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A class-relational approach

Intended for researchers, students, policymakers and practitioners, this book draws on detailed longitudinal fieldwork in rural south India to analyse the conditions of the rural poor and their patterns of change. Focusing on the three interrelated arenas of production, state, and civil society, it argues for a class-relational approach focused on forms of exploitation, domination and accumulation. The book focuses on class relations, how they are mediated by state institutions and civil society organisations, and how they vary within the countryside, when rural-based labour migrates to the city, and according to patterns of accumulation, caste dynamics, and villages’ levels of irrigation and degrees of remoteness. More specifically it analyses class relations in the agriculture and construction sectors, and among local government institutions, social movements, community-based organisations and NGOs. It shows how the dominant class reproduces its control over labour by shaping the activities of increasingly prominent local government institutions, and by exerting influence over the mass of new community-based organisations whose formation has been fostered by neoliberal policy. The book is centrally concerned with countervailing moves to improve the position of classes of labour. Increasingly informalised and segmented across multiple occupations in multiple locations, India’s ‘classes of labour’ are far from passive in the face of ongoing processes of exploitation and domination. Forms of labouring class organisation are often small-scale and tend to be oriented around the state and social policy. Despite their limitations, the book argues that such forms of contestation of government policy currently play a significant role in strategies for redistributing power and resources towards the labouring class, and suggests that they can help to clear the way for more broad-based and fundamental social change.

Abstract only
Jonathan Pattenden

The introductory chapter has two purposes. Firstly it outlines the conditions of labour in India, the state of Karnataka and the fieldwork districts and villages. Secondly it outlines the book’s main arguments, which are contrasted to mainstream approaches to the analysis of poverty. Given classes of labour’s high levels of fragmentation and informality and the difficulty of directly challenging capital, emphasis is placed on the extraction of concessions from the state as a strategy for improving the conditions of the poor in the short to medium-term. More specifically this entails labouring class organisation focused primarily on the implementation of welfare programmes, and broader moves to push for pro-labour policy changes. The class-relational approach used in this book analyses labour relations, civil society organisations, local government institutions and state policy through more than a decade of fieldwork across hamlets, villages and districts. By doing so it draws out the uneven dynamics of class relations at different levels and in different social settings, and sheds some light on the impediments to, as well as possibilities for, pro-labouring class change.

in Labour, state and society in rural India
Jonathan Pattenden

This chapter outlines what is meant by a class-relational approach to labour, state and society in India. Analysis of exploitation is central to this approach, and is located at and beyond the level of the production process, and understood in terms of both broader and more specific relations between capital and labour. Analysis of exploitation in this book focuses on social relations in and around production sites, and the mediation of class relations by state institutions and civil society organisations. The chapter discusses the similarities and differences between Marxian and Weberian approaches to class. More specifically, the class-relational approach is contrasted to various semi-relational approaches, which have assumed a prominent role in the literature on poverty and development to the detriment, it is argued, of classes of labour. The chapter defines the terms ‘dominant class’ and ‘classes of labour’ – the latter being understood as expressing the multi-faceted nature of social classes (imbued as they are by other axes of domination such as caste and gender), and both the fragmentation of labourers and their common position as members of exploited classes.

in Labour, state and society in rural India
Jonathan Pattenden

This chapter provides an overview of changing class relations in the Indian countryside, and their mediation by state institutions and civil society organisations. Drawing on government data and an array of recent case studies, it proceeds in four steps. The first sketches the processes of informalisation and fragmentation among classes of labour in rural India; the second shows how the dominant class reproduces its control over labour in a context of structural change; the third compares the proliferation of ‘neoliberal’ civil society organisations in India that protect the status quo with organisations of the labouring class that challenge it; and the fourth discusses the role that the state plays in mediating rural class relations through social policy and processes of decentralisation. Despite their limitations it argues that labouring class organisations, oriented around social policy and the extraction of concessions from the state, can contribute to broader pro-labouring class change.

in Labour, state and society in rural India
Jonathan Pattenden

This chapter focuses on the changing dynamics of exploitation in rural India. It explores different forms of informality and fragmentation, and shows how the dominant class reproduces its control over rural-based labour when it is i) working in agriculture, ii) commuting to nearby cities, and iii) migrating to distant cities primarily to work in the construction sector. Although labour relations in agriculture have become less personalised they continue to be characterised by various ties and forms of unfreedom (bonded labour, neo-bonded debt-tied labour, sharecropping and piece-rate labour are all discussed). Meanwhile, construction capital uses forms of ‘remote control’ over circular migrants - using intermediaries to discipline labour, and ensuring widespread marginalisation from pro-labour state regulations and programmes. The final part of the chapter considers the possibility for pro-labouring class change, and changing socio-political dynamics and how they vary across commuting and circulating labour.

in Labour, state and society in rural India
Jonathan Pattenden

Contextualised by an outline of Karnataka’s recent political history, this chapter focuses on how the dominant class uses political institutions to maintain and advance its position. It is concerned with the interplay of accumulation, domination and the everyday workings of political institutions. Although primarily focused on dynamics of domination and exploitation at local government level (and in connection with state poverty reduction programmes), it also traces the links between accumulation and domination up to the level of state institutions, and points to the links between political power and agribusiness, mining and real estate. At the level of local government the chapter shows the critical role played by gatekeepers (those who man the interface between state and society) in shaping the material and political outcomes of state policy. More influential gatekeepers, who tend to be from the dominant class and caste, are able to advance their economic position and strengthen their political position by using their role as distributors of public resources to reproduce labouring class dependence. The chapter locates processes of corruption among class relations, and argues that talk of a shift towards ‘post-clientilist’ states is premature and overstated - particularly in areas with relatively steep social hierarchies.

in Labour, state and society in rural India
Jonathan Pattenden

This chapter analyses the capacity of government poverty reduction programmes to modify class relations in favour of labour. It applies a class-relational approach to NREGS, and to social policy more generally, in order to better understand why, where, when and how government poverty reduction programmes contribute to pro-labouring class change, and when they serve to strengthen the position of the dominant class. It compares the implementation of NREGS over time, showing how a cohesive dominant class in one particular cluster of villages has been able to shape the scheme to its own ends, while elsewhere a small social movement of female dalit labourers has challenged the dominant class’s wholesale subversion of the scheme. In broader terms it argues in favour of state poverty reduction programmes that are i) universal and thereby lessen dominant class gatekeepers’ influence, and ii) rights-based and thereby foster collective labouring class action. More generally, by increasing the state’s role in the material reproduction of labour, the latter’s dependence on capitalists declines, their ability to act politically increases, and the balance of class forces is modified in its favour.

in Labour, state and society in rural India
Jonathan Pattenden

This chapter argues that many civil society organisations in rural India have been neoliberalised. Rather than organisations seeking to redistribute power and resources towards labourers, NGOs have become increasingly oriented around securing contracts from local government, while most community-based organisations reproduce or exacerbate existing inequalities. The argument is based on detailed analysis of civil society in a particular south Indian district, and focuses on women’s self-help groups, which are the most common form of community-based organisation in rural India.

in Labour, state and society in rural India
Jonathan Pattenden

This chapter assesses the capacity of a social movement of female agricultural labourers to challenge dominant class control of local government institutions, and modify class relations in favour of labour. It also outlines resistance to gender and caste-based forms of oppression. Focusing on three different village-level associations, it analyses why social movement processes play out differently in different locations, and how such forms of organisation might be scaled up. It argues that, despite their limitations, such organisations can provide a significant contribution to pro-labouring class change.

in Labour, state and society in rural India
Abstract only
Jonathan Pattenden

The conclusion provides an overview of the book’s main arguments while looking ahead to the future. In contrast to ‘residual’ and some ‘semi-relational’ approaches to poverty, the book has argued that analysis of class relations is central to understanding the conditions of classes of labour, and the possibilities for pro-labouring class change. Class relations have been analysed primarily in terms of changing forms of exploitation and domination, and the ways they are mediated by forms of collective action and the state. As the bases of classes of labour’s reproduction and patterns of capitalist accumulation are modified, so too are the ways in which labour is controlled and is able to extract concessions from capital and the state. The uneven trajectories of class relations have been illustrated through longitudinal fieldwork material in a number of south Indian villages. Labour relations differ in form between villages with greater and lesser levels of irrigation, between villages that are more or less tightly integrated into non-agricultural labour markets, between those where accumulation remains focused on agriculture or has become more oriented around the state, and between the countryside and the city. While local government institutions and ‘neoliberal’ civil society organisations tend to reinforce the status quo, the interplay of labouring class organisation and pro-labour government policy can produce minor gains for classes of labour. If both can be scaled up, labour’s conditions improve, and the possibilities for more broad-based social change increase.

in Labour, state and society in rural India