Nation of small strivings

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.

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