The empire of cotton strikes back - an essay

While Kapashera can be seen as a tenement town, an urban village, or a gray zone that serves as a dormitory for 300,000 migrants that work in garment manufacturing industries in the nearby Udyog Vihar. Our experience of working there was much different. The transformation of Kapashera from an agrarian village to a tenementized settlement, its adjacency to 'formal' industrial areas and gated communities that have emerged in the post-1990s period, the presence of a captive labour class that still remain in a circular relationship with their villages thousands of kilometers away, morevover, the repetition of settlements like Kapashera over an extensive region that spans hundreds of kilometers outwards from Delhi, all point to something more relational at play. 


Our experience was similar to Gillian Hart's portrayal of similar congruencies in South Africa, where she sees similar tranformations at play in settlement space. Following a similar progressive-regressive method derived from Lefebvrian analysis and Postcolonial Marxism, we started to trace back our steps from Kapashera. An important historical analysis that we came across along the way and which illuminated our understanding of what was taking place in Kapashera was the book 'Empire of Cotton' by Sven Beckert, published in 2014.

Left- The cover of the book 'The Empire of Cotton' , Sven Beckert, 2014, Albert AKnopf, New York. 

Right - A famous map by Charles Joseph Minard capturing the transformations in global commodity flows of cotton featured in the book.

In the book, Beckert historicises how a 'global hinterland of cotton' was forged through 'war capitalism'. Cotton thus served as the base commodity upon which capitalism was founded. It entailed an espionage of industrial technologies on the production of cotton fabric from India, their mechanisation in England and a racialisation to determine who can an cannot have access to these means of production. He then discusses how land was cleared in North America was a mass-scale production of cotton. An ecological homogenization of the cotton seed undertaken so that the agrarian produce could be standardise to feed to the machines. Furthermore, he discusses how the dispossessed and racialised populations were then forced into the consumption of these very textiles. He discusses the political movements of nationalism and resistance in form of anti-colonial movements in the European colonies that coalesced around cotton.

The contemporary global condition in which the production is reversed, with production of fast fashion largely happening in Euro-America and production in the former colonies presents an important contradiction to the understanding of global capitalism. Are there newer commodities that have emerged in its place? Definitely! However, here is where Edward Soja's understanding of urban space as a commodity frontier comes handy. 

Left- A typical Euro-American high street with fast fashion outlets. 

Right - A typical South-Asian garment manufacturing shop floor.

Edward Soja in his 1989 book Postmodern Geographies argues that post-1970s urban and industrial space in USA became increasingly intertwined and a dominant mode of production. Thereby, production of space itself became the new commodity frontier. 


This find resonances in the post 1990s urbanisation that has shaped up across the former colonies as has been very artculated in the theses of 'Planetary Urbanisation' by Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid (2015). However, their thesis also grounds this moment in the 1990s, whereas our experience of working in India and South Africa has been much different. We find resonances between earlier stages of capitalism and similarities between where and how the new geographies of accumulation and dispossession are emerging. We thus reject the abstraction of Planetary Urbanisation in the long 1980s and 1990s and ask for a much longer understanding of being Planetary.

Left- A sketch of postmetropolitan geography by Edward Soja in the book Postmodern Geographies, 1989. 

Right - A sketch of Postmetropolitan Delhi without borders by Nitin Bathla as a part of his ongoing dissertation at ETH Zurich.

So while these spaces are being shaped under planetary formations that are mimicking previous cycles of dispossession and uneveness, as Soja compels us to consider, this occurs through hybrid formation of which urban space is an integral part of. 

The postmetropolitan urban formation of Delhi which Nitin Bathla studies through a dissertation at ETH Zurich entitled 'Delhi without borders' is an interesting case to consider. The post 1990s urban formation has shaped through a similar transformation of hybrid space which has congruencies of affluent gated communities, industrial production, and tenement towns housing millions of migrant workers. This fluidity not only defies binary spatial categories of city-village, urban-rural, and planned-unplanned, but also of representation. We have attempted to use the relational comparative or incorporated comparative method of Gillian Hart to understand how these spaces are being produced dialectically. We combined a critical ethnographic inquiry from these spaces to understand the production of the whole. We visited archives of the multiple states and actors that shape these spaces in order to piece together a whole.

The extensive urban space under formation in a Delhi without borders which spans hundreds of kilometers with contradictory material conditions existing congruently,

The tenement towns being produced under this extensive urbanisation have been described by some authors as urban villages, shantytowns, and subaltern settlements. In our understanding these settlements are produced as a recurring typology that although shaped by local specificities are also shaped by more structural forces of cadastral operations, duality of land and biopolitical registers and also by corporate philanthropy. We term them as tenement towns inspired by the usage of tenement cities by Marie Huczermeyer to reflexively understand emergence of cities through tenements across the north-south divide. While attempting to understand the production of these settlements we were also inspired to collaborate with labour unions and other actors working on radical possibilities of action in these settlements. We worked closely with tenants, especially women in attempting to explore subversive potentials and praxis.

A typical tenement block. Such tenement blocks are usually constructed by landowning agricultural landowners through a gradual negotiation on the land register. Each such block houses between 300-500 migrant workers.

A typical tenement block. Such tenement blocks are usually constructed by landowning agricultural landowners through a gradual negotiation on the land register. Each such block houses between 300-500 migrant workers.