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On the survival of non-capitalism: from nowhere to now here

by Chris Hesketh on May 27, 2016

WoodMy latest article in Environment and Planning D examines the issue of non-capitalist space within the global political economy. Why is this important? A common starting point for radical critiques of our present society is to focus on the dynamics of capitalism. The rationale for this is simple: capitalism remains the dominant mode of production of our epoch and in order to move beyond this system you first have to get people to recognise the nature of its exploitation and contradictions. This argument is perhaps most eloquently framed by Ellen Meikins Wood who stressed that, ‘At a time when a critique of capitalism is more urgent than ever, the dominant theoretical trends on the left are busy conceptualising away the very idea of capitalism’.

However, an alternative view, associated largely with J.K Gibson-Graham and others linked to Rethinking Marxism, argues that focusing our attention solely on the dynamics of capitalism – what is termed ‘capitalocentrism’ – can become a highly disempowering political project. It is this type of thinking that I label ‘the assumption of subsumption’ whereby all forms of political economy, all other forms of cultural life, and all sites of socio-political activity are portrayed as being overwhelmed by – subsumed into – the dynamics of capitalism. No space is left (quite literally) for alternatives. Such capitalocentism elides the fact that multiple forms of economy – and therefore alternative development trajectories – JKGGexist contemporaneously with capitalism (and not just in a possible future). Gibson-Graham’s view holds that if theory is to play an emancipatory role in must ‘proliferate possibility, not foreclose it’.

Although recognising the structural power that capital is able to wield, the main focus of my recent article is therefore on the survival and re-creation of non-capitalist spaces within the global political economy.  The example of Oaxaca in southern Mexico is the primary basis for making these claims, linked to fieldwork that was carried out in 2008, 2009 and 2015. Rather than examining how it has been that capitalism has managed to survive, grow and prosper, the article explores how non-capitalist spaces remain and why they should be considered important for transformative activity. This is to ensure that capital does not become the main subject of our inquiry and that subsequently the human beings at the heart of our analysis are not rendered as people without history. Beyond the issue of their mere survival however, I argue that non-capitalist spaces persist and can be learned from. They are thus both figurative and prefigurative spaces offering sites of opening for enacting different kinds of political economy.

A key contention is that the survival and reinvention of non-capitalist social practices and spaces have created a barrier to the further expansion of capital, and are now providing inspiration for alternative developmental trajectories. This has presaged intensified forms of social conflict, notably between the Mexican state and indigenous peoples (as the state claims rights to the subsoil within indigenous territories).

An important intellectual inspiration for this work was Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui. He recognised that the driving force of Peru’s development had clearly come from colonisation and then global capitalism. Nevertheless, distinct spaces of economic activity, characterised by diverse social relations of production remained. Moreover, Mariátegui asserted that the survival of certain elements of the Indian communities could provide the basis for revolutionary transformation owing to the existence of what he called ‘practical socialism’. In similar fashion, it is asserted in my article that although Oaxaca is clearly enmeshed, or at least influenced by, the wider capitalist mode of production, distinct forms of non-capitalist social relations remain prevalent, especially within indigenous communities.

In a pamphlet issued by 3 prominent activist NGOsThen that form the basis of Colectivo Oaxaqueño en Defensa de los Territorios, it is stated that ‘it is precisely in Oaxacan territory where one can observe and study the survival of ancient agrarian structures’. Unlike other regions of Mexico, haciendas never expanded to displace communal property with such force. Unpacking this further, if we examine patterns of land tenure in Oaxaca we can see that over 70% of land to this day remains non-privatised and instead is held as forms of collective property (both ejidos and tierras communales) according to the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI). This matters considerably for the analysis for two interrelated reasons.  Not only does it provide the empirical backdrop of uneven development which capital seeks to exploit, by expanding into this ‘spatial target’ and thereby transforming space and social relations to further the accumulation process, but it also implies that the region has, and continues to maintain a set of alternative institutional arrangements that exist alongside capitalism and that are in the present conjuncture antithetical to capitalist expansion. These communal arrangements include community assemblies, tequios (collective work) and political obligations in the form of cargos (political posts) that community members are expected to participate it.

In recent years the community assembly has been recovered as a vital tool with which to enact a collective form of power over land and reject the advancement of capital. This has been most visibly manifested through opposition to wind farm projects and mining. To focus just on the latter, under the Presidency of Filipe Calderón, mining concessions increased by 53% in Mexico, and in Oaxaca 20% of the surface area of the state has been given over to mining concessions. These concessions have not simply been meekly accepted however. Rather, in numerous cases, the authority of the community assembly has been invoked to challenge not only the legitimacy of the concession (based on the legal appeal to ILO Convention 169) but furthermore the legitimacy of the Mexican state. Communities such as Capulalpam de Méndez and Magdalena Teitipac represent stories of success in restricting mining activities and demonstrating that other paths to development may be possible.

This obviously raises an important question about scale. Whilst we may applaud and support the resistance of a community against a powerful TNC, this alone does not challenge the structural power of capital. The conjuncture in 2006 in Oaxaca when the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO) was formed in response to the repressive governorship of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, demonstrates the limits of action restricted to one particular locale. What I contend rather more modestly in the article, therefore, is that these sites demonstrate the starting points for action, and questions that we need to pose rather than end points in themselves. It would be easy to dismiss them as marginal, but what happens in the periphery does not have to stay peripheral. Highlighting the continuation of non-capitalism offers an opening to reimagining how alternative socio-economic models could develop.

In contrast to what is sometimes the dominant imagery, resistance and transformative action is thereby moved from nowhere to now here.

Chris Hesketh
Chris Hesketh is Programme Lead for Politics, International Relations and Sociology at Oxford Brookes. He received his BA, MA and PhD all from the University of Nottingham. Before joining Oxford Brookes in 2012 he taught at the University of Nottingham and at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has an inter-disciplinary research agenda that combines political economy, the historical sociology of international relations, political geography, political theory and Latin American studies. These interests are captured in his monograph, Spaces of Capital / Spaces of Resistance: Mexico and the Global Political Economy (University of Georgia Press, 2017 in the Geographies of Justice Social and Transformation Series).

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