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.

Whether or not FDI in retail will destroy, or be indifferent in consequences for, small traders and shop keepers is an open empirical question. But it is interesting how deeply etched the petit bourgeois aspiration is in India. There is an element of the petit bourgeois sensibility in many of us: a curious suspicion of large hierarchies and organisation of labour on an industrial scale. True, we don't mind hierarchies and vertical organisation in government. But, arguably, being part of the hierarchy in government is compensated for by the fact that you exercise some form of power over someone, even at lower levels of government. But outside government, we have a curious resistance to scale.

It is often argued that India has resisted the transition to full-scale capitalism in four respects. It resists the organisation of labour on a large scale, it persists in not just tolerating informality but positively valuing it, it is seemingly unconcerned with the efficiencies of scale, and it values a messy regulatory structure where different people can participate at different price points. Economists view this arrangement as hugely inefficient; traditional political scientists see it as a symptom of the fact that entrenched interests keep out new aspirants. But perhaps there is something else going on as well, something more in line with our quasi-informal anarchist sensibilities. We are prone to resisting the rationalising and disciplining tendencies of large-scale modern organisations. It is perhaps not an accident that there are few other countries where the small, the informal, the negotiated form of organisation (or some might say disorganisation) is so highly prized in so many spheres of life.

It is also interesting that in India, the opposition to FDI makes almost no mention of community. Elsewhere, large retail is often resisted in the name of the community and solidarity. It is hard to argue that cities have any identity or solidarity that would be breached by a corporation. Our opposition to FDI is altogether more individualist and rugged, not in the name of the "mom and pop" store but in the name of the small entrepreneur. The two are not exactly the same thing.

This sensibility is not just a holdover from the Gandhian fascination with the small. It has historically been the character of Indian civil society that it has resisted ordering by the state. But post-liberalisation also, the real pathway to mobility was not your canonical wage job. It was, instead, the proliferation of small acts of entrepreneurship. Mobility for a driver, for instance, was often not a form of driving that paid higher wages; it was owning your car even when returns were not that high. The desired pathway out of wage labour, for those who could manage it, was owning a business of your own, no matter how precarious that ownership. One thing, perhaps, that saved India from so many of its economic follies was that, even for the poor, some pathway of self organisation was open. It could be something as simple as a hawker's stall or a small shop or informal enterprise. This existence was often very vulnerable, hostage to an arbitrary state. But it was a small sliver of self-assertion — working for oneself — wrested from an otherwise brutal world. Change may offer more efficiency and security in the abstract, but it also seems to close off this inchoately expressed desire to be independent.

The other consequence of small, self-organised informality was that India was, in income terms, relatively equal: lots of people squeezed into a narrow income band. Business was low level, but widely diffused. While people value the efficiencies new forms of organisation might bring, there is also great apprehension that the tolerance for the self-organised, small-scale form is diminishing. It is perhaps apt that the petit bourgeois resist FDI in retail. It is only the petit bourgeois who pull off the feat of combining the rugged instrumentalism of the modern world with a desire to resist incorporation into a large hierarchy. We may not be rich or efficient, but by god, we want to hold onto the illusion that we run our own lives. Long live the petit bourgeoisie.

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