Micro politics, micro gains

Identity politics is by nature fissiparous, and whether it dons the form of an association, a club or a vernacular entity, it is inimical to proletarian internationalism.

Published : Oct 12, 2016 12:30 IST

January 31, 1961: M.K. Kirpalani, then India’s Ambassador to Brazil, congratulating President Janio Quadros soon after the new President took charge.

January 31, 1961: M.K. Kirpalani, then India’s Ambassador to Brazil, congratulating President Janio Quadros soon after the new President took charge.

ARE trade unions and conventional trade unionism still relevant? That is one of the dominant questions preoccupying labour theorists or those involved in labour politics. There is a section that believes that traditional trade unions are losing relevance, becoming ineffective and ceding ground to informal groupings that may take the form of associations on the basis of categories other than class. Concerns have been expressed about the declining membership in trade unions, and the phenomenon is attributed to globalisation, a flexible service sector, the contractual form of employment, the growth of the informal sector and the large presence of “foot-loose” labour, a term used by Jan Breman.

Some of the posers in the book under review are as follows: have unions ceased to be relevant or have they been replaced by new collectives based on multiple identities or is there sufficient potential for mobilisation and class-based action even within these new formations?

The articles in the collection have been selected from the papers presented at the ninth and tenth International Conference on Labour History organised by the Association of Indian Labour Historians and the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute. The introduction by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, former Chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research, offers the hypothesis that there has been a shift from the classical paradigm of labour politics derived from the European historical experience to a vernacular discourse in surrogate organisations; social and cultural associations; non-governmental organisations; activities nucleating around primordial identities, including ethnicity; and so on. Does class struggle end such vernacularisation or does it just change form, or does it mean the end of universalism, in the sense of crafting proletarian internationalism? Characteristic of the classical paradigm are some of the other issues that Bhattacharya raises in the introduction. Evidence from the 13 contributions suggests that vernacular forms of resistance and organisation may have coexisted with classical forms of class mobilisation.

The introduction is particularly interesting as it does not exclude pessimism as far as trade unionism is concerned. Bhattacharya disagrees with the cynical approach of organisations such as the International Labour Organisation to “political trade-unionism” as being harmful and less compatible with the globalised economy. “The consequent prescription for trade unions is that they should discard ‘political unionism’. This judgment may be questioned because it is doubtful if there is any scope for trade unionism that is non-political,” writes Bhattacharya.

The volume is divided into three sections; the first section has five essays under the broad title “Vernacular Alternatives to Trade Unions” where Indian, Brazilian and Chinese experiences of associational organisations are discussed. The essays are by Aardra Surendran, Meera Velayudhan, Paulo Fontes, Santosh Kumar Rai and Eric Florence. The second section on “State and Social Regulation in the Vernacular Mode” also has five essays: Prasannan Parthasarthi’s “The Poonamallee Insurrection of 1796”; Robert W. Slenes’ “Peasants into Precarious Masters: Hard Bargaining and Frequent Manumission in Brazilian Small Slave Holdings circa 1750-1850”; Vidhya Raveendranathan’s “Scavenger and the Raj: State, Caste and Labour in Colonial Madras”; Bidhisha Dhar’s “Mapping Artisan Labour in Lucknow, c. 1860s-1940”; and Cassandra Mark-Theisen’s “The Dual Meaning of Debt: Political considerations for the Mobilisation of Mining Labour in Southwest Ghana, 1877-1911”. The last section, on “Ideologies of Power and Resistance in the Vernacular Idiom”, includes essays by Maya John, Leon Fink and Shivangi Jaiswal.

Class & identity

The papers in the selection cover varied forms of social organisation and mobilisation. For instance, Aardra Surendran’s ethnographic study looks at the workers’ associations and trade unions in a public sector undertaking in Mumbai where informal organisations get together around major cultural festivals and forge a bond that has the potential of taking up what are inherently class issues but not necessarily in the form of union action. Although this way of forming associations should be looked at from an academic point of view, the dangers of overemphasising such formations as alternatives to basic class identities have also been pointed out. Her essay suggests that the presence of a particular kind of an idiom, the “Hindu” idiom, behind these cultural associations of workers poses an altogether different challenge, which may have the potential to cause fissures in basic class solidarities that cut across cultural and other identities.

Meera Velayudhan focusses on Kuttanad in Kerala. She analyses the kind of groups that emerged there in the 1940s: pre-existing local forms of resistance got an impetus from Communist parties and the unions affiliated to them. Meera Velayudhan’s essay, based on an ongoing study, emphasises that forms of resistance, as in the case of Kuttanad in the 1940s and in the 1980s, can have vernacular antecedents, but ultimately it is organised union and class-based action supported by political parties that have some concrete outcomes.

“Trade Unions, Neighborhood Associations and Working Class Politics in Sao Paulo, Brazil” by Paulo Fontes also explores the role of associations. The writer looks at the decade following the Second World War when Sao Paulo experienced a new and intense wave of industrialisation and urbanisation. Fontes looks at how residents’ associations played a decisive role, especially in working-class neighbourhoods, during the municipal government of a popular leader, Janio Quadros, a politician who got elected with the support of these associations.

These associations, known as the Comites Democraticos e Populares, in Sao Paulo were assisted by the Brazilian Communist Party. The “right to city” by the poorer sections was therefore effectively put forward, argues Fontes. The paper shows the manner in which the popular Brazilian leader Quadros was able to capture the popular resentment and appear as a kind of a heroic knight for the residents Sao Paulo. From Mayor of Sao Paulo city, he went on to become Governor of Sao Paulo state and then President of Brazil.

The story of Quadros illustrates how an association called Societies of Friends of Neighbourhood helped in establishing reciprocal relations between workers and populist political leaders without any intermediary unions. These associations were also able to forge larger ties with trade unions in general strikes in the subsequent decade. Brazil seems to have carried forward this tradition of electing persons to the highest positions from working-class backgrounds. Contemporary examples include former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his successor and the currently ousted President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party. Lula had a distinct trade union background.

Santosh Kumar Rai’s essay looks at how the weaving community in parts of northern India were able to organise and charter a course of political mobilisation in local and community contexts in the early 20th century.

It can be argued that the impact of such interventions as posited by Rai in his ethnographic study may have been local and transient given the provincial character of the organisations concerned. The Muslim Julaha weavers were organised around a distinct occupational and caste identity and their politics had local meanings forged in local circumstances. Whether it was emancipating or exclusionary is not clear. After Independence, they joined the Communist Party of India. They later became part of other political formations. Rai argues that they managed to challenge socio-economic hierarchies and in doing so created an autonomous political space for themselves. Whether this autonomous space was able to withstand the onslaught of macro-level policies is not clear.

Eric Florence’s essay “The Cultural Politics of Labour in Post-Socialist China” explores an altogether different experience. He looks at the angst of the rural migrant worker in post-socialist China, who represents a section that has been most exposed to the violence of global capitalism and did not benefit from entitlements linked to the socialist era. He argues that the party state has been able to initiate and encourage a politics of emancipation through inviting workers to narrate their experience of labour called “dagong”.

Most of the papers in the second section explore the role of precolonial forms of social organisation such as caste or ethnicity in recruiting labour and in organising protests. Prasannan looks at how caste affiliations played a role in the 1796 peasant unrest in the Poonamallee pargana near Madras city. Parayars, the caste group that was in the vanguard of the unrest, managed to get support from outside Poonamallee. Slenes’ essay takes a close view at manumission (slave owners freeing slaves) in Brazilian slave society as a form of social regulation (of welfare and social control) where the state was weak and there was no prohibition of manumission by law. Vidhya Raveendranathan’s work on scavengers in colonial Madras explains how caste affiliations using the idioms of class struggle such as better wages and dearness allowance resulted in a better deal for the scavengers, incorporating mechanisation of their work. Bidisha Dhar’s essay concentrates on how the regulation of artisans’ organisations was not aimed at emancipating the artisan; nor did it mitigate class antagonisms. Her paper looks at the politics of documentation of archives between the mid 19th and the mid 20th centuries.

She argues that the state in trying to build a trade network used the definition of “utility” and “practicality” vis-a-vis artisanal products for its own objectives, not necessarily in the interests of the artisans themselves. She wonders whether this was emancipating. She also looks at modern associations of artisans, the Anjuman-e-Zardozan, a community of artisans and factory owners where the common binding factor is religious identity. But, as she explains, community bonding did not overcome class antagonisms. Her study exposes the contradictions and limitations of identity-based associations and organisations.

The last section, on “Ideologies of power and resistance in the vernacular idiom”, explores a range of issues, the central one being, in the editor’s words, whether caste functions as a surrogate of class in the ideologisation of a vernacular approach to labour politics. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya in his essay “The Vernacularization of Labour Politics” says that community-centric politics may mean the “majoritarianism” of the hegemonic section of the community, which in India can be translated as religious communalism, casteism and ethnic chauvinism. In fact, Bhattacharya points to the dangers of glamorising identity politics at the cost of class politics, which is more encompassing and inclusive, containing as it does a singular basis for solidarity.

He also says that replacing the traditional agency, the trade union, might lead to forms of patron-client relationships that lend themselves to populist dictatorship and dictatorial regimes, as has been seen in some countries of Latin America. This could also lead to labour playing a diminutive role in politics, he cautions.

There is little doubt that the global crisis that began in 2007 and its upward spiral of joblessness created new challenges in its wake for the organised working class movement. It is also a fact that over the last two decades, unions have been advised by various well-wishers to modify their modus operandi in terms of the methods they have used for collective bargaining and agitation. It is another matter that deindustrialisation on a large scale has opened up new avenues for organising workers, especially in what now constitutes the unorganised sector.

The Vernacularization of Labour Politics makes for interesting reading. It does a great service by pointing out the limitations of a vernacular discourse of labour politics. All the essays suggest that politics based on a micro-level community or an identity can only achieve micro gains. Identity politics is by nature fissiparous, and whether it dons the form of an association, a club or a vernacular entity, it is inimical to proletarian internationalism. Its objectives to that extent can only be short term.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment