Monday, June 17, 2013

On The Limits of Middle-Class Radicalism

- Malay Firoz
Student politics in the university seems to face a strange problem these days. No sooner does someone announce a fledgling commitment to a cause than he is accosted by all sorts of questions: how deep does his commitment go, what price is he willing to pay for it, has he paid that price yet, and if not, to what extent can he regard himself as ‘really’ committed? The matter at hand, it seems, is an issue of representation: can the person claim to represent a form of politics? Most middle-class students who proclaim a broadly ‘radical Left’ view, have at some point, whether in public forums or informal conversations, been challenged by the contention that they are not suitable representatives of the causes they espouse, either because the privileges they enjoy are willfully at odds with their stated ideals or because their class location, despite their best intentions, somehow disqualifies them at the very outset. The former concern alleges hypocrisy, the latter raises the problem of identity, but both are ways of saying the same thing: that the political agent has somehow failed a particular standard of representational adequacy as a bearer of radical politics. This piece is an attempt to think through some of these contentions. In using the word ‘radical’, our concern is not to define what radicalism is or to specify who can claim to be radical, but to explore the dilemmas of taking a position broadly critical of the mainstream. Part hypothetical and part biographical, it is a story that describes a political coming of age and a story of confronting the difficulties therein.

The accusation of hypocrisy tends to be issued from outside politically organised circles. It’s a familiar theme. Neoliberal India offers a stunning array of consumer choices that was, till the ‘90s, the stuff of postcards and presents from non-resident relatives. For those who can afford it, it is today possible to enjoy our very own First World utopia of conspicuous consumption, unrecognisable to an earlier generation raised on principles of sustainability and responsible saving. Indeed, scholars have begun speaking of First and Third Worlds no longer as territorially determined distinctions, but as social indices that constitute an enduring architecture of inequality within and across national borders. Of course, these Faustian ambitions have their price, and the dark underside of liberalisation has been the subject of much critique. What then, of a supposedly radical activist who happens to own expensive gadgets, happens to wear branded clothes, to frequent multinational restaurants, to turn westward for higher education, or in general found luxuriating in the trappings of bourgeois affluence? Often these indulgences have been treated as incriminating instances of complicity with a vague notion of capitalism (and its implied system of exploitative relationships) that most radicals claim to oppose in one way or another.

Those of us who profess a political commitment find ourselves on the defensive when confronted by this charge, struggling to atone for our sins by laying them bare, admitting them for all to see, attended perhaps by feeble apologies for our human temptations and frailties. And in doing so, we do ourselves a disservice, for we cede ground to a kind of criticism that is all too easy to make and ultimately proves counter-productive. For one thing, the preoccupation with personal compromise seems to suggest an illusory aspiration for political ‘purity’, a politics that is cleansed of the messy fluctuations of human commitment. For another, it needs to be said that in the 21st century, we are all embedded within global capitalism. In the absence of an existing alternative in India, we depend on capitalism not only for our luxuries but for our most basic needs, and so a relative ‘complicity’ (if one can still call it that) with the means and relations of capitalist production is inevitable.

This is not to say that within the glitzy dream-worlds of commodity culture, one cannot exercise a choice to be a responsible consumer. Campaigns to boycott commodities by companies mired in environmental and labour law controversies have often followed this argument, effectively turning the law of demand against the industry. But activism of this kind still relies on an estimation of the distinction between luxury and bare necessity that is ultimately subjective, leading to fruitless disagreements over what people can or cannot live without. Moreover, the political viability of alternative avenues of consumption is often grounded in mythical imaginaries of the national, the local or the domestic as somehow liberated from the evils one seeks to escape. On the run from Levi’s and Tommy Hilfiger, the reject goods found in flea markets like Sarojini Nagar and Lajpat Nagar are hardly a refuge, for they have been made in same sweatshops that would make multinationals proud. Nor does FabIndia, once regarded as a bastion of ethical trade and Indian handloom (and perhaps for that reason the unstated fashion sense of India’s Left-leaning intellectual elite), offer much consolation, for it too has become a global brand in its own right, replete with its own stories about low wages, and as of 2012, part-owned by a private investment firm sponsored by Louis Vuitton.

A Left critique of boycott campaigns would argue that even a capitalism constrained by legal protocols cannot act responsibly beyond a point because exploitation is built into the very logic of the system. The system, therefore, needs to be overthrown. Yet, as social movements agitating against capital accumulation (big dams, land-grabs and the like) have long realised, capitalism in its neoliberal avatar has become so forceful, so pervasive, so deeply rooted in orthodoxies of governance, that most campaigns today can no longer afford a rejectionist stance. Indeed, given the brazen violation of welfare legislation everywhere (it’s another story that such legislations are themselves being systematically dismantled), the most urgent battles today are fought to secure the very protections that are supposed to be guaranteed by law. Emancipation itself now appears to lie within the system.

Boycott campaigns like Greenpeace and Avaaz have to therefore confront the necessary limits to the independence they proclaim from commodities they purportedly reject. Far too often this independence cannot be sustained, and is reduced to a fleeting exhibitionism that is contingent on political convenience. It is therefore necessary, when measuring the political dangers implied within any act of consumption, to issue a series of ‘gradations’: some companies have a more direct proximity to capitalist relations of exploitation than do others (for example Vedanta, as opposed to, say, Dominos). To consume within capitalism cannot be regarded as a compromised act in itself, at least not in a relatively substantial sense, unless the proximity to capital is qualified and the relationship of compromise is established.

One can make a similar point about the politics of sponsorship. Too often we forego the few sources of funding available for fear that our political freedom will be compromised. Surely to accept patronage from a private firm does not make one an apologist for free-market capitalism. Notwithstanding one’s scepticism about Corporate Social Responsibility, surely corporate donations to educational institutions do not by themselves colour the research produced. It remains to be established where the money comes from, with what conditionalities it is given and how it is used. For the imperatives of radical politics, it is simply not rigorous enough to treat capitalism as a monolithic world system that can only ever be rejected outright, failing which all forms of survival within it amount to political conciliation.

This is not to say therefore that capitalism is not a world system. Scholars have dwelt at length on the question of whether capitalism has historically realised, or ever can realise, the definitional unity it claims as a ‘system’ par excellence. This argument does not get us very far, for it can be similarly applied to all ‘isms’. All categories are deployed as claims to an analytical coherence that inevitably fail to capture the empirical register they attempt to constitute. In other words, one cannot really expect a capitalism to exhaust all instances of capital. The fact that so many contemporary scholars have taken the inevitable failure of this expectation to mean that capitalism is not global, and have instead turned towards the local, the diverse and the contingent as sites for a future counter-movement, is perhaps precisely symptomatic of a world where no constitutive outsides to capitalism remain, where capitalism sets the very terms and conditions of anti-capitalism itself.

The point being made here is that capitalism may well be a world system, but it cannot be strategically treated as one because it cannot be effectively resisted as one. If we are to fight battles we can actually win, we have to realistically determine the scope of those battles. And if we are to live to fight another day, we have to live within capitalism. Visions of a monolithic capitalism, from which the only escape lies in a pre- or post-capitalist utopia, are naïve. Such visions are very important, of course, as platforms for a radical re-imagination of the world. The one thing the Wall Street movement really demonstrated was the power of such visions to inspire hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Should these visions ever incite a global movement, the language of mobilisation will have to be equally global. And really, radical politics in the final instance has to be global too. Till that time, however, middle-class activism will have to be content with its limited victories within capitalism. And the constant barrage of criticism about privileged consumption only inhibits those victories by discouraging the entire enterprise of resistance as a compromised project.

In any case, politics has to mean something more than personal standards. It is not reducible to its constituent subjects and their particular moral exigencies. It exceeds and outlasts the individual, and the individual’s failure to live up to his or her ideals does not and cannot dislodge the ideals themselves as sites of political aspiration and struggle. This is not to say that personal standards are not important. One has to give credit where it’s due: a number of middle-class students have made the sacrifices their politics demanded of them; they have given up their class aspirations, moved out of their homes and plunged into the social movements of Orissa and Chhattisgarh to fight the good fight. Regardless of the political utility and efficacy of this sacrifice, one has to acknowledge that theirs is a choice most would find difficult to make. For the rest of us, however, the entire obsession with individual standards is politically loaded in way that prevents politics from being about anything other than personal standards. It might seem strange that out of all the social evils one has to confront, hypocrisy always seems to occupy the centre of debate. But this is part of a larger understanding, one that has grown increasingly widespread, which equates social change with personal change, and in doing so limits the scope of politics to performative rituals (sincere or otherwise) of conscientious living.

Such an understanding labours under the utilitarian illusion that the social is merely a sum of its parts, and that political action may analogously be measured as the aggregation of individual resolve. The flaw in reasoning here is surely self-evident. If I stop buying Nike (and buy…Bata instead?), perhaps my conscience will be clear because I did not contribute to Nike’s blood-profit. But will that stop Nike? Obviously not, because Nike continues to profit, and the workers in its many sweatshops around the world continue to be exploited. This is not to say that one should happily consume Nike products instead, content with the resignation that Nike will not be affected by one’s choices. Responsible consumption at the individual level does play a powerful symbolic role in transforming precisely the norms and ideologies by which structures of exploitation are maintained. But the role is symbolic, and nothing more. Too many movements (and theorisations of praxis) tend to overestimate the influence of symbolic demonstrations, and perhaps they must, because organised agitation requires an intensity, a consistency and a scale of mobilisation that is outside the reach of most political groups. The real danger, however, is that the symbolic, when routinised as the modus-operandi of agitation and institutionalised as its raison d’être, begins to appear coterminous with structure itself, to the point where symbolic appeasements of conscience end up muting one’s political voice by smothering it in the complacent belief that one’s ethical duty has been fulfilled.

This tendency is especially rife among liberal environmental groups. As Derek Jensen argues in his piece titled “Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change” (published in the July/August 2009 issue of Orion Magazine), the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth helped raise awareness about global warming, but all the solutions it proposed were concerned with personal consumption—changing light-bulbs, using public transport—and had little to say about the rapacious needs of global corporations within a growth-oriented economy. Similarly with regard to water, Jensen points out that more than 90 percent of the water used across the earth goes into agriculture and industry, while the remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and individual human beings. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. If people are dying due to water scarcity, it isn’t because the world is running out of water, or because there are too many people (the familiar over-population thesis), but because of the way water is utilised and distributed by the system. This is a structural problem, and it requires structural redress. One-click activism and the whole save-the-tiger guilt trip is a myth. The utilitarian formula simply does not work. The personal may indeed be political, but the political is not exhausted by the personal. If anything, the idea that problems can be solved merely through passive avoidance, and neither require nor obligate active engagement, reveals precisely what Jensen refers to as capitalism’s redefinition of people from citizens to consumers.

The obsession with hypocrisy is one that tacitly accepts this redefinition, and in so doing, achieves nothing more than to discourage political radicalism in the few avenues where it exists. But then again, this is the oldest trick in the book. If you cannot defeat the rhetoric, discredit the orator. This is not to say that the charge of hypocrisy can easily be dismissed. The question is whether this kind of criticism is forwarded within the sanctuary of an assumed political solidarity as an occasion for healthy introspection, or whether it is forwarded with another objective entirely. Time and again the charge of hypocrisy is issued with the false assumption that dismissing middle-class radicalism in this way can justify the smug abdication and defeatism of an apolitical position that is already contemptuous of political intervention.

The question we need to ask in response is this: is a politics tainted by so-called compromise—the use of this term is itself problematic, as argued earlier—really worse than no politics at all? Or is this obsession with compromise itself an attempt at steering politics away from more urgent concerns into a rhetorical cul-de-sac of distrust and disengagement? Moreover, as Arundhati Roy puts it her article titled “Capitalism: A Ghost Story” (published in the 26 March 2012 issue of Outlook Magazine), “if the sledgehammer of moral purity is to be the criterion for stone-throwing, then the only people who qualify are those who have been silenced already. Those who live outside the system; the outlaws in the forests or those whose protests are never covered by the press, or the well-behaved dispossessed, who go from tribunal to tribunal, bearing witness, giving testimony”. Conversely, if we by virtue of our privilege can be heard, surely that gives us a greater obligation to speak than to remain silent.

This brings us to a curious juncture in our analysis. Interestingly enough, questions of representational adequacy are often raised within political circles as well, on the grounds that middle-class radicalism does not have a personal stake in its politics. To the extent that the problems raised by political campaigns today—land-grab, retrenchment, minimum wage—have more severe consequences for the poor than for the rich, it is obvious that the slogans of an elite intelligentsia will only ever speak on behalf of something other than itself. As the argument goes, if the privileged are often the greatest champions of poverty, it is simply because they can afford their philanthropy, for they require not to be emancipated as an urgent existential imperative, but seek to emancipate as an intransitive ethical commandment. This is an illusory aspiration, we are told, for the task of emancipation cannot be delegated; it must come from ‘within’, through the self-mobilisation of the poor, the destitute and the marginal. Everything else is merely the empty postures of an artificial conscience.

There are at least two theoretical precursors to this position. Within the field of postcolonial studies, ‘to emancipate’ is an almost violent act, for it assumes a self-proclaimed positional authority to know the Other—and to thereby anticipate the Other’s needs and desires—within a specific discursive configuration that already privileges the sovereignty of the Self as the sole arbiter of knowledge. Third World modernisation was arguably founded on this authority. Today, with the state’s increasing declination of developmental responsibilities and the proportional rise of non-state initiatives to fill the vacuum, NGOs and civil-society groups are similarly beset by Spivakian anxieties about the hegemony of knowledge formation. The other theoretical precursor emerges from debates within classical Marxism about the responsibility of the working class to evolve a revolutionary ethos and praxis as a ‘class for itself’. These debates have been reanimated since the fall of the Soviet Union amidst revelations of Stalinist excess and growing scepticism about the vanguard Party as an instrument of political change.

Without intervening in these debates—which this paper is neither concerned nor equipped to do—one may offer some tentative comments on how middle-class radicalism has been affected by them. For one thing, Marxist and postcolonial concerns about representation certainly provide an urgent precaution against the dangers of a politics blinkered and perverted by class bias. But this has often been misconstrued to mean that politics is an embodied condition that finds its ‘true’ voice only in an experiential register, where experience stands for all forms of exploitation, discrimination and marginalisation within capitalism. The ‘real’ working class or the ‘real’ subaltern are thus worshipped as obscure messiahs of a revolution that never comes. Isn’t this, after all, why the Left is so reluctant to take charge when popular sentiment effervesces; because popular sentiment always betrays some standard of representational truth by which the ‘popular’ is measured?

Experience is of course essential to politics, for only direct personal involvement can confer the sense of visceral urgency that purely abstract empathies cannot achieve. But experience, insofar as it varies widely across communitarian and identitarian differences, cannot alone form the basis of a mass mobilisation that seeks to bridge those differences. At some point, a trans-experiential hand of solidarity needs to be extended. And really, one would think that all politics in the final instance is a practice of representational outreach, an act of reaching out to the Other, of putting oneself in the Other’s place, of understanding the Other’s pain, despite its irrelevance or even opposition to one’s own biographical interests. That is why a man can protest against rape, why Hindus can be offended by Hindutva fundamentalism, why middle-class residents living in posh South Delhi colonies can be outraged by the eviction of families along the Yamuna Pushta for the Commonwealth Games.

If, on the other hand, politics is made into a club, into an ascribed identity with closed membership, it devolves into the performances of political authenticity we see today, validated by distinct idioms of habiliment, language, indeed an entire aesthetic tradition itself. Everyone is familiar, for example, with the so-called ‘Left look’: the unkempt hair, the khadi kurta, the tattered jhola and the splash of Rastafarian colours are surely not married by mere coincidence! If this weren’t bad enough, contemporary fears about the Party have, like so many other fears, tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater by imagining that any form of coordinated collectivism is inherently totalitarian and inimical to free expression. The turn to totalitarianism is surely historically produced, and to that extent, may be anticipated and addressed through a radical historical re-imagination of such categories like the Party, the movement, the struggle, indeed, even the Revolution.

The fact is that regardless of our conundrums about the truth-values and truth-effects of speech, the state continues to speak, the law continues to speak, and the corporations continue to speak. And their words command an overwhelming power. Surely our epistemological guilt cannot be used to excuse the complacence of a resigned silence. Surely the people that can speak ought to be encouraged, and the victories that can be won ought to be valued. If middle-class radicalism is favourably situated in the political economic register of resistance, surely those are resources we can use. At a time when some of the greatest legislative victories for an egalitarian worldview are being steadily dismantled, when demographic indices of equality and standard of living are steadily worsening across the globe, when even the vocabularies in the which the 20th century expressed its hopes and dreams for a better world have been betrayed, scepticism is not a luxury we can afford.

Malay Firoz is a member of New Socialist Initiative. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Browns University, USA.


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