India’s rural economy underwent a significant transformation during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Yet, the forces which scholars once imputed this change to – the colonial state or capitalist world economy – are rarely now seen as having had the power to wreak such a dramatic transformation on the subcontinent. This paper reconsiders the emergence of peculiarly colonial economic relations in the Indian countryside. Focusing on the economy of rural Bengal, the paper suggests that important economic and social changes occurred as the unintended consequence of the colonial state’s initial find stable sources of revenue from the political economic relations of the early modern province.
An important new characteristic of colonial Bengal’s agrarian economy was the increasing mediation of social relations through abstract categories. What it meant to be a “zamindar” was determined not by the heterogeneous complexity of local social and political relations, but by a series of general rules established either by the colonial state or Bengal’s print public sphere. Similarly, rather than being negotiated in a series of unique face-to-face transactions, the amount of cash a tenant paid to their landholder, or which the landholder paid to the state was supposed to be determined by general rates of rent or revenue.
For Karl Marx, the mediation of social life by abstract categories of this kind was a sign of a capitalist society, in which the “real abstraction” of free labour dominated social interaction. In early colonial Bengal on the other hand, new forms of abstraction emerged from the colonial state’s recurrent fiscal-epistemological crises, not from changing relations of production: they were produced as colonial officials created abstract, general categories as a way of comprehending what for them was the otherwise unknowable – and thus un-taxable - complexity of early modern Indian social relations. Structuring everyday Indian interaction with colonial courts and revenue offices, these categories nonetheless also began to form an important part of the self-understanding of Bengal’s local elites. Wielded by landholders and wealthy intermediaries as well as the state, the ability of the poorest half of rural society to impose their own terms on their superiors declined as the power of these general categories rose. Yet, abstract categories continued to have a discordant relationship with the “real”, everyday practices of social and economic interaction in the countryside. The consequence, I argue, was the emergence of a form of non-capitalist economy that nonetheless institutionalised the tendencies towards recurrent crisis Karl Marx associated with capitalism.
Jon E Wilson teaches South Asian history and social theory at King’s College London, where he is also Deputy Head of the School of Arts & Humanities and acting Director of the Centre for Indian Cultures. His first book, The Domination of Strangers. Modern Governance in Colonial India, 1780-1835(Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), examined the emergence of a colonial political culture in Bengal, paying particular attention to the central role of anxiety and uncertainty within the process of colonial state formation. He is currently working on a book entitled The Conquest of India about war and state violence in the Indian subcontinent from 1757 onwards, and a history of Bangladeshi politics since 1971.
© 2013. The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.