Beyond Capital

Polemics, Critique and Analysis

Capitalism and Caste

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Economist Nirvikar Singh in his latest column in Mint questions the exclusive focus on the rural-urban divide in policymaking. He points out at a more “pernicious” “social and economic divide” – which divides even the villages.

At the bottom of the heap are India’s Dalits, whose traditional social status is so low that they are outside and below the country’s complex caste hierarchy. Even when government spending reaches down into villages, the Dalits, living in segregated neighbourhoods, with the worst access to health and education facilities, may see little of the benefits.

However he finds that “Capitalism is beginning to break the caste system”. In fact, Dalits in India have more opportunities than African Americans in the US (the latter being permanently stigmatised due to their colour) because

Dalits in cities far from home have the opportunity to change their names and reshape their identities. This may be the first step in getting an education, participating in stronger social networks than their own, and eventually climbing the economic ladder.

So Sanskritization – cultural aping – is of course according to Singh an opportunity for Dalits!

Singh acknowledges that “capitalism is not a guaranteed destroyer of discrimination”, but he also stresses capitalism’s potentiality to neutralize caste. Once again he quotes Chandra Bhan Prasad that “Economic expansion is going to neutralize caste in 50 years. It will not end caste.” He concludes,

Maybe neutralizing caste is good enough: Caste can remain like the markers of national origin (Irish-, Italian-, or Indian-American)in the US, without being a basis for oppression

Singh is correct – capitalism does neutralize every difference to the extent that under this system based on generalised commodity production

Everything becomes saleable and buyable. The circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as a gold-crystal. Not even are the bones of saints, and still less are more delicate res sacrosanctae, extra commercium hominum [consecrated objects, beyond human commerce] able to withstand this alchemy. Just as every qualitative difference between commodities is extinguished in money, so money, on its side, like the radical leveller that it is, does away with all distinctions.

As Singh himself says, migration (“circulation” of human beings as “variable capital”), along with Sanskritization, will have “positive knock-on effect”. Definitely the qualitative difference is extinguished between castes, they are all equally levelled as labour inputs. Castes are increasingly reduced to “markers” as of a 100 dollar note, a 10 dollar note etc – they are all ultimately various quantities or denominations of the same currency, the dollar…

But then the difference between a 100 dollar note and a 10 dollar note does remain – these “markers” allow the system to locate you within itself according to your ‘worth’. The difference between the excluded and the included is ‘extinguished’ – everyone is ultimately included even if differentially.

Yes, Singh and Prasad are correct – the caste system will be perhaps finished as the hierarchy of status in “next 50 years”, as a new caste system has already emerged based on the competition between “markers” – as between Godrej, Lux, Rexona and Palmolives.

This is

in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

However, should we give Singh the benefit of doubt that as an economist he knows that these “markers” have vital roles to play in construction and dynamics of the labour market?

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

September 8, 2008 at 12:58 pm

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