Farmer getting ready to join the protests in Delhi. Amritsar, India - 27 November 2020. Photo: Sanjeev Syal /

Ecological multiplicity against capitalist hegemony in India

  • February 17, 2021

Land & Liberation

India’s farmers are waging a historical struggle against biopiracy, eco-fascism and neoliberal dispossession. Is land-commoning the answer to a transformative future?

In the final months of 2020, one of the largest mass movements in modern history began to take shape in India in response to three new agriculture acts — commonly known as the Farm Bills — proposed by Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government. Ever since, Indian farmers and their allies have been protesting in their hundreds of thousands on the outskirts of New Delhi and in solidarity protests across the country. The convergence of these repressive agriculture laws with recently-introduced regressive labor laws triggered a shift in public action around worker and farmer rights, and have led to heightened militancy and solidarity within diverse communities across the subcontinent.

This mass movement is led mostly by agricultural workers and farmer unions in conjunction with leftist parties and exploited workers across various sectors of India’s waning economy. It is part of an expanded campaign to address both the expansion of unequal laws regarding farmer and worker rights under the neo-fascist political regime, and to draw attention to deepening levels of unequal development and wealth inequality, which have only expanded in the current pandemic period.

As such, the mass mobilizations against expanding deregulation of agriculture enable us to understand the convergence of three persistent issues: the relationship between 21st-century imperialism and biopiracy in postcolonial India; the growth of Hindutva eco-fascism and its utilization of ultra-nationalist citizenship as a mechanism for managing dissent and thus safeguarding globalized capitalist plunder; and the need to develop what James Angel labels the “in-against-and-beyond the state” approach to counter the unfreedom of neoliberal dispossession.

Taking class solidarity as the basis for solidifying the shared ethos of ecological belonging and re-collectivity, these demonstrations broaden the possibilities for land-commoning in the pursuit of autonomy and self-governance. Moreover, they can also serve as the basis for undoing the legacies of uneven development and structural inequality that have intensified in India since the liberalization period of the 1990s.

Biopiracy, Capitalist Imperialism and Farmer Deprivation

The current farm laws are emblematic of a long history of dispossession and displacement, which has intensified since the implementation and intensification of neoliberal reforms in India beginning in the 1990s. Specifically, we see that multinational corporations with advanced agricultural technologies such as Bayer/Monsanto, Cargill, Deere & Co. and Syngenta have hijacked localized agricultural markets across the Global South, thereby pressing farmers to grow highly subsidized GMO cash-crops. If they do not accept government-backed loans at the start of the crop cycle, the only other options for poor farmers are loan sharks and other risky money lenders who charge high interest, thus forcing them into debt peonage when loans cannot be repaid. This situation has led to almost 300,000 farmer suicides since 1995.

This dire situation is compounded by state-based land privatization and control which have been consolidated by fewer and fewer corporate bodies and the global robber barons of our time. With 60 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people managing their livelihoods by farming, most of them on small plots of land, this cycle of debt enslavement has intensified the already-dire context of capitalist slum-creation and the proliferation of surplus labor within the subcontinent.

Despite leading the world in the production of foodstuffs like milk and wheat, millions in India are undernourished or on the brink of starvation, a situation that reflects the long trajectory of capital-induced famine affecting mostly agrarian workers. The government’s planned removal of price regulations and the guaranteed distribution of produce by independent farmers as laid out in the 2020 Farm Bills will only inflate food insecurity, while millions more will be siphoned into factory and service industry hell and the misery of surplus labor ostracism.

To understand this process in more detail, we might recall the Marxist geographer Neil Smith’s crucial insight on how capital facilitates the exploitation of the natural world for profit maximization, what Smith calls “emancipation through annihilation.” The invention of “uneven development” — from the soil to the atmosphere — is central to capital’s growth as it repurposes untouched facets of the biosphere to enhance and extend the paradigm of market domination. As Smith writes, “No part of the earth’s surface, the atmosphere, the oceans, the geological substratum, or the biological substratum are immune from transformation from capital. In the form of a price tag, every use-value is delivered as an invitation to the labor process, and capital — by its nature the quintessential socialite — is driven to make good on every invitation.”

Smith’s insights enable us to understand how capital’s intrusion into the mechanics of all life-processes mirrors the pernicious machinery of biopiracy, which functions as the ultimate horizon of globalized accumulation and the “new” imperialist practices of super-exploitation of human and non-human entities, leaving nothing untouched. Biopiracy is an act of capitalist plundering which seeks to patent ecological knowledge and the foundations upon which humans can interact with the earth’s inherited properties. By owning the rights to genetic materials that have circulated as shared wealth for centuries, multinationals can then regulate the usage of these formerly shared materials, such as seeds, thereby redefining and undermining the potential for collective ownership of life forces and the practices that underlie the essentials of ecological sustainability and belonging.

For the Indigenous scholar and activist Debra Harry, this misappropriation of collective use of collective knowledge is a form of “biocolonialism” which “extends the reach of the colonial process into the biomes and knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples in the search for marketable genetic resources and traditional knowledge.” Harry argues that “At the core of the biocolonial process is the control, manipulation and ownership of life itself, and the ancient knowledge systems held by Indigenous peoples.” Biopiracy is thus an extension of the imperialist pillaging of resources and knowledge that has been broadened under the regime of flexible accumulation while also reflecting the neoliberal ethic of the privatization of everything, no matter the human or ecological damage.

In tracing the recent history of biopiracy we see that an important prefiguration of the current farm laws was India’s 2019 Seed Bill, which threatened farmer sovereignty by flooding the market with GMO and non-renewable seeds, thus re-enslaving them to the multinationals who control the exclusive rights over life-giving and previously shared communal assets. Since the liberalization of India’s economy, multinationals have used India as a sort of lab rat for executing some of the policies associated with biopiracy, culminating in the commodification of biological objects from rice to cotton and beyond.

Biopiracy in India is thus symbolic of a global phenomenon through which we can witness how deeply entangled capital is in the web of life. Writing on the convergence between the erosion of farmer rights and capitalist biopiracy, Vandana Shiva argues in her book Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature & Knowledge: “It is the shift from ecological processes of production through regeneration to technological processes of non-regenerative production that underlies the dispossession of farmers and the drastic reduction of biological diversity in agriculture. It is at the root of the creation of poverty and of non-sustainability in agriculture.”

Biopiracy undercuts the social reproduction of all life forces, leading to the desertification of ecological knowledge and the kinds of self-induced violence that has plagued farmer communities in the last few decades of market-based agricultural production.

Eco-Fascism and the Hindutva Project

In political terms, these recent forms of capitalist imperialism have expanded alongside the rise of Hindu ultra-nationalism, which is now the guiding ideology of the neo-fascist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has gained influence since the 1990’s and has maintained a majority in recent years under the leadership of Narendra Modi.

The Hindutva agenda has magnified under Modi’s watch to ensure that the imposing multinationals who work in tandem with the localized capitalist class retain access to resources and the vast pools of surplus labor. Embedded in the Hindutva agenda is the prerequisite of post-imperial assimilation, which means acceding to neo-fascist modalities of belonging and the naturalized ethics of social exclusion and inescapable immiseration, as evidenced by the increased attacks on Dalit and other lower caste sectors of the society who have become marginal figures within the space of Hindu polity.

And when those in the shadows organize, like farmers or super-exploited facets of the body-politic, they are met with state-backed repression, as seen in the most recent protests. As Arundhati Roy writes in this context in Broken Republic: “Almost from the moment India became a sovereign nation it turned into a colonial power, annexing territory, waging war. It has never hesitated to use military interventions to address political problems…. Tens of thousands have been killed with impunity, hundreds of thousands tortured. All of this behind the benign mask of democracy.”

It is no surprise that the rise of neo-fascist internationalism in the last few years has incorporated aspects of the Hindutva playbook as part of the desire to re-synchronize social relations according to fabricated hierarchies of imperial citizenship, a process not limited to the use of xenophobic racism and the exclusionary practices exercised by border militarization, but that also extends to include the naturalization of mass wealth disparities and concomitant forms of super-exploitation and systematic dispossession.

Accordingly, we can see how this monocultural control over social relations is extended to “the land,” which is elevated to the status of a sacred object, yet one that is inherent to the uniqueness of synthetic assimilation which is translated into passive acceptance of the status quo of uneven development. Based on the concept of “deep ecology,” which sees the world through the reified spectacles of Malthusian and Social Darwinian inescapability, eco-fascism thus naturalizes collective and individual acts of violence against any and all who are deemed unfit for access to the ancestral landscape. In other words, an ideologically constructed system for rationalizing both social and physical annihilation.

We can see how the Hindutva project dovetails with the eco-fascist emphasis on the purification of ideas and identities external to the dominant paradigm of nationalist belonging. That is, it exerts control on the molecular level over social and biological processes by blaming those who are unfit to exist with the naturalized borders of the “nation,” such as Muslims, Adivasi (tribal communities) and lower-caste workers. Hindutva neo-fascism thus fuels the eco-fascist principle of sanitization against those whose ethnic or racial “essence” is deemed fundamentally contrary to the racially superior one, even if such marginalized identities have historic ties to land rights.

Commenting on the mechanism of synchronization that seeks to meld the elements of society under the banner of a naturalized hierarchy, Benjamin Zachariah, who has written extensively on Indian politics, writes that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS,) or the militant wing of the BJP, “tends to include a claim to an organic and primordial nationalism—the idea that the nation is in blood and soil, and everyone who belongs has to share that…. Then, that nation must be purified and preserved by cleansing it of its impurities.”

As such, India’s continued occupation of Kashmir is not simply an inadvertent act to protect itself from hostile neighbors like China and Pakistan, or to maintain jurisdiction over hitherto disputed territory. Rather, it is consistent with how eco-fascism exerts biopolitical control over an imagined dominion that has been reconfigured according to a naturalized ideology of authentic integration, including the expropriation of land and resources as a sovereign act, and to fortify political rule over inauthentic social body — something the Hindutva project shares with apartheid states like Israel and the US on a global scale.

Land-Commoning and the Ecology of Class Struggle

The recent suspension of the farm laws — at least temporarily — is in no doubt the outcome of mass civil disobedience, which should be celebrated and replicated. One possible model for expanding the momentum unleashed by these revolts is to consider how land-commoning and its potential for rebuilding an ecological society based on the preservation of life as a revolutionary act might foster anti-capitalist resistance while also alleviating the conditions of mass impoverishment and food insecurity that have amplified in recent decades.

We know that there has long been a movement based on collective use of resources in the agriculturally rich Punjab where the village panchayat or councils manage distribution of land-use. This shamalat land, as it is termed, benefited Dalit farmers who depend on land cultivation for their livelihoods, while also enabling self-sufficiency and cooperative decision making over the use of resources which are pooled together to promote the community.

We also know that land dispossession has been an ongoing project in India’s postcolonial period, resulting in the displacement and relocation of millions, particularly from rural and tribal areas that have come under the thumb of mineral extractivism and expanded water-dam industrialization. Indian’s “Green Revolution” and the subsequent ecological destruction that came in its wake also paved the way for neoliberal repossession of land resources in Punjab and other areas, disrupting the autonomy and survival of poor farmers. This displacement has only intensified in the period of neoliberal imperialism, exasperating the growth of slums with the influx of dislodged surplus labor into the urban centers, as evidenced by Mike Davis, among others.

Under the guise of counteracting the slowing of India’s economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the BJP has further loosened environmental laws for mining and industrial projects, which encroach further into hitherto protected forests to the detriment of the Adivasi whose very existence is based on access to usable land resources. The proposed Farm Laws are an extension of the practice of ecological exclusion that threatens and undermines the capability of communities to govern their own resources, particularly in rural areas that hitherto have been collectively run.

With this history in mind, land-commoning might point the way toward transforming social-political and thus ecological relations by establishing anti-capitalist solidarity networks across working-class lines, especially because over 60 percent of the Indian population works in the agricultural industry. This “in-against-and-beyond the state” strategy, as it is called, is premised on the idea that autonomy can be achieved and maintained both outside of capital and yet within the boundaries of the state-apparatus, ultimately promoting the model of collectivized self-management.

Building on this concept, Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis argue that “anti-capitalist commoning should be conceived as both autonomous spaces from which to reclaim control over the conditions of our reproduction, and as bases from which to counter the processes of enclosure and increasingly disentangle our lives from the market and the state.” Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya NGO is emblematic of this trend, with its emphasis on seed-saving, biodiversity and sustainable organic farming. It further promotes farmer rights as part of the impetus for decentralization, and degrowth as a foundational policy shift against the bulwark of globalization and its malignant effects.

Ashish Kothari and Pallav Das also draw attention to the re-emergence of collectives in rural and historic farming areas based on swaraj or “self-rule,” which acts to promote forms of “radical democracy” by countering extractivist industry and the meddling of multinational control over resources and its usages. As the authors argue, the formation of “eco-swaraj or radical ecological democracy (RED)” paves the way toward the possibility of expanding “a process or system in which every person and community is empowered to be part of decision-making, in ways that are ecologically sustainable and socially equitable. It is based on the pillars of ecological sustainability and resilience, social justice and equity, direct democracy, economic democracy and localization, and cultural diversity.”

And yet, what is often missing in this radical reconciliation process is the necessity of liberating labor from the grips of surplus-value extraction, which is key to overcoming capital in the long term. As such, expanded land-commoning cannot move forward without close attention to building class consciousness on a scale that can pave the way toward revolutionary transformation, or it is doomed to become fixed in its localized status and thus limited in its prospects for mass realization against capitalist hegemony.

One noticeable aspect of the recent mobilizations is that they have cut across traditional caste and gender lines, especially in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, as noted by journalist and author Amandeep Sandhu in a recent article on the forces propping up the farmer uprisings. And yet, we should also recognize the legacy of the political manipulation of Dalit workers as a way of bolstering the economic position of the land-owner class and the localized bourgeoisie that support its control over the means of production. As we know from history, such contrived solidarity often regresses into age-old exploitative habits of exclusion that are systemic and deep-rooted, especially in India’s rural spaces.

The point here is not to downplay the importance of inter-caste solidarity and the role of the ethnic or religious communities within the framework of mass resistance: as we have seen the protests have been coordinated and led by the militancy of Sikh farmers. Similarly, the emphasis on class struggle is not meant to impose a sort of westernized Marxist “class reductionist” view as the controlling factor in the fightback against neoliberal dispossession and biopiracy expansion.

However, my point is that for such a project to remain anti-capitalist and thus politically inclusive, class consciousness is central to broadening a project such as land-commoning, which might also lead to truly addressing the legacies of casteism and the super-exploitation it generates. To cite Federici and Caffentzis again, “Either commons are a means to the creation of an egalitarian and cooperative society, or they risk deepening social divisions, making havens for those who can afford them and who can therefore more easily ignore the misery by which they are surrounded.”

How might an expanded land-commoning based on class struggle contribute to the building of ecosystemic solidarity on a mass scale? While there is a limit to the form land-commoning takes within localized reconfigured space, we should cultivate and encourage such forms of resistance as part of a transnational movement against eco-fascism and the mass control over land resources, which are the basis of the reproduction of life itself. We see that contemporary robber barons like Bill Gates have become the largest owner of farmland in the US, which is no surprise considering one of the major subsidiaries of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is investment fostering GMO cash-crop production across Africa and other states across the Global South.

Consequently, this kind of social action might become pivotal in the development of an ecological knowledge commons which advances in the context of the collective fightback against unconstrained extractivism and biotic impoverishment led by the tiny fraction of humanity that make up the robber barons of our time. An ecologically determined knowledge-as-praxis might refocus our attention on how humans are not outside the biosphere but connected to the earth’s organic processes and the creative force that matures in the context of inclusive and sustainable belonging.

As Vandana Shiva argues in her book Oneness Vs. the 1%, the “evolutionary challenge” of our time is to develop a planetary consciousness which “includes the awareness that the earth has rights, and that we have a duty to care for her, her creatures, and our fellow human beings.” Fostering this kind of ecological multiplicity is crucial if we want to invalidate capitalist hegemony and the catastrophes it breeds.

John Maerhofer

John Maerhofer is an educator and activist involved in prison abolition, climate activism and migrant labor rights in the greater NYC area. Among his current projects, he’s working on a book on the long counterrevolution from the 1970’s to the present.

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