Jeffrey, Craig 2010 Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India, reviewed by Dia Da Costa
Craig Jeffrey, Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, CA, 2010, 232 pages, $55.00 cloth, $21.95 paper, ISBN 9780804770736 (cloth), 9780804770743 (paper) (
Timepass is an extraordinary book in which Craig Jeffrey makes a layered argument about the ways in which lower middle-class Jat (middle-caste) men from provincial India negotiate their experiences of ‘surplus time’ as unemployed youth. Jeffrey complicates recent theorizations of youth, middle-classes, unemployment, and political action. Rather than see unemployed young men as given to either reactionary politics or progressive subaltern resistance, he shows that unemployed Jat youth engage in both. In so doing, Jeffrey joins others in countering Partha Chatterjee’s theorization of popular democracy in the oppositional terms of civil society (bourgeois) versus political society (politics of the masses). Instead, Jeffrey rethinks popular democracy as an outcome of popular neoliberalism.
Jeffrey’s argument is grounded in years of painstaking research developed into five elegant chapters and a conclusion. Analyzing detailed surveys, note-taking, observation, and interviews conducted in the 1990s in rural Meerut district with similar forms of evidence gathered in the city of Meerut in 2004-05 reveals a rare commitment to long periods of research. This is coupled with rigorous attention to the sociological analysis of class within a Bourdieuian framework. Here, ‘class’ analysis is focused on trying to understand a fascinating array of forms of waiting— explicitly purposeful, seemingly purposeless, creative and mischievous, reactionary and self-interested. Unpacking these forms of passing time, or ‘timepass’, Jeffrey levels a definitive rebuttal of ‘India Shining’ narratives while providing a vivid analysis of India’s postcolonial status as a society in a long-term mode of waiting. Who among Indians are waiting endlessly? What processes have led them into such limbo? And how do they negotiate experiences and spaces of limbo in a society saturated with visions, doctrines, and policies of development? Jeffrey’s book provides some concrete answers.
Having introduced ‘waiting’ in the first chapter, in the second, Jeffrey explains who the Jats are and how, by the mid-1990s, educated Jats came to spend time in the tea-stalls of Meerut city. He explains that from independence until the mid-1980s, Jats invested in capitalist agriculture, aided by political figures who mobilized to reduce the cost of agriculture while boosting agricultural prices. While Jat accumulation strategies primarily centred on agriculture at this time, by the mid-1980s Jats diversified their non-farm incomes and contacts in the face of the combined threats of decimated state support for agriculture under neoliberal reform and the rise of Dalit power manifested in competition for jobs and education. When Dalit presence increased in rural public schools, as a strategy to secure Jat distinction, apart from cultivating contacts and intensifying influence on the local state, Jats pursued English-medium private education (page 66). Given an uncertain future of accumulation in agriculture, Jeffrey characterizes purposeful ‘waiting’ for long-term returns from higher education as a crucial Jat parental strategy to secure caste and class privilege.
While this strategy boosts demand for privatized education, in chapter three Jeffrey captures the tremendous feelings of temporal anxiety, failure, and disillusionment among young men with accumulated degrees and no job or marriage in which to see received notions of masculinity, career, and adulthood bear fruit. Given chronic shortages of salaried government employment after reforms, by the mid-2000s, a seemingly purposeless waiting becomes a dominant feature of public life in Meerut city. Jeffrey is careful to note that timepass is not a passive form of waiting as wallowing. He shows that young men actively craft differentiated responses. For example, young men’s pervasive presence, defiant confidence, camaraderie, and even aggression amplify the threat to women’s safety in the urban public sphere. Along with this reactionary outcome of timepass, however, Jats are also seen to cross class, religious, and notably caste norms of pollution as they share cigarettes and snacks with Dalits—a scene that would not be visible in rural Meerut (pages 94-95). Thus, places of ‘timepass’ constitute spaces for articulating a sense of being ‘left behind’, while enabling young men to cross some normative boundaries (e.g. caste) and reinforcing others (i.e. male control over public space).
Beyond interpersonal expressions of defiance, in chapter four, Jeffrey documents other outcomes of timepass, such as collaborative, creative student protest led by young men in 2004 and 2005. He identifies four categories of ‘political animators’ based on interests, goals, caste, class, and religious backgrounds, largely functioning outside political party frameworks (pages 105-116). Political animators draw on skills developed in school (e.g. writing letters of complaint to officials) while mobilizing camaraderie cultivated in timepass into collective political action to forward public critiques of the privatization of education. Specifically, they protested the costs, deterioration of quality, harassment of students, and corruption of officials in the university system of which they are a part and product. While characterizing student protest as ultimately piecemeal and sporadic (page 132), Jeffrey’s point is that in building broad-based solidarity, contrary to Bourdieu’s framework, educated unemployed Jats do not always engage in practices that reproduce their privilege (page 134).
This conclusion is however quickly overwhelmed by evidence in chapter five where Jeffrey shows the ways in which Jat young men capitalize on contacts built in the course of ‘waiting’. Here, Jeffrey depicts Jat ‘fixers’ (i.e. those who get work done) as the embodiment of popular neoliberalism for they relentlessly improvise collusion with the very forces of corruption and decay that they publicly disparage. Practices of ‘waiting’ and other seemingly unproductive activities—public displays of generosity, expensive modes of transporting student voters, helping ordinary students—are manifestations of Jat fixers’ steady accumulation of influence which result in concrete monetary gain for them. Jeffrey thus presents a fascinating picture of continuity and contrast with Jats of an earlier generation who made money from panchayat positions and rural development programs (pages 145-6), showing that, despite scarce jobs and competition from Dalits, Jat youth improvise to capitalize on their place, cultivated influence, and time in education to secure caste and class privilege. Quite apart from seeing politics as purposeless ‘timepass’ or contradictory ethics, Jats brought a sense of utter normality to their critique of and gains from privatized education. As Jeffrey puts it, “the whole business of politics often came to resemble a comfortably predictable job” (page 148).
Jeffrey’s contribution to understanding popular democracy in relation to popular neoliberalism is clearest in chapters four and five as he highlights the differentiated and interlocking forms that political society takes depending on influences of class and caste on political action, while usefully unpacking popular democracy as a set of practices in which anger and critique coexist with patriotism and belief in ‘the state’ (page 180). In contrast to imagining postcolonial politics beyond the state and seeing the Indian middle-class as in thrall of global consumerism, Jeffrey brings our attention to investments in cultivating a ‘local’ state and working to remain middle-class. We are left with little doubt about the essential, if messy relationship between class and state power. We are also left with little hope of young unemployed men using ‘surplus time’ to remake critical thinking in public education towards broader transformative ends. In the end, for all the waiting, there is no epistemological ‘postcolonial’ in Jat democracy and its relation to capital.
Dia Da Costa, Department of Global Development Studies, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON K7L 3N6 Canada