The Employment Paradigm
In this final instalment of the series, I want to discuss the vexed question of employment and what can be called the ’employment mindset’. The mindset has dominated politics and the discipline of economics for the last century and a half for sure. Before that youthful capitalism simply put people uprooted from their habitats and traditional occupations (the artisans and peasants) into ‘poor houses’ and enacted the most vicious laws to force the dispossessed poor work for it. Marxists give this violent pillage the scientific- sounding name of ‘primitive accumulation’ (or primary accumulation). ‘Scientific’ because it was seen by Marx as the ‘historical process of the separation of producer from “his” means of production’ – as if it was an objective process that was in some sense inevitable. Marx’s chapter on ‘primitive accumulation’ in Capital Vol I, certainly shows that he was revolted by the plunder and robbery that this phenomenon entailed but in a manner of speaking, by giving it an aura of historical inevitability, he could displace the solution to some future. There is also no doubt that the sections of Capital where Marx deals with the enactment of Poor Laws in Britain are full of passion and anger at what capitalism was doing – but then, what can you do with a process that is historically inevitable? Remember too that it was the same logic of ‘objectivity’ of ‘historical inevitability’ that was used to justify colonialism as the ‘unconscious tool of history’. The British Marxist historian, E.P. Thompson wrote of precisely these populations that perished in ‘the storm of industrialization’. He was so moved by their predicament that he wanted to ‘rescue them from the enormous condescension of posterity’. Yet, Thompson believed, like a good Marxist, that the artisan or the handloom weaver that he was writing about were ‘obsolete’ (Thompson’s term). Thus, he wrote,
‘[T]heir crafts and traditions may have been dying; their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward looking; their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies; their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy…[but] they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, we did not.’ (Making of the English Working Class)
I quote this striking passage from Thompson because the worshippers of Marx (even the supposedly heterodox ones) still believe that the indigenous people, the peasants, the artisans – in other words perhaps eighty percent of the populations of Asia, Africa and Latin America – are obsolete. Whenever I have tried discussing this issue and its larger implications with Marxist friends, I have encountered a stony and cold silence – a complete refusal to engage.
But why bring this up in a discussion of ‘work’ and the ’employment mindset’? For the simple reason that it takes us back to a moment in history when the thing called ‘unemployment’ was created – that is to say, the moment when the rule of bourgeois property was established by destroying all other forms of property; when all other small property owners were rendered into a propertyless mass; when entire populations were transformed en masse into beggars and criminals. But in the perverse logic of the Marxist philosophy of history, this too was part of Progress! So at some point, Marxists conveniently forgot that in capitalism lies the genesis of unemployment. Since you cannot turn the wheel of History back, so the logic goes, Marxist revolutionaries must always work to aid the destruction of pre-capitalist social forms (all conveniently labelled ‘feudal’). But, one might ask, what happens to those rendered propertyless and beggars? Since the only legitimate property now is bourgeois property, there is no doubt that everyone thus displaced must become a ‘proletarian’ in the capitalist factory. So, in a strange reversal of historical role, the very capital that was responsible for the production of ‘unemployment’ now becomes the saviour! You need capital and capitalists to give you employment. This is an argument that was made into a worldwide theological-economic orthodoxy and swallowed hook, line and sinker by Marxists of all hues. I will return to this issue a little later but before that we must take a short detour.
A Little Bit of History – Global
There was a brief period in history when, after the Russian revolution, for some decades socialist states maintained something like full-employment based entirely on state employment. Soon that model of the command economy ran into crises – that is a story too well known to be repeated here. However, we might do well to remember that the large masses of people living in that heaven did not think so; they rejected it and brought it down like a house of cards. By that time already, China had embarked on its path to privatization and ‘party-capitalism’. But it wasn’t really party bosses becoming capitalists; rather it was they who supervised China’s transition to a large sweatshop economy. Here are two snippets from contemporary China’s ‘socialism with capitalistic characteristics’ and the state of employment there. The first is from Brian Merchant’s book that describe life in ‘Apple’s Forbidden City’ – reproduced here from The Guardian:
‘The sprawling factory compound, all grey dormitories and weather-beaten warehouses, blends seamlessly into the outskirts of the Shenzhen megalopolis. Foxconn’s enormous Longhua plant is a major manufacturer of Apple products. It might be the best-known factory in the world; it might also might be among the most secretive and sealed-off. Security guards man each of the entry points. Employees can’t get in without swiping an ID card; drivers entering with delivery trucks are subject to fingerprint scans. A Reuters journalist was once dragged out of a car and beaten for taking photos from outside the factory walls…’
‘ The sprawling factory was once home to an estimated 450,000 workers. Today, that number is believed to be smaller, but it remains one of the biggest such operations in the world. If you know of Foxconn, there’s a good chance it’s because you’ve heard of the suicides. In 2010, Longhua assembly-line workers began killing themselves. Worker after worker threw themselves off the towering dorm buildings, sometimes in broad daylight, in tragic displays of desperation – and in protest at the work conditions inside. There were 18 reported suicide attempts that year alone and 14 confirmed deaths.’
‘There are approximately 150 million internal migrant workers in China who, because of their status, do not receive any state benefits or protection. They have to endure poor working conditions such as excessive and forced overtime, denial of social security rights and failure to provide employment contracts, as well as severe health risks.
Before opening up its economy in 1978, China had stringent controls on the movement of people between rural and urban areas, preventing migration to cities. These controls were part of the permit (hukou) system, in which welfare entitlements such as pensions, housing, health and education were tied to a person’s place of birth.
As China moved towards a market economy, cheap rural labour helped fuel the country’s growth and constraints on migration were reduced, however the restrictions on household registration of the hukou have remained in place, so migrant workers become outcasts without access to any state benefits or protection, despite Chinese laws enshrining “equal rights” for all.’
Not surprisingly, labour unrest has been on the rise. Despite vicious state repression, the number of strikes and protests rose from around 200 in 2011 to almost 2700 in 2015.
As neoliberalism gained worldwide victory, Vietnam too opened itself up to provide sweatshops for global capital. In the 1990s, these sweatshops, producing for Asian as well as global brands, made workers work in abysmal conditions – a situation that is now changing because of automation. Actually this was also true of many other Asian countries like Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and many others, but let us stay right now with these socialist and ex-socialist societies. The situation in sweatshops was bad enough but as global prices in textiles and footwear (Nike, Adidas etc) from these Asian countries to the USA fell because of their very low wage-bills, many manufacturers started moving to high degrees of automation. Thus, according to a report in LiveMint,
‘A recent report from the International Labour Organization found that more than two-thirds of South-East Asia’s 9.2 million textile and footwear jobs are threatened by automation—including 88% of those in Cambodia, 86% in Vietnam and 64% in Indonesia. Whether that will be good for workers in general is debatable. But one thing is certain: The heyday of the Asian sweatshop is coming to an end.’
‘Of the new technologies they are putting to work, perhaps the most common are machines that automate the tedious process of cutting fabric…
And that’s just the start. 3D printing and other emerging technologies should allow manufacturers to meet customer specifications with unmatched quality, at speeds not previously imaginable in sweatshops, and with far less human labour. Even worse, for Asia’s workers at least, is that Western companies can bring those same customizable technologies back home, and eliminate their overseas factories altogether.’
And we should be very clear that though our example here has to do with the CPI(M), this is not a critique of the CPI(M) alone; we have yet to see any formation of the Left (in India) expound an alternative vision or show any signs of rethinking on any of these issues. It is just that they are nowhere near power so they can afford to talk a lot more abstractly.
If Not Employment, Then What?
This would be the very obvious question that can be asked of us. Once we have freed our minds from the shackles of the perverse philosophy of history and the attendant idea of Progress, we can actually begin to address this question on an entirely different plane. Despite this supposed immanent logic of History and over two centuries of onslaught of modern state elites (colonial and postcolonial), let us note that only 55 percent of the world’s population today lives in the cities in the so-called modern sector and of these one-third live in slums. If we recall our discussion of the informal sector/ economies in Part I of this series, we will see that a large section of these urban residents are in a sector that is strictly speaking, not governed by the logic of capitalist accumulation. In any case, an aggregate figure of 55 percent that includes the USA and Europe is not of much help. More to the point are disaggregated, country-wise World Bank data that give us a better sense of countries like India. A mere 34 percent of India’s population lived in cities as of 2018 – the corresponding figure for China (after its frenetic unbridled industrialization) is still only 59 percent.
A large segment of the population of any of the Indian cities, we know from our everyday experience, is engaged in occupations that are not quite wage-labour. They include hawkers, vendors, rikshaw pullers, small shopkeepers – including tea-shops and roadside eateries – and domestic workers. Then there are a large number of daily wage workers. In the countryside too we have a large number of people engaged in a range of agricultural and non-agricultural work. Except for some especially degrading types of work performed by Dalits, which need to be abolished because they are dehumanizing, all these other occupations can be upscaled by making available credit and technical/ technological support. Their current state of sub-optimality is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy, given that these marginal population groups are always hounded and their livellihoods destroyed by municipal authorities and part of their earning goes in paying ‘hafta’ – the weekly bribe to police and municipal officials. And why do they have to pay hafta? Why are they continuously subjected to the oppression of municipal authorities? Because they are considered illegitimate by ruling (and non-ruling) political elites trained to think of the city in terms of some Western ideal – Paris or London or Los Angeles where you will only find big chains. Marxists have coined a beautiful term for it – they call it ‘self-exploitation’!
The perversity of it all is that while there has been deregulation at the top, there has been greater and greater policing of marginal and poorer populations of the cities. While the big sharks get various kinds of government support, the vendors and hawkers have to live a guerilla-like existence in cities, always being alert to possibility of the next raid by municipal or police authorities, who will come and confiscate their merchandise.
So the first proposition: Give ordinary people economic freedom and the support that any legitimate economic activity should be able to get and you can see the difference it will make not just to ordinary people’s livelihoods but in generating more economic activity around them. Much of the activity here goes beyond the ’employment mindset’ as it also encourages the small entrepreneurs’ creativity in diffenrent ways.
Now, this is of course, something only governments can do. But what can movements and political formations not in the vicinity of power do?
The second proposition: Many of these activities can benefit by organizing into cooperatives – both for purposes of pooling resoources and making available credit to individuals wanting to upgrade or diversify, as well as for production and marketing where these are required. Where a political movement can contribute in a very significant way is in expanding the network or circle of supporters – especially middle class supporters – who can contribute in strengethening it in various ways.
It is perhaps best to illustrate this with an example. About ten years ago, I was taken by a friend in Kolkata to visit a worker-run hospital in Belur (Howrah district). Known as the Sramajibi Hashpatal (Workers’ Hospital), the hospital actually came up after the company almost went into liquidation and the workers won a case in the court allowing them to run the unit. The unit could not be revived for various reasons but in its place came up the hospital where many middle class supporters too contributed to building it up. When I went there in 2010, it had already been running for quite some years and had state-of-the-art equipment for tests and surgery. Many doctors from Kolkata voluntarily contributed a day or two in the week to see patients in that hospital – and they continue to do so. This was their non-monetary contribution that was so vital in keeping the hospital going. I was recently told by friends in Kolkata that the hospital has since expanded considerably, with donations in the form of land and buildings and has moved to Rishra in Hooghly district. It now also runs a school for poor children and one for nurses’ training. Another such hospital has subsequently come up in Sunderbans. All this was clearly happening as an isolated effort without any formal plan or the backing of any powerful movement. Imagine the scale at which such initiatives can not only develop but also tie up with others into a larger, mutually reinforcing network. This kind of work also has another advantage. It is able to overcome the most serious limitation of the Left that has confined its imagination to just one mode – that of ‘protest’ – and one form of intervention – that of the demonstration. As we have been discussing in earlier parts of this series, this gives the right-wing that has a more sustained everyday connection with common people, an advantage that the traditional Left can never dream of having.
It can, of course, very legitimately be argued that such initiatives can never have anything but marginal significance as far as overall ’employment’ in the economy is concerned. This is absolutely correct but such a question only arises when we see ’employment’ as the paradigm so to speak: a situation where there is a mass of propertyless disspossessed on the one hand, and a few hundred owners of capital who can provide jobs, on the other. This paradigmatic form of the ’employment question’ arises entirely from the experience of capitalism in the West, where all other forms of ‘ownership’ (small property, family property, usufruct rights, commons and so on) have been successfully destroyed in the belief that they are all obsolete forms and that capitalism and bourgeois are the only future. Once that happens, we are left with nothing but the employment option.
On the other hand, let us look at the experience of the non-West. What the Marxist debate in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in these societies revealed was that capitalism was not quite developing in these societies. It was seen as a failure on the part of these societies to become capitalist – and therefore modern – in the image of Western capitalism. Thus Marxists of that period would refer to these social formations as ‘retarded capitalism’ or their development as ‘arrested development’, for they supposedly shackled accumulation. In retrospect, it seems that the various African and Arab socialisms of that era – including our own Nehruvian socialism – were not so much about socialism as about avoiding the path of unrestrained capitalism Western style, attempting to preserve noncapitalist forms of ownership and small property. Unfortunately, the Nehrus, the Nyereres and the Nassers did not have recourse to any other language, any other conceptual apparatus but that of Western social sciences and within that language, all that these these postcolonial leaders could say was – ‘our situation is different’.
It is true that many of these third world countries produced monstrosities in terms of the polities and the economies that they created but could it be that all that was the result of trying to make elephants climb trees? After all, the assumption that three-fourths of the world has to simply follow, indeed ape, what the West has already done, is a bit like asking an elephant to become an ape. It is in this light that we need to rethink the trajectory of third world economies that have only been forced, in the past decades since liberation from colonialism, to cut their feet to fit a shoe that does not belong to them.
From this point of view, the vast segment of the economy that we have earlier referred to as the ‘informal economy’ or even following Kalyan Sanyal as the ‘need economy’ appears before us in a different light. It is perhaps better to simply call it ‘social economy’ – a term which has two advantages: (a) It recognizes the fact that it is still embedded in social relations and has not yet acquired the reified form that ‘the economy’ or ‘the market’ has (which then submits the ‘society’ to itself). The disembedding of markets from social relations was a central theme in Karl Polanyi’s idea of ‘great transformation’ and in calling it the ‘social economy’ we register the fact that it is resistant to easy incorporation into ‘the economy’. (b) It allows us to include within it all those rural agrarian and adivasi/ indigenous peoples’ practices where no activity is purely ‘economic’ but tied to modes of being, beliefs, rituals.
The third proposition: It is in the social economy that we find a preponderance of various kinds of molecular activities that are so critical for the creativity and autonomy that undergird popular livelihood practices. And it is this embedded social economy that offers the most serious resistance to the ideology of mindless cancerous growth. It is only by strengthening (often via reconstituting) practices within the social economy that labour can be freed from the mindset of dependence on capital.
A brief discussion of the degrowth/ post-growth question is therefore in order here.
Before that however, it bears emphasizing that in defending embeddedness, I am not making an argument for the valorization of all socially embedded practices. There are many practices embedded in Hindu society that are abhorrent and violate human dignity and such practices need to be abolished. However, as we know from our experience, mere abolition through law does not transform such social practices. It is also clear that all attempts to resist them – as for instance after the incidents of the flogging of Dalit youth in Una, Gujarat – are met with fierce opposition from the upper castes who are in a majority and in a position to impose social boycotts of the Dalits. In other words, mass resistance too does not work. That is why Ambedkar was so insistent that Dalits should educate themselves and abandon the jobs they have been assigned by birth. This really means that spaces have to be built outside the traditional framework where a reconstituted, egalitarian commoning becomes possible. Given the control of the upper castes over the state and government machineries, there is a limit to what they can achieve and there is no other alternative, it seems to me, to building such eglitarian spaces.
That said, we come to our final probem – that of ‘degrowth’. The very first question that springs to mind is that if we want to reverse growth, will it not have negative consequences for the already volatile employment situation? Will it not throw things into disarray? Let us say that if we suddenly want to close down automobile production, it will immediately mean loss of employment for lakhs of people and many more in sectors linked to automobiles. If we were to add to that, ecologically destructive consumer goods like say airconditioners, that would add lakhs more. The overall figure could be astronomical and the problem an impossible one to handle.
The word ‘degrowth’ does seem to suggest negative growth but as Serge Latouche aruges, degrowth is not about negative growth at all but refers to an altogether different model. I therefore prefer to use the term ‘post-growth’ societies and ‘post-growth’ model. What does that mean? It must obviously mean a phased transition but one where we recognize that there is really no such thing as an immanent ‘logic of capital accumulation’ that works objectively in history. We need to recognize that people are not naturally consumers and that the growth model needs to first produce consumers before it can become ‘viable’. As Latouche astutely points out, the growth model is based on three things: 1. Advertising, which according to business strategists is aimed at producing new wants and desires – therefore demand – and which has a budget second only to the worldwide budget of arms. 2. Credit – the availability of which lures us to live beyond our means, once new wants have been created. 3. Planned obsolescencce – the perverse business strategy that ensures that products have a limited life and which therefore, forces us to keep buying newer and newer models of the same. (Latouche, Farewell to Growth). Latouche cites a survey (via Andre Gorz – another pioneering voice) thus:
‘When the presidents of big American companies were surveyed, 90% of them admitted that it would be impossible to sell a new product without an advertising campaign; 85% stated that advertising “often” persuaded people to buy things that they did not need; and 51% said that advertising persuaded people to buy things that they did not really want.’
It is this cancerous model that thrives on making you buy what you neither need nor want, that lies at the root of our miseries today and one of the key points of the post-growth idea is to start here. The post-growth model does not mean a return to some pristine origin of communion with nature. But it does mean that in the long run, if autombiles have to be done away with, cities will have to be made more cycling and pedestrian friendly. Exactly the kind of restructuring that automobile companies once carried out in American cities, forcing people to buy cars.
Needless to say, the post-growth model will generate its own needs for different kinds of entrepreneurial activity and skills – even different kinds of industries, housing and so on. All these activities need not be undertaken by big corporations employing people as workers but can be undertaken by cooperatives run by worker-owners themselves.