Jairus Banaji on the Indian corporate strategy of subordinating farm households and family labor

NB: Continuing the discussion of issues raised by the ongoing kisan agitation, here are some observations made by Jairus Banaji on the nature of corporate domination and subjugation of peasant agriculture. They appeared on his Facebook page, the dates of which are appended.

A long-standing dodge in mainstream commentary on economic policy as well as in political science, is whether the replacement of the Divine Right of Kings - or the paramountcy of colonial rulers - by the Sovereignty of the People is a sufficient description of what has taken place in the so-called modern era. I refer to the Divine Right of Capital, or the Sovereignty of the Market. This is called 'economic freedom' by our pundits of public opinion, and it is assumed that freedom for the corporations is good for humanity. 

An example of such reasoning may be found in a recent article in The Print, where a well-intentioned defence of political freedom is attached to something called 'economic freedom'. We are informed that Japan (for example) began as a 'fledgling democracy' and became even more so with time. The article conveniently selects 1945 as a starting point. If it did not, we would have to consider how Meiji Japan under a highly restricted franchise and thoroughly militarised political culture became a major military and colonial power by the 1930's; how the USSR under Bolshevik dictatorship transformed its industrial base (with the decimation of its peasantry); and how Germany under Nazi tyranny could construct an economy capable of launching a world war. 

Historical experience shows that industrialisation, whether capitalist or state-capitalist, involved despotism over labour, and that sweeping generalisations about freedom should be examined with regard to whose freedom and freedom to do what exactly? "Free trade", by the way, was also the slogan of the British and other European colonial powers in the course of imperial expansion. And the 'laws of the free market' were precisely those which unleashed deadly famines in the colonial world in the late 19th century. All these developments took place under the banner of 'economic freedom'. That was what liberalism originally meant - liberty for capital.

It is utterly misleading to say that economic and political freedom go hand in hand. It is contravened by all the data on the inequality enforced by capitalism; yet it is considered too 'Marxist' to challenge this assumption, or even to talk about it. Non-Marxists have also challenged the assumption that capitalism is compatible with democracy, as for example the late Professor Sheldon Wolin, whose interview on the issue may be heard here

Democratic liberties are fragile and vulnerable to attack by corporates as well as Stalinists, by neo-liberal 'think tanks' as well as by authoritarian demagogues promising prosperity in return for quiet submission. We need to defend liberty as a value in itself, not because it (supposedly) enables endless economic 'growth'. We have to see through the propaganda that tells us corporates 'provide us with jobs' - when what they are doing is destroying our livelihoods. As nationalism is enforced affinity, so is capitalism enforced destitution. 

Banaji's comments provide an insight into the ways whereby capital colonises agriculture; and prompt us to re-examine established ideological notions of 'growth' and 'progress'. DS


The irony, unbearable irony, of describing India as the “mother of democracy” (the PM yesterday) when there are tens of thousands of farmers besieging the capital to seek the repeal of laws that he and his small circle of corporate friends are dead set against repealing; besieging the capital with demands that he treats with absolute contempt, wilful incomprehension and repeated insults.  (xi/12) 

As industrial conglomerates like Reliance diversify into retail (through Reliance Retail and JioMart), or like Adani into the wholesaling & storage of food-grains (Adani Agri Logistics), and India’s e-commerce begins to attract retail giants from abroad, one of their first moves will be to establish supply chains that can ensure price domination over farm households. This means scrapping the minimum support prices that have become the key focus of the resistance and mass mobilisations organized by the Punjab farmers and different farmers’ unions. After the concerted resistance that India saw to the Citizens Amendment Act, this comes as an even more remarkable challenge to Modi, to his government and through them to the ever-narrowing circle of big industrial capital.  

But where is the framework for getting some sense of what this struggle signifies in terms of capitalism? In a recent book I’ve argued that Alexander Chayanov’s notion of the vertical concentration of capital is a good description of the more pervasive ways in which capital establishes its domination over agriculture. Chayanov was reacting to the orthodox Marxist analyses of the agrarian question for which it was the emergence of a capitalist class within the mass of the peasantry that chiefly signified the victory of capitalism. 

Against this model of a disintegrating peasantry that splits up into capitalist farmers and landless laborers (‘horizontal concentration’) he contraposed the way in which large commercial firms establish their domination over a dispersed mass of peasant households. “Trading capitalism”, he wrote, “sometimes in the form of very large-scale commercial undertakings draws masses of scattered peasant farms into its sphere of influence and, having bound these small-scale commodity producers to the market, economically subordinates them to its influence”.  

In moving into retail, big industrial capital integrates the functions of commercial capital and works precisely on the lines indicated by Chayanov. Eventually these “new ways in which capitalism penetrates agriculture” “convert the farmers into a labor force working with other people’s means of production. They convert agriculture…into an economic system concentrated in a series of the largest undertakings”. 

Dispossession is a major anxiety underlying the present struggle of the farmers, but this is not dispossession of one group or class of peasants by another so much as the subordination of millions of farm households and of family labor to large-scale capitalist undertakings that embody the “return of merchant capitalism” but here in India (unlike Walmart in the US) as part of a diversification strategy mooted by the most powerful (and favored) industrial groups in the country. Modi is firmly committed to those groups and their “farm to fork” models of agribusiness.  (ii/12) 


Banaji's recent book A brief history of commercial capitalism is reviewed here

Capitalism is either eternal or it isn’t. There are people who defend the first view, or something close to it—the 2014 multivolume Cambridge History of Capitalism opens in Babylonia, circa 1000 BCE—but it is much more plausible that capitalism, like most other social phenomena, has its origins in specific historical developments. The trouble is that, once you’ve got everyone to agree that capitalism has a history, you have to define what capitalism is and then explain when, where, why, and how it emerged.

Of course, no one thinks you can date the transition the way you can specify when a battle took place or a patent was filed. But even after abandoning false precision, those who’ve grappled with the problem of defining and explaining capitalism’s emergence have been unable to agree even on which centuries and continents were involved. These questions are likely no closer to resolution today than they were when European radicals started using the word “capitalism” two hundred years ago.

For many, the whole question of origins is a pseudo-problem—you can write economic history without modes of production. But those who have dreamed of transcending capitalism find it harder to let go of the thorn. If the object can’t be defined, can it be dismantled? If there was no starting point, can there be an end? Marxist scholars have been central to the origins debate, but Marx himself said enough different things on the topic to inspire contending schools, each speaking in his name….


Jairus Banaji on the history of Indian capitalists; and the BJP's assault on human rights

Agenda for Social Democracy

Discussion on Indian Agriculture and the ongoing Kisan agitation

Amit Bhaduri: Faces in mirror held up by farmers’ protest

Can Capitalism and Democracy Coexist?

Defying capitalism and socialism, Kumarappa and Gandhi had imagined a decentralised Indian economy - Venu Madhav Govindu & Deepak Malghan

Amandeep Sandhu on Arthiyas - extract from PANJAB: Journeys Through Fault Lines

Ravinder Kaur: Has Modi finally met his match in India's farmers?

Indian Farmers' Protest - Work in progress videos

STATE OF RURAL AND AGRARIAN INDIA REPORT 2020. By the Network of Rural and Agrarian Studies

P. Sainath: Did You Think the New Laws Were Only About the Farmers? // SCBA president says farm laws 'unconstitutional', offers free services as lawyer to agitating farmers

Sam Kriss: 'Neoliberalism' isn't a left-wing insult but a monstrous system of inequality

Noam Chomsky: Internationalism or Extinction (Universalizing Resistance)

Book review: Thomas Piketty's Capital and Ideology

Book review: Late Victorian Holocausts - the famines that fed the empire

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