Working Class and Modernity


I want to contradict in this post the common belief that the elites in our society modernized themselves first and only later did the poor and the working classes follow the path of modernism. I want to suggest that it is the poor and the working classes who opened up to modernity first and the modernism of the elite is merely novelty and not modern.

When did modernity come to the working classes is a question that raises some interesting issues. Even as the debate on the nature and origins of modernity continues, the experience of modernity by different social groups becomes an issue that refracts that debate interestingly. Arjun Appadurai has pointed out in his book Modernity at Large (1997), that “Modernity now seems more practical and less pedagogic, more experiential and less disciplinary than in the fifties and sixties when it was mostly experienced through the propaganda apparatus of the nation-states and their great leaders.” He goes on to argue that for the working classes and the poor the experience of modernity is more recent and made available through cultural modes like film, television, music etc. I like the point about the difference between the way modernity is accessed by the elite and the poor: one mainly through high discourses the other through mass media.

In Appadurai’s thesis there lurks an old issue about modernity: the time lag, i.e. the gap between the fifties and sixties when elite access modernity and the 80s and 90s when the working classes do. In other words, by the time the poor arrive to modernity the elite have gone ahead or have milked modernity; when the poor are accessing modernity, in the 80s and 90s therefore elite are elsewhere (postmodernity?). Now this poses a question about the efficacy of thinking in such a chronology. I think the time lag that informs this thesis is problematic. While the elite themselves are ‘late-entrants’ to modernity in relation to the ‘West’, the working classes in India would be placed further back and thus within the nation-state the subjects are seen living in different time zones and multiple backwardness.

This time lag haunts many areas. For example technology, knowledge systems, health care etc. Leaving it at that, let me attend to the issue of lateness and what view of working class agency we find in Appadurai’s thesis. He seems to view the lateness as an absolute and in this book doesn’t enquire into the question of agency. I would like to wonder why the working classes / the poor / those travelers in the third class compartments and the mass that produce the great leaders, chose not to access modernity earlier. Has it got something to do with anti-modern political strategy? And what of those who did access modernity earlier and chose to access a certain sense of it. I am thinking of the great many Dalits who chose to follow Ambedkar and chose to convert along with him. In this we see an experience of modernity that is less tuned to economical and technological modernism but to a social theory. Here we see a notion of the modern as the moment of equality and the breakdown of the feudal hierarchical social stratification. The rejection of the social apparatus that is committed to stratification is one determinant of modernity.

Seen thus, we can say that experience of modernity is different for different people. Considered as a sociological phenomenon, modernity has to be seen with respect to a society’s commitment to reorganizing its internal relations, according greater stress on values that give impetus to movement and freedom rather than to sterility and submission.

The working class and the poor in fact were the first to stake claim on modernity in this sense. The elite modernism is a mechanical one and hence not a fundamental break from the earlier regimes of social organization. In fact, in as far as the elite society transformed the modern apparatus only to entrench the age-old rigidities; they hardly represent the ‘modern’.    

The proposition here is a bit polemical. There are many strands of historical and political inflections that it has to address for any serious negotiation of the issues touched upon. Here I only wish to state an extreme viewpoint and hope to move towards a more nuanced approach in further engagements.

3 responses »

  1. hi, if we take one strand re the liberation of the woman, the so called ‘working/poor class’ has always been more ‘modern’ than the mainstream. this too, across all cross sections of our caste ridden society.

    the maid who comes to work in your house is a fixture for the past 100 years. she is a working woman with a career. the female vegetable seller. the female toilet cleaner. all these are facets of ‘modernism’ which the middle class were slow to embrace. the rich seldom did.

    but i do have an issue re the term ‘working class’. it is so archaically british. the last time i read it in context was a book where the english establishment was worried about the patriotism of the ‘working classes’ during the blitz of 1942 :). the word is not used even in england anymore. 🙂

  2. phantom363, oh! please, now dont try to convince me of the currency of vocabulary in the good old Brittannia. I can do without that. I did appreciate your point about “the so called ‘working/poor class’ has always been more ‘modern’ than the mainstream”.
    By the way, you are wrong about “the last time i read it in context was a book where the english establishment was worried about the patriotism of the ‘working classes’ during the blitz of 1942”. Because you heard it very recently on September 24, 2006, on sotosay!!!
    What says thou?

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