Kaagni Harekal | We Stand at A Juncture

By Kaagni Harekal*

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow, or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence.” George Eliot, Middlemarch 

The pandemic and its accompanying lockdown have seemingly intensified ordinary life. For a section of the population safely ensconced in their homes, the lockdown is a pause: A 2 month long disconnection from the din of capital and its everyday life that lays bare the hollowness of endless cycles of ‘productivity’ and production, of action without purpose, of flailing movement without change. We are being forced to sit with and stare hard at the contingencies that determine our lives, and gaze in horror, transfixed by the implosion and erosion of the safety nets that we were never really quite reassured by anyway. Our daily routines papered over the ever-widening fissures in our world. Climate change, overloaded and imbalanced ecosystems, the insidious networks of globalized demand, supply and overproduction, and the pitfalls of an elite, traveling cosmopolitanism (and now, virus) are not new to us. Crises have always been chronic. We knew, we know, we reveal, we recognise: Critique had, for a large number of us, become mundane, regular. So what exactly are we surprised about? 

In Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke—a novel set in modern-day Pakistan—the narrator acerbically reduces the disparities in society to a matter of those with air conditioners and those without–a handy metaphor for inequalities of caste, class, and even race. The pandemic has revealed that while those of us (and I am fortunate to count myself among these numbers) with air-conditioners are far from being secure, and are grappling with unique challenges (such as how to continue to pay bills to retain our air-conditioners in the first place), belonging to the non-AC category seems to signify an unheard of devastation today. The surprise we feel, then, in spite of our consistent critique, is perhaps about the everydayness of crisis catching up to us—an everydayness that the non-ACed world has always inhabited. We are confronted by the failure of only critique, or of a critique defanged without its corresponding praxis. We are confronted with the impotence of intellectual and ethical goodwill without the invigorating nexus of educate-agitate-organise. Ironically, this confrontation comes at a moment where we are rendered immobile; our impulses to do better ricochet listlessly within the spaces—physical and academic—we are confined to.

I am from India, which is currently enacting the biggest lockdown in the world. 1.8 billion people are being “asked” to stay at home in a country notorious for underpaying its labour force, obscene disparities of wealth, and a flagging economy. The lockdown triggered a mass exodus—rivalled only by the Partition of the subcontinent 73 years ago—of its precarious working populations back to their hometowns. In spite or perhaps because of this pre-emptive lockdown, the virus is currently plowing through the population in India’s densely packed urban areas; Social distancing is an impossibility for one-thirds of the country. What began as an illness of the rich—entering the country through college students returning home after their universities abroad moved online, and tourists—is now taking its greatest toll on the poor. For many, the option is between taking their chances with the virus and trying to earn their sustenance amidst the lockdown, or death by starvation. In the meantime, the right-wing Hindutva government is intent on appeasing its middle and business classes, which are predominantly Hindu and upper caste. The government is undertaking its largest repatriation effort in history to bring back Indians stranded abroad, but insists on charging migrant workers for their train-tickets home—if of course, they’re allowed to board trains at all. To weaponize the threat of the virus further, the government is wilfully correlating the spread of the virus with the movement of certain Islamic groups in the country. Feel-good symbolic collective activities—a long-standing hallmark of fascism—such as banging vessels and lighting lamps in appreciation of healthcare workers (co-incidentally, turning the entire nation into a Hindu temple for a few minutes) and deploying military aircraft to shower hospitals with flower petals, create compelling media spectacles that replace legitimate relief efforts. These spectacles obscure the horrific lack of on-ground support for the nation’s labouring citizens. Belonging and unbelonging is aestheticized and anaesthetized. The situation seems dire.

In our discussions in our class-‘zoom’, I had talked of a moment where I saw a global resurgence of labour in this time of pandemic. I suggested that the almost perverse visibility—and vulnerability—of the ‘essential worker’ exposed to a vast majority of the world for the first time the labour that undergirds their existence. Given the volatility of the stock markets that responded aggressively to a lockdown that mandated that workers stay at home, I believed that I saw a rupture in the myth of speculative finance that believed money could be made simply by rearranging or redistributing value without acknowledging its corresponding materiality. I thought that the lockdown paused the global machinations of production, demonstrating the indispensability of a material labour that we had long ignored or derided under neoliberalism. For instance, the disappearance of the domestic army consisting of  ‘maids’, cooks, servants, nannies, and drivers—sometimes all figured in one, definitely underpaid person—that propped up most middle and upper class households in India underscored the labour that made possible the conditions for their employers to go to work at all. Consequently, I saw an opening, a glimmer of hope with radical potential. Now, I am not so sure. 

In the face of the cult of the individual, labour unions in America seem to be rallying to assert the demands of the working class. Newspapers (at least some of them) are flooded with a demand for higher wages, better working conditions, better healthcare, more equitable government relief, and more expansive notions of social security. The sentiment here seems to be that of asking more from the government, of holding it accountable, of demanding that it make good on its promises and commitments to its citizens. In India, civil society has stepped in to outperform the fascist cult of an individual, i.e, the Prime Minister, feeding and providing for millions of citizens who have been left unemployed or bereft because of the lockdown. Simultaneously, however, the necropolitical discourse of the sacrificial ‘hero’ in the form of the labourer or essential worker rears its head. This notion functions insidiously through, at its most benign, well-intentioned op-eds, and at its most malignant, governmental policy that touts expendability as a tragic yet inevitable outcome of crises.

 In the past week, countries world over have been measuring the costs of ‘restarting’ their economies after the pandemic passes. Several states in India have taken this time to relax their labour laws in a bid to attract investment from global capital. Extending the workday to over 12 hours, removing provisions that guarantee minimum wages, scrapping safeguards ensuring equal pay for men and women, curtailing the right of workers to unionize, and relaxing rules for safety for workers are steps seen as a ‘necessary evil’ to resuscitate a dying economy. With the subcontinent’s peculiar history of class and caste that is imbricated in ideas of duty and divine responsibility, for members of the lower caste or class, being paid at all is considered a blessing; rights, then, can be easily bartered in exchange for a meal. The government and the middle class think it’s only obvious and just that some must shoulder the burden of restarting the world as we know it. Given the increased awareness of our global interconnectedness—economic and otherwise—that the pandemic brought, this sentiment may find its resonance in global politics in the near future. Clearly, then, labour has resurfaced only to be harnessed once again within bloodthirsty sacrificial logics of the neoliberal nation state. 

We stand at a juncture. Labour can fight back and demand reform. There could be revolution. But, there could also be a brutal suppression of collective expression. A month ago, I was hopeful. Now, I am just tired. The endless barrage of bad news, ranging from a toxic gas leak in India, blatantly racist crimes in America, the new wave of a #metoo-esque movement among young women in India, and the suicide of a journalist colleague after being hounded by political leadership, has sapped me of my optimism. My critique, then, seems to have run out of steam (although I’m sure this is not quite how Latour intended his critique of critique to be mobilized). However, I am forced to ask, does my drive towards futurity or revolution necessitate optimism? 

Critique is what ensures I retain my conscience. I may be tired, cynical, and pessimistic, but critique tells me that I am definitely not done. Before the pandemic, I believed that my academic pursuits absolved me of most of my responsibilities as an active citizen; activism was considered an accessory, a prosthetic to the ‘life of the mind.’ Now, however, I attempt to keep my academic and activist commitments in a productive tension, while realizing that they must both be guided by a conjoined critique and praxis. While under lockdown, I write for a rural feminist journalism collective back home. I curated spaces conducive for discussing issues of sexual harassment, rape culture, and misogyny on social media. I engage with different people to learn more from spaces where real change is being effected, far from my academic environment. Above all, I am trying to cultivate a humility even in the face of the ordinary, such that I can begin to approach the thunderous roar on the other side of silence with both responsibility and criticality.


* Kaagni Harekal is a PhD Candidate in the English and Comparative Literature Department at Columbia University.