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What Is Postcolonial Predicament?

Dialectics is at the heart of the postcolonial predicament in three main ways: the postcolonial imprint on knowledge formation, the salience of primitive accumulation even when the postcolony develops, and the emergence of a "precariat" and immaterial labour. In the light of the postcolonial reality, this essay calls for a return to the study of contradictions, which sits at the heart of dialectics.


What Is Postcolonial Predicament?

Ranabir Samaddar

Dialectics is at the heart of the postcolonial predicament in three main ways: the postcolonial imprint on knowledge formation, the salience of primitive accumulation even when the postcolony develops, and the emergence of a “precariat” and immaterial labour. In the light of the postcolonial reality, this essay calls for a return to the study of contradictions, which sits at the heart of dialectics.

Ranabir Samaddar ( is with the Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata.

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Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment. It is man’s social being that determines his thinking… In social struggle, the forces representing the advanced class sometimes suffer defeat not because their ideas are incorrect, but because, in the balance of forces engaged in struggle, they are not as powerful for the time being as the forces of reaction; they are therefore temporarily defeated, but they are bound to triumph sooner or later. Man’s knowledge makes another leap through the test of practice. This leap is more important than the previous one. For it is this leap alone that can prove the correctness or incorrectness of the first leap in cognition, i e, of the ideas, theories, policies, plans or measures formulated in the course of reflecting the objective external world. There is no other way of testing truth. Furthermore, the one and only purpose of the proletariat in knowing the world is to change it. Often, correct knowledge can be arrived at only after many repetitions of the process leading from matter to consciousness and then back to matter, that is, leading from practice to knowledge and then back to practice. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge, the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge. Among our comrades there are many who do not yet understand this theory of knowledge. When asked the sources of their ideas, opinions, policies, methods, plans and conclusions, there are eloquent speeches and long articles; they consider the questions strange and cannot answer it... It is therefore necessary to educate our comrades in the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge, so that they can orient their thinking correctly, become good at investigation and study and at summing up experience, overcome difficulties, commit fewer mistakes, do their work better, and struggle hard so as to build China into a great and powerful socialist country and help the broad masses of the oppressed and exploited throughout the world in fulfilment of our great internationalist duty.

– Mao Zedong, 1963


n the last three centuries, almost synonymous with the age of colonialism, human knowledge has been based on what Mao Zedong had called (in “Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?”) three types of struggle: class struggle, struggle for production, and struggle for innovation, in Mao’s words, “scientific experiments”.1 Because of the historically predicated nature of these three sources, that is to say, historically determined nature of class struggle, likewise the historical nature of struggle against nature, and for survival and production, the character of knowledge particularly in human sciences has been marked by a flow from peripheral sites to various metropolitan centres. Yet these peripheral sites are increasingly becoming critical because the flow of factual data provided by the peripheries is today a condition for the growth of knowledge and fresh ideas. And because most of the time the factual data is not initially intelligible to those unfamiliar with local contexts, the process of producing knowledge has to depend more and more on translators and interpreters. The

communication needed for producing knowledge and ideas cannot therefore be transparent. Hence the usual way has been to treat the knowledge produced in the peripheries as “raw” or too particularistic and local to be understood by a non-specialist metropolitan readership. They require being “theorised” and generalised to become knowledge. Yet, as I have indicated, human sciences would stop growing today if this centripetal flow were to be absent. In some sense this structure of the production of knowledge has made the claims for theory hollow and empiricism stronger or at least made them appear in a new light. The incommensurability inherent in a body of data cannot be always made sensible in terms of a theoretical generality. At times the existence of a previously determined theoretical framework or idea becomes responsible for denying any such possibility of a new generality. More and more, therefore, we shall see a different mapping of the knowledge world, let us say a world of different interacting constellations and autonomies in place of the core-periphery model. As a result, theory, usually the preserve of metropolitan thinking, will be in decline. Interestingly, Mao therefore spoke of correct ideas, and not of theory.

There is one more implication of the postcolonial situation besides the decline of theory, namely, that several distinctions are breaking down. Some are the prevalent distinctions between social science studies and area studies, between critical theory and empirical knowledge, and between the historicalgeopolitical nature of the modern and the premodern. With the weakening of these distinctions we can sense the emergence of a new global organisation of knowledge in which the postcolonial stake is high. This is because while the old colonial structure depended on a core-periphery relationship, the new postcolonial structure turns the internal boundaries of this organisation into a feature to be constantly, and each time uniquely, negotiated. We can locate two marks in this epistemic transition: First, knowledge is becoming more “objective” where “theory” as an attribute of the knowledgeable subject will be less and less required. Second, a new type of transnational linkage in human sciences is developing where lifequestions will become increasingly significant. These life questions generating from specific socio-economic locales will be perched on the great issue of “conduct of life”, till date derisively called affect. While the turn to empiricism and the ascendancy of affect may seem opposed to each other, they are dialectically united in the emerging architecture of knowledge, which is based on questions of life.

Thus formal economics finds itself naked in face of experiences of life (say those of the 2008 crash), similar are the fates of formal branches of humanities and social sciences. Even aspects of formal socialist knowledge, which had modelled themselves on bourgeois-academic lines of inquiry, lost their critical edge in no time and found themselves dishonoured in face of experiences of life exposed by the annus mirabilis of 1989. Several globally renowned thinkers of the west in the past century had detected the coming crisis, and thinkers like Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault sought shelter by returning to the ancient Hellenic world. Interestingly, in the empirical data producing peripheries this return had happened earlier in course of confrontation with colonialism and possibly these peripheries are therefore more prepared now having experienced already the return to ancient knowledge, and then making the subsequent graduation to critical thinking appropriate to our time.

One of the reasons behind this return to antiquity in the metropolitan world today is possibly due to an ahistorical notion of critique, produced from within the realm of theory, that delinks knowledge from social practices and makes critique an element in the self-referential cycle of ideas and discourses, be they philosophical, literary, or scientific. This was the reason why Marx broke with this idea of critique, argued that we must begin critique by arms, expounded the famous theses eleven, in particular the 11th thesis (1845),2 wrote the critique of political economy, and grounded critique in modern empirical reality to show the inexhaustible nature of the reality that a formal discipline cannot subsume. Knowledge, as distinct from theory, which now appears rechristened as critique, on the other hand, progresses in a continuously developing frame of ideas and material practices, perched on the borderlines of these two domains. The question of limits, plasticity, etc, is linked to this borderline existence. Therefore it is not enough to assimilate humanities with critique or criticism unless we know what we are critiquing and the limits we are reflecting thereby, the limits produced by the outside – the reality – that we have to invoke in order to produce a critique. Through all these we have before us emerging two worlds or styles of knowledge: In one, the self-referential nature of producing knowledge is supreme, in the other the production of data is supreme leaving no time for self-referential exercises in terms of genealogy of knowledge, perhaps to its own good.

Problematising Mao’s Statement

One can see that in the production of knowledge and ideas, borders and boundary-making exercises are thus always in operation. Borders of different fields, different holding grounds such as geopolitical, historical, economic, and the recurrent boundary-making exercises form the reality on which we have to perch the question: Where do correct ideas come from?

But it also means problematising Mao’s statement. The three different struggles from where ideas and knowledge spring have interlinkages and operate on historically conditioned terrains. Therefore a game is on – between the data producing periphery and theory making centre, between defined social sciences and life questions of our time and issues of conduct of life, between logistical operations and flight paths, and between logic and experience. Postcolonial nature of the knowledge thus produced is not there in the “third world” only; within the “first world” the boundary-making exercises and transgressions are on. The presence of the three struggles Mao referred to marks the production of the knowing self.

In short, we are asking: What are the struggles that provide the terrain of knowledge today? What are their links? What are their epistemic functions? I believe, hitherto postcolonial theory pursued or focused on a normative “West versus the Rest” formulation, and thereby forgot to take into account the links,

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tensions, borders and borderlands of knowledge, and the struggles that create them and in turn are conditioned by them.

One more expression of the recognition of the crisis is strangely to be found in the emphasis by a section of cultural theorists on translation. Translation has a crucial place in the knowledge industry today. Translation marks the processes of transfer of data, the transformation of empirical data into theory, the transfer of “theory” to the data producing areas, so that data can fit the theory, and serve the function of creating a theoretical world. At times translation constituted into a selfsufficient world kills the scientific nature of theoretical struggle and knowledge. In this overemphasis on translation, knowledge everywhere suffers; the postcolonial process of knowledge production suffers most. The process of translation (including financing, marketing, publishing, determination of topics, themes, and the matter of translation, language of translation, and the language from which matter will be translated) shows the ideological-political nature of the three pheno mena that Mao said were the basis of knowledge and correct ideas. Translation becomes one more symbol of the reality of the network like existence of capital. Translation, in short, is the logistics of the knowledge production process, in which postcolonial knowledge formation occupies a designated place.

We may rave and rant about the loss of our originality. But first we should note the nature of the process. This is, of course, a material process, emanating from the overwhelming possession over our life and labour by information and computation. The postcolonial milieu is a specific geoeconomic and geopolitical milieu and therefore equally specific in its links with capital. These specifics influence the production of knowledge and anticipate certain social technical relations in the traffics of data, idea, and fact. The movements of people, capital, and information are now managed through certain logistical grids, by which I mean certain types of organisations, controls, and rules. These produce protocols. They determine what is to be translated and made accessible for all, or for some.

Postcolonies as ‘Translators’

It seems translation has become part of global logistical industry, which includes the big publishing houses, institutions of the culture industry, standards of internet publication, nature and protocols of governmental and non-governmental grants for translation, visits, conferences, exchange of data for joint research, etc, besides, of course, the well-known networks of capital, finance, banking, funds, supervision, etc. In all these, to repeat, postcolonies are crucial. They cannot be thrown away by the wayside, because they are needed by capital as they produce the data (even in life-centric sciences), they supply crucial labour (even in advanced laboratories), yet they – as postcolonial existences – cannot be allowed to have a proper say in the dynamics of knowledge and idea production. There is thus a constant struggle inherent in the mutually constitutive relation between the global informal (the South) and the global formal (the North) and informal that is there within the formal.

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It will be thus important to ask: What are the standards of translation? What are its protocols? Who determines it? What is the nature of the logistics of globalisation of knowledge and ideas, to which, at least to a part of which, we have given the name “translation”? In the style of Umberto Eco one may call this conundrum humorously as “the translator’s last sigh”.3 Yet the stakes are high in this business of globalisation of knowledge, with a several billion dollar industry of university and inter-university collaboration, private funding of research in university, think tanks, development of software/s, travels, telephony, and digital connection, conferences, other modes of data exchange, organisation of field visits, publication channels, and the new knowledge centres. There is a great amount of cognitive labour involved in the logistics of globalisation of knowledge so much so that the old model of wise men and women as solo warriors producing knowledge is dying out; even group efforts are becoming obsolete; networks and platforms are the new modes of knowledge and ideas – precisely because capital in the knowledge industry works in the mode of networks, constellations, and platforms. One has to just take note of the proliferation of foreign publishing houses in India, or the almost immeasurable amount of copying of electronic, music, film, books, designs, and then reformatting them for home purpose, to see the amount of cognitive labour involved in this. The primary task of logistics in the global knowledge industry is to manage and direct this cognitive labour employed in what some call the “edu-factory”, whose slogan is around a problem, namely, “What the factory was in the nineteenth century, the university is so today.”4

Clearly this is not a fact, though this represents a reality close enough to it being a fact. The paradox is for at least two factors. First, the postcolonial world of knowledge presents a different trend. Our modern knowledge began with globalisation. In India we did not have a “national” modern education in the beginning. From the start we were cosmopolitan in our modern education. We began with foreign protocols and standards in education. Therefore postcolonial cognitive labour has been almost effortlessly absorbed in the task of the logistics of the global edu-industry, thereby making know ledge production here highly efficient. We cannot have a national intellectual property regime as a standard instrument of evaluation and regulation of the productivity of intellectual labour, all the more in sciences, and life-based sciences. The route to understanding the situation is through an analysis of cognitive labour in the postcolonial milieu involved in know ledge production – labour is globalised from day one. Therefore even if the educational site is likened to a factory, it is a factory without walls.

Second, in India the demand for education is great particularly among the lower classes. We all want to escape the prison of low value labour; the government also wants to produce skilled labour at an increasing rate. All aspirations meet when a school is opened, a college is opened, when a university is upgraded, when new departments come up, and new centres adorn a university. Dalits demand the right to education with dignity. Women demand the right to education with dignity; far-flung villages demand local schools. All lower classes demand the same rights and are not scared of standards and protocols. This situation increases the popular capacity in postcolonial countries to network, adapt to change, and contribute to standards of institutional relations, computation, and variation. For the postcolony there is no risk of losing anything, there is only the challenge to make the best out of what is given to it.

If the foregoing is at least partly true, how much is the postcolonial stake in translation? At one level, the stake is high, yet we need not exaggerate its importance, which means it should be treated like any other communicative pursuit, for which there is no rationale for any special investment. Translation often produces junks, literary wastes consisting of the leftover of the last few decades of the last century that produced postmodernity as a style of thinking and obliterated postcolonial conditions from the agenda of global thought even more than the classic colonial thinking did, and is evidence of the fantastic power of the commodity form to detach or delink ideas from the experiences of cognitive labour. Yet as Marx so assiduously demonstrated, even in the most abstract form of commodity, labour is inscribed. It is here where we can see new forms of cognitive labour engaged in trans lation, relevant software production, publication, diffusion – the cognitive labour that we can say represents the South in the knowledge industry in the North, the postcolonial within or amidst the conditions of the neo-liberal life of the global rich.

Umberto Eco said in the book referred to above that he often felt irritated at the high theories of translation (and the high expectations bestowed on it) that eschewed concrete examples, did not analyse actual translation practices and problems, and forgot that translation was essentially a negotiation. Unless we understand this and consequently the question of power relations inscribed in the practice of translation, it is pointless to speak of adequacy, equivalence, faithfulness, or, intention.

In other words, we cannot forget the political economy of the practice of translation, we cannot reify it, and we must situate it in its material context even when we are bound by it like by many other immaterial practices and we continue struggling against it. Think of all the junk philosophies, literary texts, novels, magazines, and journals (much more than what we have appreciated and absorbed) translated and overflowing our bookstore, home racks, newspaper stalls, and the proportionate decline of the translation of our thoughts, or the decline in the number of languages learnt. This is happening within India also. Translation has taken the place of language learning.

These and other immaterial practices produce forms of cognitive labour that provide, on the one hand, what Althusser called the “apparatus”5 shaping our subjectivities, and, on the other, they, exactly like their opposite, that is, dirt labour of the postcolonies doing essentials in the metropolitan world, provide the bridge between the postcolonial and the rest of the world. Therefore if we return to Mao’s famous note with which we began we can see that the question of the apparatus, that Marx had called the means of production, shapes the ways in which ideas will be produced. The postcolonial predicament is perched on that cusp, the cusp of apparatus and subjectivity.


This predicament in a way is not new. As I said, the predicament began with the way our modern education began. We are cosmopolitan from the beginning. Our nationalists learnt English, German, French, Chinese, Spanish, other languages of India, and became the great peregrines. We have with us the fragmentary tales of the lives like that of Har Dayal, founder of the Ghadar Party, and one of our early militant nationalists, who travelled across four continents, knew eight languages, carried on his activities amidst alien surroundings, and could never return home after he left India in the first decade of the last century.6 We wanted to be national, but we were national-cosmopolitan, which affected our nationalism as well as our role as subjects of knowledge. The predicament came out most vividly in colonial times, for instance, in the life of Rabindranath Tagore.

Translation in Tagore’s Life Saga

Rabindranath was a little known figure outside colonial Bengal before he got the Nobel Prize. Though he was acquainted with the mores of the western world since his teens, he had never thought of writing in English or translating his works into English. For a decade (1902-12) he had suffered bereavement of his closest family members – wife, father, son, daughter, and niece. He had joined in between the nationalist agitation in Bengal, became disillusioned at the debasement of values in course of the movement, withdrew from the movement, was severely criticised for leaving the ranks, and disgraced, and in a state of extreme physical and mental fatigue while spending days and months in recluse in Shiladaha on the bank of his dear river Padma he had translated, as if in a fit, his poems of Gitanjali when poetry was eluding him. He subsequently described his mental state and the exhausted yet playful mood when he began translating the poems – and as he said later, without any expectation, any desire to link with the outside world beyond Bengal, or any aspiration to carry across any message. He only said, “I only simply felt an urge to recapture through the medium of another language the feelings and sentiments which had created such a feast of joy within me in the days gone by…From this explanation of mine you will see that I was not responsible for the offence, which was mainly due to the force of circumstances”.7 Tagore tells us in the same letter, from which I have quoted the foregoing lines, that in the next journey to England, which happened immediately, he had carried the crumpled exercise book in which he had begun translating and had completed the work in the voyage. It was in that uncertain state of the translated work that Tagore allowed access to his British friends those translated poems. In his words, again quoting from the same letter, “Rothenstein already had an inkling of my reputation as a poet from another Indian friend. Therefore when in the course of conversation he expressed a desire to see some of my poems, I handed him my manuscript with some diffidence. I could hardly believe the

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opinion he expressed after going through it. He then made over the manuscript to Yeats. The story of what followed is known to you.” But the rest is not full history. What we remember is only one part of the history.8

What we know is that his British literary patrons and wellwishers tried to claim part of the fame. Overnight, he became a world figure. He was invited to various platforms and forums on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. He visited Japan and China. He became a sought-after figure in Germany and Italy. He thought he was now destined to be the bridge between India and rest of the world. Visva Bharati began (1921) as an unprecedented experiment in universalist education. Against his grain he thought he had to carry across to different parts of the world India’s ancient wisdom and message. He began reinterpreting the Upanishads in his lectures such as Sadhana (1916). And with all his fame and the perceived eastern mystique he was representing, as soon as he renounced the knighthood as mark of protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (13 April 1913) and raised his voice against nationalism, aggressive wars, and xenophobia, he became an “eastern” castaway, who by the beginning of the third decade of the last century had been almost forgotten in the west. Possibly his most radical turn came when he became an “Asianist”, criticised Noguchi for supporting the ideology of Japanese imperialism, reinterpreted his own ideas of modernity, and went back to writing some of his finest poems such as those in Punascha (1932), and became one of the most creative agnostics of modern times with the lines penned on his deathbed,

The first day’s Sun Asked At the new Manifestation of Being – Who are you? No answer came. Year after year went by The last Sun of the day The last question utters On the western seashore, In the silent evening – Who are you? He gets no answer.9

Where do you place translation in this saga of an epic life? His own selected and collected writings in Bengali had started coming out from 1896, when he was only 35 years old, and they are still appearing in various editions and forms. Thirtytwo years ago, 1980 to be precise, he already had 88 publications (volumes and anthologies of his poems, novels, plays, letters, diaries, etc) in English, overwhelmingly translations with some original compositions in English. More than half of these 88 English language publications (53 to be exact) came out between 1912 and 1941, with 30 of these between 1912 and 1920.10 I am leaving out translations of the poet’s works in other languages abroad or in India.

Yet what is true is that the postcolonial nation is not concerned with the tide and ebb of his international fortune and fame, it gratefully remembers his long life; people remember his solidarity with the humiliated people, his internationalist moves, his work in education, and his creative interventions in

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various aspects of arts, literature, and education. Translation that played such a big role in universalising him is now a forgotten part, in as much Tagore’s wanderings in Europe is a forgotten chapter in Europe’s own story of cosmopolitanism.

What is therefore to be noted is that translation works only in a particular way – as part of a broader dynamics of global production of knowledge. That part of the ideas which build on what is called “affect” or “sentiment” on which the postcolonial world builds its response to metropolitan knowledge remains untranslatable. Therefore translation can work to the advantage of the peripheries, or the postcolony, only when translation becomes part of a broad range of dialogic practices, which mark the world of negotiation. In our time Foucault became the American Foucault through translation inasmuch as Tagore became the mystic Oriental in Europe, and Karl Marx became the academic Marx in the Anglo-American universities. This is because in this site called translation there is no engagement with the world and the milieu these figures represent or represented. If there were some, it was only engagement with discourses. There are all kinds of translation programmes (perhaps the most under-researched ones by translation theorists are the Foreign Language Publishing Houses in erstwhile socialist countries such as the Soviet Union, possibly the largest), not only translation between languages but between mediums also. Therefore there cannot be any general theory of translation, save the fact that it is part of the logistics of the global production of knowledge.

Handling Dialectics

Dialectics sits at the heart of every situation of predicament. Predicament is in essence a matter of handling dialectics. Before we delve into this matter, we can at least take note of this: The postcolonial world provides the documentary richness with which metropolitan narratives recreate a reality, which leads us to believe “this must have been the case”. In refugee studies, in anthropological studies on migration, in narratives of postcolonial democracy, in reporting on ancient philosophy, in accounts of decolonisation, and in many other cross-disciplinary pursuits, documentary richness and recreation of reality go hand in hand. It indicates a certain division of labour also. But clearly this is not what Mao meant by the phrase “from the masses to the masses” when describing the knowledge production process. Yet we know, and as I have tried to explain in the previous pages, the global logistical industry of knowledge production has absorbed Mao’s dictum, and in a perverse way implemented it, by taking bits and pieces of reality “from the masses” (the postcolonial reality”) and giving back to “the masses” (the postcolony) the processed and recreated reality. It seems then that perpetually we have to struggle against this theorisation, the recreation of reality, while we strive to remain empirical and empiricist. Yet with facts you cannot fight theory, with correct theory only one fights incorrect theory. In short we find ourselves once again perched on a cusp of theorisation coupled with philosophising and material practices.

We must not underestimate the dilemma. It is not that metropolitan theory ignores facts. In fact it is more and more attentive to facts in its effort to recreate reality. Therefore what one has to examine is the method of recreating reality – truly genealogical, that is to say, gray, meticulous, and documentary. Is it based on details, those insignificant truths? Does it subvert and challenge the established modes and truths, if by truth we mean a system of ordered procedures for the production, operation, regulation, and distribution of statements?11 In other words, does this “recreation of reality” challenge power? There is no doubt that it can, when it has become an idea of the masses, in other words a material reality. This is what Mao meant when he raised the question of the process of knowledge formation as one of continuous transfer of data and ideas from the masses to the “knowledge” class and then back to the masses.

This is clearly dialectics, a hated word in these days of postmodernism, discourses, and abstract logistical sciences. We can see how dialectics is at the heart of the postcolonial predicament in three ways (there are several, these three are only instances): the postcolonial imprint on knowledge formation, the salience of primitive accumulation even when the postcolony develops, and third, the emergence of a “precariat” and immaterial labour. We have already discussed the first. The remaining part of the essay will discuss the other two.

In a series of writings in the form of notes, reviews and articles, some of them published in the pages of this journal, I have tried to demonstrate a salient aspect of the postcolonial situation, namely, the near permanent condition of primitive accumulation as the other of the most modern form of capital, which one may term as virtual capital. Developmental and conflictinduced migration (known as forced migration) within the country and to other countries takes place under primitive and precarious conditions, and female labour forms a substantial chunk of this scenario. This was the main argument of my essay published in this journal three years back under the title, “Primitive Accumulation and Some Aspects of Work and Life in India”.12 Elsewhere I have tried to show, as more and more virtual capital in form of offshore funds, venture business, hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, internet based investment and banking, forward trading-based wealth, etc, reach India and result in a massive property boom, skyrocketing land prices, construction upsurge, and a new surge in the prices of raw materials like iron ore, etc, and at times foodstuffs, the more people will be pushed to accepting precarious and unorganised work conditions, and as a consequence there will be more de-peasantisation, and appearance of unorganised labour, which can be best described as “immaterial labour”. Flexibilisation is appearing over here too, of course not so much in the form of what is called “post-Fordism” in the west, which is based on micro-computerisation, flexible technologies, and the domination of process industries, but much more in the shape of uncertain work profiles, precarious conditions of reproduction of labour, catering to the backward linkages of new capital which is based on various automated technologies and flows. I found a classic instance of such labour in a collective (in which I participated) study of the tanneries of Tangra, Kolkata, where we showed how the finished and value added product of the Bata or an Italian designer company called for the most primitive work conditions geared towards processing raw hide and reinforced by the most brutal controls. We also showed that once again caste was important in determining who will be a member of the precariat.13 While the government enacts law after law and takes measure after measure to protect the unorganised workers and stabilise the informal condition of labour, it fails.

Failure to Implement the Law

One would have to just glance at the Acts and their inefficacy. To begin with, most laws concerning unorganised labour do not touch self-employed labour. The Equal Remuneration Act (1976) and the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act (1976) apply to all; however Acts on minimum wages (1948),14 child labour (1986), dangerous machines (1983), motor transport workers (1961), interstate migrant workmen (1979), or manual scavengers (1993) touch only some sections of unorganised work. To take just one instance in this context, the Inter-state Migrant Workmen’s Act does not provide protection to migrant women “since they migrate on their own volition”.15

There are still other laws, which can be extended, such as on beedi and cigar workers, or payment of wages (1936), construction workers (1996), maternity benefit (1961), contract labour (1970), workmen’s compensation (1923), and weekly holidays (1942). We can also include in the list of measures (Acts) applicable to all sections of unorganised work, such as those concerning equal remuneration and abolition of bonded labour. Some of these such as the Minimum Wages Act also relate to agricultural work. Besides there are others such as the Plantation Labour Act (1951) in order to ensure certain basic facilities for plantation workers. There are also state laws, the most well known of these being the Shops and Establishments Act. Yet if we consider factors taken into account in framing labour laws such as physical conditions, duration and timing, remuneration, employment relations, conditions of disadvantaged workers, and other elements, we shall see why these Acts remain inapplicable and only reinforce the precarious work conditions, marked by rapacious exploitation, absence of workplace democracy, market stranglehold, and the threat of extinction.

Studies of Gurgaon and other new towns in India show again the coexistence of advanced capital and primitive forms of accumulation, both displaying flexible and uncertain processes of labour.16 Add to these the various non-economic, primarily administrative, modes (ranging for administered price rise to disinvestment plans and schemes of voluntary retirement) to create precarious work conditions. The upshot of all these is the persistence of a precariat. This class characteristic of a postcolony is material to the most advanced form of capital only in a particular way. The best way is to describe precarious labour under capitalist conditions in a postcolony as immaterial labour. It is immaterial because it does not directly link up to the advanced forms of capital. Yet it is material because it constitutes the material basis on which the new capital finds appropriate conditions to function. The welfare legislations for

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the unorganised workers or reaching food to people through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act are part of those appropriate conditions. This is the essence of postcolonial capitalism – a global phenomenon.

In what way does this condition constitute a predicament for the postcolony? The major answer is that this condition creates what Charles Tilly would have called “durable inequality”. Conditions of durable inequality make the politics of citizenship only half possible. Inequality becomes durable not because of lack of political democracy, but because of the way a social organisation works. Inequalities endure, Tilly believed, because that is the way an organisation maximises its efficiency and outcome. Therefore while there may be no discrimination at point of entry, or even promotion in a job, over time the organisation can develop an invisible structure which is, in effect, discriminatory. Roots of durable inequality lie in links between enclaves and ghettos, networks, trust stocks, and migrations.

Enduring Inequalities

So inequality is the process, and there is no need to go to an economics professor or to Walmart or the Imperial Chemicals to know and remedy inequality. In short durably unequal situations produce ineffective citizenship politics. When we recall the way primitive work conditions are maintained as the other of the modern forms of capital, we can see the relevance of one more of Tilly’s ideas to which he gave the name, “opportunity hoarding”. Opportunity hoarding operates when members of a categorically bounded network acquire access to a resource that it considered valuable, renewable, supportive of the network, and enhanced by the network’s modus operandi, and thus subject to monopolistic control. “Opportunity hoarding” makes inequality durable.17 Tilly said, “Large, significant inequalities in advantages among human beings correspond mainly to categorical differences such as black/white, male/female, citizen/ foreigner, or Muslim/Jew rather than to individual differences in attributes, propensities, or performances”.18 We can thus see how two elementary forms: types of social relations and inequality-generating mechanisms produce durable conditions of inequality. This is certainly an organisational analysis of inequality, an “organisational view of inequality-generating mechanisms”.19 Yet whatever we may think of an organisational analysis, at least it shows why modern development in a postcolony cannot remove major inequalities; on the other hand the latter increases through the grid of development. The predicament increases because the market does not efface inequality, but accepts the frame of durable inequality to effect transactions and helps capital to realise the surplus. In other words, development does not provide an answer to enduring differences.

What is the way out? The postcolony still has no answer to the phenomenon of durable inequality. Perhaps a long period of experiences of development in Brazil, China, India, or South Africa will tell us the route to escape the predicament.20 Equal conditions will not automatically generate growth. Growth will carry inequality along with it, and at certain times exacerbate it. Politics will try to produce deep reforms, but the main agency of reform, the State, is in a dilapidated state today. Auto nomous social organisations will need some time to learn dialoguing between them. On the other hand, global logistics that promises to a significant extent a way out of the predicament cannot be left to itself. Is logistical redesign that can work to the advantage of the postcolony possible? When Lenin said, soviets plus electricity is equal to socialism, he was referring to precisely the logistical aspect of cutting out the knot of underdevelopment. Do we have any road map for cutting out of postcolonial conditions? We still have no answer. We can keep on trying, and we must try, but it will be good to remember Premier Zhou Enlai’s words on the French Revolution, namely, it is too early to say what has been and will be its outcome! This sense of caution will help the postcolony retain flexibility and prise its way through the bind of primitive work conditions and the reproduction of advanced forms of capital – a bind that leaves almost nothing as social surplus for the postcolony to develop. Precisely for this reason the postcolony will need the most advanced form of politics, whose core will be formed by immaterial labour, signifying the appearance of multitude on the political scene. The significance of these two terms, immateriallabour and multitude goes far beyond the current expositions on them. Immaterial labour and multitude will not work towards realisation of any potential of capital. They will create a new reality out of their own existence.

This is the meaning of transition. The postcolonial dilemma is around the issue of transition – transition from semi-colonialism and neocolonial conditions to “new democracy”, retarded agriculture to agricultural reforms, land reforms, and further on to cooperatives, foreign and monopolies-led industrialisation to a balanced industrial growth and the transition of rule from compradors and corporate class to a national democratic alliance. However this transition is not towards a predetermined socialism; and the path does not lead to any pre-charted socialist path. The transition will lead to its own future, to its socialism, the sketches of whose future can be seen only by those engaged in a patient search for it. This is what is meant by the word, praxis. But on that we shall spend a few lines at the end of this article.

The Science of Contradictions

Before that we have to grasp the issue of dialectics firmly if we are to understand the phenomenon of postcolonial predicament and struggle to find an answer; therefore, the praxis. Let us again recall, Mao, who was careful in distinguishing between different forms of contradictions and their mutual transformation under particular conditions,21 repeatedly cited from Lenin’s study of Hegel (“Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic”, Collected Works, 1976, Volume 38, 85-241) to argue that the study of contradictions was the essence of dialectics. This means we have to go back to three classic questions: first, dialectics as a study of the process (of development, etc), two, dialectics as a study of antagonisms, and three, and dialectics as a study of subjectivation, that is study of the emergence of the political subject working towards transformation of society. Less as a science, but more as a mode of historico-political investigation, dialectics connects the dynamics within the economy with that in the rest of the society. There have been attempts in recent times, especially in Europe, to formulate a materialist theory – without dialectics – on the basis of the idea of the realisation of some potency. This theory attempts to delink capitalist crisis from materialist subjectivity, global crisis from movements for social transformation, and economy from the society. As a philosophy of the present, it thinks dialectics is not necessary.

I do not know if such a theory can become a material force in Europe, but at least in postcolonial conditions, it will make little sense, unless we try to see the twin realities of immaterial labour (the vast unorganised workers and masses) and the multitude (realised as collective political subject) through the lens of dialectics, in other words, not as immanent realities, but as the phenomena of contradictions. Immaterial labour is not immaterial to capitalism, but immaterial to certain forms of accumulation, while being material to the accumulation process as a whole. This is one contradiction. The other contradiction is that the multitude emerges not as a united front of classes, parties, and groups, but as political subject in defence and realisation of the new commons – the common interest, which results from the particular functioning of capital.

We can see thus how Antonio Negri is both right and wrong in his theory of the subject. His theory of immateriality is nondialectical, so is his theory of the multitude, while he shows tremendous political insight into the working of modern capitalism. He needs to be mediated through the postcolonial grid of reality. A theory of antagonism as well as of non-antagonism will tell us how immaterial labour is related to other forms of labour and modern capital, likewise why and when the multitude becomes the revolutionary subject – not as an imminent phenomenon, but as a contingent outcome of a postcolonial crisis or a similar transformative moment.

The reality of contradiction is, of course, greater than the science of it. The science is developed in the west, while the reality of contradictions in the east surpasses its scientific analysis. This reality demands that the science of contradictions, known as dialectics, is not forsaken in preference to one or another variety of psychoanalysis-inspired materialism, but that this science is developed further. In this sense, the postcolonial predicament is immensely productive.

To go back to something with which this essay started, this situation reconstitutes the respective worlds of theory and reality, the universal and the determination of historical developments, the continuous search for the realisation of potential and the knowledge that reality makes new grounds, where reality becomes its own constitutive experience. Just like in the west where in the last 50 years there were desperate attempts among the left intellectuals to escape the world of contradictions, in the postcolony too there have been attempts to argue that the postcolony forms an outside to the world of capital, that the postcolony can escape the features of modern capitalism, such as financial crises, crises of overproduction, existence of a reserve army of the unemployed, and various forms of bourgeois wealth – features that are integral to production and accumulation of surplus-value. Here too there

Economic Political Weekly

March 3, 2012 vol xlviI no 9

have been attempts to discredit Marx’s method. Yet precisely these attempts show that material relations are a clue to ideological understanding – from the branch of political economy to say aesthetics.22

In short, any exposition of what is considered as predicament must be based on a study of contradictions; any critical theory of postcolonialism must build up its own pedagogy, and finally the awareness of its own subjectivity.


While concluding, let me return to the place of praxis as crucial to the great question of postcolonial predicament. In this essay I have shown certain instances of this predicament in terms of knowledge production, global logistics, economic specifics, and political subjectivity. I have argued that in each of these cases the predicament is one of being situated in a cusp of two conditions and possibilities, and it will be mistaken to think of this condition as one of transition; instead it has to be seen in terms of its own salience and its possibility of producing something specific, which is not yet translatable in terms of any metropolitan discourse of transition. The challenge is one of transformation of this social order and not transition from x to y.

Praxis of Transformation

What is the implication of this argument? It implies that the praxis of transformation will allow the first sketch of the transformation to come up before our eyes. It means further studying closely the social practices and experiences towards transformation – without prejudice, without bias, nationally- globally, watching the logistics of transformation scientifically, pursuing a line in which practical experiences count more than a stocktaking of theoretical discourses or reducing social transformation to a discursive problem. The latter is a wrong route of analysis. On the other hand it is important to see the postcolony as an embodiment of predicament and not as one of failed dialectic. It also makes little sense to engage in an endless sterile quarrel over the two terms – hegemony and dominance in order to explain the lack of transition. We shall, of course, retain the worth of these two terms, hegemony and dominance. Yet we must admit that useless philosophical energy has been wasted on their interrelation. Who knows if, in the mid-1920s and the 1930s of the last century, Italy had an inkling of what the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of Chairman Mao was then engaged in – the path of agrarian revolutionary wars and “new democracy” – possibly the southern question23 would have been resolved in a different way, and the democratic question would have been solved differently – and certainly not through passive revolution, the mantra of our time? We cannot do counterfactual history, so we cannot engage in that speculation, but it is time to understand that the neo-Gramscian path will lead the question of transformation nowhere.

On the other hand we shall see perhaps that the angle of predicament gives us the advantage of looking at the global scenario of transformation in a new way. Let us recall in this context that in the last century in the decades from the 1950s transition, should be revisited. Though my personal opinion is to 1970s when the word “ex-colony” was used by the anti-co-that today’s questions have moved on from that time, which lonial left movement all over Asia and Africa in place of to-still smelt of the air of decolonisation, and these debates now day’s “postcolony”, there were fierce debates in the commu-have a quaint air to them. The politics of the present demands nist parties and among communists as to the path of transfor-that we reframe the issues, more because the predicaments are mation. Questions were asked: What is “new democracy”? global, and more than ever before, postcolonial experiences What is national democracy? What is “people’s democracy”? now have a global significance. This is why we can say that the Perhaps this change of name is a minor question. But in any task is not to provincialise Europe or the world of metropolitan case, debates like these, more than the theoretical quarrels on capital, but to universalise the postcolonial predicament.

Notes (New Delhi: Har Anand), 1997; on technology, 22 On the contemporary relevance of dialectics flexibilisation, and labour in India, see see Evald Ilyenkov, Dialectics of the Abstract and

1 “Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?” (May

R Samaddar, Automation and Workers (New the Concrete in Marx’s Capital, trans Sergei

1963); This passage is from the “Draft Decision

Delhi: Sage), 1994. Kuzyakov (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 1982.

of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on Certain Problems in Our

14 The Supreme Court in the case of Bandhua 23 “Southern question” here refers to Gramsci’s Present Rural Work”, which was drawn up under

Muktio Morcha (1984/SCC 389) held that even analyses of the underdevelopment of the the direction of Mao Zedong. The passage was

piece rated worker is entitled for minimum southern part of Italy, the occasion for the written by Mao Zedong himself. See – http://

wages. However, different minimum wages theory of hegemony and the issue of blocked

may be fixed for different employments and dialectics. Gramsci wrote in 1926 in “Some Asselected-works/volume-9/mswv9_01.htm

different classes of work in the same employ-pects of the Southern Question” (from Selec(accessed on 1 August 2011).

ment. Likewise it can be varying according to tions from Political Writings, 1921-1926, trans hour, day, month, or any other prescribed and ed. Quintin Hoare, London: Lawrence and 2 Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”. Marx’s orig

wage period. Wishart, 1976; see also (accessed on 16 August

inal text was first published in 1924, in German and in Russian translation, by the Institute of 15 Findings of a study on Orissa migrant women 2011), Marxism-Leninism in Marx-Engels Archives,

workers; “Impact of Increasing Migration of m/1926,+Gramsci,+Some+aspects+of+the+ Book I, Moscow. The English translation was

Women in Orissa”, Study conducted by Sansristi, southern+question. and supported by the National Commission for The South can be defined as a great social dis

first published in the Lawrence and Wishart Women, Bhubaneswar, 2007, p 11. integration. The peasants, who make up the great

edition of The German Ideology in 1938. The most widely known version of the “Theses” 16 For few relevant studies, see C Ramchandraiah, majority of its population, have no cohesion among themselves (of course, some exceptions

is that based on Engels’ edited version, pub-A C M van Westen and Sheela Prasad (ed.),

must be made: Apulia, Sardinia, Sicily, where

lished as an appendix to his Ludwig Feuerbach High-Tech Urban Spaces: Asian and European

there exist special characteristics within the in 1888, where he gave it the title Theses Perspectives (New Delhi: Manohar), 2008.

great canvas of the South’s structure). South

on Feuerbach. 17 Charles Tilly, Durable Inequality (Berkeley:

ern society is a great agrarian bloc, made up of 3 Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat? Translation as Nego-University of California Press), 1999.

three social layers: the great amorphous, distiation (London: Weidenfeld Nicolson), 2003. 18 Ibid: 7.

integrated mass of the peasantry; the intellec4 For the statement of the problem visit – www. 19 Ibid: 9.

tuals of the petty and medium rural bourgeoisie; 20 Giovanni Arrighi made a bold attempt before he

and the big landowners and great intellectuals. 5 Louis Althusser discusses this in his Lenin and died to unearth the source of the postcolonial The Southern peasants are in perpetual ferment, Philosophy and Other Essays (New Delhi: Aakar predicament. But since he was looking from the but as a mass they are incapable of giving a Books), 2006, pp 85-132. point of the journey of capital, he could only half centralised expression to their aspirations and 6 For his life E Jaiwant Paul and Shubh Paul, Har grasp the relation between metropolitan capi-needs. The middle layer of intellectuals receives Dayal: The Great Revolutionary (New Delhi: talism and postcolonial condition. Yet of the the impulses for its political and ideological Roli Books), 2003. contemporary scholars, Arrighi showed most activity from the peasant base. The big landsensitivity to this point. See his, Adam Smith in owners in the political field and the great intel

7 Tagore’s letter in Bengali to his niece Indira Devi dated 6 May 1913, London; translated by Beijing – Lineages of the Twenty First Century lectuals in the ideological field centralise and (London: Verso), 2007 and Money, Power, and the dominate, in the last analysis, this whole com-

Indira Devi and published in Indian Literature, 2 (1), New Delhi: Sahitya Academy; cited

Origins of Our Times (London: Verso), 1994. plex of phenomena. Naturally, it is in the ideoin Krishna Kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore – A 21 All three essays of Mao need to be studied in logical sphere that the centralisation is most ef-Biography (Kolkata: Visva Bharati), 1980, this context: “On Practice – On the Relation fective and precise. Giustino Fortunato and

p 222, n 3, pp 244-45.

between Knowledge and Practice, between Benedetto Croce thus represent the keystones Knowing and Doing” – http://www.marxists. of the Southern system and, in a certain sense,

8 For reference Michael Collins, “History and the org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/ are the two major figures of Italian reaction.

Post-Colonial – Rabindranath Tagore’s Reception in London”, The International Journal of

volume-1/mswv1_16.htm (accessed on 1 August To be fair, Gramsci did speak of the Italian 2011); “On Contradiction” – http://www.marxists. Communist Party’s line of peasant mobilisation, Humanities, 4 (9), 2007, pp 71-84.

org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/ but everything was in the mirror of the North,

9 Translation is by Amiya Chakravarty (Poems, volume-1/mswv1_17.htm (accessed on 1 August everything to be led by workers; entire Italy Krishna Kripalani, Nirmal Chandra Chatto2011); and “On the Correct Handling of Contra-was like a cracked mirror in his writings on the padhyay and Pulinbihari Sen (ed.), Kolkata: dictions among the People” – http://www. Southern question and democracy. My point Visva Bharati, 1942; poem 127). be clear when one reads Mao’s writings on

10 Data culled from the lists appended to Krishna works/volume-5/mswv5_58.htm (accessed on China, in which China appears as a composite

Kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore – A Biography,

1 August 2011). reality, of course, marked by contradictions.

pp 456-70.

11 This definition comes from Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Paul Rabinow (ed.), Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon), 1984.

12 Economic Political Weekly, 44 (18), 2 May 2009; see also in this connection, R Samaddar, The Marginal Nation – Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal (New Delhi: Sage), 1999.

13 R Samaddar and D Dutta, “Knowing the Worker – The Tannery Majdur of Tangra” (with Debjani Datta) in Parthasarathi Banerjee and Yoshihiro Sato (ed.), Skill and Technological Change – Society and International Perspective

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