Barry Eidlin: Hello, and welcome to episode 2 of the Marxist Sociology Blog Podcast. We had a good response to our inaugural episode, so we decided to give it another try. Sorry, I still haven’t found a catchy name for the podcast though.

I’m your host, Barry Eidlin, Assistant Professor of Sociology at McGill University, and a commissioning editor at the Marxist Sociology Blog. We’re the official blog of the Section on Marxist Sociology of the American Sociological Association. You can find us online at

Dispossession. Land grabs. Eminent domain. Being forced off the land. Eviction. Whatever you call it, being removed from your home and livelihood against your will is a painful and traumatic experience. It is also socially and economically devastating for those affected.

At the same time, dispossession has been an integral part of capitalism’s emergence and development. From the enclosures of the 15th and 16th centuries in England that Marx famously talked about in Part VIII of Capital, Vol. 1, to the land grabs and indigenous genocide that were the foundation of settler colonies in North America, to so-called “urban renewal” projects of the postwar era that decimated communities of color in the U.S., to developmentalist infrastructure projects tearing up agricultural land across the Global South, we cannot understand the global capitalist system we live in today without understanding the central role of land dispossession.

These processes of land dispossession have been pervasive, but not always accepted. People have fought back against their dispossession. But why do some people resist dispossession, while others acquiesce? 

There has been surprisingly little systematic research on this question. Most studies of resistance to land dispossession have been case studies of positive instances of resistance, leaving aside instances of negative instances of acquiescence, and not looking comparatively across cases for broader patterns 

That’s what makes a recent paper by Michael Levien and Smriti Upadhyay of Johns Hopkins University so exciting. It’s entitled “Toward a Political Sociology of Dispossession: Explaining Opposition to Capital Projects in India,” and it appears in the latest issue of the journal Politics & Society. Using systematic data on more than 23,000 major capital projects across India between 2007 and 2015, Levien and Upadhyay identify key factors that determine whether a project is likely to generate resistance or not. Some of their results may surprise you.

I’m pleased to have Michael Levien and Smriti Upadhyay here with me today to talk about their research on land dispossession in India.

Michael Levien is associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. He is a sociologist of politics and development, whose primary research has been on the drivers, consequences, and politics of land dispossession. This research has been largely ethnographic and focused on India, but has also included cross-national comparisons. Additional research focused on the expansion of land-related corruption and criminality in post-liberalization India, and global trends in public opinion towards markets and inequality over the past three decades. His new research focuses on climate change and the politics of energy transition in fossil fuel producing regions in the U.S.

Smriti Upadhyay recently received her Ph.D. in sociology from Johns Hopkins University. She is a sociologist of politics, protest, and development, whose primary research focuses on understanding the rise of the right-wing, global social protests, inequality, and development, particularly in India.

And now, on to the interview.

Barry Eidlin: Michael Levien and Smriti Upadhyay, welcome to the Marxist Sociology Blog Podcast. You’ve got this great new paper in the latest issue of Politics and Society, entitled “Towards a Political Sociology of Dispossession: Explaining Opposition to Capital Projects in India.” Now, there’s a lot to unpack here. And I strongly encourage people to check out the paper if they haven’t already. It is hot off the pixels, if you will. Let’s just start with some of the basics. So first, can you just tell me a bit about what you were trying to figure out in this paper and why you thought it was important to figure this out.

Smriti Upadhyay: We are looking at land dispossession, which is important in India, but also really throughout the world. There is a growing body of work, looking at land dispossession, but a lot of this scholarship focuses on single cases of land dispossession. This is a rich qualitative literature, but we wanted to take a quantitative approach in order to assess or adjudicate between the different factors that are emphasized in the qualitative research as to what’s driving land dispossession and the politics around that. So the questions we were interested in answering were: how do we assess the relative importance of the factors that scholars have been emphasizing in their qualitative work and in their case studies? How do we make sense of the variation? Why do some projects face problems acquiring land and not others?

BE: But at a bit a broader level you’re basically trying to figure out why you get resistance in some cases, but not others? 

SU: Yeah. 

BE: That’s a really interesting, important question to be asking. But, as you said, it is sort of applicable to a much broader array of cases than just land, especially in India. What was your approach to trying to figure out this question? And I’d like to, in particular, hear you talk a bit more about the problems you saw with those previous qualitative attempts. Why this turn to more quantitative measures? And what were some of the challenges you faced in trying to come up with a better answer, in terms of finding good data and other issues, and how did you address those challenges.

SU: So I think it’s not so much a problem in the existing approaches, but just more like a natural limitation in qualitative work. It is offering so much important detail that we were not able to see in the quantitative approach that we took. But nobody had really looked at this issue of land dispossession from a quantitative and national level perspective. So that’s really what we were offering as a way of complementing this really rich body of work that’s been growing. So I think it’s just important that we emphasize that this quantitative approach is really working in synergy with the existing literature. 

We got access to the data that’s collected by the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE). This is a large data set on all capital investment projects in India. And the data set offers a lot of information about the ownership of capital investment projects, whether they’re publicly owned, privately owned or joint lead/public private ownership, the sector of the project’s location as well as different events in the lifecycle of a project. This data set had information about when projects were announced, when they received environmental clearances, and when they faced certain delays. What was most important for us was whether, if at all, the project faced problems acquiring land. So we use this data to look at the variation between projects that faced difficulties acquiring land and projects that did not have these events of land acquisition problems. 

BE: So the land acquisition problems are a proxy for protest or resistance? That’s not just like bureaucratic paperwork or something like that.You’re confident that’s actually protest? 

Michael Levien: This was a real find for us that we could actually get at it indirectly with this.  There was a for-profit data set here that was keeping good track of the progress of all capital projects in India because investors wanted that information. And they were noting these reasons for delay among them land acquisition problems, which means one thing in India, which is that the landowners are resisting the project because they don’t want to give up their land. And so this was actually a real find because there’s really no other data set like that we have in the world that allows you to do this. Most governments don’t even keep track of the number of people they dispossess.

BE: That’s not something they have much of an interest in keeping track of. 

ML: No. The Chinese government kept some data on protests then stopped keeping them. The Indian government never kept track. There were some scholars that tried to accomplish estimates for the total number of people dispossessed in states, but these are huge estimates and not comprehensive. There’s been some other efforts, but nothing that can give you this big of an N with some claim to representativeness and that actually gets that kind of opposition on the ground. So finding this dataset was a big find. But it was also a mess, and not really designed for scholars. So that was where Smriti applied some amazing data organization and analysis skills that maybe she could talk a little bit about without going too far into the weeds.

SU: It was very, very messy. But it did also provide this wealth of information, as Mike said. It was useful for us to make this intervention in the scholarship, both empirically and also theoretically, because what we were able to do was offer a correction to the scholarship on social movements in general, which tend to focus on cases of mobilization. We were able to correct for this bias of selecting on the dependent variable. And, despite the messiness of the CMIE data, we were able to clean it up and use this information on land acquisition problems as our dependent variable and look at the project characteristics. So the major ones were ownership of the project, sector, location. And then we also looked at a host of variables that would allow us to unpack the importance of the state location of these projects.

BE: The great thing here is that level of systematic data that allows you to see not just when people mobilize but when they don’t. So you went through this heavy lifting, locating, cleaning, parsing, these data. What did you find? What were the key results of the study?

SU: We find that the sector of the project is really important in terms of determining the likelihood of whether a project is going to face problems acquiring land. Our analysis points to large scale infrastructure projects and special economic zones or SEZs as key arenas of contention around land dispossession. This is a finding that confirms what other scholars have also found.

BE: By infrastructure, you mean the things that get a lot of headlines about protests against dams and industrial parks and stuff like that?

SU: Yeah, exactly. What’s interesting is that when we look at infrastructure projects, in particular, that’s when the ownership (public versus private) of a project becomes statistically significant.

ML: Private infrastructure projects are more likely to get resisted than public sector ones. We didn’t find ownership significant looking at every single sector, but that makes sense because big infrastructure projects are historically publicly developed. And so for reasons we discussed these types of projects might be more explicit than like a public development when you’re doing privatized infrastructure, which is something the Indian government started doing in the post liberalisation period.

BE:  So the sector really matters, what type of project, what sector the project is trying to grab land for.

ML: SEZs are more problematic than manufacturing projects. Surprisingly, mining was not as problematic as we thought it would be given what we know about a lot of resistance to mining projects.

SU: And then we find that the state location of the project is also really important in terms of determining this likelihood of the project facing protests against land dispossession. And I would just say on this question of state location, we looked at it in two ways. One way that we looked at state locations revealed that there’s a host of contextual factors related to the political context and political dynamics that are important for determining protests against land dispossession. But we can’t capture all of those really complicated dynamics and histories in a quantitative model. But our finding is that these historical dynamics, for example, or dynamics that we really have to get at through qualitative analysis is important. So I think that’s important in terms of how this paper is setting up an agenda for further studies. 

Then we also look at the political and economic context by looking at a number of variables that help us get at the agrarian context. So here we find that a number of the agrarian context variables that we were looking at were significant, such as average landholding size. And the percentage of land held by scheduled tribes (historically marginalized tribal groups) was significant. 

ML: And historically scheduled tribes have led a lot of the anti-dam struggles and anti-mining struggles. So in fact we find that areas with a high percentage of land owned by scheduled tribes that have higher land acquisition problems. 

The other surprising agrarian context variable was land tenure. We found in areas with high incidence of leased land, that you had more likelihood of opposition to land acquisition. And the final factor is the political party dynamics. The greater the number of competitive parties at the state level, translated into a greater likelihood of land acquisition problems in the state.

BE: So more party competition, more protest.  Interesting. So there’s a bunch of different findings coming out of this really detailed analysis. You’ve talked a little bit about a few of the surprising findings. But I’d like you to draw that out a bit more. What did you find most surprising about your findings?

ML: One thing that was the opposite of what we expected was on the land tenure. We thought that areas that had a low percentage of leased land, which tends to be a place where you have a relatively egalitarian, socialist, agrarian social structure with lots of small farmers who own their own land and cultivate their own land, was actually where you’d have the most protests. Based on an understanding of some cases and the historical literature on peasants, it seemed that kind of setting would be easier to collectively mobilize. And that self cultivating farmers will have a greater stake in their land, whereas tenants don’t.

But of course, our mistake was that we were thinking about one part of that equation, right, which was the tenants. But there is also the landlords and farmers. And we thought about it more, we know of all these cases in India, where you actually had large farmers and landlords organize the protests but basically to increase their own compensation not in consultation with the tenants, who don’t really get compensation when their land is acquired. So in hindsight, it does make sense. 

In lots of parts of India, you have these very unequal agrarian social structures. But the large farmers in this context have a lot of political power. In our dependent variable, we don’t know if those farmers were protesting if they were demanding higher compensation or if they wanted to stop their dispossession altogether. And so if you think about it, more of what we’re probably capturing was that dynamic of protest, right? It’s large farmers, in those unequal landlordist sharecropping contexts who are fighting the state, often militantly with some success. But it could be just to get more of a buyout. So, it made sense in retrospect, but it wasn’t what we expected to find. And we think it raises a whole bunch of questions that need to be further answered with qualitative research. 

We did of course expect that the smaller the average holding, the more land acquisition problems because the state has to negotiate with more farmers, right for every, say 100 acres that it wants to acquire.

The other thing that was surprising, I mentioned that mining didn’t emerge as one of the top sources of land acquisition protests. We’re not quite sure why. But perhaps it’s just that there’s a whole lot of under-documented land acquisition problems in these other sectors that don’t get the same type of attention. We didn’t expect the opposition parties to have such a high effect. But that was interesting. And I think finally, it was surprising to us that in India the reputation is that you have states like Gujarat, which is where the current prime minister was Chief Minister, and has a very pro business reputation. And then, at the other extreme, you have West Bengal, and they just protest all the time, and it’s a bad business environment. And when they stopped a car factory, the company went to Gujarat. So we had these polesl of West Bengal and Gujarat in our mind. And that’s reflected in the literature. But we found several states that were actually better at dispossessing land than Gujarat. And worse at dispossessing land than West Bengal, right. Or to put it conversely, where farmers protest less or protest more. Or where the protest gets more traction. 

So those are the big surprises to us. But we should say no one’s really tried to explore this in this way. So it is kind of all new. None of this has really been established before any of the findings. 

BE: Because the vast majority of the scholarship is on positive cases of mobilization and case studies that don’t really allow for that systematic analysis of what are the key general factors?

ML: Right. And I would say, there are cases of acquiescence. My own book is really about a case of acquiescence. And there are a few others. But we tried to sort of deduce the factors that work in those cases. This allowed us to step back and do that more systematically, and then refine the kinds of questions that qualitative sociology really needs to answer because we can’t answer it with a statistical study like this. It raises more questions than answers.

BE: Absolutely. You just mentioned quiescence there. For me, as I was reading the paper, one thing I found surprising was precisely the rarity of resistance to land dispossession, especially to the extent that this literature is all about positive cases. So it feels like there’s this tremendous resistance to dispossession. But overall, in your results, you found evidence of disruption in only 3% of the cases. So do you see this as an instance of a central fact that I drive home with my students when I teach social movements, which is that in the face of injustice and oppression, the default response is quiescence or acceptance and not mobilization? Or do you see that there’s something else going on here? Or is it a bit of both?

SU: 3% is likely an underestimation, in our case, because we don’t actually know from this data, how many projects required land acquisition to begin with? So it’s likely that we are underestimating the problem. But even when we look at what we weigh the impact of this 3% against, it is quite significant. Just to give you a sense, the total value of projects that have faced problems acquiring land was about 22 trillion Indian rupees, close to 370 billion US dollars. So that amounts to 20% of the total value of all projects, in terms of capital investment, that’s captured in this data set.

We can’t fully estimate the cost of land acquisition problems, because there’s some important questions about that, such as who’s facing the costs? But we can say that it’s quite significant. 1/5 of the total value in this data set is held up due to problems acquiring land. While 3% seems like a small number, we still think that it’s a significant problem.

ML: And I would just add, we have a big N here. It’s about 22,000 projects in our data set. And we found 780 of those with serious land acquisition problems. So that’s a pretty big number (over the period of about one decade).

And the other thing to say is that some folks went and looked at a subset of the CMIE projects and found three times as many headline acquisition columns than what CMIE recorded. So CMIE is definitely under-reporting the problem. So we worried about whether there was some bias to the underreporting, and we did an analysis, and it seemed like omissions are basically randomly distributed in ways that wouldn’t seem to bias our primary concern, which is explaining the variation. But so we think the basis of the problem is a lot higher than that number. There’s a lot more resistance that stalls projects than that number would suggest.

BE: So it’s still a minority of cases, regardless, but it’s cases that pack a punch in terms of their financial impact. And there’s probably some underreporting going on.

ML: There’s a lot of them and they are posing a significant obstacle to capital. Which you know by the way the Indian state has responded to them.

BE: As I see it, the results point to basically two sets of factors that affect the likelihood of mobilization. You can look at the structural basket and the political basket, if you will. And I’d like to dig into these a bit more and with an eye towards getting kind of the why of what’s going on. 

So looking first at the structural factors, obviously, you found that the sector in which the proposed project is located: the ownership question whether it’s public or private, and then whether it’s for real estate infrastructure, manufacturing, special economic zones or so so on and so forth, that that part really matters a lot. And then what also matters is the structure of agriculture on the land that’s being grabbed. So it depends on what the land is proposed to be used for, and then what it’s currently being used for. So the size of the land holdings, the amount of leased land, how much land is uncultivated? How much is claimed by scheduled tribes, and so on.

So could you talk a bit more about why we’re seeing that variation when it comes to these structural factors? What is making people more or less likely to resist land grabs?

ML: Yeah, that’s a good question.

This is something we obviously both think about a lot. We’re both ethnographers primarily, collaborating on a quantitative project with Smriti’s quantitative skills. But I think what we’ve been thinking a lot about is what does this actually mean and why do we find this? From my own ethnographic work, the argument I make in my book is really about how the decreasingly developmental purposes for which the Indian state is dispossessing land is a major factor in increasing the overall level of resistance to land dispossession in the neoliberal period. In the last 20 to 30 years, the Indian state started grabbing land for private projects, instead of just public sector ones, and increasingly for non-labor intensive, like real estate-type speculative projects, that have fewer developmental benefits for local populations. So I call this a shift in regimes of dispossession. 

But you know, I studied an SEZ, and both of these things are happening at once, this is a private project, not a public project. And it’s also a lot of real estate and IT instead of manufacturing. So we saw this as a way to isolate those factors a little bit (to what extent are sectors important, to what extent is ownership important). We find a little bit of both. But why? We can’t exactly answer that here. 

But based on the research we and others have done, we would say that certainly the material benefits of the project has to be central. Farmers look at a manufacturing project, they might be persuaded to get a job, like in a in a factory, but you look at a real estate project, and there’s really nothing in it for them, unless you’re really going to compensate them very highly which is often not the first thing Indian state decides to do. So, probably a lot of it is a calculation of material benefits. It makes a lot of sense to us that real estate projects and SEZs are far more controversial and far more likely to be resisted.  

But there’s also the question of legitimacy. The Indian state for many decades was able to legitimize dispossessing land for big infrastructure projects in the public interest. This is for the development of the nation, and so a sacrifice for the nation. Is it more difficult to do that when you’re kind of grabbing land for some huge multinational corporation or foreign corporation? 

We think there’s probably a mix of both and that material interests and legitimacy are pretty hard to dissociate in the minds of farmers. And so that’s where we just think further ethnography, that gets at some of these things, and does some more fine tuned comparisons might be able to push our analysis further. 

On the agrarian factors, the holding size is straightforward. Smaller land holdings, more farmers you have to deal with, the more likelihood you’re going to get holdouts.The land tenure issue was the surprising one for us. And what we probably have beneath this statistical finding is a very complex picture that we can’t really deal with in the data. In some places you can have certain kinds of resistance, where the whole village mobilizes. In other cases, a fraction of the elite mobilizes. In some places, the tenants mobilize, but the landlords don’t. 

We know from qualitative research that those kinds of variation have been established. But at the same time, we think that the qualitative dimensions of the particular class and caste structures, the political histories of those villages, all these things vary so widely across India, that we think probably, it’s the qualitative dimensions of things that are going to be more important, and that we can’t capture with our analysis. At some places, you have long histories of peasant mobilization going back, you know, decades or centuries, and in some places you don’t.

We think it’s interesting that we found a few of these things. For example, there’s a big literature on resisting dams. And we do find that still important. But we also confirm the impression that large farmers and these inegalitarian villages are perhaps a bigger force behind land acquisition protest. 

SU: What’s going on here is so complex that we need both a quantitative perspective or analysis, as well as the qualitative. I think that what’s nice about our analysis is that it showcases that these two types of investigations should really go hand in hand. The state context is so important in terms of our indicator variables, but what that really means is that these complex histories and agrarian relations, and protest, are also really important. But we can’t capture them so straightforwardly in a model. 

ML: What this allows us to do is to hold a lot of things constant. But in the real world those things are never held constant. Let’s just say there’s a massive research program, to begin to be able to really answer a lot of these questions.

BE: Like all good research, the paper raises far more questions than it ends up answering. So let’s turn to those political factors. And like we talked about earlier, one of your key findings at this degree of political competitiveness in a state dramatically affects the likelihood of mobilization against land grabs, so more competition, more competitive to the party system, the more likely you see mobilization. So what’s going on there? What do you think’s happening? 

ML: Land dispossession protests in India are something that I’ve been interested in for almost two decades now. And if you were in India in 2003, you would look around and say, first of all, this is not a national issue. It’s not an electoral issue. There’s no parties that care about it. The people organized around this are grassroots non-party left social movements, resisting dams and things like that, and they’re very far from power. And the media and mainstream politicians don’t pay attention to them. Around the mid to late 2000s, things change very quickly, really around 2007. You have these very high profile standoffs. Many of them in West Bengal, but elsewhere, where farmers were refusing to give their land for an SEZ or car factory, new economy type projects for private companies. And they were in several cases massacred by the state. 

One of the most notorious incidents was in the communist left-ruled West Bengal. This was picked up by an opposition party that was a fairly opportunistic petty bourgeois regional party. But that gave serious support to the farmers. And it was a crucial factor in the left losing that election and the subsequent elections, and now they’re really decimated and out of power. And that was a key to a lot of political parties across India. This is actually a big electoral issue; it’s a wedge issue. It’s something you need to be careful about if you’re in power. And if you’re out of power, it’s something that might actually help you get back into power. 

So you started even seeing national politicians like Rahul Gandhi show up at a protest in Uttar Pradesh where the Congress wasn’t in power and give solidarity to the farmers and denounce the chief minister of that state for being callous. Of course, in places where the Congress is in power, they’re doing the same kinds of land grabs, but this became a kind of electoral dynamic and became a wedge issue. That came with dangers for a lot of movements to be co-opted by parties, who might be totally opportunistic and instrumental and may not share the broader political goals of some of those movements historically, aligned to a kind of Indian-socialist-anarcho-Gandhian worldview. 

So what happens now you have BJP politicians, in some cases, taking up the issue of farmers in a state where the BJP is not in power. You now have the left starting to do this in certain places, so it really becomes an electoral issue. We wanted to somehow bring that into the analysis, to find a variable that captures the role of these opposition parties from roughly the mid 2000s onwards. And so that was an interesting finding that, the greater number of viable opposition parties, the more land acquisition problems you have, holding everything constant. 

Our interpretation of that is where there’s more opposition parties that have a serious chance of power, they might be more likely to support this kind of struggle. But It could also be the case where you have a real duopoly. Let’s say a Congress/BJP state where we found fewer land acquisition protests that there’s a disincentive to take it up, because they’re always oscillating out of power. And when they’re in power, they’re doing the same types of land dispossession for various projects. So that’s basically our interpretation. But again, we think there’s like a ton of questions that are backed by the findings, it’s not necessarily the perfect variable.

BE: It sounds like from what you’re saying that the land dispossession issue is more of an opportunistic partisan issue, rather than something that breaks down the long term issues of political principle. So the party’s ideology doesn’t really affect whether or not it’s going to take up the land dispossession issue. It’s more about whether they’re in or out of power. 

ML: Not anymore, right. And in matters of the context, if it’s a very competitive polity – and what matters is really the state level, because that’s where acquisition is happening is with state governments. 

Now, of course, you have to draw a distinction from the farmers who just start protesting, usually on their own. They form an ad hoc organization, “Anti [BLANK] Struggle Committee,” “Save the [BLANK] Movement.” And then they look for allies. And historically, that was just national people’s movements, these kind of national NGOs and grassroots groups, but now increasingly, it is these parties that, largely for instrumental reasons, support these things. Sometimes. And our data does say, “Look there’s dangers to that,” as a lot of qualitative work has shown. Our data does suggest that like when those parties are involved, there seems to be some greater chance of stopping projects. But of course,we don’t know the ultimate outcome of all those protests, and what role the parties played, if they, you know, encourage them to accept compensation, instead of stopping the project, all those types of things that, if you’re that movement, you’re worried about. But it does just suggest that parties are important now in shaping these struggles.

BE: Here’s one of those annoying questions that goes far beyond your data. Perhaps we can draw on your broader expertise and knowledge of the case. But do you have a sense as to whether these protests against land grabs have increased in recent years, as the Congress has sort of lost its political hegemony in recent decades? You were talking earlier about going back to 2003 that this doesn’t get politicized. It’s not something that the parties take up. But I’m curious as to the incidence of protests. So has the creation of a more competitive party ecosystem spurred greater social mobilization?

ML: One thing to keep in mind in India is the distinction between the state and the national level. So most of the land acquisition dynamics that we’re looking at here are really about state level politics. And so what’s happening on the national stage does not necessarily translate to what’s happening at the local stage. And I’m not sure I would even characterize what’s happening in India as a more competitive polity. What we’re seeing is this consolidation of BJP hegemony, which is of course what Smriti’s research is all about. So what I would say about the Congress is that these protests started exploding really in the UPA-II government (the United Progressive Alliance coalition government in power from 2009-2014). So that was when the Congress was still in power. 

BE: What time period are we talking about?

ML: This is like the mid to late 2000s. So Congress is still in power. And it’s beset by a lot of corruption scandals. It pushed neoliberalism pretty strongly. There’s lots of opposition to it. And only after all of these very high profile protests just spread everywhere. Once this starts to become an electorally salient issue, the Congress government passes a big national land acquisition law, to reform this draconian law that’s in place. But that’s not really sufficient to help them in the election, though. That’s not why they lost the election, which is for many other reasons. But the only other thing I would say about the Congress which is interesting is that, since it lost it really started taking up the issue more. 

So as soon as the Modi government came into power, it tried to dilute this relatively pro-farmer law that the Congress had put into place with bipartisan support, but capital really lobbied strongly against it. Modi came in with a promise to fast-track development projects, and that requires steamrolling farmers. But you had Sonia Gandhi and those people on protests, which is something I thought I’d never see, really. And so it was something that seemed to enliven the Congress a little bit for a while. It’s something that now all opposition parties are taking up. Perhaps because Congress has less power, they’re more involved now in those protests. But it’s something Rahul Gandhi has made a point of emphasizing, Jairam Ramesh, some big Congress politicians are very involved now in this issue.

SU: I was just thinking about an anecdote I remember from Gujarat. In 2013 when the BJP was in power in the state of Gujarat under Narendra Modi’s Chief Ministerial rule, there were so many newspaper headlines about rogue members of the BJP that were leading protests against land dispossession, which was really surprising, because part of the reason I was in Gujarat was to was to study the state as this strong case of BJP hegemony. And in fact, in the area that I was studying, which is labor, I was finding that people had this impression that Gujarat was very quiet in terms of labor protests, but a lot of the newspaper headlines were about these rogue politicians of the BJP that were leading struggles against the land acquisition policies of Narendra Modi. As Mike mentioned before, [the Modi government] had been heralded as this fast track to acquiring land with very few problems. But the picture at the national and sub national level was different. This is a politically contentious issue, across the board.

BE: I know that your paper is more about creating a political sociology of dispossession. But building on this talk about parties, I want to hear what your findings have to say about the political sociology of parties, which is something that is, of course, near and dear to my own heart from my own research. One of the key insights of the new sociology of political parties that’s emerged in recent years is this idea that parties play a key role in shaping political issues and coalition’s in that struggle for political power, rather than simply responding to existing issues, or reflecting existing political blocks or coalitions. Do you see that kind of dynamic at work in your results?

ML: I think our understanding of this issue supports more of a reflection model, in the sense that political parties, their involvement in this, really is the end product of a set of political economic forces that have to do with the way states have transformed under neoliberalism to grab land for corporations, which refract through agrarian social structures to create protests, that then became so strong that they forced parties to get involved. So I think it’s really more of a social structure to party, causal arrow in this case. Now that they are involved, of course, they’ve changed the dynamic of politics. But I’d say that the determinacy in the last instance, is from the social structure up to the parties.

SU: Maybe what’s interesting is also the importance of a historical perspective. What we’re finding is that the protests were so powerful that parties across the spectrum had to address this issue. But over time, the involvement of parties also changes the structure and changes the nature of the struggle. So looking at how it transforms over time is probably an important lens for understanding this, which synthesizes both the creativity of parties as well as the reflection model of parties.

ML: The protests from below become strong enough that it in some ways modified the regime of dispossession. So there is an iterative element to this.

BE: It is interesting to see that. The part that I would like to see a bit more about is the fracturing of the consensus amongst parties. The degree to which the parties that are unified in favor of dispossession, essentially are just not mentioning it, and letting it proceed apace. And then, over the course, the early 2000s parties, taking it up as an issue for political advantage is an interesting process in and of itself.

ML: I would say it’s not just like an ideological consensus. There’s very strong competitive pressures to create an investment climate to get capital into your state and to do that requires making land available, which involves dispossession. So there’s a strong set of incentives there. I think that’s a bit uneven. And what we show is probably that incentives are very strong in a lot of the more dynamic wealthier states. To some extent, in West Bengal when Mamta Banerjee came to power after opposing the left, she actually did slow down land acquisition quite a lot. And I don’t know if I’ve seen analysis of really what the effect has been for the West Bengal economy. 

But I can’t think of another place. For the most part a party will take it up when they’re out of power, and then when they get into power, they just do the same thing. That’s what the incentive structure is. They might increase the compensation to the farmers. 

BE: You need to have some product differentiation between the parties. The title of your paper is “Toward a Political Sociology of Dispossession,” emphasizing the “toward” here, the implication of course being that this political sociology of dispossession does not already exist. So given how central land dispossession is to the history and politics of so much of the modern world we live in today, why do you think this political sociology of dispossession doesn’t already exist? Or to the extent that it does exist, what do you think needs to be added or revised?

ML: We argue it’s just incipient. It’s not like the sociology of labor. There’s no ASA section, there’s no well defined field with some accepted findings, a shared set of questions, people in conversation with each other. I think that is emerging now. So that’s one thing. 

And the other thing to say is that even though there’s a large literature on land dispossession, a lot of it from the last 10 years, a lot of it is anthropology and geography, not sociology. As a result of that, a lot of it tends to take the form of: “I studied this place, I didn’t find the same thing as you did there. I don’t care why, I’m just gonna say it’s different and put my own label on it.” There is not interest in the question of why my case looks different than someone else’s. Which doesn’t need to involve even a formal comparison, or much less a statistical analysis, but people just aren’t even asking those types of questions. Why is it different here than there? 

These are the types of things that sociologists tend to answer. I think that’s emerging. There were a lot of special journal issues on land grabs when it became a big deal beginning a decade ago. And I think there’s increasing interest. I’ve been involved in special issues comparing India and China, or comparing lots of different countries. 

In India, I think there’s a movement towards it. And I think it’s slowly moving there, but still there are not actually many sociologists. It tends to be a lot of development studies, anthropologists, and geographers. So they don’t approach it exactly the same way. Sociologists have come late to the game, but I think we have something distinctive to add. And I think what we’re just trying to do is to push it forward a little bit by saying, here’s a way that you can ask some kind of comparative questions. Here’s some of the factors that might be important in shaping variation in politics. 

We only really look at the emergence of opposition. We’re not even asking what form these protests take. What are their demands? What are their class compositions? Do they achieve their own objectives? There’s so many other questions, we’re not even posing here, but that are equally important for a comparative sociological research program on this issue. We hope more and more people get involved. Lots of people are studying this issue, we just hope increasingly they start to ask those types of questions in a more comparative, at least implicitly and hopefully more explicitly, comparative kind of way.

BE: Do you want to venture any guesses as to why you think sociology in particular has been late to the game on this, especially given that we’ve got this tradition going back to Marx talking about the enclosures?

ML: It’s parochial. So a lot of it is focused on the US. And land dispossession has been a bigger issue in recent decades in the global south. Of course, it’s a big issue in the US. I look no farther than East Baltimore where our own university is grabbing land. There is a long history of it in the US, but it exists in these little literatures. So there’s a little bit of stuff on eminent domain in urban sociology, that people study elsewhere in like, say, development sociology.

But dispossession as a kind of social relation in its own right, like the exploitation of labor, has never been in the major sociological typologies. If you go back to our classics. Marx talked about it, but he really only talked about it in the birth, the initial transition to capitalism. And that’s what most of the literature in sociology has been if you go back to the Brenner debate or even Barrington Moore, yes there is land, but really just in the transition from a feudal to a capitalist society, there’s not really a theory of its ongoing nature. Similarly, Weber saw it in a way similar to Marx, he just didn’t think it was as important a factor in that transition. And then with Durkheim, obviously it’s just glossed over in the dissolution of segmentary societies. 

I think for some reason, it was also absent in development sociology for many decades. The focus on say, developmental states, never looked that closely ethnographically at what the developmental states were doing. They were dispossessing tens of millions of people for dams and steel towns.

So it started to get recognized by sociologists outside of the US. Like in India, it became a huge literature from the 70s and 80s onwards and an increasingly critical one that really developed in political ecology and geography more than in sociology. So it took a while for US sociologists to really pick up on its importance. And that really came in the late 2000s, when there was this growing awareness of transnational farmland acquisition and other types of things. [David] Harvey had his very abstract theory of accumulation by dispossession, which groups land grabs in with a whole bunch of other things. It was very confusing in lots of ways, but got people interested. The anti-globalization upsurge people started to get interested in these kinds of struggles that weren’t really involving workers, but were responding to the various dislocations of neoliberalism. It took all that for sociologists, in the US at least, to get interested in this issue. 

BE: So we’re almost out of time here. But just to wrap up, I wanted a more forward looking question. Do you see anything in your findings or analysis that can help inform the work of those who are resisting land dispossession today?

ML: That’s a really good question. And I feel like, sadly, the lessons for activists working on this issue are modest…

BE: Try to get the right type of project at your site. 

ML: That’s part of the problem. If you are a farmer and you don’t want to give your land up, it doesn’t matter so much if you’re in the wrong state. It’s very hard to resist in some states. So that’s obviously the pitfalls whenever sociology points to structural factors. 

But I would say, first of all encouragement, in the sense that the sum total of the resistance, which can often be hard, doesn’t always succeed, but is creating this huge obstacle for capital. I don’t know of another domain where any real political struggle is having this kind of effect. Where you’re basically holding $370 billion in capital investments hostage to whether they can get you off your land. So it’s encouragement that actually these movements can have a huge effect. And that’s also probably why we’ve seen the state and parties have to address this, albeit in disappointing ways. 

The second thing I would say is that it raises a difficult question about the relationship to political parties. A lot of people in the non-party left who traditionally took up this issue were critical parties and wanted to be autonomous, independent, and they have a distinct ideology. They’re distrustful of the electoral system. And that makes a ton of sense for a lot of reasons. 

I think it poses this question of coalitions and class and caste contradictions within anti dispossession struggles because. For a long time, the non party left movements who were interested in this issue, were indigenous people versus the state or it’s small farmers versus the state – there’s kind of a populist framing. That’s obviously hard to maintain once you have these large farmers involved who might be BJP supporters and dominant caste, exploiting landless laborers in their village but also trying to stop a special economic zone. 

So how do you deal with this? Can you have coalitions with those groups or not? Do you try to create a coalition of the small farmers and the scheduled tribes, such as the Adivasis? Our findings recognize that the Adivasis are still driving a lot of resistance, but then so are large landlords or rich farmers. That’s our interpretation of the findings. So I think that’s just a question. 

And beyond that, I don’t think we have that much more to offer. If you were a roving activist and just deciding, “I don’t have that much time, but where am I going to put my efforts?” You would say, okay, well go to you know, West Bengal and stop a Special Economic Zone. But that’s probably what you’re already doing. Go where there are lots of parties. Go where there’s lots of private special economic zones. Maybe also look for these railway projects, which weren’t on our radar as something that was being resisted. But there’s some of these other projects that don’t get as much attention. If you’re looking to support resistance, there’s some there that we might not know about.

BE: Really interesting stuff. So we’ve been speaking with Mike Levien and Smriti Upadhyay of Johns Hopkins University about their brand new paper and the latest issue of Politics and Society. Again, it’s entitled “Toward a Political Sociology of Dispossession: Explaining Opposition to Capital Projects in India.” Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us Marxist Sociology Blog Podcast. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Marxist sociology blog podcast. I’m your host, Barry Eidlin. Thanks to the section on Marxist Sociology of the American Sociological Association for sponsoring the blog and this podcast. And thanks to our Editor-in-Chief Mike McCarthy. Thanks also to Sarah Hurd for invaluable technical assistance. For more accessible summaries of current Marxist sociological research check us out online at

Until next time, stay inquisitive, and never underestimate the power of the organized working class.

Image: Meeting of Maldhari pastoralist women to protest against loss of grazing land to investment areas, Gujarat State, India (Photo Credit: MARAG/ Neeta Pandya). Flickr.