November 15, 2014

[youtube width=”590″ height=”332″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0ShooriD-k[/youtube]

I am in a small loft space, accessed by a ladder, carved out of a room used as printing press. The headroom is not there to stand up but perfect for sitting on the floor. By Mumbai’s standards, a generous workspace, relatively tranquil. A man on a cardboard rectangle completes the final stage of making company envelopes, folding them perfectly, so perfectly they look as if they are factory-made. The technique is faultless. He folds them, not in hundreds or thousands but in tens of thousands. In fact, the quota for each week is ten thousand, thus the title of this piece.

I came here as part of a personal exploration of printing workshops in this business district of Mumbai. The Fort neighbourhood still largely consists of Victorian buildings from the days of the British Raj. Sensex, the Bombay stock exchange, is located close by. There are many of these little printing houses servicing the financial district with their stationery needs. I wanted to explore the material conditions of such production, how they connect with the broader economic reality of emergent global India. Around here, property prices per square foot are about the same as Manhattan, approximately $200 per sq ft; so each and every bit of space has to work to justify itself.

These envelopes happen to be for L&T Mutual Fund, one of India’s largest mutual funds. It’s an offshoot of L&T, Larsen & Toubro, India’s largest engineering and construction company – a company with a curious history, having been founded in 1938 by two refugees from Nazi-occupied Denmark. L&T’s Mutual Fund handles about 150 billion rupees worth of investment (around £1.5 billion). The mutual fund is an old form of financial speculation that emerged at the very start of the colonial times; in fact the oldest one, appropriately named Foreign and Colonial Investment, is still running in the City of London. In essence, a mutual fund is a way for a group of people who don’t know each other to pool their money together in order to invest. It could even be seen as a sort of ‘cooperative’ form of financial speculation to enable those of ‘modest’ means to play the investment game. As another of India’s fund brokers, IDFC, puts it: “If you have even as little as a few hundred rupees to spare, you can start your investment journey with mutual funds.

Whilst I watch the hands at work here, I imagine the L&T investor receiving information in one of these envelopes. He or she would never know it was handmade in this fashion. That would simply be detrimental to the image of finance and investment. It’s not only that the handicraft involved is discarded and made invisible in the process, as significant here is a reverse mimicry at work. We have a situation in which the ‘aura’ of the unique object, which Walter Benjamin had described as being eradicated by mechanical reproduction, is reversed. Here, artisanal labour, the handmade, is in fact employed to mimic the aesthetic of mechanical reproduction. If that’s a cultural reading, economically we can explain such work somewhat more simply in terms of the comparatively cheap labour available in Mumbai. The wages would be around 6000 rupees (£60) a week, which makes it viable to use the human hand instead of investing in machinery. If that would be the rationale for the use of such work, then in Marxist terms it can be attributed to ‘uneven development’, a concept introduced by Marx in Capital Vol 1 and the Grundrisse only fleetingly but greatly elaborated on by others in the late 20th century.

Uneven development was a way to integrate all forms of labour into the dialectical process of progress, the historical rite of passage that over time will release us from alienated labour. The essential thing that mattered, in Orthodox Marxist terms, was the universality of the dialectical process beyond that it was possible to, as George Lukacs claimed, “dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto.” To this end, uneven development describes the way through which different societies and cultures develop in different ways to a universal future “where labour time is no longer the measure of value, where the surplus labour of the masses is no longer the condition for the development of social wealth” (Neil Smith, Toward a Theory of Uneven Development 1).

I get to know more of the envelope-maker’s family life: a migrant from northern India who came to Mumbai in search of work, as do much of the city’s population. The commute from his home in the suburb of Chembur to the business district takes an hour. And that’s how it is, 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. Once here, he is on the cardboard mat. It’s a ritualistic repetition. One could see patterns in it akin to what Siegfried Kracauer saw in the Mass Ornament of assembly line factory work, the regimented poetry of “necessary motions with lines, rotations, repetitions”. But this isn’t the same rhythm of “formal operations on meaningless parts” of mechanised production. The work I see here both eludes that and is somehow a refuge from the new forms of extractive work in advanced late capitalism in this century. The artisanal work here retains its qualitative relation between the product and its maker, a contained virtuoso space with a steady meditative dimension. But the beauty of the work, its choreography, stays bound up within this space.

But within the cardboard rectangle, the economic, the cultural, and the political, as well as informational capital and the work of a pair of hands, all converge on the same mat. It’s the space, the theatre in which the antagonisms of what work is today play out: the divisions between mental labour vs. manual labour, alienated work vs. creative work, active labour vs. passive labour, cottage scale labour vs. mass industrial labour. As we move beyond the industrial era into the information age, there was a window for the collapse of these divisions. New social movements began to rephrase the relation between labour and capital. With them, new slogans came into the public domain from different contexts (such as ‘aam admi’ – meaning ‘the common man’ – or ‘we are the 99%’ etc) which assert common rights through work. Such slogans also create new symbolic distinctions between forms of work.

In this space, the differentiation would be between the unproductive labour of the Mutual Fund and the productive labour of the envelope maker’s hand. Along with such differentiation, there is a clear ground-shift in language relating to forms of labour that were considered ‘politically’ dead-weight, which would have found such description in Capital Vol 1 as “the passive survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead”. In the 21st century, such work now finds a renewed identity as work uncorrupted by corporate or bureaucratically produced work, and at the same time as work that does not align into old class categories or notions of the proletariat.

The reality is that it’s such antiquated modes of production that still provide the livelihood for the majority of the world’s population, both rural and urban. In demographic terms, at least, uneven development has been the rule. All this does not synchronise with a narrative of labour’s progress from the commodification of labour for the formation of the proletariat to a vision of work freed from all material necessities, and work as a means to put food on the table. Or, as Marx puts it in Capital Vol 3: “The realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends: it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper.”

Instead, the new political movements’ notions of ‘productive work’ rewind to the early Hegel of work as the social glue, work that contributes to the totality of work through which the collective consciousness or spirit evolves through its historical phases. As he writes in First Philosophy of Spirit: “The ethical work of the people is the being-alive of the universal spirit (geist); as the spirit it is their ideal union, as work it is their middle, the cycle (of men) cutting themselves off from the work as a dead (thing), and positing themselves as singular agents, but positing itself as universal work…’’

It might be ironic but in the information age, the dialectical clock of labour’s progress is being unwound  – from late Marx through to early Marx and onto late Hegel. It’s a process of re-opening dead space in the political imaginary, unpacking the inherent hegemonies in the ‘standard models of social power’ as Langdon Winner puts it in Do Artefacts have Politics?  Politics was seen as the domain of social forces; objects were mute. But not in new ways of looking at politics. Whilst Winner’s essay deals with artefacts using advanced technology, the same questions apply to the artisanal.

Practices emerging from ecological movements, in particular, try to recover the relation between us and our artefacts, as part of the same ecological chain. They unpack the autonomy of the commodity. In this process, it’s not only that objects or artefacts are no longer inert and have political agency; but also that politically marginal forms of work find a new place. This two-fold recovery of space for political agency comes from the understanding that we no longer buy into the narrative of Modernity’s promised escape from alienated work. It seems an empty promise that has worn its course and has only served capital’s apologists and accelerationists. That’s why new political movements are reorienting. Otherwise, whilst the elephant in the room remains capital’s inventive ways to dominate labour, we have given ourselves no option but to create more technologies that promise to liberate us only to realise too late that they literally draw the life out of us and lead us to even more alienated work. So to imagine a future with decreasing forms of alienated work, to work towards an emancipatory way of working, there is a reconnection with vast swathes of work excluded from a progressive imaginary by Modernity.

Some will argue that none of this is through choice. Twenty years of globalism and neoliberalism have forced labour across all continents onto a common terrain. In no way does this imply a level playing field but with the increasing mobility of finance capital, with advances in policies of geographic investment and disinvestment to maximise profits, forms of manual work culturally naturalised into ‘anthropological difference’ (as described by Etienne Balibar) in the global periphery are now surfacing in technologically advanced countries. In the process, there emerge uneven affinities with the forms of precarious labour created by the information age based upon new methods of extracting profit, new models for administering labour and new forms of alienation that dissolve the boundary between personal life and working life – whether it’s call centres, online shopping warehouses and so forth.

To illustrate, consider the realities of a picker working for Amazon.com, where a company handset monitors your each and every second fetching online orders in a giant warehouse. With 33 seconds allocated for a pick-up, a picker has to walk an average of 13 miles in a ten hour shift. Or indeed a packer for Amazon, who has to complete 100 packages per hour (packaging that is ripped open upon arrival). Such working realities dismantle the fait accompli readings of “an advanced industrial age where material production becomes automated to the extent that all vital needs can be satisfied while necessary labour time is reduced to marginal time”, as outlined in Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man.

On the contrary, necessary labour time is increasing rather than decreasing whereby – thanks to new technology – we see “the crudest modes of labour return” in unexpected ways, the return of “the treadmill of labour as a form of barbarism” (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol 8) in capitalism’s new century. But with this advancing present day reality in the ‘uneven convergences’ between precarious and subsistence work from opposite ends of the technological spectrum, the next chapter in the ongoing contest between capital and labour will have far less to do with technology per se than with the way the work itself is produced – the production of the means to work and the necessary politics to progressively take these means back into our own hands. It’s that political question that plays out on the metre square cardboard between the Mutual Fund envelope and the envelope-maker, between capital in the information age and the labour of a pair of hands.

By Siraj Izhar


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