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Intersectionality and Primary Accumulation

Caste and Gender in India under the Sign of Monopoly-Finance Capital

Judith Whitehead is an adjunct professor in the School of International Studies at Simon Fraser University.

The overarching goal of this article is to explain how the relations between capitalist imperialism, primary accumulation—often misleadingly called “primitive accumulation”—and intersectionality operate in contemporary global political economy.1 From many recent studies, it is clear that certain populations are more vulnerable to processes of primary accumulation than others, and that many people in the global South now experience the dispossession and displacement caused by primary accumulation without any subsequent incorporation into waged work. Understanding how ethnicity, gender, and class intersect within contemporary patterns of global accumulation is important in order to develop clear political strategies against ongoing dispossessions.

To do so, imperialism, primary accumulation, and intersectionality all need to be rethought, especially in relation to each other. Few commentators analyzing either the increases in primary accumulation under neoliberalism or the intersections of gender, race, and class oppression have appreciated the ways that monopoly-finance capital now dominates global political economy.2 The current hegemony of monopoly-finance capital, especially visible after the global crisis of 2008–09, is linked to predatory processes of primary accumulation that draw upon local intersections of race, gender, and class. Together, these processes heighten the vulnerability of oppressed groups to dispossession, displacement, and even death. While intersectional theory provides insights into how specific populations and places become exposed to dispossession, a full account of the wider processes that drive these current modes of accumulation must address the role of primary accumulation in more explicitly Marxian terms.

To see finance capital as the dominant force in global political economy, however, is not to claim it as the sole determinant of relations of production and patterns of accumulation. Indeed, financialization owes its present power to contradictions in the realm of production. Financialization arose in response to the economic stagnation produced by monopoly capitalism from the 1970s on, and has only accelerated with the outsourcing of manufacturing capacity to low-wage countries in the neoliberal period. This outsourcing was propelled, as in Lenin’s time, by the overaccumulation of capital, to the point that the mass of surplus value could not be realized through investment in domestic production.3 Outsourcing to low-wage countries also required the creation of hyper-mobile finance and currency hedges, which in turn stimulated the growth of futures and derivatives markets.4 Finally, profit rates of multinational corporations in imperialist countries have been hugely augmented by outsourcing in the neoliberal period. Rather than try to raise rates of profit through absolute or relative surplus value expansion, multinationals have forced down wages to levels competitive in the conditions of poverty and oppression that prevail in the global South.5

At the same time, apartheid-like barriers to the free flow of international labor have enabled the practice of global labor arbitrage to be maintained during the neoliberal period.6 Since financialization does not itself create value, but merely redistributes it, the financialization of imperialist regions is made possible only by the super-exploitation of labor in low-wage countries.7 The capture of excess surplus-value by northern multinationals through outsourcing constitutes therefore the defining feature and mechanism of contemporary imperialism. As a corollary, the predominant capital-labor relation today consists of capital located mainly in imperialist countries entering into both direct relationships with southern labor through foreign direct investment and indirect relationships through the process of outsourcing.8

While the symbiotic relation between outsourced manufacturing in select low-wage regions and financialization in advanced capitalist economies was a predominant pattern of the neoliberal period until the crisis of 2008–09, there are indications that this relationship now faces insurmountable contradictions. The “secular stagnation” that characterizes post-crisis Atlantic capitalism may be shutting off future pathways to export-led growth in low-wage regions.9 Indeed, regions previously immune to the ever-mutating crisis, such as India and China, now seem increasingly affected. Both countries have grown more financialized under competitive pressures between local and multinational firms. As a result, corporate debt loads have risen, increasing the strain on their financial sectors, and exports have been stumbling. In India, exports have fallen for the past twenty-one months. It is debatable, therefore, whether new regions of the outsourcing world will be able significantly to expand export-led manufacturing, even with rock-bottom wages and regulatory concessions to local manufacturers and their transnational patrons.

In this post-crisis period, the dominance of monopoly-finance capital has only grown more extreme and more visible. The phenomenon of primary accumulation without subsequent proletarianization in southern regions has also become more marked, drawing the attention of numerous analysts.10 In other words, the peasantry as a social class is disappearing in these countries, but it is unclear what they are becoming, since most are not being absorbed into industry—the familiar pattern in which peasants are driven by dispossession from the countryside to the factories has not held. Marxian analysts have drawn on concepts of pauperization and “absolute surplus populations” in their attempts to capture this new reality.11

However, even during neoliberalism’s pre-crisis ascendancy, from 1980–2008, rates of employment growth through outsourcing had been too low to absorb the masses of people “freed” from the land through processes of primary accumulation, except in China and other early adopters of export-led industrialization policies, such as Taiwan and South Korea. Outsourcing itself only occurred unevenly, in select low-wage regions.12 Kalyan Sanyal provided an early analysis of primary accumulation without proletarianization in South Asia.13 Samir Amin noted in 2003 that even an annual GDP growth rate of above 7 percent for the next fifty years could only absorb about a third of the existing population of former peasants or simple commodity producers across the global South.14 For many people, primary accumulation is a precursor only to more primary accumulation, while the current scale of the reductions in the global peasant population points, if it were effected fully, toward mass genocide.15 It appears that one of the main patterns in contemporary global political economy is labor expulsion, rather than primary accumulation leading to expanded reproduction—the “classic” path of capitalist development in Europe and North America.16

My main argument is that contemporary imperialism, led by finance capital, is not only one of the major drivers of “secular stagnation,” especially the relative lack of recent investment in manufacturing, but also of primary accumulation without proletarianization in large parts of the global South. Indeed, the two phenomena may be mirror images of each other.17 Throughout the neoliberal period, successive rounds of primary accumulation have included the destruction of state employment and collective farming in the former Soviet Union and China following their reentry into the world economy; the seizure of land for infrastructure, industrial parks, export-processing zones, real estate development, and speculation in many parts of the global South; and large-scale “land-grabs” for plantations that dispossess small farmers, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in parts of Asia and Latin America.18 It also involves land concessions for resource extraction. To these major types of primary accumulation, one could add conservation projects for national parks and biosphere reserves, often created in functionally inhabited spaces in the global South, along with deforestation projects in inhabited spaces, and other examples of “green imperialism.”19

In Marx’s analysis, primary accumulation was a logical precursor to capitalist production, which was itself a precursor to expanded reproduction.20 For capital and labor to coexist, a prior process of primary accumulation had to occur, usually producing three simultaneous and decisive changes. First, primary accumulation involved the amassing of wealth that could be transformed into capital, which Marx believed occurred primarily through colonial conquests and looting. Second, it forcibly separated direct producers, mainly peasant farmers, from their means of production, giving rise to a new class of people compelled to sell their labor-power to survive. Third, by separating the mass of the population from the means of production, a home market for the realization of surplus value was created.21 This yielded a class of wage workers on one side and of capitalist owners on the other. Thereafter, the reproduction of capitalist relations occurred through the dull compulsion of economic necessity, as workers had to sell their labor-power to live. In the classic Marxian model, those workers unable to do so formed part of a “reserve army of labor” of un- and underemployed workers whose existence created competitive pressures in labor markets, driving wages ever lower. Marx believed the reserve army also provided capitalists with the flexibility of hiring and firing during upswings and downswings in a national economy.

In 2012, the estimated size of the global reserve army of labor was 2.4 billion, while the total “active army” was estimated at 1.4 billion.22 Employment in select low-wage regions has undoubtedly increased during the past thirty years, with 79 percent of the global workforce now located in low-wage countries. However, this still yields a rough “unemployment” figure of about 63 percent, including those casually and partially employed. In addition, since primary accumulation has not been followed by expanded reproduction in many parts of the global South, it seems difficult to attribute any functionality to capital of a relative surplus population of 2.4 billion.23 And with the wages and working conditions of many employed in the vast informal sector approaching what Giorgio Agamben has called “bare life,” it is unclear that such a huge population of the unemployed serves any function for capital at all. Five hundred million people might make up a global reserve army of labor; 2.4 billion—nearly a third of the world’s population—seems excessive.

Hence, I believe that the huge size of the relative surplus population requires closer examination. I will argue that the dominance of monopoly-finance capital now drives processes of primary accumulation without subsequent expanded reproduction. This will be illustrated with examples from South Asia, a vital center of contemporary accumulation, where I have carried out several ethnographic studies focusing on primary accumulation.24 One recent study of pauperism in South Asia estimates that roughly 20 percent of the region’s population—about 250 million people—qualify as “paupers.”25 However, while South Asia will be my focus, there are many examples elsewhere of primary accumulation without proletarianization, often with the direct involvement or indirect support of finance capital. This is especially true of “land grabs” in Africa, Latin America, and other parts of Asia, but would also include resource concessions and conservation regimes.

The Rise of Monopoly-Finance Capitalism

For some observers, neoliberalism’s spatial expansion of capitalist relations through the shift of production to low-wage regions appeared to mark the decline of imperialism, while the accompanying increase in global competition appeared for many to mark the decline of monopoly capitalism. However, Foster and McChesney argue that neoliberal global expansion has been quickly followed by the emergence of new global oligopolies in most industries, and others have shown how imperialism remains a core feature of global political economy. This is illustrated in the degree of control that finance capital wields over national governments and is effected through the transfer of surplus value through reducing wages below the value of labor-power, that is, through “super-exploitation.”26

Monopoly capital exhibits long-term tendencies towards stagnation, due to the concentration of a mass of surplus value in the profits of a few firms, a phenomenon very visible in Atlantic Fordism by the early 1970s. The rise of financialization constituted an attempt to overcome these contradictions of overaccumulation and stagnation in the “real economy.” From the start, its rise was characterized by finance capital’s regulatory capture of major governmental institutions. Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy date the political hegemony of finance capital from the Volker interest rate shock of 1980, which further exacerbated the contradictions of monopoly capital, especially in Europe.27 As debts became unsustainable, wealth and influence quickly flowed away from industrial capital towards the owners of capital, i.e. finance, and major firms became increasingly financialized through the “shareholder revolution” of the 1980s. Dividend and interest payments rose from 30 percent of profits in Western firms in 1979 to 94 percent of profits in 2001.28 “Downsize and distribute” became the watchword of corporate governance, rather than the “retain and reinvest” pattern of the Fordist era.29 Increasing financialization has been enabled by super-exploitation through outsourcing, but the financial sectors of circulation and distribution now appear to have acquired a logic of their own, expanding beyond what Marx thought possible in the late nineteenth century.

Monopoly-finance capital possesses specific features that differentiate it from monopoly-industrial capital, expressed through changed patterns of corporate governance. First, the primary logic of finance capital is extractive, rather than productive. Second, finance capital tends to focus on capturing fixed assets to be turned into complex financial instruments that extend asset markets and raise asset prices.

Peter Gowan has shown how Wall Street firms purposefully created large asset bubbles in East Asia in the years before the Asian financial crisis, then “shorted” those assets, precipitating the subsequent capital flight by those same firms and resulting in a full-fledged economic crisis.30 In the imperialist regions, industrial stagnation was overcome through the creation of asset bubbles, first in the form of technology stocks, and later in real estate, both of which successively burst. Indeed, increasing valuations of land alone now account for a substantial portion of financial sector income streams.31 Gaining control over land and inflating its asset value is a major means of current financial enrichment, much more so than financing production. In most cases, the very act of speculation raises land prices substantially, creating windfall profits in the process.

A third difference between financial and industrial monopoly capital is that, unlike productive capital employed in industry, finance capital operates at a greater distance from waged workers, and is consequently unconcerned with issues of employment. Saskia Sassen sees this as a key break with the Keynesian period, marked by Fordist production, the incorporation of workers into formal wage work, and at least some concern with the realization of capital through expanding workers’ consumption.32

A fourth and final difference: because finance capital is by itself uninterested in expanded reproduction, it becomes spatially extensive: in order to generate rising profits from asset inflation, and especially from real estate, the “spatial fixes” of finance capital have expanded their reach far more than in the past.33 These four characteristics of monopoly-finance capital indicate why the pattern of primary accumulation without expanded reproduction in many southern countries has become a dominant feature since 2008, and why the brutality of the process by which accumulation’s winners and losers are sorted has only increased.

Monopoly-Finance Capital in India

These characteristics of monopoly-finance capital have grown more apparent in the post-2008 period, as investment and capital accumulation have lagged behind asset price and real estate speculation by a wide margin. In addition, financialization is now spreading from imperialist countries to those which had previously been the source of low-wage manufacturing and service industry growth for the global economy, such as India.34 Sunanda Sen and Zico DasGupta have outlined the extent to which large industrial houses in India have become financialized: dividend payouts, share buy-backs, investments in financial activities, and insurance have all become important practices of non-financial corporations, as shareholder value becomes the primary goal of corporate management.35 As a result, rates of accumulation and rates of fixed capital investment have decreased, as has potential employment creation. As a corollary, rising shares of profit are invested in rentier income streams, focused upon short-term speculative interests, rather than long-term industrial growth.36

Since the 2008 crisis, these trends have accelerated: non-financial corporations’ investments in the financial sector rose to 67 percent of profit utilization in 2014. As in the Atlantic economies, shareholder returns have taken precedence over growth. In addition, a number of large firms use foreign borrowings to repay previous liabilities, exposing them to fluctuating exchange rates that leave the Indian corporate sector more vulnerable to problems of capital flight than is the case for the United States, for example.37 Non-performing bank loans have been recently exposed as a major liability of the Indian economy.38 Needless to say, financialization and primary accumulation operate as two sides of the downsize-and-distribute model of monopoly-finance governance in India, as elsewhere.

An example of the acceleration of primary accumulation without industrialization is found in the process of land dispossession for the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in India. The SEZ Act, whose stated goal was to promote “fast export-oriented industrialization and employment,” was passed in 2005 and implemented soon after. It provided a framework for building hyper-liberalized economic enclaves—with minimal taxes, tariffs, and regulations—to attract both foreign and domestic capital. The private sector was lured with offers of cheap land acquired from farmers by the state under the 1894 Land Acquisition Act to create industrial and commercial infrastructure for exporting companies. Farmers have repeatedly agitated against the theft of their land, leading to the cancellation and downsizing of some of the projects, including all SEZs in the state of Goa and the POSCO steel SEZ in Orissa. However, by 2014, 625 SEZs had been approved, covering over half a million acres of land.39

Scholars have already highlighted the unfairness of land acquisition for SEZs, the flouting of environmental regulations by SEZ developers, and the social movements against land acquisitions for SEZs. I will instead focus on the role of the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector in SEZ land acquisition and the marginal effects of SEZ developments on employment. Both individual case studies of SEZs, and the central government’s Comptroller and Auditor General Report, presented to the Indian Parliament in late 2014, indicate that the SEZs have done little to stimulate industry, exports, or employment. Rather, much of the land acquired for SEZs has been used for real estate development, including upscale housing and recreational uses such as golf courses and hotels, or has simply been left idle for speculation, as land prices within the SEZ rise.40

The original SEZ Act of 2005 only required that 35 percent of the land to be used for productive purposes, with developers allowed to reserve the rest for more profitable residential complexes, hotels, and shopping centers. This rule was later revised to require that 50 percent be used for productive purposes.

One of the first SEZs was the Mahindra World City, close to Jaipur, Rajasthan. Ironically, Mahindra and Mahindra, the SEZ’s chief investor, was founded as an industrial firm specializing in automobiles, farm equipment, and steel production. It rose to become a major industrial conglomerate during India’s post-independence drive for import-substitution development (1950–1991). Following the country’s economic liberalization in 1991, Mahindra and Mahindra branched out into financial services, and in 1994, into real estate development, pioneering the World City concept. In Michael Levien’s study of the Mahindra World City, executives admitted that most of their profits would be captured from the 40 percent of land devoted to residential townships, marketed as “Lifestyle Zones,” rather than from the 60 percent of land developed for industrial purposes. In Levien’s calculations, the rate of profit from land parcels developed for businesses in the SEZs was 253 percent, compared to 625 percent for the Lifestyle Zones.

Interestingly, the main business occupants of the Mahindra World City were Infosys, a large software company in an industry where India already enjoys a comparative global advantage, and Deutsche Bank, the international investment bank—hardly the kinds of enterprises for which SEZs were purportedly designed. Employment for local farmers dispossessed by Mahindra World was virtually nil, although some, mainly those belonging to upper castes, profited from rising land prices on the parcels they received in compensation from the state government. Indeed, in some cases the price of land acquired by the government from farmers has increased by as much as ten times its former value following its sale to developers.41

The case of Mahindra World City is not unique. Similar results are documented in the 2014 Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report on SEZs. The CAG Report noted that of the 625 SEZs approved, only 24 percent were operational—almost a decade after the SEZ law’s passage. In a detailed sampling of 152 of the 625 SEZs, the CAG found that all fell short of the goals of the SEZs Act, some by wide margins. For instance, only 9.6 percent were devoted to the multi-product manufacturing sector. In addition, the report found that manufacturing activity in the SEZs had actually decreased over time. Of the mere 9.6 percent of SEZs involved in manufacturing, fully 60 percent of their output was devoted to information technology, an already predominant sector attracted to the SEZs by tax incentives and cheap land. All SEZs fell short on investment targets, ranging from 24 percent to 75 percent, and on exports, ranging from 43 percent to 93 percent. More crucially, in 117 of 152 SEZs studied, employment generation fell short of stated goals by a whopping 93 percent.

Land was by far the most attractive component of the SEZ Act. Land use fell short of its allotment for industry by 31 percent to as much as 93 percent across all SEZs. The system of extensions to operational use of SEZs led to the practice of denotification (i.e., removal of land from the “public purposes” clause) and the diversion of the land for commercial purposes, chiefly real estate development and speculation. While developers demanded large areas for SEZs, only part of the land was subsequently notified as part of the SEZ. Later, the remaining land was denotified from the SEZ to benefit from price appreciation.42

In the case of SEZs in India, the “public purpose” of simulating investment, exports, and employment in SEZs seems but a fig leaf for rentier interests to acquire land cheaply and reap huge profits through real estate speculation. As in many other instances throughout the developing world, primary accumulation is not followed by industrial production on any scale that would provide employment to those whose lands and livelihoods have been forcibly dispossessed. Sampat provides another example of primary accumulation without industrialization in the construction of the “smart city” of Dholera, in Gujarat. “Smart cities” are part of the new development paradigm of the current BJP government, which aims to create an industrial corridor from Delhi to Mumbai, with Dholera as its first urban anchor.43 To date, while land is being acquired from farmers, there have been no visible industrial linkages included in the project. With secular stagnation becoming the global norm, and the shareholder revolution dampening industrial investment in favor of “distributed profits,” dispossessions of many kinds have come to dominate over expanded reproduction.

Intersectionality, Primary Accumulation, and Imperialism

In order to understand how these processes of primary accumulation operate through local patterns of class and power, the concept of intersectionality is particularly useful. “Intersectionality” emerged as a keyword in academic feminism in the early 1990s, with influential articles by the African-American feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who used court cases concerning the denial of employment compensation for African-American women, as well as cases of domestic violence involving non-white women, to argue that discrimination against African-American women could not be understood through either purely anti-racist or feminist perspectives.44 She showed how racial variations within feminist theory and gendered variations within critical race theory led to the exclusion of subjects and communities whose identities were multiple and interrelated. Crenshaw further argued that the intersectional experience was more than the sum of racism and sexism. Drawing on earlier ideas of the “triple jeopardy” of gender, race, and class, intersectionality is considered by its advocates as one of feminism’s major contributions to social theory.45 Others are more critical: Delia Aguilar, for example, argues that intersectionality tends to marginalize class relations, and marks a retreat from Marxist perspectives.46

However, it is possible to include an intersectional approach within Marxist-feminist analyses of the relations between production and reproduction, that is, to develop a social reproduction perspective. Social reproduction focuses on both production and reproduction, thus including domestic work in its analytical frame. It evolved from the domestic labor discussions of second-wave feminism, which argued that capitalism depends on unpaid domestic labor to reproduce labor power—work most often performed by women.47 Other writers, such as Maria Mies, have extended this thesis to argue that capitalism universally depends on the subsistence labor performed by women, both inside and outside the home.48 More recently, Peter Custers, while disagreeing with Mies on the essentialist correlation between women and subsistence production, has shown how Marx’s formula of the rate of exploitation (s/v) must be supplemented by an appreciation of the extent to which variable capital is composed not only of wages, but of the unpaid domestic labor that reproduces workers not just in present, but also in past cycles of production and reproduction.49 In his early study of the neoliberal development of Asian capitalism, Custers found that women were hired in the initial stages of industrial outsourcing, often working 90–100 hours a week in both paid and unpaid labor. Using Custers’ formula, this possibly doubled the high rates of surplus value that John Smith has identified as a defining feature of contemporary imperialism, i.e., pushing wages below the value of labor-power.50

Anti-racist writers critiqued the 1970s domestic labor literature for its racialized essentialism: the housewife in such debates was, by definition, an unmarked Euro-American woman.51 More recently, social-reproduction writers have recognized that labor-power is made available to capital in and through a particular set of gendered, sexualized, and racialized social relations that may logically pre-exist the capital-labor relation, but which become magnified by sectoral divisions in the labor force.52 In other words, while class in political economy is an unmarked category, all classes have histories rooted in regional cultures and in specific configurations of ethnicized and gendered power relations. In advanced capitalism, such gendered, sexualized, and racialized relations reproduce themselves both through the private sphere and through state policies such as immigration controls. In the case of emerging economies, such as those of South Asia, differences and hierarchies of gender, caste, ethnicity, and region predate the development of capitalist relations by centuries, but have deepened and calcified with capitalist expansion.

Existing intersectional approaches have often ignored the overall dynamic through which social relations of production and reproduction intersect. Crenshaw’s theoretical intervention was itself intended as a critique of liberal constructions of unmarked legal individualism, and not as a complete socialist-feminist praxis. Hence, distinct oppressions were theorized not as mutually constitutive, nor constitutive of class relations, but as intermeshing, and hence as ontologically distinct systems. A Marxist-feminist intersectional approach would take into account specific relations of class, of production and reproduction, of pre-existing inequalities, and of imperialism. All would constitute a set of historical-materialist practices creating a hierarchy of spaces, classes, genders and ethnicities within global political economy.

In this approach, neither class and gender, nor race and ethnicity, would be primary, but all would relationally produce and reproduce individual and collective subjectivities.53 Indeed, the study of primary accumulation and dispossession in South Asia shows that the hammer of primary accumulation falls unevenly upon certain caste and class groupings, and carries an important, gendered component. Neither class nor gender by themselves are sufficient to understand these uneven patterns of primary accumulation.

An intersectional understanding of primary accumulation and dispossession in South Asia must first acknowledge the divide between indigenous and non-indigenous groups. In India, an analogous group to indigenous people of the New World is found in Adivasi populations, although this equivalence is inexact, and the divide between Adivasi and non-Adivasi populations dates from the colonial period.54 The term Adivasi, “original people” in Hindi, was adopted by a movement championing the rights of hill-dwellers, whom the British termed “tribes,” in contrast to lowland peasant farmers, who were supposedly defined by caste. In colonial administration, the hill-dwellers who practiced shifting cultivation and shared communal property were deemed “primitive” and were desginated as lacking secure, written property rights to land, hence placing them outside the realm of “civilization” itself. Through various colonial laws, ostensibly linked to forest administration, Adivasi were de jure dispossessed of lands held under longstanding aural agreements, but de facto continued to inhabit remote, hilly areas.55 These colonial inequities and anomalies were carried over into the post-Independence period. Adivasis’ lack of defined private property rights enabled both capital and the state to view them as easily expellable from those formerly remote lands they continued to inhabit. With the wave of neoliberal reform in the 1980s and 1990s, Adivasi populations became the first victims of expropriation—for dams, mining, and other forms of resource extraction in India’s hinterlands.56 Sexual violence against Adivasi women—often at the hands of the police, army, or paramilitary squads—accompanied and continues to mark these processes of dispossession. The large-scale social changes arising from the relocating Adivasi households from hills to plains communities for work as casual laborers extended to the realm of reproduction: the loss of common property resources in the hills has increased women’s unpaid work in acquiring water for households and fodder for animals. It has also increased the costs of fruit, plant, and vegetable resources that now have to be purchased and were formerly found in the forest free of cost.57

In 2007, the central government’s Forest Rights Act the product of decades of struggle by social movements, has formally accorded some property rights to individual Adivasi households. However, its implementation remains far from complete, and property rights for women have been ignored. Indeed, many of its provisions are presently being overridden by the current BJP government through land ordinances and compensatory afforestation bills. In addition, the more recent land acquisitions for SEZs in India have also dispossessed mainstream farming populations, many of whom belong to so-called “other backward castes,” or OBCs.58 Hence, social struggles against primary accumulation by both hill and plains populations have recently begun to converge.59

Another section that has borne a disproportionately large share of contemporary dispossession are Dalits, formerly known as untouchables. They have historically lacked landed property in India, being employed in the pre-colonial and colonial periods as agricultural laborers and menial agrarian servants.60 Dalit women have historically worked as agricultural laborers, for wages typically lower than those of both Dalit and non-Dalit men. With the neoliberal dispensation, even these jobs are under threat. For example, in rural Haryana, a “green revolution” state, increasing violence against Dalit women in rural areas was materially related to the general dispossession of the agrarian sector in the 1990s and 2000s, resulting in an acute agrarian crisis.61 General dispossessions of the agrarian sector involved the withdrawal of state subsidies and the demise of the Public Distribution System, along with greatly increased input costs for small, medium, and large farmers. The only “elasticity” in the ensuing agrarian crisis was that of the cost of labor, leading to increased casualization and retrenchment of Dalit women workers, as well as increased sexual violence, meant in part to deter women from working outside the home.

The movement to defend Dalit women’s job security was launched by the All-India Democratic Women’s Association of India (AIDWA), the country’s largest mass organization of women. They developed a “sectoral” analysis of caste-class-gender oppression that identified the multiple issues facing Dalit women, and their ensuing activism was accordingly multi-pronged, which they termed a “crossing” form of activism.62 The movement identified potential Dalit women activists, established campaigns against gendered violence, provided legal support and safeguards for the women involved, and launched campaigns to protect property rights for Dalit women. It also launched a campaign for food security for all rural populations, and called for rural women’s inclusion within the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the job guarantee scheme created by the central government in alliance with left parties in the early 2000s. Needless to say, the sectoral analysis and crossing activism of AIDWA differs from North American “intersectionality.” First, it identifies the multiple forms of oppression that women face in a specific locality (caste, class, and patriarchy) and attempts to intervene on all axes. Second, it orients toward a socialist-communist horizon that envisions equality and security for all. Hence, subjectivities do not become fixed, ascribed categories that intersect, but social identities that are all relationally formed and thus subject to change in a more egalitarian, socialist-feminist direction.

Beyond Intersectionality

Socialist-feminist analyses of intersectionality and primary accumulation need to account for the dominance of monopoly-finance capital in changing and intensifying the vectors of expropriation, leading to primary accumulation without proletarianization. They must also attend to historical and local configurations of power relations in order to understand why certain racialized or ethnicized populations are more vulnerable than others to dispossession. In many cases, preexisting patterns of enduring inequality are seized upon and intensified through capitalist dispossession. Those populations that bear the historical stigma of “primitivity” or colonial degradation, such as indigenous populations in the New World, Adivasi populations in India, or sub-Saharan African subsistence farmers, are especially vulnerable to violent rounds of primary accumulation. In addition, populations that have experienced historical, pre-colonial forms of oppression, such as Dalits in India, are likely targets for further dispossession. Indeed, a recent statistical study of caste, income, education, and employment of Adivasis and Dalits in India has shown a deterioration in their position during the neoliberal period, while upper-castes have largely benefitted during the same time frame.63 A gendered analysis of the “blood and fire” of primary accumulation should also include the role of sexual violence against women as both a means of dispossession and as an expression of the authoritarian, violent governance that often accompanies primary accumulation.64

The dispossession associated with primary accumulation under monopoly-finance capital is creating a mass of pauperized people who are being expelled from national and global economies with no future inclusion in sight. Such populations are vulnerable to ethnic cleansing, femicide, and class genocide. Indeed, the rise of monopoly-finance capital has been followed by the growth of states based on authoritarian, majoritarian, and patriarchal “demographic” logics.65 By this I mean governments whose legitimacy is derived from a cultural definition of the state and nation along majority ethnic or religious lines. Demographic states are contrasted with liberal capitalist states whose legitimacy is based, if only in theory, on the formal equality of individual citizens. Demographic states are necessarily authoritarian, because governments tasked with projects of primary accumulation must rely more on force rather than on consent and persuasion. A prime example of a demographic state is India under the BJP, a Hindu majoritarian party which fuses patriarchal and authoritarian Brahminical religious ideologies with neoliberal policies in an unholy alliance.66 Similar authoritarian and patriarchal formations that combine neoliberal policies with majoritarian concepts of citizenship include the current Israeli government, Turkey under the AKP, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the Gulf states. Right-wing authoritarian and majoritarian trends, although often lacking an explicit religious foundation, are also evident in the older capitalist countries. The rise of European nationalist parties of the far right, such as the National Front in France, UKIP in England, New Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, and others all exhibit a logic of majoritarian, nativist ethnic exclusivity.

The rise of authoritarian, patriarchal, and majoritarian governments normalizes ethnic exclusivity, clearing the ground for a probable future of discontinuous but ongoing ethnic cleansing. The latter is one potential means for monopoly-finance capital to resolve current contradictions between economic stagnation, accumulation by dispossession, and large relative surplus populations in its favor. The alliances being formed between the neoliberal policies of finance, the petty bourgeoisie in various regions, and ethnic majoritarian governance is reminiscent of a similar pattern of capitalist crises that culminated in the ethnic cleansing that marked the politics and polities of the 1930s and 1940s. It is crucial to understand the relations between primary accumulation, gender, and the rise of demographically exclusive states under monopoly-finance capital in order to develop strategies to defend against a repetition of the tragedies of an earlier era, one that bears so many structural similarities to our own.


  1. Marx’s treatment of primary accumulation, a concept he adopted from classical economics with certain reservations, qualifying it as “so-called,” was mistakenly translated as “primitive accumulation,” and the term has stuck. Nevertheless, it is so misleading that it is discarded here in favor of “primary accumulation.” On this issue see Harry Magdoff, “Primitive Accumulation and Imperialism,”Monthly Review 65, no. 5 (October 2013): 13–25; Karl Marx,Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 871–76.
  2. John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, The Endless Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).
  3. John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 232.
  4. David McNally,Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Oakland, CA: PM, 2010).
  5. Smith,Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, 42–43.
  6. Smith,Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, 234.
  7. Smith,Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, 49, 287, 299.
  8. Smith,Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, 45.
  9. Prabhat Patnaik, “Capitalism and Its Current Crisis,”Monthly Review 67, no. 8 (January 2016): 1­–13.
  10. Utsa Patnaik and Sam Moyo,The Agrarian Question in the Neoliberal Era(Cape Town: Pambazuka, 2011); Partha Chatterjee, “Democracy and Economic Transformation in India,”Economic and Political Weekly 43, no. 16 (2008): 53–62.
  11. Jan Breman,On Pauperism in Presentand Past (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016); Gavin A. Smith, “Selective Hegemony and Beyond—Populations with ‘No Productive Function’: A Framework for Enquiry,”Identities 18, no. 1 (2011): 2–38.
  12. Smith,Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century.
  13. Kalyan Sanyal,Rethinking Capitalist Development (New York: Routledge, 2007).
  14. Samir Amin, “World Poverty, Pauperization, and Capital Accumulation,”Monthly Review 55, no. 5 (October 2003): 1–9.
  15. Foster and McChesney,The Endless Crisis, 16–20.
  16. Saskia Sassen,Expulsions(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
  17. Smith,Imperialismin the Twenty-First Century, 252.
  18. Foster and McChesney,The Endless Crisis; David Harvey,A Short History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Michael Levien, “The Land Question: Special Economic Zones and the Political Economy of Dispossession in India,”Journal of Peasant Studies 39, nos. 3–4 (2011): 933–69; Sassen, Expulsions; Prabhat Patnaik, “Notes on Contemporary Imperialism,” MRzine, December 20, 2010,; Saturnino M. Borras, Jr. et al., “Towards a Better Understanding of Global Land Grabbing: An Editorial Introduction,”Journal of Peasant Studies 38, vol. 2 (2011): 209–16; Magdoff, “Primitive Accumulation and Imperialism”; Shepard Daniel, “Situating Private Equity Capital in the Land Grab Debate,”Journal ofPeasant Studies 39, nos. 3–4 (2012): 703–29.
  19. Judith Whitehead,Development and Dispossession in the Narmada Valley (New Delhi: Pearson, 2010).
  20. Marx,Capital, vol. 1, 286.
  21. Magdoff, “Primitive Accumulation and Imperialism.” Admittedly, Marx did not discuss the creation of a home market in his section on primary accumulation. However, Magdoff points out that this was a theme implicit in Marx’s work, later developed by Lenin.
  22. Foster and McChesney,The Endless Crisis.
  23. Foster and McChesney,The Endless Crisis; Smith,Imperialism in theTwenty-First Century.
  24. Judith Whitehead, “Space, Place and Primitive Accumulation in the Narmada Valley and Beyond,”Economic and PoliticalWeekly 40, no. 4 (2003): 4224–30; “Revanchism in Mumbai? Political Economy of Rent Gaps and Urban Restructuring in a Global City,”Economic and Political Weekly 42, no. 25 (2007): 2428–34;Development and Dispossession in the Narmada Valley; “John Locke, Primitive Accumulation, and the Governance of Colonial India,”Journal of ContemporaryAsia 42, no. 1 (2012): 1–21.
  25. Jan Breman, personal communication with the author, July 1, 2016.
  26. Patnaik, “Notes on Contemporary Imperialism”; Smith,Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century.
  27. Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy,Capital Resurgent: Roots ofthe Neoliberal Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
  28. Duménil and Lévy,Capital Resurgent; Michael Hudson,The Bubble andBeyond (Islet, 2012).
  29. Sunanda Sen and Zico DasGupta, “Financialization and Corporate Investments: The Indian Case,” Levy Economics Institute Working Paper No. 828,
  30. Peter Gowan,The Global Gamble (London: Verso, 1999).
  31. Hudson,The Bubble and Beyond.
  32. Sassen,Expulsions.
  33. Here I disagree with David Harvey to some extent. While he has noted the importance of primary accumulation and financial dispossession in the neoliberal period—phenomena he merges under the term “accumulation by dispossession”—he sees contemporary imperialism as following a territorial logic, rather than an economic one. I would argue that monopoly-finance capital itself shows a spatially expansive tendency, and hence contemporary imperialism, as in Lenin’s time, follows an underlying economic logic.
  34. Prabhat Patnaik, “Capitalism and Imperialism,” MRzine, June 29, 2011,
  35. Sen and DasGupta, “Financialization and Corporate Investments,” 4–5.
  36. Sen and DasGupta, “Financialization and Corporate Investments,” 6–8.
  37. Sen and DasGupta, “Financialization and Corporate Investments,” 17.
  38. Simon Mundy, “India’s RBI Warns on Rise in Bad Loans,”Financial Times, June 29, 2016.
  39. Levien, “The Land Question,” 935.
  40. Pravakar Sahoo, “Time to Review the Special Economic Zones Act,”Economicand Political Weekly 50, no. 14 (2015): 13. The Indian press refers to the practice of leaving SEZ land unused while real estate prices rise as “site sitting.”
  41. Sahoo, “Time to Review the Special Economic Zones Act.”
  42. Sahoo, “Time to Review the Special Economic Zones Act,” 24.
  43. Preeti Sampat, “Dholera: The Emperor’s New City,”Economic andPolitical Weekly 51, no. 7 (2016): 60.
  44. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,”Universityof Chicago Legal Forum 1989 (1989): 136–67; “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,”StanfordLaw Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–99.
  45. Leslie McCall, “The Complexities of Intersectionality,”Signs 30, no. 3 (2005): 1771–93.
  46. Delia Aguilar, “Intersectionality,” in Shahrzad Mojab, ed.,Marxism andFeminism (London: Zed, 2015), 203–21.
  47. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion ofthe Community (Frome, UK: Butler and Tanner, 1972), available at; Wally Seccombe, “The Housewife and Her Labour under Capitalism,”New Left Review 83 (1974): 3–24.
  48. Maria Mies,Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 1998).
  49. Peter Custers, Capital Accumulation and Women’sLabour in Asia (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997), 140.
  50. Smith,Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century.
  51. Himani Bannerji, “Building from Marx: Reflections on Gender, Race and Class,”Social Justice 32, no. 4 (2005): 144–60.
  52. Sue Ferguson and David McNally, “Social Reproduction Beyond Intersectionality: An Interview,”Viewpoint 5 (2015),
  53. Bannerji, “Building from Marx.”
  54. André Béteille, “What Should We Mean by Indigenous People?” in Bengt T. Karlsson and T. B. Subba, eds.,Indigeneityin India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 19–32.
  55. Whitehead, “John Locke, Primitive Accumulation, and the Governance of Colonial India.”
  56. Whitehead, “Space, Place and Primitive Accumulation”;Development andDispossession in the Narmada Valley; “John Locke, Primitive Accumulation, and the Governance of Colonial India.”
  57. Whitehead, “Space, Place and Primitive Accumulation.”
  58. So-called OBCs are middle-ranking castes historically associated with peasant farming, such as the Patels in Gujarat and Rajasthan, Jats in Punjab and Haryana, and Marathas in Maharashtra. Many of these castes benefited from the green revolution in agriculture, but are now undergoing an agrarian crisis.
  59. Sathya Gopalakrishnan, “Drawing on Experiences from the Forests: The Limits and Possibilities of Resource Struggles in India Today,” in Uday Chandra and Daniel Taghioff, eds.,Staking Claims (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  60. K. P. Kannan, “At the Bottom of Durable Inequality: The Status of India’s Dalits and Adivasis,” paper presented at the Collective Book Workshop of the Inequality and Poverty Research Programme, London School of Economics and Political Science, July 2, 2016.
  61. Patnaik and Moyo,TheAgrarian Question in the Neoliberal Era.
  62. Elisabeth Armstrong,Genderand Neoliberalism (New York: Routledge, 2013).
  63. Kannan, “At the Bottom of Durable Inequality.”
  64. Himani Bannerji, “Politics and Ideology,”Socialist Studies/Études Socialistes 11, no. 1 (2016): 1–22.
  65. Himani Bannerji,Democracy and Demography (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2011).
  66. Bannerji,Democracy and Demography, 1.
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