Shahram Azhar


Identity as ‘Distribution’: Modes of Production and Modes of Pillage in Colonial Economies

A policy of ‘indirect rule’, premised on ‘defining’ and ‘differentiating’ between colonial subjects as Natives and Settlers, emerged in the aftermath of the crisis of 1857. The relatively benign discourse of indirect rule concealed the much more nefarious ideological appropriation of the right to ‘define and rule’ (Mamdani 2012) colonial subjects. This paper seeks to examine the implications of this legal and ideological discourse for the political economies of colonial societies post- 1857. Using Marx’s syllogism of ‘Production’, ‘Distribution’, ‘Exchange’, and ‘Consumption’, along with his account of the ‘mode of pillage’ developed in his scattered notes in the Grundrisse, the paper explores the institutional and economic implications of the Native-Settler distinction for capitalist development in the colonized world during, and after the end of, the period of formal colonization. I posit the discursive distinction and identity-formation as a specific kind of Distribution that shaped the manner in which different communities, castes, tribes, and ethnicities interacted with: a) one another; b) the conditions and means of production; and c) the state. Next, I explore how these relationships, in turn, shaped the economic and political opportunities and returns for native populations during the colonial and post-colonial period. The paper concludes with a discussion of how an understanding of these historical injustices paves the way for a radically new way of conceptualizing social transformation in these societies today.


The crisis of 1857 led colonial administrators to radically rethink the colonial project of state and governance. A new language of ‘protection’ emerged, while the ‘colonial mission’ was redefined: aa discourse of ‘conservation’ replaced that of ‘civilization’. As Mahmood Mamdani (2012) points out, this led to the emergence of the ‘indirect-rule’ state, where those defined as ‘settlers’ (and hence citizens) in indigenous societies would rule over natives. The indirect rule state, a “quintessentially modern form of rule in a colonial setting……differed from modes of rule in previous Western empires in two important ways. First, previous empires focused on conquered elites rather than the mass of the colonized. Second, they aimed to eradicate difference through a policy of cultural or sometimes political assimilation….”. In contrast, indirect rule “claimed not just to acknowledge difference but to shape it” (Mamdani, 2012; p. 2).  In other words, under indirect rule colonialism “the definition and management of difference became the essence of governance” (Ibid). The difference, Mamdani argues, ‘between the modern democratic state and its colonial counterpart is this: the modern state ensures equal citizenship in political society while acknowledging difference in civil society, but its colonial counterpart institutionalized difference in both the policy and society” (Ibid). The indirect rule state rested on a “mode of rule undergirded by a set of institutions—a racialized and tribalized historiography, a bifurcation between civil and customary law, and an accompanying census that classified and enumerated the native population into so many “natural groups”” (Ibid, p. 7).

For this new form of governmentality and state, the differences between the West from the rest were distinctions between a universal civilization and localized customs: “the settler was modern, the native was not; if history defined the settler, geography defined the native; if legislation and sanction defined modern political society, habitual observance defined that of the native” (Ibid, p. 6). The legal and ideological architect of this discourse was Sir Henry Maine whose books became a part of the compulsory curriculum in the colonial civil services.

This paper examines the implications of the ‘indirect-rule state’, and the Native-Settler dichotomy, for the political economies of colonial and post-colonial societies. Using Marx’s production-distribution-exchange-consumption syllogism, developed in the Grundrisse, along with the conceptual theme of a ‘mode of pillage’ (that shapes the ‘mode of production’ in conquered societies) I explore the implications of positing ‘identities’ as a kind of “distribution of the conditions and elements of production” (Marx, 2004; p. 155). The theoretical justification for this emanates from an understanding of two fundamental facts about the colonial state and society. First, the fact that the identity of ‘native’ vs. ‘settler’ shaped the manner in which different sections of society interacted with the conditions of production (land in particular) as well as the state. Consequently, social roles—including economic roles such as the nature of employment opportunities, ability to own assets such as land—were attached to the tribal, caste and religious definitions employed by the colonial state. Second, as colonialism is not an original condition for any society or economy, in order to become useful to the conqueror the conquered land and people must undergo a process of reconfiguration.  This represents a process of conquest, appropriation, entrenchment and remolding of the existing economy to suit the needs of the imperial authority. Marx refers to this as the ‘mode of pillage’, that is the manner in which a conquered state and society is molded to serve the interests of the conqueror. As I will show, Marx posits this ‘mode of pillage’ as being simultaneously a mode of reorganizing distribution as well as production in the economy.  Moreover, once the social formation was then ‘defined’ and ‘divided’ along tribal, caste and religious affiliations, these distinctions determined not only the manner in which people engaged with one another but also their economic functions in society; for example, their employment, ownership of assets and engagement in political institutions was contingent upon these fractures. Naturally, these divisions gave birth to a peculiar politics that began to be articulated in terms of tribal, caste and religious fractures.  These social fractures were transported into the domain of ‘representative’ institutions as well. Once these ‘representative’ institutions had been introduced the politics began to be articulated in terms of racialized and tribal constituencies, and colonial order was maintained within ‘representative’ institutionalism via one or two ‘favored parties’
Production, Distribution and Accumulation in a Subjugated Economy

The outline of his prospective works, published as the Grundrisse (German for “ground-work”) suggests that colonialism would have received a much deeper examination in the remaining volumes of Capital, which, Marx left unwritten.[1] However, Marx devotes an entire chapter to the “Modern Theory of Colonization”[2] in Capital. In addition, his general remarks on colonialism in the Grundrisse and a series of journalistic articles for the New York Tribune on India, China, Russia and British colonialism can be used to understand his views on colonialism and its role in the expansion of the global capitalist system.
Marx’s understanding of colonial impact can best be grasped by understanding his theory of conquest. Specifically, he asks how conquests result in changes in the economic foundation of a society? His answer is that it depends on the precise manner in which conquest alters the relationships that exist between production, distribution, exchange and consumption in that economy.

In the Grundrisse, Marx argues that ‘production’, ‘distribution’, ‘exchange’ and ‘consumption’ form the four ‘moments’ of political economy in which “production appears as the point of departure, consumption as the conclusion, distribution and exchange as the middle, where distribution is determined by society and exchange by individuals.” Between these four “production is determined by general laws, distribution by social accident” while “exchange stands between the two as a formal social movement”. [3] The relationship between ‘distribution’ and ‘production’ is central to Marx’s theory of conquest. “Distribution”, says Marx, “seems to precede production and determine it in yet another respect, almost as if it were a pre-economic fact”.

What happens when one social formation conquers another? A number of possible scenarios can emerge. It is possible that “a conquering people imposes a certain distribution and form of property in land and thus determines production”.[4] Instead of redistributing the land the conquerors could, alternatively, “enslave the conquered and so make slave labor the foundation of production”. Another possibility could be that “a system of law assigns property in land to certain families in perpetuity or distributes labor as a hereditary privilege and thus confines it within certain castes”. (Ibid)

Although the precise nature of the resulting economic system depends on the concrete, dialectical interaction— that is historically constituted— between the conquerors and the conquered one thing is certain: “in all these cases, and they are all historical, it seems that distribution is not structured and determined by production, but rather the opposite, production by distribution”. [5]

It is worthwhile to ponder for a moment over what Marx means by ‘distribution’. He makes little of “bourgeois economic theory” that “eternalizes historic relations of production” and “forms of distribution and property”. The theory in his view constructs a “shallow conception” by assuming that “distribution is just a distribution of products” and therefore “quasi-independent of production”.[6] On the contrary, Marx opines, “before distribution can be the distribution of products, it is: 1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and 2) the distribution of the members of the society among the different kinds of production or the subsumption of the individuals under specific relations of production”.  It can be deduced, therefore, that the future course of a colonized economy is determined by the manner in which the conquering social formation establishes 1) and 2). The conquest of one social formation by another leads to a redistribution of 1) and 2) and as a result establishes an institutional framework that promotes the desired accumulation regime.  As a result, Marx opines that all cases of conquest can result in one of three possibilities. The conquering people may: 1) “subjugate the conquered under their mode of production”, or 2) “leave the old mode intact and content themselves with a tribute” or 3) “a reciprocal interaction takes place whereby something new, a synthesis, arises.” Marx places “Ireland and partially India” in the first category, Ottoman and Roman colonization in the second and the Germanic conquest of the Roman Empire as an illustration of the third. “In all cases”, Marx adds, “the mode of production, whether that of the conquering people, that of the conquered, or that emerging from the fusion of both, is decisive for the new distribution which arises”. [7]

It becomes immediately clear from the aforementioned discussion that in Marx’s view, colonialism—ancient or modern—represents a key-determining variable in the system of distribution and production. Moreover, “for pillage to be possible there must be something to be pillaged, hence production”. [8] Instead, he argues that the “mode of pillage is itself determined by the mode of production. A stock-jobbing nation, for example, cannot be pillaged in the same manner as a nation of cow-herds.”[9]

Thus, the mode of production of a colonized social formation does not emerge as a result of endogenous factors alone as neo-classical and even some Marxian economists have argued. It is rather structured and altered via subjugation and as a result evolves in path dependent ways. The concrete form taken by the ‘mode of pillage’—the manner in which hegemony is exercised for economic gain— is determined by the existing mode of productions in the conquering and conquered economies respectively.  This ‘mode of pillage’, in turn, reacts to produce a synthesized, or articulated mode of production.   “To steal a slave” says Marx, “is to steal the instrument of production directly.” But the pillage of this ‘instrument of production’ does not remain a neutral process. On the contrary, “the production of the country for which the slave is stolen must be structured to allow for slave labor, or as in South America, a mode of production corresponding to the slave must be created”.

Thus, the institutional structures associated with production and accumulation in a colonized economy emerge as a consequence of the set of structural changes that are brought about by colonial policy to articulate the conquered economy in the global imperialist economy. These institutions continue to reproduce themselves as long as the manner in which the colonized economy was articulated in the global economy is not systematically altered.

[1] Marx: Essential Writings Page 449

[2] Chapter 33, Volume 1

[3] Ibid 89

[4] Ibid 96

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid 97

[8] Ibid 9

[9] Ibid

Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

The development of capitalism in the Indian Sub-Continent before (11500-1757), during (1757-1857), and after (1857-1947) British colonization and its impact on local social and institutional structures.

Provisional Sketch of Essay:

The anthropological work of Mahmood Mamdani (2012) has raised intriguing questions about the discursive distinction between Natives and Settlers that emerged in the immediate aftermath of 1857. Using Marx’s account of the ‘mode of pillage’ in the Grundrisse, I want to explore the institutional and economic implications of this distinction for capitalist development in the colonized world.  In particular, I am interested in exploring how the discursive distinction—a specific kind of Distribution— shaped the manner in which different communities, tribes, and ethnicities interacted with: a) one another, and b) the state, and how, these inter and intra community relationships, in turn, altered access to employment and occupations for native populations during the colonial and post-colonial period.