Author's Roundtable 3: Response from Zsuzsa Gille

Thursday, November 19, 2009

posted under by Unit for Criticism
Written by Zsuzsa Gille (Sociology)

Stages of Capital is an excellent book that I read from cover to cover. I learned so much from it and will no doubt refer to it a lot in my work on postsocialism. I am dedicating this response to my graduate students in two ways: a) I will make most of my comments about capitalism which so pervades our workplace and b) I will make an effort to help them understand this excellent book in the context of what we usually teach them about capitalism. I think it is really relevant for us to understand where capitalism is in this history. Or to put it in another way, what familiar theories of capitalism is this book most informed by or contributing to?

Is capitalism in private ownership of the means of production? Is it in the double freedom of labor? (from feudal shackles and of property sufficient for subsistence) or primitive accumulation of capital? Is it in rational accounting, asceticism, or some kind of “spirit” of capitalism? Is it in the division of labor? The emergence of restitutive law? (You will of course recognize Marx, Weber and Durkheim respectively.)

While there is a lot in this book about rationality and law, these topics are primarily raised for an understanding of subjectivity, and not even subjectivity in general but that of a particular class of native Indian merchants, primarily the Marwaris. I think it is worth discussing how we arrived at the current stage of theorization, wherein if we want to talk about capitalism we do not talk about class, not even the working class or the existence private property. Instead we go immediately to discussion of subjectivity. In that sense, this book does not so much refute classical theories of capitalist modernity as much as complement them with insights from postcolonial theory and poststructuralism.

Well, Ritu Birla’s implicit answer is that this is not you grandfather’s capitalism, i.e. none of these old theories work. I presume they don’t work, first, because classical theorists all tended to assume that capitalist modernity as they describe it only existed in Western/European societies. They don’t work because Indian native capitalism developed under colonial rule, leaving other modes of production in place in the colonies, on which modes of production capitalism was parasitic. Or they don’t work because though there is plenty of debt bondage, I presume, this is not that legally free labor Marx talked about as the condition of capitalism. In fact, for a book on capitalism, there is almost no mention of the working class--with the exception of its participation in speculation, gambling, futures trading, stock buying, which is not exactly the image of the working class we have from Engels’ representation of the working class in Manchester!

But Marwaris are also not your Marxian capitalist class: it seems they would fit more Marx’s concept of the capitalist prototype, the merchant, i.e. holding and profiting from private property but not quite having transformed that property into capital in the Marxist sense. (For Marx, capital is “self-valorizing value,” “a self-moving substance,” “value in process,” or “money in process.”)

Perhaps it is true that classical Marxism—and maybe even contemporary accounts of neoliberal globalization—focus too much on ownership, and less on other forms of control (that is certainly one of the lessons of poststructuralism, cultural studies, and postcolonial theory.) So Stages is not a history of privatization, at least not in the classic sense of the turning of collective into private property through enclosure and so forth. Though in a way the repeated efforts at reforming contract law, charitable giving, pension funds, and speculation all aim at a certain notion of privatization. As important as the actual privatization or enclosure of the means of production, there is another notion of privatization, the legal disciplining of kinship capital or the family firm so that its activities could be unmistakably classified as either private/personal or public. This disciplining has two objectives: a) to make that property alienable, in the interest of free circulation of capital, and b) to make it more easily readable (it is about transparency) in the interest of contract enforcement and taxation. It is privatization in the sense of lumping certain activities of the Hindu Undivided Family—a legal concept—irrevocably and categorically into a private, personal realm—a realm that, unlike the public, should not be subject to regulation. It is privatization also in the sense that activities or contracts that were now newly deemed public were those that took place out there in the market—which in Nancy Fraser’s concept is another realm of the private (besides the family).

Hence the book’s emphasis on law. But this too is law with a twist. It is not just that law facilitates capitalism (the old lesson from the scholarship on the embeddedness of the economy) but—in a deeper sense it creates our very cognitive structures. In my mind this is taking Durkheim’s argument that norms and, thus, laws are boundary-maintaining devices not just seriously but even further than he had intended. So here law is presented as creating the categories, classes of phenomena, that make legal intervention and economic/fiscal policies logical and legitimate. The most important boundary to be drawn is that between public and private but another one, perhaps with a greater relevance for today, is the distinction of profit from chance (gambling, horse racing) vs. profit from knowledge of the market (futures trading) or vs. profit from labor. This distinction, of course, has great implication for what is considered ethical and not just for what is legal. (The ethical component of this subject creation is a very important part of the history—that I was happy to see.) We can see today conceptual acrobatics and legal maneuvers similar to such delineations of ethical vs. unethical conduct in the market in the debates about regulating creative accounting, derivates, debt swaps-- all the trappings of what the the anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff call casino capitalism.

You will recognize in this history the performative turn in theory, though we sociologists primarily tend to focus on the performative role not of the law but of economics and statistics. This leads me to ask Ritu Birla, what the role of the suspicious social sciences was in creating these dichotomies of public/private, economy/culture, ethics vs. ethnics, etc. Do they constitute the network or assemblage we call capitalism, of which law is arguably an important part? which of these did law or legal scholarship most rely on?

I also found it refreshing to focus on domestic/indigenous debates, even though, obviously the British play a major role in the discursive transformations. I appreciated the study’s careful avoidance of superimposing the binaries of British vs. Hindu, capitalist vs. non-capitalist, or rational vs. non-rational. But I wonder if there was more transnational circulation of ideas, science, and law, than simply the influence or the imposition of British legal models?

So this was all mostly focusing on staging capital--staging in the sense of performing it. Focusing on the concept of stage as a temporal concept, with the conceptual contrasts you create between British and Indian/Hindu, I had the sense that many of these legal questions and concepts were already operating or at least elaborated by the British, sustaining the familiar chronology that India was lagging behind. I am wondering if Professor Birla knows of cases where the colonies served as laboratories of regulating capital, as such not lagging behind but running ahead the British (taking our cues from the Comaroffs or other anthropologists)

What does the book say about power? I was very happy to see a critique of Foucault especially the demonstration that law plays more complex roles in colonial contexts than it does in Foucault’s concept of sovereign power. And I really see the point you are making about the shift from a layered, negotiated sovereignty to a non-negotiable one---as the boundaries between public and private, economy and culture became less porous. But to what extent can you say that there were multiple regimes operating, perhaps on the analogy of what Fraser calls segmented governmentality? (For her that primarily refers to the contemporary bifurcation of or the mutual dependence between two regimes of control, flexible neoliberal governmentality with sovereign power/brute force).


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