Nation of small strivings

The debate on FDI speaks to the petit bourgeois imagination

Sometimes debates over policy are not just about economics or politics. They reveal something about the self-image of societies. Think of the French obsession with defending public sector bureaucracy, the American intransigence on high taxes, or the German solicitude for corporatism. These are as much styles of imagining social relations as they are arguments about efficiency or power. It is worth thinking, albeit somewhat speculatively, about what the debate over FDI reveals about our imagination. The economic and political arguments will rage on. These arguments make references to efficiency and job gains and the conflicting interests of different groups. But the underlying passion of these arguments comes from unacknowledged cultural sensibilities. For what this debate reveals is that India still has an enormous passion to become and remain a petit bourgeois nation. The proponents of FDI, by labelling their critics as peddlers of a petit bourgeois morality, have also put their finger on an aspiration that animates us.

The term petit bourgeois is often used with scorn and condescension. But this condescension is not justified, as the Yale political scientist James Scott's new book Two Cheers for Anarchism reminds us. This is a pithy and poignant tract for the times. It is a modest defence of the need for a moderately disruptive politics, a reminder of the social functions of insubordination, and a characteristically well-done account of how social reality resists the hubris of those who seek to order it through the exercise of power. But among other things, it rescues the idea of petit bourgeois morality from the condescension of history.

The petit bourgeois were always a bit of a conceptual problem for analysts. They were not associated with the efficient dynamism of the capitalists; nor were they exploited enough to attract the sympathy that labour did. But, as Scott reminds us, the petit bourgeois, that odd amalgam of shopkeepers, traders and small businesses, has had a powerful moral, animating impulse of its own. This impulse is characterised by four features: a resistance to being swallowed up in large anonymous hierarchies, a passion for independence, a wide diffusion of small property, and a self-image that implies it is always better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. The business may not be the most efficient, but at least it is my business. Better a half-successful small entrepreneur than an employee. Scott also reminds us that, historically, the societies that value the petit bourgeois impulse are also likely to be more creative and egalitarian.

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