Variations of Labour Aristocracy and Union Trajectories Across South Asia

- Mallika Shakya | 2023-05-12

Dialectical Anthropology

This book is a consolidation of Jonathan Parry’s longstanding argument about the importance of looking at variations of lived experience among blue-collar workers. His ethnographic engagement with industrial labour in the postcolonial steel town of Bhilai in central India humanizes class alongside caste and culture while urging readers to consider eclecticism as the lens through which to study working class lives. Parry’s Bhilai ethnography is enriched by the comparisons he draws with sister undertakings in Orissa and West Bengal, using which he proposes that a diverse range of social life is inextricably interwoven within the so-called working class, thereby generating a distinct cycle of social coercion and political exploitation that goes beyond the bifurcation of class.

By means of a multi-sited ethnography, Parry documents how the variations of working class experience seep into other aspects of their community lives within the steel town. Given the intricacies and ironies of life cycle rituals, it becomes necessary to analytically address the limitations of the conventional expression “the working class.” In earlier chapters, Parry considers a dichotomy within the labour monolith—those who have naukri (salaried and permanent jobs with social security allowances which often get passed on within families through the “compassionate appointments” clauses written in their contracts) and those who are engaged in kam (precarious laboring jobs). In the latter chapters, he goes on to consider a large buffer zone between these two subcategories which consists of shopkeepers, workshop holders, and petty contractors. The relationship of exploitation and coercion between the two subcategories of labour mediated via the buffer zone seems to steer the trade union movement in a way that sets its trajectories apart both from the early industrialized countries and the late members of the postcolonial club which did not follow the particular route to national capitalism that India did.

Before delving into a discussion of the union movement, it is important to situate the industrial towns within the specifics of Indian history, including its postcolonial aspirations. Most industrial towns were established during the Nehruvian era of state-led infrastructure-building and were guided by socialist aspirations which sought to forge a working class that would enjoy social protection and realistically negotiate opportunities for upward mobility. I liked the way in which this book weaves labour ethnography into a bigger tapestry of nation-building, thereby reminding us that India was not alone in pursuing this particular track of postcolonial development. In Bhilai, the Nehruvian state’s land acquisition guaranteed permanent jobs for the locals while attracting a certain degree of caste, ethnic, and cultural diversity among outsiders who poured in as livelihood opportunities emerged. These created the conditions necessary for the Bhilai steel town to become a cosmopolitan, secular settlement.

Postcolonial socialism was short-lived almost everywhere, but particularly in South Asia, including India, and the precursors of neoliberalism began to raise their heads as early as in the 1980s. This is well documented. What had been overlooked until Parry reminded us is that the outreach of socialist policies was piecemeal even in its heyday: The policies that had given rise to a cosmopolitan culture rooted in the working class life of Bhilai had left untouched the vast majority of unprotected and undocumented labour. The salaried class, characterized as “labour aristocrats” by Parry, was insulated from its majority labour counterpart, and the divided interests of these subclasses confined the gains of postcolonial democracy to a small minority of elite coteries within the working class.

The intra-class tension arising from the limitations of socialist aspirations in India has caused me to consider the national embedding of labour politics. I am thinking especially of countries within South Asia which leapfrogged from feudalism into neoliberalism in the 1990s, skipping the Third World stint of social democracy, and thereby demonstrating a precariat-heavy labour demography. Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal escaped direct colonialism, while Bangladesh has a colonial history markedly different from its neighbors. What kinds of methods do we have to analyze counterfactuals like these? I have elsewhere discussed the notion of “cryptocoloniality” referring to countries which could not benefit from the postcolonial wave of social democracy from the 1950s and 1960s and hence had to forego the kind of socialist aspirations that Parry talks about for India. On its northern borders, Nepal saw a renewal of monarchy in the 1960s whose developmental model dovetailed feudalism with rightist industrialization. The kind of labour aristocracy rooted in socialist democracy that Parry discusses for the Indian case was a phenomenon entirely missing in Nepal—this makes it necessary to seek an engaged reinterpretation of the thesis when analyzing such counterfactuals in terms of the “aristocracy” framework.

I very much agree with Parry’s proposition regarding the need to analyze how shop floor tensions seep out into the surrounding social and cultural ecosystems. I have found this methodological proposition centrally necessary to study the garment industry in Nepal whose “death” I announced five years ago but whose spirit continues to reverberate in the lives of many who have taken new occupational identities even if they have never ceased to be the “garment people” they once were (Shakya 2018). I also enthusiastically embrace Parry’s project of anthropologizing union studies, liberating its scope beyond the confines of power bargaining but in the meantime skipping the “depoliticizing” trap (Harriss 2001). In this, Parry’s method lends an ear to its nuances. My hope for this book is to engage with its afterthoughts to look for a clearer approach through which Indian labour ethnography might be read for other countries within South Asia who share socio-cultural characteristics on the ground but whose state-building trajectories differ significantly. That would allow us to productively sharpen the inquiry into the neoliberal sabotage of the agency of the working class in varied nation-state geographies.

The book ends with the proposition that dichotomies of lived experience of labour might be universal. While Parry’s central argument about these contours within the Indian working class is persuasive and needs to be taken seriously, my sole criticism concerns the last chapter and relates to what I believe is the need to better integrate labour ethnography with trajectories of state building. It is disturbing how—as Parry documents well in the book—radical union movements are routinely pre-empted, sabotaged, and undermined by its docile, depoliticized counterparts. There seem to be residual inferences in general labour discourse normalizing the inertia of class struggle. Do we leave it at this? How can the rare instances of radical upheavals in the margins still inform global and regional discourses? Anticipation of counterfactual narratives especially in this last chapter would have made the book even more attractive to scholars grappling with situations that are either conjecturally euphoric or depressingly dire, or both.

Harriss, John. 2001. De-Politicizing Development: The World Bank and Social Capital”. New Delhi: Leftword Books.

Shakya, Mallika. 2018. Death of an Industry: The Cultural Politics of Garment Manufacturing during the Maoist Revolution in Nepal. Cambridge: CUP.


Published: 12 May 2023

About the Author

Mallika Shakya

South Asian University, India