Thursday, May 24, 2018

Invisibility of Class in Popular Politics in India



Sanjay Kumar

(This paper was read as part of the workshop on Confronting the Rule of Capital in the Global South: Marxist analysis and class struggle in India on 4 May, 2018, at Marx 200 Congress, Berlin)

Courtesy- marx200


The name of the beast Marxists confront everywhere is Capitalism. We want to understand it theoretically and defeat it politically. This requires that we appreciate both its strengths and weaknesses. The exact nature of the rule of Capital in a society is both a reflection of latter’s universal properties, as well particularities of the given society’s politics and culture. Our hope is that an understanding of the rule of the Capital in a society like India will also throw light on its understanding in other countries.

The following presentation is divided in these sections. First section highlights the significance of Marx’s historical materialism for an understanding of India. The second section is about a political non-event from last year, which underlines the significance of class through its absence. The third section provides a quick look at the nature of labour and capital in contemporary India through statistical data. Fourth section provides a window to different aspects of popular politics in world’s largest (bourgeois) democracy. The next section situates this politics in the political economy of the rule of capital in the country. In these sections we also look at some important changes in popular politics and political economy following the neo-liberal turn in the past two decades. The last section briefly discusses the significance of the absence of working class issues in the popular politics to the rule of capital in India.

I  Marx on India
Indian society and its history may be the most studied non-European context by Marx and Engels. Journalistic pieces on India by the two first appear in the New York Tribune in 1852, and continue till 1862. Besides, there are copious comments on India in Grundrisse, in all three Volumes of Capital, and in their correspondence.
Marx’s was a materialist attempt to understand Indian society and its history, which in some fundamental ways were found to be different from Europe and its history, the main focus of Marx. Any understanding of India as different from Europe has to avoid the twin pitfalls of Orientalism and Eurocentrism. Marx countered the two through theoretical labour,  by elaborating concepts specific to India, rather than borrowing these from the study of Europe  and understanding India as a series of ‘absences’.
Two concepts developed by Marx were (i) Indian village community and (ii) identity of tax and rent. Both these are actually taken from other writers, but their meanings are sharpened. Village community is considered an example of a pre-capitalist community formation(Roman, and Germanic are the other twoexamples considered in Grundrisse). The economic basis of Indian village community was found to be an internal natural economy based upon non-market exchange and a rigid social division of labour, i.e. the caste system.

The second question Marx dealt with was the nature of state in India. Oriental despotism is an old liberal conception which is contrasted with the law governed authority in Europe, as arbitrary state power and absolute monarchy.Rather than echoing the Eurocentric liberal thesis, Marx asked a basic political economic question: ‘Why the state in Asia, succeeded in converting tax into rent?’ He relates this to (non)existence of private property in the land.

Historians today will question many of the claims made by Marx. However, it is also recognized that he had significant insights. In the words of Irfan Habib, one of the foremost Marxist historian of India, ‘It is also best to remember that his thesis of the union of agriculture and craft, on the one hand, and an immutable division of labour on the other, as the twin pillars of Indian village economy, remains of lasting value. Furthermore, the economic historian today must ask the same question as Marx did, about the precise implications of the extraction of ‘rent’ in the shape of land tax.’

India is not the same when Marx was writing. Besides a well developed capitalism which now aims for global presence, it has been ruled under formal institutions of liberal democracy for well over seven decades. Yet in important fundamental ways it remains different from Europe, or what is called ‘developed’ capitalist countries.  The challenge faced by Marx remains, that is how to understand Indian social formation through concepts developed specifically for it, rather borrowing concepts developed to understand Europe. Following his lead, the key idea of this presentation is this: Popular politics in India plays a key role in the stabilization of the rule of capital. This is analogous to the role played by universal Law and Civil Society in classic bourgeois order.

II  Silence over of a Working Class Issue 

In April 2017 the AamAadmi Party (Common Man Party) government running the national capital territory of Delhi announced 30% increase in minimum wage. The party draws its support from poorer neighbourhoods of the city, where its working people live. The increase would have benefited a significant proportion of its support base. However, during the municipal elections, which were held only few days after the wage increase, there was no mention of this major decision by the government in its election publicity. Why the silence? The reason can be unearthed in happenings during the year before. Then the Chief Minister of the city government had announced intention to increase minimum wage in his Independence Day speech, which was well covered in the media. This immediately irked traders, petty shop keepers and whole sellers of the city, who employ large number of casual and contract wage labour, including child labour. Their organizations threatened a general strike. Eight months later the government did increase the minimum wage, but did it almost surreptitiously so that even its working class support base remained unaware of the step.

The deliberate silence of the AAP government in publicly raising the wage issue during an election campaign should be contrasted with elections in the US and France. In these countries main candidates like Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Marie LePen and Melenchon, had all declared that if elected their governments will substantially increase the minimum wage.  A distinguishing claim of the swarm of ‘post’ discourses (Post Modernist, Post Marxist, Post Colonialist, etc.) is that class is no longer the key category to understand current societies. At best, it can be one among other, mainly identity based, categories. The displacement of class from the center of discursive terrain is announced as a significant innovative break. The behaviour of AAP government on minimum wage in Delhi provides an interesting counter example. Class is writ large on its political choices. However, class is addressed not through a clear articulation of a class issue, but by its surreptitious erasure.

III  Labour and Capital in India

Only about half of working people in India are wage workers. The remaining half areself employed, the largest fraction being farmers, and employed in enterprises owned by family. Sixty percent of urban wage workers are in service sector, indicating the weakness of manufacturing factory sector in the economy. Eighty percent of non agricultural wage workers have no written contract, hence can have little recourse to legal system in the case of a dispute. More than ninety percent wage workers are in the so called un-oragnaisedsector, in which there is no employment security andsocial benefits. Increasingly, workers even in the so called organized sector, meaning large enterprises, are working in similar conditions.  Thirty percent of workers get less than $3 per day, which is less than the poverty wage.

Hence, conditions of labour in India are marked by extremely low wages, heterogeneity and non-wage work. Most wage workers are outside any legal framework. Legal provisions for even those within this framework are routinely flouted.  This severely restricts the role of formal trade union activities. Despite these handicaps Indian working class has organized many valiant struggles. Bombay textile mill strike of 1980s against contractualisation and mill closures, and the more recent 2012-13 Maruti Suzuki strike for the recognition of workers’ autonomous trade union are important landmarks in this struggle.

The character and role of capital can be gained from the ratios of different forms of property assets to the GDP. Public sector, which includes state owned enterprises contributes 20% to the GDP. The private corporate capital according to one estimate contributes 24% to the national economy. In another estimate this contribution is 35%. The remaining share is from the so called household sector, which includes peasant agricultural, and small industrial and trading capital. This is 56% in one estimate, and 45% in another. In either case the preponderance of small and medium capital is obvious. Another character of the capital in India is systemic use of extra legal and illegal activities. Many analysts believe that the difference in the contribution of private corporate capital’s contribution to the GDP (which is as much as 40%) in the two estimates is a manifestation of the large scale tax evasion and misuse of government incentives by the big capital through floating of fake shell companies.


IV   Popular Politics in the Largest Bourgeois Democracy

In a significant intervention political theorist SudiptaKaviraj has called the democratic politics in India an‘Enchantment of Democracy’. Popular sovereignty, popular legitimacy of state institutions through periodic elections, and a continuous invocation of the people of India in the political discourse are significant elements of this democracy. These however are not just procedural practices, but also provide affective meanings for Indians to make sense of their society and state.

The most important component of popular politics are popular movements. The one for the destruction of sixteenth centuryBabri Mosque by Hindu rightwing mobilized tens of millions of Indians over its different phases in 1980s and early 1990s. A large number of other popular movements have been for demands of regional autonomy. In some parts of the country there are armed secessionist movements which enjoy a fair degree of popular support.  Then in 2013 country was convulsed by a nationwide anti-corruption movement, which seriously eroded the legitimacy of the then centrist UPA government. The second important part of popular politics is elections to representative bodies. From village level panchayats to the national parliament, India has about five million representatives elected by popular vote. Election campaigns encompass street level canvassing, to all the way to mammoth rallies and meetings. In the country of continental dimensions, one or the other part at any time is in election mode. Contests are keenly fought, not only by contestants in the fray, but also for their supporters and voters. Campaigns, protests and strikes by political parties, peasants, oppressed castes and trade unions are other important part of popular politics, thatmobilise millions of Indians every year.

Certain features of the popular politics in Indiaare noteworthy. First is the emphasis on consensualism, which to an extent was its character during freedom movement, then in the Constitutional Assembly, and also in subsequent legislatures under Congress party’s domination. This means that majorities have not forced out minority demands. The thrust is towards compromise, rather than sharpening of conflict.Second is salience of community based demands, rather than rights of abstract citizenship. In this regard the popular politics has provided a fertile ground for assertion of caste identities. In fact, caste is a readymade community ‘for itself’ in the Hindu social order. Hindu rightwing has gained recent success by invocating a Hindu religious community with political demands. Both characteristics of popular politics, its consensualism and community orientation, have tended to blunt working class demands. As long as workers can be presented as part of India’s teeming poor requiring welfare, their demands can be incorporated in general political programmes. Any articulation of autonomous working class activity is seen as too confrontational.
The rightwing offensive in the neo-liberal era is trying subtle shifts in the nature of popular politics.  First is aggressive majoritarianism, which is threatening to torn asunder of the patchwork of compromises reached underconsensualism. Second,is the effort to change the image of what is considered ‘the People’ of India.For long the political discourse had projected the people of India as poor, who need state welfare. The current Prime Minister from the rightwing Hindu party addresses the so called ‘aspirational’ Indians, who unlike the poor, who require help for necessities of life, aspire for wealth, prosperity and space for enjoying ‘good life’. This discourse naturally excludes large number Indians who remain poor. It however gains strength from increasing hegemony of market and consumerism in influential sections of Indians.


V  State, Society and Political Economy

From colonialism India inherited a retarded economy, a substantial semi feudal landlord class, a monopolistic capitalist class, and a well developed juridical structure of private property regimes. The post independence political rule can be best described as a Passive Revolution of a Developmental State which gave important place to state in the economy. The natural question here is how this state can be considered a capitalist state. The state not only continued with colonial property regimes, it also developed an elaborate structure of state supported finance and corporate governance that helped in the consolidation of private capital. To overcome colonial backwardness state took on the responsibility of economic development of the modern industrial sector through the policy of import substitution.  State enterprises, which at one time were dominant in certain modern sectors of the economy, were not only sites of state capitalism, but also played a supportive role in the maturation of private capital. However, instead of acomplete overhaul of social, economic and cultural fields for capitalist development, a policy of compromise, but within a relationship of domination, was followed vis a vis pre-capitalist social classes. For instance no radical land reform, and no nationwide programme of primary education and eradication of illiteracy were undertaken. The domination of capital was ensured not through the cultural and moral hegemony of the bourgeoisie, or through open coercion, but through a coalition with other propertied sections.This also implied a framework for the reproduction of subordinate classes, vizsmall capital, self employed, peasantry, and sections of the working class. All of these became part of a national market, but not under direct control of the big capital. Within this framework a modicum of social security was created for sections of workers in what was called the formal sector of economy, including state employees, public sector workers and workers of large corporates.  However, there was no social security for the overwhelming, more than ninety percent of the workforce.

The Neo-Liberal phase of Indian political economy initiated nearly three decades ago has involved reorientation of state economic policies for the benefit of private capital, corporatization or handing over of state enterprises to private corporate capital, integration of national economy with imperial economies, and global growth of Indian capital. Corporate capital is now shown as the Captain of the economy, as the only driver of ‘growth’.As is seen world over, the neo liberal political economy is also a phase of open class aggression by the bourgeoisie against working people. In India all institutions of state, the legislature, executive, police and judiciary, are found to be standing solidly behind capital in its efforts to disorganize the working class.

Sociologists distinguish between associations and communities. Associations are considered modern institutions of social life, which emerge after sufficient individuation has occurred. Citizens/individuals join them as autonomous persons. Communities are prescriptive, more closely linked with long lasting identities. One point of distinction often raised with reference to India, vis a vis modern West, is the salience of community based, and the weakness of associative social life. However, from the point of view understanding class rule another character of Indian social life is important. These are non market social networks which have material effects in creating specific forms of social life of labour. For instance, it has been known for long that caste, language, and ethnicity based networks are important in determining who does what in India. These networks are not exclusive like communities, but they form an important structural factor in the social life of workers.

VI  Law/Civil Society, Popular politics and Class Rule

All class rules require ideologies and institutions to stabilize and iron out internal contradictions. In the capitalism studied in classical Marxism, the domain of universal Law, and civil society, including market, in which individuals interact as citizens, is the primary terrain over which the rule of capital is stabilized. A universal law is supposed to treat everyone as equal. Social democracy evolved important regulatory and institutional structures to channelize and control labour capital contradiction. Neoliberalism shifts the emphasis to market. It emerges as an important site forthe reproduction ofideology, and also as an avenue for individualsocial mobility and enterprise.

In India the ‘legal’ domain has been constricted and rather than being a universal, it is a sub-part of the social life. Partha Chatterjee has conceptualized a ‘Political Society’ to discuss the politics of the governed; the poor in India living in slums and working informally, who live outside the pale of legally sanctified property, and contrasts it with the ‘civil society’ of better off Indians. Actually, given the secondary place of law in the social life in India, it is inexact to speak of a civil society on the model of classic bourgeois order. Indian middle and professional classes and corporate capital are as much implicated in extra legal practices, as the poor. As mentioned earlier, the dramatic differences in the estimates of the share of private corporate capital in country’s GDP, is an indication of the scale of corporate illegal activities. It is in this context that popular politics, both as an ideological enchantress, and as an institutional framework emerges as the terrain to stabilize the rule of capital. An important requirement for the popular politics to fulfill this role is that it should not let the capital-labour contradiction emerge as an important issue, else its open nature with many possibilities of mass mobilisations can threaten the rule of capital. Other facets of Indian social order, the preponderance of self-employed, family labour, and small capital, importance of non-market social networks, and pre-existence of ‘for itself’ communities like caste further help popular politics keep the primary class contradiction of Indian society at bay.


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