Thursday, November 19, 2009
Respondent James H. Warren (History, Illinois) talks with Ritu Birla (History, Toronto).
Written by James H. Warren (History)
Several years ago in a social theory seminar, my colleagues and I were assigned Douglass C. North’s 1990 book Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (Cambridge UP, 1990). Economic history, we were told, was about to undergo a resurgence and North was to serve as our entry point into economic history and theory. The book was concerned with delineating an analytic framework to study “the role of institutions in economic performance” (3). It offered a sort of diagnostic toolset for evaluating the “differential performance of economies over time” (3). I was skeptical, to say the least, of this sort of narrow modeling, especially given my attraction to the interdisciplinarity of cultural, gender, and postcolonial studies.
Looking back on Douglass North now, there are some useful ideas, ideas that run through Ritu Birla’s Stages of Capital, in fact. The notion that institutions effect economic change is echoed in Birla’s attention to shifts in case and codified law and the effect of the “rule of law” on the market as an object of governance—indeed the temporal stages of capital: status and contract. The observation that the birth and evolution of organizations is influenced by institutional frameworks and that they, in turn, influence how institutional frameworks evolve (5) is evident, for instance, in chapter five, where Birla examines the rise of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and other similar commercial organizations within the framework of market governance as well as their participation in debates about the scope of sovereignty.
But, as Birla says, these aren’t necessarily ideas new to the study of South Asian economy, governance, and society. And in fact a pure temporal narration of institutional change and economic performance in late colonial South Asia, a narration Birla resists, presupposes, she writes, culture and economy as distinct temporal realms that posed no conflict or tension in the production of the Indian Economic Man. That presupposition reproduces the master narrative of the production of the modern subject as a universal rational agent of Capital. Only by putting economic (and legal history) in conversation with postcolonial and gender studies, rather than relying on economic models of change and performance, is Birla able offer something new: her genealogy of capital and contract as a governmental practice that managed both economy and culture, of how market governance produced “the market” as a model for social relations. Only very optimistically could we retrospectively see the kernel of Birla’s intervention in North’s contention that “institutions shape human interaction,” which he explored only in the most narrowly economic terms. And given the tenor of our introduction to work on gender and postcolonialism in that seminar all those years ago, I doubt that Stages of Capital is precisely the resurgence that the seminar leader had in mind.
Enough looking back. I read Stages of Capital, as one does, through my own particular research interests, which right now involve conceptions of authority within certain arenas of public debate about, for instance, nineteenth-century British science, governance, and party politics against the backdrop of colonial rebellions. I take up genealogies of authority—which I define loosely as the cultural practices and performances aimed at the production of consent—on three simultaneous levels. First, at a sort of meta-level, there are broad debates about imperial and colonial authority—or sovereignty, as it emerges in Stages of Capital—in the context of both particular moments of colonial resistance and generally in the cumulative undermining of imperial authority in the mid-nineteenth century. Second, at a sort of middle level, there are debates about the national market share of authority about certain subjects for particular communities vis-à-vis other communities (for example, scientists’ claims to knowledge about the natural world as against those of natural philosophers, or those defending monarchial governance against republican and democratic governance). And lastly, I’m interested in the personal and professional authority that an individual attempts to accrue to himself (since in my research I’m dealing with male subjects and masculinity) within a community—i.e., looking at competing visions of what constitutes authoritative science, or Tory politics etc.
Birla’s genealogy of market governance offers a rich and even expanded conception of my middle layer. I don’t want to rehearse here all the ways in which I read Stages of Capital as a study in the conceptualization of authority. But, for instance, if we read chapters three and five together, we can read, as Birla does: first, market governance and the notion of trusteeship as a juridical-economic version of the civilizing mission and thus one sort of meta-level model for colonial authority (104). Below that, we can read localized disputes about public trusts and the claims of beneficiaries vs. those of joint families as regional and national debates about whether the authority of the trust contract (protecting the abstracted public community) could be asserted over the claims of joint families (the interests of the private); i.e., over what form of law and what community of legal opinion was authorized to settle claims. Then below that, we have the voices of native experts: indigenous merchant capitalists, who in claiming national public economic authority on the basis of their expertise in managing the joint family and controlling women, also opened up debates about who had the authority to speak for, for instance, Indian nationalism, the Hindu community, and even the Marwari community itself.
Through all this, Birla provides a complex picture of hegemony, negotiation, resistance, and accommodation that is the history of Capital and late colonial Indian society. Given my own interests, I’m curious about how a genealogy of competing imperial visions for India might appear alongside the history Birla has written. Certainly the development of Capital was never a given as the model for British national, never mind imperial, social formations and I wonder about the history of contestation surrounding the stages of Capital at the imperial level. Without it there’s the danger of confirming a narrative about the inevitability of global Capital. Also, while in the context of social reform debates we get glimpses of some dissonant voices from within the Marawari community, I wondered more about the strategies for claiming to speak for that community, or even for a community within that community. What were the internal politics and conflicts informing conflicting contributions to national debates about Indian social reform? What strategies did individuals within the community perform in order to claim to speak on behalf of it? How do these debates look from within the Marwari community? Thus, how is the history of these contingent translators of culture also part of a local, rather than just, colonial history? Obviously we could telescope and microscope these genealogies forever, so these queries are not meant as criticisms of the book, but as the sorts of questions that Stages of Capital reminds me to ask of my own work.