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Reclaiming the Land: The Resurgence of Rural Movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America

Reclaiming the Land: The Resurgence of Rural Movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America

by Sam Moyo, Paris Yeros

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Rural movements have recently emerged to become some of the most important social forces in opposition to neoliberalism. From Brazil and Mexico to Zimbabwe and the Philippines, rural movements of diverse political character, but all sharing the same social basis of dispossessed peasants and unemployed workers, have used land occupations and other tactics to


Rural movements have recently emerged to become some of the most important social forces in opposition to neoliberalism. From Brazil and Mexico to Zimbabwe and the Philippines, rural movements of diverse political character, but all sharing the same social basis of dispossessed peasants and unemployed workers, have used land occupations and other tactics to confront the neoliberal state. This volume brings together for the first time across three continents - Africa, Latin America and Asia - an intellectually consistent set of original investigations into this new generation of rural social movements.

These country studies seek to identify their social composition, strategies, tactics, and ideologies; to assess their relations with other social actors, including political parties, urban social movements, and international aid agencies and other institutions; and to examine their most common tactic, the land occupation, its origins, pace and patterns, as well as the responses of governments and landowners.

At a more fundamental level, this volume explores the ways in which two decades of neoliberal policy - including new land tenure arrangements intended to hasten the commodification of land, and new land uses linked to global markets — have undermined the social reproduction of the rural labour force and created the conditions for popular resistance. The volume demonstrates the longer-term potential impact of these movements. In economic terms, they raise the possibility of tackling immiseration by means of the redistribution of land and the reorganisation of production on a more efficient and socially responsible basis. And in political terms, breaking the power of landowners and transnational capital with interests in land could ultimately open the way to an alternative pattern of capital accumulation and development.

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Reclaiming the Land

The Resurgence of Rural Movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America

By Sam Moyo, Paris Yeros

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2005 Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84277-425-0


The Resurgence of Rural Movements under Neoliberalism

Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros

A central feature of the development of capitalism in the twentieth century has been the rapid expansion of the world's labour force. Beginning with the national development projects of the postwar period, most notably the green revolution, and continuing with the structural adjustment programmes of the neoliberal period, this expansion has been accompanied by the creation of an international reserve army of labour of an unprecedented scale. By and large, this labour force is located in the periphery of the system and, moreover, it remains in a state of semi-proletarianization, straddling town and country, and reproducing itself, in part, outside the circuit of capital — the process known as underdevelopment.

While the process of proletarianization has been the natural consequence of the transition to capitalism worldwide, its truncated nature has been the result of a historically specific type of transition to capitalism, characterized by the absence, or incompleteness, of industrial transformation in the periphery — that is, resolution of the agrarian question. The further consequence has been the failure of peripheral states to fulfil national sovereignty, the principle established as a universal right upon the abolition of race as a principle of world order (formal imperialism).

The prevailing wisdom in the last quarter-century has claimed otherwise: in conceptual terms, it has claimed that the agrarian and national questions have been resolved and/or become irrelevant; in concrete terms, that the development and diversification of national productive forces has in fact proceeded apace satisfactorily by means of foreign direct investment, or that they need not proceed apace, that finding 'comparative advantage' in agriculture suffices for development. Such claims are in fact highly ideological, and indeed essential to the conduct of imperialism in the neoliberal period. What is worse, the conceptual structure of these claims has infiltrated the forces of 'opposition' to neoliberalism, including international trade unionism and the anti-globalization movement.

The latter event is itself a continuation of the historical contradictions within 'labour internationalism', which, deriving from the centre-periphery relationship of the states-system, are marked by the persistent failure of the working class as a whole to commit to the fulfilment of national sovereignty in the periphery. To be sure, the burden of neoliberal restructuring has been carried by the working class in both centre and periphery — even eroding the democratic rights historically obtained in the centre. But the resulting 'human rights' and 'post-national' discourses of contemporary internationalism have conveniently submerged the agrarian and national questions. It is no coincidence that the bulk of the crisis of the 1970s has been displaced, by means of structural adjustment programmes, outside the borders of central states, such that the social reproduction of the working class as a whole has continued to rely on the development of underdevelopment in the periphery.

In this book, we inquire into the socio-economic and political dynamics of underdevelopment in the course of neoliberal restructuring. Socio-economically, we find that the peasantry has not entirely 'disappeared', but that semi-proletarianization has continued to absorb the costs of social reproduction, as these have been systematically 'expelled' by capital. Politically, we find a diversity of rural movements: these range from the more organized to the more spontaneous; they have different modes of mobilization; and they exhibit notable divergences in ideology, strategy and tactics. However, they share the same social basis in the semi-proletarianized peasantry, landless proletarians and urban unemployed; they are militant on land and agrarian reform, most often employing the land occupation tactic; and, in the most organized of cases, they have become the leading forces of opposition to neoliberalism and the neocolonial state, at the same time as trade unionism has suffered disorganization and co-optation. The conclusion at which we arrive is that the nucleus of anti-imperialist politics today — and hence of genuine labour internationalism — is to be found in the countrysides of the periphery.

The National and Agrarian Questions under Neoliberalism

The period following the crisis of the 1970s has come to be known as that of 'globalization'. Originating in the profit squeeze of the late 1960s, it has been characterized by the restructuring of industrial capital and its financialization, the deregulation of the global monetary and financial systems, and ultimately the collapse of the welfare-state compromise at the centre and the national development project in the periphery. Globalization has certainly entailed a 'rupture' with the past. But precisely what kind of rupture? This remains a matter of dispute.

The national question under neoliberalism

On one side of the debate are those who have insisted that a 'convergence' has been taking place between North and South, by virtue of the restructuring and relocation of capital. Some have even concluded that the lifting of barriers to capital, or otherwise the deepening of transnational social and political networks, has led to the redundancy of the state. The general implication has been that capitalism has been fulfilling its historic destiny, that the centre-periphery inheritance has been superseded, and that the national question is itself redundant. Such positions have not been the exclusive pet of liberal utopians (Ohmae 1990), but have been propagated by unorthodox liberals (Strange 1996), as well as influential Marxists (Warren 1980; Hardt and Negri 2000). Arrayed on the other side of the debate are those who have qualified the global restructuring in scope and substance and have pointed out its highly uneven and polarizing tendencies. Moreover, they have argued that the state, far from 'retreating', has been 'restructured' to the requirements of international capital. The state has been employed systematically to lift barriers, to deepen the commoditization of social life, and to enforce the new order by coercive means (Amin 1997; Petras and Veltmeyer 2000; Boron 2002). The general implication here has been that the centre-periphery structure has not been dismantled; that the state as a coercive apparatus remains firmly in place; and that national self-determination has not been made redundant but violated to an ever-greater degree. This is our founding position.

Looking back to the period preceding 'globalization', we observe that the two hegemonic projects across centre and periphery — welfare-statism and nation-building — shared in one thing: their vision of the state as principal agent of social progress. However, the two were far from complementary, for the social relations that underpinned the state in each case differed, as did the pattern of accumulation — 'articulated' at the centre and 'disarticulated' in the periphery — these being the legacies of imperialist nation-building in the North and colonization in the South, respectively. More that this, the two were in contradiction (Amin 1976; de Janvry 1981). For the postwar dialectic inhered not in a capital-labour relation understood in the abstract: concretely, the survival of the welfare-state compromise at the centre demanded the security and productivity of central-state capital in the periphery, and hence the persistence of disarticulated accumulation in the latter. Thus, while the periphery sought to emulate the centre (as a means of fulfilling its nationhood) through a policy of industrialization, it did so against the objective logic of the centre-periphery relation and the structural dominance in which it consisted. As Alain de Janvry observed, this is a structural dominance that 'molds the external necessities of the periphery into possibilities for the centre to overcome its barriers of accumulation and growth' (de Janvry 1981: 26).

The Cold War fully galvanized this process, such that socio-political stability for the operation and accumulation of international capital translated immanently into a 'national security' issue at the centre. Despite proliferating social struggles, developmentalist class alliances, generally controlled agrarian reforms, and many impressive but highly skewed and ultimately unsustainable growth experiences in the periphery — including in the few states that obtained 'semi-peripheral' status by succeeding, under import-substitution, in endogenizing the capital goods sector — the multilateral order that was born of World War II and decolonization did not redeem the principle of national self-determination. Indeed, the single case in which peripheral growth was sustained consistently under capitalism was in East Asia, where the internal and external constraints to peripheral accumulation were lifted under the aegis of the United States, for geostrategic reasons, in a Cold War context (So and Chiu 199S; Arrighi 2003). But even in this case of imperial patronage, the Faustian exchange of sovereignty for development was to meet its fate. The end of the Cold War brought with it the reimposition of imperial discipline on export-dependent East Asian allies — including those in the wider region that experienced dynamic growth in the 1990s (the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia) — most vividly in the course of the 1997 — 98 financial crisis (Bello 1998; Wade and Veneroso 1998; Gowan 1999). Experiences of sustained growth in the periphery are to be seen as cases in which the constraints of peripheral accumulation have either been relaxed 'from the outside', or overcome 'from the inside' by the agency of progressive social forces; but in no case are they to be seen as evidence that the constraints do not exist (Yeros 2002b).

What goes as 'globalization' consists in fact in the partial disarticulation of central state economies and their integration among themselves, along with a handful of industrial satellites, into what Paul Hirst and Graham Thompson (1999) have called a 'regionalized triadic bloc structure'. This has given rise to only one notable and ongoing project of supersession of national sovereignty (bumpy and undemocratic, to be sure), namely the European Union, which itself is incomplete as well as undemocratic. Beyond that, it has sprung the G6/7/8, a coordinating forum between the United States and its junior partners, whose task has been to deliberate on global monetary and other affairs in circumvention of the multilateral form. And this has been complemented by a deepening web of global institutions, the IMF — IBRD — WTO, claiming multilateralism but remaining de facto under the control of the centre for the purpose of administering its affairs with the periphery. In this sense, post-World War II capitalism realized the ultra-imperial alliance envisioned prematurely by Karl Kautsky (1970) on the eve of World War I. Precisely to what extent this alliance is unravelling in the wake of the Iraq invasion — and of the Cold War more generally — it is too early to tell.

What is certain, however, is that the periphery has remained in a perverse, disarticulated pattern of accumulation, and this applies to the few semi-peripheral states that obtained rapid domestic agro-industrial integration, at the expense of social and financial articulation. Moreover, disarticulated accumulation has proceeded to become the prevailing principle of'development'. If previously the proclaimed ideal of development had called for the integration of the national market on its own terms, the neoliberal reaction has demanded the integration of the national into the global, and prescribed the global as a panacea for every national ailment. Under the pretext of a 'crisis of development', a standard surgical operation has ensued: the deregulation of national currencies and prices; the commercialization and privatization of previously state-controlled industries and public services; the cutting of social services; the unilateral withdrawal of support for agriculture; the titling and commodification of peasant agricultural land; and the flexibilization of labour relations. The results have been the intensification of socio-economic degradation, the reinforcement of the peripheral tendency to crisis, and an unprecedented degree of dependence since the end of formal imperialism.

Yet, as reactionary as this process has been, it is not to be equated with the supersession of national sovereignty. It is worth recalling that the principle of national sovereignty has been invoked by international finance in no uncertain terms, from the late 1970s to the present, to settle the question of adjustment to global payments imbalances and to justify the structural adjustment exercise itself. In the new monetary and financial order of flexible exchanges and deregulated capital, responsibility for adjustment is strictly national. This phenomenon is not to be equated with the supersession of national sovereignty, but more precisely with its instrumentalization. The further implication is that national adjustment is made subject to the full force of power politics among states, across centre and periphery, and between central states themselves; meanwhile, the only instances of sharing of adjustment responsibility have been ad hoc and among the ultra-imperial partners (Arrighi 2003). It is thus no surprise that the international financial institutions have never proclaimed 'global government' but governance, a vaguism fully compatible with formal national sovereignty and structural dominance (Yeros 2002b). In fact, the first instance since decolonization in which the principle of national sovereignty has been formally suspended with the unanimous approval of the Security Council of the United Nations has been in relation to Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion.

The principle of national self-determination is certainly in crisis. But it has not been superseded, and it should not be, whether in theory or in practice, so long as its raison d'être (imperialism) exists. Such a reaffirmation of nationalism is not a threat to internationalism — or to democratic regionalism or globalism — but its precondition. With these observations in mind, we turn to the agrarian question, whose resolution remains key to any democratic transformation.

The globalization of the agro-food system

A central preoccupation of the classic agrarian question was the problem of transition from feudal/agrarian to capitalist/industrial society, implying modern sovereign statehood, as a prelude to socialism. Among classical theorists, this historic transformation was generally seen as reducible (with various caveats) to the transition to capitalism in agriculture (Engels 195; Kautsky 1988; Lenin 1964). What we have seen in the twentieth century, however, is that the various processes have diverged: capitalism has subordinated agriculture to its logic worldwide, but without creating, by necessity, home markets capable of sustaining industrialization, or fulfilling the sovereignty of decolonized states. In this sense, the agrarian question remains unresolved, and in this sense also it remains intimately related to the national question.

What we may further observe is that the corollary of retarded industrialization and unfulfilled sovereignty in the periphery is the globalization of the agro-food system. Indeed, agriculture is the only market in the world today that is 'globalized', if by this we mean that every country in the world is producing for it. The origins of globalization in agriculture are to be found in the following (see Friedman and McMichael 1989; Friedmann 1993; McMichael 1997; Bernstein 2000): (a) the nineteenth-century rise of tropical agro-exports from the colonies to the metropoles for mass consumption (i.e. sugar, coffee, tea, vegetable oils) and industrial expansion (cotton, timber, rubber); (b) the concurrent rise of ex-colonial settler states, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, to constitute the agricultural core of the world economy, exporting cheap grain, fuelling industrialization, and developing agro-industrial linkages; and (c) the collapse of the free trade regime, most resolutely in the interwar period, with the consequent rise of protectionism in agriculture and industry at the centre, the concerted management of national agro-industrial linkages, and the reliance on imperial trade preferences with the colonies. Following World War II and decolonization, the above historical dispensation set the stage for a new contradiction: the attempt by peripheral states to emulate the national model of agro-industrial integration, at the same time as this was coming undone at the centre, by the incremental integration of the agro-industrial complex on a global scale under the leadership of US firms. By and large, this contradiction has been resolved in favour of transnational capital, which has gone on to construct a global agro-food system characterized by high corporate concentration and a highly stratified international division of labour in agriculture.


Excerpted from Reclaiming the Land by Sam Moyo, Paris Yeros. Copyright © 2005 Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sam Moyo is Director of the newly founded Pan-African research organization, The African Institute for Agrarian Studies (AIAS).

Paris Yeros is a Greek social scientist.

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