Alienation and Indignity: the condition of everyone’s suspension



Two years have passed since Rohith Vemula ended his life from this alien world of things and numbers. But his last letter and the movement which emerged after the death of his body, demonstrated that he will always be alive in the collective consciousness of those who still dreams about the possibility of a new and different world, where human beings will not be treated as mere objects but as a mind – “As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” A world where love, art, science and politics will not be governed by exchange-relations.  A world of living men and women freed from the domination of objects and money. A world where freedom will not be freedom ‘only to buy’ but will be a real freedom to practice our creative potentials. A world where human beings will not feel alienated from his everyday life and work. A world that we all will share equally.

But the tragedy is that the place from where it all started, our university, is facing a monstrous reversal of the movement and continuation of the dominant situation. This continuity of the dominant situation of alienation and indignity is an effect of the break in the continuity of the movement which started with Rohith Vemula. So, as an active subject of the situation, it’s our task to re-think and re-analyze it so that we can re-build the movement.

We can start with some of the most visible symptoms of the crisis of the present world in general and our universities in particular. Depression, panic, anxiety, schizophrenia etc. is now a general condition of our existence both inside and outside the university which only ends with the end of life itself. It shows that we are all going through an intense feeling of alienation and self-estrangement in our everyday life. In this condition our everyday life activity becomes some estrange activity on which we have no control. Our own productive and re-productive activities/work becomes external to us. ‘ In our work, we do not affirm ourselves but denies ourselves, do not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely our physical and mental energy but mortifies our body and ruins our mind.’  Marx clearly shows this in the section named ‘Estranged labour’ of Economic and Philosophical Manuscript of 1844, as a peculiar nature of ‘work’ in capitalist society, where our ‘labour is not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour’. But Marx was writing this in the era of industrial capital when intellectual labour still seemed to be free and outside the direct economic production. Those times an intellectual was not defined by his/her social conditions, but as a representative of a system of universal values. So the university was a place for ‘free’ and ‘rational’ thinking. Although we know that this division between intellectual and manual labour is  itself one of the important form of division of labour in the capitalist society, but capital at that time used it only to maintain the social order and its hegemony by continuous production and re-production of dominant form of knowledge  through which it can continuously produce labour-power and means of production for the appropriation of the surplus-value at continuously increased level by increasing the productivity of social labour;  it did not use intellectual labour for the direct production of surplus-value. But in last 30-40 years things have changed drastically and we can feel it through our everyday life experience inside and outside the university. It shows that something has fundamentally changed. Our intellectual capacity, desires, creativity and every single moment of our life is under control of capital and being directly used for the production of surplus-value.

Marx clearly demonstrated this tendency of capital in Grundrisse:

“Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.”

So with the emergence of ‘general intellect’ our entire social life came under control of capital and general social knowledge has become a direct force of production. That means the places of knowledge production like-our universities has become the direct producers of surplus-value. It also means that our universities have transformed into  real factories, which not only produces labour-power in the form of trained and skilled workers for future appropriation but during the production of labour-power itself it produces surplus-value. In this condition we are always already workers. Our labour-time is enslaved not only in present but also in future.

Once we recognize this situation we are clearly able to see the direct relationship between our everyday experience of alienation and self-estrangement with the nature of academic work, which is actually  ‘forced labour’ used for the production of surplus-value which acquires  different forms of private property. In other words it is estranged labour which is the real reason of private property and not otherwise. As Marx clearly indicates- “True, it is as a result of the movement of private property that we have obtained the concept of alienated labor (of alienated life) in political economy. But on analysis of this concept it becomes clear that though private property appears to be the reason, the cause of alienated labor, it is rather its consequence, just as the gods are originally not the cause but the effect of man’s intellectual confusion. Later this relationship becomes reciprocal.

So, if private property and the entire social relations formed by it is the result of the alienated labour, then it cannot be understood only in terms of possession of tangible wealth or in terms of monetary exchange. We need to understand it in terms of one’s relational and relative control over conditions of production and/or reproduction, or in terms of differential levels and layers of alienation. And once we do that we can easily understand, how it is directly related to the question of social recognition and dignity.

The differential distribution of social dignity – more precisely the differential distribution of social indignity- one of the important form of hierarchical segmentation of social labour – is continuously produced and/or reproduced by differential levels and layers of alienation. It is one of the product of the peculiar nature of work in the capitalist society. This form of hierarchical segmentation of social labour, produced by differential distribution of social indignity, directly coincides with the historical image of caste system, the culture of which is still dominant in Indian society.

This provides a fertile ground for capital in its neo liberal phase to directly use this system of relations constitutive of hierarchization of social recognition and dignity, continuously produced and re-produced by culture of caste, for hierarchical segmentation of social labour. It is also a necessary condition for capital to hierarchically divide ‘labourers’ within the same labour-form or job or occupation for the continuous production of surplus-value as surplus-labour-time at more intense level. For example –lower-caste students in having to perform the additional psychological labour of grappling with relative lack of social dignity, produced and reproduced by caste-culture, experience a relative intensification of labour-time for social reproduction-which is the time for production of labour-power- vis-a-vis their upper caste colleagues. It can be seen in terms of the cut in their social wages.

From this standpoint, Ambedkar’s statement that –“ caste system is not merely division of labour. It is also a division of labourers” -can be easily understood in its economic terms, because ‘division of labourers’ is a necessary condition for hierarchical segmentation of social labour not only between different labour-forms, but within same labour-form also. And in the era of neo liberal capital with the massive de-skilling or same-skilling of labour, a product of technological advancements with the development of fixed capital and emergence of general intellect, it is very difficult for capital to do hierarchical segmentation of social labour only on the basis of ‘skills’.

So it is more necessary than ever, for capital, to use ‘ division of labourers ‘ already existing in the society in the form of culture of caste, gender, religion, race etc. for maintaining an overall socio- technical division of labour. It is being seen in the form of the backward movement of entire society, where castism, racism, patriarchy, nationalism is reviving itself in more regressive, violent and rigid form. But our analysis shows that the existence/revival of caste system or Brahmanism, patriarchy and other forms of ‘division of labourers’, is there, not because capital is unable to subsume and destroy it or not because of some break in the universalizing tendency of capital, but it is precisely the opposite. It is because capital has already subsumed all these cultural forms inside it. Nothing remains outside capital. Capital is more universal today than ever before.

The importance of rohith vemula movement is that it shows that exclusion and untouchability is not outside but inside the system, which is (re)producing, again and again, ‘ the division of labourers’ and different forms of untouchability inside the university-factory itself, but in invisible form. Rohith vemula movement visibalized all these forms of untouchability and exclusion. But if this invisible form of untouchability and exclusion is a product of the undignified nature of our everyday life and work inside the university and if this is because the entire university has transformed into a real factory, then we can say that-no one is privileged here! Indignity is a general condition of everyone’s life. But those who comes from the oppressed section of society can experience this at more intense and direct level. Therefore their struggle against it is also more intense and powerful than the others- lesser unprivileged section of student-workers, and they can also draw their mental energy from the historical image of their struggles against different forms of power relations and oppressions existed in pre-capitalist societies. But the subjectivity constructed by this historical image, although plays an important role in challenging the hierarchical segmentation of social labour, but finally it transforms into a never ending war between identities, for more recognition and representation within the system, which again re-produces the logic of segmentation of social labour.

So it is important to recognize that what was ‘living’ in ‘the event’ of past is ‘dead’ in its present historical image. And it provides a material ground for the dominant system of the present to establish its hegemony by voiding ‘the living of the present’ so that it cannot draw its energy from the universal of the past ‘event’ which is still alive in the present to create a new future. In that case ‘the living of the present’ transforms into a mere object or thing in which we can see the image of the ‘dead’. It is a process of continuous production of fixed and static identity or alienation of living-self itself. And this is also true for ‘working class’ when we see it in its historical image of industrial workers and not as universal living subject or mind of the present in search of new and different world of future or a classless society.

So it is the rule of ‘dead’ over ‘living’ or capital (dead labour) over labour-power (living labour), which generates the subjectivity for the production of alienated labour- objectively, a necessary condition for the production of private property or capital (dead labour).  But the contradiction is that the more capital kills the more it becomes difficult for it to kill more– a real crisis of capital to maintain its rule – a material condition of its own suspension, which presents itself in the form of suspension of the ‘living’. And with every passing moment this crisis goes deeper and deeper. Finally we reached a stage where entire society is suspended and every living men and women of this society feel suspended.

In pure economic terms- with the age long accumulation process of capital and its development in the form of fixed capital and general intellect finally reduced its need for living labour to its minimum and entire laboring population has transformed into relative surplus population or reserve army of labour. This provides the material condition for the destruction of capital itself- a necessary condition for the construction of a new world- A world Rohith Vemula dreamed about.

The importance of Rohith Vemula movement is that it created a possibility for the construction of a new world- by visibilizing the condition of everyone’s suspension- from the location or site of the suspended being – Velivada. The physical presence of Velivada inside the university, which came into being with Rohith Vemula movement, shows that Velivada is present everywhere in the society, but in invisible form.

So the movement which started from Velivada can only be transformed into a real movement, when it will go in the direction of complete abolition of the present social order, which produces the condition of suspension of our everyday life or forces us to constantly live in Velivada. If we see Velivada as the starting point of such a movement, then we cannot reduce it to some fixed or static identity. Velivada has no identity, because it is the location of complete identitylessness. 

So, it is necessary to re-build the movement to save Velivada, not only as a symbol and memory of some past event but also as a living site of movement. A movement to completely abolish such conditions where Velivada is continuously being produced and re-produced. To completely abolish such conditions where entire society is suspended and feels alienated in their everyday life. And this movement can be re-built only if we start again and again from Velivada.

In present given condition, where Appa Rao again suspended 10 students in almost same way, there is a need to re-occupy Velivada, so that we can re-build the Rohith Vemula movement, and can give a new life to it- the only way to save  not only them but all of us.






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