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The Middle-class and the State: Shashank Kela

May 4, 2011

Guest post by SHASHANK KELA

These fragmentary reflections on the historical relationship between the middle-class and the state may help to place the brouhaha over Anna Hazare in a fresh perspective.

No one celebrates capitalism quite as enthusiastically as your average (well, all right, above average) Marxist historian. Few conservative encomiums on the subject have the lapidary elegance of Perry Anderson’s Lineages of the Absolutist State, or the remorseless logic of Robert Brenner’s celebrated paper on the origins of capitalism.[1] This line goes back all the way to Marx in whose work praise of capitalism and execration of its effects are perpetually balanced.

Capitalism’s motor is the bourgeoisie or the middle-class. Its ancestors – the burghers of the medieval west European town and large landowners in the countryside – transformed the crisis of feudalism into opportunity with the help of the state. The result: mercantilism, enclosures, poor laws; the reorganization of agriculture on rational, commercially profitable lines. The cumulative effect of these developments was to extinguish avenues of subsistence hitherto available to the poor, throwing them on the market as sellers of their labour.

This nascent class was uniquely placed to exploit the discovery of the New World: whose treasures poured into the old. Innumerable “natives” were worked to death in the silver mines and great estates of central and south America. African slavery made possible a plantation economy of unprecedented proportions. European shipping monopolized the world’s oceans. Thus were created the conditions that sparked the industrial revolution and hastened its spread: the loot of the Americas made possible the great transformation whose heirs we all are.

The absolutist state presided over these developments, facilitating the rise of the bourgeoisie while maintaining the carapace of aristocratic rule. It performed this Janus function through its economic policies, marked by fierce protectionism and direct intervention in the sphere of manufacturing, and political choices, war above all (Luis XIV’s futile invasion of the Netherlands was driven primarily by commercial considerations). Needless to say it did not always succeed in its avowed objective of monopolizing political power. Yet civil wars in England and France were succeeded by a workable compromise between aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Everywhere absolutism sought to reconcile their interests while threatening with its basilisk stare the poor and the unpropertied.

Annealed in the fires of the industrial revolution, the bourgeoisie emerged as the dominant social class, wresting control of the state in a contest in which the working class, if not yet its antagonist, was still its chief point of reference. The modern nation-state, industrial capitalism, the triumph of the bourgeoisie: these are intertwined elements of a single historical phenomenon. The doctrine of the inalienable rights of the individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (not to mention property) provided its ideological counterpart. It flowered in the years and decades after the French revolution: the bourgeoisie staffed and directed the institutions of the state in collaboration with the nobility; it championed representative democracy (within the circumscribed limits set by property qualifications), the rule of law, the freedom of the press, the unfettered pursuit of profit.

The irruption of the working class into this charmed circle widened the notion of democracy and liberty to something like their present meanings (though reform of capitalism had to wait until the middle of the 20th century when social democracy was invented). Meanwhile imperialism provided the prizes for which the nations of western Europe fought, and paid for the compromise between the bourgeoisie and the working class embodied in social democracy. For the price of relaxing exploitation at home was intensified exploitation overseas, codified in asymmetric patterns of trade developed over centuries.

This prelude is by way of emphasizing the cardinal importance of the state in the transition to capitalism: the rise of the Indian middle-class must be seen in this context. In India, colonialism found itself confronted in the late 17th century with a deeply fissured and heterogeneous social order; an economy marked by high levels of monetization and commodity production; powerful terrestrial states (Gwalior, Holkar, Mysore); military aristocracies adept at squeezing the surplus from agriculture; an entrenched rural elite of zamindars and office-holders; a sophisticated mercantile system. The slow extension of British rule over the peninsula – largely complete by the 1830s – was a triumph of collaboration as much as conquest as large sections of the traditional elite threw in their lot with the Company.

Imperial proconsuls were in no doubt about the necessity of conciliating those whom John Malcolm wittily called “the higher class of natives”. A member of the administrative patriciate of the early 19th century, Malcolm’s conservatism was typical of the period. Colonial policies were designed, above all, to keep landed elites happy: colonial laws strengthened their rights to property and gave it new content; the legalism of the colonial state provided an occasionally unreliable bulwark against arbitrary confiscation. If a sector of the elite went under, new men emerged from the rungs below to take their place. Meanwhile ryotwari tenure enabled regionally dominant farming castes to take advantage of new opportunities in agriculture.

In the decades following 1857, an indigenous middle-class developed. It was drawn principally from the upper castes, at least in the beginning, and created by the operations of an economy organized on modern, that is to say capitalist, lines. A communications revolution knitted together sub-regional and regional markets – the telegraph, the printing press and the postal system were as much its components as roads and railways. The state recruited its personnel from the ranks of this nascent class, materially aiding its growth. For its impersonal bureaucracy – kept as small as possible in obedience to good laissez faire principles – was much more extensive than that of any pre-colonial state, encompassing a vast network of administrative and clerical staff.

There are two points to be made about this phenomenon. One is the association of state employment with wealth and status. State functionaries were all powerful because they owed accountability only to their superiors. Necessarily so, for the juridical category of citizens did not exist – only subjects did. In addition, they served a state radically different in reach and power from its predecessors. Meanwhile the general regression of the economy heightened the importance of state employment as a means of personal enrichment: thus were authority and its abuse welded together. The second is the uneven development of the bourgeoisie. The trades, professional occupations and state employment were largely monopolized by the upper castes. However the dominant farming castes (Jats in the north, Patidars and Maratha Kunbis in the west, Reddys and Vellalas in the south) whose upper layers had amassed considerable capital soon began diversifying into them and seeking to enter the charmed circle of state employment: their poor were marked off from plebeian groups not just in terms of social status but aspiration.

The political significance of the dominant farming castes was demonstrated in Tamil Nadu where they swung against the Congress: as a result the Justice Party handily beat it in the restricted electoral contests of the inter-war period. They turned to the Congress once its triumph became a real prospect and the task of capturing it correspondingly urgent. In Bihar (where the farming castes were weak and the upper castes strong), that classic of Hindi prose, Phanishwarnath Renu’s Maila Anchal, shows how landlords flocked to the Congress once its victory became imminent. The party welcomed them with open arms. It has been estimated that ‘almost half of all Congressmen who joined in the nineteen thirties were recruited from the prosperous proprietor castes, owning holdings between twenty one and a hundred acres’[2]

The class that staffed the structures of the colonial state also controlled the party that overthrew it. No wonder its commitment to democracy and modernization was yoked to an unwavering belief in the efficacy of colonial institutions and their animating spirit. That this spirit was anti-democratic was precisely the point. Not even the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie questioned the intrinsic character of the institutions inherited from the colonial state, or thought to empower the poor in any meaningful sense. Thus the indispensable scaffolding of social services (an effective system of schooling and healthcare) and institutional reform (labour regulation in agriculture and the unorganized sector, accountability in state employment, legal reform) was never created. It is no accident that the right to information took more than fifty years to be granted, or that the police and the bureaucracy remain resolutely unaccountable to the citizenry they are supposed to serve.

Throughout the first, formative decade of the republic, the Congress remained the overarching political structure in which conflicts within the dominant classes were mediated and harmonized. The federal structure that it had developed made it natural for the founders of the republic to plump for a federal solution to the problem of holding the country together. This choice proved to be of incalculable importance: it was the mechanisms of federalism and representative democracy that created a viable field for political competition. Gandhi had made middle-class opinion accustomed to the idea of mobilizing – and manipulating – the poor. Three decades of struggle against colonialism had stitched its regional elements together. The principle of federalism gave each section its own bailiwick.

The linguistic reorganization of states, achieved after a brief struggle, was its capstone. In any contest of decisive importance with the centre – land reforms, for example – the states usually won. The Planning Commission’s schemes for land redistribution were regularly subverted while the list of state subjects could scarcely have been more extensive.[3] The English respect for forms and procedure (in contrast to the exuberant political experimentation of the French) chimed perfectly with upper caste Indian habits. These habits helped guarantee an almost uninterrupted continuity of democratic forms even as their content was steadily eroded. Like that ancient Roman god, Janus, the middle-class looked two ways at once, creating and undermining the democracy that was its greatest achievement.

I know of nothing more radical, remarked Hugh MacDiarmid, than equality of opportunity. This, the real content of any genuine democracy, was reserved for a small minority that incorporated the dominant farming castes and a tiny fraction of adivasis and Dalits (in a distinctly subordinate position). This exclusion was the proverbial worm in the apple as subsequent decades were to demonstrate.

The progressive wing of the bourgeoisie scarcely noticed the fact. Jawaharlal Nehru, its symbol, is also one of the embodiments of its failure. Trawling through Dorothy Norman’s extensive selection from his writings and speeches until 1950, one encounters only trite generalities couched in baggy prose. Nehru merely regurgitated the received ideas of his day  without seeing their difficulties or their true possibilities. His vision of socialism fell a long way short even of social democracy, the dominant west European creed during his period in power; his (widely shared) conviction that the institutions of the colonial state – the police, the administrative apparatus, the legal system – would serve an independent republic equally well without modification can only be described as simple-minded.

To compare the Library of America’s two volume edition of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings with Nehru’s many and tedious books to be struck by the manifest difference in quality. Like Nehru, Lincoln dealt mostly in received ideas; moreover he was partial to compromise, most notably on the question of slavery where he was at odds with the fierce abolitionism of the best American minds of his time (Thoreau, Emerson). Yet he is lucid, sharp, concise – and, when the occasion demands, movingly eloquent. He is interested in people as Nehru is not (but then he came up the hard way while Nehru owed his rise in large part to a powerful father and Gandhi’s anointment); he has wit, a quality Nehru lacked entirely. The difference in staying power is reflected in the outcome of their respective careers. Lincoln remade his country for better and worse: by abolishing slavery, unifying it and launching it on an unmistakably imperial trajectory. Nehru, apart from laying the basis of industrial development in India, conspicuously failed to put most of his received ideas into practice.

This was only partly because his followers were grossly outnumbered by those who desired to maintain the traditional edifice of social relations while modernizing the economy. If the dominant farming castes competed with the upper castes in the sphere of politics and administrative representation (much earlier and more successfully in the south than the north), they were more than willing to collaborate with them in keeping plebeian groups down. This was achieved by effectively abrogating the state’s commitment to universal education and healthcare (starving these spheres of funds and refusing to penalize non-performance); excluding most of the workforce from the ambit of labour regulation (which applied only to state employment and the organized sector); and the wholesale appropriation of commons on which the poor depended.

Indian “socialism” did not exclude the private sector: on the whole, it encouraged it. The state retained the right to direct investment into certain sectors and exclude it from others (scarcely a revolutionary concept); meanwhile the behemoths of the public sector provided private enterprises with raw material and machinery. The fruits of technical education – heavily subsidized, its standards carefully kept up (in stark contrast to the state schooling system) – flowed overwhelmingly to the middle-class.

In the countryside, asymmetric patterns of state investment, codified in the Green Revolution, left vast regions of dryland cultivation to fend for themselves or sucked them dry (pun intended) as water was diverted to enclaves of subsidized capitalist agriculture. Their beneficiaries belonged, naturally enough, to the dominant farming castes. A swelling army of migrant workers broke against these enclaves (as well as metropolitan centres), keeping wages low: the long term effects of water intensive, chemical agriculture worried policymakers not a whit. The middle-class grew; so did the poor. Official estimates of poverty, indexed to derisory levels, counted only the absolutely indigent. Welfare programmes, like the reservations system, never came close to touching the fundamental problem: the absolute lack of basic social services (in fact if not in theory) and any kind of social security, the impenetrable opacity of the bureaucratic structure, the influence of business over politics.

In the ’80s, as the pace of economic expansion quickened, an influential sector of the bourgeoisie grew restive with regulation. Meanwhile the spread of television fuelled incipient consumerism (the Fifth Pay Commission was to quicken this tendency by multiplying the spending power of government employees several times over in one fell stroke). Punctually, a balance of payments crisis appeared; and the process of economic “liberalization” commenced, under external pressure but supported strongly by middle-class opinion.

Twenty years on, middle-class protestations that the state is something extrinsic to itself ring ever hollower: this is not only because the nation-state, historically speaking, was virtually created by the bourgeoisie. It is the state in the most concrete sense possible insofar as the overwhelming majority of state functionaries are drawn from its ranks (or lifted into it by virtue of state employment), and the majority of elected representatives belong to it. It is no accident that a personal fortune is fast becoming indispensable for a successful political career below the very top. The more so since state funding for elections is one of the many tenets of social democracy that Nehruvian “socialists” simply forgot.

Let us examine our institutions in turn. The Supreme Court has always been conservative on the question of property rights – yet the property rights of the poor, such as they are, invariably receive short shrift. The real zeal of the courts has always been enlisted on behalf of the rich: thus zamindars obtained generous compensation while those displaced by heavy industry and dams were left to fend for themselves. For a brief period in the late ’80s and the early ’90s, the Supreme Court appeared to buck this trend. However this phase tailed off with remarkable speed. Since then, judicial pronouncements have tended to be in favour of the state on matters of “development” (upholding its right to evict the poor for any and every reason); and waffling or negative on civil liberties (the refusal to intervene meaningfully against state sponsored atrocities in Dantewada, the protracted Binayak Sen case and hundreds of others like it which attract no attention, its failure to scrutinize anti-terror legislation).

The obdurate refusal of the higher judiciary to submit to any form of independent scrutiny is a faithful reflection of middle-class attitudes. Thus we have the bizarre spectacle of the Supreme Court admonishing sundry judges of the Allahabad High Court for flagrant nepotism and worse, after which it exhorts them to repent and mend their ways. The thought that the judges in question deserve to be dismissed does not occur to anyone. Thus Dinakaran is packed off to Sikkim despite the charges against him – as though a judge unfit to serve in Karnataka was good enough to serve elsewhere. It took a prolonged lawyers’ protest to render his position untenable rather than the weight of evidence against him: who would bet against him achieving retirement with the affair still undecided? Kafaesque is the adjective one gropes for.

As for the media, the most effective mouthpiece of middle-class opinion: “paid news”, the trivialization of public discourse, the relentless plugging of consumerism and nationalism are the inevitable byproducts of its subservience to the corporate ethic (to the point where the only point of running a newspaper is profit and influence peddling). These vices are counterbalanced by a greater commitment to muckraking journalism. Yet the middle-class that through the media demands greater accountability and probity from state functionaries and politicians refuses to hold itself accountable to anything except the unfettered pursuit of profit. Certainly corporate bodies of doctors, lawyers, businessmen or teachers evince little enthusiasm for regulating their conduct in the interests of the common good.

An important consequence of neo-liberal economic policies has been the displacement of political power from the middle-class as a whole to a small and unrepresentative elite at its apex. The Radia tapes reveal nothing new: the organic links between business and politics are not the work of five years or ten but the fruit of several decades – as the irresistible rise of the Ambanis so splendidly demonstrates. Now the two spheres have been conflated. To eavesdrop on the Tata group jockeying to make A Raja Communications Minister is an enriching experience but it merely confirms what we knew already: from Murli Deora’s actions as Petroleum Minister; the Orissa government’s uninhibited advocacy of mining interests; Sharad Pawar’s whole career.

The tail of big business now wags the dog of politics. An exemplary illustration comes from the speed with which the BJP withdrew its implicit criticism of Ratan Tata over the Radia tapes. After Prakash Javadekar had (humbly) taken issue with Tata’s statement on the NDA’s telecommunications policy, Arun Jaitley loftily informed the media that the party intended to steer clear of “inter-corporate arguments”. The shift is startling: since the fifties, prominent industrialists fought shy of criticizing political parties. That time is clearly past: now political parties – even “national” ones – are chary of criticizing billionaires. It is entirely credible to imagine the czar of Reliance bringing down a state government or two, should he so wish. It is impossible to imagine any government acting against the company – it is simply too big and powerful.

The influence of a handful of mining magnates in the politics of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh is another case in point. Since the leading figures in almost every political party are businessmen themselves (if not quite in the top drawer), the identification of business with politics is complete. The conviction that the state must be restructured to give profit full rein follows naturally from it, never mind that it is both ignorant and self-interested. For if GDP growth is to confer any lasting benefit on more than a quarter of the population, it must be accompanied by increased employment in the organized sector and improving conditions for labour in general. This is clearly not the case.[4]

The narrowing basis of its domination should be a matter of concern for the middle-class as a whole. Unfortunately the ideal of consumerism – a world conquering idea if ever there was one – knits it together and papers over the cracks. This is not reassuring for the future of the republic. For beyond a point inequality becomes an active destabilizing force and the state can only be propped up on the points of bayonets. It is entirely possible to imagine a future in which gaping inequalities and the ruthless pursuit of “development” (entirely neo-colonial in orientation and unforgivingly brutal in practice) lead to something approximating civil war and write finis to civil liberties in the name of national security. The state would no doubt survive; but only at the cost of jettisoning its stated, but never seriously upheld, aims: justice, republicanism, equality.

The reason why the American ideal so fascinates the middle-class is its opulent consumerism – and because so many of its brightest, if not its best, fly the coop to the United States in search of the good life. But what is sauce for the American gander cannot be sauce for the Indian goose: the historical backgrounds of the two societies are too dissimilar. For one thing, India entirely lacks that robust libertarian tradition which partly compensates for the political emptiness of American democracy, reduced to a choice between two almost identical parties locked in an identical embrace with big business. If the Indian middle-class cared somewhat less for itself, and somewhat more for the ramshackle polity it presides over, it would look rather to the societies of Europe, traditionally riven by hierarchies and conscious of the need to placate the poor, and thus to their invention of social democracy (now tottering as big business strikes back in the name of international competitiveness).

When Leonardo Sciascia, Italy’s premier man of letters, was asked what he would like to see in Italian politics, his answer was short and to the point – a genuine social democratic party (this was the halcyon ’70s when Italian public life had not yet reached its nadir). Sciascia, like most European intellectuals of his generation, was a man of the left, deeply unenamoured by the official left – in his case the Italian Communist Party – whose mendacity, opportunism and authoritarianism he so mercilessly pilloried (the parallels with the organized left in India are, I hope, sufficiently obvious). His solution to the double bind of Italian politics was civic reform. A social democratic party would be no bad thing in India either where any suggestion that the poor are human beings rather than chattels tends to attract the attention of the police. That is, a party committed to overhauling the state’s institutions and making them accountable to the ordinary citizen; committed to the provision of social services such as education and healthcare (of the sort the nations of western Europe, and some developing countries, take for granted); committed to the onerous task of regulating business and protecting labour: on second thoughts, a truly revolutionary prospect.

Then perhaps we could address the environmental catastrophe staring at us in the face by embarking on a fundamental reconsideration of the industrial system itself. For Marx’s celebration of capitalism, and thus of industrialism whether capitalist or socialist, as a striking advance in human productive capacity (echoed in one way or the other by Anderson and Brenner) is almost entirely blind to its inevitable environmental consequences. But now the chickens of the industrial revolution have well and truly come home to roost – its ceaseless destruction of the environment, the ascending spiral of consumption upon which it rests, its depletion of the earth’s resources. Now the very difficult yet indispensable marriage of environmentalism, technology, and respect for subsistence would seem to be the only way to build a sane world, not just for our descendants, but all the species that inhabit our devastated planet.

Thus the last, best hope for India would appear to lie in an alliance between that tiny fraction of the middle-class which views with alarm the direction of the polity, and independent plebeian movements who question the values of “development” by refusing any longer to bear its costs. The time for the tired nostrums of the organized left is clearly past, its bad faith too flagrant. As for the Maoists, their ideology consists of jargon, devoid of critical and creative content. If not a great deal of the latter is visible in popular movements either, we can at least hope that it will appear. The costs of pretending that GDP growth will generate employment under tolerable conditions; that the single-minded pursuit of profit is compatible with the greater common good; or that the republic can long survive with two thirds of its population in chronic poverty have grown too high – for the many, that is, as opposed to the few.

Before his election to the presidency, Lincoln declared that the United States could not long survive half slave and half free. His contemporary, Benjamin Disraeli, observed that England consisted of two nations, one rich and one poor. They meant these as warnings. There are no politicians nowadays to tell us the truths that their middle-class constituents truly dislike hearing. Indeed the UPA, like its predecessors, has made it a point to repeat ad nauseam the half-truths or untruths of neo-liberal economics, divorced alike from history or any idea of justice. But if the approximation of justice is doomed to remain an unachieved ideal in human affairs, the consequences of too much injustice cannot always be shirked, namely the occasional crash that carries away the few along with the many. The only way to avoid it is to begin reforming the polity – now.


[1]    Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London, 1974); Brenner’s article is published in T H Aston and C H E Philpin, editors, The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Delhi, 2005).

[2]    Francine R Frankel, India’s Political Economy 1947-1977: The Gradual Revolution (Delhi, 1978), p. 73.

[3]    Frankel’s volume is particularly instructive on this point; see also Daniel Thorner, The Shaping of Modern India (Delhi, 1980).

[4]    For an extended discussion of this bald statement, see my article ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ in Seminar, number 616, December 2010.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Aman Sian permalink
    May 4, 2011 10:10 PM

    A thorough and incisive article as usual from Kafila.

    But even you seem to not completely escape the trap of seeing india through the, hard to take off, nehru-gandhian lenses. The federal structure of india was not developed in the ideological laboratory of Congress and imposed upon an impressionable newborn country; it was but the natural consequence and logical conclusion of its cultural diversity and political reality. Federalism is not a choice but an inevitability in a country with more than a dozen major languages and cultures. Linking it with the failure to implement land and other reforms serves little purpose. That blame goes solely to the apathy and depravity of the entrenched ruling classes, as argued by you.

  2. Joe permalink
    May 7, 2011 8:58 PM

    Marx noted the two aspects of this process: “The historical movement which changes the producers into wage-workers, appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and this side alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire”

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