‘Soft capitalism’ at work

Print edition : June 09, 2017
A profile of a segment of the IT industry, which claims to be the new “middle class” that sets the agenda for an emerging “aspirational” India.

THE title of the book is somewhat enigmatic. The blurb is more explicit: “Reengineering India explores India’s post-liberalisation transformation through the lens of the software industry. The book views the IT [information technology] industry as a key site where new identities, aspirations, and social imaginaries are being created and circulated. It examines the origins and organisation of software capital, the production of the Indian IT workforce, the introduction of new forms of work and management, and the connection between software and the ‘new’ middle class.” Granted that the IT industry and IT professionals have generated something of a new “culture” in the country during the past three or four decades, this anthropological account of the relationship between work, class, capital and culture in India’s new (post-liberalisation) economy and society deserves attention.

The book is based on studies conducted largely in Bengaluru in the first decade of the present century by which time the city had come to be referred to as India’s “Silicon Plateau”. During that decade, the city had some 1,200 IT-related companies employing over 260,000 people. But while Silicon Valley in the United States had an ecosystem of independent specialised firms, the ones in Bengaluru were closely related to IT companies in other parts of the world, specialising in exports of professionals and products.

As is well known, though the Indian IT companies such as Infosys were started in the 1980s and had soon received recognition within the country and outside, it was the Y2K crisis of 1999-2000 that gave Indian companies and IT professionals a big boost. What the author claims is that it is the nature of this global connection with multinational companies and capital on the one hand, and the interaction of workers (who prefer to be known as professionals) from many countries on the other, that has defined the specifics of the Indian IT industry and has been leading to the cultural “re-engineering” of the country.

From their inception and early days, the IT companies in the country have demonstrated that in view of their distinctly different ambience—modern, fast-moving, performance based and closely related to the “knowledge economy”—they were distinctly different from the essentially family-based Indian industrial establishments of the past. To be sure they were capitalist enterprises, but they represented “compassionate capitalism”, as N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys claimed, with fairness, integrity and interest of society as their main features. The antagonistic relationship between owners and workers that symbolised early capitalism is also not to be seen in IT companies, with all members being “techies”, or IT professionals. A sociological analysis of this new face of capitalism, quite compatible with its “neoliberalism” and its thrust on the services sector can be said to be the focus of the book.

From the early days of “body shopping”, Indian IT personnel came to be noted for their professional competence attributed to their mathematical skills and logical reasoning.

Hence foreign companies, especially the ones in the U.S., were eager to have Indian software specialists working for them either in their individual capacities or more frequently through various forms of corporate arrangements. To a large extent, these arrangements, prominently one of “outsourcing”, defined the nature of the Indian IT industry from the beginning. An important observation of the author is the asymmetry of relationships in this arrangement. “Although members of a cross-border team are supposed to be equal collaborators, the reality of the outsourcing situation creates a differential distribution of power, as teams are structured by the contractual relation between customer and service provider. In software services companies, the Indian team almost by definition stands in an unequal relation with the client side.”

The same unequal relationship exists even when Indian companies, particularly the newer and relatively smaller ones, enter into relationships with multinational corporations because what is usually outsourced is mainly the low-end, routine work on the assumption that Indian engineers are “sloggers” who work hard and are good at following instructions but are not particularly noted for independent work.

‘Liberalising middle class’

To what extent can this be attributed to the “middle-class” background of Indian IT professionals? The middle class, of course, is not an easily identifiable category. In the Indian context, it initially denoted the privileged, upper-caste, English-speaking minority dispersed in different parts of the country. In the early decades of Independence, it meant the growing numbers of those with professional qualifications and those in the growing ranks of administrative personnel with a pan-Indian profile. And with liberalisation and globalisation, the middle class has come to have greater affinity with both the state and the market, “the new liberalising middle class” as a writer has described.

The author’s finding is that most of the software engineers come from such middle-class backgrounds, quite homogenous socially, with women IT professionals coming from more affluent socio-economic backgrounds than men.

However, the growth of the IT and IT-enabled services has led to an heterogenisation of the middle class as diverse social groups strive for economic mobility by entering these occupations. IT professionals belonging to these categories seem to have many things in common: generally higher earnings, consumption patterns and new lifestyles.

And yet, not all is well professionally for a number of the “techies”. A major reason for this somewhat surprising finding is that while practically all of them have high educational qualifications, they are poor in communication skills. Engineers are doers, not talkers! Left to themselves they may be able to do well, solving even many puzzles, But the IT industry is basically a team work where constant interaction is an essential aspect of the profession, and there is a hierarchy, too.

The author quotes a senior industry consultant: “You have to understand the communication hierarchy. There is the white guy, who talks to the software developer. He communicates with the project manager. The project manager orders the technical engineer, who is accountable to him… There are at least six guys who have to be kept in the loop though they don’t communicate directly.” A significant part of the book deals with the problems of individual members of the industry, both when they work in their parent unit as well as when they go to foreign countries on assignments.

Camaraderie and command

Another major theme that the book deals with is the management practices and ideologies in the IT industry and how they fit in with the larger neoliberal ideology. Within an IT company, the management problem is essentially one of respecting the sense of equality and freedom of all its members while observing the managerial function of command and hierarchy.

IT firms, the leading ones as well as the smaller ones, have made a deliberate attempt to project that they have a new model of governance. A major difference they try to make known is that they are middle-class entrepreneurs who rely on merit and hard work rather than inherited advantages of wealth and contacts. They encourage the spirit of upward mobility and the right of equals to branch off and start firms of their own.

However, some elements of hierarchy are unavoidable, when doing contract work with others, especially foreigners, work has to be assigned; foreign assignments have to be determined; performance has to be supervised. Indian IT firms that have earned a reputation within the country and globally are those that have succeeded in this dual task of camaraderie and command.

The book also attempts to locate the IT industry in the context of globalisation and the new phase of capitalism that it represents. The quest for profit is the motivating spirit of IT companies and it is profit that evaluates their performance.

From this perspective, the IT industry represents a sophisticated version of capitalism, “soft capitalism” as a writer designated it towards the end of the 20th century. If early capitalism was “hard capitalism” because of its crude exploitation of workers, soft capitalism is characterised by its subtle forms of exploitation of highly paid professionals. If IT professionals are recognised for their creativity and productivity, they are also viewed “as a bundle of skills, in which one’s very person is defined as a conglomerate of commodifiable pieces of knowledge and ability”.

IT professionals are, therefore, under constant pressure to keep up with the ever-changing world, to be flexible at all times. The recognition of the skill of a professional, indeed, depends on how marketable it is.

The professional, the worker, becomes a mere “bundle of skills”. It is doubtful whether the IT industry has been re-engineering India in any meaningful sense, but the author brings to the notice of the reading public a profile of a segment of the minority that claims to be the “new middle class” that sets the agenda for an emerging “aspirational” India.

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