Sheetal Chhabria is Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College. She researches the histories of capitalism, the production of space, and the governance of labor, poverty and inequality. Her first book, Making the Modern Slum: the Power of Capital in Colonial Bombay (University of Washington Press, 2019), which won the American Historical Association’s 2020 John F. Richards Prize for South Asian History, shows how the wellbeing of the city–rather than of its people–became an increasingly urgent goal of government, positioning agrarian distress, famished migrants, and the laboring poor as threats to be contained or excluded. Other publications have analyzed the politics of aboriginality and indigenous rights, the relations between colonial knowledge and power, and the production of the economy as a social scientific fact. Her current research is focused on the imbrications of caste and capital in the subcontinent’s long history and the failures of decolonization. She has published in Comparative Studies in Society and History, the Journal of Urban History and the Journal of World History as well as written for The Nation, Jacobin, The India Forum and Scroll, amongst others.
This paper explores the possibility that what has been called “racial capitalism” in studies of North Atlantic slavery, racialism, and capitalism is a more widespread and common process of subordinate incorporation of labor regimes even in the old world. For instance in colonial India, and perhaps in most places in the late 19th and early 20th century, this common process of racial capitalism entailed including but in a subordinated position, lower classes and forms of labor into regimes of legibility such that they became racialized and gendered subjects who appeared to fall “outside” of more legitimate modes of production or forms of economic life. To examine this subordinate incorporation, this paper highlights ongoing forms of production that have increased throughout history rather than decreased, like slavery, bonded and indebted labor, caste-ized labor, circular migration between village and city, and household labor. By gesturing to comparative cases beyond colonial India we see how these were widespread forms of labor across most places. Yet, despite these being widespread and common forms of labor, material technologies that traversed the globe, such as property records, deeds, censuses, and even the law, created regimes of legibility that classified and distinguished people. Lower and working classes became incorporated into but excluded from the narratives of capitalist transitions often in particularist or place-specific ways. By foregrounding and naming this common process “racial capitalism,” we can see more clearly the limitations of histories of capitalism that often ignored the ways in which racialization is a necessary process of local distinction that enables what comes to appear like transnational or global “flows.”