The proletariat are all those who are denied the collective faculty of imagination: an interview with Divya Dwivedi

Divya Dwivedi is a philosopher and author based in India. She is currently an Associate Professor at the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, IIT Delhi. She co-authored Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-politics with philosopher Shaj Mohan.

The outbreak of the corona epidemic has put the working class in a new crisis. We now see that the proletariat is devoid of economic minimums and must actually fight for its survival. In this situation, what can be done to revive the working class?

Dwivedi: There is the “demos” in an epi-demic, which indicates that something terrible has befallen the people. But the “demos” are always distributed unequally. Both epidemics and health flow through the channels which already exist, that is, there is no sickness which is in itself able to determine its pathways. Therefore, there is no sickness-in-itself, no suffero noumenon.

The question of the “proletariat” has to be posed again, anew, under these new conditions—of the pandemic and of technological exuberance—where the concept designated by this term might appear to be a stranger to us. Once upon a time the proletariat meant those who have no belongings other than their biological progenies. But this meaning was radically transformed by Marx to mean that the proletariat were the people who worked in the peripheries of machines and political systems, and they were not allowed by their material conditions to imagine a future beyond their wages. That is, the proletariat are all those who are denied the collective faculty of imagination. I would like to be precise here about imagination; imagination is not fantasizing about an uprising against a regime or a sudden beneficent collapse of a repressive order. Imagination is the making of a precise bauplan for the future which can materialize from the here and now.

For this reason, the link between the pandemic and the conditions of the proletariat—those who are denied the power to imagine—is augmenting an older process in our times. The people had already been denied any right to determine those processes which develop into the conditions in which their interests manifest through a subversion of nationalized democracies. This subversibility is of course the inner possibility of any regional politics. As you know there is global agreement when it comes to most economic processes, technological protocols and standards, and there are global institutions dictating terms to national governments. Nobody took our votes on IPv6 or Goods and Services Tax.

This is the reason we find that the far right and what is often called the left are in agreement when it comes to regional containments of the people; they seek to confine the imagination of the people to birth and soil. So, to answer your question regarding the 1st of May which is also the month that gives another name — May 68 —  towards a moment of proliferating uprisings all over the world : We have to make imagination available as a power again so that the proletariat are able to raise progenies who will be conceptual and organizational monsters from the point of view of their oppressors. In other words, uprisings around the world will not count, instead the world must now rise up together.

Many leftist thinkers see the current situation as a sign of the crisis in capitalism. Throughout history, however, capitalism has shown that it can use crises to reproduce itself. Does the current situation give the Left a chance to reorganize or all remains would be a more brutal capitalism?

Dwivedi: Of course, the end of capitalism has always been around the corner as we take turns in its spiral! The way you have posed this question contains something important. It is the question: is the Left capable of crisis?

Here I must say, with all the possible meanings, Lenin was once the crisis of Marxism, with whom, simultaneously, the capability for crisis was exiled into the enclosure of the soviet empire. Crisis is the experience within a system that it has reached the limits of relations and reciprocal tolerances of its components; for example, a combustion engine that is overheating. What comes over the crisis is always another system which picks up the components left over by the crisis and sets them in new relations with each other, and with new components.In most instances what we call the left suffers from what the philosopher Shaj Mohan called an idyllic a priori. That is, it thinks from the idylls of someone or some select people and then sets up this idyll as the impossible teleology. One can find Marxist activists in the subcontinent who think and act on the basis of the material conditions of the 19th century Germany. Can we have any such telos today? We must, each and everyone of us, at first experience the fact that we are the forsaken by any transcendent ends.

Instead, if there is to be a Left—those who are capable of collective imagination—they must also be capable of suffering a collective crisis. Such a left will be able to gather from the present stasis, with the shared experience of forsakenness, to be the community of the forsaken. This community of the forsaken will then be able to raise itself from the present stasis, which is properly anastasis. One is tempted to give outlines of how this could begin, but it must be the work of a collective imagination.

In 1845, Friedrich Engels said that the Left’s understanding of the real conditions of proletarian life was very limited. Today, the proletariat has a much more complex concept than what Marx and Engels had in mind and consists of day laborers, farmers, industrial workers and different forms of blue collars. Do you think the leftist understanding of the working class situation improved?

Dwivedi: These misunderstandings of the workers are not the same everywhere. The left, rather the party left as I can see in my surroundings in the subcontinent has been seeing the proletariat from their upper caste feudal idyllic a priori. I do have a certain intimacy with the party left. My parents were members of the communist parties at the extreme left who undertook unarmed direct action, and went to prison. I grew up traveling with them from village to village.

In India the party left, and whatever is left of it, deliberately refused to understand something fundamental: The racial social order of caste is the regular form of all divisions of labour in the subcontinent. The upper caste leaders of the communist parties organizing and leading the lower caste labourers to their infinitely deferred liberation is the very repetition of the caste order. Unless, as Lenin could do in Russia, the left imagines the proletariat in both their specific forms of poverties and their powers while gathering in the singular human experience of belonging to the community of the forsaken, any leftist politics will be a minor disaster within the crises which are upon us.

Today workers are more and more either the peripheral components of the technological systems, or they are being displaced by the technical apparatuses, or they merely polish the machine. Let me be provocative here: to conceive a worker properly in this time is to think of workers abandoned by work. I am not joking, we do see the emergence of universal basic income as a transitory response to this situation which is the automation of all work. This is a radically new scenario for left politics because the machine cannot be called a proletariat as it does not have progenies in any sense, and a man without work is not a man who has broken his chains. I have dealt with the conceptual crisis of the possibilities of machines having progenies and its relation to the proletariat in my book on Gandhi.

“People who are at the top cannot anymore govern, this is true; but people who are at the bottom — workers, peasants, intellectuals, etc — are still able to support the existing regime; they still support it”, Louis Althusser said once. It seems that this logic still holds true. Today, one of the problems of the left is that in many ways the working class is still reluctant to fight and break free from its chains. How is this awareness achieved? What is the way out of this deadlock?

Dwivedi: For my generation Marx was primarily mediated through Althusser and the Althusser circle. The brilliance in Althusser was about a certain directness of thought which revealed the stasis of Marxist thought with elegance. I know this interview that you have cited, which is intriguing for another reason. In it Althusser said something like he was catholic—which possibly meant someone who experienced the common—and therefore a communist.

But in the university I encountered the works of Jean-Luc Nancy where he was often discussed as the left Heideggerian. But I found in Nancy a new founding of “the common” because he had seized philosophy as the activity that is capable of crisis; the crisis of having arrived at the end of all determinations of transcendent ends. This new experience of the common revealed the conditions to imagine first of all what can be called a philosopher’s communism. This was important to me because in most versions of communism one finds that the end of philosophizing is the prelude, starting with Marx’s 11th thesis. As I had noted earlier, philosophy as the creation of freedom must necessarily accompany a left that is capable of crisis.  

This logic of Althusser, at the level of analogy, may hold true for all the times in which a political arrangement is in stasis. But the processes of our stasis are rather different. Today the left and the right both agree on regionalization of politics where, in some cases, shared Fascist tendencies are apparent. As you may know Agamben recently gave an interview to a far right journal on the coronavirus pandemic. If one looks closely at the responses of many leftist writers from across the world their responses to the pandemic sound very similar to Trump’s conspiracy theories and denials.

There is a reason, or if you prefer a homology, which has ordered the matters of politics in this way. As I mentioned earlier, nationalized democratic forms do not have any sovereignty when it comes to economic and technological matters, where they obey a global system of control. Then, the only choices left for the people is to choose their local monopolist capitalist; then divide amongst each other on basis of ethno-nationalistic and racial criteria; and then fight each other so that the global processes of techno-economic integration can take place over them without a fuss. This is why everywhere we see the anti-politics—the collective rejection of freedom—in the form of racial and ethno-politics.  

If politics is to be the fight for freedom then it must be capable of the seizing of the conditions of action, which are more and more global today. If anyone gives you the pill of regional autonomy they are trying to sedate you and confine you to a region determined by a developing techno-economic world order. Instead, we must begin to recognize this: national forms of politics are the locus of the real crisis, and democracy can now be secured only through the assertion that the world belongs to all. A left worthy of its name today shall have the courage to refuse the regional power deals from snake oil salesmen of anti-politics, who roam India in the garb of subaltern and postcolonial historians. Such a left will have the courage to imagine collectively and arrive at bauplan of a world democracy. It will have the courage to be infinitely open in order to gather the people of the world as the people of the world. The only thing left then is ana-stasis.

Interview by Kamran Baradaran

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