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Friday, December 23, 2011

Capitalism & Caste: Melting Untouchability in India

In what has become known as India, the caste system of Hinduism has for millennia served as the template for the socio-economic ordering of people into family-based groups. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the economic liberalization policy put in place in 1991 to replace the stagnant “import-substitution” domestic-favoring model of economic development had enabled some people in the lower castes to vault into social acceptability by virtue of what The New York Times calls “the newest god in the Indian pantheon: money.” Given the advent of the prosperity gospel in Christianity and the associated eclipse of the “camel getting through the eye of a needle” much-earlier-hegemonic association of wealth with greed, a similar statement could be made with regard to the Trinity (see “Godliness and Greed” and "God's Gold," both available at Amazon).
Gandhi is said to have remarked, “I used to think that truth was God. I have realized that God is truth.” This is a very profound statement, which must be unpacked to be understood and appreciated. “God” refers here to what in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is called revelation (God revealing itself through scripture). In Hinduism, the basic scriptures are known as the Vedas—the commentary thereof is known as the Upanisads (which are quite rich in terms of religious philosophy). The Vedas contain directions for social practices, such as concern widows (e.g., Sati (throwing oneself on the burning funeral pire of one’s husband) or going into a widows home, which often involved prostitution) and Dalits, or “untouchables” (e.g., not permitted to worship in the temple, or use public drinking fountains—sound familiar?).
Gandhi was saying that he used to accept all that was in revelation—including social practices concerning widows and untouchables—as truth (i.e., as unquestionably valid, or sacred). Observing the suffering of widows and untouchables, he came to realize that to be valid, revelation must itself “pass the truth test.” Suffering of the innocent (Christians may recall the suffering servant motif) as a direct and sole result of a directive in scripture could not be of truth, Gandhi concluded. Truth, in other words, has a higher calling than does revelation. In other words, what humans record as their revelations of the divine should be subject to truth itself, rather than defining (i.e., limiting) it. Even if what the religions record as revelation is informed by a divine source or field, the “informing” must pass through the imperfect (i.e., distortive) atmosphere of the human instruments that do the writing and copying. Therefore, “God is truth” means that truth is rightfully a criterion to be applied to revelation.  That which doesn’t pass the “smell test” can rightfully be ignored (I would include a conflict-of-interest criterion to the “smell test”).
The constitution of modern India forbids the old, rather sordid institutional prejudice against widows and the Dalit (which as of this writing number about 200 million). For example, the practice of physical untouchability, which confined Dalits to low-status jobs and social exclusion, is outlawed. Except in some remote areas, Dalits can walk on the same streets as upper-caste Indians, look them in the eye, and drink from the same wells and water fountains.
Even so, as anyone who has stayed in a Motel 6 or Holiday Inn Express owned or operated by a Patel knows, vocational groupings continue to reflect family groupings, or castes. According to the New York Times, “(s)ocial and economic mobility are limited, a product of India’s layers of cultural legacies: the Hindu caste system, the feudal and sometimes racial hierarchies . . ., and the imperial bureaucracy imposed by Britain.” For many Indians still, you do what your father did. The Times reports that “(k)nowledge-based businesses like information technology have attracted large numbers of Brahmins, the traditional learned caste. The business castes tended to focus more on retail and wholesale trade than manufacturing. Messy industries like construction are closer to the traditional occupations of the lowest castes.” That the historical caste of scholars and priests (i.e., the Brahmins) has turned to information technology reflects the new “high priests” in terms of modern Indian values, yet I doubt that contemporary Brahmin scholars and priests view a computer programmer as being at all equivalent. The caste system itself has been truncated by a certain reductionism to business (i.e., oriented to business), given the societal hegemony of business in modern India.
As a brief digression, I want to translate the Hindu caste system into Western society. A learned caste exists in the West, even if that caste has been eclipsed in popular culture by the “professional” sub-caste in the business caste. Even so, scholars and priests in the West correspond to the Indian Brahmin caste. The political caste contains (in decreasing order) imperial, kingdom/state, province/region/county, and local offices. This is so in both India and the West. The business caste in the West contains its own hierarchy, from professionals (physicians, CPA’s and lawyers) to the people who work in the financial services and information technology, and on down to retail managers and finally manufacturers. The worker caste (foreign farm workers being at its bottom) is below the “managerial” sub-caste of the business caste, and the “welfare” or “homeless” caste is perhaps the Western equivalent of the untouchables in India. As in India, the business caste—in particular the professional and managerial sub-castes—has in practice vaulted to being the de facto highest caste in terms of contemporary values. That the Brahmin caste, in having scriptures or treatises as referents that contradict or relativize whatever happens to be the flavor of the month (e.g., “being a professional”), self-consciously transcends or repudiates “professional” values suggests that a basic learned—politics—business order of status (and even class) exists in spite of the apparent societal hegemony of the professionals (in which, not coincidentally, the next-lower business sub-caste, that of the business executive/manager, has claimed membership). Indeed, practically every working adult American who is not a student claims to be a professional (just look at the housing postings on Craigslist). In the U.S., everyone gets to classify oneself as being in the highest sub-caste of business, which in turn is presumed to be the highest caste in the entire system. It is not simply because physicians, public accountants and lawyers can be wealthy; “professional” now conveys a high-class sort of status. So, it would appear there are two new gods in the American pantheon.
In modern India, the “Dalit problem” may reduce in a practical sense to the task of reducing a rather extreme economic inequality, which in itself is dangerous to a representative democracy. Thanks in part to an affirmative action program by the government, Dalits and tribal people have gained in getting an education and procuring government jobs. This is only part of the story, however. Although widening “the gulf between rich and poor,” the economic expansion brought about by the post-1991 liberalization policy allowing foreign direct investment and expanding trade has enabled some Dalits to become wealthy as business practitioners. As a result of both the affirmative action and liberalization policies, the wage gap between other castes and Dalits decreased from 36 percent in 1983 to 21 percent in 2011 (and the education gap has been halved). Twenty-one percent is less than the gap between Caucasian and Black men in the United States in 2011. The social status of Dalits has risen as well. “With their new wealth they have also won a measure of social acceptance,” according to the Times.
According to Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist and proponent of capitalism for untouchables, “(b)ecause of the new market economy, material markers are replacing social markers.” This can be generalized to include the self-vaunting of the business caste to the head of the line from third in terms of popular understanding both in India and the West. Prasad implicitly likens India to the West, in fact, by making the following observation: “India is moving from a caste-based to a class-based society, where if you have all the goodies in life and your bank account is booming, you are acceptable.” What of the Brahmin priest or scholar of philosophy who sees through all the vanities in life and appreciates timeless gems that don’t necessary pay a monetary dividend? Is the modern professional society in actuality without class, yet still very hierarchical and unequal? It is indeed part of the role of the scholar and priest to hold this mirror up to the “professionals,” whose niggardly caste does not permit donations to such “lost” causes as that of truth. Am I understood?
As Nietzsche theorizes, the strong can be hoodwinked by the weak who seek to dominate beyond their native pith and ken (e.g., those with an undergraduate degree in Law or Medicine claiming nonetheless a false entitlement to the doctorate—the J.S.D. or D.Sci.M. rather than the LLB/JD or MD prerequisite degrees). Pith, or strength, and ken, or knowledge, may come down in the end to character, out of which real castes naturally form in human relations. What physician is going to party with a scholar who reminds him that his MD is actually an undergraduate degree in a Medical school?—the doctorate being a terminal (highest possible, so not a prerequisite for another degree in the same school/discipline) degree that includes comprehensive (not board) exams and a dissertation-length defended body of original research. What scholar is going to respect a lawyer who cannot be wrong about the LLB (the JD is just another name for that degree) being a doctorate because he or she also has a BA in English? It was student dissatisfaction at around 1900 with the “two B’s” (LLB and BA) that prompted the three lawyers who started new University of Chicago Law School to re-label the LLB program as “JD” (this “D” does not stand for doctorate). In typically American fashion, the marketing gimmick was inexorably taken for substance (because of the convenience) and the misnomer quite understandably became the default rather than recognized as a stubborn category mistake. Substantively, a year or two of basic survey courses and the same time in senior seminars (without even a major!) in the discipline of law does not a doctorate make. Yet this misnomer, and the related one in American medical schools, helped fuel the ascendancy of the “professional” sub-caste of business to the top of the heap, aided by the perennial non-virgin goddess of money.
I contend that the self-vaunting of the “professional” sub-caste in the West is just as squalid (and without foundation) as the historical discrimination against the Dalit in what is now India. Both trajectories violate the ethical principle of desert (i.e., what is deserved) which is related to the principle of fairness. Both “mis-casteings” involve the presumption of knowing more than is actually known in the assigning (and enforcement) of roles. In other words, both are dogmatic, or arbitrary, relative to nature. Rather than looking to capitalism or democracy here, the real lesson is in terms of nature relative to human contrivance. The ancient Greek marble pillars might have been majestic in service to Athena or Poseidon, but green vines would have the last say, as per the painting of the Romantics in the nineteenth century.
Whereas governmental preference and capitalism have enabled an increasing number of Dalits to “join the club” of social acceptance, business and government in the West reinforce the hegemony of the “doctored” professionals who in actuality typically have one (Europe) or two (America) undergraduate degrees. Indeed, kings (raj) and businessmen (as well as Brahmin priests!) in historical India played salient roles in keeping the Dalit in their place as (literally) outcastes. So the value of capitalism and a preferential policy of government should not be over-esteemed in themselves simply because they contributed the upward mobility of some (or many) in the Dalit caste. In the end, above particular economic and political systems as well as historical and even modern societal caste or class systems in which some benefit unduly at the expense of others, lies human character, out of which a rather different, distinctly invisible order of castes naturally unfolds without relying on human intention.

Part II: "Nature’s Caste System: Character-Based Clusters"


Click to read Rahul Deodhar's excellent comment (and my reply that attempts to do his essay justice) or to add a question or comment on my essay on the Hindu caste system and the plight of the untouchables being mitigated by capitalism.

Source:
Lydia Polgreen, “Scaling Caste Walls With Capitalism’s Ladders,” The New York Times, December 22, 2011.