Barbara Ehrenreich and the Brahmin Fantastic

[3 May 2010]

By Nandini Ramachandran

The thrill of reading is that the most unexpected things can mutually unlock one another. Thus it was when parallel reading tracks —Indian nationalism and the latest recession—brought Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch and Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History onto my desk last month. I have discussed Ehrenreich in greater detail below, for her story is directly relevant to my narrative. However, the influence of Doniger and the Indian historian, Romila Thapar, is hardly disguised. Thapar taught me my history, and I have stolen from Doniger my key phrase: the sinister ‘Brahmin imaginary’.

Playing Cassandra
Barbara Ehrenreich is a woman of demonstrably diverse talents. If she should want to find conventional employment, one would assume it would be a fairly easy process. This book, however, is a detailed exposition into why one would be wrong in that assumption. In Bait and Switch (Henry Holt, 2006), she goes undercover again, as she did in Nickel and Dimed (Metropolitan Books, 2001), but this time she dives into the very white collar world of PR and marketing. Excluding the publishing world in her job search, she starts the book applying and searching for marketing/PR positions promiscuously, sans moral qualm and geography. Her single string is income level, yet she spends the rest of the book upgrading herself in vain.

I read this book amazed at the ‘transition’ industry unemployment in America has spawned, converting desperation into dollars. By synthesizing selfishness with self help, corporate America seems to have learnt how to systemically shed people while simultaneously convincing them it’s their own fault they’re out of a job. 

cover art

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

Barbara Ehrenreich

(Henry Holt & Company; US: Jul 2006)

Ehrenreich describes her steady line of career coaches offering contradictory advice on the basis of loopy personality tests, one of whom hilariously advised her to work on her writing skills. She negotiates the catch-22 of “appropriate” attire for corporate women (simultaneously professional and feminine, without being either threatening or provocative), encounters the evangelical Right, and discovers that the new workforce makes the people it retains as miserable as the ones it fires. Several of the people she networks with are employed but desperate to find alternate employment: either because they are underemployed and dissatisfied, or because they are stretched far too thin in their work demands, forced to compensate for fired colleagues.

Apart from the time and energy involved, she ultimately spends $6,000 on her job search: that’s money spent on coaches, resume-checkers, job sites, networking “clubs” and “events”, bootcamp (essentially group therapy), a wardrobe consultant, a “professional development seminar” until, finally (and fittingly), she is offered the chance to pay someone to employ her.  That’s right: to pay someone to employ her.

In her penultimate chapter (“In Which I am Offered a ‘Job’”) Ehrenreich introduced me to “independent contractors”—a term I associate with people who can violate most Indian labour legislation. In American unemployment circles, it apparently means working for companies as direct sales people, with neither the benefits nor salaries of regular staff. The only income comes from commissions, which can be of two kinds: finding more agents to sell the product for the company or from direct sales of the product to consumers. 

In one instance she describes, Ehrenreich is offered the chance to sell “supplemental health insurance” for AFLAC, but when she enquires about her own health insurance coverage, her query is evaded with: “We’re independent contractors, we get our own”. “Supplemental health insurance”, as the name somewhat obliquely suggests, is additional health insurance for people who don’t receive adequate coverage from the insurance they get through their employers; providing such supplemental coverage is a business that is booming. In this dubious industry, at last, she can find “employment”, such as it is.

To become part of the AFLAC-family Ehrenreich needs to get a license and attend training ($1,900); and then hope that the local market for the product hasn’t already been saturated.  The more people she can pull into the scheme, either to buy or sell the insurance product, the more money she earns. As Ehrenreich points out in cases such as this, it’s tough to distinguish pyramid schemes from legitimate ones.

“As an option for the white-collar unemployed, there are thousands of commission-only sales jobs such as the one AFLAC offered me. According to the Direct Selling Association, 13.3 million Americans worked in such sales jobs in 2003, selling $25 billion worth of goods. In many cases, like AFLAC, these jobs offer rewards not only for selling the product but for recruiting new people to do so, as well. 

On its dark side, the direct-selling world is filled with traps for the unwary—pyramid schemes in which the ultimate product is valueless and non existent. An outfit called JDO Media, for example, enticed people to make money by enlisting others to sell a sketchily-developed ‘marketing program’, for which privilege each recruit had to put up as much as $3,500.” (pg. 185)…

... “a real job involves some risk taking on the part of the employer, who must make an investment to acquire your labour. In real estate, franchising, and commission-only sales, the only risk undertaken is by the job-seeker, who has to put out money upfront and commit days or weeks to training. Then she is on her own, fearful that the market will soften or that the quasi-employer will flood the area with competing sales reps or franchisees.” (pg. 189)

“Independent contractors” must be a global euphemism for the unregulated underbelly of the corporate world.  As Ehrenreich wryly observes at the close of her last interview with Larry, the AFLAC minion, she “might as well have applied at Wal-Mart and been given a pushcart full of housewares to hawk on the streets”.

Bait and Switch was published in 2005, long before the words ‘recession’ or ‘economic crisis’ were bandied about in the popular press. It talks about the slow extinction of a class: the powerful American executive, the golden boys of capitalism. It confirmed what I had been reading on the fringes: that the recession unfolded across a decade, gathering momentum, with different classes hit at various times and with different intensity.

The fringes in India are making similar noises today about the drive towards a fully corporate, privately owned economy and its costs upon our ecology and our people. The mainstream remains complacent about the advantages of “modernization”, unwilling or unable to hear protest, even as it rises to a crescendo of desperate violence. Ehrenreich outlines a disturbing evolution in the pattern of global capital: if the American corporate workforce is being forced to adapt to a permanently “lean” culture, which recruits and discards at will, how much worse will things become in India?

In India, privilege still seems to ensure jobs. The “boom”, it seems, is on, and I am no economist. Nonetheless, the assumption of economic prosperity in India appears to be a fragile dream, grafted onto a vast quagmire of extortion and exploitation. Employment in India has always been uniquely ridden by the scepter of caste, and the corporate dream may only be the latest avatar of the Brahmin imaginary.

Jati vs. Varna: The Slippery Subject of Caste
Across the generations, Brahmins have concocted various exclusive universes where only they are allowed to succeed, sometimes even to exist as a recognized member of society. Caste is a slippery subject, but it exists at two broad levels: the normative and the pragmatic. On the ground, the caste system is primarily occupation-dependent, though it can also denote an extended kin-group, and one is born into a caste (‘jati’) and thus into an occupation. 

There are millions of jatis in India—foreigners, tribals, sects, lunatics—they all get their own jati, whether within the Hindu pale or beyond, and they always have. For most of Indian history, jati has been both collective and local: the best way to lose jati was for the group to move away and change occupation. They became part of the transitionary flux of humanity, with both the freedom and the insecurity that implies. The clan (and occasionally individuals) sought their fortune elsewhere, where the jati politics were more palatable, or where political chaos created vacuums for new power structures.

This fluidity is dissipating in modern India, a process initiated by colonialism, which crystallized caste in vivid and enduring ways. The collision between colonialism and caste deserves an essay (and several books) all to itself, but suffice it to say that in democratic India castes are (partially) constitutionally defined; losing caste now being a legally impossible act. Across India, a person born into a designated “scheduled” caste will automatically be subject to myriad prejudices regarding habits, ethics, intelligence and hygiene. This is only to say that the struggle between the castes and classes of India has evolved: some jatis may have mutated into subcastes, others into autonomous classes, but their confluence remains the only practicable way to conceptualize the social, economic and political chaos in India.

Caste is the decisive question in Indian politics: political parties build varied coalitions of sub-castes in different regions in order to get themselves elected. This is also why Indian politics appears so fragmented: jati alliances that are possible in some parts of the country are impossible elsewhere. For instance, as you go across the breadth of Uttar Pradesh alone, the primary landowning caste shifts from the Thakurs (an “upper” caste) to the Yadavs (an “intermediate” caste), altering the flavor of local politics and the permutations of jati coalitions.

The hierarchy of castes—the ‘varna’ system—is a textual invention, most famously posited in the Manusmriti. A compendium of legal and social norms evolved across the early centuries A.D., the Manusmriti is a text revered by traditionalists as the fount of “Hindu” Law, though it dates from a time long before Hinduism was an identifiable religion, and is fundamentally Brahmin propaganda born out of a fight for social dominance and religious relevance. It has the elusive virtue of being extremely intricate, without any corresponding relevance to the way caste has worked in Indian history.

Varna is a system where some castes are deemed purer / better / more important than others, the occupations are ranked (elaborately), and castes are told what to do (‘dharma’) and what to expect (‘karma’). Insofar as the varna system is caste ideology, it’s a useful guide to understanding the centuries of rationalization behind caste exploitation in India, but little else.

The Genetic Intelligentsia

It is sometimes simpler (if reductive) to think of the varna system as a dichotomy, at least from the perspective of the people who invented it: the ‘Dwija’ (twice-born), and the ‘Shudra’ (the vast majority of humanity). The Dwija are the favored of humanity: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (rulers), Vaishyas (rich folk), whose dharma is to do Splendid Deeds and reap good karma. The Brahmins get to proclaim who the Dwija at any given point in history are/were, usually with a firm eye on the politically expedient, and the Dwija have historically been a coalition of the High with people who rise to the top and can’t be ignored. The High here are solely Brahmins, the rest must work their way into being worthy of attention, and if they do well, are then given positions on the lower rungs of Dwija-dom.

Education has always been an exclusive privilege in India, especially formal, classical education: only Brahmins are (technically) allowed to read the Vedas, for example.  As a result, regional literatures across India retain a strong tradition against hegemonic, oppressive languages like Sanskrit (and now English); and writing in the vernacular remains a very political decision.

It is established history that the jatis that did much of the ruling and wealth gathering across the centuries were initially lowly folk, later worked into the grand tapestry of Kshatriya dynasties. The Central Asian tribes that became the Rajputs are famous examples of this tendentious historiography: they appeased the Brahmins (gave them land), and were conferred political legitimacy (Kshatriya status). It is not surprising Brahmins have pulled this trick off from pre-Mauryan times: the Mahabharata is a history devoted to the self-destruction of the original Kshatriyas. There could hardly have been enough of them left after that epic bloodbath to colonize the rest of India.

The Brahmin Imaginary
In Brahminical Hinduism, to be a Dwija (and a man) is mere qualification: there are still plenty of things that can get in the way of your dharma, disrupt your karma and interfere with your rebirth cycle. There are hells aplenty in Hinduism: you could go to the nether world and become man-cattle for the animals you have eaten, you could be born an insect (doomed to repeated death), a Shudra (retribution), or a woman (shudder).  That is the path for sinners; if you are born a Shudra or a woman, you must have done something to deserve it.

For a Dwija who lives a humdrum life, the canon offers him another birth with the same lifestyle, so he can try harder next time. The brilliant, the heroic, the extravagant, and the virtuous Dwijas are allowed on the path to salvation (‘moksha’), where one may go hang out with gods, become at one with the universe, zip around creation—Hinduism is as profuse in heavens as it is in hells.

cover art

The Hindus: An Alternative History

Wendy Doniger

(Penguin; US: Mar 2009)

Boundary markers established, Brahmin philosophy assumes you are a male Dwija and goes about its business, pondering the ineffable: What is death in an illusory world? How do you go about attaining salvation? What kind of salvation do you want? How much do you want give up? Do you like your life enough to stick around for another generation? And so forth.  The basic exclusivity of this domain is its hallmark: these aren’t the concerns of the masses, for how could they possibly understand? (And if they did, who would serve us?) Besides, the justification of varna runs, if they deserved to dwell in arcana, why would they have been born women and Shudras in the first place?

Thankfully, Brahmins have faced many voluble antagonists, including radical challengers to caste and its allotted implications. The Buddhists were a famous rival, but there is a venerable tradition of incessant insurrection in Indian history, with Brahmins losing ground as fast as they could make it up. Hinduism has seen many cults bubble up and fade away—rationalists, monists, materialists, hedonists, nihilists, ascetics, flagellants, fanatics—only to be reborn in another place with a new god.  Apart from political exigencies, such as transforming ‘Mlecchas’ (barbarians) into kings, Brahmins have been forced into social compromises (such as giving goddesses both bite and autonomy); and the threat of irrelevance has often led to dramatic modifications even in the ivory towers of doctrine. 

The Vedic Brahmin, for instance, would’ve snorted at anyone brave enough to expound upon the notion of ‘Bhakti’ (intense devotion to a benign deity) to him; his was a violent and bloodthirsty pantheon appeased by ritual sacrifice. Yet the heart of popular Hinduism in India today is the loving deity who rewards the pious. There are hundreds of possible deities competing for the privilege points to Hinduism’s willingness to be all things to all people, but this basic democracy was hard won. The shadows of the warrior gods remain, nonetheless, embedded in myth and folklore. There are still some gods (and goddesses) one prays to just so they’ll ignore the pious and move on, others whom it is dangerous even to pray to for fear of drawing attention, and some that one can only call upon for vengeance.

Hinduism’s eclecticism and inclusiveness is ample proof of the sheer variety of ideas and opinions that have been flung its way.  The people who questioned the whole set up, fomented revolution, and raised havoc almost never wrote in Sanskrit, are rarely preserved by Sanskrit tradition, and often couldn’t write at all.  Education has always been an exclusive privilege in India, especially formal, classical education: only Brahmins are (technically) allowed to read the Vedas, for example.  As a result, regional literatures across India retain a strong tradition against hegemonic, oppressive languages like Sanskrit (and now English); and writing in the vernacular remains a very political decision.

Unfortunately for Indian historiography, the colonial administration conveniently co-opted the Brahmin imaginary to help along its own agenda: finding injustice to exploit is classic imperial strategy. Orientalist history, as well as the nationalist history it inspired, strongly emphasizes Sanskrit literature, belittling if not wholly excluding the many regional tongues that operated in practical life across India. In effect, the chaotic reality of jati in India was frozen into lists compiled by pedants, both old and new.

British administrators, enthralled by the new classical language they had ‘discovered’, condemned 2000 years of rich, diverse history to be told only by its most conservative observers. Successive translators of Sanskrit sanitized what grit remained, and the chronological period now known as “Ancient India” was born. British administrators took ideology to represent history, and went blundering in to reform caste with the ignorant, self-serving ham-handedness that characterized colonial rule in India.  Reform led to reaction, and the seeds of today’s defensive, reactionary Hindutva were sown.

Caste in the Corporate Dream
The Brahmin stranglehold on the telling of Indian history is twofold: literacy, and legitimacy. As the clergy, Brahmins were the only caste where formal education was in the job description. This made them readers, and collectors of manuscripts in a predominantly oral culture; the genetic intelligentsia. 

As a class, they have always been dependent upon royal power: first for ritual sacrifice, later for land grants. Divine kingship has always been a potent symbol in Indian politics: even the Mughals fell under its spell. The Brahmins, intermediaries to the gods, were convenient legitimators for any king seeking to attest his kingship and establish a dynasty. Thus, ritual sacrifice persisted in royal consecrations long after it had disappeared from the popular religion. Even the British found them handy collaborators, and from colonial times Brahmins have drifted off the land and into the professions.

Even in 2010 India, Brahmins dominate education, especially higher education. I suspect the trend would be especially prominent in the professions and the higher echelons of management: the very executives Bait and Switch talks about. Companies owned by other communities, such as the Parsis or Vaishyas, are nevertheless likely to employ a fair number of Brahmins in managerial posts. While the civil services and public companies reserve posts for the “scheduled” castes, private enterprise is free to hire who it wants, and they tend to prefer the dwija.

The obvious disadvantage Shudras in corporate India face is that they are relatively alone in a culture still dominated by kinship bonds: they have a far smaller network of family and friends to turn to for employment.  However, even as family businesses give way to the more impersonal firm and the corporate meritocracy entrenches itself, the process of exclusion is likely to continue unabated: caste privilege can operate in many covert, insidious ways. Idiomatic English, comfort with technology, dietary habits, an elite education, even a person’s name and home address can flag off their caste to potential recruiters, making candidates vulnerable to the potential employer’s prejudices.

In any case, verticality far predates the birth of the corporation in India, so one can be sure that access and promotion remain two very different things. It would be very interesting to study to how two famously opaque hierarchies, caste and corporation, interpenetrate within Indian corporate culture to create a new heaven of conspicuous consumption for the Dwija, oblivious to reality.  For the Dwija, reality comes with an escape clause. For the excluded majority, however, the really interesting question is this: when the lean times come, who among the Dwija will be shed?

Ehrenreich tells a compelling story about betrayed people living out the nightmare inversion of the American dream. I will hazard the guess that the advantages of the lean, mean corporate machine she experienced in America will suggest itself to Indian employers soon. When the new Brahmin heaven implodes, as so many have in the past, I am curious to see what the tenacious bunch does next. India’s rulers no longer require divine legitimacy, the traditional route Brahmins have for bouncing back. Brahmins have, however, spent centuries arbitrating employment and honing their blaming the victim expertise. Perhaps as in America, the Brahmins will just morph into the transition industry in the (even more) destitute India their vision leaves in its wake.

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