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Mundane Environmentalism and Accumulation-Horizon in India and the Global South

- Atreyee Majumder*

We have witnessed the debate over the Draft EIA Notification 2020, which relaxed several safeguards to protect the environment against damage by industry. In light of this debate, I ask: What kind of environmentalism emerges from this moment? In the book Friction (2005), Tsing writes about John Muir’s environmentalism in the America of the nineteenth century. Muir is moved by a sheer love for the Earth itself. The earth is available to him as a whole for admiration, love, and embrace. He differs with, and also aligns with, statist conservationist paradigms. But what of those, I ask, for whom the Earth is not available as a whole as imaginative fodder? John Muir’s location in America as an educated, white man enables him to conceptualize the whole world/globe before his eyes. This location also lends him a Christian empathy towards nature that is foreign to his context, beyond America. He emerged as one of the earliest cosmopolitan environmentalists. Those who are not of his location are not in a position to consider the world as a whole. We are therefore found wanting in generalized nature-love.

In this essay, I try to excavate instances of nature-related subjectivity that arise from crises of resource sovereignty in the peripheral world, especially in India. A certain environmentalism emerges in the shape of the defence of resource sovereignty from communities whose access to natural resources, especially the land on which they have traditionally lived, is threatened by the latest rounds of accumulation-drive. In this essay, I unpack these environmentalisms that primarily stem from crisis-management strategies rather than the generalized nature-love that John Muir symbolizes. In making this argument, I show a mundane environmentalism in the Global South that make, perhaps, the last frontier of anti-capitalist struggles. These peasant and indigenous subjects in the Global South articulate a politics of survival as environmentalism. In doing so, they emerge as subjects of capital who are aware of its intricacies while being in an accumulation-horizon, waiting for the latest drive of accumulation to hit their villages or forests.

I. Capital in the Margins

I am concerned with persons whose existence is coded in certain Marxisms as the temporal precursor to capital – a kind of 'precapital' (Sanyal 1993). The precapitalist material ensemble is annihilated and converted into lands and resources and labouring hands through the event of primitive accumulation (the iteration of which in capitalist times is called 'accumulation by dispossession': on this question, see Harvey 2003) by which the stage is readied for capital to start its conjurer’s show. I take up Marx’s term ‘primitive accumulation’ to understand the vast swathes of resource and land acquisition by multinational companies, often with the intervention of a peripheral state (I repeatedly use the example of India), evicting peasant and indigenous populations from traditional landscapes and arrangements of living.

The earlier colonial logic of capitalist expansion to quell the hunger for new frontiers of resources, raw material, and labour repeats, in pattern, in the latest rounds of the invasion of natural resources in the global South. I show the mundaneness of the experiences of inhabiting non-spectacular accumulation-drive of neoliberal capital. The localised knowledge and orientation about the accumulation-drive is experienced as an inaugural event of capital’s entry into a landscape (a kind of primitive accumulation) although, temporally speaking, this pattern of attack on resources and labour frontiers in the colonies is actually much older. What is new is this feeling of ‘newness’ as capital arrives in one’s landscape, while a peasant/indigenous subject knows very well, all the while, what its motives and machinations are.

Anna Tsing shows that capital’s margins have been actively complicit in the production of the sensibilities and commodities that are ‘global’ (Tsing 2005). These ‘global’ categories are in tension with each other and in circulation across geographies. The language of marginality within non-western geographies finds purchase only and especially because of its strategic embeddedness within structures of capitalism. Tsing shows the case of forest-dwelling populations in Kalimantan, Indonesia, who use the liberal markers of rights and other political necessities to articulate their ‘locality’, significantly through the experience of ‘friction’ with global forces by logging companies, NGOs, contractors and so on. Tsing interrogates, in Friction, this particular, modern face of the ‘local’. She takes the ‘global’ question to the most unlikely geography- that of indigenous communities and threatened forest lands of Kalimantan. On the one hand, the ‘local’ gets stamped, circulated and reproduced as pristine and mystical – the abode of salvaging mysticality and indigenous knowledge On the other hand, it turns into a frontier landscape of the struggle over natural resources. The ‘local’ and the ‘margin’ are produced within capital’s logic. These indigenous communities of Kalimantan are no longer ‘traditional’. They occupy, to my mind, an accumulation-horizon (this term is discussed in the next section).

And yet, in the intimate experiences of people who think that their worlds are yet to be drawn into the logics of capital, there is an outside (or at least, outsideness) - a material environ of a forest or a village. These outsides inhere in accumulation-horizon, I argue, marshalling Tsing. For Tsing, this struggle takes place primarily through the contact between various actors across the ‘global’ and ‘local’ maps -contact that she calls ‘friction’. At each point of friction between varied interpretations of the same ‘universal’ category, and its appropriation and adaptation, the ‘global’ is produced across a range of frontier zones. The indigenous communities of Kalimantan, in Tsing’s ethnography, consume the political package that comes in the form of the language of ‘rights’ to articulate their struggle to retain control over forest land vis-à-vis the developmentalist state. Tsing shows how these ‘local’ acts of adoption and appropriation of global logics have been crucial in producing the ‘universal’ [1] itself. In different situations, transactions or negotiations surrounding such a ‘global’ category have given rise to connections that she calls friction. I take from Tsing this powerful metaphor of ‘friction’ and begin my argument about capital’s closing off of the horizons of possibility from those who act on it and in it from the margins or outside, and environmentalism’s emergence as a last preserve of possibility and as a language of survival.

II. Accumulation-Horizon

For subaltern citizens of the less capitalist states, the possibility that the growth machine might arrive in ‘our village’ tomorrow is very much mundane and ever-present. There are many instances of resistance to this arrival for plunder under the name of the sovereign law of eminent domain. This includes the famous resistance put forth by the Dongria Kondh tribe in Odisha against Vedanta mining projects of Niyamgiri (2014), [2] and the Singur Tata Nano land acquisition controversy in West Bengal (2009) [3] that led to the fall of the regional communist government of thirty years. The emergence of the jal-jangal-jameen [4] campaign for resource sovereignty in India is another good example of this phenomenon – the use of modern political tools to claim an ‘outside’ of capital for one’s self and group. The ideas of growth and associated change in individual material conditions have already been introduced into the lives and horizons of those subaltern citizens who are expecting to be hit by the newest round of accumulation any which day.

Kalyan Sanyal calls capital a ‘power relation’ (Sanyal 1993). The power of being summoned into capital’s global unilinear future is a heady, attractive one, even in the moment of articulating resistance. And yet, some people resist it, at least in the language of communitarian environmentalism. They often code this resistance in the words of nature-love, wording their demand as one that seeks to restore nature to its pristine state. Even as a slowing cog in the motor of national progress, these movements already occupy the accumulation-horizon. Precapital (Sanyal 1993) – the horizon of outsideness or beforeness in the global travel of the logic of capital - is already summoned into the future of capital, and it is only a matter of time speaks the language and the logics internal to the global growth machine of capital. Accumulation by dispossession is the mundane crime scene of this process. It inaugurates mainly a temporal shift – in the realization that the waiting in the wings for capital to announce itself in a landscape has now ended, and the fight with or against capital on its terms will now begin.

'Accumulation by dispossession' (Harvey 2003) is, therefore, a mundane theatre of capital’s engulfing of new resource frontiers with the aid and abetment of national State formations and supranational bodies. It is this directness and its associated theatricality that we read with so much curiosity and horror. It is preceded by a long-term training of the eyes and the minds of subjects who are in capital’s horizon of possibility, but not affected by its inroads directly yet. It is in this mundane invasion of resource frontiers in the Global South that we see the birth of strategic environmentalisms, that communities articulate in a last resort to defend their sovereignty over the land and resources that they have survived on thus far.

David Harvey shows two sides of his famous formulation ‘spatio-temporal fix’ (Harvey 2003: 115-6):

Such geographical expansions, reorganizations, and reconstructions often threaten, however, the values already fixed in place (embedded in the land) but not yet realized. This contradiction is inescapable, and open to endless repetition because new regions also require fixed capital in physical infrastructures and built environments if they are to function effectively.
….. If capital does move out, then it leaves behind a trail of devastation and devaluation; the deindustrializations experienced in the heartlands of capitalism (such as Pittsburgh, Sheffield, the Ruhr), as well as in many other parts of the world (such as Bombay), in the 1970s and 1980s are cases in point. If capital does not or cannot move, on the other hand, then overaccumulated capital stands to be devalued directly through the onset of a deflationary recession or depression.

The fixed and associated devaluation of physical arrangement of production, at the time of the decline of an industry, goes hand-in-hand with the processes of expansion and reorganization through the hunt for new geographies, technologies and markets. The ‘debt trap’ experienced by less capitalist States is a time-tactic for bringing them within the global growth machine quite quickly. These States, and their territorial markets and resource frontiers, are waiting to be inaugurated through debt and aid. Harvey shows convincingly that the general stability of capitalist systems is maintained by their constant shifts between industries and geographies, while causing interregional instability.

Harvey, with the help of Rosa Luxemburg, explicates the need for ‘Others’ [5] (Harvey 2003: 141) in feeding capital’s expansionist tendencies. I see these Others as already in capital’s time, waiting to be interpellated any which day, waiting for the violent encounter and inhabiting the fantastic horizon associated with it. These struggles do not map onto the trajectory of typical struggles for a communist overhaul of the State system. These resistance movements against capitalist development differ in their stance towards global modernization projects and in their styles of politics. They often use the mantle of ethnic identity to place on record their demands from the State formations, or the supranational entities like MNCs. Harvey echoes a general sentiment in calling them ‘postmodern resistance struggles’. The localised social and political movements against accumulation by dispossession are often called anti-globalization. Harvey details the institutional and financial arrangements (WTO, IMF, etc.) that force open nascent markets in the less developed world and thus stabilize unequal trade and exchange relations between the West and the rest. He comments on the repetitiveness of the accumulation by dispossession events across the world (Harvey 2003: 182):

The American bourgeoisie has, in short, rediscovered what the British bourgeoisie discovered in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, that, as Arendt has it, 'the original sin of simple robbery' which made possible the original accumulation of capital 'had eventually to be repeated lest the motor of accumulation suddenly die down'.

Here, I wish to intervene and argue that diverse forms of imagination of inhabitation of capitalist forms of society are available to groups of people differently angled or attached to the global growth machine. Some may be losing their traditional homes that they think of as sacred and precious (thinking of the Dongria Kondhs here), some may be buying motorcycles with compensation money, some may be turning into daily wage labourers in Mumbai or Bangalore in the construction industry. Harvey warns against the politics of nostalgia, but I see certain kinds of land and nature-related nostalgia, as a stance towards capital; in negation, a kind of ‘capitalist’ subjectivity.

These people - I take the Dongria Kondhs as a metonym for these anti-capitalist subjectivities - are in the horizon of capital, interrogating constantly their terms of habitation within it. They do not have to wait to become fully proletarianized in order to be capital’s subjects. Harvey talks about the importance of noticing localised growth regions, new territories of influence, sub-imperialisms, across the globe (2003: 185-6). I would say, in response, there are capitalist states and there are capitalist states. They are all active participants in the global growth machine, borrowing their differential epithets (core, peripheral, and semi-peripheral: to remember the World-Systems logic given by Immanuel Wallerstein; see generally Wallerstein 2000). But the nature of state formation in the current world, even if big cannibalistic industries are not present in their geography yet, is that States are already waiting for the accumulation-machines to arrive. They are markets and resource frontiers in waiting, members already in the horizon of the fantastic possibilities of capital. The fantasies of each subject depend on its vantage point in accessing the global growth machine. These desperate States are in the accumulation-horizon.

III. Desperate States

I have briefly mentioned before the State’s manoeuvre in events of accumulation. The State in the global South is, of course, acting in response to the various pressures of debt and trade relations that influence its decision to welcome foreign companies, to which it happily offers land, environmental clearances, lax labour laws and tax breaks (sometimes in the form of SEZs). It is useful here to think with Michael Levien’s theory of ‘regimes of dispossession’ as a way of figuring the State into the theatre of encounter of accumulation. Levien, a sociologist of the ‘land question’ in India, offers ‘regimes of dispossession’ as a counter to the extension of ‘primitive accumulation’ to the current scenario. He cautions that the ‘land grab’ of the neoliberal order is not quite that same phenomenon as what Marx imagined through the English enclosures – in Part VIII of the Capital Vol. I., Levien writes:

This transformation of Indian states into land brokers for private capital has been a necessary condition of India’s neo-liberal growth model, but should not be naturalised as historically necessary or inevitable—as is done by economists who insist that today’s land-grabs are a necessary cost of “development” (Banerjee et al 2007; Bardhan 2011; Chakravorty 2013) and those theorists who persist in seeing them as part of India’s passage through the (presumably inevitable) stage of “primitive accumulation” (Chatterjee 2008). Both formulations miss the radical shift in the political economy of dispossession between the developmentalist and neo-liberal phases of Indian capitalism. Both, moreover, naturalise dispossession by transforming specific historical forms of “class robbery” (Thompson 1966: 218) into historical necessity.
What the land-grabs of the neo-liberal period represent is not simply more “development-induced displacement” or the inexorable march of “primitive accumulation,” but rather the emergence of a new regime of redistributing landed wealth upwards. (Levien 2015: 147)

Levien crucially points out ‘original ambiguities’ in Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation. He argues that Marx was primarily concerned with showing a historical account of the proletarianization of peasants (which may or may not occur through a violent encounter), and not so much the capitalization of land (Levien 2015: 148). He argues for a shift in the focus of the debate from ‘modes of production’ and transitions to capitalism, to ‘regimes of dispossession’ and dispossession within capitalism.

States are significantly involved, Levien points out, in managing the reactions of the would-be-dispossessed, with offers of compensation coupled with threats of violence (Levien 2015: 150). The right to refuse land acquisition conducted under the eminent domain powers of the State are mostly nominally recognized in public hearings before acquisition. On the exercise of such right, the people about to be displaced face the violence of the State. But Levien does not take into consideration that States do not take these decisions as standalone States. In the global South, I argue that states are pinned down by their differences in position within the global growth machine, which results in their dispossession decisions, making land available for the global growth machine to absorb. I am not arguing that states like India are innocent. I am simply showing the architecture of States in the global political neighbourhood in which States like India must survive. India, like many other post-colonial economically un-sovereign nation-states, exists in a condition where accumulation-drives for developmental projects and neoliberal ones (distinction given by Levien) co-exist; where conditions of pure transition from agrarian to urban-industrial economies co-exist with conditions of late capitalism, deindustrialisation, rent gap (I am using the term in Neil Smith’s sense: Smith 1987) and gentrification.

While I agree with Levien that these mundane, multifarious events of accumulation by the exercise of the eminent domain powers of the State are within advanced capitalism, and do not arise out of the birth pangs of capitalism, I wish to clearly point out that some States are positioned differently towards the global growth machine than others. The differential positioning determines their designation as global North or South. As capitalism completes somewhat neat phases – high to late (or to use Harvey’s formulation – Fordist to post-Fordist (Harvey 1989)) – in some geographies, the decline of the health of high capitalism in these geographies determines the hunt for new investment venues and climates in other geographies. In other words, these peripheries, these other geographies, enter into milieus of capitalism of their own, at the instance of the processes of slowdown and declines in profit-levels in the geographies of the centre. The opening of floodgates for land-profiteering, as Levien shows so explicitly for the Indian case, are, in fact, a predictable behaviour triggered by the entrance of the West or the centre into late capitalism, and the ensuing lethargy over Fordist manufacture.

I wish to specifically focus on the nature of the States in the periphery. Yes, these states are responding to neoliberalism by unleashing land-grab machines aided by their own legal apparatus, which have now become ‘regimes of dispossession’ (to rehearse Levien’s terminology). But each time people in a forest or village, who are at the threshold of being held to the barrel of the gun if they refuse to give up their land, resist, an encounter is staged. The State is animated in specific ways in this dramaturgy, not merely as a landgrab machine. It desperately acts in an overtly violent way to recuperate a threatened sovereignty, and improve its position in the global ‘calibration of sovereignties’ (Ong 2009). These desperate States, precariously positioned in the global growth machine, are aware of their suspect nature in the gaze of the developed world, especially on account of their human rights and environment-related report cards. They enter the global growth machine not having experienced high capitalism of the Fordist nature (with neat arrangements of factory-based production, high profits, increased standards of living) before. Their participation in this growth machine is shaped by the failures of advanced capitalism in the core regions of the globe in the current times, and the resultant desperate hunt for amenable investment climates in the post-colony. Hence, these are desperate states whose everyday violence is untold, no doubt, but we must locate their actions and stances in response to their location within the global travel of capital’s logic.

IV. Mundane Environmentalism

Minati Dash describes the resistance put forth by the villagers affected by another mining project in Kashipur and Raygada districts of Orissa.

The villagers, led by the local political representatives (Member of Legislative Assembly), sought political mediation in the matter. They met various leaders of mainstream political parties of the state and centre several times in the hope of stopping the mining project. These efforts, according to the villagers, resulted only in empty promises from various political parties without corresponding results. From 1994 to 1996, the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes of the mining company such as health camps and fertiliser and seeds distribution programmes were aggressively opposed by the villagers. Construction works related to the mining project, particularly in the refinery site, were also targeted. Often, hundreds of villagers marched to these sites armed with traditional axes and hoes and brought down the structures. In early 1996 the Kashipur movement organised itself under the name of Prakrutika Sampada Suraksha Parishad (PSSP—Natural Resources Protection Council) to steer the movement. Many leaders admitted that although the villagers spiritedly engaged in acts of confrontation with mining company officials and contractors, there was also an environment of uncertainty regarding the project. There was a growing feeling that the government was not sympathetic to their demands. This environment became further exacerbated when many villages accepted the compensation they were offered for their acquired land. (Dash 2016: 167)

Dash throws light on the excitement about the rights language in this protest movement, pivoted on a struggle for survival given the language of resource sovereignty and environmentalism. Villagers were eager for the implementation of the Panchayat Scheduled Areas Act (‘PESA’), 1996 in their villages, which granted them a legal resort to resist unpopular resource grab in their vicinity. Dash further cites the Samatha judgment by the Supreme Court in 1997 that upheld the PESA and declared unconstitutional, certain mining activities through the lease of tribal land to private companies in Vishakapatnam. The judgment also affirmed the strength of Panchayati Raj (local self-government) institutions in India. The proliferation of the rights language, to use Mary Ann Glendon’s (1991) term rights-talk, indicates an interpellation of persons inhabiting precapital into the accumulation-horizon; they come to wield a strategic environmentalism and affirm their resistance from an inside/outside space in relation to capital.

The Dongria Kondhs raised the ‘traditional claim’ in an environmental stance that the mountain to be taken down by Vedanta for bauxite mining activities was an impersonation of Niyam Raja, the deity of the tribe. The Dongria Kondhs are residents on Niyamgiri, Odisha. Dash further described the scene of action as regards the Niyamgiri hills, and the spread of tribal activism from Kashipur to Niyamgiri.

By 2004, activists from the Kashipur movement and other prominent activists from the state began to visit the area and mobilise the villages to resist the mining company that would dispossess them from their land and culture. The opposition of the villagers to the company was constant: they damaged the foundation stone of the refinery, set fire to company machines and went on oath marches to the neighbouring Lanjhigarh town to demonstrate their opposition. Throughout this period, activists were regularly beaten by company goondas. In 2005, one of the Niyamagiri movement leaders died under mysterious circumstances. At the same time, the construction work at the refinery site continued at an accelerated rate.
In 2004, three writ petitions were filed at the Cuttack High Court in Orissa and in the Supreme Court of India challenging the proposed mining lease on the grounds that it violated India’s constitutional provisions under the Fifth Schedule, the Supreme Court’s order on the Samatha case and the country’s environmental and forest conservation laws. 22 The Supreme Court set up a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) in 2005 to look into the matter. In the final order in 2008, the Supreme Court granted clearance to the project. However, a site inspection of the mine area undertaken on behalf of the Forest Advisory Committee of the MoEF in January–February 2010 found blatant violations of environmental laws—in particular, there were cases of non-compliance with the Forest Rights Act 2006 putting a spanner in the wheels of the project (Saxena Committee Report 2010).
Following this damning report, the MoEF revoked the forest clearance in August 2010. The environmental clearance was revoked in July 2011, thus effectively preventing Vedanta from mining the Niyamagiri hills. Vedanta closed its ref nery temporarily in October and December 2012 citing shortage of bauxite, but resumed work in July 2013 and has since been sourcing the bauxite from neighbouring Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh (Dash 2015). (Dash 2016: 172-3)

The Kashipur and Niyamgiri movements received support from the international civil society and indigenous movements like Survival International. Dash describes the ambiguity of the legal provisions protecting the rights of inheriting resources of communities that are listed in the Sixth Schedule. But this resort to rights-talk and legal literacy unravels a register of environmentalism that is strategic and pivoted on a community’s struggle for survival. Survival calls upon the necessity of nature-talk; hence, it’s environmental language. It is a far-flung one from John Muir’s. Saying no to extractive capitalism using the semantic resources of environmental liberalism is a unique response to the nature question in contemporary times. It domesticates the environmentalism of John Muir, and yields a mundane environmentalism that is waiting for accumulation events to occur in one’s own village or forest.

*Atreyee Majumder is a political and historical anthropologist. She teaches sociology/anthropology at O P Jindal Global University. Her book Time, Space, and Capital in India is published by Routledge (2018). [1] I am defining (contingently) a ‘universal’ as a category which is unencumbered by contextual descriptor. For example, human rights – which apply to everyone irrespective of context/location. [2] This struggle is discussed in detail later in the essay.

[3] See ‘Singur Tata Nano Controversy’ (Wikipedia), accessed 29 October 2020.

[4] A political slogan given by Komaram Bheem, a Gond tribal activist. See ‘Komaram Bheem’ (Wikipedia), accessed 29 October 2020.

[5] The Other is an entity that carries the quality of ‘difference’, a constituent of the Self through what it is not, or it’s outside. See generally, Lacan’s Ecrits (2001).


  • Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Chapel Hill, NC, Duke University Press 1999).

  • Anna L Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press 2005).

  • David Harvey, Conditions of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the origins of Cultural Change (New York, Wiley-Blackwell 1989).

  • David Harvey, The New Imperialism (New York, Oxford University Press 2003).

  • Immanuel Wallerstein, The Essential Wallerstein (New York, The New York Press 2000).

  • Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (London, Routledge Classics 2001).

  • Kalyan Sanyal, ‘Capital, Primitive Accumulation, and the Third World: From Annihilation to Appropriation’, (1993) 6(3) Rethinking Marxism 117-130.

  • Mary Ann Glendon, Rights-talk : The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York, The Free Press 1991).

  • Michael Levien, ‘From Primitive Accumulation to Regimes of Dispossession: Six These on India’s Land Question’ (2015) 50(22) Economic and Political Weekly 146- 157.

  • Minati Dash, ‘Rights-based Legislation in Practice: A View from Southern Orissa’ in Kenneth B Nielsen and Alf G Nilsen (eds), Social Movements and the State in India: Deepening Democracy? (London, Palgrave-Macmillan 2016) 161-183.

  • Neil Smith, ‘Gentrification and the Rent Gap’ (1987) 77(3) Annals of the Association of American Geographers 462-478.

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