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Credits : Alicia Beaulieu © Penninghen 2017

The vitality of labour and its ghosts

Laura Bear

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1A little reflected upon aspect of capitalism is that its reproduction relies on a sense that there exist large-scale generative processes that persist through time (Bear, Ho, Tsing & Yanagisako 2015). People from economists and bureaucrats to precarious workers across the world attempt to tap into and make visible these powers through various conducts of productivity (Bear 2015). It is this sense that allows us to hold fast to the ideas of abundance, growth and fertility even as we witness the destructive effects of labour and capital. It is also what makes a post-growth economics so very hard to imagine—we would have to detach our concepts of life as a visceral growing force from our relations of property, labour and accumulation. And yet, as I will suggest here, sometimes we can glimpse the large-scale destructive power of our labour through ghosts.

Fig. 1. Gear I, Théo Delbrel, 2017

Fig. 1. Gear I, Théo Delbrel, 2017

Illustration : Théo Delbrel © Penninghen 2017

Fig. 2. Work and ‘Shahosh’ (Bravery), 2008

Fig. 2. Work and ‘Shahosh’ (Bravery), 2008

Photo : Laura Bear

2One place where people do this is in Venture shipyard on the banks of the Hooghly River in Howrah, West Bengal. Here, as I discovered during my recent fieldwork, precarious workers encompass acts of labour within an expansive ethics of a fertile productive life. This life moves between the contexts of kinship, ritual and work. Its circulation is sustained by long term relationships of mutuality. In fact, it is rituals, terms and acts associated with kinship that are used to ensure its circulation. The mutuality of being incorporates wage labour and its products (Sahlins 2011). In addition, the multimodality of kinship, and of whole bodies in interaction with worlds, is explicitly enacted here on an expanded scale (Feeley-Harnik 2014). The fertile force of life moves between deities, houses, workplaces and commodities through the transactions of labour. This is a totalizing cosmopolitical logic built around kinshipping terms and the act of work. This conduct of productivity can be related to Hindu concepts of shakti (a divine life-force) and to the insecurity of informalized work. It insists that labour should be for the creation of abundant life, especially that of communities and households. Yet, this ethic of productivity is disrupted by claims of individual suffering in labour that surface in relation to encounters with ghosts in places of work.

Fig. 3. A drawing under the ice-class ship to keep ghosts away, 2008

Fig. 3. A drawing under the ice-class ship to keep ghosts away, 2008

Photo : Laura Bear

3Men spoke often of the relationship between bhuts (ghosts) and places of work, usually as they reflected on their own fragile, worn bodies and the threat of accidents. They drew on an older idiom of bhuts, djins and raksas well known from South Asia among Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike (Standlen, unpublished, Froerer 2007, Khan 2006, Rashid 2007, Rozario 1998, Spiro 2005, Taneja 2013). These are revenants who have died in untimely ways that are a source of trouble and illness and can possess humans. They can also be monstrous half-human, half-animal spirits that wander in uncultivated spaces. These bhuts are attracted by humans who wander beyond the boundaries of lived settlements and by food—especially fish (they are hungry) and young women. But they can suddenly appear and haunt households if they are victims of an accident, suicide or illness. They are usually dealt with by ritual specialists, who exorcise them through amulets and spells. Most recently Taneja has argued that these make tangible connections to the past in ways that disrupt homogenised bureaucratic space and time. Other authors focus on how they allow the voicing of repressed tensions of kinship, community and gender. But the ghosts workers encountered and spoke of were distinct from these. They came close and spread their polluting, disruptive lethal effects in places of work. When they appeared they were evidence of large-scale processes of death, violence and unproductivity. In the metaphorical narratives that explained their presence, they were the sensory proof of violent death and a potential cause of it. No ritual specialists were called on to exorcise them. They could only be exorcised through a masculine courage of heart (shahosh), persistence in work and rituals to the goddess Kali—in particular her shamshan or ferocious form linked to burning ghats (crematoriums).

4I will argue here these ghosts allow the emergence of an excluded part of the ethics of the fertility of labour and, more broadly, the conduct of productivity in capitalism. They draw attention to the excluded element from this ethics—individual suffering, decay and death. The ethics of labour as generative power meets its limit in the inevitable fact of the death of humans, the extinction of resources and the lack of caring that produces decline. It therefore has as its excluded other a necropolitics, those who are not generative, those who are dekinned from the household of labour and the non-human world that can be wasted. Shipyard workers in their encounters and narratives of ghosts at work reflect on their own mortality and attempt to reach beyond the vitality of labour. Kali stands guard over their efforts making the death in life visible, but with ambivalent effects as she can defer mortality or make it creative (Mcdermott 2000, Mcdermott and Kripal 2003). Nevertheless, as we will see these ghosts and Kali may take us towards a post-growth ethic. They also can help us understand other ethics of the vitality of labour and their ability to represent the destructiveness of it, including well known examples of occult economies of vampires, sacrifice and devil-contracts.

Fig. 4. Drowning the dead, Félicie Lacroix, 2017

Fig. 4. Drowning the dead, Félicie Lacroix, 2017

Illustration : Félicie Lacroix © Penninghen 2017

The vitality of labour in Venture shipyard

5Workers in Venture come from established working class neighbourhoods that have existed for four generations in Howrah. Longer term residents live in tightly knit communities in permanent concrete one room houses on land that they have squatted on for several generations. More recent migrants from West, Bengal, Bihar and further afield such as Andra Pradesh live in mud one room houses near Venture. Venture itself is a temporary, volatile assemblage formed from a joining together of family, state and private capital owned and run by two brothers (Bear 2015). It grew from the outsourcing of state shipbuilding in Kolkata to the private sector since 1999. It now also builds for international clients as far away as Scandinavia. It has grown rapidly with the numbers of employees rising from 200 to 1500 people over eight years. The infrastructure of the yards is rented and/or temporary so as to keep the business running with as little capital investment as possible. Out-dated technologies of welding, plate cutting and loft planning are used to keep costs low. Wages are much lower here than in the nearby Garden Reach state Navy yard; where not even short-term work is now available for men. Work in the unionized state yard is a closed aristocracy of labour. Venture in contrast to this enclave is a non-unionized and dangerous place to work. Accidents are frequent with daily burns from welding; more severe injuries once a month and a few deaths each year. Men also have no guarantee from day to day that will be taken on for work by brokers, who are also union officials.

6Both domestic and public work of all kinds is represented in these communities as a transaction that creates a flow of imminent life. It is the rituals associated with kinship and the fertility of agriculture Ranna or Monosha puja and Viswakarma puja that make manifest this multiscalar productive power (Bear 2013). This in part reflects the ways in which ties of kinship and friendship along neighbourhood networks are central for gaining access to sustaining work. Recruitment by contractors runs along these networks. Large numbers of men in Venture, for example, were related to each other or were from the same lanes of one room mud houses. Families of shipyard workers also intermarried through arrangement due to friendships at work or love marriages struck up during festivals. Relationships with workplaces were temporary but friendships between workers were long term and called bhalobhasa or the ‘love of men.’

7The civic world of the city was understood through concepts of ever widening circles of kinship connection upwards from the household. Each household was seen as a segment of a more or less actually complete group of brothers related by birth sharing a bonghso (paternal lineage) linked by rokto (blood). Marriage of sisters out of the family strengthens the productivity of the household by making ever widening ties of kutum, or in laws. Close friends too, including me, were considered kutum. So neighbourhoods and the city are represented as ever-widening ties of kutum—of actual and potential allies. These allies are always in a hierarchical relationship to you and must be involved in long-term connections manifest in a constant flow of sustaining food, information and affection between households.

8Collective eating and sociality especially during the rituals of Viswakarma and Ranna puja provide the source and expression of these life-sustaining long-term relationships in the city. These twin pujas make material the desired flows of productive power that sustain households. They directly link domestic and neighbourhood networks to the practices of the workplace. Ranna or cooking puja is carried out by women and begins on the 16th of September with a dramatic display of household chores and the cooking of special foods. At the same time as women enact their domestic labour men clean their tools in the yard with Ganges water. In the evening the household fills with the family’s bongsho who eat together and the next morning their kutum also collect in the house to share the worship of the goddess Ma Monosha and food. Houses fill with people who are the evidence of the productive powers of the household.

9When men arrive at the shipyard the next day (17th September) they celebrate the flow of these household generated productive powers into their acts of work. Huge idols of the god Viswakarma each one paid for by a different labour broker are set up in the yards and priests carry out a puja in front of them. First there is a short solitary moment in which men sit with their tools in their place of work offering these and their minds to Viswakarma. But then men wander freely through the yard in their best clothes taking their children to display their work to them. The most anticipated act is when the owner feeds the workers meat and alcohol. Men explained this ritual entirely in terms of recognition of their productive powers that make them Viswakarmas who must be acknowledged on this day. We, they say, are Viswakarmas, men of loha (iron) so that is why we worship Viswakarma, an incarnation of Siva on this day, a man-god who gave us our tools and was the most skilled iron worker. The manager must show his recognition of his debt to them as Viswakarmas by feeding them the meat and alcohol that will regenerate their shakti. If he does this and the puja goes off well, then the work through the year will bhalo thake, stay well and the workers will feel sukh (happiness, health).

10These practices materialize the connections between the fertility of the household and that of the yard. They also manifest the social debts and flows of life that workers and their families desire to be at the centre of social life. These for twenty-four hours are made present in spaces such as the yard that are always in danger of being ruled by the individualistic asociality and the short-term ties of monetary relationships. These are known as ‘the burning of the stomach.’ Work ideally should be an act that takes place as part of these longer term forms of social obligation and flows of life. It is the paying of social debts that should be the freedom produced by capitalism. Labour belongs to life and life is for creating more reciprocal flows of life.

11Death in this ethic is a rupture of the productivity of households. The strictest rules surround the deaths of parents. More rules have to be followed when your mother dies because she is your jonmodata—your birthplace. No milk must be drunk for 15 days and you must not work outside at all. Her family also re-enact their continuing connection after death by sending new clothes to the household. After 15 days a feast is held with her family of meat and fish. If your father dies you must restrict your diet to fruit and not work outside. This is followed by a similar feast that includes the immediate family and broader connected household networks. Untimely death that does not follow the order of generations is more difficult to classify and leads to improvisation in rituals. Most important of all is that the minimum amount of money should be spent at the burning ghat and on the feasts. This is because death is the opposite of the fertile abundance that should be celebrated at rituals.

12How then were these ethics of life associated with acts of labour at Venture? Men would often place their hands on the growing hull of the ship they were building and say “E shorir, amra shorir” or “This body is our body.” These assertions were stronger than the claim that there was a similarity between the ship and a man’s body. Men insisted that the ship was the roop (incarnation/form) of a man. This word carries with it the ritual associations of the “life force” of gods or goddesses taking material form through acts of sacrifice. This same concept applies to the ceremonies held with images of deities, when priests make them “alive” (shojib) by sacrificing to them at the beginning of festivals. For the workers, the ship was a scaled-up body made vital by their labour. When you are working inside or underneath the ship you can feel this transference of energy because the ship shudders with the echoes from welding and hammering. Workers often remarked on these sensations and smiled when I said the ship felt shojib.

13This transference of life in labour was also understood through idioms of kinship. Men projected the model of a group of brothers and their kutum that forms the household onto the yard. Men were puzzled as to why ships abroad were given women’s names. They argued that ships should be given men’s names since if they weren’t, then, it would seem as if the workers as the fathers of the ship were dead and no longer alive. The ship would be an orphan with only its widowed mother’s identity. The vitality of men’s labour was celebrated at the launching of completed ships. Shipyard workers explained that these were exactly like the immersion of Viswakarma idols in the river, when you said goodbye to the god and waited for his return next year. At launches workers celebrated the life of the ship generated by their labour and looked towards the next ship they would create.

14For shipyard workers and their families labour should support rebounding sociality or the expansion of social bonds and abundant life. Kinship and agricultural rituals are deployed to assert this conduct of productivity. However, ghosts disrupt this vitality of labour.

Fig. 5. A puja to Ma Kali, 2008

Fig. 5. A puja to Ma Kali, 2008

Photo : Laura Bear

The limits of vitality – Ghosts and Kali

15Away from their families with groups of friends in the shipyard men spoke of the suffering of their ‘hater kaj’ or work of their hands. As we sat under the ship welders such as Viswanath Sardar (43) and Santosh Ojha (35) described how their work drained their shakti so they had to eat bananas and milk to get the taint of fumes out of their lungs. As we worked inside the ship Santosh showed me how, “you have to use your head, your heart, your eyes and your body has to be like a spring compressing and turning into the spaces it has to go.” They described how they had to beat and beat the seam with a flame, then grind and scrape it protecting their eyes by wearing their glass visors at all times even in the heat. This prevents them from directly seeing the welding flame––otherwise they would go blind for 48 hours. They like many other workers talked of how when you are old and worn out then the company will not care, they will just throw you away. Pipe-layers, markers and khalasies (labourers) and even supervisors who had risen through the ranks shared their kosto or suffering. Rajas Biswas (38), a khalasie told of how his work was “risky work” and he had lost his appetite and weight the more his shakti reduced, with a full collapse for a month last year. Anup Haldar (36) a small team supervisor told how, “I have suffered a lot in this work. Once I was gas cutting and my whole shoulder was burnt, then when I was in the Andamans working I was pulling a chain by hand to lift plates and I did so much work that my hands became raw and I could not lift anything for a month.”

16Men fear accidents, which are frequent in the yard (a few minor ones each day and more serious ones each month, with fatalities a few times a year). The personal wounds, lack of work and the expenses of treatment shatter households suddenly making them dependent on relatives and often separating husbands and wives as women return to their natal households with children. Stories of old and recent accidents reverberated through the yard. Rajas for example regularly told his close friends and myself:

I have seen a plate fall and cut a man’s foot off. I’ve had narrow misses many times the plates swinging towards me and I ducked just in time to avoid them. I am most scared of the number 5 plates which are so thin and narrow they can cut off anything.

17He often too recounted the stories of two accidents:

They were doing the sandblasting before painting on the ship in number 5 yard…the pressure from the sandblasting made a plate sheer off and it cut a man’s head off and it flew straight into the river. There was the red of blood all over the ship…another man a neighbour had been killed, he had gone to his wedding and was supposed to bring his new wife home the next day and had decided to come to work for the day. But he was killed and there was so much blood.

18One day I arrived as the narrative of an accident to a young helper the previous day spread in the words of Partho (28), a grinder:

He is a young boy only 17, he has lost two fingers all the flesh has gone. They will have to take flesh from his leg and use it to remake his hand so he will be in hospital for a month or so. You feel so bad because he is such a young boy. There was no help from the company, the contractor just gave 1000 rupees and the family has to bear the all the expenses.

19It was as men spoke of the individual costs of labour to their bodies and the risks of work that they also narrated encounters with ghosts and their association with the corrosive, polluting effects of violent death.

20Men made sense of the fear and pain caused by labour through their encounters with ghosts. These encounters were not like those with bhuts or djinns. These are often seen, enter the body and then speak through the possessed. In the yard ghosts were not seen or heard. They were felt in a growing sensation of fear. Men would be working as usual welding within the vast ship when they would start to feel fear rising to terror. They would be brought to a halt in their work by this strong sense of unease. Putting down their tools they would leave the ship startled by ‘a presence’ signalled by fear. If they didn’t do this they said an accident might happen not through the agency of the ghost, but from their own lack of concentration. These breaches in rhythms of labour were not healed through ritual specialists, but by men speaking of their terror to each other, finding courage again and appealing to the protection of Kali.

21The stories of these ghosts were experiments in plausibility offered to elicit further speech. When an incident happened or a story was told men cooperated to draw out further examples and explanations. They tested the limits of visible reality and provoked the sharing of more stories of ghosts, danger at work and injury. Ghost stories were both metaphorical and real at the same time. As they were told they enacted a relation of fear inherent to the work process—conveying the truth of exploitation. In particular they made acutely present the visceral fear that men experienced as they laboured. As they were told men grew scared and shivered. As their terror increased men would listen for the shape of the story—how it explained reality. As the arc completed there was a sense of closure—a reason or shape that could put a boundary around their fear. Once the story was over men would comfort themselves by reassuring each other that if they were strong-hearted and courageous ghosts could not harm them. Talk about ghosts provided visceral metaphors about the substantive qualities of the exploitative social relations in Venture. There was no other context in which men could express their individual suffering and terror of work. Among kin at home they could complain of exploitation and the wealth of the shipyard owners or the betrayal of unions and politicians (unions were brokers of labour to the yards), but they would never speak of their own vulnerability. In fact they intensely suppressed this because if their bodies and courage failed, then the fortunes of the household would take a sharp turn towards greater precariousness.

22In workers’ stories encounters with ghosts clustered in one particular yard, number 5 yard, which was a place that could not be made productive. Accidents were frequent here, tools went wrong, the dry dock flooded, machinery failed. Here was where the horrific decapitation that Shankar described had happened the previous year. Joydev (29), a welder, for example, typically explained, how usually ghosts do not dare to come near factories and working men. The act of working should drive them away. Nor should you work anywhere in a place where an accident happened. In theory ghosts and work should repel each other. But he added, “in the number 5 yard you often feel someone behind you, but you must have a strong heart and feel courage and then the ghosts can’t harm you.” Each time this narrative was told workers would then pour out stories of their suffering—ghosts-fear-and-courage condensed together in one exchange. Bapun Pathro (26) for example responded to Joydev’s account by talking about how hard his work was:

When you have finished working in the engine room your face is all black because they are sandblasting now. Yesterday there was some emergency work so I went inside the engine room and had to work with no oxygen there. I could not breath at all while I was inside…this is all contractual work, we get nothing, no pension nothing, when I get old and my body is spoiled, my eyes are no good no-one will help or support me. I will have nothing and will just be a beggar.

23Workers had an explanation for why the number 5 yard was so unproductive and full of ghosts. They agreed that it was a bad place polluted by mass burials and acts of violence. As Rajas told the account:

Whatever they do there to the dry dock doesn’t work, the water each tide rushed in again and swamps the ship with mud. When the machine was digging in the mud there they found skeletons, a man’s head, everything, actually there were bhuts there even before the accident. Whatever they do there the work can’t go right. The skeletons were there, do you know why, because this place was called a hanging ground, see where that big red house is, that was where in the Raj the British used to hang people by the neck, that is why it is called that and they would bury them in that place where the yard is. Nothing good can be made there, they should move the dry dock somewhere else…I want to tell the shipyard owner to do a puja to Kali, but he will feel insulted how can such a small person tell such a big person what to do.

24Other workers such as Joydev attributed the ghosts to other kinds of mass violence, near the big red house he said Naxalites (Maoist inspired revolutionaries who led an insurgence in Kolkata in the 1970s) had taken lots of people and killed them throwing their bodies near the river at number 5 yard. These reverberations of violence in ghosts and unproductivity in the present were not about specific past experiences of trauma such as colonialism or Naxalite struggle. Nor were they rejections of homogenised bureaucratic or capitalist space and time. These narratives and experiences attempted to explain how the generative shakti of labour could be perverted to something else—a necropolitics of labour. Ghosts here are presences rearing from the past that can produce explanations for, and generate agency around, experiences of hidden contemporary male suffering. They are sensory evidence that labour can be destructive of life. And they give a space for men to speak of their collective suffering and personal ambivalence about labour.

25What then were the solutions that shipyard workers had for the polluting, dangerous anti-productive forces of ghosts? They sought the protection of the fearsome shamshan Kali and bound their hearts with the masculine courage (shahosh) to endure. Everyone agreed that after accidents in the yard there should be a Kali puja and that each day, along with the annual festival men should seek protection from risks from Kali. This would prevent the malign influence of ghosts and the recurrence of accidents. These connections were clear from narratives, but were enacted around the Kali puja I attended during my fieldwork. In the neighbourhoods of shipyard workers groups of families had set up images of shamshan Kali every couple of houses. This they explained was known to be a poor person’s puja. This was because you did not need to offer Kali much and families themselves could make the offerings without the intermediaries of priests. Neighbours and relatives had joined together to invest in the images in the hope that Kali would protect them for the next year. This was the day as well when the shipyard owner (pushed by debt contracts) had decided to flood the dry dock in yard number 5 and test the balance in the water of the vast ship being built there. Everyone found the date of the test significant—workers stating that this day had been chosen to overcome the bhuts and dangers in that yard. Memories of the decapitation accident a year earlier also surfaced. Workers talked of how a local councillor from Howrah came to the yard to make trouble with the wife of the dead man. She kept on saying, “what can I do I have lost my husband.” The shipyard owner sat down with them and asked, “what do you need.” The wife replied, “I have lost my husband how can I ask for anything.” Men then recounted how the shipyard owner in the end gave her some monetary compensation and work for her son. Men were surprised by his generosity, but also commented on the irony of the son entering the line that had killed his father. Overall all workers agreed that Kali puja was a subho din (happy day) and that it was only by worshipping Dakhin Shamsan Kali that the influence of ghosts could be undone, their courage would grow and accidents would not happen. Kali undoes the pollution of death with her ferocity making visible death and converting it into creative life again. But, importantly, as she does so she witnesses the collective suffering of men as they labour with the force of life. She makes visible a large-scale process of necropolitics that sits alongside the conduct of productivity. Importantly the shipyard managers and owners did not share this interpretation of the relevance of Kali and ghosts to labour in the yard. They treated the ever-growing worship of Kali with derision—mocking the workers as low-caste people who were trying to act in the place of high caste priests with their cheap tacky goddesses. Ghosts too were simply signs of superstition among the uneducated. Instead managers attributed the success of the yard to the technologically sublime powers of the yard owner who knew enough science to tap into the productive forces of a divinised nature (Bear 2015).

26Ghosts, here, within working class popular Hinduism do not manifest a traumatic collective memory—an unacknowledged past does not emerge through their agency (Kwon 2007, 2008, Feuchtwang 2010, Mueggler 2001). Instead, like the ghosts I tracked in the industrial setting of the Indian railway colony among Anglo-Indians, they allow hidden individual suffering in the present to return as a collective tangible visceral experience (Bear 2007). The past of colonial or Naxalite violence is a chronotope that generates forms of agency in the present—the ability to assert the reality of a necropolitics. Ghosts and stories about them manifest this death-process that is larger than that of individual mortality. Machinery malfunctioning, men dying or being injured, families shattered by death or illness are no longer singular ‘accidents’ (a durghotona or ‘happening’ in Bengali) that occurs to individuals. Through encounters with and stories of ghosts men can speak of their collective suffering in visceral metaphors. The ethic of the vitality of labour is unsettled too, as family household projects are shown to rest on the suffering of vulnerable men. Kali promises a potential resolution for hauntings by bhuts or the danger of accidents, but her power is ambiguous. She confirms the existence of large-scale processes of death that always exist alongside the conduct of productivity. The popular Hinduism of shipyard workers is ultimately an ethic of the relations between material and immaterial forces with a non-teleological temporal structure. Invisible forces of life and death are unbalanced in an end-time of decline dominated by ‘the burning of the stomach.’ But how might we compare this ethic and its potential with some better known, influential accounts of the vitality of labour? And what might this do to our understanding of other forms of occult economies?

Fig. 6. Chantier naval, Mélissa Merbouche, 2017

Fig. 6. Chantier naval, Mélissa Merbouche, 2017

Illustration : Mélissa Merbouche © Penninghen 2017

The vitality of labour, ghosts and occult economies

27For many years now anthropologists have worked with the concept of occult economies tracing vampires, devil contracts, ghosts, sacrifice, possession and uncanny forces as they appear within capitalist workplaces (Comaroff 1999; Nash 1993, 2000; Ong 1997; Parry 2008; Taussig 1980; White 2000). But as this article has suggested we cannot reduce these occult economies to either critiques of capitalism or the adapting of sacrificial metaphors or disordering spirits to industrial wage labour. Nor are they evidence of a rationality that comes from outside of capitalism or bureaucracy. They are ethical reflections on the vitality of labour and its paradoxical destructive power.

28Let us take the example of Nash’s fine, classic ethnography of tin mining communities in Bolivia. In the cycle of rituals and carnivals through the year tin miners, like the shipyard workers on the Hooghly, celebrate the productive powers of kinship, ritual and community as the true source of the vitality of labour in capitalism. Life forces are made present through the worship of the goddess Pachamama in domestic and agricultural settings, while complimentary rituals are held to Supay (Hurari, Tio or Diablo) in the male spaces of wage labour. These rituals create the sensation of large-scale imminent forces that social reproductive and productive labour are part of. The limit of this ethic of labour and life appears in the ambiguous male figure of Supay. If Supay is recompensed through collective worship on the streets and in the mines, labour will be productive––if individual contracts are signed with him people become wealthy, but they are also subject to danger and death. In this ethics we do not discover ‘class consciousness’ or a critique of capitalism equivalent to that of a Marxist ethics. Instead what we find is an ethics of collective productive forces in the world that insists labour is, and should be, for the regeneration of community life. Importantly, this ethics appears to only explain the illness, death and destruction that can be caused by wage labour as the result of individual moral fault. There is no collectivisation of this—unlike in the worship of Kali and the fear of ghosts in Venture shipyard. As Nash demonstrates in the links she shows between political protest in the mines and the ritual cycle, this generates a powerful ground for demands for recognition for the rights of the community in relation to employers. However there seems little room (from the evidence Nash provides) for an account of individual and collective suffering or destruction caused by labouring in the world. At the heart of my argument here is a more general suggestion that when we encounter occult economies we need to move from our fascination with their ‘strangeness’ into an account of our informant’s total ethics of the vitality of labour.

29To give another example of how such an analysis might proceed we can turn to Parry’s fascinating account of rumours of human sacrifice among Bilai steel workers in Chattisgarh. People here state that for steel plants or other large constructions to be built sacrifices of life have to be made. Parry relates this to Hubert and Mauss’ accounts of Hindu sacrifice and the recognition by humans in many social contexts of the fleshy vulnerability of their bodies as opposed to the hard concrete of industrial structures. This is a partial interpretation of such rumours. We need to go further than this. We need to place these concepts of sacrifice within our informants’ total understandings of the ethics of productivity. This would include discussion of many other kinds of household and workplace ritual activity. It would also demand that we relate these rituals to concepts of kinship and social reproduction, as well as to the meanings of wage labour. Such an analysis would lead us to the interesting question of––why is it only anonymous victims or stolen children who bear suffering to generate the productivity of wage labour? Why can Bilai steel plant workers and their families not speak within their ethics of their own individual, or collective vulnerability in regular acts of labour or of the destructiveness of these acts? Is this because wage labour can only be conceived of as a productive force?

30These examples, and most crucially the ethics of shipyard workers, finally bring me to a discussion of Marx’s ethics of labour. Usually anthropologists proceed from the opposite direction. They evaluate the occult economies of their informants through the ethics of Marx. Since I have reversed this process here, I am able to reflect explicitly on the limits and potential of Marx’s vitalism of labour in comparison with that of shipyard workers on the Hooghly. For Marx labour has a particular, secular, natural vitalist power (Bellamy-Foster 2000). Its fertility comes from a transcendent life-force. Arendt argued that this was a peculiarly Protestant understanding of the source of its productivity (2013 [1958]). Substituting life for God, she suggested that Marx made labour into one aspect of a transcendent vital process. She proposed that Marx’s use of terms such as consumption, production and reproduction were meant as literal descriptions of this process. Labour’s productivity came from the human capacity to produce beyond subsistence needs and “labouring and begetting are merely two modes of the same fertile life process” (ibid: 106). For Marx it was the fertility of this natural process that was appropriated by capitalists with the payment of wages. It was this force too that explained the expansive growth of capitalism.

31As Bellamy-Foster has suggested, Marx made this life force come down from the heavens through his close reading of the soil chemist Justus Liebig (2000). Liebig critiqued the impact of industrial agriculture and the waste of cities on the chemical composition of the soil. From this chemical discussion of metabolism, Marx came to understand acts of labour as fundamentally creative of human history––man’s metabolism with nature. He turned therefore a story of decline and potential death into one of transformative life that was materially incarnate in the earth and in man. This was realized in labour:

32“Labour is first of all a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature…He develops the potentialities slumbering within nature, and subjects the play of its forces to his own sovereign power.” (Marx 1990: 283)

33Death appears only once in relation to his discussions of labour in its natural state. It is an individual experience reflecting the force of nature that does not prevent the growth of further life: “Death appears as the harsh victory of the species over the particular individual…the particular individual is only a particular species-being and as such mortal” (Marx 2005: 351).

34It was this ethics that Marx turned towards a critique of the perversion of the natural life-force of labour in capitalism. In this the limits to the vitality of labour were to be found in the visceral metaphor of the vampire. Particularly in the first volume of Capital Marx uses the vampire to evoke the terror and illegitimacy of accumulation. Key here is the idea that within capitalism dead capital holds sway over the living capital generated by workers. As Neocleous (2003: 684) has argued:

this was not simply a rhetorical device, for Marx uses it to illustrate one of the central dynamics of capitalist production—the distinction between living and dead labour, a distinction that picks up on a more general theme in his work: the desire to create a society founded on the living of full and creative lives rather than one founded on the rule of the dead. Writing for readers reared on and steeped in the central motifs of popular literature, Marx thus invoked one of its most powerful metaphors to force upon them a sense of the appalling nature of capital: its affinity with death. (Italics in the original)

35Debates about the source of the vampire in Marx’s writing are rich from the critiques of the state and religion by the philosophers (Carver 1998) to arguments that it represents the bourgeoisie (Moretti 1983). But here I would like to place the visceral metaphor of the vampire in relation to Marx’s secular ethic of life. For Marx labour and the force of nature in the world are inherently natural and productive. Death and decline are subsumed in this larger process and are simply the extinguishing of the presence of an individual who submits by dying to the process of the progressive renewal of the life of the species. Within this progressive vitalism no ghosts are imaginable as the limit point of life. There can be no return of the spectre from death since there is only the dimension of life. The vampire however can become a visceral metaphor to conjure the horror and destructive potential of capitalism––illegitimate life that should be dead, but persists in growth by feeding on the fertile life of the present. It is a horrific reversal of the flow of the progressive time of future-oriented teleological growth that human labour should, as a natural force, lead to.

Fig. 7. Working in the Flooding Dry Dock, 2008

Fig. 7. Working in the Flooding Dry Dock, 2008

Photo : Laura Bear


36Why does it matter that Marx imagines the limits to the vitality of labour through vampires, while the shipyard workers in Howrah deploying popular Hinduism depict these through ghosts? Marx’s ethics is a vitalism of growth and a teleology of potential progress that does not fully imagine human labour as a destructive force in the world. Human labour ultimately belongs to life and its fertile power just needs to be organised differently. The vampire can be dethroned by different social relations and forms of management of nature. The waste-landing of socialist societies in the old ‘worker’s states’ show the limits of this project. From the inequalities and suffering generated by the heroic figures of shock-workers to the scandal of Chenobyl this dream of the inherent vitalism of human labour has now become unconvincing (Petryna 2013, Siegelbaum et al 1994, Viola 1989). Within this ethics it is difficult to imagine that the progressive, natural unleashed force of human labour could lead inherently to waste and death. Whereas, I would suggest the ghosts within the popular Hinduism of Howrah’s working classes have a different potential. They return from the invisible realm to allow men to speak of the persistent suffering and destructive forces that exist within the vitality of labour. Ghosts and Kali allow a large scale pervasive death-process in the world to be projected. Growth of any kind cannot happen without decay and death. This could allow us to begin to conceive of a post-growth or anti-growth ethic for our societies. Concepts of limitless abundance and fertility perhaps begin to meet their limits in this working class popular Hinduism.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1. Gear I, Théo Delbrel, 2017
Credits Illustration : Théo Delbrel © Penninghen 2017
File image/jpeg, 1.2M
Title Fig. 2. Work and ‘Shahosh’ (Bravery), 2008
Credits Photo : Laura Bear
File image/jpeg, 1.2M
Title Fig. 3. A drawing under the ice-class ship to keep ghosts away, 2008
Credits Photo : Laura Bear
File image/jpeg, 1.2M
Title Fig. 4. Drowning the dead, Félicie Lacroix, 2017
Credits Illustration : Félicie Lacroix © Penninghen 2017
File image/jpeg, 1.5M
Title Fig. 5. A puja to Ma Kali, 2008
Credits Photo : Laura Bear
File image/jpeg, 1.1M
Title Fig. 6. Chantier naval, Mélissa Merbouche, 2017
Credits Illustration : Mélissa Merbouche © Penninghen 2017
File image/jpeg, 1.1M
Title Fig. 7. Working in the Flooding Dry Dock, 2008
Credits Photo : Laura Bear
File image/jpeg, 1.2M
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Electronic reference

Laura Bear, « The vitality of labour and its ghosts », Terrain [Online], 69 | April 2018, Online since 22 June 2018, connection on 29 July 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Laura Bear

London School of Economics and Political Science –

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