- Landscapes of Accumulation: Real Estate and the Neoliberal Imagination in Contemporary India by Llerena Guiu Searle
I read Llerena Guiu Searle's Landscapes of Accumulation: Real Estate and the Neoliberal Imagination in Contemporary India in a series of cities in India in December 2016. In each city, a new type of assembly had formed. long lines of people—tired retirees, young migrant workers, flirting students—waited with varying amounts of patience outside ATMs. On November 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that the 87 percent of the country's cash supply contained in 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would soon be valueless. Citizens were to deposit their old notes, line up to collect the limited number of new notes, and help transform the nation from one in which 90 percent of transactions were carried out in cash into one in which cash no longer existed. This "demonetization" made most forms of exchange impossible, leading shops, factories, and construction firms to lay off millions. The government explained that the pain caused by demonetization was in the service of a project to moralize and unify the national economy: "to establish an accountable and transparent democratic system which is sensitive to the common man and free from corruption," as one official put it (Express News Service 2016). Demonetization would render a "black" economy of undeclared assets "transparent" and create a single economy that did not give unfair advantages to those with greater social capital.
It is another set of attempts to reform economic activity in India that concerns Searle, but, similarly, these are attempts to render transparent and thereby govern a market in which the well-connected thrive. It is not a coincidence that the land market, the concern of Landscapes of [End Page 415] Accumulation, is one of the primary destinations of the "black" money pursued by demonetization. Searle follows two stories: a larger history of increasing real estate values and increasing interest by foreign investors in Indian real estate, and the story of an attempt by one European investment fund, which she calls EuroFund, to take advantage of rising values to build a real estate development in the fast-growing Delhi suburb of Gurgaon. These foreign investors encounter a land market that they see as lacking transparency. Just as it was in the government's demonetization drive, a discourse of economic non-transparency, here, is at once a description of a real phenomenon and a bid for power.
Landscapes of Accumulation brings much-needed ethnographic attention to what Harvey (2003) calls "accumulation by dispossession," emphasizing the work done by state actors, investors, builders, and marketers to make land available for profit. This work, she shows, is driven both by narratives such as the "India story" of unending growth and by an array of politicians and builders who draw upon unevenly distributed cultural and social capital to secure land and deals. It is this contradiction that drives the book's narrative: a contradiction between the desire on the part of international investors for a market in which capital flows effortlessly from place to place and the reality that significant profits are only possible through informal, local, and often illegal cultural and social capital. The large profits that have been made in Indian real estate were made possible by regulatory arbitrage: developers bought land that was classified as agricultural with the knowledge that it would soon be reclassified for residential or commercial development. Attempts to make Indian real estate into a market in which an international investor can find profit as easily as a well-connected local, thus, run counter to the very source of that profit. It is the opacity of Indian property relationships that is to be rendered transparent (in ways that echo efforts by colonial officials to sort through pre-colonial property relations) to bring that property into the international market.
So, how does transnational capital make its way to Indian property markets? Searle argues that it is through value projects, "efforts to achieve both economic and symbolic capital" (14) that...