The Spirit of Brahminism and the Capitalist Reckoning

The Indian caste system was (or is) a most dehumanising, totalitarian and rigid system of social hierarchy and control. The oldest Hindu religious text, the Rig Veda, in its canto 10, hymn 90 defines how mankind came to be from the different parts of the supreme primordial being. It declares that "The Brahmin was His [i.e. the primordial being's] mouth; the Kshatriya His arms became. His thighs were the Vaisya; of His feet the Sudra was born." 

These four castes: the Brahmins (the priestly and intellectual class), the Kshatriyas (the landowners and warriors), the Vaisya (the business class) and the Sudra (the labourer) represent the idealised division of social groups in the feudal social order of ancient India. The castes do not intermarry, they do not undertake work outside the profession assigned to their caste and the lowest castes and the outcastes are considered 'untouchable'. 

One would think that capitalism, as the fundamental counterfoil to a feudal social order, has nothing to do with the caste system or anything like it. After all, capitalism is supposed to be a system in which the invisible hand of the market determines productive activity, rather than a system where a rigid hierarchy dictates social outcome. It is supposed to be based on open competition, where the best product wins, a rational social order, as Max Weber argued, instead of an irrational social order based on blood purity and ancient hymns on a primordial being. 

But funny enough, the adaptability of the capitalist mode of production to varied challenges means that capitalism is evolving itself into a social hierarchy that looks very much like the caste system. More specifically, it is evolving to give us a group of people who are verily like the Brahmins of the Hindu social order, the mouths of the primordial being that is Capital. 

The group I speak of here is quite easily recognisable and thoroughly glamourised (and demonised) in world culture. Their activities are difficult to understand. They deal in items of pure abstraction, building nothing themselves but exercising control over all that is built. They are an exclusive club of people with an iron grip over power and money, whilst not being owners of any of those things themselves. They are the investment bankers, the equity analysts, the financiers and the asset managers. 

Like the Brahmin of yore who technically lived on alms but amassed vast wealth, the asset manager and the investment banker only shift wealth around but is rich "via commission motherf*cker" (to quote Matthew McConaughey's character from Wolf of Wall Street). Like the Brahmin who would zealously guard his secret knowledge of the sacred mantras and rituals which could make a mere warlord into a king, so does the Wall Street professional speak in the complex technical jargon of 'bonds', 'short-selling', 'derivatives' and 'collateralised debt obligations' which turn a mere productive activity into a sophisticated web of transactions. Like the killing of a Brahmin was the highest crime under ancient Hindu law, so is not bailing out the big banks and financial firms an impossibility. 

These parallels are not some mere curiosity, they showcase how capitalism is so eminently adaptable to changing social conditions and how it verily controls the change in material conditions through its social architecture. In fact, this parallel upsets the fundamental assumptions that both pro-capitalist and many anti-capitalist thinkers make. It is not just the chains of economic power which define social relations, it is also the makeup of social relations that determines where economic power resides. The lords of high finance do not derive their power by owning and controlling the means of production. Instead, they define the interrelationships between economic power and those subject to its dominion. 

We can really appreciate this with a comparative example of the exercise of Brahminical power and the exercise of the power of the financiers. In the ancient Hindu fire rituals called the yagna, the Brahmin priest would declare the officiator of the ritual as the 'yajaman', he would make oblations to the various gods in the name of the yajaman. The fruits of the yagna would technically be available to the yajaman alone, for it is his financial resources that make the yagna possible. The Brahmin is a mere functionary in the entire process. But it is the Brahmin who knows the liturgy, it is the Brahmin who understands the secrets of the various rituals which confer wealth and power. In other words, it is the Brahmin who creates the yajaman and the yagna. 

In a similar way, the financier of today creates the capital and the capitalist. It is he who decides if a company can go public, it is he who sells its shares with an asking price and aims to raise capital with it. While the Brahmin made oblations to the gods, as a mere agent of the capitalist, the financier makes his oblations to the market. Technically, the financier is a mere agent. But it is he who knows the viability of the assets of the company, it is he who knows how to appease the market in favour of the capitalist. 

However, as already alluded to, there is a stark difference between the Brahmin and the financiers: while one functions in a mystical social order, the other works in a rationalist one. So the interesting question is: why does this similarity emerge at all? Why is capitalism starting to look like feudalism?

The answer is at once simple and complicated. It resides in that confusing term - 'human nature’. 

It is known that we hunger, not just for food or shelter but also for meaning and security. We are, on some level, aware of our mortality and of how the universe is an uncaring void. At a time when there was no guarantee that the next harvest would give yield when natural disaster and disease could so easily destroy so many lives, the yagna or the fire rituals gave humanity a sense of security. They made humanity feel a sense of control over its destiny in a fundamentally uncertain time. That is why the Brahmin was given a place of pride and of supreme importance in such an order, for on him rested society's basic sense of peace and order. 

In the present time, while our fears are not related to the next harvest, our fundamental existential dread remains the same. We do not know what exactly the market will demand next year, we do not know whether the invisible hand will drive prices up or down, whether wages will increase or decrease. Even if our order is rational, our fears of hunger and pain are not, we cannot live with the uncertainty of knowing that a mechanism of market forces will determine our bank balance, especially when the world is buffeted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The financier, by exercising influence and control over the market, gives us certainty. That is why he (or she) has so much power.  

To go even deeper, the emergence of late capitalism represents the ultimate reckoning of the Age of Reason with its own assumptions. And the financier in late capitalism, advisedly or inadvertently, represents the reckoner. He confronts humanity with the limitations of his own rationalist systems. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the 2008 crisis. That crisis was, in many ways, completely and utterly the consequence of human beings trying to be too smart for their own good. Bankers so cleverly thought that if debts on homes were combined and converted into their own kind of mega debt, with that mega debt being sold in a market as a good, then money would just flow forever. 

The mega debts or ‘mortgage-backed securities’ as they were called, were a pure abstraction. They had no existence outside a system of pure formal logic, where obligations to pay back a home loan, which has no palpable existence, could be treated as a commodity and combined and sold as another obligation to pay back a loan, which also had no palpable existence. The real thing, the palpable thing: the home and the homeowner who undertook to pay back the loan was an eminently forgettable assumption in the hyper-rational mind of the financier. Needless to say, the results of this near-mystical, Brahminical rationalism are for all to see and they represent how there is such great folly in assuming that man is a creature of reason. 

So, the ultimate question is: where do we go now? Will this inherent contradiction within capitalism unravel the same? (As Marx suggested) I think not. If the strength of the Brahmanical social order is any guide, a social order, no matter how flawed, no matter how decidedly routed by reality can maintain its spell, for that very weakness called human nature which in its yearning for security would rather believe the immediate lie than imagine a greater truth. So, the only thing that late capitalism and its Brahmin, the financier, tells us that it is here to stay no matter how many crises come and go. Unless, of course, humanity plucks up the courage to say: "creatures of the heart and the flesh unite, we have nothing to lose but our rational brains''. 


Harsh Tiwari

I am a law student with wide-ranging interests who founded this newspaper with his friends to grow and be a better twenty-something.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.