Sometimes I find books on land and land reforms - new books - which have an air of another era about them. The Agrarian Question in the Neoliberal Era: Primitive Accumulation and the Peasantry is such a book. It is not without insights. But its language and concepts feel more like revolutionary literature from the 1970s than like academic analysis from this millennium.
The book’s part one, written by Utsa Patnaik, addresses the theoretical failure in understanding the links between the agenda of finance capital, on the one hand, and the agrarian crisis in developing countries, on the other (p. 9). Agrarian crises is a classic Marxist topic and the term describes how capitalism dispossesses the small-scale producers of their land.
Personally, I find it honorable when scholars are preoccupied with the rural poor - the peasantry as Utsa Patnaik phrases it. And the author has some extremely interesting findings. For instance, she shows that populations in developing countries have experienced a decline in grain availability. That is extremely worrying.
What bothers me a bit about Utsa Patnaik’s contribution, however, is its tendency to focus on the negative outcomes of development only. The approach appears rather eclectic. For instance, she writes that cereal output per capita fell sharply in China in the period 1990-2003 and that that the food availability for the poorer mass has declined sharply.
Utsa Patnaik does not, however, discuss why her findings differ from most current descriptions of China, according to which living standards are rising and hundreds of millions are being lifted out of poverty. FAO statistics, furthermore, according this chart, shows a rising calories per person intake in China in the same period. Why do Utsa Patnaik’s findings differ from such, more general, analyses? Is it because of her narrow focus on grain production, which seems to exclude other crops? Or is it because of the uneven distribution of wealth in the country? She does not tell us.
Similarly, she has a statistic showing the decline in per day capita intake in a number of African countries from 1979 to 1991. That is the period of structural reform programmes, which endeniably reduced food security for people in a number of countries in sub-Saharan. She does not, however, include the subsequent decades which, again according to the chart based on FAO statistics, show a rising caloies intake in some of the same countries. Why has she chosen one decade and left out others? Such questions are left unanswered.
The second part, written by Sam Moyo, is not much different. It is an analysis of the third wave of land alienation in all the African regions (p. 73), that is, of the current land grabbing phenomenon. This third wave, he writes, follows the first wave colonial era land dispossessions and the second wave domestic capitalist land grabbing in numerous countries, facilitated by the new land reform policies of the 1990s (p. 68). Again, the approach is rather eclectic. For instance, I find it strange that the state nationalization programmes pursued by some governments in the 1970s, which dispossessed quite a few people of their land – Tanzania being one of them as I have described in a previous blog post – are not seen as land alienation.
What really bothers me, however, is Sam Moyo’s description of Zimbabwe’s land reform as a role model for others to follow: The agrarian accumulation model continues to be based on an outward-looking agricultural strategy, except in Zimbabwe, which is veering towards internal markets, food sovereignty and autonomous development (p. 74). He thus completely ignores the hundreds of thousands who lost their jobs in the farming sector, the 1,5 million people - a tenth of the entire Zimbabwean population – who left for South Africa, and the fact that Zimbabwe - once a breadbasket in Southern Africa - today suffers from acute food insecurity, according to this article from the World Food Programme.
I agree that land in Zimbabwe was highly unevenly distributed and that redistribution was needed. However, as the political scientist Max Weber pointed out in his ethics of responsibility, political actions should not only be measured on their intentions. First and foremost, political actions should be measured on their consequences. By most measures, President Mugabe’s reform approach was misconceived and it failed.
Issa Shivji, in the introduction to the book, writes about the latest phase of capitalist accumulation and the choice humankind faces. We have to choose, he writes, between socialism and barbarism. If only things were that simple.