Chai Capitalism


Review of Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India, by Andrew B. Liu  

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020



Writing in the New York Daily Tribune in 1853, shortly prior to the Indian Uprising of 1857, Marx observed that Indian society, unresisting and unchanging as it was, “has no history at all, at least no known history.” He wrote a few years later, amidst the unrest of the Second Opium War, of a China “vegetating in the teeth of time [and] insulated by the forced exclusion of general intercourse.” Marx’s rudimentary sketches of India and China in his journalistic writings were subsequently reworked as the infamous “Asiatic mode of production” in the preface to Critique of Political Economy. 

Here, the Asiatic mode of production functioned as a heuristic for precapitalist formations sociologically and historically distinct from European feudalism, characterized primarily by the communal property of land and the lack of individual agrarian property. Of all the precapitalist forms, the Asiatic mode is not simply the most impenetrable to the universalizing forces of capital, but impervious to all forms of cumulative or dynamic change altogether. Just as the Asiatic mode “necessarily hangs on most tenaciously and for the longest time,” yielding “a self-sustaining circle of production, unity of agriculture and manufacture, etc.,” the political history of the Orient is one of inertia, immobility, and immutability. 

Marx’s writings on the Asiatic mode of production, in that respect, were both agent and artifact in a genealogy of thought around Oriental exceptionalism, hewing closely in tone and in content to the prevailing nineteenth-century European conceptions of Asian political and social systems. Early on, Adam Smith’s conjectural account in Wealth of Nations presents an opposition between two branches of production: manufacturing and foreign trade in the developed commercial society of modern Europe, and agriculture in China and Indostan, where low labor costs and extensive inland waterways kept the real price of their manufactures low. 

In Georg W. F. Hegel’s account of the “Oriental World” in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, China and India lie, “as it were, still outside the World’s History, as the mere presupposition of elements whose combination must be waited for to constitute their vital progress.” Here there exists “no change; no advance is admissible.” Subsequently, Max Weber’s two substantial studies of China and India characterizes the former as the seat of patrimonial bureaucracy and the latter of caste orthodoxy, both equally enduring and impervious to the modern. 

Across these accounts, the birth of modern capitalism, understood as a spatially and temporally homogenizing mode of production, was entirely endogenous to Western Europe, miring the emergence of global capitalism in the grammar of historical exceptionalism: first in Europe, then elsewhere. 

Even then, Marx’s notion of the Asiatic mode has been resurrected in various spectralized guises. From the twentieth century onward, a range of thinkers across the colonized world have debated the utility, applicability, and explanatory capacity of the Asiatic mode to their historical present, even as they differed considerably in their respective assessments. Most infamously, Karl Wittfogel, onetime Marxist and subsequent Cold Warrior, proposed a framework of “hydraulic despotism,” incongruously and incoherently encapsulating societies ostensibly organized around central coordination, bureaucratic specialization, and exclusive control over the building and maintenance of elaborate hydraulic waterworks. 

Yet others such as Samir Amin have attempted to reformulate Marx’s Asiatic mode into a “tributary mode,” a precapitalist formation marked by surplus extraction through non-economic means. In a more appreciative interpretation, Gayatri Spivak reads the Asiatic mode as “the name and imaginary fleshing out of a difference in terms that are consonant with the development of capitalism and the resistance appropriate to it as ‘the same.’” In a far more prosaic register, a veritable cottage industry of policy analysts, liberal economists, and business school graduates has variously extolled, heralded, or scrutinized the meteoric rise of post-liberalization India and China, newly christened as “rising powers,” “emerging markets,” or “newly advanced economies,” and tritely counterposed as exemplars of crony democracy and Confucian authoritarianism. 

These attempts at reanimating the Asiatic mode, whatever their merits (or lack thereof), as a theoretical question have been ineluctably shaped by the developments of the past few decades, particularly in Asia. One might think here of stirring juxtapositions of the two Chinas: the meteoric rise of Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and other cities along the Yangtze and Pearl River Deltas, against the ongoing persistence of worker abuse, child labor, and sweatshop conditions in so-termed factory towns. Or of the two Indias: the Bombay of the Ambanis, Tatas, and Birlas, or the Bangalore of Infosys, Flipkart, and Ola, against intensifying forms of caste- and contract-based labor exploitation against Dalits and Adivasis. 

Indeed, far from being unique to China and India, the spectacular ascension of export-oriented industrialization in late-twentieth-century Asia—from postwar Japan’s “economic miracle” to the four Asian Tigers of East Asia to, more recently, the Next Eleven and Tiger Cub economies of South and Southeast Asia—has concomitantly revivified long-standing historical and historiographical challenges. How does one apprehend the persisting endurance—and, in many instances, renewed centrality—of ostensibly “pre-capitalist” or “non-capitalist” arrangements in the historical accumulation of wealth and the subsequent development of global capitalism? How does one appreciate the diversity and unevenness of labor’s modes and forms globally, without recasting it in terms of a historically static continuum between historical exceptionalism and cultural essence? 

Most pertinently, how does one write the history of capitalism in China and India, and in disparate locales marginal to the North Atlantic world more broadly? Capitalism as a historical construction, in other words, embodies what William Sewell has termed a “genuinely weird temporality”: it is “composite and contradictory, simultaneously still and hyper-eventful,” ceaselessly producing unevenness and difference just as it recasts resistant non-synchronizing practices and mixed economic forms within itself. 

To that end, thinkers with varying theoretical persuasions have sought to elaborate the multiple economic forms and historical conditions enabling the rise of capitalism, thereby challenging assumptions of a unilinear mode of historical progress. Debates around the so-termed “peasant question” or “agrarian question” abound throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, occupying such thinkers as Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, José Carlos Mariátegui, and Rosa Luxemburg. 

More recently, a reinterpretation of Marx’s framework of “so-called primitive accumulation” by feminist and neo-Marxist thinkers has assumed considerable traction. In this reading, primitive accumulation marks the ongoing political violence operative in the restructuring of noncapitalist social relations through extra-economic coercion. Yet others, such as Harry Harootunian, Jacques Camatte, and Antonio Negri, have revisited Marx’s own distinction between the “formal” and “real” subsumption of labor to account for the incomplete (thus “formal”) subsumption of noncapitalist social arrangements to capitalist logics. 

In a starkly different vein, a postcolonial reading proffered by Dipesh Chakrabarty conceptualizes two distinct histories of capital: History 1 as histories posited by capital, and History 2 as pasts “encountered by capital as antecedents but not as belonging to its own life-process.” The voluminous literature (and vociferous debates) around forms of untimeliness and unevenness is beyond the purview of this essay, but a pressing question nonetheless remains: What of the vast, fractious heterogeneity of labor undergirding the global genealogy of capital? How might the global and colonial genealogy of capitalism open up avenues to think about labor in its variegated forms, including many persisting in our political present? 



A theoretically ambitious reconceptualization of capital’s flexible, uneven, and globally-oriented histories lies at the heart of Andrew B. Liu’s Tea War, which offers a historical account of capitalism in China and India “both as a local story and as part of a broader reconceptualization of the social logics animating the global division of labor” (7). Turning to the tea plantations of Anhui and Fujian in coastal China and the Brahmaputra Valley in upper Assam, Liu’s richly-detailed monograph examines the mutually determinative historical connections between tea districts of southeastern China and northeastern India, offering an attentive treatment of economic life and social transformation, and inaugurating a broader reconceptualization of the history of capitalism in the colonial world beyond the well-trodden hallmarks of proletarianization and industrialization. 

Whereas the trajectories of recent turns toward new international, transnational, and global histories have begotten facile comparatives, reproducing accounts of a unidirectional flow of capital from the metropole to the rest of the world, Liu draws on an astonishing collection of diverse primary sources—family and personal collections, agronomic and social scientific surveys, political-economic tracts, colonial documents and trade materials, as well as social novels and nationalist literature in English, Bengali, and Chinese—to cogently assemble an archive of the social life of political economy, importantly bringing into view the specific forms and institutions through which labor was theorized and accounted for. Borne of careful and fine-grained multi-sited research from Kolkata and New Delhi to Beijing and Taipei, Liu’s globally-oriented account of capitalism’s history overturns the spatial frames of what Manu Goswami has termed “methodological nationalism,” which generally subtend autochthonous accounts of capitalism by hypostatizing the nation-state as the primary unit of historical analysis, the privileged explanatory matrix for historical phenomena, and the predominant politico-legal context for the emergence of capitalist relations (think here histories of “American capitalism” or the “English working class.”) 

Rather, by taking as its starting point the existence of empire in its uneven and variegated forms, Liu’s work considers capitalism as emerging in and structurally operating through hierarchical, discontinuous, and spatially dispersed colonial networks. Put differently, rather than being auxiliary, external, and instrumental to the universal development of capitalism, colonial networks linking India and China constitute the conditions of possibility for capitalism’s contingent emergence. Challenging the subsequent territorialization of capital by nationalist claimants, Liu’s work thus invites us to consider ostensibly local and regional narratives, grounded in the minutiae of agrarian life in Assam and Anhui, as instances within a larger, emergent formation driven by modern dynamics of accumulation with immense political-economic import. 

While the histories of China and India have been studied in an abstract comparative vein as subcontinental agrarian empires, their material historical connections and interactions have rarely been the subject of academic inquiry. Inasmuch as it draws on the methodological strengths of recent historical studies, then, Liu’s forceful intervention bears consequential historiographical stakes across various fields. On one end, the field of South Asian history has long been a space for theoretically-astute studies of colonial labor, pioneered by Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, Chitra Joshi, and Prasannan Parthasarathi’s respective accounts of Calcutta jute mill sardars, Bombay textile workers, the industrial working class in Kanpur, and weaver and agricultural producers in Tamil Nadu. In subsequent decades, the field has witnessed a proliferation of monographs on labor processes in coalfields in Jharia, goldfields in Kolar, powerloom factories in Tamil Nadu, informal rural industries in Gujarat, and overseas plantations in Fiji, Mauritius, Malaya, and the Caribbean. 

The field of modern Chinese history, on the other end, has produced detailed studies of domestic circulation, urban consumption, and global markets. Following R. Bin Wong and Kenneth Pomeranz’s revisionist interpretation of commercial dynamics in late imperial China, subsequent economic historians of China have endeavored to analyze the role of vernacular industrialists, merchant networks, and market circulation. The divergence in thematic focus, as Liu highlights in his review of debates around capitalism within the historiographies of China and South Asia, broadly corresponds with the Brenner thesis and the Wallersteinian position in the “transition debate” on the origins of European capitalism: Brenner’s production-centered view of capitalism influenced historical accounts of agrarian labor in the British-run jute, cotton, and indigo industries in South Asia, while Wallerstein’s circulation-centered world-systems research laid the foundations for analyses of merchant capital and market-driven productivity gains in China. Yet such accounts, as Liu maintains, necessarily paint an incomplete picture of economic life, providing only “a partial window on the expansive world of capital.” 

Drawing on the comparative strengths of the two historiographies, Liu’s comparative analysis situates tea production across India and China not merely as discrete industries and producers, but as inextricably embedded within global circuits of accumulation and finance, united by “the overarching goal of accumulation for mobile and transnational capital” (118). Viewed through the category of “accumulation”—echoing what Geoff Eley terms the “overriding logic of capital accumulation” and William Sewell describes as “the endless accumulation of capital [as] the crucial underlying dynamic of capitalism”—the lines between industrial and merchant capital, or between production and circulation, thus appear increasingly blurred, yielding light to spatially distinct and temporally specific material processes, political configurations, class relations, and intellectual forms.  

Indeed, the historiographical import of Liu’s work stands alongside—and in conversation with—recent contributions in the new histories of capitalism. Focusing on the global plantation economy, chattel slavery, and financial networks in the North Atlantic, such scholars as Sven Beckert, Walter Johnson, and Edward Baptist have emphasized the centrality of plantation slavery to early modern economic development and the epochal transformation of capitalism at a global scale. In a different vein, the emergent field of global labor history—led mostly by labor researchers in South Asia (Jairus Banaji, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Prabhu Mohapatra) and historians affiliated with the Amsterdam International Institute of Social History (Marcel van der Linden, Jan Lucassen)—has sought to think through the coeval synchronicity of forms of free labor and unfree labor in settings beyond the North Atlantic. 

Liu’s work, firmly grounded in these theoretical traditions, moves beyond the modular assumption—shared across neoclassical, developmentalist, and orthodox Marxist economists alike—of capital as a universalizing social force that necessarily flattens, obliterates, and homogenizes ostensibly “non-capitalist” or “pre-capitalist” relations of social difference. Rather, Liu attends instead to the multifarious and interlocking configurations of legal-political forms geared toward labor commodification and surplus extraction, wherein “local” or “regional” social arrangements that do not immediately present themselves as governed by the logic of capital relations nevertheless become central in the historical accumulation of capital and concomitant realization of capitalism. In doing so, Liu confronts the conventional Marxian perspective on capital and labor, which maintains the central role of a free and independent working class—dispossessed from land, displaced from traditional social organization, dependent on wage labor, and engaged in permanent employment in large firms—which subsequently enabled specialization, mechanization, and combination into large-scale concerns. This classical account of proletarianization, as Mike Davis insists, is epitomized by, albeit not historically corresponding to, “the European and North American working classes, considered in the period 1838–1921.” 

Yet, what remains occluded from this account is capitalism’s ceaseless capacity to enfold a plurality of ostensibly “non-capitalist” social forms—both a salient historical fact and a defining structural feature. Jairus Banaji, for one, concludes that “capital accumulation has been characterized by considerable flexibility in the structuring of production and in the forms of labour and organization of labour used in producing surplus-value.” Indeed, across the vast topography of heterogeneous labor arrangements, one encounters a plurality of “unfree” labor not only organized through the impersonal forces of the market, but also through overt terms of social difference (such as caste, race, kinship, gender): slavery, indenture, sharecropping, debt bondage, caste- and contractor-based labor, and family labor. Rather than representing failed or forestalled capitalist transformation, or a pure externality to the logic of capital, Liu maintains that these labor relations must be considered as immanent to the internal striation and heterogeneity of capitalism, driven by and integrated into the accumulative drive of capital.



Why tea? In Liu’s account, tea production provides an apposite lens through which to view the expansive and interlocking intercontinental networks of commodity flows. The first core chapter of Liu’s work begins with an overview of the regional histories of late imperial China and early colonial India, tracing the history of commercial tea cultivation in central and southeast China, its growing role in the emergence of foreign trading companies, and experimental projects by the East India Company to transplant cultivation in eastern India, enmeshing an early modern luxury commodity into a modern system of industrialization and market integration. 

To wit, the Chinese tea trade was largely reliant on seasonal, labor-intensive rural production, while the Indian tea industry was centralized in large, factory-like tea plantations. The Chinese tea trade operated on a segmented model of supply-chain production, relying on inland family farms [chahu] in Anhui and Fujian, itinerant peddlers, makeshift workshops in market towns, and large tea warehouses [chazhan] operated by merchant financiers in the coastal treaty ports of Canton, Fuzhou, and Shanghai. On the other hand, the Indian trade was a thoroughly colonial enterprise built anew by British capital: following initial failures at replicating the Chinese model of inland commerce and specialized production, British planters came to rely on an expanded and intensified system of indentured labor recruitment in Assam, catalyzing its spectacular economic success. 

Drawing on family archives and social-scientific surveys in Anhui and Fujian, the second chapter narrates the strategies adopted by Huizhou and Fujian tea producers who, in response to market competition and in the absence of capital-intensive innovation, attempted to reorganize the labor time of their seasonal employees and increase productivity in an industrial manner. Highlighting the industrial and distinctively modern character of these pre-mechanical labor processes—including the rise of managerial discipline by overseers [baotou] over labor, the development of a standardized system for abstract timed labor, and the use of incense sticks and local customs to regulate speed and coordination—Liu proposes the framework of “labor-intensive accumulation” as a “distinctively modern, market-driven strategy” to rationalize production in sync with higher productivity levels (47). Such novel notions and practices of work-time, as Liu subsequently elaborates, mirror the task-based system of nirikh in Assam, a schedule of labor distribution and management regulated through a shifting average of work per temporal unit (135). 

Turning to the emergence of Assam labor indenture in colonial India, the third chapter proceeds to outline the mid-century crisis of classical political economy—embodied in the ideals of free market, free labor, and private enterprise—following the initial failures of colonial officials to generate profit from tea and subsequent rebellions against colonial governance. This rupture, as Liu emphasizes, inaugurated a shift from liberal Smithian ideals to culturalist and historicist justifications of Indian backwardness, culminating in increasing bureaucratic support among Assam Company officials for penal labor contracts to resolve ongoing labor shortages. Consequently from the 1860s onwards, as the next chapter details, an elaborate system of labor indenture—comprising regulated labor recruitment, penal contract employment, restrictions on worker movement, constant surveillance by recruiters [sardār] and officers [chōkidār], and wages fixed by law—produced both escalating labor productivity and spectacular economic results. At the same time, new, trade-oriented managing agencies began treating an indentured labor force as illiquid, fixed stock. 

These transformations, per Liu, suggest that the social dynamics of these purportedly precapitalist labor practices were central to subsequent capital-intensive mechanization and the broader emergence of capitalist development in Asia. The resultant 1890s tea crisis in China precipitated a parallel crisis of economic principles among such late Qing bureaucrats as Chen Chi, the central figure of the fifth chapter, who in his work Supplement to the Wealth of Nations (Xu Fuguoce) abandoned mercantilist, high Qing ideas of wealth (revolving around agrarian development and commercial circulation), and denounced unproductive merchants and tax collectors as “users of wealth [caiyongzhe], movers [yi] and looters [duo] of wealth.” Instead, Chen espoused a Smithian analysis of wealth as socially determined, originating from human productivity, and capable of infinite expansion [shengcai] through innovation.

If the first half of the book had introduced classical political economy’s theory of value—outlined by W.N. Lees in India and Chen Chi in China—as a key category commensurate with the intensification of capitalist production, the second half of Liu’s monograph turns then to how thinkers in both spaces appropriated and repurposed political economy in their understandings of contemporaneous social changes and political questions, crucially organized around questions of labor’s nominal freedom and supposed productivity. The abstract economic categories of “free labor” and “productive labor,” in other words, were deeply informed by a concrete history of economic life that was itself transnational and dynamic in character. 

Focusing on the Bengali writer Ramkumar Vidyaratna and his social novel Sketches of Coolie Life (Kuli Kāhinī), the sixth chapter traces the historical campaign against the penal labor contract among such Indian nationalist associations as the Sandharan Brahmo Samaj and the Indian Association. As the tea plantations and street markets surged with strikes, hartals, and popular demonstrations—the largest of which witnessed a massive exodus of nine thousand indentured workers in the Chargola Valley—the tea industry’s penal labor contract forcefully emerged as one of the initial cause célèbres for the nascent noncooperation and Khilafat movements in the early twentieth century. The contradictory British discourses around the figure of the “coolie”—staged both as capitalist subjects in ownership of their bodily labor and as “demi-civilized” migrants unaccustomed to market exchange—set the groundwork for subsequent nationalists to offer a liberal criticism of monopoly and slavery as well as a vision of the the indigenization of tea capital, on the reasoning that free labor was more economically rational than indenture. 

Examining the Republican economic reformer Wu Juenong’s multiple attempts to revive the enfeebled Chinese tea industry via an “industrial revolution for tea” [chaye geming], Liu’s final core chapter analyzes the growing criticism of tea compradors [maiban]—both as a theoretical category and a historical institution—as “parasitic” [jisheng], “unproductive” [fei shengchan], and “monopolistic” [longduan]. To that end, Wu proposed a radical reorganization of native industry via the establishment of rural tea cooperatives and experimenting with novel forms of technological innovation. 

The oppositional categories of productive and non-productive labor articulated by these reformers, as Liu maintains, signaled historical changes in economic life, accentuated by tensions between different historical forms of accumulation. In that regard, Liu’s work challenges the implicit technicist assumptions of the prevailing literature in economic history—wherein modern capitalism is equated with growth, industrialization, and technological innovation—and instead proposes an integrative rethinking of capitalism’s localized dynamics as reliant upon “labor-intensive accumulation” (46). In this view, capitalism’s simultaneous universalism and unevenness—comprising both “a set of shared, mutually constitutive pressures” and “uneven rates of profit and accumulation”—was productive of regionally-distinctive tensions, manifest in putatively noncapitalist or precapitalist labor practices and ideological forms (274). 

If Sewell had earlier observed that economic history has largely been preoccupied with quantitative studies of growth rates, economic aggregates, productivity, and investment at the expense of qualitative questions of economic life, Liu’s meticulous treatment of his historical interlocutors presents an exemplary model bridging intellectual history and political economy, in recognition that both objective circumstances and subjective dispositions are dialectically mediated by the other. “The separation of subject and object,” as Theodor Adorno reminds us in his incisive critique of subjectivism, “is both real and illusory.” 

For Liu, subjective transformations in labor practices, political ideology, and economic consciousness were necessarily and irreducibly linked to the historically particular objective social dynamics of global capitalism: competition, commodification, and modern accumulation. It is precisely in recasting the mutual constitution of objectivity and subjectivity within a single analytic frame that Liu’s work elucidates the dialectical relationship between the material transformation of a particular political-economic landscape, and the coeval emergence of such categories of social abstraction as value, production, labor, and economy. 

Just as the spectacular opium monopoly held by the Ghazipur Opium Factory gradually declined over the twentieth century, as opium production shifted to the highlands of British Burma, sprawling across borders into French Laos and northern Siam, the nineteenth-century tea war suffered a similarly ignominious ending. As the topography of the global tea trade welcomed competitors from Japan, Taiwan, Ceylon, and the Dutch East Indies, the relative importance of tea in Republican China and colonial India waned considerably, yielding ground to more valuable sectors and commodities. If the once-phenomenal India–China tea war was sustained by the contradictory unity of territorializing claims of power on one hand, and the deterritorializing force of capital accumulation on the other, then its subsequent move outward to the peripheries is entirely consistent with the social logic of intensive accumulation, as a frontier phenomenon arising at the interface of discordant historical forms. 

Yet the major intellectual and political themes emergent from this episode remain deeply prescient and highly germane today. Following the late-twentieth-century neoliberal restructuring of large swathes of the globe—with the privatization and reform of the Chinese economy under Deng Xiaoping, and the economic liberalization of India under P. V. Narasimha Rao—such questions of unfree labor and labor-intensive accumulation have been revivified on a massive scale. A spate of labor unrests in the past decade—employee suicides at Taiwan-owned electronics manufacturer Foxconn, farmer suicides in rural Maharashtra, strike actions at Honda factories in Guangdong, and labor unrests in Chennai’s automotive industry—underlined the renewed reliance of global supply chains and production networks on expanded circuits of informal or informalized labor in the surplus labor economies of East, South, and Southeast Asia: caste-based debt bondage, nongmingong [rural migrant labor], contract-based work, petty commodity production, and informal footloose employment. 

The existence of this vast army of reserve labor today, as Liu would argue, is far from a conjunctural aberration of flexible accumulation specific to the global factory form of our political present, but rather the very structuring condition of capitalism itself, intrinsic to the social dynamic of value. Far from a past consigned to the piling wreckage of history, echoes of an earlier nineteenth-century moment survive as living forms in the contemporary remobilization of migrant, informal, domestic, and bonded labor, structuring how empire’s toilers experienced their lived encounters with transnational capital. Therein, both then and now, lay ever more possibilities for various politics of horizontal solidarity, rooted in a conflictual antagonism against the uneven yet simultaneous temporal present of global capitalism, spanning across and throughout China, India, as well as colonies new and old. 



Posted on 10 December 2020

KELVIN NG is a graduate student in the Department of History at Yale University.