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On Rights Politics and Migrant Workers

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These notes were prepared for a discussion in Delhi on a report on the condition of migrant workers in Delhi, Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu (October 6 2017).

REFORMS & REVOLUTION

1. The two significant aspects of demand and right politics are – firstly, they are grounded in the immediate social needs that are framed within a structure. Secondly, they are attempts to establish a discourse with the state machinery – hence they are discursively circumscribed within the field of social relations. Thus, they are necessarily reform oriented, but they need not be reformist. The questions of rights, reforms and demands are unavoidable guerrilla struggles, which build the capacity of workers to organise larger movements. But do these struggles mean deferring the final movement that targets the very structural and superstructural setup that give language to those social needs? No, because they also test the vulnerabilities of the system and can become endeavours to burrow through it the final escape or emancipation. Every moment is a moment for both reform and revolution, and also reaction. When a movement is able to transcend its initial demands, to go on to attack the present social relations and to reorganise them then it becomes revolutionary. When the movement attempts to take the leap, but fails, then reaction happens. When the movement is not ready to take any leap beyond or reneges at the last moment, reform and/or reaction can happen, depending on the level of crisis in the system.

2. However, because the rights politics in itself is concerned with achievements of the rights and demands, at its own level will be geared towards negotiations and bargains, and impressing upon the state machinery, rather than changing the social relations themselves. Even the trade union politics is embedded in this kind of relationship. There is nothing in these forms that makes them question the structure of that relationship between workers and capitalists, or in the former case between workers and the state. The danger of reformism comes from this. But once again, as a conscious part of the larger movement against the structure of present social relations they play a crucial role of waging guerrilla struggles. But what does this signify? Then how do we define the working class politics? Also what will be the organisational question which balances between reform and revolution?

3. When we talk about workers’ politics, it is grounded in the dialectic of competition and collectivity. Marx captured this very aptly, when he said: “Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association.” The politics that is premised upon the segmentation of the workers vs the politics of ever-expanding combination and association, that is grounded in the everyday interaction among workers. The latter is not a mechanical aggregation or unity of isolated workers with similar grievances or demands, but a combination or network that is built in their daily conflict with state and capital. Only an expansion of this network has the capacity to refuse to be subsumed by capital and its network. In this, demands are definitely raised but are incidental. In this framework, demands and rights play the role of testing the system’s vulnerabilities and the organisational strength of the expanding combination.

ON MIGRATION

4. Migration is not just a fact, but also an act. It is not fully incidental that a word for migration in Hindi is पलायन (the more formal word is प्रवास). The former is very rich, often used as a stigma – one of its meaning being running away or an escapist act. In my view, it is this sense that renders the act of migration politically rich. Migration is not just a spatial fix, a response of the weak to the immediate contingencies of life. It is also a rebellious withdrawal, an escape, a long march against “the current state of affairs.” It is an act of refusal, non-acceptance of the lot. As an immediate spatial fix it demonstrates the weak agency of the migrant – a weakness in mastering the system. But it also has a utopian element that makes any human agency restless, that may come one time as an escape, another time as an emancipation, especially when individual weakness becomes a ground for collective subjectivity. Wasn’t this Ambedkar’s intention when he advised dalits to escape villages?

5. Legal Unionism is bound to consider migrant and mobile workers unreliable for their purpose – it simply cannot rely on them. On the other hand, social unionism which seeks to overcome the limits of traditional unionism is caught up in the discourse of non-conflictuality and negotiations with state (which in turn is problematically conceptualised). Hence for this school too it is always about accommodation – creating space for the migrants, not about problematising the whole space itself which is the etatised field of labour-capital relations. Therefore the vagrancy and mobility of proletarians are something to be shed off, not to be made a ground to imagine an overhauling of social relations and ideologies. Hence migrants as migrants are suspects, to be always put in the peripheries of organised politics. But different revolutions have shown how it was mostly settled workers’ organisations, afraid of losing their accumulated privileges, developed petty bourgeois tendencies and were unable to go beyond the legal fights when required, unless workers revolted and autonomously organised themselves.

6. Right from Karl Marx, Marxists have understood the relationship of workers mobility and their political consciousness. Lenin provides an insight into the poltical meaning of migration and demonstrates how to think about workers beyond their victimhood and our philanthropist vanguardism:

“There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.”

“Thus, Russia is punished everywhere and in everything for her backwardness. But compared with the rest of the population, it is the workers of Russia who are more than any others bursting out of this state of backwardness and barbarism, more than any others combating these “delightful” features of their native land, and more closely than any others uniting with the workers of all countries into a single international force for emancipation.

“The bourgeoisie incites the workers of one nation against those of another in the endeavour to keep them disunited. Class-conscious workers, realising that the breakdown of all the national barriers by capitalism is inevitable and progressive, are trying to help to enlighten and organise their fellow-workers from the backward countries.”

7. In recent years, Negri (and Hardt) repeats the same in the language of our times:

“Traditionally the various kinds of migrant workers, including permanent immigrants, seasonal laborers, and hobos, were excluded from the primary conception and political organization of the working class. Their cultural differences and mobility divided them from the stable, core figures of labor. In the contemporary economy, however, and with the labor relations of post-Fordism, mobility increasingly defines the labor market as a whole, and all categories of labor are tending toward the condition of mobility and cultural mixture common to the migrant. Not only are workers are forced to change jobs several times during a career, they are also required to move geographically for extended periods or even commute long distances on a daily basis. Migrants may often travel empty-handed in conditions of extreme poverty, but even then they are full of knowledges, languages, skills, and creative capacities: each migrant brings with him or her an entire world, Whereas the great European migrations of the past were generally directed toward some space “outside,” toward what were conceived as empty spaces, today many great migrations move instead toward fullness, toward the most wealthy and privileged areas of the globe…

“Part of the wealth of migrants is their desire for something more, their refusal to accept the way things are. Certainly most migrations are driven by the need to escape conditions of violence, starvation, or depravation, but together with that negative condition there is also the positive desire for wealth, peace and freedom. This combined act of refusal and expression of desire is enormously powerful…. Ironically, the great global centers of wealth that call on migrants to fill a lack in their economies get more than they bargained for, since the immigrants invest the entire society with their subversive desires. The experience of flights is something like a training of the desire for freedom.

“Migrations, furthermore, teach us about the geographical division and hierarchies of the global system of command. Migrants understand and illuminate the gradients of danger and security, poverty and wealth, the markets of higher and lower wages, and the situations of more and less free forms of life. And with this knowledge of the hierarchies they roll uphill as much as possible, seeking wealth and freedom, power and joy. Migrants recognize the geographical hierarchies of the system and yet treat the globe as one common space, serving as living testimony to the irreversible fact of globalization. Migrants demonstrate (and help construct) the general commonality of the multitude by crossing and thus partially undermining every geographical barrier.”

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

October 24, 2017 at 2:16 am

Phenomenologies of Suffering, Phenomenologies of Joyousness: Beyond the Moral Voluntarism of Anti-Capitalism

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Theoretical practices on the working-class left today must be completely immersed in the spirit of chapter one of Capital, Volume I, because that is the only way in which militants of proletarian-revolutionism can hope to cleanse their politics of anticapitalism of the dross of moral voluntarism that has, for a while now, thoroughly obscured and blunted its critical edge. This is particularly important in this new conjuncture of capital because its openly barbaric character compels its so-called antagonists to hold on ever more tightly to a morally voluntaristic anti-capitalism.

In the first chapter of Capital, Volume I, Marx is at his rigorous best, as it were. Here he kind of prefigures his critique of political economy in its entirety by demonstrating political economy or capital in its basic cell-form. The spirit, and orientation, of the first chapter of Capital, Volume I, is critically significant because in that chapter Marx demonstrates with great acuity how commodity, as the basic unit of capital, has a two-fold nature: use-value on one hand. and, on the other, exchange-value and value (and thus also the bipolarity of labour between useful concrete labour and human labour in the abstract). Therefore, the moving contradiction — or the internally schizzed condition of social being — that is capital implies, and Marx demonstrates as much, that while exchange-value (which is representation of value) tends to be a negation of use-value, use-value in its concrete qualitative singularity is the necessary material depository/bearer of exchange-value. This is the paradox, or moving contradiction, that is commodity. For, even as exchange-value tends to be a total negation of use-value, use-value cannot be totally negated as that would cause exchange-relations themselves to disappear.

This then means that capital as the actuality of the law of value — which is the rationalisation of exchange as social relations — is not the elimination of use-values through their subsumption into exchange-relations; or, which is the same thing, subsumption by the law of value. Rather, capital as the subsumption of use-values and their concomitant concrete labours (and their immanent affectivity in its diverse experiences of singularity) into exchange-relations is their de-singularising instrumentalisation by the latter. This is most clearly evident in Marx’s explication of the elementary value-form. Here he shows how value — which is an abstraction from the materiality of use-value because it comes into being only in, as and through rationalisation of exchange of use-values into social relations – can express itself only in an exchange-relation, which is the appearance of a value equation, and thus through its embodiment (equivalent value-form being that embodiment). This embodiment, needless to say, is possible only through the instrumentalisation of the sheer bodily form of use-value. Concomitant with such instrumentalisation of use-values, which is clearly not their elimination or total negation, is the regimentation (and, once again, not elimination) of their respective concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations and affective experiences.

We can, in a more obvious kind of way, say that concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations as diverse forces of affectivity are regimented precisely because they first come into being within capital by militating against it. In other words, capital, as the actuality of the law of value, is possible only as the regimentation of that which militates against it as that regimentation. That is why capital expands in order to reproduce itself. And it reproduces itself in and through its recomposition. And it can recompose, and thus reproduce, itself only when it is determinately subverted and destroyed. For, recomposition of capital is its reactive response — via regimentation of concrete labours in their singular subjective operations as diverse affective forces — to its determinate subversion caused by the militation of those concrete labours in their singular subjective operations. In other words, capital is always the incompleteness of its own destruction. Thus capital as its own continual recomposition — and thus expanded reproduction — is the continuous hypostatising of the effects — or limits — of its own determinate destruction.

What Althusser terms subjectivation is arguably nothing but this regimentation and instrumentalisation of concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations and immanent affective experiences. This regimentation, or instrumentalisation, is conceptualised as subjectivation because it is registered in and as the effect of a subject that is produced by such regimentation (or instrumentalisation) of concrete labour in its singular subjective operation as an affective force. Hence, subjectivation is the truncation of concrete labour as singular affective force in its subjective operation. This is the source of the various experiences, and phenomenologies, of suffering and pain in capitalism. Thus, phenomenologies and experiences of suffering are not on account of affective forces (as the multiple singularities they are) being completely absorbed into, and totally negated by, capital as an entity external to them. Rather, phenomenologies of suffering stem from the truncation and thus de-singularisation, rather than complete elimination, of multiple affective singularities in their concreteness. In other words, a phenomenology of suffering must be grasped not as something that stems from the elimination of an affective singularity in its operation, but as something that is so precisely on account of its instrumentalised and truncated, and thus partial and de-singularising, operation. A phenomenology of suffering is, therefore, not actually a phenomenology of suffering. From the vantage-point of Marx’s explication of commodity — and labour — as something that is characterised by its two-fold nature, it’s, instead, a truncated, interrupted and partialised phenomenology of joyousness.

Clearly then, for the Marx of Capital — particularly in the first chapter of volume I — capital as an objectivity is the operationalised demonstration of its own immanent critique. Althusser is, therefore, entirely correct in observing that Marx’s critique of political economy shows capital in its objectivity to be a symptomatic demonstration of its own Real-impossible (“process without subject”). That is, however, not to suggest, in the manner of an obdurate determinist, that capital as the symptomatic demonstration of its own immanent critique and thus its own immanent impossibility is also the gradual actualisation of the Real-impossible. That more and more of capital will be less and less of it. To think the actualisation of the Real-impossible in gradualist terms is, in fact, an absurd paradox. Such evolutionist social democracy is not at all the point of symptomatic reading that is Marx’s critique of political economy. The point of such symptomatic reading, instead, is to actualise that which is revealed by the symptom. That, in other words, means, subjectification (as opposed to subjectivation) of the immanent critique of capital — which capital as an objectivity is shown to demonstrate or symptomatise — into an active political force of desubjectivation. And that is precisely the reason why concrete labours as diverse affective forces in and as their singular subjective operations must be conceptually articulated — of course, by going through the dialectic of phenomenologies of suffering and phenomenologies of joyousness to their antipodes — as an indivisible post-phenomenological construction of austere and neutral extensionality.

In such circumstances, it would be deeply erroneous, and politically unproductive, to not see the dynamic of subsumption of living/concrete labour by dead/abstract labour (value) as a dialectic. [Regardless of how crisis-ridden, precarious, and thus tautological this dialecticity might have become, the mode of the dynamic called capital will always be dialectical.] And to grasp this dynamic as a dialectic is to come to terms with the fact that subsumption of concrete labour into the web of exchange-relations is also equally about the internalisation of the rationality of exchange-relations (or the law of value) by concrete labour as a singular affective force in and as its subjective operation. That is the reason why politics animated and orientated by an approach that stems from Marx’s critique of political economy can have little to do with ethics as politics, and yet is something that is not completely exhausted by the political. Instead, such politics can, and must, only be the indivisible singularity of the ethico-political, which is basically the dialectic as the mode of determinate presentation of the antidialectic, or its own asymmetry. This amounts to is ascesis, as care of the self, being articulated in its indispensable integrality to the operation of the political. This is how, following Alain Badiou and Sylvain Lazarus, one can think politics as the operation of its own immanent thought, and as thought-relation-to-the-real respectively.

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