“The Architecture and Anatomy of Political Consciousness”: An Interview with Tithi Bhattacharya

Tithi Bhattacharya, interviewed by Jordy Rosenberg.

Jordy Rosenberg: Since so many Salvage readers are in the UK, could you talk a bit about your how you see the West Virginia strike in relation to the UK strikes.  I know you’ve been in touch with comrades on both fronts, and I’m wondering if you’d like to discuss where you see points of overlap, and what kinds of salient differences you’ve found.

Tithi Bhattacharya: There are two kinds of overlaps between the strikes, not just between the UK and the US but also, say, in Brazil, where the teachers’ strike, not coincidentally begun on International Women’s Day (March 8), won major concessions from the state.

The first overlap is at the level of form.  All of these strikes in the education sector, globally, have been about three things: wages, pensions and healthcare.  They have also been, in most cases, led by women and seen a remarkable level of participation from women.

But there is a deeper series of correspondence between the strikes and I think as Marxist feminists we need to be attentive to them.

First, while the strikes are about wages, pensions and healthcare, I think for the first time in a very long time, the former (wages) is being conceived of as the means to the latter.

What do I mean by that? In the US in particular but also in many parts of the world, the strategy of union leaders in the post war era was to manage capitalism rather than fight it.  The concept that undergirded this strategy was that workers and bosses shared a common interest and therefore what was needed was fair negotiation between the two parties.  The labour contract has thus been the central focus of union leaders.

This model of unionism, or business unionism as it is known as, did grievous injury to the labour movement by severing the issues of the workplace (wages, contract) from the issues that shaped the social lives of their members.  Union struggles became sectoral struggles, dealing only with categories covered by the holy contract, forgetting that the categories themselves were invented to keep strikes and insurgence at bay. Questions of race and gender—that not only shaped the lives of workers, but also shaped the wages they received—were scrupulously removed or downgraded from the realm of legitimacy.   It is thus no wonder that union membership declined rapidly.  Unions had become organs that only fought for “bread and butter issues”.

It is true that workers struggle for the wage because they want bread and butter. But both of those are food items, necessary for life.  The union leadership forgot, or ignored, a crucial prerequisite: that the working class’s desire for sustenance is the determinant for struggle not merely its consequence.  Struggle is about improving the life of workers in all its multigendered, multiracial, untidy expressions, not just about the contract.

I think we are seeing in the new strike wave that mechanical and blind relationship between wage and life being challenged.  In many places Black Lives Matter activists are lending crucial support to the striking teachers and gender, as I have said earlier, plays a central role in how both the attacks on public education and the strikes have been shaped.

Second point of overlap: let us focus on the two main life-demands that have been central to the strikes: healthcare costs and pensions. The first is about the care of the body and second is about the care of the future. I will not repeat here the truism that the vast proportion of care work in homes are done by women, hence the centralization of issues of care in the recent strike wave.  Instead, let me point to another connection.

An important tool of attack by capital in the last several decades has been to strip the working class of the means to sustain life, or what I like to call attacks on social reproduction. In several countries in West Africa, for instance, neoliberalism arrived in the form of Structural Adjustment Programs that forced these governments to privatize public water companies.  In the case of food, one of the demands of the IMF in the global south has been for governments to raise the price of food, fuel and medicines by devaluing their national currency.  Public education and access to healthcare have similarly been denuded by governments of the South and the North.

What we are seeing in this strike wave, then, is a powerful refusal by the class to give up rights to sustenance in the broad sense of the term.

 

JR: Many writers, including yourself, have established a longu(ish) durée account of the roots of this strike in 1920s WV labor struggles (Matewan, Blair Mountain, etc.). But you’re also trying to establish some contemporary currents that fed into this movement.  And of course movements secrete their own origin stories.  Following on your wonderful piece in Verso on your time in West Virginia, I wonder if you’d like to speak a little more about how you see the body and sex/gender as a centrally influential factor in this strike.  Your analysis of the Fitbit requirement under PEIA, which tracks the activity of workers in order to calculate premiums (more activity correlates to lower premiums, and does not accommodate for age, gender, disability, life circumstances, etc.) was really striking to me.  The dispossession of people through the weaponization of fictions of “self-care” was a really crystalline formulation.  How does your understanding of the body as a breaking point relate to your account of the rise of this movement more broadly?  Do you relate it to the #metoo movement, for example?  BLM and the wave of organizing around “I Can’t Breathe”?

TB: This is a wonderful question and really follows beautifully from my previous answer.

Our bodies have always been the social space we occupy, that troubling horizon where corporeality and sociality get mixed up and disordered.  But our Foucault teaches us that it is under capitalism that the body, for the first time, gains its validity only through being, simultaneously, the “productive body” and the “subjected body”.

Capitalism thus encloses a necessary but contradictory relationship between production and social reproduction, the production of commodities and the production and reproduction of life and the social relations that sustain it.  Capital needs the subjected body to produce commodities, but requires the productive body to be replenished daily precisely in order to serve that function.  This is why the processes of subjection and replenishment must be carried out in a unitary manner.

The recent neoliberal phase of capitalism has seen a disproportionate acceleration of the tools of subjection.  We would be foolish to assume that such tools only pertain to the attacks on public education, healthcare, food, and pensions. Police brutality, rising levels of racialized incarceration, rampant sexual violence are all profoundly effective devices to mould the working class to capital’s needs. Struggles against these forms of violence cannot be separated from the violence of the wage form. Teamsters fighting against immigrations raids, Unions shutting down cities for the International Women’s Strike, BLM activists standing with teachers on their picket lines are all seeds for a new kind of unionism. If there is a new labour movement waiting to be born, then such a movement must hold justice as its organizing principle rather than contract negotiations, and restore to the labour movement the old exigency for social power.

 

JR: Further to this last question, I’d read a piece on the WV strike recently that made a quick nod to the presumed contradiction between labor militancy and a supposedly reactionary racial politics in West Virginia.  Is this a topic you’d like to explore further?  

TB: Certainly. And this relates to the injurious history of the leaders of the US labour movement expurgating race and gender from its consideration.  WV is a state where 95% of its population is white.  So race did not emerge as a major issue during the strike.  But take a city like Louisville in Kentucky where I have been talking to some teachers and students of colour.

I had been reading several reports on the splendid sickouts that Kentucky teachers had organized to protest a bill that was an attack on their pensions.  What I had seen no reports of is the fact that the pension bill was being bundled with another bill, HB169, popularly called the ‘gang bill’ which gave the police the right to stop and frisk a group of three or more people suspicious of being ‘gang members’.

The bill’s overt racial overtones were immediately apparent to the teachers and students of colour.  Unfortunately, but perhaps not unsurprisingly, it was not to many ‘leaders’ of the sick-out movement who accused teachers or colour and organizations such as BLM of trying to divide the movement.  The movement was about stopping the pension, it was claimed, race only complicated and diverted attention from the real issue.

This is a suicidal position for a new movement to adopt.  Not only is it a lesson in anti-solidarity, but it is injurious to the struggle for a robust and equitable public education for all.

What is the point of winning “bread and butter “ through struggle if you are shot by the police at age 14? But besides that crucial point, that these questions are about the life or rather the threats to life for many students, there are other ways in which race ‘intrudes’ upon the so called ‘real’ issues of public education.  In Arizona, schools with a high Latino population receive less funding compared to schools with lower Latino enrollment.  In all these states of teachers’ revolt, Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky, an increase in the concentration of students of color is associated with a decrease in dollars spent per pupil.

The classroom is not ‘postracial’, so the struggle to defend it cannot afford to be either.

 

JR: Many writers have described the WV teachers strike as “unexpected” – due in part, probably, to the fact that as recently as one year ago, West Virginia was declared a lost cause, its Democratic state representation having fallen to the Republicans.  This question is actually two: how do you understand the relationship between contingency and planning in relation to this strike and also do you think there a relationship between the demise of the West Virginia Democratic Party and this strike?

TB: To your first, as I wrote in my report on WV, there is nothing called a spontaneous strike.  A spontaneous strike is where you have not met the organizers.  The WV strike had been in the making from last year when a tiny group of activists, many of them socialists, started organizing around the preposterous hike in their health insurance costs.  From those rivulets it slowly gathered force, because capitalist policies are the primary organizers of resistance against them.  The state of public education, the pay for teachers, the tremendous disrespect  hurled their way by politicians created the context in which these small organizing efforts were enacted.  And at the magic moment— one that is impossible for any Marxist to predict— when the strands of dissent, confidence and class consciousness coalesced, West Virginia went on strike.

The question of the Democratic Party is complicated in two ways.  First because some of the most class conscious teachers I met in WV had been Republican voters.  The strike radicalized them.  In this context it meant they were finally ready to reject their generations-strong commitment to the Republican party.  For these strikers voting Democrat was like voting the Bolsheviks, it carried incredible meaning.  Second, because solutions for exploitation and oppression within the labour movement are still largely being understood within the limited horizon of electoral politics. “Vote them out in November” is repeated like a mantra by union bureaucrats and counterposed as a strategy against mass action/striking. That phrase also has enormous purchase on the strikers themselves.

But we are in a strike wave.  If there is a moment where the architecture and anatomy of political consciousness are constantly being recrafted then it is the moment of the strike. Thus, when I say that electoralism currently limits the horizon of possibility for many strikers, I mean that in a necessarily limited sense.  For the strike constantly opens up horizons and sows new seeds of possibility.

 

JR: Some authors have suggested that the weakness of organized labor is a contributing factor to the strength of this strike, since the bureaucracy could not control it.  Is this your account as well?  Any predictions going forward, about this or any other aspect of this movement?

TB: There are two consequences of the weakness of organized labour.  On the one hand, as others have pointed out, it has allowed the strikers to self-organize beyond their union’s conservative efforts to contain the strike.  But on the other hand, the lack of a union tradition has been a challenge. It has deprived the strikes of a sense of history and a sense of what a fighting union can achieve.  The fact that the WV strikers carried with them this taut sense of history made a tremendous difference: these were daughters of coal miners brought up on stories of Blair Mountain and Matewan.  For them a picket line was a vibrant reality, they knew what it meant.  In contrast, many strikers in other regions had never been on a picket line or learnt the significance of its power.  They were learning as they struck.  So, I would not call the weakness of unions a unilateral gain, but see both of the effects of that weakness constantly inciting and irritating each other.

The future? The future will be determined by the strike.  Only the strike has the potential to birth a new labour movement in America, as well as build a new Left in its wake.

The existing left, weak as it is, still has some responsibility of intervention in this critical moment.  It can help rebuild your grandfather’s labour movement, where there resurfaces again something called a ‘wage struggle’ separate from social struggles, politics as separate from union organizing.  Where one does not bring up abortion or police violence at union meetings.

Or we can contribute to rebuilding a union movement in the tradition of the early CIO which organized consciously against lynching and segregation.  We need to muddy the waters of the ‘pure’ economic struggles, with our messy stories of race and gender.

We are at a dangerous moment: neither dancing on the grave of the old, nor quite dancing on the streets at the birth of the new. This is not a moment when we can afford to hold onto what Daniel Bensaid has called “doctrinaire discourse[s]”.  While the strikes are a sober reminder of the left’s weakness, the strike in its very form, is a chance for us learn anew the importance of political exploration and hope.  Hope in America had been hijacked by the inanity of presidential campaigns and banally overused in left propagandist writing.  It is back, rising from the protean, volatile potential of the strike wave, suffusing us all.

 

Tithi Bhattacharya is a professor of South Asian History and the Director of Global Studies at Purdue University. She is the author of The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education, and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2005) and a long time activist for Palestinian justice. She writes extensively on Marxist theory, gender, and the politics of Islamophobia. Her work has been published in the Journal of Asian Studies, South Asia Research, Electronic Intifada, Jacobin, Salon.com and the New Left Review. She is on the editorial board of Studies on Asia and the International Socialist Review.

Jordy Rosenberg is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is the author of Confessions of the Fox (June 2018, Random House US/Canada; July 2018 Atlantic Books UK/AUS/NZ), as well as Critical Enthusiasm: Capital Accumulation and the Transformation of Religious Passion.  He is the co-editor of Queer Studies and the Crises of Capitalism, and The Dispossessed Eighteenth Century, and has published theory and fiction in Theory & Event, PMLA, Fence, Avidly, The Common, GLQ, World Picture Journal, and other places.

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