If you haven’t read it yet, you should read the Indian Express’ great interview with Milind Kamble and Chandra Bhan Prasad on how ‘Capitalism is changing caste much faster than any human being [and why] Dalits should look at capitalism as a crusader against caste’.

Henry James Sumner Maine famously wrote that the progress of civilization has been a progression from association based on “status” to association based on “contract,” from relationships and duties determined at birth to ones entered into by consent.

This progress is intimately intertwined with the development of capitalism. “Capitalism,” according to Rand, “is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.”

“In a capitalist society, all human relationships are voluntary. Men are free to cooperate or not, to deal with one another or not, as their own individual judgements, convictions, and interests dictate. They can deal with one another only in terms of and by means of reason, i.e., by means of discussion, persuasion, and contractual agreement, by voluntary choice to mutual benefit.”

Liberals generally welcome the way individual choice and commerce have undermined feudalism, caste, sexism, nationalism, and chauvinism of various kinds.  Markets allow for cooperation among strangers, which allows for more anonymity.  Acting on prejudice is costly when what you’re looking for in the market is a competitive service, not a personal relationship.  Ability to serve, therefore—not birth—is what’s relevant.  As Chandra Bhan Prasad says in the interview, “markets have become bigger than caste…because in this marketplace, only your ability is respected.”

Marx and Engles described this graphically in the Communist Manifestothough they didn’t totally approve of it:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.

Marx saw that the fluidity and voluntary nature of the market order promoted individualism and undermined rigid social structures.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…

It’s a pity Marx’s negative view of a fluid and impersonal market prevailed and that India was shackled under decades of Nehruvian planning. Instead of the dynamic potential of lifting oneself up in an open market, Indians were stuck with the static plans of bureaucrats.  In the name of brotherhood and solidarity, Dalits were guaranteed stagnation. But thankfully 20 years of relatively freer markets have done wonders in starting the transformation of Dalit lives from relationships based on status to ones based on contract. Prasad and others get it.  If they keep spreading the good word, what could happen in the next 20 years?

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.