Cover Feature

Whatever happened to Class?
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. For almost five decades after Independence, Southasian scholarship embodied this commitment. And why wouldn't it? One merely has to step onto the street to witness the horrid conditions that domestic capitalism has imposed on the vast majority of its citizens. To generations of scholars, it seemed unimaginable that any diagnosis of Southasia's social ills could leave out the central role of class and exploitation. No wonder, then, that Marxist theory had such an attraction to intellectuals based in the Subcontinent. For more than a century, Marxism had been the framework most committed to analysing how capitalism systematically generates inequality in wealth and in power. In most of the world, radicalism had enjoyed a very close affinity with Marxism, since no other framework had so highlighted capitalism as a source of social ills. How times change! For the past two decades, class analysis has been in decline in Southasian studies, and at an accelerating pace. This is not in itself surprising, since it is symptomatic of Marxism's decline as an intellectual and political force more broadly, and the Marxist tradition has historically been the main source of class-related theory. What gives added urgency to the issue is the nature of the theories – and politics – that have gained prominence in its stead. On the right, it is the revival of free-market ideology and, more broadly, neoliberalism. On the left, it is the rise of post-structuralism and postcolonial theory, a tandem that will hereafter be referred to as PSPC. Indeed, the proponents of PSPC have rather boldly laid claim to the mantle of radical theory in the wake of Marxism's retreat. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Southasian studies. This focus on PSPC requires some explanation. It certainly is not the only influential intellectual trend these days. Neoliberalism, or what is sometimes referred to as 'free-market fundamentalism', could justifiably lay claim to real dominance in the field. Undeniably, neoliberalism does indeed exercise tremendous influence among Southasianists, but it can be ignored in the current context for two reasons. First, neoliberalism's influence is largely confined to one discipline, economics (though also to a certain extent in parts of political science); with regard to the other key disciplines of Southasian studies – history, anthropology and cultural studies – neoliberalism has remained marginal. Second, and more to the point, it should not be particularly puzzling as to why neoliberalism is so influential today, nor why this is particularly so in economics. This is a doctrine, after all, that is hostile to state regulation of markets, typically regards labour unions as infringements on market freedoms, downplays the social character of wealth, and hence is opposed to redistribution. Such a doctrine has great resonance in a period when labour is weak and capital strong. Further, this doctrine has been assiduously propagated by corporate-sponsored think tanks for over a quarter-century now, and has constituted the lodestone for mainstream politics in the United States, across both major parties. It is, then, no surprise that it should exercise some influence in academic life, as well, and even less so that it becomes prominent in economics, which revolves more tightly than any other discipline around the business community and the halls of political power. That PSPC should become so prominent, however, is not nearly as obvious. The decline of class analysis, in itself, could have given rise to a variety of new fashions. Everything else being equal, one might have expected that academic culture would settle into a kind humane liberalism, more similar to the culture outside the academy. Or, perhaps there could have been a turn to more conservative views, in reaction to the advances the left made during the 1970s. Instead, the erstwhile Marxist intelligentsia evolved into practitioners of various species of post-structuralist theory. What makes the slide into PSPC politically interesting, and important, is that while it continues to hold on to the mantle of 'radical' critique, PSPC practitioners show not only a suspicion of class theory and the Marxist tradition, but an outright hostility to them. This is perhaps the first time that a major radical trend in the Western intellectual firmament has been so hostile to the entire tradition of class analysis – and, by extension, class politics. So, while Marxists came to expect criticism from the right over the past century, they now also have to contend with attacks from the left. Hence, it is not that the retreat from class has heralded a fading of leftwing scholarship; rather, the very meaning of left critique is changing. Class, meanwhile, is simply being pushed out of the progressive milieu. What is more, the displacement of class analysis will most likely deepen in the years ahead. For one thing, the very fact that the turn to PSPC theory is strongest in elite universities gives it a privileged position in the production of future scholarship – via job placement, control over journals, influence over allocation of research funds, etc. But even more important, in both the US and India, a spectacular generational bubble is currently working its way through the intellectual community. Most of the scholars committed to class analysis came of maturity during the 1960s and 1970s, and are now fairly advanced in their careers. Conversely, class is much less of a concern among scholars who finished graduate studies during the 1990s and thereafter. Hence, the number of Marxists among the younger scholars in Southasian studies is already fleetingly small. Thus, even though things are already difficult in this regard, we have not yet seen the worst. Within the next decade, as scholars who were radicalised during the 1960s wind down their careers and the baton is passed to the next generation, there is likely to be an even further drop-off in the visibility of class analysis.

The peculiarity of Southasian studies
At the outset, it may be useful to clarify a few things. First, the most obvious explanation for the rise of PSPC, and one that many in Southasian studies no doubt subscribe to, is that it is quite simply the best theory around. After all, it displaced class analysis and political economy due to their obvious shortcomings. This essay will try less to counter this notion, however, than to explain the rise of PSPC. Second, it should be stressed that an argument dealing with trends in intellectual fashion cannot avoid relying on'stylised facts' – somewhat general descriptions that capture basic trends. Hence, for every characterisation about Southasian studies over the past three decades, there are undoubtedly exceptions. Lastly, the main focus here will be on the scholarship coming out of the United States, and then from India, with an occasional glance at the British scene. This is because the centre for Indian scholarship in the transatlantic world is increasingly shifting away from England – its traditional base – and into US universities. Another reason to focus on the United States is that, in addition to its sheer weight in the production of scholarship, this is where the postmodernist turn has been strongest and the retreat from class analysis the most complete. To a certain extent, Southasian studies shared in the process of radicalisation that overtook other 'area studies', or the specialisations in particular regions. The founding, in 1968, of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, and the launch of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (BCAS) in May 1969, created an opening for Marxist and radical analysis of Asia, in broad parallel with the other leftwing area-studies journals. Even though BCAS was initially more focused on East Asia than it was on Southasia, the latter region nonetheless figured prominently in the journal's pages. The subject that experienced the deepest inroads by Marxist analysis was, unsurprisingly, agrarian relations, both in the United States and in Great Britain. To this day, in the English-speaking world, the analysis of Indian rural social structure and history remains class oriented. Still, if we look beyond the domain of agrarian studies, what stands out about Southasia scholarship in the United States is that Marxism and political economy made little impression on the field during the 1970s. It remained curiously resistant – or perhaps unattractive – to the so-called New Left. Hence, class analysis rarely reached out beyond the confines of rural social structures or movements. For the most part, American and British scholars during this period produced little on the class basis of the Indian state or its neighbours. In addition, there was still less being done on the Indian capitalist class, or on the dynamics of industrialisation, and virtually nothing on the structure and fortunes of the labour movement. In fact, a quick search of the major database of American PhD dissertations reveals that political science was the only discipline among four – history, anthropology, sociology and political science – in which dissertations on India actually decreased in number from the 1960s to the 1970s. If we compare this with the flood of class analysis focused on other areas (South America, Africa), the difference is striking. For example, while the political experiments in Tanzania gave rise to a whole body of literature on the nature and limits of 'African socialism', nothing even remotely comparable analysed its Nehruvian counterpart. Likewise, there was nothing on the internal structure of the Indian ruling class. Indeed, there is still is not a single study of post-war labour in an all-India context, beyond a few journalistic books.

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Himal Southasian