Marxist theory: Theorizing class, capitalism and the state; nature of Marxism
In my theoretical work, class and capitalism are examined at multiple levels of generality or of historical abstraction. Class is seen both ‘trans-historically’ and in the context of capitalism. Likewise, capitalism is seen in more general terms and as one that is characterized by a low level of the development of productive forces (i.e. less-developed capitalism or peripheral capitalism), and as it develops in a specific place and time. Capitalism-as-class is analyzed as a complex dialectic of relations of: property, exchange, production and value, where capitalist production relations are conceptualized in terms of subsumption of wage-labour under capital in its two inter-related forms (formal and real subsumptions). This concept which has been relatively neglected or misunderstood, including in the literature in geography and in political economy, has implications for theorizing not only capitalism from an international perspective but also geographically uneven development intra-nationally (e.g. disparity between rural and urban areas, and regional disparity) and internationally.
In my on-going three-volume work on capitalism, I re-examine Marx’s theory of capitalism as laid out in Capital volume 1, in terms of capitalism’s economic and extra-economic dimensions. Central to my conception of capitalist society is the idea that the capitalist economic system is constituted by a) commodity production based on the exploitation of wage-labour that operates in relation to, and alongside, b) exchange relations and financialization involving various forms of secondary exploitation, c) separation of direct producers from property caused by both class differentiation among commodity producers (and the tendency towards proletarianization and pauperization), and primitive accumulation (in its modern forms), and that such a system in its advanced stage tends to develop into e) imperialism (dominantly seen as a class relation at the global scale). For me, the main contradiction remains the one between capital and labour which are related to one another on the basis of the relations of property, value, and exploitation, and not between the so-called dispossessor and the dispossessed (or between social groups defined in any other way).
I am also beginning to theoretically explore capitalism from the vantage point of its violence against the human body and ecological degradation, which I see as dominantly a class issue, that directly concerns the working class men, women and children. The other vantage point from which I have begun to theoretically examine capitalism is the social oppression. I explore this from a perspective that puts the accent on class and is critical of inter-sectionalism. The question of non-class or special oppression, which can take the form of violence, including violence against child labour, is central to my intellectual project.
My theoretical work on the state sees it as a part of class theory: the state is internally related to class relations and to capitalism. It sees the state as a complex social relation, as a dialectical unity, with many aspects, each of which offers an entrée into the study of the state as a totality. Just like class/capitalism, the state is also analyzed at multiple levels of generality (e.g. class, capitalism, and capitalism in a specific time and place). Seen in relation to Marx’s capital circuit (M-C-M/), the state has definite economic and political functions as well as forms that fundamentally support the reproduction of capitalist class relations, and that relate dialectically to the two basic classes (capitalists and the working class) in specific ways. State’s forms refer to its liberal-democratic and authoritarian/Bonapartist forms as well as to the territorial and scalar division of labour within the state (the latter partly explains geographical unevenness of state’s interventions). I see the state and the capitalist class as two arms of the same body of social relation (i.e. the capitalist class relation). The state performs a series of inter-connected and nested functions in support of capitalism’s political and economic interests, some of which are more fundamental than others; the most fundamental function of the state is to keep the masses in check by the threat and actual use of physical (and administrative) violence and by measures aimed at producing consent through cheap economic concessions and mystifying ideology. Because of this imperative, the state cannot meet, in any durable and significant manner, the basic needs of the masses, the majority. I reject the idea that state’s pro-worker functions are primarily constrained by ‘capitalist sulking’ (e.g. investment strike; spatial mobility of capital) rather than by its necessarily capitalist class character. One of my developing interests is to examine the state’s role in relation to the tendency towards economic crisis and counter-tendencies as Karl Marx lays out in Capital volume 3 and as Henryk Grossman details.
There has been much debate on the importance of trade union action in late capitalism. Some say that given globalization, it has lost its earlier importance. I examine workers’ economic demand and trade union activity in relation to the Marxist conception of class (merits and limits of trade union activity) and in relation to Marx’s general theory of accumulation and value theory. I have tried to conceptualize class politics (as different from trade union politics) and the idea that class politics has to be ‘not-sectarian’ and avoid indifferentism, and that class struggle must go on in an uninterrupted manner until all forms of class relations (pre-capitalist and capitalist) are removed.
While I maintain that the economic realm is dialectically co-constituted by productive forces and social relations of production which shape each other, I assign primacy to the latter within the dialectic. And I maintain that totality of society has four main spheres (structures of relations)—the economic, the political, the cultural and the ecological/corporeal—which must be seen in their mutual interaction and in terms of their temporal and spatial/scalar unevenness, with the primacy to the economic. To understand the geographical/spatial character of society in urban areas and rural areas, one has to begin one’s analysis by understanding these structures at an abstract level which is significantly a-spatial. This is why much of my intellectual work has been self-consciously theoretical.
Theoretical work, however, cannot assume that processes in advanced countries are automatically the norm applicable to all societies, although it is true that more general (or abstract) ideas about advanced capitalism, as opposed to more concrete ideas, do have wider applicability. Certain concepts developed in the context of the peripheral capitalism can be relevant to the study of advanced capitalism as well. At a general level (in terms of class processes and mechanisms of accumulation, operation of the state and so on), India and North America are quite similar and yet given uneven development, they have specificities.
As Leon Trotsky said: ‘national peculiarity is nothing else but the most general product of the [geographical] unevenness of historical development’ including in the sphere of economics, politics, etc., but ‘the law of uneven development . . . does not replace nor does it abolish the laws of world economy; on the contrary, it is subordinated to them . . . [It is wrong to elevate a country’s] peculiarities . . . above [its] . . . ‘general features’ . . . but also above world economy as a whole . . . ’
Based on my theoretical work on class, capitalism and the state, I have also been interested in thinking about the nature of the Marxism as such. My view of Marxism has changed since the mid-2000s when I arrived at York from the UK. I have come to see Marxism mainly as the classical Marxism of the combined 19th and 20th centuries: more specifically, Marxism as the ideas of MELLT (Marx and Engels as well as Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky) and of the scholars and scholar-activists who have developed their ideas without (much) distortion. As a tool with which to produce a critical understanding of society and to radically change it, Marxism helps us to imagine a new future. I have reflected on my vision of ‘a new society’ (socialism), one that is more democratic than any form of society that humanity has ever experienced.
Marxism is the most coherent and strongest critique of current society, so I have written about the nature of social critique, including in its Marxist form. Much of Marxism comes from the academic world. I have come to realize the theoretically inadequate and politically reformist character of much academic Marxism (and indeed much of academia as such), so I have written a series of articles about the class character of academia as well as academic Marxism.
Political economy of (uneven) development under conditions of globalization and ‘neoliberalism’, including: Labour conditions, ‘New agriculture’ and ‘New industrialization’
My research on this topic focuses on the processes underlying poverty and economic development, such as technological change, land/labour/credit markets, production process, and its politics. I have examined why it is that: while capitalism is superior to pre-capitalist relations in its ability to promote economic development, it fails to generate its characteristic economic dynamism in particular historical-geographical circumstances? Contrary to Marx’s assumption, I examine how capitalism itself has come to impede economic development. I have also been interested in class-origins of poverty, and in the class-based differences—as opposed to differences in income and other such surficial criteria—between the less developed and more developed countries.
Some of my work has examined how neoliberalism impacts labour conditions, including of women and children, in India. Workers’ exploitation in industrialized farm activities centered on export-oriented production of high-value goods (‘new agriculture’) occurs in ways in which capitalist relations are mediated by social-cultural difference, and by the specificities of nature-dependent labour process. Workers, including migrants, are subjected not only to exploitation. They are also subjected to super-exploitation in the sense that their wages fall below the cost of their maintenance (reproduction). I also make an attempt to connect ecological metabolic rift to what I call ‘labour metabolic rift’, centred on the labouring bodies.
On the basis of this and related work, I see neoliberalism not as restoration of class power as such but as a transformation of class and spatial relations at a specific stage of capitalism. Neoliberalism is indeed a form of capitalism without illusions, the illusions that there can be a humane, regulated capitalism on a long-term basis. Neoliberalism is more than a state policy; it is much rather a ‘policy’ of capital, mediated and implemented by the state connected to the each of the parts of the capitalist circuit, even though it is not immune to the political struggles of the masses. Neoliberalism has definite attributes some of which are more general and others that are geographically specific to countries such as India.
Questions surrounding geographically uneven development are of immense interest to me. My ongoing research, conducted in collaboration with Professors Deepak Mishra and Mohanakumar from India, on this explores how the transplantation of manufacturing into rural regions under neoliberal capitalism (‘new industrialization’) produces not only new forms of social/class inequalities and class consciousness but also geographically uneven development centered on city-regions (cities and their surrounding rural areas). Employing city-regions as a spatial vantage point has intellectual and political relevance: it undermines the division between city-based and rural-based approaches to economy, and it allows one to examine the dialectics of both urbanization of capital and ruralization of capital. As well, it can shed light on the potential for workers-peasant alliance in class-politics. I began my academia career with the city (intra-city residential differentiation) and with the city-system and processes of urbanization, and after a gap of 20 years, I now return to the city as an important empirical focus. The city—or the city-region—is the locus of capitalist economic, political and cultural power, so it is, and will be, the locus of counter-power of the common people, as a part of a multi-scalar political process, including rural class politics (struggles of workers and small-scale producers in rural areas).
State interventions and state-society/economy interaction in India
Building on abstract state theory, I analyze the post-colonial state in India in terms of the state’s social basis in the dominant proprietary classes of cities and villages and lower-class struggles, and in terms of the state’s territorial and liberal-democratic forms. I also examine the relative independence that exists on the part of the highly educated state managers (i.e. top-level officials and politicians). This is an important issue in a country such as India where a massive majority are illiterate/semi-literate, are not politically well-organized and are compelled to rely on state assistance, which is why top state managers generally behave like aristocrats and exhibit the capitalist state’s undemocratic character on a daily basis in relation to common citizens. The nature of India’s peripheral capitalism where exploitation is based on long hours and low wages is a major obstacle to the state acting even in a minimally democratic manner in any substantive (not procedural) sense outside of the ritual of voting for one of the several representatives of capitalist and landowning classes once in a few years.
The state is itself a totality with many inter-related parts/aspects within it, and the state is related to other parts of the social totality. Just as capital is a Relation manifested as things, so the state is a ‘Relation’, manifested as state’s institutional materiality (its coercive, ideological and economic apparatuses). The constant state-society interaction/inter-penetration is a fact permeated by the state’s fundamental class character.
I examine the effectivity of state’s developmental interventions (in a context where the economic elites and the poor as well as top state actors are involved in struggles over state’s resources). Examining the state in India over the entire post-independence period, it is also clear that while recent scholarship has focused on the neoliberal state, whose actions have hurt the poor and therefore potentially posing a legitimacy threat to the state, the state in its pre-neoliberal incarnation was, generally speaking, no friend of the masses. Indeed, whether with respect to rural areas or urban-industrial development, the state, both in its pre-neoliberal and liberal forms, has, more or less, failed to promote economic development and to meet the needs of the masses.
There is a general question here: the capitalist state is supposed to create conditions for capitalist accumulation and pacify the lower classes by giving concessions. Yet, state policies with these objectives do not succeed much or do not succeed equally everywhere. Why? Why is there a contradiction between ‘development proper’ and ‘development on paper’? The question concerning state failure complements the question about the failure of capitalism as such (to promote economic development) as mentioned above. These two questions have deeper political implications for the question of what is to be done about capitalism and its state.
Class struggle and everyday life of working people; Politics of the Left; Politics of the Right
Masses engage in non-political as well as political forms of action aimed at changing the conditions under which they live. In terms of the former, they practice reciprocity and self-help, which is captured by ‘social capital’. I have examined how the mechanisms of class relations and the effects of class relations (e.g. poverty) shape and limit the acts of reciprocity among working class families from the lowest caste. While acknowledging limited benefits of social capital, my research has been critical of World Bank’s (and others’) theory of social capital as a missing link in international development.
Poor people are not merely a suffering mass; they are not mere victims of ‘grand’ processes such as the state action or capitalist development. As workers and/or petty-producers, they do fight for their rights against property-owning classes and the state. Social movements (class struggles) of common people and state’s response (e.g. repression) have been of interest. While I have been very critical of the Maoist movement’s theory of society and its politics, I have also written against the state repression of this movement, which has produced a ‘state of exception’, a ‘legal lawlessness’, in parts of India since the 1970s.
When capitalist crisis deepens thus increasing people’s miseries (low wages, unemployment, dispossession, etc.) and when the state, managed by various bourgeois parties (and by the Left parties at the regional level), fails to meet the needs of the masses, the ruling class and its state resort to fascistic politics by making use of plebian layers with backward consciousness, to divert the attention of the masses from the failures of the state and of capital to meet their needs, and to weaken and disorganize them. Fascistic tendencies are deepening in India which is considered to be the largest democracy of the world (as they are elsewhere). The turn to fascistic politics, including on the part of the sections of workers and the petty-bourgeois mass reacting to objective economic conditions in ways that are politically and culturally retrograde, coexists with the politics on the ‘mainstream’ Left (which effectively act as a social-democratic force, while it has valiantly led numerous rounds of struggle over economic and social issues under difficult conditions). I have analyzed the merits and limitations the existing Left politics, including in relation to the fight against fascistic tendencies. The Left as it exists is too weak, theoretically and strategically, to take on fascistic politics. The future appears to be bleak at this moment. A new Left is needed, one that is rooted in MELLT and that acts in a non-sectarian way and that takes seriously the fight for democratic rights of women, low castes, religious minorities and other such oppressed groups as a part of its fight against capitalists, large landowners, and the state.
To conclude: my research has had several general attributes.
(1) It has been both theoretical and empirical. Without theory, empirical work is impossible. Empirical work inspires theoretical imagination. In my study of the concrete (empirical work), I use both intensive-qualitative and extensive-quantitative methods.
(2) It takes seriously the practice of critique. The critique of the objective world and of the ideas about it is necessary for theory-construction, which is informed by the philosophy of materialist dialectics (and to some extent, by critical realism) and which informs assembling evidence about the concrete.
(3) My main regional specialty has been India. With its enormous social-geographical diversity, India is a laboratory where a study of general mechanisms in class society and capitalism as such is combined with that of the conjunctural processes. I believe that research must be international in its orientation.
(4) My research has occurred in a social context. Firstly, my work is partly a response to my intellectual curiosity about the world. It has been helped by the intellectual stimulation that I have received from a group of highly talented graduate students that I have had the honour of working with, and from colleagues both in Toronto and in many other parts of the world, and from those with whom I work on the editorial boards of different journals. I also use my research to meet the intellectual curiosity of the youth in my undergraduate and graduate classes. Secondly, my work is driven by a need to respond to important events in the world, so I deploy some of my research in ‘non-academic’ writings to contribute to the promotion of critical and Marxist consciousness about the world.
. . . . ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be (Marx).
I am also fully aware that:
The weapon of criticism cannot . . . replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as . . . it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter (Marx).
I take seriously Marx’s idea intellectuals “have only interpreted the world . . .; the point is to change it.” There is more to Marx’s idea of change than he could mention here. The idea that the process of change in a class society includes both quantitative change and qualitative change (‘leap’). As well, for Marx, the process of change is an uninterrupted one, both within a national society and internationally, an idea that is pregnant with both sociological and geographical imagination. This idea of Marx was further developed by Leon Trotsky and was reflected in Vladimir Lenin’s thinking (at least since 1917) and has informed my work since the mid-2000s or so:
While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible . . . , it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far—not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world—that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one. (Marx and Engels).