Mi / 10:00 – 11:30

In Pursuit of the American Dream

Morality, Obligation and the Transnational Reproduction of Caste

Sanam Roohi, KWI Fellow

KWI & Online (Zoom)

This presentation based on a decade long ethnographic study foregrounds a group of high skilled professionals (with agrarian antecedents in South India) pursuing the capitalist utopia of the American Dream while simultaneously engaging in social development-oriented philanthropy in their regions of origin and destination. Institutionalizing their giving through local state bodies and transnational organizations, the moral obligations circumscribing their avowedly secular philanthropic practices are mediated by social relations of caste. Folding in moral and political economy perspectives, the presentation challenges the modernist ideas of caste as archaic and its dissipation after its tryst with global capitalism to postulate that while the logic of capitalist value generation and accumulation has congealed caste belonging in South Asia, racial capitalism in the US has reinvigorated forms of descent based discriminatory practices like caste in recent times.

Intervening in the currently raging debate on the inclusion of caste in US antidiscrimination laws, the presentation moves beyond it to understand the social logics, processes and practices that accompany the transnational life of caste for the US based Telugu diaspora. Diasporic Telugus reflexively understand the code that caste-based morality and the obligations (to give and receive) it entails had impelled their social mobility to a dominant caste status over the last century. Moreover, their contemporary pursuit of the American dream was preceded by massive communal benefits land-owning castes accrued from the colonial and postcolonial state in South India.

Arguing against the ‘moral economy as resistance to capitalism’ trope, I suggest that communal care should be seen as a moral script or repertoire to respond effectively to the flexibility of vernacular and western capitalism. In this present moment, transnational giving works as a collective social insurance that protects dominant caste Telugus from the exigencies of western capitalism. It also endows them with resources and dexterity to respond both collectively and individually to the flexibility of labour and production that a fast-changing digitalized economy demands, even as it ethnicizes their labour in specific sectors (medical, pharmaceutical or IT in this instance). Amidst widespread outward migration, transnational giving creates a presence in absence in parts of southern India, while also reproducing the social dominance for members of these caste groups through opportunity hoarding measures and gate-keeping tactics in diasporic locales. However, the transnational caste based social reproduction of privilege is not always successful or complete because of the sharp politics of difference within different dominant Telugu caste groups who compete against each other to imbricate themselves further within western capitalism.