Read this article to learn about the impact of ‘Individualism’ on gender and caste system of our Society!
A major contribution of individualism is its impact on caste and gender. Individualism, which emerges from the industrial system, treats individuals irrespective of caste, gender or any other form of discrimination as independent units of work.
In traditional societies, there was a fixed division of labour based on the sexes and on one’s status according to one’s caste.
This meant that the status of women and that of the lower castes remained fixed and unchangeable because these were determined by the socio-economic system. Under industrialisation, these divisions changed. The new industrial system required more workers than those under the traditional caste system. The nature of employment was decided by the market and not by the traditional community authority.
In other words, if a landlord needed more agricultural labourers, he could not ask other castes to participate in this activity. The work of each caste and the rewards they would get for their work was predetermined. Such a system could not exist in an industrialised setting. Now, it was the market that decided who was willing to work and for what wage. Hence we can see the shift in control of the working sections of the society.
In the earlier system, control over the low-level workers (serfs in Europe and the landless lower castes in India) was exercised through the entire life-cycle of the workers. In most Indian villages, residential areas were demarcated for different castes.
The lower castes whose members were mainly landless labourers performing all kinds of manual tasks stayed on the outskirts of the village. There were regulations on their dress, their social behaviour and their interaction with other social castes. Control was exerted through a series of complex relations, which covered every aspect of a person’s life.
Under the new system, this form of control was not necessary. The industrialists/capitalists now controlled the workers through wages. This meant that the capitalist was only interested in getting work done by anybody who was willing to work under the conditions laid down and the wage offered.
In case the worker did not agree with the conditions or the wages, they had the choice of not working. In the earlier system, the lower castes did not have this choice as their castes determined the nature of work they performed. The capitalist was not interested in who their workers were and what their social background was.
All they were interested in is that the person employed should work under the conditions laid down. For example, if an industrialist wanted 500 workers in the factory, they were actually looking for 500 units willing to perform work under the terms and conditions stipulated by him/her. The capitalist was not interested in whether these workers are from upper castes or lower castes, Hindus, Muslims or any other religion or whether they were men or women.
This brought in some form of egalitarianism among the workers as they were not differentiated on the basis of social categories. This provided the basis for the lower castes and women to question the existing norms of the society.
It may not have happened immediately, because old values persist over a period of time, being hard to change. However, the repercussions of this new system could be felt several decades later with the anti-caste movements for justice for the lower castes and the women’s movement which strives for equality between the sexes.
As industrialisation developed, conditions of the workers improved because there was less dependence on manual work as machines replaced most of the work done physically. Workers also got unionised and were able to articulate some demands for regulation of the system in their favour. For instance, May Day, celebrated annually on 1 May, was a landmark for the international working class movement, because for the first time, the workers in the USA raised the demand for an eight-hour working day.
This is a commemoration of what happened on 4 May 1886 when workers assembled at the Haymarket in Chicago. The police dealt with them brutally and several workers were killed. Other workers tore off the blood-soaked shirts of the dead workers and used them as flags to propagate working class unity in the city. This reinforced the use of the red flag as a symbol of the working class movement all over the world, such a flag having earlier been used during the Paris Commune of 1871 as a mark of communism.
Mechanisation of work resulted in improving working conditions but it also resulted in the lay-off of workers. In such a situation, it was the women workers who bore the brunt. It was presumed that as men were heads of households, if there were to be any lay-offs in the factory it was the women that had to sacrifice their jobs as their income was supposed to be supplementing the family income.
This in turn, led women to question the rationale behind this inequality. For both women and Dalits (in the case of India), the fact that there was some form of equality at the workplace but in social life there was gross inequality triggered off questions relating to egalitarianism.
For the women’s movement in particular, industrialisation plays a crucial role in setting forth the real issues. In Hindu epics and mythology, several women are shown as independent and articulate such as Draupadi, Kali, Durga, etc. They do not inspire working women as much as the industrial system does. Industrialisation with its inherent defects makes women realise that the unequal relations between the sexes are not something that is intrinsic but are created by a patriarchal society for its own benefits.