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Between 1870 and 1930, the British regime in India implemented a barrage of commercial and contract laws directed at the “free” circulation of capital, including measures regulating companies, income tax, charitable gifting, and pension funds, and procedures distinguishing gambling from speculation and futures trading.
Ritu Birla argues that this understudied legal infrastructure institutionalized a new object of sovereign management – the market – and along with it, a colonial concept of the public. In jurisprudence, case law, and statutes, colonial market governance enforced an abstract vision of modern society as a public of exchanging, contracting actors free from the anachronistic constraints of indigenous culture.
Birla reveals how the categories of public and private infiltrated colonial commercial law, establishing distinct worlds for economic and cultural practice. This bifurcation was especially apparent in legal dilemmas concerning indigenous or “vernacular” capitalists, crucial engines of credit and production that operated through networks of extended kinship.
Posing the story of the Marwaris as an archive for reading the history law and capitalism together, Birla demonstrates how colonial law governed vernacular capitalists as rarefied cultural actors, so rendering them illegitimate as economic agents.
In Stages of Capital, Birla brings research on nonwestern capitalisms into conversation with postcolonial studies to illuminate the historical roots of India’s market society. Highlighting the cultural politics of market governance, the book is an unprecedented history of colonial commercial law, its legal fictions, and the formation of the modern economic subject in India.
Part 1 A Non-Negotiable Sovereignty?
1. The Proper Swindle: Commercial and Financial Legislation of the 1880s
2. Capitalism's Idolatry: The Law of Charitable Trusts, Mortmain, and the Firm as Family, c. 1870-1920
3. For General Public Utility: Sovereignty, Philanthropy, and Market Governance, 1890-1920
Part 2 Negotiating Subjects
4. Hedging Bets: Speculation, Gambling, and Market Ethics, 1890-1930
5. Economic Agents, Cultural Subjects: Gender, the Joint Family, and the Making of Capitalist Subjects, 1900-1940
Conclusion: Colonial Modernity and the Social Worlds of Capital
"Stages of Capital is a triumph of learned and nuanced interdisciplinarity. 'Stage' as temporal metaphor undoes the great narrative of universal capital. 'Stage' as spatial metaphor illuminates the culture of market governance and community in the colonial theater of South Asia. Richly theoretical, provocatively empirical-an indispensable book."
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK, University Professor,
"Deeply rooted in precolonial pasts and yet somehow fully modern, family firms have remained an important but understudied feature of Indian capitalism. Ritu Birla's book breaks new ground by analyzing the legal and institutional debates that attended maneuvers by the British to manage and transform this institution into the modern capitalist enterprise. A sophisticated and original study of some critical cultural issues in the history of Indian economy, this book will interest all students of modern India."
DIPESH CHAKRABARTY, Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the College,
University of Chicago
"This remarkable book shows that the history of colonial capitalisms need not, and cannot, be divorced from subtle changes in ideas of legal subjectivity, gender, and corporate risk taking as subjects of archivally based cultural analysis. Ritu Birla's story of the transformation of the Marwari business clans of northern and eastern India into giants of contemporary capitalism is both impeccably scholarly and resolutely post-Orientalist. This book is a must read for all those who sense that the mammoth global meltdown of this decade is powered by myriad regional an cultural capitalist trajectories."
ARJUN APPADURAI, Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication,
New York University