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Jan Breman: A Defiant Sociologist and His Craft - An Appreciation and a Conversation | Ashwani Saith

15 July 2016

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Development and Change - July 2016


Distinguished with a bagful of national and professional honours,1 Jan Breman occupies a preeminent position in the top echelon of academe; but he was not born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. ‘I happened to grow up in a milieu bothered by material deprivation and as a young boy, I came to know what it meant to belong to a social class having to cope with indigence’ (Breman, 2010a: 79). Each morning, his parents carried a bucket downstairs to the street to wait for ‘the lavender cart’ that collected the night soil; ‘on Friday evening all of us would go to the public bathhouse to take a shower, and on that day mother would give us a fresh set of clothes and underwear to last for the next half-week’ (ibid.: 81); ‘when I was nine, I was treated for scabies, a poverty-related affliction’ (ibid.: 82); ‘my grown-up neighbours worked as waiters, mill hands, lorry drivers, tram conductors, linesmen, construction workers, rent collectors, coal heavers, travelling salesmen, seamstresses, etc.’ (ibid.: 81). Both parents had belonged to families of boatmen carrying assorted freight; with industrial restructuring they found themselves seeking urban waged employments, with Jan’s mother taking up as domestic help, and his father, eventually, becoming a postman; ‘steady work but steady poverty was how he summed up to me his assessment of those difficult years’ (ibid.: 82).

The only way up and out was through education, and Jan yearned to learn more than some prescribed craft, at which he wasn’t deemed good anyway. Propelled by teachers who ‘tended to project on their pupils aspirations which they had failed to realize for themselves’ (ibid.: 85), Jan contended with bureaucracy’s carefully constructed obstacle course of entry restrictions, regulatory devices and financial hurdles, all designed to limit the upward mobility of children from the lower classes and restrict their entry into the properly educated elite. Rejecting an offer to train to become a postal clerk, Jan fought his way through in 1955 to the University of Amsterdam, where he had to divide his time and energies between pursuing his studies and earning some pennies to lessen the financial burden on his parents. Exclusions persisted: law, medicine, humanities including history, which Jan wished most to study, were out of bounds because his educational stream did not teach the mandated classical languages, and so he entered ‘social science’. ‘As an altogether new discipline, it happened to be an open field, a domain not already occupied by the right of heritage from which sons and daughters of the more well-to-do classes stood to benefit’ (ibid.: 86). And at the gates of the young discipline in the old university stood his mentor-to-be, Wim Wertheim, who shifted the framing of the study of ‘non-Western societies’ away from its orientalist bias and colonial civilizing mission to a programme of teaching and research that ‘revolved around the idea that the freedom struggles that had led to national independence were primarily the result of internally determined dynamics and expressed the craving for further social emancipation which had been ruthlessly suppressed under colonial rule’ (Breman, 2000: 2–3). As if pre-ordained, Johannes Cornelis Breman, all of nineteen, had arrived at the right destination: ‘I have absolutely no reason to regret the academic path that I followed’ (Breman, 2010a: 86). The University of Amsterdam became his true intellectual home; after all the buffeting, Jan the apprentice had come upon his chosen craft, registered in its guild, and met his ustad.

‘When I came to India, the theme of my research in the early 1960s, the fortitudes of a landless agrarian underclass and their dependency on landowners, brought back memories of my own past. For sure, however, these reminiscences were not coloured by the heart-rending, debilitating misery that I encountered in the landless colonies of rural Gujarat’ (Breman, 2010a: 90). Was this encounter ‘a stroke of irony’ as Jan says; perhaps, but it was certainly no stroke of chance: ‘focusing my fieldwork on the landless class of agricultural labour in south Gujarat was not a decision taken on the spur of the moment, a random choice picked out of many, but inspired by my own background and life history’ (ibid.). Less, one might wonder, by capricious chance, than an inexorable, subliminal pull towards a mass of humanity for which an existential affinity seemed to be stamped on his genetic code.

Another twist of irony perhaps was that Jan’s engagement with rural Gujarat for his doctoral fieldwork emerged from a conversation between the venerable Wim Wertheim and M.N. Srinivas, who facilitated the entry into village India. Jan’s original work indeed focused on a caste — caste being the research frame that Srinivas willy-nilly foisted on the young discipline of sociology in India — but, in sharp contrast, the group Jan selected were the socially oppressed halpatis, at the other end of the spectrum from the Brahmins whose hegemonic perspectives Srinivas’s sociological framing was sometimes alleged to ideate, if not propagate. His first book, Patronage and Exploitation: Changing Agrarian Relations in South Gujarat, India (University of California Press, 1974), based on this doctoral dissertation, constituted a significant intervention in Indian rural sociology, breaking away from the standard template of traditional village studies dominated by the complex matrix and convoluted social grammar of inter-caste relations.

Jan Breman has been a rather busy man ever since: roughly in the past three decades, he has produced over 20 single-authored books,2 and about a dozen jointly authored or edited volumes3 — at the rate of about a tome a year — this in addition to the myriad articles and shorter academic pieces in professional journals or written as an engaged intellectual in public media.4 (Some of his earliest, as well as most recent, academic articles5 appeared in the pages of Development and Change, one of the journals of which he is an advisory editor.) While he has done significant research on West Java, and also written on Xiamen, China and Sindh, Pakistan, the overwhelming part of the cumulative body of work has been on south Gujarat. It would be difficult to find another contemporary scholar with such an intense and continuous engagement with anthropological fieldwork-based research and publication stretching beyond half a century; with metronomic consistency, he has been back in the fields and factories of Gujarat every year, building up an archive of personal research that is probably unrivalled in the sociology of India. Peter Waterman, the lifelong advocate and activist of labour internationalism, and no slouch himself, describes Jan aptly as ‘that one-man industry of Indian labour studies’ (Waterman, 2002: 1).

Alongside this on a parallel track, Breman has supervised 25 PhDs, including many Indian scholars and scholars of India to be justly proud of, starting significantly with K.P. Kannan, the very first, now of 150, PhDs awarded by the International Institute of Social Studies (where Jan is an Honorary Fellow and was for long an extra-ordinary professor); followed there and in Amsterdam by Ashesh Ambasta, Amrita Chhachhi, Rohini Hensman, Rachel Kurian, Mona Mehta, Gudavarthy Vijay, and the two sadly deceased Jos Mooij (at the Institute of Social Studies), and Mario Rutten (who, at Amsterdam, stepped into the Chair held earlier by Jan Breman and Wim Wertheim). No less significant has been his contribution as an institution builder, as a pioneer and long-running Dean of the famous Centre for Asian Studies, Amsterdam (CASA) that was the home and hub of a buzzing bee-hive of researchers on and from Asian countries, importantly including India.6 CASA merged subsequently with the Amsterdam School (later Institute) for Social Science Research, co-founded by Jan Breman with Abram de Swaan.

Breman’s own statement of his research interests is modest, almost mundane: ‘work, employment and labour relations in contemporary Asia, history of colonialism, labour migration, conditions of poverty and the social question in a global perspective’. In truth, however, Jan Breman is the indefatigable scribe of the labouring underclasses and has devoted a lifetime to an empathetic comprehension, recording and analysis of their precarious lives and livelihoods, their perennial struggles for survival in economic, social and political environments imbued with apathy, suspicion and hostility from capital, bureaucracy and the state, and civil society and uncivil elites; above all, he has provided sensitively nuanced and profoundly evocative narratives of the fate of the pauperized, the unrelenting churning and crunching of the wheels of property and capital that devalues their labour, degrades their bodies and lives, and eventually excludes and expels them from any productive absorption into a world of dignified and decent work, albeit still one of alienation and exploitation.

In a career spanning six decades and an oeuvre comprising three dozen books, is there a red thread that weaves its way all through from the start to the present? This would be an impossible quest, though some of his earliest writings provide conceptual frames that, in modified forms, are still discernible in later analyses. It is not that he has remained rooted as the world has changed around him; rather, this early insight attests to a thoughtful prescience with respect to the predicament, pathways and prospects of labour, and how the contours of these processes might unfold and mutate, differently in different countries and contexts. In his early troubling exposé of the intricacies of the precarious livelihoods of the emaciated rickshaw pullers of Calcutta in the era of Left political domination, he ruefully observes:

When all these favourable conditions taken together produce nothing more than the intensification of the pauperization process, we need to have no illusion about the fate to be expected by the urban poor under regimes of a more authoritarian character. When appropriation of the surplus value is no longer feasible, the minus value attributed to large sections of the population becomes even more pronounced. And such a situation easily gives rise to an ideology which affirms that it is not poverty but the poor themselves who constitute the problem from which society must free itself. (Breman, 1983a: 182)

In 2003, he argued forcefully that:

The fight against poverty seems to have been transformed into a fight against the poor. A point of no return is reached when a reserve army waiting to be incorporated into the labour process becomes stigmatized as a permanently redundant mass, an excessive burden that cannot be included now or in the future, in economy and society. This metamorphosis is, in my opinion at least, the real crisis of world capitalism. (Quoted in Benanav, 2010: 232)

Subsequent development processes and policies have tended to confirm the strength of the structural scaffolding of his cumulative work on exclusion, expulsion, pauperization, and indeed violence against the poor. More recently he sounded an alarm again, in a newly developing context, with his cautionary observations on the dangers of divisions within the working classes as too many would-be workers chase too little employment. He warns: ‘there is a strong correlation to be traced between market and religious fundamentalism’ (Breman, 2013a: 138). Where there is acute competition amongst the poor for scarce jobs, ‘there is much danger that, rather than teaming up, the reserve armies will give in to the temptation to see each other as rivals and fight for whatever employment opportunity comes up. No longer mobilized on the basis of occupational identity, they see no alternative but to rely on their first-order loyalties of ethnicity, caste, race and creed’; he cites the ‘pogrom in which the Muslim minority, with state and Hindutva complicity, was hunted and massacred in the streets. Those who managed to escape were forced to vacate their mixed neighbourhoods and seek refuge in a ghetto’ (ibid.: 137–8). In his riposte to Standing’s depiction of ‘the precariat’ as a ‘dangerous class’, Breman asks: ‘dangerous, or endangered species of labour?’ (ibid.: 138).

In his own life experience, Jan saw tremendous improvements in the standards of living and access to social goods within the rubric of the complex evolution of the rising welfare regime in The Netherlands, and more widely in Europe. The extreme contrast with the realities of poverty and pauperization in Asia, and especially India, induces Breman to interrogate the various missing elements in the Asian jigsaw of socio-economic change: the persistence, if not accentuation, of the hostile attitudes of the elite; the complex economic and technological configurations that undermine job creation; extreme levels of unaddressed inequalities in income, wealth and power; an apathetic, self-serving bureaucracy; and a state that thinks of the poor as a vote bank to be manipulated periodically — all threads that are woven into his larger fabric of explanation. In this sense, Jan transgresses the conventional disciplinary boundaries and transacts and trades across its borders with economists of various ilks and historians of all persuasions; indeed, he reaches and extends the contours of the wide remit of his original discipline, all-embracing ‘social science’.

It should come as no surprise that Jan Breman does not take kindly to hegemonic ideological forays, whether of the colonial-apologist variety, or those that euphemistically mystify the raw realities of poverty, or others that tend to undermine and dismantle the collective identity and solidarity of the labouring classes. Variously: he has slapped uncomfortable facts in the face of sections of Dutch academe and society still steeped, and asleep, in the soma of imperial nostalgia, causing quite an outcry and backlash, and punctured many a neo-colonial hot-air balloon. He refers to the quiet mid-process name change by an international development agency of an Asian research project from ‘mass poverty’ to ‘social participation’ as follows: ‘those entrusted with the rules of the game in international organizations know that this kind of Orwellian “newspeak” is very useful’ (Breman, 1983a: 181–2). He shows his disdain for interventions of Hernando de Soto who would offer a universal panacea for the mass of working poor by redefining them, in the words of Mike Davis (2006: 179), as ‘a frenzied beehive of proto-capitalists’ whose profit-making talents could be unleashed simply by giving them formal property rights and by the state getting out of the way: ‘myth inspired by wishful thinking’ was the least impolite of his several critical reactions to this reductionist and diversionary political tactic. He challenges the misleading distortions implicit in the Indian National Sample Survey’s statistical definitions of different categories of labour, and has been scathingly dismissive of the Planning Commission’s laughably, or tragically, low poverty thresholds, labelling them not as poverty lines but destitution lines that reflect the more extreme state of pauperization matched by the depth of apathy of the bureaucratic elite (Breman, 2016a). In 2013, he expressed annoyance with what he perceives as Guy Standing’s hostility towards organized labour, such as still remains, picking especially on his ‘bogus’ concepts, in particular ‘the precariat’ à la Standing, and definitions that drive a divisive wedge within the different sections of the working classes not just in terms of theorization but also of policy design and political praxis. Dismissively noting ‘Standing’s penchant for lists — seven forms of this, eight types of that —’ (Breman, 2013a: 135), Breman argues that ‘the political lesson is not to rank the various fractions of the workforce in a sequence from greater to lesser vulnerability, as Standing would, but rather to develop strategies that underline their commonalities — to form alliances between organized and informal sectors, not to pit them against each other’ (ibid.: 137). ‘Entrenching artificial distinctions between different fractions of the working class is not the way’; this can ‘drastically weaken its capacity for collective action’ (ibid.: 138). A more recent article dispels any quick deduction or lingering doubt that Breman might be wedded to rigid ‘old labour’ positions that are blind to the ongoing global transformations in the worlds of work and the structural differences between the ‘classical’ capitalist scenarios of the West of the past and the Rest of today: ‘new forms of collective action are emerging, though these are often still at an embryonic stage; it is, therefore, high time to rethink the concept of the working class and the ways in which it can further its interests’ (Breman and van der Linden, 2014: 920). The one constant is his vantage point: the perspective of living labour.

In this age of the image, the immediate power of the visual seems to have overtaken the reflective messages of written text; indeed visual anthropology has evolved as a proper sub-discipline well beyond the quaint early photographic records of colonial administrators or academics. The potential of the camera is acknowledged and well-exploited by Breman, as an embellishment to his regular written work, in two distinctive volumes: the first photo book provided glimpses of the worlds of labour (Jan Breman, Arvind Das and Ravi Agarwal, Down and Out: Labouring Under Global Capitalism, Amsterdam University Press, 2000); the second volume was a poignant and powerful depiction of the collapse and closure of the once-thriving legendary textile mills of Ahmedabad, jointly with Parthiv Shah (Working in the Mills No More, Amsterdam University Press, 2004). Jan’s evocative, detailed and finely crafted descriptions are often almost visual, and reading these, what runs past one’s eyes are the images of the worlds of labour created by Sebastiao Salgado, the Brazilian genius of photography. There are several parallel tracks and points of resonance: there is the sheer scale of effort in following, documenting, portraying the realities of the lives of workers on the lowest rungs of the ladder; there is the investment of virtually the length of a lifetime; and Salgado’s epic work, too, is explicitly devoted and dedicated to the dignity of the world’s most dispossessed and oppressed, as machines replace labour and make human beings redundant, as evinced in his Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age, and in Migrations: Humanity in Transition — both themes that form the weft of Jan Breman’s cumulative body of work (Salgado, 1993, 2000). Salgado was a trained economist, till he ‘looked through a lens and ended up abandoning everything else’.7 He describes his work as ‘militant photography’. Jan Breman’s multi-focal lens is his own eye; and well might one regard his ouevre as a ‘militant sociology’ of labour.

There are many definitions of what or who might constitute a Gramscian organic intellectual, and it would seem none of the many hats would rest easily on any one head. Clearly, a longstanding senior professor of an ancient university would not so qualify, no matter how much brain work s/he might do. Labels can be libelous; yet in one sense, Jan Breman could nevertheless be ascribed such a distinction, regardless of whether he himself finds it such. Breman sees the working classes with a vision from within, not as an external object of study for a privileged professional sociologist contemplating a novel and alien social reality. Issues of subjectivity are fully acknowledged, negotiated and transcended for a higher plane of perception, where empathy and solidarity with the subject becomes not a source of bias but the basis of a superior understanding, which he then faithfully and assiduously attempts to convey to the unknown reader. Many aspire and advance to such careers from working class backgrounds, though almost as many wish as quickly as possible to drop this part of their social inheritance and lose their vision and empathy (if it can be assumed they had some in the first place). Being an organic intellectual also then incorporates decisions and dimensions of memory, of retention, of belonging to a larger collectivity, and cannot be construed in any reductionist manner that conflates it with class origins alone; it has more to do with the choices, imaginations and realities that are subsequently consciously adopted and constructed by the self. In this palpable sense, Jan Breman’s perspectives have been those that are organic to the lives of the labouring classes and pauperized people within a global frame of reference. He has written about their travails and lives as if he were writing about his own people, as indeed they progressively seem to have become through interactions sustained voluntarily over half a century.

Going strong at 80, the intrepid Jan’s ire is as easily inspired, his fire as readily drawn, now as perhaps when he was half his years. How then does he resolve the tension between the subjectivity and identity of the sociologist, and the imperative of ‘scientific objectivity’; between passionate empathy and vigorous solidarity with the subject, and the constraints of ‘rigorous’ observation and analysis?

The identity of the researcher is of major relevance in considering what to do and how to do it. … What I find important as a guideline is to remain alert to one’s own subjectivity and on the basis of that awareness persevere in the attempt to falsify one’s preconceived ideas, to argue against the grain, to question one’s own set of norms and values and in that painstaking endeavour, to aim for a higher degree of objectivity. To do this makes it imperative not only to talk and listen to informants but to remain critically engaged in constant dialogue with yourself and in doing that, bring the hidden script to the fore. (Breman, 2010a: 90)

And then tell it as you see it, no holds barred.


You have been studying rural labour in Asia over the past half century. In the meantime, how has the world around you itself changed? Where do you locate yourself in it?

I am a child of the welfare state, fortunate enough to have been born when social equality became a prominent trend in the restructuring of Dutch society. That emancipatory process was spearheaded by a working class movement which brought suffrage for men as well as women, better terms and conditions of employment and social security to protect against adversity in employment, illness and old age. The transition from an agrarian-rural to an industrial-urban economy which accelerated in the late nineteenth century saw the build-up of a state-led sector for the main utilities (water, electricity, gas, sanitation), for infrastructural development, mass communication, transport and also for healthcare, housing and education. The mixed and still capital extensive economy that emerged generated many and steady jobs. Expansion of the social space was of crucial importance in the assertion of labour agency and rights. Social democracy and trade unions were pivotal in the universalization of welfare arrangements providing public care ‘from cradle to grave’. Social mobility was in an upward direction and as the son of working class parents with a not-yet literate mother, I happened to be the first one in my family to qualify for higher education.

Already, within my own lifetime, this trajectory and pace of progress has been rudely interrupted. Social democratic politicians have formally abolished the welfare state urging the nation’s citizens to join them and other neoliberal camp followers in what in newspeak jargon is announced as a participatory society. The former leader of the Dutch Labour Party and Prime Minister, who was previously the top shot of the main trade union, has joined big business; other high-ranking politicians as well as union bosses readily followed suit, as did managers of many public agencies who joined the rush to privatized wealth. The gospel now spread is that people have to take care of their own well-being in their work and life trajectory. Jobs have become deregulated, rights tenaciously fought for by earlier generations of workers withdrawn overnight and a sizable public economy thoroughly dismantled. The course of flexibilization and privatization is in line with the policy of informalization which has been shaping economy and society in the global South. Rather than the Rest following the West, which used to be proclaimed as the essence of the development paradigm in the post-colonial era, the direction of change is reversed and the advanced economies have now veered back to a past they thought they had left behind. While the geopolitical reconfiguration is still going on and keeps us puzzled on the outcome, it is clear that the earlier divide between ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ or ‘developing’ economies will have to be replaced by a different way of ranking in the stratified world order.

In the dominating mode of global capitalism we witness again how capital manages to evade societal control, as Polanyi analysed in commenting on the first industrial revolution (Polanyi, 1944). But this time it is an escape transcending the nation state. Social democratic politics which claimed to have thoroughly harnessed capital in a frame of generalized welfare are party to setting business free from undue public interference. No longer brokering the conflict of interest between capital and labour, the state is in firm alliance with private business to do away with market restraints seen as detrimental to undiluted growth and profit maximization. Rising inequality worldwide is the hardly surprising outcome of the chosen course of unbound accumulation. Piketty (2013) has provided statistics to illustrate this trend, for the global North in particular. Largely understated in his otherwise excellent and momentous study is that the growing richesse accruing to owners of capital should be contrasted with increasing poverty down below. Inequality is not a condition that can be measured in isolation but must be understood as embedded in a relationship. The capital–labour balance, skewed as it already was at both the national level and beyond, has become further distorted resulting in social class-wise inequity in a globalized context sharper than ever before. The withering away of public space, agency and institutions, of a sizable public economy and a vast terrain of common ground has contributed much to these divisive dynamics. The policy-induced drive towards individuation rules out forms of collective action, solidarity and togetherness. Widespread alienation is the inevitable outcome of the end of bonding between generations. Instrumentality is the order of the day even in the sphere of household and family. The erosion or downfall of political democracy propelled by progressive divergence in the economic and social fabric of society in different parts of the world is a frightening prospect.

You have been as much a historian as a sociologist. Through your own work, you have seen history unfold almost literally in front of your eyes in the trajectories of the lives of workers over half a century. But you have also systematically mined the archives to trace and reconstruct some long obliterated stories of labour. Social amnesia about awkward, embarrassing facets and episodes is a form of self-protection on the part of societies and classes that claim a superior civilization, mission and mentality. But you have poked and prodded at this and challenged such comfortable zones of silence, as you did with your provocative book on coolies (Breman, 1989).

A recurrent theme in my research has been to historicize the consolidation or imposition of the inequality doctrine and that preoccupation has led me to elaborate on the pernicious impact of colonialism. The Indian sociologist Andre Beteille has quite correctly pointed out the paradox of how Western societies, precisely at that juncture in their history when they were given a more equal shape, started to vent the theory and practice of imperialism in their fullest form (Beteille, 1983). At an early round of globalization there was no need to be apologetic about colonializing people; the surplus to be drained away was uncompromisingly meant for the benefit of the metropolis. By definition the colonizers were considered to belong to the superior nations of the world who held sway over peoples of inferior stock. The advanced–backward dichotomy was expounded in an ideology of blunt racism. The ongoing domination was subsequently explained as the white man’s burden, still racist in character but justified as a civilizing mission of upliftment and sweeping aside early assertions of nationalism. The mise-en-valeur thesis, suggesting that value had to be added where it was absent, was formulated by a French social democratic politician (Sarraut, 1923). You refer in your question to my study on how peasants from various parts of Asia were degraded into coolies and held in bondage on plantations and in mines to produce commodities for sale on the world market. Their mobilization for waged work in capitalist enclaves in a state of immobility, construed in a contract which could not be reneged, was condoned and legalized by the colonial state.

I recall well the hostile reception your book Taming the Coolie Beast got in Dutch intellectual circles and some media. To an ‘outside’ observer, it seemed as if you had broken a collective vow of silence about the underside of Dutch colonial history. To an Indian, this was a revelation, since such a scholarship of anger has been commonplace in other traditions and not provoked such forms of social denial on the parts of those still cocooned in a sense of intrinsic superiority over ‘the colonial beast’. Is Dutch colonial historiography particularly culpable in this regard?

In a new study on the same subject, recently published in an English edition — the earlier Dutch one was unequivocally stonewalled by colonial historians in The Netherlands — I have traced the ‘othering’ of the natives in colonial Java (Breman, 2015a). Coming ashore in a foreign landscape, the expatriate newcomers were naturally struck by customs and institutions at variance from those at home. From the very beginning there was no attempt to meet inhabitants in a spirit of like-mindedness. In the early twentieth century, the Dutch economist Julius Boeke coined the theory of economic dualism, arguing that Eastern man, contrary to Western man, did not have the habitus of the homo economicus. He (‘she’ remained absent in this theorem but supposedly shared the inhibitions of the male species) was driven by limited needs as well as an urge for instant gratification which stood in the way of saving and accumulative behaviour. It is a code of conduct not characterized by unlimited needs which are efficiently and effectively satisfied in unbound profit maximization (Boeke, 1953). As a convenient explanatory of backwardness the notion of dualism would be given a second lease of life in development economics after decolonization.9

But the focus of my treatise is on how the othering of the Javanese native came up in colonial accounts going back to the early eighteenth century. The Dutch East India Company, one of the first multinationals operating in the expanding global market, started to promote in the highlands of West Java the cultivation of coffee, a new cash crop imported from South India. What started as a regular commercial transaction soon retrograded into a system of unfree labour forcing the peasantry to grow more and more coffee and deliver the processed beans to the Company’s godowns without much or even any payment. Taxing peasants to raise ever higher quotas and unwilling to increase the cash pittance for the harvest requisitioned, the colonial state invented the myth of the lazy native (Alatas, 1977) and kept intact — far into the nineteenth century — a cruel regime of exploitation and oppression. The ‘other’ was held captive in bondage and stood accused for lack of economic rationality. Boeke polished in his elegant explanation of otherness what had already been vulgarized in colonial lore for two hundred years: the native’s unwillingness to work properly.

The Dutch brand of colonial historiography has been noteworthy for its sustained defence of the imperialist past. In these quarters not exploitation but benevolence and marvel at the zest of Dutch expansion worldwide is foregrounded as the essence of the mission of domination accomplished overseas. Grimly keeping alive foreign occupation for five years during World War II, Dutch media are apt to nostalgically bring up the good old times when the Indies were still ‘ours’. Even with the wisdom of hindsight, praise not blame is bestowed on the heroic feats and entrepreneurial acumen of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) and the colonial state in a faint attempt to hide the legacy of war and plunder.

But there have been some powerful counter-interventions as well, above all in the academic work and institutional struggles of the radical, and controversial, intellectual Wim Wertheim whom you acknowledge as your ‘guru’. He made a difference, at least for a while, on some? Were his ideas more readily received in the former colonies, in Indonesia and India?

Wim Wertheim was one of a handful of scholars who empathized with ‘the other’. Starting his career in the colonial civil service, he was nominated in 1936 to a chair at the Law School of Batavia. His contact with students alerted him to the strength of the nationalist movement. Held in detention under Japanese occupation of the colony he further radicalized and switched his view as an outsider to that of an insider sympathetic to the cause of Indonesia’s Independence. After his repatriation to The Netherlands, Wertheim was nominated to the chair of Modern History and Sociology of Southeast Asia at the Municipal University of Amsterdam in the newly founded Faculty of Social Sciences. Both the city and the university — the social sciences with humanities in particular — were reputed for their leftist orientation. It was my stroke of good luck when I entered the university in 1955 to opt for Asian studies and to find Wertheim willing to coach me along. Decolonization was hotly debated in Dutch national politics and my guru was a public intellectual hated for his pro-Indonesian stance and nuanced marxist leanings. In his scholarly work he rejected the theory of economic dualism (Wertheim, 1966), sharply criticizing the divide made between advanced and backward nations/economies in the brand of development studies that now sprang up. While in much of the literature the emphasis was on orientalizing the civilizations in the global South, my academic godfather chose to point out similarities and parallels in our tracks of history (Wertheim, 1965). I fondly remember how I came for the first time to Patna in the mid-1970s and found the visiting card of the A.N. Sinha Institute carrying a quotation from Wertheim’s work. The short radical backlash to the continuing and barely veiled hegemony of the West versus the Rest prompted him to write up his hope for the future (Wertheim, 1974). Nowadays we seem to be heading back to othering a segment of mankind in an ideological mindset which suggests a clash of civilizations as propounded by Samuel Huntington (1996).

The kind of sociology practised in the colonial setting was not only biased by the view from outside (see Breman, 2015b). It was also blemished by a top-down approach. Wertheim’s proclivity for fieldwork stemmed from his perception that an ear to the ground was a major asset if not a must in doing empirical research. Although he himself did not have much experience with this method of investigation, Wertheim saw to it that his PhD students would go out to various parts of Asia to collect their data by engaging in what is clumsily called participant observation. It was with this instruction in mind that I was sent to India in 1962.

In the Netherlands, ‘economics’ arrogantly excludes itself from other ‘social sciences’; in India, economics, if anything, dominates the social sciences. But that does not mean that there is a dialogue across the borders. Since the 1960s in India, there seems to have emerged a deepening disciplinary divide between economics and sociology: economics does macro, quantitative, is policy oriented, addresses the state; sociology does micro, qualitative, critiques development as a hegemonic project, showcases the ‘local’ as the appropriate space for investigation and learning. Contemporary work on Indian labour has come to be overwhelmingly dominated by empirical economists relying heavily on the latest rounds of national sample surveys and census data. Rather like with the season’s fresh Beaujolais Nouveau, or with the arrival in Scheveningen of the boats bringing in the season’s new herring, there is a competitive rush to the latest published NSS data and into print with the latest trends and patterns, and to jump quickly to conclusions linking to the findings of the previous five-yearly round. How do you react to this? Do you find areas of consensus or convergence between the two epistemological approaches? Why do you shun the use of larger scale quantitative statistics? Is it because of the use of questionable categories and definitions, or of an inherent inability to capture dynamics, and to address what you regard as meaningful questions? The micro-sociologist and the macro-economist — do the twain ever meet? Of course, I know that many of your best friends are such economists!

Why did I resort to a village for my prime spell of research? Because going out as a young student to Gujarat I came to what was known as a peasant society and economy. The village was then — and is still today — the habitat in which, or from where, most people in the South Asian subcontinent gain their livelihood. Moving close to the life and sites of the underclasses of society is, of course, not the only way to find out what labour is and does. The study of work and employment has come to be classified above all as a core subject of economics and the practitioners of this discipline tend to rely on statistics when doing research. The data collection is often outsourced, in India to the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO). This parastatal agency sends out field investigators to collect data which are then processed and aggregated in a statistical framework. When operationalizing the macro–micro approach the distinction is not only between large-scale and small-scale techniques of investigation. A significant methodological difference is that while anthropologists trace and qualify relationships, staying around when thus engaged, economists on the other hand are prone to quantify their atomized data base. Talking to each other, practitioners of both disciplines find it difficult to agree on common ground and their conversations then lapse into a dialogue of the deaf. Nevertheless, in my perception the macro-level setting and the micro-level narrative should be dealt with as intertwined and need to be theorized in complementarity with each other.

More problematic in my opinion than the macro–micro contrast or the issue of qualification versus quantification is that I smell, in official surveys drawn up at a distance from the field, a bias towards the rules and strictures of formality while the terrain in which labour moves around is marked by an all-pervasive sphere of informality (Breman, 2013b). The view from below and close by alerts the researcher to covered-up niches of life and work, hidden features of what is happening (or not) which easily escape notice in fleeting encounters. Pertinent queries may be raised while nuances or reservation in the reply get lost. What pass for facts have to be contextualized in the setting in which they are gathered and an ongoing exchange with informants is required to make sense of what they appear to mean. My repeated request to be allowed to join an NSSO field investigator on his rounds of data collection — as I once went along with a government labour inspector charged with checking on the implementation of minimum wage legislation — was politely begged off. I kept conversing with economists, Indian ones in particular, some of whom were coached by me as PhD students and several became my close friends. The interaction with them was a consequence of my sustained choice in favour of interdisciplinarity, conducting studies on the borderlines of sociology, anthropology, economics and history. It was an approach to which I felt inclined as a footloose scholar situating my research in South as well as Southeast Asia.

Changing the location of investigation was inspired by my attraction to a comparative perspective in Asian studies and much stimulated by the initial interest I had for pursuing contemporary research in Indonesia. That was out of the question when the military coup took place in 1965. During the dictatorship which lasted for the next three decades I sought refuge in the study of the country’s colonial history. When Suharto’s eclipse was imminent in the mid-1990s I decided to start with the fieldwork which had been on my agenda for a long time, targeted on the same region of rural Java which had been the focus of my study of its agrarian past (Breman, 1983b). It was an exciting experience to wander around towns and villages with which I had become familiar reading through archival sources reporting on events which went back a hundred years. While changing the site of my research from India to Indonesia, I held on to both the theme of my investigations — the condition of labour — and the anthropological method of doing it, a village level study articulated with a view from the bottom up (Breman and Wiradi, 2002).

What about the social identity of the researcher?

This is indeed an issue seldom raised in scholarly works, although such personalized information is of profound interest and relevance for clarifying why and when the problematique came up, the research location selected, how rapport was established with informants, etc. When the researcher comes to the field, he or she is already equipped with a built-in comparison: his or her own upbringing, the manner in which socialization and enculturation took place. Here I would like to note that most social scientists are of impeccable bourgeois vintage while that also happens to be the flavour of the social sciences at large. I hasten to add that this imprint need not result in biased findings but at the same time I am quite wary, if not suspicious, of accounts which tend to portray the researcher as an anonymous and non-partisan reporter who has open as well as easy access to all actors and stakeholders in the field of study.

‘Observation’ is still intrinsically a political act. Can there ever be a method for moving from ‘othering’ and orientalizing mindsets to ones that are empathetic and solidaristic? How does someone with a relatively privileged background see things like the subject of study, through the eyes of the downtrodden worker within another society and culture? Gandhi had his own prescriptions, Chambers speaks smoothly of role reversals, Martha Nussbaum points to empathy as a substitute for shared experience. But de-classing the self is more easily said than done. Where does that come from? Is it rooted in having the DNA of an organic intellectual stamped on you at birth? How did the working lives of your parents, your early experiences, influence you?

No doubt, they do. In the literature with which I became familiar, both on Indonesia and India, there was a dearth of information on people at the bottom of society and what it means to be stuck there. To focus on these issues I endeavoured to make visible what remained understated, taken for granted or was even covered up. Writing up my findings I reported that inequality is imposed from above and not accepted let alone internalized at the lower end. That observation is the outcome of my research and not driven by my own value premises. Yes, I have those, of course, and am aware of this source of partiality. It is a bias which pervades my stance of empathy and inspires me to raise questions. But I shy away from tailoring what I come to know in accordance with my preconceived ideas, preferences or wishes. The role of the researcher in encounters with the researched is a crucial one on which I have commented in several essays (see, e.g. Breman, 1994).

You have talked and walked with rural and migrant labour, overwhelmingly males, and researched and written on them for half a century. But you mostly held back from entering the worlds of capital, of the Gujarati landlords and moneylenders, entrepreneurs and industrialists. You strongly, and rightly, emphasize the significance of relational analysis. So what about the other side of the equation — capital, whether also footloose or not? Was that an outcome of the limitation of time and resources, or an absence of affinity and empathy with the subject, or perhaps also due to the particular methodological challenges involved in doing field research on these classes of actors?

As with equality–inequality opposition — it is not a dichotomy but a continuum — labour cannot be understood without tracing its relationship to owners and managers of capital. This is what I have always attempted to do in my research. But you are right, as such I have more affinity with labour than with capital. In addition, however, I found the voices of labour always more forthright, more willing to disclose, than those on the side of capital. Informality and informalization are concepts and processes often analysed with reference to labour and employment only. Incorrectly so, since a lot of capital is beyond the purview of the public treasury, secreted away in niches which are difficult to access, also for the researcher. It is one more reason why I prefer to speak of a regime of informality rather than precarity. Much capital is hidden and changes hands in informal transactions but it does not mean that those flows can be labelled as precarious. It is a vanishing act which goes on all along the chain of surplus extraction, from the brick kilns in Gujarat which I closely monitored to the safe tax havens that multinationals find in the West, with The Netherlands as one of the favoured destinations. The latter cases of spiriting profits away from sight and taxation for the public good are, of course, much more difficult to get a handle on than the malfeasant practices down below in the circuits of petty capitalism.

Your original doctoral fieldwork in rural Gujarat was centred on patronage; what about patriarchy? Over the 50-year traverse, what changes have you observed in the gendering of the processes of the commoditization, and reproduction, of labour? Realistically, could you have explored gender issues in the field? Conversely, would a female researcher have been able to conduct mobile fieldwork with migrant labour? Is there a blind, or blinkered, side to the research on the lives of labour?

All said and done, I am aware that I am vulnerable by having missed out the gendering of exploitation and oppression in much of my work. Like many others of my generation I had a typical male-biased attitude to the study of labour. Sometimes inevitably so, since the male–female divide in India is quite rigid and in the field there were all kinds of restraints in my interaction with women, young ones in particular. As I grew older these barriers came down while the changing mores also played a role. What was taboo in the early 1960s was no longer so a quarter of a century later. In the villages of my fieldwork in Java it was easier to meet young women who had worked as maid servants in West Asia and they told me how they were sexually abused. Their narratives alerted me to the same plight of landless girls and women working in the households of big farmers in Gujarat, a horror about which I came to know much less and much later. It is also a risk which women run when working away from home and therefore a major reason why they want to avoid or opt out of seasonal migration.

Over your 50 years of study, labour — especially rural labour — has moved from situations of stationarity and embeddedness, to mobility and eviction; from the ‘halpatis’ on which your earliest work focused, to the bands of ‘footloose labour’, and to the ‘naqa’, the mass assemblage of raw labour and labourers featured in your most recent research; from bonded labour to the brave new world of the so-called double freedoms of labour. You have been a witness and the scribe of this remarkable transformation, and not just in India. But this dramatic rise in the mobility of labour, of populations, is perhaps a hallmark of the upheavals and failures of the way the overall development project has unfolded in India and in the so-called global South. The Netherlands was in the group of the ‘like-minded nations’ in the forefront of exploring alternatives to mainstream capitalist development. What went awry?

First, a comment on the double freedom. I do not dispute that this has happened to a large extent. Still, over the years I have investigated and documented how landless labour from the sites of my fieldwork continued to be recruited and put to toil in what I have termed neo-bondage. Bereft of all means of production and very much entrapped in a capitalist relationship of production, they have no option but to sell their labour power in advance, and to include their wife and growing up children in a contract which forces them to leave home, because it is the only way to survive. Dispossession in those instances equates to having lost control over your own labour power, to choose where, when and for whom to work. In other words, capitalism is not always a guarantee for work and life in freedom.

I am also not sure about the Dutch having been in the forefront of the development business. Did they really explore alternatives? It was an image that suggested genuine commitment to facilitate third world countries in their attempt to catch up with the West. In that ambitious endeavour, however, not much thought was given to the history of backwardness and how the colonial past contributed to that heritage of stagnation. The stated objective was to help the global South along on the path to welfare and democracy but making ‘them’ more like ‘us’ was of course never meant to end in a level playing field. A born-again financialized capitalism has forged ahead, released from a social contract with a public economy and national policies which stifled its freedom to operate in the world at large, irrespective of its dismal consequences for human as well as environmental immiseration. The end of the do-good mission overseas should at least, without obfuscating the dose of genuine idealism which inspired it, result in an agonizing reappraisal of why and how the gospel of charitable altruism got derailed. The once famed Dutch Ministry of Development Aid has redefined its mission away from development and with a much reduced budget is now in the business of promoting trade, our trade first and for all.

Many Dutch non-government organizations, which used to be largely government funded, were prominent sponsors of third world activism. Forced to scale down financially, they started to commercialize their agenda by accepting the public–private formula strongly pushed by the powers that be. These NGOs have accordingly changed their role from voicing the interests of their clientele to falling in line with the policies of their commissioning agencies.

Jan Tinbergen’s name and heritage is remembered as an economist and public intellectual pleading the cause of generous aid to the third world. He warned a few decades ago that ‘if we don’t give it, they will come to get it’. This is what he exclaimed in a public debate provoked by criticism of aid being given to end underdevelopment far away. Underlying his emotive outburst was, of course, his sober assessment that the global wealth and the resources producing it should be distributed fairly and justly among the family of man. Not only from the moral point of view but also for the sake of sustainable development of the world at large. Tinbergen’s brand of development economics and policies has been erased from the tableau of Dutch politics and academics.

The Indian and the Dutch governments connived, like parents getting rid of an unwanted girl child, to bury the Indo-Dutch Programme on Alternatives in Development (IDPAD). You, along with the two other famous Jans, and other scholars, had a vital role in its creation and development. What happened? Was it really a bad programme, a waste of resources? We know the two governments saved some pennies, but what was lost, who were the losers? Was there scope for learning from each other through the study of the other society and economy? Or were the two sets of scholars just ships passing each other in the night? You saw the process unfold at close quarters.

Two of Tinbergen’s most outstanding students — in The Netherlands Jan Pronk (for many years a high-profile Minister for Development Cooperation) and in India Sukhamoy Chakravarty (a renowned academician who also served his government as a main policy advisor) — jointly set up IDPAD. The programme encouraged Indian social scientists to come and do research on the European economy or society and their Dutch colleagues to do the same in India. Most social scientists happen to be preoccupied with investigating their own society. We wanted both junior and senior scholars to leave that familiar landscape behind and enable them to get acquainted with a different terrain. Not merely to participate in conferences and workshops but to engage in empirical research in a cross-cultural perspective. In our perception it was, and remains, an approach urgently needed in an era of accelerated globalization. IDPAD was academically quite a successful initiative which ended when the Dutch Ministry, as the main funding agency, saw insufficient virtue or advantage in providing budgetary space for the question of alternatives to the neoliberal path they were now following. It was not the outcome which Jan Pronk or Sukhamoy Chakravarty had in mind. The closure also demonstrated, if any such confirmation was needed, the utter dependence of the academic on the bureaucrat.

The new management regime controlling academics, not just in The Netherlands but globally, pays little attention to content and ideas and exclusively adopts bibliometric valorization instruments to quantify research output and impact. Have you felt that the focus of the university higher education system is now increasingly on producing measurable research output rather than incubating enabled intellectuals? I am thinking of the dependence of university research on government and foundation funding, on the virtual impossibility of individual researchers going their own way and ploughing their own furrow, on the pressures to publish for professional advancement, on the bibliometrics of measuring research output, and related developments.

All that, yes, as also the latest fad on big data with the absurd notion that it will result in big answers. It is not only the style and method prescribed which should be a cause for concern but also the control over the substance of research, commissioned as it often is by sponsors who want to know in advance what the outcome will be and who are reluctant to fund independent research. The trend is even more worrisome in the sense that politics and policy makers appear to grow wary or outright adverse to the social sciences. It is important to underline that these disciplines came to maturity when the ethos of equality, both in ideology and praxis, gained ground. That change in the fabric of society, institutionalized in political democracy, was emancipatory. The domain in which the social sciences operate now seems to be shrinking and that is a bad omen because it does not allow us to create space for countervailing power, to take stock of the political choices made and the impact of the policies enacted.

The prescience and prediction of Jan Tinbergen seems sadly to have been proven true: Fortress Europe, ramparts being breached, tunnels being infiltrated… How do you see the European project? ‘Swarms’ à la David Cameron? The public is given the impression that Calais has already been overrun, and that the swarms of migrants are now positioning themselves to invade Britain; Europe is about to fall; the spectre is raised of the adulteration of cultural and religious purity, the end of civilization and the good life! From your lifelong study of migrants and migration, of sending and receiving societies, of the contractors and snakeheads and the chains, how would you speak today about this contemporary phenomenon and to the players involved?

It is fascinating to observe how, in the reaction to the waves of distress migration Europe is witnessing, the focus is solely on the porous gates where the entry takes place while the need to stem the swelling tide of uninvited and unwelcome newcomers is not less frantically posed at the American or Australian borders, not to speak of the Israeli and Arabian perimeters. Building walls and fences, criminalizing the refugees, keeping them in detention or hoping to be able to send back the hapless armies which have managed to cross the line of defence is in the forefront of contingency planning. It is an approach addressing the symptom but not the underlying problem. The wandering masses do not only leave home from failed states and war-torn societies to save their bare lives but also flee in rapidly increasing numbers in search of paid work and better livelihood. To come to terms with the drama of an unprecedented human exodus, remedial action at the global level is required and not one directed and restrained by the nation state. So far we have miserably failed in our attempt at global governance. The roots of the crisis run deep into history.

In my own research I have concentrated on two Asian countries in particular, Indonesia (Java) and India (Gujarat). Their path and pace of development have been much hampered by a colonial legacy which did not allow them to make their own strategic choices at important conjunctures in the trajectory of change. The epoch of foreign domination resulted in a highly unequal man–land ratio which, aggravated by a loss of economic diversity, intensified dependency on agriculture as the main or only source of production. Involution of the rural economy was made manifest in immense misery at the bottom end of the agrarian hierarchy, far greater and much more voluminous than when (from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards) Europe started to push a redundant workforce, the landless and land-poor classes above all, out of the countryside, to secure employment as factory hands, dockworkers, construction engineers and so on, mainly in the up-and-coming urban growth poles. But many of the tens of millions who lost their livelihood in the prime sector of the European economies also migrated to distant shores, thus reducing the demographic pressure in the metropoles.

At that moment in time large zones of our planet were still highly underpopulated. Tribal peoples were wiped out or chased away and locked up in reservations to keep them separated from the influx of new settlers. Finding emptied lands and habitat — not empty ones, as Hernando de Soto (2000) would have it — colonists from Europe trekked to North and South America, Australia and South Africa to brave an uncertain but hopefully better future than awaited them at home. The pioneering zeal of these colonists, as they were then called, was much admired. Nowadays the many hundreds of millions who have become redundant in the agrarian-rural economies of Asia experience enormous hardship when they try to establish a foothold in the city. Restructured into a reserve army, they have to remain adrift in their vain search for proper, that is, regular jobs in a thoroughly informalized way of life and work (Breman, 2010b). At the same time the once ‘empty’ spaces on our planet have filled up. To the extent they are still underpopulated, most people of Asian stock are prohibited from legally reaching these shores and those hailing from the lower classes even more so. Rejecting them as unwanted outsiders, economic refugees and fortune seekers hoping to cash in on the spoils of the welfare state, is done in unadulterated racist fashion.

What in addition plays a crucial role is that the economy, at the early stage of the transformative process to industrialism, was characterized by a less advanced level of technology. With less machinery and no automation, manufacture was much more labour intensive than it is nowadays. Upward occupational mobility was then still possible by skilling on the job. That all has changed drastically and is a major reason why in the economic profile trade and services, the tertiary sector in general, are much more important as sources of work and income than employment in industry. What should be a major ground for anxiety is the question whether, under the current conditions of a predatory capitalism looming in undisputed hegemony, there is in the world at large sufficient gainful work around, available as well as accessible, to provide livelihoods for all (Li, 2010). This is why I commented in an earlier publication that the real crisis of capitalism is the sustained unwillingness to include a major part of mankind as producers and consumers in a condition of human decency and dignity. Writing up the findings of my latest and final round of fieldwork in India, I have zoomed in on both rural and urban destitution as the fate of people who remain excluded from growth, development and progress (Breman, 2016b). That alarming appraisal is not shared by the hard-core apostles of the faith clamouring for free enterprise and unregulated markets. But realizing that the notion of an eventual trickle down to the unprivileged masses has run its logical course, the ‘othering’ approach is once more drummed up.

Do you refer to the trend first, to restrict the focus of enquiry fundamentally to poverty reduction, and then within this, to locate the problems and the solutions to poverty in the psychology and behaviour of the poor themselves, as for example in the old church doctrine that the poor procreate too much and accumulate too little? Are notions of the irrational peasant, and such like, back with us, even if with a different nomenclature?

Indeed, the thrust is to blame the pauperizing lot for their failure to get included. This is the outcome of a series of faint efforts made to reconcile poverty with capitalism. The World Bank eagerly endorsed the remedy which de Soto had recommended: to formalize capital instead of labour. It was an approach that soon petered out because in the milieu of the poor there is not much by way of property that can be formalized. Nor were politics and governance at the national level willing to go along with making legal what they considered illegal. Consequently, dispossession went on as before at the underside of the economy. Next came the gimmick of microfinance with many NGOs willing to play the role of the devil, i.e., the moneylender, to collect what the poor were unable to afford: paying off their debt. The latest attempt is to make the poor bankable by handing out a cash transfer. The failure of these half-hearted approaches to poverty alleviation and their dismal outcomes fly in the face of propaganda that the Millennium Development Goals have been successfully achieved. It leaves no other conclusion than saying that the poor lack the mindset required to work their way up over the threshold of indigence. Such people are portrayed as obstinately and irrationally refusing to defer the gratification of their basic needs. These victims of exclusionary politics are devoid of the drive to save up and thus imbibe the accumulative instinct which would solve their livelihood deficiency, the World Bank let us know in its 2015 World Development Report (World Bank, 2015). Evidently, at the global level the social question has made a comeback with a vengeance. The explosion of upper-caste resentment against affirmative action in India is motivated by the same mood of discrimination and derogation which has fuelled the rightist protests against the influx of refugees in the streets of Europe. These riots in countries far apart from each other signal that the rupture is between social classes rather than having their origin in confrontations along lines of fabricated nationalism.10 What consistently remains absent when discussing the range from poverty to destitution is the brutal refusal by the better-off or roundly well-to-do classes worldwide to share the fruits of growth, let alone to agree to a progressive redistribution of the sources of existence globally, nationally and locally. In the defiant spirit of inequality the winner takes all.

There almost never seems to be a time when you do not have a volume in press! I gather your next book On Pauperism is ready to print. What intellectual journey do you promise your fellow travellers?

While I have consistently separated my research on past and present, the book in press now makes the connection; it starts with my fieldwork-based findings on destitution in rural and urban Gujarat, and ends with reflecting on pauperism as it was discussed in industrializing and urbanizing England in the nineteenth century. I elaborate on the vicious doctrine of social Darwinism which then targeted ‘the undeserving poor’ and the contemporary politics of exclusion writing off a huge reserve army of labour stuck at the bottom of the globalized economy. Vast contingents of the world’s population have lost whatever home they had, roam around in an alien landscape and are not allowed to settle down elsewhere. Adrift, these people are torn loose from their identity, not only sans papiers but also invisible and without any representation, vagrants between countries or within their own country.

Max Weber circumscribed the role of the academician within the hegemonic walls of the mainstream; Mao Tse Tung referred to ‘bourgeois’ intellectuals as the ‘stinking ninth element’ of the class structure, and he exhorted socialist youth to be simultaneously ‘red and expert’; Noam Chomsky says intellectuals have the responsibility to use their privileged freedoms to tell it how it really is. As a defiant sociologist, how do you see it?

A few names other than the ones you mention would help to clarify my own views. One of those would be Karl Mannheim who, after his escape from the Nazi regime in Germany, published Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (1935/1940). In this classic work, he spoke out in favour of a shift away from a liberal order of laissez-faire capitalism to planned democracy which has equality as the organizing principle. The imperative to tell it how it is, as Noam Chomsky exhorts, should prevent anyone amongst us from saying in the aftermath of globalization, in English, German, or in any other language: ‘we didn’t know’.

1 Recognitions include the Doctorate Honoris Causa from the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague (2009) and the same award from SOAS, London (2013).
2 Major book publications include: Patronage and Exploitation: Changing Agrarian Relations in South Gujarat, India (University of California Press, 1974); Control of Land and Labour: A Case Study of Agrarian Crisis and Reform in the Region of Cirebon during the First Decades of the 20th Century (Verhandelingen KITLV 101, Foris Publications, 1983); Of Peasants, Migrants and Paupers: Rural Labour Circulation and Capitalist Production in West India (Clarendon Press, 1985); Taming the Coolie Beast (Oxford University Press, 1989; Dutch edition 1987, Chinese edition 1992, Indonesian edition 1997); Labour Migration and Rural Transformation in Colonial India (Free University Press Amsterdam, 1990); Beyond Patronage and Exploitation (Oxford University Press, 1993); Wage Hunters and Gatherers (Oxford University Press, 1994); Footloose Labour: Working in India’s Informal Economy (Cambridge University Press, 1996); The Labouring Poor in India: Patterns of Exploitation and Exclusion (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2003); The Making and Unmaking of an Industrial Working Class: Sliding Down the Labour Hierarchy in Ahmedabad, India (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2004); Labour Bondage in West India: From Past to Present (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2007); The Poverty Regime in Village India (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2007), The Jan Breman Omnibus (Oxford University Press, 2008); Koloniaal profijt van onvrije arbeid: het Preanger stelsel van gedwongen koffieteelt op Java, 1720–1870 (Amsterdam University Press, 2010); Outcast Labour in Asia: Circulation and Informalization of the Workforce at the Bottom of the Economy (Oxford University Press, 2010); At Work in the Informal Economy of India (Oxford University Press, 2013); Mobilizing Labour for the Global Coffee Market: Profits from an Unfree Work Regime in Colonial Java (Amsterdam University Press, 2015); On Pauperism in Present and Past (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2016).
3 His edited or co-authored books include: (with S. Mundle) Rural Transformations in Asia (Oxford University Press, 1991), Imperial Monkey Business: Racial Supremacy in Social Darwinist Theory and Colonial Practice (Free University Press Amsterdam, 1990); (with P. Kloos and A. Saith) The Village in Asia Revisited (Oxford University Press, 1997); (with J. Parry and K. Kapadia) The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour (Sage, 1999); (with A. Das and R. Agarwal) Down and Out: Labouring under Global Capitalism (Oxford University Press and Amsterdam University Press, 2000); (with G. Wiradi) Good Times and Bad Times in Rural Java: A Study of Socio-Economic Dynamics towards the End of the Twentieth Century (KITLV Press, Leiden, 2002; an Indonesian edition was launched in April 2005 by LP3S, Jakarta); (with P. Shah) Working in the Mill No More (Oxford University Press and Amsterdam University Press, 2004); (with I. Guerin and A. Prakash as co-editors) India’s Unfree Workforce: Of Bondage Old and New (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2009); (with K.P. Kannan) The Long Road to Social Security: Assessing the Implementation of National Social Security Initiatives for the Working Poor in India (Oxford University Press, 2013).
4 For a partial bibliography, see Rutten (2003).
5 Breman, J. (1976) ‘Post-Colonial Surinam: Continuity of Polities and Policies’, Development and Change 7(3): 249–65; Breman, J. and M. van der Linden (2014) ‘Informalizing the Economy: The Return of the Social Question at a Global Level’, Development and Change 45(5): 920–40.
6 An influential example that springs to mind is the late Arvind Das’s brilliant CASA monograph, The State of Bihar: An Economic History without Footnotes, later published by Penguin under Arvind’s typically mischievous title, The Republic of Bihar (Das, 1992).
8 Our conversation took place in late 2015.
9 Although Arthur Lewis, of course, gave a distinctly different meaning to his concept of a dual sector model.
10 On nationalism as the construction of imagined communities, see Benedict Anderson (1983).


Works by Jan Breman cited in the text
Breman, J. (1974) Patronage and Exploitation: Changing Agrarian Relations in South Gujarat, India. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Breman, J. (1983a) ‘The Bottom of the Urban Order in Asia: Impressions of Calcutta’, Development and Change 14(2): 153–84.
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AbstractPDF(1494K)Web of Science® Times Cited: 2
Breman, J. (1983b) Control of Land and Labour in Colonial Java: A Study of Agrarian Crisis and Reform in the Region of Cirebon during the First Decades of the Twentieth Century. Leiden: Verhandelingen KITLV 101; Dordrecht: Foris Publications.
Breman, J. (1989) Taming the Coolie Beast: Plantation Society and the Colonial Order in Southeast Asia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Breman, J. (1994) ‘Between Acccumulation and Immiseration: The Partiality of Fieldwork in Rural India’, in Wage Hunters and Gatherers: Search for Work in the Rural and Urban Economy of South Gujarat, pp. 370–407. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Breman, J. (2000) ‘The Sociology of Non-Western Societies at the Amsterdam University’. Lecture delivered in Poona. DOCUMENTS ON HISTORY OF SOCIOLOGY IN INDIA/A 1 Debates on sociology and anthrpology of India/A 1 28.pdf
Breman, J. (2003) The Labouring Poor in India: Patterns of Exploitation and Exclusion. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Breman J. (2010a) ‘Life Experiences in a Comparative Perspective’, in M. Karlekar and R. Mukherjee (eds) Remembered Childhood: Essays in Honour of Andre Beteille, pp. 78–90. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Breman, J. (2010b) Outcast Labour in Asia: Circulation and Informalization of the Workforce at the Bottom of the Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Breman, J. (2013a) ‘“A Bogus Concept?”: Review of Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class’, New Left Review 84(Nov–Dec): 130–8.
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Ashwani Saith is Professor Emeritus at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands, where he was Professor of Rural Economics between 1981 and 2012; he was Chair of Development Studies and Head of the Development Studies Institute at the London School of Economics. He has served as an editor of Development and Change since 1983 and presently chairs its Editorial Board.


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