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would like to begin by firstly thanking Malini Ranganathan who took the initiative to not only suggest the book review forum but also put it together. I am indebted to all the interlocutors- Shubhra Gururani, Ben Teresa, and Malini Ranganathan for such an earnest and deep engagement with my work. As a first-time author receiving her first ever reviews, it is overwhelming to see senior scholars whose work I have admired and learnt from find some merit in my work.
Properties of Rent has travelled a long distance since the time it was first conceptualized as a PhD proposal. At that time, I was interested in unevenness that exists within the city and what that means for urban political economy. Why have these villages not disappeared? Isn’t that the story of urban expansion? Have these villages simply left behind vestiges of our rural past? Or do they play a role in urban economy specifically? The book Properties of Rent has travelled a great distance from then on. I arrived at rent fairly late, after jostling with the conceptual category of capital for years. It was only towards the end of my PhD that I finally had the intellectual courage to hold on to this notion of rent and mark it differently from capital. I am glad that the broader ambition of using rent as a framing conceptual category for studying cities is something that resonated with all the reviewers. Their reviews collectively trace the emergence of a framework, lay down its possibilities and then point out its limits. They get to what is at the heart of the work and articulate what could be at stake here.
They ask how far is it generalizable or totalizing? My response would be tentative at best. As of now, the literature on rent from the global south perspective is somewhat thin. We do not know much about what rent looks like from another locus in South Asia. How similar or different is it from what I find in the villages of Delhi? Consequently, what could we argue about rent that could be generalizable? I do not have a very good basis to do justice to these questions, but in the spirit of making some speculations about where could we collectively head towards, I offer some responses to the prospect of rent being generalised.
Rent to me is not just about these interstitial spaces. Once we see how rent shapes these villages, it is hopefully not too far-fetched to see how rent also shapes most of our housing in cities where there is little regulation in general. I do believe the starting point of rent’s generalisability in South Asia may just come from the institution of caste. The deep historical link between caste and property ownership cannot be denied. To me it is indeed telling that all the three reviewers brought up the question of caste in their reviews. For the most part, urban studies literature from the region revolved around the amorphous category of “urban poor” without opening it up to scrutiny through the lens of caste. It is only now that works like that of Shaikh (2021) and Ranganathan (2022) have begun to insert caste into urban studies. I believe, studying caste will change the nature of how we have studied property making in South Asia so far. There could be nothing that defines access to resources more than caste in South Asia. And conceptually, I suppose, rent— a phenomenon that defines property through tight control is also simultaneously a phenomenon of caste. While studies of financialization of property have also revealed how exclusionary and violent it has been towards, say, African American peoples, it happens through an entirely different modality. International financial institutions, banks, mortgages and financial speculation are central to this process of exclusion (Yamahatta, 2019; Garcia-Lamarca and Kaika, 2016). These vernacular modes of rentierism need not always be the most plugged into financialisation, work through entirely different sets of institutions and processes even if they lead to comparable ends.
Ben Teresa asks a related important question- whether it is rent all the way down? In a different sense, this argument has been made by scholars like Christophers (2022) that rent is indeed what goes all the way down. Christophers, looking at the nature of UK financial markets argues that since monopolies have come to define the nature of financialised economies, it is indeed a function of rent. Christophers shows that financial markets that have been erected on the edifice of natural resource, Intellectual Property, digital platforms, service contracts, infrastructure, and land have indeed come to dilute the distinctions between capital and rent.
But what about rent in not so financialised economies? This probably takes us back to the 1970s debate that took place within Marxist circles about the nature of Indian capitalism- the mode of production debate (Thorner, 1982). Amidst vehement disagreements, what remained unclear is how to characterize this semi-feudal, semi-capitalistic economy. These difficulties continue to exist till date and this semi-feudal, semi-capitalistic mode of production continues to thrive and co-exist. The trajectory of rent that I chart in my work is seemingly a product of these specificities in South Asian economies. This is not necessarily the analytic of financialization of rent or financial rentierism, but largely two separate worlds of capital and rent which coexist and compete with each other.
Maybe our economies are far too complex by now to be simply either capital or rent. But for me the important question would be what is the nature of that rent really? Rent may just be all the way down but what does it help elucidate about our social relationships that has evaded us so far? If rent is more immediate and material as opposed to capital’s abstraction, then what does this immediacy and materiality produce? Because if rent is defined by materiality then what are its possible forms?
Gururani’s question about what could be the possible limits to rent and how far can we stretch the analytic of rent is probably located here. I am not sure we will find the same answers everywhere. But this conflict between capital and rent and how it shapes up across territories is important to make sense of. What are the diverse forms of rent that we see exist both in agricultural land and beyond? Do we see a situation where aka Christophers, we see a significant erosion of the divisions between rent and capital? Or do we witness a very different kind of rent being produced within the world of finance in India and South Asia? While my work animates a particular kind of conflict between rent and capital, we may also witness how different kinds of rent may also be contesting with each other. But more importantly, it will be crucial to read the state and its role in mediating these relationships. But one thing that I am certain about is that methodologically, rent will need to be theorized through the local lens. We will be able to open up what rent could mean theoretically only when we study the ways in which it is locally embedded.
Gururani’s deep familiarity with the region that I work on also leads her to raise several important questions about the politics of the region. Gururani asks a rather relevant question regarding the relationship of accumulation and speculation with respect to other registers like that of majoritarian politics. What could possibly be the relationship between rent and majoritarian politics? Does rent get strengthened because of majoritarian populist politics and vice versa? Populist politics, just like rent thrives on “structures of feeling” of othering. Populism, just like in the case of rent arouses strong emotions of “friends and enemies”. If my work shows how emotions like “hurt”, “anger” and “pride” shape up city spaces, the same emotions also have had a massive role to play in populist politics. Just like the kind of associations I describe in my work, majoritarian politics also depend on creating notions of collectivities which are not necessarily public in the democratic sense of the term.
But I find myself ill equipped to answer this question. Though this research started as an attempt to study villages and their place in cities, it took me to conceptual territories that I had not quite predicted for myself. When I started, I had looked at these villages as ensconced in the city region and what role they play in creating new forms of urbanisms. But now I see that there is a broader territorial story waiting to be told. There is something to be said about the ways in which intermediate classes in India, like the Jats, have enthusiastically participated and rallied for majoritarian and populist forms of politics. But to establish what this relationship may be, this needs to be framed through a broader regional lens. And possibly, Ranganathan’s suggestion of looking at rent through structures of feeling in conjunction with majoritarian politics may just open up a new lens of looking at the evolving nature of political economy in India.
Christophers B (2022) Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy, and Who Pays for It?. Verso Books.
García‐Lamarca M and Kaika M (2016) Mortgaged Lives: The Biopolitics of Debt and Housing Financialisation. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 41(3): 313-327.
Juned S (2021) Outcaste Bombay: City making and the politics of the poor. University of Washington Press.
Ranganathan M (2022) Caste, Racialization, and the Making of Environmental Unfreedoms in Urban India. Ethnic and Racial Studies 45(2): 257-277.
Taylor KY (2019) Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. UNC Press Books.
Thorner A (1982) Semi-Feudalism or Capitalism? Contemporary Debate on Classes and Modes of Production in India. Economic and Political Weekly, 1961-1968.
Sushmita Pati is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. She studied Political Science at Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is interested in studying the intersections of Urban Politics and Political Economy. Her recent book, Properties of Rent: Community, Capital and Politics in Globalising Delhi is now out from Cambridge University Press. Her earlier writings have appeared in Economic and Political Weekly, Contributions to Indian Sociology and popular media outlets like The Wire and IndiaForum.