The “triple selection” of Indian America

Caravan Magazine recently published an excellent review/essay of two books on the history of South Asian immigration to the United States: The Other One Percent: Indians in America (2016), and Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans (2016).  It seems that a key theme of both books is to examine and unpack differences with respect to the South Asian diaspora in the US, specifically around the issue of the “model minority” stereotype.  Indian Americans today appear to be the single most socio-economically successful ethnic group in the country.  Why?

The authors of The Other One Percent argue that Indian America is largely shaped by processes of a “triple selection”, that has created a population that “does not resemble any other population anywhere: not the Indian population in India, nor the native population in the United States, nor any other immigrant group from any other nation.”  This “triple selection” consists of 1) the caste system selecting upper-caste men for education, 2) limited access to higher education selecting for an elite strata within the first group, and 3) the post-1965 US immigration system, designed around importing skilled techno-scientific workers, selecting the cream of the second group.

What really caught my eye, however, was the commentary around the nature of education systems in post-Independence India, which echoes what I’ve been attempting to study and write about, about the relationship between Asian America, mid-century anti-imperialist politics, and the production of skilled technical workers:

The Indian government had invested heavily in English-medium public higher education in science and technology—in places such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, which were mostly fed by urban English-medium private schools—even while grossly neglecting public primary education. This system soon produced tens and later hundreds of thousands of engineers amid a sea of functionally illiterate people. This talent pool was composed almost wholly of men from elite castes and classes, who were only too eager to escape from a country that could not offer them enough opportunity to apply their skills. And so the demands of the US labour market were met with a ready supply.

This gets at the central irony of the efforts of postcolonial nation-states, that they attempted to modernize a supposedly free and independent country, but did so in a manner that was easily and rapidly recuperated by global capitalism.

So what then are today’s organizing opportunities in Indian America?  I still think there is a lot of potential in merging efforts around radical tech worker organizing with parallel efforts in India America, given the disproportionate number of Indian techno-scientific workers.  Between upholding and spreading radical philosophies and histories around science and technology, organizing against contemporary racial oppression, and merging these efforts into class struggles, there are good avenues to stoke rebelliousness among workers who may otherwise happily continue petite-bourgeoisie and yuppie lifestyles.

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Notes on the revolutionary potential in housing campaigns

There are some real swell comrades in the area who are kicking off some serious work around housing, so its a good time for me to dive back into some of my earlier musings on revolutionary communism and housing struggles.  The following is a summary of the argument I was trying to make across three essays I wrote several years ago: Biopolitics, Dual Power, and the Revolutionary Characteristics of “Serve the People” ProgramsThe Political Economy of Revolutionary Struggle: Lessons From the Black Panthers, and Serve the People, Seize the Land: Prospects for Revolutionary Struggle Around Affordable Housing.

Revolutionary movements are all based on particular local conditions and histories, but they do have important similarities that can be universalized and applied generally.

  • Revolutionary movements deliver immediate and concrete benefits to people.  They are not based in abstract demands for a better world, or promises of societal improvements at some point in the future—they improve things now.  Hence why workplace action has often been at the center of Marxist praxis—it is an area where people can force immediate changes, and in the process, develop into revolutionary subjects.  The creation of concrete benefits makes it clear to people that participating in the revolutionary struggle will improve their lives, even if they may disagree ideologically, or don’t understand the more complex theoretical underpinnings of communism.  The Black Panther Party applied this practice in the US outside the traditional site of class struggle (the workplace), in the neighborhoods, with their service and protection programs.
  • Revolutionary movements develop autonomous institutions of the working class, outside of state and capital. This is a requirement for the revolutionary creation of material benefits to the masses; what makes these benefits revolutionary is that they are created and distributed by and for the masses.  This requires proper coordination, planning, and discipline, as well as the ability to scale up and out, and to continually reproduce itself—hence the term “institutions”.  They are also independent from capital and its fetters, outside the control of the state, wealthy donors, non-profit foundations, and so on.  Thus the establishment of popular institutions of the class, which govern and coordinate the creation and distribution of tangible goods and services, develops proletarian “dual power”.  The Black Panther Party developed such institutions to organize their diverse spectrum of survival programs such as breakfasts, clothing drives, etc., although they failed to ensure that these efforts were properly independent from state and capital.
  • The economic foundations of the revolutionary movement are key to its survival, and is heavily related to the way dual power institutions are structured. The Black Panther Party, while at its core was made up of dedicated volunteer cadres, also became dependent on donations from petite-bourgeoisie classes like local business owners and white professionals.  This worked while there was a material basis for an alliance (local business owners were locked in the ghetto due to segregation and thus subject to Panther governance; the children of white professionals faced the draft), but once the foundation of this alliance crumbled (desegregation, end of the war), the Panthers were split between a social-democratic tendency that chased after donations from an increasingly conservative base (thus steadily absorbed by liberal institutions) and an insurrectionary tendency attempting to be true to its revolutionary principles without any material base at all (thus easily crushed militarily).  For modern revolutionaries it is clear that we must take seriously the question of how we sustain and reproduce ourselves and our organizations financially.
  • Revolutionary movements tap into feedback loops. The creation of immediate concrete benefits isn’t just a way to attract new recruits and impress observers, it is to help break the biopolitical control of capital over our lives and free up time and energy to further engage in revolutionary organizing — thus allowing for even more benefits to be created, and so on, in a positive feedback loop.  Militant unionism increases wages and decreases workplace stress and working hours, thus increasing the amount of money, time, and energy available to organize, which should lead to even more wage increases and stress/workday reductions.  The Black Panther Party’s armed interventions against police brutality made the streets safer for people to walk around and organize, and also kept money in people’s pockets, making more available to help fund more survival programs.
  • Land struggles in particular have a lot of potential to generate revolutionary feedback loops. It is precisely for this reason why pretty much all modern revolutions have had at least some basis in land struggles, and why some of the most interesting movements today are based in land struggles (EZLN in Mexico, MST in Brazil, Maoist guerrillas in Asia).  The monopolization of land in agricultural societies presents a very obviously zero-sum game for the masses of landless peasants.  When even a small group of revolutionaries begin to upend this monopolization and start to seize control of and distribute land, it is obvious to all landless people that it would be most excellent if this revolutionary movement was to expand.  The more land gets expropriated and redistributed, the more stable and prosperous and popular the revolutionaries are, and the weaker the old landed class is, and the more land that can be expropriated and redistributed.  (Obviously things are more complicated than this, i.e. unresolved ethno-linguistic conflicts between landless people, less black-and-white statistics around land ownership and inequality, but in general the trend seems to emerges).
  • The situation of housing in the US today has many parallels to unequal feudal/agricultural societies. After 2008 the rates of property ownership for different income/class groups was completely upended in favor of the bourgeoisie and their institutions.  The number and proportion of tenants has skyrocketed, as has the amount and proportion of workers’ income going into the pockets of the landlords.  Pushing back against this trend and organizing to put money into people’s pockets is a simple, common-sense idea with broad popularity, but at the same time is a radical attack on capitalist property rights, even if it does not immediately turn into a campaign of expropriating and collectivizing housing (it won’t!).  Organizing around simple and straightforward demands (i.e. repairs/maintenance, freezes on rent increases) would be popular, and also pave the way for increasingly revolutionary actions, like rent strikes and outright expropriation.  But key to all this, as comrades on the ground in housing struggles have emphasized, is overcoming the incredibly high level of risk present in acting against your landlord — and by extension, the state’s security apparatus.  This is not just a question of tactics, but a question of overall revolutionary strategy, and one that should be the focus of investigation and experimentation for all of us interested in exploring the revolutionary potential in urban land struggles.

Paramilitary groups and economic blockades in Ukraine

There was a very interesting article published recently in War on the Rocks about right-wing paramilitary groups in Ukraine, and their destabilizing effects on governance.  Of note is the series of tit-for-tat seizures and blockades of various supply lines that occurred in the first few months of 2017.

In late January, militia members engaged in a very well-coordinated blockade of coal shipments from eastern separatist regions, which soon sparked an energy crisis.  In response, separatist militias began seizing control of factories in the east that were owned by pro-Kiev oligarchs.  In mid-March the fed-up authorities cracked down on the blockades and arrested the unruly nationalist militants — only to provoke mass protests, occupations of government buildings in four different regions, and a new blockade against the president’s candy factories.

Two days after the protests and occupations began, the Kiev government abruptly reversed its position and declared an official ban on all goods from separatist regions until the separatists handed back control of the pro-Kiev oligarch’s factories.  That didn’t happen, and now it seems that Ukraine is making up its coal import deficit with supply from Pennsylvania, with additional talk about cutting down imports from Russia.

What’s interesting in all this is the intersection of militant protest tactics (albeit by armed right-wing nationalist groups), a strategy built around disrupting very specific parts of the economy, and fossil-fuel supply chains.  Perhaps environmentalists can take a cue out of this book for the battle against carbon oligarchs and climate change.  For example, there has been an ongoing fight in the San Francisco Bay Area over a potential coal export terminal at the Port of Oakland.  If the terminal does end up getting built, how feasible might it be for people to blockade the coal shipments coming in from Utah?

Communist strategy, international coordination, and the pillar of the Gulf monarchies

Around a year ago Angry Workers of the World published an excellent document around the question of a workers’ insurrection, that looks at the matter in a very concrete and material way.

There is a huge amount in the document that can be discussed, but one thing in particular that stood out was this comment about how to tackle questions of international integration (emphasis added):

Maybe because of the generalisation of the ‘proletarian condition’ of being wage dependent and of the generalisation of ‘parliamentary democracy’ across the globe it now seems obsolete to talk about the impact of uneven development. Everything appears at the same time so similar (global village) and so different, once we look into details. The problem is that we clearly see the effect of regional differences on global class struggle, but:

a) we tend to explain these differences geopolitically or out of ‘national economies’ or even ethnically (oil producing nations, BRIC states, Arab Spring);
b) we celebrate a crude pluralism (‘patchwork of free and unfree labour; all sorts of proletarian income etc.);
c) we don’t develop revolutionary strategies of how regional struggles or struggles within certain stages of development relate to others.

That last bit is key.  This question of how struggles in one part of the world affect other parts of the world is a fascinating and important area of study, and something that I personally started thinking about an awful lot during and after writing an analysis of Saudi Arabia and its historical roots in imperialism.  It turned out that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf petro-monarchies have played a major and pivotal role in the functioning of global capitalism, particularly in the restructuring toward neoliberalism after the 1970s, as described in detail in Adam Hanieh’s Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States (2011).  If the left-wing movements in the area had been successful in the ’50s and ’60s, it would have changed the course of world history.

Today the Gulf states’ massive oil resources are tightly integrated with global finance capital, as well as with a regional market of precarious migrant labor.  A resurgence in communist struggle in this area would almost certainly destabilize global markets, and such a resurgence would almost certainly be embedded in either struggles by migrant workers from India/Pakistan/Bangladesh/Philippines, or in the struggles of the marginalized Shia populations of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (who have historically been the backbone of leftist movements in the area).

In the case of migrant worker organizing, this would mean that radicals in South Asia and the Philippines have a critical role to play.  Revolutionary organizing among the migrant workers of the Gulf will require deep connections with the homelands, and the establishment of some kind of “home bases” away from the ruthless police states of the Gulf.

The supply lines of the Gulf’s repressive apparatus are also a key target for disruption, and arguably a necessary condition for successful communist resurgence.  Much of this apparatus is underwritten by the Western military-industrial complex and related surveillance and security organizations and companies.  In the modern era, many of these surveillance/security companies are integrated with the tech industry.  This gives another front on which radical tech workers can fight on.

And speaking of the tech industry, we can “close the loop” on the above analysis by looking at how many Indians migrate to the US to work in the tech industry (especially its core nexus in the San Francisco Bay Area), including in and around security firms.  Perhaps a connection can be made between these migrants, and the lower-skilled migrants in the Gulf; after all both categories tend to hail from the southern Indian states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.  The material and social terrain exists here for a triangle of revolutionary class struggle to be developed between south India, the SF Bay Area, and the Persian Gulf.

This is all of course just one thread in the kind of analysis and strategizing needed to develop an international vision for class struggle.

Institutional murders at Uber and University of Hyderabad

In August 2017, a senior engineer at Uber — a 34-year old black man — committed suicide, after months of working under extreme stress.  According to his wife, he was working long hours, had uneasy relations with his boss, was fearful of losing his new job, and was generally suffering extreme stress and anxiety.  The question of racism in the workplace was also raised, given Uber’s repeated controversies around diversity, discrimination, and workplace culture.

In January 2017, a PhD student at University of Hyderabad — a 26-year old Dalit man — committed suicide, shortly after the administration suspended him and several other Dalit students in the aftermath of a lengthy period of controversy and unrest between a Dalit students’ organization and a rival Hindu nationalist students’ organization.  His suicide note sparked a new surge in protests against the caste system and against discriminatory policies, practices, and attitudes at the university.

During the protests in Hyderabad, the idea of “institutional murder” was raised — the argument that these kinds of suicides cannot be looked at as merely individuals “lapsing” into suicide, but as the consequence of oppressive and alienating systems that deteriorate the mental health of individuals of marginalized backgrounds at a disproportionate rate.

This framework of institutional murder could be brought back to understand the case of the suicide of the Uber engineer.  As a comrade put it recently, it is striking that this man felt like there was no escaping his situation other than to kill himself, despite seemingly being extremely intelligent and hard-working, with access to many alternative jobs and career prospects.  The combination of alienation, racism, over-work, and a culture saturated with yuppie ambition, makes for a hell of a prison, where death slowly becomes preferably to failure.

Mobilizing vs. organizing around health care

Jacobin Magazine recently published a series of essays, written by members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), about whether or not socialists should plan a national march for “Medicare For All”.  First, Dustin Guastella wrote an essay calling for socialists to lead this national march in Washington D.C.; then Michael Kinnucan responded, arguing that socialists need to do more organizing and less mobilizing, and that a march would not be a good use of time/energy; then Guastella wrote back, affirming and clarifying the usefulness of planning a big march, and was joined by Ethan Young who also wrote an essay arguing the potential benefits of a Medicare for All rally.

Guastella’s first essay argues that socialists (particularly the DSA) need to recognize the widespread popularity of the idea of “Medicare For All”, and use it to not only shore up their brand, but to connect with health care workers, who are currently among the most radical of American organized labor.  It acknowledges that oftentimes marches and rallies and protests tend to be rather boring and useless, but argue that if done correctly, a “Medicare For All” march organizing effort can lead to concrete connections being made between dispersed constituencies and segments of the working class, and socialists in general.  It also pre-empts the argument that socialists should do more local organizing around health-care, pointing out that health care is something extremely difficult to do on a local or state level, and a national “Medicare For All” platform has the least contradictions and obstacles.  Its nice that this article acknowledges the routine pitfalls and habits that affect marches and rallies today; even as somebody who tends to stay away from demonstrations, I’m willing to buy the idea of using a march as a way to build and plan and network between the DSA and health care workers.

Michael Kinnucan’s response is pessimistic on the usefulness of a nationally coordinated health care protest.  It argues that the DSA is not in much position to influence Washington or organize a large rally, especially compared with those that have already been organized this year by other organizations and networks, and that organizing a march without organizing locally first is putting the cart before the horse.  It also points out that the nurses union, which Guastella wants to organize a march with, has shied away from these kinds of actions, and has done much more locally, especially electorally.  Which is related to another problem, that organizing a “Medicare For All” march risks rolling up the DSA into the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and doesn’t allow for the development of an actual anti-capitalist socialist alternative to the Democrats’ welfare capitalism.  Citing Jane McAlevey’s arguments about organizing vs. mobilizing, Kinnucan argues for locally-rooted struggle around not just health care, but also housing, so that the DSA can reach out to new constituencies, rather than simply mobilizing their existing and relatively small base to travel across the country for a protest.  I think a lot of this makes sense, particularly the point about whether the nurses’ union would even be down for organizing a big rally in the capital.

Guastella’s defense of a “Medicare for All” mobilization against Kinnucan’s critiques goes into more detail about the underlying logic, but oddly enough it seems to move away from what I thought were the more persuasive points, in favor of a somewhat vague and undeveloped argument about the importance of national demands and national coordination.  A crux of this second essay is that the socialists absolutely need some kind of national campaign, otherwise they’ll remain fragmented and localized.  Buts its never made clear why a campaign focusing on a march in D.C. will help build a base in the localities where most DSA chapters will be doing day-to-day work.  There is also an argument made about how large organizations like the AFL-CIO can ignore small, local actions, but can’t afford to ignore big nationally-coordinated actions, but its not clear why the DSA needs to care about whether these big establishment organizations are participating.

The clarification on the most persuasive points in the original essay, around using a big rally as a means to an end of building connections and networks, should probably have been focused on more.  This clarification revolves around acknowledging how most big demonstrations do, in fact, lead to nothing (i.e. the Womens’ March and the March for Science), but if the DSA takes these lessons in stride, a “Medicare For All” march can be different, and focus more on networking for the longer-term political campaign over the march itself.  But this raises an important concern: what if there is something inherent to organizing marches and rallies and other symbolic demonstrations that stifles the ability for longer-term campaigns and coalitions to emerge?  Its easy to say that liberals will of course hold useless demonstrations, but without a deeper dive into the actual mechanics of why these demonstrations fail to build longer-term campaigns, its not clear why a socialist-organized mass demonstration will be able to avoid the same outcome.

Ethan Young’s essay was particularly unpersuasive.  It argues that a “Medicare For All” march could launch a protracted, national movement around health-care in the same way that the 1965 anti-war march organized by the SDS allegedly pushed the radical left into the forefront of US politics and launched a militant anti-war movement.  But this narrative ignores the fact that day-to-day, local organizing had been going on for many years prior, during the Civil Rights Movement, and it was out of this infrastructure that the SDS and other leftist groups grew.  The 1965 march emerged out of a long period of quieter, local organizing, which formed the basis for the highly publicized demonstrations lead by MLK and others, and subsequent movements relied on this localized network as well.  The real question should be, do socialist groups like the DSA have the pre-existing infrastructure and connections that the SDS had in ’65?  I’m not convinced that’s the case.

If you ask me, I’d say that organizing for big demonstrations should take a secondary position to consolidating local projects that bring immediate, concrete benefits.  R.L. Stephens made a very similar point in a recent essay in Jacobin.  Socialists can’t just bear witness to the horrors of capitalism and shout about the benefits of socialism and related programs — they have to actually act, in the here and now.  Organizing around immediate problems — wages, rent, police violence, food access, etc. — can connect with a much larger base than can organizing around showing up for a rally that may or may not get the attention of politicians (let alone actual societal or political reforms).

And in the context of health care, why not actually strategize around actually bringing class struggle into the mix?  The nurses are already among the most militant segments of the modern US working class.  If there is a capitalist industry that is ripe for collectivization, its health care.  Instead of planning for a rally in D.C. to beg scraps from politicians who have no interest in listening, why not connect with local health care workers and plan out how to get to a point where workers are occupying the hospitals and drug factories, and are destroying the functionality of the health insurance companies?

Analysis of class composition, high-tech workers, and education by US student leftists in the 1960s

In 1967, a group of militants within the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) wrote an essay called Toward a Theory of Social Change: The ‘Port Authority’ Statement, which put forward a Marxist analysis of classes in the US, and what radical left strategy ought to look like in light of ongoing changes.  Its method of class analysis was very similar to the framework of class composition that was developed by Marxists in Italy in the same time period, which analyzed the way the restructuring of capitalism (typically driven by technological change) also restructures the nature of the working class.

Like some of the more innovative class analysis happening in Western countries at the time, the Port Authority statement hypothesized about the potential radicalism of a “new working class” being created from technological advancements.  This new sub-class was divided into three more categories: technicians & engineers, skilled industrial workers, and social service workers.  What united these categories was the fact that they were at the heart of contemporary capitalism: technicians, engineers, and skilled industrial workers were at the center of production, the economic core of capitalist society, while social service workers were at the center of a growing welfare state that was necessary for capital as a stabilizing force against militant dissent.  An important unifying trend was that these workers in these categories typically passed through college campuses, where they could potentially undergo a process of radicalization.

The essay also made comments about the relationship between technology and class consciousness.  It was thought that since the “new working class” was relatively educated and skilled and at the center of production, but also lacked any real control over the overall system, they would be more prone to radicalization than other segments of the working class.  This idea was supported by the fact that at the same time, the SDS was observing such radical currents emerging among technicians, engineers, and skilled industrial workers in the United Kingdom, France, and West Germany (the fact that such radical currents weren’t observed in the US were attributed to the weakness of local student leftists).  Indeed, the subsequent decade saw vigorous debates among French Marxists about the class position of engineers, which echoed the SDS faction’s ideas, albeit in a much more developed and contested way.

The observed connection between universities and the “new working class” was also taken up in another essay written shortly after, called The Multiversity: Crucible of the New Working Class.  The essay focused on the alienation felt by students in American universities and how this alienation was linked with how capitalism turned universities into “knowledge factories”, which produced workers with the necessary education and skill to labor in an increasingly technological economy.  More interestingly, the essay put forward the idea that the optimal strategy for student leftists was to reach out to people studying science, engineering, and education (instead of, say, art), and to organize on community college and technical college campuses instead of the elite Ivies.

One proposed tactic to reach these students was to connect the criminal actions of certain corporations, like Dow Chemical’s production of napalm for use in South-East Asia, with the fact that engineers and scientists who work for such companies have no power over choosing the direction and content of their work.  This, of course, tied back to the arguments in Toward a Theory of Social Change, about how the “new working class” was prone to radicalization because of the contradiction between their high level of education and skill, and their lack of real control in their positions as workers subordinated to the hierarchies of state and capital.

And today, it may be time to recover these lines of analysis and figure out how to update and apply them to today.  Software is at the center of contemporary capitalism.  Those segments of the working class who are required to run the sprawling infrastructure of information technologies, data analytics, and artificial intelligence, are not only becoming increasingly politicized, but are becoming outright radical and asserting their class position as workers.  The old observation from the ’60s on the role of universities as “factories” for skilled workers echoes what we are arguably seeing today, where education at all levels has been undergoing a steady and seemingly inexorable recomposition in order to produce workers who are more in-tune with the software-heavy modern economy.  Radical leftists, particularly those of us who ourselves work as programmers and engineers, could have a big impact if we can recover and build off previous efforts to analyze high-tech industries and organize techno-scientific workers.