He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Liberalism in Empire: An Alternative History, and reported the following:
My book is a vernacular history of colonial liberalism that moves beyond the more familiar terrain of self-conscious political thought to explore the movement of liberal ideas about freedom and property not only in terms of their compatibility with the interests of capital, but also in terms of their capacity to ground a critique of capital and empire. Page 99 of Liberalism in Empire brings us into the early stages of a debate in 1850s Bengal about the legal standing of peasants contracting to cultivate indigo on their holdings for European planters. Those sympathetic to the peasants argued that the cultivators were not employees because both parties to the contract were independent capitals engaged in commercial exchange. Intensified by the deepening of the peasant discontent that had occasioned it, this debate provided the immediate occasion for a wider set of claims about the social status of the Bengali cultivator: namely, that peasants were independent producers with a customary claim to an interest in the soil. Its most radical champions understood the authority of custom to be grounded not merely in prescriptive authority, but in the rational foundation of a history of labor. At stake here was a very radical claim: that the customary order of agrarian society in Bengal was in fact primordially a civil society based on the property-constituting powers of labor – and correlatively, that colonial law was answerable to the rational normative underpinnings of that society. Unsurprisingly given the circumstances of its emergence, this liberal discourse of custom resonated with the demands of indigo-cultivating peasants to be released from obligations to continue cultivating the plant so as to be able to participate more extensively, more equitably and more profitably in practices of commodity exchange. The cultivator demand to be recognized as an independent producer of commodities provided a framework for the incorporation of the Lockean premises of the liberal discourse of custom into the increasingly articulate peasant politics of the early twentieth century. The insistence on the property-constituting power of labor, and on its normative significance for political life, would come to be deeply ingrained in both explicitly secular movements for the rights of cultivators and tenants, and explicitly religious movements for the rights of Bengali Muslims – and in this way it would play a significant role in shaping the popularity of the Pakistan demand in the Bengal countryside in the 1940s.Learn more about Liberalism in Empire at the University of California Press website.