Friday, October 30, 2009

BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble

This is the 2nd pamphlet published by Correspondence; it was published in September 2009. It was written by Edmond Caldwell, who blogs at The Chagall Position and Contra James Wood.


In the early days of the current economic crisis, the Treasury Department demanded from the U.S. Congress a 700 billion-dollar bailout to buy up the “bad paper,” a term for all the junk assets owned by the banks and mortgage companies. Bad paper – the phrase was an evocative one, and the next time I found myself walking past a Barnes & Noble Bookseller, looking through the broad front windows at the stacks of unsold “bestsellers” on the display tables, I couldn’t help but imagine the CEOs of the Big Six publishing corporations scurrying to D.C. to demand their own big slice of bailout pie. After all, who could have more bad paper to unload than Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, the Penguin Group, and Macmillan?

In the weeks that followed, the sub-prime mortgage crisis became a credit crisis, the credit crisis a financial crisis, the financial crisis an international economic crisis – until finally the d-word loomed. Through it all, that phrase continued to ring in my mind – bad paper, bad paper, bad paper . . . A huge bubble of paper claims on profits whose value was not based on any tangible, productive assets, on any “really-existing” capital, had finally popped – a bubble of “fictitious capital.” Fiction again! Come to think of it, didn’t the word “credit” itself come from credare, the Latin for “to believe,” as if the financial system operated by asking from us the same “willing suspension of disbelief” that fiction asks of its readers? What was this sudden, weird synergy between the economy and fiction? Maybe the veils were finally being torn away from both, and just as the economy was turning out to be a fiction, so contemporary fiction was turning to be – having plummeted from the airy realms of Art – a thing of squalid calculation.

The crisis caught up with the publishing companies on 3 December 2008, a day which industry observers were soon calling Black Wednesday. Under the euphemism of a “staff reduction,” heads started to roll in all divisions of Simon & Schuster, while the Random House Group announced a major “restructuring,” consolidating less-profitable imprints in a move widely seen as a prelude to downsizing some of them and liquidating others. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced an unprecedented “buying freeze” – a hold on acquiring new manuscripts – and laid off a slew of employees, including several big-name editors. Not too many more days passed before Macmillan followed suit with big layoffs of its own. And the squeeze was being felt all down the line, affecting the distributors and major retailers as well, with the Border’s chain – Barnes & Noble’s main competitor – hemorrhaging money and foreseeing the shuttering of many of its stores and a radical “inventory reduction.”[1] All of these euphemisms really pointed to one thing: unloading that bad paper.

Crisis has a way of accelerating social processes already under way. People are now beginning to talk about the disappearance of the current publishing regime and its replacement by a different model, one based more, perhaps, on Publishing-on-Demand (POD) technologies and the spread of e-books and e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle. Whatever happens, it looks like a major change is in the offing, perhaps has even been developing – under our very noses, so to speak – for some time. As Gramsci once wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Given that we are in such an interregnum, what morbid symptoms can we diagnose in the field of literature?


In recent decades publishing has been no different than other industries in the drive for the ever-greater monopolization, globalization, and financialization of its assets. The biggest influence on the culture industry during the whole post-1973 historical phase that we call neoliberalism has been “media consolidation.” Starting in the late 60s and early 70s, picking up steam in the 1980s, and accelerating radically in the last two decades in the climate of the Clinton-backed Telecommunications Act of 1996 and similar deregulating legislation, historically-independent publishing houses have been bought up by the same media mega-conglomerates that own all of the music companies, film studios, newspaper chains, television networks, radio stations, theater chains, and amusement parks. Thus, of the major publishers mentioned in the previous paragraphs, Simon & Schuster is owned by the CBS Corporation; the Random House Group (which includes among its divisions and imprints Ballantine, Bantam, Crown, Dell, Doubleday, Knopf, Pantheon, and Vintage Books) is own by the German-based company Bertelsmann AG; Macmillan is owned by Holtzbrinck, and the merged Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was put together by the Ireland-based Education Media and Publishing Group after Houghton Mifflin was sold by its previous parent organization, the French multinational Vivendi. Of the other major publishers, Harper-Collins is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and Penguin is owned by Pearson PLC, the biggest publishing company in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and India (and which also owns the Financial Times and the Economist).[2]

Consolidations such as these have radically altered the character of book publishing, especially in literature, taking power from the hands of editors and placing it in the marketing and publicity departments. As a process of capitalist rationalization, it is comparable to the deskilling of the craft-worker and the rise of modern management undertaken under the aegis of “efficiency” by Frederick Winslow Taylor and his odious “stopwatch men” in capitalist factories a century ago. Instead of nurturing beginning writers through a few modestly-selling titles and developing a strong backlist, publishers are now under pressure to strike it rich with bestsellers; diversity of titles has been replaced by risk-aversion and homogenization. By the same process of rationalization and consolidation, the major chain bookstores have succeeded in underselling the independents and driving them out of business. The result is suggested in the following anecdote, from editor Chad Post:

Paul Slovak, the publisher of Viking Penguin, once mentioned that he believed that at any moment in time everyone in the country is reading the same twelve books. Obviously he’s exaggerating—a bit—but it sure seems that way. The books on display at a chain store in New York City are almost identical to the ones on display in Denver, or in Peoria.[3]

In a disgusted farewell to the profession he had served for many years, another editor, the highly-respected Ted Solotaroff, dubbed this overall system “the Literary-Industrial Complex.”[4]

And yet throughout this period fiction has given the appearance, at least, of flourishing. By the early 1980s – when neoliberalism courtesy of Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the U.S. was just getting under way – the “death of the novel” that had still been the topic of critical debates in the 60s was proved vastly premature by the first contemporary “fiction boom.” In the UK the boom was typified by authors such as Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, and Ian McEwan, as well as by the new influx of ‘Commonwealth’ writers such as Salman Rushdie and J.M. Coetzee. A related cultural phenomenon was the rise in prominence of the Booker Prize, which operated, then as now, as a force for the glamorization of literature (author-as-celebrity) and the normalization of neoliberal globalization. The United States experienced its own version of this boom, eagerly importing the new British and ‘Commonwealth’ authors to share space on the shelves with its homegrown “brat pack” of young literary stars like Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and Tama Janowitz, as well as representatives of the new “dirty realist” minimalism (Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie) that had taken over the New Yorker. Fiction on both sides of the Atlantic had become cool, hip, and eminently marketable, and in spite of some ups and downs this trend has continued throughout the whole neoliberal period up to its present-day crisis. In a pre-crisis 2008 report on the state of the industry, publishing’s main data-gathering service, R.R. Bowker, reported that in the first years of the new millennium the output of fiction titles doubled:

There were 50,071 new fiction titles introduced in the U.S. last year, up 17% from 2006, and the number of new titles in the category in 2007 was almost twice what it was as recently as 2002. Similarly, there was a 19% rise in new literature books last year, to 9,796, which followed a 31% increase in new literature titles in 2006.[5]

In the Bowker report, the term “fiction” encompasses all non-fiction titles, including commercial-fiction genres such as mystery, romance, science fiction, and horror alongside what the report distinguishes as “literature.” In the Literary-Industrial Complex and among readers alike, this select class of books more typically goes by the name of “literary fiction,” a category whose origins and function merit further investigation.

According to editor Gerald Howard, the term “literary fiction” began to be adopted by the industry “sometime in the early 1990s,” its rise reflecting an ad hoc marketing rationale that he outlines in the following way:

As vague a categorical designation as “literary fiction” is, it bestowed on non-genre novels the gift or illusion of a brand, a more secure niche and identity within the expanding universe of consumer goods. As critically meaningless as a term may be that can apply to such wildly disparate works as Sue Monk Kidd’s sentimental blockbuster The Secret Life of Bees and David Markson’s radical anti-novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, its acceptance and use signified publishers’ acquiescence to and accommodation of new marketing and retailing realities. It is both a comfort and a necessity for editors anxious to know what sort of book they are acquiring and for salespeople needing to know what sort of product they are selling.[6]

Howard’s remarks come off as a criticism that is also, to some extent – not surprising since he still must earn his bread in the industry – an apology. On the surface, at least, the denomination “literary fiction” is intended merely to distinguish “serious” fiction from the “light” fare of genre fiction, what is often referred to with (usually false) humility as “beach reading,” “airport novels,” or “guilty pleasures.” The latter are openly acknowledged to be commodities produced for consumption (for entertainment, escapism, distraction), whereas “literary fiction” is supposedly intended for “higher” purposes, for edification and aesthetic experience.

This is largely a mystification. “Literary fiction” is indeed a marketing category, but one with a difference: it reflects the period in which the category has come to inhabit the very thing it categorizes. It is not extrinsic— merely a framework or convenient, vague “catch-all” – but intrinsic; the “literary” is the appearance and the commodity is the essence. The rise of “literary fiction” represents the completion of the historically-uneven processes of capitalist reification in the field of literature – as was mentioned above, it is analogous to Taylor’s men showing up in the editors’ offices with their stopwatches and slide-rules – with the result that the relations of both producers and consumers to the product “literary fiction” are now wholly alienated, dictated by the protocols not of art but of commodity fetishism.

For its consumers, “literary fiction” designates a particular mark of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu terms distinction, the signification of a social identity constructed within a hierarchy of such distinctions of “taste” or “consumer choice” which correspond to the stratifications of social class.[7] Reread from this angle, the story of literary fiction’s origins appears less innocent: the significations of genre fiction (mysteries, romances, sci fi) are more plebeian or “common,” those of literary fiction more upper-class or elite. Distinction is even reflected in the way fiction is now materially produced and packaged. Before the rise of “literary fiction,” the pocket book-sized paperback format was used for literary and popular titles alike. In the 1960s, say, the reader of a paperback novel on a Manhattan park bench could just as easily have been reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as the latest Mickey Spillane cop thriller; one would had to have seen the cover the tell which. Today, however, literary titles are produced only in the larger trade-paperback format, with attention devoted to the cover art and other signifiers of “quality”; the smaller, pocket-sized paperback – revealingly called the “mass-market” format – is now more or less the exclusive domain of the slick bestseller and genre fiction.

This status-conferring signification of distinction is both “real” and a semblance: real because invidious hierarchies of status are an objective social fact, a semblance to the large extent that “literary fiction” is after all a thoroughly middlebrow genre, above the openly commercial genres but below the canon of “classical” authors. The middlebrow nature of “literary fiction” and its status as just another commodity among commodities must be dissimulated, however, and the “literariness” of its objects ensured. These mystifying benedictions are the role of critics and reviewers, especially those who write for the more prestigious journals – it takes distinction to grant distinction, after all – such as, in the U.S., the New Yorker (James Wood) and The New Republic (Adam Kirsch), whose imprimaturs allow chosen titles to appear to have transcended “mere” marketing. High-end reviewing functions as a nominating process, in which select works of contemporary fiction are nominated into the pantheon of great or at least “major” literature for which the critics’ authoritative allusions to “classic” texts provide the context. Thus obviously banal and middling works along the lines of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, get to share the dais with Virginia Woolf, Chekhov, and Shakespeare. When it comes to literary fiction the latent content of every critic’s jacket-blurb is really “This is not a commodity!” The system only works, however, if the critics give the appearance of being highly selective, as liable to reject as to approve, sometimes even bucking whole trends or dismissing already established reputations. Selectivity ratifies the system as a whole.

What gives the game away, however, is the consistently “reader friendly” nature of literary fiction itself. The defamiliarizing aesthetic radicalisms of the last century’s avant-gardes and the old modernist link between high culture and “difficulty” have both been decisively superceded; populist accessibility – what Brecht in his day derided as the “culinary” aesthetic – rules the day in “literary” as much as genre fiction. This is where our analysis must turn from the consumers of literary fiction to its producers, for the cultural rationalizations of the neoliberal period have retooled these social actors as well, a fact evidenced nowhere more strongly than in the rise, in this same period, of the Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) programs. By now it is likely that a majority of contemporary writers in the U.S. have passed through such credential-granting college and university programs, and a large proportion of these, in their turn, have taken up positions as instructors in the same programs. The official ideology of the MFA program is “writing as craft,” with the attendant cultivation of an ostensibly artisanal ethos. This, again, is mere appearance. MFA-style creative writing instruction is less like a craft apprenticeship and more like the reifying disarticulation of the labor-process (Taylorism again) that had already deskilled the craftsperson in so many other spheres of production; under the rubric of writing-as-craft, these programs transform their students into cogs in the Literary-Industrial Complex’s production line. Writing is taught by formula and rote: A story must have a clear “conflict” signaled on the first page – or better yet in the first line – in order to “hook” the reader; it must have characters with whom the reader can sympathize or at least identify; it must move towards a psychological epiphany, etc. Realism, broadly construed, is the preferred mode; not the Victorian novel per se but incorporating some of the refinements of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary impressionism, chiefly the deployment of close third-person narration or “free indirect discourse.” This is the desideratum, because it ostensibly allows for the representation of consciousness and psychological and emotional interiority; it brings us as close as possible to the “deeply human.” This is nothing more than a secularized version of the outworn metaphysics of “the soul,” inviting readers to gaze narcissistically at an assurance of their own humanity. In a world such as ours, predicated on universal inhumanity, this conferred humanity can only mean another form of “distinction.” To be human is now a privileged status.

Behind the veil of humanist ideology, “literary fiction” is just another genre among genres, written according to a comforting formula and intended for “culinary” consumption. The difference between genre fiction and literary fiction is all in the appearance of distinction, such that if genre fiction = entertainment, then literary fiction = entertainment + status. Works of literary fiction are therefore merely more mystified and meretricious, like those prostitutes who are paid larger sums of money not only to have sex but to pretend they enjoy it.


But what happens when this genre-that-is-not-one breaks down, when its bubble bursts, as it now looks like it might? Who are they, these readers of “literary fiction” – purchasers and consumers of their own exiled, distorted humanity – and how might they be affected by its crisis?

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has conducted several studies of U.S. reading habits in recent years that give a rough picture from which certain conclusions may be drawn. Their 2002 report showed that slightly less than half (46.7%) of their survey sample were readers of “literature,” which they defined as someone who reported reading at least one novel or short story, poem, or play in the past year, with 30% being “light” to “moderate” readers (1-11 books a year) and 16% “frequent” to “avid” readers (12-50 books a year). The demographic breakdown tells us that these readers are roughly evenly-distributed by age (with dips at the younger and older ends of the scale); that they are more likely to be women than men; that they are more likely to be so-called “white” than African-American or Latino, and that their number rises along with income bracket. This corresponds to the employment and education results, because these readers are also more likely to work in professional, managerial, or technical fields than in service industries, manufacturing, or manual labor, just as they are more likely to have graduated from college.[8]

The study makes no distinction between literary fiction and openly-commercial genre fiction, although obviously more respondents are likely to be readers of the latter than of the former, perhaps even – given the proportion of “light to moderate” to “frequent to avid” readers – by quite high margins. To arrive at a demographic profile of readers of primarily literary fiction, therefore, I think it’s a reasonable to hypothesize an intensification of the already-observable trends. In other words we could expect literary fiction’s main audience to be even “whiter” and more likely to belong to the well-paid upper echelons of the professional-managerial class. These are also, it is interesting to observe, the very people who vote with the most regularity. As studies have shown, the people who vote are those who feel that they have the greatest stake in the system, that it represents them and their interests; those who do not vote (and do not, as it also happens, read much “literary fiction”) are those who feel “politically estranged,” i.e., they have the perception – perfectly accurate, in my view – that the system does not represent their interests.[9]

“Literary fiction” functions, therefore, as a humanist apologetics to keep a certain sector of the population – the professional-managerial class – on board with galloping inhumanity. Of course they must be watered and fed, but they also must be kept ideologically engaged rather than “estranged.” It doesn’t matter if they watch CNN or FOX, it doesn’t matter if they vote Democratic or Republican, as long as they keep watching the news and subscribing to popular magazines, as long as they keep going to book club, as long as they keep going to the polls – in other words as long as they keep believing in and cherishing their profoundly human consciousnesses, which exist, if nowhere else, on their bookshelves. Literary fiction and its humanist ideology are intended to give the culture of imperialism a human face. If that face now has a bit of color in it, in the form of President Obama, so much the better – he is the perfect corollary for “literary fiction” in the realm of politics, and he might indeed be able to serve his purpose of prolonging imperialism’s death-agony. That system must be legitimized as it hurtles to destruction and drags the entire globe with it, and “literary fiction” has a privileged role in this legitimizing task. You need look no farther than the pages of The New Republic and the New Yorker themselves: advocacy of “free” characters and their precious interiorities in the “cultural” back pages, and advocacy of bombs away in the Middle East and bulldozers to bury Palestinians in the front pages. “Interiority” for some, nullity for the rest.

But to the extent that literary fiction suffers, legitimization must also suffer. The bursting of the fiction bubble might therefore serve as one constituent, however modest, of a full-blown crisis of legitimacy. Such a crisis could sap the confidence of the professional-managerial layer that is a necessary part of the ruling class’s power bloc and weaken its identification with the system. Naturally we cannot expect a radical transformation of the social order to come from this privileged and ultimately parasitic social layer, but their demoralization and disorganization, at least, could be an important ingredient in opening up possibilities for others better situated to take the initiative. As V.I. Lenin once wrote, “For a revolution to take place, it is not usually sufficient for the ‘lower classes not to want’ to live in the old way; it is also necessary that ‘the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way.”[10] Such a citation should not, however, open the door to spellbound veneration of the past. Let us to put away our nostalgias, whether for the novel circa 1910 or the revolution circa 1917. We must wrest our future from the current conjuncture, in the now.

[1] Tom Engelhardt, “Reading in the Age of Depression,” The Nation (18 December 2008);

[2] See, for example, “Who Owns the Media?” at

[3] Chad W. Post, “Publishing Models, Translations, and the Financial Collapse (Part 3)”; 19 November 2008, Three Percent Weblog.

[4] Ted Solotaroff, “The Literary-Industrial Complex,” The New Republic, 8 June 1987, p. 28.


[6] Gerald Howard, “Publishing” in “American Writing Today: A Symposium,” n+1, 4 (Spring 2006): 96-97.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1984.

[8] The 2002 study, Reading at Risk, showed a decline in reading from the 1992 and 1982 NEA studies, while a more recent 2008 survey found that reading had risen across all categories, although still not to 1992 levels. My interest here however is not in the absolute numbers but in the demographic breakdown of those who read fiction versus those who do not, which, except for a rise in reading among youth, has stayed relatively the same from study to study.

[9] “Who Votes, Who Doesn’t, and Why,” a 2006 Pew Research Center survey;

[10] Lenin, “The Collapse of the Second International,” Collected Works, vol.21, pp.213-14.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

No to the use of the Army and the Air-force against the Naxalites - A Meeting

PUDR, 'Janhastakshep' and PUCL invite you for a public meeting:


DATE 24th October, 2009 (Saturday)
TIME 3 p.m.
VENUE Speaker’s Hall, Constitution Club, New Delhi

Branding ‘left wing extremism’ as the most serious threat to internal
security, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led Govt. is unleashing an onslaught on certain areas of the country where such forces are strong. The armed forces of the country are being pressed into this attack. Over 65,000 Special Forces are being trained by the Army for
the purpose. While Govt. spokesmen are obfuscating the role of the Army in this offensive, armymen of Rashtriya Rifles and closely aligned ITBP are being thrown in. Air Force has been given permission for firing in “self-defense”. This last word is being added only to
confuse the people. Where is the question of “self-defense” when the Air Force is being asked to take part in offensive action? Air Force helicopters are being readied for attack and Air Force personnel “Garuds” are being given combat role.

Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who has been an advocate for Enron and a director of Vedanta, is articulating the strategy of “capture, hold, develop” against areas where Naxalites, to begin with CPI (Maoist), are strong. He is echoing US Gen. McChrystal’s Afghanistan strategy, essentially a strategy of occupation. In this vision, development comes last and it has not come for the last sixty-two years. And even now, it is being used to camouflage what is essentially a move to deprive the people of their rights to livelihood.

Along with this Army action goes the enactment of black laws, indiscriminate arrests, torture, intimidation and fake encounters.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had underscored the need for this offensive in his speech in Parliament on 18.6.2009, “If left wing extremism continues to flourish in parts which have natural resources of minerals, the climate for investment would certainly be affected.” Thus he made clear that “left wing extremism” is the main stumbling block in his government’s vision for development i.e. for exploitation of mineral resources by foreign MNCs and big corporate houses of the country.

But these areas are inhabited by people, living and desiring to live with dignity. These are among the most oppressed people of the country. Their land is taken, livelihood destroyed and they are left destitute and hungry.

While the callous disregard of their concerns is glaring, the most appalling aspect is the use of Army and Air Force against citizens of the country. These should not be the forces used for the
whims of those in power. They must not in any case be used against the people of the country. They are supposed to defend the borders of the country and not to kill, maim, intimidate and subjugate its own people. The action of the Govt. is bound to redefine the role of the Army and Air Force in the eyes of the people and the present Govt. has no right to do so. Progressive, democratic and peace-loving people of the country reject this role to be assigned to the Army and Air Force.





* A. B. Bardhan

* Surendra Mohan

* Justice (Retd) Rajendra Sachar

* Prof. (Retd) Randhir Singh

* Admiral (Retd) R. H. Tahiliani

* Prashant Bhushan

* Gautam Naulakha

* G. N. Saibaba

* Arundhati Roy

* Aparna

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Deconstructing Terrorism

This was Correspondence's first pamphlet, printed in September 2009. Most pamphlets are shorter, more lucid, and obviously less comprehensive than the essays in the magazine.

‘All incidents in India that have occurred recently, which go by a blanket name “terrorist attacks,” have been viewed as self-explanatory. A terrorist and his acts don’t need any explanation. A terrorist is like any other professional who is supposed to do what he is trained for. Why does he do that - is not a question to be asked. It is his own “free will” which clashes with others’ free will.’1 The old ‘criminal as victim’ argument took into account the fact that though free on surface, in the final analysis, a person is determined by her/his circumstances.We however have stopped using it as though overuse has sucked out wisdom and relevance from the cliché.

Before we go into an analysis of “terrorism”, let us briefly look at “violence”, as a way protest. It is no secret that most non-violent protests go unnoticed. In such circumstances, is our outright disgust for those who use violent ways really justified? One must ask oneself why the arguments we deploy against terrorism never go beyond a condemnation of the means to a consideration of the situations giving rise to the discontent that translates into violence. Why are we so content with the manner in which gross overuse (perhaps misuse) of the precept of non-violence (accompanied by the incessant pleas of news anchors and their esteemed guests to not “politicise” the issue) presents all acts of violence, as those of “brainwashed” or “psychopathic” murderers? Are a group of people, as exploited as they usually are (one can look at any account of the atrocities at the hands of the military that people face in J & K, or in the North-east) to be blamed if the only way out points towards violent means? While violence may not solve anything, it does give its perpetrator’s a sense of power and agency which is usually denied to them (studies and interviews show that militants in J & K join militancy because it helps them erase the state of helplessness and indignity they live in). But if violence is still utterly revolting to our morality then we must also question an asymmetry in our response to violence when the perpetrator is the government or military. Why does our response in this case lack the same amount of disgust and readiness to accept violent “remedial” measures, which we show when the violence begins on the other side? We also need to question processes and bodies (like editorial committees) which decide which news of violence reach us and which do not. Perhaps we need to understand and question this system in its entirety—because then we realize that violent means are employed because no others seem reasonable and actually do not work.

It is a remarkable state of affairs in which a system produces a way of life, it produces a bunch of people who desire the way life but cannot get it, and it also produces those who get embittered and try to destroy it. It is an unequal society in which some hold wealth and resources while most don’t. The upper classes hold all the resources. The middle class aspires towards wealth, and as a result allies itself with its superiors. Those who are completely marginalized keep to the fringes of society. When those marginalized react against their situation their attacks are obviously directed against what they perceive to be the centre of power. The expression of the discontent produced by this unequal society is suppressed by the state that, far from being the protector of equality, is the guardian of the unequal society. The point of this digression was to reassert the fact that, because inequality is inherent in the system, reactions to inequality are also not extraneous to it.

However the state represents these phenomena which are inherent to the system, as works of irrational and even evil people. It does this with the help of the media and through institutions like the education system by giving us a skewed picture of reality. Since we are made to believe that these people are in some sense inhuman, it becomes easy for us to accept the violence that the state inflicts on them, to preserve “civilization.” What we see is the violence that terrorism inflicts on civilization, and the idea of trying to understand this violence seems nonsensical because we understand them as unreasonable and irrational in the first place.

Capitalism right from its beginnings which lay in colonialism has depended on a continuous destruction of peoples and identities. At that point based solely in Europe, it survived on a globalizing market for commodities, it was the globalization of distribution. The phase of capitalism which dominated the 20th century and what we call imperialism was nothing but the globalization of finance. Globalization as we know it now refers to the globalization of production. This logic of expansion is by extension also the logic of forcing peoples to comply with the needs of capitalism. All difference, whether in terms of culture or religion and or anything else is flattened so these interests are served. The tool that capitalism puts to use is violence. The story that began with the destruction of the original inhabitants of the Americas and Australia never ended and still continues under names like “war on terror”. Everything ranging from ecosystems to value systems are destroyed either to procure raw material for industry (natural resources or “human resources”) or to facilitate the functioning of the market.

In these circumstances with their lives and value-systems destroyed in the blink of an eye, people unable to act can only react. The lack of self-consciousness and agency implicit in the word “react” helps us understand the rationale behind the allegedly “irrational” acts of violence that these cornered identities indulge in. Unable to understand the logic (which in the last analysis is that of cash-nexus) of the hegemonic system, people hold on to the beliefs which once gave them meaning, and try to assert them in circumstances in which these cannot be understood.

Violence and especially fundamentalist violence brings out the most essential contradiction in capitalism. On the one hand it tries to homogenise, or to use the earlier phrasology, tries to flatten difference. On the other hand, because it survives on competition it also needs difference; it tries to preserve heterogeneity. While every brand of soap might actually produce the same product, there will nonetheless be a million brands. In the same sense capital also allows for what in modern terminology is called identity assertion. Recent occurances in Maharashtra become a case in point, where the lack of employment and educational oppurtunities got articulated (admittedly because of timely intervention from fascist MNS) as the competition between North indian and the Marathi identities. Each group holds onto its beliefs and in the system defined by competition they compete according to the system’s rules. So called civilizational conflicts are resolved within the paradigms of the system that has destroyed these civilizations. ‘Reduced to reactive agencies within the hegemonic game-plans they can only react to each other’s moves…Today’s terrorism is a desperate cry to make others listen to what subjects/terrorists are unable to express and what “others” either refuse to hear or are unable to understand. It is the failure and crisis of self-representation let out in the hegemonic language of coercion and terror. This seems absurd but this is as absurd as the absurdity of the conjuncture.’ 1

A very important factor that this pamphlet does not deal with is the ideological impetus that determines the direction that anti-systemic violence takes. For instance, to say that Maoist violence and the violence of a Kashmir-based Islamist organisation are different would be a huge understatement. These differences need to be explored on the grounds of ideology, vision and other such factors. One can try to understand how the state is able to use the latter to further its hegemonic process and, in fact on many occassions, feeds it, while the anti-hegemonic potential of the Maoist project is far greater. However, the focus of this pamphlet was somewhat different and we will try to deal with these other, though as important questions, in a later pamphlet.


    1. Pratyush Chandra, Terrorism, Mass Hysteria and Hegemony in India, <>, accessed on 01.08.2009.
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Friday, October 16, 2009

Struggle and Dialogue

This is the editorial of the first issue of the magazine, published in October 2008. It was written by Paresh Chandra.

It had already been decided that I needed to rework the editorial. Now I have to mention the Delhi blasts (the link was absent in the original), though the addition might seem strained. I was returning from the University when I heard. A friend sent me a message. I had boarded the metro at the University at six and came out at IP in thirty-five minutes. I spent the next half-hour calling friends who were likely to be out. It will sound clichéd but the incident did drive most other thoughts out of my head. Five blasts all over the city and many bombs diffused. Apparently an Islamic outfit took responsibility.

The paranoia that an incident like this creates is huge. Blame is thrown on the police, on the Home Ministry, on Shivraj Patil’s softness on ‘terrorism’. Solution plans fly from all over the place. I distinctly remember how I annoyed I was with the manner in which a RJ kept repeating how such incidents can be averted if we like responsible citizens inform ‘concerned authorities the moment we see unattended objects’. The most interesting solution was proposed by possibly the biggest terrorist in the country—re-invoke POTA. For a moment I bracket out the interests of Hindutva in the re-invocation of the act and concentrate on other aspects. Everybody is bent on treating it as a ‘law and order’ problem. A few decades ago my criticism could have been different (discussions of socio-economic causes of acts of violence have becomes so common that they are not considered serious anymore) but I now feel that mere common sense and experience should be enough to teach us that the problem lies somewhere else. I do not suggest that law and order are not in question, nor am I taking the ‘terrorists-are-also-humans’ stand. I merely wish to point out the fact that stricter laws and greater protection have never ever helped in curbing acts of violence. However I do not wish to go into diatribes against this blindness nor is my agenda to offer an alternative solution (I have none to offer)—I seek to make a different point, or rather I wish to target a different bunch of people.

The situation of the Left in the country is very interesting. If I try to put my finger on the stand of the Left at large on issues like terrorism and communalism I am struck by a sorry realization—there is no stand to pinpoint. The Left is so stuck in the creation of counter-discourses or participation in discourses that are already ideologically compromised that its own discourses cease to exist. Try to locate a few genuine attempts in the country to understand fundamentalism and fundamentalist militancy (to name one issue) from a Left perspective and you will understand what I’m talking about. The ‘mainstream’ left is the busy guardian of bourgeois secularism and the not so mainstream left is busy attacking the mainstream left. When an incident like this one takes place the only thing the Left leaders can do is offer condolence. And because they themselves do not have anything to offer all they can do is try and counter what the Right offers—in this case it will probably be POTA.

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Struggle provides us with what is perhaps our only real chance of continued freedom from reification. It entails the forging of alliances that can help transcend the experiences of fragmented modern existence. The process of changing society is also the most effective manner of transforming our own existence and the only way of bringing about fundamental change is struggle. This magazine is a medium to take forward the idea of struggle. The revivification of struggle (in all its possibilities) needs us to first understand what threatens this idea and then strategise to counter these threats. This magazine is an attempt at doing just that—it will try to bring together counter-hegemonic perspectives on important questions and help provide the sense of community essential for the participants in counter-hegemony. Without this community an idea will hold no bearing on reality—it will become a force only when shared by persons. In this editorial I will lay out some of my thoughts on the situation making some observations regarding problems that I think important.

I was in conversation with a person whom I know to be more than a mere sympathizer of the Left and I am using some of his words when I say that these are depressing times for those people in India who want to believe in the validity of a Left politics, with the organised Left in danger of succumbing completely to the social democratic “Third Way” and the fringe Left more often than not caught in the mires of sectarianisms and adventurisms. It is easy in such circumstances to give in to the lure of consumerism and it becomes compulsive to “enjoy one’s condition”; the easiest thing indeed is to give up the idea of struggle and go out to shop. This consumerism too is not limited to the mall but seeps into and becomes the defining signifier of all actions and social phenomena, even resistance. Trapped in the tri-partite struggle between i) the inertia of a long history of anti-establishment struggle ii) the apparent uselessness of this struggle and iii) the desire to join the system (that one cannot fight) by choosing a career, some call a truce and resistance is chosen as a career option—a symptom of this is the manner in which instead of the Party being a means for struggle, struggle becomes solely a way of “building” the Party (it is important to emphasize the word ‘solely’ because it alone signifies where the problem lies).

We discuss at length the importance of looking at things dialectically. In theory dialectics is something we have a copyright over, but it is hard to maintain it in practise. I do not deny that in concrete political engagements it is not that easy to constantly double check with what’s on paper but to completely lose sight of it is not altogether advisable. I feel that one needs to be vary of this ontological blindness that advertises itself on the name ‘practicality’ and allows not only actions that one would otherwise completely condemn but also disables faculties that the original idea had provided us with. But then we also need to question if the problem is that we understand and do not practise our ideas or whether there is a problem in our understanding of ideas that we call ours. I don’t think the former is possible.

A great sign of decay is the manner in which people are scared of ideas. Doubt is losing its self-reflexivity and is changing into callous lack of trust; conviction is being transformed into prejudice. Both acceptance and rejection lose their Hegelian essence and begin to precede understanding. The process is a vicious circle—because conviction comes before understanding it is shaky, because conviction is set on weak grounds one is afraid of the other’s convictions lest they be stronger and since one cuts communication from the other, one’s own convictions seem unquestioned, and since our own convictions go unquestioned there seems no need to engage with the other’s convictions. A fundamental lesson of dialectical materialism that no idea is completely false and all ideas are only partially true—seems lost.

There is need for a struggle to make struggle more dialogic—dialogue here refers to the capacity to be able to incorporate the other’s voice into one’s own without dominating it; it refers to the removal from language of the violence that destroys the heteroglossic nature of correspondence. Reviving dialogue is one of the most important tasks that face us. We must remember that though internal strife may affect the establishment, fear of revolt and the need to maintain a net profit keeps it together, united against us. On the other hand by keeping a large percentage of the working population unemployed capital makes sure that at all times every worker steps in the market against every other worker. Resistance to the establishment starts off with a huge disadvantage. If we have to counter this disadvantage we cannot allow dialogue to disappear from our interactions with each other, just as we cannot afford a non-dialectical approach unless a skewed and limited picture of reality is what we wish to achieve. Without dialogue neither solidarity nor true criticism can exist. Fear of ideas is a characteristic of hegemonic authority—hegemony has this funny property of being in a constant state of decay. Hegemony is also by definition based on violence and is opposed to dialogue. Resistance on the other hand is a process that survives and disseminates through collective action, solidarity and dialogue.

The preservation of dialogue and a dialectical understanding of things require us to stay in touch with our reality. It is vital that we grasp all that is typical and get rid of all that is superfluous. The commodification of resistance and the concomitant monologising of the space of protest is a sign of the failure of forms of resistance to comprehend the nature of capital. This will indeed be the eventual fate of all forms of resistance that lose what is actually the fundamental link that will allow them to truly engage with capitalist reality, the link with class struggle and the struggle for the interests of the working class. Capital is a result of exploitation—it exists on the production of surplus value and production of surplus value requires labour power. Any struggle as a result, to be a struggle against the system of capital needs to create and preserve its link with the “actual” producers (workers). Capital makes use of various methods to hide this essential logic of its running, to hide this essential fact, the key that has to be grasped to get rid of the chains that bind us. Perceiving the true nature of determination in capitalism would allow us to look through the various illusions that we have to confront each day and this in turn allow the re-establishment of productive ties between fellow beings.

To facilitate the re-establishment of such ties and to allow exchange of perceptions of reality, dialogue is needed. The role of this magazine is to participate in the building of this dialogue—to encourage discussion by actively participating in various discourses and by allowing discussion within its folds is the idea that will underlie its working. It will try to start a dialogue of ideas between individuals, between different organisational streams and also between the reified parts of the same whole that take the form of various disciplines in formal education today. The basic idea is to achieve the true likeness of the elephant and overcome our subjective blindness.

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What is Correspondence?

Correspondence is a political magazine based in Delhi, using "politics" in a very broad sense so as to include all issues, questions and answers that influence our lives. We invite serious contributions on any social, cultural, political or economic issue from counter-hegemonic perspectives, which need not be confined to any established socialist and communist current of thought (though these approaches are most welcome).

We have brought out one issue of the magazine so far, essays from which we shall put up here. It not being easy to find enough articles to bring out regular issues - especially since we are an independent magazine - we have decided this year to come out with pamphlets, which we shall continue to write and distribute even as we prepare the next issue of the magazine. This seemed politically more useful and we thought it would keep us working too.

Pamphlets are often associated with a simple point-by-point agenda (whether they be demands or criticisms). We intend our pamphlets to be more analytical but most of them not being more than 1500 words, they aim only to set up an issue, to raise a question, rather than deal with it in detail/depth. We sell the magazines and distribute these pamphlets mostly in Delhi University and other parts of Delhi; this blog is a way to reach out to a wider audience - both readers and writers.

We are called 'Correspondence' because we would like our readers to write to us, to engage in dialogue with the writers and the editors (as Paresh says in the editorial to the first issue). You can write to us at: If you wish to submit work, please mail it to (We also have hard copies of the first issue for those who prefer them.)