Edouard Louis’ novel, Who Killed My Father, is a collection of short and riveting letters addressed to his 50-years-old father resting on his deathbed. The author, with splendid eloquence and brevity, put forth the plight of working-class of France, who has been rendered redundant in an era of unregulated capitalism. The sheer contempt for the political elite is clearly visible in his work. For Louis and people like him, every austerity measure by the government further exacerbates their lives.
This is not simply yet another memoir where an author reminisces back at his childhood full of crests and troughs. In fact, it is not even a memoir in the truest sense but politically charged documents taking some help from certain life anecdotes to forge a novel that attempts to shed lights on the precarity and destitution of working class.
He even name and shame several high-profile politicians including former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac and François Hollande, who, according to him, are directly responsible for the agony of his father.
Louis’ father was bedridden permanently after he met with an accident – some heavy object fell on his back – in a factory where he used to work. Louis ruthlessly blames Jacques Chirac and his health minister Xavier Bertrand for “destroying intestines” of his father, after they removed several important medicines from the purview of the state. Nikolas Sarkozy is responsible for “breaking back” of his father by withdrawing unemployment funds for those who couldn’t work. François Hollande “asphyxiated” his father by introducing Labour laws that made easier for companies to exploit workers for longer hours.
Although the book is set-up around father-son duo residing in a small village of northern France, his unsparing social commentary on the deliberate invisibilization of the working-class by the state is a universal phenomenon. The book is even more relevant and relatable at a time when the ongoing pandemic has totally exposed the fragility of the working class all over the world.
COVID-19 has unleashed the socioeconomic catastrophe in India. It has laid bare the frailty, ever-increasing disparity and a profound difference between rich and poor shaped up by the three decades of neoliberalism. The lockdown stripped job, income, a roof over the head and even two square meal a day from the majority of migrant workers. This compelled a mass exodus of such people to their native place. When the lockdown was still in its initial stage, people dying of hunger and exhaustion due to prolonged walking, exceeded the human cost of the virus itself as reported. While the Indian government arranged a special flight free of cost to evacuate their own citizen stranded in Italy, the government turned a blind eye to their sufferings.
The situation is even grimmer in the rural areas with rising unemployment and mass starvation looming over the head of poor households. For over three decades now, the Indian state remained totally indifferent to the various socioeconomic crisis unfolding in the rural areas. Agriculture sector, upon which the rural population mainly relies on, were completely overlooked and the people in search of the job were forced to migrate to bigger cities. In cities, these workers mainly do menial jobs in the factory, construction firms, textile industry and earn just enough to survive.
Now when these people find themselves in a dire time, the government, instead of addressing their demands, are hellbent on cutting down even existing social welfare schemes. When the government should come forward to pull their workers, marginalized section out of the crisis, the prime minister Narendra Modi comes on the national television and ask the nation to be self-reliant. In a speech of 33 minutes, he mentions the word ‘self-reliance’ 17 times.
Being self-reliant is not the answer to the decades of structural exploitation and systemic injustices of the working class. By asking its citizen to be ‘self-reliant,’ the government basically wants to run away from the responsibility and put the blame on poor and migrants for their distress. These people have not failed because of incompetency, laziness or poor decisions as the government want us to believe. Rather, it is the system of political economy that has failed them, a system that made their exploitation easier, a system that always had zero regards to their lives and well-being.
Coming back to Louis’ book, in one instance, the French government increased the school subsidy given to poor families by a hundred euros. “The whole day was a celebration,” the author recalls. The whole family went to the nearby beach to celebrate this decision. This is how politics affects the lives of some people. Now imagine this in the Indian context. Had the Indian government been more concerned about their poor. What if the Indian government had arranged free transportation for these workers before the lockdown? What if the government was quick enough to universalize their PDS to ensure no one dies from hunger or starvation? Many lives could have been saved and they might have their “the whole day was a celebration” moment.
To conclude, “For the ruling class,” the author writes, “politics is a question of aesthetics: a way of seeing themselves, of seeing the world, of constructing a personality. For us, it was life or death.”
Ravi Raj is a 21-year-old independent journalist based out of Patna