Proletariat, a misleading idea

Proletariat, a misleading idea

Proletariat is a charming word. Karl Marx used it to describe the underdogs (read workers) during the industrial revolution. The rise of the welfare state in the West rendered the idea obsolete. The end of the Cold War buried it. With an upswing in industrial unrest, as the current series of stories in Mint shows, the “rights" of the proletariat are being debated with renewed vigour.

Much of the recent interest in the idea of a set of people who share a common fate is linked to agitation in towns such as Gurgaon in Haryana and Coimbatore and other industrial hubs in Tamil Nadu. There are two sore points if labour rights activists are to be believed. These are: the disparity in wages between contract and permanent employees and difficulties in forming unions at workplaces.

Both problems are not born out of conflict between managements and labour. They are, as Kaushik Basu, India’s new chief economic adviser, pointed out in an interview with Mint (Monday, 21 December) due to larger economic issues. Wage disparities would disappear if demand for labour were to go up. Managements would be in no position to deny better wages to contract labour if there were greater demand for their output. Basu pointed out that competition between firms can drive up wages more effectively than any other measures such as minimum wages.

Yet, paradoxically, this is a route to prosperity that is barred by our archaic labour laws. Instead it is believed, wrongly, that wage bargaining by unions is a more effective way to earn more. It may be, in the short run. Political interference in hiring and firing decisions backed by laws ensures that firms agree, grudgingly, to dishing out more money. Emphasis on “rights" ensures nothing in the end save, of course, some political satisfaction.

In this jaundiced vision of the world, proletariat becomes a real entity. Today, the nature of work in modern economies is very different from what it was in the Victorian age. Many workers in the same firm don’t even work together. The idea of a proletariat rests on shared experiences at a workplace. That is a fiction even in assembly line manufacturing today. A gentle draught of economic reason is enough to evaporate a politically evocative expression.

Is there such a thing as an Indian proletariat? Tell us at