Predominance of the middle castes

Predominance of the middle castes

When incidents like the so-called terrorist activities or fundamentalist outbursts happen, we tend to attribute them to the religion or social group...

When incidents like the so-called terrorist activities or fundamentalist outbursts happen, we tend to attribute them to the religion or social group to which they subscribe or fit. The notion of caste and class is so dominant that no intellectual discourse is comprehensive without referring to them in India. But when we refer to Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsis or Buddhists, we consider all of them as a homogenous group. This is problematic when we discuss critical issues like communalism, casteism, secularism or political ideologies. People are lumped together and the good, bad and the ugly are attributed to the whole community that they might belong to or were born into. Therefore, when incidents like the so-called terrorist activities or fundamentalist outbursts happen, we tend to attribute them to the religion or social group to which they subscribe or fit. This is largely being followed in our media reports and the message is distorted or imperfectly communicated. In fact, everyone knows that we have economic or social groups within each category and, if communicated properly, we can reduce the pervasive damage. India, unlike other countries, is identified with the caste system while all others are signified by class categories. However, academics and activists have been using both categories in understanding our socio-economic and political issues during the modern period. There are around nine theories of caste in India. Interestingly, there is ambiguity about the theories of class. Though the term "class" was used by Plato, the interpretations have been deployed by Marx, Weber, Davis and Moore, Nicos Poulantzas etc.
The concept is being liberally used by laymen, experts and activists without sometimes knowing what they mean by that. Are they referring to Marx, Weber or others? But the mainstream discourse appears to be related to Marxian classes as it was the Marxists and their critiques that brought the concept into public discourse in India. Marx used class in the context of production relations within a particular mode of production. Weber attributed different classes based on positive and negative privileges held by people in a market economy. Characteristics like quality, performance and possession are considered to determine the functional character of a class in Davis and Moore. It was perhaps the Greek-French scholar Nicos Poulantzas who has creatively elaborated the concept of 'classes in contemporary capitalism' by incorporating the advances made by Gramsci and others. As he was working on the theme in 1975 when capitalism had reached its zenith, his contribution seems to be more relevant and up to date. Poulantzas has advanced the concept of 'New Petty Bourgeoisie'. His analysis of class rests on three principles: 1. Classes cannot be defined outside of class struggle. Elaborating between class-in-itself and class for itself, Poulantzas has said that classes exist as antagonistic and contradictory quality of social relations. 2. Classes take objective positions in the social division of labour and are independent of their will. The reproduction of the actual positions occupied by the social classes (as bourgeoisie, proletariat, poor peasant, petty bourgeoisie) depends on the class contradictions and class struggle. 3. The social classes are structurally determined by the economic, political and ideological levels. Like Gramsci, Poulantzas has given importance to the political and ideological factors as they are as important as the economic factors in MOP. The traditional category of petty-bourgeoisie comprising independent artisans, small shopkeepers, etc, has dwindled and been replaced by 'new petty bourgeoisie consisting of white collar employees, technicians, supervisors, civil servants etc'. Poulantazas has brought in the idea of functional relationship with capital as one of the criteria in determining the class position of a group. For instance, experts (including economists and social scientists) at all stages of the production process help legitimize the subordination of labour to capital by making it appear natural and theorise workers are incapable of organising production themselves. Even low-level clerks and secretaries share the ideological positions of mental labour and thus belong to the Petty Bourgeoisie and not the proletariat. The bourgeoisie is defined not only in terms of property ownership but also in terms of the substantive dimensions which characterise the social relations of production. Thus, managers fulfil the functions of capital and the heads of State apparatus in a capitalist State do manage the State functions in the service of capital and thus come under bourgeoisie. Poulantzas has discussed many other issues in the elaboration of classes in the advanced capitalist systems that are substantially transformed from the time of Marx. Social scientists in the West have used his categories to arrive at the proportion of each class in the economies on the basis of secondary data. It is found that the new petty bourgeoisie is 70 per cent of the economically active population in the USA. Income is taken as a criterion in India to define classes. It is noted that pundits of some political parties dictate castes and classes are comparable, one cuts across the other (with base-superstructure allegory). This seems to have dented the efforts of some scholars/activists to understand our realities. Ketkar's and Ramakrishna Mukherjee's efforts to classify castes as "division of labourers" did not reflect facts. The nomenclature upper, lower and middle castes are being used to showcase Indian society. The data generated by scholars, government and private agencies on income and socio-economic groups give us a fair view of the middle classes in India. If the first five per cent of the rich and the 30 per cent below poverty line are set aside, the rest of 65 per cent are the New Petty Bourgeoisie. It is close to the proportion of people who have access to TV and Mobiles, important factors that mould the new petty bourgeoisie. We know how friable the petty bourgeoisie is. How can we understand this phenomenon? The caste system based on the 'varna' is hierarchical/ ritual, and the class, based on relations of production, is economic. Given the present situation in India after 65 years of independent capitalist development and links with the international division of labour, castes have gained vibrancy. It is possible to identify the castes that benefitted from policies and attained upward mobility. If we keep aside for the moment the dvijas who are calling the shots at the Centre, the States are now increasingly captured by Sudras, the fourth varna (panchamas are outside). There is internal differentiation within Sudras with the rise of OBCs as petty ruling castes. This is very complex to understand. The middle castes seem to have marginalised the economic agenda of emancipation. It is now confined to those who are social proletariat or Scheduled Castes and Adivasis who do not come under either class or caste (internal differentiation is low). Therefore, the traditional struggles look nonchalant and might soon become obsolete. What is to be done?
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