Sunday, May 24, 2020

Andrew B. Liu's "Tea War"

Andrew B. Liu is assistant professor of history at Villanova University, where his research focuses on China, transnational Asia, and the history of capitalism.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India, and reported the following:
Page 99 features a debate in the late 1840s among the board members of the Assam Company. The first company to grow tea in India for export, the Assam Company was established by British colonial officials in India (Calcutta and Assam) and shared an office in London. The Company had attempted to launch an Indian tea industry for years, but even as their techniques improved, they found few local people in upper Assam, on the border with Burma, willing to work for them. In this debate, the London board accused its India counterparts of not trying hard enough to find willing employees, to which the latter replied that paying more money for workers was out of the question. “We can procure any number of unsuitable people if expense is no object," the India board wrote back.

I argue that this debate highlighted the economic reasoning behind the eventual deployment of unfree penal labor contracts to recruit workers to Assam, widespread during the late nineteenth century. Labor shortages were not self-evident and natural phenomena but dependent upon historically-specific conditions such as “how much employers are willing to pay to lure farmers away from their property and work for someone else?” I conclude by suggesting: “The Assam Company’s problem was not the physical absence of labor but rather the absence of social conditions that would compel locals to sign up for low-paying jobs.”

This debate provides a useful entry-point into one of the larger themes of my work: that many labor arrangements in Asia that may have appeared irrational and ‘precapitalist’ were in fact animated by very modern dynamics bound up with the accumulation of capital.

Some context: for a long time, economic writing has assumed that capitalism is distinguished by a unique kind of employment relationship. Under capitalism, workers freely pursue their own interest without duress or coercion but are also dependent upon the marketplace for survival. The modern worker is an atomized, urban individual: neither slave, serf, nor peasant, as may be found in the putatively ‘backwards’ parts of the world, for instance, the rural tea-growing hinterlands of Asia.

This ideal-type, however, is belied by the experience of the export tea trades of China and India during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which were unquestionably bound up with the circuit of other classic goods central to capitalism’s history, such as British cotton, Caribbean sugar, and Indian opium. Tea earned staggering sums of profits for the Chinese, British, and Indian business classes, and it employed more workers than any urban industrial sector in each Asian society. Such workers were employed under arrangements that have long been seen as backwards and precapitalist, such as independent Chinese farmers and indentured Indian labor. As the page 99 passage indicates, however, such arrangements were not relics of the past but actively reinforced by the dynamic global division of labor, including European participants.

The debate on page 99 highlighted why the colonial Indian government empowered British planters to immobilize peasants from eastern and central India through penal contract legislation modeled after centuries-old "master and servant" laws. In their mind, unfree labor, though controversial, was more economically rational for a fluctuating global market. Capitalism’s history was not founded upon abstract principles like “freedom” but by taking the path of least resistance.

My book is both about Asian the tea trade, then, but also a contribution to a more flexible and globally-oriented account of capitalism’s history. These insights into China and India’s past, I conclude, can also help us understand developments behind the “rise of Asia” in recent decades.
Learn more about Tea War at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue