Vantage point

Monday, June 16, 2008

Dalits and Capitalism

Over the last year or so, I have been a reasonably regular but largely silent reader of Kafila, a group blog. I hope the writers won't ming me calling it a primarily left-of-centre blog. It has been fascinating to read the posts there. Most of the posts there are fairly detailed, so I can't read all of them, but I do try to read the posts made by one Aditya Nigam. I will admit that what got me hooked to his posts was the fierce left-vs-left ideological civil war in the aftermath of Nandigram. Nigam was one of the people who strongly took exception to absurd suggestions by dyed-in-the-wool Communists that left-liberals criticizing the West Bengal government over Nandigram/Singur were doing something wrong. So I read those posts, admittedly indulging in schadenfreude. But other posts by Nigam also struck me as interesting too. While I do not agree with a lot that he writes, I did keep going back.

So that brings me to a recent fascinating post by him describing his experiences on a trip in rural Poorvanchal (Eastern UP) hosted by the dalit "maverick intellectual" Chandra Bhan Prasad. In the words of Nigam,

Chandra Bhan Prasad, well known now as the maverick intellectual who celebrates capitalism, consumption and globalization and who was the first to advocate a Dalit-Brahmin alliance against the Sudra (OBC) castes.
We were out to see these villages for ourselves and assess how ‘globalization’ had transformed lives of ordinary Dalits in the last twenty years or so. This is after all, Prasad’s central thesis in many ways: Liberation through entry into the market and the world of consumption – and through it, the Brave New World of Capital. Travelling through these villages of Eastern UP thus, was a unique experience.

Nigam seems to find some support for Prasad's assertions, although he does not seem to buy into them completely. And indeed, these might be just tiny oases in the massive desert of Dalit suffering. Nevertheless, it is heartening to read a positive story about dalit self-empowerment, especially through market forces.

Now, the point of this post is to pick a bone with Nigam about what he wrote here -

The expansion of economic activity over the last two decades is clearly linked to ‘globalization’ and ‘liberalization’ and could not have been imagined earlier. The series of processes unleashed by globalization are extremely complex and it is not quite clear that all of them can be clubbed under the rubric of ‘capitalism’ and ‘free market’. It has for instance unlocked a whole range of creative energies that involve entrepreneurship, simply by making available a market and cash flows in a scenario where both were extremely limited. In the days of the halvaha system, cash hardly passed through the hands of the Dalit labourers. Entrepreneurship, commerce, markets and fairs – all these have been around since antiquity and we need to be a bit more careful in assigning all these to some innate capitalist instinct. They become part of capitalism only when tied to the logic of accumulation. So far as we can see, a lot of enterprise that has emerged is a simple extension of a logic of need and the pleasure of consumption – none of which need lead to accumulation in the capitalist sense.

Nigam may or may not realize this, but what he is applauding here is essentially the "capitalistic instinct". I especially take exception to the suggestion that entrepreneurship, commerce, markets etc become part of capitalism only when tied to the "logic of accumulation". Accumulation is not really central to the idea of capitalism. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of capitalism is -

an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.

Very simple. Everything is owned and decided by private individuals. So private individuals taking part in commercial activity with each other, taking their own decisions, and displaying entrepreneurship is all part of capitalism. When Nigam says that all these have been around since antiquity, no one will be shaking his head more vigorously than Adam Smith's ghost.

That is the point that "Capitalists" or most supporters of free markets are trying to make. Economic activity by private individuals is as natural and ancient as the desire to mate. The government has no business stepping in and taking it over.

As for "accumulation", I am not sure what Nigam means by that. If by that, he is referring to the profit-maximization motive, then yes, I agree it is central to the idea of capitalism. But then what is point of trading in markets, and engaging in entrepreneurial activities if not making profits? Indeed, it is opportunities to make profit that have led to the relative prosperity that Nigam witnessed in Poorvanchal.

I also want to talk about private ownership, or property rights, a pet issue of mine. Although left-liberals rightly champion the cause of the victims of Sardar Sarovar, Nandigram, Singur, etc, I have not heard a single one of them demand that the right to property be restored as a fundamental right in the Indian constitution. That will solve all these land-grabbing problems in one go, and ensure that they are not repeated.

Of course, the right to property was deleted from the fundamental rights for a different reason. To make it easy for the government to take land from the "big fish" without any trouble. Ironically and tragically, it has also enabled the government to take land from the "small fries" and turn it over to the big fish. Which shows how disastrous and stupid it is to take away fundamental rights for utilitarian reasons.

Taking away something as basic as the fundamental right to property from everyone because the big bad zamindars and corporate wolves could misuse it is like outlawing oxygen because murderers and rapists use oxygen to stay alive.

Anyway, coming back to the point, I am interested to know what this "accumulation" exactly is, that makes capitalism capitalism. Nevertheless, I am heartened to find common ground with Nigam in recognizing individual commerce, trade, markets, entrepreneurship etc. as being vital and useful for progress of even the small fries. That collectivism is not the only panacea. I will end with something else he wrote on the same page that I heartily agree with -

It is also interesting that these transformations are taking place not out of the logic of resistance but the abandoning of the ascribed status. For, the logic of resistance requires a definition of the Self, a fixation of identity – something that flight from an oppressive relationship abandons. A peasants’ or workers’ resistance can only emerge by reifying the category of the peasant or the worker, freezing it so to speak. So a marxist can only see a worker abandoning that subject-position as ‘betrayal’ or ‘embourgeoisment’ (Lenin’s ‘labour aristocracy). Real life however, shows many other instances where it is precisely by abandoning given subject-positions that social power structures undergo transformation.

Hear, hear!