Towards a New Political Economy of India: the Formation of Rural Middle Classes

by Maryam Aslany*

For observers of the developing world, the ‘middle class’ has become a key category of economic analysis and forecasting. The discussion suffers, however, from a major oversight, since it assumes that the middle class is exclusively urban. Drawing on a detailed study of two villages in western Maharashtra, India, Contested Capital is the first examination of the developing world’s rural middle classes. Only by putting this novel, dynamic and neglected group into the picture, it argues, can we understand some of the critical transformations in today’s global population and economy.
This requires consideration, first, of some of the most contentious questions in contemporary sociology: who or what constitutes the middle class, and how may we draw boundaries around it? From Marx, Weber and Bourdieu follow three traditions of class analysis, respectively conceptualising classes on the basis of: productive capital (relations of production); social and marketable capital (market situation); and symbolic and cultural capital (accumulation of knowledge and appropriation of cultural awareness). These traditions delineate the middle class in very different ways. Many Marxist scholars deny the existence of the middle class altogether; even when it is recognised, it is treated as an anomaly, situated, as an unproductive class, between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Followers of Weber define the middle class in terms of marketable capital – such as skills and credentials – but differ greatly when it comes to the role of property and labour markets. Those inspired by Bourdieu identify the middle class by its control of cultural capital, and pay attention to such questions as taste and habitus.
In order to capture the full range of these complexities, Contested Capital draws successively on the perspectives of each of these class theorists. Its multidimensional portrayal of Maharashtrian village society offers three related, but theoretically distinct, accounts of the formation of India’s rural middle classes.
The “Marxian” account suggests that middle-class formation is taking place rapidly in the Indian countryside, and in a way quite unknown in other contexts. Rural middle classes are engaged in a great range of new industrial and service-sector occupations, and there is great complexity and paradox in their labour relations. Their class position is perennially unstable, incorporating features of the industrial working class and the class of capitalist farmers. Although members of this class are engaged in factory work, they use this income to expand agricultural production and accumulate surplus by hiring in agricultural labourers. These forms of ‘awkwardness’ in rural class relations move the analysis beyond polar class rigidities.
The book then shifts to a “Weberian” perspective. Turning away from exploitation as the determinant of class formation, it looks instead at occupational mobility and skill differentials. This section seeks to understand the rural middle classes in terms of ‘life chances’ in the labour market, and examines the great range of methods by which rural households seek upward social mobility and negotiate their entry into the middle-class skilled-labour market.
In the third section, Bourdieu’s concepts of social and cultural capital are applied to rural India and adapted to regional specificities. (Bourdieu himself invited his readers to find equivalents of his social distinctions and habitus in other global contexts.) My interviewees define their new middle-class identity in terms of their social distance from manual work, poverty, and from dependency. Self-sufficiency is crucial: they are adamant that they are not ‘poor’, and that their lives have an adequate material quality. These self-identified rural middle classes also harbour specific aspirations for their children: a private English-medium education, proficiency in the use of the English language, and employment outside agriculture. Proficiency in English is perceived not only as an economic asset for the future, enabling better access to non-farm employment, but also as a prestigious distinction in itself, related to ideas of global connectivity.
This third, Bourdieu-inspired, approach also involves unravelling the complex meanings of cultural goods. The book demonstrates that there has been a rapid and significant transformation in the patterns of consumption in rural India, characterised by new housing styles and interior designs, as well as a large range of consumer goods which were previously absent from rural households but which now are ‘necessary’ for the expression of novel class distinctions.
These three analyses provide a multifaceted portrait of an emerging class whose particular dynamics – since I estimate it to comprise 17% of the rural population, which equates to about 150 million people – are critical for our understanding of the emerging Indian reality. It is notable, for instance, that entry into this class is largely achieved through the efforts of male youths, assisted by acquired informal educational credentials and ascribed caste. Though there have been dramatic shifts in rural employment, these have not necessarily changed the gender division of labour: the new occupations in industry and services are primarily performed by men, while women mostly carry out agricultural work alongside household domestic labour – either on family-owned land or as casual labourers. My findings also suggest striking caste stratifications within rural middle classes. They are primarily constituted by upper and middle castes. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are mainly excluded.
The formation of India’s rural middle class rests on a set of economic, social and cultural processes that have unfolded as a result of the liberalisation of the Indian economy. One of the most visible rural consequences of this has been the industrialisation of many village peripheries, to the extent that agriculture is no longer the primary economic focus of rural life. Diversification is now a central feature of the rural economy and society, and as households have simultaneously engaged with both agriculture and industrial employment, they have constructed novel class positions and identities. The resulting rural middle class has economic characteristics, lifestyles, aspirations and consumption patterns that are entirely distinct from its urban counterpart.
Since these processes continue to transform the Indian countryside at a great pace, we can assume that the rural middle class will become more defined and significant over time. Contested Capital argues that its influence will be widely felt, and in ways that could not be predicted from the behaviour of the urban middle classes. The rural middle class will have distinctive demands, for instance, for industrial and agricultural policies – demands that are also quite different from those of rural elites or the rural poor. This emerging class will therefore come to shape processes of state planning, wealth redistribution and rural development.
While there are undoubtedly considerable regional variations, the remarkable economic and social transformations described in Contested Capital are unlikely to be specific to the villages of Maharashtra. Its study of the rural middle class, in fact, can be seen as the first step in a new political economy of India – and perhaps elsewhere.
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Dr. Maryam Aslany is a Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and a part-time Career Development Researcher at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Email: marasl@prio.org

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