The Art of Fleeing, Capital and Molecular Socialism

Compared to the 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, capitalism, today has acquired an entirely new shape and character, often broadly referred to under the rubric of ‘globalization’. Among marxists of different hues there seems to be a remarkable unity in considering ‘globalization’ as a fresh assault of imperialist capital that represents a new wave of re-colonization of the third world. It is seen as a global conspiracy emanating from a single source.

Clearly this reading emanates from an understanding of capital as an all-powerful, singular, sovereign entity, virtually like God. Everything presumably is a consequence of the logic of capital. Ironically, barring a few exceptions, the votaries of ‘working class struggles’ cannot – or do not – see any role of such struggles in the way the present has shaped up, including one of its most significant effects – the apparently terminal crisis of the labour movement.

  1. This crisis has to do with the extremely heightened mobility of capital alongside an equally extreme immobility of labour. We have seen in our own experience how this works against labour struggles. Pre-WW II capitalism was fixed to place and relatively far more immobile, given the predominance of the large factory system. Earlier successes of the working class movement were based on this fact: just like the landlord tied to the land, the capitalist of yore too was thus tied. The situation has changed fundamentally now. Take for example the militant workers’ struggles in West Bengal in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is well-known that it was precisely the militancy and the immediate success of those struggles that led to one of the most significant impulses for deindustrialization and massive flight of capital to relatively peaceful states like Punjab and Haryana. So devastating was the consequence of this flight (in terms of aggravating the unemployment situation and the consequent weakening of even simple struggles for wages) that by the time the Left Front government assumed power in 1977, it had “learnt a bitter lesson”: henceforth it would reign in workers’ militancy and try to lure capital back into the state. Only rapid industrialization would be able to provide jobs to the unemployed and for that capital was indispensable – so the LF argued. Clearly, then, capital now finds itself strong enough to dictate terms.
  2. Take another, global example. Consider the debate on the social clause more closely and it will immediately become clear that the entire position of northern/western trade unions and left wing groups in favour of higher labour standards for third world workers was propelled by the need to prevent their own capital from moving out. Some sections of German workers even took wage-cuts to prevent ‘their capital’ from moving out to Asia. When the Western governments placed the demand for including labour standards as part of international trade agreements, this was the imperative they were addressing – given the high social and political costs that heightened unemployment can have.

In both cases, the abjection of the working class was a direct consequence of its past victories. Equally importantly, it was a consequence of the flight of capital: It is worth underlining that capital did not fight back, it simply withdrew, it fled, and thus deprived the working class of its ‘foundation’, namely wage slavery.

It is worth keeping in mind that through the 1980s and 1990s, manufacturing units relocated to third world countries in a big way and it only much later that services and call centers started moving out. If we look carefully, we can see that this relocation was the consequence of at least two factors:

Firstly, the profit squeeze that capital had been facing during the postwar years of Keynesian welfarism and the New Deal, due to high wages and social security etc – in other words, high labour costs. Secondly, the serious crisis of accumulation that surfaced as high labour costs combined with a strong environmental regulations making corporations not only pay more (for cleaner technologies etc) but also making them answerable to local communities for their air, water and other resources. It is important to keep in mind that both these costs have been imposed on capital accumulation by the strength of movements – in one case the labour movement (and the postwar attraction of the idea of socialism); in the other case, the powerful ecological movements that have made the states enact laws and take action.

So, it transpires, capital is not the sovereign, all-powerful entity that we think it is. It has acted on each of these occasions under pressure from the labour, environment and other movements.

Moreover, its move to relocate operations in the third world – where there is no infrastructure (abysmal power situation, bad roads, interfering governments) and everything becomes easily politicized – is primarily a result of its crisis. It is fugitive capital that has run away from one part of the world.

Yet, such is our conditioning as victims that we fail to see where the strengths of the movements that challenge capital, lie. The reason, I believe, is the same that makes the LF govt. woo capital and that makes western trade/labour unions demand universal labour standards: The complete dependence of labour on capital.

Marxists have celebrated the demise of the old world and the complete victory of capitalism. This means that all other ways of life and modes of living are destroyed installing capital as the only form of property (ownership) – thus also as the only employer. The only other form of ownership that has been thought about – state ownership – is of course a model that has come to be in serious crisis, apart from being implicated in totalitarian political structures. The state as owner and employer is, also for very sound economic reasons, not a viable proposition. Equally importantly, the state socialist programme is a programme that seeks to perpetually defer the matter to some indefinite future: the revolution and ‘capture of state power’.

This points towards the need to urgently reconsider a number of our articles of faith:

We must overcome the permanent dependence on capital as the only owner and employer and thus move out of the frame that only thinks of the labourer as capital’s wage-slave.

This implies doing a few things:

  1. Ceasing to see capital as a singular entity and utilizing the conflicts and competition between different capitals. Consider the following story from contemporary China: China’s factories, say a recent report (1 May 2006) are hit by acute labour shortage. “What began two years ago as a temporary blip in the steady supply of migrants to China’s export hub, where low wages and long hours are the norm, has become a constant problem for factory bosses…Minimum wages are on the rise, as authorities respond to labour shortage, setting a new floor for private employers.” The same report goes on to say that “while workers once flocked to cities like Dongguan, rising rural incomes and rapid growth in inland cities have diminished the appeal of migration to coastal boomtowns…” This story follows a report that 1.7 million workers in the Pearl River Delta went home on holiday and never came back. This, let us be clear is a consequence of (a) the fact that as capital moves out of the West to places like China, it creates more jobs here. (b) As the old economy gives way to the new, workers want less and less to work in factories where they are always paid low: they would rather work in stores, five-star hotels, eateries and entertainment places. (c) As the old ethic of glorifying ‘proletarian-ness’ gives way, more and more workers (and this is true even of India) want to do a business of their own, however small. So mindless nationalist opposition to influx of foreign capital maybe counter productive. We must work towards creating labour shortages – then alone will labour’s bargaining position improve. These shortages may occur because fugitive capital, driven out of its home turf is now forced to employ third world labour, as the above example shows.
  2. In a sense, following from above, fleeing from wage-slavery. The point here is more important than we imagine. If capital can withdraw and take flight, thus creating a permanent crisis for labour, why can’t the workers’ movement/s think of ‘fleeing’ from wage-slavery as an active strategy? Workers do not want to remain workers: in my experience of trade unionism as well as otherwise, I have seen that they always want to abandon the position of wage-slavery and in fact do some petty business that gives them some autonomy. It is the revolutionary intellectual in whose fantasy s/he is the bearer of a historical mission, who wants to keep him/her there. As an instance, take the ESOP (employees stock ownership plan) scheme and the position take by the Left that this would lead to ‘embourgeoisement’ of the workers. A recent research on a part of the garment industry in Tamil Nadu, reveals that “between 1986 and 1997, Tiruppur’s export earnings skyrocketed from $25 million to $ 636 million, the number of garments exported nine-fold and Tiruppur shifted from basic T-shirts to diversified multi-product exports of fashion garments.” The important thing about this growth is that this industrial boom has been organized through networks of small firms integrated through intricate subcontracting arrangements controlled by local capital of the Gounder caste from modest agrarian and working-class origins. In effect, the whole town works like a decentralized factory for the global economy, but with local capital of peasant-worker origins.” [For more details, see Sharad Chari (2004), “Provincializing Capital: The Work of an Agrarian Past in South Indian Industry”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol 46, Issue 04, Oct 2004, pp. 760-785]
  3. If we consider recent conflicts, we can see that a very interesting new conflict has come center-stage: the bid to police and control ‘illegal economies’, based on copying and sharing. They call it piracy but it begins not from the virtual world but by trying to prevent farmers from storing and sharing their seeds. Entire ways of life are transformed into illegalities: capital seems to feel more threatened by contraband capital. Building such new social economies of sharing, of the commons must become a part of the programme of radical politics here and now. Here arises the need for thinking about different forms of ownership in the present. These would of course range from private, individual ownership to different forms of cooperatives and network economies. Experiments like those undertaken by Shankar Guha Niyogi in Chhattisgarh, for example, need to be thought of and supported as actual instantiations of a new economy and way of life rather than as a ‘tactical’ thing one does, while waiting for the revolution. Important initiatives such as the workers’ takeover of Kamani Tubes many years ago or of other experiments in cooperative forms are all, alas, doomed to fail because they are desperate attempts to rescue enterprises that are already thrown into crises and are also thus undertaken as last ditch efforts. If workers must flee from wage-slavery and create labour shortages, socialism must become molecular – instantiated in every effort to build a shared and networked economy.
  4. Is it possible then, that the defeat of the workers’ movements is because it has fixed the identity of ‘the worker’ into a permanent position of wage slavery? Is it possible, in other words, to argue that it is in abandoning this position and fleeing, that the road to some form of emancipation/ freedom might lie?

[Based on a talk given at the Youth Forum of the India Social Forum, in a session on “Work, Working Class and Globalization”. I thank all the participants for their comments.]

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