Tag Archives: Appadurai

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. Continue reading

The future of work is consumption

One hears a lot of exuberant talk these days about the futures of work. Offices will go away, we’re told, or be significantly scaled back as employees work from home or the networked coffee-shop of their choosing. Work will be parceled into micro-units that can be outsourced to hyper-specialists, thus producing a micro-task economy. Mobility and freelancing will become the dominant metaphors of our multi-tasking flex-ruled times—a fallback for conventional job instabilities and a route to more fine-tuned control over life, leisure, and employment choices. Crowdsourcing and outsourcing together will mean that work can be done by lots of dispersed people in lots of dispersed places. Workforces will become 3D: ‘distributed, discontinuous and decentralized.‘ Peer-to-peer networks will replace old hierarchies. The distinction between ‘work’ and ‘social’ will blur, networked collaboration having long since displaced isolated concentration. We will demand of our work and our employers more than we ever did before; we’ll even teach them a thing or two about what gadgets and technologies make work more efficient and enjoyable. In general, millennial sensibilities will rule.

As I suggested in my last post, however, it’s unclear whose futures these are. Only a few forecasts are ever localized for India, but global enthusiasm reverberates disproportionately and faith in the capacity of technology to widen work futures is immensely strong. While it is true that some younger office crowds in the big Indian metros can contemplate and even demand flex-futures shot through with millennial whimsy, bare laboring realities still exert themselves, and forcefully. The contrasts are especially hard to ignore in India, where, all around is also ‘work’ of a very different sort: running in parallel to the more prized but no less regimented office work, there is casual work, self-employment (a category which includes street vendors and domestic workers among others), un- or semi-skilled labor, daily-wage labor on construction sites, agricultural labor that leads nowhere and is seasonal besides, factory work, service work, specialized artisanal work that has long since been downgraded to manual labor and more—all of it low-wage, and apparently bereft of any real possibility of reinvention. Continue reading

An Anthropologist among Future Seekers

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Deepa S. Reddy]

For a few years now, I’ve been working in the space of future imagining—seeking out trends and rationales by which to extrapolate them or use them as jumping-off points as provocations to business, taking inspiration from start-up tech’s drive to search out uncommon solutions to common problems, setting sights on far-off horizons, and generally learning to ask “what if” and wish “if I could..” with impunity.

At first, I found all this quite strange. Wasn’t it more important to be grounded in the present, and to tease out the histories that had produced our presents—and, at most, could produce our foreseeable futures? This is what I had trained myself to do all these years anyway, and what I seemed still to be training my students to do. Contextualizing, explaining cultural forms or dynamics, tracking the social lives of things—this was work much more rooted in the present, with a strong sense of the past that informed and birthed it, than in any future-oriented approach. Of course, such approaches weren’t by themselves anything new. In some form or other, they have been mainstays of disciplines like economics, finance, design and planning, or the environmental sciences, not to speak of political, literary, and religious imaginings—but, far as I could tell, not anthropology. We might have looked to such imaginings as great research material, but only insofar as it led us right back into the configurations of the present. I thought back to the responses of a good many of my colleagues to the Future Studies program we’d once had at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, the first of its kind at the time: the future isn’t here, so how on earth could you study it? (For that and other reasons, the program folded eventually and moved in a fashion to UH’s main campus under the charge of Peter Bishop. It exists still as a graduate program in “Foresight”).

Past-ness mattered and was core to the sort of analysis we routinely undertook. It was, it still is, as Appadurai has said, in the closing essay to a collection of already-published papers entitled The future as cultural fact, that “[i]n one way or another, anthropology remains preoccupied with the logic of reproduction, the force of custom, the dynamics of memory, the persistence of habitus, the glacial movement of the everyday, and the cunning of tradition in the social life of even the most modern movements and communities, such as those of scientists, refugees, migrants, evangelists, and movie icons” (285). Continue reading