India File

‘Our middle class is actually the elite’

Poornima Joshi | Updated on August 15, 2018 Published on August 14, 2018

In an interview to Poornima Joshi, sociologist and former professor in the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Dipankar Gupta says that, as a behavioural and sociological category, India hardly has a middle class. In the absence of universal health and education, the disadvantages of class and caste have not been truly overcome. Hence, there is little 'intersubjectivity',  or 'baseline of similarity in the general population', which forms the condition for the existence of a true middle class. Excerpts:

How would you describe India’s growth as a modern Nation? Do you perceive increase in consumption, prosperity, per capita income as indicators of social mobility of the citizens?

Modernity and citizenship should be understood in terms of social relations just as othersocial science concepts are. Unfortunately, quite unlike other concepts, Modernity is generally  understood in terms of “things” such as owning cars or LED television sets or the presence of smoking chimney stacks in our cities. Once we turn our attention towards social  relations, we realise that the single most crucial factor in understanding Modernity is not  cars and consumer goods, far from it.

What makes Modernity are not these “things” as Modernity is really about the extent of intersubjectivity between social actors. Or, in other words, the extent to which we could trade places with others and step into each other’s shadows. Capitalism, for instance, is not just about money but about the relation between capital and labour. If Modernity is also about social  relations then we must focus on intersubjectivity. This would then demand a base line of similarity in the general population so that intersubjectivity can be spontaneously experienced. What we must then be attentive to is how to bring about these similarities so that  intersubjectivity may have an easier time to survive. This is why I believe social relations count for more in understanding Modernity than “things” do.

Could you explain what inter-subjectivity means and whether, if modernity is about a specific kind of social relations, India can be characterised as a modern society?

When we understand modernity in terms of intersubjectivity, what I am stressing is the ease with which the horizons of different classes of people converge in everyday life. The question then is: to what extent is my life interchangeable with those around me? In India, for a long time urbanisation, rising consumption patterns, per capita income etc., have created the perception that there is a so-called middle class which is expanding or rising, and, so also is Modernity. But such an observation is again based on “things” and not on social relations. I can have fast cars, go to the most expensive schools and hotels, yet be very un-Modern in the way I relate to other people.  Samuel Eisenstadt’s concept of Multiple Modernity is a good example of how easily we can go wrong. Eisenstadt equates Modernity with technical knowledge, such as the ability to use modern weapons and communication systems. In which case, terrorists will have to be called Modern too.

Another example: ask yourself how interchangeable is your life with those who work as domestics in your house? They are with you 24 hours a day, for years, yet they occupy a different social world. Do you know what brings them joy or what makes them cry? At the same time, it is not as if any society is fully modern, or where there is perfect interchangeability. Just as there is no perfect capitalism, or a perfect family, intersubjectivity is never complete, but different societies have different levels of it and can hence be characterised as more Modern or  less Modern. In the west, for example, there is an easy camaraderie between, say, a bus conductor and passengers; they have things that they can joke about together or  discuss.  There is a modicum of shared space between them and though they are strangers, they can  still connect. The ability to laugh and joke with each other with ease is an indicator of  intersubjectivity. On the other hand, even in cosmopolitan cities in India, there is a sort of a patron-client relationship between those you would call middle class on the one hand and those who work for them; people who serve them in restaurants, ticket conductors and so on. The vocabulary in use between them is of the employer-servant variety and hence, incompatible with Modernity. The so-called “middle class” in India is actually an elite layer and not in the middle at all.

Being middle class assumes certain social relations, as in the west, and not only about consumption and ownership of things. If one is middle class one should be an autonomous agent, able to independently access health and education and one’s life too should resemble the majority of others, and not a minority. A Middle class society is essentially a project of the state and can be forwarded by building institutions that provide, first and foremost. universal and quality education and health care. This would immediately undermine inherited privileges of caste and class, as in India. In the absence of such features, I would be careful before classifying people as middle class and claim modernity for India.

But wouldn’t you agree that processes such as urbanisation have loosened up the rigid social stratification that caste imposed on Indian society?

No doubt urbanisation, and the concomitant decline of the closed village economy have loosened earlier social ties which restricted mobility and individualism. Once you leave the village, anonymity sets in and, contrary to village life, people do not live clearly segregated lives.  Interestingly, a new phenomenon now appears in the social firmament and this is in the emergence of friendship. Friendship means choice where as ties between relatives are given in advance. Besides, one sees a greater presence of inter-caste marriages, another demonstration of choice, in urban India. In fact, very often, those who marry outside their caste and community in a village head to cities for refuge.

Isn’t that a step forward? There are greater choices now than ever before and there is an urban middle class which is growing. Surely that is a sign of social progress and upward mobility.

When we understand modernity as equality in social relations in everyday life, it simultaneously means we assume others to be similar to us in crucial respects. Is my life interchangeable with those around me? In India, for a long time urbanisation, rising consumption patterns, per capita income etc., have created a perception that there is a so-called middle class which is expanding or rising. But modernity and social relations place attention elsewhere. To what extent, one must ask, has intersubjectivity developed?

How much, would you say, your life is interchangeable with others? Can you imagine being a landless farmer or a migrant worker?

But even in cosmopolitan cities in India, there is a sort of a patron-client relationship betweenthose you would call middle class and the people who work for them, including the  unctuous waiters in restaurants. Middle class is essentially a project of the state which creates and builds institutions, especially in universal and quality education and health care, which facilitate upward social and upward mobility and undercut the inherent privileges of class and, in India, a very strong resilient institution like caste. Has that happened? I would say that this is yet to happen in substantial measure and that is why one should be careful about classifying people as middle class and claim modernity.

Are we then not a society in transition where the old is collapsing and something is being built anew?

There is no doubt that urbanisation and the near collapse of the closed village economy have loosened earlier restrictive ties of caste and privilege. In addition, this change has also resulted in the making of friendship, which is not just a social relation, but one that is based on choice. Earlier, when somebody left the village for the city, it was usually a relative who called the person over. Today, it is often the case that a friend lends a hand. Also in the past, one’s interaction in the village was dependent on ties between relations which is a pre-existing given. This aspect of choice can also be seen by the growing number of inter-caste and inter-community marriages. In fact, those who break old marriage rules often escape to the city from the village for refuge. It is not as if inter-caste marriages are in a majority, but its incidence is growing. At the level of caste, we find the caste system giving way to caste identity.

The assertion of earlier subaltern castes and the near universal expressions of “caste patriotism” across the board would not have been allowed in the earlier rural regime where the “dominant caste” determined almost everything. Now, even those castes which were deprived at every level, have a number of cultural virtuosos among them. Caste associations are everywhere and these are important carriers of caste politics. That is why earlier vote banks are not that dependable and it is, therefore, difficult to predict how people will vote. It is not often understood that caste politics can only work after the caste system has given way to caste identity. The old caste system did not allow competition, only patron-client ties.     

Therefore, while earlier ties are under strain, India is still some distance away from achievinga modicum of interchangeability of social positions,or, intersubjectivity. Class and status differences are still very profound and not easily bridged. 

Factors such as universal education and health diffuse inherent privileges of caste and class and help in bridging these differences. This is how citizenship is advanced. Citizenship and Modernity are two sides of the same coin. While the first primarily addresses the political realm, the latter becomes active at the social level. This can be gauged from the way T.H. Marshall defined citizenship. According to him, citizenship confers an equality of status at base and on whose foundation we can go ahead and be as different as we want.

Would you say that health and education are very critical for the success of what you would call “Project Modernity”?

When the French lost to Prussia, the leading lights of the Third Republic argued that this was because Prussian children went to better schools. This is why in the Third Republic, from 1870 onwards, there was a huge expansion of universal education in France. School teachers were given a major role in this and in rural and urban France it was the schoolteacher who was the face of the Republic. It was now mandatory for every village with more than 20 school going age children to host a public elementary school. In post-war England similarly, the institution of the National Health Service (NHS) was critical in the growth of a more citizenship oriented Britain.

But in India, we have not seen such mega reforms in these critical sectors. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, who is otherwise credited for establishing many institutions of excellence in India, overlooked universal health and education. It is an unhappy truth, but India spends a muchlower percentage of its GDP on health and education compared to western democracies. In fact, it is lower than some Asian countries too. This naturally allows the privileged to cornerthe best available social services, leaving the poor, more or less, to their own device. Project Modernity would get a huge boost once we advance universal health and education and also support an energy policy that makes public transportation the norm. The Mayor of Bogota once said that a prosperous country is not one where rich people ride in cars but where they travel by buses and trains.

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on August 14, 2018
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor