Covid-19: War against working classes finds ally in middle class

On International Labour Day, the Union Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Arjun Ram Meghwal, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), wrote an opinion piece commemorating the role of Babasaheb Ambedkar in institutionalising labour rights in India—the right to strike, living wages, decent working conditions, social security and so on. He argued that inspired by Ambedkar the current government has taken steps to improve the quality of life of workers. Strikingly, Meghwal makes this claim at a time when at least five states—Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh—have amended the Factories Act, 1948, to extend the permissible working hours from eight to 12 hours a day, or 72 hours a week (for a period of three months), which defeats the very foundations of May Day. 

The irony does not end here. In India, the eight-hour working day was legalised with a 1946 amendment to the Factories Act, 1934, which was passed as a result of efforts by Ambedkar as the Labour Member in the Viceroy’s Executive Council. 

The Covid-19 lockdown has been extended in India for the third time, this time until 15 May. Right from the day the first lockdown was announced on 25 March, the country’s working classes have been pushed into an enforced crisis of existence. There are unending stories being told of migrant workers stranded at their work places and quarantine centres, evicted by landlords, retrenched by employers and harassed by state forces, desperately walking hundreds of kilometres in the hope of uniting with their families in life or in death. 

Referring to this crisis as a “temporary hardship”, Meghwal quotes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s empty apology for causing “inconvenience” to the labouring fraternity. Behind this unabashed masquerade from the ruling quarters, a systematic dismantling of the structures that ensure bare-minimum rights of the country’s working and labouring classes continues. In this onslaught, the rulers of the day have the full force of the Indian middle class backing them up. 

Rabid irrationality and docile compliance:

The pandemic has exposed the tattered state of our public institutions, which has left even the developed world perplexed and struggling. In India, it has exposed to the world the clumsy and disturbingly irrational approach of the ruling classes.

To cover up their arbitrary and unplanned lockdown, state forces in India have organised and promoted a series of spectacles. On separate occasions, Modi has appealed to the people to extend solidarity to health and care workers by banging utensils, clapping hands, lighting candles and flashing lights. Aggressive propaganda launched by right-wing outfits coloured these activities as scientifically capable of killing the Novel Coronavirus, which has caused the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The PM’s exhortations met unbounded excitement from the Indian middle and upper middle classes. They treated the occasion as nothing less than a festival; and they look forward to more opportunities to celebrate what is truly and utterly a petrifying situation, pregnant with uncertainty, disease and death. How is a rational mind supposed to respond to this unscientific and aggressive response from the comfortably-placed middle and upper middle classes of India?

The pandemic and socialism:

As soon as the pandemic hit the developed world, many parts of Europe declared nationalisation and socialisation of private institutions. The Spanish government ordered nationalisation of all private hospitals, France proposed to nationalise large companies to mitigate an imminent economic collapse and the Italian government proposed to renationalise the bankrupt national carrier, Alitalia, for emergency rescue operations.

On 29 March, Prabhat Patnaik wrote, “It is said that in a crisis everybody becomes a socialist; free markets take a back seat.” A turn towards scientific socialism, he argues, is the logical direction for a pandemic-hit world. That is because the barrage of misinformation, propaganda and Hindutva-sponsored paraphernalia—cow dung and urine—are untenable. Superstition proves expensive in such a widespread health crisis. 

Far from turning to socialism or welfarism, the far-right “for-profit” regimes currently in power in India, the USA, Brazil, Turkey and Hungary—have unleashed an undeclared war on their precariously-surviving working classes. The reckless approach of these regimes combined with a declining value for human life in the neo-liberal order is taking us back a hundred years. 

Towards the end of the 19th century, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels had theorised scientific socialism to equip the working classes with a philosophy to comprehend their class situation and wage a class struggle to establish socialism. Considering the increasing consolidation of class divide and palpable class contradictions during this worldwide health emergency, it is imperative to revisit our classical theories and questions.

Scientific socialism:

Scientific socialism concerns itself with the objective analysis of how society has developed to the present day. The emphasis is on appropriation and employment of scientific knowledge and modern methods into planned production for the satisfaction of human needs. As opposed to capitalism, under which science is deployed and directed purely towards extraction of private profit, the products of science within socialism are socially-owned. The means of production become social property and production is carried out based on social ownership, and for the benefit of the society as a whole. 

The philosophical foundations of scientific socialism were propounded by Marx and Engels in their philosophy of dialectical and historical materialism. They based their philosophy on the scientific understanding of the laws of development of society, focusing in particular on studies of the historical development of different classes and class struggles. They did not stop at argumentation and philosophising—they were intent on introducing the philosophy to the working class movement, to equip them with the intellectual tools and theoretical grounding necessary for them to wage a class struggle.

Materialism is a standpoint that seeks to explain everything within the material world as emerging out of and shaped by the material world. Materialism insists that we set aside preconceived notions about the world, including theories proposed by other-worldly philosophies and theology. It rejects theories of idealism, which seek to explain the material reality as arising from or dependent on some kind of ideal, mind or spirit. The focus is on investigating the sources these theories and ideas emanate from. 

Ruling ideas from the ruling class:

Within the Marxist materialist perspective, it is argued that systems of idealist philosophy have turned out to be mostly elaborate theoretical constructions justifying whatever social hierarchy is prevalent at a time—class ideologies, and apologies for the ruling class. Marx writes in The German Ideology, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.”

Marx and Engels emphasised the need for the working classes to be equipped with the scientific approach towards development of the means of production and their material conditions within the system. The materialist approach encourages the working classes to enquire the objective reality behind the ruling ideas that legitimise the material dominance of the ruling classes at every epoch.

Capitalism and contradictions:

Dialectical materialism sees all processes of nature and society as having internal contradictions: only through interactions and conflict between these inherent contradictions do all systems progress. Given the materialist approach, Marx and Engels discovered the key to understanding the whole development of society in the investigation of relations of production—the economic conditions of production and exchange, and the class struggle produced by these economic conditions. According to them, it is on the basis of this economic structure that the superstructure of legal, political, philosophical, religious and other institutions has to be analysed and explained. 

The primary concern for socialists, therefore, is the application of the dialectical method to understand the contradictions within capitalism. These contradictions within the capitalist mode of production are due to the increasingly social character of production and retention of private appropriation. The fundamental question to be considered is how the private appropriation of products of social production by capitalists becomes a barrier to the development of social production in a planned way for the benefit of all. The result of this contradiction within capitalism is the emergence of class conflict. 

The capitalistic mode of production has undergone significant changes and evolution since Marx and Engels laid down the theoretical foundations for scientific socialism. We now confront new theoretical and analytical challenges. Class stratification has undergone tremendous overhauls around the world. The evolution of monopoly finance capital has created new forms of exploitation and contradictions. A significant development is the ever-growing detachment or gap between the world of finance and digital-platform capitalism and the real brick-and-mortar economy—leaving the work force within the real economy in precarity.

Crisis at hand:

In our contemporary reality, staring back at us is a crisis unprecedented in the global history of capitalism. As professor Jayati Ghosh writes, “We know that the economic impact of this pandemic is already immense, dwarfing anything that we have experienced in living memory. The current shock to the global economy is certainly much bigger than that of the 2008 global financial crisis, and is likely to be more severe than the Great Depression.” 

Evidently, the burden of CoronaShock (the shock to world economy caused due to the coronavirus crisis) is being borne by workers, self-employed people, peasants and marginal farmers. 

According to data released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, the post-lockdown unemployment rate in India has crossed 23%. Prominent political scientist Yogendra Yadav estimates the number of Indians who face or may soon face a livelihood crisis at 15-20 crore. This, he argues, is the biggest one-stroke job-destruction ever recorded in history. According to a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), about 400 million (40 crore) people in India are at risk of falling deeper into poverty and 195 million (19.5 crore) full-time jobs are fated to be wiped out. For a country with a flimsy middle class, vulnerable to falling back into poverty, CoronaShock will be a lethal blow. 

This cannot be a ray of hope for a sinking economy facing prolonged slump in demand. The solution suggested repeatedly by economists is a concerted attempt to boost demand. Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee has argued for stimulating demand by putting money in the hands of the bottom 60% of the population and “writing off a lot of debt”. There is no evidence of any step in this direction being taken by the ruling regime. What is clearly visible is an unrelenting assault on the rights of working and struggling people. 

Trade unions and workers’ organisations have been saying that taking advantage of the lockdown, the government has surreptitiously pushed through its anti-worker agenda. On 7 May, the government of Uttar Pradesh introduced an ordinance exempting all establishments, factories and businesses from the purview of all labour laws except three—the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996, the Workmen Compensation Act, 1923 and the Bonded Labour Act, 1976—for three years. The suspension of labour laws translates into a wholesale dismantling of the legal structures that regulate the conditions of work, including health and safety measures, wages and remuneration, social security and benefits, employment security and the right to unionise, strike and collectively bargain. 

The governments of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab have also taken steps in this direction. These are upfront acts by the ruling governments to extract surplus labour from the toiling classes in conditions of extreme exploitation pushing them deeper into a crisis of existence.

Neoliberalism, fascism and the Indian middle class:

Half a century of the neo-liberal order has brought us face-to-face with a prolonged global crisis. Patnaik argues that in absence of a strong Left, this crisis is being used by fascist movements to build a popular base. Aided by corporate-financial oligarchy, fascist movements build their base by appealing to unreason. This is achieved by a general assault on reason, complete disregard for evidence and scientific approach and running down centres of learning. The irrational and prejudiced approach they promote in this process further stigmatises and ‘others’ an internal or external enemy. 

In India, the ruling ideology followed and promoted by the fascist forces is that of Hindutva, which is based on consolidating a Hindu base and ‘othering’, at its convenience, the Dalit and Muslim communities. The systematic recent stigmatisation of members of the Tablighi Jamaat and the Muslim community as a whole by Hindutva forces and large sections of Indian media during the pandemic are a striking example of how, even during a critical emergency, obfuscating and prejudicial narratives are employed to sideline life and livelihood issues. At the same time, brahmanical props and rituals such as lamp-lighting and blowing conch shells were organised as national-level spectacles. It is imperative to examine who these obfuscating narratives and spectacles employed for and why?

In 2014, renowned political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot argued that it is the Indian middle and neo-middle class that are responsible for the rise of Modi. He contended that the years after liberalisation had given rise to a different kind of middle class. The economic growth that liberalisation enabled has been inegalitarian. The middle class that was a product of this growth cared little about the means of this growth and were indifferent to rising inequalities. He said, “This new middle class supports the BJP more than the Congress… because it wants to grow in status by being recognised as Hindu through a kind of sanskritisation process—and balance its growing materialism by some religiosity.”

In his book, Contemporary India, the well-known sociologist Satish Deshpande has argued that the middle class exercises disproportionate influence in creating and maintaining the dominant ideology that regulates the social structure. The elite fraction specialises in the production of ideologies, while its mass fraction engages in exemplary consumption of these ideologies, thus investing them with social legitimacy. 

Herein lies an explanation to why extraordinary attempts have been made by the ruling government to keep the middle class enchanted and deluded. In this process, they exploited every opportunity to concretise their cultural hegemony. Televised mythical dramas—Ramayana, Mahabharat and Shri Krishna Leela—have been broadcast again during the lockdown. On 16 April, after 7.7 crore people watched it, Ramayana became the highest-viewed entertainment program globally. 

In order to break through this façade of spiritual escapism and perceive their class situation transparently, the philosophy of scientific socialism asserts that the working classes develop a rigorous and scientific world-view. To do so, the working and peasant classes have to see through the communal and polarising narratives employed by the Hindutva forces to subjugate and further divide them. They must also grasp the role played by the middle class, which has been the pillar of Hindutva in India.

Standing on the shoulders of the middle class, ruling classes in India have incessantly marginalised the interests of the working and peasant classes constituting the Dalits, the Adivasis, the backward classes and castes, and the Muslim communities. CoronaShock promises large-scale and prolonged economic wreck, which will also adversely affect large sections of the middle classes. The precarious sections of the middle class stand on the verge of impoverishment. An objective and scientific approach to the study of the prevailing class situation must therefore urgently draw our interest and attention.

First published in Newsclick.