Yanis Iqbal

Yanis Iqbal

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India.

Capitalism and Death
Monday, 21 March 2022 17:04

Capitalism and Death

Published in Cultural Commentary

My maternal grandmother passed away at 2 am on February 14, 2022. For her funeral, I went to Bihar where my grief was socialized among the many people who came to collectively remember her. I could not help but remember what bell hooks said in her book “All About Love: New Visions”:

Love invites us to grieve for the dead as ritual of mourning and as celebration. As we speak our hearts in mourning we share our intimate knowledge of the dead, of who they were and how they lived. We honor their presence by naming the legacies they leave us. We need not contain grief when we use it as a means to intensify our love for the dead and dying, for those who remain alive.

The calmness of my stay at Bihar was torn apart by my school’s announcement of exams which immediately made me worry about how I would have to frantically complete the syllabus in a short time. This incident made me realize how capitalism has penetrated into our understanding of death. The present-day social structure of accumulation is obsessed with the need to be ambitious, competitive and achievement-oriented. As such, it never allows us to nurture social bonds of relaxation in the present, constantly compelling us to remain neurotic about the future. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

We tend to be alive in the future, not now. We say, ‘Wait until I finish school and get my Ph.D. degree, and then I will be really alive’ .We are not capable of being alive in the present moment. We tend to postpone being alive to the future, the distant future, we don’t know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive at all in our entire life.

Our passive submersion in the future means that we keep avoiding the question of death in the present. We worship monetary wealth in order to cope with our fear of death, using feelings of strength and superiority to protect ourselves against the sense of smallness and insignificance that death can engender. In other words, we deny death, clinging to the symbolic immortality offered by material commodities. Contra this ideological concealment of death, Avijit Pathak explains how the recognition of death can promote a humane art of living:

Things are impermanent; yet, for some time we have got an opportunity to find ourselves in this world amid this blue sky, these mountains, forests and rivers, or amid the presence of the loved ones. And to live is to live with this sense of gratitude. This is like seeing ourselves as humble wanderers or seekers, not egotistic conquerors.

By refusing to attribute any element of eternity to our existential environment, we come to embrace the fragility of things, working hard to sustain our relations with them in the face of the possibility of loss; with this sense of mortality, we become aware of the fundamental fact that our lives are dependent on the actions and inactions of others, that we need to be sensitive to the needs of others. This means that the recognition of our shared vulnerability and finitude is the foundation of a human life based upon reciprocity and mutual love. As Martin Hagglund notes:

My devotion to the ones I love is inseparable from the sense that they cannot be taken for granted. My time with family and friends is precious because we have to make the most of it. Our time together is illuminated by the sense that it will not last forever and we need to take care of one another because our lives are fragile.

As we understand that the present is the only moment available to us, and that it needs to be lived with compassion, grace and love, our hubristic orientation to the surrounding world changes. A deep awareness of the perishability of things does not transform the human body and nature into dead stuff that can satisfy our desires. Rather, it looks at them as receptacles of finitude whose lifespan can’t be wasted for the possession of an illusory future of death-defying promises. We see these flows and forces of life; who knows the next moment they may not be alive because death doesn’t follow a pre-formulated plan of arrival. Pathak articulates this perspective vividly:

[T]o live deeply and intensely here and now is to hear the chirping of birds, feel the warmth of the sunray and experience the boundless laughter of a child. Indeed, at this intense moment of living, one breaks the egotistic wall of separation; one becomes the butterfly, the sun, the tide in the ocean; in other words, one becomes the universe. And this confluence removes all sorts of fear. Instead, what grows is the abundance of love.

As I looked at the trees and pond that fill my grandmother’s village, it dawned upon me that I am embedded in the world. I am not an “exam warrior” that unilaterally contemplates the supposedly external reality in concise formulae and memorized words; I am not a mere student that wants to compete with the world and become a “topper” – I am a formless human being that draws its meaning form the well of earthly fragility; I am someone whose life is defined not by individual pursuits but by relations of empathy and care toward other things. As I realized that the world is intrinsic to me, that it resides within me, the destructiveness and futility of the present-day capitalist lifestyle became evident. By structurally subordinating our existence to the compulsion to achieve, capitalism deprives us of the poetic density of life and turns death into an event of meaningless chaos. Building an alternative to this barbaric system is crucial.

Take the Step
Thursday, 05 August 2021 08:02

Take the Step

Published in Poetry

Take the Step

by Yanis Iqbal

Tremblingly and caressingly,
The sun spins a thread of morning
From the depths and dregs of yesterday’s night,
Aware that nothing has changed -
Wan emptiness of hunger and misery continue to abound
Millstones of money keep crushing the wheat of humanity into powders of profit
The fragile bones of workers still swell with sea-like sighs of worry.
Streaks of sunlight walk on patches of pain,
Unable to soak themselves in the stream of sounds
Stitched by song thrushes
Battling against the dry din of oppression.
The ends of earth are unraveling
Twisted topographies of concrete asphalt
Leave not even a single pore
For moist memories to percolate
Into the musty mud of beingness.
Sun-scalded chunks of smoke
Sift through the sooty ruins of rusty roofs,
Chipped marbles of a ramshackle house
Where once lived haggard humans,
Willows of longing and broad-leaved tulips of eternal gashes,
All now knotted together into a basket of bone.
These days, the silent strings of the lyre of heart
Have grown restless.

They are panting for springtime
When charnel houses will sink in the hot tears of anger.
Our quiet lips are filled with fire,
On the verge of saying something delightfully new.
Sandstorms are raging inside our muted eyes,
Forcing us to look beyond the crimson mist of wretchedness.
Ahead of us lies a wood-nurtured glade,
Promising an anchorage
For the ship of heartache and suffering.
We only have to step on the pebble pathway leading to it. 

Challenging neoliberal capitalist culture: a new educational strategy
Thursday, 28 May 2020 12:50

Challenging neoliberal capitalist culture: a new educational strategy

Published in Education

Yanis Iqbal presents the second part of his critique of educational culture under neoliberal capitalism by outlining a new educational strategy

To mount an effective counteroffensive against neoliberal educational culture, we need a new strategy which will generate critically conscious subjects who would cooperate to construct the cultural structure of revolution.

According to Dr Paula Allman, the process of providing this cultural structure to the revolutionary state is an integral unit of the “prefigurative work” of revolution. Antonio Gramsci also highlighted the importance of this cultural dimension of social revolution by saying the following: “Every revolution has been preceded by an intense labour of criticism, by the diffusion of culture and spread of ideas among masses of men”.

The educational strategy which will help revolutionary activists to counteract neoliberal education and lay the foundation of the cultural structure of revolution has two elements – student-oriented pedagogic activism and proletarian pedagogic activism.

Student-oriented activism

The primary objective here should be to completely change the configurations of bourgeois educational institutions. These capitalistic and (mis)educational institutions are directed and administered by business magnates who continuously and cleverly compel the students to undergo ideological indoctrination and then, reproduce these ideologies throughout their lives.

This type of mental domination occurs at all levels of education: whether a student is in school or in university, he/she is always exposed to the mechanism of bourgeois education. Michel Foucault’s views on education are extremely helpful in studying the machinations of bourgeois education. In his book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault writes: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” This particular text makes it explicitly clear that schools are quite similar to prisons, due to the simple fact that schools too have the same function as that of prisons. Like the discipline of prisons, schools also suppress students and use subtle micro-disciplinarian tactics. Through these methodical procedures, self-scrutinizing subjects are produced. These subjects possess an internally regulated system of docility which hardwires passivity into their brains.

By using student-oriented pedagogic activism, the regulated docility of students can be eliminated. Student-oriented pedagogic activism consists of five elemental components: non-vocational education, an anti-commodification educational approach, promotion of Liberal Arts in the curriculum, anti-meritocratic education, and the practical support of protest movements.

(1) Provision of an adequate non-vocational education would rebalance provision away from job-oriented education, which mystifies the essence of education and ruthlessly instrumentalizes it. An extrinsic end known as a “job” is clearly identified and education is made a means to that end. If we support and implement non-vocational kinds of education, this process can be thwarted.

(2) An anti-commodification approach is aimed against an educational culture that treats students as consumers who have to uncritically consume the commodity known as knowledge. The commodification of education obstructs students’ praxis (theoretically informed activism) and their general cultural and humanistic development. Paulo Freire, in the third chapter (Teaching Is Not Just Transferring Knowledge) of his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, said that “Unfinishedness is essential to our human condition”. It is therefore essential that education avoids commodification and strives for the self-realization of our unfinishedness.

(3) The revivalof Liberal Arts and Humanities subjects is important in an educational environment where techno-managerialism is relentlessly dismantling democracy. Technical education is steadily producing politically passive and culturally impoverished individuals who are indifferent to the poverty-stricken people living around them. As Avijit Pathak states in his article Education in the liberal arts and humanities are important in themselves: “We seem to be producing well-fed, well-paid and well-clothed slaves. This is dangerous.” 

(4) Anti-meritocratic education would act as a bulwark against the discriminatory distributive system of meritocracy, which is no more than a bourgeois apparatus, providing a rational legitimization of economic inequality. The working class believes that it is their lack of merit and the ruling class’s possession of it that prevents social mobility. In this way, a meritocratic fatalism is internalized by the working class. Meritocracy is also irrational to its very core, because it presupposes that merits exist in an ahistorical vacuum. The belief that meritocracy has firmly established a “Rawlsian equality of opportunity” has been disproven by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in their book Schooling in Capitalist America.

(5) The development and support of protest movements would be the final culmination of this student-oriented pedagogic activism. Protest movements would initiate a culture of resistance, enabling students to put theoretical knowledge into practice and allowing practice to inform theory.

History is full of examples of student-oriented pedagogic activism which euphorically proclaimed the ideals of an anti-neoliberal education. In 2015, Shinzo Abe tried to stop academic programs related to Liberal Arts, and aiming to convert them into opportunities for natural sciences. At the same time, he was also advancing a conservative security bill which aimed at amending Japan’s war-renouncing constitution, and aligning it with a securitized discourse about threats from China, North Korea and Islamist extremism. In opposition to these two militaristic and neoliberal government proposals, the Students' Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALD) organized massive nightly protests and collectively built a successful anti-war and anti-neoliberal movement.

The 2011 Chilean student movement is also an example of a well-organized student-oriented pedagogic activist mobilization in which many issues were cogently tackled by the dissenting students. In these protests, more than 250,000 students demanded the re-organization of the Chilean educational-economic system which included a tax reform and a constituent assembly to consider changes to the Organic Constitutional Law of Education. The student protests also re-politicized the Chilean electoral field by expressing anger against the right-wing government of Sebastian Pinera.

The successful consummation of student-oriented pedagogic activism would be a significant achievement in constructing the cultural dimension of revolution. It would help develop Gramscian ‘organic intellectuals” who would represent the interests of the working class and would equip that class with an ideological-intellectual apparatus to help with the “war of position” which is necessary for the establishment of a revolutionary state.

But student-oriented pedagogic activism in itself can’t construct the necessary cultural hegemony for a successful revolution. For that, we also need proletarian pedagogic activism.

Proletarian pedagogic activism

The main element of proletarian pedagogic activism is the Freirean concept of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is totally different from a didactic method of teaching or a one-way teaching method of simple transmission. It assumes that teachers and students are both the co-investigators of reality. In this method, reality is presented as dynamic and ever-changing. It has to be studied non-statically through problem-posing educational procedures.

Problem-posing education can be contrasted to the ‘banking’ method of education which sees students as receptacles, in which fragments of information have to be continuously dumped and this information has to be textually ingested. Paulo Freire says that “In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves”.

In proletarian pedagogic activism, the teacher would be the vanguard revolutionary party and the students would be the proletariats. Proletarian pedagogic activism entails that the teacher be the revolutionary party because the party itself is capable of organizing the masses, sustaining the working-class movement and welding the entirety of the working class into a coherently unified conscious entity.

To constructively teach the working class, a Vygotskian-Leninist conceptual synthesis needs to be produced, in which there are two stages. 

In the first stage, the everyday, spontaneous concepts of the working class have to be emphasized. Everyday concepts can be immediate economic demands and are clearly distinguished from structural demands. Vladimir Lenin used the term “trade-union consciousness” to describe purely economistic demands. According to him, spontaneous consciousness is the embryonic form of scientific consciousness. An example of everyday concepts can be the sporadic and non-strategic strikes of 1860s and 1870s. These kinds of everyday concepts have to be interlinked to the systematic interrelated group of structural concepts to progress from a spontaneous consciousness to a scientific consciousness.

In the second stage, after highlighting the everyday concepts associated with the daily material conditions of the working class and interlinking it to the larger structure, the working class would be in the possession of scientific concepts. Scientific concepts are realities which are apprehended in a large-scale and comprehensive framework.

For example, workers of a specific industry may realize after going through the first stage of proletarian pedagogic activism that their fight is not only against the owners of the particular industry in which they are working, but against the whole capitalistic structure which is their general source of oppression. In this case, they produce a generalization, a systematization of concepts in which many spontaneous concepts are rooted. Through scientific concepts, a scientific consciousness is produced which may be interpreted in Marxian lexicon as class consciousness.

Again, there are many concrete historical examples of proletarian pedagogic activism which critically educated the working class and helped them realize their political potentiality. The Cordón Industrial or Industrial Belts in Chile during Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government; the Spanish anti-fascist self-managed workers’ industries; and the Recovered Factories Movement and neighbourhood assemblies in Argentina during the December 2001 Argentinazo movement are all examples of proletarian pedagogic activism in which workers incorporated demands for system change into their disputes.

Class consciousness

Class consciousness allows workers to comprehend the structural relationships which lie behind the spontaneous concepts and prepares them for strategic and systematic volitional acts. It channels their egoistic-passional instincts into ethico-political interests. The pedagogical presentation of scientific concepts has to be done by the members of the revolutionary party through critical educational method. Lenin said that workers need to be treated as “social theoreticians” when they are developing a revolutionary ideology with members of the party.

After proletarian pedagogic activism, the working class would become culturally enriched. They would rally behind the revolutionary party, which supplements its presence in the civil society with the aid of organic intellectuals. The combined cohesiveness of the revolutionary party, a critically cultured working class and a strong cohort of organic intellectuals would produce a new cultural hegemony of the working class. This cultural hegemony would transform neoliberal education and would also lay the foundational cultural structure to accompany social and political revolution.

Intensifying the exploitation of labour: neoliberal educational policies in India and elsewhere
Tuesday, 14 April 2020 14:10

Intensifying the exploitation of labour: neoliberal educational policies in India and elsewhere

Published in Education

Yanis Iqbal presents the first part of a critique of the different ways in which educational policies under neoliberal capitalism suffocate revolutionary thought and action

According to Karl Marx, the inherent contradictions in a capitalist society would lead to a revolution which will mark the end of this exploitative system. These contradictions appear as antagonistic class relations between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, based on the inequality of ownership of the means of production, which will result in a massive proletarian upheaval – a revolution of some kind.

The class-based divisions which lead to conflict and revolution are heavily influenced by many cultural factors, including education. The way education is conceived, managed and delivered has facilitated the development of modern-day neoliberal capitalism in several crucial ways, which are the focus of this article.

How to avoid a working-class revolution

The global dominance of neoliberal education has helped capitalism avoid a working-class revolution. Before exploring how it does this, it is necessary to understand the two-pronged function of neoliberal education.

Firstly, it has provided a massive marketing platform for international corporations. By turning education into a business like any other, a new market has been introduced where commoditized knowledge can be sold. Secondly, it has constructed a discursive space where the ruling elites articulate, consolidate and legitimize their vested economic interests. The second function is imperative when it comes to moderating the intensity of relations of productions.

Neoliberal education radically influences and alters the culture of society. It initiates the devaluation of Liberal Arts, Humanities and Social Science, and aggressively peddles techno – managerial skills. This devaluation enables positivism and objectivism to become ideologically dominant, and erases the idealism and subjective cultural creativity necessary for the vibrant existence of a community.

The trivialization of normative political theory opens up a theoretical vacuum which is filled by what is known as ‘parochial pragmatism’, which makes revolutionary activism becomes extremely difficult. We have to transcend this pragmatism in order to attain a dialogical space where we can disseminate our objectives. But with the weakening of normative political theory, all the talk about radical transformations, rebellions and uprisings against the state sound like utopian eyewash.

Idealism provided the dynamic force which persuaded us to strive, experiment and work towards realizing a better world the actualization of different objectives – but the absence of idealism has produced a ‘social stasis’. It gives rise to a complex social arrangement in which the inherent contradictions of a capitalist society exist in a kind of suspended, half-hidden state. The inability of the intelligentsia to articulate their objectives, due to the absence of a discursive space and due to limitations imposed by parochial pragmatism, does not allow the proletariats to acquire the subjective class consciousness needed to make change happen.

How to intensify the exploitation of labour

Neoliberal education allows the bourgeoisie to continuously redefine what is normal and acceptable. For example, labour regulations in countries like India are portrayed as inhibiting rapid economic development. This has led to enormous laxity in the enforcement of labour laws. So neoliberal education justifies and legitimizes the exploitation of labour by capitalists – which is actually the unjust and inhumane economic bedrock of a capitalist society.

The devaluation  of the study and practice of Liberal Arts and Humanities due to neoliberal education creates a proletariat which becomes insensitive to injustice and exploitation,  and also don’t feel any need to protect the communitarian sensibilities which have been weakened by the individualism and consumerist cultures generated by capitalism. This weakening of communitarian sensibilities results in the atomization of society, fear and suspicion of others, and preference for security rather than liberty, which reduce the prospects for revolution.

 Neoliberal education in places like India also involves the development of a ‘monopoly of knowledge’. This control over the body of ideas shapes the way we perceive the various institutions. Neoliberal education constructs a system of understanding in which a sanitized version of the various institutions is presented to us, omitting the unpalatable aspects of our various institutions. This newly structured depiction of our society is safely distanced away from the rather harsh reality. This depiction involves the unnecessary glorification of the various governmental machineries like the judiciary, executive etc.

Once this sort of discourse is established in which infallibility becomes the characteristic hallmark of all established social, political and judicial institutions, criticism of them is invariably pushed into the category of defamation and vilification. So the activist who criticizes them has to face wrath of the masses and right-wing populist politicians, who interpret their criticism as ‘political incorrectness’ and ‘promoting class war’ – a destructive attack on the integrity of the institutions which, they have been persuaded, protect them.

How to use violence to defend neoliberal educational policies

The consequences of criticising institutions are dangerous. Recent political events in India indicate the extent to which violence can be used to preserve this neoliberal discursive structure. In India, various public universities acted as the spearhead of an anti-neoliberal education campaign and prominent among these universities was the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Throughout its history, JNU has acted as a critic of the government – in this specific case, a critic of its neoliberal educational policies.

On 5 January, 2020, it was attacked by more than 50 masked goons equipped with iron rods and acid. This sudden violent incursion went on for roughly 3 hours and the police forces did not intervene. Even after this brazen blitzkrieg on a reputable public university, not a single person was arrested. This chain of events shows the growing audacity with which fascist forces are destroying any form of dissent or of challenges to the rich and powerful.

With the resurgence of right-wing populism, social reform activism has thus declined. By portraying state interventionism as oppressive and stifling, populists pursue an extreme policy of privatization and financial deregulation to unleash the ‘animal spirits’ of the market. In this whole pro – corporate process, free and accessible public education is destroyed to provide a commodious space to neoliberal education.

Neoliberal education is emerging as the new control center for the maintenance of capitalism, and it will inevitably lead to a constrained, instrumental and philistine approach to the arts and cultural activities generally, where the underlying measure of value will always be the relevance and usefulness of the cultural activity to capitalist exploitation.

What we need is a new educational strategy which will generate socially conscious and sensitive students and adults, so that we do not become numb and passive consumer of capitalist realism. This new strategy will be the subject of my second article.