Updated: January 25, 2011 16:40 IST

Emergence of a global working class

K. C. Sivaramakrishnan
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This is a collection of scholarly essays presented at the 2006 Frankfurt Book Fair, ably edited by one of India's leading sociologists. They are grouped under four heads: working class; peasantry; middle class; and citizenship.

While Shairth Bhowmik presents a historical perspective of the working class, Helmuth Berking follows it up with an analysis of the emergence of political opportunities for the working class in capitalist countries. Whether it is in textiles industry or plantation, the Indian working class emerged from rural impoverishment. Bhowmik draws attention to an interesting fact — that even in the 1880s, plantation wages in Assam were much lower than farm wages in neighbouring Jalpaiguri. Both authors underline the effects of globalisation, such as reduction in the scale of direct employment in manufacture, outsourcing, back-office work, and growing size of the so-called informal sector. Berking points out how localism and its defence in western countries has stifled the emergence of a global working class.

In her analysis of peasantry, Virginius Xaxa underlines the distinction to be made in the traditional and post-modern societies. In her view, the transition from production for self-consumption to production for the market is not adequately explained by the words “farmer” and “peasant”. In traditional societies, social inequality was defined mainly in terms of religion or land ownership. In industrial-modern societies, ownership of production units has become the main criterion. Schwengel and Rehbein present an interesting case study of the peasantry in Germany as well as the Thai-Kadai region comprising the mountainous areas of north Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. Both underscore the vulnerability of the peasantry to price fluctuations, an offshoot of globalisation.

Vague definition

The vagueness of the available definitions of the ‘middle class' and the reason why it should be regarded as, at best, a “contested concept” are dealt with analytically in two essays by Krackel and Rajesh Misra. Both Marx and Engel predicted the disappearance of the middle class — it was expected to shrink and lose importance, and therefore could be regarded only as transitory. However, this does not seem to be happening. As Misra points out, the middle class in India has gone through interesting phases of emergence, enlargement, and extension. On the one hand, its base has widened and, on the other, it has become more polymorphous. He raises several interesting questions about the middle class having a coherent social and political existence and its emergence as a dominant group in political economy. In the part on citizenship, the editor, Oommen himself has contributed an essay in addition to that of Armin Nassehi. Nassehi's piece describes the theoretical postulates of citizenship. There is a hypothesis here that the process by which populations achieve full citizenship during modernisation requires a stable nation state. Though the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights (1948) guarantees every human being the right to nationality, the concept itself provides for both universal inclusion and particularist exclusion.

Oommen makes the telling point that the spread of democracy and the entitlement of political rights have not been as rapid or widely spread as commonly believed. Of the 192 countries, 120 were considered electoral democracies, as of 2000, and this accounted for nearly 60 per cent of the world's population. As for liberal democracies, where basic human and citizenship rights are available, only 86 countries, representing less than 40 per cent of population, qualified.


There is a huge gap between the image of the contemporary world as a democratic one and the reality on the ground. This, in turn, raises crucial questions — first, about the concept of citizenship; secondly, about the unit to which the citizenship is anchored; and, thirdly, its content. This is a rich collection of analytical essays brought together with competence by Oommen. However, the gap between data and theories analysed remains. Perhaps perceptions contain the answer. As Zukav, the science-writer cited in the first chapter, mentions: “Reality is what we take to be true; what we take to be true is what we believe; what we believe is based upon our perceptions and what we look for.”

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