Tuesday, March 12, 2013

[NSI Founding Conference] Reflections on A Future for the Left - Jairus Banaji

[Note: The text below is the transcript of the extempore speech delivered by Jairus Banaji at the inaugural session of the founding conference of New Socialist Initiative]

I just want to talk about State and the left in no particular sequence. I haven’t got a written presentation, so I will just talk extempore. India is a society full of paradox, very brutal paradoxes. Consider the following the facts – that the State violates its own Constitution and does so repeatedly and is probably the biggest violator of the Constitution of this country. The State which is supposed to be the guarantor and upholder of the Constitution, is the biggest violator of the Constitution; it’s a paradox. 
                                             Jairus Banaji's full speech

The other part of the paradox is that there are few countries in the world which has a larger working class, in the sense of working people of wage labouring mass, than India. I can’t think of any other country, probably apart from China, which in absolute terms, has a larger mass of working people or wage labourers than this country, yet we don’t have a single working class party in this country, not one working class party; no party formed by workers, for workers, representing workers’ interest at a political level. And on the other hand, our politics is saturated by parties, there are more parties than you possibly want to count. So that’s another paradox. India has a massive, a very substantial class of wage labourers but not a single party of the working class. 

What I want to suggest you by the way of throwing out ideas for your deliberations over the next two days is that you disentangle the issue of the left from the issue of the Revolutionary Party, don’t conflate them. We automatically tend to think that when we discuss the left we are talking about the Revolutionary Party, as if they are same thing. I think the left has to define a role for itself in relation to the possibility of the emergence of a Revolutionary Party or a Radical Party from within the mass of the working people in this country. If a Revolutionary Party has any chance of emerging in India over the next 10 to 15 years, chances of which is very bleak, at the moment they look slim, then it will be from within the mass of working people from within this country. It will not be because the left has founded yet another party or the left has successfully fused with many other radical party to form a Revolutionary Party. 

If there is going to be a party that is truly Radical in its impulse, which can truly contest the stronghold of capital in this country and contest capitalism in this country in concrete and practical way, then it will have to come from the workers themselves. And by workers I just don’t mean industrial workers, I just don’t mean manufacturing workers , I mean workers in the broadest possible sense which includes white collar workers, salaried wage earners or people who work in the bureaucracy, people who work in the Government offices for instances. The kind of a vision of a working class that in fact is there in the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, which is a kind of a democracy of the masses – of masses who are internally diverse - they range all the way from white collar groups to, at the other end to tribals who are subjected to various forms of exploitation and oppression, whose labour is essentially subsumed in capital but in more complex ways and forms. And between those two poles – between the proletarianised Adivasis on one hand and the white collared workers within the urban economy on the other hand- you have the large mass of workers who are not just industrial, they work on construction site, they in the docks, they work in the railways, they work in transport and so on. And what about the those millions of people in this country who work, as the New Socialist Initiative (NSI) Manifesto calls the ‘petty commodity producers’, I mean I don’t entirely agree with the expression ‘petty commodity producers’, but I agree what the Manifesto is saying about them which is that they are essentially subsumed under capital – that they are essentially and effectively exploited by capital – their surplus value is also generated through their labour. 

So when you consider the working class in this sense, as the mass of working people in this country, is hugely diverse, very diverse, that is another kind of diversity, that’s another sense of diversity we ought to celebrate and not complain about or mourn, you have to celebrate, because I think that the strength ultimately, the strength of the movement in this country is going to come from that diversity, the ability to combine all these very different conditions of their employment, very different sort of working classes, classes of labour into one broadly uniform movement. But the Revolutionary Party is not going to come from the left, its going to come from the working class, its going to come from the mass of the working people. Now, how? That is where the left becomes significant and relevant for us. 

On one hand I am saying the left can’t substitute itself for the working class and for the workers’ party, nor can it short circuit that process, but it plays an absolutely decisive and pivotal role in encouraging the origins in the formation of such a party from within the mass of the working people. That is essentially E.P.Thompson going back to the 1950s when he wrote the Manifesto for the New Left in 1956. He had this kind of vision – of socialists from the middle class, from other classes in the society who are interacting with workers and groups of workers in creative and experimental ways to encourage a culture of working class radicalism. The only, literally the only, significant movement that I can think of in this country which encouraged a culture of working class radicalism was Niyogi’s union movement. 

Why Nyogi remains so spectacular and so unique as an expression of working class politics in this country is precisely because we began to see working class self activity in a practical way, in Dalihara mines in the kind of activities the union movement, like the ribbon that burst its lines, began to spill over into directions that the left would never have believed. They were constructing workers’ hospitals, they were effectively projecting themselves as a working class community and I think this is the vision of the Communist Party that Gramsci had at least in 1920 when the Italian workers movement was being pushed back onto the defensive and being defeated, when the workers occupation had been crushed. This is what Gramsci wrote in the middle of 1920. He said “can a Communist Party exist as a party of action? If there does not exist in the midst of the mass a spirit of historical initiative, and an aspiration towards industrial autonomy which must find their reflection and their synthesis in the Communist Party.” This is an extremely subtle vision of the relationship between the Party and the class. Gramsci is saying that the Communist Party cannot exist unless it exists as the synthesis and the expression, the organic expression of what he calls the spirit of historical initiative and an aspiration towards industrial autonomy. That is what has to exist within the working people before the Communist Party can emerge in any viable serious sense, that is what has to exist. 

Capital knows this much better than the workers do. Capital knows it better than the left does because capital has done its very best to make sure that workers are desegregated that they exist in a state which is effectively inorganic, malleable, putty of some sort, that it exists in a molecular state, in a state of complete hopeless disorganization, so that there is no chance of this spirited historical initiative, this will to drive towards industrial autonomy, there is no chance of those emerging. 

Capital has learnt the lessons and I would like to suggest that the whole of the latter part of the 20th century, large part of the 20th century was essentially geared towards this one strategic objective of making sure that the workers would no longer be a threat to capital. And they did by reorganizing labour processes  by reorganizing production, by dispersing and fragmenting labour, dehumanizing the labour market, dispersing production, making sure that units of production was small rather than big. 

The whole premise of Marxian capital is that as accumulation proceeds, as capital expands, as accumulation continues, larger and larger units of production are emerging as an expression of more and more concentrated capital. The more capital is concentrated, the larger the units of production. That is Marxist assumption in Capital. And therefore for Marx, what is actually educating the working class is the labour process itself, its experience within production. The fact that it is being organized in certain ways by capital, the fact that it is subjected to certain forms of discipline within the labour process within capitalist labour proceses which are massively concentrated which reflect increasingly socialised forms of capital but hasn’t happened, it hasn’t happened. Because what Marx does, both in The Manifesto and The Capital is to deprive capital of the moment of managerial autonomy. 

Between capital and reality, between capital in Marxist sense and reality, lies this moment of managerial decision making and autonomy. Managements can decide if workers are too much of a threat in large units of production, they will break those units of production up into smaller units of production. That is not something that Marx envisages as a possibility. Managements can decide that to break the cohesion of the working class they might have to divide them into different employment statuses and put some as contract workers, others as temporary labour, others as permanent. And having worked with the unions in Bombay I know how critical or how crucial this particular aspect is. 

What happened in Bombay was that employers fought for control of the labour market and they won control over the labour market by 1980s. May be the turning point was the defeat of textile strikes in Bombay, may be. It doesn't particularly matter where the turning point lies. But the fact is by the 1980s they had established wide ranging control over the labor market and unions had lost that control and once that happened it was fatal, it was a fatal turning point because with the workforce already divided into differential employment statuses there was no way that the unions of permanent employees could survive. They fought an increasingly embattled existence throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s, count neo-liberalisation, count the new economic policies of ‘91 with the Finance Ministry sending a circular to all managements saying that you will be given tax-breaks if you go in for VRS. Remember it is the Finance Ministry, it is the State which is the leading capital, encouraging capital to shed labour. And as soon as they hear that they are given tax breaks for VRS, then VRS proliferates rapidly, throughout the 1990s entire plants shut down, land is bought by real estate speculators and builders, shopping malls are constructed in place of what used to be once thriving factories. This is effectively the transformation of Bombay that took place for a period of one or two decades in the 1990s and the 2000s. 

Now the shopping mall is a different kind of geography, it’s a new kind of class that emerges, shopping mall itself is a symbol of a new kind of class, its the new middle class of the 1990s. And there is no class in India that is more self obsessed, more egotistical, more brutally unequal in celebrating its inequality than this new middle class that emerges in the 1990s mainly in the urban areas. the shopping mall is the emblem of its class consciousness, it’s the language in which it speaks class, so to speak. This middle class absorbed in what Passolini, the Italian Director, already as early as the 1960s called liberal hedonism, that was Passolini’s expression, liberal hedonism, which is exactly what you see in the shopping mall, the celebration of consumption, it is a celebration of consumption of one particular class, in a society where the mass of the population is subjected to most horrid deprivations, widespread malnutrition, lack of any public health system and they spend large part of their wages buying medicines on the basis of no reliable medical advise, buying medicines which may or may not work, they are subjected to the most horrific deprivation s in nutritional terms, in terms of housing, and not just that, but in general ways of life. 

So in the midst of a society characterized by such stark deprivation, you have a new elite emerging, middle class elite emerging which celebrates consumption, celebrates itself celebrating consumption through media. The media are fundamental to this story. The absorption of the middle classes into what Passolini calls liberal hedonism, that process is taking place against the background of deepening inequalities within society, with the mass of the population subjected to vulnerable conditions of life where they are literally poised on the balance between life and death. 

Given their nutritional standards, given the rates of child mortality within these groups, and if you move into tribal India, the picture becomes even more of a horror story, precisely those parts of India where certain forms of left wing radicalism, certain forms of left wing politics seem to be able to thrive, but only within those circumscribed geographical areas. Now this is the kind of picture that emerges at the social level, the very large mass of the laboring poor in this country have no hope, the strongest weapon that capital has against the working class is fatalism, fatalism among the masses, and that breeds a sense of despair among people. What I mean by fatalism is the sense of absolute isolation and powerlessness that they can’t do anything, that nothing can be changed. The left has to be able to break that psychology of fatalism; and one way of defining its role in relation to groups of worker, organized groups of workers, is to be able to show them that they have the capacities for self-management and control. Even in these dire conditions under which they have to live, they do have capacities for self-management and control. Now this process of left trying to define its role in relation to working people and actively being involved in their struggles, in order not to be able to capture them as recruits into a potential revolutionary party, that the way the Maoists are doing in this country, they basically enter unions and they enter the union meetings simply in order to raid them. This is the left that I call esoteric and instrumentalist. Its esoteric because it only talks to itself, it doesn't talk to any one else. Its instrumentalist because it has a purely, apart from instrumentalist I can’t find any other word, but it has a utilitarian view of how to use people, how to use platforms and to use the unions by raiding them to capture recruits. This is not the relationship between any kind of new left that emerges in this country and the mass of working people. It has to be the other way around – we want a left that valorizes lived experiences over abstraction, we want a left that is capable of communicating to people so that they understand what it is saying and capable of listening and learning and capable of seeing what is in front of you. Its crucial for the left to have the capacity to learn, without learning capacity the left is not going to emerge let alone grow. This is learning capacity is vital. 

We started off in Bombay in the 1970s with something called Workers’ Enquiry. That’s how we first established our contact with workers. We thought its important for workers to put together some kind of a survey of their own conditions, of their practical conditions of life and work from which we would be able to develop the elements of a programme; so we called this the Workers’ Enquiry following examples in the UK at the time. Now this ability to listen and to learn is and seems to me crucial to the success of left politics, its an ability that’s been lost by the mass parties. They no longer have the impulse to listen and to learn and its an ability which is automatically blocked by any group that sees itself already as the vanguard of the working class. I am saying these things because they need to be said and I pointed out that it doesn’t seem to me that we are going to have a communist party in this country in the future unless there is this spirit of the historical initiative among the people themselves, among the working people themselves. And I define working people in the broadest possible terms. So we have to define our role in relation to that process and that role itself is experimental, it is not apriori. There is no success guarantee in advance as to how this will happen. 

Now about the State in this country I want to make two points. India is one of the world’s largest importer of arms. It imports more arms than any other country in the world. No doubt one purpose of Cameron’s visit to India was to push arms, basically to get India to buy more British weapons. It spends something in the order of 40 billion dollars buying arms every year. It is also the world’s lowest public spender on health. The government of India spends less on health in public terms than any other country in the world, way below many African countries. You put these two statistics together, what kind of a State do we have, apart from having a State that violates its own Constitution repeatedly, we have a State which is committed to militarism, to purchase of arms, and we have a State that is Malthussian in its understanding and psychology. It couldn’t care less if the bulk of its population bleeds to death, dies through a kind of a war of attrition declared on the masses by Capital, a war of attrition where people literally bleed to death and I say a stark image of that is the condition of the tribal communities in the central parts of India. So a military State and a Malthussian State. Now if the left is not able to confront capitalism in this country in these real forms, in the forms which it takes, if it is not able to confront the militarism of Indian State and Malthussianism of the Indian State then what is it up against, what is it fighting? You can’t fight capitalism in the abstract. There is no capitalism in the abstract. This is the face of capitalism in this country. A small elite, a powerful well organized elite that has pushed the country in a disastrous direction by agreeing to have a programme of, for example, nuclear energy; it has committed itself to nuclear energy at a time when, for example, considering our organizational capacities in this country, our ability to be able to manage crises, that seems to me a prospect. Already it is said that Koodankulum (Nuclear plant) is springing leaks of various sorts, already there is a threat that we might be facing a major accident of some sort in Koodankulum. Now imagine several plants of this sort all along the coast of this country. This commitment to emerging as the regional super power in the more stable sense so that only two powers are left, in west of Turkey, China and India battling it out for supremacy in the future. What else can explain why the State in this country has so little commitment to even the most minimal welfare standards of the mass of the working population than it does. On the one hand it is Malthussian, it allows people to bleed to death, by way of may be controlling population in this way, through an iron law of natural excess. On the other hand its committed to a kind of militaristic nationalism. In fact the situation is much worse than this, its worse in the sense that we have in this country not just the withering away of democracy, that’s one process that’s going on – the withering away of democracy, we also have the active subversion of democracy by a fascist right wing. When I say the BJP and the Sangh Parivar and so on are the fascist right, I mean any where in the world they would be classified as the extreme right. Why do they not appear as the extreme right in this country? Because they are so massively mainstreamed by the media. This process of lending legitimacy to people who are actually criminals, people who are repeatedly engaged in hate-speech, people who have repeatedly instigated large scale communal violence, people who are directly implicated in mass murders, such as Modi for example. The process of mainstreaming these elements so that they finally appear benign and appear suitable for the Prime Ministership in this country, that is absolutely shocking. It is a stunning verdict on the nature of our media. 

The active subversion of democracy is taking place in all kinds of ways in this country. It is just not taking place through communalization of the State apparatuses, of police forces and so on and so forth. . It is taking place through what used to be called in Italy, for example in the 1970s, the strategy of tension… I want to point out how fascists are working in this country, what the fascist strategy is in this country. It seems there is a two-fold strategy at work; on the one hand, the strategy of tension involves creating a sense of panic in the population at large through bomb blasts; it is convenient that you can blame those blasts on, for example, the Indian Mujaheedin, or whoever else, its convenient that you can do that but you are planting the bombs in order to create a sense of panic in the population, so that democracy feels that its under siege and it is under siege; it is under siege because every attempt to produce a more authoritarian state that clamps down on “terror” is effectively a further withering away of democracy, a further atrophia of democracy. We have seen this with terrorism cases in this country, the terrorism trials in this country. Even brilliant lawyer like Shahid Azmi could not be tolerated by the system. They had to assassinate him. In broad daylight he was shot in his office at something like 6.30 or 7 in the evening, because he was exposing the fabrication of evidence in the case of one particular terror trial. Shahid Azmi managed to expose very well how the Bombay police had fabricated evidence in this case. Shortly after this, after a few days, literally, he was shot in broad daylight in his office. 

On the one hand the right wing, the extreme right wing is implicated in the strategy of tension, of planting bombs to create panic in the population so that they feel they need a harder State, a stronger State, they need to clamp down in this way; the other strategy is, at least in the last 2 to 3 years, has been derange the functioning of the Parliament, do not allow functioning of the Parliament because that way the Ruling Party loses all sense of credibility, it emerges as a weak party, as party which is hopeless, which cannot control even the affairs of Parliament. So the real point behind all these stuff about the Hindu terror remarks of Shinde, is about throwing a fit about it is not that they were really shocked, for god’s sake everyone knows that they are implicated in terror, everyone knows that. The Sangh Parivar its manifold avatars is implicated in manifold ways. So they were not really shocked about that. The real point is that they need an excuse. At any given point, they need to derange the functioning of Parliament. So two years ago, what was it? It was corruption. They latched on to the Anna Hazare movement and made corruption the issue and they paralysed the functioning of the Parliament for some inordinate period of time. Today, when corruption is not a live issue in the same sense as it was two years ago, they made this Hindu terror remarks and tomorrow it will be something else. All they need is an excuse to derange the functioning of Parliament. That is the real point, not all these shock and awe at the idea of being called terrorist and so and so. And lets explain what Shinde never managed to explain. It is abysmal that he expressed regret for what he said. He did not have the ability to explain what was being meant. There are people from the Muslim community who see themselves, who are fanatically committed to what they see as the good of the Muslim community and they are engaged in acts of terror, they are Muslim terrorists, short circuit the entire process and they become Muslim terrorist. They define themselves as Muslims and they think that they are doing this for the good of their own community, they are Muslim terrorists. There are people from within the Hindu community who are equally fanatically committed to what they perceive as something for the “ Hindu cause”, may be the “Hindu Rashtra”, they like wise commit acts of terror, they are Hindu terrorists – that is all that is meant. There is no implication, at any stage, that this particular religion or that particular religion is somehow innately associated with terror or terrorism. That is a sleight of hand, it was a bigger sleight of hand in the recent debate, as if when Shinde said there are Hindu terrorists and he has evidence to link, all these ten people who he has in the list through the RSS, of course they were linked with the RSS, when he said he has evidence and al, that was what he meant, nothing more than that. However, the BJP, very clearly makes it a slur on the entire “Hindu community” in this country. Now this is a crucial point -the Hindu community in this country, the Muslim community in this country – these identities are purely imaginary. They do not exist. There is Hindu community, there is no Muslim community – these are products of our heads, they exist in our head, they do not exist anywhere else. 

What does the right wing do? The right wing, in a society marked by extreme deprivation, does not address issues of nutrition, of housing and education and health and recovery of land which has been dispossessed and so on and so forth. What do they do? The right wing, what it imagines a society whose only connective tissue is, ideology. Literally, for the extreme right wing in this country, the only connective tissue in society is ideology - they want people to eat Hindu Rashtra, to live in Hindu Rashtra, to feed themselves, to cure themselves and to educate themselves with Hindu Rashtra. Its ideology, pure and simple. And there are left wing versions of this as well by the way. In bizarre sections of the left there are left wing versions of this belief that somehow that ideology is what you need in society, it’s the central thread. No. That’s why I said we have to valorise the experience over abstraction. Its an extremely dangerous way of thinking. So we are faced today with a real threat of fascism in both forms. One, withering away of democracy through the militarisation of large parts of the country and on the other hand, the active subversion of democracy by right wing forces in this country. They have infiltrated the State, they have infiltrated the bureaucracy, they have infiltrated the police forces – the police forces in this country are thoroughly communalised, which is why you will never get to the bottom of who murdered Shahid Azmi, they themselves were behind it, you will never get to the bottom of that process. 

So if the left is not able to take the issue of fascism head on, not able to confront fascism, then basically it doesn’t have a future in this country. Finally, what I want to say is that the left has to be a synthesis of all the past traditions and not allow itself to be trapped in the dichotomies. Debates about Party versus Economism, debates about how much importance to ascribe to feminism, gender etc. We have to be able to integrate in someway, all these kinds of political subcultures, because they are all political subcultures of the Revolutionary Left. Feminism is a fundamental part of the Revolutionary Left and thereby it becomes Socialist Feminism, and likewise struggles against caste are fundamental part of the Revolutionary Left but not identities which then emerge as rigid identities based on those struggles, not that kind of identity politics, but the struggles themselves, the struggle to emancipate oneself from the caste system and to abolish the caste system. And so, across the board, it has to be a left which builds the culture of solidarity, it emerges as a synthesis of all these political subcultures, and it is profoundly rooted within the working class. Outside the working class, it won’t have oxygen to survive. Within the working class it will be able to thrive and may be create a future for all of us.


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