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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 48, November 22, 2014

Feminist-Socialist Transformation facing Neo-Liberal Capitalism

Saturday 22 November 2014, by Gabriele Dietrich


We have to distinguish between the Socialist Movement which tries to carry out transformation in the mode of production and Feminist Movements with a limited agenda of “equality”, though the latter would in fact also require very drastic transformation. Both are today in a deadlock because of neo-liberal capitalism having dissolved the attempt of even thinking, leave alone building, a socialist economy. Everybody is now caught up in the world market and widening polarisation between the rich and poor worldwide, between countries, but also within countries. This further leads to the strengthening of neo-fascist tendencies in many countries and to a rise of fundamentalisms in religion, which works towards increasing control over women’s bodies and mounting violence. In India, the reported cases of violence on women have risen by leaps and bounds, but it is complex to understand all the circumstances and reasons.

2. Women and Unorganised Sector Workers

In India, a socialist perspective in the history of women’s movements has played an important role as many feminists during the late seventies and early eighties did have a Marxist or socialist background. There has been a certain gap, if not a rift, between “autonomous” feminists, who maintained distance from party politics, and women in Marxist parties, who remained under the control of the party line. However, the vast majority of the working class in India consists of workers in the unorganised sector (94 per cent). Only a dwindling minority is in the organised sector. The Marxist parties have not spent much energy in organising the workers in the unorganised sector and have neglected those in important sub-sectors (like fisher people and domestic workers), who have reached significant levels of autonomous organisation in the meantime.

In the Indian situation, socialist perspectives did not become very strong during the freedom struggle, as the Indian Left sided with the Allies against Fascism and suspended the struggle against British colonial power temporarily. Besides, Marxism had entered India in Stalinist times, which is why the democratic substance was destroyed leading to autocratic tendencies and dogmatism. Feminist perspectives were not much in evidence and the “Women’s Question” was clearly subordinated to the priorities of party politics. Women’s participation was only at the level of mobilisation, not at the conceptual level. Subhash Chandra Bose’s National Liberation Army had a women’s regiment led by Laxmi Sehgal, but the struggle was left truncated, as Bose went missing in a plane crash. The Japanese Army made inroads up to Kohima and inflicted significant losses on the British. This actually helped the freedom struggle.

Socialism was always in a muddle as Nehru, with his Fabian socialism from above, did not recognise the significance of working class struggles. Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, who tried to overcome caste in working class organisations in his early years, devoted his life to the annihilation of caste and untouchability. He was bogged down by contestation over separate electorates for Dalits, a demand which was given up due to Gandhi’s fast and the resulting Poona Pact in September 1932. While Gandhi did take action against untouchability, he advocated the varna system as a base for “bread labour”. This has hindered the formation of class unity. He did not believe in class struggle and appealed to women only as superior satyagrahis, because of their greater capacity to endure suffering. Leftist parties neglected untouchability and failed to build the Dalit and Adivasi leadership, as they were upper-caste-dominated.

The Sapta Kranti concept (sevenfold revolutions) of the socialist leader Dr Rammanohar Lohia made a very significant contribution to make the connection between caste, class and patriarchy and also to the understanding of the significance of language, secularism and the growing gap between the rich and poor. However, Lohia’s position is not very well known in the south of India, because of the dominance of communism in Kerala and prevalence of the Dravidian reform movement in Tamil Nadu—the latter having several features in common with Lohia’s position, but staying isolated because of its anti-Hindi agitation and focus on Tamil. Socialist rhetoric has been strong in India and socialism was inserted into the Preamble of the Constitution—India as a socialist, democratic, secular republic—under Indira Gandhi, ironically at the point when she streamlined capitalism with her twenty-point programme. However, this rhetoric has now receded under the influence of neo-liberal globalisation, mass media advertising and consumerist aspirations. Since socialist rhetoric is gone, the widening gap between the rich and poor is taken to be “normal”.

3. Capitalist Relations of Production

Our history takes place under capitalist relations of production, complicated by caste and patriarchy. Since the nineties we have a tendency towards jobless growth, which contributes to rising inflation. It is necessary to come to grips with the fact that 94 per cent of the working class is in the unorganised sector, plagued by migration and bondage. The comprehensive neglect of agriculture due to the dominance of Green Revolution technology and spread of corporate seeds has led to farmers’ indebtedness and resulting suicides. This also led to the de-recognition of rain-fed crops as necessary for people’s self-reliant food security. The women’s movement has not fully grappled with the changes in the mode of production, nor has it fully conceptualised the family and other forms of close physical association as production relations, which produce life and livelihood and the social structure, safeguarding the continuity of human life and society at large.

It is only since the churning which was the result of the Nirbaya case in Delhi at the end of 2012 and the protracted protests against violence on women, that finally there has been a growing realisation of the massive, continuous violence on Dalit and Adivasi women as well. The rape and murder of two cousin sisters in Badaun district of UP at the end of May 2014, has clearly driven home the fact that caste domination is upheld by gang-rapes, though this is met with systematic denial in most cases. Unfortunately, this realisation is now deflected in the rhetoric and agitation against “love Jihad”, which aims at the religious communalisation of the perception of violence on women. The violence on women has also been instrumentalised to keep the caste structure intact. Murders on account of inter-caste marriage are on the rise, especially if a girl of a marginally higher caste marries a Dalit boy, which can lead to murder of the boy or of both. The working classes have not taken enough cognisance of this predicament, which is highly divisive. Dalit women’s groups, especially in Haryana, have taken pains to raise such issues, but they do not seem to have connected it thoroughly to the class question.

 The present attempts to communalise the violence on women by concepts like “love Jihad” is intentionally misleading and mischievous, designed to create inter-religious tension and violence on minorities. It is an important task for working class organisations and women’s movements to take this conceptualisation forward in a class perspective. As the working class is hugely represented by unorganised sector workers, they also need to build alliance with agriculturists, be they small peasants, agricultural workers, or forest based producers, as well as fish workers and other people involved in coastal struggles, for example, against destructive energy options like thermal or nuclear plants. All these sectors are today under duress over land and water, which goes for big companies and industrial corridors. They are also under duress because of the energy question, due to nuclear plants, methane mining and newly laid gas lines. Only in some of these struggles, like the anti-nuclear struggle in Idinthakarai, women have been massively in the lead, though they sometimes get dominated by the Tamil nationalist party politics. In the trade union struggles, there has been good women’s participation among construction workers, stone quarry workers, domestic workers. These sectors are now under duress, because of adverse changes in the labour laws, against which powerful struggles are needed.

4. Alliance between Internal Colonies

Theoretical aspects in the history of movements have been important. In the late eighties, feminists took pains to integrate Marxist and socialist conceptualisations. For instance, Chhaya Datar, influenced by Maria Mies, worked on a re-conceptualisation of the women’s question. The publication of Women: the Last Colony by Maria Mies et al. in Kali for Women popularised this approach. Many of us have expanded the debate on the internal colonies based on Rosa Luxemburg’s conceptualisation and have worked on the question of building alliances among internal colonies like Dalits, Adivasis, unorganised sector workers, women and minorities. The NAPM has worked on such alliance building, but it is very difficult to go beyond the horizon of the concerns of each movement. To unite the internal colonies in the struggle against the neo-colonial assault and religious nationalism, which is artificially created, is a gigantic job. Some of the greatest obstacles are the patriarchal and caste loyalties within the internal colonies themselves. Besides, political parties play their own caste politics and the post-modern ideology serves to reinforce identity politics.

However, this is also a new opportunity, because the pseudo-socialist rhetoric of Congress politics is no longer credible. What we need to build now is real transformation through broad unity of the internal colonies with strong inputs from women’s movements. The Marxist parties, though picking up issues from the women’s movement and over the recent years even getting envolved in caste issues, are not able to inspire the masses in the unorganised sector to face the repression as this comes with a sustained organisational effort. They are also too technocratic to develop a creative, ecologically inspired critique of development. At the conceptual level, Marxist writers have exposed the widening gap between the rich and poor (for example, Utsa Patnaik: The Republic of Hunger) and Prabhat Patnaik has called for re-envisaging socialism. However, this remains mostly in the academic realm, while the need is to popularise these perspectives in the movements which are tied up in relentless struggles. Some of the socialist thinkers and organisers like Sunil Kumar and Vivekananda, have theorised on the internal colonies as well (see Janata, Vol. 65, no.19), but working through this challenge in real life is an enormous effort.

5. Organic Intellectuals

The role of organic intellectuals in the movement is existentially crucial. In the earlier years, independent Leftists like Ajit Roy of the Marxist Review and A.K. Roy in Dhanbad have made important contributions. On the socialist circuit, the loss of Kishan Patnaik, Surendre Mohan and Sunil Kumar has created a big void. However, from the Dalit context, the reception of Dr Ambedkar’s writings is still spreading, though Dalit Movements have gotten split up in party politics and have not taken up the thread of uniting the working class and aiming at transformation. Some have started to seriously question the attempt to create “Dalit entre-preneurs”, who could hopefully turn philan-thropists for the uplift of Dalits. Others have very seriously started to question sub-caste politics and are very consistently working on abolition of caste. This will require sustained struggle against persistent manual scavenging and identification of particularly vulnerable communities who are caught up in hard core caste-bound jobs, especially among the women of such communities. Ways have to be found to open up other avenues for such enslaved sections.

Some of the movements have been co-opted by identity politics and even in the women’s movement, such tendencies have spread. Post-modern and post-colonial theories have obscured the attack of neo-colonialism and rising fascist tendencies, backed up with high-tech “develop-ment” technologies (like GM crops) and weapons systems which destroy nature and local communities. The rise of violence on women, Dalits, Adivasis and minorities is alarming. It distracts the energies from the class struggle and the effort to rescue natural resources in times of global warming. Unfortunately, women activists have not succeeded to assert themselves at the conceptual level. For instance, Dalit women writers have been absorbed in fighting the attacks of their male peers and have found it difficult to find a space in the cultural and theoretical fields, leave alone being able to create a political space where violence on women or women’s land rights are taken seriously.

Today, we also need to address migration and bondage on an enormous scale, which makes it more difficult to protect workers’ rights and consolidate the organisational process. Ranjana Padi of Saheli has done a very interesting study on women farmers in Punjab, Those who Did not Die, exposing the dire situation in this Green Revolution area full of chemicals, drugs, violence and cancer. We need to assimilate such studies and integrate them in our perspectives on state violence. We also have to guard our language: People are no social capital, nor are our forests and rivers nature capital, nor is our history cultural capital. People have to live with nature and learn to share the history of our movements. Otherwise, we will all be destroyed in a Third World War. The stressful water situation and the wasteful and aggressive energy policy under neo-liberal globalisation have created very disturbing situations internationally, especially in West Asia. These conflicts in turn have a very dangerous impact on peace in the subcontinent and in our neighbouring countries.

6. Role of Media and Communication

The role of media, think-tanks and networks in co-opting women’s movements and paralysing attempts to address the transformation of the production process has certainly been very great. Sensationalising violence and using women’s bodies commercially are widespread and unquestioned methods of de-humanising women. One of the important conceptualisations has been the rhetoric of women’s “empowerment”, which has taken capitalist competitiveness as a vehicle for self-assertion and erodes collectivities and solidarity.

In the Western countries, feminism has been taken for a ride. Hillary Clinton following Obama will be a fitting expression of the failure of race and gender emancipation harbouring socialist implications. This of course is also rooted in the co-optation of the working classes in such countries and the outsourcing of the dirty work to migrants which feeds into xenophobia and thus fascist tendencies.

In our country, the media has played very actively into the hands of the Narendra Modi campaign and the RSS. After taking power, the government has been very silent, but very active in curtailing workers’ rights and communalising the women’s question. The threat of heightening the SSP is once again hanging over the Narmada valley, in blatant violation of the decisions of the court. Conceptua-lising alternatives and working them out in the working class movement will be crucial. Our perspective also has to be strengthened by discussing it in the social media, but with a certain amount of caution. Propaganda lies can easily be broadcast. The truth needs deeper attention.

7. Socialist-Feminist Alliance Building

In our country, socialist feminists have been owned by the women’s movement. Mrinal Gore and Pramila Dandavate are warmly remembered by the women’s movement at large. The rolling pin struggles have been owned widely. The research of Nandita Gandhi and Nandita Shah has shown many commonalities between Socialist/Marxist women and autonomous women. Despite such positive background, the weakness of the socialist movement and the patriarchal tendencies have alienated feminists. The NGO-isation of the women’s movement has contributed to a widening gap. Dalit movements, despite lively participation of women at the time of Dr Ambedkar, are also very male dominated.

In Tamil Nadu there have been strong unions, women’s participation in the unorganised sector, but it is difficult to build women’s leadership and to articulate the relationship between women and workers’ movements more explicitly. Sexual harassment at the workplace is a very widespread phenomenon across different classes and is rarely addressed with sensitivity, despite certain legal improvements.

8. Different Versions of History

We do not really have contesting versions about the history of our movements. Everybody has their own versions and assumptions. But if we go deeper, contradictions may become more visible. The one thing on which we lack clarity is the question of how non-violent and democratic struggle can act fast and be effective enough to truly achieve transformation of the mode of production. If the “capturing of state power” of the olden times is no longer applicable, what then is the new path towards transformation? Our recent experience of dabbling with electoral politics has been a very mixed bag. How do we grapple with a way forward?

9. The Role of Youth

We are lacking youth membership and face difficulties to transmit the common history. The young generation is stuck in the rat race for education and jobs to get on with their lives.

The ecological movement draws more support because of the evident global warming, droughts and floods. This is very welcome. The mass mobilisations on climate change and global warming are highly encouraging. How to expand the movements beyond the sectoral demands, how to unite them into a political force, are major questions.

The struggle against corruption on its own is not enough. World capitalism as a threat to peace and survival must be exposed. The possibilities of building a truly democratic socialist society needs to be addressed with great urgency and creativity.

[Paper presented at the Socialist Meet at Panvel on August 10 and 11, 2014.]

Gabriele Dietrich is a well-known feminist activist based in Chennai. She is associated with the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM).