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The chimera of Dalit capitalism

Nissim Mannathukkaren
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VENTURING OUT:It is shocking that Dalit liberation seeks to join hands with capitalism at a juncture when it is at its carnivorous worst. The picture is of Milind Kamble, chairman, DICCI (centre) and others at an entrepreneurship meet in Hyderabad. —PHOTO: P.V. SIVAKUMAR
VENTURING OUT:It is shocking that Dalit liberation seeks to join hands with capitalism at a juncture when it is at its carnivorous worst. The picture is of Milind Kamble, chairman, DICCI (centre) and others at an entrepreneurship meet in Hyderabad. —PHOTO: P.V. SIVAKUMAR

History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics

B.R. Ambedkar

If only Milind Kamble, founder of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) and Chandra Bhan Prasad, Dalit thinker, columnist and DICCI mentor, had imbibed the wisdom of Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America , a classic work in African-American studies, they would not have been such virtuoso performers of the ballad of Dalit capitalism (which claims Black capitalism among its inspirations). And this ballad is increasingly getting mainstream attention as evidenced by the interview of the duo in a famous talk show after the recent launch of the first Dalit venture capital fund.

The fundamental argument made by them is that it is time for Dalits to change their image of being perpetual victims (always in need of state support through reservations and doles) to that of being in charge of their own destiny — to put it pithily, “Dalits are not only takers, they are givers.” And what better way to achieve this than Dalits becoming capitalists themselves, and welcoming with open arms, economic reforms and globalisation: “we see that there is an economic process, that capitalism is changing caste much faster than any human being. Therefore, in capitalism versus caste, there is a battle going on and Dalits should look at capitalism as a crusader against caste.”

In the U.S.

It is, of course, understandable that an oppressed people would look to any and every avenue that would help overthrow the shackles of oppression. In that sense, the limited use of the market in dissolving some of the millennia-old feudal and caste hierarchies has to be acknowledged. But to move from that to romanticising the relationship between capitalism and caste is completely different, especially when it is done in an anodyne and vacuous manner as Prasad does: “along with globalisation came Adam Smith to challenge Manu. So that’s why for the first time, money has become bigger than caste... bigger than Marx, bigger than everybody because in this marketplace, only your ability is respected.” And “Montek [Singh Ahluwalia] is a friend of Adam Smith and Adam Smith is an enemy of Manu, so therefore, Montek is our friend.

If indeed the market is a level playing field, one wonders why is it that after centuries of glorious capitalist growth and decades of Black capitalism in the headquarters of world capitalism, African-Americans languish at the bottom of socio-economic indicators. In 2011, the poverty rate among blacks was 28.1 per cent, almost three times the rate for non-Hispanic whites. In the prison capital of the world, African-Americans are incarcerated at almost six times the rate of non-Hispanic whites, thus constituting almost a million out of a total prison population of 2.3 million! So much for a market place that respects one’s ability. If capitalism is so democratic and benign, why is it that its biggest crisis since the Great Depression — the financial crisis in 2008 — had a particularly devastating effect on the African-American population?

The Pew Research Center analysis shows that the median wealth of white households was a staggering 20 times that of black households in 2009. This was the largest gap in 25 years and almost twice the ratio before the crisis.

Despite the optimism that people like Prasad and Kamble exude about Dalits becoming equal participants in a democratic capitalism, there are other Dalit and non-Dalit scholars who have demonstrated the immense barriers for Dalit entrepreneurs within the so-called capitalist market, and the ugly casteism that marks corporate India.

But my concern is not about the inability of Dalits to become capitalists within a structure marked by gargantuan economic and social inequalities, but about the moral and ethical emptiness of capitalism as a liberatory mechanism for an oppressed people. When Chandra Bhan Prasad speaks in glowing terms about the four Mercedes Benz cars that Rajesh Saraiya, the richest Dalit businessman, worth about $400 million and based in Ukraine, owns, he does not ponder about the gross inequalities that characterise the global capitalist system which bestows such bounties on a minuscule number at the expense of the vast majority who inevitably pay the price.

The flaw

The fundamental flaw in the argument for Dalit capitalism is that it merely seeks to find an equal space for Dalits within what is inherently an exploitative system: thus the hitherto exploited sections of the people will now play the role of exploiters. In sum, Dalit capitalism, while it seeks to dismantle age-old hierarchies and discriminations, is hardly bothered about the new oppressions perpetrated by capitalism.

What is particularly shocking is that Dalit liberation seeks to join hands with capitalism at a juncture when it is at its carnivorous worst. The Golden Age of capitalism and industrialisation has given way to “casino capitalism,” driven by financial speculation and what Marx calls as “fictitious capital.” The greatest example of this is the crisis of 2008. In a desperate bid to sustain its profit margins, capitalism resorts to, in the words of distinguished professor of anthropology and geography David Harvey’s words, “accumulation by dispossession” — privatisation of public property, forcible expulsion of peasant and indigenous populations from their lands, unbridled exploitation of natural resources and so on.

Rather than grapple with the question of a comprehensive transformation of political, economic and cultural relations towards equality in society, Dalit capitalism ingratiates itself with the present exploitative order. There are no radical questions asked, like that of reparations for slavery in America (the Harper’s Magazine estimated the value of reparations to be over $100 trillion for forced labour from 1619 to 1865). Instead, Dalit capitalism becomes the new darling of mainstream media simply because it refuses to question the commonsense of market as the saviour. As a prominent columnist gushed about the Dalit venture capital fund: “This is a vision of shared equality among castes, not of trickle down. It is a vision of Dalit entrepreneurs taking their place at the top of the pyramid and offering to share their profits with investors from all castes that historically dominated them.”

Ultimately, what is most disturbing is that Dalit capitalism is mainly inspired by the “economic thought of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar”! The great man would definitely turn in his grave when he sees his followers seeking the liberation of his people through capitalism when global multinational capital is pillaging the Aymara people of Latin America for oil and minerals, and the Ethiopian peasants for land. In an interlinked world, the former’s destiny is irrevocably tied to the latter.

(Dr. Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada, and author of The Rupture with Memory: Derrida and the Specters That Haunt Marxism . E-mail: nmannathukkaren@dal.ca )

The recent launch of the first Dalit venture fund occasions an examination of the moral

and ethical emptiness of capitalism


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