The Pandemic and the state

Part 4: The cultural renaissance and the left

Arup Kumar Baisya

Time is money
The Pandemic and the lockdown stopped the clock, the clock which stepped into the world of Faust in the Elizabethan stage. The anti-Semitic Antonio’s argosies finally came back to the shore because the Christian merchant enrobed the sea with his silk. Shylock, the Jewish merchant, submitted before the rising power when his trick grudgingly adopted against Antonio failed. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice told us the story of the rising English power and the mechanism of debt bond. Shylock’s property was forfeited, but he was accommodated through his daughter’s marital relation. Shakespeare stopped here without telling us the story of the Jews fishermen who were ghettoized. The Elizabethan values and culture did not rest on the plebeian life; it changed and redefined the time. Sidereal time, which has been present since literature began, had moved at one step from the heavens to the home. Time is money and is precious. The restless urgency which controlled the work through the movement of the hands of the clock segregated the life and the work. This, in turn, drives the dominant social value and culture in contradistinction to the popular culture which lies within the domain of contradiction between exchange value and use-value. The practicing culture which focuses only on the symbolic forms has its petitio principii. The Pandemic and the lockdown have disrupted the necessity to consume time purposively, most people now carry a watch on their wrists, but without any urgency to run fast to keep track of the set work-schedule or disciplining the labour. Does this disruption allow rebuilding the popular culture for the renaissance or revolutionary change?

E. P. Thompson said Culture is “a system of shared meaning, attitudes and values, and the symbolic forms (performances, artifacts) in which they are embodied”. But culture is also a pool of diverse resources, in which traffic passes between the literate and the oral, the super-ordinate and the subordinate, the village and the metropolis; it is an arena of conflictual elements, which requires some compelling pressure – as, for example, nationalism or prevalent religious orthodoxy or class consciousness – to take form as a system. And indeed, the very term “culture”, with its cozy invocation of consensus, may serve to distract attention from social and cultural contradictions, from the fractures and oppositions within the whole. …. The plebeian culture becomes a more concrete and usable concept, no longer situated in the thin air of “meanings, attitudes, and values”., but located within a particular equilibrium of social relations, a working environment of exploitation and resistance to exploitation, of relations of power which are masked by the rituals of paternalism and deference. In this way, “popular culture” is situated within its proper material abode.

Imagined reality and history
In the first part of this series, I mentioned how the attempt was made to suppress the inner diversity based on differential exploitation to an imaginary plank of patriotism and nationalism in the name of combating the menace of the corona pandemic. The cultural nationalism is a constituent of all nationalism. The compelling pressure to suppress the conflictual elements of diverse contradictions is built by the reconstruction of the ancient history in such a way that it fits into the present time, the time of disciplining labour and the time conceptualise as money. Indian nationalism is a political construct based on the premise of the two-nation theory and the insistence on religious identities being primary historical identities. According to the renowned historian Romila Thapar, the transition from clan-based societies to the kingdom is seen as seminal to the societies described in the early texts such as the Vedas, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana as well as the early Pali Buddhist Canon. She emphasized, “The Religion was an unlikely primary factor in the initial emergence of the state that required more utilitarian resources. But in the welding of segments into an empire, as in the policies of Ashoka, the Mauryan ruler, and Akbar, the Mughal, there was recourse to certain facets of religion.” The nation-state that the Sangh Parivar propagates is a political religion that amalgamates the state with religious nationalism. But this religious nationalism has nothing to do with the religion beyond paternalism and deference because it must be compatible with the present time, the time that disciplines the labour and is precious for money; it is something more than the religion that supports the ancient empire building.

Though the Nineteenth Century Indian Renaissance just emulated the European Renaissance which rejected the dominance of the Christian Church and adopted the notion of Humanism in every aspect of life, though the institutional reconstruction of the past sought legitimacy from Roman Civilisation instead of the democratic past of the Greek city-states. But unlike the European Renaissance, the Nineteenth-century renaissance in India did not emerge from the creative energy released due to the internal class conflict to give birth to bourgeois society. This renaissance occurred in India in the second half of the British colonial rule due to certain changes in the functioning of capitalism.

Imperialism and periodic changes
The transition of competitive capitalism into imperialism occurred through the colonial expansion in underdeveloped countries for the extraction of raw materials by cheap labour for capitalist production. The history of capitalism tells us that uneven development is ingrained in capitalism and its inner dynamic of contradiction between the abstract capital in general with many concrete capitals defines its motion. The underdevelopment is ultimately always underemployment and low productivity of labour. Due to the increased productivity of labour, the proportion of raw materials in the commodities in comparison to the depreciation of machines and added new labour is also increased. This necessitates the shifting of production of raw materials from low labour productivity areas to high productivity areas of developed countries. The character of imperialism changes by exporting capital for manufacturing of certain commodities to the peripheries, but the export of machines is accompanied by the increase of productivity of labour, though lower than that of the developed countries. Earnest Mandel said in Late Capitalism, “The Exchange of commodities produced in conditions of higher productivity of labour against commodities produced in conditions of lower productivity of labour was an unequal one; it was an exchange of less against more labour, which inevitably led to a drain, an outward flow of value and capital from these countries to the advantage of Western Europe”.

The internal dynamics of uneven development and the manifestation of the contradiction of low and high productivity labour in changing the character of the imperialism changed the Indian social polity twice during British colonial rule, albeit under a capitalist world system. The plunder of raw material and destruction of artisanal production was followed by capital investment in the manufacture, new plantation, infrastructure development, developing market for European finished products in the mid-Nineteenth Century when the elementary division of labour between manual labourers, greater work discipline and more rational organization and accounting were introduced.

The same logic was repeated during and after World War II when the production of raw materials was shifted on a massive scale to the metropolis due to the reduced cost of production based on a huge increase in productivity of labour backed by technological innovation. The third world suffered a decline in the export of raw materials. The political weakening of the imperialist and the exacerbation of the internal socio-economic crisis within the colonies gave rise to anti-colonial rebellions.  

The nineteenth-century renaissance in India was a product of the intermingling of the culture that was exported along with the British Capital and the pre-capitalist culture which was reshaped and moulded to get accommodated within the alien bourgeois culture which gave primacy of human identity and privacy over communitarian identity to severe the ties and control of Christian Churches. The Indian renaissance did not emerge as new values and culture challenging and decimating the old. In the nineteenth century India, the emergence of the middle class required new forms of expression but was hamstrung by its ties to upper caste origins. The religion used as a category to unite and build the concept of the nation and the state. The political community that emerged without giving birth to any civil society relatively unconnected with the state was overwhelmed by the influence of the proponents of the two-nation theory.   

The new turn in the imperialist world system post-colonial period was marked by the transfer of machinery. The transfer of fixed capital accentuated the productivity of labour and the use of modern consumer goods. The policy of catching up or dirigiste development for particular Indian capital was not formulated to challenge the world capitalist system of extracting surplus-profit for the metropolis, but it deepened the contradiction between abstract global capital and concrete national capital. This necessitated another shift in the imperialist system for global capitalist hegemony. This time the entire manufacturing was shifted to low-wage countries for global labour arbitrage and the production process was brought under global supply and value chain. This shift had proletarianised and pauperized the whole landscape of emerging nations. But this had also increased the reserve army of labour in the metropolis and thus created the downward pressure on the entire global wage structure. The skilled labour in the global south also creates downward pressure for skilled labour in the global north.

The new middle class and culture
In these two phases of development under the capitalist world system, the new middle class who is drawn from a wider spectrum cutting across caste and religion and surpassing the old almost homogeneous upper-caste structure has emerged in the Indian social milieu. The new middle class and the labour need new values and culture for a new form of expression. But they are accommodated and co-opted within the framework of two diverging trends. One is old religious nationalism derived from European orientalism and Brahminical text, the other is the disciplining of labour and hedonistic culture that conceptualizes the time as money. The dichotomy between the two is transcended to an imagined plank of patriotism. As the new middle class is drawn from the diverse pre-capitalist socio-cultural background, this kind of obscurantist narrative gives rise to apparent counter-narrative of fundamentalism and sectarianism. This narrative and counter-narrative which are based on an imagined reality and an imagined enemy for the middle class fit well within the global dynamic of capitalism for disciplining labour and hedonistic culture. All these narratives are built primarily to legitimize the power which is not antithetical to the capitalist accumulation and super-profits, rather perpetuates the exploitation.

Pandemic and economic dislocation
 In Engel’s metaphoric term the Covid19 pandemic is ‘revenge’ of nature. The unabated capitalist plunder of both nature and labour and the resultant metabolic rift between them is the root cause of the ecological and epidemiological disaster. The segregation of work from life in the capitalist mode of production, neoliberal global supply and value, or commodity chain, the ecologically disastrous global agribusiness have given rise to the Covid19 pandemic. The neoliberal capitalism has created its demon to fall back heavily on its structure. The pandemic and the lockdown disrupted the entire system of global production shutting down production in key sectors and breaking the global supply and value chain. The governments in power across the globe are compelled to spend in public health undermining the austerity measures prescribed by the global neoliberal regime of monopoly-finance capital. The entire edifice of labour-arbitrage or exploitation of labour and valorization of capital through the transfer of value to the monopoly capital through the commodity chain has been abruptly disrupted. The production is dropping, unemployment is soaring and the economic crisis is all-encompassing. The disruption in the whole chain of global labour arbitrage engenders the financial meltdown of the global economy. The variables like rate of surplus-value i.e. the rate of exploitation of the working class and the reserve army of labour make possible mediation between abstract ‘capital in general’ and the concrete ‘many capitals’.

The new radicalization and culture
 Most of the world witnessed lockdown due to Covid19 Pandemic. Post-lockdown the corporations are in a race to pull in their commodity chain. Extraordinary dislocation of the global economy is not going to be mended very soon. The retrenchment of workers will go unabated, the billions of migrants workers have undergone reverse-migration. The rate of surplus-value – i.e. the rate of exploitation of the working class – is a function of the class struggle. But in the backdrop of the massive increase in the reserve army of labour, both rate of surplus-value and rate of accumulation may increase for few corporate investors in few sectors, but economic meltdown will cause the toiling masses to be restless and to lose faith on the entire system. In the absence of a global commodity chain and the backdrop of a global economic meltdown, the religious-nationalist narrative, and the similar reactionary counter-narrative, in all likelihood, will lose their plot. The working class and the social classes will be more and more assertive. The class-caste already seamlessly woven together will be objectively prepared to burn the fuse of revolution. India witnessed a similar situation post-World War-I when there was a massive increase of reserve army of labour to increase both rates of profit and rate of accumulation, but the social polity was agog with people’s assertions which were channelized for radical anti-colonial movement. This time, the popular assertions need to be channelized for radical change for building an alternative society transcending capitalism. 

The objective condition is ripe to delegitimize the dominant values and culture. But the dominant values and cultures do not leave the space for a long period of vacuum which needs to be filled by alternative values and cultures. The bourgeoisie has no creative energy left to generate any progressive value and culture. The new radical value and culture can only be built from a working-class perspective. But this does not mean a deterministic approach. The working-class perspective means the ideological and philosophical positioning that negates the segregation of work from life, the disciplining as well as dehumanization of labour and this perspective cannot be complete without focusing on bourgeois life too where bourgeois also gets alienated from life through the personification of capital in capitalists. We can take a cue from the failure and success of the literary movement in Soviet Russia and cultural movement in China and take up the cudgels for building the foundation of a new cultural renaissance in pre-revolutionary India.

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Jun 6, 2020

Arup Kumar Baisya

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