An Interview with Tithi Bhattacharya

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

IAN MCKAY: Tonight, it’s our pleasure to welcome to the series, generously supported by the Future of Canada project, Dr. Tithi Bhattacharya, Professor of History and Director of Global Studies at Purdue University and a renowned feminist scholar, whose work on both social reproduction theory and the gender politics of contemporary India has won a wide and appreciative global audience. Her edited collection on social reproduction theory[1] suggests that a full understanding of the capitalist world demands close attention to the preconditions of that world in the often unpaid, generally disregarded – and in a time of pandemic, often very dangerous work – undertaken disproportionately by women. This work is that which makes our social order conceivable.

As Dr. Bhattacharya remarks in Dissent Magazine in 2020, “right now when we are under lockdown, nobody is saying we need stockbrokers and investment bankers! Let’s keep these services open! They are saying, ‘Let’s keep nurses working, cleaners working, garbage removal services open, food production ongoing.’ Food, fuel, shelter, cleaning: these are the ‘essential services.’”[2] And in 2019, Dr. Bhattacharya co-authored Feminism For the 99: A Manifesto which argues for the revitalization of left politics based on this practical and theoretical insight. Welcome to McMaster University (virtually), Dr. Bhattacharya.

I thought I might start off with a general question about social reproduction theory and about Feminism for the 99%… Can you tell us why you and your fellow authors, Cinzia Arruzza and Nancy Fraser, came to write this manifesto, and how is this manifesto being received throughout the world?

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: Well first, thank you Ian for inviting me here, and thank you to those of you who are taking time out during yet another wave of the pandemic to share some space with each other and talk about feminism and Marxist politics. Thank you so much for tuning in.

I see Susan Ferguson here, one of my co-conspirators. Hi, Sue! It’s just such a delight and a pleasure to be here. When you ask me that question [about] the Feminist Manifesto … the answer to that question is mass feminist politics. Right now, as we continue isolated in our activities and our pods, that movement and politics seems rather far away. 

Let me back up a little bit and remind ourselves – including myself… how… the [arguments] of the book continue to live, despite our pandemic times.

The book is actually a distillation of the political conversations and arguments that emerged through the first wave of feminist strikes… In 2016, there were massive feminist public protests in Poland to oppose an abortion ban and in Argentina against femicide and gender violence. During the winter of 2016, after those massive public demonstrations, many feminists in various parts of the world got together and started having a conversation. What if we revive the feminist strike?

2016 ended [with the nightmare of the] election of Trump in the United States. And so, in 2017, when we got invited as feminists in the United States to [an] international conversation about a feminist strike, it made perfect sense to us. The failure of liberal feminism to have any anchor in working-class politics in the United States was actually demonstrated by Hillary Clinton’s form of feminism (or ‘girl boss’ feminism… “lean-in feminism…”) The election of Trump came as severe blow… to this kind of liberal feminist politics to actually chart a path for working-class radicalism. So, it made perfect sense to us, as feminists in the United States, to… talk about a feminist strike and join in the global process of feminist strike organizing.

 March 8th 2017 [witnessed] a massive rolling wave of strikes across the globe. In the United States, we had organized massive demonstrations and work stoppages in all of the major cities. In Spain, and Argentina in particular, trade unions joined in the strike. It was the re-politicization of March 8th (or International Women’s Day) like we had not seen in many, many decades… And this happened in 2017, and 2018, in 2019 – until it came to an abrupt halt in 2020 with the pandemic.

How is a feminist strike different from a normal workplace strike? One of the very crucial arguments that we tried to make was [that whereas] a workplace strike was about the stoppage of work in the capitalist arena of profit-making, a feminist strike was the stoppage of all work. It wasn’t just that we were urging people to not go to work. We were also urging people… to refuse to cook, to refuse to smile, to refuse to do care work. So, all the preconditions that made capitalist work possible, we were refusing to do as well.

Those arguments of the street, and those arguments in the various feminist collectives, we tried then to distill and give voice to in that book. So, it’s really a book about the politics of the strike, if you like. We hoped that we would bring that politics to a wider arena.

The arguments of the book did really well, in the sense that it engendered a feminist conversation in many, many contexts and countries. The book has been translated in more than 30 languages, and … I feel really proud of the feminists who… (say, for instance, in China or in South Korea) who, under tremendous odds, had a study session about the book… and then reworked those arguments in their own national contexts and translated the book. That’s the part that is so exciting about the book.

MCKAY: In many ways the Manifesto echoes your work on social reproduction… I would like to quote just one of its most striking passages: “…capitalist society is composed of two inextricably braided but mutually opposed imperatives – the need of the system to sustain itself through its signature process of profit-making, versus the need of human beings to sustain themselves through processes that we call people-making.”[3] I sense that’s the core of the idea of social reproduction.

Would you be willing to give people a kind of introduction to social reproduction theory? I know it’s immensely complicated body of knowledge that’s accumulated over four decades, but I was just wondering if [you could explain to] people who haven’t heard about it, what does social reproduction mean? And can you tie it into what’s happened over the last four decades with neoliberalism? Because I think one argument might be that neoliberalism has systematically devalued social reproduction and monetized virtually every part of life, and that’s had a tremendous impact on [all those] carers, and cleaners, and cashiers… without whom it could not function.

BHATTACHARYA: I would really love to hear from the rest of you as well about how this theory makes (or doesn’t make) any sense in your own work or your own life, but I’ll just start that with a brief comment.

I think there are two impulses of capitalism as a system. There is a short-term impulse, which is to make profit at any cost. And there is a long-term survival impulse, which is it that has to take care, in a capitalistic way, of the widgets, us, the human beings who make those profits… I say “widgets,” because capitalism doesn’t really take care of human beings for the sake of taking care of human life, but it has to provide the basic conditions of reproduction of life, because otherwise the widgets, which is us, would not be producing profit.

Both of those tendencies go on at the same time. On the one hand, it [capitalism] giveth – it creates minimal conditions for life to continue and reproduce and the working-class family to be continuously reproduced. On the other hand, it taketh away, in that it makes it impossible for many working-class families not just to flourish, but even to exist in many cases. Here I think race, ethnicity, caste come in…. We have a disproportionate social reproduction of certain families at the expense of others…. In other words, if the worker makes profit [possible], then what are the processes, social processes, and institutional processes that make the worker? So, profit-making versus people-making.

Now, there are a couple of qualifiers… The qualifiers are as follows: capitalism will always try to deplete the conditions of life-making, so that workers basically are provided only [with] the very basic minimum of life-making in order to reproduce themselves. That’s the one rider, if you like… Every single advantage we have as a society as a collective has been won through working-class struggle.

So, to go back to the question… Capital constantly trying to deplete or minimize [life-making]… because any investment in working-class life actually has to come from profit. It has to come from a section of the profits, through taxes and so on, which has to be invested in health care, in schools… What capitalism wants is 100% profit, so even a tiny portion of the profit invested in social welfare of the working class is anathema to it.

But then, there is the long-term [consideration] that the widgets must be kept alive. So a skeletal infrastructure of social care is maintained by almost all capitalist societies – whether they are capitalist democracies, capitalist dictatorships, or anywhere in between. When people argue, “Oh but look at the Scandinavian countries… They have very robust systems,” there are two things to be said [in response]. One is that, if you look at any country’s healthcare or public education, investment in public care, and if you [then] look at… the rate of unionization, you will see they’re absolutely similar. So, all countries which have a unionization rate of 80% or above have that robust public social care system.  But, this does not make it any less capitalist… If you look at the Scandinavian countries right now, you will see that the minute that kind of an infrastructure brushes against questions of race and ethnicity, then it reveals its capitalist nature… For instance, if you go to Copenhagen now, you will see that certain neighbourhoods are segregated for Muslim immigrants (“Muslim immigrants should not be part of the wonderful urban life of Copenhagen because they’re not liberal enough.”) So, immigrant children are sent to segregated schools, they’re kept in ghettos… and so on. So again, before we celebrate the flourishing of public care in certain capitalist countries, we have to be careful [to notice] that it is not necessarily the flourishing of universal life, but is still a capitalist system of care. And yes, it’s better than what we have in the United States, but it is not what we want under socialism.

So social reproduction theory… looks at this tussle between capitalist profit-making (that is continuous) and the processes of life-making (that are also continuous). How much can the working class wrest from capital in order to remake our lives?

This tussle, I have to emphasize, does not have an end under capitalism. The system is set up in such a way that we can never actually… all share the fruits of the earth equally. That’s never ever, ever going to happen, because it is a system built on continuous profit-making for the few at the expense of the work of the many. In other words, if we’re talking about actual flourishing of human life – if we’re really exploring what human relationships [could] look like – human sexual relations… human relationships of parental love… we can’t do those experiments under capitalism fully. They will always necessarily be partial.

MCKAY: I wonder if I could bring you now to the pandemic that we’re going through and some of the ways in which social reproduction theory might illuminate the past two years of Covid-19. I noticed in your very wittily titled essay in the Social Reproduction collection, “How Not to Skip Class,” that you call attention to the myriad capillaries of social relations “extending between workplace, homeschools, and hospitals.”[4] What impact do you think the pandemic has had on those capillaries?

BHATTACHARYA: I’m going to start with a very cheap example, if you like… The Democrats are in power. We are no longer under Trump. Everything was supposed to go well… [Joe Biden proposes… two kinds of bills.] One bill is the infrastructure bill, which is to pour money into bridges,  roads, railways, etc. (I am not opposed to that bill… we need more infrastructure.) Then there is the bill which is about childcare credit, universal childcare, free college, better environment protections, etc. That bill has been whittled down from 1 trillion dollars down to nothing – and even at that nothing stage, it is not going to pass… Even during the pandemic, you see the priorities of capitalism here.

The priorities of capitalism still [are] absolutely not about preserving life. We can see this in so many distinct ways. [In] every single decision that capitalism was forced to take, before the vaccines came out,  you could see the kind of things that the system is capable of. Overnight, hospitals were built, hotel rooms were commandeered by governments to house houseless people. In Britain, everyone was given a minimum wage while they stayed away from work. The system went on a sort of war footing in order to make sure that the pandemic was dealt with. But the minute it stabilized to a certain extent, the whole effort of the system was to put [into getting] people back into work.

In the United States, the question of school closing for K through 12, for kindergarten to high school students, has been all about putting their parents back into work… So, to me, here I think capitalism demonstrates very clearly what its priorities are. And its priorities are: “Yes, there is a pandemic we need to survive, and once we’ve passed the big swirl, we just need to put people back into work.”

To me this is criminal in so many ways. It is going to affect certain populations far more than others. I have a choice, sometimes, to teach online. The person who checks out my groceries does not, so she has to go to work every day and she is not given any protection by my local government… So certain populations will simply die off. Disabled people, people in dangerous jobs in the meat production plans (we saw how the virus ripped through them). Union protection is very low in the United States. Even where there are unions, they are often business unions and they do not protect their members adequately.

This is the short-term sort of component of the system coming to the fore: “We need to get people back to work, we need to continue to make profit… Life be damned, we need to get people back to the workplace.”

More and more I [hear] people saying things like, “Zero Covid is not possible.” This is the sort of absolute ideology coming from the ruling class. “Zero Covid is not possible; Covid has to be endemic.” What does that mean? It simply means that we’re just going to have to sacrifice some of our lives in order for us to live with Covid. So, “Zero Covid is not possible; we’re not going to stop the profit-making in order for some life to be protected, in order for us to defeat the virus. We’re just going to sacrifice some lives in order for us to normalize Covid.”

I don’t know if the system can be saved. The long-term prospects of the system look really, really bad, not just in terms of profits, but also (more seriously) in terms of the climate crisis.

This is an absolute case of capitalism… playing out [as in] the Don’t Look Up [scenario]… “I’m not going to look at the climate crisis, I’m going to focus on short-term profit-making.” Fossil fuels continue to dominate the conversation in all countries… In the long term, [the prospects of] the system look really poor.

MCKAY: My last question to you and then I will turn it over the audience. I’d like you to shift the focus to India and what you’ve written about Narendra Modi. His is an extreme form of Hindu nationalism, but you also describe… his deep-seated commitment to neoliberal verities and to neoliberalism as a body of thought. Other people depict him as a populist, some people even call him a fascist, and I think to the outside world he’s a bit of an enigma. You have the marriage of a fairly strident… drive for Hindu purity in India, combined with a form of neoliberalism. That doesn’t really seem like a natural combination. So, would you basically agree that there’s a contradiction between Modi’s neoliberalism and his Hindu nationalism? Is India an example of the contradictions of the liberal order, as we’ve experienced them over the last two years?

BHATTACHARYA: I don’t think there is any contradiction between neoliberalism and Hindutva[5] as a politics. As a historian, I have to remind everyone that there is nothing called Hinduism per se. This corporate understanding of Hinduism as one, singular religion was created in the 19th century. If you went to twelfth-century India and you asked someone, “Are you a Hindu?” that would absolutely make no sense to them. They would say “I don’t know what you mean.” If you asked, “well, what gods do you worship?” ­– most likely, if this were an ordinary person, they would say, “Well I worship Shiva.” So, they would be a “Shivaite.” “But what do you do on Fridays?” “Well, I go to the local Sufi saint… and I put a little lamp there.” “Really? you go to the Muslims? And what do you do on Saturdays?” “Well, Saturdays, I’m very holy, because I do worship the snake goddess, because I work in the jungle, in the forest, and the snake goddess is very potent, so I worship the snake goddess.”

This is what absolutely mystified the British census takers in the 19th century. They would go in and say, “what is your religion,” and no one knew what that question meant and so they would say “who do you worship?” – and they would say “Well, Shiva,” and they say, “okay Hindu” and then they would say, “Well, the Sufi Saint Nāimī.” “Oh, then, Muslim.” This was how a corporate identity of Hinduism was created.

But to go back to Narendra Modi. There is no contradiction because, actually, Hindutva as a force emerged in the 1980s and the early 1990s as neoliberalism was being consolidated in India. Hindutva is an expression of neoliberalism – and a particular way the Indian ruling class discovered to organize violence and to organize neoliberal production. So, for instance, in 1992 the leading Hindutva [advocate] was a central government minister at the time, Lal Krishna Advani. He led what was called a “Ratha Yatra.”[6] So he took a sort of mythological chariot from Hindu mythology, and he rode the chariot throughout India. Wherever the chariot went, it sparked riots against Muslims. It was these Hindu fanatics riding behind this mythological ancient chariot – but the chariot was pulled for the first time by a Toyota engine, because the market had just opened up for Toyota cars to come into India. That is the perfect moment, for me, of how neoliberalism expressed itself in India through Hindutva politics.

Narendra Modi as a person… is absolutely a fascist. He comes from the openly fascist organization of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] which is a militia group. It does not run elections. It’s a street-fighting gang. It organizes… branches in neighborhoods to arm Hindu gangs and basically attacks Muslims and Dalits. The RSS was formed in the 1920s and openly admired Hitler in the 1930s. In its literature, it talks about how Hitler dealt with the Jewish problem, [which] is how in India we ought to deal with the Muslim problem. These are very open RSS lines. And Modi was a pracharik (or in other words, an organizer) for the RSS. That’s how he rose in the ranks of the BJP [Bharatiyia Janata Party], which was the electoral, more civilized wing or expression of the RSS. That’s how Modi rose.

So personally, he comes from an openly fascist background. He was the chief minister of Gujarat which had organized pogroms against Muslims, which included things like Muslim families being burned alive … and RSS members organizing and directing that kind of violence on the streets.

There was no question when Modi was elected as chief minister that he was going to Hinduize and turn the Indian state in these authoritarian directions. I think we were all hesitant to call the Indian state fascist when Modi first came to power, but… the Indian state is rapidly turning fascist as we speak, and particularly through increasingly authoritarian moves. Journalists are being murdered in their own homes. There are open lynchings of Muslims and Christians and Dalits on the streets. These are all state-sponsored activities.

As you probably know, the Modi government was dealt a decisive defeat by the farmers’ movement, which was a months-long movement against the government withdrawal of farm subsidies [and policies] that would have flooded the market with corporate seeds and so on. I want to say that [with] Modi… the prospects of democracy in India darken every day, but I also want to say [that] after the farmers’ movement, Modi still hasn’t had the last word.

MCKAY: Can I just take you briefly to his handling of the pandemic? To someone who doesn’t know India [in detail], it sounded unbelievable that you would give people just four hours notice before you launched one of the world’s most rigorous lockdowns, with almost no provision for people who were going to be thrown basically into starvation, forcing them to migrate hundreds of miles with many deaths, with no real regard for their welfare… [One thinks of that] amazing scene in which a whole crowd of migrants was doused with bleach, as a visual metaphor of how they’re regarded as subhuman.

BHATTACHARYA: I want to say one thing, though… Modi represents an ultimate sort of authoritarian fascist expression of Hindutva, but there has been a continuous escalation of this, and this is where I want to draw attention to the fact that the value of life in India has been depleted and lessened through successive governments of neoliberals.

Yes, Modi is an extreme example… [But] if you look at faculty from India – in Canada, the United States and England – I guarantee 90 percent of them will be from the upper castes. I went to school in India, and I studied barely with any Dalit classmates.

So, this kind of lessening of life, this kind of depletion of value of life, has been a standard practice since the big mass movements of the freedom struggle receded. The story of independent India and the story of the coming of the neoliberal era from the end of the 1970s from the 1980s has been a [steady] lessening of the value of life… The bleach incident was horrible, but I can see a Congress government doing exactly the same thing. (What I can’t see under a Congress government is perhaps some of the more extreme things of like “Love jihad”[7] and the murder of journalists in their own home…) But this kind of cheapening of working-class lives and Dalit lives would be perfectly possible under a Congress government.

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: Thank you for just reminding me about the importance of the work …and reminding me why I struggle every semester to explain it to first-year students and why that is so important, so I thank you for that. You were asking about some of the conditions where we live, and as you were talking about people-making versus profit-making in relation to Covid, I was thinking about this city in which we live in – Hamilton, Ontario – which is… a place with a lot of inequality and a lot of social struggles and a really vibrant activist class. And that language of people-making and profit-making has been expressed on the ground in powerful disability justice networks as a discourse about eugenics in the context of Covid-19.

BHATTACHARYA: Here in my university, we have a very vibrant critical disability studies program. I’ve been talking to some of those students and the faculty about… how capitalism always – but in particular through Covid – is sacrificing the life of disabled and immune-compromised people.

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE:  So, there’s a powerful cadre… of grassroots activists in this city… They have developed a powerful analysis that connects all of those things and creates affinities with Indigenous land-back movements, which are also very powerful in this area, and affinities with Palestinian struggles. And they have developed mostly out of young people of colour, between the ages of 14 and their mid-20s.  [They are] people who are living the politics on the streets, and they are amazing… It’s a wonderful kind of melting pot of on-the-street activism and alliances with the university, but absolutely and completely led and directed by young people of colour on the streets of the city. It’s an amazing thing to watch.

BHATTACHARYA: That is so powerful. Thank you thank you so much for sharing

MCKAY: Well, maybe I can ask a question of Sue Ferguson in our audience [who has also written a major text on social reproduction].[8] It strikes me how much Canadians have contributed to social reproduction theory… I can list about a dozen major theorists who are Canadian – and without sounding to be like the Canadian nationalist I’m not, isn’t that interesting? Is that a pattern you yourself have noticed?

SUE FERGUSON: So, I have in fact written about that. One of my very early… articles I ever published was in New Politics and then reproduced in Critical Sociology. New Politics… insisted that I change the title… to something like “Canadian contributions to social reproduction theory” or something along those lines. So yes, it is remarkable.

I don’t know exactly why, except I would say that there was a very strong cohort of folks at York University who were not just academics but also had very strong ties to the daycare movement in Toronto. I think that connection between their kind of social movement activism and their academic interests really made an impact, and they developed their own cohort… There was a pretty strong [tradition of] Canadian critical political economy… as well too. They then set out a set of discussions that feminists wanted to, and needed to, respond to.

I think in the US, maybe, the lack of a social democratic party made a difference a little bit too, because I’m not sure the milieu was as strong for putting those questions on the table at that time.

BHATTACHARYA: I think one of the things that maybe Sue you’re pointing to (and it’s also worth sort of thinking about and thinking through, perhaps) is a tradition of open Marxism. And by open Marxism I mean a Marxism [encompassing] a freedom to explore Marxist ideas without heresy-hunting. [It emerged] in the 1970s organically on the street, but from the 80s onwards, it got pushed into certain academic enclaves.

York probably was a sort of safe space, if you like, to explore some open Marxist ideas which and gained a critical mass… In the United States, it would be impossible to gain that kind of a critical mass in any university for… any sort of collective Marxist exploration.

To me it’s quite significant that when Historical Materialism as a conference space began to emerge from the 1990s, those kinds of conversations came back on the table.  People again felt freer outside of Marxist organizational practices to actually explore ideas, explore themes, and most importantly, those kinds of conferences allowed… an interface between activists and academics. Those kinds of critical open spaces to explore and think through some Marxist ideas helped cohere some of these ideas. I’m so glad Canada had [them].

MCKAY: Sue, did you want to add anything to that?

FERGUSON: I think in the more recent past, what’s been so fabulous has been the internationalization of that very same pattern, and I think a lot of that had to do with precisely the strikes that Tithi talked to talked about. I think post-2008, was just a real uptick in interest. There was a shift away from poststructuralist, postmodernist kinds of explanations. People were frustrated with the lack of the materialist kind of analysis… I think there’s much to be gained and learned from thinking through and reading a lot of the poststructuralist, postmodernist [work], but I think the lack of materialist analysis [was glaring]. I certainly know people being a lot more interested in my stuff after that point (I’ve been writing about it since the 1990s).

BHATTACHARYA: There was, in traditional Marxist circles, constant talk of trying to find the… “unicorn” which is workplace struggle. Everything – working-class consciousness, working-class radicalism – was all calibrated and imagined through workplace struggles. But, on the other hand, you actually had a massive uptick of working-class struggles, except they were not always in the workplace. We had housing struggles (as Sue points out), we had struggles for water in Cochabamba, Bolivia, you had struggles against privatization of land, forests and native rivers and access to water. So, all of these struggles were obviously working-class struggles, but they did not… arise in the theoretical register of traditional Marxist thought. I think social reproduction theory suddenly began to resonate when those struggles… became more legible for a wider left.

MCKAY: Can I ask both Tithi and Sue a question about intersectionality. The social reproduction collection has a major critique of intersectionality theory by David McNally – a careful critique. It says [intersectionality] makes a positive contribution, but it has limitations. It tends to treat the “streets” that are in the intersection as fixed and firm entities, without really pondering how these categories came into being, or how they were contradictory and interacted with each other. I think he’s sensing a kind of static quality to intersectionality theory. Would you two share that critique? Do you see social reproduction as distinct from intersectional theory or as a complement to it?

BHATTACHARYA: First of all, yes, I share David’s analysis of intersectionality. But (and I want to re-emphasize… what you said) David’s is a very careful analysis of intersectionality. It’s not a rejection per se of intersectionality; it talks very much about the contribution, especially the contribution of drawing attention to certain categories of oppression and the workings of these oppressions that perhaps had not received the kind of attention that they deserve in the world of theory and theorization. But it is in the world of theorization that I think our differences become more prominent, vis-a-vis intersectionality.

In the United States… young people (and activists in particular), when they say “intersectional politics,”  they mean “anti-racist policies.” I would not actually walk into a classroom and say, “I am against intersectionality,” because… in the street language, in the activist sphere [that would be like] me saying, “I’m against anti-racist politics.”… If an activist says, “I want to be intersectional” – it means simply that they are signalling that they want to be sensitive to anti-racism. They want to incorporate anti-racism in their work. In this, we are absolutely on the same page with them.

David’s critique is very much a theorization of intersectionality and where we differ from it. I direct everyone to go read that essay because it’s such a carefully laid-out argument, but essentially the argument is that intersectionality as a theory … falls short because …there is no explanatory framework…. It’s more of a descriptive framework that [says], things intersect. We don’t get a sense of why they intersect in particular ways, nor do we get a sense of how these relationships are often modular (and by modular I mean that violence is organized in a modular way under capitalism, but with its own… national or local instantiation). For instance, in the United States, violence is organized through race; in India, violence is often organized through caste. Now intersectionality will tell you that violence is organized through race or through caste, but it doesn’t give you a sense as to why these modular organization patterns happen over and over again in capitalist society… So, it’s a very useful theory if you’re describing oppression under capitalism, but it falls short in actually explaining why it happens the way it does.

MCKAY: Sue, did you want to add anything to that?

FERGUSON: I think one of the key differences is that intersectional feminism will resist, often, naming the social power relations of capitalism – as the way social power works through capitalist social relations. So that’s why there’s no kind of explanation for how these “modular patterns” appear, to use Tithi’s term. Whereas social reproduction theory will say, “Well, we’re talking about a capitalist world and it’s a capitalist world because we can only make our world through the work that we do (either paid or unpaid) in a society in which capitalism has dispossessed all of us of the resources for the work… This is the terrain on which our struggles are happening”… I owe a huge debt, though, [to] Black feminism, anti- racist feminism, intersectionality feminism, whatever we want to call it. Because it is through thinking through their challenges to earlier social reproduction feminists, and thinking about their notion of co-constitution and how our relations are mediated in so many different ways and not just through the labour/capital relationship, that you can come to understand that… social reproduction itself is a much more complex thing than just an issue about gender relations. We are always building off each other in those ways. It’s not that social reproduction theory has the last word, either… I think some of the things that have already been talked about with the development of more disability theory – those things will expand and break through in different directions in ways that we should all celebrate with all theory. It’s not kind of a competition between them.

MCKAY: Tithi, you write, “If the virus passes and we go back to life as before, then this has taught us nothing.” As we’re entering, very reluctantly, year three of the pandemic, what do you sense of this as a turning point for the struggles that you so deeply believe in? Do you get a sense that pandemic weariness is draining the energy out of many of the hopes that people had in the first year? In the first year of the pandemic, I think, [we found] a lot of very expansive, almost utopian thought… Do you think we’re still at a kind of historical inflection point where the left will really be able to gain traction out of what has been an exploitive and cruel experience for so many people?

BHATTACHARYA: That’s the million-dollar question. I do not want to end on a very low note here. But I also have to be realistic. This has not a been a great time for the global left. We had, as you pointed out, some exceptional global moments of solidarity and protest. Who would have thought that the regular murder of black men in the United States would acquire this absolutely brilliant powerful global moment of resistance, all the way from the toppling of slaver statues to fighting against the Modi government in India to large demonstrations in Latin America for Black Lives Matter? It was an extraordinary moment – and that was at the height of the pandemic.

So, I do not want [to draw too strict a line] between the isolation that the pandemic has imposed upon us and the ability to mobilize. I don’t think they are as firmly separated as sometimes it may appear…

 Having said that, the [prospects] of the organized left in the Anglo world (as well as in many important sections of the globe) have been very poor and, in a lot of cases, the left has disarmed itself to a large extent… The attack on Palestinian rights and the capitulation of sections of the left to Zionist pressure has been very disheartening for many of us in the Palestinian movement. We are also seeing a re-consolidation of the centre through Biden and centrist politics, which is also disarming sections of leftist mobilization. And of course, the pandemic has meant that authoritarianism continues to march. Bolsonaro still lives on, while the Amazon burns. Modi’s electoral chances have been affected through these last two years, but I don’t think he’s going to be toppled anytime soon.

That’s the bad news, if you like. I think the good news is that we have no other options left. The reason why millions of people took to the streets around the open murder of George Floyd was because there was nothing more to lose. If the black community did not show the way at that point, it would just mean a continuation of a regime that was going to actually destroy entire communities and ways of life and entire histories.

All those conditions of oppression and violence continue to exist. So, I do not see a reason why this powder keg that we are living in, is not going to have a spark in the future. What worries me… is the episodic nature of these protests. So we’re going to see huge bursts of protest, and they’re extremely energizing and that’s what keeps us going right, as a left. However, without a strong organized left – and I don’t mean necessarily parties but any kind of infrastructure to cohere those protests, to anchor them in workplaces, in communities, to actually build a new generation of activists and train them – without that infrastructure, the protests will continue to remain episodic.  That’s really the challenge and the danger that I think we face in the coming years.

MCKAY: I’ll take from that a concluding message of hope and thank you, Tithi, for an immensely illuminating evening.

Tithi Battacharya spoke to Syndemic on 3 February 2022.

[1] Tithi Bhattacharya, ed., Social Reproduction  Theory : Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto Press, 2017.

[2] Tithi Bhattacharya in conversation with in Sarah Jaffe, “Social Reproduction and the Pandemic,” Dissent Magazine, 2 April 2020.

[3] Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser, Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (London and New York: Verso, 2019), 68.

[4] Tithi Bhattacharya, ed., Social Reproduction  Theory : Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (London: Pluto Press, 2017), 3.

[5] “Hindutva” is a term subject to various interpretations, all of which can be related to the idea of a universal, essential Hindu identity, sharply distinguished from others, in particular those related to Islam.  

[6] I.e., a public procession in a chariot, often with particular reference to annual commemorations in East Indian states.

[7] A conspiracy theory maintaining that Muslim men target Hindu women in order to transform India into an Islamic state.

[8] See Susan Ferguson, Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2019).