Delhi Gang Rape and the Feminism of Proletarian Militancy

Pothik Ghosh

Demands for harsh and summary punishment for rapists, or for that matter, stringent laws to deal with  rape – fuelled as they are by moral outrage – do little else than reinforce the capitalist structure of patriarchy that thrives on gendered division of labour between waged productive work and unwaged reproductive work. For, any such legal-juridical demand or move is willy-nilly grounded in the assumption that the capitalist-patriarchal structuring of social relations need not be transformed to protect women from sexual violence. In fact, such self-righteous moral outrage underpinned by the lust for inquisitorial-gladiatorial spectacle is, at the systemic-structural level, nothing but an ideology that legitimises the capitalist-patriarchal structure. It tends to reinforce the general consensus – precisely by marshalling the crises of the system it can no longer conceal – that the only matrix capable of protecting women against violence is one that is normatively capable of instituting stringent laws against perpetrators of such sexual and/or gender violence, ensures their strict enforcement and delivers harsh punishment to offenders. The reinforcement of such a consensus does no more or less than preserve and reproduce the structure of gendered division of labour, and sexual inequality.

Moral Outrage and Capitalist Juridicality

The legal-juridical approach to protect women not only denies them autonomous agency, as it serves to interpellate them as unequal subjects of a gendered socio-economic system, but also masks the implication of the agency of all its citizen-subjects in that gender-unequal structure of social power. Meanwhile, those citizen-subjects, who turn agents of such legal-juridical approach to anti-systemic politics, live in the neurotic comfort of condemning rape and baying for the blood of rapists even as they perpetuate the gender-unequal structure of social power through their agency as citizen-subjects of civil society and its constitutive unit: the family. This structure of social power is the very condition of possibility for such gruesome acts of sexual and gendered violence, which are, therefore, its cultural and ideological embodiments or mediations. Hence, such moral outrage of citizen-subjects ties up neatly with the legal-juridical approach that serves to sidestep the fundamental question of socio-economic transformation by sweeping the collective consciousness clean of it, thus enabling the system to manage its structural crisis by transferring it, either fully or partially, from one location to another. As a consequence, the system is not only preserved but it also reproduces itself through the further extension of its panoptic web of biopower and the political-economic logic that inheres in it. Clearly, morally outraged demands for fixing gruesome acts of sexual violence such as rape in their sheer immediacy is the political language constitutive of a subjective agency of opposition that is integral precisely to the extended reproduction of the very system it seeks to oppose in one of its many determinate moments. That, needless to say, reinforces the legal-juridical approach even as it precludes the transformation of the capitalist-patriarchal structuring of socio-economic power through its decimation.

The immediate fight against sexual violence such as rape must grasp such despicable violence not as a problem of sheer lawlessness that, therefore, can be eliminated through the enforcement of the law and the reinforcement of its concomitant system, but as a crisis of the very system and its structure that, therefore, needs to be destroyed in order to abolish such crises integral to it. Rape is not an aberration of the system that the latter can eradicate by asserting – instituting/enforcing – the law that holds the system together as its raison d’ etre. Rather, it is one of the many forms of heinously oppressive violence that is integral to regimes of class domination that is enshrined in and as the systemic rule of law. Hence, the eradication of rape and other such forms of coercive patriarchal oppression, which make for the constitutive exception of the law, is contingent not on extending the remit of the legal. Instead, it lies precisely in the abolition of the law and the capitalist socio-economic structure coeval with the legal and, which to reiterate the earlier point, is the condition of possibility of patriarchy and all its forms of control and coercion.

It is no accident that moral outrage against gruesome acts of rape and sexual violence, which fuel demands for either more stringent anti-rape laws or harsh punishment for rapists, or both, is inseparable from disciplinary control over the vector of women’s bodies and lifeworlds. All for their safety and security. The social, if not the individual, subject that articulates both those discourses is indivisible.

This argument does in no way, however, preclude the question of politically fighting rape in its immediacy. Rather, what it insists on is the inescapable need for such a struggle to figure how the general strategy of fighting capital in order to overcome it should articulate its tactics in their immediacy, and not be conflated with it to be hypostatised. The legal-juridical fight against rape is a tactical position that ought not to be blinded by the affect of moral outrage that animates it to the strategy of decimating the capitalist-patriarchal structure. A strategy that ought to inform, articulate and orientate the social subject waging the immediate, tactical struggle for legal-juridical measures against rape. As for the question about whether or not moral outrage about rape is necessarily inseparable from patriarchy, the need is clearly to deal with it at its two different levels of determination: one of individual subjectivity and the other of social subjecthood. In the first instance, the correlation is not necessary, while in the second case, if the morally outraged social subject is interpellated by the legal-juridical approach and is thus rendered incapable and/or unwilling to pose the fundamental structural (or mediated) question then moral outrage is doubtless coeval with patriarchal power. It is actually no less than the ideology of capital in this, its late conjuncture. Of course, there is no duality between the two subject-positions as they are in a dialectic. And precisely, therefore, there can be no unidirectional determination. That is, an individual subjectivity of moral outrage, even if it is informed by a conception of social subject for structural transformation, cannot, merely by claiming to be informed by such radical subjectivity, stand in as such for the actuality of the radical, system-transforming social subject. That social subject, which is incipiently present in the subjectivity of a radical individual, has to be generalised beyond that incipience for it to be sustained in its actuality. Politics is what politics does. Not what it says it does.

Class Struggle on the Woman Question

Therefore, the woman question should not be reduced to a question of juridical identity and that it should, in its tactical determinateness, articulate the generalised strategy of class antagonism. This is not to say that rape becomes a secondary question from the vantage point of revolutionary working-class politics. And that, therefore, the struggle of the hour is for socialism, whose coming would automatically take care of gender inequality and sexual oppression. Instead, there is an urgent need to stake out a revolutionary working-class position with regard to intervention in gruesome instances of sexual violence where the public consensus is single-mindedly focused on meting out harsh punishments – death by hanging, castration, etc – while remaining incapable of or unwilling to question how gender-insensitive laws and law-enforcement are integral to the capitalist-patriarchal structuring of social relations, or social power.

However, what must at this juncture be openly acknowledged, and admitted – without a shred of ideological sophistry – is that the dominant current of movements, which have based themselves on the conceptual centrality of the class question, have been paradigmatically blind to how, among other things, capital has engendered class. In other words, the working-class movement should recognise that its dominant tendencies have failed to foreground how the structure of capital has divided labour and thus segmented the working class through the political-economic specification, re-inscription and re-articulation of the pre-capitalist gendered power relations. The capitalist structure has specified pre-capitalist patriarchy to effect gendered hierarchisation of the domains of productive and reproductive work to enable transfer of value to preserve and perpetuate a system constitutive of differential rates of exploitation (extraction of surplus value). Not just that. The capitalist-patriarchal ideology of ‘legitimate’ sexual inequality generated by this gendered privileging of productive over reproductive work has been instrumental in the gendered segmentation of labour – through unspoken custom if not enshrined contract – in the productive sphere itself as also the larger sphere of so-called non-work socialisation. The working-class movement would, therefore, do well to realise that the paradigmatic blindness of its dominant tendencies to this dimension of our political-economic reality has yielded a conception of working-class unity that is nothing but the instrumentalisation of the everydayness of working-class women by the politics of the male proletariat. That has rendered the latter the oppressive intermediaries of capital and dominant petty-bourgeois agencies of property-forms vis-à-vis the former. In short, such ‘working-class unity’ has been integral to the restoration of capitalist class power.

The women’s movement would, meanwhile, do well not to repeat such a paradigmatic error. The specification, and rearticulation, of the gendered relations of power by the capitalist structure cuts both ways. Capital does not merely engender class but also, in the same movement, classi-fies gender. It marshals gender inequality to segment the working-class even as the homogeneity of gender is itself subjected to a class-based internal differentiation based on a hierarchically relational gradation of property-form and labour-dimension. In such circumstances, to target only patriarchy as the root of such gender oppression and sexual violence as honour killings, rape and so on is to attack only the ideological form – culture if you will – of gender oppression and violence while leaving the capitalist structure that animates or articulates it intact. A structure that is capable of coopting anti-patriarchal women’s  movements by articulating them in a manner that enables such movements to raise the perfectly just demands for the abolition of various unfreedoms that shackle womankind in its gendered entirety even while bringing emancipation from such gendered unfreedoms to certain locationally select segments and sections of women to the exclusion of the rest, and thereby neutralising the movements by weakening the strength and/or energy of the mass that drives such movements by accentuating the segmentation within it.

Towards the Feminism of Proletarian Militancy

The point here is certainly not to join the chorus of status-quoist cynics, who are seeking to diminish the current anti-rape mass upsurge on the streets of Delhi as a middle-class fad. Such cynicism is insidious to say the least. Sexual violence and gender oppression cannot, by any stretch of imagination, qualify as a middle-class or petty-bourgeois concern. Insofar as gender inequality, which is a form of class domination, is co-constitutive of such violent oppression, sexual violence is a working-class question at its core. Rather, the point of the argument really is that the mass upsurge should recognise its objectively incipient working-class character so that it can be generalised. In short, this movement against sexual violence must not only challenge the dominant culture of patriarchy – which it is doing in large measure, thanks to the participation of various communist-left mass organisations and other radical women’s groups – but must also simultaneously become a struggle against segmentations and divisions within the gendered class of women proletarians if its battle against patriarchy has to really succeed. In other words, an effective struggle against patriarchy can only be a revolutionary working-class struggle. One that doesn’t evade the gender question in the name of some larger, beyond-gender working-class unity, but focuses on the gender question in its specificity in terms of rearticulation of the culture (ideology) of patriarchy within and by the materiality of capital. To do merely the former is the path of radical feminism while an approach that dialectically articulates the former with the latter is the feminism of proletarian militancy.

What would the adoption of such an approach mean in the concrete specificity of the current anti-rape mass movement in Delhi, though? For starters, it would not only mean stoutly resisting calls for capital punishment for or emasculation of the perpetrators of sexual violence but even steering clear of such juridical-legal demands as improving the abysmally low rate of conviction  in rape cases, making rape investigations less patriarchally prejudiced and strengthening our frail and ineffectual anti-rape laws. Such demands – which are currently emanating from the more politically progressive tendencies in the movement – presuppose that the current system is capable of delivering on them and that such delivery is contingent merely on some disembodied, spiritualised will of the system. In other words, the socio-political subject that articulates such demands is a subject of reformist politics interpellated by the juridical-legal ideology and the concomitant hope that the system is structurally capable of reform. It is, therefore, unwittingly or not, complicit in the perpetuation of the capitalist systemic structure that is the necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the generation of cultures of gender oppression and sexual violence. Clearly, the stress of radical politics cannot, for that reason, lie on mobilising the street to berate and condemn the patriarchal mindset of the administrators either. Such an approach to the state of affairs dovetails nicely with the juridical-legal mode of reformist politics because such condemnation implies that it can shake a patriarchally callous and prejudiced administration from its anti-woman mindset by the sheer force of its intensity, and that therefore there is no structural constraint on the latter to transform itself for the better. Nothing, as we have seen, is farther from the truth. Worse, the discourse of such politics, thanks to its reformist modality, is inevitably populist that can (often has) dangerously veer to the right in the course of the mass movement. For, registers and idioms have a way of taking a life of their own, not least because they are inscribed within systemically operational structures.

Radical political intervention should learn to shun the discourse of crime and punishment to relearn its classical language of oppression and resistance. A language that disentangles the question of justice from that of law by freeing the former from the hypostatized prison of the latter. It should pose the very same systemic problems – low conviction rate, weak laws, culturally biased investigation and custom-based, communitarian subjugation of bodies and lives of women – with regard to gender oppression and sexual violence such as rape to expose the structural incapacity of the system to reform itself and remedy the situation. And through such exposure conscientise – orientate if you will – the mass upsurge triggered by perception of such ‘crimes’ to demand the impossible of the system: that its administration, police and, eventually, its private and public corporations, must cede their governmentalised control over and determination of every aspect of the lifeworld of the working masses to the popular subjectivity of the mass movement. A politics based on demanding the impossible is needed in this case not only because the system is structurally incapable of riding itself of gender-inequality and the patriarchal ideology co-constitutive of it but also because the juridical-legal approach legitimizes the politics of demands the system can possibly deliver on and, in the process, articulates a subject that reproduces the logic of duality and determination – which is constitutive of the capitalist law of value and phallocentric patriarchy, both embodied by the state.

Only when the current mass upsurge comes to be animated by this radically (im)possibility will it have begun actualising its revolutionary incipience by struggling to not merely occupy Delhi but seeking to take control of that occupied urban spatio-temporality by re-organising the social relations constitutive of it through the general assembly-driven mode of popular vigilance into a free associational or solidaristic sociality. The actualisation of such a radical subjectivity by the movement in question would enable it to see and envisage its struggle against the system in its dialectical indivisibility with the task of re-organising the given social and production relations. Something the class power constitutive of the system in question tends to render impossible, thus making the deployment of popular force by those who struggle indispensable for their task of generating counter-power through such re-organisation of the given socio-economic relations. That would, inter-alia, put an end to the false and grossly counter-productive binary between violent and peaceful protests that we have seen emanating from within the movement over the past few days. One that threatens to sap the movement of its unity and energy, what with the clear and present danger of the movement being hijacked from within – either by the reformists or the petty-bourgeois right – staring it in the face.

That this is no flight of fancy is more than evident in what the anti-rape mass movement itself has thrown up. Some radical students and youth organisations and individuals of Delhi have imagined into being a campaign, as part of the ongoing protest movement, to “reclaim the nights of the city”. The carnivalesque spontaneity of this reclamation campaign posits – of course, in a rather nascent form – the possibility of an insurrectionary sociality of people’s militias that wrest Delhi and its streets from all oppressors – the rapists, as much as the police and administration that is structurally complicit in such oppression – for popular vigilance and control. That possibility must, however, be recognised if the campaign is not to get caught in its carnivalesque spontaneity and degenerate into another festival of the anarcho-desiring petty-bourgeois youth. Only through such recognition can the politically conscious elements of the revolutionary left that is part of the campaign seriously strive towards building wider solidarity networks with the larger sections of the working people of the city, beyond the student-youth axis of the current campaign. Such wide-ranging solidarity networks are, needless to say, indispensable and integral to the process of occupation of a city and the simultaneous subordination of the socio-economic process constitutive of it to popular vigilance and control. Ironically, it is only by organising the carnivalesque spontaneity of the so-called reclamation campaign into a mode of popular control and vigilance of the sociality that are the nights, as also the days, of Delhi can this carnival preserve itself by obviating its day-after to become, in Ernst Bloch’s words, a “concrete utopia” of uninterrupted insurrection.

Instead, what we have so far  from the radicals in the anti-rape mass movement, the communist left groups included,  is, at best, a version of the juridical-legal approach tinged with the rhetoric of radical feminism. This approach has given their politics, even though they raise precisely the very same set of pertinently concrete questions they ought to have raised in order to radicalize the situation, a disagreeably unradical populist odour. It even risks reversing the good faith of such politics into bad. Such juridical-legal demands, regardless of the nobility of intent of the subject of such politics, can only serve to further securitise and thus governmentalise the political discourse and enable the extension and intensification of repressive state apparatuses and biopolitical instrumentalities such as the police force, and CCTV cameras and global positioning systems in public spaces respectively. And that is because the nobility of its intent does little to change the fact that such politics is wholly geared towards eliciting governmental – executive, legislative and judicial – responses from the system. Those are not merely the only responses the system can possibly come up with but ones it must come up with in order to extend its dominion and thereby reproduce itself.

In a more general sense, the communist left must remember that a revolutionary subjectivity is not one that evades certain immediate questions that history/capital throws at it. Rather, that every such question is a ground for leap against capital and its history, and that such a leap can concretely, as opposed to abstractly, come about only if it is able to understand and plot its interventions with regard to the concreteness of those immediate or determinate questions in terms of two mutually related characteristic features of our responses as subjects situated within and informed by capitalism and its history: one, commonsense is ideological and two, our struggle against any immediate domination must in the same determinate instance also articulate a struggle against the generalised hegemony within whose structure both immediate domination and the struggle against it are situated. A social subject of opposition that is not orientated by such knowledge runs the grave and virtually imminent risk of falling prey to the cunning of capital in precisely the same moment when it puts up its most spirited fight against it.

Nepal: Revolution’s Restorative Tangle

Pothik Ghosh

“We can be defeated both by dictatorship itself and by being reduced to opposing only dictatorship. Defeat consists as much in losing the war as in losing the choice of which war to wage.” – The Coming Insurrection, The Invisible Committee

The shelf-life of democracy in Nepal is turning out to be rather short. And instead of adhering to its ideological credo of “uninterrupted revolution” (Mao Zedong), the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) has allowed itself to become a party to this brutal interruption of democracy. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (CA), after it failed to give the fledgling republic a Constitution in spite of innumerable extensions, has undoubtedly precipitated a constitutional crisis. Such a crisis, needless to say, has been caused because the interim constitution did not foresee that a situation like the one that currently stares the republic in its young but battered face could ever arise. To see the current situation merely in those terms would, however, amount to barely scratching the surface. What, on the face of it, is an intractable constitutional deadlock is at its heart a political calamity. The soul of Nepal – its social cohesion – is suffering from a virtually incurable fracture.

The UCPN-M-led government may believe that in deciding to call for fresh elections to institute a new CA it has done the best for democracy. Nevertheless, it would be delusional on its part to imagine that making what in current circumstances is a necessary procedural gesture would be sufficient condition for enabling the continuance of democracy in the country.

No number of elections will yield the missing social consensus for a genuinely cohesive Nepal. Envisaging the electoral process as the exclusive driver of democratisation would just not do. Not unless a vibrant politics of radical social transformation, which compels the electoral process and the polity it constitutes to reflect and embody its spirit, is in place. Such transformative politics is capable of generating an effective consensus for social cohesion because it seeks to forge a new, egalitarian form of social unity by challenging and dismantling the hierarchised aggregation of socio-economic strata and socio-cultural identities.

The stiff opposition mounted by the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) not only against the demand for a strong federal polity being championed by the Maoists and their political allies among the Madheshis and Janjatis, but even against the declaration of fresh elections by the UCPN-M-led government, demonstrates the utter hopelessness of the situation. It also serves to reveal the retrograde nature of the prevailing social consensus insofar as it has inspired and enabled forces such as the NC and the CPN-UML to resist the most obviously basic procedure in a republican democracy – declaration of elections – without any fear of taint or loss. In such a situation, elections – even if the socially dominant classes and castes that back the NC and CPN-UML allow them to be held – is unlikely to yield the kind of progressive mandate required to legitimise the framing of a strongly federalist Constitution.

Unless the prevailing hegemony of competitive identity politics – the source of social division and the absence of a consensus for cohesive Nepali society – is shattered, the demand for a strong federalist constitution, incontrovertibly progressive and democratic, will remain a pipe-dream. The fulfillment of political democracy is clearly linked to democratic transformation of a hierarchical and stratified society. And the politics that seeks to accomplish this transformation can do so by establishing unity among subalternised working-class elements across various social blocs or identities in the commonality of their struggles to not only emancipate themselves from the specificities of their respective domination but through such struggles come together to extinguish the general condition of subalternisation per se. (That, in essence, is what the revolutionary politics of working-class solidarity amounts to.) Such a political manoeuvre, in attempting to disaggregate identities and breach their homogeneity, would fundamentally alter the prevailing configuration of social and economic power in Nepal. It would also create an effective consensus for a federalised republican polity. The demand for federalism would gain legitimacy beyond the marginalised and oppressed identities, whose demand it particularly is, due to the cross-identitarian character of working-class solidarity that such transformative politics would accomplish.

Unfortunately, UCPN-M chairman Prachanda’s recent statement bespeaks no such awareness. His assertion that his party would fight polls on the plank of identity-based federalism and would win two-thirds majority in the new CA is not only thoroughly misplaced but is a tragic revelation to boot. It demonstrates how the Maoists have come to vest such complete and exclusive faith in the electoral process as if it were the demi-urge of democracy in Nepal. Electoral politics, in the absence of a larger movement for radical social transformation, is threatening to undermine precisely that which it is meant to establish: democracy. In Nepal today, it is an embodiment of the ethic of competition that underlies the acutely hierarchised, deeply class-divided and sharply fractured society.

Even more appalling is the fact that the importance of establishing the inextricable link between political democracy and radical social transformation should be so completely lost on the leadership of a political force with a recent and glorious revolutionary past. The Maoists should have known the realisation of federalism as a constitutionally enshrined principle is contingent not on sheer electoral mobilisation, but on the capacity of a political force to situate such mobilisation within the matrix of vigorous transformative politics that delegitimises identitarian competition by seeking to level the social hierarchy that fosters it. The objective basis of their politics in the most subalternised sections of the working people, thanks to their participation in and leadership of the two-decade-long People’s War, ought to have ensured at least this much. That it did not proves their subjectivity is no longer fully committed to the objective basis of their politics.

In that context, the responsibility for the current crisis of democratic consensus in Nepal should largely be the Maoists’ burden. And that, contrary to the suggestion of the preponderant anti-Maoist wisdom on the Indian subcontinent, is not because the UCPN-M has failed to sufficiently accommodate the so-called concerns of such reactionary political forces as the NC and CPN-UML. Instead, the crisis has arisen precisely because it has been too accommodating. The Maoists have, for all practical purposes, accepted the dominance of the traditional social elite by submitting to the hegemonic determination of the latter’s republicanist ideology of competitive politics and hierarchised social corporatist aggregation.

It would, however, be analytically misplaced to overstate this criticism. What is needed is to put it in its proper historical perspective. After all, it was the concerted initiative of the Maoists to deepen and democratise Nepal’s republican political process – made inevitable by the 2006 anti-monarchy Jan Andolan of the NC-led seven-party alliance (SPA) and the Maoists – that compelled the post-Gyanendra mainstream polity to concede to their demand for drawing up a more democratic social contract in the form of a new Constitution. It was this that led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Maoists and the SPA, the abolition of monarchy and the institution of the now-dissolved CA through elections in which the Maoists too participated. When the SPA had accepted the reinstatement of the Nepal House of Representatives by King Gyanendra in April 2006, Baburam Bhattarai had categorically stated that merely restoring parliament would not resolve the problems and that Maoist guerrillas would continue to fight government forces as long as their demands for the formation of a CA and abolition of monarchy were not accepted. Such a statement proves the Maoists had then been doggedly committed to the democratisation of the emergent republican polity.

Such commitment stemmed from the objective basis of their politics in the demands and aspirations of the oppressed sections of Nepali society for greater democratisation. It meant that the hierarchised aggregation of differentially inclusive identitarianised strata become less hierarchical. The demand for a new social contract was meant to accomplish exactly that. But can such a social contract gain widespread popular legitimacy as long as society is irreconcilably divided along hierarchically and thus mutually competitive identitarian lines?

Aspirations that pertain to certain oppressed identities, no matter how democratic, will not find acceptance among dominant identities unless those identities themselves are disaggregated through a process of opening up of struggles between the dominated and the dominant within each of those identities. It is only then that the oppressed identities and the proletarianised sections within the dominant identities can come together in their common condition of oppression and their common struggle against the abolition of that condition per se. Only when that is accomplished can the democratic aspirations of the oppressed identities find wider resonance with the concerns of the subalternised sections within the dominant identities and win popular legitimacy.

This is the full implication of aspirations and demands such as federalism that the Maoists have failed to grasp in spite of having concertedly raised those demands due to the objective location of their politics among the wretched of the earth. It is time, however, they understood that their struggle to deepen republicanism was no more than a moment in the process of the larger political movement to radically transform Nepali society. Had that been their approach all along, their struggle to deepen the republican political process would have morphed into the next moment of struggle for social transformation without interruption. They should now know that democratisation of a republican polity without radical transformation of society would – even if it were to succeed – inevitably lead to the electoral instrumentalisation of the questions and concerns of the working class by different sections of the socially dominant classes and the ruling elite in their mutually competitive quest for political power. Such instrumentalisation would strengthen homogeneous identities and thus reinforce the hegemony of a hierarchical society and competitive identity politics.

The UCPN-M, so far, has given no sign that it has started comprehending its demand for a constitutionally-ordained federal polity in those terms. As a consequence, what was meant to be the means by which a wide-ranging political movement for social transformation could be waged and energised continues to be reduced to a shibboleth by the party for bolstering its case in a competitive struggle for political power. Something that rather than challenge has only served to reinforce the unequal social basis of such power. Clearly, the Maoists appear to have conflated and confused their politics of radical social transformation with the tactics of the republican moment of such politics. That has, in an ironic twist, rendered republicanism the strategic goal of a political force that professes to stand for revolutionary working-class politics.

The fatal flaw of the Maoist leadership on that score had become evident in 2005-06 itself when the party had begun diverting its political resources and energy from the People’s War campaign in rural Nepal to an urban mass movement that was erupting in the form of an anti-monarchy Jan Andolan. The problem is not that Maoist politics came out of the bush into the cities to become open. Nor can the decision of the Maoists to participate in the mainstream electoral process be faulted as such. At that moment, those were absolutely the right things to do by way of tactics. The real problem lay in the way they went about doing all that.

Whatever critical assessment the Maoists might have had of the Jan Andolan, the politics of their participation in it revealed nothing more than the acceptance of massification that was the dominant ideological and political tendency of the movement. The 2006 Jan Andolan was a movement constituted through an aggregation of different strata of Nepali society against disparate forms of domination inflicted and imposed on them by their common enemy – the monarchy – that nevertheless left the relationships of domination, power and mutual competition among its constituents intact.

The Maoist participation in that movement should have been based on a continuous questioning and practical critique of the concrete forms in which the movement engendered social relations of hierarchy and concomitant ideologies of competition even while the party fought the common battle against the monarchy without yielding an inch. In other words, the Maoists should have been the principal proponents of a revolution within revolution. Instead, blinded by their tactical paradigm of republicanism, they ended up elevating the problem of Jan Andolan into a virtue.

The hierarchised mass, shaped and guided by ideologies of mutual competition among its various constituent strata and/or identities, was assumed by them to be a repository of social unity in its apparently common struggle against Gyanendra’s monarchy. Naturally, they thought that questioning the hierarchies and segmentations internal to that mass would weaken the movement. This was probably also partly prompted by their desire to quickly seize state-power. They probably lost the nerve to undertake the protracted and arduous political odyssey needed for making such seizure contingent on altering the social relations and structure from which emanates the oppressive state-formation of Nepal. But as Maoists they should have known that “revolution is not a dinner party”, or a piece of cake for that matter.

What was required of them was to sustain the movement on the streets of urban Nepal through unceasing political activity driven by independent working-class initiative. Such a movement, if it went on in tandem with the task of framing the Constitution, would have ensured the CA debates successfully culminated in the framing of a new Constitution. More importantly, the debates and the Constitution yielded by them would have been what they ought to be in a substantively democratic socio-political formation: the legislative and institutional reflection of the popular will, which is the unceasing movement on the street towards a higher form of unity and a new order of social cohesion. The Maoists, in choosing to uncritically submerge themselves in the massified zeitgeist of the 2006 Jan Andolan, frittered that opportunity away. The republican political subjectivity they have acquired as a result is borne out by the ease with which they have continually submitted to the demands of the Indian state.

New Delhi, like a watchful big brother in the neighbourhood seeking to protect the purportedly fragile republican balance of power in Nepal, has time and again compelled the Maoists and their government to control and check the advance of their working-class base in the farms, factories and streets of Nepal. The UCPN-M-led government has, at the Indian government’s behest, repeatedly curbed the activities and democratic assertions of such movement-based oganisations as its Young Communist League and labour unions. It has also dissolved the various organs of people’s power it had developed between 1996 and 2006. For the sake of this so-called republican integrity, the Maoist-led government during Prachanda’s premiership even went to the extent of deciding to return the land it had seized from landowning classes in the People’s War phase.

The big-brotherly protection of Nepal’s fragile republican balance of power by India essentially amounts to New Delhi acting as the political executive of Nepal’s Marwari mercantile/industrial capitalists and Bihari rich peasants (of Terai) – connected to the Indian mainland by kinship ties – to safeguard their ill-gotten privilege and socio-economic power. If this is not imperialism, what is? Clearly, the republican distortions of Maoist politics is as much a consequence as cause of India’s imperialistic meddling in Nepal. Of course, the Maoists themselves are primarily responsible for having adopted a republican political subjectivity that has now not only ceased to be radical but is enabling a socio-political project that is downright restorative. But the sustained level and nature of India’s imperialistic interference in Nepal has created conditions that do not leave radical political forces with too many other options.

It, therefore, follows that unless a radical Left-democratic movement is able to gather enough mass and power in India to shatter the settled nationalist consensus from which this country’s ruling class derives the legitimacy to indulge in imperialistic interference in its subcontinental neighbourhood, the future of radical democracy in Nepal is doomed. And damned. The Indian Left would do well to understand that it needs to do much more for the revolution in Nepal than instructing and advising the Maoists and other radical forces there on how to go about their business.

That is, however, not meant to exculpate the Nepali Maoists and discharge them from the responsibility of effecting a revolutionary transformation of socio-economic and political power in Nepal. It is only to tell them that if they do not mend their ways and continue to walk the path they have been walking since 2006, the best they will be able to deliver is a messed-up passive revolution.

A shorter version of the article is published in The Economic Times (June 2, 2012)

United Front: Beyond the Politics of Liberal Consensus and Leftwing Infantilism

Pothik Ghosh

First, an axiomatic assertion: the communist conception of the United Front is by no means meant to enable the politics of liberal consensus to come into its own.  If anything, it is meant to extinguish the condition of possibility for such politics. The United Front – at least in the realm of revolutionary communist theory – has always been envisaged as a programmatic concept of advance-through-generalisation for the capital-unraveling politics of the proletariat, even as it steers clear of the trap of substituting overgeneralised sectarianism for real, essential unity among concretely varied working-class locations.

This essence of the communist concept and practice of the United Front is most at stake in the ongoing polemical exchanges between the New Socialist Initiative (NSI)-led University Community for Democracy (UCD) and the Krantikari Yuva Sangathan (KYS). Yet, unfortunately, it is precisely this politico-theoretical essence that has been lost in the fog of those polemics.  The NSI, which has to all intents and purposes been the key organising and driving force behind the UCD, clearly envisages socialist United Front politics, discernible in its defence of the current shape and directionality of the UCD, as one of consensus between various social blocs and classes in their ostensibly common struggle against the manoeuvres of dominant politico-economic and socio-political forms of capitalism in the specific location of the university and its neighbourhood. On the other hand, the KYS has, its intentions to the contrary notwithstanding, failed to free the revolutionary impulse – which underpins its otherwise absolutely valid criticism of the UCD as a material embodiment of the politics and ideology of liberal consensus (essentially integral to the hegemony of capitalism) – from the fetish of the historical specificity of its own experience. As a consequence, its otherwise legitimate polemic against the UCD and the NSI has failed to overcome its sectarian tenor and ignite a substantive debate.

At the heart of the NSI’s programmatic error on that score lies its unwillingness and/or inability to grasp the fact that a communist-led United Front cannot be distinguished from a liberal rainbow coalition at a phenomenological level, where they are similar, but that the fundamental distinction between them stems from the two completely different logics or trajectories of formation they are respectively products of. While a consensus-based rainbow coalition is expressly produced as an aggregative unity of various socio-economic and socio-occupational blocs or groups (really sociological entities), a communist group/party-led United Front is envisaged as a constellational, essential unity of multiple social subject positions embodying the universal proletarian tendency of decimation of value creation in their determinate specificity of those historically given diverse socio-economic and/or socio-occupational blocs.

Therefore, rainbow coalition is a body while a communist-led United Front is, as Antonio Gramsci correctly characterised it, an “agitational terrain”. It is, however, the similarity in appearance of both these entities that has often been the reason for the gap in the programmatic conception of the United Front and its actual, empirical practice, wherein the constitutive essence of the United Front has been conflated and confused with its appearance, which by itself is no different from that of a rainbow coalition. This grave error has been particularly unavoidable in moments of institutionalisation and fetishisation of communist groups and parties concomitant with the periodic, though inevitable, ebb in the proletarian movement, whose generalised advance those groups or parties have been constitutive of. That error of confusion and conflation has, needless to say, been the historical bane of communist formations that have been in a hurry to seize and control power without really bothering to make that desire of theirs an inextricable part of the larger communist strategy of changing the class basis and configuration of such power. The Eurocommunist drift of the Communist Party of Italy after World War II is, by far, the most ‘celebrated’ example of this communist propensity for historical blunder. The NSI is, to that extent, merely the latest entrant into this hall of liberal ‘communist’ infamy.

In such circumstances where utter confusion prevails, the least one can do is to attempt rescuing the politico-theoretical essence of the United Front from the cul de sac of counterproductive polemicising.

The communist conception of the United Front is, historically speaking, necessitated by two objective conditions:

1. The base of the communist party, in case there is only one such party, is not widely pervasive and is restricted to only a few localities or sections of the working class. Or, in case of there being more than one communist formation, the working-class base is heavily fragmented.

2. The institutional socio-political and politico-economic forms of big capital are striving hard and perhaps successfully to establish their dominance over the rest of social totality, which includes not merely the working class but also various sections of the petty-bourgeoisie and other intermediate classes, particularly the urban middle classes. In such a situation, the unity of the working masses qua the unity of the working class, petty commodity producers (artisans, small peasants, etc.) and other sociological groups constituting the intermediate-class strata becomes necessary and unavoidable to render the struggle against such domination effective.

However, by itself such a coalition is not really a United Front in the classical communist sense but is actually no more than an aggregative unity of various social blocs into a kind of rainbow coalition. Such an alliance, even as it poses an effective challenge to the growing domination and advance of the big bourgeoisie and its politico-economic and socio-political institutional forms, is not counter-hegemonic. In fact, the ideological orientation of such an entente, precisely because of its formational logic of unity of disparate social forces ranged in a competitive struggle against the advance and manoeuvres of the big bourgeoisie, only serves to reinforce the hegemony of capital, which is not to be mistaken for this or that entity or form but is a grammar or ensemble of competitive social relations.

Capitalism is inherently and constitutively contradictory. It, as a matter of fact, thrives on contradiction and competition. To that extent, struggles against dominant and dominating forms of capital are, by themselves, no more than competitive manoeuvres. They are either directed as resistance against dominant capitalist forms and entities by subordinate locations to maintain their concrete historical positions against the advancing encroachment of those big-capitalist forms and entities on certain materially mediate conditions that give those subordinate positions their historically concrete specificity by underpinning and constituting them; or they are battles by those subordinate locations to wrench more such materially embedded conditions from the dominant and dominating capitalist forms and entities to enhance their position in the systemic hierarchy called capitalism. To that extent, those competitive struggles are no more, or less, than petty bourgeois struggles against the marauding, monopolistic movement of big capital. To say that such struggles, thanks to their competitive impulse and orientation, are articulated by and within the hegemonic logic of capital would not amount to an overstatement. The practice of United Front, contrary to its continual abuse by various left and communist outfits, cannot be an endorsement of such struggles. And yet no communist formation can afford to ignore those struggles of petty-bourgeois anti-capitalism because they constitute for revolutionary proletarian politics the determinate ground for critique of political economy. Unless such politics is embedded or refounded in the determinate specificity of historically given contradictions it would be neither revolutionary nor proletarian.

Clearly, the ideological leadership and subjective orientation of a United Front of communist vintage must, as its sine qua non, be proletarian. Without such ideological orientation, which would actually derive from the logic of its constitutivity, it would amount to giving normative communist sanction to what is for all practical purposes a hegemonic politics of liberal consensus.

In any case, the petty bourgeois, not unlike the proletariat, is a tendency that manifests itself in, as and through various sociological entities in the process of struggle and contradiction with dominant and dominating social forms and identities of capital specific to those historically concrete junctures or moments of contradiction. These sociological entities, depending on whether they express the mutually antagonistic petty-bourgeois or proletarian tendencies, become social ontologies or subjectivities of the petty-bourgeoisie or the proletariat in the junctural and conjunctural specificity of contradictions. We would, however, do well to realise that while the two mutually antagonistic tendencies can be grasped only in and as sociological forms, which as social ontologies and agencies of critique and transformation respectively are provisional because they are determinate, the petty bourgeois and the proletariat cannot be sociologised.

And that is because the same socio-historical locus of antithesis against the dominant thetic form of capital in a juncture or moment of historically given contradiction or class struggle can and often is both the locus of petty-bourgeois and proletarian tendency. For the former the struggle is delimited by its will to resolve the questions posed by the contours of the specific, determinate form and the fulfillment of demands that underpin those questions as if they were immediate issues of their struggle. For the latter, on the other hand, the issues and demands constituted by the historical form specific to the contradiction mediate the question of the configuration of (capitalist) class power of differential distribution and hierarchy that it seeks to transform in struggling to fulfil the demands and resolve the issues constituted by the empirically concrete historical formation of the juncture of contradiction. So, while the petty bourgeois tendency of a socio-historical locus of antithesis would be content with the fulfillment of its immediate demands, the proletarian tendency would see in the fulfillment of those immediate demands, which for it actually mediate the question of changing the differential configuration of capitalist class power, the need to displace the struggle beyond that locality of contradiction that has been further actually subsumed within capital through a change in the regime of regulation/distribution in its favour.

In such circumstances, a communist-led United Front is meant to be a type of intervention in various historically concrete loci of antithetical struggle against dominant thetic forms or identities so that this polarisation between the localist petty-bourgeois and the local-becoming-universal proletarian tendencies can be successfully effected. Thus the antithesis is as such an identity discursively embedded within the logical horizon of capitalism, but it is also, by virtue of its antithetical position, the determinate terrain for discerning and expressing the counter-discursive and transvaluatory counter-capitalist synthesis. The United Front must, above all, be seen as a revolutionary gambit that seeks to constantly fracture identities, seemingly cohesive in the commonality of their struggles against dominant, big capitalist forms, into polarised terrains of struggles over how or why those first struggles are/were being waged.

As a result, the working class-as-proletariat becomes a horizon of perpetual formation constituted through the constant dialectic between petty embourgeoisement and proletarian revolutionisation generated in the struggles of concrete antithetical social locations against equally concrete thetic forms or identities. Clearly, the only communist task then is the location and expression of the capital-unravelling, proletarian tendency in the determinate, mediate specificity of diverse levels of concrete historical forms of the class struggle. This is what Marx called revolutionary generalisation. And this becomes necessary for the unfolding of the proletarian line because capital, which is inherently uneven due to its constitutively contradictory character, continuously produces and reproduces the working class as an intrinsically segmented and stratified space of heterogeneously concrete and mutually competitive labour-forms. In the absence of this programmatic vision of generalisation, communist parties and/or groups would be condemned to become the fetish of experiences of certain limited but not all sections of the working class. That, in turn, would mean communist politics becomes the competitive sectarianism and/or the overgeneralised imposition of certain localities and/or moments of experience of working-class struggle on its remaining localities or moments. That, as far as the advance of the revolutionary proletarian line is concerned, is neither feasible nor desirable. In a concrete situation of bourgeois hegemony, such overgeneralisation does not help constitute counter-hegemony as the fetishised and sectionalist experiences embodied by communist groups are either unacceptable to one another or to those sections or localities of the working class that lie beyond the politico-ideological purview of the communist parties and/or groups in question. Besides, such overgeneralised imposition of sectionalist experiences, even when it is possible, is from a revolutionary-proletarian perspective undesirable because it spells differential dualisation and alienation, which in turn are constitutive symptoms of the restoration of capitalism and its regime of exchange values and value creation.

This is perhaps not the place to run through the historical narrative of the communist idea of the United Front, in both its chequered theory and practice starting from the days of the Dimitrov Theses in the Comintern. What, however, might be germane to our immediate concerns, which has led us to try and grasp the communist conception of the United Front as a vehicle of revolutionary generalisation, is Gramsci’s reflections on the same as a committed Italian militant of the Third International. That is so because the PCd’I’s theorisation and practice of the United Front amid the ascendancy of Fascism and till the emergence of Eurocommunism – which was a complete bowdlerisation of the revolutionary idea of the United Front into a social democratic, class-collaborationist shibboleth by Togliatti – provides us with the most politically productive and relevant example of the same.

Gramsci, for starters, was clear about the pertinence and effectiveness of the United Front as a programme of determinate, as opposed to abstract, schematic, intervention. In 1924, when the PCd’I adopted the policy of the United Front in its Third Congress, he wrote: “In the peripheral countries (of Europe) there is posed the problem of what I have called the intermediate phase…. In the other countries, Czechoslovakia and France included, it seems to me that the problem is still one of political preparation. For all capitalist countries a fundamental problem is posed, that of the passage from the tactic of the united front, understood in a general sense, to a determinate tactic, which poses the concrete problems of national life and works on the base of popular forces as they are historically determined.” (Emphasis added) It was precisely such a conceptual understanding of the United Front on Gramsci’s part that doubtless propelled the PCd’I to modify the Comintern’s United Front scheme into what it called “United Front from below”. This theorisation, if it is read together with its historical context, clearly indicates the will of its PCd’I proponents to distinguish it from the dominant praxis of the United Front (from above) as, what one has characterised before, an aggregative unity of various socio-economic and socio-occupational blocs or groups (really sociological entities) against the monopolistic and dominant tendencies of capitalism embodied and expressed by the regime or regimes of fascism. The United Front from below, on the other hand, was envisaged as a constellational, essential unity of multiple social subject positions embodying the universal proletarian tendency in the determinate specificity of those historically given diverse socio-economic and/or socio-occupational blocs. That meant fracturing those social blocs, groups and/or identities, seemingly cohesive in the commonality of their antithetical struggles against dominant capitalist (fascist) forms, into polarised terrains of struggles between the petty bourgeois and the proletarian tendencies over how or why those antithetical struggles are being waged in the first place.

That this was, according to Gramsci, the key impulse behind the adoption of the United Front policy by the PCd’I at its Third Congress in Commo in 1924, is clear from a paper he presented to the executive of the party at its meeting of August 2-3, 1926. The first of the “three basic factors” in the contemporary Italian political situation which he highlighted was “The positive, revolutionary factor, i.e. the progress achieved by the united front tactic. The current situation in the organization of Committees of Proletarian Unity and the tasks of the communist factions in these committees”. His emphasis on Committees of Proletarian Unity and the necessary presence of communist factions in these committees was in opposition to the line of Tasca and others close to the trade unions that insisted on concentrating on protecting established labour organisations and working through them. This reveal that while Gramsci was not willing to reify the social democratic gains of a section of the working class into revolutionary proletarian politics, he was not content with forging merely a political unity of all anti-capitalist social forces either. His stress on building Committees of Proletarian Unity through the presence of “communist factions” in them prove that for him essential unity among various proletarian-working class locations was possible only through polarisation of petty bourgeois and proletarian tendencies on every determinate terrain of anti-capitalist struggle. The communist factions within those committees, which were really anti-capitalist or antithetical blocs, were meant to precisely embody and drive that polarisation in the determinateness of their respective localities from the proletarian side. Gramsci is quite accurate in showing how the United Front tactics of the PCd’I produced such antagonistic class polarisations:

“In practical terms, the question can be framed like this: in all parties, especially in democratic and social-democratic parties in which the organizational structure is very loose, there are three layers. The numerically very restricted upper layer, that is usually made up of parliamentary deputies and intellectuals, often closely linked to the ruling class. The bottom layer, made up of workers and peasants and members of the urban petite bourgeoisie, which provides the mass of Party members or the mass of those influenced by the Party. And an intermediate layer, which in the present situation is even more important than it is in normal circumstances, in that it often represents the only active and politically ‘live’ layer of these parties. It is this intermediate layer that maintains the link between the leading group at the top and the mass of members and sympathizers. It is on the solidity of this middle layer that the Party leaders are counting for a future renewal of the various parties and a reconstruction of these parties on a broad basis.

“Now, it is precisely on a significant section of these middle layers of the various popular parties that the influence of the movement in favour of a united front is making itself felt. It is within this middle layer that we are seeing this capillary phenomenon of disintegration of the old ideologies and political programmes and the first stirrings of a new political formation on the terrain of the united front…. These are the kind of elements over which our Party exercises an ever increasing influence and whose political spokesmen are a sure index of movements at a grass roots level that are often more radical than may appear from these individual shifts.” (Emphasis added)

Gramsci’s description of these middle layers of popular parties is a clear indication that they are subjective embodiments of social democracy and such other types of bourgeois and petty bourgeois democratic ideology in various historically diverse moments of the class struggle. That he should set such great store by their transformation is, therefore, hardly surprising. The “capillary phenomenon of disintegration of the old ideologies and political programmes and the first stirrings of a new political formation on the terrain of the united front” implies a transformation of those various bourgeois democratic ideological subjectivities, mired in sectionalist struggles to get their historically concrete and specific grievances redressed, into a counter-ideological subjectivity that grasps the objective essence of their respective historically constituted conditions as specific mediate forms of the dualising and differential configuration of capitalist class power. The recognition of this necessity transformed their struggles over their specific historical issues and demands into a determinate, and therefore transformative, critique of capitalism.

It is fairly clear that Gramsci, the Leninist, did not confuse the building of a logical or constellational unity among historically diverse social subject positions of the counter-hegemonic proletarian tendency to effect revolutionary generalization with the expansion of the Communist Party through its progressive massification into an aggregate of disparate, anti-Fascist social blocs and groups that were hubs of class collaboration. That it was the former and not the latter purpose the United Front tactics were meant to serve is evident from Gramsci’s elaboration on the United Front tactics: “It is obvious that the Party cannot go in for fusion with other political groups or for recruiting new members on the basis of the united front. The purpose of the united front is to foster unity of action on the part of the working class and the alliance between workers and peasants; it cannot be a basis for party formation.” The latter approach would have transformed the PCd’I’s contemporary politics of communist antagonism to capitalism as a systemic social whole into a benign liberal, rainbow coalition-type competitive opposition to the monopolistic tendency of capital that was then embodied by fascism.

In our day, this monopolistic tendency of big capital is represented by various governmental and non-governmental politico-economic forms of neoliberalism driven by their will to absolute domination of the social whole. Thus the indispensability of the United Front tactics in our struggle against them cannot be overstated. And that is precisely the reason we must be particularly attentive to the ethos and import of Gramsci’s theory and under him the PCd’I’s practice of the same. After all, we cannot afford to squander the opportunity, objectively present in this moment, to unravel and overcome capitalism by lapsing into some kind of liberal consensual politics of laissez-faire and anti-capitalism. That would merely serve to aesthetically enchant our radical souls even as we, under the spell of such ‘revolutionary’ enchantment, entrench our positions and politics ever more firmly within the logical horizon of capitalism and its hegemony. And such damnation one would not wish even for the comrades of NSI.

Media and the Indian State: On the Draft Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006

Pothik Ghosh

I am afraid I am going to have to admit that I shall somewhat complicate this discussion. And I begin doing that by asking – would it suffice for the Indian Left – both its communist and non-communist variants alike – to protest against the current government proposal to bring in a broadcasting bill that seeks to limit the ‘free’ media’s operations? If the intended broadcasting bill is an act of state censorship – which it most certainly is – would it do for the Indian Left to simply see it as such and resist it? In other words, shouldn”t we on the Left, before we take a definite political position against the proposal, understand the tension within a system of which both the government and the media are integral parts? Only when we are able to comprehend this systemic tension would our praxis become a really interventionist critique of the political economy of the mass media. To put it broadly, the principal concerns of the proposed bill are regulation of market-share of TV companies to purportedly prevent media monopolies from coming up, so that homogenisation of opinion can be checked. After all, shouldn’t the state in a capitalist democracy like ours be concerned about homogenisation of opinion, and be sensitive to the question of consumer choice? Of course, given the sameness of the content on most of our TV channels, choice is really an illusion. An illusion that is intrinsic to the political economy of the mass media. But more of that later. Coming back to where we were:

The state’s intent, in proposing the bill, is to putatively articulate the wishes, demands and concerns of those social groups, whose concerns either find no reflection in, or are undermined and/or contradicted by, programming on cable TV channels, which articulate the concerns of the hegemonic classes. We can sense in this a dialectical tension between two visions of hegemony: One which considers that the project of hegemonisation is complete. And the other, represented in this case by the government, which thinks that the hegemony of the ruling classes is yet to be conclusively established. So, the current move to bring in the bill is meant to emphasise the fact that the state is as much concerned and bothered about those social groups, which do not ‘identify’ with the interests of the ruling classes, as the ruling classes themselves as also those who have accepted their ideological hegemony despite the fact that their interests do not really converge with those of the ruling classes.

(In fact, when we say that a particular group does or does not identify with the interests of the ruling classes we must qualify that by saying that some groups identify with the interests of the system more than others. For, the political economy of capital excludes identities, commodities, ideas, cultures to the extent that it orders them in a hierarchy of exchange values. But since things higher up in the hierarchy valorise themselves by transferring value from things, different from them occupying the lower tiers, nothing, from the point of view of the total system, is excluded. We can safely say that capitalism creates hierarchical exclusion of difference even as it includes those differences productively! The bourgeois social formation, which is civil society in common parlance, is constituted by a differential hierarchy of social relations or relations of production.)

To come back to the government gesture of proposing the broadcast bill: In this gesture of the state, at any rate a sizeable section of it, lies the will of the ruling ideology – not class since the latter is too internally fragmented and heterogeneous an entity – to hegemonise.

But this tension, or contradiction, between two visions of ideological hegemony of the ruling classes has two possible syntheses, or to borrow from Hegel, ‘aufhebung’. The first unity of opposites is obviously the will to hegemonise. It is positive, present and status-quoist. The second dialectic, and this is our main concern, is critical, absent and revolutionary. That, in this instance, must be seen as a Marxian overturning of the Hegelian dialectic.

It is the will to construct a counter-hegemony, or to be more precise a counter-ideological position. This is the will we on the Left have to extract from the consensus that is being articulated by the government to bring the bill to control the freemarket of the free media. Let’s understand this better. The strand of the government gesture to bring in the broadcast bill, which in what it manifests – as we well truly know – is the will of the ruling classes to hegemonise on the larger political terrain. But it seeks to do so in the name of demand for more choice from among certain social sections lower down in the systemic hierarchy. It is the essence of this demand for more choice from among those social sections, which the Marxists must comprehend. In the Marxist’s revolutionary scheme, this social demand must be first seen, and then articulated, as being inflected with its negative, counter-ideological and autonomously political desire to reject and unravel the law-constituting gesture of the ruling classes to dominate – through ideological hegemony and consensus or direct coercion, or a combination of both.

Of course, if we were to deal with this within the conceptually segmented domain of the mass media the Left should read in this positive demand for certain kind of TV programmes over others, the absent or sedimented desire to disavow, even challenge, the anti-dialogic spirit intrinsic to the mass media, thanks to the larger political economy within which it is situated and, at the same time, facilitates.

Another aspect, which is brought out by this tension between two visions of the ruling classes, is the idea of the autonomization of the executive. That is, when the state ceases to be a mere executive representative of the ruling class, and becomes an independent entity in itself. Virtually a class for itself, whose decisions are often at variance and in conflict with those of the dominant social class. This happens when polity is faced with, what some Marxists have called the “crisis of representation”. This crisis of representation, together with the autonomization of the executive, has been very evident in India and some other post-colonial Asian nation-states for at least the past few decades. That is typical of a fascist conjuncture. This crisis of representation happens when the ruling class, and in fact the entire social formation created by and enabling its political economy, is deeply fractured and becomes too internally differentiated to articulate a single cohesive set of interests and ideologies. In other words, the ideological hegemony of the ruling classes collapses and various contending ideologies, facilitating various sectional interests, come to fore. The state then steps in to fill the hegemonical vacuum by asserting its independent coercive and administrative role. It does so by playing one class against the other – the bourgeoisie against the proletariat; the petty bourgeoisie against the proletariat; the proletariat against the peasantry; and the petty bourgeoisie against the big bourgeoisie.

This means two things:
a. The state’s interests are independent of the interest of all social classes, though it may at times converge with one, at another with the other.

b. Its interests are best served by preserving the current political economy of exchange value and its attendant system of differential inclusion. Consequently, it does everything except unravel the socio-economic origins of the system.

Let us go back to the broadcast bill in the light of this analysis. To the extent that it seeks to curb the power of an influential section of the dominant classes (the media barons); through executive fiat, it indicates the crisis of representation. (1)

I repeat once again that the political economy of the modern state, whatever be its form, is a capitalist political economy of valorisation through value transfer, which creates an anti-dialogic, stratified system of productive inclusion. Given this political economy of the state and its various attendant political and social institutions, it would be too much to expect that this tension would, objectively on its own, have a revolutionary, critical resolution. As a matter of fact, the absence of any progressive subjective political intervention would most likely resolve it in favour of the status quo: a continuous extension of the hegemonic project of the ruling classes and their ruling ideology.

That revolutionary subjectivity will, however, have to be premised on a critical understanding of the political economy and ideological character of the mass media. The Left must understand that this radical subjectivity would be most effectively deployed when the subjectivity is fully seized of the crisis of representation. Mostly, people resist the state, but without any new paradigm of politics that would seek to understand the state as a function of a certain type of political economy; a certain mode of production; and a certain structure of social relations. Such resistance is, therefore, doomed to be plotted in terms of the status quo of social relations. Thus capturing state power inevitably becomes, for them, an end-in-itself. Every such act of resistance, as a result, ends with some sections of those resisting being absorbed into the state. Those who are not absorbed, again align with those who are preparing to launch a fresh assault against the might of the new state. And thus the vicious cycle continues.

The preponderant tendency of the state is to close itself and exclude others, but it can never do so completely because, objectively, there’s a counter-tendency in it to deal with others and include them, if only in a hierarchical fashion and if only to oppress and exploit them in order to transfer value and accumulate capital in all its ‘materialised’ and ‘dematerialised’ forms – cultural capital, social capital, political power, money and so forth. The modern state, as a consequence, remains precariously open to challenge. This tension results in it being forced to reflect the demands of those who are lower down in the systemic hierarchy, and who through resistance are trying to move upwards, or to-wards the centre of it all. But since this demand is articulated by the state; and also because the demand itself is inscribed within the paradigm of modern political power and form of state, even in its resistance it ultimately fails to articulate itself without distorting its counter-ideological, critical essence – the essence, which wants to escape the mediatory appearance of the prevailing political economy and its ideological-ethical framework.

So, the UPA government has, through its gesture of proposing the broadcast bill, articulated the ‘aam aadmi’s’ mandate, which demands of it more choice as a consumer. Something that monopolising media houses would obviously be loath to grant them. But this manifest demand and mandate are distorted by the mediation of the politics of state power, its ideologies and institutions, and, most fundamentally, its political economy. It would be the Marxian Left’s task to cut through the clutter and recover what the appearance of this mandate, or this demand has distorted beyond recognition.

Now let’s see where this approach of unmasking disguised and alienated political-economic/ideological categories can lead us to in the segmented domain of the mass media. Once we accept this approach, media can be seen to be answering affirmatively to only one of these two questions: Is it meant to aid leisure, and ideological indoctrination and/or skilling of workers by purveying programmes that are passively consumed by them as part and parcel of the reified ritual to socially re-produce themselves? Or, is it a zone where pleasure intersects with critique to produce a radical rupture with the prevailing political economy in both its content and form, which are entwined thoroughly with each other? The question that we on the Left should choose to answer in the affirmative is clear.

To understand the fundamental difference between these visions of the media, we need to simply remember what French filmmaker Goddard had once said: “TV transmits, while cinema expresses.” Here, of course, we must also understand that for Goddard TV is the epitome of the bourgeois mass media purveying entertainment, ideologies and skills, while cinema is the supreme expression of what a left-wing cultural-political resistance against such a mass media and its political economy ought to be. For Goddard, TV transmits things as they are, and that transmission is meant to be passively recognised, received and consumed as reality by its intended viewers for entertainment and/or ‘education’. Cinema, on the other hand, is to express that reality. In other words, it is meant to reflect upon and investigate as to how this reality is constituted. Not just that, it also ends up provoking the audience, too, to participate in that reflection and probe. That implies engagement and active participation of the audience. It is this vision of Goddard’s cinema that has to permeate the Left’s cultural-political discourse and its vision of an alternative media.

This kind of cultural politics of resistance has a long and rich legacy.

A. First, of course, is the anti-narrative films of Goddard himself. His cinema is known to suddenly rupture the narrative and take recourse to various devices and tropes that lead to reflection on the reality that the narrative is seeking to capture or depict.

B. And then, of course, there is Brecht, whose debt Goddard has acknowledged time and again, and whose idea and practice of epic theatre did to culture and aesthetics what Marx’s did to politics and political economy. In his epic theatre Brecht sought to alienate the audience from the play, by interrupting its narrative through use of various devices like melodrama, documentary film clips, newspaper cuttings, actual audio recordings of historical events, etc, in order to unearth and foreground the various processes that constitute and contextualise the reality being depicted in his plays. His intention: to destroy the cathartic consumption of theatre, and the reality it represents, by a passive audience; and provoke that audience into thinking about how reality is historically constituted. His didactic approach was meant to provoke audiences into a dialogue with the producer so that they become active participants in the process of producing the plays, and by extension the reality outside theatre itself. Brecht was actually known to have rewritten many of his plays by taking into account the reactions and responses of politically engaged German workers, who were his primary audience.

C. South American Augusto Boal has taken this Brechtian experiment a step further. His plays of the theatre-of-the-oppressed vintage are produced in a fashion that it provokes the audience not just to reflect on how the narrative is constituted but to actually become part of the play and start participating in it.

D. Filmmaker John Abraham’s Odessa film club experiment closer home in Kerala is also another example of how the audiences of cinema can become its producers. Abraham and Odessa made some films successfully with money raised from poor villagers, radical intellectuals and the urban underclass, who often enough also became its cast and supplied their intellectual inputs, too, to the making of those films.

Eventually, however, Odessa has significantly been diminished and it is a pale shadow of its past. There’s, however, a moral to this story of Odessa’s diminution. A moral that the Left, particularly its cultural political practitioners would do good to learn by heart. Odessa succeeded only till that time when there was a certain kind of active, left-wing, anti-systemic consensus at work. As soon as that politics went into retreat there were few if any takers for an experiment like the Odessa. This means that cultural-aesthetic practices, like the ones just mentioned, have radical implications in terms of critiquing the prevalent system and its political economy. But those implications have to be actualised through active political praxis.

In the absence of such praxis, these experiments are doomed to be reified into aesthetic-cultural artefacts or forms, by the market’s Ricardian logic of value ascription through demand and supply. These experiments become yet another commodity/ideology that the bourgeois mass media includes in its hierarchical jungle of commodities, ideologies and brands.

The Delhi-based Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) is a good example of illustrating this. The PSBT’s efforts are geared towards producing short films, both documentaries and features, that the ‘public’ would ‘actually’ want to see. It has even gone so far as to produce films by filmmakers drawn from local communities and with participant-actors taken from those communities for those communities as well as others like them. But then, the PSBT is a kind of an NGO that looks at people’s media and its practices purely in cultural terms, and is completely divorced from a larger anti-systemic political movement and its political-economic critique. As a result, most of its films and programmes are telecast by the Doordarshan. In other words, the PSBT has to depend on government assistance and subsidy to realise and propagate its purportedly progressive cultural-political vision. In the process, the PSBT programmes, too, have willy-nilly fallen prey to the market’s logic of TRP ratings, ad revenue, branding and so forth. Consequently, they are condemned to either survive precariously as government-subsidised arte-facts of good culture, which can disappear any moment, just like the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) of India-sponsored art-house cinema; or they go beyond the pale of lei-sure-driven mass media to become highly prized cultural commodities, which are accessed by a privileged few to indulge their supposedly non-utilitarian pleasures. This, according to Theodor Adorno, is precisely how the culture industry creates the reified domains of mass culture and high culture, in which the latter category absorbs everything that is avant-garde and radical, cutting of larger society’s access to them, completely defanging them in the process.

That is not to say those ‘good cultural’ programmes and art-house movies should not be there. (Albeit one must admit that a lot of those NFDC-sponsored films were ponderous, pretentious, junk with no real cultural-aesthetic merit and political use.) The point is to see how they can thrive even in the bourgeois mass media, whether owned by the state or private players.

Such programming can be made viable only by going beyond the market principle of demand and supply; or, more precisely, the split between the active producer and the passive consumer-audience. That would be possible only when media and art are transformed into a de-commodified zone of political resistance and political-economic critique. For, a media that seeks to transform the passive audience into active participant-producer will have to situate itself within, and simultaneously drive, a larger political movement that critiques and seeks to transform the political economy of exchange value and value transfer, which through creation of differential hierarchies privileges oppressive and pedagogic determination of identities, over an open dialogue.

Only when such larger politics frames our protest against state censorship or our demand for transparent regulation would they be effective in becoming something more than effete editorials written by well-meaning editorial writers in the mainline press.

Such a political approach also implies, and I believe that’s by now clear, the creation of alternative media, and popular cultural-political initiatives that want to change the world, not merely interpret it. Such initiatives, of which the alternative media would be the instrumentality, would be a movement that intends to heal the producer-consumer breach, and turn passive audiences into active participants in the production of politics, and a horizontal, non-hierarchical political economy of non-exploitation.

Such cultural-political initiatives must not, however, be confused with reified models of Soviet-style socialist realism and Proletkult. We already have far too much of useless, status-quoist ‘janwadi’ cultural-political artefacts, like the hoary street theatre, being churned out by various cultural fronts of equally various communist parties. Instead, we would do well to recall Walter Benjamin’s words: “Rather than ask, ‘What is the attitude of a work (of art) to the relations of production of its time?’ I should like to ask, ‘What is its position within them.'” No longer do the cultural-political initiatives of the Indian Left exhibit their original awareness of how their techniques of production, or the forms of representation that resulted from those production processes are in sync with the socialisation of production that this left seeks to establish.

To put it briefly let’s modify a little a maxim of historian E. P. Thompson: “There can be no culture without struggle.” Certainly not for the Marxists.

But this politics of struggle is not just somewhere outside. It is, in fact, situated, on point where the inside inflects with the outside. The inside in this case being people like us: journalists yes, but more importantly media workers.

I’m not very experienced in matters organisational and will, therefore, refrain from trying to come up with an organisational plan. But I will certainly stress the need for a media workers” organisation, which would contemplate its revolutionary politics in terms of struggles within their place of work. These struggles must not focus merely on gaining more wages and/or more time for leisure, but, more importantly in this conjuncture, control over their production process.

Pothik Ghosh is a professional journalist with The Economic Times. He has long been involved with various grassroots organisational efforts and Marxist study circles in India.


(1) The “crisis of representation” has been explicated well by Marx in his ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’; and later by August Thalheimer and Trotsky while theoretically dealing with the ascendancy of Nazism. The resemblance with India of the past, at least, three decades is uncanny.