Proletariat, a dangerous idea: Class struggle in Journalism

Pratyush Chandra

Last week, India’s “wall street journal”, Mint, brought out an interesting editorial entitled, Proletariat, a misleading idea (posted on December 29). In the editorial of a business newspaper meant for stockmarketeers and businessmen, what else do you expect on a conceptual matter? First it will trivialise the concept, mostly because of the authors’ ignorance, but sometimes for conscious propaganda too.

In the editorial a historical snapshot of the usage of the term, “proletariat”, is presented – underdog (during the industrial revolution), obsolete (due to Western welfarism), buried (after the cold war), renewal (during the recent “upswing in industrial unrest”). Ultimately, the argument is simple that the workers’ problems must not be posed as matters of class struggle (“conflict between managements and labour”), rather they should be left entirely to free market “competition between firms” with full freedom to hire and fire, which will eventually resolve everything. And also don’t talk about “rights” because they politicise the workplace, obstructing a free competition between firms. Don’t talk of unionisation – let the bosses continue to scramble freely for golden pie in market growth, and you wait open mouthed for flying crumbs to fall. That’s the message.

This message is understandable, but I was still surprised why such an urgency to call “proletariat, a misleading idea” – does it really need an editorial to be devoted upon? Casually, I continued browsing Mint‘s website for other pieces on labour matters, and I found out the reason. There was an elaborate report on the labour unrest in the auto industry which was posted the previous day (December 28): The rise of the new proletariat“. It provides a decent backgrounder (decent in comparison to other news reports on labour issues) on the recent industrial unrest in India. In fact, Maitreyee Handique’s (the reporter) has been sensitively presenting the labour side of industrial relations in India. She quotes a Trade Union leader in this particular report:

“Today, my boys are educated. They know how to use computers. They are not going to (sit by) and watch exploitation”.

So these “boys” constitute the “new proletariat”!


So what’s different about this wave of trade union activity? Timing. It comes as the world is emerging from a financial crisis that marks an inflection point in its industrial development. As the world’s fastest-growing economy after China—and one that sailed through the economic crisis relatively unscathed—India is poised to become one of the powerhouses that pulls everybody else out of the trough.

Take India’s automobile sector—it’s helping to define the future of the global car industry by churning out the low-priced models that are propelling growth as markets elsewhere lose steam. It’s also one of the key fronts on which workers are fighting companies, which explains why the stakes are so high.

And more,

In other nations, such as Malaysia, contract workers are actually paid more because they don’t have job security, said C.S. Venkataratnam, director at the International Management Institute in New Delhi.
“Here (in India), the typical argument is that workers are not qualified,” he said. “In India, we do not pay premium, but discounted wages, for quality.”

Workers say lopsided numbers at many companies – a small regular workforce dwarfed by a larger group of contract hires that’s being constantly retrenched and replenished – render it impossible to register demands and make management responsive.

However, the reporter is determined not to take sides and end the report with an employer’s view:

Kapur said the trouble at the factory was “politically motivated by outside influences”, without elaborating. He accused the unions of trying to create an atmosphere in which industry wouldn’t be able to survive, saying that this had already happened in the two states where the communists are holding power.

“Kolkata and Kerala don’t have industries, and now it’s starting in Gurgaon,” Kapur said.

Despite this balancing between the perspectives of labour and capital in the report, it seems the title “The Rise of the New Proletariat” was quite chilling for the business community, and the very next day the editors, who sensed this, felt the need to target the very two issues that the above report brought out:

“the disparity in wages between contract and permanent employees and difficulties in forming unions at workplaces.”

And they found India’s new chief economic advisor, Kaushik Basu’s statement authoritative enough to correct the damage done.

Further, Mint in the end had to assure its readers:

“Today, the nature of work in modern economies is very different from what it was in the Victorian age. Many workers in the same firm don’t even work together. The idea of a proletariat rests on shared experiences at a workplace. That is a fiction even in assembly line manufacturing today. A gentle draught of economic reason is enough to evaporate a politically evocative expression.”

It seems that the very Idea of Proletariat is dangerous, it smacks of class struggle, it (mis)leads workers to unrest leaving the capitalists distraught.

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