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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).


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.


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.”


Written by Pratyush Chandra

October 24, 2017 at 2:16 am

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