The Middle Class and the Subaltern Class: A Political Oxymoron?

Posted on April 2, 2012 in Society

By Akash Bhardwaj:

Many a times while wandering on the street, you see some faces dark and hard-skinned, with gruelling eyes and the unwanted attention piercing through your sense of being. You often wonder about the fear of those gazes and how they make you feel unsecured. The last time I saw a man smoking in the subway, I was told to stay away from those places as the people living there are the filth of this society, who want to ruin our modern civilization and its modern values of respect, equality and honesty. They abuse, they do not speak. They smell of rats. They live in those dingy houses with ghosts. They don’t want to learn. They drink and beat their women and children. They are thieves and murderers.

These are the generalizations not often made in very explicit terms to make one feel so, but ingrained in the existing social institutions of family, religion, caste, schools, universities, etc. The elites in the Indian society always used the formula of merit and purity to eulogize a system based on discrimination and inequality and they have continued doing so, though in modern ways. The post- Independent era was a stooge of elite feudal classes who found their new mantra in the ever-elusive benefits of the Trickle-Down theory for the subaltern classes which never reached to them.
The economic policy pursued by India after 1991 has seen a boom of a new emerging middle class, with the expansion of consumerist market and culture. However, it has also led to increasing poverty as a consequence of inequality and widespread discrimination. The new generation of the aspiring feudal middle class does not hesitate to belie the realities of discrimination and inequality faced by the masses unless it affects their pay check. According to one estimate, there are about 836 million people in India who live on less than Rs. 20 a day. The other contrasting report says that almost 900 private vehicles get added onto the roads of Delhi every day. These statistics reveal the present day reality of India.

The rise of a section called the “Middle Class”, and the rising poverty among masses are a product as well as a result of the capitalist system. Marx was right in theorizing that primitive accumulation of resources by the ruling class will divide class into the bourgeois and the proletariats. However, he did not discuss much about the possibility of emergence of various classes with different class positions, like the middle class. His assumption that petty bourgeois will join the ranks of proletariats to defend their movements does not hold much promises looking at the history of many social movements in the past which either get co- opted or end in limbo.

The past sixty years have not yielded any substantial and liberating result for the downtrodden in the society. They have been reduced as objects of charity through modern welfare schemes and programmes. This landscape poses some serious questions in front of academicians and people associated with different social movements — are the middle classes a part of capitalist elites? Will there always be a contradiction between the middle and subaltern class? Do the present subaltern classes need or want support from the middle class?