Tag Archives: Class

Capitalism and Social Justice: The Floyd Protests in the US

In 1968, when Europe was witnessing student revolts, Italian Marxist filmmaker, novelist and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote a poem addressing students, where he unabashedly told them,

When yesterday at Valle Giulia you fought 
with policemen, 
I sympathized with the policemen! 

He went on to explain that these boys in the police came from poor families and were dehumanised by the system — 

…Worst of all, naturally, 
is the psychological state to which they are reduced 
(for roughly sixty dollars a month); 
with a smile no longer, 
with friends in the world no longer, 
excluded (in an exclusion which is without equal); 
humiliated by the loss of the qualities of men
for those of policemen (being hated generates hatred). 

Pasolini tauntingly challenged the students,

We obviously agree against the police as institution. 
But get mad at the Legal System and you will see! [1]

The Defunding of Police: What does it signify?

In the context of the ongoing movement against police violence in the US, the proposal for defunding and disbanding the police force has gained a wide currency. It has enthused many towards a more libertarian future. Its influence has also reached the learned sections of the left and liberal circles in India. As in 1968 and some years after it, today once again we see a confluence between those who stress on the virtues of a lean state and those demanding social justice, trying to give meanings or definite agenda to the movement —binding it to concrete demands. As David Harvey has shown, the intellectual force and initial consensus for neoliberalism were derived from such confluence.[2] However, neither in the case of the 1968 upsurge nor today can one reduce a whole movement to these vocal agencies who are there to negotiate with the system — in the case of the Floyd protests, to bring in police reforms and the Democrats to commit for them, while blaming Trump for everything. 

It is interesting to see the complementarity of Trump and his right-wing bandwagon, on the one hand, and the left-liberals, on the other. The former sees the conspiracy of anarchists, communists and anti-capitalism everywhere, destroying American values and institutions; therefore, they stress on violent incidents that have happened during the upsurge. The liberals and left see in the protests the assertion of American values rescuing  institutions from their takeover by conservative and even fascist elements. They downplay violence and sometimes even blame rightwingers for infiltration. Hence, in both discourses American values and basic institutions remain sacrosanct.

Even the apparently radical suggestion to defund and even disband the police is perhaps not very drastic. With the growing numbers of private security agencies and the localised community-level management of their engagement, the state run formal police force is increasingly becoming obsolete. Two prominent journalists-cum-business experts, while writing in Business Insider, applauded police-free Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) and found Trump’s accusation that such zones are  anarchistic to be unwarranted and “a wrong response”. They go on to say,

“Whether you believe in the Black Lives Matter cause or not, you should want this test to continue. If the Floyd protests have shown us anything, it’s that America needs new models for law enforcement, regulation, and community organising. CHAZ is one tiny demonstration. We can think of tons of experiments worth trying: no-armed-police zones, no-police-car zones, an-officer-on-every-corner zones… Let’s try ‘em all. May there be 1,000 more CHAZzes!”[3, emphasis mine] 

Disbanding the police force is a wonderful idea, but what does it mean to implement this idea in an unequal system? Isn’t policing an intrinsic need of such a system? Is this system itself being questioned, or is it just an anger against a particular “alienated” form of policing? Empowering people without destroying the internal hierarchy in a community will only allow those on top to accumulate more power. Disbanding police in this scenario will force the community to internalise policing, and the powerful will play the judge. Power always clings to the powerful, who in turn are only personifications of power. That is why you see no significant outrage at such “radical” proposals in the US, except from the supporters of Trump, and Fox News. But what we see most of the time, if not always, depends on the perspective that we take, which in turn is dependent on our location relative to various socio-cultural (superstructural) asperities that break open whenever there is a heightening of structural stress energy in capitalist class relations.  Hence, the relevant question would be whether the Floyd Protests are merely about different demands that are being posed, or whether something more is happening in the American society that we need to understand.

Capitalism is ever ready to recompose itself according to the crisis that a social movement poses. Reducing a movement to its immediate demands is one of the main ways that contribute to this recomposition. The demands are crucial to organise the movement, but reducing the latter to the literality of the former is not just ludicrous, but a serious reduction that reifies demands and is a  result of commodity fetishism — of reducing social relations to thingness, which helps in capitalist reproduction not just in ideology, but also materially. It is through this reduction that the legitimation of a capitalist state, as the chief arbitrator of the system, is derived. But a movement is definitely more than its demands, it is about social relations. What is happening in the US is not simply a reaction to an incident, rather it is the eventalisation of that incident exposing the ab-normalcy of those relations.       

The Political Economy of Policing and the Floyd Protests

It seems corporate America has found “a public relations windfall” in the Floyd protests. Many delivery-based firms, like Amazon, Instacart, GrubHub among others, who have been crucial agencies of commodity circulation during the ongoing pandemic, were engulfed in labour conflicts. They found a respite in the protests, as “corporate anti-racism is the perfect egress from these labor conflicts. Black lives matter to the front office, as long as they don’t demand a living wage, personal protective equipment and quality health care.”[4] However, these spectacular protests could not be reduced to militant black liberal demands of Black Lives Matter, foremostly because the problems of policing themselves could not be understood simply from the perspective of race. 

Racial disparity is an important description of inequalities that characterise the American society. The statistical significance of this phenomenon can hardly be overstated in describing police violence and incarceration in the US.  However, it is not self-explanatory, it is linked to the deeper political economic processes. 

“What the pattern in those states with high rates of police killings suggests is what might have been the focal point of critical discussion of police violence all along, that it is the product of an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working class populations produced by revanchist capitalism.“[5, emphasis mine]

In the Marxist framework, “the uncertainty and irregularity of employment, the constant return and long duration of gluts of labour are all symptoms of a relative surplus population.”[6] The growing number of marginalised sub-employed segments of the working class are what constitute today the relative surplus population and its various types: Floating, Latent, Stagnant and “the sphere of pauperism…the hospital of the active labour-army and the dead weight of the industrial reserve army.”[7] This ever growing population must be harnessed for capitalist accumulation, to obtain cheap labour and to cheapen existing labour. Yet it is a dangerous disruptive force when not engaged productively in an immediate manner. The increase in police violence is perhaps evidence of an increased self-activity of this population.  A proper regime of incarceration and policing is needed to contain, suppress and productivise its energy. 

In fact, Ruth Gilmore in her book, Golden Gulag, shows “how resolutions of surplus land, capital, labor, and state capacity congealed into prisons.” The “phenomenal growth of California’s state prison system since 1982” can be understood as a part of the resolution to the crisis of the golden age of American capitalism, which was characterised by overaccumulation wanting radical measures like “developing new relationships and new or renovated institutions out of what already exists.” [8] Since the late 1990s, Gilmore along with Angela Davis and others has been involved in the organising efforts against what they call, the Prison-Industrial Complex.[9] 

With regard to the Floyd Protests too, it has been observed that among the masses that have emerged on the streets, there are those who have suffered because of the pandemic and being sheltered-in-place “without adequate sustained federal relief.” Therefore, these protests are also a consequence of “mass layoffs, food pantries hard pressed to keep up with unprecedented need, and broad anxiety among many Americans about their bleak employment prospects in the near future.” This can be grasped only if the widespread looting is not rejected, but explained. 

Unlike the ghetto rebellions of yesteryears, the composition of the looters today is multiracial and intergenerational, targeting downtowns and central shopping districts. These are “the most dispossessed of all races and ethnicities who are the most likely to be routinely surveilled, harassed, arrested, convicted, incarcerated and condemned as failures, the collateral damage of the American dream.”[10] The law-preserving and law-constituting forces can understand only the language of demands, and the surplus-ed do not demand, but act.

Beyond Neoliberal Social Justice 

The hegemonic tendency in the American anti-racist movement today “accepts the premise of neoliberal social justice”. It has emerged as “the left wing of neoliberalism  [whose] sole metric of social justice is opposition to disparity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, an ideal that naturalizes the outcomes of capitalist market forces so long as they are equitable along racial (and other identitarian) lines.”[11] This provides a crucial clue to understand not just the limits of the movements for representation, recognition and redistribution, but also the compatibility of social justice with neoliberalism. This can help in making sense of why in some countries, like India, policies and laws towards ensuring social justice frequently accompanied the aggressive implementation of neoliberal economic reforms. 

The history of capitalism shows that it includes through differentiation and segmentation, constituting the unevenness of its social geography, which is a crucial factor in the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. It is this differential inclusion that structures the extension and intensification of division of labour, facilitating the circulation of commodities and capital and ensuring the transfer of value. This aspect of capitalist development manifests itself in real identitarian inequalities, insecurities, anxieties and politics at diverse levels of social structures. Social differentiation, obviously, in effect preempts or defers the emergence of class-against-capital that threatens not just law and order, but the very system that they conserve. Simplistically put, identities are all about horizontal divisions and vertical (re)integration. This engenders a perspective that does not allow various segments to think beyond redistributive economics and the politics of representation and recognition. So all social conflicts become just problems of management, engineering, and of statistics. Hence, tweaking specific variables is what needs to be done. Blaming individuals  or even specific institutions for what is an endemic problem of the system is the best way to salvage the system. This is how today, as Pasolini would put, people everywhere (differentially, but definitely) “belong to a ‘totality’ (the ‘semantic fields’ on which they express themselves through both linguistic and nonlinguistic communication).” This is how “bourgeois entropy” is reached, when “the bourgeoisie is becoming the human condition. Those who are born into this entropy cannot in any way, metaphysically, be outside of it. It’s over.”[12] But, is it so?  

Can we deny the experience of racism and, for that matter, of any enclosed segment of class? Aren’t such experiences crucial to the politics of class? While it is true that racism cannot be understood in its own terms, and all problems faced by black proletarians cannot be reduced to racism, can we deny that class always appears through such specific geo-cultural forms of social relations? The sedimental reality of all these forms is, of course, the dynamics of class relations and struggle, but these dynamics can only be captured in the experience of these forms. The struggle against segmentation is not to wish it away. Any unity based on such ideological wishing away of inter-segmental conflicts will be external and an imposition. 

An identity assertion becomes revolutionary when it is a ground for negating the very logic of differentiation and segmentation that sustains capitalist accumulation through competition and hierarchy. Then, the assertion is not for identitarian accommodation, but against the logic of identification—to envisage a non-identity against and beyond all identities. The positive assertion of identities, on the other hand, is for accommodation within power and accumulation of power —this is what social justice means within the logic of capital. However, any assertion of oppressed identities always contains the possibility of the release of an anti-identitarian subject, the class of proletarians, that goes against racism, casteism and other segmentations to destroy the stability of the very system of classification and gradation of labourers that sustains capitalism. It is this subject that can be traced in the incidents of looting and arson in the Floyd protests. Since they serve no means, they are ignored by those who don’t decry them.

Note: My special thanks to Arvind, Lalan, Nilotpal, Paresh, Prakash, Pritha and Satyabrat for innumerable discussions on the article. 


[1] Il PCI ai Giovani (The PCI to the Young), in Pier Paolo Pasolini. 1972 [2005]. Heretical Empiricism. Tr. Ben Lawton & Louise K. Barnett, New Academia Publishing, pp 150-158.

[2] David Harvey. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press. (Chapter 2, ‘The Construction of Consent’).

[3] David Plotz & Henry Blodget. 2020. ‘We need more experiments like Seattle’s police-free’, Business Insider (June 13, 2020). Accessed on June 15, 2020.

[4] Cedric Johnson. 2020. ‘The Triumph of Black Lives Matter and Neoliberal Redemption’, nonsite.org (Posted June 9, 2020). Accessed on June 15, 2020.

[5] Adolph Reed, Jr. 2016. ‘How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence’, nonsite.org (Reposted June 9, 2020). Accessed on June 15, 2020. 

[6] Karl Marx. 1976. Capital. Volume 1, (Trans. Ben Fowkes). London: Pelican Books, p. 866.

[7] Ibid, p. 797.

[8] Ruth Wilson Gilmore. 2007. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press, p. 28.

[9] Critical Resistance Publications Collective, ed. 2000. Critical Resistance to the Prison-Industrial Complex. Special Issue of Social Justice 27(3). 

[10]Johnson, op. cit.

[11] Reed, op. cit.

[12] Pasolini, op. cit., p. 156. 

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.”

Visit: Brecht on “the Concept of Class”

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”.

Proletarian class determination: epistemology or ontology?

“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.

Dipankar Gupta’s solipsism

Dipankar Gupta’s cynical article in The Times of India (Aug 30, 2008) is itself an expression of middle-class disenchantments, which he talks about. And Buddhadeb is undoubtedly in his brigade. In his anti-communist verbosity Gupta does exactly what he criticises. For him “the poor has never revolted”; it is the leadership, which everywhere rises in her name. Ironically, even to deny that the poor has ever revolted, it is a middle class intellectual like Gupta who has the privilege to proclaim this! Obviously in his discourse “they” will remain as “they” – “Why They Don’t Revolt”. So why should we accept his privileged denial about the poor(wo)man’s revolt, if he censures us for accepting the socialists’ claim that s/he does revolt, on the ground that they are elites?

According to Gupta, since the leaders came from the middle class or elite families the revolutions couldn’t be popular. This shows his ignorance about political processes, including class processes. Obviously he cannot be faulted for this, the disciplinarian divide that characterises the bourgeois academia does not require him to see things holistically (that’s the job of a generaliser, not an expert’s) – he is after all a sociologist! How can he understand that revolts/revolutions are conjunctural – their character is not simply determined by the membership of their leadership rather by the societal stage in which they occur? How can he understand that the process of class-ification, not the fixed descriptive sociological classificatory pigeonholes, allows revolutionary intellectual organicity to individuals from diverse backgrounds? How can he understand that revolution is not only a moment but also a process which comprises many “guerrilla fights” against “the encroachments of capital” before and after the “revolutionary moment” passes away? This was Marx’s understanding of the “revolution in permanence” or Mao’s notion of a “continuous revolution” or Lenin’s “uninterrupted revolution”.

Obviously within the commonsensical notion of revolution, for which the OMs (Official Marxists, as Kosambi characterised them) are most responsible, the 1949 event in China paints into insignificance the Hunan peasants’ self-organisation and struggle (as marvellously described by Mao in his Hunan Report) or the processes that constituted “Fanshen”, “Shenfan” and the Cultural Revolution. Within this framework a revolution loses its processual character, and is reduced to a moment and even a few elite figures. But why should we expect Dipankar Gupta to go beyond common sense? After all he is a “middle class” solipsist who sees the world made in his image – his class dominating everywhere, doing everything.

In fact, we can find a deep resonance between Gupta’s analysis and India’s chief security advisor MK Narayanan’s McCarthyist indictment of intellectuals. Both experts (in their respective fields) attempt to reduce movements to agencies, however the former does it as an expression of his academic cynicism, while MK Narayanan to find scapegoats. But both converge at a dangerous moment.