Zombie Apocalypse and How Not to End Capitalism

Paresh Chandra

Introduction: Zombies beyond Zizek (and Jameson)

The following statement, often quoted, and attributed at times to Slavoj Zizek and at others to Fredric Jameson, sums up a persuasive theorization of the ubiquity of the apocalypse theme in contemporary popular culture: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”(1) The desire to go beyond the condition of capitalism hits a limit and is unable to envision an outside. The circuits of capital are so large and complicated and capital moves with such velocity that the mind boggles, unable to stabilize images; it is difficult to form a cognitive map of this totality (Jameson); sensibility is saturated, the imagination’s limits already reached (Berardi). In trying to reach beyond capital, the mind extends beyond itself and the world.

There is undeniably much to be gained by mining into this statement. But while it has the beauty of simplicity, it also suffers from simplicity’s inevitable partiality. Is not the impossibility of imagining an end to capital itself a brilliant ideological effect? In which case, should we not look upon the failed fantasy of capitalism’s end also as the wish fulfilling fiction of its continued reproduction/expansion? The Jamesonian lesson is that utopia (or, as in this case, dystopia) and ideology always exist together, verso and recto. So the project, really, is to think the text in opposite directions at the same time, see it as a disjunctive synthesis of the desire to see an end to capitalism and the one to see it reborn. Although this essay attempts such fork-tongued speech, because it addresses an imbalance in past theorization (marked by the popularity of the statement we began by quoting), it too lays more emphasis one side of the dialectic.(2)

There are two arguments this essay seeks to make, one explicit and the other implied. First, it argues that the principal lesson of the zombie apocalypse is that disaster is not simply an undesired, though inevitable outcome of capitalist development, but the remedy meant to save capitalism from collapse. Global destruction is the next logical step in the history of capitalist development and capitalism actively desires such destruction. Hence we have the paradoxical if obvious truth, that the narrative of such destruction (the apocalypse film/comic book/TV series) is essentially not about death and destruction, but survival.

This observation, notwithstanding its banality, is key. What is the nature of survival? Under what conditions will humanity survive? This survival is a return, in many ways to a state of nature from where history can begin all over again. It returns us to a basic contradiction that takes two distinct forms at two separate levels of abstraction, class struggle, and the struggle between nature and human production, and which culminates in the restoration/reproduction of capital. Should the world end then, capitalism will survive with the few survivors. In the absence of capitalist structuration reality will be disordered, a dark age of violence and naked force etc., an age that may eventually yield to a new history of capitalist becoming.

The second argument, implicit, is the real excuse for the writing of this essay. It is that while this idea – that destruction is the logical next step of capitalist development – can only be stated and examined using concepts borrowed from theory (Marx’s idea of General Intellect for example), it is clearly discernible only in the kind of texts we seek to explore. In other words the zombie apocalypse has an important lesson for radical theory, a lesson that may not be learnt anywhere else.

Primitive Accumulation and War

Thinking back to the Black Death, what surfaces is not just disorder and violence. Or rather, disorder did not limit itself to violence as its only form. Silvia Federici, in Caliban and the Witch, speaks of radical heretic tendencies in the European peasantry that had transformed that apocalyptic moment into a genuine crisis of feudalism (which was also, by instituting a likely foreclosure of the possibility of capital’s emergence, a crisis of capitalism). Federici is able to perform the difficult task of looking beyond history’s narrative of necessity, to a moment of possibility, to recover it as a moment in which the history of class struggle could have ended. History that has formed us, has been one in which the crisis of feudalism was the transition to capitalism. That was the extent of society’s recomposition. Class struggle continued to be, though in an altered condition.

The apocalypse narrative in popular culture today seems to take cue from this history of continuity, and refuses to brush it against its grain (in Federici’s style). Though according to the formulation (it is easier to imagine…) with which we began this essay, the apocalypse film/comic book/TV series tries to trace desire’s line of flight, the possibility of subtraction from capitalism, we cannot overlook the fact that but these are primarily narratives of its inevitable folding back into capitalism. (In that these narratives are quite like the kind of historiography that reads the crisis of feudalism, the heretic revolt, as the originary moment of capitalism, as primitive accumulation.) They are fantasies of capitalist refoundation. Example: In the graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Rises a Russian nuke disables all electronics, and blocks out the sun (taking out Superman’s energy source). Gotham is in disarray, riots, and criminals on a free rein. Batman mobilizes a bunch of lunatics and criminals, rides out on horseback, cowboy style, to take control of the situation. With the social and the scientific technologies that enable social control without the use of force having been rendered temporarily dysfunctional, the law needs to make use of the vigilante, who emerges to supplement the law, making use of primitive technologies of power.

In an essay published in 2008 in the New Left Review, later republished as a chapter in Distant Reading Franco Moretti had tried to forge a connection between war and narratives of adventure. Adventure, to rephrase Moretti (3), is the motif that dramatizes and mythologizes moments of exception, in which the law suspends itself to protect itself (and we know that capitalism recomposes itself and expands when it is threatened; like a shark, to survive, it has to keep moving); one symbol through which we understand these moments is the outlaw fashioned to protect the law (Batman). The outlaw signals a moment of breakdown but also the law’s recomposition. It is accepted wisdom now that capital preserves primitive accumulation; it is a path capitalism returns to when the accumulation of relative surplus value slows down and the market founders; direct but guaranteed accumulation remains a fantasy that is occasionally realized. To primitive accumulation we add war: two inseparable but not altogether indistinct methods that emerge every once in a while to preserve capitalism. Capitalism on the offensive, war, is at the same time capital on the defensive. Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” made some observations that are of interest in context of this discussion. Responding to Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, Benjamin writes

If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society. The horrible features of imperialistic warfare are attributable to the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production…(4)

Capital, while it constantly expands its productive capacities, is also threatened by the possibility of plenty, of too much productive power. Benjamin argues that war is capital’s deployment of this plenty in an enterprise that allows capitalist relations to sustain. There is scholarship that has tried to demonstrate the relation between war, the consequent mobilization of the industry and the resuscitation of the market depressed by crisis.(5) It has been argued, for example, that the Bush II’s wars as much about reigniting industry as they were about oil. It is destruction that has pumped fuel into slowing circuits of capital.

There is still more to the apocalypse text though. Destruction is much more comprehensive and invariably of a permanent nature. In fact, it is insofar as destruction is irreversible that we can speak of a new kind of apocalypse that has increasingly begun to occupy contemporary popular culture. Destruction is not marginal; it does not just limit itself to one city, or the borders of a nation, or a foreign land. It is the generalized nature of the event that forces us beyond the primitive accumulation/war thesis, though we do not disavow it entirely; it certainly suggests a direction.

General Intellect, the Social Factory, and Revolution

In an extract from the Grundrisse, usually referred to as the “Fragment on Machine,” Marx speaks of the development of technology within capitalism and the possible advent of an automaton or organism, with whose arrival it will no longer be “the distinct individual entities of the productive workers that are useful for capitalist production, nor even their ‘work’ in a conventional sense of the word, but the whole ensemble of sciences, languages, knowledges, activities, and skills that circulate through society that Marx seeks to describe with the terms general intellect (706), social brain (694), and social individual (705).”(6)

Living labor is the determinant of surplus value and this process of automation reduces living labor “quantitatively, to a smaller proportion, and qualitatively, as an, of course, indispensable but subordinate moment, compared to general scientific labour, technological application of natural sciences, on one side, and to the general productive force arising from social combination [Gliederung] in total production on the other side”.(7) In this then capital, the “moving contradiction,” drives itself to its own dissolution.

[In this situation it is] the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth. The theft of alien labor time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself…[Now] labor time ceases and must cease to be [the] measure of [wealth], and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labor of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labor of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis…(8)

Marx goes on to speak of the expansion of free time and the possibilities that open for the free development of human creativity outside the arbitrary limits set by capital. It is a strangely utopic view of technology, a view that has been difficult to endorse in light of the lessons of the 20th century; the extent to which relations of production are immanent to the forces of production became starkly visible in the consequences of Lenin’s introduction of Taylorist production in the Soviet Union. In any case, what Marx notes is that as productivity becomes independent of the imposition of work, the capitalist valuation of life in terms of hours of labor extracted becomes superfluous. This coding of life and human production comes under threat as new possibilities based on free time become conceivable. In other words, technology, capital’s response to every cycle of the working class’s struggle, and the most important tool with which capital recomposes work and the working class, becomes a serious obstacle for its continued and expanded reproduction.

As the role of living labor decreases, a parallel process of socialization of work is also underway. Marx speaks of a “dialectical inversion,” where this “most powerful instrument for reducing labour time…becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole life-time of the worker and his family into labour time at capital’s disposal for its own valorization”. This was a thesis that Mario Tronti developed to argue that “At the highest level of capitalist development social relations become moments of the relations of production, and the whole society becomes an articulation of production. In short, all of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over all of society.”(9) The development of General Intellect has been accompanied by the emergence of the “socialized worker,” and of the “social factory” where capitalism reaches a stage of unprecedented totality, tapping into every source that everyday life can muster. This totalization is, however, another sign that the final throw of the capitalist dice comes closer. Technology continues to advance and capitalism already seems to have no outside left.(10) With no new territories and the return of the specter of moribundity in what form will the primitive return? With technology now based on microelectronics, with the expansion of the world’s nuclear armory, war too is a changed prospect. Destruction has become harder to localize. Weapons become more precise, but their circulation less restricted. What now?

Revolution. A fantasy appears, naked, in a none too sophisticated TV series baldly titled Revolution. It is 2027, fifteen years after “The Blackout” that caused the permanent disabling of electricity! All devices stop; lights, computers, vehicles, machines. In one blow all technologies of production and control are disabled. In these fifteen years people have tried to adapt to this new situation of low productivity, lack of centralization and political instability. Militias run the only governments. The problem of technology has been resolved by a quasi-magical event. The absurdity of the event is the most obvious sign of desire at work. This event is not primitive accumulation or war, but the desire that produces them is also the one that produces this event.

Apocalypse and the Resuscitation of Popular Culture

The zombie apocalypse narrative usually begins with a mutant virus, perhaps an experiment gone awry, or an out of control biological weapon. The biological weapon that attacks everybody without discriminating is but a sign that capital’s wars no longer limit themselves to the borders and to other nations. (In a sense they never have limited themselves in that fashion: war abroad, austerity measures and displacement of peoples within the borders.) But with each crisis capital expands further, productivity increases, with each recurrence capital’s war generalizes itself more and leaves fewer avenues of life untouched, more people affected.

Quarantine (2008) (there is a sequel too, Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011)) begins in a chemical weapons lab. 28 Days Later (from 2002, the sequel: 28 Weeks Later (2007)) begins in a research lab with the “Rage virus”. The virus in I am Legend (2007) too is born in medical experimentation. Resident Evil, which began as a video game in 1996, developed into a six film series about an outbreak of the “T-virus,” product of genetic experimentation by the Umbrella Corporation. The virus transforms its first victims, researchers at the Umbrella Corporation research facility (The Hive) into zombies and spreads out from here.(11)

The cause of the outbreak, while it may offer interesting interpretative possibilities, is of limited significance overall. The important thing is that the event that generates the plot occurs. Furthermore, unlike say a work of detective fiction, the plot is not moved by a desire for discovery of first cause, it does not lead back to its origin, but moves forward towards survival and reconstruction.

After the basic premise is put into place, after the meta-plot has been generated, a large number of themes and subplots that have populated popular culture over the last century and have been stretched to exhaustion begin to find fertile ground. The meta-plot is always one of survival. It traces the shape existence takes in this world and becomes the source of multiple experiences whose hollowing out the twentieth century has mourned too often. It appears as if for a humanity whose sensibility is utterly saturated (an idea that appears in Bifo Berardi’s Soul at Work, which we will discuss later) a break like this is necessary for it to be able to experience emotions that ordinarily are seen to be central to life.

In A Friend for the End of the World (2012), for example, it is the end of the world that makes love and friendship possible, and through a typically crude reversal, it is this love that makes the end of the world inconsequential. The return of rom-com humanism is signaled even better by Warm Bodies (2013), in which zombies return to life and are reaccepted by human society after the real bad zombies (Bonies) are taken care of; to be able to recognize that bodies are getting warmer a person in love is needed. Slant magazine’s comment about the film typifies what we speak of: “The ubiquity of Shakespeare’s original template allows Warm Bodies some leeway in terms of believability, where otherwise it sometimes strains against its own logic. But the film’s persistent charm encourages us to look past a few festering surface wounds and see the human heart beating inside, which is really what love is all about.”(12)

I am Legend (2007) sees the return of heroism and sacrifice, and affirmation of relationships (man and woman, man and dog). How does The Walking Dead (which debuted in 2010) fill up its seasons? The continuity of generations (Rick’s children); love and marriage (Glenn and Maggie; Sasha and Bob) wisdom (Herschel); human resourcefulness and the will to survive; more generally the power of human relations to revive society and meaning. The plot moves through a series of encounters, a series of false promises, failed socialities (the Governor and his settlement at Woodbury in Season 3, Terminus in Season 4, the Hospital and the Church in Season 5). The group contains a small number of core members and a loose circle of shifting members (characters die with each encounter, and new ones join in). The constant shifting, moving, creates the desire for stability, which is found momentarily at the Prison.(13) The safety of walls and the possibility of growing food, a settled life defines this brief period. Like in Resident Evil, violence and gore are significant features of The Walking Dead too, but the latter forages on to other sources to extend the plot. (The Resident Evil video games increasingly limit themselves to shooting and weapons upgrade.) The excess of violence, and the instability of these lives allow the show to make intermittent periods of slowness (farming, conversations, mourning, caring etc.) desirable and good entertainment for the audience.

In other words, it is destruction of capitalist reality (as we know it) that becomes the basis of the refounding of the myths of capitalist common sense. One of the key ways in which the crisis of capitalism manifests itself is the evident hollowing out of its myths – like the crisis of the myth of individuality or that of nationalism (in Europe) after WWI; hard work does not guarantee success; success does not get love; saving no longer guarantees a comfortable old age; education no longer gets jobs. Capital’s revival, at least in this case, is indicated first in the revival of key myths (mentioned in preceding passages), reinvigorated by the apocalypse, bestowed with new substance by the metaplot of survival and human ingenuity.

Killing Donna Haraway’s Cyborg

A state of nature then, a state without a state – this is the condition in which man struggles for survival. Capitalism has removed the obstacle it seemed to have created in its own path in what Marx identified as General Intellect; centuries of accumulated human labor, mental and physical, washed away.

We do not know, even now, what this tendency towards the formation of General Intellect could produce, and whether capitalism’s final crisis will ever arrive and what will be humanity after capitalism and work. Althusser, while exploring man’s alienation from nature as an essential aspect of society based on work, tries to think beyond this fundamental duality to only indicate that it is “a totality that has not achieved its concept”.(14) Concepts to think this totality appear by and by.

For example, Donna Haraway in her “Cyborg Manifesto,” theorizing in a manner that bears affinity to the Marx of “Fragment on Machine,” argues that “Taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology.”(15) She imagines a posthuman that would show “a way out of the maze of dualitys in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves”.(16) What saves this image from indeterminacy is the concept of the cyborg. The cyborg is a hybrid, part machine part human – a “cybernetic organism”. It is an “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism.”(17) Yet its lack of innocence does not scare Haraway. The cyborg that may have emerged as the culmination of the history of capitalism, (think of this history as the narrative recounted in The Dialectic of Enlightenment) as a kind of final product, could deliver us of this history. The history of man’s struggle against nature and of man’s exploitation of the environment seems to deliver the concept we needed to think beyond the contradiction that shapes this history. A new posthuman possibility is visible in the cyborg, an indication of something beyond the human-nature duality.

As we have seen already, fundamental to the post-apocalyptic reality is the removal of technology (whether we call it Cyborg or General Intellect).(18) The metanarrative of survival, scarcity and struggle against the non-human once more designates the human-nature/non-human duality as the shaper of history, the guarantor of meaning in history. To the extent that zombies become a part of the malignant landscape, an aspect of the background against which various subplots unfold, they participate in this dualist narrative. The human other will define itself by way of distinction from the zombie. In Season 5 of The Walking Dead the need to assert “we are not them” is strong; the confusion of boundaries between human and zombie is intolerable and those in whom this confusion appears have to be neutralized (even if it is a child – Lizzie). “The productive labor that post-apocalyptic survivors are forced into…works not only as a way to protect bodily integrity, but as a way to distinguish themselves from the simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar zombie horde, who are neither self-aware nor self-conscious.”(19) The dualities that Marx (in “Fragment on Machine”) and Haraway desired to escape are firmly reestablished and capitalism has begun its renewal through self-destruction.

Marc Foster’s 2013 zombie film World War Z, in addition to receiving good reviews grossed over $540 million against a production budget of $190 million; commercially, easily the most successful zombie film. The basic plot is familiar – a viral epidemic breaks out in a number of cities; it kills quickly and the dead become zombies, who by biting others spread the virus. The interesting, if not entirely novel twist the film introduces comes when Gerry, played by Brad Pitt, notices that the zombies tend to overlook the weak (diseased or old). He suggests this possibility to a group of scientists who find the idea tenable. The hypothesis is proved when on infecting himself with various disease causing microbes Gerry effectively becomes invisible to zombies. This gives the human race a chance for survival.

In an atmosphere unfit for the reproduction of the human body, the only way to sustain it is to weaken the body. In order to reproduce ourselves we must become sick. But the diseases we introduce into the body in order to escape the undefeatable enemy are diseases that we have the ability to cure. The virus does not attack the weakened human body. This weakened body can destroy the virus and those infected by it, subsequently curing itself and ensuring the survival of the species. In a much too obvious way, what we have here is an allegory for the strategy of survival that capitalism develops. In order to survive and to continue to reproduce itself capitalism will fantasize its own destruction. Much like the human body in World War Z, capitalism will sicken itself in order to survive.(20)

What is a Zombie? (I)

The zombie is not really the main thing in post-apocalyptic zombie texts. The chief problem is the disorder that is caused due to zombies; it is the collapse of technologies of production and power that produces the event proper. Once disorder has set in, zombies are just there making the survival game more complicated.

Yet zombies cannot mean nothing! The dead-living-undead sequence is too seductive to ignore when speaking in the context of capitalism. But one has to admit that there are no easy analogies to be made, structural correspondences to be traced. Dead labor, finally, refers to machines, to technology, not to people. The living in a zombie apocalypse text are the providers of labor. There is no meaning to be ascribed to the zombie in this fashion, not even the metaphorical kind that Marx projected onto the vampire. Where do we go from here? Scholarship has over the years offered interpretations.

It begins with observing that “the mythological origins of the zombie are rooted in Haitian vodou (known popularly as “voodoo”) religion, which combined West African and Lower Congo beliefs in spirits, nzambi or zombé, that could become caught between worlds, trapped in a container, as liminal beings that were neither living nor dead. Zombification was understood to be a reversible state of hypnosis, under the control of a vodou practitioner who could work with spells or potions to make the living appear as dead, a form of mind control under direction by the zombie master.”(21) It is obvious that despite these origins the zombie synthesizes many other images constitutive of contemporary social life. The idea of a zombie controlled by a master sustains in the way in which the image enters American popular culture. First it is the slave controlled by the slave master, then later the industrial worker. “This view of the living dead, which entered the American culture industry in the 1930s and 1940s, carried a critical charge: the notion that capitalist society zombifies workers, reducing them to interchangeable beasts of burden, mere bodies for the expenditure of labor-time.”(22)

Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead is by most accounts considered the inaugurator of the genre, as we know it now. It brought the zombie to the center of the American landscape; it also removed the zombie master, making the creature autonomous. Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead places the zombie in the mall: the consumer’s mindlessness, infecting and producing more consumers, consumers roaming around the mall aimlessly, purely out of habit. The emphasis in all these interpretations is clearly that the post-apocalyptic world is not a possible future but an accentuated reflection of the present. Other readings are added, most of them sensible, grounded in some aspect of capitalist reality: the zombie as the hidden truth of neoliberal capitalism, the sweatshop worker hidden behind the smooth circuits of the supply chain, representative of the real conditions behind the reflective glass exterior of the postmodern factory.(23)

Offering an interesting formulation Aalya Ahmad writes, “the zombie apocalypse stops the machine, but the machine’s effects clearly linger on in the survivors”. One can think of Charlie Chaplin, still twitching and jerking, making his way away from the conveyor belt in Modern Times. Yet this image can be as misleading as it is alluring. It pushes us to imagine the body dominated by a mechanical rhythm alien to it. While this conception remains useful in describing a large portion of the capitalist imposition of work even today, it does not address a key mutation that has emerged in the last few decades, which is also the period which has seen the emergence of the cultural phenomena we are discussing. A glance at this mutation, to my mind, goes a long way in adding precision to our understanding of the zombie.

What is a Zombie? (II)

The zombie, while it may suggest a mechanical, machine like existence with its jerky gait, is actually a creature of appetite. Which is to say that it is not simply the body that has been conquered by an alien rhythm (leaving the mind free), the mind too has been subjugated; in fact the conquest of the mind is primary. The zombie is still subject to a master, but the master is invisible, not human. It is this aspect of the zombie image that me must explore in the light of this mutation in the nature of work that comes along with microelectronics. (We should keep in mind that it is microelectronics that makes General Intellect and the Cyborg, thinkable, determinate concepts today.)

Tracing capital’s response to the politics of “refusal of work” that defined the 1960s and 1970s, Bifo Berardi, in his book Soul at Work, also explores the implications of the coming of microelectronics. In distancing himself from the language of desire and its flows that is proposed by Deleuze and Guatarri in Anti-Oedipus, Berardi argues that it is desire itself that semiocapitalism (a term Berardi uses to describe capitalism today) taps; the proletariat realizes, or tries to realize her desires within this new capitalism and brings her soul to work. In response to the worker’s refusal of work that alienates desire, capital has recomposed itself to feed off this desire.

Earlier, leisure was the site for self-realization; now an injunction is in place that pushes the worker to realize herself in work. This new worker, working under the condition of semiocapitalism, trying to realize herself in work, exhausts herself without finding fulfillment. Realization in the fluid and ever expanding networks of semiocapitalism is an impossible ask; the world of simulation, finance and deregulation begins by precluding an encounter with the real, how then real-ization? Even as he speaks the Freudian language of a “libidinal economy”, Berardi touches upon the concerns of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Man has no being without objective being, which is man’s externalization of himself in the object of labor – this externalization leaves an objectively discernible trace, which is recognized by the other etc.(24) This externalization is impossible in the simulated world of semiocapitalism, ever expanding and so, unrepresentable, incomprehensible to the human mind. The individual constantly falls short, puts in more effort and falls short again. The validation that was available to the artisan from the community is also unobtainable for this creature because her ability to form community is destroyed with the saturation of sensibility that such work causes. In the end she is exhausted, depressed etc.

Berardi goes on to speak of “a morphogenetic modeling of the living operated by the habitat with which it is required to interact [biopower]”.(25) As it feeds off it, semiocapitalism also shapes desire; it models the soul. Alongside the mindless consumer, a mind (full) worker is created – the cognitariat. Referring back to Marx’s distinction between formal and real subsumption in the “Unpublished Sixth Chapter” of Capital Berardi offers an interesting paraphrase worth quoting here.

Formal subsumption is based on the juridical subjugation of the laborers, on the formal disciplining of the bodies. Real subsumption means instead that the workers’ lifetimes have been captured by the capital flow, and the souls have been pervaded by techno-linguistic chains.(26)

We had touched upon capitalism’s swallowing up of all outsides in our discussion of General Intellect. The outside subsumed on this occasion is the worker’s soul. There is no boss breathing down the worker’s neck; the worker largely supervises herself, encourages herself (maybe she reads something from the self-help section). In her work she seeks to fulfill herself, and nothing visible structures her desires or shapes her will. While there is an injunction to find satisfaction in work, it is impossible to discern where the injunction comes from. Desire, already structured to find satisfaction in capital’s circuits takes over the person, transforming the body into little more than an interface (hands on the keyboard, eyes on the screen). What takes over the self is experienced as an aspect of the self, that nevertheless comes from the outside, something external which can never quite be comprehended as that (how can I fathom that my own desire is not my own?).

We tend to think of power in relation to the sublimity of the infinite, facing which imagination and reason both fail. But what of the infinitesimal? Nano technology, the microchip and an infinity of points through which power flows. Man is no longer the measure of all things, Berardi observes. The order of determinations is incomprehensible to the human mind, and this crisis of cognitive mapping comes with semiocapitalism, which is characterized by both infinite (the ever expanding circuits of capital) and the infinitesimal (microelectronics). Berardi speaks of Ingmar Bergman’s 1977 film The Serpent’s Egg that may be read as an attempt to represent this condition. According to Berardi the film redefines historicity as “a psychological and linguistic process” and in the process makes way toward a redefinition of alienation as a “material, chemical, or rather neuro-chemical mutation.” The social body is slowly poisoned by the Nazis, who use a toxic gas to deprive it of its will. “The metaphor of psychological submission that we find in this movie is pertinent far beyond the example of German Nazism: it can characterize other processes of collective mental pollution, such as consumerism, television commercials, the production of aggressive behaviors, religious fundamentalisms and competitive conformisms”.(27) This poisoning of the social body and its transformation into an “amorphous mass” is a useful figure for the modeling of the soul we have been speaking of. The virus that causes the zombie apocalypse can be thought of as a logical development from here.

The virus is an efficient device for representing the invisible force that controls the self as if it were internal to it. It is the organic infinitesimal, the only form possible after the network (electricity, technology, General Intellect) dies. The age old fear of epidemic and contagion, of plague, combines with the modern fear of biological weapons to deliver a perfect device, a near-perfect figure for how capital works now, representing its effects, when the machine is dead.

The cognitariat is pushed to breaking point in order to realize itself within capital’s network and underneath the promise of nourishment, the soul is poisoned, robbed of its capacity to feel, commune, robbed of its connection to the body, to sensibility. The only extension this soul possesses exists within capital’s network. Once this network is removed, once this machine is switched off what we have is uncontrollable, meaningless desire without end; a thing driven by desire but without the means to pursue or even comprehend it. A hunger that is never satiated; the body is never nourished because its demands have long been forgotten by the mind. The zombie, seemingly all body no soul, is by way of a fantastic reversal the form that the bodiless soul (the cognitariat robbed of sensibility) takes in the post-apocalyptic world.(28) The zombie bites and struggles and eats so the virus can spread itself; eating does not nourish this body. This is certainly a good image for the industrial worker who loses his body to capitalist work in the hours he spends in the factory; but it is even more appropriate for the cognitive worker who loses his mind entirely.

Conclusion: Zombie contra Cyborg

The cyborg was Donna Haraway’s way of thinking beyond the human-nature binary because it made a future of hybridity thinkable. The idealist-capitalist desire to successively subsume every aspect of nature into its logic of unending expansion suggests a second direction for history. Though, as this paper too has belabored, the thought of this end is terrifying for capital, for arrival would mean the end of expansion, end of movement and so the end. The zombie is a third possibility – the duality seems to end, but this vision of posthumanity is that of humanity’s decay into nature.

The zombies may overrun humanity, and humanity’s struggle to survive against them will reproduce the original duality and perhaps, capitalism. The image of nature consuming society to end duality mirrors the more familiar one of capital subsuming nature. In the light of the fact that the virus is invariably the product of human tampering, and of our own reading of the virus as a kind of organic metaphor for semiocapitalism, or its effects, this mirroring suggests a displaced connection. What finally is the result of this war that nature wages against human sociality but the reestablishing of the duality it evidently strives to end, and in that the resetting of history to zero, and the frightful prospect of its repetition from Odysseus to Fascism and the culture industry? Some speak of the eco-zombie, the greened zombie, “the zombie reimagined as an avenger that refuses to accept environmental destruction and ultimately rids the earth of humans”.(29) But nature’s avenger zombie merely plays a part in the prospective narrative of capitalism’s regeneration.

Lets go over the argument once: capitalism has a tendency to go into crisis every once in a while. It comes out of each crisis by recomposing itself, and the working class, whose struggles push it into crisis. This recomposition happens primarily through technological advancement, but goes hand in hand with primitive accumulation, which is capitalism’s way of subsuming new territories. Over the last two hundred years it has managed to subsume increasingly large portions of the globe and technology has expanded by leaps and bounds (microelectronics being the most recent and by far the largest leap). The increase in technology (in Marx’s terms, the increase in the organic composition of capital) means that the proportion of living labor going into production decreases and with which decreases the surplus. To make up for this capital plugs in to more and more realms of life, formerly only formally subsumed, they are now really subsumed. We reach a point where expansion becomes impossible, as does the realization of surplus. War and primitive accumulation are now ever present to prop up this late capitalism but they become less effective each moment. It is now, the zombie apocalypse teaches us, that capitalism begins to fantasize destruction, self-destruction; an odd fantasy for a system which is reputedly the only one that exists solely for production. Not quite so odd for one that cannot exist without continuously expanding production. The process of expansion can begin again once the ground has been cleared.

It is capitalism’s relentless expansion that has led us to a moment that its interests can no longer be comprehended in terms of CEOs, owners, boards, or even nations. Its interests are as simple as ever, but no individuals represent them. We find no policy makers speaking of the need for destruction, nor CEO’s dreaming of zombie hordes. Capitalism’s interests have far transcended those of individuals (even those who are apportioned humongous shares of value). But what cannot be articulated in other discourses, we argue, can still be discerned in popular cultural production. The apocalypse narrative, especially the zombie apocalypse has a lesson, a political lesson that is hard to learn any other place.

So then, what if disaster is not an undesired, though inevitable outcome of capitalist development, but the prescription that will save capitalism from collapse? Perhaps it is by destroying the products of human labor that it has historically subsumed into its logic and by reestablishing man’s struggle with nature, by reestablishing that is, the binary Donna Haraway thinks the cyborg might help us transcend, that capital will sustain its hold over human history and nature alike. What if the apocalypse is produced, an incomplete one, just so that capitalist history can continue? How does this lesson affect discourses that anti-capitalists tendencies deploy in their criticism of capitalism?

The possibility of ecological disaster is ever on our minds now, and leftists, both liberal and radical, increasingly appeal to this fear in their criticism of capitalism. Ecological crisis is a key weapon in the arsenal of the anti-capitalist today. We have come to bemoan the fact that we had been oh so anthropocentric in basing our criticism of capital on the question of exploitation. (Indeed the zombie apocalypse has been read as a critique of what Naomi’s Klein calls “disaster capitalism”(30)). In her new book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein argues that “There is still time to avoid catastrophic warming but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which is surely the best argument there has ever been for changing those rules.”(31) (This argument is part of a larger tendency to attack not capitalism, but its most recent moment: for example, it is argued ever so often that it is neoliberalism that is destroying education and health services, it is this late capitalism that is enforcing austerity measures everywhere. What is implied in all these discourses is that a capitalism with slightly different rules (say the old welfarist capitalism) is better and we must struggle to defend its remaining vestiges, if possible go back to nationalizing things.)

The idea of persuading capitalism to change its rule so that it may avert ecological catastrophe, or any catastrophe begins to seem silly if catastrophe is what capitalism seeks. Once more, the lesson that the zombie apocalypse teaches us is that capitalism has us fooled into thinking that it cares to save the environment if only a way could be found to keep profit making green. The point is not that there can be no green capitalism (although that too is true), but that it wants to not be green. In the process of fooling us into thinking that it cares, it manages to make more profit as we amuse ourselves to death, watching/reading this moral tale, deceiving ourselves into thinking that we have learnt its lesson.


(1) Both Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson seem fond of quoting this statement, although nobody ever reveals whom it was who made it for the first time. For Jameson it is always “somebody” who once said it.

(2) As much as this essay is a reaction to utopic readings of the apocalypse theme, it also assumes them in a more affirmative manner, insofar its attempt to throw out the bathwater dirty with ideology, would be risky without those prior theorizations ascertaining the safety of the baby.

(3) Franco Moretti, “The Novel: History and Theory,” in Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013), 177.

(4) Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 242.

(5) See Andre Gunder Frank, “Third World War: A Political Economy of the Gulf War and New World Order.” (http://rrojasdatabank.info/agfrank/gulf_war.html; accessed on June 25, 2015).

(6) Nicholas Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx and Politics (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), 81.

(7) Karl Marx, Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1993), 700.

(8) Ibid., 705.

(9) Mario Tronti cited in Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx and Politics, 72.

(10) One must acknowledge Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis’s criticism of this position. They argue that lags remain central to capitalist development: there is segmentation within the working class in terms of the use of higher and lower technology, capitalism spreads both development and underdevelopment, and “capitalist subsumption of all forms of production does not require the extension of the level of science and technology achieved at any particular point of capitalist development to all workers contributing to the accumulation process”. (Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis, “Notes on the Edu-Factory and Cognitive Capitalism,” Towards a Global Autonomous University (New York: Autonomedia, 2009). They are completely correct. But we are only interested in the tendency towards totalization, and increasing pace at which capitalism is subsuming its outside. As this process accelerates, the fear of arrival begins to loom. There may always be lags and counter-tendencies, but that does not undermine the force of the tendency we here choose to emphasize.

(11) A major theme that the series also deploys in plot construction is that of the evils of monopoly. The Umbrella Corporation has no competition, no detractors. Concentration (and centralization) is another aspect of the history of capitalist development. Capitalism demonstrates its self-contradictory character in this case too by battling centralization through its conscience keeper that is the civil society, and by using laws dictating fair competition. Indeed, the Resident Evil films’ short circuiting of capitalism and monopoly makes the criticism of the two indistinguishable; actually of course they are not the same: the critique of monopoly tries to save capitalism, while a radical critique of capitalism seeks its destruction.

(12) Richard Larson, “Warm Bodies”, Slant. Accessed on Mach 6, 2015. http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/warm-bodies.

(13) The groups tries a democratic mode of self-governance, different from the earlier episodes where they decided to follow Rick as their leader, accepting that this was the form best suited for the swiftness with which the group needed to respond when threatened. Democracy collapses with the Prison, and for the next few seasons, the group returns to its “state of exception” state-form.

(14) Roland Boer, “The Ecclesiastical Eloquence of Louis Althusser,” in Marxism and Theology: Criticism of Heaven (Leiden and Boston: Brill), 157.

(15) Donna Haraway. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (New York: Routledge, 1991), 181.

(16) Ibid., 181.

(17) Ibid., 151.

(18) In the context of this discussion see Alicia Kozcma, “The post-apocalyptic renunciation of technology in The Walking Dead”, in Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means (London: Lexington Books, 2013) ed. Murali Balaji, 151. Kozma makes an interesting case, especially through her reading of the initial scenes after Rick wakes up in the hospital in Season 1 (Thinking Dead 151). She argues that the show renounces technology and moves towards the constitution of a parahumanity. Her argument is based on the notion of a choice between technology (which the show renounces) and human ingenuity (which it foregrounds). It is important here to reiterate Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument, and observe that this binary collapses if we see technology being rooted in precisely this notion of ingenuity of humanity struggling with nature.

(19) Alicia Kozcma, “The post-apocalyptic renunciation of technology in The Walking Dead”, in Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means (London: Lexington Books, 2013) ed. Murali Balaji, 153.

(20) Another revealing analogy: In an essay from 1937, called “Constructions in Analysis” Freud draws an interesting comparison between the constructions that appear in analysis and those that appear in psychosis.

The delusions of patients appear to me to be the equivalents of the constructions which we build up in the course of an analytic treatment – attempts at explanation and cure, though it is true that these, under the conditions of a psychosis, can do no more than replace the fragment of reality that is being disavowed in the present by another fragment that had already been disavowed in the remote past. (p. 204, After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis)

The desire for subtraction from the symbolic order is visible in the analysand’s constructions. The constructions of analysis do not “reduce the analysand’s linguistic production to the mechanical insistence of the signifying chain…the aim of construction would not be to resignify these nodes [of non-sense] but to re-constellate them in order to attenuate the subject’s alienation in the symbolic order.” (p. 206, ibid) What is key is that in the rejuvenation of the traumatized ego, the traumatizing situation that the ego cannot transcend is replaced by one that had already been transcended “in the remote past”. In the psychotic-analyst couple we have a useful miniaturization of the contradiction (more technology-less technology; concentration-competition) that we have been tracing in capitalism as well as the coherence it (re)produces repeatedly without resolving the contradiction.

(21) Zara Zimbaro, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” Censored 2015 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2014), 272.

(22) Ibid., 272.

(23) Most of these readings can be found summarized in Zara Zimbardo’s chapter in Censored 2015.

(24) It would seem inconsistent to speak of ‘recognition’ in the same breath as Anti-Oedipus. But this inconsistency, if it exists, is rooted in Berardi’s work. The other way of thinking about it is that the break from Anti-Oedipus we mention, returns Berardi to a mode of theorizing in which this Hegelian-Marxian-Freudian category becomes productive again.

(25) Bifo Berardi, Soul at Work (MA: The MIT Press, 2009), 172.

(26) Ibid., 173.

(27) Ibid., 97.

(28) “The zombie is different from other monsters because the body is resurrected and retained: only consciousness is permanently lost. Like the vampire and the werewolf, the zombie threatens with its material form. Whereas the vampire and even the intangible ghost retain their mental faculties, and the werewolf may become irrational, bestial only part of time, only the zombie has completely lost its mind, becoming a blank—animate, but wholly devoid of consciousness.” (A Zombie Manifesto, p. 89)

Later on in the essay: “In Haitian folklore, from which all zombies are derived, the word zombie meant not just “a body without a soul” but also “a soul without a body.” (A Zombie Manifesto, p. 97)

(29) Zimbardo, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” 286.

(30) Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007).

(31) Naomi Klein, quoted in Rob Nixon, “Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything,” The New York Times, accessed on March 5, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/09/books/review/naomi-klein-this-changes-everything-review.html?_r=0.

Lessons from Jhandewalan and JNU: XIII Theses on Annihilation of Caste and Abolition of Classes

Pothik Ghosh

“It is a pity that caste even today has its defenders. The defences are many. It is defended on the ground that the caste system is but another name for division of labour and if division of labour is a necessary feature of every civilized society then it is argued that there is nothing wrong in the caste system. Now the first thing to be urged against this view is that caste system is not merely division of labour. It is also a division of labourers. – B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste

“Marxism can develop only through struggle, and not only is this true of the past and the present, it is necessarily true of the future as well. What is correct invariably develops in the course of struggle with what is wrong. The true, the good and the beautiful always exist by contrast with the false, the evil and the ugly, and grow in struggle with the latter. As soon as a wrong thing is rejected and a particular truth accepted by mankind, new truths begin their struggle with new errors. Such struggles will never end. This is the law of development of truth and, naturally, of Marxism as well.” – Mao Zedong, ‘On “Let A Hundred Flowers Blossom, Let A Hundred Schools of Thought Contend” And “Long-Term Coexistence and Mutual Supervision’ (Five Essays on Philosophy)

“If we really need to go back to the classics, then let us say Lenin + Luxemburg, within a different horizon, not one of a continuity of struggle from democracy to socialism, but rather the horizon of the assertion and persistence of the communist need of the masses that is continuously ruptured on the capitalist side and constantly reproposed on the workers’ side.” – Antonio Negri, ‘Workers’ Party Against Work’ (Books for Burning)


Here are a couple of questions that every Indian radical worth his (or her) salt must now squarely and sincerely confront. Is it his lot now, in this second decade of the twenty-first century, to passively contemplate various struggles against oppression being mercilessly thrashed around and beaten to a pulp? Can such struggles, and their radical protagonists, do no better than turn their unmitigated physical brutalisation and political defeat into spectacles of sorry victimhood, and wait for the collective liberal conscience of the Indian nation to be moved enough for it to toss those struggles a few scraps of legalistic relief?

These questions are doubtless inconvenient and irksome for radicals currently immersed in a misplaced sense of victory and valour. They certainly do tend to poop the self-congratulatory party our spectacle-addled leftists and left-liberals have been busy hosting for a while now. Nevertheless, those questions have become particularly pressing after the Delhi police, acting in concert with reactionary lynch-mobs, unleashed an unsparing physical assault on university students demonstrating against casteist discrimination, while demanding justice for Rohit Vemula, outside the Delhi RSS office in Jhandewalan on January 30. And now, in the wake of a concerted counter-revolutionary offensive that was jump-started at JNU, our radicals simply have no other option than to seriously grapple with those questions.

Now is perhaps the right time for them to begin considering how their sundry protest-demonstrations can turn into forms of effective urban resistance. Something that will ensure the repressive state apparatuses and the counter-revolutionary goon-squads get as good as they give.

Our radicals need to think how slogan-shouting can cease to be the raising of demands and, instead, become a call for direct political action. However, this, contrary to first appearances, is not a plea for reactive violence. It is, instead, meant to be a proposal for developing a strategy that will enable the concrete articulation of direct transformative action.


A protracted period of hard work is required to put such a strategy in place. This cannot happen until and unless the concrete social spaces (or spatio-temporalities) – like, for example, the university – from which such protest-demonstrations emanate, and which are themselves internally segmented and hierarchised, are rendered sites of internal struggle.

Such internal struggles are needed not so that those social spaces function better as democratic islands – that is, function more efficiently as the (differentially) inclusive spaces they have always been. Rather, such struggles are needed so that the spaces in question are reorganised in a manner that they are internally de-segmented. All politics of so-called democratisation that seek to render social spaces more inclusive do no more than reproduce the logic of differential inclusion by recomposing that logic merely at the level of its concrete socio-historical forms or appearances. Until now, such types of politics have achieved that by mainstreaming social identities and forces by intensifying segmentation – i.e., by internally segmenting them.

Clearly, such politics of progressive democratisation does no more than enhance the democracy of negotiating better the terms of one’s systemic enslavement and domination. As opposed to such politics of so-called democratisation, the politics being proposed here is that of struggles for a complete functionalisation of social division of labour, and its constitutive hierarchy.

Socio-technical division of labour – or technical composition of social labour – is the constitutive basis of the internally segmented nature, and the attendant undemocratic and exclusivist culture, of all extant social spaces. There is absolutely no doubt that struggles need to target this undemocratic culture in order to destroy it. But the destruction of this culture, by way of its radical transformation, needs to be envisaged in a fashion that it articulates the destruction of the objective, material basis of that culture – the latter being a phenomenal manifestation of the former. In other words, struggles against undemocratic culture must target it as a mediation of its objective, material basis – which is social division of labour. This basis has to be negated in, as and through an affirmation of complete functionalisation of division of labour in its various concrete forms.

This would, to reiterate our point, negate social division of labour in its caste-like operation, and the logic of value-relationality that animates it. Among other things, this is the only way in which the radical-republican Ambedkarite project of annihilation of caste can be prised free from its bourgeois intsrumentalisation to be rendered an indispensable and integral moment of the revolutionary programme of abolition (not equality) of classes in the concrete specificity of the Indian subcontinent.

But what exactly would this proposed functionalisation of division of labour amount to? This would mean the elimination of individuated and fixed work-roles by rendering them rotational, fluid and thoroughly dynamic. That would ensure the hierarchy among different moments of the overall labour process – the social-industrial process – becomes dynamic and functional too. Among other things, this would also ensure the unleashing of technological potential in a manner that people doing certain kinds of degrading work such as manual scavenging are liberated from it.

Now, class struggle-induced development of capitalism through a progressive increase in the organic composition of capital has, as Marx had predicted in Capital, Volume I (‘Machinery and Modern Industry), already brought us close to realising the complete functionalisation of division of labour. The unstoppable rise in same-skilling due to functional simplification of the labour process on account of growing technologisation of production has ensured that.

But precisely because the production process is still orientated to enable and realise capital accumulation through exchange, it continues to be structured to enable extraction of surplus-value. As a result, the growing functionalisation of division of labour is registered, experienced and lived as unprecedented economic and social precarity, even as that precarity itself is continually segmented and differentially distributed. Not for nothing does Italian Marxist Paolo Virno characterise this conjuncture of capitalist development as “the communism of capital”.

In such circumstances, the only way forward would be to accentuate and organise the functional simplification of the labour process in a manner that various work-roles tend to become more and more dynamic, and thus less and less individuated and fixed, even as exchange-relations among different sites of production are simultaneously sought to be abolished. That would be a movement in the direction of complete functionalisation of division of labour, which is the only way for us to overcome “the communism of capital” and the abject levels of precarity and suffering it entails.


At this point, we would do well to flesh out the theoretical contours of a political strategy that strives to accomplish that. Let us begin by exploring in some detail the relationship between social division of labour and segmentation of social labour. Social division of labour has been the organising principle of all social formations, capitalism included. That is the reason why all such social formations have been class-divided societies.

Social division of labour is actually “division of labourers”. It is the principle of segmentation in operation. Ambedkar had demonstrated that while dealing with the problem of caste and its annihilation.

What needs to be properly grasped, however, is the crucial distinction between the functionality of social division of labour in socio-economic formations of yore and its functionality in capitalism. In pre-capitalist societies, social division of labour functioned purely as the arbitrariness and irrationality of power-relations that are intrinsic to such a division. In capitalism, the rationality of objectification, which is the mutual commensurability of different things – and thus exchange-relationality as its social-phenomenal realisation – mobilises and structures the social division of labour and the irrationality of power-relations intrinsic to it.

This does not imply that in capitalism the arbitrariness of power-relations, inherent in the operation of social division of labour, disappears. All it means is the rationality of objectification and thingification – which is manifest through exchange-relations as the law of value – validates the irrationality and arbitrariness of power-relations. This is accomplished by mobilising it in a way that the irrationality of power becomes integral to the rationality of value even as it retains its intrinsic irrationality and arbitrariness.

Not for nothing did Marx characterise capital as a “living contradiction”. Capital, as should be amply evident now, is constitutively an irrationalised rationality. So, insofar as social division of labour in capitalism is concerned, its functionality gets structured by exchange-relations to be their condition of necessity. Consequently, the functionality of social division of labour is structured to be the extraction of surplus labour time (or surplus-value). Its structural functionality is no longer what it used to be in various pre-capitalist epochs: simply the extraction of surplus use-values and surplus (concrete) labour.

This is precisely the reason why the division of labourers, which social division of labour unmistakably articulates in all socio-economic formations, functions in capitalism – even in concrete situations where such division of labour and labourers is not ostensibly mediated by the sphere of exchange – as the integral systemic digit of transfer of value from some segments of social labour to others. Therefore, it also functions as the systemic digit of extraction of value from social labour by social capital.

Social division of labour, insofar as it is the function through which the structure of value-relations institutes and organises itself, becomes the basis for generalisation of division of labourers, or segmentation of social labour.

What does this generalisation of segmentation of social labour – with its basis in the functioning of socio-technical division of labour – imply? Clearly, segmentation of social labour not only exists in, as and through concrete forms of socio-technical division of labour; it often exists even within the same work-function where there is no such division of labour possible.

In other words, not only does socio-technical division of labour in capitalism directly and immediately amount to segmentation of social labour, it also generates an overall culture of segmentation. Social labour is often hierarchically divided across various relational axes where there is no such socio-technical division of labour at work in an immediate sense.

In capitalism, social division of labour not only functions directly as division of labourers, it is also the overall condition for segmentation of social labour. An example of segmentation of social labour without the direct functioning of socio-technical division of labour – albeit certainly under its condition – is the division among permanent, contract and temporary workers within the same work-function or labour-process.


But the most apposite example that demonstrates segmentation of social labour both with and without its socio-technical division is the functionality of the caste system in its animation by capital’s value-relational logic. The appropriateness of this example stems from the fact that the context of this discussion happens to be that of caste-based oppression of Dalits – together, of course, with the oppression of nationalities such as Kashmiris – and struggles against it.

Not only does the caste system as social division of labour – thanks to it being a functional system of caste-occupation correlation – segment social labour, the culture it generates also serves to segment, or hierarchically divide, lower-caste and upper-caste labourers engaged in the same work-function. For instance, the caste-system in its functioning not only hierarchically divides the sweeper or the cobbler from the university student or teacher, but its culture also hierarchically segments lower-caste students (or teachers) of a particular discipline in a particular university from upper-caste ones in the same discipline and in the same university. This latter kind of segmental relationship, and the struggle it engenders, cannot be grasped in terms of it merely being the superstructure generated by the economic base of caste as social division of labour.

Of course, caste as a system of caste-occupation correlation has been rendered a key constituent of capitalist social division of labour in the historical specificity of the Indian subcontinent. It is, without doubt, a necessary condition for the existence of the culture that segments, or hierarchically divides, lower-caste labourers from the upper-caste ones within same work-functions. That said, the cultural struggle engendered by this kind of segmental relationship within the same work-function or labour-process is relatively autonomous of its economic basis in caste-based socio-technical division of labour. Which is to say, this culturally-articulated segmental relation, and the specific kind of struggle it engenders, is merely conditioned by the caste-based economy of socio-technical division of labour. It, therefore, has an autonomy all its own.

The relative autonomy of such culturally-articulated segmental relations between labourers engaged in same work-functions means that such cultural relations of hierarchy must also be grasped as economic relations of production in their own right. (It must be mentioned here that caste is only one of the indices, together with religion/ community, gender, sexuality and oppressed nationality, of such culturally-articulated economic relations of segmentation. In fact, the occupation and colonisation of Kashmir by India, together with the concomitant ideology of Indian nationalism in its ethno-racial and communal articulations in the Indian mainland, serves to regiment social labour by being constitutive of segmentation of social labour in its subcontinental specificity.)


The question, however, is how does one grasp a culturally-articulated relation of hierarchy in economic and productive terms. Marxists could, for one, attempt to do that by engaging rigorously with Ambedkar’s critique of socialism in Annihilation of Caste. Ambedkar had forcefully insisted that the conceptual centrality of property relations in socialist analysis was responsible for the paradigmatic blindness of Indian socialists to the problem of caste.

That problem was, as Ambedkar saw it, primarily one of social recognition and dignity, and only secondarily that of property relations as and where it manifest itself along the axis of caste relations. What Ambedkar was arguing is that caste-based discrimination and casteist atrocities, and the concomitant absence of dignity in caste relations, is not necessarily and directly correspondent to the level of tangible property or economic wealth one holds. The examples with which he substantiated his argument are all logically foolproof. In fact, his contention is also borne out by our example here of caste-based culturally-articulated segmentation of labourers engaged in the same work-function.

Clearly, it is the burden of Marxists to adequately address the issue raised by Ambedkar by re-conceptualising property relations. They should be able to show how property relations are not to be grasped merely in terms of possession of tangible wealth, but primarily in terms of one’s relational and relative control over conditions of production and/or reproduction. Tangible means of production or property being, in such circumstances, merely a socio-historically specifying subset of conditions of production.

It is only through such a reconceptualisation of property relations that one will be able to rearticulate the question of social recognition and dignity – raised so pertinently by Ambedkar from the Dalit location within the overall composition of social labour – as a question of psychologically-articulated labour for social reproduction, or production of labour-power (the abstract capacity for living labour). Such a re-conceptualisation of property relations is something that Marx, particularly the Marx of Capital and Theories of Surplus Value, arguably enables by virtue of having made his theory of value-relations the conceptual bedrock of property relations and/or social relations of commodity production.

Clearly, property relations as social relations constitutive of degrees of control (or lack of control) over conditions of production basically amounts to social relations constitutive of degrees of control over one’s labour-time. Marx’s value-theoretic analysis of property relations as social relations of production reveals precisely that – for, value is the ratio of surplus labour-time to socially necessary labour-time.

Now, in such circumstances, what would it mean for Marxists to rearticulate Ambedkar’s conception of caste as a system of relations constitutive primarily of hierarchisation of social recognition and dignity, in terms of psychologically-articulated labour for production of labour-power? The differential distribution of social dignity – more precisely, the differential distribution of social indignity – which is constitutive of a culturally-articulated segmental relation between lower-caste and upper-caste labourers engaged in the same work-function, amounts to a relative intensification of psychologically-articulated labour for production of labour-power for the lower-caste labourers in relation to their upper-caste counterparts.

In other words, lower-caste labourers in having to perform the additional psychological labour of grappling with the relative lack of social dignity, experience a relative intensification of labour-time for social reproduction – which is the time for production of labour-power – vis-à-vis their upper-caste colleagues.

This insight is the result of an encounter between Marxism as a theoretical approach of revolutionary class politics and Ambedkarism as a radical-republican epistemological project of annihilation of caste. It is particularly significant now in this neoliberal conjuncture of affective capital. Most importantly, it helps us grasp and rearticulate Dalit Bahujan struggles against various forms of denial of affirmative action – qua reservation in jobs and educational institutions – as a determinate index of struggle against segmentation of social labour, which is wrought through caste-based discrimination and/or oppression in the concrete specificity of the so-called systems of modern employment and education.

More accurately, such struggles against caste-based discrimination and/or oppression ought to be grasped and rearticulated as struggles for social wage specific to a particular kind and form of segmentation of social labour. Once we do that, we will see that such anti-caste struggles, not unlike all other struggles against various other forms of differentiation based on wages and/or social wages, tend to be determinate struggles against the logic of segmentation of social labour.

It must be stated here that in its moment of being a determinate struggle overcoming the logic of segmentation of social labour in its concrete specification, such an anti-caste struggle, like all other determinate struggles against segmentation, is singularity as a monad of its own universalisability. So, unless a struggle, which tends to determinately negate the logic of segmentation of social labour, is able to generalise that which it instantiates in its determinateness, it will tend to inevitably reproduce the logic of segmentation of social labour. That is because in its failure to generalise that which it determinately instantiates it effects the recomposition of socio-historical form of segmentation or value-relationality.

Clearly, struggles generated by various forms of segmentation of social labour are, with regard to their respective specificities, articulations of determinate destruction-recomposition of social labour in its constitutively segmental existence. Hence, struggles against denial of social wage through casteist discrimination and oppression – not unlike struggles against various other forms and types of wage-based and/or social wage-based differentiation – are, at once, the instantiation of the tendency of revolution and the mediation of the counter-tendency of juridical reform.

In that context, radical sections of the Dalit Bahujan movement, together with radical sections from within the largely non-Dalitised subcontinental Left, would do well to engage with various politico-ideological forms generated by the larger Dalit project of social emancipation by way of grasping those forms as a dialectic of the positive and the negative. That is, those forms, which are respective experiences of oppression and subalternisation rendered as articulations of resistance, ought to be grasped as a dialectic of determinate instantiation of the politics of de-segmentation, and the inhibition of such politics by its hypostasis into an ideology of recomposition.

It must be clarified here that such a politico-ideological form would, in its moment of being the tendency of recomposition, become constitutive of the internal division of the oppressed social group into sub-groups that are, in relation to one another, oppressor and oppressed. Meanwhile, the original relationship of domination of the overall Dalit segment of social labour by its non-Dalit segment would also stand reproduced. A good example of that is the socio-economic differentiation – often concomitant with segmentation based on “sanskritisation” and other forms of cultural modernisation – between educated, professionalised sections of Dalit Bahujans and the not-so-fortunate Dalit ‘underclass’, even as the former find themselves hierarchically separated out from their non-Dalit compatriots through culturally-articulated socio-economic processes.

It ought to be mentioned here that the non-Dalit segments of social labour, in the meantime, too keep undergoing internal differentiation along various other socio-economic axes that are either directly based on socio-technical division of labour or indirectly conditioned by it.


We must, at this point, realise that there is a crucial condition to be fulfilled if the proposed dialectical engagement with politico-ideological forms generated by various Dalit-Bahujan struggles is to be theoretically comprehensive and politically productive. The suggested dialectical engagement with politico-ideological forms constitutive of various Dalit Bahujan struggles for social emancipation should enable the radical sections from within the largely non-Dalitised Left to recognise that the various ideological forms of their own Marxism too are as much a dialectic of determinate instantiation of the politics of de-segmentation and its limit, as the politico-ideological forms of various Dalit Bahujan struggles.

Only then will those non-Dalitised radicals realise that the organisations and groups to which they belong now function as ideological state apparatuses constitutive of the perpetuation of segmentation of social labour; and not only along the axis of caste. Clearly, there is no point in demonstrating the reformist moment of Dalit Bahujan politico-ideological forms unless one is able to simultaneously reveal the reformist and petty-bourgeois identitarian moment of the ‘Marxist’ politico-ideological forms of the non-Dalitised Left. In theoretical terms, it would amount to an abject abuse of dialectics if one were to be ‘dialectical’ with regard to the former while choosing not to train that dialectical gun at the latter.

Politically, this would, of course, imply that sizeable sections of the non-Dalitised Left continue with their preponderant propensity to instrumentally mobilise Dalit struggles and Dalit social locations, all in the name of building an inter-caste unity of proletarians. That, needless to say, would amount to an intensified and accelerated perpetuation of the value-relational logic of segmentation of social labour precisely in the process of building a movement that is supposedly committed to the destruction of the law of value.

Of course, it is only by engaging in a comprehensive dialectical criticism that radical sections from within the Dalit Bahujan movement can overcome the reformist politics of progressive democratization, which thwarts the potential for revolutionary generalisation of abolition of classes inherent in its project of annihilation of caste. On the other hand, it is only such dialectical criticism that will likely enable the non-Dalitised subcontinental Left – certain sections of it at any rate – to break out of the double-bind it is currently caught in with regard to Dalit Bahujan struggles for social emancipation.


On that score, the Indian – or the subcontinental – Left can be broadly divided into two categories. First, there are those sections of the non-Dalitised Left, which even as they recognise the specificity of caste-based oppression, deny the various Dalit politico-ideological forms their relative autonomy and their moments of radical validity. These non-Dalitised Leftists reject, out of hand, those forms as so many articulations of reformism and petty-bourgeois identity politics without any dialectical-critical engagement with them. Their contention being that oppressed social groups such as Dalit Bahujans – or Muslims for that matter – ought to hitch their respective socio-political destinies to the cart of an abstractly articulated programme of working-class politics. Here class is envisaged as a sociologised category, a master-identity as it were, which is embodied by this or that party-like organisation, and which is meant to subsume all struggles against different forms and kinds of subalternisation and oppression into a larger single movement to capture state-power.

These party-Leftists tend to insist that only after such a ‘united’ working-class movement has taken state-power can their so-called party of the proletarians go about the business of putting an end to different kinds and forms of oppression and subalternisation by way of exercising the state-power so captured. Such a ‘party of the working class’, it must be reiterated here, strives to institute itself by uniting various sections and segments of the working people by having them submerge their relatively autonomous and determinate politico-ideological articulations against the logic of segmentation into that single movement for capturing state-power.

What is clearly missed by such a strategic approach of premature universalisation is the fact that this party-like organisation – which strives to forge such a unity in order to build a movement for capturing state-power – becomes the embodiment of an algebra of measure. It is, therefore, an adjudicatory form, vis-à-vis different segments of social labour. As a result, it functions as a form of instrumentalist politics, which is, therefore, rendered an interpellated and interpellating apparatus that tends to preserve and reproduce the value-relational logic of segmentation of social labour along various relational-identitarian axes, including that of caste.

Consequently, it tends to be the embodied form of preservation and reproduction of the capitalist state-form constitutive of the segmental grammar of value-relations while purportedly struggling against it. The inadequacy, or absence, of representation of oppressed social groups such as Dalits, Muslims, women and so on in important leadership positions of such party-like organisations is a symptom of the dangerously fallacious political strategy constitutive of such organisations. Our point here is, however, not to figure out how such Left organisations can become more comprehensively representative. Not at all! The point is, instead, to reconceptualise the mode of revolutionary-proletarian organisation of social labour in a manner that the problem of representation is precluded.

Such reconceptualisation can take place only as an integral and indispensable moment of rethinking and re-envisaging the strategic mode of revolutionary generalisation with regard to various anti-oppression struggles. It must be reiterated here that such struggles are determinate and thus monadic instantiations of the politics of de-segmentation. What such a reconceptualisation of the mode of revolutionary-proletarian organisation of social labour requires is one engage with every such struggle, and its concomitant politico-ideological form, as an asymmetrical dialectic. This would be an asymmetrical dialectic between self-activity of a particular segment of social labour determinately instantiating the self-organisation of the class in its collectivity, and simultaneously the limit of such self-organisation.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. We shall discuss what is arguably the most appropriate and politically productive form of revolutionary-proletarian organisation while attempting later to describe and explicate in some detail the correct strategic mode of revolutionary generalisation. For now, let us focus on the second category of non-Dalitised subcontinental Leftists, and particularly and mostly non-party Left-liberals.

The strategic approach of these sections of the non-Dalitised Left and Left-liberals, which also includes in their ranks some libertarians and self-styled anarchists, is underpinned either by the rights-based discourse of progressive democratisation, or by one of the several poststructuralist discourses of difference. In terms of socio-political effects, the strategies that emanate from this second camp of non-Dalitised Leftists and Left-liberals – regardless of whether those strategies are theoretically orientated by the discourse of rights and essential human freedom, or a poststructuralist discourse of difference – are similar. That is to say, the socio-political effects produced by those strategies, regardless of their respectively distinct theoretical and philosophical accents, are reformist. And this shows that the strategic orientation of their politics, especially with regard to the Dalit question, is instrumentalist.

This particular section of non-Dalitised Leftists seeks to recognise the autonomy of various politico-ideological expressions of Dalit struggles to either bring them within a larger aggregative space of unity of struggles against different forms of oppression; or to mobilise the coordinated acceleration of difference those struggles are. In either case, the systemically-articulated objective relations of segmentation among those various social locations of oppression are obscured and left untouched. In such circumstances, the swiftness with which this second category of non-Dalitised Leftists recognise the autonomy of various politico-ideological forms of Dalit struggles has more than an air of instrumentalist bad-faith about it.

The imaginary at work, as far as both categories of non-Dalitised Leftists are concerned, is a redistributionist, statist one. Not surprisingly, both types of non-Dalitised Indian Leftists suffer from an incurable state-fetishism, which makes them, in the final analysis, nationalist. It must be stated here that the two categories of the largely non-Dalitised Left are, notwithstanding the apparent differences in their tactical-programmatic articulations, two sides of the same coin.


In the light of our discussion so far, we ought to unambiguously assert that struggles against brahminism as a form of caste-based social domination are struggles that determinately instantiate the destruction of segmentation of social labour. In other words, they in their respective particularities militate against the concrete mediation of the value-relational logic of segmentation that a particular form of social oppression maintains and operationalises. In such circumstances, struggles against culturally-articulated caste-based economic segmentation between lower-caste and upper-caste labourers engaged in the same work-function militate against the value-relational logic of economic segmentation in its concrete specification.

It also tends to concomitantly challenge the culture or ideology of casteism/brahminism, which is generated by caste-based articulation of the capitalist economy of socio-technical division of labour, and which, in turn, tends to reinforce that economy. Clearly, such struggles are indispensably integral to the destruction of the economy of caste-based socio-technical division of labour and the capitalist mode of production that animates it now. Such caste-based social division of labour is a constituent historical moment of the capitalist mode of production as socio-technical division of labour along various axes of both caste-based and non-caste forms of social relations.

Hence, struggles against culturally-articulated caste-based segmentation of labourers engaged in the same work-function constitute the necessary condition for the destruction of the capitalist mode of production. That is so because those struggles challenge the capitalist logic of segmentation and value-relationality in their concrete mediation by those culturally-articulated casteist economic relations. They also tend to ensure the culture of segmentation, which reinforces and legitimises the economy of caste-based social division of labour, is undermined. However, the economy of caste-based social division of labour, and the capitalist mode of production within which it stands rearticulated, is what generates such culture, and thus culturally-articulated economic relations of segmentation, in the first place. As a result, to privilege the waging of struggles against the culture of segmentation, and culturally-articulated casteist economic relations, over struggles against the destruction of the caste-based economy of socio-technical division of labour, and the capitalist mode of production, would be self-defeating.

The culture of segmentation, and culturally-articulated economic segmentations, cannot be decisively destroyed without negating the economy of caste-based socio-technical division of labour and the capitalist mode of production as a whole. In that context, an effective strategy will be one that is constitutive of the dialectical simultaneity of struggles against the culture of segmentation, which reinforces the economy of caste-based social division of labour and the capitalist mode of production; struggles against the caste-based economy of social division of labour, which generates and maintains that culture; and struggles against the capitalist mode of production, which is the constitutive value-relational logic of both caste-based and non-caste forms of socio-technical division of labour.

It must be reiterated here that the brahminical caste-system in its immediate discursive functioning is as much a culturally-articulated economic and social relationship of power and oppression now in capitalism as it was in pre-capitalist social formations in this part of the world. But while in pre-capitalism it accomplished the extraction of surplus labour, in capitalism the same functionality of power and oppression accomplishes transfer and extraction of surplus labour-time. This renders caste-based relations of power and oppression a key constituent of the differentially-inclusive totality of social relations of commodity production in all their caste and non-caste variety.

This is the actuality of capital, or the law of value, as a value-chain. In other words, brahminism – and the caste relations it manifests in its operation as both economy and culture – is a specification of capital in the concrete context of the some of the key sectors of socio-economic life on the Indian subcontinent. Hence, caste-based economic relations, and their constitutive ideology and habitus of brahminism, is a discursive specification of capital. In such circumstances, anti-brahminical struggles engendered by caste relations are as much moments of militation against the caste system as they are determinate moments of struggle against capital.

Now capital is not a stock or an entity external to caste that has to be destroyed for caste to be annihilated. Rather, capital is, as we have seen above, a differentially-inclusive mode of organising social relations to transfer and extract surplus labour-time. In other words, it is a differentially-inclusive force-field – or conjuncture – of various types of social relations of doing and appropriating labour. These social relations in their totalised articulation are tantamount to the production and extraction of surplus-value and surplus labour-time respectively.

It is in this context that one needs to appreciate the importance of the aforementioned strategy of dialectically-articulated simultaneity of the three types of struggles. Different forms of each of those three types of struggles – struggles against the culture of caste and culturally-articulated casteist socio-economic segmentation; struggles against caste-based social division of labour; and struggles against non-caste forms of socio-technical division of labour – are all equally necessary conditions for the total negation of capital.

But none of these struggles, by themselves, constitute the sufficient condition to accomplish that. The sufficient condition for the total negation of capital would be the dialectically-articulated simultaneity of all different forms of each of those three types of struggles. It is in this sense that various types and forms of struggle against segmentation of social labour are characterised as being relatively autonomous. That is to say the various forms of each of those three types of struggles must be mutually synchronised for them to be rendered the sufficient condition for the total negation of capital.

Without such mutual synchronisation – which Alain Badiou would describe as the mutual partaking of generic singularities – each of those three types of struggles in their isolated articulation would end up undermining themselves as the necessary condition for the abolition of capital that they are in their respective moments of emerging. In fact, those struggles in their isolated operation lead to the recomposition of capital as a force-field of differentially-inclusive social relations.


It must, however, be clearly stated here that the mutual synchronisation of these three types of struggles is not simply their aggregation. It is not coordination among them in their respectively isolated operation either. Such synchronisation is, instead, the constellating of those different types and forms of struggle with one another.

To rigorously and fundamentally distinguish between aggregation and constellation one needs to understand that every juncture of struggle against a particular kind of oppression, and the form of segmentation that such oppression secures, is in a mutually segmented relation with every other phenomenal and/or typological juncture of struggle. That is precisely how the character or mode of capital as the force-field of differentially-inclusive social relations is that of a conjuncture – the unity or contemporaneity of different and thus non-contemporaneous spatio-temporal junctures of oppression and struggle. This clearly indicates the unity of all such struggles shall be more than ephemeral and pragmatic only when such unity is, in turn, forged through struggles to abolish the segmental relations among those junctures of struggles.

The strategic articulation of this perpetual dynamic of struggle in unity and unity in struggle is what the constellating of those various junctures of struggle amounts to. Such a constellational strategy will be nothing but the uninterrupted process of complete functionalisation of division of labour as the struggle to abolish both its socio-technical structuring and the culture of segmentation such structuring concomitantly generates. This is the unrelenting process of production of politics in radical antagonism to the relentless process of the politics of production. This is the process of technical composition of social labour being rendered its political composition in antagonism to the process of political composition of social labour being technically recomposed.

It is, therefore, logically and strategically fallacious to talk of deferring the struggle for annihilation of caste till the struggle for abolition of capital is accomplished. By the same token, one cannot talk of holding in abeyance the question of total negation of capital until caste is annihilated by way of full democratisation of caste-based social relations. As a matter of fact, the programme for complete democratisation of caste relations will be a reality only through the abolition of classes. So, the two seemingly contradictory political positions above are actually historicist mirror-images of one another.

Annihilation of caste is an indispensable historical moment of the revolutionary politics for abolition of classes, even as the abolition of classes is the necessary condition for the annihilation of caste. What is being strategically proposed here is the dialectically-articulated simultaneity of cultural, social and political revolutions. More precisely, this strategic proposal is for the short-circuiting of struggles for democratisation with the movement for communism.

That would be the uninterrupted simultaneity of struggles for democratisation as tactically determinate instantiations of the real movement of communism, thereby rendering that real movement actual as the process of uninterruptedly simultaneous articulations of the former.


We would, at this point, do well to clarify that the position we are staking out here is neither ‘classist’ nor intersectionalist. We do not think the working class is another closed sociology or identity that needs to either subordinate and subsume the struggles of other oppressed identities within its own larger struggle; or, figure out and forge points of intersection with them. If anything, the theoretical position that underpins our strategic proposal is sedimentalist.

For us, class is the sedimental logic of every identity or socio-historical group, which renders each one of them an internally divided and asymmetrically dialectical terrain of two antagonistic tendencies – capital as real abstraction, and the singularity that is its determinate overcoming. It is this that renders every struggle against oppression, and the socio-historical group constitutive of such a struggle, relatively autonomous.

This sedimentalist approach to the twinned problems of capital and class is, without doubt, theoretically indebted to the concept of “overdetermination” as developed and explicated by Althusser. But unlike Althusser, the political strategy we seek to infer from this concept of overdetermination is not entryism.

An entryist strategy would return us, once again, to the party-state conception and modality of organisation, wherein an external party-form seeks to unite various relatively autonomous struggles by entering their respective specificities in order to be the generalisation of the determinate overcoming of capital that each of those struggles autonomously instantiate in and as their respective emerging. In seeking to accomplish this unity-as-generalisation, the external party-form tends to necessarily regulate, in a state-like fashion, the contradictions among those relatively autonomous struggles. Clearly, this strategy of entryism, thanks to the party-state modality that is integral to it, ends up reproducing the capitalist logic of instrumentalisation and subalternisation precisely in the moment of fighting against it.

The strategic approach we have sought to propose above, and which is inferred from the Althusserian concept of overdetermination, is arguably a left-communist one. This strategic approach, to summarise it here, consists of affirming the relative autonomy of every struggle against oppression in a manner that one envisages revolutionary generalisation as the constellated synchronisation of those struggles. Such a left-communist strategic approach arguably articulates an anti-substitutionist, and even a post-party, form and modality of organising politics. The post-party organisation is a form of loose organisation of militants generated by their mutual coordination. The modality of this mutual coordination is Bakhtin’s dialogical agon.

These militants belong to no external or pre-given party-form. They inhabit diverse junctures of struggle so that they can engage in a continuously ongoing process of inquiry to demonstrate to those struggles their respective limits. All this so that those struggles, and the self-activity that animates each one of them, can envisage themselves in a manner that they prefigure the overcoming of their respective limits by seeking to constellate with one another in order to emerge as a self-organising process of social labour in and as its own abolition. This would be the generalisation of destruction of segmentation by virtue of being the generalised affirmation of de-segmentation.

Clearly, the loose, post-party form of organisation is generated by the coordinated mode of mutual interactivity of militants for thrashing out, clarifying and fine-tuning the principles of inquiry and self-inquiry in the light of the specificity of their respective experiences. As we have indicated earlier, this post-party form and mode of revolutionary organisation tends to entirely preclude the problem of representation, which invariably dogs the party-form, and its substitutionist and instrumentalist modality, of revolutionary organisation.


Let us now try and give our discussion here a more concrete focus by turning our attention to the specific spatio-temporality of the university. Such a focus is significant because the discussion here is framed by movements of university students against different forms of oppression – which, therefore, gives this discussion its immediate context. Besides, the significance of such a focus also lies in the modern university being the key constitutive facilitator of socio-technical division of labour along the hierarchised axis of mental and manual labour. This is reflected not only in the hierarchy internal to the university system but also between the university system as a whole and the world outside it.

Clearly, university-based higher education is an ideological apparatus of the capitalist system to segment labour-power, and thereby internally divide and hierarchise social labour. It is, therefore, also a factory that produces the commodities of knowledge and labour-power.

For a movement that erupts from within a university to generalise itself as the abolition of the hierarchised separation between itself and the world outside, it should constitute itself in the process of abolishing that logic of segmentation between mental and manual work as manifest within the university itself.

In the final analysis, the space of the university and the space of the world outside it will have to constellate with one another by way of overcoming their segmental division along the axis of mental and manual labour. Only then will the politics against the counter-revolutionary project be able to generalise and strengthen itself as the revolutionary violence of the constellational real movement. But given the immediate context of university students demonstrating in protest against the institutional congealments of the counter-revolutionary project, we would be quite justified in insisting that abolition of the hierarchised division of mental and manual work begin from within the university itself.

The undemocratic cultural separation and division between Dalit Bahujan and non-Dalit students – or, for that matter, between students along other identitarian axes of community, gender, gender in caste, caste in gender, gender in community, community in gender and so on – has to be fought against. But struggles against those versions and variants of undemocratic culture – which are constitutive of the field of separation of mental from manual work, and division of social labour – can be accomplished only when those struggles are coterminus with battles to reorganise the university space in a fashion that the hierarchical social distribution of labour among and within teachers, students and other workers of the university (mess workers, cleaning and maintenance staff and so on) tends towards being completely functionalised. Only this will render the university the ground from which revolutionary generalisation, as the constellation of the university space with spaces outside it, can be effectively envisaged.


The short point of all this analysis is that unless such politics of de-segmentation of social spaces becomes the generative basis of collective demonstrations of anger and discontent that emanate from such spaces to spill out of them, such demand-raising demonstrations will lapse into mere radical bargaining and lobby politics. This, needless to say, will give the political-economic regime an opportunity to overcome its crisis. The militant energy that is registered in such protest-demonstrations will, in the absence of a concretely articulated politics of de-segmentation within the university itself, inevitably end up being exhausted by their discursive appearances.

There is a very definite reason for that. As long as concrete political actions to reorganise social spaces into sites of de-segmentation are not envisaged, the protest-demonstrations emanating from those spaces will not really and effectively be the expressions of collective rage they purport to be. In the absence of concrete political actions to reorganise those social spaces in order to de-segment them, such forms of protest-demonstrations emanating from those spaces will objectively, and finally even subjectively, amount to instrumentalised mobilisation of the concerns and discontent of some (subordinate) segments by the politics of disaffection of some other (relatively and relationally dominant) segments.

As a result, the constellational cohesiveness that is necessary for such protest-demonstrations to swiftly morph into effective formations of revolutionary action will obviously be lacking. The trust-deficit among various sections and segments of a particular social space, on account of that space continuing to exist in its constitutive segmentation, and the instrumentalism of ‘collective’ politics emanating from it, will ensure that.

The ‘collectivity’ of this politics of unity of struggles, manifest by such protest demonstrations, will, at best, be a pragmatic alliance, and thus an ineffectual, short-lived one. In fact, the reluctance demonstrated by such ‘radical’ politics of democratisation and inclusiveness to recognise the contradictions internal to the social space from which it stems, and its concomitant failure to concretely resolve them by abolishing the segmentations in which those contradictions inhere, makes the situation even worse.

The trust-deficit among segments constitutive of a social space is further accentuated by the instrumentalist politics expressed in forms of protest-demonstrations on account of those forms not being organic extensions of concrete political actions to completely de-segment the space in question. This, in turn, enables the counter-revolutionary political forces to further leverage those conflicts and contradictions among segments constitutive of an apparently homogeneous social space to either instrumentally neutralise, or mobilise and deploy some of those subordinate segments in a fascist manoeuvre against some other segments, thereby serving to strengthen the dictatorship of neoliberal capital.

In fact, it is precisely the practice of such subjectively substitutionist and objectively instrumentalist politics by various kinds of progressive political forces that has cleared the ground for the ascendancy of this political regime of neoliberal dictatorship in the first place.


This dictatorship of neoliberal capital – precisely the situation we are currently confronted with – is far more insidious than Fascism as a political regime. It tends to articulate the regimentation of the capitalist anarchy of differential distribution of insecurity across the entire spectrum of social labour by way of being the agency and enabler of differentially distributed capacities of social oppression. It is the guarantor of rights, no longer as differential distribution of positive entitlements, but as differential distribution of negative determinations. It is the fascisation of entire society – what is often called “the generalised state of exception” – and which therefore renders Fascism as a political regime redundant.

This dictatorship of neoliberal capital is a situation of fascism without fascists. In that sense, it is a post-fascist socio-political order. Unless this is properly grasped and rigorously made sense of, our everyday political practice against the counter-revolutionary project in its conjunctural specification will objectively, and at times even subjectively, continue to be in the service of precisely that which it seeks to triumph over.

When concrete political actions to reorganise a social space in order to entirely de-segment it becomes the basis for forms of political movement emanating from such a space against a counter-revolutionary state-formation, such forms acquire inestimable resources of revolutionary militancy. And that is not all. The politics integral to such forms of constellational collectivity also tend to ensure that contradictions internal to the social base of a counter-revolutionary project get further sharpened leading to the implosion of that project.

All those who aspire to institute the duration of revolutionary democracy would do well to recognise the futility of the strategic approach of fighting the current dispensation as if it were a Fascist political regime. This is a strategic approach that is currently dominant across the entire spectrum of Left and Left-liberal politics in India. This so-called anti-fascist approach seeks to counter-pose a popular frontist, homogenising unity of struggles against the counter-revolutionary bloc that it designates as the bloc of Fascism, and which it therefore sees as being homogeneous and internally cohesive.

The problem with this strategic approach – a problem that has become particularly acute in this late-capitalist conjuncture of heightened precarity – is the following: its objectively instrumentalist character becomes so accentuated that it dissipates the political energy of struggles against the counter-revolutionary advance even as the counter-revolutionary political project is able to strengthen itself by leveraging the deepening of contradictions and conflicts inevitably wrought by such instrumentalist politics of so-called anti-fascist unity.

Such a strategy is instrumentalist because in envisaging the building of a cohesive and homogeneous anti-fascist bloc – which is thoroughly informed by the principle of unity of different struggles – it seeks to aggregate various disaffected segments of society by papering over the contradictions among their various discontents. As a result, such a strategy of ‘anti-fascism’ fails to emphasise the signal importance of envisaging a politics that would target the institutional congealments of the counter-revolutionary project by necessarily basing its attack on struggles that recognise various segments within that bloc of so-called anti-fascist unity in order to abolish them.

The strategy of building a homogenised ‘anti-fascist’ unity further deepens the contradictions within that unity and leaves the ground open for the counter-revolutionary forces to instrumentally mobilise and deploy them for entirely restorative ends. Such counter-revolutionary mobilisation, needless to say, is constitutive of further deepening the segmentation of social labour, and intensification of the process of differentiated distribution of insecurity, subalternisation and oppression.

Reviving Pan-Africanism: Or, communism as the only viable anti-colonialism of our times

Cécile Winter

Returning to the Ancestors

Not for nothing did they want African unity and, to begin with, big states. Not for nothing were they all prevented from achieving those goals.

The country called “Centrafrique”, or “The Central African Republic”, is in agony. Barthélemy Boganda, who ought to have become the country’s first president, did not call what is today the Central African Republic “Centrafrique.” What he understood by that name, rather, was a country comprising what is today the so-called Central African Republic (formerly Ubangi Shari), the Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, and Chad: all “countries” visited in a single day on January 2, 2014, by the French defence minister; we shall return to this. “If Ubangi Shari had to achieve independence on its own someday,” Boganda wrote, “this would be a catastrophe”. Barthélemy Boganda died in a well-organised helicopter accident in the March of 1959. Once he had been eliminated, the dismemberment of the territories proceeded in accordance with the wishes of France.

Why is it that history – in particular, this history – of the first wave of the African struggle for liberation from the colonial yoke, and for independence, is so carefully erased? These days, the Central African Republic has the honour of appearing in the newspapers, we shall see how. In these articles, the name of Boganda never appears. On the part of the colonial rags that are the French dailies as a whole, this is perfectly normal, you will say. Yes, but what of the ‘radicals’, the progressives, the activists, those ‘outside the system’, the people with a higher degree of consciousness, and so forth? None of that even exists, you will say! Maybe. You will begin to exist once you have learned to put Africa at the centre of your world: this is a thesis we do not hesitate to propose. And, conversely, how can you, dear comrades, who are troubled, and protesting here and there, let yourselves be cut off from yesterday’s history, from that which concerns you above all? How can you let yourselves live only in the present moment?

Let us pick up that thread again: that is our only watchword. Let us pick up the thread of history, there where it was broken. What were the questions? What were the watchwords? How were we defeated? How should we pick up the cause again? Yes, “let us pick up the long debate where we left off. And you may urge your arguments like snouts low over the water: I will leave you no rest and no respite.” [trans. Mary Ann Caws]


But first: before speaking, potentially, internally, to those who would join us, let us pause, for everyone else as well, on the Central African Republic. Let us read the imperialist rags for them. We must know how to read them closely; in other words, how to call them into question. Le Monde, the number one colonial rag, tells us the story of how Michel Djotodia was deposed. He was forced to resign on January 10, 2014, after two days of discussion in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad.

Here’s the story the newspaper tells us in its edition of January 10, 2014. Idriss Deby, the president of Chad, receives Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French minister of defence, on January 1— in other words, a full month after the deployment of the French Sangaris forces, a month during which Chadian soldiers are patrolling with the French. Idriss Deby wants to depose Djotodia after the latter announces a plan of partition for the north of the Central African Republic. Certain compensations, the article tells us, “have been exchanged with the principal military partner of France”. Le Drian reaffirms his confidence in Idriss Deby, France’s “perfect” military ally in Mali. On January 2, Le Drian goes to Bangui, then to Brazzaville to consult with Sassou N’Guesso, then to Ali Bongo in Gabon, then back to N’Djamena that same evening just as Djotodia is arriving there, summoned by Deby. On January 3, Djotodia’s resignation is announced.

So there you have it: a deal briskly conducted by the two good Franco-Chadian friends, and the story in Le Monde dutifully congratulates itself on it.

But then:

Why wait a month after the arrival of Sangaris to depose Djotodia, while murders and other horrors are piling up? And without a single gesture in the direction of disarming the notorious Seleka? But that isn’t all. The Seleka was formed in August 2012. For months, its commandos, composed especially of Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, advance toward Bangui, leaving behind them a path strewn with destruction, looting, arson, murder, and rape; none of this in any way troubles France, which, incidentally, has nothing to say about it to its perfect Chadian ally. Djotodia takes power in Bangui in March 2013. Still no complaints. The lootings, the murders, violent acts of all kinds continue; horrors keep piling up. Things are, as far as our Franco-Chadian friends are concerned, still for the best.

So, wasn’t Djotodia our man, as people there believe, in view of the oil recently discovered in the north of the country, and which is coveted by the Chinese, among others? Wasn’t the former president, perfectly corrupt and calamitous, by the way, therefore perfectly suitable for the rest of us, having had the weakness to request comparative studies before the exploitation of the oil-fields? But doesn’t France have a birthright there, which would explain its policy of benign understanding — to say the least — for the notorious Seleka?

Or should we believe that what is happening there is a sudden rise in temperature in a country where Christians (80% of the population) and Muslims had been living side by side without any problem? Is this just a case, as L’Express puts it blandly, of “scenes of ordinary hatred” (sic!)? “Ordinary” strikes us as particularly sickening. Since the seizure of power by the Seleka, one million people have had to flee their homes — this in a country of 4.7 million.

Nonetheless, we indeed read that it is the threat of secession of the country’s north —where the oil is — that frightened Idriss Deby, already grappling with the Darfur business and the secession of neighboring South Sudan. And is there ever an end to the carving up of oil concessions controlled by mercenaries? We also understand that the Djotodia card has so far not been entirely abandoned by the Franco-Chadian accomplices; as his lieutenant has stated, “negotiations are still going on”. Everything depends on what spare parts are available. Otherwise, wouldn’t this stooge have been handed over for punishment to so-called international law? He was allowed to go and settle in Benin, instead.

For a comparison, let us consider the fate that was reserved for Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Ivory Coast, at the time of his arrest by the French military in April 2011. He was, indeed, delivered to the famous international court, and has remained imprisoned in The Hague since November 2011. In June 2013, a preliminary hearing took place. Its purpose was not to judge him but to determine whether or not there were, in fact, grounds for a trial. The court ruled the incriminating evidence presented by the prosecutor provided insufficient grounds for a trial. (According to what has been said among the people of Ivory Coast, the prosecution made a film intended to prove the violent acts committed by Gbagbo, but the defence was able to prove that this film was, in fact, a montage filmed in another country that even in this proceeding would have made a bad impression.) The prosecution appealed, but the court confirmed its decision on appeal, and asked the prosecution to provide it, by November 2013, with more substantial evidence that would allow it to rule on the possibility of a trial. The prosecution appealed this decision concerning the time it was granted, and the judges suspended the deadline. The prosecutor therefore, has a free hand to pursue her investigations indefinitely. The imprisonment of Gbagbo, which is supposed to be reviewed every 120 days, has just been confirmed again.

In case you are still puzzled, there has been, in the meantime, an editorial in the newspaper Le Point entitled, ‘The Central African Republic, the Risk of Partition?’. It begins with a photograph captioned: ‘Former Seleka rebels are escorted out of Bangui by Sangaris soldiers’. In the photograph the so-called rebels are clearly displaying their rifles and guns.  In no way are they disarmed. The article seriously considers the risk of secession, in this “hemmed-in, remote region, bordering Chad and the Sudan”. The region, the article continues, is extremely poor but potentially rich. It contains yet-to-be-exploited diamond mines and oilfields. The licence for this was granted to a Chinese company (China National Petroleum Corporation) in 2010 by ex-president François Bozizé. So here we are. This wasn’t just a threat, it was a work in progress. Whence the Selekian emergency.

The article continues: “a partition of the CAR would be too dangerous for Chad”. But, “more than a partition, the ‘risk’ (the quotation marks are mine) in the north of the CAR is the development, with the arrival of the Seleka rebels, of a region increasingly cut off from Bangui — one that would be a vast self-managing ‘black hole’ (their quotation marks this time) in the heart of Africa, adjacent to the Darfur region of the Sudan, in which the rebels from the entire area would be living together. In short, a golden opportunity for all the jihadist groups that are swarming there”.

And a golden opportunity for our oil tycoons too! Not a single state, not even the most embryonic hint of one, to stick its nose into their business. From off-shore to off-shore, we proceed directly from the African “black hole” to the European or American tax haven, without spilling a drop, with everything necessary right there in terms of armed bands to be corrupted, paid, and employed as mercenaries. Exactly as we are now doing in the north of Mali. This is why our soldiers are busy escorting the ex-Selekas armed with their guns.

Of course, the human cost is rather high. We are talking about nothing less than ethnic cleansing. For, up until now in the CAR, Christians and Muslims had been living together. “Muslims form only 15 percent of CAR’s population. A majority in the north of the country, they are now being joined by those people of the CAR, who are fleeing Bangui and the central cities to escape from the massacres by the anti-Balaka Christian militias”. It is, therefore, rather difficult to bring this operation to a successful conclusion; which is why Hollande needs more troops, and he has appealed for help from his European neighbours, etc…, all the while having a bit of trouble explaining what exactly is at stake.

This, then, is the Central African Republic: one million out of 4.7 million people living as refugees.  It’s this: “I went there to see and help my family, who are with thousands of people living in refuge near a church. I have neither been able to meet with them nor to bring them anything. There’s no water, and people talk about epidemics. All I’ve seen is how people I knew have grown emaciated in just a few weeks, since they can no longer go to work and have nothing to eat”. It’s this: “Entire families, including old people, women, and children, have their throats cut in their homes.”  It’s this: “My family took refuge near the airport.  My brother wanted to go see how our house was.  He was killed.” And it’s this: “My aunt sent her son to look for water; there isn’t any in their neighborhood. He was killed on the way.”

The promoters of these massacres, and those responsible for this cataclysm, ought to be looked for in Paris.

Let us stop here on the French side. You will begin to exist once you have learned to put Africa at the centre of your world, we say. Yes, because colonial complicity has been the gangrene of French society for a century now, and has brought it to the state of advanced rottenness, of mental and moral disintegration, of the paralysis and lifelessness that everyone enjoys deploring nowadays. Deploring is one thing; getting out of this state is another. Colonial complicity is the inherent mode of French society’s membership in, and consent to, the imperialist world order. We think, it is the very basis of that passion for ignorance that subjugates this entire society — from the hideouts of the intellectuals to the most distant suburban housing-projects. The disintegration of the French Communist Party and, consequently, the complete disappearance of French workers from the scene was the price of the dishonourable behaviour of this party during the war in Algeria. Since then matters have gone from bad to worse. Speaking of colonialism in the past tense, declaring that one is living in the “post”, turning it into a mere subject for history books — these are signs and symptoms of that profound complicity that feeds the passion for ignorance. The Central African Republic is today, Brazzaville is today, the de facto partition of Mali is today, the repercussions of the destruction of Libya are today.  And so on and so forth. If this is happening, it’s because everyone accepts, everyone goes along with, a situation in which some people can die so that others — we others — can continue in the security of their being. In other words, the motto of a Boganda (“Zo kwé Zo”, “every man is a man”), exactly the same as that of Aristide in Haiti (“tout moun se moun”, every man is a man and everyone belongs to the world) is, indeed, the heart of the matter: complicity consists in going along with the denial, as if self-evident, of this basic assertion, of which we are no longer even obliged to be aware. This, moreover, is precisely the meaning and function of the unspeakable nonsense known as “the humanitarian ideology”.

So what is at stake here is that you, rare potential reader of this text, might decide in yourself, indeed even only for yourself, in your soul and in your consciousness. Yes or no: should French newspapers, and among them in first place the noble Monde, be called “nauseating colonial rags”? Yes or no:  should the celebrated international penal court be called STI, that is, Stinking Tool of Imperialism? Yes or no:  should the word “humanitarian” be systematically bracketed together with the modifier “unspeakable”? Or are these just excesses on the part of the author of this text, whose ardour one understands and even forgives but by which sophisticated people, in the fairness and level-headedness of their judgment, avoid getting carried away?

It is very much our wish that, even without going further, you agree to ask yourselves the question, indeed to do a little investigating on your own side, for yourselves. And if you should ever arrive at the conclusions that we ourselves have reached, we wish that, for yourselves, you might not forget the modifiers above, even when, like everyone and all of us, you read Le Monde or contribute to some humanitarian enterprise. And then we wish that you might even make your feeling known to some of those around you, when the subject is mentioned, etc…. That really isn’t insignificant. There will already be that. One must separate oneself. Separate yourselves.


Having said this, let us pick up the thread, for the inside, from the inside. Let us pick up the thread as activists.

The great ancestors speak of unity and pan-Africanism. Is this just a case of cultural coquettishness, as we can read on the websites of international institutions today? Not at all. The ancestors think that there must be big states, without which there is no way to defeat colonialism. They think that it is necessary to combat, above all, ethnic, territorial, familial, and tribal divisions.

Boganda (see the attached text) wants a true Central African State (that is, what is today the Central African Republic, Chad, Gabon, and Congo-Brazzaville) as the first step toward the United States of Latin Africa. Lumumba, fights inside the Congolese National Movement against federalism (the CNM will split into two over this question in 1959). He has to deal with the centrifugal tendencies of Joseph Kasa-Vubu’s Abako (in the Bakongo region), but also in the other regions. His struggle is for the unity of the Congo; going against this struggle, the imperialists, as we know, stir up secessionism as soon as independence is proclaimed.

The Union of the Peoples of Cameroon — whose watchword is independence and the reunification of the country — takes the utmost care in all its proceedings and all its committees to mix cadres from the different regions of the country. France, of course, plays one region off against another, especially the north against the south.

Kwame N’krumah, the president of the first independent African state, writes: “Africa must unite.” His goal, too, is the United States of Africa. He attempts a union with the Guinea of Sekou Toure, before being deposed by a coup d’état and having to take refuge in Guinea as a private individual.

Modibo Keita proposes a union with Niger and Senegal, which Senghor’s Senegal opposes. Later, after he has been deposed by a coup d’état, Sekou Toure’s Guinea proposes a union to his successor Moussa Traore, but this time it is Traore who refuses.

Boganda and Lumumba are assassinated. France begins a decade of bloody war to destroy the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon. Nkrumah and Keita are deposed by coups d’état. Later, Amilcar Cabral, commanding the liberation struggle of Guinea Cape Verde, is assassinated, thanks to the stirred-up jealousy between the peoples of Guinea and Cape Verde. As a result, there is no longer a single country, but rather two pieces — Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde — in accordance with the wishes of, above all, behind Portugal, the Americans, in order to keep their military base on Cape Verde.

The first question to decide is this: were the ancestors right or not?

It seems clear to us that the future — our present — has only shown, and shows every day, how right they were. You need big states to oppose imperialism and colonialism. And for that, it is absolutely imperative to be able to overcome the division and ethnicisation that colonialism, for its part, is constantly working to cultivate. “Wanting to create little specks of states in the twentieth century is a retrograde policy…whose result will be the disappearance in short order of these very states and the loss of their independence,” wrote Boganda. Could there be a better description of what we are witnessing today?

Let us put it differently. Weren’t they right, or rather, didn’t they measure how right they were?

What Is Independence, and Do We Want It?

Revolving Door of Independence

Independence was the keyword in the struggle of the great ancestors. Behind this flag, the immense majority of the people followed them. It was time to be done with contempt, with servitude, with frenzied exploitation. Time to refuse the whole ghastly colonial period. To have one’s own country, one’s own flag. Finally, to be master of one’s own house.

However: there were quite a few opponents of independence, particularly among the educated class, the potential cadre. The shortcut that best suited them was to attach themselves to the imperialists and to reap all the rewards of this attachment, and to stay within the local chefferies. (In these countries, where access to education was rigorously forbidden to the people, where only a few could accede to the status of the “middle class”, it is obvious that the said class, dissociated from the people and in the service of the imperialists, is infinitely corrupt and corruptible, and it remains obvious to this day:  the “middle class” is the very node of the well-known “desire for the West”.) On one side, the local potentate and the imperialist service; on the other, the construction of big, truly independent states. On the basis of this watchword, the great ancestors — Nyobe, Lumumba, Nkrumah, Boganda, etc. — launch their appeal, often personally, often impelled by their verbal force alone, to the people, and the people answer them. We thus understand why, despite their different situations, Nkrumah, Nyobe, and Lumumba all issue exactly the same watchword: immediate independence.

But it is the colonialists and the imperialists who jumped at this watchword. Independence? Of course! Right away; we’re giving you the gift of independence right away; we’re even more immediate than you.

In Congo, Lumumba anticipated the formation of the first government in January 1961. At that time, he is dead. Belgium offers independence on June 30, 1960; 10 days later, on July 10, the rich province of Katanga secedes, fomented by the Belgians: troops, planes, Belgian generals descend on it and the country is set ablaze. Between Lumumba’s first trip to Katanga (in January of 1960), in handcuffs and with his face battered, before the Belgians drag him out of prison to sit him down at the Round Table to see if they can corrupt him, and his second trip to Katanga where he will be put to death (January of 1961), only a year has elapsed.

In Cameroon, the masquerade of the independence ceremony takes place in January 1961, while war is raging and supporters of independence are being tortured two streets away. Um Nyobe, the leader of the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon, had been assassinated by French troops two years earlier (September 13, 1958), in the forest of the Bassa region in the south of Cameroon; his second in command, Felix Moumié, will be assassinated in Geneva by the French services two years later (on November 3, 1960).

Independence everywhere meant aggravating and accelerating the destruction of the supporters of independence, putting them to death in cases where they hadn’t already been killed. Independence meant the murder of any hope of independence, crowned by the physical death of any potential African leader who proved not to be corruptible. This is where we still are today. This is what we are just beginning to recognise.

We Are Often Ridiculously Naïve

That is a quotation from Mao Zedong. The masses are clear-sighted, whereas we (the leaders) are often ridiculously naïve.

From the perspective of today, one cannot help applying this epithet to the great ancestors, the heroes and giants of the struggle for independence. They were just, they were clear-sighed, they served their peoples, and they were upright and incorruptible. But they proved to be ridiculously naïve, and their naiveté intensified the catastrophe. On the whole, there was still something in them of the tragic greatness of the Indian chiefs of North America who signed treaties believing in their value because they saw the whites as men, although the reverse was not true. These chiefs saw the whites as men who ought, therefore, to behave like men and, they thought, like men of their word. The giants of the African struggles for independence, although they had had time to get to know “the whites”, although they had the horror and brutality of the colonial experience behind them, committed the same error. This suggest the colonial experience was not enough to make them see clearly. In fact, it was thanks to the brutality and horror of that experience that too many things were left out of sight, in the shadows; the motive for the whole business, its driving force, was not so clear.

Fundamentally, we have to consider that the colonial relation as such is also a screen. Whence the element of the imaginary, so important especially in the history of Congo, and which deserves a lengthy study in its own right (from Congo to Fanon to the young girls of Abidjan today who inject themselves with corticosteroids to whiten their skin); whereas the cold monster of capital has neither odour nor colour. And “Piraeus is not a man”. We, therefore, need to rethink colonialism as, at once, instrument and lure, including for its agents themselves.

For sure, at that time the illusion was contingent on its context – the world situation then. The end of the Second World War, and with it the bursting forth of a new era: the weakening of the two great colonial empires, England and France to the benefit of the US, which, not having colonies but wanting to open up new markets for itself, had little difficulty in declaring its support for the end of the colonial system; the existence of the “socialist camp”, the counterpart of American power. All these factors contributed to the sense of an open space, of a possible play among nations capable of recognising new nations, and there were big new nations (like India); and the assembly of the United Nations bringing all of this together in the representation of a space of rational speech, judgment, and law.

They thus believed that they could rely on a space of law and avail themselves of a time for building. Besides, the goal, and already the result, of a mobilisation and a victory over the colonialists, was to go and express oneself in the forum of the United Nations. All this was conducive to the belief that the contradiction was, indeed, between the old, the colonial, and the new, the right to independence, the right of Africa to enter into “the chorus of nations”. To be more precise, all this led to the belief that the contradiction existed in itself, “all things otherwise being equal”. Therefore, Um Nyobe devotes all his energy to arguing precisely and passionately in terms of law; while Lumumba asks “that we merely be permitted to rid ourselves of colonialism (and of imperialism)”, “without jeopardizing Belgian interests”. Fundamentally, this was the idea that the world could recognise “everyone”, its division into two blocs opening up space for a third term — the “third world”, the “non-aligned”, etc. — where it would no longer be obligatory to think in antagonistic terms but where, to the contrary, a time of peace and building was opening up, beyond antagonism. (Hence the care they took to refute the “accusation” of communism, which in effect served to justify the immediate reconstitution of the space in antagonistic terms, those of a fight to the death. You should go on the internet and watch the video of Messmer, a minister of De Gaulle’s and a member of the Académie Française, calmly declaring 30 years later that, yes, his practice of bombing with napalm, of torture, of decapitated heads displayed at the gates of the villages of Cameroon, was entirely justified, since “these weren’t independence fighters, these were revolutionaries”; “independence,” he says, “was us”.)

Independence has, indeed, been recapture and annihilation. The United Nations immediately proves to be the tool of the US, the spearhead of subjection. No time has been allowed for a process of disillusionment and for drawing up lessons of experience. Kwame Nkrumah, who tells us how he took office — in the governor’s palace where yesterday it was all congratulations and the handing-over of power, there is not even a light-bulb in the ceiling, or a chair, or a ream of paper, maybe in the corner a broken chair — understands that a much more terrible war is now declared. He writes his biography, from his school years until the proclamation of independence, then, immediately afterward, ‘Africa Must Unite’, then, immediately after that, ‘On Neo-Colonialism’, a catalogue of the multinational companies that are squeezing the African continent with their tentacles, with their branches and their boards of directors where the same people sit not only in multiple companies but also in the ministries of the “developed” countries. When he writes his final book, Consciencism, he is already in exile: everything must be thought and picked up anew, at a much deeper level, a much more radical one.

Picking Up, Then:  Two Big Mountains, Not Just One

Naivety, therefore, consisted in believing in a contradiction between colonialism and the desire for independence, “all things otherwise being equal”. The illusion was to imagine that the world, as it was, could recognise new states; the actual experience was that of a war aimed at the immediate annihilation of the supporters of independence, in order to safeguard the imperialist stranglehold over the natural riches of Africa against any risk of interruption.

But then, we must, at least, expand (hear?) the lesson: getting to know imperialism…but what is imperialism? Capitalism at its highest stage, none other than the definition given by Lenin in 1916; imperialism, then, cannot do without zones of looting, of free looting, the end of the old colonial system having signified the opening up of looting zones for free competition among imperialists. (This is the reason why the US proved so supportive of the much-celebrated decolonisation process, all the while cooperating so actively in the annihilation of the supporters of independence.).

Consequently, if this is true, there was not and is not a “path of development”. Just as capitalism needs constant access to new “labor-power”, exploitable at low cost, in order to counteract the downward trend of profit rates (and this roughly explains the move toward Asia), so it needs direct access to raw materials; and at its highest, “imperialist” stage, the dismemberment of the world having been completed, competition is all about this access.

We should note that the socialist camp — we could even say the progressive camp as a whole — played an extremely harmful role at the time by propagating the idea, which is to say the illusion, of a “third way”, of an autonomy of so-called national liberation struggles; and we should include as well the Chinese theory of “three worlds”, with the idea of the relative autonomy of the level of the states (independence being assigned to the level of states, etc.). All this implies a topological view of the world, with a “centre” and a “periphery”, the struggles for anti-colonial liberation taking place on the periphery.

The experience has proven that this was wrong, that exactly the opposite was the case. From the point of view of imperialism, in other words of capitalism in its current stage, in other words of the world today, Africa, the site for the looting of raw materials and for the fierce struggle to get the loot, is central. And it has to deal with the beast at its very heart.

A young friend from the Central African Republic tells us everyone there accuses Idriss Deby, but often stops at that point without going as far as Paris. That, according to her, is the case even though everyone knows Paris is the instigator and that what is at stake are the oil and diamonds in the north of the country. She says by way of explanation: “But it’s because we don’t understand what France wants.” What don’t you understand? On the contrary, you have a very clear understanding of everything. Here is her answer: “No, we know we’re still colonised, but then, they should just take their oil and their diamonds, but why kill poor peasants or send them to death? That’s what we don’t understand.”

What is to be understood then is that decolonisation meant the passage from a relatively stable consensus in sharing of the world among imperialists (the result of the wars among them in the preceding period) to a predominance of competition among them, which made Africa into their battlefield, where they are now fighting through African intermediaries. This is why some people are capable of missing the old colonial times, which, although horrible, were endowed with a certain stability, compared to the lawless savagery of imperialism at a more advanced stage — one of greater rottenness, in which the earth of Africa is only a space for brawling among bandits, with the peoples of Africa as pawns in the struggle.

But there is no going back. And imperialism is indeed the outcome of capitalism according to its own internal law.

One must, therefore, figure out how to confront the beast itself. This is why the great majority of Africans, who have had this experience, who have seen and understood this (in itself a source of power, a great step forward, an end to drifting in dubious imaginary battles), are so pessimistic about any possibility or opening, in any case in the short term. There is no independence and there will be none for quite a while; and they are convinced at the same time that the decisive struggle will take place in the long term.

So, in order to achieve clarity on this point, we propose from now on to call colonial anything having to do with the consensus among imperialists that Africa should remain a zone for looting, with concerted action and mutual aid to maintain this situation, and with a western ideological consensus on this point, particularly by means of ad hoc international agencies, while imperialism strictly speaking is the looting itself and the looting-war among the imperialists. And this is what makes Africa a battlefield: the battlefield of intra-imperialist competition and war for access to raw materials.

There is colonialism: the consensus and the agreement among imperialists that Africa should remain a looting zone. A good example would be the following excerpt from Le Monde, France’s number one colonial rag about the Congo (note its striking peroration): “China, the United States, and Europe need the treasures housed in the country’s subsoil; they cannot lose interest in what is happening on its surface.” Only the African continent, in particular the Congo, the object of such tender solicitude, must have no use of the riches of its subsoil.

But colonialism is the envelope and the outer garment of imperialism in action, in other words as the practice of looting and the fierce competitive struggle for the loot. Colonialism and imperialism are therefore inseparable. Colonialism is nothing more than the envelope of ideological consensus of imperialism as such. To take up the anti-colonial struggle in its first period was to go face to face with the beast without having anticipated it or even having known it in advance. In the end, this was the naivety. Today, however, after having had this experience, we would be not naïve but guilty if we did not know how to learn lessons from the past and to think truly about the present.

We said, for “the other continent”:  you will begin to exist once you have learned to put Africa at the centre of your world.

We can now say a bit more about this somewhat paradoxical statement. For of course, the alleged thesis, in the labor-union style, which in the preceding period claimed a “convergence of interests” between the colonised peoples and the poor of the rich countries, has been proved to be a complete failure. Experience has proven that there was no such convergence, and at the time Frantz Fanon very precisely denounced this thesis as the hoax that it was. What we can add is that, in today’s imperialism, not only is there no “convergence of interests”, but the interests in fact diverge radically. With the worsening of the competition for access to raw materials, poverty is increasing in the western imperialist countries and it will keep on increasing. Thwarted in its hunger for external expansion, capitalism can only regress to an older, 19th-century type of configuration, by excluding from the redistribution of what used to be called “crumbs” larger and larger zones of the old metropolitan states. Fewer and fewer crumbs:  that is what we are witnessing today. And this clearly explains the almost unanimous colonial consensus that reigns supreme in a country like France — and which can only get worse in a time of crisis. It also explains the fascist-leaning subjectivity developing all over Europe, which also can only increase as time goes on. Not to see this would not be naivety: it would be pure madness.

No convergence also means no unity negatively constituted around a supposed common enemy. Any supposed negative unity must quickly prove to be an illusion.

Consequently, if you must put Africa at the centre of your world, you must do so from a disinterested point of view. Indeed, it is precisely here, considering what has just been shown, that the touchstone of disinterestedness will lie. Now, any real politics — in other words, really incompatible with the existing capitalist order — is disinterested. For what is at stake is precisely not to submit to rule of private interests, but rather to intervene from another point of view, which we could call the point of view of humanity as a whole, or the point of view of equality, the point of view of the right of everyone to exist: “Every man is a man.”

It is from this point of view that we can say that your relation to Africa serves as a touchstone of your capacity to be free, or to make yourself an effective exception to the existing order.

Let us clarify another point. Serving the interests of capital or serving the interests of humanity:  serving private interests only being a variant of the first term. But this having been said, of course, it is the duty of everyone to survive, in other words to make his or her place in the world as it is, while avoiding as much as possible hurting others in the process. The whole question is thus to know, on the one hand, if one knows it, according to the phrase of Martin Singap, leader of the underground forces of the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon in the Bamileke region, quoted in the book Kamerun. “At the end of the terrible summer of 1960”, the underground troops are attacked ferociously, and the chief of staff of the ALNK (the Army for the National Liberation of Kamerun) has ordered the exhausted elderly, women, and children to return to the “secured” villages on the model of the French army in Algeria, for it has become impossible for Singap to keep alive, in the backwoods, thousands of families exposed to bombing and to the general precariousness of the life of the underground. “In a huge meeting of militants organized by the UPC on September 5th, 1960 in Mangui, from 7:30 until midnight, at which no fewer than 1500 people were present, a leader explained Singap’s order to his comrades: ‘all of you are going to return to your native villages…. The enemies of our country will take you for supporters, but it is you who will know who you are. Know who you are. Know, moreover, which is even more important, whether that is all you will do, or whether you will do something “in addition”, something beyond. And it is on this point that we arrive at real politics, that is to say, politics incompatible with the capitalist order; that is to say, communist politics. Politics is already communist insofar as it is “in addition”, insofar as it is, as we used to say, free labour. Communism; in other words, the point of view of “all humanity”, finally depends on the extra half-hour that one can snatch from an already busy day, when one does not participate in the bourgeois world. To understand this thing that looks so simple, but that is not so easy to put into practice, is really to learn the lesson of the past century. With this point, we get to questions of activism, questions of politics.

What Is to Be Done

First, let us agree on the basic theses; if they are true, we must speak them. In other words, affirm them:

As the great ancestors wished, there must be big states. This has become even truer insofar as Africa is more than ever the looting zone of global imperialism and has become the stake in the competition among imperialist groups and the site of their battle. It definitely takes a big state to be able to expropriate a multinational company and to kick out of one’s home the armed gangs in its pay. Big states as a proposal, a watchword, a line to follow, an objective. This means states that completely transcend borders of ethnicity, religion, and nationality in the narrow sense of the term. That will be one of their great virtues, and it is moreover a direction for work that can begin immediately: completely separate political questions from all questions of identity, which, we will posit, come under the heading of free association, adding that states must guarantee this freedom but that the politics that interests us, intervening on questions of general interest and from the point of view of general interest, is indifferent to questions of identity, is diagonal to them, and does not exist on the same register, except in intervening to require states to guarantee the right of free association and even to encourage it in every way possible. (This politics goes completely against the contemporary trends that preach, on the contrary, that politics simply is questions of identity; also against the worn-out discourses along the lines of “everything is political” – discourses by the same people who, not afraid as they are by contradiction, also complain that political organisations victimize their identity. No, politics is about concerning oneself with political questions, and not with the rest. Let us be clear. From the point of view of politics, which needs energetic subjects, the more of “the rest” there is, that is, the more singular identities there are (the more ramified and solid symbolic constructions there are), the better things will be. Imperialism needs individuals who are defeated and exhausted, which is why it makes sure that beginning in their most tender years children are forbidden any possibility of symbolic construction; in so doing, imperialism threatens to destroy any civilisation, and gets busy making good on the threat. For us, exactly the opposite is the case. The more subjects there are, and the more singularities there are, the more humanity there will be and the more chances for humanity there will be. Mobilising around cultures, musics, languages, testimonies, and memories, going to places of worship: this does not contradict the work of political unification, quite the contrary. But it is not at all the same thing. Claiming that it is the same thing, or that one should rule over the other, would be catastrophic.)

Unity, around and through political proposals and watchwords, is an essential theme, and it is a goal for work that is always possible here and now, whatever the scale of this work may be. It requires maintaining that political unification is a process independent of questions of identity and indifferent to them, constructing itself on the basis of its own themes, perhaps in sympathy with questions of identity but in any case at a distance from them.

Where to find the strength to construct and impose these big states? Certainly not at the level of the states or of their personnel. On this point, the experience of the great ancestors is definitive; their efforts at this level all failed. But more generally, that is the lesson of the whole twentieth century, which we can sum up in this somewhat crude way:  affairs of state are much too serious to be left in the care of states. [As we know, this was precisely the call issued by Mao Zedong to Chinese youth at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution: “get mixed up in affairs of the state”; which, again, is not so easy. (simple?)]

On this point, then, we can maintain that African consciousness is ahead of the game, in the sense in which “any conscientious African”, as Lenin would have said, knows that nothing is to be done at the level of the state, since at this level the only alternative is corruption or death.

The whole question is to follow through with the consequences of this knowledge.

A first consequence is certainly not to expect anything from any position within state or international institutions. But we must go further. An essential point in situating oneself completely outside the existing corrupt states is to succeed in keeping one’s distance from elections. Elections, as we know, are a means of division and of crushing. The purpose of elections is to involve people in the naming of a subordinate and servile state personnel; at “best,” they announce a period of corruption (for very little, often for a simple t-shirt), of sterile division—since there is nothing really at stake in them—and thus of the paralysis of the peoples. At worst, they open up periods of confrontation that are all the more atrocious for being pointless.

Elections have been a dreadfully pernicious way of attacking the supporters of independence. And experience has shown that it is not easy to escape them. The most striking example, with the most disastrous consequences, is undoubtedly that of the elections organised in 1956 by the French government in Cameroon. Previously, the UPC (the party of Nyobe Moumie), the only serious and truly established party, had been prohibited. It, therefore, could not run its own candidates. What was to be done under these conditions? Accepting these falsified elections and relying on moderate spokespeople (like Soppo Priso), who will immediately play their own game and unburden themselves of the commitments they have made? Or boycotting the elections? It is because it found itself squeezed in this double bind — either submission and the risk of accepting the formation of a phony government, or a boycott which would have meant entering into antagonism — that the UPC, in fact, lost the initiative and found itself committed in spite of itself to a rash and defensive war. Same thing in the Congo, same thing, more recently, with Aristide’s party in Haiti. We can truly say that once real independent forces are constituted, elections are deployed by imperialists as a massive weapon of destruction, allowing them to take back the initiative and to hasten the antagonism according to a time-scheme determined by them.

So then, let us propose to agree on a line that we will call that of indifference to elections. The word “indifference” is essential, and we will take our starting point in proposing the watchword indifference in two registers. First, indifference that does not preclude sympathy toward the process of identification; second, antipathy but above all indifference towards the electoral processes, indifference here being the important point to apply and to win. Let it be understood that we are neither concerned with nor interested in elections. What defines this line is, in fact, an immediate stake, which is to suggest that we not talk about — consequently that we not become divided over — names, but only about contents, proposals, watchwords.

We will claim that this is enough to begin. To begin what? Investigating, working among people, the people. Must we pick up the question of independence where it was left off?  Must our goal be the construction of big states? What do you think of these proposals?  Here objections, stories, examples, enumerations of obstacles — in this case, we propose the discussion on the watchword indifference in its two registers — are going to proliferate. Perhaps they can take written form, that of a tract, which would then be presented for discussion. A meeting could be called. At that point new watchwords will emerge — small ones, intermediate ones, objectives putting this work of unification into action; a small work, certainly, patient, tiny. The initial theses will become increasingly refined, reshaped, ramified, depending upon places, circumstances, the battles that need to be won. The work of ants, invisible, bringing neither rewards nor fame, the work of the “old mole”, except that here the image is less one of digging in order to undermine the edifice than to construct. But construct what? Nothing other than an independence, for we will maintain that independence, as we have seen, is not an affair of state, cannot be entrusted to states. For whom and where, then, if not to the people? What is independence if not a politicised people capable of imposing its decisions? This is why we can say that independence, as the UPC saw and practised it in Cameroon, even without grasping its ultimate political consequences — this is why we must pick up where it left off. Independence is nothing other than “the proceedings”, the process of independence (in Bassa language, Ngaa Kunde: “You will know who you are”).

Thus, as Mao Zedong used to say, to investigate a problem is to solve it. Politics consists of proposing theses and of putting them to work and into discussion, of addressing the problem to be solved. And of continuing. Of beginning, and of continuing. Of following through the process, of holding on to the thread.

Who will do it? Anyone and everyone, can do it. Those who decide to do it.

Certainly, those who have a little more time have a particular responsibility (how are you going to do anything, a comrade used to say, when in the Congo, for example, you have to devote all your time and energy to finding whatever you can to eat today?); particular responsibility falls to those who know how to read, and can read for others; who know how to write and thus how to take notes and write them up; who can travel, etc. In other words, the well-known question of the intellectuals.

We can no longer hope, as Amilcar Cabral used to say, the petit-bourgeoisie will commit suicide as a class in order to put itself in the service of its people and of the peoples. More than ever today, the petit-bourgeoisie, the literate class, constitutes the bulk of the corrupted, the servile personnel.

Responsibility falls to those who are “one and another”: to singular subjects.

When the “mass connection,” the idea of “going to the people”, becomes itself a mass phenomenon, it means that something is going to happen. This is the 19th century Russia or, in a smaller and closer version, the movement of going to work in the factories in France just before 1968. So it is also something that already participates in movement, carrying with it the energy and the ambiguity of what makes movement possible and  interrupts itself in the exhaustion of its contradiction. This was often a beginning without any follow-up, because the predominant fantasy was that of “going there, but nothing after”, because in the last analysis what was really involved was a narcissistic project, because the theme of connection is a theme of movement, at once strong and ambiguous: this is an absolutely necessary theme, a sine qua non for beginning, but it is not a sufficient theme for politics.

The political theme, the militant one, is to begin and to continue, and then it is equality as the experience of the process and of contents. To put it differently, what is available to us today is a method. This method is properly speaking the heritage of Maoism, whose content is in no way reducible to the idea of “mass labor” — that is the requirement and the beginning; it is a method for continuing, in other words for trying out, through the rigour of the investigation and the realisation of its consequences by means of new proposals, new watchwords, new theses, that we can continue. (go on?)

(This text presents itself as a proposal for beginning and for continuing.)

Cécile Winter is a French political activist working in the northern suburb of Paris. The author of various programmatic and interventionist tracts and brochures on workers’ politics, she was a member of the French Maoist group, UCFML (now extinct), and then went on to play a prominent part in L’Organisation Politique. As somebody who continues to be an engaged militant, Africa and its colonisation are some of Winter’s major concerns. A doctor by profession, she hopes to elucidate the notions of life, genericity, conscience and decision in the works of Joseph Conrad.


Rahul Gupta

Distributed as a pamphlet for Radical Notes’ meeting on December 12, 2015 in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The threat of scrapping the non-NET fellowships brought out many different reactions. (1) Those who plan to start MPhil/PhD programs in the future, of course felt themselves under threat — to fund their future research work, they would likely have to take more money from parents, or find more loans, or more outside jobs… (2) Others joined in solidarity, linking it with their own precarious conditions within and outside the university… (3) But for some, it was above all a case of ‘education under attack’.

Following the first and second reactions, conversations sprang up around the subject of a wage. It was argued that the work done by researchers was, after all, productive, so why should it not be paid for? These conversations represented an attempted political process, which starts by recognising the terms of our exploitation, and moves in the direction of its abolition. They thereby challenged the notion of education as a public good, to be paid for by a socially responsible government. Meanwhile, that notion was defended by the traditional rhetoric of ‘saving’ education from the attack of commodification.

As this week’s mobilisation against the WTO-GATS conference goes ahead, the dominant narrative goes along the lines of defending the university from the excesses of global capital, resisting privatization and preserving it as a public institution. But what really is it that we are being told to preserve? Surely not its autonomy from the market — that ship has sailed. The involvement of the university in the Indian labour market dates back at least to the requirements of the colonial administration under British rule. But as capitalism has developed, the nature of that involvement was such that even before liberalisation of the Indian economy, the university as we know it was specifically associated with secure professions — doctors, scientists, lawyers, professors. Yet things are hardly so secure now, with most graduates ending up in precarious jobs, such as copy-editors, IT engineers, research assistants and temporary teachers.

The university has never been free of the grip of the labour market which, at different times, requires different kinds of workers to be produced in what we can call ‘the university factory’. In this factory, a combination of university workers — students, teachers, karamcharis of various kinds — are all put to work. One product is knowledge, to be sold in the form of conferences, publications, etc. The other product is batch-after-batch of workers who file out of the university and into their places in the labour market. Their position in relation to other workers is the material result of the education they have undertaken in the university factory. It is important to note that education that way has a double character: on the one hand, it is a working condition, imposed on the student from start to finish; on the other, it is a commodity, consumed by the student in order to improve her standing in the labour market. In this sense, the ‘university factory’ is also a ‘university shop’.

It is imperative to rid our protest of any nostalgia for the era of state welfare. After all, what is the real difference, we must ask, between paying for our own education, and having it paid for by the state? For in both cases, as we have argued above, education remains a commodity. But let us examine the changing terms of its exchange.

The era when public funding of higher education was being increased was not an era of state benevolence. Instead, the state was increasing its direct investment in the training of a section of the working class, thereby fixing them at a particular place in the social division of labour. But this was no innocent operation of dividing up the skills to divide up the work. It was also a matter of economic and political segmentation. The training and disciplining of a section of workers (called “students”, “researchers”, “graduates”, “engineers” etc) also meant the fixing of their value as labour-power — i.e. the fixing of the level at which their work would be paid for in their jobs after studying — i.e. their wages.

In other words, capital was investing in universities in order to manage a social and technical division of labour whereby university-educated workers were granted a higher standard of living, in exchange for both their student work and the specialised salaried work they would go on to do after university.

But this was based on a lag between that part of the day in which the worker produced for capital and the part of the day in which he (re)produced himself as a worker. Between his production of commodities in the workplace, and his consumption of commodities at home. Between work and leisure. Today, this separation is fast disappearing, but again this is no accident. The proliferation of more and more machinery and technology, such as the internet, have led to change in nature of production-consumption, intimately tying the two together. The lack of a defined work day due to 24X7 infiltration of technology into our everyday collapses the difference between leisure time and production: workers have found themselves producing more and more surplus for capital, such that their wages are more and more minuscule next to their total productivity. This process has driven the measurement of their value as labour-power into a crisis. In effect, capital has found ways to extract surplus-value even at those moments when labour-power is being (re)produced.

How can we see this in the university? Whereas before, the student/researcher worked for the university in exchange for a grant, now she is being told to pay for the privilege of doing the same work. Capital can no longer settle for long-term gains — the gradual production of graduates as labour-power; it must demand immediate payment for the commodity which the student receives — education. The university factory and the university shop collapse into one another.

Neoliberalism is not simply an ideology that puts profit over people, or which replaces ‘social values’ with market prices. It is capital’s reaction to a crisis in the measurement of the value of labour-power. And yet it is not enough to say that this reaction enriches capital at the expense of the student/researcher. After all, economics find their concentrated expression in politics. The price tag which capital is now attaching to research work is above all a tool of segmentation. The income gap, between the tiny number of JRF scholars, and the rest, will deepen. And simultaneously researchers will be in fiercer competition, among themselves and with other workers, for part-time jobs inside/outside the university.

Capital, as it struggles to keep labour-power tied to the value relation, has been forced to reconfigure the social and technical division of labour, segmenting the working class in new ways. The question at this point is not how to force a retreat back to an older segmentation — this is nothing but the affirmation of received hierarchies. The question is how to turn defense into attack.

When we say that students and researchers are workers, we are not saying that we ‘want’ to be workers. And we are not trying to construct an identity under which all struggles can be united. We begin from the premise that as university workers, all our work is exploited, and in fact exploited differentially. From that perspective, the call to ‘save’ education (or to fight for the rights of one segment of workers to get Rs. 8000, another to get 12000 etc) is nothing more than a call to preserve segmentations and a submission to the law of value.

Why should we become negotiators? Why should we become the agents of neoliberalism, standing up to capital, declaring proudly, “You miscalculated my value. My value is in fact Rs. 8000”?! In contrast to this, the demand for a living wage for all is interesting. By demanding that all the work we do must be paid for — whether ‘skilled’ or ‘unskilled’, whether ‘manual’ or ‘mental’, whether ‘productive’ or ‘reproductive’ — not only are we announcing the inability of capital to fix our value, we are rejecting outright the neoliberal logic of more-and-more segmentations.

The actual breaking of segmentation of course cannot be achieved by one demand. It also cannot simply be performed through democratic processes… general body meetings… consensus-building efforts… The task is to build a process which sharpens antagonisms between all segments (between students, teachers, karamcharis, and within each of these groups too) with the aim of their destruction. This antagonistic process, which we can call a general assembly or council, can only be imagined if we reject the hopeless consensus-building practices we have got so used to.


The Insurrection of Akhtaruzzaman Elias

Pothik Ghosh

The question of politics as far as an artist or a litterateur is concerned is usually posed in terms of what position the artist or the litterateur in question strikes as an individual with regard to the political situation of his day. Those terms often also extend to what such an artist or writer says about politics in his works of art or literature. That is mostly how the question of an artist or a writer’s politics is approached and framed. We could call this the question of literature in politics or politics in literature – the problematic of art/literature about politics, or the problematic of political art. Now that, most certainly, is a valid approach in dealing with the question of art and politics, and their relationship. The attempt here, however, is to engage with the works of Bangladeshi writer Akhtaruzzaman Elias by way of another approach. One that has arguably come down to us from Marx — evident in his engagement with the literature of Classical Hellenic Antiquity – through, primarily, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht. (There have, of course, been others like Adorno and Ernst Bloch, and such Althusserians and post-Althusserians as Pierre Macherey and Jacques Ranciere respectively, not to forget Fredric Jameson, who have adopted one or another variant of this approach in their engagement with art and literature.) This approach seeks to deal with the question of art and politics in terms of what we ought to call ‘the politics of art’.

What does this approach entail? It seeks to deal with art and literature not principally in terms of what artistic or literary works have to say on or about politics, but what is the politics they pose by virtue of being the works of art or literature they are. More precisely, this approach attempts to grasp the politics posed by the aesthetics of the works in question. That is, it tries to grasp the politics of a work of art or literature by figuring out the organisation of space constitutive of that work. This approach attempts to unearth the politics of art in terms of how the question of relationality has been embodied by the text of a work of art or literature, and envisaged in its production. For, it is the logic of relationality that is constitutive of the organisation and structure of space thus giving that structure and organisation a specific character, whether in our so-called real, social life or the life of the world that is a novel, a story, a poem, a painting or a film. It is this character of the structure or organisation of space of a work of art that is its economy, while that which founds this character or economy and/or renders it manifest is its politics.

Politics of Literature And Elias’s Savage Mind

The two approaches of dealing with the question of art and politics delineated above are not mutually exclusive. They are interdependent. However, the stress here, in dealing with the question of politics with regard to Elias’s literature, will fall principally on the latter approach. That is not to say one intends to evade engaging with Elias’s works in terms of the former but one certainly wishes to understand how what Elias says about politics in and through his literary works derives from the politics his literature as such speaks. That is, how it is actually the politics of Elias’s literature which renders what that literature says on or about his contemporary political situation, and on politics in general, complete and effective. It might be a repetition to once again explain and explicate the terms of the approach and concept of politics of literature. But it might not be a bad idea to do so, perhaps at some length, before we begin engaging our determinate object – that is, the literary works of Elias. On that score, Ranciere (2011, pp.3-4) provides us with an apposite conceptual compass:

“The politics of literature is not the same thing as the politics of writers. It does not concern the personal engagements of writers in the social or political struggles of their times. Neither does it concern the way writers represent social structures, political movements or various identities in their books. The expression ‘politics of literature’ implies that literature does politics simply by being literature. It assumes that we don’t need to worry about whether writers should go in for politics or stick to the purity of their art instead, but that this very purity has something to do with politics. It assumes that there is an essential connection between politics as a specific forms of collective practice and literature as a well-defined practice of the art of writing.

“….Politics is the construction of a specific sphere of experience in which certain objects are posited as shared and certain subjects regarded as capable of designating these objects and of arguing about them. But such a construction is not a fixed given resting on an anthropological invariable. The given on which politics rests is always litigious. A celebrated Aristotelian formula declares that men are political beings because they have speech, which allows them to share the just and the unjust, whereas animals only have a voice that expresses pleasure or pain. But the whole issue lies in knowing who is qualified to judge what is deliberative speech and what is expression of displeasure. In a sense, all political activity is a conflict aimed at retracing the perceptible boundaries by means of which political capacity is demonstrated. Plato’s Republic shows at the outset that artisans don’t have the time to do anything other than their work: their occupation, their timetable and their capabilities that adapt them to it prohibit them from acceding to this supplement that political activity constitutes. Now, politics begins precisely when this impossibility is challenged, when those men and women who don’t have the time to do anything other than their work take the time they don’t have to prove that they are indeed speaking beings, participating in a shared world and not furious or suffering animals. This distribution and this redistribution of space and time, place and identity, speech and noise, the visible and the invisible, form what I call the distribution of the perceptible. Political activity reconfigures the distribution of the perceptible. It introduces new objects and subjects onto the common stage. It makes visible what was invisible, it makes audible as speaking beings those who were previously heard only as noisy animals.(1)

“The expression ‘politics of literature’ thereby implies that literature intervenes as literature in this carving up of space and time, the visible and the invisible, speech and noise. It intervenes in the relationship between practices and forms of visibility and modes of saying that carves up one or more common worlds.”

Now the question is: what is the politics of Elias’s literature? It is, we ought to contend, insurrectionary. And that is exactly what this essay intends to demonstrate. To be more accurate, it must be said the politics posed by Elias’s literary aesthetic is insurrectionary. In fact, one should further qualify one’s take on Elias by contending the politics that the aesthetic — or more precisely the aesthetic economy — of his literature renders evident is insurrectionary, as opposed to being merely insurgent.

Before we proceed any further we would do well to clarify what insurrectionary politics is and how exactly is it to be distinguished from what one has chosen to term insurgent politics. Insurrection is generalisation of the emergent logic of a localised moment of insurgency – which is doubtless its constitutive moment – through the overcoming of that localisation into multiple insurgent moments that erupt uninterruptedly and simultaneously.

But how does this politics of insurrection manifest itself in aesthetics, the aesthetics of literature to be precise? Elias’s literature – his two novels [Chilekotar Sepai (Soldier in the Attic) and Khowabnama (Dream Chronicle)] and over two dozen stories – is an apposite instantiation of the same. The organisation of the space of his literature – which is its aesthetic – is constitutive of what Levi-Strauss terms “the savage mind”. It is on account of such constitutivity that the politics of Elias’s literary aesthetic becomes insurrectionary. According to Levi-Strauss (1966, p.245), “The savage mind totalizes” and “it is in (the) intransigent refusal on the part of the savage mind to allow anything human (or even living) to remain alien to it, that the real principle of dialectical reason is to be found”.

The French anthropologist further clarifies the principle of dialectical reason – and thus the savage mind – when he takes issue with Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason to explain and explicate the relationship between analytical reason and dialectical reason. He writes (1966, p.246): “…the opposition between the two sorts of reason (analytical and dialectical) is relative, not absolute. It corresponds to a tension within human thought which may persist indefinitely de facto, but which has no basis de jure. In my view dialectical reason is always constitutive: it is the bridge, forever extended and improved, which analytical reason throws out over an abyss; it is unable to see the further shore but it knows that it is there, even should it be constantly receding. The term dialectical reason thus covers the perpetual efforts analytical reason must make to reform itself if it aspires to account for language, society, and thought; and the distinction between the two forms of reason in my view rests only on the temporary gap separating analytical reason from the understanding of life. Sartre calls analytical reason reason in repose; I call the same reason dialectical when it is roused to action, tensed by its efforts to transcend itself.”

After all, a new analytic of thinking emerges as the subjectivity of an object to critically overcome externalised determination, and the meaning imposed on it through representation by an already existing analytic subjectivity so that the object can free itself from the violence done to it by the latter analytic, which is nothing but the abstraction of its own prior subjectivity. This, in order to assert itself in its concreteness. That is, to affirm itself as its own subject: Badiou’s “subjective-materiality”.(2) (2009, p.-198)

As a result, the unconscious of the analytical mode of reason is to overcome all analytic abstractions, including itself. The savage mind is the generalisation or awakening of this unconscious of analytical reason with the latter self-reflexively grasping itself as the former.

Therefore, the savage mind is activation of dialectical reason, which is analytical reason constantly overcoming itself by grasping its own logic of emerging to actualise it. The logic of emerging of analytical reason is, it must be stated at the risk of some repetition, also its unconscious when it exists as itself, which is dialectical reason in “repose”. Clearly, the savage mind is constitutive of the process of the self being transfigured into its beyondness. Therefore, as the actuality of the principle of dialectical reason it is de-identitarianising and cannot, therefore, have its locus ontically fixed in a self. Levi-Strauss puts that across quite succinctly when he writes: “I do not regard dialectical reason as something other than analytical reason, upon which the absolute originality of a human order would be based, but as something additional in analytical reason: the necessary condition for it to venture to undertake the resolution of the human into the non-human.”

And insofar as the savage mind is constitutive of the critical overcoming of externalised determination and analytical abstraction, it posits a critique of duality and relationality on one hand and identity principle on the other. The savage mind can, therefore, also be envisaged in terms of affirmation of singularity and non-identity. It could be construed as a figure of the actuality or historicity of singularisation or counter-totalisation of infinitely different space-times. A historicity of singularity as it were.

It must, however, be stated here as an aside that one has absolutely no intention of upholding the methodological structuralism of Levi-Strauss’s anthropology. In horizontalising various historical phenomena into an ethnography of relativised laissez-faire in terms of the universality of the deep structure that, according to the French anthropologist, constitutes them, this structuralism shares a methodological affinity with a kind of ahistorical Kantianism. This problem, it must be stated here in passing, stems from the theoretical level of abstraction being collapsed on to the practical or existentially-lived level of determination. A move that conceptually renders the subjective operation of dialectical thinking directly correspondent to and fully commensurate with the dialectical constitutivity of the structure (structural dialectic) in its objectiveness.

What the argument here takes from Levi-Strauss is basically his conceptualisation of the “savage mind” as a mode of social being animated by, and constitutive of, the operation of dialectical thinking. That not only serves to explicate the singularising and insurrectionary politics of Elias’s literature, it also arguably enables one to find the resources, from within Levi-Strauss’ anthropological discourse itself, to critically break with the twin-crises of structuralism and relativism of his ethnological method and discourse. That becomes possible on account of this conceptualisation of the “savage mind” being premised on the explicit recognition of the dialectic between history and structure (or logic). One that, in Benjamin’s words, enables us to brush history (as in its historical analytic) against its own grain (the dialectical logic of its emerging).

This counter-totalising savage mind, which both singularises infinitely diverse spatio-temporalities and is thus simultaneously also their singularity, is rendered rather explicitly evident in a constellation of different space-times of resistance that Elias constructs in his Chilekotar Sepai (2000, pp.187-188). Those different spatio-temporalities come together in and as the unity of their moments of insurgent, and thus evental, emerging to palpably inhabit, in the eyes of protagonist Osman Gani, a protest march on the streets of Dhaka against Pakistani occupation of East Bengal:

Yesterday Ayub Khan’s police killed a boy from the university, such a huge protest happens, Anwar can’t get to see any of it! …Osman’s heart skips a few beats: so many people here, are they all breathing, fish-rice-eating normal human beings like him? This human flood here, he finds the attire, demenaour of many of them unfamiliar? Who are they? Does it mean, people from eras long gone by have also joined the procession? Here see, smack in the middle of the procession are short dhoti-clad denizens of Dhaka from the time of Islam Khan’s reign! In fact, those who would, in an even earlier time, travel to Sonargaon and back in boats full of sacks of rice have come too. Inhabitants of Bangla Baajar and Tantibaajar (weavers’ market) have emerged from the frozen heart of the vanished canal to come here? Here are the turbaned soldiers, from the time of Ibrahim Khan’s reign, who were killed in a skirmish with Prince Khusro. Osman gets a start on seeing those who died of hunger in Shaiyasta Khan’s Dhaka of the time of eight-maunds of rice for a taka. They have had nothing to eat for 300 years, — their steps in harmony, they march ahead with their black hair fluttering in the breeze like a wave. People battered by the Mughals, people battered by the Mogs, people battered by the Company’s merchants — could this procession have been this big had everyone not turned up? The Maratha priest has emerged from the dry layers of bricks of the Racecourse Kali Temple to come down here swinging the falchion, Majnu Shah’s fakirs are here too, here go the Muslin weavers throwing and waving their thumb-torn fists in the air, their eternally black bare bodies roast in the sun. Today, the naked, starving, skeletal bodies of weavers who weave taka 4,000- worth jamdanis walk an erect walk. The imams, muezzins, musullis of Babubajar Mosque riddled with bullets by the British are marching ahead, instead of muttering verses from the Quran they roar today, ‘We shall not let it go in vain!’ Here come the soldiers of Lalbagh Fort, mangled by the beastly bites of insatiable desire of Nabab Abdul Gani, Ruplal, Mohinimohon, let loose by the red-faced sahibs. Sepoys of Merrut have torn away the nooses around their necks to come down from the palm trees of Victoria Park, sepoys of Bareilly, sepoys of Swandeep-Sirajganj-Goaland. No dear, even that doesn’t suffice. The mother-worshipping youths of Jugantar and Anushilan in their dhoti and vests are coming, in their midst the two murdered boys of Kaltabajaar can be separately identified. From below the Naarinda bridge comes Somen Chanda, the bloody wave of Dolai canal on his head. There, that is Barkat! His skull has been blown off. That, at first sight, frightens Osman a little but he quickly takes hold of himself. So many people! In the high tide of a new water Dhaka’s past and present are today overflowing and dissolving into one another, today its morning-afternoon-evening-night are forgotten and stand dissolved, today the city is without its east-west-north-south, all the signs that divide and distinguish the seventeenth-eighteenth-nineteenth-twentieth centuries stand erased. Today, the city of Dhaka is fully intent on occupying this limitless time and space. Osman’s heart trembles: how far will he be able to go with this massive deluge? How far? Like a quaking pitcher under the running tap at the mouth of Golok Pal Lane becomes still once it is full to the brim, our Osman Gani’s heart too has gradually become full and complete, by becoming one of the smallest molecules of this uninterrupted tidal surge he is experiencing a warmth in his heart. That is no mean recompense? With his heart full he throws his fist in the air and roars, ‘Will not let it go in vain.’” (My translation.)

Clearly, what the historical-sociological specifications or mediations of those struggles are – that is, their identities – do not seem to matter in this novelistic depiction. At any rate, it is a secondary concern. Instead, what the discourse of the novel seeks to bring to the fore is the universality that each of those struggles in their mediational specificity posit. Each of those struggles in the specificity of being ranged against their respectively particular historical domination posit the unconscious of overcoming the general condition of externalised determination, and thus duality and relationality. It is this singularising unconscious, which can also be called the unconscious of universal-singularity, that is actualised in this passage from Chilekotar Sepai through the construction of this constellation that is accorded the reality of an existentially-lived world or space-time. This constellation is, therefore, nothing but the world of the savage mind – the savage mind in its own space and time.

Insurrection as Popular Culture, or from the Subaltern to the Oppressed

This example – typical of Elias’s literary aesthetic of the savage mind, and thus its insurrectionary politics – is, among other things, the enactment of popular culture. The discourse constitutive of such an aesthetic enables us to discern in it a conception of culture that is the singularising and singular configuration of space-times. It affirms a politics of culture that can, following Raymond Williams, be termed “cultural materialism”. Following his literary aesthetic, we could say that Elias, not unlike Williams, envisages culture as the materiality of life, wherein this materiality of life is not the positivist abstraction of that empirically-lived life. Instead, real materiality of life, for militant-intellectuals like him and Williams, emerges only when the living of life is a mode of struggle and self-critique. This aesthetic seems to suggest that popular culture, as Elias would grasp it, is not the symbolicness or discursivity of forms of subaltern expression that identitarianises culture. Rather, it would, for him, be precisely the expression of an impulse – of course made possible as that expression through the mediation of forms and their historically and sociologically given discursive resources – that tends to overcome the identitarian logic and politics of culture. On the other hand, culture is an embodiment of identitarian logic and politics when it is grasped in terms of its formal stability and discursive abstraction. This latter sort of culture should – following the insurrectionary aesthetic vision embodied in and by the discourse of Elias’s novels and stories – be comprehended as nothing but culture as the logic of representation, identitarianisation and domination. This, for us, is, clearly, culture as a commodity and ideology, and thus culture as capital and the politics of capitalism.

In the Eliasian scheme, which can be discerned from the nature of the writer’s literary aesthetic, popular culture would be the flow and flux beyond the abstraction of forms — which are nevertheless its constitutive moments because they serve to determinately actualise the de-formalising or de-identitarianising flux. It would be the force of the flow that unravels its own formal fetishes, which are tendentially inevitable, to overcome the centripetalising regimentation that compels it to turn into culture as bourgeois domination, and thus also into an embodiment of its politics of hegemony (in a precise Gramscian sense). Thus popular culture would, for Elias, be the expression of the generalisation of the tendency of de-representation, de-identitarianisation and centrifugalisation. Insurrection is nothing but the generalised expression of such a tendency, which in and as that generalisation is the actuality or historicity of non-identity and singularity. Clearly, for Elias, culture is truly popular only when it seeks to instantiate the tendency of the minor.

In the novel Khowabnama, for instance, the actuality of the centrifugalising force in its singularity is broached through the opposition posed by the mediations of the paganised-heretical Islamic discursivities of wandering mendicant and minstrel Cherag Ali’s traditional canon of mythic stories and anonymous Delphic dream-reading riddles, songs, limericks and doggerels to the sociology and discursivities of the culture, with a relatively more orthodox Islamic religious dimension, of the dominant class of rich kulaks such as Sharafat Mandal. The historical sociology of this opposition, more precisely contradistinction, is envisaged in the novel to reveal the unconscious of the heretical cultural discursivity and its concomitant subaltern sociology. And that unconscious of the sociology and discursivity of the subaltern culture, by virtue of it being constituted thus in its bid to overcome the domination and externalised determination by the dominant culture, is to obtain to the condition of singularity. After all, the sociologically relational existence of those two discursivities of culture proves the discursivity and sociology of the subaltern culture has constituted itself as what it is – that is, in its difference from the discursivity and sociology of the dominant culture – to thwart being represented, determined and thus dominated by the latter. By that same token of its constitutive or emergent logic, therefore, it must also overcome itself as that culture of subalternised discursivity and sociology, which renders it an identity precisely and simultaneously in being the difference it is.

The novel in question reveals that unconscious, or incipience, of the heretical-subaltern sociology and discursivity of Cherag Ali’s culture by actualising it, precisely by having that culture-as-difference (or difference-as-identity) overcome and transfigure itself. The constitutivity of mystic-mendicant Cherag Ali’s culture, which is subtractive and singular, is shown in the novel to actualise itself through its unfolding by overcoming, and in the process transfiguring, the discursively specified discourse of Cherag Ali. Such overcoming and transfiguration sustains the actuality of the centrifugalising force in its singularity, which is popular culture, by preventing its hypostatisation into a sociology or artefact of so-called popular culture. And that happens through the reconstitution of the centrifugalising force, which was constitutive of Cherag Ali’s discourse in its moment of emerging, as and in the new songs of social criticism and revolutionary transformation composed and performed by his self-appointed disciple Keramat Ali in the high-noon of the Tebhaga movement. What is at stake here is clearly not the actuality of the two cultural or discursive forms. It is not about the difference registered by the latter form with regard to the former in mutating from it either. What is, instead, at stake, as far as the emphasis of the novel at this point is concerned, is the actuality of the mutation itself. In other words, what is being staked out here through the two discursive, cultural or sociological forms and their difference is the actuality of the simultaneity of difference and the deployment of that difference. The novel demands that we focus here not on the actuality of difference but on the actuality of deployment of difference that the emergence of difference registers.

The break constitutive of the transfiguration of the figure of Cherag Ali into that of Keramat Ali produces, to talk in an Althusserian language, two different forms of “historical individuality” (Balibar; 1999, p. 252). But these two historical individualities, or figures of discourse, are different not merely in terms of the two sociologically different ontic positions, and historical situations, they occupy. Nor, therefore, is the difference between the two limited to the different discursive appearances of their respective discourses: anonymous mythic doggerels on one hand, and avowedly self-composed songs of social transformation on the other. Rather, what sets the two individualities radically apart is the break between their respective modalities of discourse, which marks an epistemological rupture in the qualities of the orientation of their respective subject-positions. Something that makes them inhabitants of not only two different historical situations but two radically different historicities or epochs. It is precisely on account of this difference that the two figures faithfully bear out the Althusserian concept of “historical individuality”.

The novel in having Keramat Ali assert that he is a disciple of Fakir Cherag Ali, even while he explicitly abandons the discursive pattern of the latter’s discourse, makes him into an active subject of his own invention as the singular centrifugalising force by reconstituting it through and as the new discursivity of songs of social transformation. It reveals that Keramat Ali is aware he is reclaiming the singular centrifugalising force, constitutive of the subalternised sociology and discursivity of Cherag Ali’s discourse in its moment of emerging, in precisely abandoning the discursive tradition of that discourse. This, therefore, also implies that, unlike the sociological figure of Cherag Ali, the sociological figure of Keramat Ali is self-reflexive in his awareness of the unconscious of the discursively-specified discourse he produces. The way he has been envisaged in the novel implicitly indicates his awareness of the need to also overcome the discursivity and sociology of his own discourse – which he has produced in the process of overcoming the sociology and discursivity of Cherag Ali’s discourse – in order to maintain his fidelity to the reconstitution of the singularity of the centrifugalising force.

So, while the historicity and sociality constitutive of the sociological figure of Fakir Cherag Ali are respectively that of duality and identity, the historicity and sociality constitutive of the figure of Keramat Ali, which are also the historicity and sociality posited by the novel, go beyond the historical sociology of Keramat Ali to be the historicity and sociality of singularity and non-identity. The former is a figure of anti-capitalism that is constitutive of the epoch of capital. The latter, on the other hand, is a figure of the communist epoch. It must, however, be stated here that precisely because the historicity that Elias’s novel Khowabnama constitutes is singular, do we encounter Cherag Ali not only as the sociological self he is, but also as a figure beyond that sociologically specified, existential self of his. That figure is animated by the character of the spectre of Cherag Ali, who appears after the death/disappearance of his sociologically-specified existential self. This clearly instantiates the radicalisation of the empirically-lived, sociologised finitude of a character such as Cherag Ali by transfiguring his existentially-limited and sociologically-specified present into a perpetually open present by stretching that existentially-lived finitude in its very moment to that of infinite beyondness. The doubling, or tripling, of the figure of Cherag Ali – in and as the characters of existentially-lived Fakir, his spectre and his self-appointed disciple Keramat Ali – symptomatises his finitude in its inhumanly monstrous radicalisation. This savagely insurrectionary spatio-temporality is the novelistic space of Khowabnama, insofar as that novelistic space is constitutive of the inhumanity of such monstrous radicalisation of the existentially-limited human finitude.

The transcending of the self-other binary – by bringing the self and the other into a constellated synchrony of, what Badiou would term, “the singular-multiple” (2010, p.82) by abolishing the dualising relationality among them – is precisely what such doubling (or repetition or twinning) of character-figures accomplishes. Such constellated transcending of that binary is a recurrent motif in Elias’s literature. It is echoed, for instance, by most of his stories that are enactments of the singularising interplay of different, psychotically estranged alterities of otherwise consolidated selves. The devices and registers of subtraction,(3) which are so integral to Elias’s literary discourse, enable the enactment of such singularising interplay of alterities. They are dream [Laalmiya and Bullet in ‘Jaal Sopno, Sopner Jaal’(The Dream-web and Counterfeit Dreams’)]; violently idiosyncratic reverie [Osman in ‘Pratishodh’ (Revenge), Romij Ali in ‘Keetnashoker Kirti’ (The Pesticide Magic)]; eccentric recalcitrance [Mobarok Ali in ‘Apaghat’ (Mishap), psychotic break [Haddi Khijir and Osman Gani in Chilekotar Sepai, Abbas Pagla and Mili in ‘Miliir Haatey Stengun’ (Mili and Her Stengun), Nurul Huda in ‘Raincoat’]; intoxication [Samarjeet in ‘Khonwari’ (The Alcoholic Stupor)]; and schizophrenic meditation on self and history [Ronju in ‘Nirrudesh Jatra’ (The Unknown Journey)].

These examples – and especially Khowabnama – serve to demonstrate that in Elias’s creative prose the practice and discourse of the subalternised and marginal subject-positions are not championed as such in terms of their sociology and discursive abstractions. Rather, they are affirmed in terms of their singular/singularising logic of emerging. This is indicated and indexed by the discursivity and sociology characterising their subaltern/marginal culture in its difference from the identitarianised discursivity and sociology of the dominant culture. Such affirmation is, as the example from Khowabnama demonstrates, integral to the reclamation of the singularity by critically overcoming precisely the identified discursivity and sociology of subaltern culture. This, among other things, implies that for Elias subaltern cultures in the mere finitude of their difference do not denote popular culture. The former do not amount to the latter in its uninterrupted and infinite openness. Subaltern culture as difference instantiates, at best, the repetition of the succession of infinite finitudes, wherein finite freedom as withdrawal from the horizon of infinite totalisation is really no more than subjective illumination that only serves to accelerate, at the objective level, the reproduction of that identitarian horizon of infinite totalisation.

A subalternised culture is objectively coeval with popular culture only in its evental moment or moment of emergent constitutivity. And in that moment the culture in question is neither subaltern nor an identity but precisely the determinate instantiation of the nonidentitarian excess of their ontological structure. This nonidentitarian excess, needless to say, immobilises the metaphysical dynamic of that ontological structure, while simultaneously also interrupting the differentiating flight from it that only serves to return and reproduce that structure.

To grasp the sociologies and discursivities of the cultures of the subalterns and the marginals in such terms is to realise that justice can be done to the popular grain of those cultures only by critically overcoming them in their subalternised/marginalised existence. Grasping and actualising such internal critique posited by those subaltern/marginal cultures due to the fact of their differentiating and differential existence vis-à-vis the identity of dominant culture, is considered indispensable by Gramsci for an effective and meaningful project of Marxist sociology.

Through his criticism of Nikolai Bukharin’sTheory of Historical Materialism: A Manual of Marxist Sociology, which is shown to be lacking on that score, Gramsci (1996, pp.419-420) demonstrates why and how the sociological discursivities of subaltern cultures must be grasped in terms of their own singular constitutivity of emerging, and thus their own internal critique. This they themselves mediately posit as their own unconscious or negativity. He articulates his criticism of Bukharin thus:

“The first mistake of the Popular Manual is that it starts, at least implicitly, from the assumption that the elaboration of an original philosophy of the popular masses is to be opposed to the great systems of traditional philosophy and the religion of the leaders of the clergy – i.e. the conception of the world of the intellectuals and of high culture. In reality these systems are unknown to the multitude and have no direct influence on its way of thinking and acting. This does not mean of course that they are altogether without influence but it is influence of a different kind. These systems influence the popular masses as an external political force, an element of cohesive force exercised by the ruling classes and therefore an element of subordination to an external hegemony. This limits the original thought of the popular masses in a negative direction, without having the positive effect of a vital ferment of interior transformation of what the masses think in an embryonic and chaotic form about the world and life. The principal elements of common sense are provided by religion, and consequently the relationship between common sense and religion is much more intimate than that between common sense and the philosophical systems of intellectuals…. In common sense it is the “realistic”, materialistic elements which are predominant, the immediate product of crude sensation. This is by no means in contradiction with the religious element, far from it. But here these elements are “superstitious” and acritical….”

It, therefore, follows that the sociological specificity of subaltern culture establishes its own specific identity precisely in the moment it tends to differentiate itself from the sociology and discursivity of dominant culture in its identified and identitarianised specificity. The assertion of discursive specificity of a subaltern culture to differentiate itself with regard to the particular identity of a dominant culture is intrinsic to its attempt to obviate its representation and domination by the latter. However, the assertion of such differentiating identity presupposes the condition of duality – for, difference, in order to affirm itself, needs to assert and exist in its discursive particularity with regard to a specific identity from which such assertion is meant to affirmatively distinguish it. And this condition of duality and relationality is constitutive of competition, domination and representation. This condition is the condition of possibility of the mutually interdependent existence of domination and competition. Hence, a particular form of domination cannot be truly abolished without simultaneously abolishing competition and the condition of possibility of their mutually constitutive existence in general. It is precisely for this reason that a subaltern culture, even when it exists as such through the assertion of its difference vis-à-vis the identity of a dominant culture, continues to be dominated, marginalised, and even represented – in terms of the very discursivity it asserts to affirm its specified difference – by the dominant classes and their cultural systems. Clearly, the assertion of a subaltern culture as the index of affirmation of difference vis-à-vis a dominant culture spells the abolition of neither the latter as the specific identity it is nor the relationality of domination it co-founds.

In that context, the attempt by a subalternised people to rid themselves of their subordination by the dominant class through the assertion of their culture – that is, their specified way of life – reveals itself to be governed by the very condition of possibility of domination. For, the assertion of such difference with regard to identity, as we have seen, posits the structure of duality that is this condition of possibility of identitarianisation and domination. In such circumstances, this struggle of the subaltern and the marginalised against their subordination through the assertion of the differentiating specificities objectively amounts to no more than competition, which co-founds domination and is thus simultaneously co-constitutive of duality as their condition of possibility. That is exactly what Gramsci implies when he writes about “the popular masses” and their “original thought” being subordinated “to an external hegemony” of “the great systems of traditional philosophy and the religion of the leaders of the clergy”, even as such “conception of the world of the intellectuals and of high culture…are unknown to the multitude and have no direct influence on its way of thinking and acting”.

What this suggests is that the existence of a way of thinking and culture specific to the subalterns and the marginals (“original thought of the popular masses” in Gramsci’s words) in spite and because of its particular difference, which sets it apart from the specified identity of the thought of the dominant classes by differentiating it from the latter, is still determined or articulated by its structuring logic. Being subjected to such hegemony means that not only does the subordination of the differentiating specificity of subaltern culture by the culture that has identified and established itself as dominant not cease in spite of the affirmation of the former as difference, but also that this difference in being affirmed as such is rendered a subordinate cultural form or identity. The latter itself then turns into a dominant material force with regard to other strata that it simultaneously produces through its own internal differentiation. The production of such strata, through that process of internal differentiation of the ‘original’ subalternity, is coeval with the variation of the discursive resources constitutive of that culture-as-difference-turned-identity so that those strata come to acquire the discursive markers of their respective cultural specificities that also serve to designate their respective social status.

Gramsci (1996, p.420) lays this process bare in this note on Bukharin: “The principal elements of common sense are provided by religion, and consequently the relationship between common sense and religion is much more intimate than that between common sense and the philosophical systems of intellectuals. But even within religion some critical distinctions should be made. Every religion, even Catholicism…, is in reality a multiplicity of distinct and often contradictory religions: there is one Catholicism for the peasants, one for the petits-bourgeois and town workers, one for women, and one for the intellectuals which is itself variegated and disconnected.” Khowabnama further elucidates this process when it shows how Islam, which is the religious-cultural, and eventually also political, expression of the subordinate social status of rich kulaks such as Mandal and his Muslim Leaguer son Abdul Qader, vis-à-vis the upper-caste Hindu absentee landlords and their Congress backers, is itself internally differentiated into a paganised-heretical Islam of landless peasants, poor sharecroppers and fisherfolk. That is so because the relatively more orthodox Islam – which is doubtless a marker of both subordination of kulaks like Mandal by the upper-caste Hindu culture of the absentee landlords, and thus also the competitive struggle of the former against the latter – is, however, in relation to the social stratum of those believers of paganised-heretical Islam, a discursive cultural marker of the material force of domination that is constitutive of such differentiation of the Muslim identity in that part of East Bengal where the novel is set.

There should, however, be no doubt that the orthodox variant of a kulak’s Islam would instrumentalise the heretical Islam of the poor and the landless if the latter fail to grasp the self-critique unconsciously posited by the particularity of their religio-cultural differentiality. A self-critique whose actualisation would lead to that heretical religio-cultural difference overcoming both itself as the identity it becomes in asserting itself as that difference, and thus also the social differentiation and the politics of competition that are its conditions of possibility. It is through such overcoming of itself that a subalternity grasps and transforms itself into a figure of the oppressed as it occurs in Marx. This process of transformation of a subalternity into the Marxian figure of the oppressed, through the critical unraveling and supersession of itself as the identity it becomes in asserting its difference, entails that this identity self-transformatively grasp the domination it experiences in the particularity of its historical situation as the operation of political force as simultaneously both dominance and hegemony. Such an operation of political force tends to repress, distort and decimate singularity. This is the fact of oppression that subalternity conceals and which the figure of the oppressed, constitutive of self-realisation and transfiguration of such subalternity, brings to light.

As a consequence, it envisages its struggle against the historical particularity of the domination it experiences as the universal affirmation of singularity in the very finitude of that historically and sociologically particular domination. It is this that makes such struggle, at once, both world- and self-transforming. Thus the struggle of a dominated people who grasp themselves as the figure of the oppressed is a dialectically articulated struggle that is simultaneously directed both against their domination in its immediate historical particularity, and exploitation and duality, which comprise the mediated generalised condition of possibility of such domination. The figure of the oppressed in its self-realisation and concomitant struggle is, therefore, a figure of the critique of political economy in its actualisation. It is, by that same token, also the figure of revolutionary politics that Marx designates as “class-for-itself”.

But the problem is the bearers of particular and particularised subordinate cultural identities do not experience the specific relationships of domination, which results in them acquiring those identities, as part of a larger, totalising historical-social process. Marx (1986, p.817) says as much while criticising “vulgar economy” for affirming and “feel(ing) particularly at home in the estranged outward appearances of economic relations”. That, according to him, “does no more than interpret, systematise and defend in doctrinaire fashion the conceptions of the agents of bourgeois production who are entrapped in bourgeois production relations”. This impels him to conclude that “all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided”.

Nevertheless, implicit in this otherwise sound formulation of Marx is the fact that the science of general and generalised essence of exploitation is the synthesis of the infinitely open totality of historical experiences of different dominations. In such circumstances, the oppressed in its self-realisation would be the embodied concentration of that science of generalised exploitation into the finiteness of a particular experience of domination. It would be the realisation of the general and generalised infinity of different historically specific experiences in the finitude of that experiential particularity. Clearly, through such self-realisation of the oppressed the Marxist science of revolution fulfils itself by being restored to and dissolved into experience. It is this restoration of science to experience, which accords to science the hallmark of Nietzschean gaiety, that the generality of science and the particularity of experience are short-circuited to be transfigured into the universal-singularity of praxis. Elias seeks to accomplish precisely that in his literature. The constitutive deployment of the affective registers and tropes of psychotic break as subtraction — either as characters or situations, or both – in almost all his novels and stories serve to manifest the critical science of generalised singularity in and as the affectivity of experience. We could call this literary discourse of Elias his gay science.

And the above example from Khowabnama, which reveals precisely that, is no exception to the gay scientificity of his discourse. It attempts to show how the Tebhaga movement, by virtue of being a movement of radical transformation of inegalitarian agrarian production relations, is enabling the margin of margins to grasp this differentially particularised identity of theirs in terms of the unconscious self-critique it posits. The actualisation of such self-critique begins to enable, as the novel demonstrates, the identity of the margin of margins (not in the Derridean deconstructive sense ascribed to it by Ajit Chaudhury but in a literal sense) to overcome and transfigure itself and, therefore, in the same movement also move towards abolishing the stratified and differentiated socio-economic order that is its condition of possibility. But the novel also shows how the retreat and eventual collapse of that movement — thanks to the withdrawal of its Communist leadership for the sake of Hindu-Muslim amity in undivided Bengal and the rest of India — leads to the instrumentalisation of the pagan-heretical Islamic cultural identity of the landless peasants by the relatively more orthodox Islamic identity of the kulaks such as Mandal and his son Qader in the service of the Muslim League demand for the partition of undivided Bengal. An indisputable example of hegemony-reinforcing competitive politics of a subordinate people – Islam being the identity of the common struggle of landless, middle and rich peasants — against the dominant absentee landlords, whose specifying cultural identity is by and large upper-caste Hindu.

Yet, the fact remains that it is precisely such competitive struggle of the subalternised people against the particular form of their subordination by the dominant classes that posits the unconscious will of such competition to overcome itself and its constitutive condition of possibility (duality). This unconscious is posited by virtue of its striving to stop being dominated, and thus represented and identified, in its immediate particularity. That is clearly symptomatised by its exertion to establish its own particular identity – in the process of differentiating itself from the dominant cultural, and thus political, identity as a move to beat the latter’s representative imposition – through the assertion of a specifying discursivity and sociology to affirm its difference. But as long as this unconscious is not grasped for what it is, and generalised – which would lead to the creation of a qualitatively new historical and social actuality; the insurrectionary historicity and sociality of the savage mind – the struggle of the subordinated against the dominant is doomed to remain a struggle against the particular kind of domination the former directly encounters and experiences. This would obviously amount to no more than the assertion of a specific cultural and political identity by the subordinated against the cultural and political identity of the dominant in the particularity of their historical and sociological situation. As a result, it would, precisely in being the struggle that it is against domination, cancel itself out by being the vehicle of the very hegemony of the logic of domination, and its identitarianising and dualising condition of possibility that it is implicitly directed against. It must be said here that this perpetuation of hegemony by the struggle of the subordinated masses against their domination is not on account of the fact that it wages such a struggle – which is clearly inescapable and necessary – but it is so because of how that struggle is waged in its limited particularity.

Gramsci indicates that when he says the “external hegemony” of “the great systems of traditional philosophy and the religion of the leaders of the clergy” to which “the original thought of the popular masses” are subject to “limit” that thought “in a negative direction, without having the positive effect of a vital ferment of interior transformation of what the masses think in an embryonic and chaotic form about the world and life”. Hence, the only way for the subordinated masses to rid their culture and its politics of the hegemony they are subjected to is through their reflexive grasping of the unconscious will of such culture to non-representation, non-identity and singularity. Something that subjection of such culture to hegemony prevents, leading it to simply assert itself as a ‘differential identity’ vis-à-vis the discursively-specified identity of the dominant without simultaneously critiquing its own assertion as that differentiating identity in order to actualise the essential grain – or unconscious — of such an assertion. It is this grasping of its unconscious will to singularity and non-identity by a discursive specificity of subaltern culture that Gramsci terms the “interior transformation of what the masses think in an embryonic and chaotic form about the world and life”.

Therefore, when the Italian militant and philosopher states that in “common sense it is the “realistic”, materialistic elements which are predominant, the immediate product of crude sensation”, he is effectively arguing that common sense is an analytic of thinking that emerges as the subjectivity of an object to critically overcome externalised determination, and the meaning imposed on it through representation, by an already existing analytic subjectivity. This subjective emerging occurs, as has been observed earlier, for the object to free itself from the violence of abstraction perpetrated on it by an already existing analytic, and assert itself in its concreteness. But precisely because it does not self-reflexively grasp this logic of its own emerging it ends up replacing one analytic abstraction, that of great systems of traditional philosophy and high culture, with another, that of common sense. And that is precisely why, according to him, the elements of common sense “are here ‘superstitious’ and acritical”.

While criticising Croce and Gentile’s understanding of common sense in this note on Bukharin, Gramsci (1996, pp.422-423) characterises the same as “…the naïve philosophy of the people, which revolts against any form of subjectivist idealism, or… (it is) good sense and a contemptuous attitude to the abstruseness, ingenuities and obscurity of certain forms of scientific and philosophical exposition”.

That, however, does not suffice for Gramsci. He knows that common sense – which is the cultural system of thought of the “popular” or subaltern, masses – fails to engage in its own critical overcoming. A self-critique posited as its unconscious, which can be discerned from the discursively indicated fact of it having been constituted in opposition and difference to the traditional philosophy of the leading classes. For him, common sense is the necessary but not sufficient condition of possibility for the emergence of popular culture. He clarifies that by claiming his “methodological” emphasis on “starting from a critique of common sense…(does) not mean that the critique of the systematic philosophies of the intellectuals is to be neglected”. He also adds, “Indeed, because by its very nature it tends towards being a mass philosophy, the philosophy of praxis can only be conceived in a polemical form and in the form of a perpetual struggle.” He then qualifies that by arguing that “none the less the starting point must always be that common sense which is the spontaneous philosophy of the multitude and which has to be made ideologically coherent”. Gramsci clearly demonstrates that something more than sheer common sense is needed for popular culture to be actualised in its full insurrectionary glory. It means that common sense, or whatever other identified and identitarianised forms and sociologies of culture of the subalternised masses there are, must simultaneously seek to critically overcome themselves even as they constitute themselves as those discursively-specified forms in their difference and/or opposition to the identities of cultures that are dominant in relation to them.

The Gramscian Moment in Elias and His Crude Thinking

A similar critical spirit and approach with regard to the sociologies and discursively-specified forms of cultures of the subordinated, the marginals and the subalterns is evident in Elias too. Like the Gramsci we have just encountered, Elias is also not at all concerned with such sociologies and discursivised cultural forms as such and in themselves. He, in striking contrast to many petty-bourgeois radical intellectuals and artists of his modern South Asian and Bengali milieu, is arguably not enamoured of such sociologies and forms of subaltern and marginal cultures. Hence, unlike them, he also does not believe in romanticising such sociologies and forms of marginal and subaltern cultures. He is, instead, interested in those sociologies and discursive forms, and is drawn to them, precisely because they – by virtue of being characteristic of particularisingly ‘differential identities’ of subaltern/marginal cultures vis-à-vis identified cultures of the elite and the dominant – posit their unconscious will to singularity and non-identity by tending to critically unravel, supersede and transfigure themselves as those cultural discursivities and sociologies of marginality and subalternity. Such an approach is not only rendered evident by his literary aesthetic – something that we have already seen through examples from his novels, especially Khowabnama – but is also evident in his theorisation of culture and its politics. In an essay, Elias (2000, pp.12-13) writes:

The community of lower-class working masses has been the home of some of the recent Bangla novels. Some writings have even managed to effectively bring out their misery and deprivation. In poetry, exploitation of the lower classes has been dealt with, and resolutions to participate in the struggle for emancipating them from such exploitation have been declared. Such literary and artistic productions have conscientised many boys from lower-middle-class and middle-class families. They have shed middle-class beliefs and petty aspirations to walk the rough road of leftist politics. But in none of these literary and artistic productions is the culture of the lower classes brought to fruition. Then how can I, in these cases, accord anything more than the prestige of still photographs to the reflections of lower-class life found in them.” (My translation.)

This excerpt is representative of the deep aversion he nurses for the petty-bourgeois radical propensity to valorise sociologies and historical forms of subaltern and marginalised cultures as such. Sociologically and discursively specified forms of culture of the marginal and the subordinated are, for Elias, no more than hypostatised artefacts of popular culture. It is for this reason that he critically designates such cultural forms — which he finds manifest in the representation of the lives of subalternised people in much of contemporary Bangla art and literature — “still photographs of lower-class life”. According to him, such congealed and abstracted moments – still shots — of the life of the popular masses do not manifest and realise popular culture. What he implies here is that the existence of the artefacts of subaltern culture, which are nothing but abstracted and hypostatised moments of popular culture, symptomatises the failure of the singular constitutivity of those artefacts in their moments of emerging (which is thus also their singularising unconscious) to generalise and actualise itself by overcoming and unraveling precisely those artefacts.

The conception of popular culture posed by this Elias essay is one that moves uninterruptedly from localised insurgency to generalised insurrection in the process of preserving and actualising the singular constitutivity of the former in its evental moment of eruption by cancelling the abstracted fetish of the form into which such eruption from social mediation has lapsed precisely in being determinately actualised by it.

This, therefore, means that Elias has no intention of jettisoning those artefacts of discursively-specified practices and discourses of subalternity – which is cultural difference-as-identity. However, he does not consider them significant in themselves either. For him, their only significance is their potential capacity to accomplish precisely what those artefacts of subordinated culture have failed to do on account of their romanticised identitarianised existence. For Elias, the importance of those identitarianised artefacts of subaltern culture lies in the self-historicising and self-critical unconscious they posit by virtue of their specific historical situation and position, which is highlighted through their discursive specificities. And they become, as we have already seen through some examples, indispensable resources of Elias’s literary discourse precisely by actualising their self-historicising, self-critical potential or unconscious. It is on account of such radical functioning of those artefacts and discursive forms of subaltern culture in Elias’s literary discourse as its constituent elements that the discourse is an instantiation of the aesthetic of the savage mind and its politics of insurrection.

This self-historicising, self-critical radical functioning of discursivities and forms of subordinate cultures in Elias’s literary discourse as its indispensable constitutivity is nothing but the singularising mode of “crude thinking” at work. Brecht seeks to propound this mode of thinking — which he calls dialectical as opposed to the undialectical modalities of high philosophical thinking – by affirming such non-conceptual registers of commonsensical mass discourse as adages, proverbs, folklore, fairytales, rhymes and doggerels. He was once supposed to have famously remarked: “Nothing is more important than learning to think crudely. Crude thinking is the thinking of great men.” But what Brecht hails, when he affirms those non-conceptual, commonsensical discourses, is not those discourses in their immediate discursive appearances or identities, but the modality of thinking constitutive of those discourses that their discursive appearances render mediately accessible.

Such discourses emerge in and as the articulation of resistance of non-specialist thinking of the common masses against the abstruse modality of high-philosophical thinking, and its esoterically specialised and thus conceptually systematised discourse that tends to dominate, objectify, identify and identitarianise. The specifying discursive patterns of the former discourse, in indicating its difference with regard to the latter, reveal that. It follows, therefore, that the logical tendency of thinking constitutive of such commonsensical mass discourses in their emerging is de-identitarianising and de-representational. Hence, the modality of thinking constitutive of such common and mass discourses in their crude, non-systematic and non-systemic registers militates against the tendency of representation, discursive abstraction, identitarianisation and domination. To that extent, the mode of crude thinking is also the self-critique its constitutive common, non-systemic discourses posit as the unconscious of their own discursive abstractions. It is this that makes crude thinking — cognate with Levi-Strauss’s savage mind as analytical reason “tensed by its efforts to transcend itself”, or Gramsci’s philosophy of praxis as common sense in autocritique — a dialectical, singularising and singular modality of thought.

Elias, not unlike the crude-thinking Brecht, disdains the high-philosophical modality of thinking, constitutive of conceptually systematised registers of discourse, for its propensity to produce dead abstractions estranged from feelings, emotions and the affectivity of experience. He (2000, pp.14-15) writes:

Man is not merely an ingredient of history. Or, man is not merely an equipment to establish some theory. The working people are makers of history. Their lives cannot be explained and understood in theory….” (My translation.)

And this disregard for high theory, especially the conceptually articulated theoriations of revolution and socialism, figure continually in his literary discourse. Such scorn for the mode of high philosophical thinking arises off and on in both his novels, especially Chilekotar Sepai, and many of his stories, as unsparing statements of ridicule directed at the register of high theory and culture and their mostly upper-middle-class and middle-class social location. Often, this ridiculing of high theory, especially its radical variant, is realised in his literary discourse through ironical descriptions of, or sarcastic comments on, the sociological detail of the lives of its upper-middle-class and middle-class purveyors. In Elias’s accurate estimation, that is a phenomenon symptomatic of the alienation of the culture and idea of radical politics from the experiential affectivity of the subalternised working people. The following excerpt from his (2000, pp.211-212) story ‘Utsob’ (‘Festivity’) makes for a telling example:

When either Muntasir, or Ishtiaq, or Aaharaar come, conversations on socialism in soft dulcet tones ensue even as they play Kanika Bandyopadhyay’s LP. Again, amid all this what sweet pain of loneliness is suffered. And when that happens there is nothing to be done save listening to Duke Ellington for full two hours with the air-conditioner running while the ceiling fan is turned on at its fullest.

And see here! In the dead of night eight-nine dogs are running around – from this end of the alley to that. Aren’t there dogs there? They are there too. There was one, a gentleman, at the wedding reception. What a solemn expression the gentleman had, what physique! With what majesty he stood there mildly wagging his tail. It seemed as if a gentlemanly landlord, just like in a Bangla film, is sitting on his balcony in a deck-chair rocking himself while enjoying the sunset. When you see such dogs a feeling of devotion is bound to be aroused in the soul.” (My translation.)

Such examples seem to suggest that Elias’s politics of discourse is anti-theory. And that he, like most other modern radical petty-bourgeois intellectuals and artists from South Asia, is in the business of degrading and rejecting theory to romanticise and sociologise the life of the common masses in the name of some authenticity of experince. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. If we do a close reading of the essay, which has been cited here in bits and pieces, we will realise the folly of such an inference. The last cited passage itself, when read in its entirety, reveals that. Even as Elias argues that man is “not merely a useful ingredient for the establishment of a theory”, and “that the way of life of the working people cannot be explained with the aid of theory”, he also makes it a point to state that the meaningfulness of art is derived from it being the search for the deep truth of life amid the working people’s way of living and practice of culture. He (2000, p.15) goes on to add:

Only through such a process of inquiry can the truth immanent in theory be revealed. Art and literature is not about proving things, in there inquiry and ideology move together, they are contiguous with one another, it does not do to show one by tearing it away from the other.” (My translation.)

This declarative statement by Elias implies that like a classical crude thinker, he is also equally negatively disposed to the practice of experiences estranging their registers of emotion and feeling from thinking thus becoming hypostatised and reified in their discursivities into discourses and practices – i.e. cultures – of common sense and massified belief.

It also indicates that Elias’s rejection of the modality of high philosophical thinking is certainly not meant to spell a romanticised celebration of discursive abstractions of discourses and practices of the so-called common people dwelling in their massified passivity as popular culture. He is, after all, as averse to theory alienating itself from the consciousness of felt living, as the practice of affectively-experienced living alienating itself from thought to be reduced to custom and belief. The following excerpt from the essay (2000, p.9) in question bears that out:

“…the cultural practice of the lower classes is not witnessing any development, after having reached a particular stage its evolution has virtually come to a halt…. Their practice of culture has, in trying to move from its current stage to a new level, been stumbling.” (My translation.)

What this reveals is that Elias does not consider sociologies and discursivities of the culture of marginals and the subordinated to be popular. For him they were popular culture in their respective moments of insurgent emerging and will once again be so when their insurgent constitutivity or tendency of their emerging is generalised and actualised into the insurrectionary historicity of singularity.

Therefore, his rejection of the culture of high philosophical thinking is meant to be an affirmation of, what can, following Benjamin (1998, pp.159-235), be called the allegorical principle of theory, and its politics. And it is this allegorical principle of theory that Elias enacts as the authorial subject of his literary discourse.

The Literature of Practical Consciousness and Its Allegories of Command

As a writer of creative prose, he faithfully adheres to this allegorical principle of theorising. That is evident in his desire — symptomatised by the operation of his literary discourse – to grasp theories and concepts in and as the affectivity of the respectively different experiences of living them in their formation and thus grasp the singularity in those affects and feelings of experiencing the formation of theoretical discourses in their emerging. This affective living of discourses in their formation is to experience, what Williams calls, their “practical consciousness” (2010, pp.130-131). Such consciousness, Williams (2010, p.131) writes, is “…what is actually being lived, and not only what it is thought is being lived”. What is, however, even more crucial for us is what the British literary thinker (2010, p.131) says by way of further elaboration of that concept: “Yet the actual alternative to the received and produced fixed forms is not silence: not the absence, the unconscious, which bourgeois culture has mythicized. It is a kind of feeling and thinking which is indeed social and material, but each in an embryonic phase before it can become fully articulate and defined exchange. Its relations with the already articulate and defined are then exceptionally complex.”

Clearly then, to experience that affect of living a discourse in and as the moment of its pre-discursive formation and emergence is not to contemplatively grasp it but to grasp the singularity of living it as it is being formed through the affective experience of such living. The singularity thus grasped is — by virtue of its modality of grasping through living the grasped – a command concept and not discursively encoded knowledge. We must call it so because it is a concept that commands us to recommence the practical living of singularity, and affectively experiencing it as such, by overcoming precisely that discourse, whose formation one lived and experienced affectively to cognitively grasp the command of singularity. It must be added here that this singularity, which is cognitively grasped by experiencing the affectivity of living discourses, ideas and practices in their emergent formation, is what Williams (2010, p.132) conceptualises as “structures of feeling”. He (2010, p.132) explains: “The term is difficult, but ‘feeling’ is chosen to emphasize a distinction from more formal concepts of ‘world-view’ or ‘ideology’. It is not only that we must go beyond formally held and systematic beliefs, though of course we have always to include them. It is that we are concerned with meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs are in practice variable (including historically variable), over a range from formal assent with private dissent to the more nuanced interaction between selected and interpreted beliefs and acted and justified experienced.” He (2010, p.132) then goes on to add, “We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as feeling and feeling as thought….”

It is, therefore, not surprising that dreaming is one of the principal registers of thinking and theorising history in Elias’s literary discourse. The experience of dreaming, as opposed to the knowledge of dream one acquires after waking up from dream, is one of the key devices of psychotic break constitutive of Elias’s literary discourse. His literary discourse represents the working of this allegorical principle of theorisation through the psychotic disposition of the characters and the organisation of the literary space such dispositions are constitutive of in his novels and stories. Thereby, the discourse itself also becomes a performative demonstration of the allegorical principle of thinking. In being what it represents within itself, Elias’s literature becomes an allegory itself.

In Elias’s literary discourse, dream, not unlike the other registers and devices of psychotic break, is not its discursivised form or identity. Rather, it is the experience of dreaming as subtraction from, or overcoming of, the determination by wakefulness. For, when one dreams one does not know one is dreaming but experiences the dreamworld as the only reality that follows no rule of human wakefulness and normalcy and is completely free of the governance by such rules. Dream gets made sense of and identified as dream only when one wakes up. The cognition of singularity — which this dream experience enables through the end of the affectivity of living it as reality in waking up from it into its identified knowledge – gets posed as a command for reclamation of singularity. It is a command that can be followed only through the generalisation of singularity beyond the existentially-limited discursivity or identity that mediated the pre-wakeful dream-experience into being. This would be the practice of being singular by becoming it and thus also concomitantly living the affective experience of such being and becoming.

Dream experience ends, as we have seen, in wakefulness to inhabit its horizon of duality or binary as a constitutively alienated and subordinated identity. Similarly, experiences of insurgent (or evental) experiences of popular culture end with the beginning of history, or more precisely the historical, to inhabit it as myths. The project articulated by Elias’s literary discourse is to transfigure wakefulness, sanity and history into the singularity posed in cognition by the dreaming-experience, the experience internal to what is identified and seen from its outside as madness, and the pre-mythic insurgent moment of formation of what will eventually become myth. Such experiences are singular because in subtracting from or overcoming the externalised determination of wakefulness, sanity and history, and in concomitantly being their own ground and meaning, they reject duality and relationality. By that same token, they also pose the critical overcoming of their own discursively-specified and/or sociologically-identified mediating forms. Such allegorised actuality of the experiences of dreaming, insanity and popular pre-mythic insurgency would, in being generalised, be constitutive of its own historicity, which is historicity of singularity. Revolution is nothing but this condition and situation of singularty as its own historicity.

Let us now return to Khowabnama as an example of how the device and affective register of dream enables the allegorical articulation of Elias’s literary discourse with regard to history. Let us, for instance, look at how he (1998, p.9) begins the novel:

The place where Tamijer Baap (Tamij’s Father) had planted his feet a little and had been waving his coal-black hands to chase away the ashen-grey clouds by standing erect to look up as much as was possible by stretching the veins of his neck, that place must be carefully considered. Once upon a time when, forget Tamijer Baap, even his father had not yet been born, it would even be a long time before his grandfather Baaghaad Majhi came into the world, one is not even sure whether Baaghaad Majhi’s grandfather or the father of his grandfather had been born or not, and even if he were born he would be merely crawling around on the freshly-laid mud floor of the yet-to-be constructed house whose foundation had just been laid after clearing off the forest. On an evening of one of those days Munshi Barkatullah Shah, in order to be part of Majnu Shah’s entourage of innumerable fakirs headed for the Mahasthan Fort, was headed towards Korotowa when he was killed by a bullet from the gun of Taylor, the chief of the White soldiers, and fell from his horse. The hole the bullet had made in his neck did not ever close. Once he had died, he, with chains around his neck and with his ash-smeared body, climbed on to the top of the pankur tree on the northern head of the Katlahaar marsh, and sat there with a pair of iron tongs, which had a fish engraved on it, in his hands. Ever since, during the day, he is spread out all over the marsh as sunlight within the sunlight, and all through the night he rules the marsh from the top of that pankur tree. Only if a glimpse of his could be caught – that is the hope with which Tamijer Baap waves his hands to chase away the clouds in the sky.” (My translation.)

The ashen-grey clouds that Tamijer Baap tries to chase away are his historical present, which is the eve of the Tebhaga movement, within which lives its past – the defeated Fakir-Sanyasi rebellions of 18th-19th century among others, for instance. This past lives within his historical present as its constitutively subordinated and contradictory identity (or difference-as-identity). This is the past-as-defeat — experienced and lived as myths and beliefs by poor landless peasants and fisherfolk like Tamijer Baap, who are the bearers of this past in the dominant historical present as its difference. And precisely for that reason is this subalternised difference simultaneously also a subordinated identity. Tamijer Baap attempts to chase away those clouds of his historical present because that present obscures the experiencing of its past, when it was its own present, by dominating and identifying the past as past. By chasing away those clouds of his historical present he wants to experience that past when it was its own present. That is, before it became identified as past. He wants to experience and live the past before it became identified as such through its subjection by the historical present. This chasing away of the clouds by Tamijer Baap is, therefore, a gesture to be in an open present, which is a present that does not itself become or produce a past. Following Derrida (1994, pp.xix-xx) we would do well to term this present present without presence.(4)

And since his existential self inhabits the historical present, Taamijer Baap can access past-when-it-was-present through his dreaming self that in subtracting itself from the governance of wakefulness of the reality of the historical present becomes an allegorical figure of its own singularity and thus a command-giving concept to generalise that experience of living the singularity beyond the empirical threshold of that past as it exists in its identified form determined by the historical present in question.(5) What this simply means is that Tamijer Baap is an allegorical figure, whose existence functions as a command for reconstituting the evental experience of insurgency — as lived, for instance, during the Fakir-Sanyasi rebellion against the oppression of British colonialism — in and through the new historically mediating experience of oppressive agrarian production relations of 1940s Bengal. Not unlike Benjamin’s (2003, p.395) Robespierre, who cited Ancient Rome for French Revolution by blasting it out of the linearly hierarchised continuum of history to grasp it simultaneously in its own present and his, Tamijer Baap is envisaged as a similar figure who cites the 18th-19th century Fakir-Sanyasi rebellions against British colonial oppression for the Tebhaga movement in 1940s Bengal. As a matter of fact, he not only cites but is also simultaneously the citation of those rebellions for his own existentially-lived historical present to generalise the evental singularity of those rebellions in their moment of lived emerging. Here is an example (Elias; 1998, p.178) of how Tamijer Baap functions as an allegorical figure of singularity, and thus a command-giving concept for the generalisation of singularity by tearing the historical present asunder:

Tamijer Baap is, however, completely quiet. He looks towards Cherag Ali with the same sleepy eyes, his eyes give Kulsum an eerie feeling, does this man sleep with his eyes open, is he seeing grandfather’s face in his sleep? But sleep gets the better of Kulsum’s fear and prevents it from congealing, is the man smearing Kulsum’s eyes with sleep from where he sits at the other end of the mat? When Cherag Ali starts singing, Kaalaam Majhi says, ‘Hey you, Tamijer Baap, why the hell are you drowsing? Go home’. Yet, the man continues to sit where he is. The way his still eyes are stuck on Cherag Kulsum feels as if that man is seeing her grandfather in a dream. What kind of a man is this man? Unmoved, he sits dreaming amid so many people? Or is it that Kulsum herself is dreaming? That may be so. Otherwise how come iron chains dangle from grandfather’s neck? He gave up wearing those iron chains quite a few years ago, at the behest of the new khadim at the dargahsharif (shrine of a Muslim mystic.) For that matter, how is there a black turban on his head? But if Kulsum is, indeed, dreaming how can she hear the shopkeeper say, ‘Hey Baikuntha, you are here listening to songs? Let Shaha come, he’ll give you a piece of his mind?’, loud and clear.” (My translation.)

This encounter between Kulsum and a psychotic Tamijer Baap is an instance of the past-ised subalternity of the historical present – or the past in its subalternised identity within the historical present – encountering itself as past without presence. That is, it is an encounter between past, as the subalternised identity of and within the historical present, with itself when it was its own present and thus an evental insurgency. This singularising encounter is staged in the novel to depict how that encounter is a command that tends to induce the historical present – as both a dominating identity and a dualising horizon with its metaphysics of presence – to become an open, and thus non-identitarian and singular, present. One that, therefore, will neither itself lapse into nor produce the identity of past. Such a simultaneity of encounter with, living of, command for and transfiguration into the singular time of open present is constitutive of Benjamin’s (2003, p.395) “now-time” of revolution in its allegoricality-becoming-actuality. There is no doubt that the insurrectionary, or revolutionary, actuality can only be allegorical. But precisely because allegory is a command-giving concept — which arises precisely due to and through the punctuation of the actual – for reconstituting or re-commencing the truncated actuality, it stands validated as such only when allegory is itself sought to be practically actualised by overcoming the historical-discursive confines that mediate its experiential cognition. Clearly, allegory and practical actuality of revolution are dialectically bound to each other, and one cannot be itself without the other.

Therefore, the “now-time” of revolution, seen from the vantage point of a historically identified present that is enclosed within the continuum of history, is a spectral temporality. Such a temporality is the space-time constitutive of how things are, for instance, in dream or when one is under the influence of hallucinogens. The dimensions of such a time are inhuman and monstrous. The spectral and ghost-figures that populate Elias’s literary discourse, together with the eerie world they compose, are meant precisely to represent such non-human dimensions of space-time in his literature. For, it is through such representation that the affectivity and experience of living such savage and monstrous dimensions of a space and time animated, as it were, by an insurrectionary mind, can be communicated to be induced.

Clearly, the allegorical mode of theorising is continuing the insurrectionary unfolding of life, when that has stalled at the level of practical living, in the register of discourse, and thereby be a lived command – a Dionysian didacticism of desire, so to speak – for the reconstitution and resumption of the insurrection in the empirical practicality of existential living. It would not be an exaggeration to say that such reclamation of the insurrection involves the radicalisation and transfiguration of that empiricality of historically determinate existential living. Elias wants art to perform that allegorical function with regard to stalled unfolding of insurrection. For him that is the only way art can become meaningful. He (2000, p.5) writes:

Bengali culture and artistic practice today has been transformed into a monotonous and lifeless habit because of its alienation from the large majority of lower-class Bengalis….

What is drummed about as Bengali culture, if that fails to take inspiration from the lives and livelihoods of the majority of the country’s people then it too is bound to become as outlandish and groundless as that which is called degenerate culture.” (My translation.)

Elias’s creative prose, in its fidelity to its constitutive allegorical modality of thinking and discoursing, performs precisely that gay-scientific function of Dionysian didacticism. What such kind of didacticism amounts to is best explicated by Adorno’s (1997, pp.321-322) reflections on Brecht when the philosopher, while critically engaging with the politico-aesthetic positions of the poet-dramatist, sees the role of the latter’s theory inside his creative works. Elias’ literary discourse, especially his two novels, end as open texts that give commands precisely through that fact of being open. And their command is to practically live the singularity those texts have grasped and posed in and through the discursive specifications of the determinate existential finitude of their represented world by going beyond it. That is, have the discursive world they represent – or textually constitute – brush against its own constitutive or formational singular grain.

In Khowabnama, for instance, the fabulistic-spectral figure of Tamij, which climbs into the moon with its bullet-riddled neck after the life of existentially-lived, sociologically-specified and historically-limited character of Tamij has been ended by the paramilitary shooters, is nothing but an allegory. It is, therefore, a figure whose existence is a command to reclaim it as the singular and singularising constitutivity of Tebhaga in its moment of eruption by continuing to live it beyond its discursively-specified historical and existential finitude by stretching that humanly, and thus historically, finite moment to its savage, inhuman, monstrous beyond.


(1) Politics as an abstraction is against drawing up of boundaries of the perceptible, so it is singularity that in challenging certain historically-given boundaries of the perceptible, and posing other boundaries for that is how singularity can actualise itself through the mediation of the specificity of a historical situation, redraw boundaries of the perceptible and yield political situations. Thus the political is never singular, it is instead the historically specific situation that mediates the singularity of politics into actuality even while, in the same movement, limiting it.

(2) To read Levi-Strauss’s conception of the “savage mind”, as a principle of the interminable process of dialectical reason, through the prism of Badiou’s (2009, p.189) “a materialism centred upon a theory of the subject” would take that conception to its radical conclusion by setting it free from its original conceptual matrix of structuralism. Such a reading, arguably, renders the conception of the process of dialectical reason – which in Levi-Strauss is a linear, punctuated and bounded interminability – uninterrupted in its interminability, and thus non-linear and unbounded. The two citations below from Badiou (2009, p.186, p.189) indicate how inflecting Levi-Strauss’s “savage mind” with Badiou’s conception of “subjective materiality” would radicalise the former:

“Materialism stands in internal division to its targets. It is not inexact to see in it a pile of polemical scorn. Its internal makeup is never pacified. Materialism most often disgusts the subtle mind.

“The history of materialism finds the principle of its periodization in its adversary. Making a system out of nothing else than what it seeks to bring down and destroy, puffed up in latent fits of rage, this aim is barely philosophical. It gives colour, in often barbarous inflections, to the impatience of destruction….

“However, this time of offensive subjectivization produces no stability. We see this as early as in the French Revolution, when the anti-Christian excess of the provisory allies, the plebeians of the cities, is broken by Hebert’s execution on the guillotine, whereas the regeneration of spiritualism of the great idealist systems connotes the possibility of a universal concordat. Bourgeois secularism, established through the State, will sometimes be anticlerical, never materialist.”

“Neither God nor Man, in modern idealism, has the function of the organizer of being. The constituent function of language, which excentres every subject-effect, deactivates the materialist operator of the inversion—of the inversion in the sense in which Marx spoke of putting Hegel back on his feet.

“To claim, by a ‘materialist’ inversion, to go from the real to the subject means to fall short of modern dialectical criticism, which separates the two terms—subject and real—so that a third, the symbolic or discourse, comes in to operate as a nodal point without for this reason becoming a centre.

“Barred from the path of a simple inversion and summoned to hold onto the scission in which the subject of idealinguistery comes into being as an effect of the chain, we Marxists find ourselves on the dire road of a procedure of destruction-recomposition.

“To pierce through the adversary’s line of defence requires this heavy ramrod whose idolatrized head bears our subjective emblems.

“That a conceptual black sheep—a materialism centred upon a theory of the subject—is equally necessary for our most pressing political needs…no doubt proves something….”

(3) Subtraction is a concept of politics that comes from Badiou. It is not constitutive of a political move or struggle against power and domination in order to withdraw from or disengage with them. In that, Badiou’s concept of subtraction is quite unlike the conception of withdrawal in Martin Heidegger that is concomitant with his concept of “ontological difference” in particular, and difference-thinking in general. Rather, subtraction is constitutive of the political manoeuvre – or struggle – to break with the horizon constitutive of domination and competition and its dualised and dualising structure, in the process unraveling and destroying it. Subtraction is a conceptual figure of singularity that is the science of revolutionary politics or praxis as ontology.

(4) Derrida’s “Present without presence” is present that does not pose itself in a manner so as to have its existential affirmation as itself produce an identified past of itself. “Present without presence” is present that does not become past and thus has no past. It is not present as a historical identity, something which as that historical identity produces its constitutively contradictory identity of past (as the present that has become absent).

(5) The conception of allegory as command — which is premised here on the asymmetrical dialectic, and thus torsion, between the particularity of the sensuous and affective (“beauty”, “material”, “individual”) on one hand, and the generality of the cognitive (“divine”, “transcendental”, “moral”, “ethical) on the other – is derived from a reading of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Allegory and Trauerspiel’, the last chapter of his The Origin of German Tragic Drama. It is precisely this asymmetrical dialectic, and the concomitant torsion, that Benjamin reveals to be the defining characteristic of the Baroque allegory when he (2003, p.160) affirmatively explicates the Baroque allegorical principle through his criticism of the classicist, as also the romantic, “symbol” for effacing this dialectical asymmetry between those aspects in order to present them as an organic harmony: “The unity of the material and the transcendental object, which constitutes the paradox of the theological symbol, is distorted into a relationship between appearance and essence. The introduction of this distorted conception of the symbol into aesthetics was a romantic and destructive extravagance which preceded the desolation of modern art criticism. As a symbolic construct, the beautiful is supposed to merge with the divine in an unbroken whole. The idea of the unlimited immanence of the moral world in the world of beauty is derived from the theosophical aesthetics of the romantics. But the foundations of this idea were laid long before. In classicism the tendency to the apotheosis of existence in the individual who is perfect, in more than an ethical sense, is clear enough…. But once the ethical subject has become absorbed in the individual, then no rigorism – not even Kantian rigorism – can save it and preserve its masculine profile. Its heart is lost in the beautiful soul. And the radius of action – no, only the radius of the culture – of the thus perfected beautiful individual is what describes the circle of the ‘symbolic’. In contrast the baroque apotheosis is a dialectical one. It is accomplished in the movement between extremes.”

It must also be stated here as an aside that the principle of baroque allegory bears, in Benjamin’s affirmative exposition of it, a strong conceptual affinity with the conception of philosophy of history that comes from Marx. The latter (dialectical materialism) is, clearly, not an epistemology of history as a presence-at-hand or identitarian existence. Hence, it is also not a code of moral, or conventional, directive to live (or live in) that empirical history as such. Rather, it is a philosophy of the moment of formation or making of history that is logically prior to the moment of history as such. Clearly, the Marxian philosophy of history – or dialectical materialism – is a philosophy that seeks its own realisation in and as the practicality of politics precisely by abolishing itself as the discursivised concept it is. It is “philosophy” only when it is, to cite Badiou’s Althusserian maxim, “under the condition of politics”. Such a philosophy of (more accurately, for) the making of history is, to once again resort to Benjamin, the grain of history against which history must be brushed.


Adorno, Theodor W., Aesthetic Theory, tr. Robert Hullot-Kentor, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedmann (Continuum, London, 1997)

Badiou, Alain, ‘The Indissoluble Salt of Truth’. In Theory of the Subject, tr. Bruno Bosteels (Continuum, London, 2009)

Badiou, Alain, ‘The Black Sheep of Materialism’. In Theory of the Subject, tr. Bruno Bosteels (Continuum, London, 2009)

Badiou, Alain, ‘One, Multiple, Multiplicities’. In Theoretical Writings, edited and translated by Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano (Continuum, London, 2010)

Balibar, Etienne, ‘The Elements of the Structure and their History’. In Reading Capital by Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, tr. Ben Brewster (Verso, London, 1999)

Benjamin, Walter, ‘Allegory and Trauerspiel’. In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, tr. John Osborne (Verso, London, 1998)

Benjamin, Walter, ‘On the Concept of History’. In Selected Writings (Volume 4), tr. Edmund Jephcott and Others, eds. Marcus Bullock, Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006)

Derrida, Jacques, Spectres of Marx, tr. Peggy Kamuf (Routledge, London, 1994)

Elias, Akhtaruzzaman, Chilekotar Sepai [Soldier in the Attic] (The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2000)

Elias, Akhtaruzzaman, Khowabnama [Dream Chronicle] (Naya Udyog, Kolkata, 1998)

Elias, Akhtaruzzaman, Galpa Samagra [Collected Stories] (Naya Udyog, Kolkata, 2000)

Elias, Akhtaruzzaman, Sanskritir Bhanga Setu [The Broken Bridge of Culture: Essays on Literature, Society and Culture] (Naya Udyog, Kolkata, 2000)

Gramsci, Antonio, ‘Problems of Marxism’. In Selections from the Prison Notebooks edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1996)

Levi-Strauss, Claude, ‘History and Dialectic’. In The Savage Mind, (The University of Chicago Press, 1966)

Marx, Karl, ‘The Trinity Formula’. In Capital (Volume III), ed. Frederick Engels (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986)

Ranciere, Jacques, ‘The Politics of Literature’. In The Politics of Literature, tr. Julie Rose (Polity, Cambridge, 2011)

Williams, Raymond, ‘Structures of Feeling’. In Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010)



Raymond Williams, Working-Class Struggle and the Jerkiness of History

Paresh Chandra

If there is one thing that no self-respecting Marxist will question it is the idea of revolution – a complete rupture from the past. Complete in two senses: rupture in fundamentals – it is the essence that changes – and a rupture that includes everything; in other words, the essence of everything changes. No part of given reality, no entity, insofar as it is based in this structure, can be preserved. Even if the working class leads the revolution, in destroying the bourgeoisie it also destroys itself; neither the working class, nor the bourgeoisie survive.

Over the course of his long journey Raymond Williams went through a number phases. But even at those moments where politico-pragmatic engagements took him into an engagement – undeniably critical – with the structures of bourgeois democracy, with policy-making etc., he cannot, without a degree of injustice be called “reformist”. An implicit recognition that true transformation is systemic always inflected his arguments. When the social democratic Labour Party is charged of not having done enough, he is arguing that they could have empowered the working class more, and facilitated the development of class-consciousness, and not that social democracy could have brought fundamental change.

And yet it is not hard to espy another strand in Williams’ thought, a strand that does not sit easy with the notion of revolution as total rejection of the current. Owing to his dependence on categories like “community” and “culture” (terms that have had a long history of anti-Marxist use and make Williams’ work very liable to being rallied for all sorts of non/anti-Marxists purposes) it is not hard to make him seem a believer/defender of the “autotelic”. Williams’ younger contemporary, Terry Eagleton, for instance, has lately been bent upon securing a domain of intersubjectivity and Love within the Symbolic Order, as a space where the Imaginary, or that which precedes language and its fallen logic (capitalism, presumably), continues to exist. The category of things that are “(good-)in-themselves” includes art, community, love, friendship etc. For this sort of thinking Raymond Williams is easy fodder. Does he not himself reify the experience of the Welsh village, celebrating the experience of neighbourliness as some sort of atemporal good, a sign of a society not fallen into sin? Does not the notion of a “culture of the working class” also allow for a similar sort of reification? It will be my attempt in this paper to explore how Williams manages to preserve in his work the place of these notions that seem to go against the grain of all that the Marxist idea of revolution entails, generating a sort of productive tension in which instead of necessarily undermining the attempt to bring fundamental change, they come across as possible catalysts.


In his short essay on the idea of Welsh culture (Resources of Hope, 99-105), Williams asserts the uselessness of holding on to the idea of an unchanging culture. Welsh culture is neither a well-preserved “resort” to be visited, nor is it the ever present essence of Welsh existence. Culture is something intrinsically contested; it is, in fact, constituted by contestation, not given, but produced at each moment. Similarly, community too is rooted not only in relations that are given, for instance those of the Welsh village community, but is also reborn in moments of open antagonism and struggle, like during the 1926 General Strike. Williams is aware of the problem of holding on to something as intrinsically good in a world where power defines all relations, even those of love and friendship. It would imply the denial of the structural nature of problems, and hence solutions, while implicitly celebrating a privilege that most do not possess. The antagonistic moment at which we challenge the entire given order, with intent to transform it is essential, and any moment of “goodness” can exist only in struggle. In an essay called “Social significance of 1926” in Resources of Hope (105-122), Williams qualifies his seeming celebration of the Welsh community by drawing attention to the manner in which relations of community got re-activated due to the energy of the strike.

The problem of seeing the Welsh community, or any already existing set of relationships as lying outside the domain of capitalist hegemony resembles another predicament that revolutionary politics faces (in theory and in practice). We know that the initial moment at which the status quo is challenged is always localised; it involves local actors, facing the brunt of power at a local level. Understandably, any possible resolution that emerges directly out of this moment of struggle is also local. Assuming that transformation is always a systemic phenomenon, the moment of local resolution has to be negotiated in such a manner that it does not freeze the movement in its tracks. The only positive result to be gained from this negotiation is the generalisation of the question asked. If one increases the ambit of a question, a localised resolution becomes impossible; this entails the posing of the idea of global transformation in opposition to localised recognition/representation.

Williams discusses these two difficulties faced in the struggle for socialism when he theorises the residual and the emergent in his late work, Marxism and Literature. The Welsh community is what he calls the residual: that which belongs to a bygone era and does not completely kowtow to the logic of the current system. In not fully conforming it generates friction which can then be deployed to question the system. On the other hand, the emergent refers to ideas, values, institutions etc. that emerge when a class struggles against hegemony, when the working class struggles against the hegemony of capital, for instance. Both the residual and the emergent are oppositional at a certain moment of their relation with the dominant, or the hegemonic, but their antagonistic status is always under threat of the possibility of immediate recognition and co-option. As was said earlier, it is the abstract ideal of systemic/global transformation that saves, or tries to save, and has the potential to save the antagonistic nature of the residual and the emergent.

At the same time, the abstract ideal of systemic transformation, inadequate in itself to sustain the energies of a movement, needs the support of local struggles, and a basis in already existing matrices of human relations. In other words, the truly oppositional, or that which seeks to transform the totality of things, does not exist outside of the various moments of the emergent and the residual. This is where “community” in the way Williams uses the term, while speaking of the Welsh countryside, becomes important. Communities are necessarily local, but in this vision, never ends in themselves; moments, rather, that appear and disappear, and offer sustenance to the movement at large (this was more or less the role of the Welsh village community in the general strike, as represented in Williams’ Border Country).


But how does one reach from sustenance of a movement at a local level, to its generalisation? The term that makes itself available immediately is, of course, solidarity. Movements sustained locally, needed to be united to transform society, are truly brought together by bonds of solidarity; these bonds, furthermore, are facilitated and represented by actual, material bodies and organisations. It is through solidarity that localised segments of the working class move beyond localised interests and end the segmentation that divides them. Solidarity is a special feeling of community that, not existing in given reality, is formed between struggling groups and communities. What sustains a movement then, in addition to local relations of community, and the struggle for localised and immediate demands, is this new sense of community. The 1926 General Strike was great precisely because it demonstrated to those who witnessed it that the community that forms between different segments of the working people is indeed capable of keeping a struggle going.

Williams’ father and other working members of the Welsh village community responded to the struggle of the coal miners almost out of impulse. But what makes this response different from an individualised, empathetic response, is 1) its collective nature, and 2) instead of thinking themselves internal to their condition, the so-called ‘empathisers’ felt themselves internal to the struggle of the miners. Moreover, the Welsh village community, with its spontaneous response to the struggle of the miners did not make the 1926 Strike a general strike. More than anything, this happened because of the extended collaboration and camaraderie between trade union bodies representing various sectors of the working class. If local communities sustain movements at a local level, trade unions are bodies for the building of solidarity at a large scale. If at the end the movement collapsed because of the betrayal of the trade union leadership, it only goes to show the significance of the networks that the trade unions created and utilised. Furthermore, this betrayal is nothing but the willingness to accept local resolutions to general issues, and in that the cutting of the roots of solidarity.

Trade unions are bodies, which though they emerge from local experiences of struggle, are actually not limited to the specificity one particular struggle. If transformation has to be systemic, and has to be brought about by a united working class, then the task of forming a fully conscious, united working class is the first true goal to be sought. Trade unions, and like bodies, that synthesise the wisdom of various local working class experiences are essential to the formation of this class (for-itself). Insofar as trade unions contribute to the construction of socialism, by facilitating the transformation of the working-class-in-itself to a working-class-for-itself, they go against the shallow economism that is associated with trade unionism. The 1926 General Strike demonstrated that trade unions could become bodies to facilitate generalisation. Solidarity was built at a national level through the action of these unions. Betrayal took place when the same trade unions accepted a local resolution, and in that sold out the working-class for the interests for a group of workers. Fittingly, one of the main clauses that the “Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927,” which was a response to the 1926 General Strike, introduced, forbade “sympathetic strikes”.


The local moment of a struggle is not always supported by the residual, should there be a residual. Very often the residual is a functional part of the dominant, and has no oppositional value. Despite the problems of his larger thesis, in Rethinking Working Class History, Dipesh Chakrabarty makes an important observation about the Calcutta Jute Mills: individuals belonging to the middle class provided leadership in many struggles of the workers. Because of the lack of bourgeois-democratic structures the symbolic horizon of the workers did not allow for them to take the role of leaders. The oppositional structures that were formed, strangely, were modelled on feudal hierarchies, now formally subsumed by capitalism in order to reproduce itself. In its articulation with the residual, the oppositional took a form that was already co-opted.

Alternatively, it could happen that the oppositional could get accommodated without deriving its form from (as was the case with the Calcutta workers) a co-opted residual. To take an example closer home (in space and in time), workers’ struggles in the industrial belt in Haryana (Gurgaon, Manesar, Dharuhera, Kapashera) often culminate in, and falter at the demand for a union. Evidently, a recognised union is needed for the workers to be able to articulate their real demands; the union, and the demand for it, comes across as a necessary moment of mediation. The problem with this demand, as some have so competently argued (e.g., Maya John), is that this demand forces the movement into a form that systematically destroys internal democracy and channels of communication between leaders and the rank-and-file, which then usually causes the movement to collapse. The demand for a union is obviously not a co-opted piece of residue. It is an institutionalised form of working class wisdom, gained from past experience, and yet its institutionalisation implies that it too is actually co-opted. Of course, even if the demand for a union were met, it would still mean a defeat for the working-class movement, insofar as a local resolution has been achieved and the process of generalisation cut short.

Not only the residual, but even formations that are produced by experiences of the working class, can be accommodated and can lead to the co-option of new moments of oppositional experience. Nothing can be celebrated as a strong, stable bulwark for resistance. At one moment of working-class experience the residual becomes the basis for opposition, and on another leads to co-option. The institutions and tactics that have emerged from the experience of struggle can at a later moment become the cause of accommodation. This should make us think of why Williams’ belaboured the point about seeing society for the process it is, instead of understanding it in terms of reified images.

The usual mistake that one makes in using categories that Williams had constructed so carefully is that we reify them even as we assert that they are meant to ward off reification. In a sense, categories, in being synchronic, make such reification inevitable. Despite this, the point of Williams’ repeated warnings, and his constant quibbling with names, seems to derive from this discomfort with bourgeois forms of knowledge, which rely on categories (formal logic being the model for all such forms), and are hence unable to account for flux. The dominant, the emergent, the residual and the oppositional, are all processual categories (if one can allow for the existence of a such a paradoxical entity). There is no such thing as the emergent. Or rather there is no such thing as the emergent. The moment a thing is a thing, it is no longer emergent, but has emerged. What Williams is trying to get at with the concept of the emergent is what is hidden behind that which has emerged. The only thing he can positively assert is that there is something hidden. That the process exists is the only thing one can say about the process, one can never really represent or know the process itself.


It is at times hard to tell whether Williams’ concern is with how things are, or with how we see them; with the thing-in-itself in a phenomenological sense, or our representations of it. Is he trying to argue that society, as culture, is a process, or is he trying to make sure that we reject our reified categories and understand/represent it as the process it is. As a Marxist, his interests lie not in establishing the nature of reality, as an epistemological exercise, but in transforming it. Understanding reality is part of his project, but only insofar as it is a part of the process of transforming reality. The subject, the object, and importantly the manner in which the subject relates to object, are all important for him.

Reification is not merely a problem of thought. As has been demonstrated, past moments of experience tend to get reified as institutionalized wisdom only to block the path of working-class struggle. Reification in thought, our inability to get beyond concepts to understand the process, accompanies reification in the unfolding of history; capitalism is one such block in the unfolding of this process. History cannot unfold without the destruction of capitalism, and without its destruction the process that we speak of unfolds like the belt of a treadmill, seeming to have moved, only to return after having gathered a bit more dust. Of course movements have happened, and the working class has attacked capitalism, but these barriers to capital have, so far, been accommodated by newer, more generalized forms of capitalism, newer ways of appropriating surplus; despite the resurgence of non-identity, identity has managed to sustain itself.

Representation and recognition lie, as does transformation, in the domain of the subject. So, in confronting these questions, Williams confronts the question of the subject. Reification, as was said above, is a concrete contradiction. The aporia of thought that every recognition is a misrecognition etc., is constituted by and is constitutive of this contradiction. Williams, in asking us to recognize the process, is asking us to recognize what, in effect, does not exist; the process of de-reification, because reification is a fact, not an illusion, cannot be completed in thought. The never-ending search for adequate concepts can never come to a close, because the search for concepts, philosophy itself, begins with the problem of reification. To resolve the problem of philosophy inside philosophy is to leave unquestioned reification as an actually existent fact, which ensures that each philosophical resolution, as each concrete resolution that is partial, becomes reified. Unable to find adequate concepts, or always being conscious of, and made uncomfortable by the inevitable inadequacy of concepts, Williams is invariably pushed into questions of policy and pragmatic engagement.

What Williams is asking us to do is to “struggle on two fronts”, as Mao said in the “Red Book”. Reification in thought is, in the final instant, a produce of reification as an aspect of history. We must battle reification in thought; we must realise that society, as history, is a process, and as we do this, we must also fight reification as a material fact. Figuratively, to fight reification in reality is to fight it outside oneself, to fight it in thought, is to fight reification inside oneself. The working class must struggle against capital as capital, but it must also struggle against labor as capital, because capitalism accommodates working class assertions; it continuously transforms the emergent into the emerged.


Fighting labor as capital, means fighting the embourgeoisment of the working class. This embourgeoisment takes the form of institutionalised wisdom (from past experiences) that often fetters movements. Otherwise, the most obvious case of the embourgeoisment of the working class is social democracy (in English politics, the Labor Party) – the politics of compromise. In Border Country, and in all his accounts of British socialist politics, Williams has always kept a critical stance towards social democracy. The betrayal of the trade unions, their acceptance of compromise when the movement could have gone on, was symptomatic of the politics of social democracy.

Social democracy, though it may take various forms, and may use various vocabularies, is typically the institutionalisation of a moment of working class assertion. The working class fights, and capitalism accommodates the assertion by accepting some localised demands (localised in that they do not transform the system in its fundamentals) – in the English case, this is what Perry Anderson (in English Questions) had called the working class’s incorporation. Over a period of time this corporatism gives birth to the belief that with continuous reform the current system will better itself. Williams seems to have the problems of social democracy in mind when he says,

“Straight incorporation is most directly attempted against the visibly alternative and oppositional class elements: trade unions, working-class political parties, working-class life styles…The process of emergence, in such conditions, is then a constantly repeated, an always renewable move beyond a phase of practical incorporation: usually made much more difficult by the fact that much incorporation looks like recognition, acknowledgement, and thus a form of acceptance.” (Marxism and Literature, 124-25)

Incorporation, more concretely, social democracy, blocks the continuous unfolding of the process. The working-class’s perpetual struggle to destroy capitalism comes to a halt with the belief that the current system is good enough, insofar as it has been able to take into account the needs of the emergent working-class. The feeling that the current system, which was being challenged till now, is good enough, is related to the feeling that it is total (in fact, this too follows from repeated accommodation, i.e. repeated failure of movements to bring fundamental change): there is no possible outside to it, and if any change has to come it has to come through a process of continuous modification from within. Williams’ response to this is:

“…No mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention.” (Emphasis author’s, Marxism and Literature, 125)

The belief that the current moment is the only possible comes from blindness to flux, blindness to the fact that the past was different, and that difference is possible even in the present. This blindness is the product, furthermore, of concrete, identifiable processes of struggle and incorporation. Williams’ call to be aware of the processual logic of history, and to flux, is on the one hand a critical realist call to recognise reality for what it is, and not give in to the amnesia of the incorporated moment – reality is moving, do not let yourself get fooled by the stillness of what you see. On the other, it comes from the recognition that it is necessary to realise that change is possible, and that no matter how all-encompassing the system may seem, it has its blind-spots, its exclusions, for subjects to struggle for change, and not be cowed down into passive acceptance of the given. The struggle against reification in thought accompanies and empowers the struggle against reification in action. And the necessity of this struggle returns us to our earlier discussion of localised resolutions, which really, has been the underlying theme of this essay. It is necessary to fight reification because it is the biggest barrier in the process of generalisation, which is to say, in the process of the formation of a united working-class.

Note: This essay was written in April-May 2012.


Anderson, Perry. English Questions. London: NLB, 1980.

John, Maya. “Workers’ Discontent and Form of Trade Union Politics”. Economic and Political Weekly, (January 7, 2012).

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. London: OUP, 1977.

Williams, Raymond. Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy and Socialism. London: Verso, 1989.

Bagchi, Amiya. “Working Class Consciousness”. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 25, No. 30 (Jul. 28, 1990), PE54-PE60.


An Account of the January 18-19 (2014) Meeting on Working Class Politics at Sevagram

In our October (2013) meeting at Sevagram, we sought to comprehend the lag between the evolving nature of capital-labour conflicts and the institutionalised political language that most of us spoke – how latter was becoming a hurdle not just in not allowing us to make any meaningful contribution in workers’ politics, but many times by forcing us to play unknowingly reactionary role by thwarting the full realisation of politico-organisational potential of workers’ spontaneity and self-activism. It was this task of understanding and overcoming the lag that led us to demand from ourselves for our January meeting an attempt to engage in “workers’ inquiry” (the concept that we discussed in October) and deconstruct our politico-organisational programmatic abstractions in terms of reflections upon our engagement in concrete processes of class conflicts in our areas of work.

There were presentations from Nagpur that dealt with the history of workers’ struggles under a competitive regime of multiple trade unionism in particular industries. They showed how, on the one hand, these trade unions complemented the managerial techniques to produce and reproduce divisions among workers. On the other hand, various segments of workers indulged in ‘opportunistic’ manoeuvrings of the agencies of these unions to confront capital. During the discussions it came out that in recent years more and more workers in these industries are employed through contractors and on casual basis, and are thus generally not part of any union. The comrades from Nagpur stressed on bad unionism that simply instrumentalised workers for political gains and pointed at the lack of political consciousness among workers as a reason for their instrumentalisation. They do not consider workers’ said “opportunism” as a possible self-activity under specific conditions of entrenched unionist competition. However, it was pointed out during the discussion that ‘self-activity’ and ‘self-organisation’ are not to be glorified, rather they must be taken as something that necessarily happen in conflictual relationships between labour and capital.

A report presented from Dhanbad dealt with changes in industrial relations in collieries – with more and more workers being employed through contractors. The problem of multiple unionism on the basis of political lines does nothing but divide the strength and class consciousness of workers – they give a ready mechanism for the management to divide and rule. But the experience of collieries demonstrates that many a times workers, through their own initiatives and spontaneous coordination, confront managements. These initiatives force unions to come together, especially not to allow the competitors to take advantage. It was pointed out during the discussions that the unionist competition complementing the managerial strategies tend to clog out spaces for workers self-initiatives. It takes the suddenness of spontaneity to flush out blockages to workers’ coordination.

There was a report on the activities of Revolutionary Bolshevik Circle (RBC) and Union Research Group (URG) in 1970s -1980s that also touched upon independent cooperative experiments like that of Kamani Tubes in Mumbai. A worker-activist, who worked in RBC and later on was very closely associated with URG, presented the report. While the RBC was an attempt to move beyond traditional mass bureaucratic political formation within the working class, the leadership soon realised the gap between its programme and workers themselves – a gap between what they were targeting and what workers were up to. In their efforts to transcend this ‘communication gap’, the circle effectively dissipated itself in eclectic concerns of social importance – thus, reducing the working class to the sociologies of stratification and to mere one of those concerns.

The URG was a product of this dissipation, but was a unique recognition of the complexity of industrial relations beyond just the street rhetoric and muscle flexing that traditional unionism entailed. It did some very interesting studies on hi-tech industries and sought to develop the self-capacity of workers in organising themselves beyond the pecuniary logic of traditional unionism. It sought to arm the workers’ leadership in a factory with its research so that they negotiate with capital as equals and with an advantage – a knowledge of the opponents’ possible moves – changes in technology and managerial strategies. However, as it came out during the discussions, in the process URG seemed to idealise employees’ unions against traditional unions where ‘outsiders’ held the leadership, and sanctified the institutions of collective bargaining. It was noted that the stress on employees unions went well with the upcoming multi-national industries at the time that were wary of India’s traditional ‘political’ trade unionism and its erratic nature, and preferred either no unions or unions which would have interest in companies’ growth.

A contingent of University Workers, which mostly consist of students and adhoc teachers from various universities in Delhi, discussed their project of bringing out a newspaper, The University Worker (the draft of its first issue was circulated at the meeting). They discussed the crisis of the traditional left student movement, which conceived universities and education as sites of privileges. The political tasks for this movement were envisaged in a dual manner. On the one hand, the ‘workplace’ struggle was reformist and limited to making education inclusive, so that the underprivileged could share the privileges. Inclusion here implied both – an accommodation of more and more students from the underprivileged communities and a change in the curriculum design that can build an environment to facilitate such accommodation. On the other, the ‘revolutionary’ task was to mobilise martyrs who could sacrifice some of their privileges or utilise them to support the masses struggling somewhere else. Students’ movements too reflected the programmatic divide between the economic and the political – instrumentalising the former to prioritise the latter. Left students’ organisations like other left mass organisations engaged in “economic” struggles to mobilise cadres for “political” struggles which were supposedly happening at different sites or planes. During the Naxalbari phase, when we find a heightening of the discourse of sacrifices among students, it was mainly a symptom of a tremendous existential crisis among them. They were unable and unwilling to face the truth of their proletarianisation, in the wake of a massive increase in educated unemployment in the 1960s-70s. The political was an escape from the economic.

However, what we see now is ever more realisation that education is another work-site – it is integral to the social factory. It too is driven by the same logic of capitalist productivity and work discipline that is imposed through hierarchies and relationships that constitute the university system. Further, the hierarchisation of disciplines, schools, colleges, universities etc reproduces the same segmentation that characterises the labour market and the division among workers. The recent course restructuring and conflicts over it, especially in Delhi University, remarkably reflect all these processes. This has really changed the level of discourse in university politics – students and their organisations talking about the segmented labour market that the university system perpetuates and about the workerisation of the student life, while teachers reflecting upon intensity, productivity and the devaluation of their work to the level of instructors’ – the fading of their autonomy. There is a tremendous increase in ‘flexible’ employment in education – ad hocs, guest lecturers etc., are generally taken up by research students and new graduates. All this has virtually made the old understanding of solidarity redundant and even reactionary – because it leads to escapism and refuses to think education as a site of open class struggle. What is required is an inquiry-based coordination of concrete questions, and struggles around them, among various segments of workers divided across work-sites, including the sphere of education.

It was this presentation of university and schooling as sites of class struggle that opened up debates regarding the conceptualisation of class as a process continually posed and composed against and through proletarianisation and conflicts over the mobilisation and subsumption of living labour.

We also discussed the politics of common man (aam aadmi) as a statist response to the legitimation crisis that the capitalist state has been facing – and how its prime motivation is to organise and coopt the “street rage”, which is an expression of socially widespread precarities that manifests the mass character of intensive proletarianisation happening today. We discussed how in the centre of the recent anti-corruption and anti-rape movements were the anxieties and precarities of various proletarianised segments. We also tried to understand in the present conjuncture the meaning of spectacular gestures in terms of which traditional radicalism judged its successes, when they necessarily tended to blunt the critical edge of the centrality of the working class in the name of overcoming economism and socialising the unrest.

Faridabad Majdoor Samachar (FMS) presented their note on electronics – how its introduction has made many conceptualisations and organisational forms irrelevant for the contemporary working-class movement. There is a general consensus among managements about loyalty and commitment that permanent workers display – this consensus never dies as it revives every time some or other incident of defiance involving temporary workers occurs. But the unpredictability to which the introduction of electronics has exposed companies and governments by decomposing and intensifying production, along with the services transformation does not leave any scope for them to settle with permanent workforce. An increase in the temporary workforce is not a mark of strength and success for these companies and governments, as generally presented by experts and labour activists, but rather it exposes their fragility. They are eventually exposed to more precarities – mercurial and indifferent youthful workforce, having worked in geographically and industrially diverse environments at the age of 20-25 years. They can buy their labour-power, but not loyalty and commitment. The new spirit of the labour movement is embodied by these workers. It came out during the discussion that institutionalised organisational forms and languages are unable to capture this spirit. They are not only incapable of organising these workers, they are even unable to recognise the simmering unrest until and unless some grave incident happens. Therefore, the unpredictable behaviour of these workers is not only a problem for the human resource managements of companies, but also for the big and small managers of the labour movement.

The discussion on the organisational question was informed by debates around these reportings. The two notes that were circulated prior to the discussion were read in the light of diverse experiences. The note from a Kolkata comrade was, in fact, a response to the invitation letter that was circulated before the October Sevagram meeting, in which he raised apprehensions on any attempt to write off the utility of trade unions and party-forms for the contemporary workers’ movement. Trade union continues to play a defensive role in class struggle, however its bureaucratisation and conservatism must be challenged from below. While history has seen various forms of workers’ organisations, “no form can either nullify or guarantee self-activities of the working class.” Further, one can definitely question the substitutionist tendency, but that should not become the ground to reject the role of theory, individual and party as a network of communists.

The second note written by a comrade from Nagpur was a response to the first note. It questioned the radical utility of preconceived organisational forms – trade unions and party – outside the labour and capital conflict. Trade unions because of their permanent legal nature have become institutions that cannot question capitalist legality – seeking to reproduce capital as social power, which is established through the wage system. They become complicit in this reproduction. Therefore, independent workers organisations are necessary. The role of communists is to aid workers in developing and sustaining the class capacity to self-emancipate themselves. But in order to undertake this role, they must be inseparable from the working class and fully grounded in class praxis.

During the course of discussion it was pointed out that it is not sufficient to present a critique of forms only in their own terms – forms are historically specific, contextual. Workers’ organisational forms relate to specific junctures and purpose in class struggle. The resilience of forms must motivate us to examine how the same forms might have changed their functionality and purpose in accordance to their appropriateness in the structure of new reality. In the case of TUs, their legalisation per se is not a problem – because it was also a demand of the movement to decriminalise them. Instead, the issue is whether they are capable of comprehending the exigencies of the political recomposition of today’s working class, whether they are capable of resisting or have become complicit in its normalisation as technical class composition – in the management of class conflicts.

It was generally accepted during the discussions that the radical character of class conflicts is already evident in the self-activities of workers in their daily encounter with capital and each other since here they confront the root of the capitalist system – the capitalist imposition of work. This recognition exposes the impotence and irrelevance of preconceived organisational forms and vanguardist manoeuvrings, except in dealing with the after-effects of immediate confrontations – the political displacement of class conflicts in representative articulation of demands, rights, claims etc that necessarily must present the effects in understandable (political) language.

To keep apace with the time, the need to meet every three months was reiterated and it was decided to have the next meeting in Delhi on April 19-20, 2014.

Theorising the Present Political Crisis in Bangladesh

Nazmul Sultan

Predictably enough, with the arrival of the scheduled parliamentary elections, Bangladesh has once again become entangled in a rather inextricable political crisis. The recently held national parliamentary elections—boycotted by the major opposition parties—is only a prelude to further political contestation over the occupation of state power. The crisis is structural and constitutive of the political system— the moral bankruptcy and the lack of will that the concerned political parties show is not the cause, but rather the effect, of the structural conflict. Elections—that is, the process through which the occupier of the centre of explicit political power is periodically shifted—take place amid chaos and unrest across the world. The procedural concern regarding elections might be a problem in its own right, but this is not the fundamental source of the present crisis in Bangladesh. The crux of the problem lies in the irresolvable contradiction constitutive of the distribution of explicit political power in Bangladesh. What is at stake is not simply the dysfunctionality of institutions such as the election commission, nor is it primarily a conflict between the two political parties over the occupation of power. To be sure, the power struggle between the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is the occasion that triggers the crisis. However, the fundamental source of the crisis, as I will seek to show in this article, lies in the conflictual instability over the very distribution of political power, involving the political society, civil society, military apparatus and, not so obviously, the people.

Elections and the Suspension of Power

Let us start with a plain narration of the crisis at stake. Apparently, the crisis is about the failure of the two parties to reach an agreement regarding the procedural arrangement of national parliamentary politics. The terms of procedural arrangement concerns this central register of dispute: the suspension of political power of the elected ruling party. The provisional Non-party Caretaker Government — once orchestrated as an apparently innovative solution to this crisis — is no longer a viable option for the political society. The legally-sanctioned arrangement of the caretaker government required the elected ruling party to suspend its power three months prior to election so that the non-party provisional government could oversee the electoral process. Although the chief of the provisional government was required to be chosen from among retired Supreme Court chief justices, the advisers were chosen from the recommended candidates by the political parties. As a result, the political society collectively retained control over the provisional government. Despite the presence of the non-party provisional government, the pre-election period had always been marked by political confrontation between the major parties. The contention over the appointment of the Chief Adviser of the provisional government in 2006 ended up in a political stalemate and resulted in a quasi-military coup that installed another Caretaker Government for the next couple of years. The coming together of the civil society actors and the military to occupy the place of governmental power added a twist to the preceding contestation that was limited to being one between the political and civil societies. Heavily persecuted by the military-backed regime, both the major political parties share a common opposition against the extra-political-society agents. So now, while the BNP demands that a national government be installed prior to the election, the AL dismisses the demand by claiming that the non-partisan provisional government would pave the way for the intrusion of non-political actors (a not-so-hidden reference to the civil society) in the sphere of political power.

The explicit political power – at its institutionalised locus — is disproportionately concentrated in the ruling regime. The power of the ruling regime appears to be an almost permanent prerogative. The ruling regime holds sway over almost all the central registers of political power, perhaps with the exception of the civil society. In most cases, the ruling regime is also able to secure its political control over the military, a force whose relative autonomy nevertheless remains fairly obvious. The concentration of power is generally explained by the lack of functionality of the institutions. The lack of will among politicians to allow institutions to function autonomously is then singled out as the source of the problem. The lack of autonomous procedurality in the political institutions is, of course, apparent. However, to delimit the problem to the moral lack of the politicians is to overlook the underlying logic that generates the concentration of power. Although, as I remarked earlier, there is a “conflictual instability” in the distribution of power, this instability should not be conflated with disequilibrium. Often in the form of parallelism with the supposedly “ideal types” of democracy in the West, the political arrangement of non-western countries is theorised as the lack of equilibrium among institutions. Such an understanding of our political horizon misses the presence of a distinct organism that cannot readily be understood in terms of western political models. The arrangement of power is unstable, but this instability forms an equilibrium of its own. Regardless of the impression that the facticity of political institutions provide, political power is not an unmoored force reproduced by the monopoly over violence. The question of legitimacy is crucial here. This is so not only because of its justification of the relationship of domination (as pointed out by Weber), but also because of the production of political power through the contesting process of legitimation. There is a gap that separates the claim of popular sovereignty from the institutions. In the putatively universal mode of modern democracy’s self-description, the constitutions of the post-colonial nation-states state that the people are the sovereign, and they transfer that sovereignty to the elected regime through periodic elections. In other words, the elected government and the political institutions claim to represent the people. This normative account is inadequate in understanding the disseminated form of political sovereignty, as it misses how the claims of sovereignty remain more volatile, contingent and tied up with the staging of the extra-institutional people.

In the case of Bangladesh, the foundation of the present political order was laid by the event of 1971. The political horizon of “the national” conditions the form of political legitimacy and draws the spectrum of partisanship. The dominant form of legitimacy that exists in Bangladesh is correlated with the “Bengali nation”—i.e. the Bengali nation’s right to rule over itself. This form of legitimacy has no determinate dovetailing with the institutionalised regime of the political. If the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and other legally autonomous spheres of political order cannot lay claim to be autonomous agencies and are easily folded under the agency of the ruling regime, this is primarily because of the reason that these institutions cannot appeal to the founding legitimacy in the way the extra-institutional people do. Granted, these institutions have their own logics of operation, and yet they have no agency to assert their political autonomy. Even whatever legitimacy the operation of pastoral power provides to the ruling regime, it is always vulnerable vis-à-vis the claims of the extra-institutional people. In any case, the imbalance of power, I would suggest, has a deeper root than sheer institutional dysfunctionality. The ruling regime is in a position to control and navigate the institutions at the level of decision, if not at the level of institutional logic. The concentration of power in the hand of the ruling regime results in an irresolvable tension within the sphere of political power. At the moment of election – that is, the moment when the power is to be transferred — the systematic absence of an autonomous procedurality and the attendant concentration of power in the ruling regime enter into a sharp contest. The opposition party — along with the civil society and any other actors concerned with a “fair” election — cannot but oppose the occurrence of elections under the aegis of the ruling regime. There are two forms of determinate contest in the political sphere: (i) the apparent and predominant contest between the political parties, who, in their identity and difference, form the political society; (ii) the simultaneous tension between the political and civil societies. The Non-partisan Caretaker Government was a solution that kept the suspended power within the political society with the aim of mitigating the tension between the two main parties. This option has lost its credibility owing to the introduction of the second form of contest following the rupture of the military-backed regime. The military-backed caretaker regime has established that the suspension of political power for the “caretakers” to come into being is not immune to the intrusion of the civil society into the sphere that the political society claims as its own. There is clearly a generalised opposition to the civil society from the partisans of political society. Evidently, both the BNP and the AL are not willing to leave power to a caretaker government that is open to the influence of extra-political-society actors. Thus the BNP came up with another option, that of the “national government”. Clearly, this would be more immune to the risks than what the old model of the caretaker government faced. The problem is there is not enough political force present in the political sphere to make the AL accept this otherwise amenable demand. The political ambition of the ruling party lies in outdoing both the external civil society and the opposition party (internal to political society) by way of rhetorically reducing the opposition party and the civil society to the same level.

French political theorist Claude Lefort famously argued that the locus of power is empty in democracy.(1) In contrast to the monarchic regime, wherein the king embodied society by virtue of being the mediator between the other-worldly and the worldly, the source of the legitimacy that hierarchically ordered society broke down with the arrival of modern democracy. Against the grain of the much-vaunted claim of modern liberal democracy concerning its ability to represent the will of the people in an institutionalised form, Lefort has argued that neither the people nor the institutionalised structure can occupy the empty place of power. The place of power is impersonal, and thus it is impossible for any political agency to identify itself with the locus of power. It is a form of society that internalises the impossibility of representing the people in the political institutions, despite taking the former as a symbolic ground of power. According to Lefort, it was not for nothing that many socialists and liberals protested against universal suffrage in its inaugural moment. The numericalisation of the will of the people would effectively displace the substantial and extra-institutional emergence and assertion of the people. Since the locus of power is empty and society is instituted without an organic body, the tendency of disincorporation introduces a gap between the sphere of power, and law and knowledge. Legality and the sphere of knowledge assert their independence from the sphere of power. Lefort’s argument hinges on the observation that only the mechanism of the exercise of power is visible, not the locus of the power itself. The government, or that which possesses the executive register of power, is posterior to the institutionalised form that conditions it. And thus, says Lefort, the government is not capable of embodying the power in itself, nor can it use the power for its own end. It does exercise power explicitly, but the government cannot identify with the mechanism and process that allow it to exercise power. In that sense, the institutional-form that makes it possible for the government to exercise power is prior. Furthering Lefort’s argument, Ernesto Laclau contends that there is a permanent gap between the form and content of political community in democracy. As a supplement to Lefort, Laclau argues that democracy “requires the constant and active production of the emptiness.”(2) The particular hegemonic “aggregation of demands” tends to be generalised and, in so doing, it seeks to represent the (incomplete) universality of the community through the particularity of its own constitution.

Lefort’s theorisation of modern democracy poses considerable questions and problems. His account is based on the transition from monarchy to democracy. While for someone like Foucault the ruptural shift from the old monarchic regime to the modern institutionalised democracy coincided with the expansion of disciplinary practices to the finest grain of society, Lefort’s account describes the political organisation of the form of modern society as indeterminately determinate, claiming a rupture among the spheres of (political) power, knowledge and legality. Lefort is certainly correct in arguing that the marker of certainty has dissolved in modern democracy insofar as the ordering of society is concerned, as the political order of society was no longer strictly hierarchised. However, it is unclear how would he theorise the empty locus of power itself other than referring to the void that had been produced through the disappearance of the monarchic form and reproduced by the sustenance of the institutional arrangement of modern democracy. Insofar as the empty locus of power acts as a foundation (as its emptiness determines how the sphere of power is arranged and correlated with other spheres), it is imperative for us to think whether it is pure emptiness or a form of (incompletely and contingently) saturated political foundation. The case of Bangladesh is an interesting instance. Coming out of the colonial experience, Bangladesh is certainly not the ideal site for thinking Lefort’s Europe-centered account of democracy. That being the case, the distribution of political power in Bangladesh clearly poses certain questions that are akin to Lefort’s problematic. Given the concentration of power in the ruling regime and the lack of autonomy of the political institutions, there is a profound imbalance in the distribution of political power. This adds complexity to the form of political sphere. As our discussion of election and its attendant suspension of political power has shown, there is a fundamental uncertainty regarding the very form — and not just content — of the political community. If all the contests were over the content of power, there would not have been enough reason for disputing the suspension of power. The otherwise banal ideological debates among political parties indicates that the core of their political reasoning is not so much concerning governance, but rather about instantiating the border and order of the political community. The political parties thus manifest the drive to collapse the distinction between the prior empty place of power and their occupation of it, as though their particular occupation of power is the only means to safeguard it. This centripetal force of power also explains why the sphere of law and knowledge are so closely tailed with the political sphere in Bangladesh. The subordination of legality to politics — whether in the form of para-legalism or simple suspension — is barely a matter of dispute. More interestingly, the intellectual sphere of Bangladesh shows a remarkable tendency to divide itself between the rival camps of Bengali and Bangladeshi nationalism, while the autonomy-seeking section of it remains trapped in unreflective contrarianism. While the constitutional democratic political structure formally generates a necessity for extricating the place of power from the particular contents that occupy it, this institutional drive is neutralised and outdriven by the presence of a saturated political foundation that collapses the distinction between form and content of politics. Unlike the Laclauian hegemony that explains the occupation of power through the becoming-universal of a particularity amid the plurality of demands and groups, the appeal to the foundation of political community generates a desire for an immediate identity between the form and content of the polity. The drive to saturate the empty locus of power is that which explains both the danger and potency of Bangladesh’s political horizon. The articulation of this claim would require us to make a foray into how the people construct themselves by bypassing the logic of institutions.

The People and the Institutions

Between the people and the sphere of political power, there is a lack of correspondence. This is, however, a lack that is systematic. To be sure, the failure to reflect the political will of “the people” in the institutional order of the political system is the perennial crisis of modern representative democracy. This is a constitutive failure of constitutional democratic system — it is inherently incapable of accommodating the extra-institutional entity that is the people. In the West, “public opinion” emerged as a mediating process in introducing the institutionalised correspondence between the people and the political institutions. Public opinion, of course, is not the pure will of the people. Its form is institutionally determined, whereby the opinion of the individuated citizens – which is distinct from the truth-claim that a political collectivity pushes for — operates within clear limits. Given the absence of the role that “public opinion” plays in the West, there is a vacuum between the institutions and the people. As I said earlier, the gap is constitutive of constitutional democracy. What is, however, specific to the Bangladeshi scenario is the absence of any mitigating correspondence between the two poles. No absence, however, is pure absence. This structural particularity is also at the root of the extra-institutional politicisation of the people in the Bangladeshi context. What we call the people is far from being a readily accessible political category. Instead, it is one of the most complex political entities. Partly because of the “failure” of the institutions to set up a neutralising correspondence with the people a la public opinion, the Bangladeshi people are in a privileged position to extra-systematically contest political power. As the diagram shows, the political construction of the people leaps over the realm of non-correspondence and directly enters into the realm of power.(3) The Shahbag movement is an apt example. The current scenario is complicated precisely because of the Shahbag event. It heralded a new political configuration. To portray the post-Shahbag crisis as merely a contest between proponents and opponents of the trial of war criminals is to fall short of understanding how the congealed image of Shahbag has transformed the ordinary regime of power distribution. Moving beyond the myopic concern with what the demand of the movement was and who constituted the sociological formation of its ranks, we need to look at the way in which it amounted to a contestatory construction of the people and, in so doing, mobilised an extra-institutional source of legitimacy.

diagram for RN article

The political power that the movement generated did not arise through any institutional process, nor did it gather force in the manner of issue-based social movements that operate through channeling the demands and mounting pressure on the concerned authority. The event came into being abruptly, and mobilised political claims by way of reclaiming the founding legitimacy of the polity. The people that the Shahbag Movement brought into being by way of re-invoking the political community form founded by 1971 is political in the sense that it generated political power independently of the permanent agencies of the sphere of political power. The virtual impossibility of affecting the sphere of political power through an institutionalised process breeds the possibility for the people to put themselves in the sphere of political power through bypassing what I have called “the sphere of systematic non-correspondence”. As I argued above, while the Shahbag movement contended with the state over the source of legitimacy, it did not result in an antagonistic contestation with the state over political power. This is precisely the feature that made it susceptible to the cooptation of the ruling regime. With the symbolic fulfillment of the explicit demands that the movement put forward, the AL regime could articulate the afterlife of the movement in its own terms. Political events do not just burst through the surface and then vanish without any effect. They do disappear, but in so doing, they alter the relations of forces in often not-so-apparent manner. The continued presence of the Shahbag Movement registers such a transformation. On the one hand, it has made it nearly impossible for the political parties and platforms to negotiate with what the movement had identified as “anti-1971” forces, thus affecting the border of the regime of political power. On the other hand, its claim to the source of legitimacy –and the attendant construction of the people — provided it with a political authority that, however, was not directly antagonistic to the state. These paradoxical features have rendered the event amenable to cooption by the ruling regime, which through such cooption sought to boost itself with the power that flowed from the Shahbag Movement. If the Shahbag Movement is reduced to the demands that it voiced, then it is possible to find the cooption acceptable. The present crisis is not a crisis centered on the war-criminal issue. It is a structural crisis integral to our political system, whereby the afterlife of the Shahbag movement has added productive complexity to the crisis.

The empty politics of “good governance”

The civil society is once again at the forefront of national politics. The civil society — or what is rather barbarically translated as Susheel Samaj (civilised society) in Bengali — is a complex entity whose understanding requires close theoretical and historical investigation. This is a task that I cannot undertake here. The grotesque name that they have given themselves is more than a symptom of mere linguistic incompetence. It designates the preconception that posits both the political society and the people as unqualified subjects of politics. Nevertheless, let us consider some of the prevalent (mis)conceptions about civil society in the context of Bangladesh. While it is obviously true that the Bangladeshi civil society did not evolve in the way in which western civil societies have, this contrast does not warrant us to conceptualise this civil society as historically parasitic or an entity without any social root. The civil society is neither simply a conglomeration of self-interested agents bent on procuring their economic and cultural interests. To be sure, they are self-interested, but that does not tell us much about their political drives and actions. The modern theorisation of civil society that came into being with Hegel explicates it as a mediator between the natural realm of family and the rational sphere of the state. For Hegel, individuals operate as self-interested subjects in civil society; but, in so doing, they conjure up a collective rationality which, in turn, results in a form of society that strikes a balance between the individual and the collective. The self-conception of Bangladeshi civil society expresses the desire to mediate between the “development-seeking” people and the “corrupted and irrational” state. However, since they deem the state as utterly irrational and self-serving, and the people as incapable of acting at the institutional sites, that dual presuppositions lead them to decide for both the state and the people. The task of mediation, as it were, is nothing less than dictating the logics of the entities between which they purport to mediate. In one sense, the political constitution of civil society captures the paradox of our political community in a rather actualised way. The paradox resides in the duality of the nation and the state. The civil society is as much under the condition of the national as any other political agent in Bangladesh. The cultural imagination of the civil society, however westernised, clearly feeds into the horizon of Bengali nationalism. The border and order of the political community that it envisages is under the condition of the national. As I noted above, its commitment to the liberal-democratic structure as the form of governance – with its attendant institutionalism, moral and cultural configurations and so on — puts them in an antagonistic relationship with regard to the political society. Indeed, there is clearly a generalised opposition to the civil society from the otherwise diverging entities of the political society. If the ruling regime does little to ensure the autonomy and independence of the institutions such as the judiciary and administration, it is because these institutions do not figure in the production of legitimacy and its attendant political power in the way in which the street does. Missing this central site of political power, the civil society takes institutions as the objects of politics. The liberal democracy that they push for is one that only knows institutions, extricated as it is from the extra-institutional sources of politics.

Being preoccupied with the task of ostracising corruption from the institutions, the politics of “good governance” is unable to intervene in the extra-institutional sites of politics. As a result, it is an ideology — regardless of its intentions — that strives to negate and excoriate the unruly self-representing people from the sphere of politics. The true subject of the politics of “good governance” is a non-subject proper. From the student rebellion of 2007 to the Shahbag Movement, the civil society had found itself incapable of — if not always indifferent to — dealing with the extra-institutional grounding of politics. The signature characteristic of the civil society’s political vision is the fear of disorder. Constitutionally incapable of realising how the moments of “disorder” are the fecund sites of politics, the civil society locates the source of all crises in the corruption of institutions. Owing to the lack-based understanding specified above, it transposes political contestations on to an empty normative horizon. The failure to influence both the institutional terrain dominated by the ruling regime and the extra-institutional sites, the ideologues of good governance have no other option than relying on the superlative intervention of western diplomats and the military.

The Crisis of the Left-Over Left

This complicated scenario of national politics has dragged the left into a quagmire. The modest success of the post-1971 Left has been dependent on the mobilisation of the nationalist condition of politics. With the emergence of a group of strong nationalist political activists in the last decade — a group that ideologically leans towards the Awami League and yet maintains a distance from its institutional aspects — the Left has been encountering contest and resistance in the attempt to short-circuit between nationalist and traditional leftist discourses. Nor can the Left lay claim to represent the urban workers and poor, the conspicuous outsider in the national politics. In short, the left is unable to instantiate any particular people as the legitimising ground of its politics. The stage-ist left, by and large, is happy to hibernate, while waiting for the coming of the pure (and thus mythological) class-conscious working class. The more active section of the left is oriented to the social issues. In the recent past, they have rather successfully led few social movements. This otherwise promising social-content-oriented section of the left’s crisis lies in its failure to transform social issues into political contest proper. While the Left’s pointing out of injustice and oppression normatively makes sense to the public, that act of making-sense does not get catapulted into a political contestation by itself. The precondition of the emergence of a political contestation requires not only an articulation of the terms of opposition, but also a contesting horizon of the collectivity, i.e. the possibility of a political community. This is precisely what the Left has been unable to generate in the recent years.

As an insignificant actor in the equation of electoral politics, the Left does not hold any effective leverage in shaping the terms of parliamentary elections. A large chunk of the old Left has allied with — or rather tailed behind —the ruling regime. At the level of ideological articulation, this section of the Left has little bearing on Bangladeshi politics. This political inaction is exacerbated by the Left’s understandably ambivalent relationship to the afterlife of the Shahbag movement. The epochal importance, if any, of the Shahbag movement resided in its instantiation of the possibility to re-enact the politics-form of the national by way of constructing the extra-statal people. With the subsumption of the afterlife of the movement by the ruling regime, the persistent presence of its after-effect has got crystallized into something that tends in the direction of lending legitimacy to the Awami League regime. Clearly, any provisional alliance with the AL has to reckon with the fact that the Shahbag movement does not have primacy here — it is the AL’s internal contest with the oppositional party and the civil society that dictates the terms.

Although it is true that the national is the dominant condition of the political in Bangladesh, there is no reason to resign and hold that there is no possibility of articulating a political grounding that would stand outside the present condition. I argued that the crisis of the Left owes to their growing dislocation from the internal order of the national, resulting in a redundant tailism with the mainstream Bengali Nationalist forces. The “outside” that the left needs is not necessarily an absolute outside — the possibilities of constructing a new ground of politics is present in the society. The possibilities themselves must be seized upon — the task of politics is more about subjectivating those possibilities than about waiting for a fully interiorized outside. The manoeuvre to dislodge this state of politics must re-examine the unquestioned ontological presuppositions and discursive strategies of the traditional Left. Hopefulness is empty and self-circling when it obdurately bypasses the facticity of despair. The Left must recognise and reflect on its apparently unmoving negativity, if it wants to break out of the existing state of political order.


(1) Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, (Cambridge: Polity, 1988).

(2) Ernest Laclau, “Democracy and the Question of Power,” Constellations 8, no. 1 (2001): 12.

(3) I do not consider the anti-Shahbag Hefazat-e-Islami movement as another example of constructing the people. For sure, the Hefazat reaction drew huge crowds, garnering considerable support. However, in terms of the politics-form, it was neither able to carve out a space outside of the national nor was it able to appeal to the existing political foundations. As a result, notwithstanding its numerical force, it remained caught up in the moment of its negative energy vis-à-vis the Shahbag Movement.

Aam Aadmi or the Tyranny of the Average Man

Pratyush Chandra

On the eve of India’s Republic Day, President Pranab Mukherjee made some strong statements about the political scenario prevailing in the country. He talked about democracy as “a sacred trust” for those in power and those who violate it as “committing sacrilege against the nation”; about “democratic institutions being weakened by complacency and incompetence”; about corruption “as a cancer that erodes democracy, and weakens the foundations of our state”. He also talked about “hypocrisy in public life”, about making “false promises”, warning against taking elections as “the licence to flirt with illusions”, government as “a charity shop”, etc. But the most striking aspect of the speech was of course the recognition of street anger, of hearing “an anthem of despair from the street”, of Indians being “enraged”, of “rage”, which “has one legitimate target: those in power”, of “the aspirational young Indian”, who “will not forgive a betrayal of her future.” (Mukherjee 2014)

The speech recognises “the trust deficit between them [those in office] and the people.” It hints at the crisis of legitimation – the crisis of reproducing the liberal state, and the need to rebuild the trust. It also reflects a conservative institutional anxiety towards the populist attempts to overcome this crisis. When the speech attacks “populist anarchy”, the emphasis is on rage turning to proper anarchy because of the erratic nature of populist politics that derives from attempts to synchronise with the tenor of popular apathy and rage, and harness it in the service of the state. Populism that emerges as a resolution to the crisis might in fact deepen it further by “flirting with illusions,” thus augmenting expectations and despair. Therefore, the President stresses on the sacredness of this trust – on identity between the people and the democratic state, and in the process of this identification bringing sanity to the streets, sanitising them of any difference. People can change governments, but they are one with the state. Of course, for any eventuality, the security and armed forces are always ready – “they can crush an enemy within; with as much felicity as they guard our frontiers. Mavericks who question the integrity of our armed services are irresponsible and should find no place in public life”.


Much debate around the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is mainly about the personal acts of leaders and activists, how much they are fulfilling their promises and are true to liberal (left or right) political ideals (norms and ideologies), how much they themselves are embodiments of public values that they seek to institutionalise. You can see left-liberals swinging with the erratic moves of the AAP’s street gymnastics. They are frequently outraged by the AAP’s politically ‘incorrect’ stances that are organic to the common sense of the “common man”. More serious voices too are concerned about the AAP’s discursive and behavioural makeup, which they comprehend through generalisations that were perhaps effective in characterising historical forms of political behaviours. They indulge in analogical exercises which are generally useful, but at times, they can be arrogant, nauseating and sterile apologia for conservative wisdom, inaction and conformism, especially when they refuse to see the now-timeness of these hard times and the breach that characterises them – their non-homogeneity and non-emptiness pregnant with contradictions. Of course, the AAP can be, and perhaps is, as I try to demonstrate here, both a systematic and systemic attempt to transcend this breach, but it is also a symptom of this breach.

It is the recognition of the breach or crisis that is crucial to comprehend the present – not as “a mass of facts”, but something that constellates with the past to remake history as a trajectory that is filled with possibilities and actions, “jumps” and “leaps”, roadmines and explosions.

What is interesting about the AAP is not its promises and its exception-al way of profaning the sacred, which is in continuum with the federalising project of the “average bourgeois” – the rural, mercantile, local, petty and emergent bourgeoisie – that India has witnessed over the last three decades. We must remember we have gone through a whole series of crises marked by eruption of federal demands and have witnessed the resilience of the Indian state in overcoming them through accommodation and expansion. One such major crisis was inaugurated by massive educated unemployment in the late 1960s, an increased assertion of backward caste rural bourgeoisie and of the communally-charged petty bourgeoisie, which significantly transformed the political taxonomy in India based on identitarian conflicts and alliances. That was a crisis which Lohia socialism, JP’s “total revolution” and Naxal Maoism spiced up. It is not surprising if in the AAP we see anti-reservationists, firebrand Lohiaites and retired social democrats (tired of preaching sterile welfarist militancy) coming together in a post-ideological political formation.

In fact, it will not be too much to say that the project of promoting competitive federalism has succeeded with the AAP entering the last citadel of exclusionary centralism of the past. True to Delhi’s prime location, the incident that finally exploded the continuum was characterised by its inter-national composure – racism. The AAP chose to assert its claim or share in the coercive apparatus of the Indian state by abiding to the racist common sense of Delhi’s common man. Those who are outraged by the ‘exceptional’ nature of the incident are those who refuse to see that the exceptional is general and their politically correct spectacular gestures signify the need for new ideological-institutional fetishes that can cover up the blatancy of this generalisation.


So much about the continuity that enters into the making of the AAP phenomenon. Let us now talk about the break – which is not really about the AAP but about the conjunctural newness that shapes the AAP, or about what the AAP tells us about the context of its emergence. Let us begin by a few assertions that we think are very obvious.

The Aam Aadmi Party is an attempt to resolve the legitimation crisis that the Indian state and bureaucracy have been facing in recent years. It is an attempt to overcome the divide between the social and the political that the economic has generated in the neoliberal phase of capitalist development. It is an effort on the part of the Indian political system to bring back the citizenry to recommit itself to India’s state formation. It is an apparently paradoxical attempt to mobilise the simmering political apathy for the task of strengthening the state. Its multi-class nature, which is being celebrated by some commentators (as if there can be any mono-class formation in electoral democracy), in fact makes it another candidate for reassuring the state machinery of the much needed legitimation by neutralising conflictual interests. It is an attempt to bring out some positive common sense out of the non-sense and chaos of the streets. It demonstrates the will of the liberal Indian state to overcome its crisis yet again by recognising and normalising the “democratic excess”. What is posed as “anti-establishment” becomes the ground for strengthening the establishment – a new context in which the state must reproduce itself, its re-formation. In sum, the AAP is a truce – a disarming of the very street from which it claims its origin.

In so many assertions that I make above, there is an understanding of the underlying structure of contemporary reality, of which the AAP is a product. The legitimation crisis that we are talking about is essentially a crisis in the political reproduction of this structure, difficulties for the Indian state to deal with the socio-political impact of the volatility of capital relations that constitute this structure.

The minimisation of the state that neoliberalism demanded was definitely not about withering away of the state, it was not even about its non-intervention in economy, nor about its weakness. It was essentially about the autonomisation of credit money and finance from any socio-political influence, except that which facilitates its expansion. It was about expanding the liberal capitalist state’s capacity to guard against any “externality” in the economic passage, against self-temptations. It was still about depoliticising “the conduct of social relations as relations of liberty, freedom, equality and Bentham”. (Bonefeld 2010) It was always about strengthening “the separation that the state embodies” – “the state separates people, separates leaders from masses, separates the political from the economic, the public from the private”. (Holloway 2010)

Financialisation intensifies the flow of capital on which every economic activity is dependent in capitalism, transcending any plausibility to bind it in a discrete fraction of timespace. It connects lives and work to the precarities of open markets. Ever-intensifying mobility of finance capital has made ineffective the estatal management of money and prices, which had the potential of being influenced by the balance of social forces. It is the sub-alterity of the ‘social’ in this ‘economic’ process that alienates the former, constituting a legitimation crisis for the state especially during the down cycle of economies – a barrier in the process of the social reproduction of state as “a particular surface (or phenomenal) form of the capital relation”. (Holloway & Picciotto 1977) This crisis becomes crucial when it starts creating barriers in the resurgence of the economic – for capitalist accumulation – i.e., when the social starts attacking the divide between the economic and the political as a fetishism, when the social relations of production that finance sought to regulate are problematised and in the process the social itself starts becoming politicised. Ultimately, the insubordination of the social is a manifestation of the inability of capital to subsume living labour, when the latter starts asserting its own autonomy in some or other form.

The essential function of this strong state as neoliberals envisage is to manage the socio-political fallouts of neoliberalism. If people are not ready to give their consent to neoliberalisation, then they must be forced to submit. But this subservient role of the state and its shameless display has progressively weakened its support base in the social and has increased political apathy. Throughout the 1990s and in the 2000s there were numerous occasions when the states throughout the globe had to face unmanageable situations and were either forced to resort to violence or try hard to divert public attention from them by investing more in wasteful exercises. All this exploded in 2008. And Keynesians – left and liberals – were elated to find an opportune moment to call for bringing the state back in – not just as a backstage manager but as the administrator of the economy – managing the demand-and-supply, and setting the prices right. If only wishes had wings. Capitalism needed the welfare state and had it.

What we see today in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, a return of the state which was already there – it is a return of the state as itself – a state which is not just a guard of private players of neoliberalism, but a guardian that secures the basic values of capitalism, ready to reprimand those who foul, ready to listen to those who complain of foul play and to judge. It is (neo)liberal to its core, is committed to socialise the basic liberal values. It abstracts itself from identities to oversee their intermingling and competition, thus reducing them to mere abstract individualities.  It satisfies the “need for the constant political facilitation of free economy by means of a ‘market police’, which includes the embedding of the ‘psycho-moral forces’ of enterprise in society at large to maintain its entrepreneurial ‘vitality’ in the face of a socially and morally disintegrating market logic”. (Bonefeld 2013)

The traditional political formations, including those who claimed a grounding in the segments down the hierarchical ladder, were instrumentalised too much during the insurgent moments of neoliberalism. They are unable to preserve the “separation that the state embodies.” That has incapacitated them from dealing with the social impact of the global economic crisis. Diverse class interests start expressing themselves autonomously and (il-)legitimately swelling the streets, merging the diverse tunes into a cacophony. This cacophony, its incomprehensibility, is what constitutes the legitimation crisis for a state. Traditional political oppositions have failed in their function as interpreters of this outswelling. They are unable to reduce it to mere competition between abstract identities.

It is this cacophony and the inability of the existing political formations to subsume it that India’s President was alluding to in the speech that we referred to in the beginning. The so-called post-ideological formations like the AAP come in handy at this juncture. The a-politics of aam aadmi or common or average man is what can bring back order to the streets – the reduction of difference and conflicts to undifferentiated hordes of abstract individuals identified with the sovereign.


This idea has long been prevalent among political theorists that democracy “presupposes an identity between sovereign and people: sovereign people, popular sovereignty”. This identification is codified in the Indian Constitution too, and it is evident in President Mukherjee’s speech. Legislative changes have sufficed till recently in overcoming any breach or crisis that has cropped up in this identification. Articles 3, 340, numerous amendments to the Constitution and other legislative measures could overcome any breach in the said “identity” and reproduce it within the framework of the Indian state formation.

The twentieth century has reincarnated democracy as a state-form, rather than just a form of government as “in the democracy of the ancients”. In the definition of democracy as a state-form “the word ‘identity’ is useful…because it points to the complete identity of the homogeneous people, this people that exists within itself qua political unit without any further need for representation, precisely because it is self-representing”. (Schmitt, quoted in Tronti 2009) Italian Marxist Mario Tronti elaborates that this identity precludes majoritarianism – the power of the majority. In fact, any difference must be fought away, including between the majority and the minority. Therefore, the discourse of mainstreaming the latter, cutting them to the size of the one – un-ity. “There is in democracy an identitarian vocation hostile to the articulation of any difference whatever as well as to any order of difference”. (Tronti 2009)

Mainstreaming, averaging, neutralising – this is what democracy does. It creates the persona of the average, neutral, common man – Aam Aadmi. Power is de-sacralised, secularised and profaned. Common man is one with the state. Tronti takes this conceptualisation to an extreme, when he seems to argue that with the processes of globalisation there is a gradual extinction of the state in an institutional sense. However, it is hard to dispute when he says that the function of the state is recuperated within the social. This simply is to reassert the self-representative nature of the demos – its common-ality, “the massification of thoughts, feelings, tastes, behaviours expressed in that political power which is common sense”. Tronti (ibid.) explains himself further when he defines the common:

“The ‘common’ which is spoken of today is really that in-common which is already wholly taken over by this kind of self-dictatorship, this kind of tyranny over oneself which is the contemporary form of that brilliant modern idea: voluntary servitude.”

He aptly concludes giving us a key to disentangle the spirit of democratisation epitomised by forces like the AAP:

“The average bourgeois has won: this is the figure of democracy. Democracy is this: not the tyranny of the majority, but the tyranny of the average man. And this average man constitutes a mass within the Nietzschean category of the last man.”

In fact, almost a century back, a liberal American philosopher, John M Mecklin (1918) talked about the “tyranny, more powerful, more insidious perhaps than any other”, about hydra-headed, myriad-handed modern tyrant, about “the tyranny of the average man”, of this “dominant mediocrity”, a “mythical personage” which becomes real “because of the steam-roller effect of the unwritten law of democracy, namely, uniformity.” The average man “dominated by routine and tradition” is “like the golden calf of apostate Israel he is but the creation of our own hands and yet we worship him as our god.”

President Mukherjee (2014) called out to the common man against any fracture. “A fractured government, hostage to whimsical opportunists, is always an unhappy eventuality. In 2014, it could be catastrophic.” So the question is to build and manage consensus, not giving space to fracturing.

For Tronti, contemporary political systems are actually apolitical since they do not negotiate between antinomies or social contradictions, but seek to evade them. The (a)political choices are between two aggregates of consensus:

“[O]n the one side we have reactionary bourgeois drives, and on the other progressive bourgeois drives. And I say drives, that is, emotive reflexes, symbolic imaginaries, all moved and governed by great mass communication. Reactionary and progressive drives which nonetheless share this average bourgeois character. On the one hand compassionate conservatism, on the other political correctness. These are the two great blocs. This is the governmental alternative offered by apolitical democratic systems.” (Tronti 2009)

Where do the traditional political formations among workers, the traditional communist parties figure in this apolitical system of consensus? What do we make of the hillarious responses of the left to the AAP’s performance? Their bewilderment is a thousand and first symptom of their embeddedness in capitalist polity – all of them wanted to see themselves in the AAP’s place. Their anxiety to find affinity with the AAP in its successes or to trivialise it by chanting “same old same old” is a reflection of their sense of trepidation about their own future. Communist leaders are trying hard to convince their cadre and the media about their continued relevance.

On the other hand, the chartist left – from NGOs to fringe holier-than-thou militant reformist sects find their role as lobbyists quite self-gratifying with the emergence of the apolitics of aam aadmi – they can perhaps play on the anxieties of the electoral competitors – accept our demands or we will expose you before the aam aadmi. They are increasingly finding lobbyist techniques and blackmailing more satisfying than sharpening social antagonisms and contradictions. That increases their visibility, as it synchronises well with the sensationalist drives of “great mass communication”.

What Tronti expresses about the transformation of workers’parties in the West has always been true for the communist parties and groups in India – right from their genesis they have been trying hard to be parties of the whole people, and have worked well in the popular management of class conflicts and dissipating the “destructive antagonistic character” of working class politics.


However, in our critique of the times we must satisfy the task bestowed upon us by Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. We must recognise the urgency to discern the ground and forms of politics that can change the world. Tronti (ibid.) in his analysis of mass bourgeois democracy finds a contradiction – janus bifrons – at its centre whose incomplete resolution is the persona of the average man, aam aadmi:

“within democracy, within its history, we find knotted together a practice of dominaton and a project of liberation – they always present themselves together, they are co-present. In some periods (periods of crisis, states of exception) these two dimensions are in conflict. In others (such as in the contemporary situation, which is a state of normality, or at least that is the way I read it) they are integrated.”

So, the task for Tronti is not just to untie the knot, but cut it apart permanently. The institutional left has always tried to untie it so that new institutions could be built and consolidated – thus retying the knot. The project of liberation has hitherto served to make the practice of domination more and more resilient. Against the average mass bourgeois common man, which is the ideal of bourgeois democratic normalcy (of national/ people’s/ new varieties), a critical praxis must be posed that deconstructs the contemporary state-form, its institutional and ideological apparatuses and exposes the underlying structure of social relations based on exploitation and domination, and how everyday conflicts shape them.

In a recent work, Tronti (2010) has once again posed the working class as the revolutionary political subject. He talks about liberating the revolutionary discourse of people from its constitutional, institutional appropriation, resuscitating “the authentic meaning of the political concept of the people: specifying and determining it with the social concept of labour. A people, not of the subjects of the crown, not of citizens, but of workers”. He further concludes,

“The working people as a general class is possible only today, in working conditions that are extended and parcellised, far-reaching and fragmented, territorialised and globalised – the Marxian meaning of labour, without qualifiers, from the exhaustion of the hands to the exhaustion of the concept, from the occupation you don’t love to the occupation you can’t find, an archipelago of islands that make up a continent.” (Ibid)

As Tronti (2009) stresses, it is only during crises and states of emergency that we find the breach in the democratic state-form and an opportunity to cut the knot that ties the practice of domination and the project of liberation together. But here Walter Benjamin’s eighth thesis on philosophy of history must be brought in to grasp the permanent revolutionary project of the working class. This thesis must be recognised as a strategisation of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. In fact, the various theses, despite their terse makeup, constitute a formidable attack on the social democratic interpretation of history as progression, that takes capitalist exploitation and fascism as “historical norms”. Benjamin (1940 [1969]) shows how this interpretation has led to conformism and “servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus”. Nothing corrupted the working class “so much as the notion that it was moving with the current”. That labour is “the source of all wealth and all culture” is an illusion that serves to resurrect the protestant ethic of work in secularised form.

Like Tronti, Benjamin too posits the revolutionary subjectivity of the working class against its reduction into an evolutionary agency among “man or men”, aam aadmi to redeem “future generations”. He accuses social democracy of making “the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice”. The working class is revolutionary as “the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.”

The specificity of the eighth thesis lies in exposing the limited significance of the legal-fictional conception of the “state of emergency” or exception in grasping the state in which the oppressed or the working class lives. The application of this conception is limited to understanding how apolitical systems utilise it to build up their emergency apparatuses to reproduce themselves. However, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” Labour-capital relations that constitute the everydayness of capitalism are always an emergency situation with the self-annihilating mission of the working class posing a constant death threat to capital and capitalism. Going back to our discussion on “separations that the state embodies”, the so-called de-politicisation of the economic actually implies that the arena of everyday life is always under a state of emergency. To know this fact one should simply interact with a wage worker – employed or unemployed. Remember, panopticon was modelled on factory life. In the era of financialisation and global social factory, capitalism has acquired a “fractal panopticist” character: “The pantopticon of the global market is ‘fractal’, in that each level of social aggregation, each node or singularity, is ‘self-similar’ to others.” It is a global network of prison houses. (De Angelis 2007: 217)

The strategic contributions of Benjamin’s eighth thesis lie at two levels. First, it brings out the conception of history as class struggle (not just as its history), which can be understood only by looking beyond formal processes and progression. History is made in class praxes and antagonisms. Secondly, it stresses on the class strategy of realising “a real state of emergency” that will not allow capital to settle and any of its regime to become a “historical norm.”


Aam Aadmi is always there as the spirit behind liberal democracy – in the conjuncture of the capitalist state or sovereign and people, but it is only during an explicit breach in this identity that aam aadmi seeks embodiment. It is a formal state of emergency when street rage and cacophony start to threaten the abstraction of the liberal state, separations that it embodies. This formal emergency is a result of “the oppressed” emerging out of their subalterity. They are in the process of creating a real state of emergency by emerging as a class. Aam aadmi must ground itself to average all the voices in the streets and bring order – these voices must get equal representation, and be subsumed. Anarchy must be curbed. But this cannot be accomplished simply by promises or actions from above, but by seeking oneness with the street – by reintegrating people with the State, regrounding it in the social.  The President representing compassionate conservatism is legitimately anxious, and would prefer either the old guards directing this populism, or the new ones learning old tricks and language to ensure continuity. However, the task is to renew consensus behind the State – the depth of apathy and alienation must be matched by the height of populism.

But it is in this breach that we must seek radical possibilities. The compulsion of the State to reproduce itself in the social, in everydayness, desacralises its instruments, exposes its vulnerabilities. If we find traditional political formations and state institutions complaining about disrespect to the decorum of the officialdom and of “populist anarchism”, it is not populism that they fear, but anarchism on the ground with which populism seeks to connect. The fear is whether populism will consolidate itself and strengthen the basis of state formation or it will over-expose its egregious vulnerabilities. It is the latter that might make the whole edifice of the State fall like a pack of cards – expose the Naked King and his mythical subject, Aam Aadmi. Whether mohalla samitis (neighbourhood councils) will be a replication of the gram sabha, homogenising the neighbourhoods, reproducing and formalising the everyday exploitative social relations in state formation; or are they going to be a ground to generalise, locate and intensify class struggle: will we see a spur of rent strikes, food riots, factory occupations and squatting? Will direct democracy be reduced to the ritual of janata darbar, and eventually a junta darbar? Or will it be a call for a dual power tending towards the destruction of the liberal state? Well, the theoretician among aam aadmi leaders have made it clear: some of them can be socialists, but they are not silly.


Benjamin (1940 [1969]) – Benjamin, W. “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, in Illuminations, Knopf (1969).

Bonefeld 2010 – Bonefeld, W. “Free economy and the strong state: Some notes on the state”, Capital & Class 34(1), pp 15-24. (February 2010).

Bonefeld 2013 – Bonefeld, W. “Human economy and social policy: On ordo-liberalism and political authority”, History of the Human Sciences 26(2), pp 106-125 (April 2013).

De Angelis 2001 – De Angelis, M. The Beginning of History: Value Struggles and Global Power, Pluto Press (2007).

Holloway 2010 – Holloway, J. “Foreword to the German Edition”, in Raul Zibechi, Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces, AK Press (2010).

Holloway & Picciotto 1977 – Holloway, J & S. Picciotto, “Capital, Crisis and the State”, Capital & Class 1(2), pp 76-101 (Summer 1977).

Mecklin 1918 – Mecklin, J.M. “The Tyranny of the Average Man”, International Journal of Ethics, 28(2), pp 240-52 (January 1918).

Mukherjee 2014 – Address by the President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee on the eve of Republic Day of India 2014, New Delhi (January 25, 2014).

Tronti 2009 – Tronti, M. “Towards a Critique of Political Democracy”, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 5(1) (2009).

Tronti 2010 – Tronti, M. “We have populism because there is no people”, Democrazia e Diritto (2010, no. 3-4) published in English in 2013.

Notes on Fetishism, History and Uncertainty: Beyond the Critique of Austerity

Werner Bonefeld

‘What divides these gentlemen [the French socialists] from the bourgeois apologist is, on the one side, their sensitivity to the contradictions included in the system; on the other, the utopian inability to grasp the necessary difference between the real and the ideal form of bourgeois society, which is the cause of their desire to undertake the superfluous business of realizing the ideal expression again, which is in fact only the inverted projection [Lichtbild] of this reality’ (Marx, 1973, pp. 248-49).


We live at a time that resounds with misery. The headlines have changed from war and terror to what seems like a never-ending global economic crisis. Against the background of debt, default and sluggish rates of economic growth at best, accumulation by dispossession is back en vogue, a whole generation of workers appears redundant, and a whole mass of people have been cut off from the means of subsistence, struggling to survive – and despite appearances to the contrary, war and terror continue unabated. In this context, the notion that capitalism produces deplorable situations is a most optimistic point of view. Deplorable conditions (Zustände) are not the same as deplorable situations (Mißstände). The one says that poverty is a capitalist condition. Challenging it requires a fundamental change in the social relations of production. On the other hand, deplorable situations describe entirely avoidable socio-economic circumstances, be they the result of a chance development, government incompetence, or hard-nosed class-politics. As such it can be rectified by well-meaning political interventions and political programmes that benefit society at large.[1] Instead of capitalist profit, miserable situations require resolution by political means that hold the economy accountable to the democratic aspirations for a freedom from want. Deplorable situations require thus a social activism that challenges This misery and That outrage, seeking to alleviate and rectify This and That. What however are the social preconditions that constitute the necessity of This poverty and That misery? After all, what is needed is a praxis that fights the underlying conditions of misery. Adorno (1972) therefore condemns activism for its own sake, and rejects it as a pseudo-praxis that fights this and that but leaves the conditions that render this and that entirely untouched. In this way, ‘activism’ is not only affirmative of existing society but also regressive – it deludes itself that however bad the situation, it can be rectified by this or that policy, by this or that technical means. The activism of the given situation feels the pain of the world and offers its own programme as the means of salvation. The activism against this or that is delusional in its conception of society. It deceives those whose interests it pretends to represent by making them believe that a resolution to their plight is really just a matter of proper government. In its essence, activism for this cause or that cause is a political advertisement for some alternative party of government. It transforms the protest against a really existing misery that blights the life of a whole class of individuals into a selling point for political gain.

On Society and Economic Nature

Critical thought is none other than the cunning of reason when confronted with a social reality in which the poor and miserable are required to subsidise the financial system for the sake of sustaining the illusion of fictitious wealth. Yet, this subsidy is entirely necessary in existing society, to prevent its implosion. This rational irrationality of a capitalistically organised mode of social reproduction is at the centre of the critique of political economy. Its critique is subversive. It asks why human social reproduction takes this irrational form. Subversion focuses on human conditions and focuses on essentials: ‘Free labour contains the pauper’ (Marx, 1973, p. 604) and capitalist wealth entails the poverty of dispossessed labour in its conception. Its focus on essentials entails intransigence towards the existent patterns of the world. It demands that all relations ‘in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicably being have to be overthrown’ (Marx, 1975, p. 182). Debasement subsists as society unaware of itself; a society that is, in which human sensuous practice exists, say, in the form of a movement of coins that impose themselves with seemingly irresistible force on the acting subjects as if the world of coins were a world apart. The fetishism of commodities makes the human world appear as one that is governed by natural, immutable economic laws. Yet, nature has nothing to do with it. What appears as an objective force of economic nature is and remains a socially constituted force. Society is governed by economic abstractions that appear as forces of nature. Economic nature is a socially constituted nature. Society asserts itself in the form of a relationship between things and thus exists in and through the movement of socially constituted things.

Society is ‘objective’ insofar as and ‘because’ its ‘own subjectivity is not transparent’. Society is subjective ‘in that it refers back to human beings which form it’ (Adorno, 1993a, p. 43). Objectivity ‘realises itself only through individuals’. Society as a mere object comprises the socially necessary delusion that the social structures and social laws are innately natural. ‘The thesis that society is subject to natural laws is ideology’ (Adorno, 1973, p. 355). Social objectivity does not posit itself – it is ‘the posited universal of the social individuals that constitute it’ (1993b, p. 127). What this means is well brought out by Marx (1973, p. 239) when he writes, in the money fetish ‘a social relation, a definite relation between individuals … appears as a metal, a stone, as a purely physical external thing which can be found, as such, in nature, and which is indistinguishable in form from its natural existence’. That is, social objectivity ‘does not lead a life of its own’ (Adorno, 1993b, p. 127). It is a socially constituted objectivity – social relations vanish in their appearance as a metal or a stone, and this appearance is real. There is only one world, and that is the world of appearance. What appears in the appearance of society as a ‘stone’, or a ‘coin’, is however a definite social relationship between individuals subsisting as a relationship between ‘coins’. Society appears as some transcendental thing that governs by means of the ‘invisible hand’, which takes ‘care of both the beggar and the king’ (Adorno, 1973, p. 251). Its transcendent character is real: Money makes the world go round; yet, it does so only because, in capitalism, social individuals are governed by the product of their own hand. In short, the world does indeed manifest itself behind the backs of acting individuals, and society is indeed governed by real abstractions; yet, it is their own world (cf. Marcuse, 1988, p. 151).

Marx’s critique of fetishism amounts thus to a judgement on existence. That is, the critique of political economy amounts to a conceptualised praxis (begriffenden Praxis) of definite social relations in their appearance as relations, say, between coins (Schmidt, 1974, p. 207). It holds that theoretical mysteries find their rational explanation in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice, and argues that this practice exists against itself in the form of relations of economic objectivity. The limit to reification is reified Man, and in the face of reified Man, the critique of fetishism is an attempt at making society conscious of its own ‘monstrous’ world. In short, the meaning of objectivity excludes the possibility that it can also be a subject. However, to be an object is part of the meaning of subjectivity. Subjectivity means objectification. In its capitalist form it appears in the logic of things. Appearance [Schein] “is the enchantment of the subject in its own world” (Adorno 1969: 159). The circumstance that objectification [Gegenständlichkeit] exists in the form of a relationship between coins does thus not imply that there is an as yet undiscovered, and indeed undiscoverable, logic that lies solely within the thing itself. Only as a socially determinate object can the object be an object (see Adorno 1969: 157). Reason exists – but in irrational form. The irrational world is a rational world.

Marx’s work focuses on forms, at first on forms of consciousness (i.e., religion and law), then later on the forms of political economy. This focus on forms entails a critique of social relations that subsist in an inverted form of society– one that is governed not by the social individuals themselves but, rather, one that is governed by ‘product’ of their own hand. That is to say, every social ‘form’, even the most simple form like, for example, the commodity, ‘is already an inversion and causes relations between people to appear as attributes of things’ (Marx, 1972, p. 508) or, more emphatically, each form is a ‘perverted form’ (Marx, 1979, p. 90)[2]. The critique of economic categories as perverted social forms subverts the economic idea of cash, price and profit by revealing their social constitution. The movement of ‘coins’ does not express some abstractly conceived economic matter. It expresses a definite social relationship between individuals subsisting as a relationship between things and coins. In capitalism individuals are really governed by the movement of coins – they carry their relationship with society, and therewith their access to the means of subsistence, in their pockets. Although coins tend to inflate or become depressed, they are not subjects.  Yet, they impose themselves on, and also in and through, the person to the point of madness and disaster, from the socially necessary consciousness of cash and product, money and profit, to poverty and famine, and bloodshed and war. The bourgeois conception of wealth is money as more money, and this idea of more money objectifies itself in the persons as mere ‘agents of value’ (Adorno, 173, p. 311) who depend for their life on the manner in which the ‘logic of economic things’ unfolds – access to the means of subsistence appears to be governed by fate and fate appears in the form of economic growth, which if money does not posit itself as more money cuts off a whole class of people from the means of subsistence. What a monstrosity! An economic thing, this coin, that in its nature really is nothing more than a piece of metal manifests itself as a power by which ‘the life of all men hangs by’ (Adorno, 1973, p. 320). However, this is not a monstrosity of economic nature nor is it one of reified things. That is, the mythological idea of fate becomes no less mythical when it is demythologised “into a secular ‘logic of things’” (ibid., p. 319) or into an abstract system-logic that structures the economic behaviours by means of price signals, which comprises the freedom to wealth and the freedom to starve. Its economic nature is in its entirety a socially constituted nature.

On Society and Praxis

There is, says Adorno, a need for a ‘practice that fights barbarism’, and yet, he argues rightly, there can be no such practice (Adorno, 1962, p. 30). Barbarism cannot be fought in a direct and immediate manner – what really does it mean to struggle against money, resist the movement of coins, combat the law of value, and fight poverty in a society that contains poverty in its concept of wealth? A ‘practice that fights barbarism’ is about the social preconditions that render barbarism. To put this point in entirely different manner: The struggle for humanisation points the struggle against constituted relations of misery in the right direction; the humanisation of social relations is the purpose and end of the struggle for the human emancipation from reified economic relations, from relations in which an increase in social wealth manifests itself to the class that is tied to work in the form of a constant struggle for access to the means of subsistence. However, the effort of humanising inhuman conditions is confronted by the paradox that it presupposes as eternal those same inhuman conditions that provoke the effort of humanisation in the first place. Inhuman conditions are not just an impediment to humanisation but a premise of its concept. What then does it mean to say ‘no’?

It is not the independence of economic categories of cash and coin, value and money, as forces over and above, and also in and through, the social individuals that require explanation. Rather, what requires explanation is the social relations of production that manifest themselves as a relationship between economic things, which assert themselves behind the backs of those same individuals that comprise and sustain society. Adorno’s notion that the ‘total movement of society’ is ‘antagonistic from the outset’ (Adorno, 1970, p. 304) entails therefore more than it first seems. Not only does the fetishism of commodities presuppose antagonistic social relations but society exists also by virtue of the class antagonism. That is to say, ‘society stays alive, not despite its antagonism, but by means of it’ (Adorno, 1973, 320). The struggle against capitalism is therefore not a struggle for the working class. Whichever way one looks at it, to be a member of the working class is a great ‘misfortune’ (Marx, 1983, p. 477). That is to say, class is not a positive category. It is a critical concept of the false society. The critique of class society finds its positive resolution not in better paid workers or conditions of full-employment, etc. It finds its positive resolution only in the classless society, in which mankind has rid itself of ‘all the muck of ages and found itself anew’ (Marx and Engels 1976: 53). – as a commune of ‘communist individuals’ (Marcuse 1958: 127).

In a world governed by the movement of coins, the critique of class society is entirely negative. A constructive critique of class society does not amount to a critical practice. It amounts, argue Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) and Adorno (1970), to ‘ticket thinking’. Such thinking is ‘one-dimensional’. It argues in interests of the wage labourer with a claim to power. That is, rather than understanding capital as a social relationship, it takes capital to be an economic thing that given the right balance of class forces, can be made to work for the benefit of workers. Ticket thinking proclaims ‘falseness’ (Adorno 2008a: 28). Instead of the ‘optimism of the left’ that puts forth a programme of capitalist transformation which does ‘not talk about the devil but looks on the bright side’ (Adorno 1978: 114), there is therefore need to understand the capitalist conceptuality of social labour.

Affirmative conceptions of class, however well-meaning and benevolent in their intensions, presuppose the working class as productive force that deserves a better, a new deal. What is a fair wage? Marx made the point that ‘”price of labour” is just as irrational as a yellow logarithm’ (Marx, 1966, p. 818). The demand for fair wages and fair labour conditions abstracts from the very conditions of ‘fairness’ in capitalism, which is founded on the divorce of social labour from the means of subsistence, and instead of overcoming this divorce which is the foundation of capital and labour, it proclaims that dispossessed workers be paid better. That is, the divorce of social labour from the means of subsistence transforms labour into a proletarian who is ‘the slave of other individuals who have made themselves the owners of the means of human existence’ (Marx, 1970, p. 13, translation amended). Why does this content, that is, human social reproduction, take the form of an equivalent exchange between the owners of the means of subsistence and the dispossessed seller of labour power, and how can it be that wealth expands by means of an exchange between equivalent values? The seller of labour power is fundamentally a human factor of surplus labour time, which is the foundation of surplus value and thus profit. The equivalence of an exchange between quantitatively different values has thus to do with the transformation of labour into a surplus value producing labour activity which expands social wealth, allowing money to lay golden eggs. Even on the assumption that when hiring labour, equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, this transaction between the seller and buyer of labour ‘is all that only the old dodge of every conqueror who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has robbed them of’ (1983, p. 456). That is to say, theory on behalf of the working class affirms the existence of a class of people tied to surplus value production. Chapter 48 of Volume Three of Capital provides Marx’s critique of the theory of class proposed by classical political economy (and shared by modern social science), according to which class interests are determined by the revenue sources (or, in Weberian terms, market situation) of social groups, rather than being founded in the social relations of production as Marx argues (on this see Clarke, 1992). Political Economy is indeed a scholarly dispute over how the booty pumped out of the labourer may be divided and distributed amongst the component classes of society (Marx, 1983, p. 559) – and clearly, the more the labourer gets, the better. After all, it is her social labour that produces the ‘wealth of nations’.

However, the critique of political economy is not political economy. In distinction to political economy’s focus on the distribution of wealth, it asks about the conceptuality of social wealth, that is wealth in the form of value, and it asks how this wealth if produced, by whom, and for what purpose. According to Marx, wealth is produced by labour for the sake of greater wealth in the form of value, and value is value in exchange that becomes visible in the form of money. Value is wealth as valorised value. Time is money. The critique of political amounts thus to a conceptualised practice of capitalist form of social wealth as one that is founded on the transformation of the workers’ life time into labour time. There is no time to waste and there is always more time to catch. This, then, is the ‘nibbling and cribbling at meal times’ as ‘moments are the elements of profit’ (Marx, 1983, pp, 232, 233). The time of value is the time of socially necessary labour time. Work that is not completed within this time is wasted, valueless, regardless of the labour time that went into it, the sweat and tears of its productive efforts, the usefulness of the material wealth that was created, and the needs that it could satisfy. From the appropriation of unpaid labour time to the endless struggle over the division between necessary labour time and surplus labour time, from the ‘imposition‘ of labour-time by time-theft, this ‘petty pilferings of minutes’, ‘snatching a few minutes’ (ibid., p. 232), to the stealing from the worker of atoms of additional unpaid labour time by means of great labour flexibility and ‘systematic robbery of what is necessary for the life of the workman’ (Marx, 1983, p. 402), the life-time of the worker is labour-time. The worker then appears as ‘nothing more than personified labour-time’ (Marx, 1983, p. 233) – a ‘time’s carcase’ (on this, see Bonefeld, 2010b).

The notion, then, that the hell of a class ridden society can be reformed for the sake of workers is regressive in that it projects a ‘conformist rebellion’ (Horkheimer 1985), that, say, instead of ending slavery, seeks a new deal for slaves. Although ‘the world contains opportunities enough for success [communism] …everything is bewitched’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 2011: 20). That is, there is only one social reality, and this is the reality of the ‘enchanted and perverted’ world of capital (Marx 1966: 830), which reproduces itself not despite the class struggle but rather by virtue of it. Sensuous human activity subsists through the world of economic things, and thus appears ‘as a thing’ (Marx 1973, p. 157).

In capitalism, every progress turns into a calamity

Capitalist social relations have produced a staggering expansion in social wealth and phenomenal increase in labour productivity. Within a miniscule historical period of time, it has transformed human society beyond recognition. Nevertheless, despite this unprecedented expansion of human productive power, the time of labour has not diminished. In capitalism, every social progress turns into a calamity. Every increase in labour productivity shortens the hours of labour but in its capitalist form, it lengthens them. The introduction of sophisticated machinery lightens labour but in its capitalist form, it heightens the intensity of labour. Every increase in the productivity of labour increases the material wealth of the producers but in its capitalist form makes them paupers. Most importantly of all, greater labour productivity sets labour free, makes labour redundant. But rather than shortening the hours of work and thus absorbing all labour into production on the basis of a shorter working day, freeing life-time from the ‘realm of necessity’, those in employment are exploited more intensively, while those made redundant find themselves on the scrap heap of a mode of production that sacrifices ‘“human machines” on the pyramids of accumulation’ (Gambino, 2003, p. 104).[3]

Capitalist wealth is wealth in value. Value is category of constant expansion, on the pain of ruin and by means of ruin. Value is wealth in the form of restless expansion of abstract wealth qua destruction. Concealed in the concept of capital as self-valorising value lies the conceptuality of social labour. The necessity of its affirmation qua destruction – discussed by Marx at times as the dialectic between the forces and the relations of production – belongs to the constituted existence of social labour in the form of capital.

Destruction is the constituted nightmare of the capitalist mode of social reproduction:

‘Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence; too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does bourgeois society get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones.’ (Marx and Engels 1996: 18–19)

This commentary on globalisation by the 29-year-old Marx is not a brilliant anticipation, which after all turned out to be far too optimistic. Rather, it conceptualises the critical subject and, in doing so, shows what lies within it. What lies within the concept of capitalist wealth are its determinate necessities. These belong to the critical subject of society unaware of itself and constitute its conceptuality. Creation qua destruction is a valid necessity of capitalist social relations – it belongs to its conceptuality [Begrifflichkeit]. “Conceptuality expresses the fact that, no matter how much blame may attach to the subject’s contribution, the conceived world is not its own but a world hostile to the subject” (Adorno 1973: 167). Man vanishes in her own world and exists against herself as a personification of economic categories – an “alienated subject” (see Backhaus 1992) that constitutes the world of things and is invisible, lost and denied in its own world – the expansion of wealth entails the disappearance of wealth as a whole class of people tied to work is cut off from the means of subsistence as if the social metabolism really is governed by the mythical idea of fate.

There is only one human measure that cannot be modified. It can only be lost (Max Frisch)

Marx conceives of communism as the real movement of the working class (Marx and Engels 1976) and argues that history is a history of class struggle (Marx and Engels 1996). This argument recognises that history has been a history of rulers and ruled, and this is the only history that has been – a bad-universality of transition from one mode of domination to another. The universality of history is, however, both real and false. In the history of the victors the victims of history are invisible, and it is their invisibility that makes history appear as a universal history that akin to a sequence of events, records the times of glorious rule, from which the memory of struggle and insubordination is necessarily expunged. The courage, cunning, and suffering of the dead disappears twice, once in a defeat in which ‘even the dead will not be safe’ from an enemy that ‘has not ceased to be victorious’ (Benjamin 1999: 247), and then again in the present, which either denies that the dead ever existed or ritualises their struggles as an heroic act that culminated in the present as the unrivalled manifestation of their bravery (Tischler, 2005). The struggles of the past transform into a monument of history, erected in celebration of the present mode of domination, for which the dead perform the role of legitimising fodder. It is true, says Benjamin, that ‘all the rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them’. There is thus no ‘document of civilisation’ that is ‘not at the same time a document of barbarism’ (Benjamin 1999: 248). History though universal in its appearance, is not some automatic thing that unfolds on behalf of the masters of the world by force of its own objectively unfolding victorious logic. ‘Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession, in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate’ (Benjamin 1999: 248). Nevertheless, however universal the progress of history might appear, the future has not already been written, class struggles have to be fought, and their outcomes are uncertain, unpredictable, and fundamentally open, then and now. What appears linear to us was contested, uncertain and unpredictable at its own time. Its progress towards the present appears logical in its directional dynamic because the time of the present eliminates any doubt in its own historical veracity as a pre-determined outcome of a sequence of recorded events that dated the time of the present in the past.

What alternatives might there have been in the past and how many struggles have been at the knife’s edge and could have led to a course of history that would be unrecognisable to us? There is no inevitability in history, nor is history an irresistible force. It is made by the acting subjects themselves and what is made by Man can be changed by Man. History appears inevitable and irresistible only afterwards, which gives history the appearance of some objective force and directional dynamic, a telos of becoming and achievement, towards which it seemingly strives. For the proponents of present society, history has been concluded. Others say that it is still continuing towards some assumed socialist or communist destiny, at which point it will conclude. History does however not make history. That is to say, ‘[h]istory does nothing, does not “possess vast wealth”, does not “fight battles”! It is Man, rather, the real, living Man who does all that, who does possess and fight, it is not “history” that uses Man [Mensch] as a means to pursue its ends, as if it were a person apart. History is nothing but the activity of Man pursuing its ends’ (Marx 1980: 98). Historical materialism is not the dogma indicated by clever opponents and unthinking proponents alike, but a critique of things understood dogmatically. That is to say, the ‘human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape’, but not conversely, the anatomy of the ape does not explain the anatomy of Man (Marx 1973: 105). If the anatomy of the ape would really explain the anatomy of Man then the ape would already possess Man as the innate necessity of its evolution – a natural teleology or an already written future.[4] The future, however, has not already been written. Nor will it be the result of some abstractly conceived objective logic of historical development. History does not unfold, as if it were a person apart. History has to be made, and will be made, by Man pursuing her ends. These ends themselves are not theologically determined, naturally founded, or historically active. The purpose of capitalism is the profitable accumulation of abstract wealth. The commune of human purpose is not an existing human purpose. Its reality is a negative one. That is to say, linear conceptions of history do not reveal abstract historical laws. They reveal accommodation of thought and practice to the existing ‘objective conditions’. Linear conceptions of history conceive of it as a continuum of progress of the present into its own future.

The political left claims that history is on the side of the oppressed and that the struggle of the oppressed therefore moving with the current of history’s forward march. This proclamation of progress makes ‘dogmatic claims’ (Benjamin 1999: 252) about a future of freed proletarians. How might one conceive of a liberated future that is not also a future present? Benjamin calls the conception of history that conceives of existing reality as transition towards communism, the ‘bordello’ (ibid.: 253) of historical thought. It criticises capitalism with a claim to power, envisages progress as a matter of party political success, advertises itself as the theory and practice of progress of a history that ‘runs its course…according to its own dialectic’ (Lukacs, in Pinkus 1975: 74). At its best this idea of history as imminent progress represents the sentimentality of the epoch, at worst it believes in itself, asserting a dogmatic claim to power for the sake of power.

On the Critique of Progress

History has no independent reality. It appears as a sequence of events, from one battle to another and from this division of labour to that division of labour. This appearance is real but by itself, devoid of meaning. What does it really mean to say that history is a sequence of events? Events of what and what was so eventful? Its appearance as an objectively unfolding force towards the present conceptuality of social wealth is deceptive. It gives rise to the idea of the coming of the society of human purposes as an ‘event’ of historical becoming towards which history somewhat strives. This view of history makes it appear as if the society of the free and equal derives from existing society, demeaning the very idea of the society of human purposes. The difficulty of conceiving of such a society independently from capitalism, has to do with its very idea. In distinction to the pursuit of profit, seizure of the state, pursuit and preservation of political power, and economic value and human resource, it follows a completely different entelechy of human development – on in which wealth is free time, the purpose of humanity its own purpose, and one in which equality is an equality of individuals human needs. For the sake of human emancipation, the idea of history as a force of relentless progress has to be abandoned – the idea of progress is tied to existing society, which legitimises the existence of poverty as a condition of future wealth. History appears as a transcendent force of progress only when one abstracts from it, leading to its description of a sequence of historical events, for which the terms ‘historicity’ provides the name. That is to say, in order to comprehend history, one needs to ‘crack the continuum of history’.[5] One needs thus to think out of history, out of the battles, out of the struggles of the Levellers and Diggers, slave insurrections, peasant revolts, the struggles of Les Enragés, working class strikes, riots, insurrections, and revolutions, including St. Petersburg (1917) and Kronstadt  (1921), and Barcelona (1936) [6], to appreciate the traditions of the oppressed, recognise the smell of danger and the stench of death, gain a sense of the courage and cunning of struggle, grasp the spirit of sacrifice, comprehend however fleetingly the density of a time at which history almost came to a standstill.[7]  History does not lead anywhere; it has no telos, no objectives, no purpose, and it does not take sides. At its worst, it continues on the path of victorious progress under darkened clouds and smoke filled skies. History is made. At best, its progress will be stopped. Such history has not been made yet, though it has often been attempted. In our time, this attempt is called communism – this attempt at negation that seeks to rid the world of ‘all the muck of ages’.

What is cannot be

The true picture of the past, says Benjamin (1999: 247) ‘flits by’. When? How? It flits by ‘at a moment of danger’, at moments of courageous struggle when the time of the present appears to have come to a hold, a time at which everything seems possible, and where everything is up in the air, a time of great unpredictability and uncertainty, and thus a time at which the ‘bloody grimace’ (Adorno 1975: 43) of progress attains actual force in the experience of struggle. Thus the true picture of the past flits by at a time of greatest uncertainty, a time at which the certainty of tomorrow dissolves and at which the monuments of the past crack to reveal their hidden secret. This is the time of historical comprehension, in which the mass produced view of a glorious history transforms form a historicity of events into an experienced history of death and destruction, pillage and rape, enslavement and dispossession. This then is the time of intense uncertainty that reveals the bloody grimace of the past struggles, which up-to-now had hidden in the seemingly civilised forms of rule and power. This then is the time at which the dead victims of history step off the monument built by the state in its role as memory entrepreneur (see Tischler 2005). There is no redemption. There is only the realisation that history was not what it seemed, and there is a sudden understanding of the earlier sacrifice and deadly struggle. The experience of a time at a standstill is intoxicating, and full of danger. It is this experience that allows a glimpse of the past to take hold in the present, revealing a deadly certainty. That is, redemption is a matter of staying alive at a time when the certainty of tomorrow is no more: for ‘even the dead will not be safe’ if ‘the enemy’ wins (Benjamin 1999: 247).

The time of human emancipation is akin to pulling the emergency-break on a run-away train – here and now so that the continuum of history ‘come[s] to a stop’ (Benjamin 1999: 254). Another way of putting this is to say: the future present is both a present in transition towards its own future and a now-time that explodes this continuum of history. The time for pulling the emergency break is not tomorrow. It is now. Compared with the time of the present, Now-Time appears as a myth. The present is the time of seeming certainty and predictability. Now time says that now is the time of uncertainty.  Now is the time to stop the forward march of the time of the clock, adding units of time to units of time, ticking and tacking according to the rhythm of a world in which time is money and money is wealth. Now time appears as a myth because its acuity is a time that does not add to itself (Bonefeld 2010b). It does not move forward in relentless pursuit of abstract wealth, accumulating living labour on the pyramids of abstract wealth, appropriating additional atoms of unpaid labour time for the sake of an accumulation of abstract wealth alone. In Now time, time is courage and cunning. Now is the time for taking aim ‘at the clocks’ so that their ticking and tacking stops, and time ceases to be money and instead becomes a time ‘for enjoyment’ (Marx 1972, p. 252). Now time is not the time of the present. It is a time against the present, seeking to stop it in its tracks. Conceived as a present time, now time ceases as a time that fights barbarism. Instead it converts the ‘no’ of Now Time into a ‘conformist rebellion’ for existing conditions, which it defends with doctrinaire belief in the progress of the present, according to which all will be well in the future once the communist bead of the rosary of history has slipped through our hands.[8]

Towards a Conclusion without Promise

Only a reified consciousness can declare that it is in possession of the requisite knowledge, political capacity, and technical expertise not only for resolving capitalist crises but, also, to do so in the interests of workers. Its world-view describes capitalist economy as an irrationally organised practice of labour, and proposes socialism as a rationally organised practice of labour by means of conscious planning by public authority. The anti-capitalism of central economic planning is abstract in its negation of the capitalistically organised mode of social reproduction. ‘Abstract negativity’ (Adorno 2008a: 25) barks in perpetuity and without bite. Instead, it sniffs out the miserable world, from the outside as it were, and puts itself forward as having the capacity, ability, insight, and means for resolving the crisis of capitalist economy ‘for the workers’ (see ibid.). Abstract negativity describes the theology of anti-capitalism. Theologically conceived, anti-capitalism is devoid of Now-Time. Instead of rupturing the continuum of history, it promises deliverance from misery amidst ‘a pile of debris’ that ‘grows skyward’ (Benjamin 1999: 249). Benjamin’s thesis on the Angel of History says that the poor and miserable will not be liberated unless they liberate themselves, by their own effort, courage, and cunning. Herbert Marcuse focuses the conundrum of this argument most succinctly when he argues that the workers have to be free for their liberation so that they are able to become free (Marcuse 1964). In his view, workers can free themselves only insofar as they are not workers, on the basis of their non-identity. Marcuse’s argument is to the point: to stop the progress of capitalism requires a non-capitalist identity, and the difficulty of its conception is a simple one: such an identity does not belong to the present, which is a capitalist present. What really does it mean to say ‘no’ to a capitalistically organised mode of human subsistence? To say ‘no’ to capitalism is simple. But to say what the ‘no’ is, is difficult. For one, the ‘no’ is not external to but operates within that same society which it opposes. Like Marx’s summons of class struggle as the motor of history, the ‘no’ drives the negative world forward. It is its dynamic force. Furthermore, to say what the ‘no’ is compromises the ‘no’ insofar as it becomes positive in its affirmative yes to something that has no valid content except the very society that is opposes. The ‘no’ is immanent to bourgeois society and gives it its dynamic.

There is thus need for a realistic conception of the struggle for the society of human purposes. Class struggle has to be rediscovered as the laboratory of human emancipation. This struggle does not follow some abstract idea. It is a struggle for access to ‘crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist’ (Benjamin 1999: 246). What then is the working class ‘in-itself’ struggling for? ‘In-itself’ the working class struggles for better wages and conditions, and defends wage levels and conditions. It struggles against capital’s ‘were-wolf’s hunger for surplus labour’ and its destructive conquest for additional atoms of labour time, and thus against its reduction to a mere time’s carcass. It struggles against a life constituting solely of labour-time and thus against a reduction of her human life to a mere economic resource. It struggles for respect, education, and recognition of human significance, and above all it struggles for food, shelter, clothing, warmth, love, affection, knowledge, and dignity. It struggles against the reduction of its life-time to labour-time, of its humanity to an economic resource, of its living existence to personified labour-time. Its struggle as a class ‘in-itself’ really is a struggle ‘for-itself’: for life, human distinction, life-time, and above all, satisfaction of basic human needs. It does all of this in conditions (Zustände) in which the increase in material wealth that it has produced, pushes beyond the limits of the capitalist form of wealth. Every so-called trickle-down effect that capitalist accumulation might bring forth presupposes a prior and sustained trickle up in the capitalist accumulation of wealth. And then society ‘suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence’ (Marx and Engels 1996: 18-19). For Benjamin and Marx, the experience of being cut off from the means of subsistence makes the oppressed class the depository of historical knowledge. It is the class struggle that ‘supplies a unique experience with the past’, and understanding of the present (Benjamin 1999: 254). Whether this experience ‘turns concrete in the changing forms of repression as resistance to repression’ (Adorno 1973: 265) or whether it turns concrete in forms of repression is a matter of experienced history. Critically understood, and in distinction to the classical tradition, historical materialism is not only a critique of things understood dogmatically. That is, at its best it thinks against the flow of history and, as such, it really ‘brush[es] history against the grain’ (Benjamin 1999: 248) so that the critical reason of human emancipation does not become ‘a piece of the politics it was supposed to lead out of’ (Adorno 1973: 143).

The existence of human labour as an economic factor of production does not entail reduction of consciousness to economic consciousness. It entails the concept of economy as an experienced concept, and economic consciousness as an experienced consciousness. At the very least, economic consciousness is an unhappy consciousness. It is this consciousness that demands reconciliation. In sum, ‘freedom is a hollow delusion for as long as one class of humans can starve another with impunity. Equality is a hollow delusion for as long as the rich exercise the right to decide over the life and death of others’ (Roux 1985: 147).


Where is the positive? The society of human purposes can be defined in negation only. History holds no promise at all. History does nothing. It is made. In the struggle against a negative world nothing is certain, except misery itself. Nevertheless, uncertainty is also an experienced concept of struggle (Bonefeld 2004). Historically, it has assumed the form of the ‘council’, the Commune, the Raete, the assemblies: this democracy of the street, which, despite appearance to the contrary, manifests no impasse at all. It is the laboratory of the society of free and equal  – its validity is its own uncertainty.


[1] On the distinction between deplorable situations and deplorable conditions, see Bonefeld (2000).

[2] Adapted from the German original that uses the phrase ‘verrueckte’ Form. In German verrueckt has a double meaning: man and displaced. I translate this as ‘perverted’.

[3] The social calamity of capitalist development is taken from Karl Marx (1983: 416).

[4] On this see Schmidt (1983) and Bonefeld (2010a).

[5] I use this phrase in reference to Holloway’s (2010) negative theory of capitalism.

[6] On the connection between St. Petersburg and Kronstadt, see Brendel (2002).

[7] The notion of thinking out of history, rather than about history, derives from Adorno’s (1973) negative dialectics which argues that for thought to decipher capitalist society, it needs to think out of society. For him, thinking about society, or about history, amounts to an argument based on hypothetical judgements that treat the world as an ‘as if’, leaving reality itself untouched and leading to dogmatic claims about its character. Critical theory, at least this is its critical intent, deciphers society from within, seeking its dissolution as a continuum of inevitable and irresistible social forces, political events, economic laws (of scarcity), and empirical data. On this, see Bonefeld (2012).

[8] The ‘rosary that slips through our hands’ refers to Benjamin’s critique of an historical materialism that has slipped into the theoretical method of historicism, which conceives of history as a sequence of events.


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