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Kosambi Circle meeting 18 notes

30 August 2020

Meeting notes

This was the eighteenth meeting of the KRAC and the third and last meeting for Gender Month at Kosambi Reading and Analysis Circle. It was attended by 207 participants (171 peak members at any time) on Zoom.

At the outset of the meeting the convenors set out the framing to discuss the three readings. The first reading, ‘Minding their Business: The Unfinished Battle for Sex Workers’ by Siddharth Dube, holds that sex work is fundamentally economic in nature. It states that a lot of harm that comes to sex workers is not just from religious conservatives but also from strands of prohibitive feminism which, on ground, functionally end up bolstering policies which are harmful to sex workers. The second reading “The Combahee River Collective Statement” goes into identity politics and shows how it has been appropriated by liberals and how it is necessary to re-appropriate it. The third reading, ‘Kinderkommunismus’ is focused on the social reproduction of the family.

Having set the main argument of the three readings, the convenor began with a summary of the first one. The first reading is a detailed examination of sex work industry and sex work movements from the peak of the HIV crisis till today. It covers the movements organised by sex workers to assert their rights and depicts how these movements moved both forward and backward in the last few decades.

Looking at Dube’s perspective from a Marxist lens, a few questions were raised – is sex work uniquely bad for women or do the problems faced by sex workers portray the alienation experienced by all kinds of wage work? The article suggests that the abolition of capitalism cannot happen without abolition of sex work because sex work is like any other wage labor.

The convenors also note that the article lacks a Dalit feminist approach even though it does include a quote from a Dalit woman sex worker which gives some insight into how the sex workers’ movement still invisibilizes them.

The article is mainly concerned with movements of international finance and how right-wing reactionary movements have come together to adversely impact the rights of sex workers globally. It begins with describing the landmark gathering of the sex workers in Salt Lake stadium (Kolkata) organised by the Darbar Mahila Samiti. This was after the AIDS panic of the early 90s which led to intense dehumanization of sex workers in India. The consequence of such dehumanisation was that the sex workers were stripped of their sources of income and sent home by a euphemistic “liberation” train.

When the disease started spreading all over the country, sex workers were often vilified as the vectors of the disease. This reaction wasn’t disconnected from the historical understanding of sex work and sex workers in India. For ex – Gandhi’s disgust for sex workers was apparent when he refused to let sex workers to join the anti-colonial struggle.

Dube characterizes the sex work industry as being very diverse and makes it seem like any other industry. It also shows different types of sex workers – bread and butter, seasonal, etc. The article captures local and global factors that led to the rise of the sex workers’ movement (which was not just led by benevolent personalities but also the sex workers themselves), as well as its decline. He also points out how the HIV campaigns were looked down upon in India, through the narratives of several sex workers.

Another landmark decision which impacted the sex workers’ movements in India was the release of the National Commission of Women Report which integrated the inputs of the sex workers to guide national-level policy. It recommended a range of ameliorative measures, even those measures which were contested by sex workers, and demanded the complete decriminalisation of sex workers. These developments led to the creation of a national consciousness which favoured the sex workers of India. The nature of sex work in India is already well known as compared to other countries. The sex work industry of India was used as an example by the UN for its organisational acumen. At the local level, the sex workers were strengthening as a community and gaining more decision-making powers. However, in places like Mumbai where the sex work industry was controlled and managed by criminals and mafias, sex workers suffered since they could not organise themselves.

The author noted that the backtracking of the national consciousness around sex work occured when Bush was elected as the 43rd president of the US. He made HIV-related financial support from America contingent upon teaching abstinence instead of safe-sex in developing countries, imposing Christian morality upon the people. Bush insisted that the American mission of invasion of Iraq was not simply to liberate Iraq, but also those chained by “modern slavery” which was, according to him, sex trafficking.

This generated a popular narrative which criminalized sex work as a mode of employment since it employed women who were trafficked across borders. This rhetoric of liberation resounded in the Mukti express back home, which sent sex workers home at the peak of the AIDS panic without giving them any financial or economic support. The impact of Bush’s statements on “sex trafficking” and his views on “sex work” had a huge impact on the functioning of AIDS prevention programmes in developing countries such as India since a large proportion of money was tied to international organisations. Consequently, the Congress government, under such pressures, tore down all the good work that had been done until then. It imposed a “raid and rescue” model to prevent sex trafficking which caused extreme harassment and abuse of sex workers all over India. The police could break into the brothels and even the homes of the sex workers – sometimes forcing them to check into reformatory homes and institutions.

During this phase, the sex workers in India suffered tremendously. However, many NGOs and organisations dedicated towards helping sex workers helped in closing the gap which was created due to the lack of funding. Several academicians performed economic and anthropological studies to remove the stigma attached to sex work. The economic studies attempted to reveal the economic reasoning behind taking up the job.

The article moves on to discuss the advancements which feminism had made throughout the decades in formalising and organising sex workers in developing countries. However, Dube is extremely critical of the unholy alliance between the right-wing, radical and Marxist feminists in the US. Such alliances have pushed the legislations around the sex industry back by at least a decade. Feminists such as Catherine McKinnon believe that “all sex work is coerced”, which delegitimizes the existence of sex work as a fully functioning industry. The Nordic model on sex work is also extremely regressive and makes it difficult for the sex workers to achieve social and economic stability. To summarize, the unholy alliance of liberal feminists, radical feminists, popular journalists and conservative feminists in the US has impacted the way in which the sex work industry is perceived and structured in developing countries such as India. Organisations like Apne Aap sensationalize sex work and anti-trafficking movements outspend the sex work rights movements by a huge margin. The backtracking on sex workers’ rights in India is extremely unfortunate. However, they continue to organise as a community and as allies. The article ends on a sour note that the promise that was seen at the Salt Lake has not been met.

In the discussion following the summary of the reading, the convenor noted that the Nordic model is not propagated by liberal feminists only. There is a Marxist articulation which says that what causes sex work to be coerced is the capitalist aspect (that money is involved) – which makes it coerced/ rape, and not wage work.

A participant asked about the difference between migrant workers and sex workers. The convenors responded that while migrant workers are seen as legitimate workers, sex workers face the threat of being erased as workers. They further added that the HIV scare was used to oppress these people further and that the police and other organisations clamped down on sex workers even though sex workers were leading the cause against HIV.

It was further noted that sex work in India is perceived in polarities – the Apne Aap side that only looks at sex workers as rescue projects and strips them of dignity of labour, and the white liberal OnlyFans side that looks at its liberating aspect while completely ignoring the sex trafficking reality in India. The material aspect of sex work needs to be looked into better to bridge this polarity.

A participant said we need to discuss the history of the nationalist movement being anti-sex work, and the idea of the public and private divide with regards to gender (the idea of the “good woman”) that is related to the criminalisation of sex work (and sees it as coerced) and look into updates to the anti-trafficking bill if any.

Having spent substantial time discussing the first reading, we then moved on to discuss the second reading, i.e. The Combahee River Collective Statement. The Combahee River Collective was a black feminist lesbian organisation.

The statement is not a manifesto, but an articulation of the field of struggle that black lesbian feminists have to contend with and work in. It was aimed specifically at black women and other women of colour. The need for the organization was felt in order to interpret the contours of their oppression and in order to come up with a program that addresses their identity. The discrimination black women experienced in white feminist organisations, and the fact that black men held more power in civil rights/black liberation/left movements, made black lesbian women realize that they would have to come up with their own organization. They would work with larger left allies and the black liberation movement but they would be independent of them. Black women’s experience of racial sexual oppression since childhood – for example, the rape of black women by white men – needed to be addressed in such an organisation

The statement believes in identity politics (differently from the convoluted way in which it is understood by liberals today): it sees it as specifically rooted in anti-capitalist politics, and the genesis of intersectional feminism. he piece suggests that because black women are human and deserve independence in and of themselves, identity politics becomes important. It also addresses them as doubly marginal as workers and identifies this as being important to the analysis of capitalism. It also emphasizes that “the personal is political” because it believes that radical politics can only come out of your own identity and struggle against oppression. The politics of black women emerges from the experience of racial sexism by black women from their childhood.

The idea among black men at the time was that black women who are smart must also be ugly. The statement thus strives for a solidarity centred around race for black lesbian women as they struggle with black men against racism, and struggle against black men because of sexism.

It is difficult to organize lesbian black women. The traumas they have faced since childhood are racial, sexual and economic in nature. The environment in which they work is not congenial to combining the different modes of resistance they face. There is no racial, sexual or class solidarity to rely on. It is easier for a black man to organize around blackness than for black women, since the latter lack sexual privilege. There is a fear of splitting the movement; emerging from popular conviction about gender roles. Black women are seen as damaging to the integrity of the larger movement. Given their difficulty in organizing themselves, there is something noble about how they carry on their political, personal, and academic organization in spite of all of these obstacles.

The discussion on the statement started as an attendee raised a question as to “why movements that seek to end racism benefit from, and therefore do not just bypass, white people?”. The Convenors responded that it is important to note that allyship and solidarity are fundamentally different concepts. White heterosexual cis men participating in the movement are not a problem. Appropriation of the movement is what harms it. For example, when you had marginalized castes leading movements, they would not admit their caste. Recent left activism in America saw conservative black leaders voting against class interests. There is a need to distinguish between activism and organizing. We need to inspect how the absence of men because of incarceration affects black feminism, and how it informs material realities.

The 3rd piece that was discussed was Kinderkommunisms by K.D Griffiths and J.J. Gleeson. The title translates to “children communism”.

It is about the family and its place within capitalism, and how it is instrumental to the building up of capitalism and the working class. It argues that the end of capitalism requires the end of the family. It offers a speculative model of what a family could look like in the communist future.

The Convenor notes that the cogent point the reading carries is that the family is not under threat from anything despite conservatives talking about how the inclusion of LGBTQ people has led to the decay of the institution of the family. The family is stable. It has changed in form but as long as class society exists, family is going to exist.

The defining feature of the family is flexibility and it is entrenched throughout the world, in all societies, in different forms. It is an instrument of social reproduction that enables the creation of individual workers. And as a class, it defines the relationship between the working class and the state.

The family creates the working class. It is interesting to study the way in which the capitalist family acts as an intermediary between the class and the state. A lot of the burdens that were initially the state’s (like the welfare state) have been transferred to the family, and many nurture programs are now being taken care of by the family. Thus, the family is the site of social reproduction. It coerces members of the family to participate in capitalist social relations and capitalist social labour.

We spoke about how family wage (a wage that is sufficient for an average-sized family, paid to a single worker, usually the working male head of a nuclear family) forced women into double shifts. It was characteristic in their expression within the family.

The family is heteronormative and dyadic. It has a parent unit and a child unit and no place for queer people, and with the AIDS crisis and the degradation of the welfare state, it has become very hard for queer people to support themselves without any support from the state or family. The gay community campaigned to assimilate male homosexuality within the ideological confines of the family, opting to be a part of social construction of family as a result.

The piece contends with queer rejectionism. Queer rejectionism i.e. rejecting the family as an institution, is the only existing radical assault against family. It defines queerness as an identity that celeberates tension and identity as a notion. It however has an issue. The family is misidentified as a cultural concept whereas it is inherently an economic necessity. The program does not provide a material replacement to the capitalist family as we know it. Instead the authors offer communism. The family’s social reproductive role can be played by communism. The goal of communism is a collectivist society – a society in which existing outside of a society would be seen as a burden.

The authors suggest an anti-dyadic crèche, which militates against the idea of family as a “parents and child” unit. The family they are trying to propagate is explained in the rest of the essay. The crèche combines education and child rearing within the same institution (similar to the Israeli kibbutzim).

The piece breaks the image that a woman should put everything aside to raise an infant to an adult. It unmoores biological reproduction from social reproduction, and seeks to develop the individual as a part of history, not divorced from their historical moorings, through something that is communistic and dialectical and inherently tends self-dissolution in the future

The crèche would also combat the ways in which gender is disseminated through the heteronormative family to children who may not identify as cisgendered or heterosexual.One of the questions raised towards the end of the meeting was – to what extent does the crèche run on acoercive basis? Is the crèche only going to come about in a post-capitalist society and therefore not be coercive? Or is it going to be coercive then too? The convenors responded saying that the reading takes a totalising world view of the crèche as well – the crèche might well become the family and replicate the issues that family has.

The meeting ended on this note.


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