In my second year of college we had a paper called Comparative Government and Politics. The syllabus of this paper was faithful to the Cold War – two massive units were dedicated to the United States and the former USSR respectively. The information imbalance between these two heavyweights was such however that ‘good’ books on the Soviet Union were very few in number – they were carefully prescribed in class, jealously guarded in the reference section of the college library, and issued only to the quick and the deserving. When we reached the U.S unit however, the teacher gave up and we were left like a pack of wild dogs to run through the entire general section, and issue what caught our fancy.
This unsupervised reading on the United States proved to be one of the most useful accidents in my life, and I want to keep returning to the word ‘accident’ in this post. In the general section I stumbled upon a little gem on the American political system by an man called E.S Greenberg which changed the way I thought about the U.S, and about capitalism and modernity forever. On first glance I thought I had struck gold as far as exams are concerned – the book looked compact and had useful-sounding chapters on the history of the U.S, the electoral system, American culture, political economy and so on. But in fact as I started reading it, I realised it was a completely unusual book, and would have almost certainly never been prescribed. It told the entire ‘story of America’ through the history of industrial accidents. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed logical to narrate national history in this way. Starting from first-hand accounts of workers in hazardous industries and mines during America’s first industrialisation, it moved to ‘safer’ industries in the 20th century, painstakingly recounting both qualitatively and statistically the record of lethal or near-lethal workplace accidents that went into making American capitalism what it is today. Limbs severed, lungs punctured, faces burnt in sudden fires, spines snapped with extra load, fingers numbed by repetitive work processes, brains dulled and reflexes slowed down by noxious industrial gases…it seemed like when Greenberg thought of this book, he had no idea himself that the material simply wouldn’t end – the statistics are staggering. This history was then woven into the history of a rapidly expanding capitalist power at the turn of the century, and further into an analysis of the American electoral system. There was no sentimentality, just damning and systematic analysis of all the connections between hazardous labour and the glory of nations that we work so hard at forgetting. As Ernest Renan, the pioneering scholar of nationalism reminds us, simultaneous remembering and forgetting is the most serious business a nation can indulge in.
To me, at eighteen as now, its clear that Greenberg’s book was an act of love and rage – the only sensible response to the blotting out of the brutal history of death and crippling ‘accidents’ which are routine facts of workers’ everyday lives. All over the world, then as now, workers are brutalised, worn down to the bone and exposed to the most horrific conditions routinely – conditions that would invite screams of human rights abuse if they were to suddenly appear in front of ordinary citizens…how appropriate is it to continue to use the word ‘accident’ in these circumstances? Notions of who is/are expendable are structured quite deeply into our unconscious minds, there are no ‘accidental’ emotions there. Two days ago, a fire in the Lakhani shoe factory left six dead and 30 in hospital.
This news story appeared on the city supplement of one paper, while the front pages were filled with workers’ hooliganism against Haryana CM Hooda and the subsequent lathicharge they ‘invited’. This is how our GDP is created – by boiler blasts and lathicharges, by long-term worker genocide. Our democracy has come down to shiny happy people holding hands and wagging a finger at us to vote because, after 26/11, ‘enough is enough’. Clearly the Lakhani fire, or Bhopal or the thousands of workers dying at work every week has not been, for the past sixty years. Try calling the Mumbai terror attack an ‘accident’.