Sunday, October 12, 2014

Capitalism, Caste and the Struggle for Social Transformation in India

Surajit Mazumdar

With regional variations, the system of division of society into a hierarchy of castes can be found in virtually all regions of India. Associated with it are some of the most extreme and bestial forms of social oppression imaginable. The struggle for a progressive transformation of Indian society has always had to confront this reality of caste in two different senses – one relating to its future and the other to its present.

The simpler or easier challenge posed by its existence is of clarifying what a progressive transformation must mean for the institution of caste. No ambiguity can exist here that the annihilation of caste, its total and complete eradication, must be integral to the process of transformation and one of its key objectives and outcomes. What is crucial to recognize here is that caste as an institution is inherently about maintaining unequal social relationships and therefore cannot be a private affair of individuals in a way that religious faith could potentially be. Since prejudice and oppression are inseparably tied up with it, caste is fundamentally incompatible with an egalitarian society - a Brahmin and a Dalit cannot be truly equal if they remain a Brahmin and a Dalit. It follows that the elimination of all caste oppression is also in the ultimate analysis the obliteration of all caste identities rather than the achievement of parity across castes.

Even if its ultimate destination is clearly defined as necessarily including the abolition of caste, that is clearly not the point of departure for the struggle for social transformation. The political movements that would make such a transformation possible instead have to develop within a society in whose social, political and economic life caste clearly plays a very important role. The more difficult challenge always has been to understand why and how caste plays this role in Indian capitalism and what therefore are the requirements of building an effective struggle for social change.  

Capitalism in India and Caste
To begin with one may note that while it is true that the caste-system has been around for thousands of years and its essential design is oriented towards the maintaining of a status quo, it is not that Indian society and the system of caste have been completely immune to the process of historical movement. Such changes have been also been visible in the last couple of hundred years since the advent of British rule in India, and even since independence. These changes should not be exaggerated but it cannot altogether be denied that there are several indications of a process of undermining of caste. The links between caste and occupation, economic status and class for instance have been weakened though of course not eliminated. Caste discrimination and oppression while existing on a significant scale do not enjoy legal sanction as they did in the past. The assertion against caste oppression is much greater and the effects of these on Indian politics and the language of politics are visible. Even outrightly casteist political tendencies (like the anti-reservation movement) have to couch their real intent in an anti-caste rhetoric. Moreover, some particularly violent expressions of caste oppression themselves are responses to the weakening hold of caste. At the level of inter-personal relations too the caste barrier is being breached in many places, again often inviting violent reactions.

The processes of change indicated above, and such instances can be multiplied, can be traced back to a combination of related causal factors - the disruptive effects on traditional Indian society of British colonial rule; the development of capitalism in India and the emergence of new social classes; the growth of a national movement and other progressive political movements; and the subsequent process of capitalist development under a system of parliamentary democracy. Does this then mean that the further development of capitalism will steadily erode the caste system and therefore an acceleration of that development – and particularly that under a neo-liberal dispensation – is to be welcomed, as some sections within the Dalit movement seem to think? Are capitalist development and the survival of caste really fundamentally antithetical to each other?  

It is worthwhile at this point to recall the limits to the ‘undermining’ of caste that has happened and set it against the time span over which it has occurred. Seen this way, it is the extreme slowness of the pace of this change which is striking.  For most of its victims, how significant has really been their liberation so far from caste oppression? If the quantum of change thus far has been so limited, clearly the caste-system has already shown a great capacity to coexist with a process of capitalist development. An immediate conclusion that can be reasonably derived from this is that even if capitalist development in India only carries within itself forces undermining caste – the annihilation of caste through such a spontaneous process would be realizable only in the very distant future. For today’s struggles, therefore, speculation about such a prospect may have no practical relevance except to serve as a rationalization of inaction.

Capitalism is the reality at present and the meaningful question to ask in such a situation is - does prolonging its lifespan offer better prospects for a quicker liberation from caste oppression than a struggle against capitalism? Moreover, if capitalism itself involves exploitation and oppression– whether or not the mechanisms of these involve caste – is it even capable of offering any real liberation to the overwhelming majority of those who are the victims of caste oppression? The answer to both these questions must be no. The observed slowness of the process of undermining of caste is not a simple reflection of the inherent durability of the institution - it in fact has an intimate relationship with Indian capitalist development.

Neither colonialism nor the capitalism that emerged from that background in India involved the complete destruction of the old economic order to whose functioning caste was central, in particular in the agrarian structure. Instead, adjustment with and gradual modification of that structure have characterized capitalist development in India – neither the colonial rulers nor the capitalist class which emerged in India therefore ever frontally challenged the institution of caste. In the economic domain the twin consequences of these have been the sustenance of pre-capitalist economic relationships and the limited opportunities of escape from it through class, occupational and location mobility. Both of these consequences, which are epitomized by the fact that India remains still largely rural and agrarian, have played their part in imparting durability to the institution of caste even in the era of capitalist development.

The story of capitalism’s relationship with caste, however, does not necessarily end with its incomplete destruction of an older order.  Caste has survived in India for thousands of years before capitalism because exploitation was preserved through the transformations that occurred during this period. Every social formation that emerged found in the caste system an institution not only suitable but also exceptionally effective for the purpose maintaining its system of exploitation. Indeed, this survival has had a self-reinforcing character as it has also been one of the ways in which caste and caste consciousness have come to be so deeply embedded in Indian society. To assume that capitalism is an exception to this feature of Indian history and makes no use of caste to sustain itself amounts to deriving an illegitimate conclusion from the fact that capitalism’s mechanism of exploitation is reliant on economic coercion. This reliance does not mean that exploitation through extra-economic or social coercion cannot co-exist with economic coercion within capitalism – one has to only think of the role slavery and colonial extraction of surplus have played in the history of capitalism to appreciate this. It does not also mean that social coercion cannot play a complementary role to economic coercion even in the specifically capitalist process of exploitation. Caste, in more ways than one, can facilitate strengthening of the capitalist control over the labour process and the disciplining of workers. Caste plays an important role not only in creating wage differentials but also the lowering of the socially acceptable floor to the wage-level. It is also not always the case that in the marketplace the logic of profit and selling of commodities challenges existing social values – it can and often does reinforce social conservatism as is visible, for example, in advertising. In India, caste ties and networks in fact also play their part in determining the composition of the capitalist class and its sustenance. Let alone challenge the institution in the larger domain of society, it cannot even be said about Indian capitalists that as a rule they have themselves been able to shed their caste outlook. What can be said instead is that caste and caste consciousness have been effectively used to maintain and strengthen capitalist command over the state in a context of parliamentary democracy.

The survival of the institution of caste and its associated consciousness in India today may not thus be simply as entrenched relics of the past – this survival has not been despite but also because of capitalist development. This development as it has concretely occurred in India has combined the operation of tendencies undermining caste with those reinforcing it. This may make for complexity in the way it operates. This complexity cannot hide the fact that caste matters in India but it can render invisible its relationship with capitalism, creating the illusion that caste operates autonomously of capitalism. Once their relationship is recognized, however, the ability of capitalism to liberate Indian society from the scourge of caste and its stagnationist effects must be seriously doubted. Capitalsism’s most significant historical contribution towards that end may instead lie in it creating the conditions for a struggle within it which could take India beyond capitalism and exploitation and destroy the foundations of caste.

Even the fullest exploitation of the possibilities of undermining caste within the limits of capitalism is contingent on the development of the struggle against capitalism. This does not of course mean that the issue of caste oppression must wait for capitalism to be eliminated, an understanding which in terms of its practical consequences is no different from that of waiting for capitalism to end caste. On the contrary, without a relentless struggle against caste discrimination and oppression being integral to it and and even achieving some advance, the transition from capitalism cannot be achieved. The undermining of caste prejudice and division within them, and their unity in the struggle against caste oppression, are both the premises as well the results of the development of the struggle for liberation from  all forms of discrimination, oppression and exploitation experienced by different sections of Indian society under the specific conditions of Indian capitalism.  

The Question of Identity
The issue of identity must be looked at in the above background. The formation of caste identities is integral to the operation of the caste system. However, different identities cannot be looked at symmetrically. There is an identity that is imposed on some to mark them out as the ones to be oppressed and discriminated against by others who assume a different identity. The former kind of identity cannot be shed until the system of caste oppression ends – that is as long as the latter kind of identity exists and operates. There is no question of a choice here – no Dalit can escape from discrimination simply by declaring that he does not believe in caste. The assertion of their identity by the oppressed is to an extent, therefore, an inevitable part of the challenge to caste oppression and cannot be equated with the assertion of dominant caste identity.

The maintenance and assertion of dominant caste identity can have no place in a progressive politics and must be fought tooth and nail. Under capitalist conditions such assertion is not limited to that expressed by specific castes in the local domain of the countryside. It also articulates itself at other and larger levels including for instance at the national level as a shared identity of the apparently caste-less ‘general category’. The basis for this lies in the caste prejudice common to otherwise disparate upper caste groups whose members have been able to use their historical advantages  to take disproportionate advantage of the limited opportunities for economic and educational advance that capitalist development in India has offered. This includes the fact that they are not subject to the entry barriers that their own prejudice creates for others. The discourse on ‘merit’ in the debate on reservations, virtually the only mechanism that has served in a limited way to breach this monopoly, reflects this prejudice. It denies its own existence and shifts the responsibility for ‘discrimination’ to reservations, though the logical premise of the view that reservations discriminate against the ‘meritorious’ has to be a belief that innate merit is distributed unequally across different castes. 

Assertion of their identity by the victims of caste oppression has a positive potential missing in dominant caste assertion to the extent that it can contribute to creating the conditions for the elimination of its own basis. However, given that the annihilation of caste has to be dissolution of caste identities, is it not important to also realize the inherent limits to the politics of identity in the struggle against caste oppression and discrimination?? What is the fundamental change that such a politics can achieve other than being a perpetual challenge to the practical operation of caste prejudice in some contexts and enabling a few to breach the barrier of caste privilege? Is that enough to eliminate the prejudice and all the oppression and discrimination it implies? Given the structure of caste hierarchy, where instead of a simple binary division into oppressor and oppressed groups there are a number of layers and castes, assertion of caste identity if pushed too far can surely even weaken the struggle against oppression. It clearly has the capacity of disrupting the forging of larger identities – not just class identity when these classes have a multi-caste character but even of those oppressed through the caste system. Moreover, identity assertion in the same social group can simultaneously contain both elements – of asserting dominance as well challenging oppression. The assertion of oppressed caste identity is also often a part and parcel of a process of class and other social differentiations taking place within the same caste or caste group – since the upward mobility of some implied in that process simultaneously confronts barriers of caste privilege and prejudice. The politics that appeals to a unified caste identity may in such circumstances contribute to the overcoming of those barriers. That, however, does not serve the interests of all who are so unified equally and can even cover the emergence of contradictory interests within them.

To the extent that capitalism in India has undermined caste, it has created some opportunities for class and economic mobility even amongst members of oppressed castes.  The nature of capitalism in general and of Indian capitalism in particular being what they are – such opportunities for joining the ranks of the relatively privileged, however, would always remain limited in the aggregate. In addition the continuing survival and reinforcing of caste also always places exceptional barriers in the path of those from oppressed castes who might be in a position to take advantage of these opportunities. The politics of oppressed caste identity thus has an objective basis in the conditions of Indian capitalism, but with a dual character. It can contribute to the development of the struggle against capitalism which in the ultimate analysis is the necessity for the comprehensive decimation of caste. It can also, however, be made to serve the purpose of maintaining the status quo even when it challenges caste hierarchy, by limiting and blunting the edge of a struggle founded on widespread aspirations for an end to caste oppression. The view that neoliberalism is an effective answer to caste is an idea of such a nature.

Nothing that has been said in this brief note is really new – it simply reiterates a particular perspective that has emerged from the real experience of struggles. It is naturally a contested perspective – one that has been challenged from apparently exactly opposite standpoints. Ultimately, it is in history that the debate between different perspectives will be eventually settled. Let us hope and strive to ensure that such a settlement in the form of bringing to an end the very long history of a despicable institution does not lie too far away in the future.

Surajit Mazumdar is a Professor of Economics in Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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