Zones and Corridors

Ranabir Samaddar October 15, 2012

Accumulation in Post-Colonial Capitalism

There is another way to think of the practice of zoning besides as one of exception in space management. Of course a crucial question is to be faced at the outset: Is the question of exception a matter of looking into the production of norm and then looking at the dynamics of exception, or is exception finally a matter of difference? Here I would like to leave the matter to the reader’s or the listener’s philosophical disposition; it will not harm much whichever way the judgement goes, so long as we know what is at stake.

To think in terms of difference means to irrevocably discard an ideal type, to take each case as singular, and to undertake the task of generalisation on the basis of singularities. It also implies for one then to take upon oneself the task of rigorously analysing the case at hand – in this case, the way a zone is created – and see how the “law” operates, the law of zones and spaces in this era of late capitalism which is built on a combination of the most modern forms of finance capital and forms of primitive accumulation, also a combination of western capitalism and post-colonial capitalism. In this way, differences will come up before our eyes as to how management of space requires zoning and how the zone thus created requires particular way of space management in order to be appropriate to the dynamics of that particular zone.


In the Rajarhat-New Town study we conducted in 2010-11, we had to do that. We did not look so much into whether it was an exercise in exception in the history of space management by capital, but we adopted an analytical strategy of treating the details of space management in the Rajarhat-New Town case by looking at the differences cropping up in the context of an old town called Kolkata. In this way we could locate the continuities and discontinuities in the history of space management, the anomalous forms of labour in the New Town, the real-historical ways in which peasant labour responded to the new ways of zoning, and most importantly, how this response influenced forms of accumulation. Thus it is not enough to say with the experience of hindsight that this was the form of accumulation under conditions of passive revolution and democracy, but it becomes necessary to find out what is the form that inheres within it the double of the primitive and the modern, the virtual and the real, the mobile and the sedentary, and zoning and spacing.


This leads us to another crucial point beyond the controversy over the idea of the exception. One can note the infinite ways in which the reality of difference and repetition (let us recall Gilles Deleuze’s famous book by this name) indicates the profound relations between different forms of space, namely, zones, corridors, and last but not least the circuits (the theme of our platform) that internally join not only these regions, but make them parts of the same template. Of course such a networking exercise cannot be a seamless one. Contradictions between spaces of accumulation and dispossession remain an indelible feature of the process of capital circulation. The differences in the organisational forms of capital speak of varying relations between capital, citizenship, sovereignty, and territory. They also speak of various spatial and social forms of organisation of capital. Rajarhat-New Town can be seen therefore equally as a paradigmatic site for the operation of the principle of difference and repetition.


This may be therefore a more fruitful line of inquiry as to how various parts of India are emerging as particular zones: the Northeast projected to be linked by the corridor, called the Asian Highway, and to be opened up as a zone with the help of the “Look East” policy, whose first steps we are now witnessing in the form of normalisation of relations with Burma; likewise the emphasis on relations with Central Asia, the Shanghai Club, and again to be linked through a revived corridor named as the new Silk Route and the oil pipeline from Iran through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. Corridors are however not only geopolitical. The life of a commodity that begins its journey in Kolkata, traverses to say China through other regions, and then returns to Kolkata congealing within it the labour of three countries also speaks of a corridor. Rajarhat-New Town’s information and financial hub is thus a zone (partly in form of a free trade zone, partly not) linked through virtual and real transits – the whole process waiting to be galvanised through achieving transit rights of Indian capital through Bangladesh in the east (as through Pakistan in the west, if we think of the big picture).


In these times of post-colonial capitalism that combines the primitive and the virtual modes of accumulation, we have to take note of the ways zones are created: the trans-national modes of the assembly of a product, the transit forms in which labour appears in the commodity chain, the way money becomes a commodity, as well as the way money begets more money without passing through the commodity chain, and all of these determining the ways in which zones will be linked with corridors. These corridors can be certain forms of labour linking the zones, certain forms of transmission of information and finance, or even certain forms of circulation and processing of commodities like roads, pipelines, optical fibres, information highways, or special freight corridors run by the railways. While analysts often concentrate on the social life of a commodity (which is indeed one of the entry points in understanding the emergence of zones, thus plantation zones, tea zones, life of tea as a commodity, etc.), the need now is to look into the life of labour in its transit forms to make sense of what makes a zone and what links one zone with another. Clearly we are looking here beyond the factory form and trying to understand the newer forms of assembly and chain. This is also the way to make sense of the bio-political organisation of capital.


How will these emerging zones be spaced? It is not only that the citizen-worker may become unfit to populate such a zone, and we can see that clearly in the case of Rajarhat-New Town, but more importantly, whole populations may have to be trained to become the denizens of such an anomalous universe. Dispossessed peasants, construction workers from Malda, tea shop owners and other street vendors from nearby districts, snooty IT workers – all become parts of a scenario of heterogeneous labour. They will all demand rights, some couched in the language of citizenship, some in bare life terms, and again some couched in gross economic terms of flexibility and money. We cannot say immediately how the new subjectivity of this new zone will develop and if it will allow an untrammelled life to the lords of capital. But it is very much of a possibility that labour in this heterogeneous form may not want to behave like the massed or garrisoned foot soldiers of a disciplined imperial army stationed in a zone waiting for the final battle. We must be ready for a messy picture.


Zoning is thus a precarious exercise. It is more so when zoning brings in its wake primitive mode/s of accumulation, because the reappearance of primitive accumulation with its impact on the way in which a zone is to be spaced may defeat at times the purpose of zoning in terms of a neat framework of modern governmental reasoning. This reappearance of primitive accumulation may be unintended and unexpected; hence its reproduction within the modern forms of zoning carries greater significance. Indeed, because of the precarious nature of the zoning exercise today, the more capital becomes virtual, the more zoning exercise will become subject to unpredictable nature of fluctuations of capital and thus will be self-defeating. Within capital there is this immanent contradiction – zoning and flow. Finance capital requires both governmental strategies – zoning and flow - functioning at their utmost efficiency, and thus its insoluble paradox and dilemma, namely, how to return to a balance of the two, how to sanctify and protect the corridor that links the zones and makes flows possible.


Yet the question would be, given the fragility of Asia’s neo-liberal construction of economy and society, will not the strategy of creating zones, corridors, and circuits have something that will make the neo-liberal programme of capital fluidity resilient against shocks? One of the lessons of Marx’s analysis of capital is its attention to circulation, which as we know becomes an ordering principle of life under neo-liberal economy. The becoming becomes more important than being under the uncertain conditions of life, when circulation movements (think of the circuits) are meant to be more and more the agency of ordering and protecting movements between segments of life – protecting the circuit against disruption. Becoming happens to be the ontology, and the sovereign power functions as a regulator of circulation movements. In this way bio-politics becomes, as the Rajarhat-New Town programme showed, the management of the uncertain. Peasants have to manage the risk and the disastrous outcome, government has to manage the unhappy subjects, capital has to manage its risky future, and the neo-liberal economy appears as one desperately trying to produce security of the economic subject – the consumer individual, the share holder, the executive, with the rest to be managed as disposable material of society. In this scenario, there is no exception, only the reckoning with contingency – thus contingency of rebellion of the dispossessed, of the flight of capital, of market crash, of the wastelands of capital suddenly appearing in the backyard as in Rajarhat.


What happens when corridors meant to ensure the circulation of commodities and capital, particularly in their final form, money, fail in their tasks? Simply put, the purpose of zoning fails. In capitalist production while zoning is resorted to as part of the division of labour, the productive nature of zoning depends on a successful strategy of maintaining corridors. Corridors guarantee circulation, whether of commodities like jute, textile products, or engineering goods (I am referring here to the sunset industries of Bengal that marked a great industrial zone around Kolkata), or commodity like labour power, or money. But again we have to remember that corridors do not auto-guarantee or auto-determine their nature. The quality of commodity including its organic composition determines the nature of a corridor in question. Of course we can notice to an unprecedented degree the fact, namely that labour engaged in circulation and in production are getting intermeshed more than ever, so that the hidden process of producing surplus value is becoming more mysterious. Labour is assuming again more than ever transit forms due to this reason, and in this situation money begetting more money is determining the fate of corridors, including financial corridors. This factor sealed the fate of Rajarhat New Town; this has determined the transformation of a city like Shanghai or Mumbai from one of producing textiles involving thousands of workers to one of producing money and credit involving the ruins of many lives (at least in India).


In short the question I am asking is - if true to the military origin of the strategy of zones, corridors, and circuits - will not the dimension of security finally upset the efficiency and maximisation calculus? What will happen to the liberal subject of security whose rights and property had been till now guarded by laws, property system in the country, a proper labour regime, and a secure foreign policy coupled with a large insurance infrastructure against sudden losses of all kinds? What will secure the zones against volatile capital flows and the sudden emergence of wastelands, breakdown of circuits due to conflicts, competition, and war, and the neo-liberal way of organising the economy, which is precisely the way of combining the virtual mode and the primitive mode of accumulation? Transit labour emerges in this context.


[This text was an excerpt of a longer paper written for the Knowing Asia Conference, University of Western Sydney 2012. It was written as a companian piece to the essay Wall as an Apparatus.]