The Market for Education, Civil Servants, and the Indian State: Brief Remarks

December 31, 2013

By Raju J. Das

The educational landscape of the ‘new India’ is a very interesting one. Education is increasingly a commodity. It is a commodity which can be produced for a good deal of profit. The ubiquitous coaching (or tutoring) institutes form an important part of the educational market. Partly because of the collapse of the formal education structure, they are mushrooming to prepare students for the college exams and for various entrance exams. [1] In this article I wish to briefly talk about another kind of coaching institutes. They prepare civil service aspirants for their exams.


Civil Service Coaching Institutes: What are they and why do they exist?

For the civil service coaching institutes to exist, there must be many people who are interested in civil services. Every year the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) of the Government of India conducts an examination (Civil Services Exam) to recruit candidates to fill various government posts such as Indian Administrative Service, Indian Foreign Service, Indian Police Service, Indian Revenue Service, and so on. Several hundred thousand people take this exam. The fact that a large number of people are interested in civil service exams indeed creates a demand for the private, for-profit coaching institutes. The instructors in these institutes make young minds memorize this bit of fact about WTO or that bit of fact about the height of mountains in the world, or Article number X or Y in the Indian constitution, and so on. People with higher degrees, for whom learning is perhaps merely a means of making money, become involved in the educational business, including as owners and managers of the business, euphemistically known as Institutes, Centres, etc. There are often college/university teachers who provide coaching service for a fee on apart-time basis. People write note books for civil service aspirants, which must have questionable analytical/intellectual content, given the motivation of both the writers and the readers of such material, which is anything but intellectual. There is hardly any regulation of the quality of the teaching work conducted in these and similar other tutoring institutes.

Many of the people involved in the coaching business are likely to be ‘mediocre’ fellows (‘mediocre’, judged from the standpoint of intellectual quality, i.e. from the standpoint that prioritizes explanatory and critical understanding of society and nature, one that is solidly informed by relevant philosophies and theories and by reasoned argument backed by evidence). Not only this. Many of them are those who themselves have tried but failed to succeed in the competitions for civil service type jobs (for whatever reasons). In other words, people who have neither succeeded in competing for civil service posts nor in the academic world of learning coach people how to learn things to succeed in the exams. Of course, the technique somewhat works. But so does quack medicine.

Institutes charge a lot of money making them lucrative. One wonders who really can afford the kind of money they charge. The bottom 70% barely lives, so it quietly leaves the sphere of life where lofty aspirations exist. The civil service coaching institutes – the civil service knowledge industry — really contribute to the circulation of status, power and money in the ‘top 30% circle’. Sons and daughters of the top 30% or so can afford to take time off and spend money, buying the services of the so-called institutes, and compete for the few positions. If success comes, it is not too difficult to get back the money invested and to make huge amounts of money on top of the initial investment. It should be noted that central civil servants, who barely constitute 5% of all government employees of the central government, are generally drawn from relatively privileged class, caste backgrounds and from urban areas.

Why are people interested in civil service exams?: The nature of the state in India

So, the coaching institutes exist and work because there are people interested in taking the civil service exams. The next question is: why are so many young and bright people – including people who have spent years obtaining a degree in engineering and medicine and at the public expense — interested in civil service exams anyway? In the UK, or in Canada or the US, the so-called civil servants do not receive the kind of attention that they do in India. Good scholars hardly opt for a career in civil services in these economically developed countries.[2] Why is the Indian case different? One can say that given that there are not many jobs for the educated people, a civil service job is a job. But civil service job is not merely a job. There is more to the craze than the fact that it is just a job. There are many causes, which have all got to do with the nature of the society itself and of the state which is a part of that society.

More or less sharing the world view of the wealthiest (and upper caste views), civil servants and their political masters (=politicians) manage the common affairs of the propertied class. They also look after individual interests of powerful competing fractions of this class. That is a source of their power.[3] Within this common framework, which applies to India and other societies, do we have to see the power of civil servants in India.

Before the late 1980s, many civil servants achieved their status of powerful people by working for local landlords and kings, whose extra-economic importance has diminished a bit now. Earlier, their power also came from their ability to manage the common affairs just mentioned and from their ability to favour this or that business house (who will get what concession/subsidy from the state) and who can bypass which formal regulation. What has changed now?[4] Increasingly, civil servants in India are overseeing a market system, where animal spirits are highly encouraged, right from the prime minister’s office, and whose success they want to ensure during their formal tenure (and after retirement, when they work as so-called consultants for this or that business). Now as before their power comes from their ability to favour the business class as such vis-a-vis the working masses. In particular, much of their power now comes from the ability to sell off public assets to private players at a throwaway price, or from making land taken away from unorganized peasants available to the business class. Their power also comes from connecting this or that fraction of the business class to the international circuit of capital (and vice versa) on favourable terms, and so on.

And, and this is absolutely crucial, bureaucrats’ power comes from the very character of the capitalism that India (like similar less developed countries have): bureaucrats ‘oversee’ a type of capitalist production which is more or less based on the regime of low wages and long hours, or formal subsumption of labour (and on a massive amount of dispossession of small-scale property owners). It is not a capitalism where in the sphere of production the main method of surplus appropriation is based on systemic technological change aimed at increasing productivity of labour (i.e. real subsumption of labour); this has been traditionally the case in more developed countries.[5] And formal subsumption of labour, given its nature, is hardly conducive to very democratic relations between state (officials) and citizens. When profits come more or less from the naked exhaustion of the body of direct producers whose very basic needs remain unmet (or from their dispossession) rather than from increased productivity of their labour, the coercive relation on the part of the state, which is a state of the capitalist class, tends to be everywhere.

This is a society where, partly thanks to the kind of (‘under-developed’) capitalism it has, there are massive (near-)starvation, mass illiteracy, and enormous inequality in the means of consumption of what is required for a decent living. Such a situation, along with the absence of effective people’s resistance against injustice (both are inter-connected), promote what is effectively an undemocratic state in its daily functioning (albeit disguised under democratic clothes).[6] By virtue of its location in a poverty-stricken class divided society, where the direct producers also experience enormous caste and gender oppression, the state has much authoritarian power, some of which it acquired during colonial times for the purpose of carrying out the orders of the imperialist masters and keeping the ‘natives’ in check. This power is exercised by agents of the state, the civil servants (and their political masters), and ordinary masses bear the brunt of it.[7]

While officials’ power comes from their power to intervene on behalf of, and at the behest of business class people, their power, dialectically seen, has another source: their role in relation to the working masses, who are exploited by the property owners mainly through the method of low-wages and long hours (i.e. abysmal overall working conditions). When masses create a little ‘trouble’ (e.g. when they speak a little against exploitation and oppression), the civil servants as servants of the wealthy people arrive with all their might. The economic elite uses civil servants as their foot soldiers to keep the masses under control, not only through naked physical and administrative force but also through deception, lies, trickery, mystification, etc. In so far as one needs useful ideas (discourses) to perform this sort of role, civil servants are well supported/ served by another group: so-called ‘intellectuals’ (people in academic, media, etc.). Coercion and trickery etc are not the civil servants’ only role, which gives them power over the masses. In a society where economic and social development is a massive unfulfilled need, having to prostrate before the officials as a means of getting a few crumbs makes officials the semi-kings.

Market relations, the practice and discourse of the pursuit of quick money and indeed fetishization of money and money-making-at-any- cost, a system of capitalist production based on a regime of low-wages and long hours, the need for the state to play a mediating role in relation to the market relations and capitalism, the need for an undemocratic governance, privatization and cultural devaluation of education, and many other similar things (e.g. continuing colonial legacy) get inter-connected. They produce an interesting structure, of which so-called coaching institutes (preparing people for civil services exams) are a small part.


Radical Civil servants: An oxymoron

What about radicals? Like liberals, many of them perhaps believe that by being a civil servant they can help the poor (and I am not denying that sometimes a collector can build a road here or provide some short-term employment to a few people there). Many people believe in the semi-social-democratic illusion that the state itself is an arena of class struggle and that pro-poor civil servants can genuinely do significant things for a large number of poor and needy people. Indeed, this kind of illusion is propagated in the form of social capital and state-society synergy literature in academia (see the work of Peter Evans and the like). The civil servants – not as persons but their positions and the relations of which they are bearers – are, and must be, a major point of intellectual and political critique. One cannot see how people can become civil servants, the top officials of the capitalist state, the state of the capitalist class, to change things for the poor majority in any significant manner, who are precisely the sorts of people whom this capitalist class, using the officialdom, must exploit, dispossess, dominate and oppress. Is it not the case that: the class character of society places extremely strong limits within which the state as a structure has to work? Is it not the case that the latter in turn puts strong limits within which agents of the state (e.g. civil servants) themselves, no matter how pro-poor some of them may be, must work? The answer is a definite yes. It is another matter that the notebooks which civil service aspirants read to succeed in the exam will not help them to succeed in seeing the point of  this argument.

The power of civil servants is the power of the state. The power of the state is the power of dominant classes over subordinate classes, expressed through the mediation of institutions of the state and its various mystifying discourses. Ultimately, civil servants are servants of dominant classes, and this is no less in countries such as India where the state has a (nominally) democratic form. The situation is acute in India given its specific character of capitalism, massive illiteracy, absolute and relative poverty, colonial legacy, complicity of an increasingly comprador-type elite in the imperialist subordination of workers and peasants, and so on.

When the state form is democratic in a class-divided society, this produces an interesting ideological context. In this context, political-administrative coercion against, and material neglect, of the interests of the masses are not seen as what they are. Often, they are rather seen as how they appear to be. That is, they are seen merely as wrongful action carried out either by this or that party in furtherance of an incorrect policy, or by this or that civil servant who is misinformed or just dishonest/corrupt.  A corollary is that acts of repression and acts of frustration of human needs by the state (officials) are seen as an anomaly, a mistake, that can be rectified by changing the party in power, or its leadership, or civil servants.[8] Another corollary is that, and this point is moot in the present context, when well-meaning people become civil servants, it is believed, things will be much better, and this produces the illusion among young people, especially those coming from relatively underprivileged social contexts and villages that ‘I can make a difference’. This perhaps explains why some radicals get interested in being a part of the top-level officialdom.

All this is akin to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, which represents an ideological inversion, whereby ‘the relationships between producers . . . take on the form of a social relation between the products of labour’.[9] This happens when ‘the definite social relation’ among producers themselves assumes ‘the fantastic form of a relation between things’. Similarly, what actually is an unequal relation – a relation of exploitation and domination/coercion — between classes, which is enforced by the civil servants of the capitalist state, including those who may mean well, is mistakenly seen as a mere relation between people, i.e. between voters/citizens/ clients of specific policy-interventions implemented by civil servants on the one hand and leaders/civil servants on the other. The latter relation on the surface and the underlying relation, the class relation, both are real. One is more real than another. One represents a state of affairs. Another represents a structure of relations. For the former to be eliminated, i.e. for the power of civil servants – and with it the discourse about the greatness of being a civil servant — to go, the latter has to be eliminated.  The fetishism of power that the state represents via the power of civil servants ‘cannot be eliminated until the state is directly and socially regulated, in much the same way as commodity fetishism… cannot be removed until labour-power is directly and socially regulated’ in the interests of the toiling majority.[10]

At the minimum, the practical lesson is this: the masses must demand a thorough democratization of the state. This means that excessive power (in the sense of ‘power over’) of the civil servants must be stripped. They must be made to serve the masses, not in word but in the real world, and masses (workers and peasants) must have increasing oversight over the activity of the civil servants. If this happens, neither will the craze for civil service exams continue, nor will the business of coaching Institutes. Will the masses’ demand for democratization of the state be met? That is a separate question.

[1] Das, R. 2011. ‘What kind of education for what kind of society?, Radical Notes, 2011 /07 /26/what-kind-of-education-for-what-kind-of-society/

[2] This necessarily does not mean that these societies are paragons of democracy. Democracy is a form of class rule, and class is the most important form of inequality. But between two class societies, the state in one can be a little more democratic than another, overall (if not in every respect). In the relatively more advanced societies, one does not see the kind of power relation between the masses (in their everyday life) and the bureaucracy. It is true that along with bureaucracies, there are lobbyists and law-professionals and media houses who perform useful functions for the ruling classes in developed societies, and perhaps, over time in India, many educated people will perform these roles and may not opt for civil services as much as they do now. All states, neoliberal or not, will have civil servants. This is true about India and the US. The question is not about the very existence of civil servants. The question is much rather this: why it is that civil servants in countries such as India are the kind of ‘semi-kings’ that they are?

[3] This is not to say that all civil servants all the time behave in this way. It is the case that there have been well-meaning, democratic-minded civil servants (e.g. Mr. Appu, Mr. Bandyopadhyay, Mr. Mander, etc). But we know well how these people are generally dealt with by the system.

[4] Many people believe that with the so-called neoliberal turn, the state has less power. This is an utterly mistaken assumption. If the neoliberal state has less power, politicians will not spend millions to get elected in every election since the 1990s, neither will hundreds of thousands of people will want to invest so much time and money to become bureaucrats. Nor will there be million-dollar scandals after scandals which signify the looting of public resources in the hands of the clique comprising civil servants as well as political leaders and the business-people.

[5] For details on how to reconceptualize capitalism in general and capitalism in the less developed countries, see: Das, R.J. 2012. ‘ Forms of Subsumption of labour under capital, class struggle and uneven development’, Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol. 44:2, 178-200

[6] There is indeed a direct association between increasing inequality and increasing authoritarianism of the state, in all societies. In post-revolution Russia, when the masses were living in much poverty, the bureaucratic caste was living relatively well (as Trotsky notes in Revolution Betrayed). This kind of inequality can only be defended by an authoritarian state (of course, the rise of authoritarian tendency cannot be explained entirely in terms of inequality. The civil war, the imperialist encirclement of the new State and other factors were contributory factors). Consider the present-day US: given the massive amount of inequality, which has worsened since the 2008 economic crisis, the state has become increasingly authoritarian.
One may ask: is the India of today similar to the Russia under Stalin? The answer is: yes. Are there differences between the two cases? Of course, yes. One need not, however, go into all the similarities and all the differences between the two cases here.

[7] The propertied class and all those with sufficient money can buy a bit of democracy (including rule of law, decent treatment from officials, etc.).

[8] In this context, one must be critical of the current euphoria among sections of the middle class for a new party (Aam Aadmi party) which has had some electoral success based on the promise of a more honest government. Corruption indulged in by the civil servants and politicians cannot be separated either from the illegitimate practices on the part of property-owners (e.g. ignoring minimum wage laws or factory safety laws) nor from the overall undemocratic impulses of the state, which, as argued here, are rooted in the definite class character of the society. There are very severe limits indeed to the success of the fight against corruption on the part of any political formation (petty bourgeois or bourgeois), which lacks a proletarian-democratic agenda, which is one of thorough democratization over property as well as the state, and indeed all aspects of life.

[9] Marx, K. 1977. Capital Volume 1, Vintage, New York.

[10] Das, R. 2009. ‘Looking, but not seeing: The state and/as class in rural India’, Journal of Peasant Studies,34:3, 419.

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