The political economy of indigenous societies

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Apr 20 18:03:14 MDT 2002

Robert Biel, "The New Imperialism" (Zed Books, 2000):

Resistance can arise not just in households or families, but also at
the level of organised movements. Grassroots protest can appear
negative, destructive, obstructive and bloody-minded. But what
colonialist anthropologists branded as primitivism was a stubborn
refusal to comprehend a profit-oriented rationale which indigenous
peoples correctly perceived as absurd. Against an invading economy
that gave value only to commodities, societies struggled to preserve
their way of life oriented to use-value. Sometimes colonial ventures
were met simply by withdrawal: a French scheme for founding settler
colonies in Indochina collapsed because the peasants retreated to the
hills and refused to work the land. Struggles were often consciously
directed against economic symbols of colonialism. Thus, in the
Maji-Maji uprising against the German colonial regime in Tanzania,
peasants defied their leaders' advice to continue cultivating cotton
and asked, 'How can we start a war? How can we make the Germans
angry? Let us go and uproot their cotton so that war may arise. Enemy
communications were also targeted, as they were seen as a symbol of
the extraction of raw materials. In India, peasant rebels encouraged
the smashing of railways which, even though they provided employment
opportunities, were viewed as a symbol of colonial enslavement. The
nineteenth-century Senegalese resistance leader Lat Dior Joob
concentrated his forces on preventing railway-building.

These strategies are not merely negative, but imply the defence of an
autonomous system of production and consumption; this emerged clearly
when there was a possibility of controlling territory. Maroon
communities in Jamaica were able to assert their independence not
just militarily but at the level of a functioning political economy.
In the Cauca region of Colombia from colonial times until the end of
the nineteenth century, this kind of movement was endemic. Using
crops such as plantain, the land could be productive according to a
non-capitalist logic of sustainability, with high yields in
proportion to energy inputs. Escaped slaves in many parts of the
Americas established self-governing communities with a functioning
political economy in all its aspects. What has been underestimated
until recently was the extent to which they collaborated and fused
with Native Americans to create a new political economy incorporating
techniques from both cultures. Although the above examples apply to
sparsely populated regions, a similar point could be made with
respect to the large area of China controlled by the Taiping
Rebellion (1851-64). Britain's massive plunder of resources extracted
such a surplus that the safeguards restricting exploitation within
the old Chinese social system collapsed. The ruling elites, who
reached a political agreement with the enemy, made the situation
worse by also squeezing the masses. Peasants responded by seizing
power over quite wide areas, and when they did so, they attempted to
restore the old economy geared to what local people needed to
consume; but since it was impossible to turn the clock back, they
worked out new methods, such as redistributing land and organising
different crafts in central workshops. The system worked, and it was
overthrown only by foreign intervention in collaboration with
domestic propertied classes.

Although seeking to restore the self-managed communities of the past,
these movements were also forward-looking because the situation had
changed. In so far as traditional rulers reached agreement with the
aggressors, they forfeited the right to represent the nation;
democratic elements took over, and in effect became the nation. The
restorationist aspect of popular struggles means the reassertion not
of a particular set of social practices, but rather of the basic
logic of traditional societies, with their sustainability and
production geared to need. Many writers of international economic
theory have attacked the notion that people should produce what they
need to consume and consume what they produce, and have argued
instead that specialisation and a heightened international division
of labour are more efficient. I will examine this more fully later,
but it should just be noted here that popular movements often find it
easier than economists to cut through the verbiage to the heart of
the issue: in the real world, international specialisation and
division of labour are usually exploitative.

Grassroots protest movements always seem to be 'there', ready to
flare up when conditions are right. In their ideologies, the
slave-outlaws of Latin America or the Taiping movement articulated
millenarian communistic ideas through a mixture of Christian and
traditional symbolism, for the spectre of communism was by no means
haunting only Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. But these
ideologies should not be viewed (as conservative elites sometimes
aver) as a foreign import; on the contrary, as Mariategui pointed out
(in the case of Peru), they have an indigenous basis in their concern
to preserve communitarian solidarity structures within traditional
societies. It might seem that the strength of these movements lies
precisely in their links with the communitarianism of the past, and
would wane once urbanisation and globalisation undermine these links.
But there is a significant counterargument, which I will take up
later, that trends to self-sufficiency can be reproduced within
capitalism, as a spin-off of the dualism that is an essential aspect
of accumulation. In this sense, the grassroots element can also be
'reborn' in an urban context whenever the official economy fails,
even in the North, where the element of continuity with
pre-capitalist practices is very weak. Official society can repress
these struggles, but cannot obliterate them.

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 04/20/2002

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