Zan Boag interviewed Abhijeet Paul, coordinator of the ‘Labor, Philosophy, And Change’ working group at the University Of California, Berkeley.

Zan Boag: As a group you have been meeting to discuss ‘work’ over the past two years, under the title ‘Labor, philosophy, and change’. You mention that you are looking at forms of precarity, informality, vulnerability and, ultimately, the new forms of work today. In what way are you looking at ‘change’?  

Abhijeet Paul: ‘Change’ is just a word. Its power lies in its being undefinable, although the social sciences have tried to define its limits. The limits are typically associated with the capacity to change legal frameworks, build new infrastructures, and encourage technological development on multiple platforms so that the rite of passage for the global consumer is as smooth as possible. What is missing in these formulations is the domain of everyday work and the micro-realities associated with it - how a majority of the world’s population will not be a part of this change, except in their roles as micro-producers of commodities. Such kinds of production are not governed by the laws of 19th century capitalism where the producer was producing commodities under one roof for the most part. Thus, for example, factory laws were more applicable under these circumstances. But in a globalised economy today, where a commodity does not come out as a whole but in parts and are later assembled in a different place, work is governed by corporations that have transformed humans into economic synapses on a chipset. To give an example: a kachra (garbage) picker in suburban Kolkata in India, while being a citizen-subject having rights to electoral democracy is also a totally hyper-abstract figure in the production of a commodity such as a radial tire. In many parts of suburban India, women as well as children are put to work by sub-sub-contractors to take out the steel wires from discarded tires to be reused. The goal for the corporation is to cut costs on the production of tires and stay ahead of the competition. Hunched over toxic garbage dumps, women are seen pulling each strand out, day in and day out. Less than a dollar a day wages are usually paid for every fifty or sixty wires pulled out. It usually takes superfast fingers to get this job done efficiently and to be rehired. Most women are good at it, but this is a day job with significant exposure to toxic waste and dump. Security of wages is nil. Now, women can complain about work conditions - but to whom and what for? The corporation has not recruited them. Sub-sub-contractors have. Sub-sub-contractors, many of whom are local recruits themselves, will possibly listen to those complaints but will either ignore them or look for new workers. They are usually running against time. And time, like the good old capitalist, is money. What needs to change here? Laws? Corporations? Economics? Markets? Attitudes? Ethics? Or just let things figure themselves out?

ZB: You talk about the vulnerability of the everyday activity called work, could you expand on this?

AP: Ask a kachra (garbage) picker:

“Why do you work here?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“Because this is a toxic dump.”

“I know. But there are few options around here. At least work is regular.”

This is a far cry from the pleasures of work we have been meaning to discuss. Such scenarios are hard to categorise. Flexible work, contract work, informal work, vulnerable work, indecent work - these are ways of describing conditions, not defining work or life. Under these extreme labour market conditions, the world’s desperate workers will do anything to make that extra dollar a day. Any idea related to change therefore must begin with a thorough recognition of the vicissitudes of work in its ethnographic form. What this means is getting to know the people at work who are desperate and are willing to risk their lives. No science can capture the texture and fabric of work without getting to meet with the shadow of an individual at work - no matter what the conditions are. And since the conditions are tough and problematic as described above, then, the need for such encounters arises more than ever.

ZB: You mentioned to me earlier that although you think that the recognition of work shows up in all philosophy, politics, and theory, that the investigation is missing. Which philosophers best recognise work in their writing, and in what way? And what is it specifically that you think is missing?

AP: Through philosopher Hannah Arendt it becomes easy to recognise the work done on ‘work’ by three Western philosophers: John Locke, Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Arendt recognises Locke’s emphasis on the “work of the hands” and the “labour of the body” which “mixes” to create property and, by extension, rights. For Smith the same work produces “value”, which needs to be protected and so we are thrown in the midst of a new order of life: political economy. Then, for Marx, property creates the need for abstract labour in modern industrial economy which is nothing but “exchange value”, whereby we no longer recognise labour but only the form of the commodity in its many incarnations. The tablet computer is but one of its innumerable forms. For better or for worse, because the commodity has a form and we only experience and consume it, much of the work on the commodity is hidden. If we have the means to add all of that work up in a supercomputer, we have abstract labour, which has the capacity to alienate us from the pleasures of work when it is tied to the processes of labour. Blue Monday has a solid Marxian reason behind it! Anyway, the odyssey of the theorists of modern labour and work begin here.

But Arendt is opposed to a narrow view of work and the origins of labour beginning in modern economies - for her, man is first an animal who labours to eat and eats to labour. But that changed with the first tool to hunt and gather, one could argue. Man, the fabricator and “tool maker”, as Benjamin Franklin said, is nothing but overburdened to make things. The American author Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Galapagos that fabrication possibly has to do with evolution and our oversized brains, which creates fictions about ourselves, our capacities, and our relentless need to believe that this is the best possible alternative that there is. But I digress.

To come back to Arendt again, in theory and practice, tools (machines, automation) help the animal to achieve things faster and more efficiently, but they also become us. Arendt rejects the idea that we have lost the meaning between means and ends. For her, our labouring is the only thing that connects us to the instrument. She specifically says, that it is “labouring” not “work” that gives us rhythm in this moment of instrumentalisation of work.

But Arendt misses a crucial aspect of that rhythm: ritual, which undergirds a different parameter for work. Philosophers of antiquity in both Greek (Western) and Indian (and Oriental) societies had loads to say about work as ritual, which can be as hardboiled as science. Usually, ritual invokes the power of the mantra - mantra is uttered, it is numinous - which has priestly and sacrificial elements, often mashable with “sovereignty.” For example, the 3rd century BCE Indian philosopher and political thinker Kautilya, who wrote Arthaśāstra - the treatise on wealth, its creation, and the dimensions of the ethical state - was unable to separate the work of the state and the sovereign from the work of the individual subject. Sovereignty also demanded a certain form of sacrifice that we are not accustomed to any more - not directly much less regularly. It is like this: the king can seek the death of a subject for sacrificial blood. Period. Ditto for war and annexation - the body of the soldier is divine work which is also the stuff of sacrifice - priests will anoint the body of the soldier and women will bid tearful and erotic farewells as majestic elephants glide through the paths of the king’s territory to new ones.

ZB: Your group has decided to focus your research on work. Why work on work? And what is new in your analysis of work?

AP: Let me suggest that the basis of our work is rather simple: work is personal, intimate, and can create concrete moments of sympathy and empathy. This is because looking at work means you must crouch, come close - if you can - and eventually want to figure how fingers, hands, organs, and the body are connected to the piece of instrumentation. This is not only true of work in impersonal spaces like the factory, but the home too. In the words of Gopal Prasad, a weaver-poet in the jute mills of Kolkata, the desire of the wife of a chatkalia (jute machine culture) labourer to be represented in a poem becomes acute. The poem, ‘Patni’ (Wife) becomes the site of a complex narrative that draws us into the life of chatkalia domesticity, caught in the binds of kitchen, love, and labour, which the wife calls “household war”. Household war creates that place to critically examine gender stereotypes as the wife in the poem questions the masculine spaces of labour and work. She questions the truth about the theories of toil, labour, and political forms of representation, which are practically blind to the work women like her do at home:

bathing in the river of sweat that flows
on our bodies
our hard-earned labor
finds such pleasure
whose pain is and why
I don’t know
the roti I roll out—
that’s a poem
the stuff you write—
that is my roti—
of enemy bullets
upon my body
there is no trace

drenched in sweat
every day I survive this household war

Translator: Rebecca Whittington

Abhijeet Paul researches and teaches modern South Asia and Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2003 he completed a PhD in English (American Literature) from the University of Calcutta, India, and in 2000 was a Fulbright recipient. He is currently undertaking a subsequent PhD at the University of California, focusing on work, technology, and ethics.