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  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: July 2010

7 - Caste and corporatist capitalism


This chapter starts out from the conclusions of the previous one. In it, the role of the ‘big religion’, and especially the role of caste, is explored further. On the one hand, caste is a force for political mobilisation as never before in Indian history. On the other hand, economic liberalisation and modernisation (by which is understood the rational organisation of economy and society) should be dissolving the economic relations based on caste. Contract should replace custom and acquired characteristics should replace ascribed ones, including caste. Many anthropologists, like most economists, believe this, and some go so far as to say it has already happened. According to Andre Béteille, for instance (1997, p. 450), among metropolitan professional people ‘caste is no longer an important agent of either placement or social control’, and in 1997 a caste association president in south India explained to us that caste is not a factor in the economy. Can the apparent contradiction between the political importance of caste and its weakening importance in the economy be resolved?

To explore this, we need to look more closely at what ‘modernisation’ is thought to entail for caste. First, it is supposed to involve an increased dissociation of castes from their hereditary occupations, as barriers to entry to occupations are dissolved and as new goods, professions, services and technologies are diffused. But under these pressures, caste reveals its ‘tremendous flexibility’ – as Jayaram (1996) calls it. Caste still screens access to employment in the agrarian non-farm economy.