Literature in Use: The Muktibodh Alibi

Pothik Ghosh

“There are no saints of literature: nothing, even with the distance of glory and death, nothing but heretics locked up in their singular heresy, who do not want communion with the saints.” – Julien Gracq, Reading Writing

“…negating and destroying are conditions of saying Yes.” – Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

Literature and Politics: Singularity Against Sovereignty

Can ambition stand on the shoulders of modesty? In this essay I intend to court failure in seeking to make that impossibility happen. I have, to begin with, set myself the rather unremarkable task of sharing with you an intimately subjective question that I often grapple with. This question, which presses insistently on my consciousness, especially when I read Muktibodh, has to do with the relationship (if any) between literature and politics. The question stems from the fact of two selves comprising my individuality: one that is compelled to engage, in some measure, with the politics of movements, especially working-class movement; and the other driven by its love for literature. I often wonder about what possible connection there might be between the two. My militant concern, if not engagement, leads me to think that proletarian culture, in the final analysis, is the revolutionary movement of the working class in and as its own expression or form. In that context, do art and literature make any sense whatsoever for the working-class movement and its culture? Can I then justifiably speak of a relationship between literature and politics just because they happen to inhabit me as two indispensable alterities of my individual self? Or, is it that they co-exist, side by side but separately, within the same individual, and thus in no apparent relation with each other? I would wish to cautiously suggest that it is the latter. But then considering that the two exist within the same individual self in a kind of separateness, such separated co-existence must be accounted for. In other words, what exactly is the meaning this separated, this non-relational co-existence – of love for literature and the compulsion to be engaged with radical political movements – imply? My contention here would be that politics is precisely what is at stake in the meaning implied by such separateness.

Clearly, I am here trying not merely to share my personal anxieties with you as I said I would. Instead, I am, in the process of laying bare those anxieties and the neurotic restlessness they comprise, loosely organising them as concepts into what can provisionally be called a militant protocol of reading literature. And Muktibodh, inasmuch as his work is arguably constitutive of such a question about the relationship (or not) between literature and politics, and its attendant anxieties and struggles, is, in my view, a perfect excuse for that. However, since he is only an excuse, the reading of his work here will neither be textually exhaustive nor canonically organised. Instead, my reading of Muktibodh will be capriciously subjective, and thus arbitrary, scattered, desultory and thin.

Before I cherry-pick a few things from Muktibodh’s complex and highly ramified oeuvre to explicate the meaning and significance of separated co-existence (or compossibility) of literature and movemental politics, we would do well to make sense of this non-relational co-existence in terms of literature and its use. What exactly is at stake when one talks about the usefulness of literature? More pertinently, what does use mean when we talk about the use of literature?

Jameson (2000, p.2) offers a few clues when he writes: “Brecht would have been delighted, I like to think, at an argument, not for his greatness, or his canonicity, nor even for some new and unexpected value of posterity (let alone for his ‘postmodernity’), as rather for his usefulness….” Further on he clarifies what he means by use in the context of Brecht and his literary work: “‘Usefulness’ in this context would not only mean ‘didactic’…. Yet if it means didactic, then we must add that Brecht never exactly had a doctrine to teach, not even ‘Marxism’ in the form of a system (‘The ABC of…,’ to recall a once-fashionable way of doing it): rather, we will want to show… that his ‘proposals’ and his lessons – the fables and the proverbs he delighted in offering – were more on the order of a method than a collection of facts, thoughts, convictions, first principles, and the like. Yet it was an equally sly ‘method’, which equally successfully eludes all the objections modern philosophy (as in Gadamer’s Truth and Method) has persuasively made against the reifications of the methodological as such.” [Emphasis author’s.]

This indicates how usefulness must be grasped not in terms of reified instrumentalism but in terms of what Marx conceptualised as “use-value”; the radical inverse of such instrumentalism. Usefulness or use, in this Marxian sense of use-value, lies in it being for itself. That is to say, any activity is useful only when it is performed for itself. We cannot measure its value with regard to something else. To measure it thus – which would give it a value either greater or less than that with regard to which it is being measured – transforms it into exchange-value. Then the value of an activity is determined not for being what it is for itself – that is, as use-value – but rather what it is with regard to, or for, something else. This would amount to the destruction and repression of its usefulness because use-value lies precisely in it being beyond any such measure and thus relationality. What all this indisputably demonstrates, therefore, is that exchange-value inevitably implies instrumentalism, and the concomitant destruction of usefulness. To the extent that use-value is an activity for its own end, it is the collapse of the means/ends duality, or, in the Marxian language of critique of political economy, the collapse of the mutually hierarchised and thus competitive duality of “relative value-form” and “equivalent value-form”. Hence, usefulness, in this sense of use-value, is a collapse of and break with the exchange-principle and the structure of relationality it is constitutive of. Use, or use-value, is non-exchange and non-relational and is, thus, irreplaceable or singular.

In that context, to envisage the use of art and literature vis-à-vis radical movemental politics in terms of how the former can be the latter’s instrument is to lapse into the regime of exchange, and its constitutive law of value, in the very moment that such a regime is sought to be challenged, broken with and decimated. Therefore, we would do well, instead, to think and envisage the question of usefulness of art in terms of art as its own end. Before this is mistaken for some kind of an aestheticist proposal of art for art’s sake, I must immediately insist that it is meant to be quite the contrary. It is, arguably, an attempt to resignify art for art’s sake as a proposal for revolutionary politics. For, insofar as revolutionary politics seeks to break with and decimate the structure of exchange and relationality, this is the only pertinent way to think the use of art and literature from its vantage-point.

It must be clarified here that this proposal to think and envisage literature as its own end is not – unlike the art-for-art’s-sake formulation of the aestheticists – an affirmation of literature as a sovereign identity. It is, instead, meant to be an affirmation of the eventality, or generic subtraction (Badiou, 2007) from the structure of exchange, relationality and identity that literature is in its emerging. Therefore, art (literature in our case) as its own end is, in this instance, not an aestheticist proposal for the autonomy of art. Instead, it is a blow for the “autonomy of the aesthetic process” (Badiou, 2013). I hope to demonstrate soon that Muktibodh’s literature induces its readers to read it specifically in those terms and generally adopt such an approach to the twin-questions of politics of literature, and literature and politics. But before that we need to figure how our argument for the autonomy of the aesthetic process is radically antagonistic to the aestheticist proposal for the sovereignty (read identitarian autonomy) of art (or literature).

The aestheticist affirmation of the sovereignty of art or literature is an affirmation of the autonomy of art or literature as an identity. An affirmation that restores the very structure of exchange and relationality that art or literature in its emerging is a generic and determinate subtraction from. Therefore, the aesthetic process, which is what is actualised in art in its moment of emerging, is the subtraction that our proposal of art as its own end affirms. But to the extent that this autonomising process is interrupted by the identity of art in whose moment of emerging lies its actuality, the autonomy of art as its performative, or gestic, process of subtraction is radically separate from and antagonistic to the sovereignty (read identitarian autonomy) of art. 

The question before us is, therefore, how to affirm literature as its own end in the sense of it being a generic incarnation of the process of subtraction from the structure of exchange and relationality, and thereby, in the same movement, disavow literature as a sovereign identity? If art, or literature, emerges vis-à-vis non-art or non-literature, it must be grasped in that emerging as determinate subtraction from the relational structure of determination and negation that is specified in and through determination by the latter. This means that art in its emerging negates the absence of art. In other words, art in its emerging must negate the determining presence of non-art, whose existence as such testifies to the absence of art and can, therefore, be seen as the prevention of the emerging of art. And in so negating non-art, art in its emerging must simultaneously and prefiguratively negate itself as the determination it is itself bound to lapse into on account of that first negation. Otherwise, art would inevitably become an identity and concomitantly restore the structure of exchange and relationality, and its constitutive logic of determination that it tended to disavow in order to emerge. As a result, art in its identitarianised moment would be drawn into the structural web of competing determinations – perpetual alternation of determination and negation –and thus be compelled and constrained by the sheer objective fact of its identitarianised existence to either determine or be determined, to instrumentalise or be instrumentalised. Clearly then, it would cease to be the use-value, an activity for its own end, that it incarnated in its moment of pre-identitarian emerging. To grasp art thus, is to grasp it in its evanescent subtractiveness from the structure of exchange, relationality and instrumentalism. In other words, art is discerned as subtraction only when it is grasped in terms of it implying its own negation as a thing or an identity in terms of its moment of emerging in order to sustain that process of emerging beyond itself. Only then can we claim to have grasped and envisaged art as use-value or art as its own end. Thus affirmation of literature as its own end, insofar as it in its emerging is the actuality of the process of determinate subtraction, is truly such an affirmation only when literature is seen either to be positing (from the side of the reader) or made to pose and envisage (from the side of the author) the simultaneous negation of itself as an identity and/or determination.

Muktibodh’s Difficult Commitment: Art As (Re-)Commencement of Politics

In this light, let us now turn to Muktibodh by focusing our attention on the opening shot of Mani Kaul’s Satah se Uthata Aadmi (Man Arising From the Surface), a film on the poet’s life and letters. The scene is that of a fragment of a North Indian small-town landscape – with dawn breaking over it – seen from inside a house through its rear window that suddenly clams shut on it. This shot or image must arguably be seen as a metaphor of Muktibodh’s politico-aesthetic vision as affirmed in his literature. It is, as far as metaphors go, quite accurate and apposite. It reveals Muktibodh’s vision, as envisaged in his literature, of how art begins, must begin, with the interruption of politics.

To put this in another way, the birth of art is the recommencement, at the level of the individual, of that which movemental politics incarnates at the social level of abstraction. For Muktibodh, art is, as the opening shot of Kaul’s film metaphorically reveals, all about how the individual resumes, must resume, in his interiority that which he sees as being interrupted in the world outside. A move that would amount to constellating the interiority of the individual with the exteriority of society to yield a new order of sociality. One that is constitutive of the abolition of the stratified identitarian dichotomy of interiority (individual) and exteriority (society) in order to preserve them as simultaneous moments of difference-as-its-own-deployment constitutive of one single perpetual process of uninterrupted dispersion. Muktibodh’s literature is a testament to the fact that this is how he experienced his own literary-creative process as a poet, who was also an engaged communist militant. In his essay, ‘Teesra Kshan’ (The Third Moment), Muktibodh (2002, p.13) shows himself telling his friend and literary alter-ego Keshav (p13): “Hindi mey mann se baahe vastu ko hi vastu samjha jata hai – aisa mera khayal hai. Main kehta hoon ki mann ka tatva bhi vastu ho sakta hai. Aur agar yeh maaan liya jaye ki mann ka tatva bhi ek vastu hai to aise tatva ke saath tadaakaarita ya taadaatmya ka koi matlab nahin hota kyun ki weh tatva mann ka hi ek bhag hai. Haan, main is mann ke tatva ke saath tatasthata ke rukh ki kalpna kar sakta hoon; tadaakarita ka nahin.” (In Hindi, only that which lies outside the mind is considered an object – that is my belief. I say the substance of the mind can also be an object. And if we are to accept that the substance of the mind is also an object, then there is really no sense of oneness or identity with such a substance because that substance is part of the mind. Yes, I can imagine an attitude of detachment towards this substance of the mind, not of oneness.) [My translation.] Later on in the same essay, he has Keshav tell him (2002, p.18): “Kewal tatastha vyakti hi tadaakar ho sakta hai, samjhe?” (Only a detached person can be in a state of oneness, understood?) [My translation.]

What Muktibodh attempts to reveal through this dialogic scene he sets up between him and his friend is that oneness/unity (tadaakarita) is not about reconciliation of mutually dualised and identitarianised terms (of mann and baahe vastu) into a system constitutive of contradictions – exactly that which affirmative negation is in Hegel’s philosophy of idealistic and symmetrical dialectic, and in capitalism too. Instead, unity, for him, is the uninterrupted continuity of the process of deployment of difference, incarnated in and as a specific difference in its emerging, as disavowal of identity. What we have here, therefore, are two radically separate and antagonistic temporalities, historicities or epochalities of unity: conjunctural and constellational. The second, which is what Muktibodh upholds, is difference as its own process of deployment in its own time of being uninterrupted. While the first, which is through and through Hegelian, is history as the linear time of totalisation of different space-times of social existence into a stratified hierarchy of identities, or lapsed difference. The first temporality, precisely because it does not reflexively grasp its own conjunctural, overdetermined nature, continues as such. The second, on the other hand, emerges from within the first overdetermined epochality as a break with it through and as an embodiment of the reflexive awareness of the overdetermined, conjunctural nature of the first temporality. Pace Althusser, this is how one ought to distinguish between the Hegelian and the Marxian conceptions of social and historical reality.

Now, difference tends to turn into identity due to the lapse of the process of deployment of difference it is an evanescent incarnation of. In such circumstances, one can affirm unity as continuity of the process of deployment of difference only through a detached disposition towards that which is yielded as identity in it having been the determinate, and thus evanescent, actuality of difference-in-its-own-deployment. Clearly, only through detachment from identity, yielded by the lapse of the process of difference as its own deployment, can one reclaim that process, and affirm it.

Thus, the process of difference-as-its-own-deployment can be one with itself – or a unity unto itself – only in its uninterrupted continuity. And in order for it to be uninterruptedly continuous, the various constitutive moments of that process must prefigure the overcoming of determinations or identities they themselves would respectively tend to lapse into. That, needless to say, requires a capacity for detachment (tatasthata) towards such identities in order to be able to leave them behind through their critical overcoming. That would ensure that every determinate moment of the process of difference as its own deployment – incarnated by those identities in their respective moments of pre-identitarian emerging – is one (tadaakar) with every other such moment in and as the uninterrupted process of difference-as-its-own-deployment. The Muktibodh essay in question is an explication of this asymmetrical (and thus materialist) dialectic of faith and detachment, and detachment as faith, and the “difficult commitment” of subtraction this particular dialectical approach is integral to. Badiou (2003, pp.63-64) would doubtless call this Muktibodh’s “fidelity to the event”.

Continuous Production and Universal Singularity: Truth-Procedurality of Art

Now since we know that art in its moment of emerging tends to recommence, albeit at a different level of abstraction, that which has lapsed in the interruption of movemental politics, we also ought to understand that such recommencement constitutes itself through and as disavowal of the determination the interruption in question amounts to. Two things ought to become perfectly clear from this. One, the determination or identity this interruption of movemental politics yields is historical or societal vis-à-vis the subject-position of the individual. Something that, therefore, renders the latter a determinate ground and thus also a generic condition to re-think and/or re-incarnate subtraction from the structure of exchange and relationality specified by the identity and determination of the historical or societal. Two, interruption of movemental politics is nothing other than the interruption of a determinate subtraction, precisely due to its ineluctable ontological condition of being determinate.

Hence, interruption of a determinate subtraction can, and must, be prospectively seen as the moment of lapse of what would otherwise be the uninterrupted simultaneity of different determinate subtractions in their infinity. For, as we have noted earlier, art grasps and thus poses itself as the subtraction it determinately is in its emerging only if it simultaneously anticipates the overcoming of itself as the identity it will tend to lapse into on account of its determinate subtractive emerging. This uninterrupted simultaneity of infinitely different determinate subtractions would be the simultaneity of “infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference”. (Badiou, 2005, pp.ix-x.) That would, therefore, be nothing but the process by which “generic singularities partake” of one another. (Badiou, 2005, p.76.). Therefore, not only is the process of generic singularities partaking of each other generic, but, for Badiou, the processes constitutive of this process are also generic. The process of subtraction becoming itself in order to be, which Badiou alternately calls “subtractive ontology” (2005, p.17) or “universal singularity” (2003, pp.14-15), is the ceaseless process constitutive of this uninterrupted simultaneity of infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference. Clearly, therefore, mutual partaking of generic singularities – which could well be called the intersubjectivity of encounter, as opposed to the capitalist intersubjectivity of exchange – amounts to continuous production a la Brecht (1). This Brechtian continuous production obviates distributive transformation of alterities (actually, generic singularities of differences-as-their-own-deployment) into stratified identities (or particularities) and is, therefore, the preclusion and abolition of social division of labour or class relations.

Brechtian continuous production amounts to every moment of production simultaneously tending to be a moment of consumption and vice-versa. It is, therefore, clearly constitutive of the abolition and preclusion of both the producer/consumer (or writer/reader) duality and split, and the relational structure of competing determinations or the endless alternation between negation and determination that such duality and split are constitutive of. This also means that continuous production as abolition and preclusion of social division of labour is production as pure expenditure and is hence constitutive of the radical inverse of capitalism as a restricted economy of accumulation. It is tantamount to an economy of discharge, which in Bataille’s (1998, pp.21-23) words is “the general economy” of expenditure. Clearly, Brecht’s continuous production is a move into production of politics from the capitalist, class-divided horizon of politics of production. And it consists in the intersubjectivity of encounter founding itself as its own “subjective materiality” (Badiou, 2009, p.-198) of what can be termed relationality of the nonrelational. (2)

Therefore, to the extent that the limiting of subtraction due to its determinate condition is, to speak prospectively or in the future-anterior, the lapse of the uninterrupted simultaneity of different determinate subtractions in their infinity, it amounts to the interruption of Brechtian continuous production. And art, as we have seen earlier, is characterised as the generic condition for re-thinking subtractive ontology, or Brecht’s continuous production, on account of it in its emerging having determinately incarnated subtraction at the individual level of abstraction. It is the specificity of this determinate level of the individual that defines the subtractive emerging at that level in its characteristic genericness as art. It is for this reason that art is a generic subtraction or singularity and, therefore, a generic procedure for the universalisability of the truth of the singular it was in its determinately subtractive emerging (event). It would, therefore, make sense to state here in passing that Badiou’s (2005, pp. 124-126) concept of “truth-procedure” is arguably cognate with Benjamin’s concept of allegory.

The truth-procedurality of art is generic in two senses. First, it is what Badiou clearly intends it to be: a procedure for the universalisability of the truth of the singular – which as its universality would be mutual partaking of singularities or Brechtian continuous production – in the internality of the field of art itself. Second, it is a procedure that in and through its determinateness and aesthetic paradigmaticness poses the universalisability of the truth of determinate subtraction as various generic singularities (including art itself) partaking of one another. This is arguably our interpretative expansion of the scope and remit of the concept of generic truth-procedure, albeit one that is logically consistent with and clearly implied by its place in Badiou’s philosophical discourse. That would, it must be reiterated here yet again, amount to generic singularities, among them art and politics, prefiguring in their determinate emerging the overcoming of the identities they would tend to lapse into. What this in its infinitely open entirety would yield is subtractive ontology as the interminable and uninterrupted process of becoming-subtraction.

Subtraction, were we to grasp it in its determinateness at the individual level of abstraction, is emancipation of desire because it in its emerging is a disavowal of determination. In such a situation, the generic truth-procedure of art actualised in the internality of its own paradigmatic domain as multiple generic singularities of determinate eruptions or events of works, forms, genres and media of art, would amount to Brechtian continuous production on and through those multiple determinate planes constitutive of the paradigmatic domain of art. That would mean the interminable mutation of works, forms, genres and media of art both within and among themselves.

As a result, the individual level of abstraction would be rendered a terrain of radical antagonism between the temporality of constellation and uninterrupted dispersion, and the temporality of consolidation of deep selfhood through distributive transformation of alterities into a systemic self of stratified identities.

And what is desire at the individual level of abstraction are productive forces at the scale and level of abstraction of the social. Hence, subtraction at the level of the social is nothing but the unshackling of productive forces from the shackles of social relations of production. Thus we may well broadly say that the social has two levels of abstraction: one that is known by its own name of the social while the other is that of the individual. And while the first is the plane of contention against the determination of history/society, the second is a plane of struggle to disavow and overcome the determination of psychology.

Psychologisation of the individual is transformation of the subject-position or level of abstraction of the individual into a gathered, consolidated self. It is, to be more precise, the distributive transformation of alterities at the individual level of abstraction into a totalised and totalising system of stratified sub-selves. The gathered or coherent individual self is this totalised and totalising system or temporality. Similarly, historicalisation of the social consists in transformation of the subject-position or level of abstraction of the social into a gathered, consolidated society through the distributive stratification of different space-times of social existence into a class-divided and totalising temporality. In other words, psychology is the concept of the totalising and total structure of exchange and relationality as incarnated by and at the individual level of abstraction. On the other hand, the same structural logic in being incarnated at the post-individual, social level of abstraction becomes history.

Hence, art and politics as generic procedures for universalisability of the truth of singularity (or determinate subtraction) demonstrate that revolutionary transformation is necessarily a Freudo-Marxist problematic. It must be noted here that the truth of the singular (event) or determinate subtraction in its universalised actuality would be mutual partaking of generic singularities, or Brechtian continuous production. A note of caution must, however, be sounded here. The affirmation of Freudo-Marxism as the science of revolutionary transformation is by no means a call for an eclectic combination of two disparate doctrines. Rather, what is at stake here is their synthesis that derives from the experiential understanding that the project of Freudian psychoanalysis in constituting and affirming the individual’s disavowal of his objectification (actually subjectivation) by psychology continues the Marxist project which demonstrates that the social is not meant to be the object of history. This clearly shows that both need each other to complement and complete themselves.

Desire, Idea, Poetry: A Case for Freudo-Marxism

I hope that as we go along we will be able to grasp Muktibodh’s literature as an affirmation of, among other things, such Freudo-Marxism. For now, let us keep in mind the last four significantly indicative lines of his (1988, p.11) poem, ‘Poonjiwadi Samaj ke Prati’ (To the Capitalist Society), that can arguably be seen as a credo of the politico-aesthetic vision of Freudo-Marxism: revolution as an uninterrupted continuity of the unleashing of desire/productive forces in, through and beyond the individual and social levels of abstraction, and the concomitant destruction of capital as the structure of exchange. That, in other words, would be the generic singularities of art and politics partaking of one another.

Meri jwaal, jan ki jwaal hokar ek
Aapni ushnata se dho chalen avivek
Tu hai maran, tu hai rikt, tu hai vyarth
tera dhwans keval ek tera aarth.

(“My fire, and the fire of the masses become one/ To wash the irrational with our heat/ You are death, you are emptiness, you are useless/ Your only meaning is your destruction.”) [My translation.]

Here it might be productive to take into account one of Badiou’s key proposals on theatre. He writes in his ‘Rhapsody for the Theatre: A Short Philosophical Treatise’: “We can…be sure that philosophy and psychoanalysis recognize that the operations of the theatre take place on their respective terrains, and thus at the intersection, which is always in dispute, of these territories.” (Emphasis author’s). He then develops this argument of his to conclude: “Theatre: the putting-into-bodies of the Idea. From the point of desire, it is its life; from the point of the Idea, it is its tomb…. Theatre as bastard philosophy, or philosophical bastardy: principled impurity, diverted lesson, all-too-serious analysis, all-too-ludic truth to be assured. A revolving door.” As long as we remember to grasp and envisage all art, literature included, for the subtractive performativity it primarily is, this Badiouian formulation on theatre could, perhaps at the risk of some oversimplification, be applied to art in general.

Art is psychoanalytical insofar as it in its emerging is unleashing of desire from its cathection by a deep psychological self at the individual level of abstraction. Therefore, it is, in its lapsed state, an Idea of the truth of subtraction, and thus a procedure for the recommencement of the truth of the singular (or determinate subtraction) and its universalisability: the interminable and uninterrupted process of becoming-subtraction. But given that art is a generic truth-procedure for the recommencement and universalisability of the truth of the subtractive, such recommencement that it ideationally is, and thus procedurally articulates, is as much for its own individual level of abstraction in its paradigmatic internality as for the social level of abstraction that its lapse into an identitarianised individual self reconstitutes as an incarnation of both psychology with regard to its own internality as a level of abstraction, and history with regard to the social level of determination that the individual self in being that identity is constitutive of as its definitional, identitarianising and relational point of reference. Politics would be the determinate and generic recommencement of subtraction at the social level of abstraction in and as disavowal of the determination of history. As the generic recommencement or re-actualisation of the Idea of subtraction as its own truth at the determinate level of the social, it would be unshackling of productive forces from the social relations of production constitutive of history. And considering that politics would be the actualisation of the unleashing of desire (productive forces) at that determinate level, it too would be a generic subtraction or generic singularity and thus, should, in turn, consequently also be grasped as a generic procedure for the universalisability of the truth of the subtractive or the singular. Such universalisability would be different generic singularities partaking of one another.

However, to the extent that constitutive moments of the process of becoming-subtraction, or Brechtian continuous production, are moments of determinate subtraction, there is always the risk of subtraction being interrupted at those moments because they are its determinate actualities. Thence, art as “principled impurity”, “diverted lesson”, “all-too-ludic truth to be assured”. It is for this reason we would be right in following Badiou to insist that art would be “the putting-into-bodies of the Idea. From the point of desire, it is its life; from the point of the Idea, it is its tomb”.

Muktibodh too has a similar conception of the dialectic of desire/affect and idea with regard to literature, particularly poetry. In ‘Teesra Kshan’ (The Third Moment), he (2002, p.20) has Keshav tell him: “Tum mey aur mujhme ek bada bhed hai. Vichar mujhe utteyjit kar ke kriyavaan kar dete hain. Vicharon ko tum turant hi samvednayon mey parinat kar dete ho. Phir unhi samvednayon ke tum chitra banate ho. Vicharon kee parinati samvednayon mey aur samvednayon kee chitron mey. Iss prakaar tum mey ye do parinatiyan hain.” (There is a big distinction between you and me. Ideas excite me and make me active. You immediately convert ideas into affects. Then from those affects you make images. Conversion of ideas into affects and affects into images. In this fashion there are these two moments of transformation in you.) [My translation.]

Through Keshav, Muktibodh attempts to tell us what he thinks his poetic practice to be and, in the process, also affirm it. Such a poetic practice, by virtue of being conversion of ideas into affects, and conversion, once again, of those affects into images, demonstrate that for him the idea of the truth can be actual only in, as and through its affective, performative and thus determinate realisation. What is at stake in this conversion of ideas into affects is not the determination of the body, as a materiality of affects, by ideas. Something that Keshav, by his own admission, is prone to as opposed to Muktibodh. Rather, Muktibodh’s poetry, not unlike theatre for Badiou, is about ideas in their affective embodiment, “the putting-into-bodies of the Idea”. This singular moment of embodiment of the idea is the moment of the collapse of the idea/body duality.

Conversely, therefore, the idea, for Muktibodh a la his alter-ego Keshav, is that which in and through its discursivity communicates itself as the non-discursive truth of affective eruption in its determinate actualisation. That is because the idea as that discursivity is a lapsed incarnation of that affective eruption. Hence, he too seems to be envisaging and explicating poetry as something that operates “at the intersection…of these (two) territories” of psychoanalysis on one hand, and philosophy under the conditions of art and politics on the other. Like Badiou, the whole point of the idea for Muktibodh is for it to be caught in this dialectical situation of “principled impurity”. That, he appears to suggest, is how the Idea retains its productivity in both radical aesthetics and radical politics. Not surprisingly, Badiou’s “bastard philosophy” and “philosophical bastardy” echo the dialectical reflexivity of “samvednatmak gyan” (affective knowledge) and “gyanatmak samvedna” (knowledge-informed affect), through which Muktibodh in this essay constellates “bhokta” (one who experiences) and “darshak” (the spectator) thus abolishing and precluding their divided and stratified distribution.

Subsequently, we find Keshav tell Muktibodh (2002, p.20): “Agar tumhari kavitayen kisee ko uljhi huyee maloom hon toh tumhe hataash nahin hona chahhiye…main tumhari kavitayen dhyan se padhta hoon.” (You shouldn’t despair if someone finds yours poems convoluted…I read your poems carefully.) About those poems, he further says: “Unmey aur safai kee jaroorat hai. Kintu main un logon ka samarthak nahin hoon jo safai ke naam per, safai ke liye ‘content’ (kavya-tatva) kee bali de dete hain.” (They need more clarity. But I am not a supporter of those people who in the name of chiseling a poem, for the sake of its clarity, sacrifice its content.) [My translation.]

This is clearly meant to be an affirmation of a kind of poetry that through a dialectically articulated reflexivity seeks to demonstrate, from the poet’s end itself, the subtraction it is an interruption of. And this it does by amply and appropriately indicating the subtractive constitutivity of its emerging as the excess of its identitarianised or discursivised interruption. After all, what would it mean for a poem to sacrifice its content for a clean, well-wrought form? Something that Muktibodh has Keshav criticise and reject. Clearly, this content, which the poem can, through its well-wrought and pat form, completely repress and render invisible, is this excess. So, what Keshav calls content of a poem is not simply meant to be the substance that is held within form as if the latter were a neutral vessel. Rather, it is what formalists such as Viktor Shklovsky conceptually designated as “content of form”. This “content of form” – it must be repeated here in order to be free of all ambiguity – is the constitutivity of a form in its subtractive emerging, and hence also its excess.

In this context, let us once again examine the conception of usefulness of art with regard to politics. We must, without doubt, talk about the usefulness of art in terms of the instruction that art gives politics. But this usefulness or didacticism of art vis-à-vis politics is not what the discursive terms or features of a work, form, genre and/or medium of art convey to politics. That would be oh-so-many reifications of the former and its concomitant instrumentalisation by the latter. Rather, the instruction that art offers, or at any rate should offer, is all about grasping art as communicating itself in terms of the subtraction and disavowal of determination, and thus the unleashing of desire, it incarnated in its determinate and generic moment of emerging at the individual level of abstraction. We may, therefore, term the didacticism of art, which constitutes its usefulness, as didacticism of desire. This is arguably how Brecht sought to grasp and envisage didacticism – particularly with regard to art, but also politics – in and through his theory and practice of dramaturgy and literature.

The Brechtian conception of axiomatics (3) is an articulation of this didacticism of desire, which demonstrates how the revolutionary social is the actuality of the process of (interminable) scission or uninterrupted dispersion. This conception of axiomatics consists of grasping the Idea in its internal division due to the dynamic of desire (or productive forces) being an asymmetrical dialectic of its unshackling (emancipation) and harnessing (interruption/cathection). The “revolving door” of generic singularity (desire and psychoanalysis) and generic truth-procedure (Idea and philosophy) that we see Badiou articulate with regard to theatre is a reformulation of Brechtian axiomatics, and the attendant conception of didacticism of desire and its actualisation as continuous production. This means art instructs the social level of determination by posing the overcoming of its own identitarianisation as art to recommence the subtraction or unleashing of desire that it was in its moment of determinate emerging.

Aesthetic education is not, or cannot be, discursive education. It is affective and gestic/performative education. To further clarify what this means, let us cite an oft-quoted and much-celebrated passage from Marx (1984, p.21): “Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge…a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.” From such a Marxian vantage-point, art must be judged not by what it says about itself through the discursive features and contours of its various works, forms, genres, and/or media but by explaining why and how those discursive features and contours are organised the way they are as those works, forms, genres, and/or media in question. That is to say, one can judge what art is only by grasping the organisations of its discursive features and contours that its works, forms, genres, media and the like are, in terms of what they in the process of being organised thus determinately incarnated. The focus here, from Marx’s standpoint, would clearly be on the subtractive aesthetic process that the dynamic of organisation of works, genres, forms and so on incarnate in the determinateness of their emerging.

At this point, I would wish to insist once again that Muktibodh’s oeuvre constitutes an unambiguous affirmation of his politico-aesthetic vision of literature being useful by virtue of it being a didacticism of desire, and the demonstration of continuous production as the actualisation of such instruction. And ‘Teesra Kshan’ (The Third Moment) is an apt instantiation of that. In it Muktibodh (2002, pp.14-15) has his friend Keshav say:

“Iss baat per bahut kuch nirbhar karta hai ki aap kis sirey se baat shuru karenge. Yadi pathak, shrota ya darshak ke sirey se baat shuru karenge toh aapki vichar-yatra doosrey dhang kee hogi. Yadi lekhak ke sirey se sonchna shuru karenge toh baat alag prakar ki hogi. Dono sirey se baat hogi saundarya-mimansa kee hi. Kintu yatra kee bhinnata ke kaaran alag-alag raston ka prabhav vicharon ko bhinn banaa dega.

“Doh yatraon kee paraspar bhinnata, anivaarya roop se, paraspar-virodhi hai—yeh sonchna niraadhaar hai. Bhinnata poorak bhi ho sakti hai, virodhi bhi.” (A lot depends on where you wish to start your argument from. If the argument begins from the standpoint of the reader, audience or spectator then the journey of your thinking will be of a certain kind. If you begin thinking from the writer’s point of view then your argument will be different. In both instances, the argument will centre on aesthetic judgement. But because of the difference of the two journeys, the influence of their respectively different paths on thinking will render the two thought-processes different. To imagine that the mutual difference of the two journeys necessarily renders them mutually oppositional is without any basis. Difference can be complementary, it can be oppositional too.) [My translation.] 

Here the poet’s alter-ego is shown asserting that the two different approaches adopted respectively by the reader and the writer in analysing, and thus envisaging, the aesthetic process can be either mutually antagonistic or complementary, not necessarily just the former. As a result, the two approaches could, in their difference, also be simultaneously antagonistic and complementary to one another. But what exactly would this simultaneity of mutual antagonism and complementarity between the two different approaches of the reader and the writer with regard to the aesthetic process amount to? Grasped, for instance, from the reader’s side, this would imply the reader affirms the writer by disavowing him. That is, the reader by disavowing the writer as the grammatical subject of the written work that constitutes determination vis-à-vis him tends to recommence the subtractive writing-as-process that the written work in its moment of emerging determinately incarnated and in thus incarnating interrupted. As a result, what the reader affirms in the process of disavowing the writer as the grammatical subject of the identity of the written work is the writer as the determinate subject-position of the process of subtractive enunciation incarnated by the written work in its moment of becoming itself. Clearly, the writer as the grammatical subject and the writer as the determinate subject-position of the process of subtractive enunciation are radically antagonistic. Now if we were to imagine Muktibodh’s alter-ego Keshav himself as that reader, we could well say that since he, on account of his own readerly experience, grasps the difference in the approaches of the writer and reader as being both antagonistic and complementary, he would tend to see his own readerly move of disavowal of the determination of the written work as being constitutive of the recommencement of subtraction that the written work has interrupted in the process of determinately incarnating it. He would, therefore, also grasp such recommencement as affirmation of becoming-subtraction or subtractive ontology. In such a situation, he would, by virtue of being a reader, also simultaneously tend to be a writer. And since he would grasp his reader-becoming-writer move as the recommencement and thus affirmation of becoming-subtraction, he would, in the same movement of determinately recommencing subtraction (or writing-as-process as disavowal of determination of the written work), also prefigure the overcoming of his own authorial determination. Evidently, two things seem to be happening here. One, the reader grasps the written work of literature in terms of subtraction the latter determinately incarnated in its becoming itself as that written work, and thereby it disavows the identity and determination the written work is. This is indisputably a case of literature being rendered, by and for its reader, into a didacticism of desire and/or a generic truth-procedure. Two, literature, on account of the reader actualising its instruction of desire, becomes a generic field of interminable writing-as-process, or continuous production, and thus preclusion of distributively fixed division of labour between the writer and the reader.

However, the importance of ‘Teesra Kshan’ (The Third Moment) as an affirmative manifesto of didacticism of desire and continuous production does not merely lie in the arguments it makes but, more significantly, in the form of the essay itself. The form of the Bakhtinian dialogue-as-polemical communication between the poet and his friend (or alter-ego), through which the text elaborates itself, is as powerful an affirmation of literature as a paradigmatic field of continuous production in its genericness as the arguments and propositions it discursively puts forth.

Unity of Dispersion: Epic Poetry, or Division of Labour Abolished

In the essay (2002, p.29),‘Ek Lambi Kavita ka Ant’ (End of a Long Poem), Brechtian continuous production in the form of interminability of writing-as-process is sought to be further explicated with regard to the generic field of literature. “Idhar weh kavita mera pind nahin chord rahi thi. Agar weh kavita bhaavaaveshpurn hoti toh ek baar uski aaveshaatmak abhivyakti ho jane per meri chhutti ho jati. Lekin waisa ho sakna asambhav hai, kyunki bhaavaavesh kisee baat ko lekar hoti hai, weh baat kisee doosre baat se judi hoti hai, doosri baat kisee teesri baat se.” (In here, that poem was unwilling to let go of me. Had that poem been full of passion, its emotional or affective expression would have meant my freedom from it. However, that was impossible, because passion is always with regard to something specific, and that specificity is, in turn, connected to another specificity and that another specificity is connected to yet another specificity.) [My translation.]

When seen through the prism of this excerpt, the scale and form of an epic poem – and much of Muktibodh’s poetry is just that – becomes a demonstration of what continuous production amounts to in the generic condition of art. This also, therefore, reveals why continuous production is a virtue of revolutionary aesthetics. The perpetual process of uninterrupted recommencement of desire is, in literature, revealed in and by the interminability of writing-as-process. And this interminability of writing-as-process is, in turn, formally effectuated, as Muktibodh seems to correctly observe, by the baggy proportions of an epic poem.

Such interminability of writing-as-process suggests that a work of literature is, only in its perpetual withdrawal from that which seeks to complete it. This means the written must interminably withdraw from itself by perpetually exceeding itself as writing -as-process to sustain that process which the written in its moment of coming into being had incarnated. It is this dialectically articulated modality of continuous production, specified as the interminability of writing-as-process in literature, that Blanchot (1989, pp. 22-23) indicates and affirms when he writes: “The writer writes a book, but the book is not yet the work. There is a work only when, through it, and with the violence of a beginning which is proper to it, the word being is pronounced. This event occurs when the work becomes the intimacy between someone who writes and someone who reads it. One might, then, wonder: if solitude is the writer’s risk, does it not express the fact that he is turned, oriented toward the open violence of the work, of which he never grasps anything but the substitute—the approach and the illusion in the form of the book? The writer belongs to the work, but what belongs to him is only a book, a mute collection of sterile words, the most insignificant thing in the world. The writer who experiences this void believes only that the work is unfinished, and he thinks that a little more effort, along with some propitious moments, will permit him and him alone to finish it. So he goes back to work. But what he wants to finish by himself remains interminable; it involves him in an illusory task. And the work, finally, knows him not. It closes in around his absence as the impersonal, anonymous affirmation that it is—and nothing more.” Blanchot’s “being”, which is conceptually central to his explication of the interminability of writing-as-process, is arguably derived from the Heideggerian philosophy of “ontology of difference”. (Emphasis author’s.) It is, however, perfectly possible to set such metaphysical connotations aside and grasp “being”, in this instance, simply as transcendental couching of the constructivist constellational unity posed and articulated by the uninterrupted process of dispersion that Brechtian continuous production is. And inasmuch as continuous production is the abolition and preclusion of division of labour between the writer and the reader, it is an obviation of those identities of producer and consumer of the work. That renders the universe of work an “impersonal and anonymous affirmation that it is”.

Blanchot (1989, pp.22-23) further elaborates: “This is what is meant by the observation that the writer, since he only finishes his work at the moment he dies, never knows of his work. One ought perhaps to turn this remark around. For isn’t the writer dead as soon as the work exists? He sometimes has such a presentiment himself: an impression of being ever so strangely out of work.” Clearly, the interruption of the work – which as perpetual withdrawal is interminability of writing-as-process – by the written book is death of the writer. And, hence, the writer in embracing his death, and thus disavowing himself as the grammatical subject of the written book, finishes his work by clearing the way for the work in its withdrawal, or as interminability of writing-as-process, to recommence.

The unfolding of a poem, which is the operation of this interminability of writing-as-process in and as a specified literary form, is registered in Muktibodh as the effectuation of movement or flow of affects, and the narrative content of a poem is, for him, affective history. He (2002, p.38) writes: “Kavita ke bheetar ki saari natakiyata vastutah bhavon kee gatimayata hai. Usi prakar, kavita ke bhitar ka katha-tatva bhi bhav ka itihas hai.” (All the drama in a poem is practically the dynamic of affects. In the same way, the narrative content of a poem too is the history of affect.) [My translation.]

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that he (2002, p.38) should envisage poetry as a form of dialectically articulated dispersive unity of “prose-images” (“gadya-chitra”). One which is recommencement of the processuality of dispersion due to its interruption by the very prose-images that in their emerging determinately incarnate its recommencement. “Toh phir aisee sthiti mey yeh asambhav nahin hai ki kavita ko anek krambadh gadya-chitron mey prastut kiya jaye. Athva anek krambadh gadya-chitra kuch iss tarah alokit aur deeptimaan ho uthen ki chhand ban jayen, gatimaan ho jayen aur ek vishesh disha ki ore pravahit ho saken.” (So, in such a situation, it is not impossible to present a poem as a serialisation of many prose-images. Or, many series of prose-images are illumined and rendered radiant in a manner that rhyme comes out of them, they become dynamic and begin flowing in a particular direction.) [My translation.]

This shows that Muktibodh grasped poetry and envisaged his own poetic practice as an effectuation of the dynamic of recommencement of desire, which is the effectuation of becoming-subtraction, at the paradigmatic level of poetry as art.

Ethics of a Poet or a Politics of Poetry: Why Withdrawal is Not Subtraction

However, the essay does not stop there. It compels the artists to think the encounter between art and politics. It (2002, pp.33-34) suggests the futility of art, literature and other similar critical intellectual vocations if the work of creating their own ethical condition of possibility is not integral to those vocations and pursuits. “Badey-badey aadarshvadi aaj Ravan ke yahan pani bharte hain, aur haan mey haan milate hain. Badey pragatisheel mahanubhaav bhi isi marj mey giraftaar hain. Jo vyakti Ravan ke yahan pani bharne se inkaar karta hai uskey bachche maare-maare phirte hain. Aur aap jante hain, ki khyatiprapt yashodeept pragatisheel mahanibhaav bhi (main sabki nahin keh sakta) un per hans padte hain ya kabhi-kabhi tuchch ke prati daya ke bhav se parilupt ho uthathe hain. Toh, sankshep mey, jo vyakti phatey haal aur phatichar hai, usey maanyata dene ki liye koi tayyar nahin, chaahe weh kitna hee naitik kyun na ho.” [Great, well-known idealists are these days found slaving at Ravan’s home, filling water, and busy being their master’s voice. Many well-known progressive personalities are also in the grip of this ailment. An individual who refuses to fill water for Ravan has to see his children teeter precariously on the brink. And you know, how famous progressive personalities with halos of glory around their heads too (I can’t speak for all) laugh at them or are filled with the kind of pity one feels for the lowly for them. So, in short, nobody is willing to grant recognition to a person whose existence is precarious, irrespective of how ethical that person might be.] (My translation.)

Clearly, the ethical condition of possibility of art, literature and other such critical intellectual vocations would be the universality of the truth of determinate subtraction – which those pursuits are in their emerging – in and as the uninterruptedness of becoming-subtraction.

Ethics, from Muktibodh’s vantage-point as an artist, is the disavowal of, and thus subtraction from, the structure of exchange and relationality that art in its moment of emerging is a determinate incarnation of. Thus, the ethical condition of possibility of art as an activity for its own end, wherein art is not the object of determination of any extraneous condition, would be subtractive ontology as the ceaseless process constitutive of the simultaneity of infinite determinate subtractions. In other words, the ethical condition of possibility of art as an activity for its own end is the uninterrupted interminability of becoming-subtraction in, through and beyond art.

For, if art, literature and other such critical intellectual vocations do not have that work of universalisability as their integral condition of being, they are destined to assert and defend their sovereignty and thus lapse into and restore the very structure of exchange and relationality they tend to disavow in their emerging as art, literature and so on. This obviously means that art, literature and other intellectual vocations, their discursively articulated avowals of radicalism and revolutionary idealism notwithstanding, would be determined by, and thus dependent for their continuance on, the very capitalist structure of exchange that their discursively articulated declarations of radicalism and revolutionary idealism are meant to be a disavowal of. Clearly, sovereignty, even the sovereignty of the radical intellectual, is a chimera. This, as Muktibodh sees in such a clear-eyed fashion, is at the root of the rift between words and deeds, and the resultant hypocrisy and neurosis of radical intellectuals and artists. We must read his argument in ‘Ek Lambi Kavita ka Ant’ (End of a Long Poem) as indicating how the assertion and defence of the sovereignty of identities and discursivities of radical intellectual and artistic projects – that is, their words – is precisely what causes their radicalism (in deed) to be undermined. He appears to understand very well that radicalism is not what radicalism says, but what radicalism does and keeps doing.

Therefore, it must be reiterated here yet again, that art, literature or any other similarly humanist intellectual vocation can hope to sustain the criticality and radicalism it determinately incarnates in its emerging, only by actively prefiguring the overcoming of the identity it would inevitably tend to lapse into on account of it being in its emerging a determinate incarnation of such radicalism and criticality. Any failure on that score would be the failure of that critical intellectual vocation to produce its own ethical condition of possibility. This condition would be the intersubjectivity of encounter – the mutual partaking of generic singularities – founding itself as its own subjective materiality of relationality of the nonrelational or continuous production.

And what is a fleeting affirmative gesture towards the ethical virtue of mutual partaking of generic singularities as continuous production – the uninterrupted simultaneity of infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference – in ‘Ek Lambi Kavita ka Ant’ (End of a Long Poem), becomes, in his poem ‘Bramharakshas’ (1988, pp.119-126), a clearly articulated statement of revolutionary transformation. It poses the question of abolition of art and politics as competing determinations constitutive of a stratified system of identities in order to actualise and preserve them as alterities (difference-as-its-own-deployment) or generic singularities.

In the final analysis, Muktibodh evidently has little use for pure ethics, something that his emphasis (in ‘Ek Lambi Kavita ka Ant’) on the suffering of a person who steadfastly holds on to an ethical position might suggest. ‘Bramharakshas’ is an unequivocal demonstration of that. Ethics, as far as Muktibodh’s subjective disposition as a poet is concerned, is nothing more than politics as a yet-to-be realised materiality. One that will realise ethics in its materiality, thereby abolishing and precluding it. Which is to say that for an artist, and Muktibodh is one, ethics is grasping of the determinate subtractiveness of art in its emerging while politics is the actuality of becoming-subtraction or subtractive ontology.

Bramharakshas, the protagonist of the eponymous poem, is clearly someone who grasps his intellectual vocation in its determinate subtraction from the given structure and materiality of exchange and its correspondent intersubjectivity of relationality.

“Bawdi kee un ghani gaharahiyon may shunya
Bramharakshas ek paitha hai,
va bheetar se umardti gunj kee bhi gunj,
bardbardahat-shabd pagal se.
Gahan anumanita
tan kee malinta
door karne ke liye pratipal
paap-chchaya door karne ke liye, din-raath
swachch karne –
Bramharakshas
ghis raha hai deh
haath ke panje, baraabar
banh-chchati-muh chchapaachchap
khoob karte saaf,
phir bhi mael
phir bhi mael!! 

Aur…honthon se
anokha strotra, koi kruddh mantrochchar,
athva shundh Sanskrit galiyon ka jwar,
mastak kee lakiren
bun rahin
alochanayon kay chamakte tar!!
Us akhand snan ka pagal pravah…
pran may samvedna hai syah!! 

(In the blankness of the deep dark depths of the pond/ lies a Bramharakshas,/ And an echo of the echo bursting out from the inside,/ like the words of an insane mutter./ To rid himself, every moment, of grave doubts and his body of its squalid griminess / To rid himself of his sinful shadow/ To cleanse himself/ The Brahmarakshas scrubs his body, day and night without any respite./ His paws moving continuously over his arms-chest-face…splash! Splash! Splash!/ To rub himself clean, absolutely clean,/ Yet there’s dirt/ Yet there’s grime!!

And…from his lips emanate bizarre shlokas, like some angry enunciation of spells,/ or else, a torrent of invectives in impeccable Sanskrit,/ the lines on his forehead/ knitting together/ shimmering threads of criticisms!!/ The insane flow of that unceasing bath…/ the blackness of his sensitive soul!!) [My translation.] 

But in his endeavour to dwell in that subtractiveness, Bramharakshas ends up conflating (or hypostatising) the subtractive process his intellectual vocation in its emerging determinately incarnated, with the identity that his vocation, as a consequence, has lapsed into. Clearly, Bramharakshas reduces the non-discursive subtraction or the event – which is actualised in and as a determinate emerging but which is irreducible to the discursivity it, as a result, tends to lapse into – to the discursivised, identitarianised niche of his intellectual vocation only to dwell in it. As a result, subtractiveness from the given structure of exchange and relationality becomes, for Bramharakshas, an effort to lose the “sinful shadow, “dirt” and “grime” of the structure of exchange by withdrawing into the purported purity of his discursivised intellectual vocation. A vocation that in its putative discursivised purity consists of pronouncing “bizarre shlokas, like some angry enunciation of spells, or else, a torrent of invectives in impeccable Sanskrit with the lines on Bramharakshas’ forehead knitting together shimmering threads of criticisms”.

The question that the lines cited above rhetorically pose is, can a critical intellectual or radical artistic vocation (personified in Bramharakshas) retain its criticality and radicalism by seeking to keep that ‘criticality’ and ‘radicalism’ pure by purporting to stand apart from the impure world and obsessively working towards holding that world and its impurities at bay? Does that not make such a vocation or project complicit in maintaining and perpetuating the very impure world with which it wants to have nothing to do? Does not Bramharakshas’ purity, which he seeks to attain by obsessively washing himself of the shadow of sin, and all the dirt and grime of the world around by seeking to keep himself separate from that world, render him complicit in its perpetuation as the dump of sin, grime and dirt it is? For, is it not this obsession of his to remain pure that prevents Bramharakshas from wading into its dirt and grime to wipe it out and thus perpetuates all that grime and dirt and makes his supposed purity complicit and part of it?

Little does he realise that subtraction is not withdrawal from the structure of exchange and relationality but its disavowal and destruction through the generalisation of subtractiveness as and into subtractive ontology. To mistake withdrawal for subtraction is to do what an anarchist such as Proudhon or the “utopian socialists” proposed and/or tried to accomplish. Such withdrawal cannot be because by disengaging with the structure of exchange and relationality it implies leaving the latter intact, together with its objective wont to rearticulate that which seeks to withdraw from it. This is just what Marx and Engels demonstrated through their respective critiques of Proudhon (in The Poverty of Philosophy) and “utopian socialists” (in Anti-Duhring). Rather, subtractive ontology as the mode that materialises itself as the uninterrupted simultaneity of infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference is in radical antagonism to the structure of exchange, its materiality of social division of labour and its correspondent intersubjectivity of relationality. This should leave none in any doubt that the destruction or unraveling of the structure/mode of exchange is integral to becoming-subtraction, or subtractive ontology. (4)

Be that as it may, from the position of pure ethics – which is clearly the one constitutive of the Bramharakshas subjectivity – withdrawal is equated with subtraction. The wont of a position that is purely ethical is to dwell, at a subjective level, in the subtractiveness that art or other similarly critical intellectual vocations determinately incarnate in their emerging even as those vocations are, objectively speaking, subsumed within and articulated by the structure of exchange and relationality. This ensures that subject-positions of pure ethics, even when those positions are so in complete good faith, must unwittingly accept the value that gets ascribed to their subjective dwelling in the subtractiveness of their different critical intellectual vocations by way of valorisation of their objectively identitarianised correlates. This happens because such identitarianisation, which the fact of their interruption as singularities wreaks on them, restores the structure of exchange and its logic of valorisation. Clearly, the subjective dwelling in the emerging subtractiveness of critical intellectual vocations, and the purely ethical subject-positions constitutive of such dwelling, remain neither subtractive nor, therefore, ethical. There is something, no matter how unequal, that the purely ethical subject-position of Bramharakshas gains in exchange for the pain he suffers in withdrawing into the niche of his ‘critical’ intellectual vocation from the structure of exchange. Worse, he even comes to accept and take pride in what he gets, maintaining his suffering, and dwelling in it as a kind of symbolic capital of pain. The structure of exchange pays him with awe and respect mixed with terror and derision for the suffering it extracts from him on account of his withdrawal from it in order to be the apparently intransigent, lone, secluded intellectual or artist that he is. Those who inhabit the subjectivity of pure ethics in all good faith rest content with that. While those who come to do so in bad faith seek to, and often succeed, in realising that value of awe and respect mixed with derision and terror as a very good price in the capitalist society and economy constitutive of the structure/mode of exchange and valorisation.

That is exactly what the poet, who figures in the poem as its narrative voice, tells us about Bramharakshas:

Kintu, gahri bawdi
kee bheetree deewar per
tirchi giree Ravi-rashmi
ke udte huye parmanu, jab
tal tak pahunchte hain kabhi
tab Bramharakshas samajhta hai, Surya nay
jhukkar ‘Namaste’ kar diya.
Path bhoolkar jab chandni
kee kiran takraye kahin deewar per,
tab Bramharakshas samajhta hai
vandana kee chandni nay
gyan-guru maanaa usey. 

(But, if and when some stray atoms of the sunbeam,/ which falls a-slant on the inner walls that enclose the deep pond,/ reach its bottom/ Bramharakshas takes that to be the Sun’s wish to bow before him in obeisance./ If ever moonlight, straying from its path,/ collides with those walls,/ Bramharakshas is given to believe that the Moon,/ which has accepted him as its master,/ is singing paeans to him.) [My translation.] 

That is certainly not subtraction. But is it, for that matter, even a successful withdrawal from the structure of exchange and its correspondent intersubjectivity of relationality? Can there ever be a withdrawal that succeeds? Is ‘successful withdrawal’ not a paradox, a Kantian antinomy, as it were? Does a good-faith ethical subject, even at the level of its purely subjective experience, really dwell in the subtractiveness from the structure of exchange his intellectual vocation in its emerging had determinately incarnated as a subjective materiality? Evidently, the good-faith ethical subject such as Bramharakshas is, from Muktibodh’s standpoint of radical aesthetics, as much responsible for the perpetuation of the structure of exchange and relationality as the bad-faith ethical subjects whom we have seen him scorn as Ravan’s slaves in ‘Ek Lambi Kavita ka Ant’ (End of a Long Poem).

Kintu yug badla va aaya keerti-vyavsayi
…labhkari karya me se dhan,
va dhan may se hriday-man,
aur, dhan-abhibhoot antahkaran may se
satya kee jhain
                        nirantar chilchilatee thi.
Atmachetas kintu is
vyaktitva may thi pranmai anban…
vishwachetas be-banav!!
Mahatta ke charan may tha
vishadakul man!
Mera usi se un dinon hota Milan yadi
toh vyatha uski swyam jeekar
batataa mai usey uska swyam ka mulya
                                      uskee mahatta!
Va us mahatta ka
hum sareekhon ke liye upyog,
us aantarikta ka batataa mai mahatva!! 

Pis gaya veh bheetree
au’ baharee doh kathin paton beech,
aisee tragedy hai neech!!

(But the epoch changed, and traders of fame arrived/ …in profitable activity shimmered wealth,/ while only in that wealth could heart-and-mind be glimpsed,/ and, the brightness of truth flashed unceasingly from the inner recesses of a soul overwhelmed by such riches./ But in this self-conscious/ being resided life-affirming contradictions…/ an unreconstructed consciousness of the world!! On the feet of greatness lay prostrate/ a despairing soul!/ If only I had met with him then/ I would surely have lived his pain/ to tell him his own value/ his greatness!

Also, the use such greatness could be put to/ for people like us,/ And the significance of such inwardness I would surely have communicated to him!!/ But alas, it ended in a lowly tragedy!/ Caught as he was between the inner and outer mill stones of his dilemma that ground him to dust!!) [My translation.]

This part of the poem is a savagely brilliant demonstration of how Bramharakshas, the subject of pure ethics, in allowing himself to be subsumed by the structure of exchange and relationality is eventually crushed by it. Bramharakshas’ purely ethical position drives him, as we have seen, to dwell, at a subjective level, in the subtractiveness that his critical intellectual vocation had determinately incarnated in its emerging even as that subtractiveness has lapsed to become, at an objective level, an identity. This interruptive transformation of a determinate subtraction into an identity restores the structure of exchange into which it lapses, and which as a result valorises it. Clearly, Bramharakshas, impelled by his purely ethical quest, dwells in a chimera of withdrawal from the structure of exchange that, objectively speaking, is a perpetuation of precisely that structure and its constitutive logic of valorisation. Evidently, it is Bramharakshas’ pure ethicality that ensures his defeat by the dialectical cunning of the structure of exchange and valorisation, which then finishes him off.

Bramharakshas is first trapped in a web of valorisation and thus competing determinations, which then goes on to endanger his intellectual vocation, his spirit and, eventually, his very existence. The capitalist structure of exchange and relationality, as long as it is around as an objective fact, is destined by the sheer fact of such existence to define everything that comes into being in relation to itself. That results in such determinately subtractive activity to be identitarianised and thus undermined as the subtraction its coming into being is. However, the subsumption of the undermined or lapsed subtraction by the structure, which, dialectically speaking, is restored in that lapse, then tends to finish off such lapsed subtractions; or identities, value-forms or commodities. For, what purpose or end can a purportedly critical intellectual or artistic identity or commodity that in its discursivity still continues to disavow exchange and valorisation have within and for the structure of exchange and valorisation in a situation where the latter’s scope has hugely expanded? Bramharakshas’ intellectual vocation and his soul are, as the poem here shows us, doubtless caught in an extremely painful situation of being constantly threatened with extinction. But it also demonstrates this to be the logical culmination of his subsumption by the structure of exchange and relationality, not despite but because of his purely ethical quest to withdraw from that structure into the niche of his ‘critical’ intellectual calling. The subtractiveness that Bramharakshas’ intellectual vocation was in its emerging, and his purely ethical position, both cease to be themselves, paradoxically, on account of the pure ethicality of his position and subjective orientation. The ethical Bramharakshas, in seeking to withdraw from the structure of exchange and relationality by way of his critical intellectual vocation, tends to render such withdrawal into an assertion and defence of the sovereignty of his intellectual vocation. And sovereignty is pyrrhic because its success implies the restoration of the structure of identity, exchange and relationality, which subsumes it as that sovereignty to undermine it. The ethical Bramharakshas is, therefore, unmistakably complicit in his own suffering and death. And for that reason such suffering and extinction are correctly characterised in the poem as a “lowly tragedy” (“aisee tragedy hai neech!!!”). 

Affirmation by Disavowal: A Dialectic for the Singular

But it is here the poet steps in as the narrative voice he is in the poem to affirm Bramharakshas by disavowing him. This simultaneity of affirmation and disavowal is articulated by the poet by affirming Bramharakshas’ greatness on account of the pain the latter had to suffer because of his withdrawal into the niche of his intellectual vocation from the structure of exchange and relationality. However, this affirmation is articulated in terms of the use [upyog], and the value (moolya) thereof, that such “greatness” has for “people like us”. Clearly, this affirmation of the use and value of Bramharakshas’ pain and suffering “for people like us” is an affirmation of the determinate subtraction that his critical intellectual subjectivity of withdrawal from the structure of exchange incarnated in its emerging. It is, therefore, an affirmation that is shown to be possible only in, as and through the disavowal of Bramharakshas, who is the lapsed subtraction and the subsumed subject of the structure of exchange and relationality. This lapsed subtraction, and identitarianised and subsumed subject no longer knows its own subtractiveness (and use-value thereof) in ceasing to become it. The affirmation of Bramharakshas’ greatness, and pain and suffering, the poet correctly points out, is possible and useful only through the recommencement of its subtractive condition with the poet himself living it in his own time. Only that would constitute a real affirmation of Bramharakshas’ greatness, and his pain and suffering as a use-value that, in the same movement, would be disavowal of the twinned subsumed identities of Bramharakshas’ subjectivity of withdrawal and his intellectual vocation that is the valorised objective correlate of that subjectivity.

In a work of Biblical hermeneutics from a revolutionary-proletarian standpoint, Negri (2009, pp.xix-xx) writes: “Job had been loyal to all measures that regulated the world supported by God; the workers had been loyal to all the measures that regulated the world governed by capital. Now, though, measure had exploded. Job protested against measure and he suffered from the pain of the incommensurability of life: now all measure had blown up. What has all this to do with my anxiety for liberation? The reason is minor and simple but also profound: both the workers’ movement and I experienced what Job had, that is, the pain of incommensurability and the consequent discovery that to the end of measure one could reply only with the passion of creation. Where old measures had fallen it was necessary to create new ones; and passion could only play itself out now in the capacity to move with joy beyond measure. Only from this perspective was it possible to imagine communism anew.”

The whole point of affirming pain and suffering, in this context, is not to preserve them and thereby give them a measure, no matter how unequal, for existing as that pain and suffering. Rather, the point of such affirmation, which is essentially affirmation of the condition of incommensurability and subtractiveness that such pain and suffering in coming into being determinately actualise, is to generalise that condition of immeasurability and subtraction through transvaluation of pain, and the concomitant disavowal of measure and exchange, into an immensity of “joy beyond measure” and “passion for creation”.

The poet in affirming Bramharakshas’ greatness in terms of his suffering and pain, by simultaneously disavowing Bramharakshas in his ethical dwelling in the facticity of such pain and suffering, is seeking to “create new ones (measures)” of use-value “where the old measures…” of exchange-based valorisation “…had fallen”, thereby attempting to make it “possible to imagine communism anew” in, as and through the determinate recommencement of subtraction and its universalisability into and as the subjective materiality of relationality of the nonrelational, or the uninterrupted simultaneity of infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference.

Thus the poet’s affirmation of Bramharakshas’ pain is not in terms of the capitalist structure visiting it on the sufferer, but in terms of the subtractive condition of Bramharakshas in his moment of pre-identitarian emerging. The meaning that Bramharakshas gives to his pain in suffering it is bound to his subjective identity and the equally identitarianised objective correlate of his intellectual vocation, and thus has a measure and a value within the structure of exchange it as an identity incarnates. That is something we have seen the poem demonstrate in order to disavow. To that extent, the pain and suffering of Bramharakshas – which is the subtractive condition and moment of his coming into being – that the poet affirms, is in radical antagonism to the facticity of pain and suffering that Bramharakshas inhabits as a subjective identity correspondent with his intellectual vocation as an equally identitarianised objective correlate.

This asymmetrical – or singular – dialectic between subtraction that Bramharakshas was an incarnation of in his moment of emerging and the identity that he has become, and whose sovereignty he ends up asserting in hypostatically ‘affirming’ the subtraction he had incarnated in the moment of his coming into being, is most clearly evident in the last stanza of the poem:

Vah jyoti anjaani sada ko so gayee
yah kyon hua!
Kyon yah hua!!
Mai Bramharakshas ka sajal-ur shishya
hona chahta
jisse ki uska adhoora karya,
uskee vedna ka srot
sangat, purna nishkarshon talak
                            pahuncha sakoon.

(That light has been snuffed out for ever/ Why! Oh why! Did this have to happen!/ I now wish to become/  the truest disciple of Bramharakshas/ so that I can take his unfinished task,/ the source of his pain,/ closer to its fully logical conclusions.) [My translation.]

Clearly, Bramharakshas’ discipleship that the poets wishes to adopt, while grieving his death, is all about affirming the subtractive condition of Bramharakshas’ pain and suffering by recommencing it and its universalisability by living it in his own determinateness, thus taking his unfinished (or interrupted) task to its logical conclusion. Such affirmation of Bramharakshas as the incarnation of subtraction or unleashing of desire that he was in his emerging, which is thus constitutive of disavowal of Bramharakshas as the valorised subjective identity he consequently becomes, shows that Bramharakshas’ instruction for the poet-as-his-disciple is the instruction of desire. Therefore, Bramharakshas, as the persona-effect of a radical intellectual and/or aesthetic project that the poem shows him to be, renders such a vocation or project a generic truth-procedure.

And what such a disciple of Bramharakshas would be to Bramharakshas, the dead rebel in his afterlife is to his former living self in ‘Ek Bhootpoorva Vidrohi ka Atmakathan’ (The Autobiography of a Former Rebel) (1988, pp.49-57). This poem is the voice of a former rebel speaking from beyond the grave. And by virtue of being that voice and what it enunciates, the poem comes across as afterlife, in Benjamin’s sense of the term, of the former rebel. Here we get to encounter this afterlife as the affirmation and recommencement of subtraction that was determinately incarnated by the rebel’s rebellion in his former life. That this determinate subtraction failed to grasp itself thus, and was hence unable to prefigure the overcoming of identity it consequently became due to the interruption of that subtraction, is the reason why it was destined only to be a rebellion, not revolution. That is the reason why the rebellion of the former rebel is seen, from the vantage-point of its afterlife that is the poem in question, as subsumed and thus trapped within the system it rebels against. Such subsumption is not despite the rebellion but because it is no more than a rebellion, which in its determinately subtractive eruption was unreflexive and was, therefore, inevitably interrupted. Hence, we get to see, from the vantage-point of his afterlife, how the former rebel is a partial revolutionary and his rebellion an incomplete revolution.

The afterlife of the rebel affirms the subtraction that the rebellion of his former life determinately incarnated in its moment of emerging. In the same movement, his afterlife also becomes a disavowal of the structure of exchange that was restored by the identitarianised former rebel self of his due to lapse of the subtraction its rebellion had, in the moment of its breaking out, determinately incarnated. This rebel in his afterlife, therefore, also understands and accepts, as he seems to be telling us here, that his disavowal of the structure of exchange also entails, in the same movement, the death and destruction of his former rebel self and its life.

And in tending to be that which they affirm, the dead rebel and his lapsed revolution in their twinned afterlives tend to become what they were (already no longer as not yet): subtraction, albeit now in its becoming as uninterrupted processuality. Clearly, the rebel, and his rebellion, in their twinned afterlives, is what Marx would have called “revolution in permanence”. This revolution is shown here to recognise itself in its earlier incomplete life embodied by rebels and rebellions in their unreflexive and thus interrupted moments of determinately subtractive eruption. Hence, what the revolution recognises as itself in its incomplete forelife are not names and identities of rebels or rebellions, or such identitarianising features as their fame, but the pictures of the anonymous nonidentitarian processuality that is the internal constitutivity of identities of rebels and rebellions that in being those identities tend to conceal or repress such nonidentity and yet reveal it as its symptoms.

Puraana makan tha, dhehna tha, dheh gaya,
bura kya hua?
Badey-badey dhrinrdaakaar dambhvaan
khambe wey dheh padey!!
Jardibhoot parton mey, avashya hum dub gaye!
Hum unmey rah gaye,
Bura hua, bahut bura hua!!
Prithvi ke pet mey ghuskar jab
Prithvi ke hriday kee garmi ke dwara
mitti ke dher ye chattan bun jayenge
toh un chattanon kee
aantarik parton kee satah mey
chitra ubhar ayenge
hamare chehre ke, tan-badan ke, sharir ke,
Antar kee tasveereyen ubhar aayengi, sambhavtah,
Yahi ek aasha hai kee
mitti ke andhere un
itihas-staron mey tab
hamara bhi chinnh reh jayega.
Naam nahin,
Kirti nahin,
Kewal avshesh, Prithvi ke khodey huye gaddhon mey
rahasyamay purushon ke panjar aur
jung-khayee nokon ke astra!!”

(It was an old house, it had to fall apart, it fell apart,/ What is bad about that?/ Huge, haughty, determined,/ those pillars came crashing down!!/ In stratified layers we certainly got stuck!/ We remained in them/ That was bad, really very bad!!/ When in the bowels of the earth/ all this debris becomes rock/ due to the warmth of the earth’s heart/ then on the surface of the layers/ in the innermost recesses of those rocks/ pictures will emerge/ of our visages, bodies and anatomies,/ Photographs of our interiors will also probably emerge/ There is only this hope/ then that those dark history-layers of the soil/ will be marked by our signs too./ Not name,/ not fame,/ Only remnants, in the dug-out trenches of the earth/ of skeletons of mysterious men and/ weapons with rusted edges!!) [My translation.]

Of Lapsed Revolutions and Literary Myths: For a Muktibodhian Alternative

Muktibodh increasingly found himself confined to the generic level of literature, thanks to the growing difficulty he encountered in finding appropriate opportunities to actualise his commitment as a practising militant of communist politics. The question that we, therefore, need to ask is, was Muktibodh able to fulfil his desire of becoming Bramharakshas’ truest and most accomplished disciple, or was he Bramharakshas himself? Did he become the revolutionary fulfillment of rebellions in their afterlife, or did he stay a mere rebel, a lapsed revolutionary?

A lot of biographical information has been mined and marshalled, often with great archival rigour, by Muktibodh scholars and legions of leftwing critics to demonstrate the intransigence of his commitment both as a poet and a political militant. It is, therefore, indisputable that he was no Bramharakshas, but what he aspired in the eponymous poem to be: Bramharakshas’ truest disciple.

However, what we would do well here to focus our attention on is how did that pain and restlessness, which Muktibodh suffered in his life on account of his intransigent struggle to remain true to his commitment as a practising political militant, shape his literature. In other words, how can we discern from that literature itself – not only by what his poems and prose say at a declarative level but more by virtue of how and what they are at the level of their formal organisation – and with no reference whatsoever to his biography, that he was no lapsed revolutionary? Or, a Bramharakshas proposing literature as a realm to withdraw into on account of the difficulty to continue with the project of actualising his commitment as a practising militant of radical politics?

Muktibodh inhabited, as much in life as in his art, an alternative reality. Harishankar Parsai (2011, p.315), while reminiscing about his friendship with the poet, writes: “Mrityu se doh saal pehle vey Jabalpur aaye thhey. Raat-bhar vey bardbardate thhey. Ek raat cheekhkar khaat se farsh per gir padey. Sambhale, tab bataayaa ki ek bahut badi chhipkali sapne mey sir per gir rahi thi.” (Two years before his death, he had come to Jabalpur. All through the night he would keep muttering and mumbling in his sleep. One particular night he screamed and fell down from the bed. Once he managed to get his wits about him he said he had dreamt of a huge house-lizard falling on his head.) [My translation.] This demonstrates the intensity and the sense of palpable authenticity with which Muktibodh dwelt in the reality of such dreams and fantasies. And that is exactly the reason why Muktibodh repeatedly shows himself confronting such reality, expressed in the darkly weird and horror-inducing imagery of his poetry, as its grammatical poet-subject. But for Muktibodh this alternative reality is not, as the surrealistic discursivity or identity of his poetic imagery might seem to suggest, a mythic universe of fantasy and literature into which he could withdraw from the ‘realist’ historical reality he found himself in. The strangeness and unfamiliarity of the imagery of his poems does not seek to arrest the reader in the surrealistic and/or fantastic discursivity of its appearance. Instead, such imagery, in his poems, discernibly demonstrate the expressionistic force that animates them and of which they are incarnations.

The expressionistic style, diction and voice of his poetry – and the epic scale and form of most of his poems that such expressionism effectuates – render his poems, as the organisation of the surrealistic imagery they are at the level of their discursive appearance, demonstrations of their own performativity or gesticness. As a result, the weird, unfamiliar, horror-inducing reality of his poetic world, constitutive of the discursivity of its surrealistic imagery, demonstrates itself as the subjective materiality of becoming-subtraction. So, even as Muktibodh, the individual, is forced by circumstances to confine himself to the determinate level of literature, Muktibodh, the grammatical-subject of his literature, envisages literature as problematising itself as the paradigmatic abstraction it is. Therefore, Muktibodh’s poetic world is not mythic and ahistorical. Rather, the alternative reality he inhabited, and which is embodied in his poetry, has a historicity. It is the historicity of becoming-subtraction or continuous production, and thus a historicity of suspension of history and the historical. The term “historicity without history” (Bosteels, 2009, p.xiv) is meant to conceptualise just this kind and mode of alternative reality.

In this, Muktibodh is a radical contrast to his Bramharakshasian contemporaries and successors, some of them practitioners of “Nayee Kavita” (new poetry) and “Nayee Kahani” (new story), whose literature is arguably constitutive of alternative reality as self-enclosed worlds of static strangeness and unfamiliarity, and are thus myths. Such literature, therefore, proposes itself as a disavowal of the determination by historical reality in its givenness only to be itself embraced as yet another determination of an alternative world of literature unto itself. It constitutes a proposal for passive defamiliarisation as movement from one enchantment, which is that of the historical, into another, which is that of the mythical. It can be called, following Lefebvre’s (1992, p.112) criticism of Surrealism, “a skillfully organized confusion between ‘permanent revolution’ and permanent scandal”. Hence, what such literature proposes about itself, through the performativity that it makes its form render discernible, is withdrawal, not subtraction. Something from which the subtraction it determinately incarnated in its moment of emerging can be recovered by a Brechtian, or a Muktibodhian, reader but which such literature in its own discursivised non-reflexivity does not at all propose about itself.

Such literature of withdrawal is incomplete disavowal of determination. For, disavowal of determination is really the disavowal of interruption of subtraction on account of its determinate actualisation. Such disavowal is not meant to be conflated with or reduced to its appearance, which is negation of the identitarianised determination that a lapsed subtraction manifests itself as. Therefore, a complete disavowal of determination – insofar as it is disavowal of the interruption of subtraction, and its concomitant recommencement for universalisability – must consist of the negation of a given determination (historical reality in the instant case) simultaneously prefiguring the negation of the determination or identity (literature as myth here) that the first negation will tend to lapse into.

In that sense, withdrawal from a given identitarianised determination into another identity, and hence determination, is no different from the move of an identity to triumph over its determination by another identity to determine the latter in turn. Withdrawal from and triumph over an identitarianised determination are merely two different registers for thinking and envisaging negation of determination as yet another determination, which is the constitutive principle of the structure of exchange and relationality. Hence, they can be called two sides of the same Hegelian, or capitalist, coin of constitutive antitheses.

Beyond the Exchange Principle: The Wager of Subtraction

Subtraction from, disavowal of and radical antagonism towards the structure of exchange and relationality is a theme and an engagement that runs like a thread through Muktibodh’s work giving it its unity. It figures not only as the assertive-discursive aspect of his literature but, more importantly, as the formal, digetic and performative dimensions of it as well. One of the most clear statements on that score are constituted by these oft-quoted stanzas of ‘Andherey Mey’ (In the Darkness) (1988, pp.126-171):

“…O merey aadarshvaadi mann,
Aur merey siddhantvaadi mann,
Ab tak kya kiya?
Jeevan kya jiya!!
Udranbhari bun anaatm bun gayey,
Bhhoton kee shadi mey kanaat se tan gayey,
Kisi vyabhichar ke bun gayey bistar, 

Dukhon ke dagon ko tamgon-sa pehna,
Apne hi khayalon mey din-raat rehna,
Asang buddhi va akele mey sahna
Zindagi nishkriya bun gayi talghar, 

Aab tak kya kiya,
Jeevan kya jiya!!
Bataao toh kis-kiske liye tum daud gayey
Karuna ke drishyon se hai! Muh mord geyey,
Bun gayey patthar; 

Bahut-bahut jyada liya,
Diya bahut-bahut kam;
Mar gaya desh, aarey, jeevit rah gayey tum!!

(“…Oh my idealist soul,/ And my philosophical soul,/ What have you done up until now?/ What has been your life!!/ In your self-obsession you have been un-selfed,/ To be stretched into a marquee at the wedding feast of ghosts,/ To become the bed of some lechery,

Signs of grief you sport like medals,/ To live day and night in your own thoughts,/ In your incoherent intelligence you suffer alone/ Life has become a vegetative basement,

What have you done up until now,/ What has been your life!!/ Name me those to whose aid you rushed/  Fie on you! for having turned away from scenes of compassion,/ To become a stone

You have taken a lot,/ Given very little in return,/ The land is dead, only you are left alive!!) [My translation.]

It is, indeed, quite unfortunate that these stanzas, especially the last, are predominantly read merely as a criticism of the phenomenon of well-established ‘radical’ intellectuals and artists getting along well in their lives and their vocations, even as the world around them falls apart, by taking a lot and giving very little in return. Such a psychologised reading – arguably through the biographical prism of the pain that Muktibodh as an individual suffered in his life on account of his uncompromising and steadfast political commitment – has made those lines out to be simply the resentful cry of an individual suffering due to the intransigence of his commitment. Worse, through such a reading, those last three lines have been transformed into a sort of progressive-radical credo. This tends to suggest that radicalism is all about the resentful assertions of committed activists and artists on being denied their due by the system. While reading those stanzas in such terms, it does not occur to us what would a radicalism that articulates itself as resentment for being denied its due by the system amount to? Can the system give what is due to radicalism? And if that be so would radicalism as the demand for the impossible, really be itself? Would radicalism, by virtue of envisaging itself as the ressentiment of suffering people, and thus rendering itself a project of placing its demands before the system for the latter to fulfil them, be anything more than reformism? Doesn’t such a reading imply that those lines are radical because they are somehow invested in reforming the unreformed structure of exchange and relationality?

It must be stated here that such a biographical and psychologised reading of those stanzas is grossly mistaken about its ‘radical’ self-image. Such reading is actually quite reactionary. That such a reading should be in vogue is, however, not surprising. Such a way of seeing and reading arguably stems from radical literature and politics having been reduced to the status of moral and moralising vocations and projects.

The truth is those four stanzas in question are highly radical for reasons that are the absolute opposite of those suggested by the aforementioned reading of it. Those stanzas constitute a sharp exposition of how the quest to preserve and assert the sovereignty of the self – possibly in order to affirm subtraction of whose actuality the self is a determinate historical index – is precisely what robs the self of its selfhood. More pertinently, it reveals the self for the chimera of autonomy and sovereignty that it is in its historically subjectivated and/or identitarianised existence as that self.

Hence, when the poet-subject of the poem is found ruing his “idealist and ideologically-committed soul” for having “taken a lot” and “given back very little” he is by no means exhorting well-established ‘radical’ intellectuals and artists to give back a little more and take a little less. Instead, those lines clearly suggest that in a situation structured by the exchange-principle there will always be some who take more and give less and others who will, thereby, be compelled to take less and give more. He is lamenting the fact that the structure of exchange he is caught in is constitutively unreformable.

Any Marxist worth his salt should know that the principle of equal exchange is constitutively unequal insofar as equal exchange takes place between mutually unequal subject-positions (of capital and labour) and reproduces that inequality. Equal exchange has primitive accumulation as its constitutive condition of possibility that is concealed in the facticity of equal exchange. The fact of equal exchange between the mutually unequal subject-positions of labour and capital, wherein the labour gives what it can and gets in return from capital what it deserves for giving what it could, tends to mask the fact of how labour and capital, with their mutually unequal capacities to give and take respectively, come into being and are reproduced. In other words, the embodiment of the principle of equal exchange tends to mask how its underlying structure – which is capital as a relation constitutive of valorisation of labour-power or valorisation or productive extraction of surplus labour-time – comes into being and is reproduced.

So, while the poet-subject is doubtless scathing in the (self-)criticism of his “idealist” and “ideologically-committed” soul, the vehemence of such criticism is not individualised and moral but systemic and political. The individualised, and thus moral, register through which such political critique is ineluctably articulated, given that it is in the form of poetry, must not blind us to what such criticism actually amounts to. The poet-subject condemns his idealist and ideologically-committed soul for having become the “marquee” at the “wedding feast of ghosts” and “the bed of lechery” precisely in trying to preserve and assert its sovereignty. This is a critique that before being what it appears as – the individualised condemnation of lapsed radical artists and intellectuals – is a demonstration of how interrupted subtractions, on account of their unreflexivity, mistake the assertion and defence of the sovereignty of the identities they have become for the affirmation of subtraction they determinately incarnated in their pre-identitarian moment of emerging.

Those stanzas in question, therefore, imply the determinate recommencement of subtraction and its universalisability, and the concomitant disavowal of its prior interruption, and the decimation of the structure of exchange that is incarnated in such interruption. It is such recommencement of subtraction and its universalisability as continuous production that the poem performatively demonstrates through its expressionistic diction and voice, and its excruciatingly endless epic length. The following lines from the last part of the poem constitute an unambiguous assertion on that score:

Pratyek vastu ka nij-nij alok,
Maano ki alag-alag phoolon ke rangeen
alag-alag vaatavaran hain bemaap,
Pratyek arth kee chaya mey doosra, aashai
jhilmila raha-sa.

(Every object in its respective light,/ As if, they are all incommensurable,/ like differently coloured environments of different flowers,/ In the shadow of every meaning, the sense of the other/ seems to shimmer.) [My translation.]

Every object is grasped in the poem as the measure-disavowing, desire-unleashing subtractiveness it determinately was in its respective moment of emerging, and not as the identity or value-form it is in the given system of history constitutive of the structure of exchange and relationality. As a result, the poem sees and shows how in the shadow of meaning of every such object the sense of all the others shimmers connotatively. In such circumstances, every object, in its respective nonidentitarianness, is didacticism or instruction of desire for every other object. Which is why the poem, in grasping all those objects as existing in and as non-exchange and nonrelationality vis-à-vis one another, tends to affirm and actualise them as such. That is to say, it itself demonstrably tends to become the actuality of such simultaneity of mutuality and nonrelationality, or, more accurately, mutual partaking of generic nonrelationalities or singularities. That would be subtractive ontology or singular-universal as the uninterrupted simultaneity of infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference. In concrete practice, this would amount to the interminable process of continuous production as the unravelling of the materiality of social division of labour, its intersubjectivity of relationality, and their constitutive structure of exchange.

However, the question that needs to be asked here is, why does or should one decide to grasp an object not as the identity it is in its empirical givennness? What is the philosophical basis for taking such a decision? Why should such a decision be taken at all? We would do well here to clarify this philosophical question with reference to the genericness of art. That would, among other things, be in keeping with Muktibodh’s politico-aesthetic vision of inflecting idea with desire.

What we, therefore, need to pointedly ask is, why should we grasp art as subtraction from the ontological horizon or structure of exchange and relationality, and not simply as the identitarianised negation of determination of non-art it apparently is? That is because, tendentially speaking, subtraction arguably has primacy over negation. This contention derives from the fact that determination is logically consequent to negation. That is to say, one negates a determination, first and foremost, to determinately overcome necessity and only then to be a new level of determination or necessity in turn. Thus, the tendential primacy of exceeding necessity, over constitution of a new level of necessity yet again, is also the primacy of the tendency of contingency over that of necessity. To envisage and assert this tendential primacy as a generality is to pose and/or actualise a new order of affirmation of “necessity of contingency”. Subtraction is this new affirmation, this new generality in its incipient, tendential form.

This, among other things, also demonstrates that to grasp art as negation of determination, and not subtraction, would be idealism. That is because it amounts to art being grasped in terms of a pre-assigned place within the structure or ontological horizon of alternation of negation and determination. Clearly, such symmetry, even when there is motion and dialectic, is integral to idealism. Which is exactly the case when the emerging of art through the negation of determination of non-art, which resists such emerging, leads us to grasp the meaning or destiny of art in terms of it being yet another determination. That is because the meaning of art as simply what it appears to be – which is the negation of determination of non-art to thus be a determination in its own right (the sovereignty of art) –is subject to the structural law of alternation of negation and determination. This means the law of the structure is antecedent or a priori to the emerging of art. 

Yet, just because every constitutive moment of becoming-subtraction is inescapably determinate in its subtractiveness, its universalisable actualisation is always fraught with the peril of the unreflexivity of its determinately constitutive subject-positions. A peril that manifests itself in the lapse of a determinate subtraction into an identity. Muktibodh, as the following lines reveal, is perfectly aware of that:

Ek-a-ek veh vyakti…
Samne
galiyon mey, sardkon per, logon kee bheerd mey
chala ja raha hai.
Dharakta hai dil
ki pukarne ko khulta hai muh
ki aksmaat…
Veh dikha, veh dikha
veh phir kho gaya kisi jan-yooth mey…
Uthi huyee banh yah uthi huyee rah gayee!! 

An-khoji nij samriddhi ka veh param utkarsh,
Param abhivyakti…
Main uska shishya hoon
veh meri guru hai,
Guru hai!!

(All of a sudden that person…/ Right before me/ in the bylanes, on the streets, amid crowds/ he is carrying on./ The heart starts pounding/ The mouth opens to hail him/ And then suddenly…/ There he is, there he is/ He’s lost yet again in some public clamour…/ This raised arm remains raised!!

He is the highest accomplishment of my undiscovered prosperity,/ The ultimate expression …/ I am his disciple/ She is my master,/ My master!!) [My translation.]

The “ultimate expression” is, in the poem, “that person” who suddenly appears “in bylanes and streets, and among crowds”, only to disappear equally suddenly. Thus the ultimate expression, the poem speaks of, is subtraction or the unleashing of desire encountered in its evanescent eventality and thus consequent interruption in its various determinate moments or subject-positions of actuality. This is why the envisaging of this “ultimate expression” – as the determinate recommencement of subtraction for its universalisability – is always unavoidable and is, yet, forever a wager. It is not for nothing the poet says that all the risks of expression will have to be hazarded (“Abhivyakti ke saare khatre uthane hee pardenge.”).

Friendship/Comradeship: From Fraternity to Encounter

This unavoidable wager of affirming the intersubjectivity of encounter as mutual partaking of generic singularities is rearticulated by Muktibodh, to begin with, as the problematic of friendship in ‘Isi Baelgadi ko’ (To this Bullock Cart) (1988, pp.39-49):

Iske liye kya karen
tumhare hamare beech
fark aabohawa ka ki
shabdon ka abhidhaarth
ek hotey huye bhi
vyanjana-lakshana-dhwani bhinn hain
iske liye kya karen hum log!

(What can be done about this/ the fact that between you and us/ there is a difference of climates/ that despite the same set of words/ between us/ their connotation-metaphoricity-sound are different/ what can we people do about this!) [My translation.]

The fact of existence of two different subject-positions constitutive of two different sets of connotative, metaphorical, sonic and signifying deployment of the same set of words, stands here for the simultaneous existence of two differences and the two deployments of the two differences. The two sets of differences of deployment of the words are two particular conditions of singularities or nonrelationalities that make them possible in their genericness, while the sameness of the words concerned is the condition of the universality of the singular that their simultaneity as those generic singularities stands for. Clearly, these lines, pose the question of friendship as one of universalisability of singularity: the uninterrupted simultaneity of infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference.

Subsequently, the poem moves towards displacing this problematic of friendship as one of intersubjectivity of encounter, into a problematic of revolutionary solidarity of the working class amid its internally segmented situation and mutually competitive articulation within capital.

Apne dono bhai hain!!
Aur dono dukhi hain
dono hain kasht-grast
phir bhi tum lardte ho humse!!
Baelgadi ek hai
aur vahi hankna
sirf ek fark hai
fark abohawa ka

(We are brothers!!/ And both of us are unhappy/ suffering is our common lot/ yet you fight us!!/ The bullock cart is the same/ and the same way we drive it/ there is only one difference/ the difference of climates) [My translation.]

Derrida (2005, p.305) makes a rather crucial gesture in the direction of transvaluation of conceptions of fraternity and friendship when he writes: “…I have never stopped asking myself, I request that it be asked, what is meant when one says ‘brother’, when someone is called ‘brother’. And when the humanity of man, as much as the alterity of the other, is thus resumed and subsumed. And the infinite price of friendship. I have wondered, and I ask, what one wants to say whereas one does not want to say , one knows that one should not say, because one knows, through so much obscurity, whence it comes and where this profoundly obscure language has led in the past. Up until now. I am wondering, that’s all, and request that it be asked, what the implicit politics of this language is. For always, and today more than ever. What is the political impact and range of this chosen word, among other possible words, even – and especially – if the choice is not deliberate.” (Emphases author’s)

However, what is only a gesture in Derrida, thanks to the tentativeness of his ethical position and its deconstructive subjective orientation, is, in this poem, placed on a firmer programmatic ground. The poem sets up the resumption and subsumption of “the alterity of the other”, which comes into play when “someone is called a brother”, in terms of radical antagonism, and thus an asymmetrical dialectic, between two conceptions of friendship (fraternal and aggregative, and processual and constellational). These two conceptions of friendship or unity are basically those of the intersubjectivity of relationality, its constitutive structure of exchange and its materiality of social division of labour on one hand, and the intersubjectivity of encounter founding itself as its own subjective materiality of mutual partaking of generic singularities or continuous production on the other. Concomitantly, two conceptions of enmity too get posed. First is that of contradiction constitutive of a systemic unity to which people belong (and are thus friends and brothers) in and through their mutual competition and contradiction (that is, in their mutual enmity). Mutual competition, or enmity, in this instance, is the condition of being together. And all those who agree to this condition of togetherness are part of the class-divided, mutually competitive brotherhood, or fraternity, of mutual enemies. This is the fraternal realm of friendship that turns on the Schmittian axis of perpetual friend-enemy divide. In this realm, it is only in enmity, and thus in dominating and being dominated, that people can be friends. The second conception of enmity is the radical antagonism of the intersubjectivity of encounter founding itself as its own subjective materiality of relationality of the nonrelational, or continuous production, to the realm or horizon of perpetual friend/enemy divide as the intersubjectivity of relationality, its constitutive structure of exchange and its materiality of social division of labour. ‘Isi Baelgadi ko’, in posing the problematic of working-class solidarity in terms of radical antagonism between these two intersubjectivities and their respective materialities, seeks to transvalue both friendship and unity on one hand, and enmity and separation on the other.

The poem in question is clearly a critique of a conception of working-class solidarity, which even as it envisages unity of the working class to challenge capital does so by papering over the various segmentations and contradictions internal to the working class. Hence, it leaves capital, as the structure of exchange and relationality embedded within the working class, intact, and thereby reproduces capital in the very moment when it seeks to challenge it. As an articulation of this critique, the poem operates simultaneously in multiple registers (in a kind of embodied polyphony) at multiple levels of such distributive stratification or segmentation within the working class: rural and urban, peasant and worker, manual and mental, and class and its intellectual leaders. It would, therefore, not be misplaced at all to read this poem as a critique of vanguardist substitutionism as the ultimate form of social division of labour and thus capital within the working-class movement.

Kintu tum asafalta, kamjori hamari
hriday ke bhitar kee jeb kee notebook mey
jaroor aank lete ho!!
Galat karan galat sutra,
Galat srot prastut karte hueye
siddh karna chahte ho
ki hum bilkul galat hain
hamara chalna galat
galat astitva hee!! 

Hum saaf keh den ki
asal mey yeh hai ki naagavar
gujarta hai tumko ki hum log
nirantar yudhmaan
jeevan ke shaashtra aur shastra hain
kyunki hum
dekhte hain anivaarya
mrityu us sabhyata kee
jiska tum jaane-anjaane nit
karte ho samarthan!!
Isliye tum hamey
sabse bade shatru samajhte ho!!
Kshama karo, tum merey bandhu aur mitra ho
Isliye sabse adhik dukhdaayee
bhayanak shatru ho.

(But our failures and weaknesses you/ unfailingly assess,/ in the notebook in the inner pocket of your heart!!/ Presenting wrong reasons wrong formulae,/ wrong sources/ you want to prove/ that we are completely wrong/ our conduct is wrong/ wrong our very existence!!

“Let us say it loud and clear/ that this is unacceptable/ does it occur to you that we are/ the perpetually battle-absorbed/ scriptures and weapons of life/ because we/ see the inevitable/ death of that civilization/ which you knowingly or unknowingly constantly/ seek to support!!/ That is why you consider/  us your greatest adversary!!/ Forgive me, you are my companion and friend/ and so my most grievous/ dangerous enemy.) [My translation.]

The last five lines of this stanza are particularly crucial. They demonstrate how a vanguardist conception of leadership leads to working-class solidarity being envisaged in terms of fraternal unity, which as a form of unity is constitutively segmented. What this means is the vanguardist sees himself as a friend of the class only by first envisaging the latter as an enemy to be defeated and subordinated to the substitutionist command of its leadership, and its a priori ‘science’ of the revolution, and thus in the process become its friend. The vanguardist thus ends up – as the poem, that is here the voice of the class, says – being the unwitting (or not) supporter of the (capitalist) civilisation whose death the working class is able to see through the everydayness of its collective experience. The class then goes on to pose itself against this vanguardist conception of class ‘solidarity’, constitutive of the axis of perpetual friend/enemy divide, as its radically antagonistic enemy. And in doing so it affirms a radically novel conception of friendship as subtraction from the fraternal structure of hierarchised exchange and its intersubjectivity of relationality through its disavowal and destruction. For, subtraction in tending towards its own universalisability as becoming-subtraction tends to be the intersubjectivity of encounter as mutual partaking of generic singularities, whose subjective materiality is continuous production that precludes social division of labour. What this means in practical terms is that the struggle of a subordinate segment of the working class against a dominant segment of the same – or for that matter the struggle of the class against its vanguardist-substitutionist leadership) – will not be simply negation of determination to constitute yet another determination. That would be affirmation alright, but affirmation of the structure of exchange, determination and relationality. It will not be a struggle in which the subordinate contends against the dominant either to improve its situation vis-à-vis the latter (bargaining) or to dominate the dominant. Rather, it will be a struggle of the subordinate to neutralise the countervailing force of the structure, which the dominant in being as such incarnates in the historical specificity of that dominant/subordinate relationship to prevent the former from posing the intersubjectivity of encounter or determinate abolition of social division of labour. It is such a struggle, characterised by Mao (1977, p.91) as there being “at once unity and struggle”, that is revolutionary. ‘Isi Baelgadi ko ’(To this Bullock Cart) exemplifies the universalisability of subtraction as a transvaluation of both friendship (from fraternal to constellational) and enmity (from contradiction to radical antagonism). Victor Serge probably had such transvaluation of enmity and friendship in mind when he sought to characterise revolutionary transformation as “war without hate”.

A Natural History of the Moon: When Darkness is Illumination

Ultimately, Muktibodh’s politico-aesthetic quest seems to have been one that sought to rescue nature from history. His ‘Chand ka Muh Terdha Hai’ (The Mouth of the Moon is Twisted) (1988, pp.93-111) is the most apposite instantiation of that quest. Let us read a few lines from one of the stanzas of the poem to see if this claim can be substantiated:

Harijan-basti mey, mandir ke paas ek
kabith ke dhard per,
Mathmaeley chhaparon per,
Bargad kee ainthee hueyee jar per
kuhaase ke bhooton ke latke choonar ke cheethare
Angiya va ghaagre, phati hueyee chadareyen
Aatak gayee jinme ek
vyabhichaari taktaki
ganje sir, terdhe-muh chaand kee hee kanjee aankh.

(In the shanty-town of untouchables, near the temple/ on the torso of the kabith tree,/ on the murky thatched roofs,/ on the rigid roots of the banyan tree/ hang the rags of stoles of foggy ghosts/ and their blouses, skirts and worn-out sheets/ in which is stuck the/ lecherous gaze of/ the bald-headed, twisted-mouthed, cock-eyed moon.) [My translation.]

The imagery articulated in these lines establishes an anthropomorphic relationship between a bald-headed, twisted-mouthed, cock-eyed moon and its lecherous gaze, and rags of women’s clothing. This is, however, just one example of the anthropomorphisation of nature that the poem in the entirety of its imagery, and its animation, is an articulation of. In the light of such perversely twisted anthropomorphisation of nature that reveals the latter as unmitigatedly vicious, it ought to become rather clear that the poet’s intention here is not to affirm nature as an anthropomorphic entity; an identity. Rather, the anthropomorphisation of nature, the moon in this instance, is meant to historicalise nature. It is, therefore, meant to reveal that what we perceive to be given to us as nature is actually historically determined and cathected. In this instance, the moon, appearing as a lecher on account of the smoke of capitalist industrialisation, is an image and a metaphor of the historical determination and cathection of nature. However, the nature that is sought to be rescued from history through such a move is not a hidden ontology of history that both determines history and is, in turn, occluded by it. For, such a rescuing of nature would only mean turning the ontological ontic, thereby once again identitarianising nature and causing it to lapse into and be conflated with the historical.

Instead, the move to rescue nature that the poem in question poses consists of disavowing nature as an identitarianised, unreflexive and thus mythical conception, which on account of such identitarianisation is therefore integral to history and its constitutive structure of exchange and relationality. Adorno writes in ‘The Idea of Natural History’: “The concept of nature that is sought to be dissolved is one that, if I translated it into standard philosophical terminology, would come closest to the concept of myth…. By it is meant what has always been, what as fatefully arranged predetermined being underlies history and appears in history, it is substance in history. What is delimited by these expressions is what I mean here by ‘nature.’” And ‘Chand ka Muh Terdha Hai’ (The Mouth of the Moon is Twisted) can be read as a perfect echo of this Adornoesque natural-historical project of rescuing nature from history by dissolving the mythical concept of nature as a “predetermined being that underlies history”.

Adorno further writes: “If the question of the relation of nature and history is to be seriously posed, then it only offers any chance of solution if it is possible to comprehend historical being in its most extreme historical determinacy, where it is most historical, as natural being, or if it were possible to comprehend nature as an historical being where it seems to rest most deeply in itself as nature. It is no longer simply a matter of conceptualizing the fact of history as a natural fact toto caelo (inclusively) under the category of historicity, but rather to retransform the structure of inner-historical events into a structure of natural events. No being underlying or residing within historical being itself is to be understood as ontological, that is, as natural being. The retransformation of concrete history into dialectical nature is the task of the ontological reorientation of the philosophy of history: the idea of natural history.” [Emphasis author’s.] Following from this conception of “natural history”, we see the poem reveal, through a perverse anthropomorphisation of nature, that what we perceive and know as nature in its eternal givenness is actually the historical rendered static and thus a cage. Consequently, the poem eventually also tends in the direction of a dialectical reversal – the kind which Adorno’s conception of “natural history” articulates and poses – to have nature rescue itself from history by tending to disavow and destroy history in subtracting from it.

If what we perceive as nature is revealed as history then what we know as history in its dynamism is nature. Therefore, nature, in this poem, is the uninterrupted processuality of becoming-subtraction. And if subtraction becomes only by determinately recommencing itself in and as disavowal of its prior interruptions, nature is also determinate subtraction from the structure of exchange and relationality and is thus use-value. However, since nature as actualised subtraction is inescapably determinate it always runs the risk of being interrupted and thus lapse into an identity, which by virtue of being the manifest reality constitutive of the structure of exchange and relationality is historical. Hegel in The Science of Logic writes: “Appearance is not essence but essence must appear.” It is this Hegelian dialectic that a Marxist, in approaching and intervening in reality must always bear in mind, even as he wrenches the essence free of its constitutive Hegelian horizon of identity-principle to transfigure and found it as its own ground of the real of nonidentity, obviously in radical antagonism to the principle of identity, or the law of value, it is in Hegel, or in capital in its systemic givenness, respectively. If we bear this in mind we will see, as Adorno and Muktibodh appear to do, how history is the abstraction (or ideologisation) of nature that inheres in nature – which is the determinate eruption of the Real of nonidentity – as its limit. This is the operation ‘Chand ka Muh Terdha Hai’ (The Mouth of the Moon is Twisted) reveals and militates against.

Thus, history as identity and determination is lapsed nature, while nature in its universalisability is the uninterrupted dispersion of becoming-subtraction and thus what Marx called “real history” that poses no end and is always beginning. Hence nature is, as Adorno’s conception of “natural history” reveals through the dialectical reversal on which it turns, the uninterrupted de-identitarianising process of perpetual dispersion. Hence, Nature, free from the historical, is nonidentity in, as and for itself. That is something Muktibodh seems to have grasped rather well. The darkness and night of much of his poetry, and its images, that he shows himself encountering and living as their authorial-subject, are not things that seek to be lit up from the outside, and thus determined and identitarianised. Rather, the dark night of his poetry, in being encountered and lived as such by their authorial-subject, has a luminosity all its own. The concluding stanza of the poem, as the history-suspending denouement it is, is a brilliantly unambiguous instantiation of this luminosity of darkness:

Samay ka kan-kan
gagan kee kaalima se
boond-boond chu raha
tardit ujala bun.

(Particles of time/ drip slowly from the darkness of the sky/ transformed into/ droplets of lightning illumination.)

Clearly, these “droplets of lightning illumination” comprise what ought to be called the ‘light of darkness’. It is a light that dawns when our eyes get accustomed to the dark, and enables us to see without the aid of any external illumination if we dwell in darkness for long. That is akin to being darkness itself. Muktibodh can, therefore, justifiably be called the poet of darkness. That is not simply because his poetry speaks to us about darkness. Rather, we owe him such a designation because he, as the authorial-subject of his poetry, clearly speaks darkness, dwells in it and is it. His poetry, and he as its grammatically articulated authorial-subject, together affirm and actualise the politics of being-nonidentity.

The Restless Eagle: In Kenosis, On the Edge of Kairos

Muktibodh did not want to be a writer of poetry. He wished to be poetry itself by writing it, thereby seeking to dissolve and merge himself into the interminable process of becoming-poetry, and thus render the poetry he wrote and the politics his self embodied in its practice into one, single uninterrupted process of dispersion. Even that distributive stratification, or division of labour, between the politically militant poet, and his work, he sought to disavow. Yet he could do so, paradoxically enough, only by being the authorial-subject of his poetry, constrained by the finitude of the grammar of the poems he wrote, and thus confined in their time. According to Blanchot (1995, p.117), “This contradiction is the heart of poetic experience, it is its essence and its law; there would be no poet if he did not have to live out this very impossibility, endlessly present.”

Therefore, Muktibodh sought to recognise his identitarianised self – produced by the subjectivation effected by the structure of capital embodied by the society he inhabited – for the non-character, the Vipaatra (title of a novel by him) it really was. In seeking to unearth that non-characterness, which his self really was but which stood occluded in it being that individual self in its socio-historical givenness, he wished to be an incarnation of the uninterrupted process of dispersion and desubjectivation by dissolving into it. As a result, the constant evacuation of the self, or kenosis, his poetry brings into being – something that is registered, as we have earlier seen, by the epic interminability of most of his poems – is an aspiration and striving for the grace or kairos of history-suspending, “now-time” (Benjamin, 2003, p.395). This now-time, it must be stated here, is a perpetually open, nonidentitarian, singular present – a “present without presence” (Derrida, 1994, pp.xix-xx) – that will, therefore, neither itself lapse into nor produce the identity of the past. Rosenzweig (2008, p.289) explicates this conception of now-time with great poetic clarity and elegance when he writes: “A Today re-created into eternity must therefore in the first place correspond to this determination by an infinite Now. But an imperishable Today—is it not gone with the wind like every moment? Is it now to be imperishable? There remains but one solution: the moment which we seek must begin again at the very moment that it vanishes, it must recommence in its own disappearance, its perishing must at the same time be a reissuing.” Muktibodh’s poetry does not seek empowerment and progress. What it tends towards, instead, is emancipation from power and progress, and thus redemption from history that is the temporality of progress. In such circumstances, the question we need to ask is what is the politics of such poetry? More pertinently, therefore, what is politics for such poetry? The answer ought to be clear. It is the duration of redemption that such poetry institutes.

The characteristic epicality of Muktibodh’s poetry – which is a registration of its kenotic being and thus its kairological aspiration and striving – is, first and foremost, the reason why it should be seen as political. For, his poetry, like “all political poetry”, “pertains to the epic, which is only obliquely poetic, namely, by whatever escapes its magnificence rather than by that which brings out its splendour”. (Badiou, 2009, p.77.) The following lines from ‘Andherey Mey’ (In the Darkness)  – the most characteristic and perhaps the longest of Muktibodh’s (1988, pp.164-165) epic poems – constitute precisely such an “obliquely poetic” move:

Kavita mey kahne kee aadat nahin, per kah doon
vartaman samaj chal nahin sakta.
Poonji se jura hriday badal nahin sakta,
Swaatantrya vyakti ka vaadi
chhal nahin sakta mutki ke mann ko,
Jan ko.

(Not my habit to say it in a poem, let me say it nonetheless/ the present society cannot go on./ A heart connected to capital cannot change,/ The valley of an individual’s freedom/ cannot deceive the soul of liberation,/ the people.) [My translation.]

A hurried and casual reading of these lines might appear to suggest that the poem in question is putting itself out as a propagandist instrumentality of politics. However, a closer reading – which grasps these lines in terms of their situation within and articulation by the epical formal organisation and structural internality of the poem as a whole – would reveal that the poem intends them to be indicative of its own excess: that which “escapes its (poetic) magnificence”. Poetry is clearly not politics. And yet, poetry must, in being poetry, be its own problematisation if it is to sustain itself as an affirmation of the generic singularity that it is in its determinate and paradigmatic emerging. For that, poetry, even as it remains poetry, must reflexively prefigure the overcoming of its own identitarianisation, which it tends towards on account of it being a determinate incarnation of generic singularity or subtraction in its paradigmatic emerging. Thus poetry must, precisely through its poeticness, its being-poetry, point towards politics as the excess and exceeding of its own identitarianisation. That is exactly what ‘Andherey Mey’ (In the Darkness) seeks to do through these lines. And in doing that, the poem tends to affirm itself as the generic singularity that it is in its emerging by indicating the recommencement-for-universalisability of generic singularity in and as politics. The actuality of politics as the recommencement of the singular in its universalisability would, as we have observed earlier, amount to mutual partaking of generic singularities, including art and politics. Such universality of the singular would be constitutive of, to reiterate it here yet again, the uninterrupted process of simultaneity of infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference. In such a situation, poetry becomes a generic process constitutive of politics as the actuality of universal singularity, which is the interminable process of scission or dispersion. Hence, poetry becomes political not by being a poetry of politics, or a poetry on politics, or a poetry for politics. Rather, poetry is political only when it tends to be poetry in politics.

The kairological aspiration and striving of Muktibodh’s poetry, evident in its kenotic being, entails that the poet as the grammatical-subject of his poetry “be already what he will be later”. (Blanchot, 1995, p.117.) Blanchot (1995, p.117) writes: “…the poet must exist as a presentiment of himself, as the future of his existence. He does not exist, but he has to be already what he will be later, in a ‘not yet’ that constitutes the essential part of his grief, his misery, and also his great wealth….” To this he (1995, p.118) subsequently adds: “…since it is this always-to-come existence of the poet that makes all the future possible, and firmly maintains history in the perspective of ‘tomorrow’ that is richer with meaning, deutungsvoller, and for which one must strive in the emptiness of the lived day.” For Muktibodh, the grammatical authorial-subject of his poetry, politics is the future of the existence of his poetry. He, as that grammatical authorial-subject of his poetry, and that poetry itself, do not exist as politics. That is because, as we have observed, poetry as such is not politics. Nevertheless, as the aforementioned lines of ‘Andherey Mey’ (In the Darkness) so sharply demonstrate, he makes himself and his poetry exist as their own presentiment, as the future of their existence, which, for him and his poetry, is politics.

Muktibodh’s poems, therefore, constituted an evil necessity for him. They were mirage and deceptions that interrupted the journey of the dispersion of his self, if only to keep that journey going by inducing it to always recommence itself. The poet was, by his own admission, a restless eagle, the “bechain cheel” of his eponymous poem (1988, p.186):

Bechain cheel!!!
Us-jaisa main paryatansheel
pyasa-pyasa,
dekhta rahoonga ek damakti hueyee jheel
ya paani ka kora jhansa
jiski safed chilchilahaton mey hai ajeeb
inkar ek soona!!”

(Restless eagle!!!/ Like him, I am an excursion-seeker/ always thirsty/ I will look out for a shining lake/ or a mirage of water/ in whose white shimmer there is a strange/ empty denial.) [My translation.]

Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh: pessimist of the intellect, optimist of the will. The “man without qualities” of Hindi literature.

Notes

(1) Continuous production is discernibly the principle that underpinned and structured Brecht’s thinking on, and practice of, theatre, literature and politics. That this principle can be conceptualised thus is indicated by Brecht in many of his theoretical writings. One of the clearest pointers in that direction is the following entry in his Journals: 1934-1955 (1993, p.136): “it is however much more practical to define it [socialism] as great production. production must of course be taken in the broadest sense, and the aim of the struggle is to free the productivity of all men from all fetters.” However, it is Brecht’s (1964, pp.183-205) detailed exposition of productivity in his ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’ that leaves very little doubt on that score. Brecht (1964, p.205), in concluding the ‘Organum’ by foregrounding and affirming what is clearly the principle of continuous production, impels and enables us to grasp and conceptualise the principle the way we have in this essay: “…our representations must take second place to what is represented, men’s life together in society; and the pleasure felt in their perfection must be converted into the higher pleasure felt when the rules emerging from this life in society are treated as imperfect and provisional. In this way the theatre leaves its spectators productively disposed even after the spectacle is over. Let us hope that their theatre may allow them to enjoy as entertainment that terrible and never-ending labour which would ensure their maintenance, together with the terror of their unceasing transformation. Let them here produce their own lives in the simplest way; for the simplest way of living is in art.”

(2) The subjective in being articulated within and animated by the structure of exchange and relationality is objectified and thus idealist and not, in the final analysis, the truth and/or actuality of the subjective. Such idealism amounts to duality, wherein the subjective is no more than a competing determination whose destiny is either to determine the objective or be determined as the objective. Materialism then would be characterised by the subjective founding itself as its own materiality (subjective materiality). This being of the subjective implies preclusion of its interpellation and subjectivation, by the structure of exchange and relationality, into a competing determination that in being such a competing determination co-founds the subjectivating structure in question. Clearly, this would be the subjective being singular by becoming singular. Becoming-singular, which is becoming-subtraction from and thus antagonism to the ontological horizon or structure of exchange and relationality, is thus the uninterrupted processuality of dispersion or scission. This uninterruptedness of the process of dispersion, which gives it its unity as such a process, is the ‘relationality’ among the infinitely various moments of singularisation or nonrelationality constitutive of that dispersion process. This is universalisation of the singular or becoming-singular-universal, which can also be termed, following Badiou, as subtractive ontology. Althusserian desubjectivation seeks to conceptualise precisely this subjective materiality of becoming-singular-universal or the processuality of subtractive ontology. Subjective materiality is, therefore, the uninterrupted or unlapsed continuity of the singularity of difference and deployment of difference. This conception of subjective materiality is derived in Badiou (2009, p.189) from his argument for “a materialism centred upon a theory of the subject”. The two citations below from Badiou (2009, p.186, p.189) should somewhat clarify this conception of “subjective materiality”:

“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.”

(3) Barthes (1977, pp.209-210) elucidates the Brechtian conception of axiomatics rather well when he writes: “ ‘All that is necessary’, comments Brecht, ‘is to determine those interpretations of facts appearing within the proletariat engaged in the class struggle (national or international) which enable it to utilize the facts for its action. They must be synthesized in order to create an axiomatic field.’ Thus every fact possesses several meanings (a plurality of ‘interpretations’) and amongst those meanings there is one which is proletarian (or at least which is of use to the proletariat in its struggle); by connecting the various proletarian meanings one constructs a revolutionary axiomatics. But who determines the meaning? According to Brecht, the proletariat itself (‘appearing within the proletariat’). Such a view implies that class division has its inevitable counterpart in a division of meanings and class struggle its equally inevitable counterpart in a war of meanings: so long as there is class struggle (national or international), the division of the axiomatic field will be inexpiable.” (Emphasis author’s)

(4) The way Badiou (2005, pp.132-133) thinks the ‘relation’ between destruction and the mode of subtraction, or what he alternatively also calls “newness”, in an interview is instructive for our purposes and important: “I don’t say in L ’Etre et l’ evenement (Being and Event) that destruction is always a bad thing. It can be necessary to destroy something for the newness of the event. But I don’t think it is a necessary part of newness. Because I think the newness is a supplementation and not a destruction. It is something which happens, something which comes, and this point is the crucial point. It is possible that for the becoming of the newness something has to be destroyed but it is not the essence, the being, the kernel of the process. It can just be a consequence….” (My emphasis.) He subsequently goes on to clarify the issue further in the same interview: “It is always possible that destruction takes place amongst the consequences of an event. You can’t always avoid destruction. It’s a part of the particularity of an event, the relation between destruction and affirmation. In political events this relation is very difficult to think and control. In political events and generic processes the violence is always there because many people don’t like newness. The transformation of the situation is always against some people – rich men, men in power. In political truth the relation between, on the one hand, destruction and violence, and on the other hand, affirmation and supplementation is a complex relation. I think that in Theorie du sujet (Theory of the Subject), political truth was paradigmatic for me. When I wrote ‘destruction is necessary’, it was because political truth was the point….”

REFERENCES

Adorno, Theodor W., ‘The Idea of Natural History’. In Telos 60 (Summer 1984), tr. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Telos Press, New York, 1984)

Badiou, Alain. 2007 January. ‘Destruction, Negation, Subtraction – On Pier Paolo Pasolini’. Lacan.comhttp://www.lacan.com/badpas.htm. Accessed on November 27, 2013.

Badiou, Alain, ‘The Autonomy of the Aesthetic Process (1965)’. In Radical Philosophy 178 (March/April 2013), tr. Bruno Bosteels (Radical Philosophy Ltd., UK, 2013)

Badiou, Alain, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, tr. Ray Brassier (StanfordUniversity Press, Stanford, California, 2003)

Badiou, Alain, Metapolitics, tr. Jason Barker (Verso, London, New York, 2005)

Badiou, Alain, ‘An Introduction to Alain Badiou’s Philosophy’. In Infinite Thought, trs. and eds. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens (Viva, Chennai, 2005)

Badiou, Alain, ‘The Definition of Philosophy’. In Infinite Thought, trs. and eds. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens (Viva, Chennai, 2005)

Badiou, Alain, ‘Ontology and Politics: An Interview with Alain Badiou’. In Infinite Thought, trs. and eds. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens (Viva, Chennai, 2005)

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, ‘The Subject Under the Signifiers of the Exception’. In Theory of the Subject, tr. Bruno Bosteels (Continuum, London, 2009)

Badiou, Alain, ‘Rhapsody for the Theatre: A Short Philosophical Treatise’. In Rhapsody for the Theatre, tr. and ed. Bruno Bosteels (Verso, London, New York, 2013)

Barthes, Roland, ‘Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers’. In Image Music Text, tr. and ed. Stephen Heath (Fontana Press, London, 1977)

Bataille, Georges, The Accursed Share, Volume I, tr. Robert Hurley (Zone Books, New York, 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)

Blanchot, Maurice, ‘The Essential Solitude’. In The Space of Literature, tr. Ann Smock (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, London, 1989)

Blanchot, Maurice, ‘The “Sacred” Speech of Hoelderlin’. In The Work of Fire, tr. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1995)

Bosteels, Bruno, ‘Translator’s Introduction’. In Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, tr. Bruno Bosteels (Continuum, London, 2009)

Brecht, Bertolt, Journals: 1934-1955, tr. Hugh Rorrison, ed. John Willet (Methuen, London, 1993)

Brecht, Bertolt, ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’. In Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, tr. and ed. John Willet (Hill and Wang, New York, 1964)

Derrida, Jacques, The Politics of Friendship, tr. George Collins (Verso, London, New York, 2005)

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

Jameson, Fredric, Brecht and Method (Verso, London, New York, 2000)

Lefebvre, Henri, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume I, tr. John Moore (Verso, London, New York, 1992)

Mao, Tsetung, ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People’. In Five Essays on Philosophy (Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1977)

Marx, Karl, ‘Preface’. In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, tr. S.W. Ryazanskaya, ed. Maurice Dobb (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1984)

Muktibodh, Gajanan Madhav, Ek Sahityik ki Diary [Diary of a Litterateur] (Bhartiya Gyanpeeth, New Delhi, 2002)

Muktibodh, Gajanan Madhav, Pratinidhi Kavitayen [Representative Poems], ed. Ashok Vajpeyi (Rajkamal Paperbacks, New Delhi, 1988)

Negri, Antonio, The Labour of Job, tr. Matteo Mandarini (Duke University Press, Durham & London, 2009)

Parsai, Harishankar, ‘Muktibodh: Ek Sansmaran’ [Muktibodh: A Memoir]. In Premchand ke Phatey Jootey [Premchand’s Worn-out Shoes], ed. Gyan Ranjan (Bhartiya Gyanpeeth, New Delhi, 2011)

Rosenzweig, Franz, The Star of Redemption, tr. William W. Hallo (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 2008)

Class Societies and Sexual Violence: Towards a Marxist Understanding of Rape

Maya John

The movement which emerged post the 16 December 2012 gang-rape case in Delhi was a media sensation.[1] The circumstances leading to the victim’s rape (i.e. a young woman returning from a high-end shopping-cum-cinema complex) touched a chord very quickly, especially with the city’s upward mobile middle-class inhabitants who quite easily read their own experiences into these circumstances. Considering that the resulting public outrage did not emerge from a marginalized section of Indian society, it was not surprising that the media and the country’s ruling elite responded in a comparatively more sensitive manner than is generally the case with other incidents of sexual violence on women.[2] Responding to this particular incident, the media, politicians, as well as the city’s middle-class youth were quick to project women’s oppression as a ‘universal’ issue—something which was easy to do given that women are a part of every class. This particular form in which women’s oppression was projected, gave the anti-rape movement its overt middle-class appeal, and shaped the form and content of its politics.

The given form and scope of the anti-rape movement was such that it provided ample space for a wide spectrum of participants: from funded NGOs to radical feminists; from students of JNU to students from numerous private institutions like management institutes, engineering colleges, coaching centres and schools; from committed activists to people who merely wanted to be captured on camera and wanted to check out the ‘pretty’ girls assembled at protest venues;[3] from Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena (which has absolutely no relationship with the progressive ideology of Bhagat Singh, nor any connection with kranti) to Shiv Sena activists; from misogynist ‘babas’, to funded ‘anti’-corruption crusaders; etc. Concealed then behind the battle cry of the anti-rape protests were diverse (and contradictory) voices. Of course, some activists, with leverage from JNU’s students’ union, catapulted to identifiable faces in the otherwise faceless crowd. Nevertheless, the fact that all kinds of people could and were joining the anti-rape front, did not, and cannot mean that women’s liberation has suddenly become everyone’s concern.[4] Even the more recent protests that have broken out in April 2013 in response to the rape of a 5-year old girl in east Delhi are a conglomeration of all kinds of contradictory forces. Many of the participants, like those from the notorious Aam Admi Party (AAP) that has become the new launch pad for local-level politicians and musclemen, are simply allying with the struggle against sexual violence out of sheer opportunism. Their mere presence at protest venues, attempts to bombard the anti-rape agitation with their nationalistic slogans, and their ransacking of ministers’ homes can hardly conceal the fact that the gender-sensitive credentials of AAP cadre (many of whom are conservative to the core) are highly questionable.

Another important fact relating to the nature of the anti-rape movement was that it represented an embodiment of the discontented voice emerging from upward mobile middle-class women. Certain ‘Left’ groups have increasingly come to identify with this voice, making it a rallying point of their mass politics when it comes to the issue of sexual violence. What has emerged in the process is an anti-rape struggle that defines women’s ‘equality’ in a particularist form, and asserts gender equality as the ultimate solution to rape/violence on women, while positing amendments to law, more gender sensitive policing, etc. as the more immediate solutions. Issues of caste, tribe and nationality-based oppression have been raised simply to add on to the list of women who are oppressed. As a result, a form of politics that highlights class stratification, its effect on human sexuality and its role in creating conditions of vulnerability as well as culpability has been pushed aside as residual of the old left. In this regard, it would be correct to point out, just as Clara Zetkin (an early twentieth-century communist leader) did in many of her writings, that every class has its own distinct women question. The dominant view on women’s oppression, identified as feminism, is representative of a blend of different contradictory ideas. It packs together aims and interests that are different—its targets and tasks are vastly dissimilar, and more often than not, it represents the embodiment of the discontent of upper class women—a discontent which is projected as the general interest of all women.

Having said this, one of the most important features of the recent anti-rape movement is the fact that it emerged within a distinctly urban context. Earlier of course, most of the anti-rape movements erupted in villages as part of anti-feudal or anti-dominant caste struggles. For the first time, however, we witnessed an anti-rape movement involving large numbers in an urban context. In this regard, a fact worth noting about this distinctly urban movement is that it evolved separately from larger movements against the axes of power which facilitate rape. It is then best to begin with the specificities involved in cases like the 16 December gang-rape.

The 16 December gang-rape: Understanding the specificities of urban rapes

The discussions that emerged immediately after the horrific details of the Delhi gang-rape became public clearly capture how varied forces (individual activists, Left groups, as well as right-wing organizations) have sought to comprehend the reasons for an increase in the number of rape cases. Many are aware due to past struggles against rapes in villages, that such sexual assaults are the result of caste hierarchy and upper caste domination. In a rural context, it is clearly caste dominance which gives men the power to rape women.[5] This is precisely why when people fought against incidents of rapes in villages, they fought not only against a callous and conniving state, but also against the power exercised by the dominant caste. Similarly, in insurgent areas whenever rapes have occurred, we know that they have been possible due to the power bestowed on armed personnel by the state, i.e. through laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), etc. In such a context, movements have emerged not simply to fight against rape but also to fight against military occupation. Likewise, communal rioters have sexually assaulted women from minority groups in order to instil fear, snatch away local businesses from minorities who are often forced to migrate, and to forge a false sense of unity within the dominant community on the basis of religion, regionalism, etc. In such cases, the nexus between the local police and politicians from the dominant community has helped shield rioters from the law and to cover up the details of rioting. Without a doubt, in all these cases and contexts, it is easy to identify the element of power which is at play, as well as the exact nature or source of this power.

Nevertheless, what confronted us all in the form of the brutal 16 December gang-rape was more complicated. While the term ‘gang-rape’ itself encapsulates an image of an assertion of power, the fact that all 6 rapists were far from being men with power – neither did they have a traditional status to guard/assert, nor an economic position which would protect them from being apprehended for their crime – made it difficult to visualize this rape as a typical case of ‘power rape’. In fact, we are somewhere still grappling to explain rapes that occur in the country’s urban context, i.e. a context in which the most powerless and downtrodden of men have emerged as violent perpetrators of sexual crimes. In many cases of rape across cities involving perpetrators from vulnerable sections of society, what is the axis of power through which we can explain such assaults? Is it correct to use the axis of caste inequalities in an urban context that often conceals indicators of caste (the 6 rapists would hardly have known their victim’s caste when luring her into their bus)? Similarly, would it be right to draw on any axis of power without judging its actual prevalence in and organic link to urban society? Simply put, in a certain context, such as in a rural one, it is easy to pin-point underlying caste hierarchies and resulting inequalities as the axis through which the majority of rural women are raped. We cannot, however, use the same logic to explain rapes in an urban context that brings with it a certain anonymity of position, a certain mobility, etc. With this absence of identifiable axes of power that facilitate rapes, it is not surprising to find certain feminist explanations of rape win favour with activists, intellectuals and the youth. Unable to locate the typical structures of power that make rapes possible such as in villages or insurgent areas, many in their anxious efforts to identify causes for such assaults have resorted to explain the 16 December assault as an expression of male power. Something had to explain the 16 December event and its brutality – if nothing else, it had to be male aggression and the typical male desire to subjugate the sexuality of the woman which empowered the 6 rapists to assault their victim.

This line of argument essentially echoes typical feminist assertions like rape is about power and not about sex, and that rape can be understood through the axis of male power, or basically men-women inequality. Importantly, it is characteristic of feminism to see rape as an expression of brute power which has nothing to do with sexual gratification. This is an informed and consciously defended feminist position since the effort is to comprehend sexual violence from the perspective of victims and not from the perspective of perpetrators. Correspondingly, it has been assumed that all men are in the position to rape, and that all women are in the position to be raped. In order to explain why rape is an expression of power, or basically, why men come to rape women, there is a tendency to draw on ‘patriarchy’—a malaise that is seen to manifest itself in state apparatuses, individual mindsets, societal norms and culture. In the process, patriarchy is quite easily projected as a coherent system against which an intensive struggle is necessary.[6]

Of course, these feminist views have only gradually won favour, and have emerged as a more generalized perspective on rape precisely during moments such as these, where a spate of sexual assaults have shaken the very core of urban society. Notably, this tendency to attribute rape to a (seemingly) ever present men-women inequality is well reflected in current assessments on rape put forward by feminists and activists who participated in the recent anti-rape agitation. Kavita Krishnan, for example, asserted in her January 2013 article, that “rape is not an expression of lust for women but of hatred for them…”[7] A little earlier in another article, Krishnan wrote: “…Rape and other forms of sexual violence are an assertion of patriarchal dominance and power…”[8] In the same article, she also emphasized that: “Rapes are part of a larger web of violence and subjugation of women. Fear of sexual violence has a disciplinary effect on women…We need to assert the nature of rape as a crime of power.” Taken together, these statements reflect a strong tendency amongst women activists to attribute sexual violence to a game of power initiated by an embedded men-women inequality, which often alone, or together with other “centres of power”, works towards disciplining women’s sexuality and in keeping them in a constant state of fear.

There were at the same time some observers, who attempted to explain urban rapes by drawing on the well-established explanation for rapes that occur in the country’s villages, namely, the prevalence of caste hierarchy and hence casteist backlash by dominant castes. Shuddhabrata Sengupta in his 23 December article,[9] for example, tried to comprehend the 16 December gang-rape through the axis of caste as well as gender inequality when he highlighted that all 6 rapists were upper caste men whose patriarchal conscience was disturbed by the victim’s decision to be out with a man at night. He hinted that migrant upper caste men (like the 6 rapists) were prone to respond in such violent ways as they were unaccustomed to the freedom offered by urban life, especially to women, whom they were used to seeing in an extremely docile and subjugated position. In other words, according to some individuals, such rapes are simply an extension of the rural mentality which informs the conscience of majority of men who migrate to the cities. According to this position, majority of men perceive the loosening of the hierarchy of caste and gender within an urban context as the ‘crossing of boundaries’, which warrants a backlash in terms of sexual assaults aimed at teaching their victims a lesson and instilling fear in everyone to adhere to traditional norms. Of course, by extension of this argument, urban rapes do not have any specificity of their own.[10] This assumption has, in fact, been openly expressed by some who do not consider it important to understand the specific context in which rapes take place, and to account for factors like the social background of rapists and their victims. Instead, in the angst to locate a commonality, the specificities are denied. Hence, arguments which assert that irrespective of whether there is an “urban rape, rural rape, middle class rape, working class rape, modern rape, traditional rape, live-in rape…[r]ape is rape. Everywhere it is an assertion of power and a violent attempt to subjugate.”[11]

Clearly then, despite slight variations, most of the aforementioned assessments are trapped in the problem of not being able to locate any axis of power other than male-female inequality to convincingly explain the substantial increase in urban rapes. It is then brute force emanating from men-women inequality that can supposedly explain why men (like the 6 rapists), despite the poverty and vulnerability of their position, have the ability and intention to rape women. For many feminists and activists, it becomes important to understand rapes as an expression of power and not sex – even if it means working with an abstract notion of power based on an (ever present) men-women inequality – because for them acceptance of the existence of sexual intent is considered as an approach which slips into justification of rape. It is thus to prevent such scope for justification that feminists and several activists deny the element of sexual frustration involved in a large number of rapes. Furthermore, by drawing on such a line of argument, feminists attempt to shield victims from the typical blame game unleashed by society—something that often translates into blaming the victim for dressing well, for moving out of ‘safe’ zones, for encouraging male attention, etc.

However, does such a stance truly help us to understand the source of rapes in urban areas, and to combat the recurrence of rapes such as the one on 16 December? Have we really understood the somewhat concealed factors that played themselves out and made the 16 December assault possible? My contention is that we have not, and will not, until we fail to transcend what feminists have identified as the main fault-line plaguing our society, namely, the prevalence of gender inequality between men and women. By restricting and locking the problem of sexual violence to the question of male-women inequality, there has been an unnecessary downplaying of the (class) inequalities which breed sexual inequities, and hence, sexual frustration amongst a large section of men in our society. In the light of rapes such as the 16 December case where the perpetrators belonged to oppressed, exploited and powerless sections of society, it becomes necessary to rethink given assessments of rape as a mere expression of power. Indeed, can we not develop a sensitive way of approaching the issue of rape while also respecting the specificities related to the rapes occurring in our urban centres? Surely we can, for the increasing trend of rapes and other sexual assaults on women and children in cities is symptomatic of much more than gender inequality. It is indicative of larger inequalities stemming from sharp class divisions in our society—divisions that breed sexual inequalities, that provide little time to nurture human relationships, and that produce phenomenal levels of frustration and aggression, especially amongst men from the toiling masses.

Challenging and uncomfortable though it may be, it is time we account for the role played by the dehumanizing conditions in which a large percentage of our cities’ inhabitants live and work. The city – on one hand with its glitzy malls, air-conditioned offices, bungalows and life in the fast lane, and on the other, its slums, sweatshops, run-down shelters and poverty – has become a haven for barbaric sexual crimes. There is then something specific about the nature of sex crimes in our cities. Here the grid of factors which produce rape is much more complicated – assailants are not necessarily upper caste men or communal rioters. And rather than an expression of power, many such rapes are the outcome of people’s sexual frustration that preys on women and children in vulnerable conditions. The fact that the brutality of city-life is breeding potential rapists and victims in significant proportions is one of the factors contributing to the immense fear that informs the life of the majority of women in cities.[12] While it is an undeniable fact that the larger percentage of such crimes take place within women’s homes and amidst their peer groups, the greater fear that confronts women is rape by strangers – strangers who emerge suddenly, exploit the vulnerability of their victims and the impunity offered by circumstances, and then speedily melt away into the night. It is this fear which makes us think twice before setting out, from venturing out alone, and compels us to take all necessary precautions for our safety.

In this regard, perhaps there is some truth in certain right-wing arguments about rape in contemporary times. The question is whether the Left can rescue the validity of some of these observations about the impact of modern, capitalist development in our country from the usual culturalist, xenophobic clap-trap that right-wing assessments of modern society are usually ridden with.[13] Can the Left direct much-needed attention towards the sexual crisis created by capitalism? Unfortunately, if we fail to step up to the challenge of addressing entrenched class inequalities that prevent the realization of gender equality and make rapes possible; we will be forced to witness the persistence of sexual violence. All efforts to change the law, mindsets, and the bureaucratized and insensitive functioning of the organs of the state, will yield precious little unless we connect these efforts to the struggle which seeks to emancipate all of humankind.

Considering that we are fighting an oppression that is deeply entrenched and entwined with inequalities that go beyond the gender divide, we must consciously delve into the somewhat-concealed underbelly of sexual violence and the general oppression of women. My basic contention is that rape is a historical product of class divisions that emerged in human society—a fact elided or left under-theorized by existing interventions. Rape is then one of the forms of oppression unleashed on those made most vulnerable by class exploitation, as well as on those who are burdened by the images of this vulnerability in spite of being materially distanced from it. In other words, women in present-day society find themselves at the receiving end of sexual violence because most women are reduced to conditions of extreme vulnerability by the given socio-economic system which strives on brutal exploitation of the class workers by the class of capitalists. Trapping working-class women in positions of economic, social, and hence, sexual vulnerability, our given socio-economic structure has created for the female sex, a formidable image of subjugation—an image that returns to haunt even women from non-working class backgrounds.

In addition to this, the paper argues that although from the perspective of the victim there is nothing sexual about rape, from the perspective of the perpetrator rape can still be seen as fulfilling a sexual purpose. It is crucial that we come to terms with this contentious fact since the existing resistance to it has dangerously misdirected public attention from the conditions which produce rape in our society. It is, thus, with this purpose to unpack what makes rape a possibility for some and an everyday reality for the majority of women, that a clear distinction is drawn between the (sexual) intention behind rape and the (non-sexual, traumatic) impact of rape. In order to engage with rape in all its complexities, the paper attempts to trace the history of rape, to contextualize such assault, and hence, to revisit the prevailing feminist assessment of sexual violence and women’s oppression.

A history of rape: an ever present phenomenon?

Since the 1970s and 1980s, intellectual circles influenced by feminist views witnessed a new development, namely, a growing emphasis on the issue of male violence on women. Certain texts that evolved from this particular milieu of debate and discussion became hegemonic when it came to the assessment of sexual violence on women. The reverberations of the debates, movements and campaigns that were stirred up by many such feminist interventions were soon felt in other parts of the world. Influenced by the feminist movement in the United States where several feminist interventions had led to important judicial and policy reform, various autonomous women’s groups emerged within the prevailing women’s movement in India. Indeed, the entire process of the emergence of autonomous women’s groups in India was facilitated by global networks of big NGOs and funding agencies that initiated worldwide campaigns on women’s ‘empowerment’ and legal amendments – campaigns that drew on the views of several American feminists.

In America, amongst the iconic contributions on rape was Susan Brownmiller’s book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape,[14] which was selected in 1995 by the New York Public Library as one of the 100 most important and influential books of the twentieth century. Her work influenced many activists, students and intellectuals across the world—a fact reflected in the popularity of the view within various feminist circles that sexual violence on women, i.e. rape, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation, is not about sex but about power. In her work, rape came to be defined as a “conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a constant state of fear”. In similar terms, we have assertions like: “man’s discovery that his genitalia would serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries in prehistoric time, along with the use of fire and the first crude axe” (Susan Brownmiller); “in terms of human anatomy the possibility of forcible intercourse incontrovertibly exists…This single factor may have been sufficient [emphasis added] to have caused the creation of a male ideology of rape” (ibid.); and man’s efforts to subjugate the woman is the “longest sustained battle the world has ever known” (ibid.). Importantly, this particular focus and emphasis on rape as an oppression stemming from gender inequality is what distinguishes feminism from other accounts of rape.[15]

Ironically, the aforementioned feminist view comes quite close to the highly controversial perspective known as the ‘natural history of rape’.[16] According to this so-called natural history of rape, men are prone to rape because of the aggressive orientation of their sexuality while women are prone to be raped because of their submissiveness, and because their sexuality is less governed by sexual urges than it is by the urge for a strong, stable partner. The capacity for rape is seen either as a form of human adaptation to hostile life conditions, or as a by-product of adaptive traits such as sexual desire and aggressiveness which have evolved since primitive times for reasons that have no direct connection with the ‘benefits’ accrued by rapists or the costs of rape borne by victims. Simply put, according to the theory of sexual selection, copulation and successful reproduction of early humans was only possible in cases where physically strong and sexually aggressive men forced themselves on women. According to this theory, sexual aggression became part of the gradually evolving human male because the early human female evolved in a manner which was based on restrain—a restrain which prevented circumstances of non-aggressive, ‘less fertile’ and ‘less virile’ males from copulating with women.[17]

Be it the ‘natural history of rape’ or views from the feminist camp, both have seen rape in an equally ahistorical manner by detaching it from the kind of society in which it occurred/occurs.[18] Why is this? To explain the problem with such ahistorical approaches to gender differences and human sexuality, let us consider an imaginary survey. Picture a situation where a woman approaches the first ten men she meets in the street and asks them whether they would have sex with her. Similarly, imagine if a man approaches the first ten women he meets on the street and asks them whether they would have sex with him. What would the result be? In the case of the woman, we can easily say that most of the men she approaches would accept her offer. In the case of the latter, most women would take the man’s offer as an affront and complain about his behaviour. The question is if the same man and woman are sent back in time to different periods of human history, would the results of such a situation be the same? Can we assume that the frequency of women saying no to proposals of sex would remain unchanged, or that the man’s overtures of sex would still amount to an affront? Quite naturally, there would be major differences in the responses, for the structure of human society, the nature and form of human relationships, etc. have undergone considerable change from primitive times.

With the evolution from primitive society to agrarian society, and later from pre-capitalist to capitalist society, which witnessed massive demographic changes, urbanization, commercialization etc., it would be incorrect to claim that no subsequent change occurred in the way male and female sexuality developed and expressed itself. These changes in male and female sexuality, as well as in the general position of women would have resulted in a change in the existence, meaning and frequency of incidents of rape. Clearly, rape can present itself as an omnipresent practice throughout the process of continuous social change only if we work with ahistorical notions of gender differences and presume an unchanging human sexuality. There is, unfortunately, a strong tendency towards constituting gender segregation as a system/division that is independent of prevailing historical socio-economic conditions. According to such a reading of social reality, it is easy, if not inevitable, to slip into the assumption that men-women inequality is all pervasive, and is somewhere not entirely attributable to, or explained by the socio-economic structures within which it exists.

Of course, the international communist movement and certain currents in the women’s movement have questioned such an understanding of gender inequality. Due to their intervention, gender inequality has increasingly been historicized in ways that reveal its linkages to the form in which social relations of domination have emerged and evolved in human society. Consequently, it is believed that the gender-based social division leading to a subdued female sexuality and aggressive male sexuality was uncharacteristic of primitive human societies in which such social relations of domination were more or less absent. Years and years of intensive academic research across various disciplines have come to corroborate these claims. Recent research has also shown that even in our ‘contemporary’ society there are some human communities that are free from rape.[19]

Back in the nineteenth century, by studying emerging research on early humans (who lived as hunters and gatherers in small band formations), Friedrich Engels presented one of the first valuable assessments of women’s oppression from the perspective of the international communist movement. His work (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and State)[20] showed how the gradual development of surplus production (in the form of agriculture and domestication of animals) created early class societies which, in turn, laid the foundations for the monogamous family unit. According to Engels, when it became possible to produce a surplus of food, society was able to sustain a minority of human beings who freed themselves from the drudgery of daily productive labour. This led to the creation of class societies based on the subjugation of the majority to the minority. The minority could maintain its preeminence only through control over the production of the surplus. This led to emergence of an armed power, the state, as well as inheritance through the family. The question of inheritance emerged alongside surplus production also because those who were involved in the daily grind of productive labour, sought to protect their right and share over the surplus. Children then became important for continuation of elders’ rights over a share of surplus, and thus, became guarantors of this share when their parents aged. However, for a society in which men and women did not practice monogamous pair-bonding, it was difficult to affix the right over the labour of progeny on the basis of who mothered the child as it would have still led to competing claims from all the men who could have possibly fathered the child. To resolve the crisis, early agrarian societies established the ‘father’s right’ instead of the ‘mother’s right’ over progeny—a historical transformation which led to curtailment of the practice of multiple partners, and saw its replacement with monogamous pair bonding.

Prior to the emergence of early class societies, monogamous pair bonding and collective supervision of sexual behavior was not the norm. Instead, early or primitive human groups had less restrictive sexual standards and emphasized sexual pleasure and enjoyment, albeit with some definite rules and constraints to guard the group from possible extinction. In historical conditions, wherein, humans existed in small groups in which everyone performed the same tasks, i.e. hunting and gathering food together, sexual activity was hardly based on preference or choosing one partner over another. For example, there was no choosing between the ‘better hunter’, the ‘better-looking’, ‘the one with the better status’, etc. amongst a small group of equally matched and similar featured persons.[21] Moreover, back then sexual activity was a very common activity which was organically linked to the daily life or routine of early humans and it was unaffected by a sense of hierarchy or proprietorship. A sense of hierarchy was, in fact, absent as social divisions did not exist between early humans. As a result, in early social formations the condition of human females rejecting coital activity from multiple males did not arise. This was all the more plausible considering that unlike other female species that are bound by certain periods of sexual arousal which is linked to their ovulation, the female human has evolved in a manner which enables her to be sexually active and enjoy sexual activity throughout the year. It is, indeed, a fact that unlike other female primates, the female human alone seems to have the capacity to achieve an orgasm.[22]

Here one could wonder whether pregnancy could have acted as a deterrent to unrestrained sexual activity between early men and women. Nonetheless, pregnancy would hardly have deterred women from saying no to sex in a social formation that had not yet comprehended the immediate connection between sexual activity and conception—a fact which was not so easy to grasp considering nine months elapsed before a woman actually gave birth, and that because she was sexually active throughout those nine months, it was difficult for early humans to pinpoint the role of sexual intercourse in conception. Furthermore, in a society in which child care was a collective effort of the group, pregnancy was far from a burden to be borne specifically by the woman who mothered the child. Evidently then, in such a historical context rape would have been a non-existent phenomenon.

However, as human society progressed from primitive times and as the question of ownership over surplus production emerged as a central one, early class societies began to assert the importance of the father’s right over progeny, and hence, promoted the legitimacy of monogamous family units. Engels termed the steady fading away of the mother’s right as the ‘first historical defeat of the female sex’—a process which paved the way for the female sex to be increasingly seen as ‘woman’, and as the property of the family unit/male guardian. In this regard, the female sex’s independent assertion of her sexuality came to be increasingly stigmatized.

While the aforementioned process of curtailing female sexuality in the effort to monopolize women’s reproductive rights unfolded and became increasingly oppressive, it is worth noting how rape came to be gradually identified as a criminal sexual assault on a woman. The generic meaning of the word, rape, is itself indicative of how female sexuality was perceived and shaped over time. The word originates from the Latin verb rapere which means to seize or take by force. It was originally defined as the abduction of a woman against the will of the man under whose authority she lived, and sexual intercourse was not even a necessary element. Viewed less as a type of assault on the woman than a serious property crime against the man to whom she ‘belonged’, ancient law would often demand financial compensation from the rapist (especially in the case where the woman was engaged to someone), which was payable to the woman’s household, whose ‘goods’ were ‘damaged’. Simply put, rape was initially identified as a crime against the concerned woman’s community and family, and not as an assault on a woman’s body without her consent. Not surprisingly then, women too came to be punished for indulging in sexual activity without the permission of their families and communities. As a result, any sexual activity outside set norms such as adultery, elopement with a lover, etc. was also termed as rape. It is only with time (from the late Middle Ages onwards), that in certain parts of the world, rape came to be defined more in its modern sense so as to gradually exclude from its purview practices like elopement without parental consent.

This was a historical development that was closely linked to the emergence of the individual subject position—a creation of the Renaissance period in Europe that witnessed the gradual overtaking of manorial (feudal) law by municipal law which emerged in new towns that prospered due to expanding trade and were controlled by wealthy merchant families. In its contest with community-based manorial law that justified hereditary ownership of resources (even trading profits), as well as rights that were based on one’s membership to an estate, community, etc., the new municipalities (which were the havens of emerging merchant capitalism) began to assert the rights and status of the individual over the community. As a consequence, even rape began to be gradually seen less as an assault on a family or community to whom the woman was associated, but as an assault on a rights-bearing individual.

The birth of the individual subject was not simply a creation of municipal law, but was a product of historic socio-economic transformations through which individuals were weaned away from the community structure as labour and property ownership were no more dependent on an individual’s membership to a community or estate. Amidst this new socio-economic condition, exercising individual choice when it came to seeking a partner became not just feasible but also desirable. The birth of Enlightenment, the gradual decline in the influence of the Orthodox Church, etc. further contributed to the process which necessitated and made it desirable for women to be in a position to exercise individual consent independently of the community and family. As a consequence, a suitable legal paradigm and legal sanctions came forth, albeit with many restraints as the transition from a pre-capitalist to a capitalist system was fraught with complexities (an issue to which the paper will return). Eventually then, individual choice and consent became important, and rape came to be gradually defined as intercourse without the consent of the individual woman. Importantly, giving such consent clearly represented a ‘voluntarist’ action that, on one hand, asserted an independence of position vis-à-vis the dictates of the community, but on the other hand, also entailed the exclusion of certain individuals from the scope of consent. Basically then, a woman’s consent was accounted for and considered only after it was conditioned to mean a consent given just to certain men and not to others.

With the spread of colonialism to countries in the East and in Africa, the resulting economic transformations and the colonial state’s interventions in the social life of the colonies led to the development of a similar socio-economic structure—a development that culminated in the creation of comparable legal regimes in the colonies, which increasingly established the individual subject position and individual rights.[23] In the Indian context, there are two important points to note about how the category of rape evolved. Firstly, the word rape was (and in general parlance continues to be) referred to as “izzat lootna”. This terminology indicates that, just like in other parts of the world, rape was rarely associated with the question of consent of the individual woman. Instead, the term coined for rape signified an assault on the honour of the woman’s family and community. In this light, rape was regarded and identified more in terms of illegitimate sexual access to a woman, which brought dishonour to her family/community, and hence, would include within its purview even consensual sexual liaisons between a woman and man. The second point to note about the development of the category of rape in India is the gradual and conflict-ridden process through which it evolved to include the element of individual consent of the woman.[24] In nineteenth-century India, debates surrounding colonial legislation, such as in the case of sati, the age of consent for marriage, etc. are an important insight into this entire process through which individual consent and choice became a crucial part of the socio-legal fabric of colonized societies.

Needless to say, the process whereby the individual legal subject position emerged with the development of a capitalist economy was one fraught with complications,[25] and hence, was far from a linear process of development. Nevertheless, this process pressed forth various institutional and legal changes, as well as gradually came to constitute new forms of property rights and labour relations that often challenged the system of traditional rights based on birth. At numerous conjunctures, the colonial state enforced the obligations of contract, as well as the obligations of citizenship based on people facing the state as individuals. It is in this complex process to “prevent the individual from sheltering in the anonymity of his community” and “from assuming aliases to escape individual responsibility for a contractual or other legal obligation”[26] that the first signs of women being assigned an individual subject position are to be found.

Indeed, judicial annals of the colonial period are filled with ‘runaway’ cases (essentially inter-caste liaisons) in which male ‘guardians’ try to retrieve their daughters from men with whom their daughters chose to live. The ‘guardian’ usually charged the other man for kidnapping, abducting and forcefully inducing his daughter into wedlock. What is revealed by some interesting research on ‘runaway’ cases is how the colonial state was caught in the process of identifying and establishing individual rights of women, on the one hand, and on the other, protecting traditional rights of the family/community on individual women.[27] It is, of course, only with time, further economic change which loosened the hold of the restrictions imposed by caste and community, and with the entry of a greater number of women in the workforce, that the individual rights of women saw greater if not full realization.

What is, hence, evident from the above discussion is that as capitalism strengthened and bourgeois law and ethics came to gradually entrench themselves, women for the first time, i.e. since the primitive ages when their sexual being was least restrained, were given the ‘freedom’ to say yes or no to sex. Nevertheless, the right of a woman to exercise her choice remained a structured one—a choice-making in which she was conditioned to say no in most circumstances and yes only in certain ones. Hence, while the notion of consent devolved to the individual woman, the logic of proprietary or protected or exclusive rights on the woman’s sexuality remained embedded in the mindset of majority of women, as well as in society’s gaze, which subsequently, informed/shaped what was experienced as rape. With the stigmatization of a woman’s sexual activity prior to her entering a long-term relationship (like marriage) with a partner; the demonizing of the ‘promiscuous’ woman; and the enforcement of the norm of pair bonding within one’s own class, caste, etc., rape emerged as a recurrent assault borne by women.

Given such social conditioning, rape becomes an active possibility for women whereas such an assault on men exists as a rare experience. This is because the historical trajectory of the development of male sexuality shows that men are not culturally and socially conditioned in a manner which leads them to reject sex with the same frequency and for the same reasons as women do. These obvious distinctions in the development of male and female sexuality are attributable to economic transformations that have gradually eroded the ‘productive’ roles of women and overemphasized their reproductive ones, as well as to structures of domination (the family, the state, dominant social groups, etc.) which emerged within class societies. In other words, rather than being an omnipresent phenomenon, rape as an experience and a legally recognized category is a product of a historical process of class formation, and hence, is a late development in human society.

This brings us to the issue of how transformed social norms, family structure and pair bonding since the development of capitalism have resulted in a change in the way rape has come to be defined. It is a question of much historical significance, for how exactly did the birth of capitalism and its spread across various corners of the world impact male and female sexuality, and how has it created a new foundation on which a changed understanding and categorization of sexual assault emerged?

Capitalism and women’s oppression

The development of modern capitalist society produced massive changes, both, in people’s personal and working lives. Capitalism not only restructured the world of work but also the family. With the development of capitalism, the ‘economic’ emerged as a separate sphere of activity from both the family and the state. In other words, the organization of production under capitalism (separating the means of production from the class of producers) and the process of proletarianization eliminated the corporate aspects of kin-group functioning. Increasingly, people came to face the state as individuals; the socialization of labour came to be accompanied by the privatization of personal (i.e. family) life; productive labour came to be separated from kin relations; and the family unit increasingly became just a unit of social reproduction (reducing in size steadily) and of consumption (as basic necessities like food, clothing, etc. came to be produced by the market, and family labour was, consequently, no longer expended like it was when households were spheres of production). Ultimately, with further and further development of industrial society, capitalism subsumed domestic work within definitions of femininity, stripped it of its labour content and denuded it of its economic value for the household. Activities relating to childcare, for example, came to be identified exclusively with women and such household work was denied economic value with the depressing of working-class wages and lifestyle.[28]

By creating a ‘non-economic’ private sphere in opposition to an ‘economic’ public sphere, capitalism came to unleash new levels and a new form of oppression on women. It is necessary to ascertain this particular form in which this oppression, and basically, a ‘women’s question’ emerged within capitalism. Notably, it was within the context of the capitalist dynamics of production and its misuse of the constraints posed by biological reproduction that the sexual division of labour (which pushes women into subordinate economic and social positions) emerged as a historic possibility. Simply put, biological facts of reproduction—pregnancy, childbirth, lactation—are not compatible with the capitalist system of production, and capitalists are unwilling to make them compatible (i.e. by providing ample maternity leave with pay, nursing and childcare facilities at workplaces, etc.) as it would amount to greater expenditure on variable capital which cuts into profit maximization.

As a consequence, the capitalist system has compelled women to either (i) withdraw into full-time domestic responsibilities that were stripped of their ‘economic’ value and which reduced them to a position of overt dependence on their husbands, or (ii) to bear the burden of both (unpaid) domestic work and wage labour. Since domestic work was made non-negotiable, in the case of the former, women chose to (or were made to) give up wage labour as they could afford to due to higher income-drawing male partners. In the second case, because a large number of women came from working-class families that underwent steady proletarianization, they were compelled to participate in the labour market so as to maintain precarious family budgets, and as a result, never withdrew from wage work for long periods of time. These developments were far from the reality of pre-capitalist society where women played various productive roles along with a reproductive one. This is not to argue that women were less oppressed in the pre-capitalist mode of production, but just that they were not distanced from the actual production process.

Thus, the capitalist system has historically (mis)used certain biological differences between men and women by creating a formidable crisis for the working class as it increasingly took control of workers’ time. With the emergence of an average work-day of 12 hours or more, the capitalist class, in its constant endeavour to squeeze out as much surplus value as it can, came to pose a huge threat for the working class’ survival. Long work hours and low wages, for example, made it impossible for workers to reproduce their labour power, i.e. the bare necessities which enable them to return to work every day. They could not, for example, afford to buy goods and services which took care of domestic needs (i.e. nannies, servants, laundrymen, cooks, etc.). Given these circumstances, working-class families evolved around a distinct division of labour in which one person undertook domestic labour along with supplementary wage work, while another earned wages full time. Basically then, the impermanent or supplementary nature of women’s wage work has allowed capitalists to keep wages of the working-class family low, and to draw on women as one of the cheaper sources of labour in a burgeoning labour market. It is then in the interest of the capitalist class to reduce the presence of women in the workforce to a constant state of flux, and thereby, to keep their participation in the least rewarded and ‘protected’ category.

If we closely examine the nature of women’s employment within capitalism, it is clear that women from working class and poor peasant backgrounds have been pushed into low-paying, often unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. In a country like India, a large number of working-class women are slaving away in what is popularly known as the informal sector where they survive on the piece-rate system of wages. Working-class women also constitute a large component of migrant workers who flock to metropolitans in search of employment. It is then only for a small segment of women, i.e. women from middle-class backgrounds, that jobs pay well, and for whom there are (some) opportunities for career advancement and influence in the workplace. Nevertheless, even for women in well-paying professional jobs there is a glass ceiling which very few can break. Disparities in salaries between men and women professionals; limited and delayed promotions; highly sexist (alpha-male) work atmospheres; assignment of ‘woman-centric’ or feminine work profiles; etc., are a concrete part of the life led by women professionals across the board.

Overall, the adverse impact of this precarious and oppressive position of women in the labour market is tremendous. It is particularly so in the case of working-class women whose job-contracts are highly exploitative; whose wage work often requires them to travel during unsafe hours of the night/early morning; whose neighbourhoods are dimly lit, poorly policed and have seen the growing criminalization of (and spread of lumpenism amongst) the youth; whose overt dependence on unregulated public transport compels them to bear with lecherous male commuters day in and day out; etc.

The first striking repercussion of the undervaluing of women’s productive work and the feminization of jobs is the creation of a fertile ground for sexism. With the job market pressing down women’s wages/salaries and pushing them into the least protected category of jobs, what develops is the continuous reassertion of gendered roles and behaviour. Hence, the tendency within male colleagues and employers to work with misogynist attitudes like ‘she’s just a temporary hand’, ‘she’s simply looking for some fun before settling down’, ‘she got the job so she’s probably skrewed the right people’, ‘who does she think she is ordering us around’, etc.

Pushing women into feminine and hyper-femme job profiles creates an additional burden for working women—the repercussions of which are widespread. The tea garden worker with her back bent, picking leaves for hours at a stretch; women embroiderers hurriedly working their nimble fingers through complex designs in order to complete an order and claim a day’s wages; nurses struggling to perform their patient-care duties due to skewed nurse to patient ratios; poorly paid school teachers; etc. are the usual jobs for which women are recruited as they suit the expected (feminine) roles associated with women. Meanwhile, the ‘sexy’ receptionist; the slim, short-skirt attired airhostess; the skimpily-clad dance performers at weddings and other functions; the decked-up, manage-it-all secretary; the emaciated-looking models tottering around in high heels at award functions and fashion shows; the heavily made-up bar dancer; etc. are the typical kinds of jobs in which the physicality of women is used for business profit. In these hyper-femme or hyper-sexualized jobs, women are made to dress and/or conduct themselves in ways which accentuate certain features of their body. This accentuation is least of all in the interest of these women employees (although some women employees may find such roles ‘interesting’), nor is it in the interest of women in general. Such accentuation of women’s body parts ‘for the job’ is purely in the interest of the men who wish to visually (and even physically) consume their sexuality without the element of responsibility that should arise when one links one’s own sexual being with another’s. Moreover, this skewed feminization of job profiles reinforces the stereotype that women’s worth lies more in their body appearance than in their overall personality.

Having said this, perhaps one of the most transformative effects of capitalism worth noting is its impact on human sexuality and pair bonding. With the development of capitalism and the resultant collapse of the family as a productive unit, increasingly men, and eventually even women, stepped out of their homes in search of employment as they no longer inherited occupations and sustenance from their families and community/estate. This historical process created the scope for men and women to interact outside the immediate bounds of traditional community ties. As a consequence, the basis of marriage came to be based on mutual attraction, or as Engels put it, ‘individual sex love’. In modern capitalist society, marriage and other forms of relationships are entered into freely by men and women on the basis of mutual attraction. Even in a country like India where the practice of arranged marriages is still common, tying the knot without seeing one’s future spouse or pursuing a brief courtship prior to the actual wedding, is increasingly uncommon. Moreover, it is mostly in cities, where young people migrate for educational opportunities and employment, that the chance of love/choice marriages, or at least relationships, is possible. This is due to the fact that in cities, young people are removed from the direct surveillance and control of their families and communities. However, although relationships are more freely entered into, pair bonding (between men and women, women and women, men and men) is structured in ways in which inequality and oppression form the basis of such relationships. Thus, even today the mutual attainment of emotional and sexual fulfillment remains an uncommon practice. The question, of course, is why, despite certain social transformations introduced by capitalism, has the emancipation of women (including their sexual liberation) remained a distant dream?

Without a doubt, the 1960s and 1970s heralded a new stage in women’s personal lives due to benefits like the contraceptive pill, abortion rights and greater access to rights of divorce, as well as changes in attitudes towards sex and pregnancy outside marriage. However, what many radical feminists identified as the ‘sexual revolution’ was for a significant number of years limited to the upper echelons of society in First World countries. What is even more important to note is that many such gains were the outcome of a steady growth in the participation of women in the workforce (though not necessarily in the form of well-paying or full-time jobs). Last but not the least, what was heralded as the ‘sexual revolution’ was really misnomer. The reason for this is that capitalism has maintained the structure of family, albeit on the basis of a new form of pair bonding.

This structure of family which evolved under capitalism is what many have identified as the nuclear family. Importantly, in the process of its development, the capitalist mode of production has led to a continuous decline in the size of the family, which has allowed for extreme burdening of women within their homes. Moreover, even today the average woman perceives an active sexual life before or outside the institution of marriage, a taboo and a risk. She also hesitates or finds it difficult, if not ‘unreasonable’, to assert her own choices within the structure of the family.[29] Within this context, how has rape been defined and redefined within capitalism?

Bourgeois law, rape and the importance of intermediate demands

As mentioned earlier, in the process of transition from a pre-capitalist to capitalist socio-economic system, rape came to be defined not by the lack of the community or family’s consent for sexual access to a woman, but by the lack of consent of the individual woman. Nonetheless, the transition from a pre-modern-pre-capitalist to modern-capitalist system has involved multi-faceted complexities driven in process. The result? What arises is the contemporary historical conjuncture: the prevalence of a bourgeois legal paradigm that desists from identifying certain actions (like adultery, elopement, live-in relationships, etc.) as rape, and at the same time, fails to identify many actions (like sexual assaults within marriage or during dating) as rape. This legal paradigm tends to work with an extremely problematic notion of consent, wherein, submission of a certain kind, for example, assent to marriage, accepting a date, etc. is conflated with consent to sex.

Of course, another major limitation of bourgeois law is that even when it accepts and recognizes certain individual experiences as rape, it does so only in a partial form. This means that although notions like harm, hurt and wrong (borne by the individual woman) are now incorporated within the category of rape, they are done so in highly problematic ways, i.e. in ways that  are based on weighing such hurt, harm, etc. mostly in terms of the social loss borne by the victim. To elucidate, the notion of wrong that is now part of the category of rape has been straightjacketed to the position of ultimate violation of the self; the invasion of the individual woman’s innermost, private space; destruction of the self; a form of soul murder since the victim’s body may heal but not her mind or her future; etc. Correspondingly, the harm that is identified with the category of rape has been reduced to losing one’s ‘honour’, and thereby, being exposed to social exclusion. Both these notions are then useful for the category of rape because while they succeed in keeping the sense of individual consent intact, they still succeed in linking individual consent to the question of community or family honour—an honour which is somehow housed only in the woman’s innermost, private space (basically, her genitalia).

In addition to the aforementioned internal problems of the law, is the prevalence of informal ‘legal’ systems (as in ‘law’ dictated by khap panchayas, etc.) that run parallel to the bourgeois legal system, and are based on the ‘moral economy’ and regulative authority of traditional communities. This informal ‘legal’ system is most prevalent in villages where caste hierarchies are sharply drawn, making inter-caste, choice marriages extremely difficult. Here the nexus of the local police and dominant castes makes it nearly impossible for the functioning of institutionalized law that recognizes the rights of adult individuals. Fatwas or diktats of local village bodies which demand annulment of choice marriages, death penalty, social boycott, etc. are more often than not, upheld and implemented. They are overturned only in cases where external pressure brings the local police to its feet and results in subsequent enforcement of state law. It is in urban contexts where bourgeois law has not had to directly compete with a parallel system of informal (community) ‘law’, and where young couples have jobs in the city so as to enable them to reside far away from their family/community, that greater relief for choice marriages has been possible. However, the process whereby the criminal justice system ascertains a woman’s capacity to consent, and adjudicates on whether this consent is acceptable in court, is unwieldy and highly wanting.[30] What all this reflects is that the given form of bourgeois law, i.e. the complete realization of the individual subject position, is yet to fully unfold itself and spread out evenly so as to diminish its internal inconsistencies.

In this light, the restrictive approach of the law— especially in terms of how it has defined the individual consent of the woman, the wrong, the harm and the hurt borne by her— has opened the space for contestation. In countries like America, struggles spearheaded by Brownmiller, Catherine MacKinnon[31] and Andrea Dworkin began to influence the way the law looked at problems like rape, pornography and sexual harassment. Their interventions, for example, paved the way for the removal of significant provisions like the “chastity requirement” within the law. According to this particular provision, the defendants in rape cases were allowed to place their victims’ sexual past on trial—a practice which allowed rapists to easily justify their actions, and which placed the victims under tremendous duress. Due to vocal campaigns and prolific engagements with the legal community, many of these feminists were successful by the early 1980s in facilitating the introduction of a “rape shield law” which came to curtail the ability of defendants to admit the victims’ sexual history in court.

Since then, there has been a growing tendency amongst the women’s movement to challenge the aforementioned (legal-patriarchal) rubric of assessing rape. These challenges have opened up interesting prospects for assessing rape in more woman-friendly terms. For one, there is an increasing tendency to emphasize the physical discomfort, displeasure and pain borne when identifying rape. The emphasis is deliberate as it opens up scope for downplaying the explicit focus on the sexual aspect of the assault when determining the object of punishment. The shift in focus is necessary so as to allow us to rise above the popular belief–which reinforces the tendency to ostracize victims of rape—that sexuality and the sexual organs are ‘sacred’ portions of the self, which must be protected more and differently as compared to other portions of the body and self.

Here it is important to note how some have come to contest the existing legal paradigm by clamouring for a stronger set of laws, which will apparently act as a deterrent to future attempts at rape. Importantly, the demand for iron-fisted laws like death penalty for rape is a highly patriarchal one because it single-mindedly focuses on the sexual aspect of the assault. Instead of emphasizing physical harm and displeasure—something which would facilitate rape to be seen as another form of physical violence which should be punished accordingly—lobbyists for death penalty, castration, etc. end up reinforcing the tendency to view rape as a unique type of assault in which the harm and damage borne is of epic proportions, and thus, should be punished under the severest of laws.[32] The problem, of course, with severe (and hence, unproductive) laws like death penalty, or, corrective measures like solitary confinement is that they reinforce the stigma attached to rape, thereby, closing off any avenue for approaching this problem in a manner which allows victims to move on without feeling scarred for life. Moreover, it is only by questioning the overt emphasis on the sexual nature of the assault that we create the scope for recognition of rape in cases where it is most easily denied. To elucidate, by creating an ambience in which rape is not identified by the notion of violating the innermost, private space of a woman, but by the notion of displeasure and discomfort, we allow for recognition of marital rape, rape of a prostitute, etc. By introducing the notion of violation based on discomfort, displeasure, hurt and pain, we can, for example, be in the position to defend the rights of the prostitute who due to her profession can no longer claim to have an un-invaded, innermost space, but can still experience rape when a client forces himself on her, or, leaves without paying.

In contrast to aforementioned (patriarchal) interventions seeking a ‘strong’ law against rape, feminist demands for legal reform represent noble efforts that press forth the generalization of bourgeois legality, or basically, the further unfolding of the bourgeois legal form so as to incorporate a larger and more varied (dis)content. Indeed, recent efforts within the women’s movement are geared towards expanding the category of rape to include assaults that may ‘start on a note of consent but end in exploitation and feelings of pain, powerlessness, humiliation and violation’. Such interventions from the women’s movement have meant that certain kinds of assault/actions are now increasingly perceived as rape not because sex is taking place in the absence of a patriarchal ‘right’ of sexual access, but that sex is occurring in the absence of complete consent of the woman. What this means is that a lot of ‘bad sex’[33]—in which there is disregard for a woman’s feelings, sexual desire, or even her attainment of sexual fulfilment—can and should be increasingly considered when distinguishing lovemaking from varied kinds of sexual assaults. By extension of this argument (regarding bad vis-à-vis fulfilling sex), even if physical coercion is minimal, and even if consent in some nominal form exists, the experience can still be categorized as rape.

Having said this, we must understand and engage with this feminist position more closely in order to better determine the grey areas surrounding the issue of a woman’s consent. Broadly speaking, feminists have been correct in identifying the prevalence of bad sex as a problem which must be accounted for. It is, of course, precisely because bad sex is rampant in our society that rape and other forms of sexual and emotional exploitation are possible. If we speak of bad sex within marriages, it is obvious that one of its forms of expression is based on the complete lack of consent, i.e. a form of sexual activity usually identified as marital rape. Considering that this form of bad sex (marital rape) is based on the lack of consent, feminists have been able to gradually initiate some debate within the bourgeois legal community, and have thus created some possibilities for older rape laws to be eventually revisited. The process of older rape laws opening up for amendment is, of course, an ongoing process.

However, things get more complicated when another form of bad sex expresses itself within marriages. Typically, bad sex also embodies itself in sexual activity where women have given their consent. Unfortunately, it is in this realm of sexual encounters that feminists actually fail to deliver. Liberal feminists, for example, find it uncomfortable or difficult to accept the wrongness of sexual encounters where women— unlike in cases of rape where a woman’s consent is out rightly violated— have given their consent. Heavily influenced by the (bourgeois) logic of legal transactions to which individuals ‘freely’ consent, liberal feminists have the invariable tendency to beat retreat on the question of bad (consensual) sex. This retreat characteristically articulates itself in these feminists’ undue emphasis on ascertaining whether a woman’s consent existed or not during a sexual encounter. It also articulates itself in their efforts to elide the harm brought on by prostitution, and hence, to press forth with its legalization.[34]

In contrast to the liberals, radical feminists have approached the issue of bad (consensual) sex by arguing that all sex is rape. Such an approach is also ridden with problems. For one, it amounts to the trivializing of rape as a distinct category of sexual assault, wherein, women are exploited through full violation of their ability and right to consent. Secondly, and more importantly, the radical feminist approach unnecessarily conflates the harm involved in non-consensual sex and that which is brought on by (bad) consensual sex. By denying the existence of a different and distinctive kind of harm within consensual sex, radical feminists are failing to expose to their sisters in sexual relations, the dangers of losing an organic right to the ‘autonomy’ over one’s body and mind.[35] By denying that consensual sex can exist in a fulfilling and mutually pleasurable way, radical feminists also fail to expose what pleasurable sex can actually mean for women.

Evidently, as shown by the discussion above, the contestation with the law’s functioning revolves around how the bourgeois legal form is lagging behind the (dis)content created within bourgeois society. Feminists may still be debating the nitty-gritties of consensual bad sex, but it is, nevertheless, an established point within the progressive women’s movement that both rape and consensual bad sex are real problems. In this regard, the women’s movement is right in pressing forth, what I would identify as intermediate demands which aim at ironing out certain inconsistencies within the law.[36] The significance of such intermediate demands is that they serve as grounds for preparation of larger anti-systemic struggles. It is in the process of such preparation that the women’s movement comes to provide relief to the average woman while also exposing the gross limitations of the law and state’s functioning. For example, the demand and subsequent struggle for compulsory filing of women’s complaints (FIRs) in local police stations works towards providing battered, vulnerable women external support, and makes the state accountable for women’s security—a responsibility the bourgeois state is otherwise consciously shunning.

Nonetheless, intermediate demands to combat sexual violence on women have to be substantiated with a politics that is informed by the ultimate vision of liberating human (i.e. both men and women’s) sexuality, and hence, works towards overthrowing capitalism. Unfortunately, the way in which many intermediate demands are being pursued by women’s organizations, such demands are becoming the final demands rather than launch pads for a consistent, long-term transformative politics. Thus, what is often lost in feminist contestation with the law is the simple fact that even if modern society comes to reconcile the form of the law with the burgeoning content (women’s oppression), there will still be a lack of coherence which the law will be incapable of addressing, and hence, women’s oppression will persist unabated. This means that even with the strengthening of the notion of individual consent, bourgeois law will continue to elide the fact that consent is structured by relationalities, and that most women are not in the circumstances to exercise an active individual choice. As often highlighted by communist leaders like Clara Zetkin, Alexandria Kollantai, etc., most women are not in positions to exercise such choice as they are in conditions of overt dependence on male partners. As part of a socio-economic system that thrives on nurturing unemployment in order to acquire as much work possible from fewer people, women are either bound to be unemployed or poorly paid. In such conditions, women’s dependence on the family for economic sustenance is inevitable. What follows are compromises with bad marriages, bad sex, violence, etc.

Clearly then, since the minds and bodies of two people are involved it is important to account for how consent is often structured by the dynamics playing themselves out between the two concerned persons. In this regard, nominal consent may always be present due to feelings of obligation, dependence, etc. The compromises and the forcing (often termed seduction) are clearly made possible by the mind games that play themselves out, as well as the conditions of (emotional, psychological and financial) dependence of women on their partners. Indeed, what we are constantly witnessing are situations where women, due to the fear of being abandoned by partners, and due to their economic dependence, consent to a form of sex in which sexual pleasure is detached from the person-in-the-body, and in which the woman’s body becomes a mere instrument for pleasing only oneself and not her. In fact, such a form of sex never allows for enhancement of gratitude, affection, or the deepening of the relationship between the two persons involved—something which organic sexual encounters should establish.

In this regard, can the mere existence of a legal paradigm resolve this thorny problem of consent as long as the material conditions on which men-women relationships are based are not transformed? After all, can the mere existence of a legal paradigm firmly based on individual consent create the ground for good sex based on intimacy, mutual contentment and commitment? No, definitely not. Bad sex is not an individualized, sexological problem that stems from the lack of a male partner’s understanding of his female partner’s body. In contrast, it is a general social problem for good sex remains a distant dream for the majority in our society. In a socio-economic system where the majority are burdened by long work hours, there is precious little time to nurture human relationships and to understand each other’s bodies. In such a context, most are compromising with bad sex, or pretending to have good sex as is often the case with upward mobile middle-class women.

Interestingly, while it is true that feminists recognize and work with notions of good vis-à-vis bad sex, the larger framework of their understanding is such that these notions are divested of their social complexities. Liberal feminists, for example, perceive the problem more in terms of having bad partners who do not seek the consent of their female partners. And so according to this liberal feminist position, to acquire good sex all one needs is the freedom to choose the (right) partner, the freedom to multiple partners, etc. Lost, of course, is the emphasis on how individual choice is itself compromised by the fact that you choose from what you are given by the modern society. Now radical feminists do accept the presence of a larger problem but do so only in terms of the prevalence of a (broader) male-female inequality in society.

In this context, it is impossible to think that the given legal paradigm is capable of adjudicating on and preventing the harm caused to women in consensual forms of bad sex. In reality, adjudication on bad sex, especially of the consensual variety, is beyond the scope of bourgeois law since its paradigm of legality is based on the notion of ‘free’ individuals in contract. According to its logic, once consent is given, the problem of exploitation within ‘freely’ contracting individuals is effaced/becomes immaterial. This means that the resolution to the question of bad sex and its myriad forms can begin to take place only if society transcends the ideology of free market —a process which can unfold only if human relations are unshackled from all inequalities which breed selfish, dehumanizing sex and feelings of alienation from other human beings. In this light, radical feminist arguments on ‘empowering’ women in order to eradicate male-female inequality, and hence, sexual exploitation of women, are highly misplaced as it is assumed that women can be ‘empowered’ while the other half of humankind remains fettered to the exploitation and oppression created by the larger socio-economic system.

Going beyond feminist contentions: is rape simply about exercising power?

Clearly, feminist contributions have not been holistic in their approach and are ridden with the tendency to misread the complex web of conditions which produce bad sex in general, and rape in particular. For instance, their explanations of rape and visions of eradicating this problem are heavily based on the notion of power discrepancy between (all) men and (all) women—a discrepancy that they believe stems from deep-rooted traditions of overwhelming male dominance and hegemony over all important socio-political and economic activities in society.

What is assumed by this set of views is that all men rape and all women are rape-able due to entrenched gender inequalities. Thus, irrespective of inequalities in terms of class, caste or race, a higher status woman, despite all her power and prestige, can still be raped by a man of a lower status. This perspective comes close to what we know as dual systems theory, according to which upper class women, who are oppressors and exploiters as part of the dominant economic class, can still be oppressed due to the prevalence of patriarchy. According to the same theory, working-class women are oppressed and exploited not just by the dominant economic class but also by patriarchy. In other words, the dual systems theory projects patriarchy as a comprehensive system that co-exists along with capitalism.[37] Nonetheless, the very foundation of such a claim is based on an unsustainable assumption that all men are in the position to exploit all women. Considering this, it is wrong to assume that patriarchy constitutes a system in itself; one which can explain, for example, why women like Christie Hefner (Chairperson and CEO of Playboy Enterprises that produces televised ‘soft’ porn, men’s magazine and owns numerous playboy clubs) and Priyanka Chopra (a famous Bollywood actress) can be raped in certain circumstances. In all likelihood, feminists and adherents of the dual systems theory would explain the possibility of such powerful women being raped by arguing that even the poorest man in the country can overpower them, use brute force and assault them with his sexual organs. What is elided, of course, is the fact that despite the presence of brute force of the male sex, rich and powerful women are less prone to sexual assaults like rape.

Undoubtedly, the feminist understanding of gender inequality does not often gel with the ground reality, for inequalities (like class) play themselves out in more complex ways than feminists are willing to contend with.[38] Indeed, the assumption that men tend to use their physical power in order to subjugate women is a poorly substantiated argument and explains little except how perversely one can use human biology to explain social complexities. Of course, the question is not that men are physically more powerful and tend to misuse this power in the context of gender inequality, but that in spite of this physical power and prevalence of gender inequality, poor men cannot sexually exploit rich women, except in conditions where such women are in positions of vulnerability. A Bollywood actress, a female CEO of a multinational company, or a female entrepreneur can be raped by men of the lower classes only if they happen to be in vulnerable circumstances like being stuck alone on highway because their car broke down, having to manoeuvre through an underground parking all alone, etc. To draw an analogy: lions despite their superior physical strength have not come to rule over humans, and instead the exact opposite is true. It is then only in conditions where humans are in direct confrontation with lions and are in vulnerable circumstances that they are in a position to be overpowered by them.

So rather than invalidating or blurring the role of class stratification in sexual violence, sexual assaults on middle-class and other upper class women by lower class men reveal just how widespread the impact of class divisions can be. As long as the class divided society presses the majority of women (i.e. working-class women) into position of dependence and vulnerability, the image that women are submissive and exploitable will haunt even women from the upper classes. Indeed, it is a fact that the majority of women are highly vulnerable and oppressed within their homes, labour market, etc. As a consequence, middle-class women’s arguments regarding the need to change skewed mindsets about women being weak, fragile and belonging in the kitchen are highly misplaced. This is because they overlook the fact that prevailing mindsets are based on the concrete conditions in which the average woman is positioned—a point explained earlier in the section titled Capitalism and Women’s Oppression. It is then not simply mindsets that need to change, but the conditions which nurture such images and views about women.

Evidently then, by overemphasizing gender divisions, feminists are wrongly glossing over the role of other stratifications produced by capitalism. In fact, many feminist theories collapse with the introduction of such stratifications, in particular, class stratification, within the discourse on women’s oppression and rape. How and why does this happen?

One of the focal points of feminist theory is that rape is not about sex but is a political act of violence and domination in which sex is used as a means to assert male control and power.[39] This argument is articulated in many ways like: (i) rape is motivated by aggression as rapists target any age group, any woman, and are therefore, often not looking for satisfying or good sex; (ii) men rape so as to punish women who challenge norms, and therefore, see their attack as a justified act of social control; (iii) rape is commonly motivated by hostility created by conditions like war; (iv) rape is often premeditated; (v) rape is not motivated by sex as many rapists have stable sexual partners; etc. Clearly then, all rapes are regarded not as sexually motivated deeds but as acts of aggression which are attributable to entrenched gender inequality. The logical conclusion of this line of argument is that the higher the level of gender inequality, the higher the rape rate. Concomitantly, the higher the level of gender equality, the lower the rape rate.

Interestingly, when confronted with the fact that rape has persisted despite the development of trends towards gender equality, feminists tend to argue that the short-term effect of such equality—greater visibility of women amidst the workforce, educational institutions, seats of power, etc.—has resulted in a backlash. Distinguishing this period as one of a painful transition in which the hostility between the sexes tends to peak, feminists have pressed that in the long run, equality would produce a social climate that does not foster rape. Clearly, the theory of radical change and gradual stabilization of the changes introduced[40] within the system of gender stratification informs many feminist claims about the importance of eradicating power discrepancies between men and women in order to combat rape. It is argued that with more and more women gaining entrance into the existing workforce, occupational segregation decreases; stereotypes about gender roles weaken; policies are drafted to address new problems (like sexual harassment at the workplace, lack of equal pay for equal work, etc.); women gain decision-making power in relationships and men come to participate more in familial roles as the dynamics of gender-based division of labour within the family undergo gradual change. The net result of all these developments is reduced gender stratification (within respective classes), and hence, rape.

The question is whether this reduced gender stratification is really translating into a decline in sexual violence on women. Unfortunately, statistics reflect no such ebb in sexual violence. Rape rates, in fact, appear not be directly related to gender-stratification or gender disparities in earnings, education, occupation prestige, etc. as is reflected in the shockingly high rape statistics of several advance capitalist countries like the US where higher levels of gender equality (within respective classes) have been achieved compared to other parts of the world (Haryana, for example).[41] Similarly, in metropolitans like Delhi where women have been entering the workforce steadily, rape figures have soared, resulting in city labels like ‘rape capital’. Undoubtedly, while the notion of backlash and the theory of a transition period may appeal at first, they are now inadequate to explain how rape has persisted for decades, despite the continuous entry of women into the labour market and in spite of certain landmark labour legislations. We could talk of a transition period in the 1970s, maybe even in the 1980s and 1990s, but as we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, the idea of a backlash loses its relevance. Indeed, does this transition period ever end? It seems not. Obviously then, the theory of backlash and a transition period has lost its analytical edge, and presses us to introspect on the direct correlation being drawn between rape and gender stratification.

Let us look at other feminist arguments about rape. Two arguments, in particular, deserve close attention: (i) that rapists target any age group, any woman, and are therefore, not looking for satisfying or good sex but a window to express aggression, and (ii) men rape so as to punish women who challenge norms, and therefore, see their attack as a justified act of social control. Both arguments echo the now dominant, majestic view epitomized in many renowned feminists’ claims that rapes are not about sex but are a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear. In her iconic work, Brownmiller has even expressed this view in terms like rapists are merely “the front line masculine shock troops” in the war against women, and are “the terrorist guerrillas in the longest sustained battle the world has ever seen”. The ground reality, however, includes a more complex picture, especially if we closely examine the profile of rape victims as well as rapists. While it is true that rapists target a varied group of victims, we must also contend with the fact that within the pool of rape victims there is greater representation of victims from the lower strata of society. This reflects that most victims are raped because they are in positions of greater vulnerability. In other words, while there can be no doubt that from a woman’s point of view there is nothing sexual about sexual violence, for the average man involved, the act is often about stealing sex by taking advantage of the vulnerability of the individual woman, or the impunity offered by circumstances.

Moreover, a lot of research on the psyche and profile of rapists shows that rapists do not exercise preference for coercive sex. Furthermore, such research has shown that there are no significant differences between the arousal patterns of male rapists and other males.[42] Indeed, if we look very closely at reported cases of rapes, we will find that rapists are not raping women and children because they seek to assert power over them or teach them a lesson for transgressing (certain) norms. I say this because many cases of rape have involved victims who were in no way transgressing given socio-cultural norms, and so, encouraging the (vigilante) rapists to ‘put them in their place’. After all, where is the ‘power’ dimension or ‘teach her-a-lesson’ factor playing itself out when a 5-year old infant is raped by a family member or neighbour? In this case the rapist rapes not because he believes the infant needs to be subjugated or taught a lesson, but because he sees her (childish) vulnerability as an opportunity to ‘satisfy’ himself.[43] Thus, contrary to assumptions reached by feminists, rapists target a somewhat varied group of victims with a preference for those in positions of most vulnerability.

This brings us to the question of certain kinds of rape (gang-rape, etc.), where the supposedly obvious dimension playing itself out is power, or basically, the desire to teach the victim a lesson. Let us look at the recent gang-rape case itself. In his December 2012 article, Shuddhabrata Sengupta asserted that: ‘Rape is not about sex, it is about humiliation, its intention is precisely to make the raped person think that now that they have been subjected to sexual violence, their life will no longer be worth living”.[44] He also repetitively named the rapists (Sharma, Sharma, Thakur, Gupta and Singh) in order to emphasize their higher caste status, implying, thereby, that these upper caste men from rural backgrounds resorted to rape as they were angered by the liberated woman of the city, and hence, sought to teach the ‘adventurous’ woman a lesson. Interestingly, news reports of the initial few days after the gang-rape revealed that the six drunken men were perusing the area for a prostitute—something they often did on other nights. This means that prostitution could possibly have substituted (and did substitute on other such nights) for the brutal rape of the 23 year-old paramedic. The question that’s important to raise here is why a sizeable number of upper caste, middle-class men do not act as insensitively as the six rapists, and do not do the same in circumstances that offer impunity? How come such upper caste men have reconciled with women ‘transgressing’ certain norms, while others (Sharma, Sharma, Thakur, Gupta and Singh) from India’s villages (and now part of the lowest rung of urban society, i.e. slum dwellers), are failing to ‘reconcile’ to changes surrounding women’s lifestyles?

The answer lies in closer examination of the concerned act of urban violence. In many cases of such sexual violence on women reported from cities, it is not so much the vestiges of village-based, patriarchal mentality, but something much more complex and terrifying—something—if we are ready to see and recognize it—is a product of the urban context created by capitalism—an urban context filled with depravation and dehumanization of the majority. Indeed, why are we seeing so many working-class men—servants, security guards, factory workers, fruit vendors, rickshaw pullers, slum dwellers, chaiwallahs, bus conductors, school bus drivers, maxi cab drivers, daily-wagers, electricians, cable operators, etc.—become rapists and/or molesters? The frequency with which they are committing sexual violence isn’t simply because crimes committed by them are reported more (many cases, in fact, are not even being reported as a lot of such sexual violence is happening within the structure of working-class families—fathers/brothers raping daughters/sisters over many years is a typical manifestation of this). What then is the cause behind this exploitative sexual behaviour; the brunt of which working-class women (wives, sisters, daughters, nieces, female neighbours, prostitutes, etc.) bear?

Is it an imaginary, omnipresent sexual pyramid that renders many bodies ‘agency-less’ by permanently inscribing itself on male psyche? One finds this hard to believe, especially because of this perception’s idealist roots—is this simply about engrained mindsets—the idea of violence which then creates the act itself, or are we looking for a definitive materialist explanation of this worrying tendency in our society. And if we are claiming to draw on a materialist analysis of rape, are we falling back on the fashionable but muddling dual systems theory which postulates an ahistorical form of interaction between our given socio-economic system and patriarchy? If we are, then we will be incapable of developing a more devastating critique of the socio-economic structures or the modes of production that actually create the concrete conditions for prevalence of gender inequality (or patriarchy).

Class and its discontent: The making of rapists and victims

The basic equation-making for which feminists should be critiqued is, namely, that social equality is possible by eradicating gender stratification while doing precious little to eradicate class inequalities. Indeed, rarely affected by poverty, most middle-class women and feminists can really be conscious only of inequality that hits them directly, i.e. unequal relations within their homes and workplaces, between them and men of their class. This is precisely why we find that the tendency to project patriarchy as an overarching, independent system of oppression finds most adherence within the upper echelons of society where women are materially positioned in better terms, like men of their class. In such a position, what confronts them in more accentuated terms is not the materiality of their class position, but the gender difference between them and men of their class. Less affected by class stratification, women from the upper classes are then bound to perceive gender inequalities as a set of behaviours and a mentality that has the independent capacity to breed a system of unequal gender relations and oppression. Not surprisingly, unlike their working-class sisters who are burdened by pauperization, women from the middle class are less likely to comprehend and organize against the material basis on which women’s oppression stands. They are, instead, more prone to organize and speak out against ‘gendered mentalities’, ‘sexist culture’, etc.

Thus, for feminists, the eradication of sexual violence is possible when men and women are equal:

Men = Women

Or basically, men and women are equal within their respective classes

(capitalist) Men = (capitalist) Women

(middle class) Men = (middle class) Women

(working class) Men = (working class) Women

Feminists, thus, envision a world free of sexual violence without concretely addressing the issue of other structuring inequalities. They overlook the fact that sexual violence cannot be eradicated as long as a class divided society exists, and so, end up downplaying or eliding the question of prevailing class inequalities. They can, by ignoring the class stratification assume that:

 (working class) Men = (middle class) Women

(capitalist) Men = (working class) Women

(capitalist) Men = (middle class) Women

(middle class) Men = (working class) Women

What is evident from the above equations is just how fallacious it is to assume that equality between men and women of the same class amounts to equality between men and women of different classes. Of course, sexual violence and oppression of women will persist unabated if class divisions that nurture gender inequality are not eradicated. For example, as long as working-class women are dependent on capitalist or middle-class men for gainful employment, and are discriminated against in the job market, they are in a position to be raped whenever upper class men seek sexual gratification by drawing on the exploitable class position of these women. Similarly, as long as class divisions persist, the working-class family will continue to burden working-class women with the yoke of domestic slavery in order to reduce the costs of its sustenance—a burden which reduces these women to positions of subjugation that can be easily exploited by working-class men in their family. Clearly, until we do not address class divisions, we will not be able to eradicate prevailing gender inequalities. What we, hence, need at this moment is a rigorous critique of class stratification fostered by capitalism. If we do not do this and limit the movement to fighting the mere symptoms of the disease, i.e. patriarchal norms (lakshman rekhas, etc.) rather than the disease itself, sexual violence will continue to persist while we’ll go hoarse shouting ‘let us reclaim the night’.

But why exactly are the peculiar conditions created by the capitalist economy so central to the perpetuation of sexual violence and other forms of oppression of women? For one, the extremely harsh economic conditions imposed on the working class have produced phenomenal levels of frustration and aggression among working-class men. These men do not have access to typical date pools/sites like college/campus circles, social networking sites, pub circles, etc. as they do not have the time or the economic means to be part of them. Returning from long, arduous hours of work; heavily underpaid; and hence, malnourished and poorly dressed, working-class men are hardly in the position to attract women of the upper classes who are in a better position to exercise an active choice when it comes to choosing sex partners. In this regard, the working-class man’s inequality with men and women of upper classes, especially in sexual terms, is constantly creating the scope for potential offenders. With little time for actual coital activity, yet exposed to lots of sex through the capitalist media, working-class men are not merely conditioned to steal sex from unwilling women and children, but are also prone to indulge in unromantic sexual liaisons that are far removed from feelings of love and mutuality, and are basically, embodiments of bad sex. Recall stereotypes regarding youth from working-class and peasant families making out in empty warehouses, fields, desolate buildings and eerie parks. Yes, these are precisely the places where our impoverished youth is experimenting with sex—experiments which, more often than not, involve hurried, uncaring and unfeeling sexual activity.

This, of course, brings us to the question of how the same harsh conditions are producing a ready supply of female victims, who because of their economic deprivation cannot afford a secure life situation which protects them from frustrated and aggressive men from their (working) class, i.e. men who they encounter in their daily life (as husbands, fathers, brothers, colleagues, ‘lovers’, etc.). Unlike higher status women who can afford a better physical and social environment which is more crime free (gated neighbourhoods, personal transport, etc.), working-class women are forced to survive in more hostile conditions (poorly policed neighbourhoods, dimly-lit streets, dependence on public conveniences and crowded public transport, etc.) where they easily fall prey to sexual harassment, sexual violence, etc. Considering their life pattern, these working-class women are not in a position to protect themselves from upper class men who also exploit their vulnerability. It is then apt to say that the majority of rapes represent, on the one hand, the convergence of society’s most frustrated and sexed up men, and on the other, society’s most vulnerable and dependent women and children, i.e. working-class women and children. It is this dismal truth which alone can account for the fact that rape victimization rates are particularly high for poor women.

To elucidate how exactly the brutality of the capitalist production process generates grave sexual inequalities between different classes, it is best trace the average day in the life of working-class men. If employed, most of these men are awake in the early hours of the morning; they commute long distances to work in factories that are located in industrial belts like Faridabad, Gurgaon, Gaziabad, Noida, Okhla, etc. Others amongst them, who are not factory workers, can also be seen in the morning rushing to report for work at malls, sulabs, construction sites, sweatshops located in the heart of Delhi, garages, petrol pumps, etc.—all of which are generally located far away from the slum clusters where these men actually reside. Most of these men are contract workers, temps or daily wagers, who cannot vouch for the fact that they will be employed the next day. As a result, most among them live on a hand to mouth existence, and are often unable to bring their families to settle in the city with them. Earning a pittance for an average work day of 12 hours or more, few can afford to marry as and when they wish, or to bring home their wives and children from the village. Those who do have families in the city are forced to reside with them in small rooms, often with no windows. Indeed, working-class families are typically constituted of family elders, younger brothers, sister-in-laws, unmarried sisters, etc., and hence, entire families end up living in small working-class tenements like packed sardines in a can. Such sub-human living conditions, and the tremendous sense of alienation brought on by dehumanizing work hours, hardly make it possible for egalitarian relationships between men and women, or between human beings in general, to exist.

How does capitalism resolve this emerging crisis of working-class men being unable to have the time to nurture human relationships and to be in the position to cater to theirs and a partner’s sexual needs? It bombards them with portrayals of sex—you may watch, but who cares if you actually have or don’t have the time for the real thing. Indeed, the sexual crisis that emerges within capitalism evolves precisely around the fact that most of the youth spend the greater part of their time thinking about sex, and of course, not doing it. Its actual repression then develops into unhealthy trends in personality. For capitalism, it’s all about the fact that at least these men are watching sex as an entertainment and achieving ‘fulfillment’; an entertainment that happily adds to the billions earned by the porn, prostitution and liquor industries. Thus, the disturbing fact which we mustn’t hide from is that capitalism creates animals on the one hand and victims on the other. In its vicious trap it has ensnared not just hapless working-class women (and occasionally, middle-class women), but also working-class men.

Indeed, all one needs to do is to take a walk through industrial belts to see the filthy B-grade cinema halls showcasing porn films throughout the day. Without a doubt, the actions of male porn stars showcased in these B-grade movies become part of men’s fantasies. So do the actions of mainstream male actors whose ‘stalking’ of female heroines in films and other acts of lumpenism (whistling, staring, grabbing) inspire lumpenism and sexist fantasies about women’s bodies and how they like to be treated. Also lining the circumference of industrial areas are numerous liquor shops that are located strategically at certain transit points, highways, etc. At these transit points and even at the weekly bazars near working-class localities, one is bound to find the scarves, belts and dvd-selling vendor. His collection of dvds is sure to include the famous 5 movies-in-one dvd—a combination of porn, violent action and thriller movies. He is also sure to stock pornographic magazines which serve as nothing but decorative inducements to masturbation. Flipping through newspapers like Punjab Kesari, JagranCity, and supplements of other newspapers, the average reader is sure to feel that in this country, sexuality is shining and unfettered in its expression. At the same time, he cannot help feeling the angst that in real life he is nowhere close to enjoying this show-it-all/free-for-all sexuality.

Of course, to realize the depth of the (civilizational) problem before us, one should observe the average clientele that frequents red light areas like G.B. Road in Delhi. Finally, combine all this with glossy portrayals of actresses/models on almost every billboard in the city—from a billboard advertising a deodorant to one showcasing a bike and men’s underwear. Bombarded with hyper-femme images that objectify women’s bodies and sexuality, it is a miracle if the average (overworked, desensitized) working-class man learns to respect a woman’s body and needs. Ultimately, frustrated with inequalities, especially in sexual terms, many such working-class men seek actualization of their fantasies in any opening/orifice easily available. And that’s when many rapes and cases of molestation happen—when easy/vulnerable targets (burdened housewives, infants, a lone woman returning from work, a prostitute, etc.) become sites for actualizing sexual fantasies and sexual needs of men who are being exposed to nothing else but objectified forms of women’s bodies, while at the same time being denied the time (and other essential conditions) to actually nurture relationships with another.[45]

In such a context, when a sexily dressed middle-class woman happens to be in an exploitable condition, the chances of her being sexually assaulted are large. She is attacked not because her assailants are taken aback by her feminity, but because they are often looking for any vagina, mouth, or for that matter, any orifice in which they can insert their genitals. In reality then, sexual assaults on middle-class women by working-class men are an embodiment of these men’s efforts to gratify their sexual urges, as well as to vent frustrations that arise from social and economic inequalities particular to their class. In such situations, the sexual urge can easily get caught in class hatred, which can enhance the brutality of the assault. However, far from a class act, such sexual assaults represent the expression of this frustration in an individuated form. This means that sexual, economic and social inequalities bred by class stratification have the capacity not merely to elicit a class-conscious, collective and political reaction from the exploited working class, but also have the embedded capacity to provoke individuated, non-political and sexist forms of reaction like brutal assaults through which individual working-class men momentarily overpower women from the upper classes. Of course, by highlighting class divisions and their intricate role, one does not attempt to justify the prevalence of sexual violence in society. But as class stratification is a cause for such violence, the question of fighting it becomes essential for those who genuinely want to eradicate sexual violence from the roots.[46]

Having said this, what about rapes involving middle-class men who force themselves on their wives, girlfriends, an acquaintance at work, etc.? Here too, the acculturation of middle-class men into grabbing sex on their terms cannot be explained by simply drawing on some abstract notion of patriarchy. This, in fact, begs the question as to why notions of sexual hierarchy inform men’s consciousness. Importantly, the substratum of sexual violence perpetrated on middle-class women by men of their class is also shaped by inequalities that are bred by class. This is because many such rapes are occurring in the context of middle-class women joining an extremely insecure job market in order to enhance family budgets and their marriage prospects, dating so as to find partners of their status, adhering to family norms about ‘keeping the family together’, etc.—all of which are historical creations of capitalism. To elucidate, the pressure created by a class-divided society to seek partners from within one’s own class has pushed women into a position of compromise, wherein, they are trapped into adhering to patriarchal feminity and internalizing norms that subjugate their interests to the interests of their partners. In such positions of compromise (like dressing ‘attractively’ for work, going on blind-dates, ignoring sexual innuendos of male colleagues, tolerating ‘overprotective’ partners, etc.), middle-class women become vulnerable to oppression unleashed by men of their class.

Nonetheless, it is imperative to recognize the fact that oppression faced by middle-class women cannot be equated with the exploitation and oppression borne by working-class women. Contrary to the popular belief that there is an equivalence in the experiences and interests of women across the board, it is really hard if not impossible, to place Priyanka Chopra and Soni Sori, or for that matter a female bank manager of an ICICI branch and a woman factory worker, on the same platform. It is difficult to assume that such equivalence exists because, although gender is imbricated in the matrix of power, inequalities stemming from it are contingent on the class position to which women belong. Hence, although men have advantages over women of the same class, women from middle-class families, bourgeois families, and women of advanced capitalist countries are far closer in material conditions and opportunities to men in their class than they are to working-class women, tribal women, Dalit women, etc. This class divide is precisely the reason why the average middle-class woman has come to comprehend equality in terms of gaining equality with men of her own class rather than equality between all human beings (including equality between her and a working-class man).

In this light, notions of equivalence are merely ways in which middle-class women can conceal their guilt of belonging to a higher class and still appear radical. In fact, it is the class blind approach of middle-class feminists, which creates (misplaced) notions of equivalence, and which paves the way for a form of politics that is based on women forgetting their class differences. Regrettably, the politics of equivalence has found its most ardent promoters amongst certain ‘Left’ organizations.[47] In reality, demands stemming from notions of equivalence offer no exit for the most vulnerable women in our society. Instead, such misplaced politics reeks of typical middle class oblivion of class-based exploitation and its debilitating effects.

It is, thus, essential to be conscious of the role that class plays in shaping the content of what is identified as freedom and equality. If we turn a blind eye to its role, we will only slip into a form of feminist politics that elides any real criticism of our society. As a society, we can launch a more formidable form of fighting sexual violence from its roots only if we accept the embedded truths about how human sexuality is shaped by capitalism, as well as how human relationships are impacted by class divisions. The fight against sexual violence is then a fight against capitalism; the struggle for sexual liberation based on egalitarianism is then a struggle for the sexual liberation of all women and all men; and the fight for actual equality between the separate genders is then the fight for a classless society.

Internalizing the male gaze and the co-option of feminism

In order to shield rape victims from the hurtful blame game and social ostracism the feminist movement has tended to completely divest rape of a sexual content. Unfortunately, the strategy of wrongfully divesting rape of its sexual content has not only prevented the feminist movement from completely exposing the complex web of socio-economic conditions that lie at the core of sexual violence, but has also led to several troubling developments, in particular, the birth of certain disempowering and elitist trends in the movement.[48] The development of these trends has blunted the radical potential of the feminist movement, and has further reduced feminism to a clique. Meanwhile, women at large remain trapped in various forms of oppression created by the capitalist system.

The most debilitating repercussion of the capitalist system on women’s sexuality is the co-option of women into the biased, sexist envisioning of their sexuality, as well as their growing participation in furthering their own and other women’s oppression. A lot of this co-option is the result of cultural bombardment, wherein, industries like that of advertising; fashion; media; etc. have popularized and made normative the existence of women’s sexuality in an objectified (consumable) form. However, this co-option has also increasingly emerged from quarters of ‘informed’, ‘sensitized’, feminist camps. While one can appreciate the elements of (ideological) diversity within the feminist movement, it cannot be denied that many currents in feminism have internalized patriarchal feminity, i.e. by claiming that the feminine can be made powerful through proud acceptance of things/behaviour/predispositions as intrinsically feminine.

The growing popularity of slut walks; fashionable flash mobs; support for legalization of prostitution; as well as certain strands of feminism which promote hyper-feminine dressing under the misplaced assumption that such dressing should not elicit a sexist gaze from men—are all recent embodiments of just how distant feminism is from the needs and aspirations of working-class women for liberation. Why do I say this? Without being a defender of sexist men, I place before the readers the intrinsic problems with feminism, in particular, the problems associated with some of its aspirations.

My basic contention is that the gravest problem posed by such feminism is the obstacle it has created for the liberation of the majority of women, i.e. working-class women. It is a fact that the feminist movement of the twentieth century and thereon has been a product of gradual absorption of women into the labour market, the growth in female-headed households and the upward mobility of some women in terms of better paying jobs and influential statuses. It is with this growth in middle-class women’s employment in health, educational and social services (developments which were ultimately furthering capitalist accumulation), that there emerged “a new romance of female advancement and gender justice”.[49] Subsequently, the decades following the 1970s saw many successful campaigns led by several feminist organizations and individuals, as well as socialist mass organizations which pressed the state to guarantee women the rights to bodily autonomy. Across the world, many working-class women too have benefitted from such successful campaigns, i.e. in terms of being granted certain legal safeguards against violent relationships, etc. However, feminist mobilizations were and continue to be characterized by a class bias because middle-class women have come to demand ‘freedoms’ which are abstracted from the need to reorganize the given social and economic structure imposed by capitalism. In fact, the undercurrent of feminism remains the positing of equal rights with men within the framework of capitalism. As a result, it ends up concealing class divisions and the necessity of working-class politics by projecting an artificial division between the class of men and class of women—a division which is wrongly projected as the fundamental division (fault-line) within the capitalist system/bourgeois society.[50]

While gender stratification or men-women segregation may appear as a distinct and an overarching form of social division, there is an undeniable peculiarity to it, namely, that this form of segregation tends to blur when other social divisions (or fault-lines) are brought into the picture. In reality, the position of women is ontologically placed within the complex web of social structure in a way that makes it is subsumable within other segregations. For one, women are not a class in themselves but are divided among different classes. Upper class women, for example, tend to live and work where they associate with upper class men, and hence, remain in a social environment that distinguishes them from the mass of working-class men and women. As a consequence of these material conditions they share with men of their class, i.e. higher levels of education and occupational positions/incomes, women of higher classes are in a position to demand more respect not only from men of their class, but from men of lower classes as well. This means that segregation based on gender tends to blur when we consider: (i) the commonality of interests between men and women of a class; (ii) the sharp inequalities borne by working-class men in contrast to upper class women, and (iii) the inequalities borne by impoverished lower caste men in contrast to affluent higher caste women.

Simply put, while a patriarchal or sexist culture which reinforces gender inequalities may prevail, there is also the tendency for patriarchal households and sexist men to share a common interest with their women. We see such convergence of interests when wages or salaries earned by women are encouraged in conditions where women’s wages substantially improve family budgets. The employment of a maidservant in many upper class homes also reflects how sexist upper class men have come to accept that housework is a burden for their partners, which should rather be shared or passed onto a paid help. All such conjunctures that represent a convergence in men and women’s interests reflect the following: (i) that the gender division is not a universal, independently constituted system of segregation, and (ii) that segregation based on class, caste and race ultimately determine how much and in what ways gender divisions will articulate themselves. Importantly, unlike gender segregation which is subsumable within other segregations, these other segregations based on class and caste cannot be subsumed within the men-women social division.

What this means is that the aforementioned complex web of social divisions tends to separate the interests of middle-class and working-class women to the extent that they are often antagonistic to each other. Hence, once middle-class women gain certain rights due to their membership to a particular class, or due to the struggle for such rights, they do not hesitate in unleashing the whip of exploitation on their working-class sisters. Winning the right to work, for example, has been accompanied by employment of the maid—a development which has culminated in the brutal exploitation of working-class women as domestic ‘helps’. Most of these domestic servants are impoverished tribal girls/women who migrate to cities after marriage or in search of employment. The heavy manual work performed by them in most middle and upper class homes clearly shows just how little the feeling of sisterhood tends to exist amongst women of varied classes.

What is then lost in brazen generalizations about the ‘gender-over-class’ experience are the following: (i) that women are sharply divided amongst themselves along the lines of class and so are men separated from women along class lines; (ii) that some women have become stakeholders in the commodification of women’s sexuality; and (iii) that once the demand for women’s autonomy over their bodies is abstracted from the larger social relations which shape current sexual codes, such a demand can only pave the way for half-baked freedoms.[51]

How is it that a section of women have become stakeholders in the commodification of women’s sexuality? Disturbing as it may be, what we are witnessing today in more and more blatant forms is the constant promotion of raunch culture in the name of women’s sexual liberation.[52] Amongst those who indulge in this perversity are female chauvinists, or what I would like to identify as ‘comprador women’—those women who come to employ the strategy of objectifying theirs and other women’s bodies in the attempt to attain the same elevated status and financial gains of the dominant group (in this case, male entrepreneurs and professionals). Through their work these women not only objectify their own bodies but also those of other women, and more often than not, advocate that women should embrace capitalism and get as much power and money for themselves as they can in order to fight oppression.[53]Examples of female chauvinists or comprador women include: the woman entrepreneur who unhesitatingly uses her class power to unleash aggression on both male and female employees; the woman journo at Playboy, Cosmopolitan and Femina magazines who earns a killing by telling women what’s the “in thing”; the woman fashion designer whose fashion line popularizes Size Zero and whose one flick of the hand sends shivers down the chain of garment workers employed in developing and under-developed countries; the Ekta Kapoor-kind of women producers whose showcase-it-all movies have popularized movie plots evolving around sex scandals; the entire pool of bourgeois artists (Kareena Kapoor, Malaika Arora Khan, Priyanka Chopra and the likes) who adamantly claim their semi-nude bodies on billboards and the silver screen do not encourage a sexist culture; etc. Ultimately then, the interests of women capitalists and some upward mobile women professionals are linked to the perpetuation of a biased, sexist culture and gender oppression of the majority of women.

Another brand of feminist practitioners includes those who have come to seek ‘empowerment’ in the reclamation of patriarchal feminity, and hence, have come to defend and celebrate this feminity as a feminist action. The general misconception amongst them is that women are exercising an active choice/agency when indulging in patriarchal feminity such as by wearing body-hugging clothes, painting nails, getting piercings, going for implants, looking ‘pretty’ in order to feel powerful, participating in ‘slut walks’, and even reclaiming disempowering terms or language like slut/whore/bitch/cunt/behanchod/chutia. Subsequently, the denial of such choice to indulge in patriarchal feminity is read as oppression and is seen as antagonistic to the goal of feminism, let alone any emancipatory politics.

Such behaviour and politics is troubling because of its ridiculous assumption that women who dress in hyper-feminine ways are beating the patriarchal, sexist structuring of society at its own game. Defenders of such positions also tend to argue that sexualized dressing challenges the predominant image of the docile, ‘traditional’ woman imbued with feminine respectability. For this reason the ‘right’ to hyper-femme dressing has emerged almost like a non-negotiable demand within the current feminist movement.[54] However, it is worth remembering that both the commodified woman and the normative woman or bhadramahila are creations of capitalist society. Both are forms of a woman’s sexual being that are used to keep each other alive. While the former is often despised, she is still desired. Similarly, while the latter is often worshipped, she is also shunned. Hence, both the commodified woman and the bhadramahila are feminine roles which should be smashed rather than incorporated and defended.

What then really happens when middle-class women take to hyper-feminine dressing/behaviour? Like it or not, they end up reproducing conditions not only for their own oppression but for the oppression of the more vulnerable section of women, namely, proletarian women.[55] My two questions then to all those who brandish political slogans of ‘free choice’, ‘meri skirt se tujhe kya’, etc. are: (i) when you find yourself choosing what capitalist patriarchy promotes, is it not worth asking if it is really a choice, and (ii) can you guarantee that your indulgence in patriarchal feminity does not create any conditions for another woman’s sexual oppression?

If we take up these questions critically, it is worth noting that the discourse of ‘free choice’ is a product of a heightened sense of bourgeois individualism and egoism. Individual will and freedoms are prioritized with little or no engagement on the actual form and content of these freedoms and individual desires. Blinded by extreme individuality which is fostered by ruling bourgeois ideology, as well as ignorant of the real socio-economic relationships that are needed so as to transform collective human psyche, middle-class women are being swayed to participate in the making of their own oppression. They are slipping further into objectifying their sexuality and relationships due to greater access to cultural capital, money, etc.—an access which enables them to adhere to given codes of feminine sexuality, notions of beauty, and newer forms of personal relationships (‘free unions’, open marriages, etc.) more easily as compared to working-class women who have little or no access to such financial resources, cultural capital, etc.

By asserting ‘individual choice’, these women are happily concealing how their efforts to map down to patriarchal feminity signifies acceptance and normalization of given sexual codes of behaviour for men and women. It is, indeed, difficult to even imagine how wearing high heels, skin-tight jeans, hot pants, see-through tops, miniskirts, huge earrings, anklets, etc., does not automatically elicit certain types of hyper-femme behaviour that are easy to exploit simply because of the way these accessories end up impacting the woman’s gait, her weight, her stamina, etc. In this context, one cannot help but appreciate the significance of warnings such as ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ which indicate that adherence to things which are not in our interest will surely work against us and keep intact the status quo.[56]It is also difficult to support the free-to-be-me feminism in which people (the masses) can hardly tell the difference between a woman who has been duped into indulging in patriarchal feminity and a woman who is purposefully adhering to this feminity in order to circumvent it. If such a difference cannot be maintained nor does such dressing or behaviour change the way women’s sexuality is perceived and consumed, then one would rather propagate a different strategy.

In actual terms, patriarchal feminity is yet another expression of restrained and subjugated female sexuality. Importantly, restrain has been the characterizing feature of female sexuality despite the emergence of effective contraception post the 1960s. Contraception, by freeing women for the ‘first’ time from the fear of unplanned/undesired pregnancies, has had profound repercussions on women’s sexuality. However, despite the emergence of contraception, it is only bourgeois women and a small segment of middle-class women who, on achieving material equality with men of their class, have come to explore their sexuality in certain ways and exercise an active choice in choosing their sex partners. Nevertheless, these women ultimately fall for a form of sexual adventurism which, many a times, provides the space for sexual opportunism of men—an opportunism that frees men of responsibility, care and commitment.[57] This is exactly why many middle-class youth can be seen indulging in sexual acts in which they and/or their partners have divorced sexual gratification from genuine love, mutual commitment and intimacy. Moreover, upper class women’s sexual adventurism exists in a form that actively assists them in finding partners who enable them to remain in their class, or to move up to a higher status. There is then, nothing commendable in upholding this form of sexual adventurism nurtured by capitalism.

In order to prove this, let us explore the issue of seeking partners within one’s own class more closely. Expectedly, in a socio-economic system in which large numbers of women are unemployed and the job market is highly insecure and discriminatory towards them, women are compelled to seek security in male partners belonging to theirs or a class above. Marriage is then the means through which a woman and her family can either sustain an existing lifestyle, or access a better one through the practice of hypergamy, i.e. marrying into a higher social status. This development has to be understood in a larger context. As explained above, community-based regulation has reduced with time, and as a result, modern society has increasingly witnessed the assertion of ‘individual’ choice. Individual men and women, particularly in urban areas, are now progressively opting for marriages outside their communities. Inter-caste marriages are indicative of this trend.

Interestingly, in many parts of India, in particular, Haryana, Punjab and Delhi, inter-caste marriages are in the noticeable range of 15 to 20 per cent of marriages recorded. These states represent high levels of prosperity due to a flourishing agricultural economy (the profits of which have been diversified into sectors like transport, real estate, etc.). This prosperity has fuelled greater aspirations of upward-mobility. Importantly then, a bulk of inter-community marriages involve hypergamy. In such cases, women are opting for matches which ensure a similar, if not better lifestyle than the one provided by their parents. Simply put, majority of women do not tend to ‘marry down’ the social ladder, and hence, opt for partners who can offer them a better life and status, even if these partners are not from their community. Meanwhile, men tend to accept partners from a status below them if they look ‘attractive enough’. Ultimately, the practice of hypergamy has put women under tremendous pressure. This pressure manifests itself in the quest to not simply look attractive, but to look ‘better than the rest’. This quest to always look young, attractive, etc. requires some elaboration.

The problem with the pressure to fit into prescribed notions of ‘beauty’ is not simply that it compels so many women (in particular, middle-class women who have greater access to resources) to invest their time, energy and money on looking ‘desirable’ and for inculcating all the expected mannerisms which appeal to men who are likely to be their partners. The graver problem with this particular form of oppression is that it paves the way for a never-ending process of compromises. It’s not just what women end up doing to their own bodies in order to ‘stay young’, ‘feel beautiful’, ‘catch his eye’, etc., but what they end up allowing men to do to their bodies. Not surprisingly, in order to keep things going so many women end up compromising on various fronts: careers, fulfilling sex, self-respect, etc. It is in this process of maintaining ‘respectable’ matches/relationships that so many middle-class women come to tolerate bossy boyfriends, domestic violence, unfaithful husbands, etc.

Clearly, what is then lost in the deafening screeching about ‘it’s my body, it’s my life’, is the simple fact that by indulging in hyper-femme dressing and behaviour, many women are using their body and sexuality to satisfy partners whom they have chosen from within their own class, as well as to move up the social ladder by attracting men of upper classes. Repartees like ‘I’m doing it because it makes me feel good’ and ‘what’s it with you—it was a free country last time I checked’ are hardly convincing when we place them within the context of the kind of men-women relationships that exist in the larger society, as well as in the context of the kind of relationships built by many such self-proclaimed feminists.

Unfortunately for all of us, we are part of a society where the potential for loving is at its lowest. In the context of fragile and selfishly oriented men-women relationships nurtured by capitalism, a woman’s indulgences in the very practices which suit the male gaze and presumptions about women’s sexuality is simply an effort to attract the attention of her partner (and also, willingly or unwillingly, of other men). Such attention is sought in the form in which he (the partner) is used to seeing her and in which he expects to see her so that he can ‘feel the love’. Let us then not be mistaken into reading ‘empowerment’ into actions that are simply our slippages. Of course, women are now increasingly seeking out their own partners as compared to earlier times, but the starting point in the majority of such relationships is looking desirable in ways decided not by the individuals ‘in love’, but by external social forces. Thus, what some women are identifying as an ‘individual choice’ when it comes to exercising their sexuality is actually creating grounds for the substitution of genuine (egalitarian) love/feeling by a dishonest kind of closeness brought on by men and women who have entered physical relationships while objectifying each other’s bodies (and often after checking each other’s bank balances).[58]

Indeed, dressing in hyper-femme ways is a class-informed act/practice. It is a trap that middle-class and bourgeois women are perpetuating in order to tackle oppression unleashed by men of their own class. The class-biased nature of the various strands of feminism which support hyper-femme dressing is, perhaps, best reflected in the fact that these women who demand equality no matter what they wear and what they do, rarely seek partners outside their class. Somehow, the nature of their demand for equality, as well as the form of sexual liberation posited by them, never really allow for expansion of their date/marriage pool. This is why, despite all their claims about sexual liberation, hardly any transgress the sexual codes of their class so as to search for love amongst working-class men (or working-class women, if we talk of lesbian feminists). Hence, their idea of liberation stops at gaining unprecedented rights and privileges that men of their class enjoy—the right to wear what she wants, go where she pleases, date whoever she wants and basically do as she pleases. So sorry, but her idea of liberation says nothing of fighting wage slavery, nor does her idea of liberation accept responsibility for the enhanced oppression unleashed by middle-class notions of ‘freedom’ on working-class women.

In reality, the relevance of rhetoric like ‘my body, my life’ holds little water. Instead, the hyper-feminine images propagated by the capitalist media as well as repetitive and uncritical indulgence in patriarchal feminity by middle-class women, has created huge problems for women across the board. Now Malaika Arora Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Sunny Leone, etc. can indulge in patriarchal feminity and earn in lakhs by objectifying their bodies while, at the same time, not be in a position to be raped by the average man who watches their films, posters, etc. Really, which ordinary man can bypass their bouncers, crew, security systems, etc. so as to physically acquire/consume their bodies?! Similarly, the sensuously dressed pub-going university student may only be visually consumed by male pubbers, waiters, security guards and the auto driver who drops her home—but does anyone check how hers, or Sunny Leone or Priyanka Chopra’s bodies become the object of those men’s fantasies? Indeed, the tendency of middle-class hedonism[59] seeks expression in middle-class notions of civility and freedom, which are then imposed on the larger mass of people. Without a doubt, this middle-class ‘civility’ needs artificially created and pacified zones (university campuses, malls, discotheques, etc.) for it to express itself. The creation of these pacified zones is largely possible by drawing on the police, which reluctantly concedes a role in maintaining safe/safer havens for the upper classes to enjoy such ‘azaadi’.

Of course, these women may not be raped or molested (and one hopes they never are) when they do what they do. However, their bodies become fantasies for the average man, such that depending on the vulnerability (of the next woman/child he comes across) and the impunity offered by circumstances, rape of a (more vulnerable) other becomes possible. This takes us back to the oft repeated repartee: skirt mein, burkhe mein, dono mein rape hota hai—we should now really qualify this, and say that women in skirts and revealing tops are somewhere responsible for the rape of women in burkhas and ghunghats.

Feminist defence of hyper-femme dressing and behaviour, thus, makes little sense considering that it has accepted the fact that such dressing and behaviour is mime attention seeking which is supposed to, on the one hand, attract attention of a particular individual, but on the other hand, is supposed to repulse or elicit indifference from others. Quite naturally then, feminist rhetoric on hyper-femme dressing and behaviour does not make sense to the majority of men and women, and although feminists would defend their position by terming all these men and women who critique hyper-femme dressing/behaviour as patriarchal, such a defence is really far too shallow.

Hence, while there is need to critique the treacherous blame game let loose by (the hypocritical) capitalist society when it comes to rape, molestation, etc., there is no need to throw the baby with the bathwater. At the end of the day, the complete denial of the uncomfortable truth underlying women’s efforts to ‘do as they please’ is preventing the women’s movement from pursuing a more rigorous assessment of what makes sexual violence possible and persistent in capitalist society.

Socialism: Going beyond feminist notions of freedom

A more detailed exploration of the strained relationship between feminists and the working-class movement is currently outside the scope of this piece. However, there are few observations on the issue which must be spelt out. The most important of these is that the international working-class movement has always questioned the feminist assumption that the oppression of women can be eradicated by fighting merely or specifically for gender equality. It is worth recalling Alexandria Kollantai who lucidly articulated that many claims for equality made by feminists were not simply misplaced but also detrimental to the interests of working-class women because such claims did not speak of larger equality. Indeed, for majority of women, i.e. working-class women, equal rights with men would only mean an equal share in inequality. Of course, some feminists would always claim that their assessments of gender inequality have not been oblivious to class, but the truth is that even if, apart from gender, other articulations of inequality (like that of class, caste, race, etc.) are taken into account, they are usually seen as yet another variant of discrimination and simply a greater burden to be borne by women. The question, however, is whether class is just one of a list of discriminations—can it be reduced to another “ism”? The answer is an obvious no for class is a structuring force that cuts into gender, caste, etc., and hence, gives gender discrimination, caste discrimination, etc. their particular form of expression.

Given this ontological positioning of gender vis-à-vis class, the working-class movement has always, in contrast to feminism, posited that gender inequality can be eradicated completely only with the demise of class stratification. It is for this reason that the working-class movement has posited equality between men and women, not as a part apart, but as a part of a larger emancipatory project, which connects women’s emancipation to the liberation of the majority, i.e. working-class women and men.

Consequently, with the melting away of class divisions under socialism, various revolutionary possibilities open up for human society as a whole. In a socialist society, all women, for example, would be empowered with gainful employment and education—a facility that would free the majority of women from their current position of overt dependence on male breadwinners. In a similar vein, with the achievement of new levels of socialization of labour (collective childcare, community kitchens, etc.); women would be freed from the yoke of domestic slavery which has burdened and subjugated them since the inception of capitalism. By freeing the majority of women from positions of dependence and (devalued) domesticity, socialism will nurture a new image of women; one that is far removed from the wretched, vulnerable and exploitable image nurtured by capitalism. With no such spectre of vulnerability to haunt women, no woman would have to face the brunt of sexual violence or live a life of fear.

Moreover, the provision of full employment offered by socialism would ensure that no man or woman performs more than his/her share of work—a mandatory provision that will drastically reduce the working hours that now prevail in society. With this much needed decrease in working hours, men and women will be in the position to enjoy greater leisure time. And it is precisely in such a condition of enhanced leisure time that human relations can be nurtured, and that progress towards true love and romantic/fulfilling sex can be made. In other words, unlike the capitalist system which has created more conditions of coercive coitus than of voluntary sex and true love, socialism’s restructuring of human leisure and work time will pave the way for an actual sexual revolution. Undivided by class, unfettered by inhumane work hours and unburdened by artificially accentuated male-female differences, human beings under socialism will find no reason to and have no basis on which to rape, to subjugate, or to use another’s body for selfish gains.

Thus, till the time that gender equality simply manifests itself in equality between men and women of the same class, romantic sex or the sexual revolution is clearly misnomer. It is only when gender equality has come to manifest itself through an equality of a larger kind, wherein, distinct classes, castes and races have been obliterated, that the sexual revolution can be set to begin. Evidently then, if our civilization wants to overcome the conditions that foster sexual violence and oppression, and if we truly desire a sexual revolution, then our efforts should be aimed at building socialism—a transformation which alongside the struggle against oppression stemming from various identities (gender, caste, religion, tribe, etc.) also requires the intensification of the struggle against class stratification.

Maya John is associated with the Centre for Struggling Women (CSW), and is a researcher working on labour law at the Department of History, University of Delhi

Notes


[1]The 23-year old victim was studying to be a physiotherapist. She was accompanied by her engineer male-friend and was returning after watching “Life of Pi” in South Delhi’s multiplex/shopping mall, Select Citywalk. After the movie they tried to get an auto-rickshaw, and failing to get one, they waited at the bus-stop for public transport (i.e. the Delhi Transport Corporation/DTC bus service). Since public transport in the city (the bus service in particular) is in shambles, the couple, expectedly, did not get a DTC bus either. They were easily lured into the private bus after waiting for public transport for nearly 45 minutes. The victim was raped by six working-class men on the private bus as it plied through the streets, and succumbed to her injuries 13 days later in a Singapore hospital. The victim was not only raped but brutalized.

[2] For example, the Delhi High Court filed a suo motu case. Meanwhile, the Delhi Police were unusually swift in their investigation and caught the accused within 3 days. The national media provided continuous coverage of the case, as well as of student protesters who poured onto the streets in agitation. Corporate houses started using this issue as part of their ad-campaigns. Many protestors demanded capital punishment for the accused, and were seen occupying Raisina Hill (near the President’s residence and Ministry of Home Affairs under whose authority the Delhi Police functions). Here, generally no protests are allowed. The police remained relatively restrained, and only resorted to force under the pretext of stone pelting started by some agent provocateurs. Sonia Gandhi [head of ruling ‘United Progressive Alliance’ (UPA)], Sheila Dixit (Chief Minister of the Government of National Capital Territory), Manmohan Singh (Prime Minister of Government of India),  Sushilkumar Shinde (Union Home Minster) visited/assured justice to the victim’s family. Just few weeks before this 16 December gang-rape, a 16-year old girl from an oppressed caste was raped on 9 September by 12 men in Haryana. Only some members of the oppressed caste/s and communist organizations agitated for justice to be provided to the victim; media largely ignored the incident. The Haryana High Court did not file suo motu case. The state police did not register a complaint till the victim’s father committed suicide. Sonia Gandhi, Bhupinder Hooda (Chief Minister of Haryana), Manmohan Singh, Shinde, etc. never visited the victim.

[3] Sanik Dutta (2013), “Citizens United”, Frontline, 25 January.

[4] The general male chauvinist response is to protect one’s own womenfolk, but to do the same to others. This is precisely why at various venues of the anti-rape protests, many male ‘agitators’ were seen harassing (ogling, touching inappropriately, etc.) women protestors. Following the incident of gang-rape in the capital, various groups mushroomed at protest venues demanding death penalty for rape. Not to say the least, their participants were misogynist—a fact reflected in the nature of their slogans against rape. To give an example, up till recently there was a dubious group of people sitting at Jantar Mantar (wearing black bands and black stickers that carry slogans of death penalty). This group had placed a memorial stone called ‘Damini’ (a fictitious name given by the media to the 16 December gang-rape victim) at this prominent place of protest. They sat around this without any concrete demands in hand. They claimed they were instigating a ‘kranti’/revolution against rape, and would not move till the accused were hanged. Even the recent rape of a woman factory worker in Welcome area of northeast Delhi by a rapist whose own daughter was raped earlier (19 December 2012, Times Of India) points to the hypocrisy with which male chauvinism functions. Even a rapist can fight against rape, and so the fight against rape is itself not struggle for the liberation for women.

[5] Many a times the victim/s in villages is/are forced to keep her/their mouth shut by her family or village ‘elders’. The police do not register the crime under the influence of the accused party or panchayat, and doctors at times manipulate the medical reports. Instances of rapes in rural India which indicate the prevalence of rampant sexual violence include: Bhanwari Devi in 1992, was raped by upper caste men in a village called Bhateri in Rajasthan; Phoolan Devi was raped in 1979 in a village called Behmai in Madhya Pradesh by upper caste men; two Dalit women (a mother and daughter) were gang-raped in Khairlanji village (Maharashtra) in 2006, and almost their whole family was lynched to death by members of the dominant OBC caste, Kunbi. The outcome of all these cases shows clear presence of police-judiciary connivance, and hence, complete miscarriage of justice.

[6] I refer to patriarchy not as a ‘system’ which exists parallel to the given socio-economic system that envelops us, but rather, I equate it with sexism. For me, sexism or patriarchy is a historically evolved behaviour pattern which differs from era to era, and thus, patriarchy in capitalism is distinct from that which existed during feudalism or slavery. There are also other equally engaging interventions in the ensuing debate on rape, which have delved quite closely on the question of short-term and long-term strategy required for fighting the growing oppression of women in our society. Critiquing the ensemble of demands that erupted from protest venues, some of these interventions have posited the need for impossible demands which, by their very nature, are expected to smash the entrenched conditions that foster gender inequality. It goes without saying that we cannot merely raise slogans that bolster the legitimacy of the bourgeois state, but surely, there can be a Leninist way of raising the ‘intermediate demands’, i.e. demands that have some immediate resonance with the people’s aspirations, and at the same time, pose a challenge to the state. In the process of rallying around these ‘intermediate demands’ we may organize ourselves, strengthen our cadre base, raise the aspirations of the masses and build a lasting influence amongst them, etc. so that when we are ready, we pose the (im)possible demands before the state. Unless we proceed in this way, we are faced with the two-fold danger of either, left wing deviation (a situation in which we are raising slogans that are completely out of sync with the masses, and hence, leading to our isolation), or a right wing deviation (a situation in which by merely raising popular slogans, we fall prey to petty-bourgeois slogans, lose our critical tinge, as well as our independent proletarian will and action).

[7] See, Kavita Krishnan (2013), “Patriarchy, Women’s Freedom and Capitalism”, www.kafila.org, 25 January, accessed on 3 February 2013.

[8] Kavita Krishnan (2012), “Some Reflections on Sexual Violence and the Struggle Against It”, www.sanhati.org, accessed on 26 December 2012.

[9] Shuddhabrato Sengupta (2012), “To the Young Women and Men of Delhi: Thinking about Rape from India Gate”, December 23, www.kafila.org, accessed on 30 December 2012.

[10] Reports from the National Family Household Survey, which arguably provide a more accurate picture of the actual rate of violence than the reported data calculated by India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), confirm that city-dwelling women are more likely to face sexual violence/abuse than women living in villages.

[11] Devika Narayan (2012-13), “Some Thoughts on Rape, Sexual Violence and Protest: Responding to Responses”, Critique, vol. 2 (2): 39-40.

[12] Now with the spread of cities into what we would call the ‘suburbs’, many villages bordering large cities have seen a spate of rapes conducted on highways, etc.—a fact which reflects that easy targets are also being sought in the peripheries of cities. Incidents of village women or women factory workers being pulled into cars, empty warehouses or waylaid on such highways are now very common, which goes to show that just as in the city proper, even bordering villages are witnessing rapes that don’t necessarily fit the paradigm of power rapes because of the nature of perpetrators and because the rapists sought to exploit the vulnerability of the victim rather than teach her a lesson. The main point is that people circulating to and fro from urban to rural areas is leading to the gradual spread of the urban pattern of rapes to the rural milieu.

[13] Some right-wing bigwigs have argued that rape is an urban and modern phenomenon, fuelled by the anonymity somewhere offered by the city. The statement of RSS supremo, Mohan Bhagwat on 4 January 2013, who was addressing a group in Silchar, further complicated the issue by claiming that rape is a phenomenon which ‘takes place in India, not in Bharat’. For Bhagwat’s discourse, India is the substitute for urban areas, and Bharat stands for rural India. For him, it is the ‘Western’ lifestyle adopted by people in urban areas which is leading to an increase in the crime against women. In his address, he stated: “You go to villages and forests of the country and there will be no such incidents of gang-rape or sex crimes”. He further implied that while urban areas are influenced by Western culture, the rural areas are nurturing Indian ethos and glorious Indian traditions. For him, ancient Indian traditions gave great respect to women, and it is due to these values of Indian tradition that the country’s villages are free from crimes against women. Needless to say, India’s ancient traditions are glorified by people like him without going into the core of social relationships. In this light, it is essential to understand the past in the context of its the social milieu, the system of production, the level of education etc. The blind glorification of the past leads to conclusions that are off the mark. It is a fact that during the long span of India’s ancient past, the status of women kept changing. Nevertheless, women as subordinate beings was the running theme. We also know for a fact that Indian villages have seen brutal sexual assaults on women.

[14] Susan Brownmiller (1993), Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Ballantine Books).

[15] See, Lee Ellis (1989), Theories of Rape: Inquiries into the Causes of Sexual Aggression (New York: Hemisphere): 10.

[16] See, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer (2001), A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Cambridge: The MIT Press).

[17] The undeniable problem with the theory of ‘natural history of rape’ is the fact that it is based on many unsubstantiated views, such as rapist men differ genetically from men who do not rape, and that sexually aggressive (rapist) men are more capable of impregnating women than men who do not force themselves on women.

[18] This ahistorical approach to gender inequality is something which informs the views of several renowned feminists. For example, Simone de Beauvoir is known to have argued that women “have no past, no history” (cited by Lerner (1986), Creation of Patriarchy, New York: Oxford University Press: 22). In similar terms, Andrea Dworkin in an interview, stated: “I think that the situation of women is basically ahistorical.” (See, E. Wilson (1982), “Interview with Andrea Dworkin”, Feminist Review, vol. 11: 27).

[19] Christine Helliwell (2000), “It’s only a Penis”: Rape, Feminism, and Difference,” Signs, vol. 25 (3): 789-816; Peggy Reeves Sanday (1981), “The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape: A Cross Cultural Study,” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 37 (4): 5-27. Christine Helliwell and Peggy Sanday have successfully demonstrated that certain contemporaneous communities like the Gerai of Dayak communities (Indonesia) and Minangkabua, are rape-free.

[20] Friedrich Engels (1973), The Origin of Family, Private Property and State (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

[21] The existence of small band formations within which sexual activity took place led to the development of a relatively small genotype, and hence, the reproduction of very similar featured progeny. In addition, the nature of hunting-gathering subsistence was such that individual traits and capabilities were much too entwined with the human collective so as to socially distinguish one individual from another. Hence, variable factors leading to differential preference for pair-bonding, such as status, individual physical traits and capabilities, etc. were not so prevalent.

[22] Just like the male form of the human race, the female has developed certain muscle memory and sensitivity to touch in the pre-natal stage, i.e. during the nine months of existence in the amniotic sac of the mother’s uterus. Protected and fondled by the warm and thick amniotic fluid of the womb, the human specie has inculcated a sensitivity to touch with some body parts developing a more heightened sense of touch, i.e. the erogenous zones which include the genitalia, mammary glands, ear lobes, etc. Engrained with this sense of touch which soothes the nerves, muscles and sensory ends/organs, the human specie seeks to replicate what it has learnt from the pre-natal stage. In this regard, sex amounts to an advanced form of touching and sensation to which the human specie has been conditioned during a long pre-natal stage. Indeed, just as singing is a complex form of speech, sex can be seen as a complex form of human touching. Of course, the consequences and intentionality involved in sexual interaction are determined by the form of the relationship shared between the two individuals. Hence, sex is not simply physiological, but highly mediated and transformed by the social milieu in which humans find themselves. In class stratified societies, our cultural and personal meanings associated with individuals, objects and situations greatly influence our sexual desires.

[23] See Radhika Singha (2000), “Settle, Mobilize, Verify: Identification Practices in Colonial India”, http://www.oslo2000.uio.no/program/papers/s4/s4-singha.pdf, accessed on 12 April 2013.

[24] See Radhika Singha (1998), A Despotism of Law (New Delhi: OxfordUniversity Press).

[25] The transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist structuring of Indian society and economy was both restrained as well as facilitated by the colonial state, which marked the survival, re-creation and reproduction of older social forms. Further development of this point is, however, beyond the scope of this paper.

[26] Radhika Singha (2000), “Settle, Mobilize, Verify: Identification Practice in Colonial India”.

[27] See Prem Chowdhry (2007a), Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples: Gender, Caste and Patriarchy in Northern India (New Delhi: OxfordUniversity Press).

[28] By depressing the family wage of the working class (i.e. wages earned by the breadwinner of the family), and by pushing women out of jobs once they gave birth, the work of child bearing and rearing were established as tasks which were to be ‘done for free’, i.e. which had no role in sustaining the economy, and hence, for which the capitalist was to bear no cost.

[29] In India, for example, the tendency of young women to marry even before the completion of their higher education is significantly noticeable. Those who do manage to attain a certain level of education are often given no opportunity to pick up jobs before they enter marital relations. This reflects the fact that women are often made to forfeit education and career interests for the sake of ‘suitable’ marriage offers. Many, of course, are unable to return to their studies, etc. after tying the knot.

[30] In urban contexts, the provisions of the criminal justice system (pertaining to abduction, etc.) are often misused by the families of couples who have gone for choice marriages. The procedures of the court and the connivance of the local police with the family have allowed many male ‘guardians’ to exhaust such couples in months and sometimes years of litigation. On the other hand, informed by a class bias, the local police have also been seen circumventing procedures of the criminal justice system to the extent that they have often refused to file missing person reports of working class girls who have gone missing, or have declined to file FIRs of abduction when these girls’ families name suspects. Clearly, when it comes to women of poorer sections of society, the police generally assumes that they have left their homes willingly—a practice which allows them to waste crucial time in locating these missing girls and ascertaining, under section 164 of the CrPc, whether they wilfully left their homes.

[31] Catherine MacKinnon is a highly cited and influential legal scholar. See, Fred R. Shapiro (1996), “The Most Cited Law Review Article Revisited”, Chicago-Kent Law Review, vol. 71. Also see, Catherine Mackinnon (1987), Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press). Interestingly, hers as well as the views of Dworkin, etc. spread across other parts of the world through networks of global NGOs and funding agencies which were part of international level campaigns on women’s rights.

[32] Surprisingly, even progressive intellectuals who were, obviously, moved by the emotional and tense atmosphere emerging post the 16 December gang-rape case, slipped into demanding greater severity of punishment, albeit not in the mould of death penalty and castration. For example, a prominent progressive blogger, Shuddhabrato Sengupta floated the idea of life-long solitary confinement for the rapists. Op. cit., endnote 9.

[33] I use the term bad sex in lieu of any better concept which can be used to explain the lack of mutuality, care, and fulfilment in many sexual encounters. The concept of bad sex hence refers to sexual encounters where someone’s pleasure is another’s pain, discomfort and displeasure.

[34] It is to be noted that in direct opposition to such liberal feminist views, others have argued that prostitution (in cases where consent exists and even in cases where it doesn’t) is sexual violence in itself, and amounts to paid rape as the money given only appeases the men’s guilt. For elucidation see, Trisha Baptie (2009), “”Sex worker” ? Never met one !,” http://sisyphe.org/spip.php?article3290, 26 April, accessed on 28 March 2013.

[35] By loss of autonomy I do not mean individual choice in conflict with other individuals and social interests. For me, both the self and the autonomy that self seems to enjoy are conditioned upon the relations where it is vested. Self is never alone and it can only come on its own by continuously engaging with other human beings. What in real terms the loss of autonomy of sexual choice means is the breakdown of the psychic connection between pleasure, desire, motivation and action. So the real question is not to restore autonomy in la liberal way, but to re-create different form of (social) relations.

[36] See, Appeal to All Concerned with Violence Against Women and Demand Charter (2012), released by Maya John on behalf of Centre for Struggling Women (CSW) and supported by many other organizations, 26 December, www.sanhati.org. Also see press release released by CSW and Nurses Welfare Association, “Nurses and women’s groups demand safety audit of workplaces”, The Hindu, 22 January 2013. Here, the demand for necessary amendments to laws and state regulation in order to create safe workplaces has been discussed in the context of varied concerns of working women. Amongst one of the suggestions pressed forth by nurses as working women is the conducting of regular safety audits of all workplaces by the state.

[37] Kavita Krishnan recently articulated such a position in her 25 January 2013 article, where she said: “…capitalist exploitation of women involves much more than just ‘denuding’ women. It exploits women by profiting from their unpaid labour in the home; by paying them less than men for the same work at the job – and it is able to do all of this because of women’s unfreedom as imposed by patriarchy [emphasis added].” The statement clearly assumes that capitalism is a system which functions in the manner it does because of the prevalence of another system, namely, patriarchy. By this logic, it is patriarchy as a separate system in itself which makes capitalism patriarchal, and not the inner logic of capitalist exploitation which breeds patriarchal functioning of society.

[38] Rejecting the primacy of class, as well as the radical feminists’ attempts to install gender in the same position of categorical privilege, some feminists have propounded the theory of ‘intersectionality’ (of class, gender, caste, race, sexuality and nationality). This is, in fact, a very common route of escape for many feminists when articulations of class, race and many other social positions confront feminist categories of analysis. The problem with the argument of intersectionality is that it works with nothing less than a pluralism of identities. This pluralism ensures a never ending list of identities to be distinguished and accounted for. What is lost in this analysis is, of course, the ontology of social positioning. In other words, the hierarchy prevalent in social positions and the objective interest involved is completely overlooked as constitutive of the social reality. In reality, certain positions and identities are subsumed into others, even though they may not appear to be subsumable, or do not appear to have been subsumed. This is not to argue that everything can be reduced to class and is about class, but to show (as is clearly reflected in the conditions surrounding us) that other experiences, identities, social phenomenon, etc. exist in relation to class/are in negotiation with class for their articulation. One is aware of Laclau’s and Mouffe’s critique of the notion of “objective interests”. See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards A Radical Democratic Politics, p. 76-77. However a convincing defence has been provided by E.M. Wood in “The Autonomization of Ideology and Politics”, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism.

[39] For a fuller critique of this view, see Craig, T. Palmer (1988), “Twelve Reasons Why Rape is Not Sexually Motivated: A Skeptical Examination”, The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 25 (4): 512-30.

[40] Chafetz, Janet Saltzman (1990), Gender Equity: An Integrated Theory of Stability and Change (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications).

[41] See ‘National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), a 2010 survey by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in USA. It was reported that in America, rape was more common than smoking. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf

[42] See, Freund, K., H. Scher and S.J. Hucker (1983), “The Courtship Disorders”, Archives of Sexual Behavior  vol. 12: 769‑779; Michael T. Dreznick (2003),  “Heterosocial Competence of Rapists and Child Molesters: A Meta-analysis”, Journal of Sex Research, vol. 40 (2): 170-08; Marshall, W. L. and Eccles, A. (1991), “Issues in Clinical Practice with Sex Offenders”, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 6: 79–79.

[43] Praveen Swami (2013), “The Rapist in the Mirror”, The Hindu, lead article, 11 January. Sexual violence by men is not just unleashed on women but also on children. As a consequence, men also rape boys. In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India surveyed 12,477 children to learn of their experience of abuse. Of these, 68.99 per cent children, over half of them boys, reported that were victims of physical violence. One in 12 children, a majority being boys, reported that were suffering under sexual violence. It is, indeed, a staggering fact that half of our Indian population has encountered abuse before becoming adults.

[44] Op. cit., endnote 9

[45]  It is necessary to account for rapes that occur on a day to day basis, and thus, constitute what the average or lay people experience as rape. As argued above, these constitute the majority of rapes in our society, and have a definitive sexual content because the average perpetrator of this assault is looking for sexual gratification. But what of rapes which can be easily identified as ‘power rapes’, i.e. rapes which occur in the context of military conquests, forceful occupation, insurgency, counter-insurgency, civil war, racial/casteist backlash, etc.? The first point to note here is that within such contexts, rape is occurring in conditions which are unlike the average conditions prevailing in society, and hence, these rapes constitute only a particular component of total rapes in our society. More importantly, even in such cases, rape is about sex because it is an act which is not merely an expression of hostility and revenge, but is also a product of the extreme vulnerability of the captive/politically and socially subjugated women, as well as of the impunities offered to men during war/conflict.

[46] By failing to present a cultural critique of capitalism and its influence on human behavior, the Left has allowed the space for right-wing forces to consolidate support amongst the masses. The right-wing discourse on ‘westernization’, ‘consumerism’, etc., which is based on a reified notion of modern culture that is detached from prevailing class stratification in society, has successfully touched a raw nerve amongst the majority who are otherwise disoriented by socio-economic inequality and by the hedonism of the rich. In reality, this (oppressed) majority which is easily influenced by the right-wing, stands in opposition to the (protesting) middle class which is influenced by certain feminist views. The challenge for the Left is that it must present a critique of the cultural, sexual and social impact of capitalism so as to, on the one hand, wean away the majority from the clutches of the right-wing, and on the other, prevent the consolidation of feminist politics within the middle class.

[47] Amongst these so-called Left organizations are the “new” socialists who have recently resolved to “change the language of Left”. See the leaflet released by New Socialist Initiative on the occasion of their Founding Conference, 22-24 February, 2013. It is precisely in tune with such visions of (class-eliding, eclectic) politics that some have been recently propagating a “new” (pub)socialism, whereby, pubs are sought to be made affordable for poor people, who can use the space, now and then, to stop feeling poor all the time. See, Amrapali Basumatary (2013), ‘Come Frolic with Me in the Streets of Delhi’, www.kafila.org, 5 January, accessed on 3 February 2013. The piece was republished in ‘Critique’, March 2013 which was released by New Socialist Initiative (NSI) Delhi University. Amrapali Basumatary suggested that massively subsidized pubs to which all classes will have access, can be a truly emancipatory project as it will allow the poor to let down their hair “once in a while without feeling poor”. Her argument was based on eliding, altogether, the issue of class divisions and resulting equalities. To this effect, note her assertion that, “freedom cannot be and is not limited to the issue of ‘national shame/pride’ or class” (emphasis added). Clearly, it is assumed here that by uniting all classes on the issue of fighting the taboo associated with drinking, the sharp contradictions in their interests will resolve themselves and lead to a better life for all. In other words, poor men and women can then stop feeling denied and agitated about their social, sexual and economic inequalities vis-à-vis the upper classes; leading, presumably to less barbaric desires to assault women who enjoy a better lifestyle (!)

[48] Certain writers who have been closely observing the feminist movement have come with certain terms, which according to them encapsulate some of the worrying trends in feminism. See, Melody Hoffman (2010), “Teaching with Feminist Contradictions: The Debate of Dress in Theory and Practice”, http://www.academia.edu/632987/Teaching with_Feminist_Contradictions_The_Debate_of_Dress_in_Theory_and_Practice, accessed on 29 January 2013. Hoffman coins the terms “girlie” feminists for those who resort explicitly to hyper-feminine dressing and behavior as an expression of ‘feminist’ action. Also see Ariel Levy (2005), Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and Launch of Raunch Culture (New York: Free Press). Levy has coined terms like “female chauvinists” and “raunch” culture to explain the growing trend of ‘power’ feminism.

[49]  Nancy Fraser (2009), “Feminism, Capitalism and The Cunning Of History,” New Left Review, vol. 56: 110.

[50] The feminist movement has been continuously critiqued across the world for such a reading of social reality and its concomitant mobilizations. Much of this criticism has come from marginalized groups of women (Afro-American women, Hispanic women, Dalit women, etc.) or from Marxist organizations that have questioned the predominance of gender as a rallying point. Communists, in particular, point out that the problem with feminism is not that it talks of men-women equality – something which even communists are committed to – but that it particularizes this aspiration which leads to parcelization of society between men and women. See Clara Zetkin (1896), Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious, http://www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1896/10/women.htm. Also see Alexandria Kollantai (1909), The Social Basis of the Woman Question, http://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1909/social-basis.htm

[51] See, Rachel P. Maines (1989), The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria”, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press).

[52] Ariel Levy (2005), Op. Cit., endnote 48

[53] See, Naomi Wolf (1993), Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use It (New York: Random House). Wolf propagates that “enough money buys a woman out of a lot of sex-oppression”, but in actual terms her ‘grow rich’ line simply caters to the needs of upward mobile middle-class women.

[54] See, Sreenanti Banerjee (2013), “Sexual Violence, Consumer Culture and Feminist Politics – Rethinking the Critique of Commodification,” 03 FEBRUARY, www.kafila.org, accessed on 11 March 2013.

[55] See, Sheila Jeffreys (2005), Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West (New York and India: Routledge). Here Jeffreys argues how a cultural imperialism spearheaded by the international beauty industry has imposed harmful practices which are popular amongst wealthy women of developed and developing countries, on non-elite sections of women across the world.

[56] Audre Lorde (2000), “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Women,” in Wendy Komar and Frances Bartkowski, eds., Feminist Theory: A Reader, p. 292.

[57] See, Lynn Phillips (2000), Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and Domination (New York: NYU Press). Many of the young women interviewed during this research revealed that most of their sexual encounters were for men’s sexual pleasure rather than meeting any desire of their own.

[58] How capitalism is influencing our lives, including the most intimate part of it is well documented in Arlie Hochschild (2003), The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feelings (Berkeley: University of California Press). Also see A. Hochschild (2003), The Commercialisation of Intimate Life (Berkeley: University of California Press).

[59] As captured uncensored in many of the slogans which erupted during the anti-rape protests, such as pub jaane ki azaadi (freedom to go to pubs), marji ke kapde pehenne ki ya na pehenne ki azaadi (freedom to wear what one wants or not wear anything), disc jaane ki azaadi (freedom to go to discos), and piney ki bhi azaadi (freedom to drink whenever, wherever).

Historical Materialism, Delhi: Legal Marxism Redux

M.S. Khan and Madan Singh

The HM conference in New Delhi, India, is the arch-example of sanitising Marxism and academicising it. The purported promotion of the “new cultures of the left” is nothing but an attempt to sanitise Marxism of its dirty old history in India and elsewhere, and present it to the liberal conscience of western academic tourists in Marxism in the manner that suits their taste. Initially, it proposed to base itself on a virulently anti-communist group of postmodern journo-academics in India. The danger of de-legitimation (of course, who would like to lose their brand name and business) and to provide space to radical international tourists and NRIMs (Non-resident Indian Marxists) forced it to tone down such alignment. As a result, we have an eclectic assortment of non-serious social democrats, NGO-secular-civil liberty activists, poor academics and perpetually passive learners ready to line up to welcome international Historical Materialists.

The recent vocalisation of an open dissociation with the Socialist Workers Party of Britain by the organisers of HM, Delhi, further reveals their desperation to satisfy and bridge liberal consensuses of the West and India. And the last straw in this regard was the withdrawal of their invitation to Alex Callinicos, perhaps the only Trotskyist in whom genuine Marxist activists in India find some ‘cultural’ affinity. This was obviously done to appease the disgruntled pocos, who were lately alienated from the organising committee. As they are on the lookout to find opportunity to vent their frustration of not having been included in this gala event, this was done to preclude any disturbance from their side.

If Marxism or historical materialism is able today to find an important place in academia, it means two things – one, that the capitalist apparatuses have conceded to the pressures from below, and two, in this concession they have been able to sanitise it of its anti-systemic roots and have found tools that would help them in reproducing capitalist ideologies and social relations. The ideological Marxism that academia produces is a form of Marxism that is entrenched within the disciplinary divides that help capitalism to control and regulate knowledge production.

The endeavour the HM conference in Delhi signifies has nothing to do with revolutionary politics insofar as theory in revolutionary politics is about being implicated in thinking the strategic orientation of movements in their socio-historical concreteness. This is precisely the modality of operation of theory in revolutionary working-class politics. Even theory in its bare philosophical abstraction, when its practice is internal to such politics, is meant to be in a dialectical articulation with the concrete political methods (tactics if you will) of socio-historically determinate movements, and are thus meant to clarify the strategy of praxis in seeking to be reconstituted with programmatic accuracy in the concrete tactical specificities of those movements. All this, in order to actualise the generality of the principle of revolutionary-proletarian politics.

Practitioners of radical, actually revolutionary, theory should always remember that their kind of theory cannot be a discursive articulation of tactics or the epistemology that frames the programmatic articulation of such tactics. And yet, revolutionary theory is not outside methods whose open constellation is the enactment and expression of that theory. Clearly, only when theory grasps itself as being internal to its constitutive methods does it become revolutionary. Methods that actualise theory while simultaneously interrupting this actualisation, thereby clearing the way for its refoundation. And this exercise in its continuously unfolding entirety is praxis.

This dialectical continuity between theory and practice – or philosophy and epistemology, or strategy and tactics, or concept and subject – if and when it becomes uninterrupted (by sublating its various inevitable punctuations) in practical materiality amounts to the actuality of praxis or actuality of revolution/communism. “Communism as the real movement” (Marx and Engels in The German Ideology) or “revolution in permanence” (Marx in The Class Struggles in France). In Marxism, theory is not – like Kant’s “categorical imperative”– a norm for the governing of practice. Rather, it is, or should be at any rate, the herald of practice to come. One which will abolish theory by realising it and thereby become praxis, which is a higher and radically different ontological level of actuality, positivity and the concrete than the finite empiricism (and positivism) of mere practice.  This is what is often referred to as the “future-anteriority” of Marx’s historical-materialist approach to praxis.

That is, however, not to contend academically-turned Marxism has no analytical connect whatsoever with really-existing movements in their historical concreteness, and is consumed solely by the ethics of theory or, which is pretty much the same thing, conceptual abstractions pertaining only to the internal  architecture of discursive formations. Of course, that has, more or less, been the orientation, if not the methodological protocol, of Critical Theory founded almost as a disciplinary paradigm. Nevertheless, there is a sizeable and ever-growing section of critical theorists who are equally exercised by the question of historically concrete movements. But even for them such historically concrete social and political movements as objects of analysis are meant, at best, to be occasions of inquiring into and demonstrating how those movements constitute the determinate actualisation and thus the limit of proletarian revolutionary praxis. The next step of how that praxis, as an excess of such historical limits, can be reconstituted as a constellation of specific socio-historical subjects — which can be posed only in the shape and register of a concrete programme of action and guidelines for the enforcement of that programme – is clearly beyond the remit of their theoretical practice. And it’s precisely this academicised Marxist modality of reflection and analysis of movements that would arguably be on display at the various panels meant to discuss Kashmir, Nepal, the Maoist-led tribal movements in central and eastern India, the recent workers’ upsurge in the industrial belt of National Capital Region and the like at the Historical Materialism conference here. For, even the best and the most well-intentioned among the panelists — their numbers are few and far between — engage with their objects of analysis as no more than sympathetic ethnographers. Their outside support for such movements eventually shirks the ultimate responsibility of plunging into the practical materiality of movements. A move, which if made through the immersion of their analytical engagement with those movements into the practicality of the latter, would render their analyses and the approach that underpins them to become the sublated constitutivity of programmes of those movements in question. That would not only rid their theory of its academicism but also simultaneously enrich the movements in question with the spirit of revolutionary generalisation, thereby enabling the revolutionary praxis constitutive of those movements to tend towards overcoming the historical limits imposed on them. Limits that inevitably tend to hypostatise the movemental materiality of revolutionary praxis into overgeneralising sectarianism at the level of practice and pragmatic epistemological fetishism at the level of theory.

The remit of critical theory that prevents it from straying beyond its own prettified gardens into the dank and malodorous world of really-existing politics that lie beyond them is, needless to say, imposed on practitioners of such theory by the position that is constitutive of the way they envisage their theoretical practice as an untainted and untaintable outside to the historically concrete social and political movements. Such a conception of theoretical practice and its actual operation – which is constitutive of the academicisation of radical theory in general and Marxism in particular – stems from the purist and puritanical yearning of its practitioners to evade in advance the vagaries, exigencies, impurities, ugliness and errors, which engaging with such really existing movements by being integral to their respective agencies of practice inevitably brings. Clearly, they know, or care to know, nothing about the revolutionary virtue of risking all that taint by going through those vagaries, exigencies, impurities, ugliness and errors of practicality in order to extenuate them in practice. Nor do they remember, drunk as they are on their ephemeral status of being philosopher-kings, that the foundational logic of their academicised theoretical practice is precisely a restoration of the effete Young Hegelian legacy of “critical criticism” or “critical philosophy” that Marx systematically demolished to establish the rigorous scientificity of critique of political economy as practical critique.

However, to explain away academicisation of Marxist theory merely in terms of such motivations of a group or section of intellectuals would be sheer psychologism unbecoming of a complete and rigorous Marxist analysis of the same. We need to understand the structural condition of possibility – structural causality if you will – of such psychological motivations to turn Marxism from a revolutionary theory for revolutionary practice into an accommodated, and impotent ideology. To effectively combat such academicisation, of which HM, Delhi, not unlike Legal Marxism in late 19th century Russia, is a typical exemplar, we must recognise it for what it really is: a symptom of the conjunctural crisis of both Marxist theory and revolutionary working-class movements. This crisis, which is currently manifest as movements without theory and theory without movements, has arisen from the shifting of the conjunctural regime from that of embedded liberalism to that of neoliberalism. Due to this shift, the theoretical recognition of the revolutionary subject lags behind its recomposition, which has devastated the forms of organisation – both political and conceptual. In such circumstances, we are confronted with, to paraphrase Gramsci, a monstrosity: a conceptually elevated theory that has emerged, in lieu of the yet-to-be-born revolutionary subject, by making the cognitive abstraction of negativity and critique into an autonomous ground from where it preaches to the impotent revolutionary subject of the earlier conjuncture and berates it for its expected lapses as if that ground were a transhistorical tribune of revolutionary reason.

So, what we have today by way of Marxism as revolutionary praxis is not a dialectical unity but a duality of two mutually competing ideologies – pragmatism (of movements under the leadership of various shades and sects of the party-left) and subjective-idealism (that goes under the name of critical theory). In such a situation, we have the party-left tendencies rejecting the academicised style of theoretical practice of academic Marxists as a psychological impulse of some individual intellectuals and the groups they comprise while engaging with the theoretical products of those academic Marxists by seeking to instrumentalise them. The party-leftists believe this to be their critical stance vis-à-vis academicised radical theory. But this attitude, in reality, amounts to no more than the playing out of the objective logic of competition and split between the theoretical subjectivity of analysis and the practical objectivity of movement, one in which the domination of the latter by the former is implicitly an established fact. Something that has reinforced and reproduced the capitalist logic of social relations within the twinned-domain of Marxist theory and working-class movements, thereby significantly undermining the radical tenor and orientation of revolutionary proletarian praxis. This hierarchical split between theory and movements has also meant that such academicised Marxism is no longer a constitutive theoretical moment of revolutionary praxis but is a reified analytic that, therefore, is destined to do no more than engage in a competitive war of one-upmanship with other non-Marxist and even anti-Marxist radical-theoretical analytics. That is clearly revealed by the liberal eclecticism that has gone as much into the making of the organisational core of the Delhi edition of the Historical Materialism conference as the conference itself. And the unsavoury controversy that has dogged the organising of the conference, what with a few pocos and semi-pocos, who had initially been part of that eclectically composed core of conference organisers, reportedly walking out of it in a huff, and threatening to boycott and even disrupt the proceedings further substantiates our charge on that score. That a good number of such pocos, semi-pocos, and non- and anti-Marxists are still very much part of both the conference and its organisational core, even as some of their friends who have abandoned it are now attacking the conference from the outside, reveals that the logic of competitive one-upmanship constitutes a marketplace of ideas which commodified academic trends share with each other in order to be part of the process of outcompeting one another. In that sense, the eclectically organised core of the conference, the conference itself and its so-called detractors on the outside are one extended continuum of academic capitalism. So much so that it would not be inaccurate to title this soap opera of a conference the ‘Extended Family of Histo-Mat and its Inner Feuds’.

This competitive co-habitation of academicised Marxism with other non- and anti-Marxist academic trends under the aegis of Historical Materialism, Delhi, is a travesty of critical dialogue the former claims to be engaged in with the latter. The only stake such Marxism has in its engagement with those other theoretical tendencies (read analytics/ideologies) is accommodation in the marketplace of ideas in competitive co-existence with all other kinds of discursive commodities. Need we tell these Marxist industrialists and their non-Marxist academic compatriots that their unctuous and self-important claims of a holding ‘critical dialogue’ among themselves can delude none for long save such sell-outs and hustlers as themselves?  Critical dialogue, they ought to be reminded, is polemical communication, not competition. One that constitutes radical antagonism between the horizons of commodification and the politics of decommodification, effecting radical separation between them.

Situating the Shahbag Movement: Re-founding the National?

Nazmul Sultan

“Each time an event unfolds or erupts hope and anxiety accompany it, in different ways and to different degrees during each event. And many initially outside its compass are rapidly moved to intervene, in attempts to support it, to redirect it, or to squelch it. An event starts out of apparent uncertainty and foments a wider band of uncertainties as it expands and morphs. Events emit contagious and infectious energies. Sometimes democracy or dictatorship hangs in the balance. Or the creation of a new right, faith or identity. Or the denial of one or more of those.”[1]

ERUPTION OF AN EVENT

What has now been named as the Shahbag Movement was not an expected event. This is not due to the lack of historical conditions of possibility or for the absence of a popular base. Having held state power with a popular mandate to prosecute war criminals, the Awami League (AL) appropriated the political narrative that demanded trial of war criminals. This issue of war criminals’ trial became a deux ex machina for the AL’s political operation: finding the conspiracy to halt it in every oppositional gesture to the regime.[2] Parroting their support for a “proper” trial, the opposition parties accused the AL of politicising the issue, while they continued to be in political alliance with the party that contains most, if not all, war criminals. After almost three years of the trial process, the tribunal declared its verdict: death-sentence for a war-criminal-turned- televangelist. Since the convicted does not belong to any political party (and his was a trial in absentia, as he fled the country before he was charged), it was politically safe for the tribunal (and for the government) to hand him a death sentence. However, for the crimes of an even greater magnitude, the current assistant secretary-general of Jamaat-e-Islami, Abdul Quader Mollah, popularly known as the butcher of Mirpur, received life-sentence[3]. What had become apparent by then was that either the AL-led regime had succumbed to the vandalising show of strength by the party of war criminals (Jamaat-Shibir) or that it had reached a backroom deal with the Jamaat. Few had suspected this verdict would spark a fire, although it was predicted the verdict would leave people disaffected. Even when a handful of “online activists” gathered in Shahbag to protest against what they deemed a negotiated and unjust sentence, few had imagined it would swell into the gigantic mass that it is now. What is crucial here – and what I believe to be the defining element of the evental nature of the movement – is its ability to draw distance from the state-appropriation of the Bangladesh liberation war and the attendant trial of war criminals. This act of drawing distance from the hegemonic power and its satellites, I would argue, is behind the popular kernel of the movement, even as the movement is still led by people sympathetic to the regime. This not only provided a public-political legitimacy to the movement, but also placed the movement in a greater context than the single-issue movement that it might appear to be.

The “singular” demand for the highest punishment for war criminals expanded itself around the call for boycott of and resistance to the Islamist party (and its large financial network) that assisted and participated with the Pakistani military in the genocide of 1971. Apart from the legitimate demand for justice against the worst form of crime, what is significant about the demand raised by this movement is that it sits outside of the political projections of both the political and civil society. This feature of the movement does not solely reside in the declarative aspect of the demand (i.e. hang the war criminals); it rather lies in the performative signification of the demand in the relational context of Bangladeshi politics. While the apparently pro-movement regime seeks to align the demand for the trial of war criminals with its otherwise corrupt and anti-workers’ political logic, the movement, by virtue of its performative externality from the state, clearly expresses the non-congruence between the partisanisation of the issue by the AL-led regime and the popular significance of the issue. This popular significance is clearly distinct and even oppositional to the regime’s politics insofar as the AL’s appropriation of the nationalist discourse is challenged by the coming to the fore of an otherwise apolitical new middle-class youth. The main opposition party – Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – has found itself at the margins while trying to respond to the movement. After tagging it as a government-orchestrated drama in order to distract people’s attention from the BNP’s movement for reinstating the caretaker government during the upcoming national election, they have been forced to identify the difference between this popular movement and protests sponsored by the AL government. Thirdly, the representatives of civil society, vacillating between their fear of an “ochlocracy” and the extra-institutional assertion of popular sovereignty, are maintaining an ambiguous relationship with the movement. While all these constituents of the “integral state” support the movement in varying degrees, the movement itself has remained at a distance from their respectively distinct political orientations. Owing to the symbolic distance that the Shahbag movement has drawn between the people and the integral state, the movement quickly became one of the most remarkable popular movements of Bangladesh after the anti-dictatorship protest in the 1980s and the student uprising against the military-backed regime in 2007. If there is any evental significance to this movement it, to repeat an earlier point, lies precisely in this act of drawing distance from the integral state. This is not to say that this movement has given itself a solid basis and has overcome the uncertainty that still surrounds its future. The uncertainty primarily emanates from the volatile relationship of the movement to the new ground that it itself has, meanwhile, generated. Although this movement is inextricably tied up with the political demand that it is putting forward, its political significance is something more than that single-issue mobilisation. As I will try to show, this movement might have been a culmination of the long-process of refounding the national within the Bangladeshi political horizon.

REFOUNDING THE NATIONAL

“[A]n absolute, namely with a truth that needs no agreement since, because of its self-evidence, it compels without argumentative demonstration or political persuasion. By virtue of being self- evident, these truths are pre-rational – they inform reason but are not its product….”[4]

nazmul

Mapping the Shahbag Movement

The story of the bloody birth of Bangladesh is well-known to South Asian readers.

The event of 1971 inaugurated a new political horizon – limning out the line between tradition and historical becoming, it gave expression to a specific way of national-political life that bases itself on a continual renewal and reliving of the cultural-historical “essence” of the perceived community.  Concomitantly, it sets up an indeterminate, but bordered, way of political interpretation, signification and, ultimately, the process of meaning-production. Of course, this mode of political life was specific to the urban middle class; the militarised state (at least, since 1975), while operated within the political trajectory of the national, maintained a dubious distance from it. Historically, the AL claimed to be caretaker of that new political reality under the name of Bengali nationalism. Their negotiated form of Bengali nationalism, which is a specific way of accessing the national, was soon ousted from state-power. During the long period of military regime, state-politics fluctuated from anti-political militarism to the emergent developmental discourse (from 1980s on). That, however, did not amount to a flight away from the foundational plane that emerged through the liberation war. Despite jettisoning the Bengali nationalist ideologies, the  ground of “the national” remained unchallenged, although its lack of influence upon the state contributed towards its gradual erosion. The dominance of developmentality, and its attendant discourses, perhaps helped the process of the decadence of the national. To put it briefly,  the national had been losing its networking factor. However, this scenario began to change from the early 2000s. The national seems to have acquired unprecedented networking power. And that is on account of the new spatiotemporal configuration of Bangladeshi society effected through a new wave of capitalisation. From a more explicit sociological perspective, this rejuvenation of the national imagination could be discerned from the popularisation of certain festivals,social movements for preaching the “correct” history of the Liberation war and so on. This re-enchanted expression of the national does have a mooring, which is the event of 1971. The evental presence of “1971” works as a marker of certainty, as it lays out the concepts of political antagonism (for and against 1971), subject and non-subject (freedom fighters and collaborators/Razakars),  the narrative of political origin and the promised destination, and so on. If the national is being presented as an ontological horizon, the evental presence of the liberation war of 1971 contributes toward more actualised drawing of political lines.

In other words, the narrative of 1971 operates as a self-evident source of political legitimacy.  This is thus an absolute which grounds – rather than being grounded in – the political. The political essence and configuration of the Liberation war – polarised between the Muktijoddha (the true subject) and the Razakar (the permanent heterogeneity, which I would term as the constitutive other of the national) – makes it clear. Insofar as that absolute is an authority, it is necessary for the political discourses internal to it to derive their legitimacy from its ground. In the last decade, nothing perturbed the existential state of an entire generation of Bangladeshi people as much as the national flag bearing images of two well-known war criminals-turned-ministers. The ontological horizon of the national got disrupted with the intrusion of what it took to be its constitutive other. Since the middle of the last decade, the renewed demand for the trial of war criminals began to gain ground. That discontent was most vigorously manifest in the Bangladeshi blogosphere, where self-employed activists for the demand of the trial and its attendant issues launched a vigorous effort to identify and denounce those who may contain the remnant of “Razakar-ness”. A campaign that at times resembles witch-hunts. It was thus appropriate that the first spark of the Shahbag movement would be the human chain of those bloggers.

Instead of simply seeking to resolve the lingering question of history, this movement is arguably accomplishing something more than that: it is re-founding what we earlier termed the national. The national, of course, never left Bangladeshis.  Since the Jamaatis have held state-power and have some public support, they often claim to be equally naturalised and the term Razakar no longer exists. While the members of Jamaat may win seats in national election and get one or two ministerial posts, the symbolic form of the term Razakar remains an outsider. This thus does not make the symbolic form of the Razakar integral to “the national”. The Jamaatis’ argument is something like this: their political opponents construe them as outsider or Razakar, while they do not actually fit the term. By arguing so, they speak in the terms of the very language that seeks to banish them from the ground of the countable (or the legitimate). The empty place of Razakar, the constitutive other, remains intact even when the signified Razakars come to share state power. The Razakars are those who can neither be absolutely excluded from the national (for the national needs the other to demarcate itself), nor can they be counted as an inclusive category of the national.

By mobilising the demand for excluding the Razakars from the legitimate space of politics, the Shahbag movement is not only seeking to resolve a historical question, but also performing the re-foundation of the national – i.e. it is tantamount to a call for re-asserting the absolute that is the national. The desire to negate that which denies the self-evident reality of the national accomplishes more than provisionally clarifying the unfinished assertion of the foundation. Without this recurrent negation of the other – that is the Razakar   the national cannot lay a positive foundation for itself. This negation, in other words, is a positive negation. The re-foundation is neither a return nor a plain continuation of the foundation. This is a renewal that seeks to re-assert the foundation, but the renewal takes place at a distinct point of conjuncture, and thus open to political prospects and pitfalls that often overflow the logical form of the idealised foundation.

The reclaiming of the slogan Joy Bangla (“victory to Bengal”) – the slogan that unified freedom fighters of distinct ideological persuasions during 1971 – is one of the more revealing instances of the movement. After Independence, this slogan was appropriated by the Awami League, becoming as it does the signal word of the party. The Shahbag movement, despite its conscious efforts to maintain distance from the AL, chose to reclaim the slogan – a risky move that reflected the desire to form a unitarian ground by re-evoking the code-word of the Liberation war. Indeed, as some participants of the movement have phrased it clearly, what they want is that no political tendency be allowed to deny the absolute that is the national.

Constructing the people:

If there is anything paradoxical about the popular character of the Shahbag movement, it lies in the way it constructs the people. While most emancipatory or populist movements construct the people in opposition to the state, the Shahbag movement seems to be doing so by internally dividing the people, while its relationality with the state is still non-antagonistic. Being distanced from the state, the movement is seeking to decide the normative political ground of the community – the act of constructing the people, as it were, concerns the desire to determine the political. Does that mean this movement is seeking to ground the political in an ethnic or an identitarian ground? I differ from such an interpretation. The distinctive feature of ethno-populism, to quote Laclau, is that it attempts to “establish…the limits of the community…there is no plebs claiming to populus, because plebs and populus precisely overlap…. The ‘other’ opposed is external, not internal, to the community.”[5] The Shahbag movement is constructing the people in terms of fidelity to the 1971 Liberation war. While that fidelity is being located in the continuity of tradition, the pre-existing populus does not work as a determining factor, rather it is the political fidelity to the “spirit” of the Liberation war that is at stake.  Nor is the “other” (i.e. Razakars) absolutely externalised. This externalisation takes place internally – while the symbolic place of the Razakar is otherised, it works internally to normatively differentiate the people.  

The Shahbag movement, regardless of its appearance, is anything but a movement delimited within the traditional trajectory of  single-issue movement. It is a popular movement proper, one that, by way of returning to the founding instance of the national, goes so far as to re-construct the concept of the people. Bangladesh experienced an intense experience of national liberation movement, which was of course part of the global wave of anti-colonial movements. In the Bangladeshi specificity of that historicity (not unlike many other third world nation-states), the fiction of social contract theory (i.e., that there is a conscious transference of sovereignty from the individual citizens to the sovereign state) does not shed much light on the political landscape. The primacy of people over the colonial ruler conditioned and provided political legitimacy to historical struggles, and this way of locating the source of legitimacy did not fizzle out even after the Independence. One way of explaining the routine uprising against oppressive regimes in Bangladesh is to analyse how the intimate identity between the “people” and sovereignty makes the state often an illegitimate agency. Once the crowd occupies the street (the political space proper in Bangladesh) and claims itself to be the people who own sovereignty, the ruling regimes, in trying to contest them in terms of legitimacy if not in terms of brute force, crumble. The Shahbag movement is taking place precisely in the continuum of that historical sequence of political struggles. This is a movement that explicitly claims to define the people who can legitimately lay claim to sovereignty. Now let us specify the form in which the movement is tending towards conceptualising the people. This is not an easy task to settle upon, since this approach to the people is neither taking place in the general equation of people-against-the-state, nor is it locatable in a palpable concern of pre-existing social antagonism.

One way of approaching the question is the articulation of political demand, since it brings forth the category of “demanding” people. The explicit demand of the movement is clear and simple: the government should ensure everything so that the death sentences are given to known war criminals. The energetic chanting for death sentence led many westerners to compare the protest with a lynch mob (see footnote for an explanation of why such an interpretation is mistaken).[6] This is a political demand rather than a pre-political expression of anger. The movement performatively expresses the political desire to negate the specific politics of the Jamaat-Shibir, which is more than sheer rage against a handful of war criminals.

If that is a popular movement with a popular demand, the question then is how does it relate with other political demands of the existing political agencies? Does it play a symbolic role in combining other demands around itself? I think what this movement does is neither subsume other political demands nor does embody an all-embracing popular demand. Instead, it posits an order of demand, where the political mobilisation against war criminals is seen as a priority without which no other political demand can be expressed. The “essence” of the perceived (legitimate) people, so to say, relates with the very ordering of the demand, rather than solely with the demand itself.

Generally speaking, this movement construes the people in terms of their fidelity to the Liberation war, but that fidelity strictly pertains to the level of recognition and acceptance of the event and its accompanied political configurations. This is not an identitarian or ethnically-oriented movement insofar as the lines of politics are drawn around the political configuration of the Liberation war that I previously laid out.

This conceptualisation of the people, by way of asserting distance from the permanent heterogeneity that is the Razakars, presupposes a deeper unity of those who maintain fidelity to the event. As such, this concept of people is not able to reckon with the internal division and difference that may override the sense of unity. Also, insofar as the act of maintaining fidelity to the event of Liberation war requires a participation (or organic expression) in a certain way of political life, it means that a large chunk of the population (especially, garments workers, informal sector workers, if not the peasants whose “organic” way of life may automatically present their fidelity) remains de facto externalised to the imagined people. In fact, the most noticeable absence in the Shahbag movement was that of Dhaka’s industrial workers, doubtless the most militant political agents in contemporary Bangladesh.

Limits and Prospects:

Ever since the movement has surfaced, some critics of this movement have been reiterating the accusation that this populist movement entails fascistic aspirations. The specificity of the target of this movement – i.e., Razakars and their party – prompts those critics to identify the desire to annihilate a certain political tendency. Some even go further, claiming that this movement entails opposition to Islam – i.e., it is the deployment of extreme instrumentalist secularism against the adherents of Islamism. At the primary level, such critiques are informed by a mechanical understanding of mass psychology, as if any mass movement that expresses opposition against apparently non-statal agents are in some way connected to fascism. While this movement does dovetail opposition against the primacy of religion over the national, this movement is far from aiming to radically reconfigure society so as to pose the risk of fascistic development. Additionally, the party that this movement opposes is something already more akin to fascistic tendencies, not least in their institutionalisation of terrorism and communalism as a political strategy. The neoliberal form of governance incorporates the exception (which one may ascribe to fascism) in its normal procedure. The routinisation of extra-judicial killing – primarily targeting the Maoist radicals, but also other criminals (which provides popular support to the practice) – is an apt case in point. Nor would it be appropriate to put it under the received discourse of secular Bangladesh against Islamic Bangladesh.[7] This movement does not in any way pose challenge to the cultural and political imbrication between religion and politics.

The widening gap between the Bangladesh state and the principles and promise in the name of which the state was founded has made the political apparatus of Bangladesh deeply undemocratic. While political sovereignty oscillates between the street and the state, the lack of their interconnection other than in moments of contest owes to the absence of the political substantiation of otherwise popular movements. If there is any single virtue of the current movement, it lies precisely in registering that there can be a people that stand outside of the integral state, providing basis to their demands and expectations. What is also clear is that Bangladesh’s existence as a political community is still under the shadow of the event that founded it, and no politics can define itself without negotiating with it. Furthermore, the act of re-founding the national – an act which is fraught with multiple possibilities – has opened up the possibility to intervene and mobilise popular-democratic demands. Given the absence of popular politics outside of the state and its integral parties, this is a profoundly important development for the future of Bangladeshi politics.

This movement of re-founding the national, as I have argued so far, operates within considerable historical limits, not least is the limit that is constitutive of the national. Nationalist political discourses, needless to say, are constitutionally delimited within the idea of horizontal unity that non-antagonistically co-exists with vertical inequality (e.g. class relations). The normative way of defining the people, while not ethnicity-oriented, still seeks to pre-determine the ontological horizon of the political.  The Bangladeshi left, by and large, has embraced the movement, and that is a justified political move (and this is not surprising either, for the Bangladeshi left has historically emerged through the nationalist experience). Nevertheless, those who are seeking to intervene and radicalise the movement should remain aware of this constitutive limit. What is, however, clear is that no politics, howsoever novel, can readily step outside of the political horizon which has been named here as the national. Even the politics of transcending the national, if there ever be any, will have to work internally, and not from an Archimedean point of leverage.

Notes:                                                                                                                                                


[1] William Connolly, “The Politics of the Event” April 3, 2011, http://contemporarycondition.blogspot.com/2011/04/politics-of-event.html

[2] The most poignant specimen of that practice is probably the government’s claim that a veteran left-wing leader of the readymade garment workers’ movement, Moshrefa Mishu, has secretly conspired with the Jamaat-e-Islami. The only evidence that they could present was that she chatted with a fellow prisoner in a prison van, who also happened to belong to the Jamaat!

[4] Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. Penguin Classics, 1965 (192).

[5] Laclau, Ernesto. On Populist Reason. Verso Books, 2005 (192).

[6] The demand for death sentence is a combination of several elements. First, it is being regarded as the expression of highest condemnation of their crime. To not come up with such a sentence is popularly seen as a failure to recognise the severity of their crimes (this is independent of the justified ethical objection to death penalty as such). Secondly, the leniency in the case of Quader Mollah has convinced people that it is either an outcome of Jamaat’s political threatening or reconciliation between the regime and the Jamaat. Thirdly, the volatile nature of state power means the criminals will walk once the regime changes. The combination of all these factors placed the demand of death-sentence at the centre of the movement. Given the de facto heteronomy of the juridical-procedural system, the movement initially began as a countervailing political force to the Jamaat’s threat of destabilising the nation if their leaders are sentenced. In addition, this is a movement for a particular kind of founding injustice, not a hysterical expression of mob anger. Nor is it a movement purely with the desire to force the juridical agency to follow public opinion, for the juridical is reflected in its displacement in the political. Even though the movement seeks to ensure a juridical solution, its primary significance is political.

A Review of Alf Gunvald Nilsen’s “Dispossession and Resistance in India”

Bhumika Chauhan

Alf Gunvald Nilsen, Dispossession and Resistance in India: The River and the Rage, Routledge, 2010

The book seeks to explore the processes of dispossession and the accompanying resistance within the context of post-colonial India, and more specifically that located in and around the NarmadaValley. Nilsen hopes to build this understanding on the basis of a perspective on social movements and struggles that is very different from those conventionally applied in the social sciences, and by most who have studied the movement around the Narmada, i.e. the Narmada Bachao Andolan (henceforth, NBA).

I

Developed out of his doctoral thesis, Nilsen’s book offers a vast and critical survey of much that has been said about the NBA along with ample information on the course of the two main and most controversial projects, the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and the Maheshwar Hydroelectric Project (MHP). Supplemented with his own field notes, Nilsen is able to provide a picture in which one does not see only the costs and benefits of the projects, but also the class nature of the distribution of these costs and benefits, or what he calls the distributional bias of the post-colonial development project. Nilsen’s attempt considerably helps place the NBA and similar movements within the new social movements of India as well as within neoliberal restructuring.

dispossession-and-resistance-in-india

The main contribution of the book is perhaps the perspective it introduces into the social scientific discourse over social movements, particularly (and hopefully) into Indian social sciences. Nilsen rejects those perspectives that posit a social movement as a “fixed institutional entity” with a set of demands and means (p.4). Rather he looks at it as a collective action that gradually developed in “activist skills, practices, forms of consciousness and knowledge” (p.5). It is asserted that movements have internal processes of learning that are involved in initial mobilisation and further radicalisation. He also rejects the popular idea that social movements are organisations engaging in extra-parliamentary collective action within a more or less stable and given socio-economic background in favour of a broader and more dynamic view. For Nilsen:

“A social movement is the organisation of multiple forms of materially grounded and locally generated skilled activity around a rationality expressed and organized by (would-be) hegemonic actors, and against the hegemonic projects articulated by other such actors to change or maintain a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities and the social formation in which it inheres, in part or in whole.” (p.14)

It is asserted that sociality of praxis for the satisfaction of needs under the given level of capacity produces dynamic structures, which are reproduced over extended periods of time in accordance with extant relations of power between the “dominant and subaltern groups” within a social formation. Furthermore, praxis within this “structuration of need and capacities” (mode of production?) involves a constant contention between the dominant and subaltern social groups that embody the internal contradictions of the structures (classes?). These contentions may bring about changes in the dominant “structure of needs and capacities” and/or within the overarching social formation, therefore both groups are forever on the move, so to speak. This implies that social movements may happen from above or below. The author means to stress the fact that not only the subaltern groups but also the dominant groups engage in collective actions based on the dominant rationality to maintain or strengthen the dominant structure. It is the central argument of this book that the post-colonial development project and the ongoing accumulation by dispossession are part of a social movement from above, a result of collective action of the dominant social groups (p.13-14).

Significantly, the movement process is seen to start from the “common sense” of “concrete lifeworld in which people are situated”, the “particular as opposed to the universal” (p.193), and works outwards to the “good sense”, “local rationalities” and “militant particularisms” which transform the concrete lifeworld into a “locale or resistance”. The social movement project per se is said to emerge when a common ground is found between different militant particularisms through a “campaign”. This social movement project addresses the totality, the universal. Nilsen’s engagement then with the NBA starts from its constituent local mobilisations, their coming together and divergences, the formation of the NBA as a pan-state, anti-dam movement, its eventual questioning of the post-colonial development project. However, the project is not complete here (and here lies one of the key problems of the NBA according to Nilsen). Nilsen suggests that the few activists[1] who make the connection between the local conflicts and the universal structures that reproduce them – that is, they who have a political agenda against the totality – will have to convince others to come along. This can be accomplished only by grounding the social movement project again in militant particularism and local rationalities from whence it originated. This dialectic of the particular and universal that Nilsen tries to demonstrate in the, admittedly incomplete, trajectory of the NBA may provide some practical insights worth heeding.

II

An interesting, even brave, aspect of this work is its attempt to bring back concepts of class and class conflict in the analysis of the NBA, and other such movements in India. Nilsen takes note of the distributional bias of the SSP and MHP that constitutes accumulation by dispossession. It is precisely by situating this displacement within class relations that Nilsen demonstrates its nature as accumulation by dispossession and as a “social movement from above” (p.14). The distributional bias expresses a “dual transformation” where (a) property rights in water and electricity, as well as profitable investment opportunities are concentrated into the hands of regional, national and global propertied elite, and (b) the displacement of peasant producers from their land without adequate resettlement and rehabilitation generates pressures towards proletarianisation (p.20).

This thesis is substantiated in the case of SSP by first tracing the class formation of the agroindustrial capitalist patidar elites of south and central Gujarat, as well as the expropriation of the subsistence peasants (Bhil and Bhilal adivasis of Alirajpur) and petty commodity producers (caste Hindu peasants of Nimad) of Madhya Pradesh. While the former, after mobilising themselves to push the project (from Vallabhbhai Patel to the recent chief ministers of Gujarat have all had their support base in these patidars), accumulate the benefit of irrigation and electricity in the farms and factories, the latter are proletarianised and are expected to join the migrant labour force of south and central Gujarat.

In the case of the MHP, the petty commodity producers of Nimad bear the costs of the project, but the support for the project does not come from local elites but private corporations and national and transnational financial institutions that seek investment opportunities. The MHP, Nilsen argues, needs to be viewed in the context of the privatisation of the power sector and the liberalisation of the finance sector. The “structural inefficiencies” of the power sector led to the consensus on privatisation. But when S. Kumar, the private corporation took up the MHP, it had trouble acquiring foreign equity due to the resistance of the NBA. The solution came from the liberalising Indian finance institutions – LIC, SBI, IDBI, PFC, PNB and many others. Other than the MHP, it is a general trend that many transnational finance institutions are financing the restructuring of the power sector. Nilsen refers to David Harvey’s remarks about privatisation and about the management of fiscal crises, like the one that initiated the 1991 reform, being intimately linked to accumulation by dispossession as it creates opportunities both for devaluing public assets and for releasing them onto the market where capital may seize them.

Nilsen argues that the aforementioned distributional bias is not a glitch particular to big dams; it is part of India’s passive revolution (p.41). At Independence, capital was not singularly dominant, nor would universal suffrage allow forcible expropriation, and moreover, a counter-check was needed against the growing radicalisation and socialist tendencies. The Bombay Plan was to offer the solution: capitalist planning. Instead of a total assault, capitalist development was to, and did, progress gradually on the basis of the fragile coalition of “industrial bourgeoisie, the landed elites and rich farmers, and the politico-bureaucratic elites”.  And instead of forceful dispossession, developmental planning, with its big dams and the like, was instituted. The elite support for state intervention was strong, though only for state protection and not so much for regulation. This untenable position eventually led to the fiscal crisis of 1990s. Also, new business groups emerged to support the neoliberal reform that saw state controls as impediments to their growth. All in all, Nilsen argues following Harvey, that “Through the management and manipulation of a fiscal crisis, dominant proprietary classes have managed to push ahead reforms centered on privatisation, liberalisation and financialisation.” And with this accumulation by dispossession has also been facilitated.

III

The other way in which class enters his analysis is when Nilsen explores the “movement process” of resistance struggles. He asserts that subaltern groups experience constraints of their needs and capacities in their concrete, everyday lives. Collective experiences like in movements can combine and extend the individual “fragmented knowledges” to develop a better view of the underlying structures and relationships. Nilsen calls it a movement process when a social movement from below expands its collective oppositional action beyond specific, local, particular experience, scope and aim to a more “encompassing counter-hegemonic project” and a conception of a universal alternative to the social system (p.15).

In his study of the NBA, Nilsen exposes the appearance of homogeneity of the NBA as well as that of the local communities that constituted it, as is characteristic of all populist struggles. The discourses of the movement came to be hegemonised by the local elites, the rich farmers (p.161-8). Class, gender and caste, posed a challenge to the NBA mobilisation that the latter could not in the end surpass. “Oppositional populism”, Nilsen argues, has been responsible for obfuscating relations of oppression and exploitation within this and other such movements. For instance, the ‘farmer-worker’ organisation within the Nimad region that arose in response to the hike in electricity prices, were undeniably more for the farmer and less for the worker.

The stratified nature of seemingly homogenous identities and communities becomes evident, Nilsen notes, when we look at the various kinds of views of alternative development that emerge when one digs beneath surface discourses. Relatively marginalised groups within these communities are obviously unable to develop or express their position. The subaltern groups of women, dalits and landless labourers fail to expand their “fragmented knowledges” of the social structures. The cause, Nilsen points out, is firstly the “differential appropriation” of the discourse of resistance by the different groups, and secondly the “limited dissemination” of the discourse to the mass base of the movement.

IV

Strangely, it is at this point, where Nilsen’s understanding of the internal segmentation of communities comes out most clearly, that we espy a possible problem in his argument. The solution that Nilsen proposes for the abovementioned issues of discourse dissemination and appropriation is the development of methods for collective and participatory learning, to “deepen processes of conscientization” (p.187). From his thorough analysis of the political economy of accumulation by dispossession, we now seem to have arrived at a vague statement that in this notion of “collective learning” once again ends up positing the “collective” that he just deconstructed. Evidently what he is suggesting is that such learning can allow the collective to overcome its internal divisions, so that it could begin its attack on totality. What Nilsen seems to have forgotten is precisely the materiality of this segmentation, that he brought out so well, and which is not suitably addressed by a concept like “collective learning”. What is this collective learning? Who learns? Do all segments of the collectivity learn from the same experiences, forgetting, one would assume all they have learnt from experiences that vary according to socio-economic positions?

When the traditional, the “orthodox” Marxist stresses the importance of a working class for-itself perspective, or the importance of the leading role that the working class must play in the attack on totality, the idea is to take cognisance of precisely this class-ified nature of experience, that subjectivises individuals and groups differently, in keeping with the unequal apportionment of value and power in society. To be clear, one is not saying that Nilsen ignores the social inequalities – that would contradict much of what was said in the preceding paragraphs – but only that he ignores the leading role that the downtrodden must necessarily play, owing precisely to their history of being downtrodden. While it is hard to miss the author’s clear attribution of post-colonial development project to the capitalist class, it is surprising to find that the working-class is completely absent from this narrative of resistance and change.

Another possible way of addressing the problems of addressing the limits of movements like NBA also emerges, though it never gets spelt out explicitly, from Nilsen’s own work. A movement against displacement can easily stagnate and take on a petty bourgeois character unless it generalises its proletarian moment and builds “alliances” with (in Nilsen’s terms) other movements that are articulating that same moment. Nilsen quotes an essay published in Radical Notes:

“Understanding all these diverse processes in the framework of primitive accumulation has several strategic implications. Perhaps, most urgently, this can provide a unified framework to locate the numerous struggles going on in the country…”(Chandra and Basu 2007 cited in p.201)

If we read beyond the segment he quotes, we could understand better what this “generalisation,” that could allow movements to transcend their own internal limits means:

“… right from the ‘new’ social movements, like landless workers movements, Narmada Bachao Andolan and other local mobilisations of ‘development-victims’, to anti-privatisation movements of public sector workers, all the way to the revolutionary movements led by the Maoists. This unified framework can then possibly facilitate dialogue among these movements, something that is more than essential at this juncture if the movement of labour against capital is to be strengthened.” (Chandra and Basu 2007)

Although an understanding of the contradiction between capital and labour is implicit in most of Nilsen’s analysis, in the end he either remains blind to, or sidesteps the implications of the centrality of this contradiction. In a famous review of Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution, EP Thompson observed Williams’ unwillingness to use Marxian terms. He noted that though sometimes it is not entirely clear whether Williams is merely steering clear of using that language for the sake of wider intelligibility, or is he also trying to move in a non/anti-Marxist direction with his conclusions. The same can be said about Nilsen’s work. Though his analysis is usually spot on, the attempt to stay away from the register of a Marxian analysis has to be explained. Either he is out to, despite the validity (from a Marxian perspective) of his analysis, find non-Marxist answers to anti-Marxist questions, or his is an attempt to appease the vulgar anti-materialists who rule the academia today – a Gramsci like self-censoring to fool the fascist prison-guards.

Note:


[1] However, there is reason for concern about what it is that Nilsen means by “activist”. On several occasions he uses the term to refer to the external agents that provided a much needed perspective and impetus to the oppressed communities within the Narmada Valley. In fact, on most occasions, it seems Nilsen is addressing such external agents, and only on rare occasions does it seem possible that he might be referring to agents from the militant communities themselves as activists.

Non-market socialism: Life Without Money – An Interview with Anitra Nelson

Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (Pluto Press, London, 2011) that Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman have edited is a remarkable collection on the praxis of non-market socialism. For the contributors of the volume, socialism/communism is not just a state or goal which we have to achieve in some distant future; rather, it is built through immediate practices that reject capitalism and its key institutions – market and money. They regard the manipulation of these institutions for their gradual transcendence to be deceptive, as “the market system, and its quasi-god money, is a strong barrier to the political and cultural reforms needed to establish socialism.” The volume critiques the reduction of socialist revolution to combinatorics of state power and economic reformism.

The following discussion with Anitra Nelson, one of the editors of the volume, tries to bring out the chief tenets of non-market socialism, providing an insight into the politics of diverse experiences in this regard. Prof Nelson teaches at RMIT University in Melbourne (Australia) and has been active in the women’s liberation, peace, disability, environmental and solidarity movements. One of her previous works, Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities (Routledge, London, 1999), is considered to be an important contribution in the Marxist critique of political economy. 

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Pratyush Chandra (PC): Life Without Money? Isn’t the title itself sufficiently utopian? In fact, the whole collection seems to present an explicit defence of the utopian element in the socialist project. How do you relate this utopianism to the scientificity that the critique of political economy claims? Aren’t we being prescriptive, which Marx tried to avoid all his life?

Anitra Nelson (AN): These are familiar, provocative questions worth a detailed response. Your first three questions imply that being utopian is negative and against the scientific method employed by Marx, while the last one indicates that Marx avoided being prescriptive and so we should as well. Let’s acknowledge that the terms ‘utopian’, ‘scientific’ and ‘prescriptive’ all point to Marxian controversies associated with conflicting interpretations of Marx. I will discuss them in turn as a way of elaborating on our interpretation of Marx and the way we need to address current environmental and political challenges that we face as a global community. But, first, let me briefly describe our book and the position it advocates.

Life Without Money

Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies has ten contributors advocating a non-market socialist position to address our current crises, i.e. in order to realise socialism we need to dispense with money and markets as a fundamental strategy and not simply expect money and markets to evaporate eventually as a result. The collection argues why we need to pursue this strategy as well as how we might do it, by offering some practical examples and theoretical visions. I initiated the project. Co-editor Frans Timmerman and I co-wrote two chapters and I was the sole author of a third. Some of the responses in this interview draw on an unpublished paper, ‘Money or socialism’ that we presented at the Historical Materialism Australasia Conference, held 20 July 2012 in Sydney. You can read more about the book and its contributors in the book’s website.

Non-market socialism

We decided that a non-market socialist position needed to be promoted urgently because humans have laid the basis for our extinction using capitalist practices and thinking. The recent rise in intensity, frequency and scope of natural disasters is linked substantially to climate change. Human beings cannot live with even a small rise in their body temperature, and any variation around the average tends to involve debilitating symptoms. Similarly, the earth is changing itself to cope with global warming in ways that will make our environments hostile to our continued existence as a species. We believe that the results of these changes will produce dramatic effects in years, not just decades or by the end of the century.

We see non-market socialism as the only way to address the combined crises we face, which are results of a capitalist system based in production for trade, relying on monetary accounting and exchange. This system contorts and confuses the values, relationships and structures that ideally exist between people and between people and nature. At the heart of the capitalist system is the practice and concept of money as a measure, even a god. The structure and relations of capital are impossible without the practice and concept of money as a general all-purpose means of exchange and unit of account. Capital is money that begets more money.  Thus monetary values come to dominate social and environmental values in more and more intensive and expansionary ways. The modern state arises as a handmaiden to capital. We buy and we vote; we are servants to both.

Utopian

I always love the questions that pose that we are utopian, using ‘utopian’ pejoratively and referring to Marx to support their position. The irony of this attack is that Marx argued against what he called utopian socialists, such as Proudhon, specifically because they did not appreciate that capital evolves from money as a chicken does from an egg. Invariably those suspicious of a non-market socialist line — because they think money is okay and believe that Marx thought money was okay — call us utopians while Marx would have called them utopians! However, I do not look at Marx as a god. So, I am not appealing to Marx’s words here as evidence of the truth, or as a matter of faith. It just so happens I agree with Marx’s analysis in this instance. Furthermore, I believe his concept of money embodies some of the strongest insights responsible for making his wider analysis relevant to us today.

Marx (1976 [1867]: 126) starts Capital I by examining the ‘cell’ of capitalism, the commodity, which is both a use value and an exchange value. He immediately unpacks the contrast between the qualities or purposes of a good or service, its use value, and its exchange value, which is a ‘quantitative relation’. Use values can be expressed as implicit quantities, such as human beings, who can be weighed in kilograms and measured in centimetres and compared with one another. But commodities are brought into a relationship with one another on the market through their exchange value, their price, with money as the ‘common denominator’ (Marx 1970 [1859]: 28). It is clear then that money as a unit of account is not at all a measure but rather some kind of variable standard.

Marx (1976 [1867]: 89–90) considered this introduction would challenge the reader and ‘present the greatest difficulty’ because ‘the commodity-form of the product of labour’ and ‘value-form of the commodity’ took the ‘money-form’. As for money, Marx (1976 [1867]: 90) wrote that ‘the human mind has sought in vain for more than 2,000 years to get to the bottom of it’. Thus, amongst others, Althusser (1971) counselled workers/readers to skip the first couple of chapters. I think that this was probably the worst possible advice. Instead the advice should be to dwell on these chapters, which — as autonomist Marxist Harry Cleaver ably shows in his 1979 work Reading Capital Politically — provide the building blocks for a revolutionary analysis of contemporary capitalism.

Careful reading of Part I of Capital I (1976 [1867]) and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1970 [1859]) avoid the ridiculous conclusion that money is not a problem, only capital is. Marx opposed those who seemed to think that they could simply redefine money, issue it on different terms, regulate it in new ways, or give goods and services ‘prices’ at a distribution centre or before they reached the market (a contradiction in terms). He started his analysis of capital with money and commodities because he thought many socialists and political economists had underestimated the role of money. Yet, in actual fact, money was both the ‘ultimate product of commodity circulation’ and simultaneously ‘the first form of appearance of capital’ (Marx 1976 [1867]: 247). Proudhon, for instance, thought the social system could be altered by monetary and price reform. Marx said democratization of credit was impossible because capitalists exploit and control workers by using money, credit and debt.

In other words, if Marx were here today, he would be questioning, like we do, those socialists who only see money as a neutral tool or ineffectual form rather than appreciate that money is at the basis of practices that developed and maintain class and private property.

Scientific

Marx’s dialectical approach not only allows but also demands a holistic appreciation of context, relational dynamics and transparent values. In this approach form and content can be analysed distinctly only within an overarching acknowledgement of their integration. For instance, the ‘money form’ is of, with and by the content of capital. His scientism was a call for boldness and bravery in social and political analysis. He sought the spare, essential patterns that explained economic dynamics and he engaged with the model that evolved, whatever it might imply. As a non-market socialist I would ask other Marxists to be scientific in this sense and consider whether it is simply too much of a challenge, too inconvenient, to contemplate the task of disassembling a world rotating on money.

Prescriptive

Both the theory and practice of filmmaking and screenwriting refer constantly to ‘point of view’ (POV). The easiest example of POV is the location, slant and scope of a camera on subjects and scene. As political activists we are often poised like the cinematographer and camera within a POV. Marx positioned himself very firmly within the values of an alternative world to capitalism — whether we call it communism, socialism or anarchism hardly matters — and wrote his analyses from that POV.

Whether Marx was prepared to admit it or not this POV was, in itself, prescriptive and determined his specific dialectical method of being ‘scientific’. Not only that but a major part of his empirical and conceptual analyses, and the constant praxis operating between the two, was determined by the challenges of, and implications for, revolutionary strategies. He made no apologies for prescription here. Indeed this focus was the centre of his political and intellectual life. He and his wider family’s involvement in the rise and fall of the Paris Commune is a prime example. The rudders in his practical and theoretical approaches were essentialism and minimalism, to get to a socialist society as quickly and easily as possible.

It is true that there are points in Marx’s analysis where he gets out of explaining how a principle or criterion of socialism might operate in practice by saying, ‘Don’t you worry about that, they’ll work it out.’ Furthermore, he cautions theorists against creating blueprints which might deprive socialists of making decisions about what they do and how they do it because this act contradicts or undermines the democratic authority socialism embodies as self-governance. He has faith in socialist problem-solving once the structures, relations and values are firmly in place. By implication planned socialism, its centrist organisation and bounded markets would seem at odds with Marx’s perspective.

Marx had no quibbles at all in continuously engaging with contemporary prescriptions. His main points here were to do with breaking with money per se, rather than thinking that all you had to do was to ‘tinker’ with it and achieve large-scale change, let alone revolution. Marx’s analyses of existing experiments, such as workers’ cooperatives and labour money, assessed their (in)capacity to fulfil the principles of decision-making being transparent and just, and production efficiently and effectively satisfying social needs. Today, non-market socialists make the same points about the plethora of half-baked schemes — fair trade, carbon trading, community currencies and so on — that cannot lead to socialism unless they go hand-in-hand with political movements to erode capitalism, private property, and create a global commons focusing on production for everyone’s basic needs. Of course, many of those schemes do not profess to be socialist, mostly claiming to be on the way to either a higher stage of capitalism — developing ‘social capital’ or ‘natural capital’, terms that would drive Marx insane — or the more nebulous ‘postcapitalism’.

In short, we argue that we must unpack the terms of what postcapitalism might be to become conscious and deliberate collaborative managers of our co-existence. If this discussion is unfairly labelled discourses on utopia or prescriptive, so be it.

PC: The pragmatic socialists have always viewed money, exchange and the market important as transitional tools to achieve socialism. But, in your vision, this reduction of money to a mere tool also seems to obstruct any meaningful imagination of sustainable post-capitalism. Do you think the problems of market socialism and the social-democratic vision of socialism lie in their shared basic understanding of the meaning and power of money and market (and thus, capitalism)? What do you mean when you say, ‘the soundest critiques of capitalist developments need to be conducted in terms of use values’?

AN: Money and markets represent capitalist power, not only a vernacular of power, but also, and more importantly, existing material practice of power. We must recover that power over the means of our existence, over the conditions and practice of our existence. You cannot have capital without money. You cannot have abstract labour or labour for wages without money. Especially people who have no money understand that money is not a neutral tool, it’s a form of control. Capitalists are defined by money, their power is monetary power, their logic is a market-based logic. If our strategies for confronting, undermining and overwhelming capital are based in these simple facts, it is not hard to challenge the system. Non-market socialism is pragmatic.

In as much as market socialists and social-democratic socialists support market processes and mechanisms, I think that they share a basic misunderstanding of monetary and market practices and how they constitute capitalism. Twentieth century examples of centrally planned and market-oriented socialism, best described as state capitalism, clearly failed to democratise power and, in many ways their systems of production and distribution mimicked capitalist work and consumption. Socialist managers seemed to use market models as instruments of power to control the masses much as we are contained in capitalism. For me, socialism must mean sharing power, the power to decide what is produced, how it is produced and for whom. Socialism must be state-free and class-free because states and classes represent exclusive power.

Many critiques of capitalism highlight the contradictions between, on the one hand, economic values and dynamics and, on the other hand, the embodied social and environmental use values of resources, workers, goods and services. Many environmental and social activist campaigners appeal to a logic of use values rather than exchange values to advocate their position. For instance, they will argue that an old-growth forest has more use values and reproductive and sustainable potential to the communities that rely on it for all their basic needs, such as food, potable water, shelter, clothing and medicines, than its use for making profits for a multinational conglomerate that plans to clearfell the trees, sell them for timber, let or help the remaining forest ecosystem die, and replace it all with a tree farm. Similarly, anti-nuclear campaigners will argue that the industry is unnecessary to fulfil people’s basic needs and a risk to their wellbeing and livelihoods, while the nuclear industry will argue that it will create ‘clean’ energy to sustain growth, jobs and profits. These examples contrast arguments based in use values and those based on exchange values.

In as much as the Left continues to consciously and conscientiously argue and propose options that are based on a logic of use values we can offer a clear and unequivocal alternative to capitalism. Once we start to try to convince capitalists and the state to be more environmentally and socially sound using arguments based on economic values — ‘You can make more money this way’; ‘Why not trade in environmental values?’ — we are lost.

Again, the first couple of chapters of Capital I (1976 [1867]) — and earlier drafts of similar material in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1970 [1859]) and the Grundrisse (1973 [1857–8]) — show how important the concept of use value was to Marx’s concept of work for capital and the importance he gave to the obfuscation of use values through commodity fetishism. On the one hand, labour becomes standardised and interchangeable in the process of the production and exchange of commodities: ‘uniform, homogenous, simple labour’, ‘labour in which the individual characteristics of the workers are obliterated’, in short ‘abstract general labour’ (Marx 1970 [1859]: 29 — italics in the original). On the other hand, the quantitative relation ultimately realised in the form of a price not only represents ‘materialised labour’ but also, in the same process, ‘the qualitative difference between their use values is eliminated’. The analytical groundwork for his subsequent analysis is to show us what use values are, despite their obliteration through work and production for money. They are all we need to exist. It is capitalist ideology that mystifies the significance of money and makes us believe in its necessity and efficiency instead of ourselves.

The alienation implicit in commodity production, in capitalism, in a good or service sold for money occurs via market processes, which:

  • obliterate the human agency, which has produced the commodity
  • objectify the socially necessary labour-time as value per se
  • through a price, define the commodity in terms of its social wealth, thereby eliminating any sense of the commodity’s use value.

In one stroke, within the first few pages of all these early works of Marx, we readily understand that workers, the subjects and objects of capital(ists), will experience the world in a market-filtered and dominated way. Capitalists cannot in practice appreciate environmental and social values. The system they employ reduces everything to a market assessment, a monetary value, a price.

Furthermore, Marx’s analysis shows the absurdity and risks of efforts to try to set prices, which today focuses on making prices reflect environmental values, as in carbon and water-trading schemes or pricing forests and other environmental ‘assets’. Similarly, it is pointless to calculate and try to institute wages for housework. In my opinion his painstaking ethnography around commodity production and exchange found at the start of Capital I and his earlier works is Marx at his finest. He reveals the absurdity of market values, alludes to the workings of the market as absolutely distinct from meeting basic human needs and the needs of ecological systems. The political conclusion is:

“The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and natural form.” (Marx 1976 [1867]: 173)

To institute socialism we only need to understand the potential, limitations and needs of a natural and built world held in commons along with the basic needs of humans — and share decision-making based on a discourse of use values and distinct measures appropriate to differing use values (Buick 1987). There is no need for a universal unit of account or means of exchange.

In his chapter on money, markets and ecology in Life Without Money, John O’Neill discusses the non-monetary thrust of Otto Neurath, who, a century ago, argued against Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek for an in natura socialist economy. In short, Neurath envisaged an economy based on use values, ecological and social values, that did not rely on any kind of standard for comparison, any universal measure, such as money. In tandem O’Neill, an ecological economist and political philosopher as well as a political economist, discusses deliberative democracy as a current that he thinks can offer ways for people to decide together what and how they produce and for whom.

Meanwhile, many socialists today fail to acknowledge the revolutionary significance of consciously acting, as well as thinking, on the basis of use values rather than exchange values. Acknowledging money as a tool of power, rather than efficiency, and as the organising principle of capitalism points to revolutionary strategies which undermine capitalism non-violently and involve instituting direct democracy in the process. So, I do not reduce money to a ‘mere tool’ at all. Rather, I see it as omnipotent, so powerful in fact that even committed and passionate socialists can complain that they cannot envisage a socialist future without some kind of monetary framework or role for money and markets.  What a dictatorship of the imagination money and its market has wrought, that even its most ardent detractors cannot think outside their prison walls.

PC: The second half of the book discusses various experiences of building a moneyless future. However, don’t you think that the marginal and isolated nature of some of these experiences and their permissibility within capitalism dilutes their capacity to become models for a socialist future? Do you think Marx’s appreciative, yet cautionary, note on cooperatives in his various writings (e.g. The Inaugural Address to the First International) are valid for understanding the scope and limits of these experiences?

AN: Again, as it so happens, my stance is quite close to Marx’s. I too have been a longstanding critic of a range of movements that regard cooperatives and, say, the Parecon (participatory economics) models of Michael Albert and Robert Hahnel as embryonic or, worse still, fully fledged institutions of a socialist future. Specifically either integration within the market, which is the hallmark of many productive cooperatives, or use of quasi-monies — a labour voucher system in the case of Parecon — have problems that Marx pointed to. We do not condone either in Life Without Money and include a brief critique of an alternative exchange/currency LETS (labour exchange or local energy trading system) by Adam Buick.

I find the space-to-exist-within-capitalism argument somewhat self-defeating. Anyway, aren’t we referring more to a forcefully created space within which to resist capitalism? Does the fact that you and I are able to conduct this conversation freely within a capitalist society mean that nothing we say can be valid for a post-capitalist future? Of course not. We conduct this discussion in resistance and defiance of capitalism. We are isolated and marginalised because that is part of the game. It might seem weird for someone like me, who spent years on a painfully detailed and constructive critique of Marx’s concept of money, to say this but I prefer to make a stand in practice than to wax lyrical about pure theory. I prefer activity to text. I prefer creation to criticism. I tolerate — even enjoy — theory, text and criticism but only because they help me live and enable me to change the way I live. I want to do. To do is to be.

The practical examples that we discuss in our book are not offered as ready-made solutions but rather constructive ways to move if we are to realise socialism in the short amount of time we now have left to do so — in decades not centuries. We are already in a process of species suicide. We are already in a process of renewal of what it is to be human. We cannot afford to think in terms of a long-term plan or reformism, if only because of the haste with which we must move. It is fitting that we take the most accurate route. There will be a revolution or, literally, nothing left of our species. We try to identify, then, embryonic and/or hybrid forms, which allow us to begin right now and know that the way we are going is contributing to establishing and maintaining socialist values, socialist production and socialist exchange.

Two well-known examples discussed in our book are Twin Oaks community in Virginia (USA) and the squatting community Can Masdeu in Catalonia (Spain). Neither promote themselves as non-market socialist. In reality both communities are open to diverse philosophical beliefs. However, their practices and approaches are near enough to non-market socialism for us to use them in our analysis. They both eschew money and markets but could not exist without a negotiated existence within capitalism, the prison we all live in. They struggle to impose alternative values and practices within, alongside and usurping capitalism. They are not ghettos. They welcome visitors and attract enough to open spaces for ‘the public’ weekly, have visitors stay and hold workshops and other activities in partnership with local and global environmental and social activist campaigners.

In 2012, I spent three weeks at Twin Oaks, living like a member and six weeks in Barcelona exploring, not only Can Masdeu but also other communal experiments, such as the eco-industrial post-capitalist colony of Ca La Fou. To me they seem less marginal and isolated than many Marxists and anarchists, both those within and those outside their fragmented parties, scholarly academies and other institutions of resistance, which seem to have little impact on mainstream society. All that said, many members of these communities are, of course, socialists and/or anarchists! Twin Oaks community and Can Masdeu exist in the fluid, ad hoc and self-governing networks that made the Occupy movement possible on a global scale. The people who move in and out of them have not waited for agreement on a correct line. They have not waited for a revolution. I see their potential in two integrated spheres — creating productive and democratic structures separate from, and in competition to, capitalism.

PC: You have been involved in the intentional community movement in Australia. Can you give a brief account of your experience in terms of its significance and limitations?

AN: During the 1990s I lived in two communities. Commonground, located in central Victoria refers to itself as an intentional community along the style of a commune. In his From Utopian Dreaming to Community Reality: Cooperative Lifestyles in Australia (1995: 140), Bill Metcalf referred to it as ‘the smallest, but also the most radical and dramatic, in this book’. Indeed, when I was there, it was self-organising on the basis of anarchist, feminist and socialist values. Twin Oaks had been an inspiration to one of the founders and certain ways that Twin Oaks operated were experimented with and instituted at Commonground. This included a ‘labour credit’ system — distinct from a labour voucher or quasi-money system — in which people elected to work on tasks that the community collectively deemed as work for a set number of hours per week.

Since Commonground had fewer than twenty people living there as members at that time, it was easy to timetable all the tasks that needed doing, then members and working visitors would select and negotiate their personal work schedule for the forthcoming week at a meeting held each Monday morning. Commonground owned almost 40 hectares of rural bush land, which gave it the opportunity to practise a modicum of sufficiency alongside its core mission to serve the social change movement. I relished my time there because it brought me into contact with so many people seeking social and environmental change, and the experience of communal life was overwhelmingly positive.

During my period at Commonground, and while I was completing my PhD on Karl Marx’s theory of money, the concept and practice of a common purse was being hotly contested within the community’s inner core. I witnessed the tensions that compromises with capitalism and a market mentality entailed as some core members argued for the cooperative mission to be fulfilled in a more business-like way, albeit a non-profit business. This was a struggle against principles of what I would later refer to as collective sufficiency — as distinct from individualised self-sufficiency — and environmental justice. The balance had always been in favour of social rather than environmental considerations. I found that hard to understand because, for me, environmental and social justice are — or can be — bound together. As I understand it, this fracture has been institutionalised within the community — as it is within the wider Left in Australia, of which it remains an active part.

After a couple of years’ living at Commonground — where everyone lived and worked under one roof — we sold the land that I owned jointly with them adjacent to their 40 hectare property, and I bought into Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative, located in a peri-urban or semi-rural enclave on the edge of Victoria’s capital city, Melbourne. This cooperative was explicitly not an intentional community but rather was developed to preserve 132 hectares of box-ironbark woodlands while providing a site for housing for each of its shareholder-members. The members own the land as a cooperative, which determines the rules under which people build and live there, jointly managing the land for conservation purposes.

Given that you could not borrow money to build on the cooperative, potential membership seemed to be limited to the well-off, though to purchase a share with its house site attached cost less than 20 per cent of comparable land purchases in the area and many had built mud-brick homes using their own labour, making it accessible to DIY activists. Though some of the members had been communists and/or radical activists, this cooperative was more mainstream than Commonground. However, I was attracted by its environmental bent and its singular achievement of spreading many of its environmental practices to a wider landscape of more than 100 private properties in the form of regulations, which became an Environmental Living Zone under the state’s planning code in 1986. Despite its limitations I concluded that it had the potential to act as a transitional form between private property and holding the Earth as a commons. Although not the hothouse that Commonground was, the co-management of land demanded sophisticated skills in communications and decision-making, which was based as much as possible on consensus. However, after a serious car accident, I left mainly because it was not convenient to public transport and I needed to be closer to places I worked and socialised in.

PC: Do you find the question of building a ‘life without money’ emerging from class struggle itself? In contrast to the voluntarist stress on the escape from the logic of capital, is it not true that the central concern in Marxist theory of praxis has been to build upon the solidarity and coordination embedded in the daily ‘guerrilla struggle’ against capital and the increasing political and economic self-capacity of the working class?

AN: In short, yes to both questions. The best reference points here are those writing in the autonomous Marxist tradition. The third chapter in Life Without Money is by autonomous Marxist Harry Cleaver and focuses on working for money.

Cleaver emphasises that Marx had a labour theory not because he saw capitalism as the means to dominate people as workers and consumers. Capitalism redefines life as work: market-oriented production and consumption. Marx’s theory of alienation was a critique of capitalist work; socialism and communism meant freeing work from that perversion. Post-capitalism meant increasing our free time to enable a growth of individuality and humanity replacing labour as the source of value in society. Revolution meant workers’ gaining control of the means of production and making work meaningful through self-organised cooperation and collective self-realisation.

Cleaver attacks the standard socialist position that leads to work under socialism being much the same as under capitalism except that the state, not capitalist, extracts the workers’ surplus value:

“The primary difference is that in ‘socialist development’ government plans and organises most of the investment. From the Soviet Union’s extraction of an agrarian surplus to finance industrialisation to the current Venezuelan Government’s appropriation and reinvestment of oil profits, the process remains approximately the same no matter the rhetoric in which these processes are cloaked.” (Cleaver in Nelson & Timmerman 2011: 48)

Moreover, the accumulation characteristic of twentieth century socialism meant that the sense of human diversity ‘implicit in Marx’s notion of the transcendence of labour value by an indeterminate free time has been both ignored and contradicted’ until, over the last few decades, some movements have revealed ‘the possibilities of real multilateralism in post-capitalist society’ (Cleaver in Nelson & Timmerman 2011: 52). Cleaver celebrates our alternative socialist tradition of collective grassroots cooperation; as capitalism intervenes in and shapes people’s lives, they resist. If they resist on the basis of work refusal then ‘the struggles of those of us who are waged and the struggles of those of us who are unwaged are inherently related’ (Cleaver in Nelson & Timmerman 2011: 60). Cleaver’s book Reading Capital Politically (1979) skilfully deconstructs class and re-elaborates class with capitalist money at the centre, thus embracing non-worker consumers and other structurally marginal people.

A non-market socialist position distances itself from any intense or central emphasis on worker cooperatives and schemes that compromise with the market or mimic capitalism. We prefer hybrid models, such as the temporary autonomous zone discussed by Bey (1985) and elaborated in Terry Leahy’s chapter in our book. Instituting a hybrid is a defiant and forthright challenge. It might focus on: expanding community gardens where there is decision-making on what is grown, how and where, as well as sharing work and produce; or squatting spaces and using ‘trash’ for art activism; or spreading crop and swap meets, holding them more and more frequently based on growing kinds of goods and services. These hybrids are not pure embryonic forms of a new society but rather act as half-way points stepping away from capitalism towards an holistic socialism. Monitoring and revising the operation of hybrids not only develops a clearer critique of capitalism but, more significantly, also enables us to be actively experimenting with being socialist. Such hybrids act as cells conscientiously working to overcome systemic barriers to greater networking between hybrids, with the potential to produce an holistic alternative future of expanding and interrelating hybrids. Developing more confidence in these alternative cells and networks we can withdraw more of our labour from the capitalist economy and polity — work refusal — and instead actively produce a new society.

PC: One of the most remarkable features of this collection is its readiness to traverse through various revolutionary traditions against capitalism. One tradition that finds space throughout the collection is that of anarchism and its various shades. How do you see the divergences and convergences between these two revolutionary traditions — of Marxism and anarchism? Further, you yourself admit that this collection can be seen as a sequel to Rubel and Crump’s volume on non-market socialism. Do you agree with Rubel’s characterisation of Marx as the theoretician of anarchism?

AN: My interpretation of Marx fits very comfortably with Maximilien Rubel’s. Though not in the first instance being conscious of the traditions that my interpretations of everyday life fell into, I too read Marx as if I were an anarcho-communist, non-market socialist or autonomous Marxist. In my twenties, I referred to myself as an anarcho-communist. While I was immediately attracted to anarchism’s open creativity and anti-state position, it always seemed too broad a church to me to support without qualification. Its representatives embraced the whole spectrum, the best and worst of political philosophies. Anyway, I had socialist values, so they came first and anarchism became the qualifier. This, of course, seemed to make me objectionable to most of my friends who neatly and commitedly kept to one camp or the other. That I was first and foremost a women’s liberationist only muddied the waters further. It is only when I chanced on the collection on non-market socialism by Rubel and Crump (1987) that I found my political home.

While they define non-market socialism as a market-free, money-free, class-free and state-free society, we add that non-market socialism needs to be want-free, sustainable and just as well. Yes, our book very much updates and expands on the Rubel and Crump collection. It is current and broad in its scope, whereas Rubel and Crump took a more historical approach, which makes their collection more fragmented and partial. The anarchist Terry Leahy wrote the chapter in Life Without Money on the gift economy, though his discussion is broad-ranging, his analysis drawing on permaculture, patriarchy and feminism.

The somewhat bad name of anarchists amongst socialists has to do with the diffuse nature of anarchist writings, their seemingly undisciplinary and joyfully undoctrinaire philosophies and anarchism’s attraction to charismatic, egotistic loose cannons. The conflict between Bakunin and Marx was to prove typical. However, in my lifetime, several connected pressures have forced a critical rapprochement. For those of us committed to environmental activism, amongst our politically sophisticated and experienced brethren, socialists proved very slow on the uptake and anarchists were more open supporters. Working from the grassroots demands a different style of politicking and creativity that anarchism can inform. Most importantly, the statism of the Marxist Left shackled its development while anarchism had done away with the state as a first principle.

PC: You have devoted considerable space in one of the initial chapters to developing a concise critique of the so-called actually existing socialisms and the debates around market and money during their revolutionary phases. You have endorsed Che Guevara’s attitude in Cuba against statisation, market and money. Can you summarise his vision of the socialist future as you understand it? How do you relate this with the questions of state and political power with which Che was always concerned as an armed revolutionary?

AN: In the early years of Soviet power the party elite seriously discussed instituting a moneyless economy. A debate occurred in Cuba also, in the mid-sixties, around whether and how to diminish the role of money. In neither Russia nor Cuba did the founding revolutionaries come to power with a clear theory or plan for how socialist exchanges might differ from market-based evaluation.

Many of the Russian leaders, such as Trotsky and Stalin, expected money would simply disappear almost of its own accord as communism developed (Bettelheim 1968: 60; Rosdolsky 1977: 130). In Russia they decided to abolish money but not monetary accounting. The debate on replacing a monetary unit of account with one based on labour, measured in time or energy, produced an enormous volume of literature in 1920–1921. It was influenced by the work of Austrian economist Otto Neurath, whose thoughts John O’Neill discusses in depth in his chapter of Life Without Money. Anyway, any advance to a moneyless communism was halted when all state industries were directed to follow principles of precise economic accounting, including demanding money for taxes as well as state-produced goods and services. While Lenin acknowledged that his New Economic Policy would ‘inevitably lead to… a revival of capitalist wage-slavery’, he defended it as a tactical retreat ‘to make better preparations for a new offensive against capitalism’ (Lenin 1976: 184­–5). I regard it a salutary lesson that this retreat solidified into a barrier to the advance of socialism.

I became particularly fascinated with the split that occurred between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, especially around economic matters and the question of ‘money’, in which I sided with Che, though I do not think he went far enough. Is that because he did not believe we had to do away with money completely, as non-market socialists believe, or because he was pushing his point about as far as he could at the time? At least Che appreciated that this was, at base, a political rather than an economic matter, pointing to the development of a substantively political democracy as the organising principle of society. Alas, at least publicly, he believed in a limited usefulness for a unit of account — which is the fundamental function of capitalist money — but his arguments here were practical, associated with international trade, rather than ideal. As it was, he failed in his limited attempt to reorient the revolutionary strategy. It is significant that he broke with the Cuban revolution at this time because it leaves hanging the question of his essential vision of socialism. I do not think that what is left in historical records can clear up some of these key points.

Che embraced Marx’s position that monetary values reflected abstract labour, not wants or available resources. Che said that prices set by state agencies were not market prices, that planning should not mimic market forces and the law of value, but instead consciously account for non-economic factors. Belgian economist and Marxist Ernest Mandel supported Che’s position that socialism negated monetary values and trading relations. However, Che lost the debate with Castro, who agreed with abolishing money ultimately but not immediately. Che’s vision of socialism was rooted in voluntary, passionate work and a new consciousness, free of the discipline of the market.

PC: Recent developments in Latin America have rejuvenated debates on revolutionary strategies everywhere, even among the Left in Australasia. The fabricas recuperadas movement and the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Argentina, the barrios movement to establish popular control over urban resources in Venezuela, the rise in Indigenous assertion and power in Mexico and Bolivia and the landless workers’ movement in Brazil — all have redefined much of the older debates on social control, political organisations, state etc. Many Marxists in the autonomist tradition have affirmed and critically articulated the significance of these developments. Do you find any enrichment of the discourse on market and money, as central to socialist imagination, in these experiences?

AN: Yes, experimentation in DIY revolutions, being active in spaces of resistance, is basic to the thrust of non-market socialism. We all live under intensifying capitalism, and resistance can come in unexpected forms. While we are suspicious of state socialism, we must use whatever support we are offered to show that grassroots activity is the backbone of socialism. Joan Martinez-Alier reminded a class — who I spoke with about our book at the Summer School and Workshop on Political Ecology, Environmental Justice and Conflicts in Barcelona in July 2012 — that in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) people experimented with non-monetary exchange as well as collective production. As Allende’s Chile (1970–1973) fell to opposition forces, it was the same. As we take control of the forces of production and produce for a socialist future, then we must use our own values and distribution networks based on the logic of need and use values, not monetary values and the market.

Three contributors to Life Without Money participated in panels at the 2012 Left Forum in New York City: ecofeminist Ariel Salleh, Frans Timmerman and I. Key speakers at the Left Forum included Autonomous Marxist John Holloway, who lives in Mexico, and Marina Sitrin whose work on horizontalism (horizontalidad) in Latin America and the global Occupy movement is particularly relevant. An indication of the significance of the rejuvenation of non-monetary relations in everyday acts by Europeans in defiance of the global financial crisis is the Homage to Catalonia study led by Manuel Castells (Conill et al. 2010), some findings of which appear in his Aftermath: The Culture of the Economic Crisis (Castells et al. 2012).

The Occupy movement has been impressive if only because it has been so widespread, demonstrating a broad disenchantment with representative democracy and market economies right across the world. The general-assembly models, endorsement of horizontalism, direct engagement between crowds and speakers, the naming of the ‘1%’ against the ‘99%’ and the word ‘occupy’ identifying their chief demand has put capital in disarray and on alert. More than that, this movement is supported by many of those who are experimenting with production for direct use, alternative and gift exchange, and liberation from trade, consumption and exchange values.

PC: What is a compact society? You talk about collective sufficiency and networks, which connect the local with the global — thus establishing a global compact society. Can you explain the basics of this post-capitalist future, and how it will transform our needs and activities, and counter the negative impact on the environment?

AN: In Life Without Money, we elaborate a local–global compact society, not to lay down a hard and fast plan for a non-market socialist future but to stimulate people’s imaginations and counter those who regard it as impossible. Most significantly, for our activist practice, we need to have a clear idea of where we are going and how our different activities might ultimately constitute a socialist future. We want as many people as possible elaborating ideas of a post-capitalist future so we can argue, experiment and establish this society.

To distinguish ours, we needed to name it somehow. I liked the way that the word ‘compact’ worked in two directions, socio-political and the other environmental and material. The noun ‘compact’ refers to a social agreement and, used as an adjective, ‘compact’ is associated with efficiency and economy, referring to a condensed, small and efficient use of space. The concept of a compact world is one of multiple horizontal cells, which aim for relative collective sufficiency within neighbourhoods and bioregions, connected by networks of various sizes appropriate to their functions, with voluntarily created and agreed to compacts structuring the production and flow of goods and services. ‘Collective sufficiency’ is a term we coined to refer to material, basic-needs sufficiency evolving on the basis of a commons and people working together to ensure their communal sufficiency (in contrast to individuals or singular households developing ‘self-sufficiency’).

My concept of these cells owes much to the principles and design features of permaculture. ‘Permaculture’ — a movement starting in Australia but quickly taking root in various places globally — stands for permanent and sustainable culture, integrating human practices with natural processes to yield security in food and other basic needs (Holmgren 2003, 2012).

I was a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA, 1920–1991) from the early 1980s to its dissolution ten years later. I was particularly attracted by the success of green bans led by CPA officials, especially Jack Mundey, and the builders unions’ who refused to work on developments that they deemed environmentally or socially unsound (Burgmann & Burgmann 2011). I had always been — and remain —particularly frustrated with the conservative role of unions in Australia and green union strikes and activism singularly broke that mould. These actions initiated the green bans movement worldwide. My mother was practising permaculture as a gardener in the 1980s. I became more attracted to it as an efficient and sustainable approach through my political activities, drawing on anti-state and anti-capital political discourses, and growing evidence of the accuracy of the analyses of 1970s social and environmental activists who initiated more environmentally sound approaches to life.

As a set of design principles and sustainability practice, and care-and-share values, permaculture readily indicates how productive cells might function. The permaculture movement is weaker in pre-visioning the how, i.e. the relationship base, of a global commons, non-monetary production and exchange. In other words many permaculturists imagine that it is simply a matter of the economic and political structures’ absorbing their values in a higher stage of capitalism. Even if they speak in terms of post-capitalism, there are still money and markets, non-profitable firms and representative government. In contrast, non-market socialism and the concept of a compact world introduce governance and economy as challenges still to be addressed.

We often get asked if a compact society is, in effect, a return to living in the cave. People are particularly mystified that any form of advanced technology could be possible without capitalism, the magic womb. Or, of course, they offer the one other path to the same ends: state socialism, whereby the state, robot-like, dictates the establishment and maintenance of large-scale machinery in its own image. In contrast, my approach to technology is one of minimalism. I support small and appropriate technology that is established and maintained on the basis that it does not cost the Earth too much and is efficient, meaning effective, socially. Examples include some forms of renewable energy and biomimicry. Use of computers and Internet needs to be transformed to end or involve only a miniscule amount of harmful substances, such as rare earth minerals and waste, and the ways they are made need to take account of the conditions and working styles of the people making them. Diversity and resilience are both enhanced by relatively autonomous collectively sufficient neighbourhoods and bioregions.

My political activities have been very personal, grounded in everyday life, mainly in environmental grassroots movements, which are open and exploratory, and my philosophy has evolved experientially. These experiences have given me confidence that: a grassroots revolution is possible; we can ‘take over’ the state by replacing its functions in an almost unrecognisable way because, as such, it functions mainly to support capital and a non-market socialist politics is embedded in people’s direct and immediate control, of the means of production and distribution; socialism must be modest and efficient and effective at a personal and neighbourhood level.

By seeing our basic human needs and the needs of the environment in direct, scientific and practical forms and then advancing to discussing options for just and sustainable futures in terms of such use values would be a real advance. Marx’s clear analysis, based as it was on use values — in contradiction to the political economists’ submersion in economistic terms and approaches — offers a clear way forward for the Left to reassert historical-materialist methods.

 

References

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Holmgren, David (2002) Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Hepburn: Holmgren Design Services.

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Lenin, Vladimir (1976). Collected Works 33: August 1921–March 1923. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

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Marx, Karl [1859 (1970)] A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl [1857–8 (1973)] Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Politcal Economy (Rough Draft). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Metcalf, Bill (1995) From Utopian Dreaming to Community Reality: Cooperative Lifestyles in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Nelson, Anitra (1999) Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities. London: Routledge.

Rosdolsky, Roman (1977) The Making of Marx’s ‘Capital’. London: Pluto Press.

Rubel, Maximillien & John Crump (1987) Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: Macmillan Press.

Rape Culture and Capitalism: What is living and what is dead

Saswat Pattanayak

I understand many of us, Indians, are ashamed these days. And it is true that protests and placards do not educate the rapists. And that the students came out on the streets only because it is New Delhi. But we should not miss an important aspect of it all – most protesters clearly defying governmental bans are demonstrating an important tactic in the struggle for women’s rights anywhere in the world. This is a strategy that should not be discouraged, rather used everywhere – be it in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Orissa or Manipur.

Or for that matter, in London, New York and Stockholm. Because last checked, India is as unsafe a country for women as are the United States, United Kingdom and Sweden. Statistically speaking, there are more rapes taking place per hour in the US than in India. Whereas in India the number of rape cases amount to over 20,000 a year, the number well exceeds 90,000 in the United States with third of the population. The unreported cases of rape and ridiculously low conviction rates are also common and comparable across the modern capitalist nations.

It is necessary to fight for women’s rights, but why should the drive stop at the borders? Those of us who refuse to adequately acknowledge the protest movement in Delhi by citing the relative silence in Gujarat and North-East also commit similar fallacies when we fail to protest against abuse of women elsewhere in the world. Why should a “safe Delhi” narrative be replaced only with an equally jingoistic, “safe India”? Protesting against social injustice anywhere should be encouraged, not spurned. No matter the intensity, no matter the limited purpose, no matter the viability. True, that the goals go astray when people demand for death penalty instead of conviction, and true, that some reactionary elements at times also end up hijacking the movements, but it is also true that inaction, silence and skepticism are not going to help the principled oppositions to the status quo, that takes place in any shape, way or form.

Violences on women are rising everywhere, in every corner of the globe. But that is only because more cases are being reported today than it used to be the case earlier. The journey from feudalism to capitalism in the case of India is a journey of advancement, of progression. More women today than ever before are aware of what comprises sexual harassment. More women understand their reproductive rights today than they could in the “good old days”, return to which some Indians are craving for by citing the modern “vulgarization of Indian culture” as the prime factor behind growing rape statistics.

Rape culture is a necessary culmination of capitalism, only because it is acknowledged as thus. In the days of slavery and feudalism, women were not even counted as human beings with needs and demands. Certainly there was no hue and cry about “rape” and in the days of the past, the ruling classes comprised kings and landlords – for whom total ownership of women was not something to be ashamed of, but something to take pride in. “Conquest” of women used to be the prevalent culture and rape was never treated as an exception or aberration. Young girls used to be “gifted” to the royals before they could be married off during their childhood days. In many a cultural settings of the past, the “virgins” were first offered to the rulers. It is no wonder that the sanctity around virginity is a result of feudal structure and its remnants today aid the common men in craving for virgin women.

The Good Old Days Fallacies

Any romanticization of the brutal days of the past must end immediately. Neither India nor any other country in the world can claim to have provided for a safe society for women during their feudal stages of developments (barring probably the tribal and other matriarchal phases, which anyway suffered from other malaises). The reality today may not be any better when other factors are taken into consideration, and I shall dwell on that shortly, but uncritical assessment of the days of yore are grossly regressive and we cannot afford to model a future society after such heinous past.

When serfdom gives in to the rise of modernity and capitalism, there are bound to be struggles, but recognition and knowledge of such struggles empower women and other oppressed sections in unprecedented manners. A growing challenge to narrow nationalism helps borrow and reproduce cultural imports, including some progressive ones – and this becomes a step in the right direction for the traditionally oppressed. Thanks to the growing cosmopolitanism, more Dalits and more women are finding for themselves avenues for education and empowerment today. These are by no means small achievements. Indeed, these are the only justifiable achievements a country like India can boast of in its long “glorious” history.

With advent of capitalism and industrialization, more women find themselves at the workplace, and such a shift is bound to challenge the male hegemony. Through empowered outlooks, more women begin to challenge patriarchy, and that too disturbs the traditional males. Through greater involvement in decision-making processes, more women begin to exercise their rights to bear a child – or to opt for abortion, to marry – or not to marry, and finally they begin to articulate as sexual beings, and not just as sexual objects. Of late, India has witnessed a LGBTQ “pride” movement that could not have surfaced without the present consciousness. Through “Slutwalk”, another movement of solidarity among feminists is shaping up globally and Indian women have joined the cause, despite some obvious flaws in conceptualization and appropriation of the word “slut”. Defying the moral police that run ruckus all over the country during “Valentine’s Day”, women in India are now openly flaunting their love interests in the public. Suffice it to say that such liberated outlooks have started to cause a crisis that is about to shatter the status quo and challenge the norms of capitalism.

Capitalism replaces feudal society, but the wealth still remains concentrated along the lines of traditional privileges. Although education and empowerment are ushered in through capitalism, they are properly utilized only by the families of the former landowners. Slaves get emancipated, but they have no way to compete as equals. Capitalism establishes the “old boys networks”, thrives on favoritism and develops a meritocracy whose rules are defined by the traditionally privileged which go a long way in sustaining the class society. Capitalism firmly enforces the class divide and this in turn plays right into the hands of the traditionally oppressive gender, the male.

Be they Indian men or North American men or European men or Australian men or Arab men or Hindu men or Muslim men or Christian men or Buddhist men – the men typically and automatically advance faster than the women under capitalism. Male advancement invariably accompanies brutal competitiveness that characterizes such individualistic societies. At the same time, they are constantly challenged by more women and children – a development for which men, owing to their historical and superconscious makeups, remain clearly unprepared for. Gender violence is akin to class war and racial struggles in the sense that the historically privileged social location retaliates against those it had oppressed whenever it faces a challenge to its dominance.

It will be a wishful thinking to suggest that we go back to the “golden era” of Indian culture. Wishful only because that is clearly not going to happen. Even the societies where feudalism still remains intact will have to advance to capitalism sooner than later. And with contradictions of capitalism – which are of a very different nature than the struggles within feudalism – are going to pave way to even more advanced forms of struggles – the class war. But we have not reached a stage where majority of people are class-conscious and we must go through this essential period of struggle to duly recognize variety of social locations such as caste, race, gender, ability among others, and allegiances such as nationality and religion – the factors that hinder critical social justice education from empowering everyone.

The cultural contradictions

It is necessary to understand that the protests against rape in Delhi have two basic components – one that cries out for death penalty or stricter punishment, and another that demands equality of status for women. While the former is an endorsement of feudalism and a reinforced belief in the status quo, the latter is an unqualified call for socialism. Delhi Police long infamous for being sexist has hired a renowned Bollywood actor-director Farhan Akhtar to entice men into becoming more “man enough” to join them in protecting Indian women. This is not just a crude display of macho tendencies that make the world an unsafe place to begin with, what is even worse is such artistic collaboration lends credence to a law and order system that is inherently oppressive – Indian police and military system systematically brutalizes countless poor through rape, murder and torture as tools to suppress any dissenting voices. No wonder then, despite the advertisements claiming that Delhi Police is interested in protecting women, once the people gather to register their protest on the streets, the state power unleashes its menace through violent suppressions.

But it would be wrong to exclusively focus on Delhi Police. Same calls for feudalistic past are being made by leading women leaders of India as well. Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal has commented on the increasing number of rape cases thus, “The way media is cooking up rape stories, it would be difficult to believe a genuine rape case.” Sushma Swaraj, the leader of opposition in India has dehumanized rape survivors as “living corpses”. Sheila Dixit, the Chief Minister of Delhi has advised women “not to be adventurous”. In each of such assertion lies the firm refusal on part of ruling class women, along with their men, to break away from India’s feudal past.

Just as the struggle continues in modern India to destroy the last remnants of feudalism, so also the struggle must continue to recognize the early symptoms of Indian capitalism. As the traditionally privileged males – the landowning, slaveowning and women-owning –  fail to understand the historical advancements made by women today in almost all spheres of society, their resistance against this upheaval is going to emerge all the more. Traditional men are puzzled over the emerging idea that women no longer need to be bound by traditional family roles, and that such a shift also extends to women’s prerogatives to choose sexual partners whether or not they are married. A major resentment against the sexual freedom for women represents itself through variety of censorships, sexist laws and moral dictates on clothing patterns. Even as rapes continue to be condemned by the society which is ready to shun feudalism, various factors and societal excuses leading to rapes are being deliberated upon by the same society that is struggling with capitalistic values.

A substantial section of the men who oppose rape also are quick to offer the dress codes and time limits for women as well as raising objections against “clubbing”, “smoking”, “extra-marital affairs”, and a general sense of “cultural degeneration” that apparently make women “easy prey”. At the same time, they refuse to acknowledge that men have continued to indulge in every such “vices” without hindrances for centuries. Patriarchy is just not open to letting women join the scene at equal footing, because that would end the system as we know it. And since capitalism provides for the “opportunities” for women to either reject – or, conversely, accept – the terms of objectification, disgruntled men then hold “cultural corruption” accountable as the convenient culprit.

Not only have upper caste Hindus started quoting Manusmriti to reduce women into symbols of “worships”, even the Bahujan Samaj Party which represents Dalit mainstream interests has found itself embarrassed over calls for feudalism as a method to “protect” women. Rajpal Saini, a BSP member of Parliament recently was quoted saying, “There is no need to give phones to women and children. It distracts them and is useless. My mother, wife and sister never had mobile phones. They survived without one.” BSP supremo Mayawati likewise has joined the right-wing ideologues in calling for “stricter laws” as a deterrent to rape. “It is not enough to just arrest them (the rapists), but action should be so strict that no one should dare to act in such a manner.”

What is to be done?

The reality is, conviction rates in cases of rape are abysmally low. Not just in India, but around the world as well. In the United States, there are an estimated 400,000 “rape kits” (just in case, that’s the situation for 400,000 women) currently backlogged. And by the time the kits are tested the statute of limitations expires and the rapists no longer get charged. Only 24 percent of rapists are arrested in America. The statistic is not any more encouraging in the United Kingdom either. The British government acknowledges that as many as 95% of rapes are never reported to the police, and the country has roughly 6.5% conviction rate.

Precisely because of the nature of patriarchy and the way it engulfs feudal/religious societies as well as capitalistic/liberal societies, the need of the hour is to recognize the war against women as a systemic feature of the world, and to collaborate with every progressive force looking to replace such a status quo. Harking back to the past is not the solution. Looking forward to dismantle the forces of feudalism/capitalism is the approach we must adopt. Let there be no surprise or disappointment in the increasing number of rape cases being registered. More the number of women report assaults, more certain are we to become that the political economic system within which we seek solution is an inherently evil – and fragile – one. Arundhati Roy recently spoke about the fact that the rich people used to oppress women exercising a certain amount of discretion in the past, while thanks to the cultural shifts and movie culture today, their disdain towards women is becoming more apparent. While that is true, we also need to acknowledge this as an evolution for the better. The more racist and sexist people expose their real colors, the greater will the need be felt to overthrow the existing system. Just as in the similar vein, the greatest challenge to racism are not the avowedly racists, but those that deny their race privileges.

What is happening in India is truly remarkable. The collective disdain towards the system may not last forever, since right-wing moralists are going to take it over with sheer power of wealth and media distractions, just as the Occupy movement in America got co-opted by the liberal Democrats for their political aspirations. And as such, the dissenters do not always represent the best interests of the most oppressed in such outbursts, where Dalits, blacks, and the poor often do not find themselves represented. But these outbursts, howsoever temporary, do provide for a recipe for non-cooperation and for civil disobedience. As Howard Zinn reminds us, gradual reforms take place not because of good laws suddenly finding their way in, but because of dissenting people compelling the bad laws out of the system through mass movements. The truth is dissenting voices against the ruling classes world over are increasing phenomenally with more people ably aided by critical education and alternative media. Majority of the world is still too poor, and underprivileged to exchange a wage-earning day in favor of a placard-holding session. And that is precisely why oftentimes in history, progressive sections of the society across classes form larger alliances and go against the grains. And towards that extent there is a need for all of us to collaborate with resistance movements that aim to challenge the ruling order no matter if the causes immediately impact us or not, or if the causes are too narrowly framed by taking on specific agendas. Warmongering against Iran must be opposed just as we should protest massacre of Shia Muslims in Pakistan, and demand for rescue of Palestine from the reactionary Zionists. Role of the revolutionary is to recognize that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.

In Indian context, some of us are protesting against communalism in Gujarat, some of us are raising voices against militarism in Manipur, some engaged in defending lands in Orissa, some protesting against the rape in Delhi. Each of these movements has the potential to be hijacked, infiltrated, and demolished. And yet, each also has the potential to collaborate with fellow resisters all across the globe, and to encompass the ethos of revolutions that will annihilate feudalism, smash down patriarchy, and shatter every iota of capitalism that is inherently exploitative. Eventually, what capitalism produces are its own “grave-diggers”. And its fall and the victory of the revolutionaries are equally inevitable. And there is never a better time than now, to emerge united with the working women and men, the world over – regardless of the prevailing challenges and, because of them.

Thinking/Writing Theoretically about Society

Raju J Das

Changing society presupposes studying it. And, studying society (critically) is not an easy task, although some people may believe that this is an ‘amateurish act’. Studying society is difficult for many reasons, some of which I have briefly discussed in a previous article (‘Why must social science be critical and why must doing social science be difficult?’).

Representing ideas about the world

A study of any aspect of society requires a scholar to critically engage with the existing ideas about that aspect of society. This work is often called a ‘literature review’ or goes in the name of ‘writing theory’. Many younger scholars resist doing it; they want to jump to the field and see what is out there. They also get some encouragement from their professors to do this: that is to jump to the field without prior theoretical preparation. They forget that without concepts one will know nothing by just seeing and hearing, and that developing concepts requires hard intellectual labour, including a critical engagement with existing ideas.

When one reviews the existing literature about a topic, one addresses three questions:

  1. what does the literature say? (this constitutes the review of the literature in a narrow sense);
  2. what is wrong with what the existing literature says? (this will constitute one’s critique: it can be epistemological, ontological and methodological plus theoretical, e.g. political-economic, and empirical); and
  3. how must the topic be (re)examined, including what new questions need to be asked and how these questions must be addressed such that one’s work will be better than the existing literature in certain respects? (here one provides an alternative framework for understanding a given topic).
    These three points are elaborated below.

In terms of 1 (review of the literature in the narrow sense): one needs to think about what the literature says about the following, among other issues:

a)      what the object of analysis is, and how it is different from other things (in other words, how does the existing literature conceptualize the object of analysis?)

b)      why the object of analysis (e.g. non-farm employment; contract farming; food insecurity, GM crops; child labour; strikes in Gurgaon; corruption; class differentiation; state repression; portrayal of violence in Bollywood movies; poverty; rape in Delhi; SEZ, etc.) exists/happens/changes/develops, and

c)      what are its effects (what are the effects of poverty or of non-farm employment or of contract farming on other aspects of society?).

Why is a thorough familiarity with the existing literature necessary? The answer is the social character of knowledge production, the idea that we always build on others’ shoulders. Knowledge production is a social activity. One should know what has been said about a topic so that one does not say exactly what has already been said. One also learns something from what has been said and seeks to go beyond the existing literature. The more we know, the more we do not know. The more we know about the existing literature, the more we find out that there are areas that are still worth exploring (and in new ways).

One could use the three broad categories (a, b, and above) around which to organize the existing views in the literature. Or one can keep these categories in mind and invent other categories around which one may discuss the literature. One may use both these strategies. Often the difficulty is: how will one identify common issues? These are the issues which usually come up again and again, the issues which several scholars emphasize, if differently. In the identification of issues, one’s own tacit/implicit/semi-developed theory (or pre-existing ideas), of course, plays a role.

In doing a thorough literature review on a topic, one should read as much as one can on the topic and on some of the topics that are very closely related to the topic at hand. As just mentioned, one may group the different things one reads about a topic and identify 3-5 issues around which the existing literature can be discussed. Identification/analysis of major issues is one. Their  presentation is different. Discussing the literature author-wise is, in most cases, not that interesting. An author-wise discussion often leads to repetition. However, when a given issue is being discussed, one may turn to an author-wise discussion of the separate aspects of the issue. Let us say that one is writing about poverty and that one has identified three broad aspects of this topic (e.g. how poverty is caused by agrarian differentiation; how it is caused by pro-ruling class government policies, and how poverty has an impact on electoral politics). In this case, one may conduct an author-wise discussion while discussing each aspect of poverty as long as authors’ views are different one from another.

The act of thinking and presenting critique:

In terms of the critique part of theoretical thinking and writing: in ‘Why must social science be critical’, I pose a list of questions. That list does not exhaust all the questions one can ask of the existing literature, but using these may be a small starting point.

Critique is an important productive activity in the sphere of intellectual production. This is in two senses: critique itself produces ideas (criticisms), and these ideas create a space for further production of ideas, both conceptual and empirical.

Criticisms are, at least, of five types. Criticisms are philosophical (ontological and epistemological) and methodological (concerning, for example, the method of collection of information). In making philosophical criticisms, one seeks to undermine the philosophical assumptions which underlie the specific substantive assertions being made in the existing literature. Marxist critics wanting to launch philosophical criticisms can accuse a piece of work as being: idealistic/social-constructionist (reducing what exists to what is thought to exist), empiristic/a-theoretical; relativistic (i.e. failing to assign causal primacy to certain processes); a-historical (considering what is historically specific as universal), a spatial (being blind to the fact that attributes of an object may exhibit spatial unevenness); un-dialectical (this can be in many ways including in terms of the laws of dialectics and theory of relations), and so on.

Criticisms are theoretical (theoretical in the substantive-scientific sense). Theoretical criticisms, above all else, raise the issue of causality. A person says that K causes T. A critic says: does K necessarily cause T?; why must K cause T?; what is the logic of the assertion that K causes T? Here refuting the logic one uses one’s power of theory in political economy (e.g. content of Marx’s discussion in Capital), state theory (see Lenin’s State and Revolution), etc.

Criticisms are also empirical. A person says that y happens in place z, but a critic says that y happens in place p, and provides evidence to this effect. Empirical criticisms are usually weaker, epistemologically speaking. One may say that the state acts in the ruling class interests because ruling class people directly control the state, sitting in the parliaments and controlling the commissions of enquiry. In response, a critic may say that in such and such case, the parliament is not dominated by people belonging to the ruling class and yet the state, more or less, serves the interest of the ruling class.

Then criticisms are practical/political. A Marxist can be critical of reformist political implication of a given assertion. Commenting on the mainstream research, Bertell Ollman says:  ‘the age-old link between knowledge and action has been severed, so that scholars can deny all responsibility for their wares while taking pride in knowing more and more about less and less’ (in his Dance of the Dialectic). One has to be a little careful in making political criticisms though. On the one hand, given an intellectual assertion (e.g., x causes y), more than one political conclusion (i.e. an assertion about what is to be done) can be made. In other words, our view of what happens and why it happens does not entirely determine our view of what can be done. On the other hand, in practice, I have often seen that reformist political conclusions can be traced to certain kinds of faulty theoretical assertions (e.g., those who rubbish the labour theory of value or think about  class as merely income inequality or a matter of attitude tend to be reformists). In practice, also, it is very difficult to separate intellectual criticisms from political criticisms, whether or not the latter are made. Usually, non-Marxists hide their political/normative views and claim that their knowledge-claims are politically neutral when in fact they are not. Marxists are often more candid about their political views. For a Marxist (I am not saying revolutionary Marxist, for the word ‘revolutionary’ is redundant here, and you will just see why): class relations, and most importantly capitalist class relations, are the most fundamental cause of the most fundamental problems of the humanity and therefore the abolition of the class system through independent political mobilization of proletarians and semi-proletarians against the class system and its supporting political-ideological mechanisms (e.g., state) is the most fundamental solution to the problems of the humanity. One sees that one’s theory of class is immediately intellectual and political.

Note that often substantive criticisms – theoretical and empirical criticisms – are the only type of criticisms that are made but these are informed by philosophical and political criticisms. One does not criticize everything one is reading. In developing a critique, one presents a selected number of major criticisms, which may include sub-criticisms (part of a major criticism). Note also that one must try to avoid making the mistakes which one accuses one’s opponents of.

The labour of theorizing?

Often a scholar can stop at the criticisms, and in the light of these criticisms, may carry on her/his own empirical investigation (Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia is almost an example of this). Some make an attempt to offer an alternative theoretical framework, which will inform one’s own empirical study. In the latter case, the framework informing her/his own original research is explicit. In the former case, it is implicit.

One can see that doing conceptual work, including literature review in the narrow sense (in the sense of saying who has said what about a topic) is not easy. Doing conceptual work involves not just reading and thinking but dialectically organizing one’s thinking.

Let us now return to the whole act, the act of theoretical thinking. One way of organizing the theoretical thinking, including the discussion of the existing literature may be as follows:

Issue 1 Issue 2 Issue 3
X group of writers[1]

X1 X2 X3
Y group of writers who are critical of X group

 

Y1 Y2 Y3
The author’s critical assessment of the Y group (agreement and
disagreement)

 

V1 V2 V3
The author’s own views laid out
in the form of an alternative
framework
A1 A2 A3

 

The above framework suggests that one has at least ‘12 bits of knowledge’, 12 categories of views. This would make one’s conceptual work very thorough, critical and synthetic. An advantage of doing this is that one cannot be accused of painting everything with the same brush because one has split the existing literature into two parts: a thesis and an anti-thesis, which lays the foundation for one’s own critical synthesis (I know this way of saying things is a little clichéd). Following this method, one produces a differentiated view of the existing knowledge, and one tries to create a new way of looking at the things.

Now, what does offering an alternative theoretical framework consist of? It is about theorizing. It is about saying three things:

  1. what an object is?[2]
  2. what are the necessary and contingent conditions for its existence?;
  3. what are its necessary and contingent effects?; and how do conditions and effects reciprocally impact each other?

Here an understanding of the dialectical theory of the multiple relations that exist in the world will be useful (e.g. relations in the world are substantive and formal, relations are necessary and contingent; relations are of similarity vs difference; relations are of contradiction, and so on).

In wanting to offer an alternative way of knowing an object one is offering an alternative way of conceptualizing the object (e.g., what does X mean, socially, subconsciously, emotionally, etc.[3] and how is it different from other objects), and one is offering an alternative way of explaining the object?

How do we explain an object, an event E? One way is to think that: certain structures of relations (S) which give rise to certain mechanisms (M1, M2, etc.), which under certain contingent conditions (C1, C2), will cause an event (E). This is based on critical realist philosophy as popularized by Andrew Collier, Andrew Sayer and others. One’s theory must include all the four elements: structures of relations; mechanisms; contingent conditions, and effects/consequences.

For example, capitalist social relations will cause mechanisms of technological change to exist which in turn will cause low wages, under conditions of strict control over migration and other relevant government policies.

Whether these empirical conditions exist and how effective they are and whether their effectivity varies over space and so on, this is an empirical question which can only be ascertained through a concrete study.

Whether the power of the mechanisms being posited in theory is activated/counteracted is also empirical. We are just saying, given such and such things, x and y will happen. If people are dispossessed of their means of production, they are going to have to work for a wage, other things constant. If a person is working for a wage, one is going to be subjected to domination and exploitation in the work-place. But there is no guarantee that this will happen to a given person or a group of persons: they have to find wage-work in the first place.

One has to think about the entire society of which a given object of analysis (e.g. poverty or non-farm employment or contract farming) is a part. The society is constituted by social relations of class (as well as other relations). These relations give rise to certain other things (mechanisms and processes). One’s object of analysis is connected to, and are rooted in, these.

As mentioned, one begins theorizing by conceptualizing and re-conceptualizing an object in the world, whose image is reflected in our mind, which is interpreted in our mind. An object can exist at different levels, in more or less abstract forms. Consider technology (as used in farming) as an object of analysis. Here are the different levels at which technology can exist (or can be seen as existing):

Productive force of which technology is an example; Technology; capitalist technology; technology used in capitalist agriculture or agrarian capitalism; biological technology in capitalist agriculture; and genetically modified seeds as an example of the latter.

In theorizing, at each level (ideally at each level), technology has to be seen in terms of its necessary and contingent preconditions/causes and necessary and contingent its effects, and in terms of their reciprocal relations (relations between effects and conditions). In theorizing one has to bear in mind the relation between what is technology and other aspects of society.

There are many other aspects of theorizing. It is not possible to write an algorithm for how to theorize. But what is certain is that, theorizing requires familiarity with: philosophy including ontological and epistemological views as well as views about human nature; and general theory of society or social theory (relation between individual and society; view of how a society changes vis changes in contradictory relations between its productive forces and class relations and via struggle; relations between the economic and the non-economic within a system in which the economic has a certain primacy, and so on). One also needs familiarity with more specific theories, theories of the most important ‘parts’/’aspects’ of society (see Plekhanov’s Fundamental Problems of Marxism as well asMarx’s famous Preface to A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy): political economy and class theory, state theory, theory of culture and meaning, and theory of the relation between society and environment/space. One still needs even more specific theory, given stratification of the reality, given that the reality happens and exists at different levels of generality: theory of technology or theory of agrarian change as a part of the theory of political economy, or theory of state bureaucracy as a part of the state theory.

To develop theoretical knowledge, knowledge about necessity in the world, knowledge about how the world really works, one needs to bathe in practice. All Marxists, including Marx (see the Theses on Feuerbach) and Mao (see his On Practice) stress the relation between knowledge and practice. ‘The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question’, says Marx. Mao, whose other views on society and revolution I do not endorse, however, says something that is interesting. This is about the practical character of knowledge. Our social practice, on which our knowledge depends,

‘is not confined to activity in production, but takes many other forms – class struggle, political life, scientific and artistic pursuits; in short, as a social being, man participates in all spheres of the practical life of society. Thus man, in varying degrees, comes to know the different relations between man and man, not only through his material life but also through his political and cultural life (both of which are intimately bound up with material life). Of these other types of social practice, class struggle in particular, in all its various forms, exerts a profound influence on the development of man’s knowledge. In class society everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class.

Scholars must observe the act of production, including production of ideas (how are ideas produced in the universities and how this is influenced by generalized commodity production and need for order). Then there is the issue of political practice. Marx’s and Engels and Lenin’s, Trotsky’s and Luxemburg’s and others’ practical engagement with the world – their involvement in class struggle from the standpoint of proletarians and semi-proletarians – was a source of their theoretical – and not just theoretical – knowledge, which continues to evolve as new developments in the world are constantly reinterpreted and as one’s views at a point in time prove to be less effective than originally thought. It is also the case that over a period of time, one’s actual degree of practical engagement and its form will vary. Sometimes, it may take the form of the creation of ideas to help a developing movement. Just the revolutionary intent, the act of breathing and dreaming revolution, the intent which is rooted in and in turn informs one’s intellectual views of the world, becomes a form of practical activity. This is just as: radical ideas become a material force when they grip the minds of the masses, as Marx asserted. At other times, one’s political practice may be less ‘speculative’.

One also needs to be familiar with empirical trends, with what is going on in the world at different scales, in different areas and in different time-periods, including via government and NGOs reports, social media, online radical and mainstream magazines, newspapers, etc. One needs to find out, for example: is inequality rising or falling; is farming going out of business and to what extent, and how does it vary from place to place, and so on. One’s theoretical ideas must be constantly rubbed against empirical developments which exist independently of one’s contemplation of these developments by a researcher as against ideas produced by other researchers.

Let us turn to Marx’s intellectual practice for a moment. He spent an enormous amount of time reading and writing about Adam Smith, Ricardo, Feuerbach, and so on. See his long footnotes in Capital or discussion in Theories of Surplus Value or his review of Proudhon. He read these scholars, appreciated what was positive and developed his criticisms of these scholars. These criticisms along with his more ‘practical work’ – which included not just his political engagement of different forms but also his deep familiarity with government reports, work of history, etc. – fed into his own alternative way of understanding the society, both at more concrete and more abstract levels.

Like Marx or Lenin, one combines all these different inputs (philosophy, theory at different levels, political practice, and empirical knowledge) in a critical and empirically sensitive way, and one begins the journey of theory-making, without which the project of remaking the world in a revolutionary way is an impossible task.

But ‘Every beginning is difficult’, Marx says. Thinking theoretically and critically is difficult at the beginning, in the middle and in the end! However, Marx hopes that although ‘There is no royal road to science’, it is the case that ‘those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.’

The certainty of the joy of theoretical thinking which produces an ‘artistic whole’ and the inevitability of the ‘fatiguing climb’ are dialectically connected.

 

Raju J Das teaches at York University, Toronto.

 

NOTES



[1]
Here one says what a group of writers is saying about the different aspects of a given topic represented as Issue 1, 2, 3, etc.


[2]
Here one re-conceptualizes an object; one asks: what does the scope of the concept which refers to an object cover? And one changes the boundary/scope of the concept depending on the situation at hand; this is what reconceptualization is.


[3]
Note here that the concept, what it refers to, and the word which is used to refer to the concept are different.

Caution and Excitement in Early Modern Studies

Prasanta Chakravarty

Who would have thought that Stanley Fish’s most prescient pronouncement about discourses of theory would emerge not in a fat tome but in the form of an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In July 2005, Fish had proposed rather accurately that following the death of Jacques Derrida, religion would be “where the action is”. Fish’s speculations were based on his observations of how certain variants of poststructuralism and new historicism were working rearward against disenchantment and the critical secularisation thesis. But more prophetically, he foresaw how religion was supplanting “the triumvirate of race, gender and class”. All kinds of sceptics seemed to him to be on one side — and a resurgent fideism on the other.

The map of early modern western cultural criticism is indeed being recast. The struggle between the historicising and textual scholars of early modernity that marked much of the later decades of the twentieth century is getting reshaped again. Some of the developments are very exciting and innovative.  Even as we are living through these stages, it would not be a bad idea to take stock of the theoretical predicament. A stock-taking is also necessary in order to assess what it means if we indeed depose/supplant (or radically modify) certain motifs, themes and framings so that we may think afresh. Most importantly, a survey of the current engagements with the early modern world gives us some vital clues about our own times.

Much of what is new in early modern English studies actually overlaps. So, it is not wise to generalise too quickly about their discursive frameworks in isolation.  For instance, post-phenomenology and affect often work in tandem with animal theory or ecocriticism. Likewise, new ways of looking into subject formation relates to radical communicative theories.  Then there are breakthroughs in genre theory, aesthetics and poetics: no doubt the return of philology (in considering early modern texts, editorial practices, translation and new media) remains an important mode of scholarship. The spectacular rise and consolidation of a whole field called the ‘history of the book’ shows how resilient and robust philology (with able assistance from New Historicism) has been in the bastions of early modern establishment. But it is also being confronted.

The Transcendental Turn

Let me continue with religion, however. Because since, paradoxically, framing a text or a problem through religion also challenges philology and the agonistic world of studia humanitatis along with Enlightenment projects like Marxism, race theory and other historicist ventures, it is important to understand its underpinnings.  When one questions the secularisation of our worldview (with Gadamer or Charles Taylor), or addresses ethics (with Levinas and Eagleton), considers poetics (with Hawkes and Schwartz) or theologises politics (Zizek, Agamben or Kantorowicz) — one brings in certain concerns that would fundamentally unsettle Edward Said’s powerful distinction between secular and religious criticism. When he made that distinction, Said was not only questioning the dangers of getting into fideism, but was making a crucial methodological point: that secular philology is rigorous, diligent, open and invested in its subject matter the way religious criticism is not. Religious criticism seeks premature closure, supplication and always operates contingently and schematically. If we note carefully, we see that all the above thinkers are contravening this very claim of Said, putting his neat binary to test. They are saying in their collective weight: look, do not convert the struggle against what the Enlightenment designates as ‘fanaticism’ into a project of moralisation. Secular criticism can never understand possibilities of radical communitas, sublimity, trauma, radical risk, quiescent anarchism, spirits, fortuitousness and so on — numinous ruptures all. This is because secular criticism condemns fanaticism in the name of practical-ethical consequences, not in the name of any definitive falsity of its contents. They are saying that scholarship is not about mastering this techne or that archive. It is not about turning oneself into Chaucer’s gaunt clerk — like a Friar in the Lent. It is rather about generosity and relatedness to life. To learn to think beyond texts and evidences if you are to appreciate the texture of the early modern sensibility. Most of all — to abandon scepticism (also known as criticality).

One of the better secular humanist responses to this challenge is that humanism has always considered the irrational element without assuring its retrieval and recovery; that the secular world itself is a product of the religious cosmos: saecula and salvation go hand in hand. The sacred and the profane are experienced in historical time with neither side getting any logical priority. Humanists would put the issue differently: that since it was impossible to think outside of religion in early modernity, the philologists concentrated on recovering the pagan, secular and ancient texts. Such scholars gave attention to the specificities of the ancient world. In a beautiful passage, William N. West has recently summed up the humanist response thus:

Divinitio is something like the philologist’s last resort, a best guess at a reading of a text in the absence of decisive evidence. It is also, despite its name and because it proceeds ‘not by the authority of antiquity but by conjecture’, something like the mixed art of philology at its purest…where certain knowledge cannot proceed, the philologist makes a choice based on whatever signs he can. But unlike the revelatory promise that marks the advent of the religious, these signs originate within the horizons of the text. Philological divinitio relies on human intuition rather than on divine intervention…”.

The secular endeavour then comes to the aid of the sacred in order to restore the text. Religion stands beside the recorded and interpretative texts and not beyond them. Humanism, in spite of its many debts to the religious, does not venture into the revelatory and the incommunicative.  It continues to tread scholarship with the likes of Said and Gentile.

What philological humanism resists is the acknowledgement of the tremendous power and force created — often deeply conceptual — when historicism and the theological temperament come together. Consequently it does not confront religious fundamentalism or theological radicalism.  Since they pay lip service to divinitio proper, the motivations behind evangelism and forms of radical heresy — so central to understanding the early modern world — completely evade them or are at best filtered through the safe and detached world of textual parsing. There have been some fine studies of core and canonical Renaissance texts (even if we leave aside pamphlets, broadsides, history and modes of prophecy) taking head-on the questions of the revelatory, the intangible or the divinely authoritarian. The historically positioned studies are also deeply invested in the close study of the texts themselves and other cultural artefacts, but not ever in a disinterested manner. Cynthia Marshall, David Norbrook, Ken Jackson, Julia Lupton, Sarah Beckwith — to name a few, have come out of the humanist shell and have confronted the religious questions squarely. With religion, other intangibles have again become part of scholarship: imagination, sublimity, or wrath, for example.

For the theoretical world, this creates a curious problem. On the one hand, it seems vitally important to confront religion afresh in order to have a surer handle on the period, while on the other if religion assumes a certain genetic persistence, a name for totalising the early modern world, it becomes a high-fidelity replicator unto itself. In other words, its historicising and analytical potential gets engulfed by its own fervour.  It will then tend to replace the very historicity that it espouses — contra textual criticism. The core question is whether as interpreters we can and ought to transcend modern forms of scepticism and evade the anthropologist’s gaze while getting into things theological? As long as we remain professional and detached even as we cultivate a faux theological sensibility, intangibles like love or religion are perhaps better left alone. On the other hand, if we are able to traverse the ground of realising the temperament of the evangelical, the fanatic, the communal or the radical heretic in actuality even as we delve into the early modern cosmos, we run the risk/potential of turning our institutions into seminaries or secret societies, into hotbeds of non-secular experiments; our research projects into single-minded programmes of conversion, fanatical and/or radical. Perhaps that risk is worth taking, without compromising on scholarly rigour. But let there be no mistake: the price has to be paid too — the price of principled partisanship.

Mind, Matter, Metaphors

In some ways a very contrary spirit suffuses the conceptual world of the early modern, one that is actually bridging the two-culture debate: the challenge of cognitive and functionalist science on the claims of social constructivism. Steven Pinker says that culture is a part of human phenotype — a distinct design that permits us to survive and perpetuate our lineages. Are we returning to behaviourism or social Darwinism? Not really. Far more sophisticated variations are making the rounds.

One argument is that in order to do good cultural studies one must consider the aggregate creativity of minds that gives rise to the cultural contexts. Only by understanding such detailed patterning can one more minutely observe trade histories, rise and fall of literacy, economic changes and art production and circulation. The smarter cognitive theorists are trying to combine the realist (say Marxist) and the relativist (say postmodernist) positions: reality exists but humans can access it contingently because experience is mediated through bodies, brains, minds. An aggregate of minds means society or culture. The important change from old-school behaviourism or pure memetic studies (which believes cultural broadcast expresses genetic transmission) is an acknowledegment that forms emerge from the subject’s material situatedness. But only if such situatedness is mediated through a dynamic semantic system, which germinates from within the human conceptual apparatus.  This approach in early modern scholarship has been christened the dual-inheritance theory.

A typical manoeuvre to enact such cognitive patterns in literary criticism is to choose a conceptual metaphor from a text and instead of going into a formalistic, new-critical exposition of that metaphor, to find the motives of the ‘embodied mind’ in forming the metaphoricity of that textual utterance. Such cognitive metaphors then become image schemas. For example, suppose you zero in on the metaphor — “Love is Money” from The Merchant of Venice and then instead of the typical new historicist move of perorating on the semantics of usury, contractual bonds, credit system or accounting practices, you simply concentrate on the elisions of ‘love’ and ‘flesh’ in that metaphor and work on these two different aspects of human experience — modes of affection and financial obligations. By doing this, you avoid the projection of such metaphors into the cultural field and yet keep clear of philological preoccupations and hermeneutic questions of intentionality. Instead, what you bring together is a curious coupling of semantic frameworks and cognitive science terminologies in deciphering the text. I am using the word text (or author) in the singular because there is often an inherent Kantian-individualist bias in these critical moves. The critics working in these areas like to believe that characterological  and textual unity was as important to early modern writers as they ought to be to us — and that this should inform our textual theory. Here is Gabriel Egan, a familiar voice in Shakespearean scholarship, taking on New Historicism:

“It is true that we do not possess a manuscript recipe for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, only three copies of it that differ markedly. But we are entitled to treat these at three approximations of one thing, the Platonic Ideal of Hamlet as it existed (in material form, as configurations of neurons) in the mind of Shakespeare. If, over time, Shakespeare changed his mind about Hamlet, it is still conceptually Hamlet even if a text closely representing the conceptual state of time T1 is quite different from a text closely representing the conceptual state of time T2.”

The philologist will have to decide what to make of such a claim. While it gives intentionality, a key philological concern, a positive tack (though coming from genetics rather than hermeneutics), the approach squarely seems to challenge some key motives behind the whole enterprise of book history and archiving as it has developed — another major preoccupation with the philologist. The historicist — realist or radical — on the other hand has much to worry about with this new phenomenon.

The Mood: Anti Historicist

At one level, this new-found interest in matter (sometimes drawing justification from the likes of Democritus, Lucretius and Epicurus) is hardly new. The scientific and sensory empiricism of Gassendi, Bacon, Hartlib and later Hobbes had strongly contested varieties of Platonic idealism and Puritanical forms of Christianity. Mandeville, Ricardo and Adam Smith gradually gave the same tendency a more rational economic dimension. Darwin and Gregor Mendel gave the impulse an evolutionary imprint. These are the most powerful scientific essentialists in the rational sense. Matter is a given to them, timeless and ever present in order to help maximise our inherent economic and biological hierarchies.

It is in this context that radical historicists and cultural materialists brought a gauchiste historicism into the picture and politicised the field. Matter meant paying attention to class, gender, race, colonialism and sexuality. They were/are interested in social relations. The spectacular rise of sociology as discipline that took on diachronic philological-historical concerns reflected a shift in studying early modern materialism: the works of Keith Wrightson or David Underdown, for instance, opened before us the world of sociological stratification and power struggles in the English society. Important and powerful historians of the Catholic world like Eamon Duffy or John Bossy had to tackle this left liberal historicism. But even they were not arguing for any surpassing transcendence; they were historicising the domain too in their own way, looking closely at the lay popular culture. The inheritors of Lawrence Stone and Christopher Hill took many hues, but the debates were richly contextual, analysing textual claims minutely. Never in a speculative vacuum. Forces of disorder always vied with disciplining possibilities — even in the most inward genres like the psalm or meditative poetry. One glance at the works of some of the most defining non-ideological early modern scholarship in late twentieth century authenticates to this rumbunctious rough and tumble, the attention paid to the difficult give and take between the public and the private realms: reflected, say, in the oeuvre of Nigel Smith or Catherine Belsey or Peter Lake. Postcolonial studies too had an oblique impact on this area—for instance, one was forced to acknowledge that John Milton and Andrew Marvell had little positive to say about the Irish struggle and viewpoints during the English Civil War. Republicanism did have a strong imperialistic side to it.

Mainstream liberals finished that job. That mood has now given way to the more ameliorating travel technologies and experiences — say, in the contemporary works of Allison Games. This agonistic reaching-out gesture is a top-down and faux cosmopolitan globalising venture — something that reminds us of the old commonwealth in new disguise. To merely highlight maritime and navigational advances and leave it all hanging is to suppress the blood and grime of the early modern world, its conflicts and contestations.

The fact of the matter is that the benefits of cultural or left-wing radicalism in early modern studies were derived not from materialism, but rather from historicism. Idealist history could also locate its objects of study within their contingent circumstances, as could materialist history. But such idealism was not festishising matter for its own sake or championing evolutionary psychology. It had an old-world political agenda. What has altered right now in discussions on cognition, matter or objects is the philosophic underpinning of what constitutes matter.  Matter is dehistoricised in most accounts now. And therefore, formulations on matter now seem closer to disinterested rationalism and finally suspiciously chummy with newer modes of capitalism. No wonder there is next to nothing from the new materialists on early modern underground prose, sermons, pamphleteering, news-books — the whole public sphere, so to say. It is simply impossible to get into the civic and underground world of urban polemics and itinerant preaching without getting into the ‘old’ cultural questions of class, gender, colonialism and sexuality.

Some variations of cognitive studies of early modernity do wish to reconceive the study of the mind within a relational, dynamic nature of culture but that is mostly an afterthought. It does not really work. Even the most powerful of the philosophical new (speculative) materialists — like Quentin Meillassoux, who has truly and successfully taken on an earlier generation of French theorists — have not been able to historicise his project or rather does not wish to do so. He argues instead for the timelessness of materiality. And it is here that the most regressive potential of the new conceptual moves lies: transcendental piety and matter/mind are being essentialised and ossified in new forms. They are apparently the perfect antagonists — spirit and matter — but scholars in both areas are getting into speculative tropisms in their own ways. The antagonists seem to have a strange affinity as only antagonists can have.

So also with theorists of object like Michel Serres or Levi Bryant. Objects are made incandescent. They are often aestheticised beautifully. But what next? Disinterested scholarship? To highlight the subject/object division afresh? It is a sort of revenge on half a century of realism and relativism in the world of ideas. True, sometimes such materialists make the radical Spinozian/Bergsonian move, a position that might sit well with heresy studies, for instance, if historicised properly. But if scholars carry on arguing for heterogeneous temporalities within material objects and use Bergson and Nietzsche for actually driving home a Kantian cosmopolitan mobile network in the early modern context, it loses zing. Such framing does serious disservice to the spirit and politics of the robust and hedonistic Nietzschean imagination.

The resurgent schools of thought — theological transcendental, cognitive metaphorical or object-oriented rematerialisms – are significant new developments in the conceptual world of early modernity. They have to be noted. With due caution. In other words, in our romance with faith and matter or any such ‘hot topic’ — let us not, ever, abandon the excitement and rigour of the sceptical spirit.


Select Bibliography:

Fish, Stanley, ‘One University, Under God?’, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 July, 2005

Jackson, Ken and Arthur F. Marotti, ‘The Turn to Religion in Early Modern Studies’, Criticism 46 (2004), 167-190.

Lupton, Julia R. ‘The Religious Turn (to Theory) in Shakespeare Studies’, English Language Notes 44:1 (2006), 145-149.

West, William N., ‘Humanism and the Resistance to Theology’, The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies: Tarrying with the Subjunctive (ed. Paul Cefalu and Bryan Reynolds, Hampshire and NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Victoria Kahn, ‘Early Modern Secularism: Introduction’, Representations, Special Issue, Winter 2009.

Pinker, Steven, The Blank State: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).

Blackmore, Susan, The Meme Machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Lakoff, George and Marc Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Jowett, John, Shakespeare and Text (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Reynolds, Bryan and William West (eds), Rematerializing Shakespeare: Authority and Representation on the Early Modern Stage (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Carroll, Joseph, ‘Evolution and Literary Theory’, Human Nature 6 (1995), 119.

Hawkes, David, ‘Against Materialism in Literary Theory’, The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies: Tarrying with the Subjunctive (ed. Paul Cefalu and Bryan Reynolds, Hampshire and NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Smith, Nigel, Perfection Proclaimed: Language and Literature in English Radical Religion 1640-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Games, Allison, The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Expansion 1560-1660 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Meillassoux , Quentin, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Continuum, 2008).

Prasanta Chakravarty is the author of Like Parchment in the Fire: Literature and Radicalism in the English Civil War (London and New York: Routledge, 2006). He teaches early modern literature and culture at the University of Delhi.

Why is Hurricane Sandy a political issue?

Saswat Pattanayak

President Obama and his administration have been exchanging high-fives and posing for stock images to bring home the point that Sandy’s aftermath is being dealt with successfully. Reassuring this to the rest of the world, the president then visits his campaign rallies. And after his inspiring speeches are registered the liberal media spins portray how neighbors should be helping each other, how communities should come together and how individual charities make all the difference in resolving natural disaster crisis. They paint the aftermath a victory for a president who hugs the visibly grateful citizens with a confident smile facing the camera. We are Americans, and we are always victorious, no matter what challenges we face, the stenographers parrot the administration lines in corporate newsrooms day after day while raking in advertisement money for their journalistic services. Things are under control and even the New York Marathon preparations are. And if the Marathon race doesn’t start from Staten Island, no sweating required. The next fanfare championship is getting held nationwide, come Tuesday. Don’t forget to join the celebrations. Don’t forget to vote the millionaire orators back to power.

Except that, there is a problem here. Maybe too many of them to find a place in this essay. Partly because most tragedies related to Sandy are not being covered by the media whose major source of revenue is from electoral campaign teams at this point and they cannot afford to upset their bosses. And the executive branch, let alone conveying to us effectively the tragedies, is choosing to depict it as an electoral victory of showmanship for a clueless leader.

As a bystander to this ongoing crisis, waiting for the food and the milk to be stocked back in the local grocery stores here in Queens, as a jeopardized New Yorker waiting for the public transportation system to resume full service, let me attempt at painting just a slightly different picture.

The truth is there has been no aftermath to Hurricane Sandy. The storm is still very much alive and kicking the livelihoods of millions of people in this country. Being a survivor and chronicler of the killer cyclone in coastal belts of Orissa (India) exactly 13 years ago, I am acutely aware of two simple premises: devastations of a storm are not felt when its at the peak, and that the natural disasters that hit the headlines are invariably human-made trail of tragedies. They do not bring along surprise elements with them. Precisely because of such predictability of natural disasters, there are functional Met offices and salaried task force professionals who are required to address the inevitabilities all year round.

Hurricane Sandy therefore was not supposed to be a fluke nor was it supposed to render millions of people homeless and hundreds dead. Weeks of predictions and media engagements with weather maps and NASA images and boasting of American priorities were the signs of how devastating the approaching times were going to be. But what they also were indicative of was that the governmental administration and the respective agencies directly responsible for addressing the consequences were going to be better prepared, considering Sandy had claimed 61 lives in Haiti on its course. What it meant was that the United States government which is duly elected to hold offices of power to administer on behalf of its citizens was meant to be constantly prepared to face and address challenges. What it meant was that the government had access and willingness to access, all the areas affected by a natural disaster of such enormous potential. What it meant was that the politicians and those that they appoint as bureaucrats were supposed to be sensitive to the needs of the people who were going to be impacted by the storm. That, the required assistance was not just going to be promised via press meets and television channels that made no sense to the affected masses rendered hapless without electricity, but that the access to basic needs of the affected were made available to the people as they were required.

What the Obama administration has failed to act upon is everything that was desirable and possible. Five days after Sandy hit the coast, if the administration had no visual footage of how an entire borough of New York City looked like, let alone displaying a willingness to access the territory, that is a failure of the political will of an administration which has been mandated by the people to practice good, ethical and humane governance. When the media channels finally made their way to interview helpless citizens in Staten Island several days after Sandy and they found the women saying they are literally dying out of access to food and basic utilities and the President of the country is cheerfully applauding the works of his campaign team in far away political trails, that is a failure on part of the political will of an administration that was put to place to prioritize agendas based on needs of people, not greeds for reelections.

If several townships and villages still are submerged in sewage water in New Jersey, stinking to the point of turning off the anchors inside newsrooms in Atlanta, and yet the President and the governors pat each others’ backs on accomplishments and pose with wider grins to declare Obama’s bipartisanship abilities as an incumbent, it is a political tragedy of massive proportions that shamelessly cashes on distressed emotions for gleeful votes.

If the federal government can send drones to monitor Pakistani air space and fails to send helicopters to Staten Island to carry food, medicines and drinking water, and if the commercial airlines at JFK and LaGuardia are able to fly across the border while the administration cannot send essential relief items to its own citizens stuck in darkness in Rockaway, Queens, then it is crude reflection of a failed politics at Washington DC and it is time for the president to stop patting backs of his officials.

Even as the FEMA continues to be showered with praises by the president and the liberal media there are millions of people without essential amenities, access and hopes. There is no telling when the electricity will be restored, when the roads will be cleared, when the sewage water will be pumped out, when the proliferating infections will be addressed, when drinking water will be made available to millions of Americans, if at all the insurance companies will be kept aside and the government will offer assistance to people to rebuild their homes and businesses, there is no telling when medicines will reach the needy, when the toddlers will have access to milk, when the people can get food at local stores or gas at the local pumps. When long queues of vehicles parade New York City streets to wait for hours until they get access to a rare petrol pump, there is no telling when the rest of the country devastated by Sandy will be on the roads to recovery once again. When new-born infants are hand-pumped by luxury hospitals of Manhattan on their ways to evacuation, there is no telling when rest of the healthcare units will attend to the suffering patients existing in abysmal darkness in the cold winter nights.

Even a country languishing in the Third World offers its needy people with minimum compensations from the government to address emergency situations, but in the United States, the epicenter of inhuman capitalism, there is no telling when if at all, the sufferers will find any funding that are not bound by loan shark terms, just to re-envision their lives after this unfortunate and entirely mismanaged tragedy of highest proportion. There is no telling when the government if at all, will take any steps towards distributing blankets at the very least, so the millions of people shivering in devastated regions can cover themselves up and be able to at least sleep during lingering dark nights.

Hurricane Sandy is all about politics. It is more about politics than Hurricane Katrina was. This is the week of reelection for the Democratic Czar and his liberal cronies who have constantly manipulated the media headlines to suppress the truths about their wrongdoings, be it their offerings of tax breaks to the rich and the corporate bailouts for the very financial institutions that crumbled the economy, or their warmongering foreign policies that have taken thousands of innocent lives worldwide, or their incompetent domestic policies that perpetuate the jobless scene for the twenty-three million Americans in home, their refusal to admit absolute inefficiency in passing favorable laws during the first two years when they were in majority while waiting for the second half of the term to blame oppositional politics for their own failures, or their suppressing the truths about gun-control and their aiding of drug mafia in the “Fast and Furious” investigations whose truths were so dangerous for the regime that the Nobel laureate Obama had to invoke executive privilege to justify suppression of facts, not to mention their continuous torturing of the truth seekers such as Bradley Manning and those that support transparency. The Democrat Czars outrightly lied about Libya and the killing of the diplomat by citing a Youtube video as the cause behind the violence without admitting that the real causes of the massively orchestrated 9-11 protests worldwide were a result of Obama regime’s failed foreign policies of aggression that have perpetuated warfare abroad with hatred and terror funding. The American government has lied to its people about Muhammad Gaddafi and conveniently depicted him as an Islamic terrorist to gain a manufactured consent for his atrocious murder while the Obama regime was constantly funding the reactionary fanatic groups in Libya to oust the secular regime with an aim to create geopolitical imbalance in the region that would proliferate the needs for continued wars. Guantanamo Bay is still wide open and Iran is the next battleground for this regime that must win this electoral bidding once again to continue its onslaughts world over. The US administrations have historically thrived with lies and deception, most of which targeted towards their own citizens. Be it the legacies of anti-Soviet hysteria which a war hawk Kennedy made money and power off, or the epochs of Korean and Vietnam War, the US presidents have constantly lied to the American people with help from their media establishments. But what has remained a constant are the popular oppositions to the White House be it in forms of antiwar movements or anticapitalism demonstrations on the streets. What sets Barack Obama aside is the brilliant manner in which he has continued the legacies of suppressions with an ease of a successful liberal. He has perfected the skill of sabotaging peoples’ organized efforts against systemic failures and furthered it to the point where the people are silenced – with their own will. And as a result the very antiwar movements that brought Obama to power today languish in anonymity while the war-president proudly adds names to the unprecedented kill-lists and indefinite detention rolls that would make even the infamous “Patriot Act” (timely upgraded each year by Democrats) look like a highschool skit.

Occupy Wall Street movement could have perhaps sustained and even gained grounds under another administration, but the Democrats quickly seized the moment to hijack most of the dissent by depicting the White House power itself as the victim of American capitalism. The word hypocrisy lost its original meaning under Obama administration as the biggest bailouts and governmental supports to the greedy corporates of the world were successfully projected as the most desirable necessities. Deliberately manipulative statements of Hillary Clinton regarding Libyan crisis was brushed aside as the result of uninformed intelligence officers and when the emails surfaced to the contrary, both the Vice President and the President lied to the American public with such enormity that the citizens have now started dismissing Libya as “just a four deaths” casualty.

And with Sandy appearing like “just a few hundreds mess” despite devastating millions, the administration has started suppressing facts related to misgovernance and bureaucratic red-tapism. When five nursing homes in Rockway beach were directed by government officials to not evacuate even as they clearly fell within the Zone A, no one is mentioning about lack of governance. When two siblings, aged two and four, died in the storm, reporters questioned why their neighbor did not open the doors, but there is no question asked as to why the entire region was so inaccessible for officials and relief workers all these days. If media can reach nook and corners of flood affected areas to declare “breaking stories” every now and then, what possibly has been preventing the government officials from reaching out to the affected people with basic food, clothing and shelters? How long are the victims of American capitalism supposed to remain grateful towards their perpetrators for the false reassurance that they are being taken care of?

Hundreds of patients silently suffered the storm because they believed in the government for weeks that everything was being taken care of. Even after days have passed since the storm worst-hit the areas, people are still silently believing the government when the President says that everything was being taken care of. Tens of thousands of “public housing” residents were forcefully evacuated because power needed to be disconnected in lower Manhattan and yet within two days the rich started functioning again amidst cheers and whistles at the Stock Exchange right in the middle of the Sandy’s eye. And the people following their dreamy pied piper are believing the President when he implies that in taking care of the Stock Exchange, the dead will find justice. The lying President and his unprepared team suddenly turn teary-eyed and appeal to the neighbors to help each other in times of crisis while they merrily resume the services of Wall Street capitalism with generators and drinking water and food supplies without a blink. When millions of people continue to brave the winter nights without heat and fill plastic bottles with water from fire hydrants, the Obama administration loses no moment in providing electricity to the “Freedom Tower” right in Lower Manhattan catering to the wealthiest of the lot in this country.

Contrary to how the Obama regime paints the picture, the hurricane Sandy was not an unfortunate event. It was an inevitable one. What is unfortunate is the embarrassing administration in Washington DC today and the capitalistic economic system that it supports and furthers, the farcical elections that it holds by spending $6 billion of taxpayer money towards an extravaganza at a time when hundreds of men, women and children are found dead and thousands missing owing to governmental apathy and administrative inactions.

If the corporate honchos at Wall Street can get power back and running in two days, there is no telling why grieving mothers and dying toddlers must remain without power and suffer without food; communities devastated and neighbors estranged; while the government turns its focus towards “swing states” to plead for votes while condemning the victims of its administrative disaster to the whims of charity.

But then, in this strange world of Obama and his liberal cronies, the Stock Exchange has more “power” than its “natural” victims.