Book Review: Capital and Ideology – A case for affirmative action

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March 22, 2020 2:45 AM

Thomas Piketty, in this excerpt from his new book, advocates quotas to bridge inequality with a reference to the Indian system, but one based on objectifiable socioeconomic criteria applicable to all groups.

Book Review, Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty & Arthur Goldhammer book, quota systems, reservation in india, harper collinsWhen quotas other than gender are involved, it’s crucial to move as quickly as possible to objective socioeconomic criteria such as income, wealth and education, suggests the author

Social and Gender Quotas and the Conditions of Their Transformation

The Indian debates are also essential because they illustrate the need both to take anti discrimination policy seriously (if need be by means of quotas) and to rethink and revise it constantly. When a group is the victim of longstanding, well-established prejudices and stereotypes, as women are more or less everywhere and as specific social groups (such as the lower castes in India) are in various countries, it is clearly not enough to base redistributive policies solely on income, wealth, or education. It may be necessary to resort to preferential access and quotas (like the “reservations” system in India) based directly on membership in disadvantaged groups.

In recent decades a number of countries have developed systems similar to India’s, especially with respect to access to elective office. In 2016, seventy-seven countries were using quota systems to increase the representation of women in their legislative bodies, and twenty-eight countries were doing the same to encourage better representation of national, linguistic, and ethnic minorities in Asia, Europe, and around the world. In wealthy democracies, a sharp decrease in the proportion of working-class representatives in the legislature has led to new thinking about forms of political representation, including the use of lotteries and “social quotas.” These ideas bear some resemblance to India’s “reservations” system, a point to which I will return later.

We will also see how countries like France and the United States are just beginning to develop procedures for preferential access to secondary schools and universities. Since 2007, for example, admissions procedures to Paris lycées have been taking social background explicitly into account by awarding bonus points to students whose parents are low income or reside in underprivileged neighbourhoods. This system was extended to higher education in France in 2018. Other criteria are sometimes considered, such as the student’s region or school of origin. These devices resemble the reservations for SC-ST students at the federal level in India since 1950; even more the new admissions procedures introduced at some universities (such as Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi) in the 1960s go beyond the federal quotas by taking account not only SC-ST status but also gender, parental income, and region of origin.

The fact that India has been a pioneer on these issues attests to the country’s desire to face up to its very heavy inegalitarian heritage, the product of status inequalities stemming from ancient trifunctional ideology solidified by British colonial codification. My point here is not to idealise the way independent India addressed this legacy but simply to note that it is possible to draw any number of conclusions from India’s experience. In Europe and elsewhere, it has long been thought that affirmative action was unnecessary because people from different social classes enjoyed equal rights, particularly with respect to education. Today we see more clearly that such formal equality is not enough and must in some cases be complemented by more proactive measures.

In any event, the Indian experience also illustrates the risk that quotas may solidify identities and categories and underscores the need to invent more flexible and adaptable systems. In the Indian case, it is possible that the quotas adopted to help the SC-ST in the 1950s and then the OBC in the 1990s (after decades of colonial censuses and imposed identities) helped to solidify caste and jati identities. Marriage outside one’s jati has certainly increased: according to available data, barely 5 percent of marriages involved spouses of different jatis in the 1950s in both rural and urban areas, but this had increased to 8 percent for rural and 10 percent for urban marriages by the 2010s. Recall that intra-jati marriage reflected the persistence of social solidarities within micro-groups sharing the same occupational, regional, cultural, and in some cases culinary characteristics rather than any vertical, hierarchical logic. For example, if one measures the probability of marriage to a person of similar educational attainment (or to a person with parents of similar educational attainment), one finds that the level of social homogamy in India, while quite high, is roughly of the same order as one finds in France and other Western countries. Recall, moreover, that intermarriage rates between persons of different national, religious, or ethnic backgrounds are often extremely low in Europe and the United States (we will come back to this) and that Indian jatis in part reflect distinct regional and cultural identities. It is nevertheless reasonable to believe that intra-jati marriage, which remains quite high in India, reflects some degree of social closure and that excessive reliance on quotas and caste-based political mobilisation strategies has contributed to perpetuating this.

Ideally, a quota system should anticipate the conditions under which it would cease to be necessary. In other words, “reservations” favouring disadvantaged groups should be phased out if and when they succeed in reducing prejudices. When quotas other than gender are involved, it also seems crucial to move as quickly as possible to objective socioeconomic criteria such as income, wealth, and education, as otherwise categories such as the SC-ST in India tend to solidify, which considerably complicates the development of norms of justice acceptable to all.

It is possible that the Indian quota system is currently undergoing a major transformation and will gradually transition from a system based on old status categories to one based on income, assets, and other objectifiable socioeconomic criteria applicable to all groups. The transition is moving slowly, however, and may require a better system for gauging income and wealth together with a new tax system, about which I will say more later. In any case, taking the full measure of the successes and limitations of the Indian experience will be useful in thinking about how one might do more to overcome longstanding social and status inequalities in India and around the world.

(Excerpted with permission from Harper Collins)

Book details

Capital and Ideology
Thomas Piketty &
Arthur Goldhammer
Pp 1,104, Rs 2,499


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