Capitalism is supposed to usher in a 'modernity' where all inequalities of status inherited from the feudal past get obliterated. The intense competition that characterizes the capitalist market is supposed to leave little room for preferring one commodity over another on the basis of the caste or community of the seller: all that matters there is the quality of the product for a given price (or the price of the product for a given quality); and, since this holds for the 'purchase' of workers as well, caste or community considerations cease to be criteria for recruitment.
It is on the basis of such reasoning that the persistence of caste in our society has been interpreted by many on the Left as an expression of the arrested development of capitalism, of the fact that capitalism in societies like ours, coming late on the historical scene, does not destroy the pre-existing feudal structure, as capitalism elsewhere had done earlier, but rather makes compromises with this structure for its own political survival. Marxist literature in India refers to a 'bourgeois-landlord' alliance wielding State power; and a feature of such an alliance is the persistence of institutions like caste that constitute a part of Indian feudalism.
This perception, however, of caste as no more than a hangover from the past, appears grossly inadequate. Almost seven decades after Independence, we not only have a persistence of caste-oppression and caste prejudice, but even an intensification of them. And as the recent events at University of Hyderabad have shown, even the highest centres of learning in the country are not free from it. Indeed, in institutions producing technical and professional personnel, as distinct from those concerned with the liberal arts and the humanities, caste prejudices are even more pronounced; and where there is prejudice, harassment and oppression necessarily follow.
It would appear, therefore, that capitalism in our society, far from obliterating caste, actually strengthens it; that caste is not just a hangover from the past that is insufficiently effaced, but an institution that is reinforced by our capitalist development. Borrowing a phrase from Marx, one can even say that Indian capitalism is characterized by an 'expanded reproduction' of caste prejudice.
There is a simple reason for this. Capitalist development in India, even when it is occurring at a rapid pace, creates meagre employment opportunities; and even such employment that it generates is in spheres like IT-related services, which thrive because of 'outsourcing' by metropolitan firms, and which require among their employees a certain level of education. Those who are privileged enough to have got such an education can access these jobs, while those who have been educationally-deprived are excluded from such employment.
Since it is only the more affluent children belonging to the 'upper' castes who are privileged enough to get an education and hence can access these jobs, while the educationally-deprived children from the 'lower' castes are excluded from such jobs and have to be content with unskilled casual employment at best, capitalist development in our society actually widens the socio-economic inequality that already exists between the 'upper' and the 'lower' castes.
The ideology of capitalism however claims that the pattern of distribution of income under this system, and hence relative economic status, is determined by 'merit'. It follows, therefore, that differences actually arising because of socio-economic status, which is strongly correlated with caste, are attributed according to the ideology of capitalism to differences in 'merit'. The ideology of capitalism, in short, serves to refurbish the view that caste differences are actually indicative of differences in 'merit'.
No successful, upwardly-mobile professional would like to concede that his or her success is a result of the privileged position that he or she occupied in society. Such a person is rather likely to believe what bourgeois ideology propagates, namely that underlying his or her success is greater inherent ability. And on such a perception, whoever is not successful, must, ipso facto, lack this ability. Since it is the underprivileged, belonging to the 'lower' castes, who are typically excluded from such success, the successful professionals necessarily view their 'lower' caste contemporaries as being devoid of such an ability, which, therefore, reinforces caste prejudice among them.
It is this which explains why even among highly-educated, successful professionals, caste prejudices are prevalent. Such prejudices do not just constitute a hangover from the feudal past; they become a necessary accompaniment of capitalist development. We have, in other words, a new casteism superimposed upon the old casteism, derived from it but strengthening it immeasurably.
To restate the argument, any action based on the presumption of socio-economic equality in an actually unequal situation, has the effect of exacerbating this inequality. And this very presumption entails that such exacerbation is then attributed not to the pre-existing socio-economic inequality but to differences in innate ability, which thus serve to rationalize the socio-economic inequality. This is what capitalist development does in societies like ours which gives rise to what I call the new casteism.
This new casteism, which characterizes the successful among the 'upper' caste educated segments, also 'trickles down' to the unsuccessful ones among them. They attribute their own lack of success - which is inevitable in a situation where even the number of skilled jobs is limited - to such meagre residual measures of affirmative action in favour of the 'lower' castes that remain in place, or to such meagre expenditure that the government undertakes in favour of the 'lower' caste poor. They explain their own unemployment by the fact that the government 'pampers' the 'lower' castes through reservations, that it engages in vote-catching 'populist' measures to appease the 'lower' castes, all at the expense of 'development', which would have created more jobs.
We have seen evidence of this during the last parliamentary elections. In the course of the elections, many 'upper' caste voters who were interviewed, not just in rural areas but also among the urban educated, reportedly considered the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme as mere patronage for the 'lower castes' -which was not just anti-'development' but amounted even to a form of 'corruption'! The new casteism, in short, permeates both those who are successful among the 'upper' caste educated segments, and also those who are not.
If there was a complete overcoming of the educational deprivation that afflicts the poor, who typically belong to the 'lower' castes, through a public education system of high quality, or if there was full employment in the economy, then there would be some check on the widening of pre-existing socio-economic differences associated with caste. If both happened, namely an overcoming of educational deprivation as well as the achievement of full employment, then there would be a basis for caste prejudices and caste oppression to disappear. But capitalism in societies like ours is incapable of accomplishing either, let alone both. All it succeeds in accomplishing is a new casteism.
It may be argued that capitalism nowhere has achieved either, that even though things may not be as bad in metropolitan countries as they are in countries like ours, full employment and the overcoming of educational deprivation among those who are marginalized in socio-economic terms have always remained a far cry under capitalism, barring perhaps a brief post-war period of pre-Blairite Social Democratic ascendancy. How then have socio-economic differences, of the sort that caste represents here, been kept in check?
Some would argue that they are, in fact, becoming wider at present even in metropolitan capitalism, with the growth of anti-immigrant racial prejudice and oppression. But even if we ignore the present, and look only at the history of capitalism, the possibility of emigration from Europe to the temperate regions of white settlement, such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States of America, undoubtedly played a major role in keeping labour markets relatively tight, and in somewhat muting inherited socio-economic differences from the feudal past among the people at large, even though wealth inequality, and the associated income inequality, typical of capitalism, continued to flourish.
The Left perception of capitalism obliterating the differences in status inherited from the feudal past because of its own inner dynamics, therefore, could well constitute a case of mistaken identity. What happened because of emigration from the metropolis is perhaps being mistakenly perceived as an immanent property of the system itself.
But be that as it may, it is obvious that capitalism in societies like ours, far from overcoming inherited caste prejudice and caste oppression, actually strengthens them. The conditions required for overcoming them are incapable of being realized under capitalism, especially the neo-liberal variant which is its latest incarnation; they need a socio-economic order transcending capitalism. The struggle for the achievement of such an order and the struggle for overcoming caste oppression need to get linked.r
Prabhat Pattnaik is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India