On his barefoot trudge to school decades ago, a young Ashok Khade passed inescapable reminders of what he was: the well from which he was not allowed to drink; the temple where he was not permitted to worship. At school, he took his place on the floor in a part of the classroom built a step lower than the rest. Untouchables like him, considered to be spiritually and physically unclean, could not be permitted to pollute their upper-caste neighbors and classmates.India's socialism was supposed to be for the benefit of the poor, and it did help millions of poor Indians get education and medical care. But it was administered by the elite, and it did very little to degrade the caste system. The dynamic capitalism of the past 20 years is doing much better on that score.
But on a recent afternoon, as Mr. Khade’s chauffeur guided his shimmering silver BMW sedan onto that same street in a village in the southern state of Maharashtra, village leaders rushed to greet him. He paid his respects at the temple, which he paid to rebuild. The untouchable boy had become golden, thanks to the newest god in the Indian pantheon: money.
American marketing textbooks often include the story of the Cadillac executive who discovered that black entertainers were paying white front men hefty fees to buy them cars from its whites-only showrooms, and persuaded the company to open dealerships in black communities; the pursuit of profit, not brotherhood, broke down that racial barrier. Sixty years ago the elite of Tennessee would have nothing to do with country music stars; no matter how much money they made, they remained white trash in the eyes of old money planters and bankers. Now musicians can buy their way into any club and any gathering.
Whenever you feel nostalgic for the less capitalist, more community-based economies of the past, you have to remember that they were all based on ethnic, religious, class or neighborhood solidarities, and on excluding or even persecuting outsiders. Allowed to flow freely, money is a solvent that can dissolve all such barriers.