Jan Breman’s ‘Fighting Free to Become Unfree Again’: Precarious lives, persistent unfreedom : The Tribune India

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Jan Breman’s ‘Fighting Free to Become Unfree Again’: Precarious lives, persistent unfreedom

Jan Breman’s ‘Fighting Free to Become Unfree Again’: Precarious lives, persistent unfreedom

Fighting Free to Become Unfree Again by Jan Breman. Tulika Books. Pages 220. Rs 950

Book Title: Fighting Free to Become Unfree Again

Author: Jan Breman

Surinder S Jodhka

The popular narratives of development are mostly framed around the processes of economic growth. At the macro level, these imply the increasing volumes of national income, often described as the gross domestic product (GDP), and at the micro level, the growing prosperity of individuals and households, the per capita income. The underlying assumptions are that as the national income grows, poverty declines and the size of the consuming middle class expands. This tends to happen even when income inequalities may be growing. The rich may be getting richer at a faster pace than their counterparts at the other end of the economic ladder, but the poor too benefit from the process of economic growth and tend to come out of ‘absolute poverty’.

Paralleling this popular narrative is that of structural transformation. The poorer economies of the Global South have mostly been dependent on agriculture, and are socially organised in feudal and patriarchal relations. The process of economic growth implies a fundamental shift. Accelerating growth through developmental planning requires increasing use of modern technology. The laying of infrastructure, modern industry and a growing service sector fundamentally transform the traditional economies into western-style modern life. As agriculture declines and the urban economy grows, social relations also undergo a structural change. Individual freedom and democratic citizenship tend to replace the traditional structures of hierarchy and patriarchal values.

This indeed happened in the countries of Western Europe and North America. Dutch social anthropologist Jan Breman, the author of the book, begins with an autobiographical essay. Growing up in a rural household during the first half of the 20th century, he shows how his family moved out of poverty over a few decades. This, he argues, was made possible by the Dutch state becoming welfare-oriented. As the economy grew, its welfare-oriented democratic government opened up educational opportunities for all. Thanks to these policies, his parents were able to move to decent urban housing and he managed to join a university. His was not a unique case. The entire country, and the western world at large, moved out of poverty in just over a few decades.

Economists and development study experts were quick to weave such narratives drawn from the Western experience into well-crafted theories of economic change and exported these to the neo-elites of the countries that had become independent nation-states post the Second World War. The planners and political establishments in the developing world accepted these quite uncritically.

The actual stories on ground have, however, been far more complex and varied. There are very few countries of the Global South that have become middle-class societies, even after more than seven decades of persistent efforts toward transforming their economies. While the changes have indeed been quite significant, the nature and quality are far from what was expected.

As a young and motivated researcher, Breman first arrived in India in 1962 to carry out empirical work for his PhD and chose rural south Gujarat for his field study. Given his training in social anthropology, his primary interest was to make sense of the changing nature of social relations in the local agrarian economy. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not work within the framework of the colonial view of the Indian village as an ancient and insulated community where caste encompassed everything. Instead, he explored the history of land and labour relations in the region and focused on the prevailing structures of patronage, dependency and exploitation.

As is the case with most of India, agricultural land in his study villages was owned almost exclusively by a few dominant and traditionally privileged caste groups, the Anavil Brahmins and Patels. However, unlike the peasant societies of Europe, they did not like working on the land. Instead, they made members of the locally landless communities, those from the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, work for them. The farmers did not just hire them as wage labourers. They managed to enslave them through patronage and debt. The first book he published on the basis of his fieldwork was titled ‘Patronage and Exploitation’.

He also found that those relations of patronage were fast waning. The introduction of the Green Revolution technology and the growing integration of rural economy into the larger urban market brought about a sense of instrumentality in the relationship. This freed the labour from traditional modes of servitude, but it did not bring about the kind of change that Breman’s family, or the West European society generally, had experienced with the introduction of modern technology. On the contrary, the changes brought about by new technology and capitalist mode of production made the poor more vulnerable.

Over the past six decades, Breman has continued to revisit his field to follow the life trajectories of the labouring poor of south Gujarat. The core argument that he presents is that though older forms of bondage and servitude have waned, they did not bring about a substantive sense of freedom. The older forms of bondage were soon replaced by “neo-bondage”. Released from older structures of patronage and dependency, they become footloose labourers. Their economic insecurity grew. As a survival strategy, they worked through middlemen, on whom they also depended for credit. Their economic precarity and perpetual indebtedness on the intermediary jobber put them in the traps of neo-bondage. Freedom for the labouring poor, thus, remains elusive.