Academic journal article Capital & Class

Beyond the Factory: Struggling with Class and Class Struggle in the Post-Industrial Context

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Beyond the Factory: Struggling with Class and Class Struggle in the Post-Industrial Context

Article excerpt

Introduction

The city of Ahmedabad, situated in the western state of Gujarat, India, has been referred to as the 'Manchester of India, owing to its large concentration of cotton textile mills. Once a bustling urban centre inhabited by weavers, handicraft workers and traders' guilds, Ahmedabad's transition towards industrialisation took place post-1843, when a ban on the import of textile machinery from Britain was lifted. The mills originally produced coarse yarn for local handlooms, but soon started producing high-quality yarn, creating competition for Lancashire exporters. With industrialisation, local labour displaced from the handloom sector was absorbed into the mills. The first labour union in India, the Textile Labor Association (TLA), also known as Majoor Mahajan, was established in 1918 under the tutelage of Gandhi. The TLA's story is a saga of non-violence, compromise and reformism that placed it in a contentious position vis-a-vis the more militant labour union politics in the rest of the country. Proletarisation and class struggle in Ahmedabad, therefore, possesses a specific socio-historical connotation (Lakha 1988).

Most mills are no more: since the late 1980s, with India's adoption of economic liberalisation, locally known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), 80 mills have closed down. Licensing and quotas that subsidised these mills in a post-Independence, mixed economic regime was phased out as India embraced neoliberal reforms: most mills could not reorganise quickly in the new environment, and 100,000 workers were laid off between the early 1990s and 2000 (Breman 2002; Mahadevia 2002). The TLA is now a dying organisation, with little influence on the urban poor. A largely peaceful Ahmedabad in the pre-Independence period has now suffered a reversal of fate, as inter-community tensions have become prominent (Varshney 2002). In 2002, Ahmedabad witnessed brutal inter-community violence in which members of the Hindu community attacked, killed and looted from their Muslim neighbours (Ahmed 2002; Sarkar 2002). Most participants and victims of the 2002 riots were the working-class poor, who have been laid-off for some time now.

The new social movement literature propounded by Edelman (2001), Melucci (1985) and Touraine (1981) argues that since the 1970s there has been a shift from a socioeconomic to a more socio-cultural turn in social conflicts: that identity politics, difference and 'othering' have replaced class politics. The 'post-industrial' context as laid out in Anglo-American literature is usually a reference to the transition from Fordist style factory production to a more post-Fordist era. (1) In the Third World, particularly India, post-Independence planning allowed for the emergence of a semi-protected, import-substitution industrial base imitating some Fordist principles, particularly in the steel, chemical, and textile sectors: Ahmedabad mills are a good example of this. However, most Third World countries did not experience a fully fledged 'Western-style Fordism. In the context of this article, therefore, by post-Fordism I am implying the dismantling of the import-substitution license Raj, the lifting of government subsidies and quotas, and a phasing into a period of structural adjustment starting in the late 1980s. The Indian economy has always included a large informal sector, and post-liberalisation de-industrialisation, the advent of multinational capital through export processing, industrial homework and global product assembly have entrenched this trend in a big way (Roy 2005).

Touraine (1981), in the context of the First World, argues that the emergence of a post-industrial society and the decline in labour union movements lead to a postmodern cultural revival, in which conflict and resistance begin to be framed around questions of sexuality, race and homophobia, rather than living wages and inequality. The emergence of a post-industrial society, according to the new social-movement school, leads seamlessly towards a realm beyond the factory: a post-labour, deeply cultural society in which struggles are not framed around capital-labour contestations, but rather, over cultural, informational and symbolic resources. …

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