memorials as an example of the workings of the discursive-material knot
One of the issues where Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory has been struggling with, is its relationship with the material. This struggle is not caused by the lack of acknowledgement of the significance of the material in their discourse theory, on the contrary. From the very beginning, discourse theory has made it clear that the material matters, and that it cannot be equated with, or subsumed by, the discursive. Moreover, for Laclau and Mouffe, discourse is not the same as language, a position that opens up considerable opportunities for acknowledging the communicative capacities of objects and bodies. But that is not where the issue is situated. Even though Laclau and Mouffe emphasize the importance of the material, it remains a bit hidden under the theoretical weight of the discourse-theoretical vocabulary, and receives little specific conceptual attention. If the material matters, then there is also a need to have a vocabulary that allows to think through the role of the material. And if the material and the discursive interact, or, in other words, if the material and discursive are knotted or entangled, then there is a need to think through the knot and to develop a theory (or theories) of entanglement.
The largest electoral exercise in the world
–17th parliamentary elections of India –
concluded on the 19th of this month. The mammoth task was carried
out over 39 days and in 7 phases to decide the fate of 543 parliamentary seats.
At the time of writing, the first post-poll surveys have begun to make rounds
in the media. According to these post-poll surveys, the incumbent
Narendra Modi led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) is all set to return to
power; the accuracy of these surveys remains to be seen. Regardless of which
party takes power, it is vital we pay attention to what these elections mean
for the world’s largest electoral democracy in times of fake news, and the
resurgence of chauvinism in the realm of high politics.
A tale of two manifestos:
To understand any election, a comparison of
party manifestos is always a good starting point. Before doing that, a general
comment on how Modi’s tenure has been covered is in order. Observers from
across the world dubbed these elections as a referendum on Modi’s tenure, and
much has been written about the rising intolerance, vigilante violence, and crackdown on dissent during Modi’s
tenure. Domestically, Modi was widely criticised for his demonetisation move,
which sent the economy into a shock. Modi’s frequent travels abroad received
their share of criticism as well for being useless, and also became a template
for hilarious internet memes.
to the manifestos of the two parties, both sought to cash in on political
rhetoric and populist imagination. The manifesto of BJP read like a PR
handout for its 5-year long tenure and sought to embellish its supposed tough
stance on terrorism as the number one item on the manifesto titled ‘Nation
First’. This section of the manifesto aimed to reinforce the rhetoric that
India is continuously facing threats, both internal and external, by cashing in
on the 14th February suicide
attack in Kashmir, stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, and labelling social
activists/dissenters as ‘left-wing extremists’. The manifesto also dedicated a
whole section to what it calls ‘cultural heritage’, which shows the party’s
intention to embark on a homogenisation drive in what is for intents and
purposes a multi-national state. Lastly, the manifesto emphasised the aspect of
development, and its aspirations to make India a global power by raising the
issue of securing a permanent seat at the UNSC.
The manifestos appeared to have been written for the consumption of India’s tech-savvy Anglophone middle-class
the other hand, the manifesto of the Congress party appeared radical in
contrast to its rival. The key
pledges the manifesto emphasised were a jobs revolution,
universal healthcare, end to hate crimes, increasing defence spending, among
other things. However, a closer reading of the party manifestos reveals that
they are more similar than they appeared, as Irfan Ahmad had also pointed out
in his Al Jazeera article in 2014.
Things have not changed on that front; both manifestos raved about the
discourse of development, the need to counter cross border terrorism and
promise to acquire a permanent seat for India at the United Nations Security
Council (UNSC). On the disputed and politically rebellious region of Kashmir,
both parties have pledged to take an assimilationist approach, albeit
these approaches are phrased differently. The manifestos appeared to have been
written for the consumption of India’s tech-savvy Anglophone middle-class,
which over the years has become a site for the ideological fight between the
right and the centre in Indian politics represented by the invocation of Ram
Temple by the BJP and a hat-tip to tolerance by the Congress party.
Most of the pledges and promises the
manifestos spoke of were absent from the speeches delivered by the politicians
of the respective parties while on the campaign trail. The tenor of the
election campaign appeared to be entirely divorced from the manifestos, more so
from the Congress side. BJP, on its part, left no chance of polarising the electorate
Campaigning in the age of social media:
Political parties spent a staggering £3.8
billion in the 2014 parliamentary elections on election campaigning and other
related activities. The amount spent during the recently concluded elections
was almost double that and stood at £5.42 billion. A significant chunk
of these funds was dedicated to digital campaigning over social media
platforms, especially Facebook and Google ads. The
massive spending on campaigning points towards the fact that elections in India
revolve more around the spectacle of campaigns and are less dependent on what
the parties have pledged in their respective election manifestos. Election
campaigns in India are designed not only to entertain the audience, but also
informally known to be opportunities to make a quick buck as audiences/voters are lured with promises of cash, liquor, and even food.
It is hardly surprising that issues of critical
importance for public policy are barely discussed on the campaign trail by the
politicians in India. The recently concluded elections were no different.
Pressing matters of public policy were
conveniently elided over by politicians in their campaigning and by the media
in their coverage of the elections. Matters of public policy such as environmental pollution, rising
inequality amongst different social classes, farmer crisis, dispossession of tribal
people from their lands were either wholly pushed out of the conversation or at
best given half-hearted
and short-lived attention. The issues that were
highlighted by the media as the core issues of the elections were jobs and
economic slowdown, and national security. Additionally, BJP’s muscular
nationalism and its links to corruption have also been thrown in the mix by the
sections of media sympathetic to the Congressi
vision of India.
The move sought to project Modi as a politician with a clean image, with the interests of the poor at heart.
The discourse and rhetoric on the campaign
trail from all sides was shrill vitriol and a public mudslinging competition. Election campaigning of the incumbent BJP revolved around a
spectacle of securitisation and hyperbole. ‘Sacrifices’ of soldiers, surgical
strikes inside Pakistani territory, and a right-wing brand of national loyalty
were some of the continuously invoked themes throughout BJP’s election
campaign. A BJP candidate even praised and hailed the assassin of Gandhi as a patriot.
The polarising character of BJP’s campaign was further enhanced by a massively
potent campaign of misinformation,
primarily carried out through the messaging app WhatsApp. The party also
undertook an ingenious PR campaign – led by Modi himself, when he added the
prefix ‘Chowkidar’ (Watchman) to his
Twitter handle. The move sought to project Modi as a politician with a clean
image, with the interests of the poor at heart. While the move may not have
succeeded in achieving that objective, it, however, succeeded in a far more
significant way. The ‘Chowkidar’ move
succeeded in shifting the focus of political discourse from serious political
and economic issues to trivial matters of self-adorned labels; a trap Indian
National Congress (INC) willingly walked into and remained caged in throughout
On the other hand, the election campaign of
the Congress party from the beginning and throughout the election appeared to
be interested in replicating the spectacular and entertaining model of
campaigning, something the BJP seems to have perfected. The Congress party
instead of sticking to discussing its manifesto pledges and making a persuasive
argument as to why the voters should consider its manifesto succumbed to the
tactics of the blitz, name-calling, and petty sloganeering. The President of
the INC Rahul Gandhi repeatedly pointed fingers at the alleged connivance of
Modi’s office in the mishandling of the Rafale fighter jet deal. Gandhi
almost ritualistically dared Modi to debate him on the Rafale issue, beyond
that Gandhi had no potent critique of BJP’s planned implementation of The Citizenship Bill and the National Register of
Citizens, or its planned homogenisation drive at a
national level. Gandhi appeared to be immensely pleased with himself for coming
up with the ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai
(Watchman is the Thief) slogan, which may have improved the acoustics of
Congress election rallies, but miserably failed to project the Congress party
as a viable alternative to the BJP – a development with far-reaching
consequences for Indian polity in general..
A new ‘dangerous’ India?
An explanation of why Congress chose to ape
BJP’s campaigning strategy, instead of forcefully putting forth its supposed
‘radical manifesto’ is that the policies that both these parties have pursued
when in power since the early 1990s are qualitatively no different and are
rooted in a neoliberal logic, which transcends the supposed divide of right and
centre in Indian politics. Indian politics appears to have become a prisoner of
what Marcuse called ‘liberal totalitarianism’, where the logic of neoliberal
economic development has become the only acceptable and imaginable way to move
forward. Neoliberal policies are unironically prescribed as the solution for
problems whose roots lie in neoliberal thinking.
The failure of the Congress party and its
allies to truly put progressive policies on the table and demonstrate the
political will to pursue them forcefully has made a significant contribution in
pushing Indian politics towards a dangerous trajectory. The legitimacy crisis
of Congress has deepened in recent years to such an extent that the rhetoric of
‘If not Modi, then who?’ no longer sounds absurd, regardless of how frightening
it is as a prospect. They call this the TINA; There is No Alternative.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact
that India is not a democracy in the truest sense of the word; it is a
‘quasi-democracy’ at best if I am to use Larry Diamond’s terminology, i.e.,
India is neither clearly democratic nor [overtly] authoritarian. The rise of
BJP in such a ‘quasi-democracy’ makes the prospect of a ‘reverse wave of democracy’ in India
very real. Snapping of internet services, curbs on press freedom, vigilante
violence, systematic undermining of educational institutions all in the name of
protecting the ‘national interest’ appear to confirm the trend of reversal in
Idreas Khandy is a PhD candidate at
Lancaster University’s Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion
Nationalism has been one of the determining
forces of modern history. After the fall of the Ancient Empires, it represented
something to be proud of: the defence of one’s citizenship, traditions,
language and culture-with Hans Kohn being one of the major historians of the old nationalism. The fascist movements
of the Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries, however,
caused the term to develop many negative connotations. Today, it is often
related to authoritative regimes and political ideas of exclusion rather than
inclusion. It is even used as an insult in some political and cultural
magazines. In terms of language also, a huge effort has been made to debate
differences between ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’, concluding that the latter
contains all the good will that the former supposedly lacks.
The truth is, however, that nationalism is
an evolving term with a rich history and many footnotes, depending on which
type we are discussing. The many theories under which academics have been
studying and defining most of the nationalist movements that there have been in
contemporary history derive from the works of Hans Kohn, Anthony Smith, Tom
Nairn, John Breuilly and Elie Kedourie to name a few. Kedourie takes a hostile
stance towards nationalism and defines it as a form of politics that is
unrelated to reality. He labels it a new form of romanticism and cites Fichte
and Herder as examples of intellectuals who have been seduced. In a similar
way, Smith claims that nationalism is nothing but an exaggeration of history
combined with mythology. Breuilly is equally critical, suggesting that
nationalist leaders aim for total control of the masses. Nairn also shares the
idea that nationalism is an elite movement that seeks to spread throughout the
masses. Most, if not all of the 20th century scholars describe
More recently, however, writers such as
Taras Kuzio, Rogers Brubaker, Will Kymlicka and Montserrat Guibernau have
challenged these assumptions, demonstrating that the new nationalisms’ characteristics
are too varied to fit under a single, negatively- connotated umbrella. For
instance, Guibernau describes Catalan nationalism as a form of nationalism without a state, tearing
apart the premise that the ideology needs a state to survive. Guibernau’s
definition seems quite appropriate if we consider that most Catalans are
nowadays in favour of a new state. Yet how exactly is Catalan nationalism
different from other types?
Contrary to most nationalist movements,
Catalan nationalism is a bottom-up process, having arisen from social movements. In this case, the masses convinced the
elite to pursue a Catalan state, not the other way around. In fact, the leading
political party in Catalonia for the majority of the last twenty years, CiU (Convergència i Unió), always denied the
possibility of a new state. It was not until after 11th September
2012 that this idea was even considered by its then-leader, Artur Mas, after
millions went out onto the streets of Barcelona demanding independence. Since
then, the party has been reformed under the name JxC (Junts per Catalunya) and is now led by Carles Puigdemont. He is
currently exiled in Brussels, however, due to the Spanish state prosecution of
those Catalan leaders who declared independence in 2017, even though this
declaration never had a legal impact on either Spanish or Catalan politics.
Another major pillar of nationalism that is
challenged by Catalan nationalism is that of romanticism. While it does have
its own fair dose of mythology and idolized history, these are not at this
nationalism’s core. The growth of this nationalism in the past two decades -and
thus the growth in the number of supporters of independence- stems mainly from
economic interest, rather than from a sentimental or mythological ideology.
Different studies carried out by some of the most prominent economists have
revealed that Catalonia would benefit more from being a new state than from
remaining as part of Spain; Catalan GDP is actually one of Europe’s highest. To
many Catalans out there, independence is, in fact, a rather pragmatic matter of
In 2015, a newly formed political coalition aiming
for independence won the Catalan elections. In 2017, after the failed declaration of
independence, the pro-independence parties formed a government once again, only
this time as two separate parties: JxC and ERC. Additionally, in the 2019 Spanish General Election, the pro-independence parties won more
seats in the Spanish Congress than ever before. The Spanish answer to the
ever-growing support for independence has drifted between feigned dialogue
(always within the limits of the Spanish Constitution) and a legal-criminal
response that witnesses several of the old leaders of Catalan independentism
behind bars at this time.
It must be said that social networks have had a huge influence in the deployment of Catalan nationalism.
It must be said that social networks have
had a huge influence in the deployment of Catalan nationalism.
The more social networks’ popularity has spread among Catalans, the more
supporters of independence there have been. Many arguments and reasons to
support independence have been shared by Catalan activists on social networks,
with effective results. Catalan nationalism also benefits from a huge pool of
supporters based in academia thanks to a pacifying tone and well-researched
arguments regarding the formation of a new state in Europe. The two most recent
Spanish foreign ministers, Alfonso Dastis and Josep Borrell, have acknowledged
that the international empathy, even sympathy, expressed towards the Catalan
pro-independence movement stems, in part, from academia-related efforts to
sustain Catalan claims. International attention was also drawn by the referenda
of 9th November 2014 and 1st October 2017, both organized
without the Spanish government’s approval and also by the terrific police
charges that followed the second.
Could Catalan nationalism ultimately lead to the creation of a new Catalan state? Such an idea should not surprise anyone in Europe-over 20 new states came to be during the 20th and 21st centuries. However, while the Yes to independence leads most surveys on this issue, the Spanish state is not even considering such a possibility. While some far-right and conservative politicians (from the Partido Popular, Ciudadanos and VOX) fantasize about the possibility of erasing Catalan autonomy, currently under a pro-independence government, the centre-left and left parties (PSOE, Podemos) aim for a political solution within the limits of the Spanish Constitution. This would, however, exclude the chance for a referendum like the one held in Scotland in 2014. With the Catalan pro-independence supporters gaining power in Catalonia and the two major political forces in Spain not allowing a referendum (let alone an eventual secession) for both sides, engaging in sincere dialogue will, sooner or later, be a necessity.
Marc Perelló-Sobrepere holds a PhD in Communications (Universitat Ramon Llull – URL).
Marc is Professor at Universitat International de Catalunya (UIC) and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). Former Visiting Researcher at City University London and at the University of Copenhagen.
Marc’s research focuses on digital communication and political activism, especially massive social networks and its social-political use.
In the seventy two years since India gained its independence from the British, a distinct precedent has been espoused throughout political discourses is that of religious difference. Established in the very partition of India, a dichotomy has formed, and grown, between India’s Hindu majority and it’s religious minorities. This is most often historically India’s Muslim majority (which is destined to become the largest single population of Muslims in the world) but has from time to time turned to Sikhs (notably in the 1980s), and other communities. This narrative of religious difference is not a impenetrable barrier to religious cohesion in India, in fact it can be argued that India displays a more sophisticated model of religion conscious democracy, though the ever growing populist narrative of India’s politics, this assessment grows weaker and weaker.
developments within labor challenge the conventional progressive wisdom that
neoliberal globalization has been an unprecedented disaster for workers, trade
unions, and the labor movement. The obstacles to labor organizing, of course, do
pose serious challenges. Increased mobility of capital has led to a sharp increase
in relocation, outsourcing, and offshoring. Multinational corporations can wield
the threat of plant closures against workers’ requests for better wages or states’
efforts to raise taxes. Executives at multinational corporations can even pit
their own plants against each other, going back and forth between them to get local
managers and workers to underbid each other in a race to the bottom. At the
same time, the increased mobility of labor has led to increased migration,
which can be seen as a threat to wages and working conditions if migrant
workers are introduced into a settled labor force. Corporations can then stoke
divisions among their workers across racial, ethnic, and linguistic lines to
undermine the foundation of solidarity necessary to organize.
faces these and myriad other obstacles in our rapidly changing, interconnected
world. However, fixating on obstacles creates a facile pessimism. Globalization
may have opened as many doors as it closed. At the most basic level, the
globalization of communication has countered one of the most formidable barriers
to global action. With email, social media, and other online platforms, workers
enjoy better tools to organize across countries—imagine trying to organize a
transnational strike a century ago. Moreover, globalized communication fosters
solidarity as workers are able to see, hear, and share each other’s stories.
Looking ahead, improvements in translation software could help bridge the
language divide, thereby opening new paths to transcultural dialogue. Globalized
capitalism may have created the basis for a new global working class, not only
in material conditions but also in consciousness.
unionism can take many forms. It can operate among union executives or on a grassroots
level, while organizing can be workplace-oriented or based on collaboration
with NGOs on issue campaigns. Successful transnational unionism has the
capacity to navigate complexity and operate on multiple levels. In particular,
transnationally oriented unions have used globalization to their benefit by
organizing transnational labor actions, forming new transnational structures,
and fostering solidarity with migrant workers at home.
a transnational corporation spreads production nodes across countries, thus distributing
the workforce, the geographic expansion also increases the possible leverage
points for organizing against the corporation. The workers of Irish budget
airline Ryanair understand this well. Since Ryanair’s foundation in 1984, CEO
Michael O’Leary had been a vocal opponent of union organizing, but workers
chose not to listen. In mid-2018, they went on strike—starting in Ireland
before spreading across the continent—for pay increases, direct employment, and
collective labor agreements that comply with national labor laws. Management,
which had used its transnational status to play workers against each other, was
confronted by a united cross-national organized labor force.
has also showed strength by partnering with allies at different points along
the globally dispersed production chain. A campaign against sweatshops in the
apparel industry showed how direct action by students in the US can support organizing
by workers in Honduras. Garment workers in global production chains are usually
considered weak compared to hypermobile, high-profit companies like Nike.
But such corporations are vulnerable to boycotts. Transnational union resources
focused on a particular industry or country have considerable power to deny
market share and thereby bolster demands at the point of production.
enabling specific actions, the new economic landscape has given rise to new organizing
structures, as labor unions realize that old methods of operating can no longer
suffice. In the 1960s, the International Trade Secretariats (today known as Global
Union Federations, or GUFs) began to respond to the expansion of multinational
corporations (MNCs) through the formation of World Company Councils. First
established by the United Auto Workers and the International Metalworkers’
Foundation, the World Company Councils coordinated the activities of the
various national trade unions across a multinational corporation’s operations. However,
they proved unable to create the stability and continuity needed to achieve the
transnational collective bargaining power the unions hoped to develop.
the 1990s, the international union strategy had shifted from the promotion of
voluntary “codes of conduct” with MNCs and the introduction of “social clauses”
(including labor rights) into trade agreements, to the more ambitious and
comprehensive Global Framework Agreements (GFAs). An expression of
transnational labor solidarity, GFAs bind a company’s global operations to the
labor standards of the headquarters, usually based in Europe. Thus, gains won where
labor is stronger can spread to where it is weaker. By 2015, 156 Global
Framework Agreements had been signed around the world, focused mainly on core workplace
conditions and the right to collective bargaining.
like GFAs grew from the realization that relying on old national-level
collective bargaining had turned into a dead end. Labor needed new strategies,
tactics, and organizational modalities. With “business as usual” organizing
modes no longer adequate, many trade union leaders began calling for global
solidarity. They called into question labor’s “special status” alongside the
state and employers—the famous tripartite modality of the International Labor
Organization. If capital now organized itself predominantly as a transnational
player, so, too, would the international trade unions need to “go global.”
significant manifestation of this shift is the emergence of global unions. In
2008, the workers of the United Steelworkers in the US merged with Unite the
Union, the largest labor organization in Britain and Ireland. The new union,
Workers Uniting, represented almost 3 million workers at its founding in the
steel, paper, oil, health care, and transportation industries. Oil conglomerate
BP and steel behemoth ArcelorMittal are both transnational; now, their workers
are transnational too, refusing to be pitted against each other in
negotiations. Maritime workers, who have a built-in internationalism, have
taken similar steps. In 2006, in response to the globalization of the shipping
industry, the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport
Officers in the UK developed a formal partnership with the Dutch maritime
workers’ union Federatie van Werknemers in de
renaming themselves Nautilus UK and Nautilus NL respectively. Two years later,
workers took the partnership a step further, voting to create a single
transnational union: Nautilus International.
In 2015, the United Auto Workers in the US and IG Metall in Germany joined
forces to create the Transatlantic Labor Institute focusing on auto worker
representation issues at the US plants of German auto manufacturers.
In a decade’s span, transnationalism has entered the trade union mainstream as
leadership catches up with the objective possibilities opened up by globalization.
the smartest unions are treating migrant workers not as a threat but as an
opportunity. By making common cause with migrant workers, trade unions have
deepened their democratic role by integrating migrant workers into unions and
combatting divisive and racist political forces. In Singapore and Hong Kong,
state-sponsored unions have recruited migrant workers, to mutual benefit. In
Malaysia, Building and Woodworkers International, a GUF, recruits temporary
migrant workers to work alongside “regular” members of the union. Through such positive,
proactive outreach, unions can counter the divide-and-conquer strategy on which
anti-union management thrives.
such bright spots, many contradictions and pitfalls impede the forward march of
transnational labor organizing. The mismatch between the unlimited scale and
complexity of the challenge and the limited resources available remains a
chronic problem. Also, successfully organizing new layers of workers may reduce
the capacity of unions to take action due to the difficulties of mobilizing an
informal or precarious global labor force. These problems are not
insurmountable for a nimble and strategic labor movement, but they must be
addressed head on.
In the formative stages of the labor movement, unions engaged actively with the broader political issues of the day, in particular, the call for universal suffrage. There is no reason why such larger concerns cannot again move to the center of labor’s agenda, and a very good reason—the interpenetration of a host of economic, social, and environmental reasons—why they should form its backbone. In contrast to the later tradition of craft unionism, the early labor organizers did not recognize divisions based on skill or race. This tradition of labor organizing known variously as community unionism, “deep organizing,” or “social movement unionism” has been making a comeback. Its spread could open a new chapter in labor’s ongoing struggle against capitalism.
 Reynald Bourque, “Transnational Trade Unionism and Social
Regulation of Globalization,” in Social
Innovation, the Social Economy and World Economic Development, eds. Dennis
Harrison, György Széll, and Reynald Bourque (New York: Peter
Lang, 2009), 123–138.