Charusheela S.


Mode of Production and Intersectionality:  Two Frames for Analysis

Introduction:  The Problematic

How should one theorize the link between identity and economy?  I do not raise this question in order to rehearse tired old debates about Marxism versus Poststructuralism, base-superstructure, and so on, from the 80s and 90s.    Nor do I propose to “resolve” it in any definitive sense.  Rather, my entry into this question emerges out of a problematic (in the Althusserian sense of the word) – that of the contemporary economic and political relation between caste and class.

“Caste” (or, more accurately the varna-jati system of Hinduism, with its historical roots in pre-colonial India and transmutations over both the pre-colonial period and the colonial era, with substantial regional variation) continues to organize both labor relations/economic status and kinship/identity in India.  The politics of caste shape institutional organization of education and state policy, as well as the micropolitics of daily life.  Any effort to come to terms with the current economic conjuncture (or provide a history of the region) that fails to take caste into account is as deeply flawed as analyses of the US or South Africa which fail to address race.

Contemporary Marxist scholarship – including of the subaltern studies variety – have failed to take this up in a substantive way (and such scholarship has come under critique for its “savarna” – i.e., elite caste – framework and perspective).  This gap is striking given the extent to which Marxist scholars have provided key insights into the links between economic and racial organization.

The paper/talk/?? (open as to final product) joins an emerging conversation between Dalit scholarship and “postcolonial” Marxism that seeks to address this gap in Marxian scholarship from/on South Asia (and actually, in the economic conversations more generally).  I don’t envisage this as a finished project or book/paper etc.  Rather, this is an effort to work out the theoretical problem that needs to be addressed.  I first provide a bare-bones outline of the contemporary landscape of caste/class/economic relations in India.  Next, I give a very brief outline of the emergent postcolonial Marxist literature on class/economy in South Asia.  My aim here is to think through the locations where Marxist thought manages to – and fails to – address caste.  A third section examines the frames of Mode of Production and Intersectionality – the two approaches currently used to address/think through the relation between caste and class/economy.  I end with some preliminary ideas about how one could bring these frames together.

The Nation and Its Fragments:  A Very Rough Outline of the Contemporary Fault Lines in India’s Political Economy

In The Nation and Its Fragments, Partha Chatterjee argues that anticolonial nationalism constituted itself not as replicating (as in, like them we too wish for our own nation), but as differentiating from (as in, because we are different we want our own nation) the colonial powers.  In the context of India, he has famously argued that the nationalist imagination worked by splitting the private/cultural from the material/public.  In doing so, the inner, private, cultural sphere was seen as the sphere untouched by the West, within which a different spiritual self was imagined as the basis for national identity.  Chatterjee’s formulation famously highlights how the sphere within which nation is imagined here is not the shared material but imagine spiritual, not the public, but private.

The element I wish to take up here is the element often glossed over as merely “examples” of how this structure works – the specific items that form the “spiritual” sphere for India as identified by Chatterjee:  Religion, caste, women and the family, and peasants.  These “fragments” return in the postcolonial world, as the modern state of independent India seeks to instantiate the inner spiritual vision of the upper-caste Hindu (savarna) middle classes, especially of the Bengali bhadralok. In Chatterjee’s formulation, the fragments are antecedent to the vision of the middle class.  While this work is crucial for grasping how the fragmentation was built into the original imaginations of nationalist leaders, it does not let us see what this history looks like from the viewpoints of the “fragments.”  More specifically, it imagines the constitution of nationalist imagination mainly as the vision of the elites.  To Chatterjee’s fragments, one can add tribal/Adivasi, language, and state, as further loci for fragmentation.  (These additions indicate that it would be a mistake to imagine that the accounting for fragmentation can take place entirely in the way that national elites conceptualized the sub-groups within the emergent spiritual national imagination.)

This list of fragments – caste, religion, gender, class (in the sense not just of income but of mode-of-production, more on which below), language, and region/state – can be “lumped” into the sphere of the cultural if one wishes, or given the status of “identities.”   But the purpose of identifying them here is to highlight the complex of issues/items that any contemporary analysis of India’s political economy would need to address – they are not a random congeries of items or identities that one “lists” in an obligatory litany.  The list corresponds rather to what I have called the “problematic” that contemporary Marxian political economy is addressing in the contemporary Indian context.

(This is for folks unfamiliar with the context in the seminar, feel free to skip rest of this section if you are reasonably conversant with the contemporary context.)  A very brief (as in 2-3 sentences given the length of this abstract) outline of why/how each of these “fragments” matters:

  1. Religion:  Religion forms not just one substrate of the nationalist imagination (as in the Hindu tradition that was seen as the spiritual sphere within which an authentic Indianness could be found), but one with a very specific implication – that Muslims were seen as external to the nation.  With the partition of the sub-continent as a founding moment in the nation, any accounting of contemporary political economy needs to address communalism, especially with the rise of Hindu fundamentalist parties at both national and regional levels.
  2. Caste: Caste is probably better rendered as the ‘varna-jati’ system, with a complex set of rules governing multiple aspects of daily life.  In this context, “savarna” are the higher castes, in contrast to the dalit-bahujan-OBC groups (dalit is the self-nomination of groups considered untouchables or outcaste, bahujan meaning “the majority/broader prople” includes Dalits and some other sub-groups, including “OBCs” – OBC is the shorthand for “other backward castes” based on the constitutional “schedule” of the “scheduled castes and scheduled tribes” eligible for reservations in education and government jobs).  In the contemporary context, caste operates as both a micro-politics around food, where one resides, who one marries, and multiple other elements of daily life, and a macro-institutional basis for policy and politics.  In terms of caste politics, one of the more interesting aspects of the contemporary field is both the emergence of dalit and other non-savarna scholars, and the constitution of caste-based parties and voting groups.
  3. Gender: in the Indian context, apart from questions of gender in terms of women’s rights, unpaid labor, and social reproduction (the classic Marxian categories of concern wrt gender), the current context includes two additional areas of scholarship. One, the rise of interest in alternate non-normative sexualities, and second, the ways in which gender intersects with caste and religion.  The latter item is one that is a particular are of interest for my own work in political economy, and it is my effort to think gender and the other “fragments” together in political economy that has brought me to this effort.
  4. Peasants: The rural-urban divide remains a core aspect of the current political economy.  India currently faces a crisis in agriculture, with farmers’ suicides at an all time high, and the focus of growth in the urban sectors and manufacturing.  This in turn has a deep effect on the political landscape, given that the majority population is in the rural vote banks.  What complicates this picture is the way in which the Marxian language of Maoism and peasant revolt is actually more tightly tied not to agriculture but forestry/Adivasi (see below).

E-F are not taken up in Chatterjee’s Nation and Its Fragments, but are highlighted here due to their importance for the current context.

  1. Adivasi: Adivasi roughly translates into original dwellers/indigenous population (the groups identified as “tribal” in the constitution’s list of Scheduled Castes and Tribes identified for special provisions and reservations/quotas).  The neoliberal changes to economic policy have resulted in policies of “resettlement” as tribal lands are taken over for mining, dams, and other such projects.  The result has been a widespread “Maoist” radical insurgent movement for autonomy.  While the converntional Modes of Production language has been around “peasantry,” adivasi modes of production are more closely linked to forest dwelling than to settled agriculture, with concomitantly distinct forms of organizing social life and relations of production.
  2. Region and language: It isn’t quite right to put these together, but I raise them in relation to the federalist structure of national organization.  Specifically, most states in India are organized around lingual groupings, with regional movements around language.  Going further, two specific areas – the Northeast and Kashmir – are spaces of substantial movements against the Indian state, and the architecture of laws around military occupation and anti-terrorism deployed by the government (including now against tribal insurgencies) were developed around the Northeast and subsequently applied to Kashmir and other areas.


The fragments A-F were highlighted not in order to make a checklist of all forms of difference or oppression which are morally worth addressing, or to ensure that no margin is excluded etc.  Rather, the reason for raising these is that they are core fault lines that organize economic interaction and political subjectivity within India in the current conjuncture.  Any effort to make sense of the impact of the pro-market reforms of the 1990s on the postcolonial nation state needs to address them.  This is what I mean by highlighting a specific “problematic” within which to investigate how one may address the relation between class/economy and identity/culture.

Modes of Production Debates

(NOTE:  This section assumes a certain familiarity with the scholarly work in/from India – it also reflects the way in which I read the subaltern studies work, I can discuss more in the seminar.)

The Modes of Production (MoP) debates reflect Marxism’s legacy of Eurocentric teleology, and mark a specific effort to apply Marxism’s categories to non-European contexts.  As such, any decolonial project from a Marxist frame needs to address this.  I will not rehearse the debate here – Alice Thorner provides a good overview of the issues that the scholars in this debate sought to address in the Indian context.

The item I wish to highlight is how the issues the MoP debate sought to address form part of the puzzle that become the “fragments” of the nation – especially the issue of peasantry, caste relations and debt peonage, and the ongoing hold of “precolonial” forms of identity even in the “modern” urban working class.  Thus, the MoP worked on two fronts – a) the insufficiency of the capitalist frame in explaining agrarian relations as well as urban industrial relations in the contemporary context, and also b) the insufficiency of Marxism’s categories to explain the past or pre-colonial context (if one integrates the “Feudalism” debate on medieval India between Sharma and Mukhia into the MoP debate).  As Chakrabarti, and Cullenberg point out, subaltern studies is best seen as a response to and emergent from the  MoP debate.  That The CSSS was the location from which Subaltern Studies came is not surprising, given Ashok Rudra’s own location at Jadavpur.

The primary reason to note the role of Rudra in this debate is a key work that has not “travelled” to the West alongside the work of Chatterjee and others in the Subaltern Studies collective – his “Toward a Non-Eurocentric Marxism,” where he identifies two main ideas from Marx worth keeping – exploitation and materialist dialectic – while suggesting we get rid of the concept of Mode of Production and Marxism’s teleological history.  Rudra’s suggestion is interesting, especially given that eventually, the MoP was never “resolved,” but instead the default position that was to simply assume that the MoP we use is capitalism, and all the non-fitting bits or “fragments” become part of the cultural or local.

Chakrabarti and Dhar, like me and others in this conversation, have taken a different route.  We do not give up MoP, as the usefulness of this lies in helping to organize different types of exploitation relations, so one can think through which types are exploitative in what ways, and which types offer a route toward non-exploitative organization of production relations. Rather, following the work of Resnick and Wolff, and Gibson-Graham, we “fragment” the social totality in ways that mirror the fragmentation of the nation in Chatterjee’s analysis of nationalism.  The fragments of the nation do not align with the fragments of the Modes of Production, but the fragmentary move for both opens up the possibility to bringing together the question of economic relations and that of the currently organization of political identities and movements in India in interesting ways.  The reason to do this is to address the pro-market urban-industrial focus of economic policy in India since the 1990s.

But while situating Subaltern Studies within the MoP debate, and the framework of disaggregated class sets/MoP as a counterpart to the fragmented identities of the nation is useful two tasks remain if this is to prove useful:

  1. One would need to give a historical account of the ways in which these fragments of exploitation relations co-constitute each other, much as Chatterjee provides an account of how the fragments described in the previous section emerged in the context of the fault lines of the nationalist imaginary. Chakrabarti’s work on the history of planning takes us a substantial way in that direction.
  2. The additional question is how one would bring together the “fragments” of the nation with the fragmented field of class sets and disaggregated “modes” of class processes. This latter item is a point of departure for the next section, since how one does this is key for thinking through the vexed issue of how culture relates to economy, and how Marxism handles the issue of identity.

Modes of Production and Intersectionality:  Some Preliminary Thoughts

While most scholars agree that economy matters, and that we should look at issues of subjectification and identity and economy together in non-essentialist ways, the almost universal adoption of capitalcentrism and the assumption that issues of identity and economy emerge as theoretical problematics in the same way in different contexts, has proven to be a serious limit to developing a genuinely decolonial approach to economy.  Specifically, the assumption is that the core conceptual issues on how one brings race and class together or race and gender and class together – how one addresses identity and class, or the debates of identity politics, etc. – are essentially the same issue and get addressed in the same analytical way everywhere.  A eurocentrism in theory (in that the mechanisms by which race is addressed especially in the US context, but more generally in relation to the Euro-American frameworks for studying identity) gets underpinned or sanctioned by using capitalcentrism as the anchor.

But the unresolved nature of the MoP – and especially the issue of teleology and Eurocentrism that was core to that debate – indicate we may not want to take that route.  Unfortunately, the postcolonial or transnational frames do not help much for the problematic noted above, since they are unable to come to terms with caste or communalism in any substantive manner.  The specific ways caste links to exploitation get lost if it is presented as one more identity category.   (This is analogous to say, the issue raised by Marxist feminists examining the issue of unpaid labor – it is insufficient to simply address gender as an identity if one is to provide an analysis that takes up the links between gender and economy).   In the current framework used by postcolonial scholars like Chakrabarti and Dhar, the “fragments” of the nation are treated as separate external processes (cultural and political processes) that provide conditions of existence for exploitation/class and vice versa in an overdetermined fashion.  This brackets off the issues of caste and gender as cultural.

Another approach, the one I am trying to work out here, would be to see if one can provide an emergent-internal account of such identity formation that is neither functionalist nor determinist, from the fragmented MoP approach.  Some work in this direction has been done by Serap Kayatekin and me wrt to the Feudal Mode.  I end this abstract with three items to address for the specific context I wish to address:

  1. Adivasi logics and MoP: One of the more interesting questions has been the rise of Adivasi politics.  The vocabulary used in both the insurgent movements and the scholarly literature on India has been that of feudalism and peasantry – the movement calls itself Maoist, and the MoP took it for granted that this was a debate between feudalism and capitalism.  But the issues that Adivasi groups have highlighted are substantially different than those raised by Dalit groups and by agricultural workers.  Thus, the fragmenting of the MoP would need to re-think the issue in terms not of the dyads of rural-urban, agriculture-industry and feudalism-capitalism, but a triad of forest-village-city.  How does revisiting the fragmentation from the lens of this triadic (rather than dyadic) frame change the analysis?
  2. One of the more interesting developments in current scholarship has been the adoption of the framework of intersectionality by Dalit scholars. More specifically, Dalit scholars have highlighted the parallels between race and caste, and sought to adapt the scholarly approaches of African American scholarship on race in the US for the contemporary Indian context.  This is a valuable move, as it breaks the savarna frames that have dominated postcolonial studies so far.  But the concepts of racial capitalism, for example, do not translate along with the intersectionality frame, and the specific histories of slave labor that anchor black scholarship are quite distinct from the labor systems of caste.  How would a fragmented approach to modes of production address questions of caste?
  3. What would we modify in the current Marxist feminist scholarship on women’s labor and housewifization, and women’s work in the informal economy, if we took caste into account? Adivasi politics into account?

The urgency of addressing these issues for economic analysis is the parallel to the urgency of Chatterjee’s effort to address the fragments of the nation in terms of the failure of the promise of nationalism.  With the rise of neoliberalism, Marxian politics have not been adequate for the political landscape of agrarian collapse, Adivasi loss of forests to mining, and ongoing economic stratification in the face of a rising push against reservations, and we need to think through the fragments of capital-centered development alongside the fragments of anticolonial nationalism if we are to address the current conjuncture.


Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question: 

What theoretical changes to the concept of mode of production do we need to allow us to have a non-Eurocentric understanding of economic transition?  How do we constitute a non-modernist (i.e., not anchored in the Eurocentric understanding of capitalist modernity) approach to economy?  And, how can this non-modernist conceptualization of economy allow us to imagine transitions to future economic states (i.e., forward looking as a political project as well).


Provisional sketch of essay

My aim is to think about the way we consider “Economy” when we do periodization and conceptualize this outside a Eurocentric frame.  So the areas and periods I have chosen are places where there is substantial debate about how to conceptualize the economic system or economic transition. My focus has been almost completely contemporary.  But I would be interested in examining very early period – the era of settler agriculture, a period often explored via the concept of “feudal”.  I would like to also take a look at any studies of the development of trade and markets prior to the era of European colonialism.

African studies – esp eastern Africa, to think of what an Indian ocean studies (I have never thought that one thorough) could do to our understanding of trade.   Latin America and Caribbean has had to face issues of how to think of the modes of production debate, that I would find useful. I would also find south east and East Asian comparative studies

I am open to formats.