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THE MUCK OF THE NEW

- Capitalism, classical versus lumpen

A striking sight in the old days in Soweto, the black shanty town next to Johannesburg, used to be the heavy padlocks on the doors of the shacks whose residents happened to be out. So absent was any sense of community in this miserable ghetto, where people uprooted from various parts of that vast country had congregated to eke out a subsistence, that each family was mortally afraid of its neighbours stealing its pathetic possessions when it was away.

Soweto did not just represent apartheid, it also typified what capitalism classically entailed. Breaking up old communities, driving people off their old habitats through what Marx had called a process of “primitive accumulation of capital”, it had concentrated vast masses of employed, unemployed, underemployed and semi-employed workers in towns, who were unknown to one another and too atomized to constitute anything like a “society”. The fact that capitalist countries subsequently overcame this miserable state of self-centred existence was because of two basic reasons. First, the proportion of the unemployed and underemployed fell drastically through emigration to the temperate regions of white settlement, like Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America and Canada, where land was acquired by the émigrés through the dispossession of the relatively sparse native population. Second, as a consequence of such emigration, the workers who stayed behind could “combine” effectively through trade unions, which created for them a new sense of communal life.

Workers’ pubs, the week-end social gatherings of workers’ families in these pubs, even workers’ churches, where they met on Sundays dressed in their best clothes, were all expressive of a new form of social life that grew in industrial towns around common trade-union membership. The Left has traditionally been critical of mere “trade union consciousness”, which did not prevent incorporation into bourgeois society — and rightly so. Krupskaya, who spent several years in London with Lenin, and frequently attended workers’ social gatherings in his company, was aghast on one occasion when after the usual service in a workers’ church, everyone present was asked to rise and pray for the arrival of socialism.

The respectability of English trade-union leaders contrasted sharply with the bohemian non-conformism of the Russian Left émigré community. But the fact that trade unionism in England and other advanced capitalist countries played a major role in forming a new community, underlying which was also the new conception of a “moral” life, and which also provided the basis for the subsequent development of a democratic polity, whatever be the limitations of this democracy, can scarcely be denied.

The community that came into being may not have transcended capitalism, but it provided some sort of an antidote to the atomization, the self-centredness, and the alienation that characterize life under capitalism in its classical quintessence. Indeed, classical capitalism, where all economic agents, whether persons or firms, are supposed to be maximizing their self-interest, would constitute a social hell. Capitalism becomes socially viable and bearable, precisely because this is not what happens. In other words, capitalism becomes socially bearable not because, but in spite, of itself, by the collective resistance among the workers that it gives rise to. This resistance is expressed through trade unions around which a new collective social life develops.

The capitalism that is growing in India today, as distinct from what the dirigiste Nehruvian period had witnessed, is unleashing a huge process of “primitive accumulation of capital” in the form of impoverishment and dispossession of the peasantry and petty producers. People are migrating in large numbers into towns because of the intolerable conditions of life in the countryside. But in the towns, notwithstanding the much-hyped growth-rate of the gross domestic product, there are hardly any jobs, satisfying what the International Labour Organization describes as “decent employment”.

Indeed, between 2004-5 and 2009-10, those whose “usual status” was being employed, increased according to the National Sample Survey at the paltry rate of a mere 0.88 per cent annually. Those migrating to the towns therefore swell not the ranks of the employed, but the army of the unemployed, the underemployed, the semi-employed, the intermittently-employed, and the “disguised-unemployed”. They are generally categorized as being employed in the “informal” sector, a euphemism for what Marx had called the “reserve army of labour”.

It is amusing to see official spokesmen taking pride in the growth of “informal sector employment”. This is rather like somebody, during the Great Depression of the 1930s when the unemployed often turned to shining shoes to earn a pittance, suggesting that there had been an increase not in unemployment but in employment in the shoe-shining sector.

The migrants into towns, being thrown into the ranks of the reserve army of labour, cannot be organized into trade unions. And the fact that the bulk of the informal sector employment, which is a camouflage for the reserve army of labour, happens to be in service sector activities, makes unionization even more difficult. However, lack of unionization also means that they cannot develop any new form of collective social life. They increasingly come to constitute instead what Marx had called the Lumpenproletariat, a “whole indefinite disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither”. The fact that many of these service-sector activities involve working and providing “strong-arm” support for politician -entrepreneurs who are typically engaged in sectors like real estate and transport, and who are the beneficiaries of the process of privatization and the distribution of fiscal largesse in the name of promoting enterprise, increases the social weight of the Lumpenproletariat to the further detriment of the development of any collective social life.

It may be contended, with some justification, that, among the migrants to towns, caste and regional ties still give rise to a certain sense of community, as they have traditionally done. But this, apart from necessarily being narrow and exclusionary, also tends to crumble under the impact of the growth of activities in which the Lumpenproletariat is typically engaged.

Countries like ours, therefore, even as they experience primitive accumulation of capital, as the advanced capitalist countries had done, do not have the capacity to absorb its impact and fashion a new social life as in those countries. The reserve army here does not have the same possibility of emigration open to it: in fact if emigration from India were to occur on the same scale as from Britain in the period between 1815 and 1910, then 40 crore Indians should have migrated out of the country between Independence and now. This, clearly, is an impossibility. There is no scope left for emigration on the scale that the advanced capitalist countries had experienced.

At the same time, the increase in organized sector employment through capitalist development of the sort that is occurring now is too minuscule to absorb both the increase in the work-force and those displaced by primitive accumulation. What we have, therefore, is a growth of the reserve army of labour, and consequently the class of Lumpenproletariat. The capitalism that leads to a swelling of the Lumpenproletariat rather than of the proletariat proper, is what I call “Lumpen Capitalism”.

What is developing in India today is lumpen capitalism, an important feature of which is the absence of any new form of collective social life. The lack of “decent employment” for those migrating into towns keeps large numbers chained to the countryside despite growing distress, which keeps alive the old community, marked by caste, class and gender oppression. Simultaneously, no new community gets formed, as in older capitalist countries, through the growth of collective resistance by workers against the dismal capitalist conditions they encounter.

The result is an enmeshing of all the oppressive traits of traditional society with the traits of lumpen capitalism. These include a moral vacuum an aggressive and self-seeking individualism, a total absence of consideration for others, a penchant for taking short-cuts for self-promotion, an obliteration of the boundary between criminality and legitimate activity (even as defined by the bourgeoisie’s own standards), and an absence not only of probity and propriety in public life, but also of any awareness of the necessity for such probity and propriety.

This enmeshing is striking. The horrendous gangrape of a young student in Delhi in December that shook the country was generally attributed to the persistence of patriarchal attitudes. This is correct, but these patriarchal attitudes have also gained fresh strength from the lumpen capitalism that is developing. To believe that capitalist development in our conditions will one day overcome such attitudes is a chimera. On the contrary, we appear doomed, if this capitalism continues, to face all the muck of the old society, and that too without any of the restraint that the old society had institutionalized, together with the muck of the new.