What is ‘sentimental capitalism’?

Metal workshop in old Ahmedabad

Many academics are critical of ethical consumerism. While they may seem high-minded in their views, the critiques sometimes have valuable lessons. While traditional crafts have an enthusiastic core audience, there are many others who are sceptical. Understanding the critique can help broaden the reach of traditional crafts.

The Canadian sociologist, Dia de Costa, recently published an article with the curious title, ‘Sentimental Capitalism in Contemporary India: Art, Heritage, and Development in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.’ ‘Sentimental capitalism’ sounds like an oxymoron, as the idea of capitalism is to put profits before people. But de Costa uses the term to describe a creative industry in Ahmedabad that has grown around the celebration of entrepreneurship in traditional cultures, including crafts. She contrasts this with the previous form of ‘sentimental development nationalism’ associated with Gandhi, which saw artisans as victims that needed rescuing.

De Costa’s critique draws on the literature about the plight of industrial textile workers in Ahmedabad, such as Jan Breman’s The Making and Unmaking of an Industrial Working Class: Sliding Down the Labour Hierarchy in Ahmedabad (2004). She argues that ‘sentimental capitalism’ paints a happy face on the otherwise tragic loss of employment experienced by local workers.

The article is a little thin on detail and lacks compelling case studies, but it is an argument worthwhile considering. It follows many critiques of ethical brands such as Fair Trade which are seen to be papering over the true realities of inequity. According to a Marxist analysis, creating a theatre of feel-good helps resolve the contradiction between global inequity and the middle class belief in equality of peoples.

The academic perspective is very good at identifying these contradictions, but it is left to others to do something about it. One response is obviously to abandon ethical consumption. This is the Leninist line that it is better to wait for the revolution than tinker with reform. But in the short-term at least, this will involve the loss of livelihoods as well as a decline in cultural diversity.

An alternative is to retain awareness of structural inequity while still pursuing micro-projects that offer immediate financial benefit and cultural sustainability. This critical awareness helps temper any missionary certainty that seeks to impose one set of values on the subject of concern. Saving someone else’s culture should be something done in consultation with the other, lest what’s preserved is an unwanted form of oppression.

This awareness can be exercised by looking backstage. It is not enough to enjoy the theatre of traditional crafts, it is important to broader context in the lives of those who perform it. The Sangam Project is hopefully one place where we can look behind the scenes.