Since 2006 I have conducted research in Jamshedpur, the industrial company town of the Tata Corporation in eastern India. My work interrogates the systemic relationship between criminality and modern capitalism, and considers how people use languages of corruption to articulate their experiences of class. I question the assumption that capitalism is only incidentally related to violence and corruption.
In Jamshedpur, the Tata Corporation has employed a sizeable amount of the local population since the 1900s, and has provided them with housing, healthcare, education and utilities. However, since the liberalization of the Indian economy 25 years ago, all of those features of urban life have been eroded, as permanent Tata company jobs have been replaced by casual ones. This is the local expression of a global process, by which people in most sectors of the economy are being progressively alienated from job security.
My work in Jamshedpur looks at criminality in trade unions, corporations and the state, and considers what the effect of these processes are on industrial employment security. From there, I explore how these processes are understood and critiqued by industrial workers themselves. My research uses three areas of ethnography to develop a critical political perspective on the relationship between capital and criminality.
First, ethnography on the shopfloor of the Tata Motors automobile plant explores how the global casualization of labour is experienced by communities of people that formerly enjoyed secure employment. Second, research among trade unions and worker activists considers how the degradation of labour is related to the corruption and failure of collective action. Finally, ethnography among a variety of entrepreneurs and professional criminals considers the broader relationship between capitalism, violence and corruption.
My research in Jamshedpur is the subject of a recent book entitled Criminal Capital: Violence, Corruption and Class in Industrial India (Routledge 2016), which discusses how criminality reshapes and consolidates class positions in modern capitalism. The major conceptual contribution of the work is to redefine the meaning and function of corruption. I show that rather than being an aberrant process that is incidental to the economy, and works through the actions of deviant individuals, corruption is integral to economic processes, and functions through systemic interactions between actors with distinct skills and authorities. The book explains the mechanics of how different types of criminal practice work together, as well as analysing what people say and think about these processes.
I argue against the notion that class struggle is principally enacted within working class political institutions. On the contrary, in contexts of labour reform and civic decline, systemic criminality within corporations and trade unions are acts of elite class struggle in and of themselves, which enable the dispossession of global workforces from employment security and political representation. Criminal Capital suggests that corporations should be regarded as political-economic actors that shape the class experiences of others, by entering into mutually beneficial relationships with criminals. I argue that conceptual frameworks which stress a clear distinction between licit and illicit forms of influence provide a limited understanding of the operation of modern capitalism.
Criminal Capital traces the functional relationships between quite different kinds of criminal actors, and theorises that rather than sporadically diverting capital to the informal peripheries of capitalism and the state, corruption is a systematic series of negotiations between institutional authority, corporations and violence. These criminal practices are instrumental acts of elite class struggle, whose object is accumulation by dispossession.
Criminal Capital: Violence, Corruption and Class in Industrial India (Routledge 2016) is available on Amazon Kindle priced £25.60, or in Hardback priced £95.00.
Title image: Tata steel plant, Jamshedpur. Embedded from gettyimages.
Andrew Sanchez is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent. He is a specialist on the anthropology of class, economy and corruption. From 2016, he will join the University of Cambridge as Lecturer in Social Anthropology.