Political Arrangements

The thing about work that stands out most, reading through enthusiastic future forecasts on the one hand and stories of worker distress after the Sriperumbudur Nokia manufacturing plant closure on the other, is how one context obscures the political arrangements that make work possible, whereas the other brings them to light. Work is after all always at base a political arrangement: some sort of transaction with the state that delivers jobs and a promise of the good life to its publics. Perhaps it is that euphoric accounts about the changing workplaces of the future are (naturally?) more concerned with projecting the future, rather than with the mechanics of how to get there. Or that the projected futures of work seem so de-politicized—and that is, in fact, their allure—that the realities of political undergirdings are obscured.

Nokia’s presence in the Sriperumbudur SEZ, at any rate, owed to the then ruling DMK’s (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) courtship of the Finnish phone manufacturer, and its success in outbidding other Indian states vying for Nokia business with quite unparalleled monetary and infrastructural incentives. The headiness of that political victory is not to be discounted, for Nokia’s component manufacturers soon joined the SEZ, and Nokia was held up as a symbol of industrialization in Tamil Nadu: along with Hyundai and Saint-Gobain Glass, one of ‘the three pillars of Sriperumbudur.’ The government’s objectives, per the 2006 SEZ act, included the generation of economic activity, employment creation, and infrastructure development. To this end, too, the DMK’s Vallthu Kattuvom Thittam or the ‘We Live’ recruitment scheme aided Nokia’s own initiatives to identify new employees. Companies in the SEZ had been improbably classified as ‘public utilities,’ ostensibly in order to ensure promised infrastructural incentives like water and continuous electricity supply – services glaringly unavailable and not-promised to local communities – but also specifically to ‘curb labor indiscipline’ within the SEZ. The very terms of the arrangement with Nokia, then, specified both the need for employment creation and for labor to be controlled in a terrific concession to the company’s ultimate authority in managing its workers. The needs and rights of workers were concealed by the very eagerness of the neoliberal state to assert its prowess.

The SEZ’s protection from ‘labor indiscipline’ began to give way in 2009, however, to emerging details of Nokia’s heavy reliance on contract labor in every possible non-manufacturing job (contract labor is banned in the manufacturing sector), the resulting job insecurity, several issues over low wages–and later, serious risks to worker safety in the face of Nokia’s much-vaunted world-class safety systems. In the negotiations for a new set of political arrangements to protect workers, once again the government was involved: the LPF (Labor Progressive Foundation) which negotiated on behalf of workers in 2009 is politically attached to the DMK. Union leaders now explicitly invoked not so much the formal terms of agreement, but their underlying spirit: Nokia’s ‘mission’ as the government presented it and as even Union leaders understood it was as much to make money as to create and later to assure jobs to several thousands of unemployed youth who comprised the ruling party’s electoral base. In exchange for the almost unconscionable monetary incentives and other allowances made for Nokia, which sapped the state of some Rs. 645 crores (roughly $117 million) and returned poor profits besides, it was then the company’s moral obligation to live up to its promises rather than, as one community activist put it, ‘shed[ing] more and more of their responsibilities and expect[ing] the government to house, feed, bathe and deliver the workers to them!’ The status of work shifts therefore from an exuberant celebration of the state’s capability to deliver promising foreign MNC jobs to its electorate, and later to a political insistence on labor as a set of social relationships that demand reciprocity. Either way, it remains at base a political arrangement with the state.

There are then two ideas of work which present themselves: work-as-consumption and work-as-political arrangement. Each is discrete, a means of navigating towards some more-or-less attractive ‘horizon of hope‘; each is a combination of ‘norms, dispositions, practices, and histories [which] frame the good life as a landscape of discernible ends’; each mode of work then gestures to ‘practical paths to the achievement of these ends’ (Appadurai, Future as Cultural Fact, 292). But these forms of work are not equal. They link imaginations with material realities in entirely different ways, and they exist uneasily together: here cooperative, there antagonistic. The young men and women who everyday donned white anti-electrostatic aprons and shoe covers at the Nokia factory in Sriperumbudur came from impoverished and rural socio-economic backgrounds with only uneven access to state resources and benefits, and work futures framed only by the possibilities of development. For them, work at the Nokia plant was inherently a political arrangement brokered by the state—but one which made room for the MNC to deliver both the material and symbolic things the developmentalist state had failed to provide: prestige, recognition, consumer goods, better access to medical care, better capacities to help family, even water and food. The state in this way represented a failed aspirational framework, as much as it made political arrangements for structures of consumption to manifest. When those, too, failed in the end, the open link between what futures could be imagined and what presents could be materially procured was broken, too.

Political arrangements exist in there here and now, not on some far-future horizon. One does not participate in a union-organized strike or petition the nearest low-level government bureaucrat for access to housing or healthcare or building maintenance because of what the future ultimately might deliver, but in search of immediate certainties, solutions to pressing needs. Elections are coming to Pondicherry this May, for instance, and we see the carts with political party pennant-tagged consumer goods making rounds through the neighbourhoods: a blender or a pressure cooker for your support and my moral obligation to act as political broker. It appears at times that in such a world there is no fantasy future, only a sort of nearish-term pragmatics and transactional calculus, the basic infrastructure on which capacities to aspire might be built.

My last post in this series will be a bit of an experiment in writing and thinking, connecting the fantasies that do circulate with the pragmatics and realities of these local environments.

[Some parts of this post are part of a longer argument developed for an essay soon to appear in the journal ephemera special issue on the “Consumption of Work and the Work of Consumption,” and are presented here in modified form with grateful thanks. A much earlier version of this and the previous post were presented in a 2014 SCA panel on “Finding, Organizing, and Liberating work” organized by Melissa Cefkin. Grateful thanks to Melissa for the initial prompt to write, and to Ilana Gershon for much encouragement along the way.]

Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist with the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Human Factors International. She lives and works from Pondicherry & blogs her gardening and food adventures on paticheri.com.

9 thoughts on “Political Arrangements

  1. Hi Deepa, I found this post quite fascinating! – as I do most anthropology of the state and neoliberalism in India of late (thinking of people like Akhil Gupta here).

    Just wanted to share a quick observation:

    What you describe with the Sriperumbudur SEZ resonates very closely to the themes I saw in Dibaker Banerjee’s 2012 film, Shanghai (I would certainly recommend it, if you haven’t watched it!), where the idea of futures, and aspiring to them, seems to be a strong theme (as is the violence of the neoliberal state). A lot of people pointed out an apparent paradox in Shanghai: how can people support a political party and state interventions that ultimately displaces them?

    While the Shanghai paradox (let’s call it that – don’t want to give any spoilers) is worth thinking about, I think critics often miss the nuanced “political arrangements” that you underscore in this post: that we do great injustice by seeing opposition to the state/capital solely in terms of “conventional” activism; that there is perhaps a spectrum of engaging with the state – oppositional politics being one part (perhaps Kodaikanal and Kudankulam are exemplary of these, to remain within the context of Tamil Nadu), and collaborative ones the other (for the lack of a better term).

    So my question would be: how do you see this spectrum of politicking with the state and capital in a more sort of holistic way? (Or whether we need to think of a spectrum at all?) And how could we talk about labour politics and electoral politics more broadly in a frame that doesn’t rehash the Indian Left’s narrative – or better still may be able to challenge it? How can the framework of futures and aspirations be useful to look at this fragmented field of politics and building futures?

    Thanks once again, and I look forward to discussing this further! Cheers!

  2. Proshant,
    What a great comment, thanks for leaving it. I’m not familiar with Shanghai, but with what you say, I’ll be sure to look it up. I’m generally, and always have been, interested in imbrications: the ways in which people can be both opposed to the state (for example) and collaborating or working with the state at the same time. Oppositional models are invariably political, possibly interesting, driving logics, but in the end flattening, even for participants! as we see from a history of experiences and accounts from the Indian Left. The point is, too, that oppositional politics are means of working out other, ostensibly more lasting arrangements: the striking Nokia workers wanted their jobs and the old terms of work back, after all. So we could see them as two ends of a spectrum perhaps, or as an alternating series of mechanisms that ensure that certain rights, possibilities, services, facilities, horizons of hope, whatever else are aligned in ways that foster some image, attractive and new or old and failing, of a good life, or a life as good as it gets.

    In thinking this material through, I guess I was struck by two things: 1, the fact that although critical onlookers saw the bad deal that the TN government had made with Nokia, for the workers it was much more a straight benefit, a deliverance into prosperity and position; and 2, that we so often hear middle-class complaints about local governments betraying their populaces, not delivering as they should etc. etc. — but the poor don’t often seem to see it that way, or at least don’t as easily articulate such stark criticisms. Part of the reason for this I think is just that their relationships to the state are that qualitatively different, and they are relationships that invoke moral obligations, guilts, duties, responsibilities, rights, righteous claims, and more; always in the process of working something out, within some written-or-unwritten set of parameters or rules, and are hardly ever terminal transactions. Hence the idea of the political arrangement–and all the attendant questions of what form it might take for different groups and at different moments, what arrangements give way to what other arrangements, and so on–not at all expecting consistency or coherence, or needing, for that matter, to point out contradictions 🙂 The “future” gives us a common vocabulary to articulate a common set of aspirations, or to gather shared values (good or bad), and to track in (somewhat) concrete ways not just the fact that there are unequally distributed futures, but what the consequences and cross-talks facilitated by those unequal distributions might be.

    I guess my point (both here and in the next post) is that the translation of these into a concrete set of mechanisms to get from here to there require making some deal with the state, at the level of abstract, distanciated policy or in terms of actual face-to-face relationships with local MLAs, which we then seek out or press for or are content to wait for in a whole lot of different ways.

    Not sure if that addresses all of what you were asking, and there’s more yet to say, but then again this feels like a conversation that needs to unfold and evolve, perhaps more in other spaces than just comment exchanges.. though these of course are great, too 🙂

  3. Hi Deepa! Thanks for the response – it’s already given me a lot to think about; as has your latest post.

    I do agree with your observations about the relationship between the state, Nokia (in this case) and the people/workers, within this context. Perhaps, on a side note, this underscores how important contexts are in framing particular developments (and, of course, our research into the same).

    I find the idea of moral obligation interesting, not only because it’s a recurrent theme in a lot of South Asian, and particularly Indian, works (I am thinking of Partha Chatterjee’s ‘political society’ here – perhaps more as heuristic device). I encountered the same in my own research on migrant workers in Mumbai in how they, while collaborating with a local NGO, articulated something like a “right for/to benefits” (suvidha ka adhikaar hain, to quote one person from the NGO) from the state and private construction companies. Indeed the notion of suvidha becomes quite an important element in political negotiations outside of union contexts and actions (as it is in the civil construction industry).

    All of this – including my ongoing thesis work on women’s NGOs – I think, in one way or another, invites us to rethink what neoliberalism (in its broadest sense, for now) means as a dominant social, cultural and political-economic structure (for the lack of a better term). Precisely because notions of what “communities” are changing, I think we need to be attentive to these nuanced shifts that produce different subject positions, and therefore, animates thinking about the future.

    Again, these are just some top-of-the-mind reflections to your comment and work (as I still am thinking about mine – or, more accurately, struggling with!) Look forward to reading more of your work on SM, as well as elsewhere.


  4. While very much enjoying this discussion, I can’t help notice an elephant in the room. There is no place so far for global market conditions. I am struck by the fact that Nokia is the company in question here. I suspect that when the government cut its deal with Nokia, the assumption on both sides was that Nokia would continue to be one of the world’s largest manufacturers of mobile phones and related equipment. Neither imagined that a company called Apple, designing phones in California and having them manufactured in China, would destroy Nokia’s business.

  5. Thanks for leading the elephant back in, John 🙂 and indeed, who’s to say how long this particular set of political arrangements might have lasted, tax imbroglios notwithstanding, thanks to changing global market conditions? That said, the causes for Nokia’s departure from the SEZ seemed somewhat more tied to the local (both regional and national) context than the Nokia’s own changing fates–even the way local Union leaders and workers understood them. Hence the privileging of that specific situation, over the more global movements that might well have produced the same outcomes in not very much more time.

  6. Some possibly relevant data: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_mobile_phones#2005

    I note that Apple introduced iPhone in 2007. In 2009, Nokia was still number one in global sales but its market share was slipping, and a host of big competitors from Korea, Japan, and China were entering the lower end of the market where Nokia sales were concentrated. How much of this information was available and to whom when the events you describe were happening is an interesting question. Local perspectives might suggest that local concerns were paramount. On the Nokia side I imagine a company in trouble trying to squeeze every bit that it could out of its local investment.

  7. Yes, I suppose I’m looking primarily at narratives which honed in on local disputes at the root of the Nokia pull-out. I take your point, though; capital flight has global /market dimensions which may have been more significant than anyone locally realized. It would take more research and access to Nokia’s inside workings at the time to really say anything more definitive about what precisely the dynamics were. Whatever we’d learn, however, the ironies of worker reliance on political arrangements to (impossibly!) align global markets and consumer trends to their benefit, only get that much thicker.

  8. My quick answer to a lot of the common complaints and criticisms of neoliberalism I think would be that whether we like it or not, it did establish a future imaginary that was at least apparently more reachable, more viable, more equalizing, and far, far more attractive than anything the developmentalist state had either offered or delivered in the past many decades. We spend careers calling these imaginaries hoaxes, and they might well be that and unsustainable on a planetary scale besides. But they’ve changed the way hopes, aspirations, and possibilities get articulated, even the ways in which politics happens–and that is very hard to ignore. Would love to know more of your thoughts on the work that “suvidha” does, particularly if you locate it outside the conventional spaces of politics *and beyond those of consumption. Do stay in touch!

  9. Your “like it or not” reminded me of a reference that might be useful: William Grieder (1998) One World Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. A memorable bit from that book was the way in which China used its market scale to pressure Boeing to build important air frame components in China. The deal was, notes Grieder, hard on the people who had been building the components in the States but also a very good thing for the Chinese workers who took their jobs.

    Thinking about that case introduces another consideration, the role of the national, as opposed to the state or local government, in the politics of the Nokia deal. I know that in the United States, individual states compete with each other to attract foreign investment, offering tax breaks and labor conditions that favor companies over workers; “right to work” laws written to prevent union formation is one common example. Which is why, for example, BMW builds cars in South Carolina and Nissan builds cars in Tennessee.

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