Bondage and Capitalism

Pratyush Chandra

A Review of Labour Vulnerability and Debt Bondage in Contemporary India, CEC, March 2008, xii+92, Price – Rs 200.

The persistence of “debt bondage” in India has long mesmerised the progressive intellectuals and activists, a vast majority of whom still consider its existence as a reminder of the amphibian (semi-feudal, semi-capitalist) character of India’s political economy and its underdevelopment – overloaded with pre-capitalist “vestiges”. The booklet under review drastically differs from such an understanding of bondage. It does not view it as “a unique system”, rather as a form of employment relationship institutionalising labour vulnerability through debt. “Bonded labour is primarily a social relationship and all those labour relations where vulnerability of the workers is institutionalised through debt could be described as bondage”(6). Further, bondage is “a flexible and adaptive system of labour exploitation”(8).

With the development of capitalist relations in India, bondage has increasingly lost its earlier permanent and generational nature, and has become more and more temporary, seasonal and individualised. The public policy and legal-state machinery that are in place to identify and ‘eradicate’ bondage are unable to record and influence its reproduction in the era of globalisation. Informalisation – contractualisation and casualisation – of the work process that characterises the neoliberal regime of accumulation has tremendously increased labour vulnerability leading to a system of “neo-bondage”, as Jan Breman calls it. Debt and bondage are most rampantly used as mechanisms to mobilise cheap labour from hinterlands and ensure migration (seasonal or long-term) for labour supply in the industries in which India has a comparative advantage. In fact, “with respect to bonded labourers, debt is always a precondition for entering the labour market and in establishing an employer-employee relationship” (80-81).

This report based on extensive studies throughout India maps the institutionalisation of labour vulnerabilities through various forms of debt bondage in contemporary India. With the help of many case studies, it shows how debt posits an element of liability on the part of the worker in the employment relationship, thus reinforcing and consensualising the subjugation of labour under circumstances and conditions on which the worker has a lesser control than otherwise. Advance or debt shapes “the situation of being employed”. It reconfigures an employment relationship as that between the debtor and the creditor, thus reducing the “agency of labour” and alienating the rights and entitlements of workers that characterise the ideal contractual relationship. However, the liabilities in the relationship or general costs of labour are accumulated and bestowed on the worker. The report understands that the role of debt in bondage “is not as an element of an agreement for which there are separate rules and practices of enforcement, but rather… to construct how the claims of workers will be interpreted and treated” (20).

The third chapter of the report assesses the interventions of the state and other agencies to eradicate bondage and rehabilitate bonded labour. It details the provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 and the subsequent judicial, legislative and executive activism. It enumerates the discrepancies in its implementation. The chapter also examines the intervention of NGOs. A significant conclusion in this regard is that it was the mobilisational and organisational efforts that were most effective in bonded labour eradication.

The report establishes that bonded labour too has contributed in “India shining” and its globalising aspirations. In fact, bonded labour is not just an input in commodity production; rather, workers in the relationship (conditioned by advances or debt) are essentially sellers of their labour power. “They are controlled by the employers in lieu of an advance or delayed payment or non-payment of minimum wages”.(82) Wages in such conditions are squeezed not only through depressed, delayed and deducted payments, but also via uncontrollable interest rates.

It is important to understand Marx’s conception of “wage slavery” here. The usage of this phrase was not at all allegorical or rhetorical, as many tend to believe. It conceptualised the unfreedom or coercion inherent in the dual freedom of labour (from physical compulsion and from the means of production). On one hand, this dual freedom creates an ambience that compels a labourer to sell his/her labour power. On the other hand, once labour power is sold for a period, the labourer has no control over its expenditure for that duration. It should be remembered though the custom is to pay the wages after labour-power is exercised, wages are, in fact, already advanced prior to the labour process not only for the purpose of records, but also as capital required for production – i.e., it constitutes variable capital that is required to buy labour-power and put it to work. In the circuit of capital given below, Money (M) is advanced to buy Means of Production (MP) and Labour Power (LP) before Production (P) can take place.

In fact, “whether money serves as a means of purchase or a means of payment, this does not alter the nature of the exchange of commodities”.(Karl Marx, Capital, Penguin, pp. 279) As “a means of purchase” money is advanced to the sellers of labour power prior to production, while as “a means of payment”, it remains as the worker’s “credit to the capitalist” until production is completed to be paid as wages afterwards. Functionally it hardly makes any difference – “this does not alter the nature of the exchange of commodities”. And both institutionalise labour vulnerabilities in their own way – advance (partial or whole) can easily be transformed into debt, creating liabilities that shape bondage, while wages can be delayed or even lost (when the capitalist goes bankrupt). In fact, the delay in receiving wages is a significant reason for indebtedness among workers. If in Marx’s England debt played a part in tying the worker more to a shop as a consumer, or to sustain the “truck system”, it can instigate other systems, too, to institute labour vulnerabilities. Ultimately the purpose is to increase these vulnerabilities and thus, reproduce the hegemony of capital over labour. The report remarkably succeeds in showing how this is done in various parts of India through debt bondage.

(This review was originally written for Labour File – A bimonthly journal of labour and economic affairs published from New Delhi)

Appendix

A. The process of proletarianisation to which the majority is subjugated, not the number of ‘ideal’ proletarians or wageworkers, defines capitalism. The actualisation of this process – and thus the degrees of proletarianisation or the “dual freedom of labour” differs according to the concrete contexts defined by the needs of capital and class struggle. More technically, this process is a long thread (not necessarily historical) between the formal subsumption to the actual subsumption of labour by capital – its two ends. At various junctures archaic unfreedom, like slavery, which generally characterised pre-capitalism is formally adopted (more aptly, exapted as explained in B) and transformed according to the conjunctural needs of capitalist accumulation. If we don’t recognise this processual aspect of capitalism, we will be lost in the miasma of overproduced forms and appearances in capitalism.

B. Stephen Jay Gould’s conception of exaptation, I believe, is very useful in understanding the dialectical internalisation of “vestiges” by new stages in evolution – both biological and social. Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba in their 1982 paper define exaptation as (i) “a character, previously shaped by natural selection for a particular function (an adaptation), is coopted for a new use”; and, (ii) “a character whose origin cannot be ascribed to the direct action of natural selection (a nonaptation), is coopted for a current use”. This concept allows us to comprehend the reproduction of “vestiges” as a process internal to the new stage in development, not as something hindering the ‘complete’ realisation of the new stage.

C. The “purist” idea that “vestiges” obstruct (not shape or contextualise) capitalist development has for a long time informed the theory and practice of Marxism in the so-called third world countries – engaging the revolutionaries in the fruitless exercise of fighting the “vestiges” before taking on the basic system, thus investing their revolutionary vigour in the reformist project of the capitalist development. It is interesting to note that this is not only true about the “Leninists” and “Maoists”, as some “anti-Leninists” allege. Many anti-Leninists and anti-Maoists present more vehement denial of the feasibility of any socialist project in “backward” countries. Their conceptualistion of revolution not only goes against the thesis of “revolution in permanence” – “the downfall of all the privileged classes, and the subjection of these classes to the dictatorship of the proletariat by maintaining the revolution in permanence until the realisation of Communism, which is the final form of organisation of human society” – but is also an unconscious reinforcement of the notion of “socialism in one country”, which they profess to hate.

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