Laboring to create magic : the new worker in the emerging retail industries of Kolkata




Maitra, Saikat

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My dissertation focuses on the means through which a new worker-identity is getting crafted in the city of Kolkata in India under the impact of neoliberal economic policies of the state on one hand and the changing modes of capital formation on the other. Kolkata’s position as the pre-eminent city of British India in the nineteenth century had led to a huge influx of industrial capital. However, the post-independence era saw a gradual flight of capital due to a long history of political and social turbulence. With the liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s, both national and trans-national capital have started flowing back into Kolkata, especially in sectors such as real-estate, retail and service industries. This has led to a huge proliferation of expensive shopping malls and cafes in the city employing a large urban youth population, usually from under-privileged backgrounds. With the state giving up its former faith in socialist principles and instead strongly committing itself to neoliberal economic reforms, the future of development for Kolkata is getting tied to its capacity to attract corporate capital, particularly in organized retail and service sectors. As such, urban labor is coming under a tremendous scrutiny to delineate an identity according to principles of flexibility, self-discipline and responsiveness to the needs of contemporary private capitalist interests. In spaces like shopping malls and exclusive cafes, workers are repeatedly trained and indoctrinated to show an affective capacity to serve, be cheerful in their work and to display through bodily comportments the signs of a global cosmopolitanism that can sustain consumption. However, with most of the workers themselves coming from low-income backgrounds with little or no knowledge of the roles they are asked to play as part of their work, uncertainties and anxieties exacerbate the already precarious position of these young workers. This study therefore looks at how workers negotiate everyday work environments and how such work environments in turn alter and condition their identity through multiple strategies of discipline and control emanating from both the neoliberal state as well as corporate institutions.




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