Friday, December 30, 2011

WWKMS? (What Would Karl Marx Say?)

I have to admit that I have never been comfortable doing non-academic public writing. I have never blogged before. So, with your indulgence, I am going to warm up to the enterprise of interesting and approachable traveloging by writing about Karl Marx.

Never fear, though: I have enhanced my blog entry with this endearing photo of Friedrich Engels!

There is no longer an official caste system in India. It was outlawed in the 1950 Constitution of India. Yet, the issue of caste still features prominently in the minds of many Americans, and, as a recent New York Times article reveals, it endures in subtle and surprising ways within Indian society.

As the NYT puts it, “certain cultural affinities remain” between caste and career paths in India such that it is often still difficult for people with certain surnames and/or family lineages to break into prestigious careers.

In recent years, however, capitalism has changed this. To some extent, anyway.

The NYT article quotes Chandra Bhan Prasad, an activist for members of India’s so-called “untouchable” caste: the Dalits.

“Because of the new market economy, material markers are replacing social markers. Dalits can buy rank in the market economy. 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.”

Even if my trip to India didn’t have the Core curriculum at its center, a quote like this would inevitably bring Karl Marx to my mind. In 1848, Marx (and poor, neglected Friedrich Engels, of course) claimed that capitalism tends to eradicate traditional social stratifications. In place of the “complicated arrangement of society into various orders,” it creates “two great classes directly facing each other – bourgeoisie and proletariat” (Communist Manifesto, Section I).

According to the NYT, this leveling quality of the free market is an example of “the messy and maddening road to progress in India.” I doubt that anyone would dispute the felicity of the social empowerment of India’s Dalits. Who wouldn’t view such a development as “progress”?

Well, Marx and Engels, for one, couched their analysis of modern society in a recognition of the ambivalence of capitalism’s leveling logic. This logic, they observed,

has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors", and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment". It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade (Ibid).

I’m not sure how to come to terms with the tension articulated here, but I hope that this trip will afford me the opportunity to think it over in the company of some interesting people.

What do you think?


  1. This blog--and the whole idea of the India trip--is inspiring me to delve back into the works of some great thinkers (especially those that I never completely grasped while at Colgate). Your analysis reminded me of discussions about the role of religion in society--and the extent to which it ought to complement and/or challenge political and social systems. It also makes me further realize that a values-based capitalism would need to be sensitive to the unique values of each culture. I wish I knew more about economics; it's interesting to think about what a more ethical capitalism would look like. The "invisible hand" is a universal guiding principle, but it seems like capitalism would be most ethical if it were sensitive to the rights and concerns at the most local level, since within countries there are diverse cultures and, thus, values. I'm not sure if this grassroots perspective is counterintuitive to things like capitalism and globalization, though. Looks like I'll be ringing in the new year with Marx, Engels, Smith, Hedges, and Appiah.

    -Van Wilder of Colgate's Core curriculum

  2. And what is wrong with "naked self-interest?" Is it not only natural for every (wo)man to want what is in his or her own interest? Is it not only rational for every person to want to increase his or her own utility in life?

    When you really examine these two systems - caste and class - it should be clear to every worthwhile member of society that meritocracy is surely a better alternative that a system that rewards man (man or woman - I don't know indian culture too well) arbitrarily. If we were to only look at these two systems, moving from caste to class is certainly progress.

    When I view someone go from a drug abuser to a recovering addict, my first thought is not: "Is this not progress, since I could imagine him being better still?" Progress is progress. That being said, I wouldn't actually suggest Marxism is better, if I was thinking clearly. Regardless, "the tension articulated here" is the product of an ideologue. Not a realist.

  3. John C, Colgate 1983January 1, 2012 at 8:10 PM

    About 5-10 years ago, a colleague who'd been traveling in India told me that she observed that the caste system had been weakened most in Indian states with communist governments. She meant that those state governments had done the most to follow through with the law banning the caste system.

    I don't know if what she said was true, and I know from experience that while traveling in a foreign country one can make conclusions about that country that are based on incomplete knowledge.

    Have you, Professor Reinbold, observed anything that would suggest that my colleague was correct? (To tell you the truth, I don't know if there are at present in India any states run by communist parties.)

    James, please remember that Marx and Engels were dialectical thinkers, and that the change from traditional social organization to class-based social organization was "progress," but progress only in the sense that, ACCORDING TO THEM, would inevitably lead to the destruction of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. I'm just sayin' . . .

  4. Great start, Jenna. Having just returned from India, to which I first went in a long-ago century (well, 1984, but things were unimaginably different then), I'll be very surprised if you don't see "ecstasies of religious fervor" and a good deal of non-material "enthusiasm" of various sorts and all over. "All that is solid melts into air" is dramatic talk, and highly quotable, but culture doesn't disappear or get utterly transformed by capitalism. You will meet white tigers in India. Even some of these will bear the forehead kum kum of the seriously devout; you will view their dedication to their god as cynical only at your peril. And, by the way, tell Padma you want appams for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

  5. Andy, I would be remiss in my vocation as a professor of Religion if I left anyone with the impression that I thought religious fervor is on the wane in the face of the rise of capitalism! For all of his prescience (and I do think he was prescient about a number of things), Marx, like many modern cultural critics, harbored a ridiculously oversimplified understanding of religion.

    Not only have religions like Christianity and Judaism (the religions that have been the primary whipping-boys of so many 19th- and 20th-century critics) proven themselves adaptable to all kinds of social transformations, there is a lot of really interesting work showing that religions -- particularly more orthodox religions -- have flourished as modes of resistance to and critique of "secular" systems of governance.

    John C. Colgate, your question is fascinating and frustratingto me. It is frustrating because I don't think my time here will give me the means to really explore it -- such a question, I think, would have to be answered through much more thorough engagement with India! However, while I have no doubt that a system of governance like communism can very successfully supress longstanding social practices in a superficial way, I am not convinced that the "top-down" social and religious reforms engendered by many communist regimes have a very good track record for longevity. Religions of all sorts in the former Soviet Union, for example, have flourished in the wake of the decline of communism. if I come across anything here in India that flies in the face of my own presumptions about this, I will humbly rethink my position!

    James: Ms. Rand would be proud!

    Van Wilder: If my post played any small role in compelling you to spend a portion on your New Year's revisiting Marx, Engels, Smith, Hedges, and/or Appiah, I am a happy professor!

  6. Samantha SteinfeldJanuary 16, 2012 at 8:26 PM

    I think everyone is ignoring the most important facet of this post: Engels' facial hair. Thank you for bringing this into my life.