Local Resistances to Capitalism? Reflections from the Margins of an Uneven World

R. Ciavolella and A. Choplin, Paper presented at the Historical Materialism Conference, London, November 2011

My colleague Armelle Choplin and I, we have been trying for some years to look at globalisation from one of the most marginal regions of the planet, West African Sahel, and in particular in Mauritania. As you know, in this conference, we are invited to think with David Harvey to the spatial dimension of capitalism. From this point of view, these margins of the world appear as meaningful as the “centre” because they are the last frontiers of capital expansion, where frictions between globalisation and local societies are the most contrastive.

Let me give some basic information about the country: Mauritania is a vast Sahara-Sahel country, with only 3 M inhabitants, and 1 M in capital city Nouakchott; a hegemonic political elite controlling power; a space of circulation rather than production (natural resources for export – mines, oil, fishing…): a capitalist rentier economy for a small elite; a huge elite-population divide.

In our research, we have been analysing impacts of capitalism expansion and collecting ethnographic evidence on popular and local forms of resistance against it, such as “hunger riots” against food prices fluctuating on the global market; rebellions, smuggling and banditry of former nomadic people. These spatial margins of a globalised world may then turn out to be what Harvey calls the “spaces of resistance” to global capitalism or “spaces of hope”.

The spatial dimension of the “global capitalism/local resistance” nexus explains why we find benefiting to mix radical geography with political anthropology in our analysis. The idea of a locally situated form of resistance as a tool to counter the global capital is coherent with a broader spectrum of ideas on resistance formulated by contemporary radical theories. Beyond their differences, these theories stress the role of locally rooted multitudes and dispersed subjectivities in coping with the Empire : they are molecular and decentralised rather than structured in their organisation; they seem to be spontaneously emerging “from below” rather than organically directed by politicians or intellectuals; and they are contingent rather than structured in time. The stress is on pre-political forms of resistance as signs of subaltern people agency. Political Anthropology is strongly equipped to tackle this issue of subaltern subjectivities formation, embryonic forms of mobilisation, infra-political forms of resistance. But ethnographic cases from political anthropology also are inspirational for theorists, as long as they offer positive examples of “heterotopias”, as Foucault called them, or of “distinctive spatiality to domination”, to use Harvey’s words. But as Zizek often ironically reminds, the risk is that these spaces are only useful to radical thinkers looking for an elsewhere where projecting their hopes: emerging social movements, non-capitalist moral economies, or non-authoritarian forms of government, among the Mayas, the campesinos, the nomads, or the discriminated subjectivities.

So, one should question the very impact of small-scale, spontaneous and contingent reactions as long as political, economic and social dynamics affecting them are of the large-scale and structural type. Capitalist forces have really concrete, material and mostly spatial impacts on local communities’ lives. But these forces are driven on a large-scale horizon by powers that are inaccessible to local communities. This is a very geographical matter of disjointing scales between globalization forces and local possibilities to cope with them.

In order to tackle this issue, we would like to particularly concentrate on two case-studies we are currently researching on in Mauritania: real estate investments in urban slums in Nouakchott; and the grabbing of collective lands in the southern region of the country. Both cases are strongly related to the spatial dimension of the local/global “friction” (Tsing 2005), as they concern global capital speculation on land. And therefore, they are particularly relevant for our collective discussion here with Harvey’s inspiring writings.


Slum upgrading

Let me start from the case of land speculation in the slums of Nouakchott. When capital is looking for new “spatial fixes”, even the sand dunes become interesting. The World Bank is promoting a huge slum-upgrading program, in the frame of the Millennium Development Goal of “Cities Without Slums”. One of the priorities was to upgrade the oldest and biggest slum located in the centre of Nouakchott. In principle, the 50.000 inhabitants are given property titles of the land they live on. The rational of the program is to legalize urban informal areas, or to convert squatted lands, considered as “dead capital”, into a real-estate asset. Obviously, this program gets on with the neoliberal ideology of land tenure inspired by Hernando de Soto: poor people are poor because they live in informal areas; so, if they receive property title, they will have a start-up capital and enter the modern market economy. But this privatisation of land exposes people to the risk of being dispossessed by richer investors and evicted. At just hundreds of metres, Arab Gulf investors are already promoting prestigious urban projects and their investment frontier is menacingly moving forward: the land is cheap, and local politics are accommodating.

In part, dispossession is already occurring. Only the richest slum dwellers, or those with patronage networks, could get the property title of the land they were living on. But the others could not, because program experts and local civil servants said that they didn’t have the requested documents to prove to be inhabitants of the slum. So, the poorest and most marginal people of the slum have been resettled 15 kms south of the capital, in a dusty place without any facilities. There, they have been given a land property title, but they now ironically call their new quarter: “Sans fiche, sans photo”, that is “With no documents, no photos”. This trivial name metaphorically epitomizes the feeling of lacking something they have been unfairly dispossessed of.

In general, people reactions to this program are quite ambiguous.

On one hand, an embryonic political activity has appeared since the resettlement: dwellers regularly go and ask to the town hall for more facilities, or, thanks to some NGOs, they manage to make themselves heard by local authorities. They deploy ruse and all kinds of acumen to achieve their goals or bypass legal constraints.

On the other, these everyday forms of resistance come along with a deep depoliticization. Displaced people are now familiar with neo-liberal ideas: they now accept the “principle of private property” and adopt an ethic of “possessive individualism”, as Harvey calls it (Harvey, 1985: 42). Political links have been broken while local leaders, displaced in this remote area, are less influent. Getting new plots and paying off mortgages are dwellers’ priorities. They have turned away from national politics and debates. But most importantly, they are not really aware of the broader logic of international speculation, which is at the origin of their resettlement.


Land grabbing

Let me now skip to the second case. It is a recent news that international financial corporate groups have chose Mauritania among other countries as the recipient of a new strategy of capital investment. You may have heard about land grab. A Saudi financial corporation, the Foras International Investment Company, has bought hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Southern Mauritania. They have bought them directly from the State. In a country were land rights are not always clear between formal and customary property, the State sold a land it considered as waste, but which is in reality economically vital for local agro-pastoral activities. This is a clear case of dispossession, but the rational and the objectives of the investment are even trickier. As the slums upgrading in Nouakchott, land grab is a strategy fostered by the World Bank. In Washington, people think that African land acquisition by international groups could foster food production – but for export and not local consumption -, but also modernise local rural labour force and make of them modern rural workers and proletarians. This is a typical capitalist intervention. Karl Polanyi defined this as the ground-basis of capital development: the disconnection of labour force from their land and its transformation into a market value, into a spatially flexible factor of production[1].

Let’s now take a look at local communities reactions. They have come to mobilize against this land grabbing, by protesting against local state representatives, which has implemented the decision, and asking the central government to intervene and defend local communities’ activities. The problem is that State representatives are only intermediaries of a strategy, which is decided on the global level in Ryiad and Washington. It is striking to see from the echoes we had of these mobilisations, that a sense of inability and powerlessness emerge from people’s narratives, even if they are ready to struggle. For them, actors speculating on their lands remain “unidentified”: “our ancestral lands, they say, are given to unknown investors”.



Drawing from these empirical evidence, we can now formulate some general considerations about capitalism in the margins of the world and about local resistances to cope with it.

As we have seen, Capital expansion in marginal areas of the world advances also through land dispossession, speculation and consumption. This is at the basis of Harvey’s idea of a new spatial imperialism, where the plundering of lands and other common properties, as Laura Nader calls it, has replaced the exploitation of labour force as the main strategy of capital accumulation. Nevertheless, in strictly Marxian terms, this could seem a paradox. For Marx the capital relying on land ownership is an imperfect capital. For him, landed property (quote)

“is still afflicted with local and political prejudices; it is capital which has not regained itself from its entanglement with the world – capital not yet fully developed. It must achieve its abstract, that is, its pure, expression in the course of its world-wide development” (from Marx Manuscripts of 1844, emphasis on the original).

So, as regards to contemporary situation, we would expect this landed capital as still bounded to social constraints, spatial and time bonds, formal and informal legal norms, cultural values. In short, as it is enchained to locality, the capital should be accessible to political control.Nevertheless, while it is entangled with local realities, its dynamics of expansion shows that it works exactly as if it were unleashed. With the global spatial plasticity of the capital shown by Harvey, we rather see a complete unleashing of the capital, that perfect accomplishment, which Marx defined in this way:

“a cosmopolitan, universal energy which overthrows every restriction and bond so as to establish itself as the sole politics, the sole universality, the sole limit and the sole bond” (end quote).

Many postmodern critics of capitalism and globalisation has strongly insisted on the process of dematerialisation and then of spatial ubiquity of the capital, in particular with the new technologies and the hegemony of finance capitalism[2]. But the step further of the expansion of capital is to go back to what is the most concrete, material and natural (as the first Marx would put it), that is land for living and land for producing food.

So, here is the paradox. On one side, the Millennial Capitalism, as the Comaroffs call it, succeeds in evaporating as a global spectre.

(by, I quote, “disengaging from parochial loyalties and jurisdictions, thus to minimize the effect of legal regulations, environmental constraints, taxation and labor demands”).

On the other side, the capital expansion is now developing by coming back to the earth and targeting the basis of social and even natural life for local communities, even in the most marginal regions of the planet.

Drawing from these empirical cases, we see the political consequences of this paradox. Local communities have no possibilities for changing, controlling or even understanding the structural and global dynamics, although these affect them in their basic activities for survival. Their capacities to tactically cope with capital expansion clearly inspire hope in all of us for future political mobilisation of these multitudes. But their resistance now only seems to be a way to defend common properties and rights on the local level, a very spatial and social barrier to preserve some autonomy.

If we look at the cases of larger political mobilisation in present-day West Africa, it is striking to see that they particularly insist on the local, rather than criticising what is happening on a larger scale. We see, for example, the growing importance of “autochtony” in political discourse of marginalised communities, that is discourses of belonging to villages and communities of origin to protect territories. As a reaction to inaccessible and even hardly understandable events occurring on the global level, peoples are fomenting claims for local territorial identities and the revival of ethnic tensions in local politics competitions… so, I would be tempted to see in this localism a sort of false consciousness of problems which find their origins in a different geographical level. This is an issue of geography, but this is also a matter of consciousness and of politics.

Anthropological literature has extensively shown from subaltern people in the global South, that the global capitalism turns into a “spectre”: while it is a “presence” when incarnating locally with real and even tragic effects, it turns into a distant and inconceivable entity when asked to be politically accountable and socially managed. In Mauritania, some nomads call these forces “SukuñaaBe”, that is the spirits of the bush eating children souls. Politics becomes a way to interact with a ghostly presence. Small-scale, local, spontaneous and contingent forms of resistance turn into a way for exorcising crisis. Who is really accountable? Who can people protest or struggle against?

Coming to the conclusion, we think that our examples invite to reactivate the debate on subaltern forms of resistance in a globalised world in Gramscian terms. The gap between global capital and local resistance to cope with it asks for new forms of thinking and strategies to fill it. As Gramsci invoked, the question is how to transform what he called the crepuscular or subaltern forms of politics in an effective movement of counter-hegemony. And this is for me about the possibility of political movements, organic intellectuals and institutional representation, the only political instruments to fill the gap between local and global scales.

[1] See also Tania Li Murray, “Centering labor in the land grab debate”; Journal of Peasants Studies, Vol. 38, n. 2, March 2011.

[2] See for example the criticism made by anthropologist Karen Ho “Situating Global Capitalism: a View from Wall Street Investment Bank” or Liquidated: an Ethnography of Wall Street.

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