In the neoliberal world order, no one is concerned with social need.
Landscapes of Accumulation describes and analyzes the way in which international markets are created. It is a tremendous work showcasing years of ethnographic research that author Llerena Guiu Searle conducted in the National Capital Region of northern India. It is rigorously academic in its style and approach, however, which may alienate readers unfamiliar with current research on the anthropology of economic development or expecting more engaging prose. The primary importance of the book is in showing the means through which commodification, which is at the very heart of the capitalist project, is achieved.
Landscapes of Accumulation does this with an investigation of the emerging real estate market in northern India in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The necessary first step in this process was India’s abandonment of the Nehru-established socialist statebuilding project—which had been the country’s core development model since its establishment as an independent state in 1947. This turn to a new model, liberalization—often identified as neoliberalism—occurred in the mid-‘90s. By the time Searle began her research in 2006, India’s imbrication within the world neoliberal capitalist regime was complete, resulting in billions of dollars of foreign investment in the real estate market. India, then, was an ideal case study for her crucial analysis.
Searle’s research dismantles the assumption that economic globalization, via foreign investment, is an automatic consequence of reduced government regulation of financial institutions. She contends, instead, that “foreign investment is a power-laden process of creating chains of intermediaries…a contingent, uncertain process of constructing authority, changing practices, and standardizing things so that they can be invested in and exchanged.”
Investment into India is driven by what Searle identifies as the “India story,” a self-fulfilling marketing-created narrative that posits India as the next it spot for burgeoning material desires. India, the story goes, will very soon be full of a young, money-flush middle class just desperate to buy their way into the fashionable international consumerist elite. Herein lies the systemic violence of neoliberalism: its reduction of human beings to consumers, so that the India of the “India story” is analogous to an oil field; it is a vast natural resource from which international investors may extract enormous profits. That the resource “field”—in this case. Indian space and society—may be damaged by the extraction process is someone else’s problem.
The first step in any extractive development is the production of infrastructure, which is where Searle’s research is focused. To harvest profit from India, international financiers first have to construct office complexes, high-rise residential towers and commercial shopping centers. Landscapes of Accumulation highlights the dizzying complexity of such construction projects. For instance, development requires space, which necessitates rezoning slums or farmlands for commercial use, a tedious-everywhere process complicated by the ponderous enormity of the Indian state bureaucracy. To navigate this bureaucracy, foreign investors have to partner with northern Indian businessmen with local knowledge and experience with bribing government officials.
It is the social and political dynamics that play out within this uneasy collaboration between foreign investment capitalists and Indian developers that make up the majority of Landscapes of Accumulation’s pages. Searle masterfully deconstructs the performative posturing of both sides in this encounter, emphasizing the economic self-interest behind their maneuvers. Each chapter involves a richly detailed examination of one aspect of this encounter.
As an example emblematic of the book as a whole, chapter seven explores the various mechanisms that foreign firms adopt to construct “quality” as a category as well as their motivations for doing so. For investors, quality begets profits, and it requires standardization: the creation of buildings in India that resemble similar structures in London, New York and Abu Dhabi. Searle digs further: quality and its concomitant, standardization, are semiotic acts which designate a space as pertaining to a specific sort of person (a rich one). Investors’ calls for quality, then, make meaning from space in such a way as to maximize investors’ own self-interest (which is profit). These calls argue that a given location is “for” international business elites. and they do so because catering to this population is believed to be the most profitable for investors. Profit, then, rather than the common good or the needs of the local population, is the governing logic. But foreign firms face a major obstacle in their quality claims. Because of their dependence on locals to facilitate building projects, investors’ claims of expertise and authority ring hollow. They cannot build without collaboration and thereby are not experts in building structures in India. Their semiotic performances, then, also aim to assert their authority, an aim resisted by their native Indian partners who instead insist that they have the most crucial expertise for creating buildings. Delivering a completed building requires a process of negotiation between foreign firms and local developers, each posturing their own ascendancy to maximize their own profits. Searle cleverly analyzes the stakes in all of this, contending that real estate development conducted in this manner signifies a radical redefinition of the environment, transforming it from a public resource for the benefit of all into a private space intended to generate revenue for its owners. In the neoliberal world order, no one is concerned with social need.
This is where Landscapes of Accumulation’s rhetorical power lies. In each chapter, Searle further illuminates an aspect of the commodification of Indian land, of the development of infrastructure in India intended not to make life better for Indians but instead to fill the pockets of international financiers (and their local cronies on the ground in India). As a whole, the book is one of the more damning portraits of the mechanisms through which capitalism distorts humanity, shackling humans with sociopolitical structures that define personhood as commodity. We are what we buy.