Caste and Capitalism (Understanding India 5)

27 06 2007

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As this column argued last week, caste has been the historically specific form for expressing class division in the social formation of pre-modern, feudal South Asia. In its form of Jati, it developed parallel to the establishment of the specifically South Asian form of feudalism and received a detailed legal and ideological foundation in the Manusmriti texts compiled about a millennium and half ago.

Each caste was composed of people who were confined to a clearly defined work or occupation and each caste was placed either superior to or in subordination to other castes. Since each caste was linked to a particular work or occupation, it was not possible for social life to continue without the economic cooperation of all castes with each other, even though there were fairly severe restrictions on their social interaction. This reduced the ability of the direct producers – Shudras and the outcastes – to combine in large numbers to oppose oppression or persecution. Therefore, as was mentioned last week, one of the typical forms of lower class revolt in South Asia in pre-modern times has been migration.

If the institution of caste made it difficult for the lower castes to combine, it had the same effect on the upper castes too. In the early centuries of the feudal order, this splintering of the ruling castes may have worked to its advantage as a system of check and balance to make the ruling class more stable. But with the development of productive forces and the growth of capital, especially during the Mughal era, this splintering of the ruling class into segregated Jatis resulted in a situation that made the ideological, political and economic unity of capital an impossibility. Therefore, despite the availability of huge wealth, highly developed manufacturing technology, global market dominance as well as military prowess, South Asia was singularly unable to transition towards capitalism.

Feudal social formations, founded as they are on an economy based almost entirely of primary production, are all premised on the idea that the economy does not grow and the wealth of society is a constant over generations. Each social group gets its due share from this never growing pie. Therefore, in all feudal societies – from Europe to China – earning riches is always a function of plunder and not of economic activity. Caste as an institution was a visionary response to the need to organise stable social relations in such an economic system of no growth. The rigidity of the caste system was merely a reflection of the economic reality of no growth. As long as the social formation remained close to the feudal ideal of being based entirely on primary production with no growth, the caste system was successful in providing stability to the system.

But all feudal societies slowly developed trade and manufacturing beyond the local village variety. South Asia was no exception and by the time of the emergence of the Moghul Empire, it would be difficult to characterise this region’s social formation as classical feudalism. While in Europe, the economic transformation wrought by growing trade threw up new social classes like burghers (the French word for this class was ‘bourgeoisie’), the caste form of social organisation in South Asia did not allow any such group to develop. Trader Jatis from the Vaisya Varna did become immensely rich through long distance trade and large scale manufacture, but no class of burghers or bourgeoisie could ever develop that which would unify the ideological, political, military and economic power of capital.

Capitalism did come to South Asia, initially as a series of miscarriages during the Moghul period, and later in the form of colonial domination. Colonialism destroyed the extant productive forces and reduced much of the region into a supplier of primary resources for the industrial revolution in England and a market for the produce of that industrial revolution. Observers often note with surprise the resilience of caste as an institution despite the destruction of the pre-colonial economic order on which it was based. There is little surprise in this since the caste form of class division was specifically directed toward organising classes in a society that was based on primary production. The destruction of the capitalist nucleus in South Asian societies by colonialism hardly damaged that part of the social formation, which had originated caste as a system of social organisation.

Despite the despoliation of colonialism, capitalism did emerge in India, though slowly and entirely bereft of the triumphal victories over feudal economic and social relations that so marked its development in Europe. Quite the opposite, capitalism in South Asia, under the specific conditions imposed by colonialism, had to develop in hesitant steps in constant compromise and alliance with feudal property and social relations. And caste was the structure that represented these feudal property and social relations in South Asia.

It was not only a compromise that affected the rising capitalist class – given their inherent weakness relative to the feudal property relations – under duress, but caste was also an effective tool to discipline the masses under capitalist relations. The most significant proof that the emergent bourgeoisie of colonial South Asia did not find the caste system a hindrance to their economic interests is provided by the fact that caste reform never became a central agenda of the ruling class social reformers. Starting from Raja Ram Mohan Roy through Ranade, Vidyasagar, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Vivekananda, among others, all these social reformers largely confined their efforts towards empowering women, reforming religious practices or educating the children of the propertied in English. Abolition of caste always received only verbal and secondary acknowledgement. The only serious efforts towards caste abolition were from the social reformers of the working classes whether it was Jyotiba Phule, Narayan Guru, Ambedkar or Periyar. If caste had come in the way of the development of capitalism in South Asia under colonialism, it surely would have become a target of the ruling class social reformers. The fact that it did not, indicates that capitalism in India was able to adopt caste, in the specific form of Jati, to its benefit.

One of the primary reasons why Jati-caste, a method of organising social relations under feudal conditions par excellence, could so easily be accepted by the emergent capitalist social formation is its ability to splinter the working class and other toiling masses into politically separate entities. Caste has also fostered an ideology of acceptance of fate, primarily among Hindus, but its cultural ramifications have seeped into all South Asian cultures, which is ideally suited towards disciplining the working classes. Further, by running the fireline of untouchability right through the middle of the castes that represent the working classes, this system of social organisation has forever forestalled the formation of a unified working class. Some of these aspects of the implication of caste for working class politics will be discussed in this column next week.

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This article was published in The Post on 27 June, 2007.

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