interests are totally opposed to the efficient functioning of this structure. Hence, the refusal to work. “my interests are quite opposed to those of my employer. since i am on a weekly wage, it is not good for me if the work progresses quickly, quite the contrary.

The subjectivity that takes shape in this atmosphere is spontaneous. “already i even catch myself taking out my watch as evening approaches; i want to get away, it’s time for real life to begin.” But his urge to escape is not because he is looking forward to something. “real life is quite separate, and incidentally quite unappealing.” He is not falling for the fetish of “own time”. It is simply a space-time where he is not thinking about work. “but in ‘my own time’ i don’t waste a single thought on my daily work.

It is this refusal that makes a worker relate and empathise with other workers and build horizontal relations. “i leave with the little englishman who works alongside me as translator and we strictly avoid touching anything that might remind us of work. i feel a sense of total solidarity with him when he refuses to work on sundays.

The building of such relations cannot remain hidden, it disturbs the whole segmentation that constitutes these relations. It makes superiors (in work hierarchy – supervisors etc) suspicious, and they try to regain confidence of workers by making a common cause against employers. But workers are aware of the tactic, yet they know its possible need too, so they remain silent. “kortner seems to have noticed this incipient class consciousness, for he often says on the phone, when he is cancelling an appointment, that with his job he has work to do – just as any boss might.” whenever he can, he makes mock of his employers, points out their inferiority and laziness, whereupon we are both silent.

When Brecht eats his lunch at his superior’s place, it is in the company of the latter’s wife who “is very nice” that “it all stops and i am the great poet once more.” He also has “the privilege of being able to take a nap, but then, after coffee, the situation changes once more.

And as a finale, Brecht ends, “the paper i am using to write this is from work: i pinched it.”

Advertisements

Brecht on “the Concept of Class”


8 Jan 42

the concept of class too, perhaps because it has come down to us as it was framed in the last century, is used much too mechanically today. there is nothing to be derived from a purely statistical concept of a german working class nowadays; yet such a concept is deep-seated. trade-unions and political parties are accustomed to count members. the political concept is devalued too, since it presupposes organisations and ‘democratic forms of state’, a ‘free interplay of forces’ which can be steered by the ruling class. the closure of the labour market in the interests of the war economy has damaged the term ‘class’ as an economic concept. what remains is the class itself. it, happily, is not just a concept.

the fact that wars cannot be waged without the proletariat (as the productive force) does not mean that a war which is disagreeable to the proletariat cannot be waged. a revolutionary situation only comes into being when eg it takes the individual initiative of the proletariat to fight a war that the proletariat favours, or when a lost war can only be liquidated by the proletariat. etc etc.

In this entry from his Journals 1934-1955, Brecht captures the complexity of the class question. The “coming down” of this concept as “framed” in a particular phase in history leads to its devaluation in another phase in history. The statistical, political and economic conceptions were all devalued in the phase of the war economy, but what remained was the class itself, which “happily, is not just a concept.” In this note, he implicitly advances the need for the movement of concept to capture the reality of class.

In the second para, he brings out the reality of the proletariat of which Marx and Engels talked about in their Communist Manifesto – of the dialectic of class formation. Marx and Engels achieved this by critiquing the political economic logic of competition and cooperation as foundational to the formation of classes and class struggle in capitalism. They showed how the negation of classification is immanent in the process of classification. This dialectic recurs in Brecht’s writings at numerous occasions. As an example, we can cite one of his most used and abused poem, General, den Tank, or even his War Primer. In fact, that is why montage is central to his creative writings which captures the dynamics of internal relations that constitute the real, thus reclaiming “the genuine reality [that] has slipped into the functional”. The problem of the proletariat as the “productive force”, as a reification that constitutes capital, as being complicit in wars does not do away with the proletarian initiative. In fact, it is this initiative or art that interrupts the normal exposing what has been functionalised, thus generating “a revolutionary situation.”

This note can be posed as an answer to the dominance of the analytical tradition within the progressive (including the Marxist) circle in our times, which can be broadly divided into two complementary sections. On the one hand, there are those who immediately deploy the analytical concepts trying to straitjacket the concrete to suit those concepts, while on the other, there are those who in reaction stoop down to radical empiricism proclaiming the death of the grand narrative (including class), worshipping relativism. The poverty of both these sections is their tendency to reduce concepts to mere descriptive categories. It is in this regard that we can combine them under the identity of (post) structuralism.

In the above note, what Brecht achieves philosophically is an articulation of the distinction, yet necessary and problematic relationship between the real and the conceptual – “the class itself” and “the concept of class”.

The Standpoint of the Unemployed


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

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

1

Much of what is called the informal economy is constituted by processes and institutions built upon labour or activities that are termed self-employment, and whatever workers do to survive in the absence of what they consider decent jobs according to their skills. That is why these activities were considered transitory jobs or no jobs at all. And they still exist so in the minds of workers at least. Materially, too, the transitoriness is evident, which was never the character of the jobs themselves, but of labour that undertakes them, whose footlooseness these jobs re-enforced and productively channeled. Workers undertake these activities to reproduce themselves so that they are able to continue hunting for “jobs”. It is this tentativeness, casualness and ephemerality of informal labour that when disciplined becomes a positive economic virtue called flexibility.

Labour flexibility is among the most significant features of the informal economy that sanitises informality of its hideousness. By all standards flexibility sounds better than rigidity, which now comes to encapsulate the chief characteristics of formal employment and welfarism. Isn’t it interesting, insecurity is called flexibility, while security is dubbed rigidity? Flexibility is adventurous and forward looking, while rigidity is, of course, boring and conservative.

Labour is flexible here in all its possible senses – no standard wage, no insurance, no stability, use and throw policy etc. As clear from above, this feature is actually the nurturing and harnessing of alienation and homelessness or nomadism that workers experience in these economic engagements.

What dispersed Fordism or post-Fordism has accomplished is to mainstreamise or formalise this informality. Interestingly, this formalisation does not do away with the specificities that characterise this informality, rather the informal gets embedded in the formal network of production and distribution. This embedding incidentalises the labour intensive nature of the informal sector which was considered necessary in the pre-neoliberal phase of capitalism. The processuality that informality acquires destroys its dualistic separation from the formal. In fact, it loses its phenomenal nature. Thus, informalisation grips even the most skilled work and technologically advanced sectors of the whole economic system. The network economy that this process builds is not between the formal and the informal, which are losing any meaning as separate phenomenal entities, but between diverse levels of labour intensive and capital-intensive work processes, where insecurity dubbed labour flexibility or informalisation is the general tendency of the economy. Only this could allow requisite technological rationalisation of the production process to garner competitive advantages from available resources. As Marx had identified a hundred fifty years ago, the principle behind this rationalisation is quite simple, i.e., “the difference between the value of the machine and the value of the labour power replaced by it.” Harvey (2006:124) explains this,

“At times when the industrial reserve army becomes massive, capital will have abundant incentives to go back to labour-intensive techniques (hence the contemporary revival of the sweatshop even in advanced capitalist countries). The stimulus for more complex forms of technological and organisational change is certainly blunted at times of chronic labour surplus.”

However, what we see today is networking and complex layering of work processes involving multiple levels of technological and organisational forms in every economic activity. An extreme, but significant example, comes from the electronic industry. This industry today has attained a very high level of automation. However, almost every significant and sophisticated electronic device needs tantalum capacitor to control current flow inside miniature circuit boards. This metallic tantalum is made from the ore called columbite-tantalite or coltan, which is mined in African countries, especially Congo, through extremely primitive mechanisms. So we find a simultaneity of different degrees of labour/capital intensity forming a chain of exploitation that makes globalisation sensible, which is actually nothing more than the globalisation of the whole circuit of capital. This is not the simultaneity of non-simultaneous which defined the unevenness in the history of modern capitalism, and which could be mapped as vestiges or temporal and social lags. Non-simultaneous have been reduced to cosmetic shades. Now, “everything has reached the same hour on the great clock of development or rationalization.” The diverse work processes are homogenised as the realisation of capitalist expediency that is dependent on “the difference between the value of the machine and the value of the labour power replace by it.” And this difference is regulated on the basis of the extent and composition of the industrial reserve army or surplus population.

2

Capitalism is a system of intensification and expansion. The intensity and expansion increase what Marx calls surplus population. This surplus forms a reserve army from which workers are drawn whenever needed. The intensity of accumulation leads to what Marx calls floating reserve. The technological changes that produce this intensity make skills and the skilled redundant. Similarly, the expansion of commodity relations erodes the autonomy of modes and regimes of production redefining them within the logic of capital relations. It is not that this internal redefinition is anywhere accomplished without resistance. In fact, this resistance itself is instrumentalised to assign its ground a place value within the system. Even the refusal is taken care of, if not as criminal, then as exotic or erotic. Whatever be its face value, howsoever it is holy, capitalist valorisation profanes it by placing it in systemic relations. Primitive or original accumulation (re)produces the essential conditions for capitalist accumulation to take place. And among these the most important is the abundant supply of living labour to be subsumed.

“But if a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus population becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalistic accumulation, nay, a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, that belongs to capital quite as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost. Independently of the limits of the actual increase of population, it creates, for the changing needs of the self-expansion of capital, a mass of human material always ready for exploitation.” (M&E, Vol 35 [Capital 1]:626)

The relative surplus population includes every unemployed and half-employed. Though it can have many “periodically recurring forms” generated during the ups and downs of a business cycle, there are some permanent forms, which Marx identifies as floating, latent and stagnant. The floating surplus consists of those workers who are pushed and pulled in the normal operation of the supply and demand in the labour market. They float with the regular movement of capital, they emigrate where capital emigrates.

The latent surplus population is what feeds the flows between agriculture and non-agricultural sectors, between the countryside and towns. It is this surplus that supplies for the peripheral industrial employment and infrastructure building. With the progressive capitalisation of agriculture, the whole countryside is slowly transformed into a labour reserve. The latent character of this population is derived from the fact that it is hidden under the “half-employment” or self-employment in rural (agrarian and forest) activities. On the other hand, the “surplus” nature of this population is ensured by keeping their “one foot already [and always] in the swamp of pauperism”, by allowing depressed remunerations in these employments, whether as agricultural wages or as returns in exchange of services and produces. “The extent of [latent surplus population] becomes evident only when its channels of outlet open to exceptional width.” (M&E, Vol 35 [Capital 1]: 636-37)

Then comes the stagnant surplus which consists of all those are engaged in “extremely irregular employment,” toiling in the ‘domestic industry’ and under “the system of middlemen and sweaters.” “Its conditions of life sink below the average normal level of the working class; this makes it at once the broad basis of special branches of capitalist exploitation. It is characterised by maximum of working time, and minimum of wages.”(M&E, Vol 35 [Capital 1]: 637) It is worth quoting Marx’s words at length to define these forms of organising production. Marx describes the ‘domestic industry’,

“as one of the most dreadful forms of production existing, a form which is only brought to an end by the introduction of machinery, and in comparison with which the formal subsumption of labour under capital appears as a redemption. The immense surplus POPULATION created by large-scale industry in agriculture and the factory system is exploited here in a way which saves the “capitalist” a part of the production costs of capital, and allows him to speculate directly upon the misery of the workers. It is so in JOBBING WORK, the system under which some of the tailors, cobblers, NEEDLEWOMEN, etc., are employed in London. The surplus value created here depends not only on overwork and the appropriation of surplus labour, but also directly on deductions from wages, which are forced down far below their normal average level.

“The system of MIDDLEMEN and SWEATERS follows on from this one. The actual “capitalist” distributes among the MIDDLEMEN a certain quantity of raw material which is to be worked on, and they in their turn distribute these materials among those unfortunates, living in cellars, who have sunk down below the average level of the normal workers who are combined together in TRADE UNIONS, etc., etc. Thus the profit of these MIDDLEMEN, among whom there are often in turn further MIDDLEMEN, consists exclusively of the difference between the normal wage they let themselves be paid, and the wage they pay out, which is less than normal. Once a sufficient number of workers of the latter kind is organised through this system, they are often directly employed by capitalist No. I on the same conditions as those under which the MIDDLEMEN employed them.” (M&E, Vol. 34 [Marx’s Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63]:120)

These forms are what we today define as the system of sub-contracting or outwork and dispersed factory system. It will not be an exaggeration to claim that post-Fordist informalisation actually mainstreamises this, while neoliberalism justifies it as market expedient. In fact, even at the level of public policy design, the issue of its “abolition” is transcended, and what are actually sought are politics that can “foster the informal sector to mainstream, without loosing its inherent advantages.” (GDRC, http://www.gdrc.org/informal/about-informal.html)

Besides these three categories of surplus population, Marx identifies a section dwelling in the sphere of pauperism, which he defines as “the hospital of the active labour army and the dead weight of the industrial reserve army.” Exclusive of the dangerous class of actual lumpen-proletarians, this category includes, firstly, those who are pushed into employment only at the time of prosperity; secondly, “orphans and pauper children,… candidates for the industrial reserve army”; and, thirdly, “the demoralised, ragged, and those unable to work, chiefly people who succumb to their incapacity for adaptation, due to the division of labour; people who have passed the normal age of the labourer; the victims of industry, whose number increases with the increase of dangerous machinery, of mines, chemical works, &c, the mutilated, the sickly, the widows, &c.” (M&E, Vol. 35 [Capital 1]:637-38)

The resemblance of the experience of the informal economy in late capitalist economies like India with Marx’s analysis and description of the relative surplus population and unemployment is not accidental. It only evidences the cruciality of Marx’s analysis of the logical structure of capitalism and its rounding up of socio-historical resources for its realisation to comprehend the developmental specificities of these economies and their integration in the capitalist globality. However, we must assert that the difficulties that Marx confronted, due to many aspects of the logic of capitalist accumulation still unrealised during his time, led him to indulge in descriptivism leading to ambiguities in his expressions. Essentially, it led to a blurring of the division and relationship between the logic and history of capitalism. A sociologistic and evolutionary reading of Marx’s critique of political economy led to its normalisation as Marxian economics and another policy framework. In politics, it sustained reformism and class collaborationism.

Many later readers have not been able to grasp the conceptual centrality of primitive accumulation and the industrial reserve army in the logic of capital. A historicist reading of Marx’s Capital leads to the dilution of the richness of these concepts and reduces these categories to specific teloses of capitalism – to describe the development and/or underdevelopment of national and regional economies. The teleological understanding of capitalist development served well in the formative periods of the labour movement when the erosion of pre-capitalist relations seemed to have a redemptive value, allowing workers to focus on the requirements of the class struggle and organise themselves into a class. It exposed the reactionary socialisms of “Narodism” and Proudhonism that rampantly infested anti-capitalism – one wanting to bypass capitalism and the other “beneath the cloak of freedom and anti-governmentalism or anti-authoritarian individualism …are in actuality preaching vulgar bourgeois economics”, wanting to have capitalism without capitalists. This helped in battling the hegemony of those workers “who as workers in luxury trades are, without realising it, themselves deeply implicated in the garbage of the past.” (M&E, Vol.42 [Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann In Hanover, 9 October 1866] :326) It freed the labour movement from the dominance of the petty-bourgeois economism and directed it toward the political struggle against capital for reform and revolution.

But the teleological fallacy in later periods led to the reproduction of the same ideologies that it successfully combatted initially. The epithets of “vestiges”, “backwardness” etc bestowed upon various forms of social relations eventually became hurdles in grasping how these forms were instrumentalised in grounding and specifying capital relations in concrete locations. Although as the teleology had to fail and capitalism did not seem to proletarianise the labouring masses and sweep away the non-capitalist relations, with the teleology the primacy of class struggle too had to be abandoned. The working class became another identity and hence, the discourses of intersectionality and relativism. What has left of the teleology as capitalist development fails to adhere to the timeline is mere state fetishism and welfarism.

It is our contention here that the analysis of surplus population and reserve army that Marx’s make in his writings is crucial to understand the technical composition of the working class, providing an insight into the constitution and processes of different regimes of accumulation. Hence, its cruciality for understanding the possibilities and processes in the political recomposition of the working class. Marx already hints at this when he says:

“The demand for labour is not identical with increase of capital, nor supply of labour with increase of the working class. It is not a case of two independent forces working on one another. Les dés sont pipés [The dice are loaded]. Capital works on both sides at the same time. If its accumulation, on the one hand, increases the demand for labour, it increases on the other the supply of labourers by the “setting free” of them whilst at the same time the pressure of the unemployed compels those that are employed to furnish more labour, and therefore makes the supply of labour, to a certain extent, independent of the supply of labourers. The action of the law of supply and demand of labour on this basis completes the despotism of capital. As soon, therefore, as the labourers learn the secret, how it comes to pass that in the same measure as they work more, as they produce more wealth for others, and as the productive power of their labour increases, so in the same measure even their function as a means of the self-expansion of capital becomes more and more precarious for them, as soon as they discover that the degree of intensity of the competition among themselves depends wholly on the pressure of the relative surplus population; as soon as, by Trades’ Unions, &c, they try to organise a regular co-operation between employed and unemployed in order to destroy or to weaken the ruinous effects of this natural law of capitalistic production on their class, so soon capital and its sycophant, political economy, cry out at the infringement of the “eternal” and so to say “sacred” law of supply and demand. Every combination of employed and unemployed disturbs the “harmonious” action of this law. But, on the other hand, as soon as (in the colonies, e.g.) adverse circumstances prevent the creation of an industrial reserve army and, with it, the absolute dependence of the working class upon the capitalist class, capital, along with its commonplace Sancho Panza, rebels against the “sacred” law of supply and demand, and tries to check its inconvenient action by forcible means and State interference.” (M&E, Vol 35 [Capital 1]:634, emphasis ours)

3

Despite its alleged “backwardness”, informality has not just survived but has infiltrated the formal spaces, and is still spreading its tentacles. The institutionalised labour movement started by taking it as a transient phenomenon, attesting to its understanding of unevenness as “the simultaneity of non-simultaneous” and as a problem of insufficient development or underdevelopment, which capitalism would overcome in due course by its expansion or by the agency of the state, which was externalised and considered autonomous from capital relations (and many a times as a mere neutral instrument or agency which behaved according to who wielded it).

Informal workers being of transient identity, therefore, never became a concentration of trade unions, because their job profiles did not comply with the legalist definition of “workmen” whom trade unions organised. It is not that this was just a result of their choice, but was mainly due to their legal-structural accommodation which shaped their understanding and activities. Of course, these trade unions have always supported the struggles for the demand of “employment”, but organising on this issue never became a concern for them as these struggles were outside the purview of industrial relations. They could organise sporadic demonstrations to petition the state demanding employment or some social scheme to support the unemployed, but organising the unemployed and half-employed in their daily struggles for survival and as workers could never become one of their concentrations.

However, this drastically changed with the crises of Keynesianism in the 1960s, when the distance between informal and formal economies was eroded. They were not only networked together, informalisation became internal to factory work processes. The employment of casual and contract workers challenged the old school organising of industrial unions that based itself on stable, even if not permanent, workforce. The obvious and initial reaction of course was to assert privileges as qualifications that came with particular job profiles, experience and struggles. A part of this “new” unstable workforce was viewed as apprentices, still in a transitional stage, who would perhaps gain these qualifications with experience and become part of the regular workforce. Others would remain disqualified. These underprivileged would revert back to the reserve, as they didn’t have the core skills required for particular industries. In India, this industrial structure was codified through various legislations that established various kinds of filters segmenting the jobs and workers. But the telos was still there as the defining legal, political and economic ideology which saw everything moving towards the goal, the centre.

It was the Contract Labour Act of 1970 that recognised the crisis of this teleological structure in India. The division between jobs of the perennial nature and the incidental nature, between regular and temporary workforce were not just codified in this Act, but more importantly it sought to curb the centripetal teleology of welfarism by relativising the centre itself as another zone of difference, perhaps a privileged one, but not a goal. It might be surprising why the Act was celebrated among trade unionists, given what it demolished, but the competitive anxieties of the stable workforce that were increasing got some definite respite in the Act.

In 1960, the Supreme Court in The Standard Vacuum Oil Refinery Company v their Workmen (1960 AIR 948) sought to discourage and even abolish contractualisation especially in the public sector. This triggered a spate of cases brought before industrial tribunals to regularise workers. The Indian state was understandably rattled, as the verdict seemingly strengthened the existing labour institutions and curbed any capital-friendly flexibility in the labour market. The state was very much aware of the emergence of the new regime of accumulation based on labour informalisation and flexibilisation that started in the 1960s. This new regime sought to take advantage of the growing labour reserves to counter the economic downturn. Post-colonial India saw an increase in all types of labour reserves, and it would be inexpedient to be unable to use this as an advantage. The Contract Labour Act that the Indian State brought in1970 tried to address the crisis posed by the judiciary. It sought “to regulate the employment of contract labour in certain establishments and to provide for its abolition in certain circumstances.” But instead of any provision clearly directed towards the abolition of contract labour, the Act provided time filters for post-performance determination of the nature of work. It provided for specific welfare measures too. But the essential purpose was to alienate the conflict over contract labour from regular industrial relations, and empower the state and its bureaucracy to decide upon the characterisation of a particular work, whether it is of perennial or intermittent/casual nature.

This act was of course a recognition of the system of contract labour, but not so much to abolish it, which it couldn’t, given the changes in the regime of accumulation globally. It definitely had provisions for the regularisation of the workforce, but the same provisions in effect secured the system, which could not be trespassed but could be extended unlimitedly. The provisions of the Act did not apply to establishments employing less than twenty workmen, and those establishments “in which work only of an intermittent or casual nature is performed.” If in an establishment some work “was performed for [less than] one hundred and twenty days in the preceding twelve months” and in case of a seasonal work if it was “performed for [less than] sixty days in a year” then they were unambiguously considered to be of an intermittent nature. But most importantly, the Act clearly said, “if a question arises whether work performed in an establishment is of an intermittent or casual nature, the appropriate Government shall decide that question after consultation with the Central Board or, as the case may be, a State Board, and its decision shall be final.” Period. It codified and institutionalised a caste like division among labourers.

4

The Contract Labour Act definitely recognised the rights of the permanent employees as undisputed privileges and thus garnered the support of the trade unions. These trade unions remained and kept their members under the grip of the myth of teleology and state fetishism. They thought themselves to be the future of the insecure youthful mass worker, when in reality they were being “implicated in the garbage of the past.” The telos has long been reversed; nay, in fact, it has been demolished.

As labour reserves – unemployed and underemployed – surviving in the informal sector found fending for themselves in everyday politics and economics of work, they found the philanthropic patronising attitude of the shrinking mainstream useful sometimes to access privileged entries. The funded NGOs and social organisations mushroomed to take care of the volatile nature of this section. They dignified these workers by organising them as positive identities, as self-employed and in self help groups – a world of the third: neither capitalists, nor workers.

As the sense of permanence and stability was diminished, anxieties increased, leading to an open struggle – to defend privileges. Of course, side by side the issue of “organising the unorganised” was definitely posed. They have to be organised separately was the view of the new unions, who saw the specificities of the new “industrial” workforce in contradiction to the old stable workforce. On the other hand, old unionism stressed on the unity, and considered any new attempt to be divisive. In its opinion, the new unionist attempts displayed the immaturity of the informal workforce (perhaps due to its incomplete proletarianisation). It wanted these “new” workers to be subsumed in the established organisational setups. Overall the two sides stood united in taking the segmentation within the working class for granted.

They are unable to comprehend the process of informalisation that brings various segments together and binds them in hyper competition for redistributive claims. But it is thus that the caste boundaries too become porous. Capitalism has brought labour reserves in the centre of working class politics by generalising precariousness which today all segments of the society face. All segments within the working class have their one foot in the surplus population. In other words, with the informalisation of labour and associated precarisation becoming the general tendency of the economy, the intensity and seamlessness of the production and circulation networks trans-personalises the confrontation among labour and with capital. Even though we find precarisation and instability intensifying identity conflicts, leading to rampant violence over competitive redistributive claims, the trans-personalised cooperation against capital once achieved to a degree, which essentially politically recomposes the technical composition that capital has mobilised, becomes relatively immune to such conflicts.

When Marx says that every combination of employed and unemployed disturbs the harmony of capitalism, he is clearly referring to trade unions as self-organisations, where they were not agencies to accumulate claims, but to organise day to day cooperation against capital. At the time when these forms have been legally incorporated, they acquire defining legal roles which can only straightjacket or police these cooperations – so that they are systemically “productive” cooperation, not destructive. Organising the unemployed has to be an anathema for the system and its apparatuses, except to mitigate their plight in such a manner that the unemployed are reproduced and the system is perpetuated. Let us end this note with a quote from Ana Dinerstein (2001:223) who has worked extensively on Argentina’s unemployed workers movement,

“Rather than a lack, unemployment is an intensified form of capitalist work where the dematerialisation of labour becomes apparent. Although invisible, this dimension of dematerialisation is a dimension of struggle which is problematic for capital not because it separates subject from object, but because… it asserts itself in the form of the unrealised, the ‘unborn’. The subjectivity of labour emerges not as the means to unifying what has been separated, but as a disruption of the arrangement between the abstract and the concrete aspects of labour. Subjectivity recomposes and redefines the forms of the concrete and the abstract and thus opens the possibility for the unborn to be born, for the unrealised to be realised. The struggle over subjectivity is as much a struggle over the concrete and visible forms of domination-resistance as it is a struggle over the invisible aspects of that relation. In the condition of unemployment, the struggle over subjectivity appears to be a struggle over a non-relationship, therefore, it asserts itself mainly as a refusal to be made invisible.”

(DRAFT)

References:

Ana C Dinerstein (2001) Regaining Materiality: Unemployment and the Invisible Subjectivity of Labour. In The Labour Debate: An Investigation into the Theory and Reality of Capitalist Work, Ana C Dinerstein & Michael Neary (eds). Ashgate.

David Harvey (2006 [1982]) Limits to Capital. London: Verso.

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Collected Works. Vols. 34, 35 & 42.Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Panchatantra and the Master-Servant Relationship


In the very initial portions of an ancient Indian text Panchatantra, which teaches pragmatism of human relationships in an obviously very unequal society through stories, is found a section on the master-servant relationship. Interestingly, unlike spiritual texts that would justify such relationship in terms of divinity, birth and fate, this text simply doesn’t allow such justifications. It is highly materialist (not necessarily, atheist) and sees dynamism in this relationship, by positing the problem of the reproduction of the master-servant dialectic. It has a shloka, which brilliantly and explicitly grasps this dialectic – the fact that the identities of master and servant exist only in their relationship.

न विना पार्थिवो भृत्यैर्न भृत्याः पार्थिवो विना। तेषां च व्यवहारोऽयं परस्परनिबन्धनम्॥

A king cannot be without servants, nor can the servants without the king – this their relationship is mutually dependent.

This is followed by more shlokas reasserting the same, with the help of analogies. One of them is striking,

अरैः सन्धार्यते नाभिर्नाभौ चाराः प्रतिष्ठिताः। स्वामिसेवकयोरेवं वृत्तिचक्रं प्रवर्तते॥

The nave is supported by the spokes and the spokes are planted into the nave. Thus proceeds also the wheel of the relation.

(MR Kale, Pancatantra of Visnusarman, Motilal Banarsidass, 1912 [reprinted 2015])

Marxism in academia – don’t lament, but fight!!!


I have never been comfortable with lamenting over the marginalisation of Marxism in academia, in which many comrades time to time indulge. In fact, there is no such marginalisation happening globally – just look at the publishing projects of Marxists throughout the globe, with books priced exorbitantly. Of course, this Marxism is not meant for activists – they can be fed with free blogs and free tweets/fb entries (even these are accessible to a tiny minority only)! A senior ‘Marxist’ in Delhi once told a students conference in the early 1990s, how much she and her colleagues have contributed in Marxism – the only job left for leaders and activists now is to put that knowledge in use. Perhaps the neoliberal rightwing assault on this academic comfort (and liberalism, which liberalised Marxism too) gives an opportunity to liberate Marxist theorisations, regrounding them in real class struggle and proletarian practice (even in academia).

David Laibman correctly historicised this state of Marxism and its implications in his 1997 book, Capitalist Macrodynamics:

The shifts in political and economic power have… been accompanied by ideological transformations as well. Marxism, having been largely removed from its earlier position of influence in the labor movement and other social spheres, has taken refuge in the academy. There, under intense intellectual pressure, a certain fragmentation has taken place, as the formerly unitary Marxist world view has conformed to the disciplinary specialisations: thus we have ‘Marxist sociology’, ‘Marxist economics’, and so on. The unifying generalizations of historical materialism have also come under continuous fire, as Marxists have retreated to more ‘defensible’ positions.

On the question of class mentality and politics


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.

“Guerrilla engagements on cultural questions”


Whatever EP Thompson says in the inaugural issue of NLR in his response to Alasdair MacIntyre’s “reproof to the New Left” is quite fair, especially:

1. Any serious engagement in cultural or political life should not dissipate, but generate, socialist energy. Because:

2. We do not have one “basic antagonism” at the place of work, and a series of remoter, more muffled antagonisms in the social or ideological “superstructure”, which are in some way less “real”. We have a class-divided society, in which conflicts of interest, and conflicts between capitalist and socialist ideas, values, and institutions take place all along the line. They take place in the health service and in the common room, and even—on rare occasions—on the television screen or in Parliament, as well as on the shop floor.

However, if we understand “basic” (as essent-ial) in a logical sense then the danger of which MacIntyre talks about lingers prominently even today (perhaps more prominently, with overproduction in the virtual free market of ideas) as in the 1950s-60s:

“The danger is that one will fight a series of guerrilla engagements on cultural questions which will dissipate socialist energy and lead nowhere. What one hopes is that opening up these questions will lead one to see the basic antagonism in our society at the point of production.”