Secrets of Kathmandu's middle class

2021-10-08

By CHUDAMANI BASNET

For over two centuries, social scientists, revolutionaries and champions of human liberty have intensely scrutinized the significance of the middle class. Some pamper the middle class as bearer of human liberty and freedom, a bulwark against dictatorship. Yet they are never sure of the middle class propensities. Others have castigated it for its conservative and reactionary outlook. Marx believed that the middle class would wither away as the epochal battle between capital and labor unfolded in the capitalist economy. Many claim that the middle class is devoid of its “own culture” and exists without a secure foundation. A section of the advocates of neoliberal economic theories deny the very existence of social classes, trying to banish them from any consideration in public policy and erase them from popular consciousness. At one time or the other, the middle class has been targeted for not behaving “properly.” Middle-class discourse has thus shown a remarkable tenacity. What is the secret of the middle class? Is it real?

In Out Here in Kathmandu: Global Modernity at Periphery, Mark Liechty, an associate professor of anthropology and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, concludes that the middle class and its cultural practices are real and potent. In contrast to conventional sociological research that considers income, assets, and the division of labor in society as “objective” indicators of a social class, Liechty argues that the middle class is best understood as cultural practices and that the middle class culture in Kathmandu, a place Liechty calls a periphery of global modernity, is simultaneously global and local. The cultural project is global in that it is shaped by the forces of late capitalist modernity—mass-mediated commodities and ethos of consumerism. It is global also in the sense that Nepalis (and foreigners) are aware that Nepal constitutes the Other of Western capitalist modernity. The middle class cultural project is local in that the middle class-ness in Kathmandu cannot reproduce itself without referring to the Other class—”decadent” elites and “vulgar” working classes, and that the project is articulated through local stories of honor, lifestyles, and suitability. Throughout the book, Liechty’s middle-class respondents struggle to live with, negotiate, and overcome numerous riddles and contradictions, created by a pastiche of the local and global.

Central to the theoretical project of the book is Liechty’s theory of media effect. In chapter two, he advances his own theory of “consumer sphere,” a consumer fantasy zone, created by “media assemblages,” a commercial practice in which different media cross-reference consumer goods and desires. But media assemblages do their tricks only after they interact with local consumer cultural practices, such as that of dress codes, which prescribe different sets of attires inside and outside the home. When consumers participate in this powerful consumer space, they neither resist nor are they complicit with capitalist commercial enterprises. Such a conceptualization of media effect directly informs most empirical chapters of the book.

In the third chapter, Liechty reviews Nepal’s long political and trade history, listing a number of forces that fuelled the growth of the middle class in Kathmandu. He argues that Nepal’s history before the 1950 political change was marked by “selective exclusion.” After Prithvi Narayan Shah founded modern Nepal (1760s onwards) and especially during the Rana regime (1846-1950), foreigners, Europeans, but not necessarily South Asians, were largely barred from entering the country. But the same restrictions were not extended to foreign goods. Nepali rulers found foreign goods useful because the imported merchandise created logic of distinction through which the rulers saw themselves and their subjects. Liechty offers an intriguing description of the Rana mode of distinction through the use of visual commodities. The Ranas thus foreshadowed later developments in which middle class consumption practices and distinction would take central stage.

Section II of the book dwells on the relationship between mass media, consumption, and class dynamics. In Social Practice of Cinema and Video-viewing in Kathmandu, Liechty shows how forms and practices of consuming visual media create particular types of sociability and class practices. These practices allow the Kathmandu middle class to separate itself physically and morally from the working classes. Growing video-viewing that began in the early 1980s, for example, increasingly segregated the middle class from their working class brethren, who continued to go to the cinema halls to entertain themselves. The middle class also claimed a moral high ground from working classes, justifying its choices of movies as “educational” and “useful.” In another chapter, Liechty wonders why his interviewees frequently used English words—body, face, and love—even if the Nepali language options were easily available. He goes on to argue that young men and women, inspired by media linguistic and visual practices, inscribe middle class culture into their bodies. In Kathmandu as Translocality, Liechty examines how tourist areas such as Thamel are stripped of their local and historical meanings and become fantasy zones. Here he argues that middle class foreigners imagine Nepal as a place of action, adventure, and unchanging traditional society. Local Nepali men, on the other hand, play toughness, imagine living in Western cities, and engage in sexual fantasies with white women. Once again, mass mediated objects—tourist brochures, guidebooks, movies, and novels—help create and sustain these images and fantasies.

In the final two chapters, Liechty discusses the impact of middle class cultural practices on the lives of women. He argues that women use the language of “freedom” and “modernity” more than ever before, but they are excluded from and actually subject to physical threat in public places such as school, restaurants, and workplaces. The traditional honor economy combines with modern consumerist ethos in a way that is hardly empowering for women. The last chapter examines the narratives of pornographic viewing among middle class families in Kathmandu. The new experiments of male sexual desire, however, create cognitive and experiential dissonance among middle class women. These women thought that pornographic films might have been suitable for “Westerners” since the films indicated excesses and indulgence, challenging the very core of their self-conception as practitioners of “suitably modern.”

Liechty, who has studied middle class culture in Kathmandu for over two decades, examined over two hundred interviews, numerous texts, field observations, and commodities in Kathmandu. Throughout the book, readers encounter stories, performances, imagination, fantasies, and bodily experiences that collectively produce and reproduce middle class-ness. Liechty shows that the middle class cultural project is potent, yet it is full of confusions, riddles, and contradictions, creating anxiety and financial burden for its practitioners. Narratives of modernity, suitability, and honor allow the Kathmandu middle class to hide their class privileges. Moreover, the middle class cultural project commodifies intimate spheres, including the body and sex. In the end, both the local and global power structures are reproduced.

Readers are likely to raise a few issues, however. They are likely to ask: to what extent are the middle class cultural practices, narratives, and politics unique to the middle class itself? In other words, readers grow interested in knowing about the class projects of the elites and the working classes. Especially controversial is chapter six, in which Liechty examines commodification of food and sex, arguing that Nepali society in the 1990s had two social bodies—private spheres with the traditional cultural logic (the caste system), and a public sphere which has given way to secular class logic. Many readers might find this claim rather controversial, especially if the logic is extended to other spheres. My impression is that a close inspection of actual group processes could have revealed a complicated picture. In addition, the claim that cultural logic has given way to class immediately becomes suspect if we examine other institutional spheres. Politics in contemporary Nepal, for example, is shot through with cultural logic. Similar phenomena have taken place in Western counties as well as other places that can be labeled “peripheries” of global modernity. The rise of religious fundamentalism in the West as well as in the peripheries is a well-known example. I suspect that the caste logic in Nepali society has gone the same contradictory fate as the gender logic that Liechty describes so nicely.

These minor quibbles aside, this book is a solid contribution to Nepal’s sociology and anthropology of consumption, media practices, and middle class cultural projects.

The author teaches sociology at Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur. He can be reached at cbasnet@gmail.com

Published in Republica (The Week) 01/04/2011


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