Capitalist Development and Logistical Rationality

Giorgio Grappi June 14, 2012

Giorgio Grappi

(In memory of Kalyan Sanyal)


Giorgio Grappi

The news of Kalyan Sanyal's departure reached us unexpectedly. Sanyal passed away on February 18th in a clinic in his hometown, Kolkata, at the age of sixty. We therefore want to dedicate this note to the memory of a brilliant Bengali economist and intellectual with whom we had an intense dialogue. We had the opportunity to meet Sanyal several times, lastly in September 2011 in Kolkata, during the roundtable on Karl Marx's The Capital part 8, vol. 1 (chapters 26-33), “The so called primitive accumulation”. Sanyal was one of the keynote speakers, together with Ranabir Samaddar, Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson. The roundtable opened the Critical Studies Conference on Development, Logistics and Governance, the fourth of a series organized by the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group. The conference occurred alongside the Transit Labour Kolkata Platform which brought together a group of researchers from India, Australia and Italy in the exploration of selected sites at the core of economic and governmental developments of metropolitan Kolkata.

The conference employed a broad understanding of logistics, defined in relation to the functions of government, the organizational models of war and development, as well as the role of planning as a logistical rationality which produces a new sense of ‘urgency’ in governmental thinking. It is exactly this urgency - overcoming the traditional forms of negotiation associated with nation-states – which fosters the implementation of new technologies of control and communication, and leads to the construction of new urban and industrial agglomerations.. The clash between this urgency and the opposition of a majority of the effected populations is at the root of an unpredictable and new situation for most of the leading theories of government.


Following this reading, and in light of our participation in the Kolkata Platform, two images emerge. The first image is the absolute diffusion of work, marked by the elusiveness of the frontier between the outside and the inside of places of production.  The area of Chadni Chowk, at the heart of Kolkata, is an example of this: here, in a multitude of sweatshops and benches along the edges of the streets, thousands of workers disassemble and re-assemble old electronic devices and household appliances of every sort. In such a landscape, composed of thin shops and overcrowded lanes, one can witness the position of Kolkata as the eastern door of Indian development: as one can observe from the sea linings and parcel labels, lots of this e-waste comes from China, and seeks here a second life through the hands of Indian workers. Multiple functions are carried out in this large and dispersed factory. Different tasks play different roles in the scale of economic growth that has occurred in recent years. If on the one hand everything is repaired, thus gaining a new use value, on the other hand brand new devices are displayed for the new middle class. Old mobiles, DVD players, computers, printers and Hi-Fis re-enter the cycle of consumption, made available to new strata of society. At the same time, new products such as wide mega screen LCDs, plasma TVs, and smartphones, are sold at prices that are inaccessible for the large majority of the population of this metropolis.



The activity of recycling links these two poles. However here “recycling” has a very different meaning from that attributed to it by global civil society and in environmentalist discourses. Indeed, here we face a new form of raw material extraction for global industry. Rare and costly minerals and metals are hidden inside e-waste, and the miners of superseded technologies have the skills to identify, insulate and extract each valuable element from old phones as well as printers or PC screens. The labour of extraction comes with enormous risks to their health and to the environment, as plastic devices are burned in makeshift ovens to extract metals, old refrigerators are broken to save the usable parts, and everything is done with bare hands. Furthermore, the waste materials of the waste industry are handled together with general city waste.


Far from being an insulated enclave, Chadni Chowk is perfectly integrated into global networks and circuits, and the raw materials extracted here feed the economies of Asiatic countries, sustaining the growth in electronic industries. We want to stress the paradigmatic dimension of places like Chadni Chowk, which mark the productive structure of the postcolonial world. Chadni Chowk is not just a model, but also a transit place, included in a transnational network. The recovery of useful materials from different kinds of waste is a widespread activity that plays an increasing role in the global economy: other examples are the beaches where old ships are dismantled in order to extract iron and steel from their dead bodies, like Chittagong, the first source of iron for Bangladesh, Alang in Gujarat, India, or Gadani, Pakistan.


The second image is the elusive north-eastern periphery of Kolkata, in the area that extends from Sector V in Salt Lake City to the new town of Rajarhat, where it has become increasingly difficult to discern rural areas from mushrooming urban pockets. Sector V can be considered the opposite pole to Chadni Chowk: here many Indian and multinational IT industries find young and qualified graduates to employ at low wages in R&D offices. At the same time, these industries take advantage of the economic regime of Special Economic Zones, securing tax exemptions and dispensations from the West Bengal labour laws. No wonder, then, that during the Durga Puja, the most important religious holiday in the State, Sector V remains fully operational. As the gigantic advertising boards that surround the arterial roads of Kolkata leading to Salt Lake and the airport inform us, the new buildings offer clean, dry and cool working places behind their walls of glass and concrete, in contrast to the chaotic and unmanageable old Kolkata. The message is clear, and one can observe how it is becoming part of the new urban and social imaginary. The prestige of these new forms of employment therefore hides a new model that quickly undermines any political discourse, and where anything can be sacrificed on the altar of the economic growth.



A similar situation is occurring in Rajarhat, where - following the new town model - a built-up area for at least 500,000 people is under construction. This plan is important for many reasons, and one can observe the definition of a new form of government that most of the new towns share and which differs from traditional city government. If democracy and citizenship are traditionally associated with the expansion from cities to larger territorial agglomerates, in postcolonial new towns this trajectory is moving towards a new form. There are no effective representative bodies, nor panchayats. On the contrary, these agglomerates are managed by big corporations like the West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (HIDCO). Born in 1999 and formally under the rule of the Urban Development Department of the West Bengal government, HIDCO operates virtually outside the rules applied in the State: rather than following formal procedures and consultations, its immense projects proceed using force and by imposing the “urgency” of development onto often-resisting populations.  The materiality of development is thus fully exposed here; in a countryside dominated by wetlands and largely settled by farmers and fishermen, the development of the new town affects the whole environment. The process of dispossession of the local population is producing resistance, violent clashes, deaths and forced migration towards the slums of Kolkata in a peculiar legal assemblage.


The new form of governance embodied in logistical rationality, far from being immaterial, needs land and labour in order to be implemented.  The old social landscape can only remain in marginalised pockets, as in the so-called service villages that, like contemporary reservoirs, resist the new topography drawn in Rajarhat and elsewhere by postcolonial, capitalist development. Their inhabitants are for the most part completely detached from their means of production, and only a minority can hope to obtain a low qualified job in the new towns. These dynamics were at the core of Kalyan Sanyal's work, especially his most challenging work, Rethinking Capitalist Development, an important contribution to the debate on the contemporary meaning of “so called primitive accumulation”. Starting from a new reading of Marx, the text releases the category of primitive accumulation from the historicist readings characteristic of a large part of economic thought, Marxism included. Disentangled from the description of a primitive stage of capitalism, the continuous repetition of primitive accumulation has become a way to describe the multifarious dimension of exploitation under capital. The different sites of work and the different forms of relation with land and information networks explored during the Kolkata Platform thus do not represent different stages of Capital but, instead, the structural heterogeneity of postcolonial capitalism and the coexistence of different forms of exploitation, governance and resistance. Rather than positioning itself against underdevelopment, the present capitalist development exposes new negotiations of time beyond what Ernst Bloch defines as the ‘contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous’.


In this reality, logistical rationality organizes the penetration of capital into new domains, using different and multiple strategies to make logistics transformational, and produce new sets of rules. If we are confronted with the definition of a different law, then the question is whose law, who can enforce it and how? What we have seen in the outskirts of Kolkata, and what we have learned by meeting some members of the farmers’ movements in Rajarhat, are good starting points to answer these questions without hiding the materiality of this regime. The landfilling activities we witnessed during the several transfers from one site to another are perhaps the immediate image of the radical transformation of the social and natural ecology of these places. Turning wetlands in residential zoning is one of the primary operations for every subsequent building site. The land grabbing and the forced requisitions of farmers’ and tenants’ land are other fundamental elements. A fourth – politically critical – component that needs to be mentioned is the growing of new communities, both inside and outside these sites. An army of workers living in improvised slums, primarily migrant masons from other Indian states, are the present of the future town of Rajarhat, while young underpaid clerks work behind the glass windows of Sector V. On the sidewalks, another army of unpredicted hawkers assures quick and cheap food and other essential goods that allow the machine to work. Will these communities become the ghostly presence of work in the new town, as in French photographer Philippe Chancel’s portrayals of the Emirate workers, or will they interact with dispossessed communities to negotiate a political society against this new assemblage of law and rules?