Political Economy, Liberalism, and Foucault: An Interview with Upal Chakrabarti (Part 2)

By Guest Contributor Osama Siddiqui

By Osama Siddiqui

Upal Chakrabarti is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at Presidency University in Kolkata. His research interests focus on intellectual history, colonialism, political economy, agrarian studies, science studies, and governance. He received his PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and has been a Fellow at the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry at the New School for Social Research. His research has been published in journals like Modern Asian Studies, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, and South Asian History and Culture. He is currently working with the British Library and the University of Chicago in preparing an archive of the institutional records of the Hindu/Presidency College, the first institution of western education in Asia, and editing a collection of essays on institutional micro-histories, science, disciplinarity, and pedagogy in colonial south Asia.

Osama Siddiqui spoke to him about his recent book, Assembling the Local: Political Economy and Agrarian Governance in British India, published in 2021 with the University of Pennsylvania Press as part of the Intellectual History of the Modern Age series.

Osama Siddiqui:  You’ve argued that one instance of this reorientation can be seen in debates over rent. As you show, the category of rent in colonial India was reconceptualized, moving away from a Ricardian definition that was rooted in the differential fertility of soil to thinking of rent as a way of regulating political power. What implications did this have for the way in which the colonial state saw the relationship between sovereignty and property?

Upal Chakrabarti: One of the things I’ve argued in the first chapter of the book that it’s not the case that all professed anti-Ricardians were necessarily self-conscious critics of Ricardo. I place critics of Ricardo even among those who were self-styled devotees of Ricardo. This is something we need to keep in mind when thinking about what was happening to Ricardo’s ideas. For example, someone like James Mill, despite being an ardent devotee of Ricardo, ended up having an impact on the transformation and displacement of Ricardian ideas in the Indian context because of his great investment in empire and his close studies of Indian history, society, religion, custom, and so on. In other words, many of them, Ricardians as well as anti-Ricardians, irrespective of their self-stylings, could be read as contributing to this epistemological reorientation of political economy.

The epistemological reorientation I’ve discussed is more explicit in Jones, who argued that history, tradition, politics, and religion all have to be taken into account when we think through political economic categories in contexts outside Britain. Interestingly, if one reads Jones carefully, what one can notice is that ultimately Jones is not even saying that Ricardo’s universals work in Europe. So, it’s not a simple, or typical, case of Europe versus Asia. Jones discusses many other European nations, such as Greece, Hungary, Russia, Italy, France, and so on. In each of these contexts, he ultimately shows that there are very specific social fabrics with different political systems and different religious ideas, which together produce different economic conditions. In other words, he can’t even identify what is the real authentic place for the universality of Ricardian ideas. So, when he enters Britain, he starts talking about different parts of Britain as coming close to or being distant from the ideas that Ricardo is talking about. What I’m trying to suggest is that there seems to be no authentic center at which Ricardian ideas can be held as applicable and then the rest considered as digressive spaces. The entire world is opened up to the inapplicability of these categories in terms of the specifics of each society.

So, to come back to the earlier point about Mill’s anti-Ricardianism, even though Mill was a devotee of Ricardo and had an agenda of introducing Ricardian ideas into colonial governance, he unknowingly undercut Ricardian universals by drawing on arguments rooted in the specificity of Indian history and society. For example, when he wrote the History of British India, he argued that Indian society prior to British rule was very antithetical to the kind of modern governance that the British had introduced. In making such an argument – that is, in drawing on materials from Indian history and society, and displacing Ricardian categories by the specificities of that material – he too was acting as a critic of Ricardo in a certain sense.

The category of rent is a good example of this. By saying that sovereignty-property equations had historically been different in India, Mill was suggesting major changes in the use of Ricardo’s categories. He was arguing, essentially, that rent had to be understood not as fertility differential, but as power differential. In other words, when Mill tried to graft Ricardian categories to the Indian context of colonial administration, he referred to the governance of property in a way that makes us observe a shift from Ricardo’s understanding of rent as fertility differential to Mill’s use of Ricardo’s understanding of rent as something different in India’s context (i.e. as marking different kinds of sovereignty-property equations).

There were, of course, finer differences between how Mill would take up these displacements of Ricardo’s ideas and how, say, Jones or colonial administrators would take them up. These differences were in terms of the relationship between the state and the different kinds of tenurial subjects. For example, Mill argued that the state should be paramount and should regulate rent, which would also mean that the state would be the sole regulator of political power. In contrast, Jones or other Indian administrators understood the equation between the state and landholders in different combinations. Some administrators argued that because originally there used to be a co-sharing of property between the state and the peasant cultivator, the regulation of power should also be shared between the two, even if the state had the greater right. Meanwhile, other colonial administrators would try to figure out who was more suitable for the role of the regulator of political power – were the actual tillers of the soil more suitable, or were certain dominant peasant groups or big landholders more appropriate for the role.

As a result of this debate, we did not end up having Mill’s prescription of a complete division between the state as the sole centralized body for regulating political power and all subordinate landholding bodies remaining subordinate and robbed of any right to regulate political power. We actually witness the emergence of a far more distributed field of power where the state, of course, had a paramount role, but then all different kinds of landholders also retained different kinds of rights and, therefore, the powers to regulate and administer rent.

So, to sum up, because of the epistemological transformation in political economy, the Ricardian concept of rent transformed from being a fertility differential to a power differential. But, as I’ve pointed out, this transformation was not uniform or straightforward and was itself subject to different understandings and combinations as it played out in this field.

OS: I want to turn to your reading of Foucault. One of the most theoretically exciting contributions of the book is the conversation you stage between Foucault’s reading of the birth of political economy and his lectures on liberal governance. Can you explain how the local fits into this?

UC: Yes, in the book, I was quite keen on forging a link between Foucault’s treatment of political economy in The Order of Things and his use of political economy in his liberalism lectures. The key point for me in The Order of Things was the shift that Ricardian political economy effected in the structure of discourse whereby there was a shift from representation as surface distribution to representation as depth and as a kind of vertical plumbing of particularities. This shift happened through labor emerging as the focal point of political economy in the nineteenth century in the Ricardian moment.

What I realized while reading Jones was that even as Jones was displacing Ricardo’s categories, he was not moving away from the idea of production being the mainstay of political economy, but was reinserting production into very thick social contexts. He was talking about how production would be organized in different societies and how that organization would depend on history, politics, religion, and on the various social conditions of these nations.

In his liberalism lectures, when Foucault talks about governance drawing from political economy the logic of economy and the language of the management of power, he talked about a self-limitation of power that such management entailed. This is also what I saw in my material. Both in the political economic works I studied as well as in the archive of colonial governance, there seemed to be a reflexive spirit at work. There seemed to be everywhere – be it in the critique of political economic universals or in the discussion on the inapplicability of particular revenue policies in colonial India – a way in which government was trying to look back at itself and introduce new limitations. It is important to keep in mind that these limitations were all transformative ventures. These limitations did not simply imply that governance stopped functioning or that governance obstructed itself or withdrew. In fact, the language of limitation was the language through which the question of governance was being extended.

So, essentially, there is a primacy of production noted in Foucault’s early works and a principle of self-limitation – which I interpret as a new form of restructuring of power-relations – of that primacy in his later works. Now, if we look at how the category of production is being mediated in terms of its critique by the anti-Ricardian, inductivist challenge, we find that the primacy of production is being mediated by particularities. These particularities then, in turn, are bringing in their fold the question of the limitation of governance that production is dependent on social conditions.

What this means is that governance has to effectuate a management of these social conditions – that is, a setting up of the field of these various social conditions in such a way that they eventually facilitate production. In other words, governance is invested in a certain management of the different kinds of power equations, which make up this field. This management necessitates a self-reflexive look for governance. It requires that administrators ask questions such as: What are we doing as administrators? Are we pushing through policies which are inapplicable to specific situations? If so, then we need to change our policies. This reflectivity is always pitched in the language of a limitation of government and, I argue, can only be achieved if the local is taken into account as the factor that produces such a limit. And, what is the local? The local is the marking of political economic categories in terms of social particularities.

So, to sum up, in Foucault there is an argument about production and its primacy, but there is also an argument about governmental limitation. My question was: how can production and its primacy reach the problem of governmental limitation? I argued that it can reach the problem of governmental limitation through the mediation of thinking about particularities. Particularities act as the epistemological-historical force that recasts production and turns it towards a management of differences, which links production to governance and brings us to the question of the limitation of governance. So, this is how I read the connection between Foucault’s early works and later works and used the category of local to bridge these two disparate points in his writings.

OS: In the last couple of decades, the history of Indian liberalism has been a particularly vibrant field. It seems to me that there have been two dominant approaches to thinking about the rise of liberalism in India. On the one hand, there’s a “diffusionist” approach, which argues that liberalism emerged in India because of the global circulation of texts and ideas. Chris Bayly’s Recovering Liberties might be an exemplar of this approach. On the other hand, there’s a sociohistorical approach that argues that liberal categories emerged as a result of social transformations from within Indian society. Andrew Sartori’s work is most notably an exemplar of this latter approach. I wonder how you situate yourself in relation to these two approaches, if indeed you read the historiography in this way at all.

UC: I do agree that these two approaches have marked out two influential ways of understanding liberalism in colonial societies. Let me take the latter approach first, which is discernible in Sartori’s more recent work. As you say, Sartori argues that certain sociohistorical conditions are intrinsic to the development of liberalism and gave rise to certain liberal abstractions, which are objective in the sense that they have a universality to them which is capable of getting reproduced across contexts. If I have to think of my engagement with this approach, I would say that I’m more interested in the ideational formation of these abstractions. I want to understand how precisely, within the intellectual landscape of liberalism, such abstractions in their particularities arise in colonial contexts. To understand this one has to return to the complexities of the intellectual trajectory of liberalism.

So, I am in agreement with the argument that liberalism would generate certain abstractions within which subjectification would take place in colonial conditions. But how to trace such abstractions is a problem that I’m more engaged with. For example, I would not say I am engaging with Ricardianism in a similar way as Sartori is with Lockeanism. My argument is that the kind of abstractions that Ricardianism is capable of generating in colonial conditions cannot be understood without reading Ricardianism in terms of all the discursive fields that my book engages. Its reproducibility is not a character of its inherent universality; rather its universality can get reproduced only in and through difference. I trace these abstractions in terms of the series of transformations they undergo in this discursive space. If I take Ricardo as one point, then by the time I reach, say, property disputes in Cuttack, several transformations have happened in these Ricardian abstractions. I, therefore, see this as an integrated field in which property disputes and Ricardo are part of the same discursive field.

Turning to the diffusionist approach, of which there have been earlier accounts as well, with Bayly being the more recent example, I would say that I differ from such an approach because I take the entire discursive field as being flat and integrated. In diffusionist accounts, in contrast, there seems to be a modular vision where there is a higher metropolitan point from which ideas originate and move down to the peripheries. For me, when I see the kinds of conversations that are happening in a tiny locality like Cuttack, I argue that those conversations have been produced out of the kind of abstraction that the local is. That abstraction has not been birthed in the geographical territory of the colony. It has been generated within a metropolitan context. However, in saying this, I’m not trying to suggest that the geographical point of origin has to be shifted to Britain. On the contrary, my point is that unless we try to move away from an empirical geography of such transformations, we cannot move out of diffusionism. For my purposes, this is a discursive geography, and I consider this field as flat. It’s certainly not a homogenous field, but it is a field where several transformations are taking place and none of these transformations have started from a point higher up in the chain and received somewhere else lower down in the chain. So, this is how I would situate my work in relation to the two approaches to liberalism that you highlighted.

OS: A framework that has been particularly influential in these conversations in recent years is that of ‘global intellectual history’. This is not a term that you use in the book to describe your own work. Can you can say a little bit about how you think of this framework?

UC: Following from the last question, I would say that I’m sort of uncomfortable with the framework of global intellectual history. It’s certainly an immensely productive and rich framework, which has been able to bring together apparently disjointed spaces and forge connections between different bodies of ideas. But be it the imperial or the global, I still think that these formulations rest on a kind of geographical essentialism. The ‘global’ in global intellectual history is still conceived of in terms of distinct territories out of which ideas emerge, nestled, mingled, or hybridized. In this approach, ideas are still seen as having their origin in geographical locales from where they generate interactions and move from one place to another. In contrast, I’m trying to think of a scale in this work that is without geographical locations. This is what the idea of the local helps me to do. I think of the local as a scalar category, which is not at the geographic level. I see it as an abstract machine, taking off from Deleuze and Guattari, where scale is a metaphor, with concrete effects. This is something that I have not been able to develop in my book to my fullest satisfaction, and I do want to take this ahead and think of writing something on the idea of scale and the concept of the local.

OS: This is a good segue to my last question, which is what are you working on next?

UC: Well, the next project has not yet been defined fully, but what I’m interested in right now are histories and practices of science in different institutional contexts in India. I haven’t fixed the sites, places, or networks very concretely yet, but essentially this project has emerged out of archiving work that I started doing at my institution. I teach at Presidency University, which was established in 1817 as Hindu College and was the first institution of Western-type education in Asia. It became a university in 2010, and in 2012 I joined the university as one of its earliest faculty members. What I chanced upon as I joined this university were institutional records of this place, which date back to its origins in the early-nineteenth century. Within its 200-year history, this place has produced a steady stream of very important, eminent public figures in South Asia across a variety of fields, including the sciences, philosophy, history, and economics. The two most well-known of these are the two Nobel Laureates in Economics, Amartya Sen and Abhijit Banerjee. But then there was also absolutely international cutting-edge research done in the field of physics and plant sciences by someone called Jagadish Chandra Bose in the 1890s. Similar figures were present in Chemistry, Physiology, Geology, and Mathematics. And there were also major historiographic movements that emerged out this place. So, this place has a lot of interesting institutional history, which connects to different kinds of histories of modern India.

I am particularly interested in the history of scientific practice. Experimental science based on laboratory work started in India in this institution for the first time in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. I started archiving the institutional records of this place in order to move onto other institutions in India where scientific research in its earliest shape was being practiced in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. I have not yet figured out all these concrete places and sites. What I’m doing right now is building an archive of this place, which of course has become quite a challenging affair due to the pandemic. But, despite that, I currently have two projects through which this archiving work is happening. First, there’s a British Library sponsored Endangered Archives Program. And then there’s a collaboration with the University of Chicago, where I’m working with a team of other scholars to finish a book of essays on different aspects of pedagogy, research, and governance within this institution and how they were linked to histories of science, nationalism, and reform in modern India.

OS: That sounds fascinating! Good luck and thanks for your time!

Osama Siddiqui is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Classics at Providence College. His current book project focuses on the translation and reception of British economic ideas in colonial India, specifically how thinkers like James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall and others were translated into Urdu in the nineteenth century. His research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Historical Association, the Social Science Research Council, and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He completed his PhD in History from Cornell University.

Featured Image: Charles Stewart, Map of Bengal, Behar, Orissa, 1813, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.