Around the world, working-class organising and politics are in crisis. Trade-union protests and mobilisations today are far smaller in scale than those of the bygone era of the 1960s and 70s, which benefited from international fervour and solidarity. In recent years, major political upheavals have taken place, including the Arab Spring uprisings and the victories of the left in Latin America and more recently in Greece, but they have yet to consolidate visions of changing the world.
The present conjuncture has led some to delve deeper into theoretical understandings of the global capitalist system, its inherent tendencies and the possibilities of resistance to a system that produces repeated economic crises. Others have sought historical inquiry, to find clues to the current impasse from previous eras, and to illustrate how a new politics may emerge with time. Yet others have analysed local struggles and delved into the hidden structures of protests and class struggle to understand the dynamics of movements that may inspire mobilisation on a global scale.
It is this search for an internationalist ethos of changing the world that has inspired Sonali Perera’s study of working-class writing in No Country: Working-Class Writing in the Age of Globalization. When the imagination runs dry, many turn to literature. And with the turn to literature one must also suspend for the moment the reality that is taken for granted.
This orientation is central to Perera’s book: “In the present study, the works considered actively shift the conceptual focus (for working-class literature) from the facts of history to questions of ethics, where ethics might be defined as incalculable measures, intuitions (for lack of a better word) of social justice in the absence of guarantees.” This shift to ethics through the study of literature opens a new realm of ideas and re-energises concepts that have lost their potency.
The search for new meanings to existing concepts, and new ideas of the working class, of exile, of globalisation and of the international division of labour, leads Perera to look at a number of literary figures from Sri Lanka, India, South Africa and the US. The book considers works by anti-colonial Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand, Lankan exile and Black socialist Ambalavaner Sivanandan, North American proletarian writer Tillie Olsen, Bengali radical activist and writer Mahasweta Devi, the writings of Sri Lankan free trade zone workers compiled by the Dabindu Collective, and South African exiled writer and rural activist Bessie Head. Through such radical writings from the ‘global periphery’, Perera critically examines the issue of globalisation. To re-read such fiction, she draws substantially from the Marxist and feminist traditions of theorisation and literary criticism.
International division of labour
In the concluding chapters of Capital Volume I, discussing primitive accumulation and the emergence of capitalism, Karl Marx has the following to say about its global character:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black-skins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. Hard on their heels follows the commercial war of the European nations, which has the globe as its battlefield.
Thus for Marx, already a couple centuries back, the globe had become a battlefield of capitalist interests.
A historical perspective such as this is important for engagement with more recent literature on globalisation. Indeed, despite the proliferation of works on globalisation in recent years, there continues to be a need for critical writings that question many claims of its discourse. Firstly, there is the question of how we periodise globalisation: is it only since the 1980s that globalisation accelerated as mainstream writings will have us believe, or has the world been global since the onslaught of colonialism a few centuries earlier? Secondly, is the recent wave of globalisation as commonly understood an autonomous process or has it been actively shaped by policies of the metropolitan centres of power, including Western states and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank? Thirdly, has the power of the modern state waned due to globalisation, resulting in a more equal world through trickle-down effects as the economic establishment will have us believe, or is it leading to a more unequal world as critical political economists have argued?
Perera considers the difficulties of conceptualising these questions: “Globalization is unthinkably big. Class, especially in the context of the international division of labour, is ungraspably abstract, and the rules of political economy are invisible to a close-up view.” Thus for Perera, any engagement with the idea of globalisation requires dealing with the concepts of class and the international division of labour. Furthermore, these concepts will have to be articulated in different ways as political-economic analysis grapples with making visible the hidden dynamics of the global economy.
The book begins by looking at Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Coolie – published in 1936, during the colonial era when the Great Depression devastated India – through which Perera draws parallels between the recent wave of globalisation and the colonial age. And for Anand, who was living under colonial rule, the challenge was to conceptualise the international working class under the conditions of an unequal international division of labour. Perera brings out this tension: “the internationalizing of production – globalization – leads not to the internationalizing of the workforce – internationalism – but rather to its polar opposite: an exacerbation of divisions, pitting national working class against national working class, industry against industry.”
Exile, race and the rural
In addressing the difficulties of envisioning an internationalist politics in the writings on the working class, the concept of exile becomes important. Anand had spent years in England which sharpened his views on colonialism and class politics under exploitative international trade relations. But it is in the writings of Ambalavaner Sivanandan and Bessie Head, who were both exiled from their homes but continued to write and engage in politics, including in relation to their past, that internationalist working-class politics gains further articulation.
Exile and its relationship to race politics in the context of his work with the Black Movement in Britain are key to Sivanandan’s perspective in his political novel on Sri Lanka, When Memory Dies. Such a perspective claims there is no nationality for labour. Indeed, if one is to start with the widely known call of “workers of the world unite”, the nationality of a worker is in fact an obstacle to the forging of an internationalist politics. Sivanandan, from both problematising the idea of ‘exile’ in reflecting on his own experience and in writing about one of the most exploited communities in Sri Lanka, the estate workers brought over as indentured labour from India, understands displacement as a condition of labour.
For Perera, the life and writing of Bessie Head are profound. Head, who was exiled from the townships of South Africa and moved to a rural village in Botswana, brings the politics of race and class, as well as the space of the rural, to the fore. Through her work on agricultural reform and voluntary cooperative labour, the mainstream conceptions of urban organised labour and its exploitation are interrogated. In Perera’s framework of ideas in her book: “Head becomes a key figure in illuminating the ideological blind spot in dominant trends of Marxism, postcolonial, and globalization studies – the social space of the rural.”
By drawing on Head’s work, Perera is able to place ethics at the centre of working-class politics. Head is quoted from her novel on love and voluntary cooperative farming: “Love is two people mutually feeding each other… What do billions of people in the world need? Food. That’s why I went into agriculture.” These simple words become profound arguments for Perera’s socialist ethics.
Any socialist ethics, just as it critiques nationalist and reductive urban conceptions of working-class politics, also aims to challenge the Western masculine version of the working class, which became dominant in the colonial and postcolonial world. Perera argues:
However, in the current economic conjuncture of globalization, what we understand as the ‘new international division of labour’ is predicated on the cheap labour of (mainly) women workers in neocolonial countries with national economic policies of export-oriented industrialization. And yet, proletarian writing, according to the old system of signs and notations, remains synonymous with icons and codes of masculinity and the metropole. Arguably, in the contemporary historical moment, the ‘new proletariat’ is best represented by the women worker in the periphery.
A careful reading of the writings by women free trade zone workers in the Dabindu Collective’s work significantly opens up the apparent genre of working-class writings. The writings of Dabindu provide “bits and pieces of political analysis and cultural critique interspersed with romantic melodrama, nationalist poetry, letters, didactic leftist literature, reportage on local strikes and international labour news.” Thus, an engagement with feminist working-class literature necessarily questions what we consider to be literature itself.
Perera goes on to articulate the characteristic difference of feminist literature: “Women’s texts of nonrevolutionary socialism, however, present us with new figures and concepts for thinking unorganized resistance, everyday experience, and the shape of the ethical within globalization.” For Perera, Marxist ‘proletarian’ literature has often been reduced to revolutionary and in fact masculine writings. Her project is to recover women writers whose interventions are important to articulate socialist ethics.
To reinforce the argument for feminist socialist ethics, Perera delves into the work of Mahasweta Devi, one of the most inspiring Southasian writer-activists. In her writings, Devi has consistently taken up the issues of the oppressed and socially excluded, including those involved in the Naxal rebellion, Adivasis and the urban poor. Devi’s critique remains one of the most important challenges to the mainstream left, ranging from the parties in power such as the previous Left Front government in West Bengal to the party workers and trade unionists who claim the mantle of knowing what is best for the people. In Devi’s work, the short-sightedness of particular left ideologies and practices to the predicament of the subaltern classes comes out strongly.
In this way, Perera’s feminist concerns are shaped by writings from the periphery and not from the Western metropolitan centres. It is from the margins that a politics of socialist ethics can emerge, challenging not just mainstream globalisation discourse but also dogmatic Marxist writings.
No Country is theoretically rich and draws on a range of thinkers, including Karl Marx, Louis Althusser, Raymond Williams, Antonio Negri, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Terry Eagleton and Gayatri Spivak. These are only some of the theorists one readily recognises in her work. Among these, Spivak’s theorisation as well as her commentary of Mahasweta Devi stands out in the book.
While exploring the writings of Asian and African writers, the book refers more broadly to Afro-Asian solidarity and the legacy of the Bandung Conference, which has now for the most part been obliterated. Perera quotes Spivak: “The initial attempt in the Bandung Conference (1955), to establish a third way, neither with the Eastern nor within the Western bloc in the World-System, in response to the seemingly New World Order established after World War II, was not accompanied by a commensurate intellectual effort.”
These comments on Bandung – which eventually led to the Non-Aligned Movement – are also important in thinking about how movements, and even groupings of states, relate to our ideas about solidarity. Indeed, critiquing globalisation requires more than simply being anti-globalisation, but involves challenging its more pernicious economic and political aspects. Neoliberal globalisation creates conditions of repression and exploitation of the working class, and asymmetric power relations in the international state system leading to neo-colonial extraction and the problematic international division of labour.
Here, it is worth briefly referring to the work of scholar and activist of Sri Lankan origin, the late A W Singham. The book Non-Alignment in an Age of Alignments, co-written by A W Singham and Shirley Hune, painstakingly documents the proceedings of the Bandung Conference and the subsequent summit conferences of Non-Aligned countries. In their work, Singham and Hune demonstrate how decolonisation, the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and the question of Palestine and support for national independence, were central commitments of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Singham and Hune’s preoccupation with Bandung and non-alignment relates to the possibilities of formerly colonised people ensuring policies by their newly formed states to benefit the new citizenry. This meant not just taking on the legacy of colonialism, but also the new forms of Western political domination, such as US-led imperialism. They argue: “Neo-colonialism with its economic controls made its appearance after World War II under the reconstructed capitalism of the United States and Western transnational corporations and banks.”
The decline of the Non-Aligned Movement coincided with the onslaught of neoliberal globalisation of the 1980s. And with that, the promise of decolonisation and postcolonial statehood also collapsed. However, overwhelming state power merged with capital and consolidated as US-led imperialism, which – as Singham was worried about – continues to this day.
Confronting state power
By way of conclusion, the question of the modern state – the Hobbesian monster – is worth taking up, particularly in terms of how it, together with the international state system, has suppressed working-class movements around the world. Modern states have shaped dominant narratives, including the way in which literature is written. More importantly, they have also instituted dominant structures of exploitation and rule that have become reconfigured in this era of globalisation.
The other side to the international division of labour is imperialist hegemony. Therefore, while we acknowledge tensions within the working class, there remains the challenge of simultaneously responding to imperialism and the nation-states that both impose difficult conditions on the working class within each country and also ensure divisions among workers internationally.
While an analysis of imperialism and the state is not Perera’s project, the themes in her work raise some questions that can help better understand the predicament of radical working-class mobilisation. For example, would a move towards socialist ethics while rejecting revolutionary politics diminish the possibilities of confronting oppressive states in both the Global North and the Global South? Furthermore, how does one respond to the nexus of state and capital, which constrain solidarities and even our writing? Would not addressing such tremendous state power require a revolutionary politics?
Marx’s analysis of the state’s role in shaping and maintaining the economic order is instructive. In Capital Volume I, Marx discusses how capitalism emerged with modern systems of national debt, taxation and even the system of protection, along with the brute force of the colonial system. And central to capitalist transformation was state power, which itself was shaped by economic power.
Arguably, the brute force of state power – particularly evident during colonialism in the Southasian region, and for that matter the postcolonial state in more recent times – has not changed. The power of the state has to be addressed in any project of emancipation, and that in short is the call of revolutionary politics.
Regardless of different orientations and also disagreements about socialist ethics, those interested in working-class literature and willing to engage with theoretical questions will find Perera’s meticulous work useful. For those committed to revolutionary literature and politics, No Country is an important warning about the legacy and danger of masculine, urban and racial working-class politics, which requires transformation. In disrupting the received understandings and readings of working-class literature, and then putting forward alternative interpretations, the author has contributed to sharpening the critical analysis of the reader. Perera’s critical and careful reading of literature is a challenge to all those who read literature politically, and seek to grapple with the larger questions of equality and justice in our uneven and unequal world. At the end of her work, Perera sums up her project by proposing that “a simultaneously broader and deeper study of working class writing compels new ways of thinking about literature, ethics, and the social imagination.” Admirably, Perera has made a valuable contribution in that direction.
~Ahilan Kadirgamar is a contributing editor with this magazine and a member of the Collective for Economic Democratisation in Sri Lanka.