Review of: Jan Breman (2016), On Pauperism in Present and Past
Global Labour Journal
Jan Breman's On Pauperism in Present and Past (2016) is a master work of a mature scholar. As such, it strikes a delicate balance between theory and empirics, local and universal, macro and micro, and presents a provocative and innovative way of thinking about the working poor in the Global South. Breman's investigation of the role of the pauper in the era of neo-liberalism takes the reader from the British Industrial Revolution to contemporary Gujarat where, through time and across space, he
... across space, he identifies similarities in ideas, policy and the political economy of the pauper. After first providing historical background on the origins of the pauper and social policies in Britain during the Industrial Revolution, Breman shows how policies aimed at combatting pauperism failed to diffuse to the colonies. He then examines poverty in Gujarat, relying on decades of rural ethnography to demonstrate how the social structure of the village changed from independence to liberalisation and beyond. The book shows how the few mechanisms put in place to prevent destitution -including serfdom, state welfare, trade unions and employment opportunities in the formal sector -have been eroded over the course of the twentieth century, leaving the poor with little hope of meeting their own basic needs. Because migration from villages to cities is one common strategy of eking out a means of survival, Breman then takes the reader from the villages of Gujarat to the slums and pavements of Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat and the sixth largest city in India. He details how slum clearances forced the city's most vulnerable residents to the outskirts where their lives became markedly worse and even more precarious. The circulation of the poor between city and village, Breman shows, is a result of their inability to earn a viable income in the village on the one hand and, on the other, their inability to gain a foothold in city life. The poor, as Breman demonstrates, are excluded not only from the possibility of living without precarity, but also from the social life of the city. Finally, Breman shows how the state and capital are complicit in the pauperisation of most of India's poor as increasing inequality has benefitted both national and global capital and been politically expedient for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India's Hindu nationalist party. The longitudinal ethnographic methods employed in this study allow Breman to access data and speak to theories that elude researchers whose survey data, ethnographic data and/or fieldwork is restricted to a much shorter time horizon. In so doing, Breman's study, like any ethnography, focuses on individuals in a very specific setting, but in adding a historical dimension to his research, he is able to link local processes to national and global trends of political economy. Thereby, he employs a careful and deliberate use of multiple registers and multiple units of analysis to the end of a thorough critique of the political economy of capitalist development as seen from Gujarat. York: Monthly Review Press. BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE KRISTIN PLYS is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, specialising in the Global South.