Stages of Capital: Law, Culture and Market Governance in Late Colonial India/Global Business, Local Law: The Indian Legal System as a Communal Resource in Foreign Investment Relations

By Kotiswaran, Prabha | Law & Society Review, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Stages of Capital: Law, Culture and Market Governance in Late Colonial India/Global Business, Local Law: The Indian Legal System as a Communal Resource in Foreign Investment Relations


Kotiswaran, Prabha, Law & Society Review


Stages of Capital: Law, Culture and Market Governance in Late Colonial India. By Ritu Birla. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009. 360 pp. $89.95 cloth; $24.95 paper.

Global Business, Local Law: The Indian Legal System as a Communal Resource in Foreign Investment Relations. By Amanda Perry-Kessaris. Aldershot, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. 198 pp. $99.95 cloth.

Ritu Birla's path-breaking book Stages of Capital is a much-awaited legal history of Indian capitalism and the role of indigenous capitalists therein. It focuses in particular on the North Indian business community of the Marwaris in the period spanning 1870 through 1930. An ambitious undertaking in reach and scope, the book draws on rich archival materials on ''the law on economy'' (p. 6) to chart the stages of capital in a temporal (status to contract) as well as spatial (the interplay between economy and culture) sense. Birla demonstrates how the colonial production of Indian Economic Man caused him to coexist in the spaces of both status and contract while reminding readers of the mutual constitution of the discourses on the economy and culture through an investigation of market as culture. In writing ''between histories of world capitalism and the world history of capital'' (p. 7; emphasis in original), Birla brings into conversation postcolonial studies and social histories of Indian capitalism.

Law, Birla argues, played a central role in this ''staging of capital as modernity'' (p. 236) by rendering indigenous practices commensurate with a value system structured by contract, revealing in the process several points of incommensurability, then mediated and consolidated through the shifting registers of binaries such as law/custom, public/private, and economy/culture. The two main parts of the book highlight different aspects of this process. Part I, consisting of the first three chapters, elaborates on how the legal standardization of commerce from the late nineteenth century onward produced the market as a supralocal object of governance, while Part II details, in the fourth and fifth chapters, how Marwaris as vernacular capitalists both resisted and appropriated colonial legal discourse by the 1920s to fashion themselves as rational, economic actors; in other words, as legitimate bearers of capital.

After an introduction that outlines the arguments of the book, Chapter 1 focuses on how the 1882 Indian Companies Act, the 1886 Income Tax Act, and the 1881 Negotiable Instruments Act both ''reduced the extended family firm into joint household, making it a suspect market actor, and abstracted it in a mimesis of individuated contractual relations'' (p. 17; emphasis in original). Chapters 2 and 3 elaborate on the colonial law of charitable endowments relating to private and public religious trusts, respectively. Here, colonial law understood indigenous ''multitasking forms of endowment'' (p. 79) through analogy and, later, identification with the British private trust, established through ''mad manoeuvres-sometimes legal flights of fancy'' (p. 75). The colonial juridification of deities as the only possible beneficiaries of charitable gifts in perpetuity, Birla argues, materially detracted from the free flow of charity across the public/private divide by vernacular capitalists and challenged their symbolic meanings by casting them as private ventures. Similarly, the colonial legal requirement that the public religious trust generate ''general public utility'' recast mercantile gifts as irrelevant to civic benefit, thereby producing a shift from a shared and layered precolonial sovereignty to a new model of sharing in colonial sovereignty (p. 29). Chapter 4 offers an absorbing and memorable account of how colonial criminal law policed, between 1895 and 1920, the boundaries of business, leisure, and crime through its classification of wagering, betting, horse-racing, indigenous hedging contracts in commodities markets, and indigenous recreational gaming such as rain-betting and betting on opium, cotton, and jute prices. …

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