Literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose patronage of postcolonial and subaltern studies was effective because it was recognisable, and digestible, to the US audience. Photo:  Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung / Flickr
Literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose patronage of postcolonial and subaltern studies was effective because it was recognisable, and digestible, to the US audience. Photo: Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung / Flickr

Whatever happened to class?

The decline of class analysis in Southasian studies has followed the decline of Marxism as an intellectual and political force.

(Also read this essay by Aditya Nigam who argues class-versus-identity-politics debate misses the complexities of lived experiences.)

Not so long ago, activists and intellectuals who regarded themselves as progressive had a pretty clear idea of what this entailed. Then, as now, it carried a commitment to democratic rights, to equality, to fighting gender and racial domination. But it also meant a deep and abiding opposition to capitalism. To be radical was to be anti-capitalist. This was not just out of habit, or due to sectarian indoctrination. Hard experience over two centuries had taught activists that capitalism not only generated inequalities in a systematic way, but that the insecurities it created had the effect of pitting people against each other – for jobs, for housing. and for basic amenities. Moreover, any movement that called for redistribution of resources found itself confronting the hostility of the rich, since redistribution cannot but make demands on the wealthy. Gender and racial domination have their own independent sources, to be sure. But these are exacerbated and become increasingly entrenched in the context of poverty and material insecurity. So, even as our sense of radicalism evolved over time, there was no question but that it had to highlight the role of capitalism and class.

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