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Center for South Asian Studies pres.

CSAS Lecture Series | Of Commodities and Frontiers: Looking for "Capitalism" on the Edges of Britain’s Indian Colonies

Subir Sinha, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London

Subir Sinha, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London Subir Sinha, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
Subir Sinha, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
In a longer project called The Postcolonial Commons, I am interested in the emergence of fluid political subjectivities around questions of defending existing commons, and creating new ones, in two regions of India: of small-scale fishers in coastal Kerala, and small farmers in the Garhwal region of present-day Uttarakhand state. I am in conversation with strands of contemporary political theory (represented, among others, by Hardt and Negri, Federici, de Angelis, Zizek, and Bauwens) that posit a future organised around ‘the commons’. However, while these writings are futuristic, I suggest that they have an underpinning narrative of the transition from the ‘pre-capitalist commons’ to the ‘commons unmade through capitalism’, which has implications for the political imaginaries outlined in their works. I challenge their orthodox account of this transition with drawing on writings on ‘postcolonial capitalism’, including my own recent work.

For this seminar, I offer two sections of the ‘historical’ part of the larger project: a discussion of the historiographical challenges in reconstructing ‘the pre-capitalist commons’ and the transitions it undergoes ‘under capitalism’ in relation to Kerala fisheries and Garhwali forests, and the limits of the ‘commodity frontiers’ approach to narrate this process. Among other things, the very nature of ‘rule’, and the problems of establishing it in these ‘unruly’ spaces, has a bearing on the sources – rather, the lack thereof – on which an account of such a process can be reconstituted. Accounts are few, and the reliability of some sources is uncertain, for much of the period of early colonial conquest. And what accounts there are do not point to the transformation of fish or forest into ‘commodities’ until relatively recently. Nor are capitalist production relations visible in any meaningful sense. The conditions for fish and forests becoming ‘commodities’, and for the emergence of capitalism in these sectors, come from a number of scientific, technological and other governmental innovations under late-colonial and early-postcolonial developmentalism. I conclude by identifying the implications of my account for radical political theory of the commons.

Subir Sinha studied History at the University of Delhi (BA) and Political Science at Northwestern University (MS, PhD), and has taught at Northwestern University and the University of Vermont. His research interests are institutional change, sustainable development, social movements, state-society relations in development, and South Asian politics, with a current focus on decentralised development in India, early postcolonial planning, and on the global fishworkers' movement.

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Subir Sinha, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London Subir Sinha, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
Subir Sinha, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
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