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Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty: Crisis, Resistance, and

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Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food
Mark Tilzey

Political Ecology,
Food Regimes, and
Food Sovereignty
Crisis, Resistance, and Resilience
Mark Tilzey
Coventry University
Coventry, UK

ISBN 978-3-319-64555-1 ISBN 978-3-319-64556-8 (eBook)

Library of Congress Control Number: 2017952327

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1 Introduction 1

Part 1 Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty 15

2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated, but

Differentiated, Theory of Socio-natural Dynamics 17

3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes 45

4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870:

The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 87

5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political

Productivist’ Food Regime (1930s–1980s) 127

6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism,

and the Emergence of Food Sovereignty 145

viii Contents

Part 2 Crisis and Resistance 195

7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis? 197

8 Crisis and Resistance: Reform or Revolution? 225

Part 3 Country Case Studies 249

9 Prelude to the Case Studies: The Agrarian Question

and Food Sovereignty Movements 251

10 Bolivia 263

11 Ecuador 275

12 Nepal 289

13 China 301

Part 4 Resilience as Counter-Hegemony 313

14 ‘Understanding the World in Order to Change It’:

What Might Food Sovereignty Look Like? Or, a 
Normative Political Ecology as Livelihood Sovereignty 315

References 351

Index 373

Over the last decade, capitalism has transmuted from its apparent
embodiment of ‘Prometheus unbound’ to a veritable Pandora’s box of
contradictions as it has encountered a series of mounting crises mani-
fested variously as financial, austerity, unemployment, poverty, food,
environment, energy, and climate. These manifold and increasingly all-
pervasive crises potentially threaten, whether severally or collectively, the
future of both humanity and non-human nature. As the twenty-first-
century unfolds, we pass therefore into an increasingly uncertain future
both economically and ecologically. Are these crises inter-linked, how-
ever, and, if so, how are we to understand the linkages? And do these
crises presage the demise of capitalism, or can capitalism overcome them?
This book asks questions that lie at the heart of these crises: how we are
to understand the relationship between capitalism and the environment,
capitalism and food, and capitalism and social resistance? These questions
coalesce particularly in the study of food regimes, the means by which
capitalism organizes the environment and people, primarily through
agriculture, to provision with food (and increasingly biofuels) its distinc-
tive system of ever-expanding production and consumption. In address-
ing the recent, ongoing, and inter-linked crises of food, fossil fuel, and

© The Author(s) 2018 1

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
2 1 Introduction

finance this book asks not only whether there are environmental limits to
capitalism and economic growth, but also whether there are political lim-
its, as peasants, indigenous people, and the globally burgeoning ‘precar-
iat’ resist the further commodification of their livelihoods and the poverty
which arise from capital’s necessarily uneven development. The book
does this by means of Political Ecology, an approach that offers not just a
new way of analysing capitalism, the environment, and resistance, but
also new, normative responses to current agro-ecological-economic crisis
(see Perreault et al. 2015 for discussion).
Political ecology, as developed and deployed in this book, attempts a
synthesis of the social and natural sciences by retaining the social specific-
ity of politico-economic systems whilst recognizing their inescapable bio-
physical constitution and dependencies. This book is distinctive,
therefore, in its emphasis upon the need for an integrated, but differenti-
ated, ontology of socio-natural relations, distinctive because it is an
approach that, in a recent, and comprehensive assessment of the field,
was not highlighted as one of the commonly defining commitments of
political ecology (see Bridge et al. 2015). Stated succinctly, political ecol-
ogy, as elaborated here, recognizes that social systems are, to a significant
degree, constituted by, and dependent on, biophysical affordances and
constraints, whilst insisting also that these affordances and constraints are
always mediated, and in fact partly constructed, by human social rela-
tions and power structures that are specific in time and space. This means
both that ‘nature’ is always mediated for humanity by social relations of
production and meaning, and that significant elements of ‘nature’,
although by no means all, are materially re-configured by those social
relations. Significant elements of ‘nature’ and of ‘society’ may be described
therefore as socio-natural hybrids. And here farming and food are per-
haps classic examples of hybrid ensembles of the natural and the social.
But significant elements of ‘nature’ continue to exist and function
‘beyond’ the influence of the social—thus basic physical and chemical
processes, for example, continue to operate irrespective of human influ-
ence. And some elements of human society possess ‘emergent properties’,
most particularly ‘meaning-making’ and the symbolic dimension under-
lying power dynamics, that are inexplicable in biophysical terms. This
means that approaches which employ ‘flat ontologies’ of the natural and
1 Introduction 3

social, in other words where the natural and the social are taken to be
‘hybrid’ throughout, lose explanatory specificity and power. Approaches
such as these, lacking ‘ontological stratification’, include Actor-Network
Theory (see Lave 2015) and the ‘world ecology’ theory of Moore (2015).
The book therefore develops a distinctive approach to political ecology,
based in critical realism, dialectics, and related strands of Marxian the-
ory,1 that helps us to understand the fundamental ecological underpin-
nings of society, but in a way that does not lose sight of the social agency,
political reflexivity, and meaning that underpin the temporal and spatial
specifics of power. The book therefore links the ‘ecological’ and the ‘polit-
ical’, or the ‘material’ and the ‘discursive’, dimensions of capitalism and
its food regimes. This helps us to appreciate that a key element of capital-
ism’s dynamic is the relationship between power, both material and dis-
cursive, and resistance. This means that capitalism is not the agent-less
juggernaut that is sometimes portrayed in food regime theory, but rather
an ‘agent-full’ series of political projects that advances or retreats accord-
ing to the relationship between material/discursive power of the hege-
monic class fraction and resistances to it, both from other capitalist class
fractions (sub-hegemonic fractions) and from non-capitalist fractions
(potentially counter-hegemonic fractions). This relationship of intra-class
and inter-class struggle takes the form variously of compromise and co-
optation (hegemony) and of opposition and suppression (domination).
And this relationship is seen to take place most importantly in and around
the state as perhaps the crucial nexus for struggle. In this way, resistance
does not just happen at the grassroots ‘without taking power’, as is often
asserted in the food regime literature (and often counter-posed to a ‘state-
less’ and ‘monolithic’ capitalism), but, more typically, takes place in and
through the state in ways that deny common assertions regarding the
latter’s demise and supersession during the course of the neoliberal era.
But it is important to emphasize here that, in this book, the state is not
considered to be the ‘impartial’ and wholly rational arbiter of competing
interests beloved of orthodox liberal theory, or a ‘thing’ that exists in
opposition to the ‘market’ as in neoclassical and Keynesian/Polanyian
theory, but is rather, as in Neo-Gramscian and Regulation Theory, seen
to be a capitalist state that is itself a social relation, the ‘condensation of
the balance of class forces in society’ (Jessop 2016). The book is also
4 1 Introduction

distinctive, therefore, in ‘bringing the state back in’ in its discussion of

resistance and food sovereignty.
The concept of food sovereignty is also central to this book. I will
argue, however, that this important concept, perhaps understandably, has
lost, or perhaps has never been accorded, the degree of precision that it
deserves. While it was arguably, even at its foundation in Latin America,
a contested concept, combining elements of national developmentalism
with post-developmental agroecology, food sovereignty as a concept has
become increasingly diffuse as it has been embraced by an expanding
array of class and class fractional interests. This is particularly evident as
it has diffused to the small and family farm sector in the global North. All
these increasingly disparate groups, North and South, are apparently
united in their opposition to neoliberal corporate power in the agri-food
sector. What the conceptual imprecision of food sovereignty disguises,
however, are the key differences between what Holt-Gimenez and
Shattuck (2011) have termed the ‘progressives’ and the ‘radicals’. While
the ‘progressives’, who comprise in the main small and family commercial
farms located differentially in the global North, advocate the localization
and ‘greening’ of food production and consumption networks, the ‘radi-
cals’ by contrast, who comprise in the main the subsistence peasantry and
wage labourers (the ‘classes of labour’ according to Bernstein (2010))
located differentially in the global South, advocate social relational change
through land redistribution and the re-gaining of appropriate access to
the means of production. Thus, while both groups contest the neoliberal
erosion of local markets, it is only the latter that adopts the anti-capitalist
stance of challenging ‘primitive accumulation’2 and market dependence.
In this book, I will identify the ‘progressives’ as representing sub- or alter-
hegemonic class interests, whilst equating the ‘radicals’ with counter-
hegemonic class interests. I will argue, crucially, that while ‘localization’
and ‘greening’ are important elements of food sovereignty, this concept
remains incomplete if it fails to confront the key social relational bases of
capitalism—‘primitive accumulation’, the alienability of land, and mar-
ket dependence. I will suggest, therefore, that if food sovereignty is to
realize its full potential, by necessarily contesting the ecological and social
contradictions of capitalism, it should embrace the counter-hegemony of
the ‘radicals’.
1 Introduction 5

The main themes and objectives of the book are as follows: (1) to pro-
pose political ecology as an approach that can coherently draw together
social and natural science to understand the socio-environmental dynam-
ics of capitalism and its relation to agriculture; (2) to apply the political
ecology approach to understand the key ‘internal’ and ‘external’ dynam-
ics surrounding capitalism’s food regimes and the current tripartite crisis
of finance, food, and fossil fuel; (3) focusing on food sovereignty, to anal-
yse responses and resistances to these dynamics and crisis, both ‘systemic’
and ‘anti-systemic’, and the zones of co-optation and compromise that lie
between the two; (4) to examine the experiences of food sovereignty in a
number of country case studies, and to draw from these lessons in the
dynamics of capitalism, the state, resistance, co-optation, and sustain-
ability; (5) through advocacy of counter-hegemony, to propose paths of
transition to more sustainable and resilient futures by addressing the key
contradictions of the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ dynamics of capitalism,
especially as exemplified by the country case studies.
Chapter 2 develops a distinctively Marxian approach to political ecol-
ogy, in particular by deploying a critical realist approach to the ‘social’
and the ‘natural’, and by articulating a critique of Moore’s ‘world ecology’
framework. The approach is termed ‘political ecology’ with good reason:
it understands the constitution and dependence of social systems on bio-
physical affordances and constraints (‘ecology’) only through the speci-
ficities of the ‘political’. And this ‘political’ dimension is a reference to
that term as deployed in the school of ‘Political Marxism’—the explana-
tion of social dynamics by reference to historically and spatially specific
power, class, and property relations. While Moore’s work contributes
valuably to our understanding of the essential biophysical and energetic
prerequisites of capitalism, and the way in which these underpin surplus
value generation and extraction, his ‘reductive’ dialectic and the notion of
the ‘double internality’, as a ‘flat ontology’, mean that he cannot capture
the key explanatory specificities of the ‘political’. While adept at identify-
ing the broad sweep of biophysical affordances and constraints that define
the parameters of the possible for capital accumulation, ‘world ecology’ is
a very blunt instrument when it comes to explaining the specifics of class
and social-property relations, and the vitally important relations between
particular states and capitalism. Thus, England and France, for example,
6 1 Introduction

exhibited very different politico-economic trajectories between the late

medieval period and the French Revolution, differences that can be
explained, given the similar ‘ecologies’ of the two countries, only by refer-
ence to particularities of the ‘political’ in each. But Moore elides such
differences by subsuming them within an assumed general shift in
Western Europe towards capitalism from the fifteenth century. In this
way, the chapter suggests that ‘internal’ political relations, while inti-
mately conjoined to, and significantly enabled by, the ‘external’ ecologi-
cal dimension, constitute the explanans and motive force underlying
social system dynamics in general, and capitalism in particular.
Chapter 3 illustrates this ontology of political ecology by reference to
the emergence of capitalism in the late medieval period, a phenomenon
specific to England rather than to Western Europe in general. The chap-
ter traces capitalism’s development and expansion, with particular refer-
ence to agrarian capitalism, through the specific politics of market
dependence, the ‘internal’ relation between the modern state and capital-
ism (the ‘state–capital nexus’ as I term it), and the relationship between
capitalism and imperialism. All these phenomena are enabled, but not
determined or explained, by capital’s particular metabolism with the
‘external’ ecological domain. This chapter takes the analysis of political
ecology and food regimes up to the emergence, from the 1840s, of what
I choose to call the ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime (1840–1870).
Chapter 4 then proceeds with an engagement with food regime theory
as articulated initially by Friedmann and McMichael (1989) and suggests
modifications to the theory through much more detailed reference to
intra- and inter-class struggle, and to the state’s role in performing legiti-
macy, as much as accumulation, functions. Here the chapter identifies
the relevance of Neo-Gramscian Theory and Regulation Theory to an
understanding of class and state dynamics, in particular the role variously
of hegemony and domination in class and class fractional contestation
and compromise. In particular, the relevance of the strategic relational
approach (Jessop 2005) to the understanding of structure and agency is
outlined. By way of a critique of Friedmann and McMichael’s seminal
1989 paper, then, I argue that their so-called First Food Regime was, in
reality, the ‘Second’ international food regime (the first being the ‘Liberal’
food regime as I term it), a regime that I prefer to nominate the ‘Imperial’
Food Regime (1870–1930). Discussion of these two international food
1 Introduction 7

regimes occupies Chap. 4. Chapter 5 then proceeds to analyse what, in

opposition to Friedmann and McMichael (1989), I prefer to call the
‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’ Food Regime (1930–1980). This focuses
on agrarian class and class fractional dynamics in what had by then
become the global capitalist hegemon, the USA, and here the analysis
draws extensively on the insightful work of Sheingate (2001) and Winders
(2009a, b) on farming interest group dynamics in that state, and their
impact internationally on ‘politically’ directed productivism.
Chapter 6 addresses the emergence of neoliberalism, the ‘new’ imperi-
alism, and the food sovereignty movement, the latter particularly with
reference to state-level dynamics. The modifications to food regime theory
suggested in the previous chapter are here applied to the initial appearance
of the ‘neoliberal food regime’ in the USA during the course of the 1980s
and its subsequent projection into the inter-state system, to be mediated
according to the specific constellation of class-based interests within states
and supra-state entities. These dynamics are detailed using the class-based
and strategic relational approach outlined in the previous chapter. Here I
emphasize the essentially imperialistic character of capitalism and its food
regimes, noting that, globally, capitalism exists as a broadly bipolar sys-
tem, comprising the imperium of the global North and the peripheries
and semi-peripheries of the global South. The beneficiaries of this global
system, including the ‘non-capitalist’ consumer classes, are located differ-
entially in the global North, while its ‘victims’, the new proletariat, semi-
proletariat, the peasantry, and indigenous peoples, all comprising the
‘subaltern’ classes, are located differentially in the global South. This
means that resistances to capitalism have tended, in the global North, to
be more effectively co-opted by means of legitimating ‘flanking measures’,
or ‘modes of regulation’, deployed by the state. As Wolf (1999, 278-279)
noted, ‘...success in plundering the world offset the internal dislocations
occasioned by conversion of [people], land, and money into commodities
within the homeland and gave citizens a stake in overseas expansion’.
Resistances in the global South, by contrast, have an immanent ten-
dency to assume more radical, and potentially anti-capitalist, forms. This
arises from the tendency, under neoliberalism and the 'new' imperialism,
for peripheral states to divest themselves of flanking measures and to
resort to rule through domination rather than hegemony. The loss of
legitimacy by the peripheral capitalist state amongst the subaltern classes
8 1 Introduction

(‘classes of labour’) has manifested itself in the upwelling of resistance,

initially amongst the urban and waged proletariat during the 1980s, and
subsequently amongst agrarian-based movements from the 1990s, in
Latin America particularly. These latter have been notable for their novel
inclusion of indigenous, gender, and environmental rights discourse
amongst more traditional concerns for peasant rights and land redistribu-
tion. In this, there is a clear trend towards the articulation by these agrar-
ian protest movements of a post-developmentalist3 discourse, encapsulated
in the Andean notion of buen vivir (good living). These Latin American
protest movements have exerted a strong influence on the emergence of
food sovereignty advocacy, both nationally and globally. In Latin America,
these agrarian-based, ‘counter-hegemonic’ movements have been paral-
leled by, and often imbricated with, claims for resurgent national sover-
eignty as a counter-narrative to neoliberal imperialism. In fact, these
national sovereignty claims, by so-called neo-developmentalist states,
have frequently appropriated food sovereignty and have tended to co-opt
counter-hegemonic movements into more conventional and reformist
agendas. I examine in detail the dynamics of food sovereignty resistance
and co-optation in a number of case studies in Chaps. 9, 10, 11, 12, and
13. Chapter 6 takes the analysis of capitalism and food regimes up to the
2007/8 financial and food crises.
Chapter 7 conjoins the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ dynamics of capitalism
and neoliberal food regimes through an analysis of the recent and ongoing
crisis of finance and food—in fact, a triple crisis of economic under-
consumption, environment/energy over-consumption, and food. The
chapter goes on to set out the spatiality of capitalism as a global centre-
periphery structure, one that underlies the dynamic of neoliberal global-
ization, the latter in turn underpinning the triple crises of social inequality,
economic under-consumption, and environmental over-consumption.
Social and environmental contradictions are seen to be systemic features
of capitalism with the latter, in particular, being an insoluble problem for
capitalism given its imperative to continuous and infinite growth. The
key dynamic of capitalism is the ability, or inability, to generate surplus
value and it is in this concept that the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ dimensions
of capitalism are conjoined, a conjunction that can be perceived fully
only through the optic of political ecology. This chapter specifies the
1 Introduction 9

linked ‘internal’ and ‘external’ causes of the current tripartite crisis as

either proximate or ultimate causes. It goes on to ask whether these are
crises that capitalism can overcome through adaptation (crises in capital-
ism) or whether the confrontation of environmental limits, most notably
peak oil and constraints on further fossil energy consumption imposed
by climate change agreements, together with consequent contestation
over land (biofuels versus food), signal a profound crisis for the capitalist
mode of production (crises of capitalism). More specifically, as an out-
come of this analysis, the chapter assesses whether neoliberalism is in the
throes of crisis, either of a ‘signal’, ‘developmental’, or possibly ‘epochal’
character. This chapter examines not just how crisis in the conditions of
production is generated, but also how, via the state–capital nexus, reflex-
ive responses to it are configured in the neoliberal centre-periphery struc-
ture. It therefore examines the nature and effectiveness of selected
neoliberal ‘flanking measures’ as responses to these crises, specifying sig-
nificant structural, because dialectically related, differences in these mea-
sures between the global North and South. It argues that characteristic
neoliberal forms of regulation/governance, such as market-based instru-
ments and devolved ‘community-based’ initiatives, either complement or
are ineffectual in mitigating the overarching logics of resource commodi-
fication and primitive accumulation, through ‘land grabbing’, that char-
acterize the current stage of capital accumulation. The chapter concludes
by suggesting that these inter-linked crises do represent an ‘epochal’, or
terminal, crisis of neoliberalism, although only a ‘developmental’ crisis of
(or crisis in) capitalism as a whole.
Chapter 8 examines, firstly, current reactions to the tripartite crisis on
the part of capitalism, or, more specifically, of the state–capital nexus,
that are happening in ways no longer wholly dominated by the neoliberal
paradigm. These actual responses include a (re-)turn to more regulated or
‘state-managed’ forms of capitalism such as neo-Keynesian ‘green new
deals’ and neo-productivism, combined with ecological modernization or
‘sustainable intensification’ in agriculture. These trends are already appar-
ent in recent reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy of the European
Union for example. Such trends in the Global North are mirrored by
‘neo-developmentalism’ or ‘neo-extractivism’ in the Global South, mani-
fested most clearly in the so-called pink tide in Latin American countries
10 1 Introduction

such as Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. This chapter examines

how and why neo-productivism and neo-developmentalism have come
to characterize key aspects of agrarian politics and policy in Europe and
in Latin America. The chapter goes on to assess the feasibility of these
policy initiatives both in terms of the ‘internal’ or socio-economic dynam-
ics, but more particularly in terms of ‘external’ or biophysical constraints,
emphasizing the ineluctable tension between capital’s imperative to
growth and the finitude of planetary resources. Secondly, and carrying
forward the narrative of Chap. 6, this chapter examines the relationship
between food sovereignty as a social movement and the adoption/imple-
mentation of food sovereignty principles by a number of states in the
global South, a process that I term the ‘state constitutionalization’ of food
sovereignty. The chapter explores how it has been possible for food sover-
eignty to become embedded in the constitutions of these states, and
whether this formal constitutionalization has led to the substantive social
relational changes (e.g., land reform) that will be required for the effective
implementation of food sovereignty. In most cases, this appears to have
been, and continues to be, a deeply contested process, with state-centred
capitalists and landowners embracing elements of food sovereignty dis-
course in the service of neo-developmentalism, whilst opposing its more
radical message of popular and devolved governance, sustainable liveli-
hoods based on solidarity and circular economies, and the subversion of
market dependence. At the same time, there appears to have been a
process of, at least partial, co-optation of counter-hegemonic movements,
as these ‘compensatory states’ have provided social welfare schemes and
market support for small farmers. This has tended to dull the radical edge
of counter-hegemony whilst, simultaneously, ‘embedding’ capitalism in a
Polanyian sense.
Chapters 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13 detail and exemplify the processes dis-
cussed in Chap. 8, the significant commonalities between the case studies
suggesting the reality of a bipolar (or possibly, with the rise of the BRICS
countries, now a tri-polar?) and imperialistic global capitalist system.
Significant differences between the case studies, however, in particular
between Ecuador and Bolivia, on the one hand, and Nepal, on the other,
suggest the enduring importance of state-level dynamics and spatial (‘eco-
logical’) specificity in defining the particularities of class, social-property
1 Introduction 11

relations, and political ecology. If this is the case even with respect to
‘small’ states such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nepal, it should be self-
evidently so in the case of China, probably the most influential member
of the new sub-imperium, and now a major determining influence in
political economic dynamics throughout much of the global South and
beyond. China, in particular, serves to underline the analytical signifi-
cance of the state–capital nexus, and of raison d’etat. The case studies also
serve to emphasize the enduring power of dominant classes, in, through,
and around the state, in their capacity to absorb, neutralize, or marginal-
ize the resistances of subaltern classes, such that the underlying social and
ecological contradictions of capitalism are not resolved, but rather legiti-
mated, deflected, or deferred through reformism. This raises questions as
to how counter-hegemonic movements, invoking food sovereignty, can
strategically avoid absorption, neutralization, or marginalization, under
what economic and ecological conditions this might occur, and what a
counter-hegemonic programme for social equity and ecological sustain-
ability might comprise.
These questions are addressed in the final, and concluding, chapter. It
is a chapter that attempts to outline a political ecology of praxis, the inte-
gration of the political and ecological lessons and principles drawn from
the preceding chapters into a programme of counter-hegemonic transfor-
mation—the great socio-ecological transformation of the twenty-first
century. The first part of the chapter explores at greater length the political
and ecological principles that might, or might need to, undergird a coun-
ter-hegemonic society premised on food sovereignty—or, as I will suggest
here, a society premised on the more integral concept of livelihood sover-
eignty. Indeed, the latter’s inclusivity seems to chime with the Andean
concept of vivir bien. A fundamental principle here, drawing together the
political and the ecological, is the proposition of ‘de- or no-growth soli-
darity’, wherein the ecological imperative to construct ‘steady-state’ econ-
omies in a world without fossil fuels is united with the political means of
obviating exploitation and growth through equality, co-operation, reci-
procity, and ‘commoning’. On the ‘ecological’ side of this equation, the
chapter focuses particularly on the principles of agroecology, exploring
the ‘scientific’ credentials of this approach and its claims to be able to feed
the world sustainably, equitably, and without recourse to fossil fuels.
12 1 Introduction

On the ‘political’ side, the chapter seeks to deconstruct the notions of

‘growth’ and ‘poverty’, in particular the orthodox assertion that the for-
mer is necessary to eliminate the latter. The assertion here, rather, is that
it is the redistribution of wealth, the elimination of exploitation, and
equality of access to the means of production that comprise the essential
elements of poverty eradication. This is simultaneously to politicize the
means to secure sustainability and resilience. And here, of course, poverty
and wealth require to be redefined according to qualitative criteria of
human and non-human well-being and need satisfaction. In this, the
rights and needs of non-human nature are seen to be as significant as
those of humanity itself. Capitalism and the modern state reify growth,
of course, because growth is essential to accumulation and to the power
of the state. And capitalism and the modern state attempt to legitimate
growth by claiming that poverty can be eliminated, and livelihoods
secured, only through this medium. In reality, of course, the capital–state
nexus creates the basis for poverty materially by sundering people from
their means of livelihood and by ensuring that people can access the
means of production only by selling their labour power to the capitalist.
And it reconstructs poverty discursively by redefining it according to
quantitative and monetary criteria, whereby its reduction can be assured
only through the accumulation of commodities.
The second part of this final chapter attempts to identify a strategic
perspective on possible elements of a path towards de- or no-growth
solidarity as livelihood sovereignty. Here the centrality of the state–capi-
tal nexus—modern sovereignty—as both the major obstacle but also,
through transformation, the means to secure livelihood sovereignty, is
emphasized. Needless to say, counter-hegemony will not be secured ‘top
down’, but neither will it be secured merely from the ‘bottom up’, ‘with-
out taking power’. Rather, a dual or double power strategy seems to be
required, in which material autonomy from the state–capital nexus is
expanded in the form of the solidarity economy and the commons, while,
concurrently, the modern state is transformed by counter-hegemonic
forces, its powers dispersed downwards, and its jurisdictional authority
exercised in implementing the social relational changes—land redistribu-
tion, support for agroecological production, and so on—necessary for
livelihood sovereignty.
References 13

1. In particular, ‘Political’ Marxism, Neo-Gramscian Theory, Regulation
Theory, and ‘Ecological’ Marxism.
2. ‘Primitive accumulation’ is the process of divorcing subsistence producers,
wholly or partially, from access to land and other resources in order to
make them available as a labour force for agricultural or industrial
3. Post-developmentalism emphasizes the need to secure social well-being
and poverty eradication not primarily through economic growth, but
rather through eradication of exploitation, the redistribution of produc-
tive resources, most particularly land, amongst the people, and the recon-
figuration of production according to ecological principles, such as those
founded on agroecology.

Bernstein, H. 2010. The Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change. Halifax: Fernwood
Bridge, G., J. McCarthy, and T. Perreault. 2015. Editors’ Introduction. In The
Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology, ed. T.  Perreault, G.  Bridge, and
J. McCarthy, 3–18. London: Routledge.
Friedmann, H., and P. McMichael. 1989. Agriculture and the State System: The
Rise and Decline of National Agricultures, 1870 to the Present. Sociologia
Ruralis 29 (2): 93–117.
Holt-Gimenez, E., and A.  Shattuck. 2011. Food Crises, Food Regimes and
Food Movements: Rumblings of Reform or Tides of Transformation? Journal
of Peasant Studies 38: 109–144.
Jessop, B. 2005. Critical Realism and the Strategic-Relational Approach. New
Formations 56: 40–53.
———. 2016. The State: Past, Present, Future. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Lave, R. 2015. Reassembling the Structural: Political Ecology and Actor-
Network Theory. In The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology, ed.
T. Perreault, G. Bridge, and J. McCarthy, 213–223. London: Routledge.
Moore, J. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of
Capital. London: Verso.
14 1 Introduction

Perreault, T., G. Bridge, and J. McCarthy, eds. 2015. The Routledge Handbook of
Political Ecology. London: Routledge.
Sheingate, A. 2001. The Rise of the Agricultural Welfare State: Institutions and
Interest Group Power in the United States, France, and Japan. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Winders, B. 2009a. The Politics of Food Supply: US Agricultural Policy in the
World Economy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
———. 2009b. The Vanishing Free Market: The Formation and Spread of the
British and US Food Regimes. Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (3): 315–344.
Part 1
Political Ecology, Food Regimes,
and Food Sovereignty
Political Ecology and Social Systems:
An Integrated, but Differentiated,
Theory of Socio-natural Dynamics

In the Introduction, I identified some of the multiplicity of inter-linked

crises caused, directly or indirectly, by late capitalism. In responding to
these many manifestations of crisis, there has, of course, been, within
academe, no shortage of research that has attempted to describe or, at
best, to attribute proximate causality to these diverse symptoms of the
social and biophysical malaise inflicted by, and to some extent inflicting,
late capitalism. Such efforts to describe, or ascribe proximate causality to,
these symptoms have been paralleled by policy recommendations and
prescriptions that, within the new ‘post-sustainability’ discourse of resil-
ience, attempt not so much to resolve, but rather merely to ameliorate
and mitigate, the socio-natural contradictions of capitalism in order to
secure the latter’s relational sustainability (Drummond and Marsden
1999; Tilzey and Potter 2008; Weichselgartner and Kelman 2014; Watts
2015). Moreover, within the prevailing imaginaries of bourgeois social
and natural science, this enterprise has typically been undertaken within
the dichotomous frameworks of anthropocentrism or social construction-
ism, on the one hand, and of ecocentrism, reductionism, or vulgar mate-
rialism, on the other (Foster et al. 2011). This hegemony within orthodox
scholarship of the pre-supposing antinomies of anthropocentrism and

© The Author(s) 2018 17

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
18 2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated,...

vulgar materialism has effectively hobbled understanding, most particu-

larly, of the causality underlying, and, therefore, of potential escape routes
from, the socio-natural crises that threaten to engulf us all unless compre-
hensive and expeditious countermeasures are undertaken.
In seeking to understand such causality, there remains an abiding need
to identify ‘the basic, structural causes’ of these crises (Peet et al. 2011).
We may point, in this regard, to the growing corpus of Marxian-based
scholarship which, over the last two or three decades, and inspired spe-
cifically by the need to articulate what may be termed a political ecology
of capital’s contradictory relationship with the biophysical domain, has
been successful in laying the foundations of an integrated theory of the
socio-natural (see, e.g., Burkett 1999, 2006; Castree 2005; Foster 2000;
Foster et al. 2011; Foster and Burkett 2017; Moore 2010, 2011, 2015).
This work, building on Marx’s consistent treatment of human produc-
tion in terms of the mutual constitution of its social form and material
content, eschews the binary of social constructionism and ecological
reductionism. It thereby retains the historical specificity of social systems
whilst recognizing, simultaneously, their inescapable biophysical consti-
tution and dependencies. In other words, we have in this corpus of work
the basis of a theory of socio-natural dialectics that throws light on social
system dynamics across both its historical and ecological dimensions.
This work complements those undertaken over a similar period by self-
styled ‘political ecologists’ (see, e.g., Peet and Watts 1996; Bryant and
Bailey 1998; Robbins 2012; Peet et al. 2011; Perreault et al. 2015), with
their focus perhaps not so much on the development of a general ontol-
ogy of socio-nature, as upon the relationships between politico-economic
structures and a range ‘environmental’ issues and changes in specific
spatio-temporal contexts—that is, the way in which particular political
economies have impacts upon their ‘environments’.
The chapter attempts to build on these foundations by combining the
above approaches and by giving particular attention to the further devel-
opment of an ontology of political ecology which, while of relevance to all
socio-natural systems, is deployed here with the specific purpose of theo-
rizing the relationship between capitalism and agriculture, and in later
chapters, the (re)current and inter-linked crises of food, the environ-
Developing a Political Ecology: An Integrated, but Differentiated... 19

ment/energy, and finance. In so doing, this chapter draws upon, and

attempts further to refine, in particular, the path-breaking scholarship of
Burkett and Foster in relation to Marx and ecology, and of O’Connor
(1991, 1998) in his conceptualization of the ‘two contradictions’ of capi-
tal. It pays especial attention to the work of Moore (2015) in his elabora-
tion of a ‘world ecology’ approach, arguing that while this contributes
significantly to our understanding of capital’s metabolism with the bio-
physical domain, it nonetheless compromises our understanding of cau-
sality by engaging in a ‘reductive’ dialectic from which political specificity
and reflexivity are evacuated.

Developing a Political Ecology: An Integrated,

but Differentiated, Theory of Socio-natural
In overcoming the pervasive binaries and reifications that characterize
orthodox social and natural science, our starting point is a dialectical
approach to reality (Ollman 2003). Dialectics refers to an ontology of
reality wherein the nature of entities can be understood only through
their necessary relationships and mutual constitutions. In this way, ‘parts
and wholes evolve in consequence of their relationship, and the relation-
ship itself evolves. These are the properties of things we call dialectical:
that one thing cannot exist without the other, that one acquires its prop-
erties from its relation to the other, that the properties of both evolve as a
consequence of their interpenetration’ (Levins and Lewontin 1985, 3). In
other words, entities possess internal causal relations rather than relations
of external causality. Furthermore, the mutual constitution (co-
production, co-evolution) of entities is entailed in their genesis and
reproduction as part of an interconnected (although often differentiated)
A secondary, but not necessarily universal, characteristic of dialectics is
that entities within a mutually defining relation may be in contradiction
to one another. This is true of most, and probably all, human socially
hierarchical, or class-based, systems (e.g., feudalism, capitalism) where
20 2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated,...

the constitution of one class (the exploiters) is defined by, and dependent
on, the constitution of another (the exploited). In these situations, surplus
appropriation (exploitation)—the political—simultaneously implies
appropriation from, and tendential contradiction with, the biophysical
domain—the ecological. This is so because, while the ‘political’ is the
means by which exploitation may occur, this can only be operationalized
through the medium of the biophysical domain. And if the accumulation
of surplus, by the exploiting classes, is the primary objective of exploita-
tion, this will tend to place strains on the biophysical domain. In ‘politi-
cal’ (i.e., socially reflexive) explanations of social change, such as I adopt
here, this dialectic (‘class struggle’) is taken to be the primary motive force
underlying both political (what I will term ‘authoritative’) and ecological
(what I will term ‘allocative’) dynamics, although it needs to be borne in
mind that the latter are conditioned by their own ontological character-
istics, these existing in significant respects independently of human
actions on them. This dialectical stance may be characterized by an adap-
tation of the well-known Marxian aphorism: ‘People make history but
not in (political and ecological) conditions of their own choosing.’ I will
also refer to this model of structure and human agency as ‘structured
Another philosophical pillar supporting our ontology of political ecol-
ogy, and allied closely to dialectics, is Critical Realism (Bhaskar 1993;
Ollman 2003). Critical realism is a philosophical or scientific method
that substantiates the characteristics that a dialectical reality or ontology
might possess and the forms of knowledge (epistemology) that might be
best suited to apprehend such reality. The existence of the real (extra-
discursive) world is crucial in critical realism, but its adherents do not
claim to have direct access to it. Instead they rely on a method known as
retroduction (Sayer 1992)—what must the world be like for ‘x’ to hap-
pen? Here, knowledge of the real world is never theoretically innocent,
since the starting point for inquiry is discursively constituted. Discursive
constitution (semiosis) suggests an ontological differentiation between
the social and the natural, since the dynamics of human society are shaped
by, indeed explained by, meaning-making to an unprecedented degree
vis-à-vis non-human nature. Critical realism synthesizes multiple deter-
minations, identifies the underlying real mechanisms, and connects them
Developing a Political Ecology: An Integrated, but Differentiated... 21

to actual and empirical aspects of the explanandum (i.e., the phenomenon

to be explained).
Critical realism posits that the real world is stratified into different lay-
ers and regions that require different concepts, assumptions, and explana-
tory principles corresponding to their different emergent properties or
powers, these powers demanding new and distinctive modes of analysis
in respect of the ‘layer’ of reality in which they emerge. In addressing the
issue of human social systems and extra-human nature, critical realism
stratifies the degrees of ontological hybridity between these entities. The
key emergent powers of human nature appear to comprise two closely
related features, the one flowing from the other. The first, and prior fea-
ture, is the quite unique flexibility in human social co-ordination of
activity that is made possible by symbolic communication or semiosis
(Benton 1994; Sayer 1992). This emphasizes the place of symbolic com-
munication in the co-ordination of social practice as a key feature of
humanity’s natural history as a species. It is also to emphasize the fact that
symbolic communication underlies the ‘politics’ that define the specific-
ity of social relations and modes of exploitation that, in turn, define social
interaction with the biophysical domain—in other words, political ecol-
ogy. The second feature is the human capacity reflexively to regulate or
monitor (or not to regulate or monitor) our activities in accordance with
normative rules or principles, or indeed to change those normative rules
and principles in response to ‘internal’, ‘political’ pressures, or to ‘exter-
nal’ biophysical pressures. This means that social reflexivity is a vitally
important ingredient in attempting to understand ‘political’ and political
ecological dynamics; it also means that scientific ‘laws’ (even of a non-
positivistic kind) when applied to humanity can only ever, at most, be
tendencies. Collective learning and reflexive monitoring render them sus-
ceptible to intentional modification and conscious adaptation in a way
which is quite unique to humanity (Benton 1994). It should be clear, as
a consequence, that without ontological stratification (emergent proper-
ties) between humans and extra-human nature there can, amongst other
things, be no critique, no ecological ethic, and no socio-reflexive transi-
tion to sustainability. And this is because humans possess certain emer-
gent properties (reflexivity, consciousness, semiosis, morality) that have
no real equivalence in extra-human nature.
22 2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated,...

It is important to emphasize, however, that humanity remains an

organic species, embodied, sexually reproducing, subject to the organic
requirements of food, clean air, shelter, and so on, such that our unique-
ness in respect of certain emergent powers by no means lifts us out of the
order of nature. We remain both unavoidably organically embodied and
ecologically ‘embedded’. Nonetheless, human distinctiveness does have
one overarching corollary of direct relevance to our definition and under-
standing of political ecology. Humanity has a quite unique capacity to
enhance the carrying capacity or productive capacity of the biophysical
domain, most obviously perhaps of land, but also of course, water and
other media, generally in order to produce more desired outputs—most
obviously, food—in order to meet the requirements of the social system.
Indeed, the very origins, and ongoing intensification and specialization,
of agriculture, are the result of this unique capacity. What is important to
appreciate, however, is the nature of the motive force underlying the
deployment of this capacity. And, while immanent in all societies, it is a
capacity only deployed by selected social systems where there is an urge
to increase surplus. The urge to increase surplus derives, not from any
universal Malthusian principle of assumed and inevitable population
growth, or from any inherent impulse to develop the ‘forces of produc-
tion’ (if this were so, there would be universal pressure to increase pro-
ductive capacity, which is not the case1), but rather, and only in specific
spatio-temporal circumstances, from the demand for surplus by exploit-
ing classes, in order to enhance their wealth and prestige. In other words,
it is the class relation, or social-property relation, between exploiters and
exploited that determines the demand, and specific nature of that
demand, for surplus generation—that is, the political logic underlying
demands for increased productive capacity in the biophysical domain,
and underlying the stresses placed potentially upon it, constitutes the
explanans (causality). The political dynamic of social-property relations
constitutes the prime mover, while the biophysical domain enables or
constrains, and becomes in varying degrees transformed through, the
realization of this socially specific logic. Thus, while conjoined, it is the
political (social history) that affords the principal motive force underly-
ing political ecological dynamics as the differentiated unity of social and
natural history.
Developing a Political Ecology: An Integrated, but Differentiated... 23

This exposition of a dialectical and critical realist approach to the socio-

natural (and recognizing that there are ontological regions which are not
social [not human-determined], and not natural [not shared with non-
human nature]) accords closely with the path-breaking scholarship of
Burkett (1999, 2006) and Foster (2000) in their articulation of a Marxian,
indeed Marx’s own, conceptualization of the social and the natural. Thus,
Burkett (1999) identifies a key theoretical tenet that seems to express the
central relevance of the Marxian approach—the joint historical and mate-
rial constitution of society and the combined historical specificity and
material limits of human production—to the analysis of socio-natural
dynamics presented in this chapter. This tenet proposes an integrated, but
not reductive, theory of social (accumulation) dynamics (i.e., the demand
for surplus) as materially predicated upon nature’s affordances and con-
straints,2 but explicable only by reference to the specificities of socio-polit-
ical interactions (i.e., social-property relations). It thus entails material and
social specification, requiring that analysis be consistently social and mate-
rialist. On the one hand, it suggests that social-natural relations should be
conceptualized as being socially mediated in historically specific ways, thus
avoiding crude materialist conceptions of social reality as being naturally
predetermined—the ecocentrism and vulgar materialism referred to at the
beginning of the chapter. On the other hand, it should eschew a social
constructionist view of one-sidedly emphasizing the role of social forms in
shaping human dynamics, and in viewing nature as possessing no certain
existence outside social conceptions of it, to the neglect of the material
content of these forms as enabling and constraining the ‘conditions of pro-
duction’ underpinning the generation of surplus. Further, and harking
back to our discussion of dialectics, this entails the use of relational holism,
involving the use of a holistic, yet differentiated and relational, approach to
the structures of human production, power, and their extra-human, mate-
rial prerequisites. Relational holism enables us to treat the material and
social features of human production and power as mutually constituted
whilst comprising a differentiated whole. As Lucio Colletti has suggested:

We can now understand how this unity of economics and sociology, of

nature and history, does not signify an identity between the terms. It
involves neither a reduction of society to nature, nor of nature to society…
24 2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated,...

But we can also understand, conversely, how the avoidance of these two
universal antitheses is due precisely to their organic composition, i.e., to
their unification in a whole. This whole is a totality, but a determinate
totality: it is a synthesis of distinct elements, it is a unity, but a unity of
heterogeneous parts. (Colletti 1972, 13–14)

This tenet enables us to establish some universal principles of a socio-

natural ontology—that is, principles that are not specific to capitalism
but to all social systems. Thus, nature is necessarily integral to social sys-
tems—they are therefore socio-natural systems—both in terms of the
way that nature comprises an inherent, material, element of the produc-
tion/accumulation process as the ‘conditions of production’, and in terms
of the way nature is impacted upon sustainably, or unsustainably, by that
production/accumulation process. In other words, social systems do not
merely have ecological regimes; they are ecological regimes (see Moore
2010, 2011). Reflexively, however, the socio-natural structures of interac-
tion are monitored and modified by human agents in co-evolutionary
fashion—where sustainable co-evolutionary relations of non-class societ-
ies are subverted by pressures to accumulate surplus tied to processes of
social hierarchization and class dynamics, the resulting environmental
contradictions may, in varying degrees, be the subject of regulation or
management designed, successfully, or unsuccessfully, to mitigate
contradiction whilst attempting to sustain accumulation. There is, there-
fore, a clear need to incorporate nature, both materially and in its discur-
sive, symbolic mediations, into any comprehensive understanding of
social system dynamics.
Because social systems are heterogeneous wholes, however, there is also
a need to specify the internal ‘political’ logic or dynamic of social rela-
tions, this being, as we have seen, an emergent property of social systems
and therefore irreducible to extra-human nature (see Bhaskar 1989;
Benton 1994). Social systems and the accumulation process always have
material prerequisites as ecological surplus3; however, while the dynamics
of any social system are inherently dependent on ecological prerequisites,
they are not fully, or even partially, explicable in those terms. There exists
a ‘semi-autonomous’ internal, political dynamic that is irreducible to the
ecological affordances of the system. In other words, socio-natural systems
Developing a Political Ecology: An Integrated, but Differentiated... 25

are characterized by ontological stratification (Carolan 2005). To the

extent that any social system is a materialization of social nature’s affor-
dances and constraints—and the dynamic of social nature’s affordances
and constraints always finds expression in and through social forms (e.g.,
whether through decreased capacity to extract surplus value or the need
for increased capitalization)—this dynamic is enabled or conditioned,
but not determined, by those affordances and constraints. The parame-
ters of such enabling and conditioning ecological prerequisites may well
be of an amplitude sufficient to allow for a variety of social dynamics, the
specificities of which can only be explained politically. A failure to iden-
tify this differentiated unity, or ontological stratification, in socio-natural
systems leads to reductionism on the one hand, and social construction-
ism, on the other. By way of illustration, the former is akin to Podolinsky’s
attempt to ‘express economic conditions in terms of physical measures,
pure and simple’ rather than, in line with the political ecological ontology
developed here, attempting to understand the undoubted relevance of
ecological energetics to socio-natural dynamics, but in a way that is medi-
ated through society’s specific political structures of power (see Burkett
and Foster 2008 for an extended critique of Podolinsky). The latter, of
course, assumes that nature possesses no certain extra-discursive reality.
This ontology of differentiated unity in social systems is analogous to
O’Connor’s (1998) conceptualization of the two contradictions of capi-
talism (discussed in greater detail below) to the extent that O’Connor
conceives the first contradiction as ‘internally’ configured social relations,
for example, the power of capital over labour,4 whilst the second relates to
the socially mediated impacts of biophysical affordances and con-
straints—the conditions of production—on accumulation. While the
two contradictions are often closely imbricated and in practice difficult to
differentiate, it is possible, nonetheless, to conceive in principle of social
relational contradictions ‘that have nothing to do with the conditions of
production’ (O’Connor 1991).
In this way, the ontology developed here differs from that of Moore
(2010, 2011, 2015), for example, who, despite an in-many-ways-
convincing attempt to overcome the society-nature binary through a
socio-natural dialectic of ‘world ecology’, in the final analysis collapses
social system dynamics into O’Connor’s second contradiction alone,
26 2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated,...

with insufficient regard to the social specificities of, and the political logic
underlying, accumulation, or of agency, reflexivity, and indeed semiosis,
as implied by the first contradiction. Social systems are indeed ecological
regimes, as Moore invaluably suggests, but they are also more much than
this, since the ecological does not determine or explain the specificities of
social form, of social-property relations. In other words, the social
metabolism with nature always takes place through socially specific rela-
tions such that, while the biophysical and the social are indeed conjoined,
it is the latter that determines the character of social form as an ‘internal’,
political dynamic. At the same time, the specificities of social form do not
determine the causal mechanisms of intransitive nature, although they
may, and do, influence their operation or actualization in specific
Moore (2015) rightly counterposes Cartesian dualism with a dialecti-
cal approach. Unfortunately, the dialectic he articulates, the socio-natural
‘bundle’ as his so-called double internality, is ontologically flat and uni-
tary, with all relational ‘parts’ being equally efficacious, having equal
causal power and agency, and being equally hybrid. Thus, all ‘parts’ are
equally socio-natural hybrids, even though we know that large parts of
nature operate outside human causal powers, and some elements of
human nature (semiosis, consciousness, reflexivity) have no real equiva-
lence in the rest of nature. The question of ontological stratification and
the particular nature and efficaciousness of human agency are thus not
seriously broached in Moore’s approach. Moore thus starts with the ‘bun-
dle’ and accords it ontological priority rather than seeking to understand
the differentiated causal ontologies that make up the ‘bundle’. Moore
seems not to appreciate that dialectics does not mean that everything has
ontological ‘oneness’ within the ‘bundle’. Rather, dialectics means that
differentiated ontologies are mutually defining and co-constitutive, not
that they are the same thing. Moreover, and crucially, there can be differ-
ent ‘weightings’ of causality within the ‘bundle’ of relations, something
that can be related usefully to Ollman’s (2003) ‘levels of generality’. This
seems equivalent to the notion of ontological stratification, in which, as
we have seen, there are emergent properties or powers, a key proposal of
critical realism.
Developing a Political Ecology: An Integrated, but Differentiated... 27

This relationship between the conjoined material and social elements

of politico-economic systems may be further explicated by reference to a
differentiation between ‘allocative’ and ‘authoritative’ power (see, e.g.,
Lacher 2006). While allocative power refers to control over elements of
biophysical nature such as land, food, and resources, and through these,
control over people, authoritative power refers to ideational, discursive,
or ‘non-material’ forms of control, such as prestige, status, and discourse—
in short, semiosis. Again, while allocative power is never ‘pre-social’ and
always presupposes, and derives from, authoritative power, the latter may
be exercised without obvious recourse to the biophysical dimension.
Together, allocative and authoritative powers represent the contradictions
and ‘prodictions’ generating and constraining socio-ecological change.
Moore’s ‘world ecology’ ontology correctly conceptualizes the allocative
component as the intimate conjunction of human and non-human bio-
physical nature, and is therefore partly effective in explicating that ele-
ment of socio-ecological change attributable to biophysical affordances
and constraints. What is lacking even here, however, is a recognition that
allocative power derives its logic from the authoritative, or political,
domain. Moore’s approach does not, therefore, identify the vital and
explanatory role of authoritative power, or semiosis, in socio-ecological
change. Authoritative power, in its allocative dimension, is enabled, but
not determined, by socio-ecological parameters. In other words, ‘world
ecology’ cannot be an exhaustive account of socio-ecological change in
politico-economic systems. For such an exhaustive account, we need,
rather, a cultural political ecology, for the same reason that Sum and
Jessop have recently articulated a cultural political economy (see Sum and
Jessop 2013). Here, the ‘cultural’ refers specifically to semiosis.
These stratified ontological relations between the political or ‘authori-
tative’ logic underlying social change, and the feasibility of realizing this
logic through the ecological or ‘allocative’ region as surplus generation,
based on socially mediated productive capacities flowing from the bio-
physical domain, are illustrated below. This ontological stratification
bears some similarity to Ollman’s ‘levels of generality’ (Ollman 2003) and
comprises strata of emergent properties in relation to any particular
‘resource’—stratified, sometimes hybrid entities, for example, oil, soil,
water, species of flora, fauna, and so on, that comprise both ‘natural’ and
28 2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated,...

‘social’ dimensions, depending upon the ‘level’ in question. For Moore

(2015), by contrast, there can be no differentiated levels since reality is a
‘double internality’ of inter-penetrating and all-encompassing hybrid

• Level 1: An entity’s extra-human reality, for example, H2O exists (as a

chemical compound) independently of our conceptual and material
manipulations of it. This is a non-hybrid level;
• Level 2: H2O possesses a trans-historical significance for humans (and
all life) as a use value essential for life. This is a hybrid (socio-natural)
• Level 3: H2O is subject to historically specific, for example, capitalist,
material ‘allocative’ manipulations directed both to meeting subsis-
tence and the appropriation of surplus by emergent classes—water
assumes a hybrid form, a combination of natural and social dimen-
sions, as it is manipulated quantitatively and qualitatively by social
systems. Historically determinate technologies define its qualitative
and quantitative aspects—it is a socio-natural hybrid, with productive
capacity (‘limits’) defined by the combined operation of social and
natural history; this provides the affordances and constraints enabling
the realization of accumulation dynamics; here political dynamics of
accumulation and resistance operate at the level of the ‘allocative’;
• Level 4: Here political dynamics of accumulation and resistance
operate at the level of the ‘authoritative’, and provide the ‘political’
logic and rationale underlying these dynamics’. This is a non-hybrid
level and the level at which we should seek ‘structural causality’.
Pressures for surplus generation deriving from this level then materi-
alize at Level 3 (above), encountering socially mediated productive
capacities which either enable or constrain further surplus produc-
tion and appropriation.

In this model, causality therefore arises in Level 4 as a result of ‘inter-

nal’ spatio-temporally specific social-property relations. As these social-
property relations attempt to reproduce or expand surplus production on
Political Ecology and the Capitalist Mode of Production 29

which they depend, there is an inevitable impact upon (socially medi-

ated) productive capacity in Level 3. Where attempts to reproduce, or
expand, productive capacity in Level 3 encounter constraints deriving
from the biophysical domain, the resulting contradictions may be
described as ‘external’. Such ‘external’ contradictions, expressed initially
as allocative stress, are then refracted back into Level 4 and are manifested
increasingly as strained political relations in the authoritative domain.
Where these strained political relations simply reinforce existing modes
of surplus extraction in Level 3 and fail to enhance productive capacity,
the social-property relations may stagnate and eventually collapse into
less hierarchical social systems. Where they are able, by contrast, to induce
new social-property relations in Level 4 tied to innovative ways of expand-
ing productive capacity and surplus extraction in Level 3, hierarchy, class
relations, and exploitation may be reinforced and taken to new levels.
This latter scenario is what appears to have occurred in the transition
from feudalism to capitalism in late medieval England. I will examine
these political ecological dynamics of the transition to capitalism in the
next chapter. Before so doing, however, I wish to specify what it is about
capitalism that marks it out in terms of its social-property relations and
its capacity to induce ecological and social contradictions on a world

Political Ecology and the Capitalist Mode

of Production
I now want to specify the socio-natural dynamics of the capitalist mode
of production and to explain why contradictions, of the first and second
kind identified above, are inherent, rather than contingent, features of its
unique social-property relations. The basic dynamics of capital’s socio-
natural relations are laid out by means of a critical interrogation of
Moore’s ‘world ecology’ approach, noting again that while he successfully
and innovatively captures the broad thrust of these dynamics at Level 3
above, his theory is incapable of explaining the spatio-temporal specifici-
ties of political change due his neglect of Level 4.
30 2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated,...

The key concept defining capitalism is market dependence, marking its

birth under quite specific and unique spatio-temporal conditions (see
Brenner 1985; Lacher 2006; Teschke 2003; Wood 2002, 2009; Dimmock
2014). Market dependence is predicated, on the one hand, on the full, or
partial, expropriation of surplus producers from their means of produc-
tion—a process involving the dispossession of the peasantry and enclo-
sure of common land, thus enforcing the sale of labour power to capital.
It also entails, on the other hand, the conferral on capitalists, by the state,
of absolute property rights in the means of production, a feature unique
to capitalist social relations. The obverse of this condition is the alien-
ability of assets, including land, via the medium of the market. This has
the following, vitally important implication that underlies capitalism’s
uniquely expansionary and destructive dynamic: since not only is the
surplus alienable, as in all class societies, but also the means of produc-
tion, perhaps most importantly land, a surplus expropriator (the capital-
ist) must compete with other appropriators in order to reproduce his/her
social position, since he/she has no extra-economic right to his/her prop-
erty. It is this condition for survival, founded on these historically specific
social-property relations, which creates the drive to maximize profit, to
accumulate, to compete with other capitalists, and to keep social and
environmental costs to a minimum (i.e., to ‘externalize’ these costs)
(Tilzey 2016b).
Marx (1972) recognized that market dependence arose from what he
termed ‘original’ or ‘primitive accumulation’, a process culminating in
the enclosure movement of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain,
and subsequently extended on a global scale through colonization and
imperialism. In this process, the peasantry and indigenous peoples were
expropriated from their direct and customary access to the means of live-
lihood and subsistence, a process that not only continues today, but is
also accelerating in the global South, particularly. This ongoing process of
dispossession and (semi)-proletarianization forces producers to become
‘free’ wage labour in order to survive.5 This process is a fundamental ele-
ment underpinning the genesis and reproduction of capitalist social rela-
tions. It is unsurprising, therefore, that it has been associated historically
with profound contestations surrounding access to land (and water and
other resources) as the basis of the means of production. Today, as the
Political Ecology and the Capitalist Mode of Production 31

‘new' imperialism continues the process of enclosure, primarily in the

global South, dispossession and (semi) proletarianization are reflected in
diverse and ongoing struggles over the conditions of livelihood.
It is essential to understand, therefore, that, at its core, the social repro-
duction of capitalism involves the process through which people are dis-
possessed of their means of livelihood, generating the compulsion to
depend on the market for subsistence and survival. Capital inserts itself,
via a state-supported, mandated, and frequently violent process of expro-
priation, between people and their access to the means of livelihood.
Capital’s ambition is to deepen and extend this new market dependence
through the progressive commodification (enclosure and the generation
of the ‘scarcity’ beloved of neoclassical economists) of resources essential
for livelihood, often formerly held in common. Those seeking to stop this
process, to regain control of their land and resources, and to expose capi-
talism not as ‘natural’, but as a state-supported and politically conscious
process of dispossession (Perelman 2000), are attempting to articulate
and construct alternative forms of society that have anti-capitalism as
their common denominator. (I will discuss these ‘counter-hegemonic’
movements in later chapters.) ‘Primitive accumulation’, and the genera-
tion of market dependence through the commodification of labour, thus
constitutes the essence of capitalism, and inscribes into it a socially and
ecologically unsustainable trajectory.
This new relationship between capital and ‘free’ labour that emerged
first in England from the fifteenth century, thus inscribed into capital’s
‘metabolism’ (i.e., material and energy flows from one individual or col-
lective to another) a growth imperative that is dysfunctional in relation to
both social and ecological use values.6 The ‘externalization’ of use values
beyond the pale that delimits capital’s unerring focus upon exchange
value7 arises from human labour’s constitution as the sole source of sur-
plus value, the means by which capital accumulation proceeds.8 This sin-
gular focus upon human labour valorization implicates the exclusion of
environmental and social considerations from capital’s narrow metric of
efficiency, defining the oppositional relation between accumulation and
socio-ecological sustainability (Tilzey 2002, 2006). In other words,
capital under-reproduces its own ecological and social conditions of pro-
duction. This defines the relationship between the zone of exploitation/
32 2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated,...

capitalization (the tip of the iceberg of socio-nature that capital ‘pays for’)
and the zone of appropriation (the hidden mass of the iceberg that capital
gets as a ‘free gift’ from socio-nature and which subsidizes capital accu-
mulation by lowering the cost of labour). Market dependence, entailing
class relations between capital and ‘free’ labour, is thus the wellspring of
socio-natural contradiction under capitalism. It is important to appreci-
ate, however, that while capitalism generates contradictions for the
labouring classes and for the biophysical domain throughout its history,
these contradictions may be refracted back onto the capitalist class as
‘internal’ (political or ‘first’) and ‘external’ (biophysical—the conditions
of production—or ‘second’) contradictions (O’Connor 1998).
Where these contradictions are generated by capital but impact only
the ‘classes of labour’, I refer to them as ‘contradictions of capital’; where
they beset capital in turn (a sort of ‘blowback’), I refer to them as ‘contra-
dictions for capital’. Thus, in order to sustain capital accumulation, capi-
tal inevitably eats away (or self-depletes) the reproduction of its physical
and social underpinnings. Such tendencies generate contradictions of
capital for socio-nature felt with immediacy by non-capitalist classes and
their environments. But, over time, these contradictions of generate con-
tradictions for capital, either directly within the capital-labour relation or,
indirectly, via the medium of the state within which capitalism emerged
and with which it has co-evolved. Such reactions by the state, in the form
of policies and regulatory systems, attempt typically to sustain capital
whilst mitigating the most severe of its contradictions. It is often the case
that capital attempts to limit such regulation, but this response only gen-
erates further self-depletion, and so on (see, e.g., Biel 2012). With respect
to ‘internal’ and ‘external’ contradictions, these, as suggested above, are
complexly imbricated, with external contradictions invariably expressed
socially as internal contradictions; the opposite, however, does not appear
necessarily to hold, hence the necessity to sustain the notion of ‘differenti-
ated unity’.
In addressing the biophysical dimension of capitalist socio-property
relations, it is possible to specify two inter-related concepts, deriving
from Marx (1972), that characterize the key dynamics of Level 3 and
come to constitute the ‘second’ contradiction for capital: the treadmill of
production; and the metabolic rift. The treadmill of production describes
Political Ecology and the Capitalist Mode of Production 33

capitalism as an unstoppable and accelerating treadmill that constantly

seeks to increase the scale of throughput of energy, food, and raw materi-
als as a result of its competitive impulse for profit and accumulation
(deriving from Level 4), thereby, through increasing entropy9 of the sys-
tem (Biel 2012), exerting an ever-enhanced pressure on the earth’s gen-
erative and absorptive capacities (Foster 2009). The metabolic rift (see
Fischer-Kowalski 2000; Schneider and McMichael 2010; Moore 2011)
describes capitalism’s consequent degradation and destruction of the
human and natural conditions of production on which its economic
advancement, through the treadmill of production, is predicated. Such
degradation and destruction generates a rift in the metabolism between
society and (socio-) nature, ultimately severing basic processes of (socio-)
natural reproduction. The metabolic rift is a direct consequence of the
treadmill of production, such that the two are dialectically related. In
other words, the contradictions of capital for socio-nature are the unavoid-
able counterpart of accumulation. A key question, however, is: while the
metabolic rift is a structural feature of capitalism throughout its longue
durée, at what point(s) does the metabolic rift begin adversely to affect
the ‘treadmill of production’—that is, to slow down capital accumulation
and, thereby, to become a contradiction for capital?
Building on Marx’s theory of underproduction crisis (Marx 1972),
which holds that the rate of profit is inversely proportional to the value of
raw materials, Moore (2010, 2011, 2015) has argued convincingly that
all great waves of capital accumulation are predicated on the ability to
generate expanded ecological surplus (high entropy) as manifested in
cheap and plentiful food, energy, and inputs, such that the metabolic rift
is constitutive of the capitalist mode of production. Such inputs need not
only to be abundant to feed the treadmill of production, but also need to
be cheap to extract surplus value, and to counteract the tendency for the
rate of profit to decline through an increase in the organic composition
of capital.10 The important implications of this analysis are, firstly, that
capital structurally requires an extractive frontier (whether ‘vertical’—the
‘subterranean forest’ of fossil energy, or ‘horizontal’—the extractive fron-
tier of the periphery) for the cheap appropriation of abundant food,
energy, and inputs to feed capital accumulation.
34 2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated,...

There are also significant explanatory weaknesses or inadequacies in

the argument, however, that arise from Moore’s reductive dialectic. Thus,
while an extractive frontier would tend to be a feature of capitalism irre-
spective of a rise in the organic composition of capital, as resources
become exhausted and progressively more expensive in the earlier centres
of accumulation, the rise in the organic composition of capital is not
itself explained by this. While this rise in organic composition certainly
reinforces the trend towards peripheral exploitation, it is itself only
explained as an outcome of class struggle within Level 4. The shift to
increased machine-based production and accumulation through relative
(rather than absolute) surplus value was largely a response to more effec-
tive proletarian organization and pressure for improved working condi-
tions in the latter part of the nineteenth century, together with competition
from other emergent capitalist states (Chibber 2013). The resulting con-
cessions to proletarian pressure, together with responses to inter-state
competition, were enabled by the actions of the state in embarking on
imperialism in order to compensate for higher costs at home. This was
achieved by super-exploitation in, and the externalization of costs onto,
what became the periphery of the capitalist system. In this respect, it is
important to emphasize the vital functions of the state in sustaining capi-
talism, not merely through its accumulation functions, but equally
through its legitimacy functions. Many of the latter, for example ideo-
logical, educational, legal, military, and so on, take place within the
authoritative domain, that is, at Level 4, and thereby lend capitalist
dynamics a necessary spatio-temporal, often state-level, specificity that
cannot be explained at Level 3.
The second implication of Moore’s analysis is that a decrease in abun-
dance/increase in the cost of these ‘cheaps’ generates a decline in ecological
surplus and thereby heightens the overall cost of capital accumulation,
creating ‘economic’ crises for capitalism based on supply-side constraints
on production. Moore identifies signal crises when the ‘cheaps’ become
more, rather than less, expensive; developmental crises when capital
responds to signal crises through technological innovation and the expan-
sion of the extractive frontier; and epochal/terminal crises when it is no
longer feasible, through closure of the extractive frontier and consequent
prohibitive costs of accumulation/capitalization, to generate ecological
Political Ecology and the Capitalist Mode of Production 35

surplus necessary for continued and expanded capital accumulation. This

leads to a definitive shift to another mode of socio-natural production.
Given our discussion so far, however, it might be anticipated that there
are key explanatory elements that are missing from Moore’s model. While
the principle and broad sweep of ‘world ecology’ are surely well taken,
what the model lacks is any political specificity or explanatory power
because the reductive dialectic precludes the possibility of identifying
causality and reflexive agency, most especially as this arises in and through
the state-capital nexus. The key issues are, firstly, that the specific nature
of social-property relations and, therefore, the impulse to surplus genera-
tion, need to be defined at the level of the state-capital nexus (Level 4).
Secondly, and perhaps even more significantly, the specific forms and
responses to the crises subsequently emanating from Level 3 (as identified
by Moore) are refracted back to Level 4. It is at Level 4 that particular
political, reflexive, and key responses to the Level 3 crises will be defined,
often through ‘class struggle’, within the context of state. Thus, a crisis in
the supply of ‘cheaps’ will typically be refracted as a crisis of legitimacy
(not merely of accumulation) as the ‘classes of labour’ question the effi-
cacy of the capitalist system to supply adequately the means of subsis-
tence. This politically refracted response, as legitimacy crisis, may lead to
the toppling of the existing regime and/or the introduction of a new
mode of legitimation.
By definition, however, the contradictions of capital are invariably
more severe than the contradictions for capital (see Foster 2009). As
noted, the socio-natural contradictions of capital as metabolic rift are
manifest as an inherent feature of this mode of production throughout its
longue durée (in the zone of appropriation), as a general tendency before
they become contradictions for capital accumulation (in the zone of
capitalization). The very process of capital accumulation as the treadmill
of production, comprising the dialectic of ‘free’ appropriation and ‘paid’
exploitation/capitalization, is one that, while augmenting surplus value
flow to the classes of capital, simultaneously destroys and degrades a mul-
tiplicity of socio-natural use values, whether these be sustainable liveli-
hoods, biodiversity, or natural resources (in short, the metabolic rift).
Capital plays the fiddle while Rome burns, and the contradictions of and
36 2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated,...

for capital are likely to coalesce fully only as an epochal/terminal crisis

However, reflexive responses to the contradictions of capital will occur
through resistance of subaltern classes11 particularly, thereby leading
potentially to political contradictions prior to the onset of ‘structural’
contradiction for capital. Capital attempts, in response, to resist or to
adapt. This will occur initially at the site of contestation between capital
and the classes of labour. But frequently, this ‘struggle’ is then refracted
upwards for resolution by the state, within which capitalism has necessar-
ily been embedded since its birth. The state seeks to ensure continued
capital accumulation (regime of accumulation) whilst attempting to mit-
igate its contradictions (mode of regulation) in order to secure continued
legitimation, as hegemony,12 a common scenario in the global North.
Alternatively, the state may embark on a programme of working-class
suppression, or domination, a scenario most frequently encountered in
the global South. In order to explain fully the dynamics of capitalism at
both Levels 3 and 4, we need, therefore, to understand the politically
constructed character of regimes of accumulation (Level 4), their
enactment and the emergence of contradictions (Level 3), and their
refraction back into Level 4 for the state to undertake an authoritative
programme of either hegemony or domination in attempted resolution
of these contradictions.
In this discussion of contradiction, I want to suggest that O’Connor
(1998) is correct in identifying under-consumption—‘internal’ or
‘first’—and the cost of conditions of production—‘external’ or ‘sec-
ond’—as the key twin accumulation crises for late capitalism. (I interpret
these contradictions as being for capital as per my definition above.) He
is partly wrong, however, in confining the ramifications of the cost of the
conditions of production to the ‘second’ contradiction—but note again,
the ‘first’ contradiction may simply be a question of class struggle, with
little direct relation to the conditions of production. We should recall
that O’Connor’s ‘first’ contradiction involves the danger of accumulation
crises due to a failure to realize the surplus value objectified in commodi-
ties through commodity sales. Such crises are rooted in the limitation of
working-class consumption relative to the value produced, a limitation
arising from the rising rate of exploitation—surplus value divided by the
Political Ecology and the Capitalist Mode of Production 37

value of the wages paid. The basic problem here is that ‘capital exercises
too much power over labour’ and the resulting tendency towards under-
consumption is manifested in the ‘vast credit structure, aggressive mar-
keting, constant product innovation and intensified competition’
undertaken by capital to cope with the heightened ‘risk of realization
crisis’ (O’Connor 1998). O’Connor’s ‘second’ contradiction involves the
long-run tendency for the cost of the conditions of production—bio-
physical resources, including human labour power—to rise, in line with
the position of Moore.
O’Connor’s first contradiction is, therefore, the over-production of
surplus value through under-consumption as a result of the capital-labour
relation—which we term here the ‘internal’ relation of capital. This is a
contradiction that would arise (were we able to abstract social relations
from their biophysical metabolism) even were capital not confronted by
the finitude of the planet in terms of the use values of ‘material goods and
services’ (raw materials and ecosystem services and human labour—con-
ditions of production). These are the social relations of production/domi-
nation that, under capitalism, are defined by the creation of surplus value
through the realization of the exchange value of commodities—a social
relation. But, of course, this social relation (an internal or authoritative
relation) is conjoined to the use values of the biophysical realm (the con-
ditions of production) that are finite and subject to an array of con-
straints. These manifest themselves as an under-production of use values,
causing bottlenecks in accumulation for capital. This second contradic-
tion is a contradiction both of and for capital, taking the form variously
of higher prices and decreased surplus value, social resistance both within
and without the capital relation, and via state action to mitigate impacts,
enhance resource supply, and so on. In fact, as we have emphasized, and
will continue to emphasize, in this book, these contradictions and their
responses necessarily take place within the state as a social relation that
attempts, simultaneously, to secure accumulation, manage class struggle,
manage contradictions, engender hegemony qua a ‘mode of regulation’,
or simply attempt to suppress opposition, in relation to both ‘internal’
and ‘external’ contradictions, through domination.
Burkett (1999), however, contra the position adopted in this book,
views O’Connor’s two contradictions as a false dichotomy. He also denies
38 2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated,...

the potential contradiction of rising costs of production since these, he

argues, can simply be treated as externalities by capital whilst simultane-
ously representing accumulation opportunities through, for example,
pollution abatement, the medical industry, and so on. Whilst this may be
true of ‘sink’-related issues, it surely cannot be true of source/supply-
related issues—the supply of basic resources such as energy, raw materi-
als, and food has to be abundant, and therefore cheap (high entropy), for
capitalism to survive (Biel 2012). The result is that O’Connor appears to
be correct here.
On the other hand, O’Connor fails to distinguish between contradic-
tions of and for capital, a distinction that Burkett does emphasize.

To put it bluntly, capital can in principle continue to accumulate under

any natural conditions, however degraded, as long as there is not a com-
plete extinction of human life. This makes it essential to distinguish envi-
ronmental crises of capital accumulation from environmental crisis in the
sense of a general deterioration of the conditions for the development of
people as a natural and social species. The latter type of crisis by no means
automatically implies the former, even though both are the products of
capitalism – which is to say that from the standpoint of human develop-
ment, capitalism is an ecologically and socially irrational system. (Burkett
1999, 196)

Nevertheless, O’Connor’s theory of the two contradictions of capital

seems, with due caveats as specified above, to be an excellent starting
point from which to comprehend the twin ‘political’ and ‘ecological’
dynamics of capitalism. These comprise: the ‘first’ contradiction, one
deriving from the dynamics of authoritative power and including, for
example, the current financial crisis as a manifestation of under-
consumption of commodities and over-exploitation of labour; and the
‘second’, deriving from an allocative or conditions of production crisis, as
a manifestation of the mounting consequence of capitalism’s metabolic
rift—food crisis, environmental crisis, and, in the current conjuncture,
global warming and peak oil—and their complex inter-relationships. I
explore this relationship between these ‘internal’ and ‘external’ dynamics
of capitalism later throughout much of what follows.
Notes 39

1. Rather, the rule for egalitarian societies, or for peasantries when relieved
of the burden of supplying lords with surplus, is the desire for basic
material and social needs to be satisfied with the minimum expenditure
of effort. So, if there is a technological improvement that is labour-sav-
ing, it will be employed typically to reduce the amount of time spent
satisfying those needs, not to increase production (where those basic pro-
duction needs are already met, of course). Marshall Sahlins noted this
principle in respect of the ‘original affluent society’ in his Stone Age
Economics. This observation runs counter to both neoclassical economic
theory and orthodox Marxism, both of which assume an original condi-
tion of deprivation and poverty that can be alleviated only through tech-
nological advance and economic development. Rather, it is the case that
deprivation and poverty arise from the exploitation of one class by
another, and the unequal distribution of resources that goes along with
2. Affordances and constraints may be described as the capacity or incapac-
ity of biophysical nature to supply resources to enable the (re)production
of a particular social system such as capitalism and to supply the sinks
necessary to absorb waste from that system. Affordances simultaneously
define constraints on the (re)production of a social system. Affordances
are not, of course, simply pre-given but may be enhanced or diminished
by human action on them, such that they become socio-natural hybrids.
3. Ecological surplus is the ability of human labour power to generate sur-
plus over and above the consumption needs of the producers by means
of the productive capacity of the biophysical domain, this productive
capacity being itself dependent, in part, as we have seen, upon human
actions to enhance carrying capacity. Thus, for example, ecological sur-
plus may be enhanced by increasing the nutrient status of soil for greater
crop production, initially by building its organic content through
manuring, and so on, and subsequently, as under industrial processes of
‘substitutionism’ (Goodman et  al. 1987), by mineral and fossil fuel-
derived substitutes. As we shall see, the greater the ecological surplus, the
greater the theoretical feasibility of extracting, under capitalism, the sur-
plus value from human labour power, although this can be realized in
practice only via political means. And this (theoretical) feasibility is, of
course, the prime motive behind the impulse to increase ecological
40 2 Political Ecology and Social Systems: An Integrated,...

surplus under capitalism, something that has been enabled thus far by
‘cheap’ fossil fuel. The number one question for capitalism is whether,
with the demise or ‘political unavailability’ of fossil fuel, a ‘cheap’ substi-
tute can be found. If not, then the days of capitalism are surely
4. This has similarities to the ‘political’ reading of capital by Cleaver (2000),
for example, where the key dynamic is ‘class struggle’ between capital and
labour. As we shall see, contestation between fractions of the exploiting
classes is also important.
5. Semi-proletarianization means that part of the labourer’s subsistence
needs is still derived from food production for home consumption, but
this is insufficient, due to lack of land, to supply in full the subsistence
needs of the family, generating the need to sell labour.
6. Use value is the qualitative dimension of ‘things’ of use to human and
non-human nature, including both commodities and non-commodities.
7. Exchange value is the quantitative aspect of value in commodities,
derived principally from embodied human labour, as opposed to their
qualitative use values.
8. Surplus value is the excess of value produced by the labour of workers
over the wages paid to them.
9. Crudely expressed, entropy may be described as the degradation of use-
ful energy to unavailable energy, as for example, in the consumption of
fossil fuels, the process of consumption itself having adverse impacts on
the biophysical domain by, for example, increasing the quantity of green-
house gases in the atmosphere.
10. Simply stated, the organic composition of capital is that element of capi-
tal embodied in machinery, as opposed to human labour power.
11. We employ the term ‘subaltern’ classes to refer to populations lying out-
side the hegemonic influence of capitalism due to their continuing mate-
rial/ideological attachment to an independent means of production—most
particularly land. Nonetheless, the majority of these populations are
dominated by capitalism through their formal subsumption into its rela-
tions of production. Consumer class refers to those classes that lie within
the hegemonic influence of capitalism due to their complete severance
from the means of production—they have suffered real subsumption
into capitalist relations of production.
12. Hegemony is the ideological neutralization or co-optation of opposition
forces by, in this case, capitalism, by means of compromising with the
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Governance in the EU, USA and Australia. International Journal of Sociology
of Agriculture and Food 14 (1): 1–28.
———. 2016b. Reintegrating Economy, Society, and Environment for
Cooperative Futures: Polanyi, Marx, and Food Sovereignty. Journal of Rural
Studies. doi:10.1016/j.jrurstud.2016.12.004.
Tilzey, M., and C.  Potter. 2008. Productivism Versus Post-productivism? :
Modes of Agri-Environmental Governance in Post-Fordist Agricultural
Transitions. In Sustainable Rural Systems: Sustainable Agriculture and Rural
Communities, ed. G. Robinson, 41–63. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Watts, M. 2015. Now and Then: The Origins of Political Ecology and the
Rebirth of Adaptation as a Form of Thought. In The Routledge Handbook of
Political Ecology, ed. T.  Perreault, G.  Bridge, and J.  McCarthy, 19–50.
London: Routledge.
Weichselgartner, J., and I. Kelman. 2014. Geographies of Resilience: Challenges
and Opportunities of a Descriptive Concept. Progress in Human Geography
39 (3): 249–267.
Wood, E.M. 2002. The Question of Market Dependence. Journal of Agrarian
Change 2 (1): 50–87.
———. 2009. Peasants and the Market Imperative: The Origins of Capitalism.
In Peasants and Globalization: Political Economy, Rural Transformation and the
Agrarian Question, ed. A.H.  Akram-Lodhi and C.  Kay, 37–56. Abingdon:
Political Ecology, Capitalism,
and Food Regimes

I wish to start this chapter by illustrating the political ecological ontology

developed in Chap. 2 by means of an analysis of the emergence of capital-
ism in the late medieval period, a phenomenon specific to England rather
than to Western Europe in general. More than serving as an illustration of
my model of political ecology, however, this exercise is important in its own
right because it enables us to identify clearly the beginnings of capitalism,
to specify its unique social-property relations and its socio-naturally contra-
dictory dynamic. It is also important as an expository means of setting out
some of the key concepts that I will be deploying in understanding the
nature and dynamics of food regimes. Further, in developing a detailed
understanding of what capitalism comprises, it also enables us to get a
clearer idea of what capitalism is not, a particularly important consideration
when we come to talk about anti-capitalism and counter-hegemony.

The Origins of Agrarian Capitalism

I will start this exercise by again employing the work of Moore as a foil.
Moore, in this context, does deploy the notion of class as the implicit
dynamo of capitalism, but, as noted, it is the relation between this (or,

© The Author(s) 2018 45

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
46 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

more specifically, accumulation) and the ‘external’, allocative domain

that is his principal concern. Thus: ‘classes make history (and geogra-
phy) but not in eco-geographical situations of their own choosing’
(Moore 2002, 311). As I have suggested, this schema does little to elabo-
rate how or why ‘classes make history’, however, a lack only compounded
by the reductive dialectic of his later work. This difficulty, perhaps symp-
tomatically, is compounded further by his failure adequately to define
capitalism in class relational terms as a specific relation of exploitation
between a class of expropriators and a ‘free’ class of labourers, expropri-
ated, fully or partially, from their means of production. Rather, in
Moore’s schema, and following in the World Systems Theoretic tradi-
tion, there is seen to be an essential continuity in the definitional form
of ‘capitalism’ from the feudal era, through that of the absolutist state, to
the modern era, wherein any differentiation between periods is con-
strued to be purely quantitative. In this way, there is no qualitative dif-
ference between the ‘capitalism’ of the pre-modern and modern eras,
there is ‘just more of it’ in the latter. This definitional conflation between
the pre-modern and modern eras arises because what is being described
as ‘capitalism’ in the former is, in reality, not capitalism proper but,
rather, ‘merchant’ or ‘commercial capitalism’ (see, e.g., Wolf 1982 for
discussion). The latter was indeed an important component of both feu-
dalism and, particularly, of the absolutist state but, as merchant capital-
ism, it was predicated not on ‘true’ capitalist principles of generalized
‘free’ labour, and competitive, open markets, but rather upon very differ-
ent principles founded on ‘unfree’ labour, and protected and segmented
markets closely patrolled and demarcated by the pre-modern state in
support of revenues and conspicuous consumption by political elites.
This constitutes a very different logic from that of ‘true’ capitalism in
which there is an impulse, instantiated in its most distilled from under
neoliberalism, to break down all barriers to the establishment of ‘global
value relations’ (Araghi 2003).
Symptomatically, this definitional conflation of terms leads Moore to
explain the rise of ‘capitalism’ in tautologous terms:

There were, for example, important antecedents of the modern planta-

tion system in the medieval Mediterranean. But however widespread this
The Origins of Agrarian Capitalism 47

commodity production may have been, there was no ineluctable tendency

towards its generalization. Why? Because a society organized around the
progressive generalization of commodity production undermines relations
of domination based on tribute. Social strata who benefit from this system
are likely to oppose any change that might favour generalized commodity
production. In the end, however, they had no choice. This crisis of feudal-
ism led to a convergence of interest among Europe’s ruling strata in favour
of a significant expansion of commodity production, most dramatically in
the New World. (Moore 2002, 314)

So defined, ‘capitalism’ has no specificity in class relational terms, that

is, as comprising a class of appropriators juxtaposed to a class of ‘free’
labourers, in which power over production is exercised not through
‘political’ or ‘extra-economic’ means but rather, and for the first time,
within a new institutional sphere designated the ‘economy’. On Moore’s
purely quantitative definition of ‘capitalism’, there appears to be no clear
beginning to this ‘mode of production’ and, by the same token, it becomes
very difficult to define its terminus. This difficulty is compounded
because, relatedly, Moore, in common with World Systems Theory, has
no specific theorization of capitalism’s relation to the modern nation-
state in which, again for the first time, there appear relatively discrete and
insulated institutional spheres designated the ‘economy’ and the ‘polity’,
with corresponding domains known as ‘civil society’ and the ‘state’.
Capitalism proper is best understood, then, not as a distinctive type of
‘economy’ that determines social organization at large, but rather as a
societal disposition of power that gives rise, inter alia, to an insulated
‘economic realm’ (Lacher 2006). These institutionally separated spheres
of the ‘political’ and the ‘economic’ are internally related to one another,
in that their very separation is a consequence of the commodification of
labour and the establishment of absolute private property in the means of
production. The control over property in the means of production on the
part of appropriators, rather than the possession of political authority, is
here the decisive aspect in the dynamics of capitalism proper, embodied
in a complementary dependence on the market on the part of the newly
expropriated labour force as a prerequisite for gaining access to the means
of production.
48 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

This greater precision in the definition of capitalism is possible only by

reference to class dynamics in the ‘authoritative’ dimension. Indeed, the
very emergence of a capitalist market and attendant discrete ‘political’
sphere, although taking place within the broad context of the socio-
ecological crisis of feudalism, emerged only in England during the fif-
teenth century (Wolf 1982; Brenner 1989; Wood 2002; Teschke 2003;
Lacher 2006; Dimmock 2014). The class relational specificity employed
by these authors represents a fundamental break with the World Systems
Theoretic tendency to universalize capitalism by tacitly reading its conse-
quences back into its prehistory. Where World Systems Theory attempts
to explain the modernization of Western Europe in terms of common
cultural, political forces propelling the region in general towards capital-
ism, the above authors make an argument for two fundamentally differ-
ent paths out of feudalism: absolutism and capitalism. These two ‘modes
of domination’ are seen to be radically different social totalities.
Capitalism, in this perspective, emerged endogenously only in England
(and, arguably, the Netherlands [Brenner 1985]), while continental
Europe, by contrast, was largely set on a course of absolutist development
until it was itself exposed to the English ‘disease’. The important implica-
tions of this analysis for my argument are that it is only by attending to
the ‘authoritative’ dimension in its relation to the ‘allocative’ domain that
we are able to capture the specificities of capitalism and its origins in local-
ized class struggle; that localized class struggle enjoins us to take seriously
the nature, role, and importance of the state, and particular states at that,
in modes of domination and in the genesis and demise of capitalism, and
that the differentia specifica of capitalism resides in the creation of market
dependence with respect to a new class of ‘free’ labour, now separated
from its means of production, and in the alienability of land, access to
which is now determined principally by ‘economic’, rather than by ‘polit-
ical’, mechanisms.
This approach, first articulated in detail by Brenner (1977) and
founded in his notion of social-property relations (sometimes described
as an ‘internalist’ approach), contrasts markedly with the ‘quantitative’
(or ‘externalist’) approach to ‘capitalism’ and the modern state adopted by
the Braudel-Wallerstein-Arrighi school. The crucial historical question
for these latter authors is not the transition from feudalism to capitalism,
The Origins of Agrarian Capitalism 49

but the transition ‘from scattered to concentrated capitalist power’

(Arrighi 1994, 11). In other words, capitalism is not regarded as a quali-
tative, potentially reversible transformation of social relations, but simply
as a gradual, quantitative expansion of the market since time immemo-
rial. Capitalism in this sense becomes timeless. If capitalism is under-
stood, as these authors assert, as production for and exchange on the
market with a view to accumulating profits in the sphere of circulation
(Wolf 1982), then it is timeless not only with respect to the past, but
potentially also with respect to the future. Similarly, the Braudel-
Wallerstein-Arrighi school has no theory of the specifically modern state;
it only has a theory of differential power capacities of political communi-
ties within the world-system in generic contrast to earlier world-empires
in which bureaucracies absorbed surpluses so as to stifle world trade. So,
their concept of the modern state is as undifferentiated as their idea of
capitalism (see Teschke 2003). This school also ignores the constitutive
and crucial role of class conflict in historical change. The standard
response is to omit the problem of class entirely, to give it a subsidiary
and dependent role, or to confine consideration to intra-class contesta-
tion within and between competing polities. (Indeed, this is Arrighi’s
definition of ‘hegemony’—the assertion of leadership by one polity as
putatively representing the general interests of other polities.) The
approach of this school is therefore open to several key objections: the
definition of capitalism and the modern state; the prioritization of the
logic of circulation in abstraction from the logic of production; the fail-
ure to relate social change to class conflict; and the failure to explore the
domestic causes of hegemonic rise and decline. Symptomatically, the con-
ceptual frameworks of Moore (and of Friedmann and McMichael in rela-
tion to food regime theory, which I shall discuss later) derive, in significant
respects, from this school of thought.
I now wish to illustrate this argument by looking in a little more detail
at the emergence of (agrarian) capitalism in England and the crucial role
that localized class dynamics performed in this process. This gives the lie
to any assertion that a broader, Europe-wide, ‘world ecological’, impera-
tive can provide an explanatory account of these spatio-temporally spe-
cific social-property relations. The work of Robert Brenner (1977, 1985)
has been instrumental in developing this social-property relations
50 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

approach, now generally referred to as ‘Political Marxism’. In this, he has

been influenced by Marx’s mature works, such as Grundrisse and Capital.
Eschewing his earlier focus on the role of productive forces in economic
development, Marx in these later works sought to emphasize the specific-
ity of social relations in particular societies, in this instance feudalism and
capitalism, focusing on their ‘internal logic’ and ‘solidity’. Here Marx
argued that in pre-capitalist societies such as feudalism, the immediate
goal of peasants was, not to increase wealth, but rather to secure their
subsistence with the aim of reproducing themselves in their communi-
ties. This was of course difficult, not because of any inherent incapacity
to provision themselves adequately or through any ‘original condition’ of
poverty, but because the feudal lords extracted surplus (either as labour or
in kind) from the peasants, and retained the best lands (known as
demesnes) for themselves. The option of specializing in the production of
certain crops or livestock in order to profit from market opportunities,
leading to market dependence, was regarded as too risky a strategy by
most peasants. Marx also rejected Adam Smith’s definition of ‘primitive
accumulation’ in which the investment of accumulated wealth from trade
was seen to be the key enabler in the transition from feudalism to capital-
ism. Rather than accumulated wealth from trade acting as the solvent of
feudal social-property relations, Marx regarded so-called primitive accu-
mulation as being predicated on the separation of the peasantry from
their means of production, that is, land.
Drawing inspiration from this development in Marx’s work, Brenner
uses the term ‘social-property relations’ in preference to the more tradi-
tional Marxian term ‘social relations of production’ for two main reasons.
Firstly, the term ‘relations of production’ refers generally, and only, to the
vertical exploitative, or surplus extractive, relation between classes.
Secondly, it ‘is sometimes taken to convey the idea that the social
structural framework in which production takes place is somehow deter-
mined by production itself, that is, the form of cooperation or organiza-
tion of the labour process’ (Brenner 2007, 58). Brenner regards this
formulation as having ‘disastrous’ implications for our understanding of
social system dynamics. First, it leads to a failure to appreciate the signifi-
cance of property relations between appropriators and direct producers,
that is, the unequal allocation of land in feudalism; and second, it leads to
The Origins of Agrarian Capitalism 51

the conceptual removal to another sphere, the so-called political super-

structure, of wider political organization and the power of non-producers
(monarchy and aristocracy) over the producers (peasants) that in fact is
crucial to an understanding of feudal class dynamics.
In sharp contrast to orthodox Marxist accounts, therefore, Brenner
does not confine his analysis of class to the vertical or surplus extraction
relation between lords and peasants, or between wage workers and capi-
talists, vital though these are. Intra-class competition between lords and
between states in feudalism, and intra-class competition amongst capital-
ists and between states in capitalism, are seen to be at least as important
in historical dynamics. This approach leads to a strong integration of
traditionally separated disciplines, or ‘regions’, such as the ‘social’, the
‘economic’, and the ‘political’, and also places political entities, such as
the ‘state’, as causally meaningful phenomena in the explanation of
change,1 rather than as contingent, super-structural epiphenomena aris-
ing from the ‘economic’ organization of production (see Tilzey 2016a, b
for discussion).
In line with Marx’s emphasis on the specificity of ‘modes of produc-
tion’,2 Brenner asserts that specific social-property relations, whether feu-
dal or capitalist, give rise to specific structures for the reproduction of
those relations. In feudal society, in common with most pre-capitalist
societies, and in fundamental contrast to capitalism, the great majority of
production was agrarian-based, and the great majority of land was held or
possessed, though rarely owned outright, by peasants or small-scale culti-
vators. Peasants, first and foremost, produced for family subsistence and
only marketed surpluses beyond their needs for reproduction and their
financial obligations to lords (including the obligation to work on the
lord’s demesne). In order for feudal lords to derive a steady income, they
were forced, therefore, to coerce the peasantry into yielding up the sur-
plus from its holdings (surplus which the peasantry might otherwise have
employed to improve its own conditions of livelihood, of course, rather
than supporting an essentially parasitic class of exploiters). The relation-
ship determining the ‘economic’ reproduction and survival of these main
classes was of a political, or extra-economic, nature, therefore. This rela-
tionship was in fundamental contrast to that in capitalism, where the
reproduction of the main classes is fundamentally, although by no means
52 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

exclusively, of an economic nature due to its mediation by the market.

This political, or extra-economic, relationship lay at the core of the repro-
duction strategies of lords and peasants in most parts of medieval Europe.
It was the wish of peasants to maintain the possession of their lands
and under the best jurisdictional terms possible. Brenner argues that
peasants considered the best terms to comprise full property rights on the
land and payment of a small, fixed, non-economic rent. As they demon-
strated clearly in examples of open class conflict in the fourteenth cen-
tury, however, the peasantry had visions and practical demands for the
complete removal of lords and their manors (Hilton 1973). These were
not demands for capitalism, therefore, as both liberals and orthodox
Marxists tend to think. Peasants wished to achieve the goal of improved
conditions vis-à-vis their lords by strengthening their local communal
organizations or institutions of self-government, and by defending the
force of custom in their lord’s manorial and borough courts. They did
not, as a general rule, wish to specialize and compete against each other
in the market. It is impossible, therefore, to examine peasants’ strategies
for reproduction in a political vacuum.3 Rather, the pressures from lords
had crucial determinant effects on peasants’ lives and their approach to
production and community.
The lords’ goal was to maintain or improve their control over peasants’
surplus, and their mobility, in order to restrict a market in peasant labour
power, thus avoiding competition between lords and, thereby, improved
conditions for peasants. Lords did so by strengthening serfdom, and by
generating income streams through their broader manorial jurisdictional
capacity by, for example, founding market centres or boroughs. The abil-
ity of lords to strengthen serfdom, by squeezing and controlling the peas-
antry, could be achieved only by an increase in their military and legal
powers. The lords attempted to do this through the accumulation of
territory, government offices, and political alliances, a process Brenner
(1985) terms ‘political accumulation’. In addition to ‘political accumula-
tion’, enabling them to maintain their status and political power in rela-
tion to both other lords and to the peasantry on their estates, the lords
pursued a reproductive strategy of ‘extensive’ economic growth. Since
peasants were in occupancy of the great bulk of the land, and since the
nature of the relationship between lords and peasants was political, lords
The Origins of Agrarian Capitalism 53

were denied any opportunities to invest productively in land outside their

demesnes in order to increase the labour productivity of the peasantry.
They were compelled, therefore, to extend their lands by taking them
from other lords, and indeed monarchs, or by the colonization of new
territories in which peasants were encouraged to settle either by being
offered favourable tenurial terms, or by use of force.
These feudal social-property relations engendered a distinctive political
ecology from the tenth and eleventh centuries to around 1300, when
they began to develop serious contradictions at Levels 3 and 4 as per our
model, the resolution of which, in the form of agrarian capitalism, took
place at Level 4. We should note also that contradictions of feudalism,
because of its nature as a class and exploitative set of social-property rela-
tions, impacted upon the peasantry and their conditions of productions
throughout the longue duree of feudalism, but became contradictory for
feudalism only from the fourteenth century. Feudalism’s interface with
the biophysical domain was characterized by rapid population growth,
largely a result of the deliberate peasant strategy to have large families to
ensure security into old age; by the extension, rather than intensification,
of production and colonization of new lands; and by the increasing extent
and intensity of international trade due to lordship demands for military
equipment and other luxuries for conspicuous consumption.4 Within the
‘authoritative’ domain, feudalism engendered, over time, political cen-
tralization and state formation. In turn, however, these characteristic feu-
dal development patterns led to specific forms of feudal crisis. These were
characterized by the following: over-population and severe under-
employment on materially finite and jurisdictionally defined resources;
declining labour productivity (the ratio between labour input and pro-
duction output) in the face of the limited application of available tech-
niques, despite increased land productivity (increase in absolute
production) due to greater worker inputs in the thirteenth century; a
declining rate of increase in feudal levy on peasants over time; and an
increase in warfare as lords sought to compensate for the reduced income
from an increasingly debilitated peasantry.
These elements of feudal crisis led to a downward ‘economic’ spiral
through the increased fiscal and jurisdictional pressure (Level 4) on peas-
ant production, production that had already been pushed beyond the
54 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

capacity that the ‘conditions of production’ allowed (Level 3). The crisis
was further compounded by terrible weather and plague (Level 3), the
impacts of which were profound because of the pre-disposing, debilitated
condition of the peasantry. In this respect, Brenner (1985) agrees that
there was a strong ‘exogenous’ impact on the feudal crisis (from Level 3),
but he argues, correctly, that it was the crisis of over-population, malnu-
trition, increased impositions on peasant production, and warfare, deter-
mined by feudal social-property relations (Level 4), that left peasants
inordinately vulnerable to famine and infection.
It was the differentiated response to this fourteenth-century crisis of
feudalism, however, a response that took place in Level 4, that is abso-
lutely key to demonstrating both the explanatory power of the stratified,
political ecological ontology developed here, and the spatio-temporally
specific nature of capitalist origins. Thus, there were markedly divergent
outcomes in different regions of Europe to the feudal crisis. The outcome
in England was the origin of the transformation of feudal to capitalist
social-property relations. These differentiated developments across
European regions, expressing divergent outcomes from the feudal crisis
in the face of precisely the same demographic and ecological dynamics,
were the result of differences in feudal social-property relations (Level 4)
as these became established in the tenth and eleventh centuries arising
from the fragmentation of the Carolingian empire (Comninel 2000;
Teschke 2003; Dimmock 2014). The key factors within feudal social-
property relations in medieval Europe which led to divergent outcomes
in different regions were as follows, all, it should be noted, deriving from
the authoritative domain of Level 4: the unequal allocation of property
between peasants and lords when these relations were first established;
the ability of lords to maintain this unequal allocation of property; and
the lords’ level of political cohesion and organization. These factors deter-
mined the lords’ capacity to coerce vis-à-vis the peasantry’s own level of
self-organization and power of resistance, quintessentially a question of
authoritative contestation.
Brenner argues that the precocious centralization and cohesion of lords
and monarchy in England in the Anglo-Saxon period, an outcome of the
organization of resistance to the Scandinavian invasions, and most espe-
cially Norman developments in state construction following the conquest
The Origins of Agrarian Capitalism 55

of England in the eleventh century, placed ‘English’ lords in a compara-

tively better position vis-à-vis the peasantry than was the case for lords in
France and western Germany, for example. The relatively favourable posi-
tion of English lords was reflected in their comparatively large demesnes
throughout the medieval period, and in their retention of powers to
maintain or increase arbitrary rents and fines over much of the peasantry
before the mid-fourteenth century. These factors enabled English lords to
sustain their incomes in line with inflation for much of the period of
demographic and economic growth at the expense of the peasantry
between 1100 and 1300. This sustained increase in the level of surplus
extraction, however, reduced the peasantry’s ability to invest in the land
and was an important factor in the decline of labour productivity by the
early fourteenth century. This was a contradiction of feudalism for the
peasantry. This led, however, to the levelling off of lordly income after
extensive production had reached its limits, and, consequently, to the
onset of crisis for feudalism.
By contrast, in much of France, for example, the lordly political com-
munities were less cohesive due to the excessive decentralization and frag-
mentation of political power. Consequently, French lords had relatively
small demesnes and they could not sustain the capacity to impose arbi-
trary rents and fines on the peasantry through the thirteenth century.
Here the peasantry managed to achieve fixed rents and communal self-
government in the villages, and lordly income stagnated well before the
period of ‘exogenous’ shocks in the fourteenth century.
The outcome of the feudal crisis and ‘exogenous’ shocks in England
left lords weakened in the century after the Black Death (1348–50) due
to the scarcity of labour and heightened peasant resistance. This weaken-
ing led to the decline of serfdom in the decades around 1400. However,
the key to the lordly retention of power despite peasant resistance, was
their continued control of large demesnes, together with their feudal
powers over customary property. These powers were sustained in no small
part due to support from the monarchy and state. This stands in contrast
to French and German lords, who faced greater restrictions from their
respective monarchies, these increasingly wielding the greater autono-
mous power that was to lead to absolutism. Unlike their continental
counterparts, English lords could legally attach vacant customary land in
56 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

order to further consolidate and increase the size of their demesnes,

thereby increasing the area of land under leasehold tenure and thus sub-
ject to commercial rents. Equally important was their ability to control
the remainder of the customary, or copyhold, tenure and turn it into the
equivalent of leasehold, or commercial, rents. They did so by imposing
arbitrary fines on inheriting peasants or when tenancies were changed or
renewed, with such renewal occurring only at the lord’s will. Again, this
outcome was in contrast to France and Germany, where peasants gained
full proprietorial rights in land, with the hereditary rights of peasants
accorded legal sanction by royal justices. This was so because, for the
French and German monarchies, it was necessary to protect peasant cus-
tomary holdings in order to tax them.
In a context of heightened class struggle from the late fourteenth cen-
tury, and in the face of a greatly reduced peasantry that was now prosper-
ing due to low food prices and low rents, English lords were compelled to
lease out their demesnes in order to maintain their lordly status and
incomes. Between 1380 and 1420, somewhere between one-fifth and
one-third of all cultivable land in England was transferred by lords to
peasants, merchants, and lesser gentry, with the vast majority being
awarded to the upper, wealthy peasantry (Brenner 1985; Dimmock
2014). The outcome was the beginning of the transformation from feu-
dal to what would become capitalist social-property relations. In order to
gain a sufficiently large return to pay for the lease and to gain a profit, the
new demesne lessees were compelled to specialize and produce efficiently
for the market in competition with each other. They did so in mutual
relationship with lords, who found it to be in their interests to help their
tenants to become successful. Whilst labour productivity gains in agricul-
ture were already evident in the early fifteenth century with the turn to
wool production, this trend accelerated in the latter part of that century
in symbiosis with the rural cloth industry, stimulated by both domestic
and continental demand. This was facilitated by an enclosure movement
that sought to appropriate the remaining small peasant copyhold tenures.
The latter’s insecurity enabled the new ‘yeomen’ farmers, in collaboration
with lords, to achieve this objective in significant degree before 1520
(when widespread opposition to this trend erupted). As a consequence,
there was a parting of the ways between English and Western European
The Origins of Agrarian Capitalism 57

‘economic’ and demographic patterns. Mass anti-enclosure rebellion by

English peasants in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had the
potential still to subvert agrarian capitalism, but it eventually failed.5
The enclosure movement culminated after 1688 in Acts of Parliament
for enclosure, a process that even in Britain continued well into the nine-
teenth century. Thus, in Scotland, ‘clearances’ of tenants (‘crofters’) to
make way for capitalist agriculture (primarily sheep farming but also for
‘sporting estates’) were still occurring well into the second half of the
nineteenth century (Hunter 2010). Over the course of their history,
enclosures, within any given manor, tended to move ‘outwards’ from the
lord’s demesne, through enclosure and engrossment by appropriation of
peasant copyhold tenures, to finally engulf the common land of the
manorial ‘waste’. Access to the common land of the manor constituted a
vital part of the peasantry’s means of livelihood. It was here that livestock
was pastured during the growing season, and from whence a whole array
of vital resources, fuel, food, and fibre, was gathered by the peasantry. The
enclosure of the commons, primarily during the course of the eighteenth
century, during the ‘first’ agricultural revolution (see below), was there-
fore the final nail in the coffin of the English peasantry and in any pos-
sibility of a self-subsistent and communal way of life (see Neeson 1993;
Thirsk 1967). English peasants were not, as a general rule, protected by
the monarchy, due to close cooperation between the sovereign and the
landholding aristocracy, thereby blocking French-style peasant/king alli-
ances and the growth of an absolutist tax/office state. A similar process
occurred in lowland Scotland, and, following the defeat of the Jacobite
clans at Culloden (1746), was extended to the Highlands and Islands
(Hunter 2010).
The result was a new class constellation revolving around the new triad
of large landlords, capitalist tenant farmers, and former peasant wage-
labourers. What explains the variation between England and Western
Europe is the difference in class constellations, that is, a difference caus-
ally arising in the authoritative domain (Level 4). The relatively central-
ized self-organization of nobility and monarch fostered a higher degree of
inter-ruling class cooperation in England than in France, where the com-
petitive relations between nobility and king inadvertently secured both
peasant freedom and peasant possession (Teschke 2003). In England,
58 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

then, the market no longer represented an opportunity for selling surplus

produce, but rather an economic compulsion in which landlords, tenant
farmers, and wage-labourers had to reproduce themselves (Wood 2002).
Lords no longer received rents in kind, labour, or cash as was still the case
on the continent, but rather received a capitalist ground rent, while ten-
ant farmers (mainly the former upper peasantry) received capitalist profit.
Labour and capital were subjected to the competitive laws of the market,
such that ruling class reproduction was no longer a function of military,
but rather of economic, competitiveness. Cost-cutting through innova-
tion and specialization became the means of increasing productivity and
competitiveness in commercial farming. Systematic investment in the
means of production brought agricultural ‘improvements’ and large-scale
commercial farming and the beginning of self-sustaining ‘Agricultural
Revolution’, leading, eventually, to industrial capitalism (Wolf 1982).
These developments generated a society in which increasing numbers of
agricultural producers were leaving the land, while those remaining pro-
duced, as wage-labourers, for an ever-growing number of consumers
dependent on the market for the most basic necessities of life. It was also a
society with an increasingly integrated national market, with London act-
ing as its hub. Its immense population included not only the prosperous
‘bourgeois’ consumers of luxury goods that were also typical of European
cities, but, more distinctively, a huge, burgeoning concentration of rela-
tively poor consumers with many dispossessed peasants among their num-
ber. This population, supported by an unusually productive agriculture,
constituted a large potential labour force and, equally importantly, a large
consumer market for cheap ordinary goods such as food, clothing, and
basic kitchen utensils (Wood 2009). The transformation in social-property
relations described previously, founded on agrarian capitalism, together
with the size and nature of the domestic home market and reinforced by
the nature and extent of British trade and imperialism, constituted the
foundations of industrial capitalism. The latter, taking form in the second
half of the eighteenth century, was less the product of any prior technologi-
cal advances than of an integrated market providing cheap necessities of
life for mass consumers, in an economy already driven by the imperatives
of competition. Eighteenth-century Britain may be said, therefore, to have
constituted the first capitalist, national food regime. This was very far from a
The Origins of Agrarian Capitalism 59

dynamic without contradiction, however. As I explain in the next section,

continuing expropriation of the peasantry and the dynamics of capitalist
‘expanded accumulation’ gave rise to a ‘surplus’ (i.e., landless and unem-
ployed) population which, during the course of the seventeenth century,
became increasingly restive and posed a political threat to the ruling classes.
Industrialization, on a lesser scale, did occur elsewhere, perhaps most
notably in France. This was driven in part internally by the development
of new social-property relations more conducive to capitalism, but these
were heavily constrained by the continuing, pre-capitalist weight of the
absolutist state. Unsuccessful warfare with Britain during the eighteenth
century bankrupted the French state and this, combined with an increas-
ingly frustrated bourgeoisie, eventuated in the eruption of the French
Revolution. The French Revolution was, therefore, a response both to
British economic and military competition, and to internal pressures for
reform by an indigenous bourgeoisie. The changed social-property rela-
tions instituted by the French Revolution laid the groundwork for the
further advancement of capitalism in France during the course of the
nineteenth century. When Germany (Prussia) later embarked on its own,
state-led capitalist development during the course of the nineteenth cen-
tury, it was responding not so much to imperatives generated by domestic
social-property relations, but rather to external military, geopolitical, and
commercial pressures flowing from initial defeat by France (1806) and
then from growing British global hegemony. But these external pressures,
crucially, were refracted through, and given specific political content by,
the prism of domestic social-property relations. Britain was, thus, the
only country in which capitalism arose ‘organically’, initially through
changing class relations, and subsequently with active support of the state.
Britain’s consequently enhanced power as a state, as a result of agrarian
and later industrial capitalism, and manifest most clearly in its defeat of
France in a succession of eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century wars,
was important in leading other European countries more consciously to
engineer the adoption of capitalist social-property relations, to facilitate
economic development and augment their national status. These are
clearly developments that can be explained only by Level 4 dynamics,
whilst at the same time being enabled (but not determined) by Level 3
productivity and production enhancements in agriculture and industry.
60 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

‘Combined and Uneven Development’,

the State-Capital Nexus as Prime Mover,
and Imperialism
These developments also suggest the primacy of ‘political’ dynamics,
instantiated in these examples as the ‘state’, comprising a distinct constel-
lation of class/power relations, or social-property relations, and given
coherence by the singular jurisdictional authority (sovereignty) of a mon-
arch or, later, of a parliament. The Political Marxian approach articulated
here has sometimes been critiqued as being ‘internalist’, that is, as view-
ing political and class dynamics as taking place within hermetically sealed
‘social formations’ (see, e.g., Anievas and Nisancioglu 2015 for discus-
sion), supposedly in the absence of mutually defining relations with other
‘states’. This, of course, is not the case. Political Marxism recognizes the
continual interaction of social formations within medieval Europe, for
example, and the mutual influences on each social formation that
resulted. The vital point for Political Marxism, however, is that each social
formation as a class constellation of distinct social-property relations (and
these themselves were, of course, not ‘fixed’ but relatively fluid and shift-
ing political entities), acted as a prism through which these ‘external’
pressures, influences, and enablements were refracted and distilled out as
a consequently ‘internal’ dynamic within the ‘structured coherence’ that
constituted the social formation. The social formation is here conceptual-
ized as the relatively politically coherent ‘zone of sovereignty’ within the
larger network of ‘sovereignties’, each potentially containing a mix of
‘modes of production’, such as feudalism and capitalism, each of these in
turn represented by contending class and class fractional interests.
In attempting to understand the mutually conditioning nature of these
interactions in relation to all societies, but with particular relevance to
capitalism, Trotsky (1936) articulated the theory of ‘uneven and com-
bined development’, wherein unevenness posits ‘developmental’ variations
both within and between societies, along with attendant spatial differen-
tiations between them. Trotsky inferred both the quantitative (multiple
societies) and qualitative (different societies) character of social change—
what he termed ‘uneven development’. But rather than simply describing
‘Combined and Uneven Development’, the State-Capital Nexus... 61

two static conditions or dimensions of such development (multiplicity—

difference), Trotsky sought rather to capture how their dialectical interac-
tion (social multiplicity > inter-societal interaction > societal difference)
formed the basic onto-relational texture of the historical process as a
whole, whereby the shifting identity of any particular society accumu-
lated and crystallized (Anievas and Nisancioglu 2015).
Combination refers to the ways in which the internal relations of any
given society are determined (or, more accurately in the approach devel-
oped here, conditioned6) by their interactive relations with other develop-
mentally differentiated societies, while the very interactivity of these
relations produces amalgamated socio-political institutions and socio-
economic systems, melding the ‘native’ and the ‘foreign’ within any given
social formation. Bringing out the relational character of these develop-
mental differentiations in societies, Trotsky argued that ‘from the univer-
sal law of unevenness thus derives another law…the law of combined
development’ (Trotsky 2008, 5). The implication is that societies do not
simply exist hermetically side by side, but interactively co-exist, a condi-
tion that ‘determines’ their collective social and geopolitical development
and reproduction (Anievas and Nisancioglu 2015; Rosenberg 2006).
All of the above is true, but as such, and particularly where the word
‘determine’ is employed, it encounters similar difficulties to the so-called
externalist and World Systems Theoretical approaches. That is, it cannot
specify or explain the particular spatio-temporal class dynamics, as social-
property relations, of the constituent social formations in question,
something that Political Marxism does achieve. As Ashman suggests,
although at too high a level of analytical abstraction, ‘to state that societ-
ies exist in the plural is a mere description that neither helps explain the
dynamic (or “actual modalities”) of combination between these societ-
ies…nor offers any explanation of unevenness or of the differences
between societies…To the extent that something akin to uneven and
combined development can be discerned in…modes of production, we
can only illuminate such a phenomenon with a theory of the particular
mode of production in question’ (Ashman 2009, 30–1, emphasis added).
I would go further than this, however. I would suggest that it is only the
specific social-property relations (class relations) within particular social
formations within a larger ‘mode of production’, or the combined
62 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

interaction of social formations, that can accord explanatory content to

these dynamics of uneven and combined development.
As we have seen, capitalism and the modern state co-evolved first in
England and reached ‘maturity’ in the seventeenth and eighteenth centu-
ries, and then extended, through geopolitical, competitive emulation, to
other ‘core’, or imperial, states in Western Europe and North America.
While internal social-property relations were key to these developments,
they nonetheless were conditioned by interactions between England and
other polities in a relation of uneven and combined development.
Capitalism and the modern state co-evolved because the latter afforded,
and continues to afford, essential accumulation and legitimation func-
tions for the former without which it would be incapable of expanded
accumulation, and without which it would implode under the weight of
its social and environmental contradictions. Once capitalism had
emerged, its ‘laws of motion’, as necessarily grounded in the enabling and
protective structure of the state, began to demand what we may term here
‘combined and uneven development’,7 or imperialism. This meant that,
in articulation with their own internally driven ‘growth’ dynamic, the
‘core’ states became ‘developed’ through a relationship of ‘combined and
uneven development’ with a resultant ‘periphery’, the ‘development’ of
which, in turn, was distorted in favour of the ‘core’ states and ‘extro-
verted’ peripheral elites. The periphery did not ‘develop’ in the same way
as the core states, therefore, precisely because of its subordinate relation
to the core, a relation which often reinforced non-capitalist forms of pro-
duction and exploitation where these could deliver higher rates of surplus
extraction. As we shall see, it makes sense for a ‘core’ state, for reasons of
both accumulation and legitimation, to externalize social and environ-
mental costs onto a periphery as a means to secure super-exploitation.
The periphery is the site of imperialism and colonialism, therefore,
because it is here that the capitalist core attempts to maximize surplus
accumulation and cost externalization through the minimization of
wages, the deployment of non-capitalist forms of labour exploitation,
and the neglect of human and citizenship rights. In the ‘core’, by con-
trast, human and citizenship rights—nation-building—can be extended
on the back of such enhanced global accumulation, while at the same
time mitigating and legitimating capitalism at home (Tilzey 2016a). The
‘Combined and Uneven Development’, the State-Capital Nexus... 63

dynamics of this process may be seen as being based centrally on class and
class fractional agency through the state, such that ‘the pressures of
uneven development are clearly mediated through different forms of state
as nodal points of nationally specific configurations of class fractions and
struggles over hegemony and/or passive revolution within accumulation
conditions on a world scale’ (Morton 2010, 229).
I now examine the emergence of ‘combined and uneven development’
during the course of the seventeenth century in response to the class
dynamics of agrarian capitalism in England. The causative dynamics, I
demonstrate again, occur within the authoritative domain at Level 4
(‘first contradiction’ in O’Connor’s terms), whilst being crucially enabled
(and in part constrained) by developments at Level 3 (‘second contradic-
tion’), including the vitally important dimension that is the spatiality of
the biophysical. Without this dimension of spatiality, there could of
course be no possibility of ‘core’ and ‘periphery’, of ‘combined and uneven
development’, and of imperialism. We perceive again the co-constitutive
relation of the ‘political’ and the ‘ecological’ that is political ecology,
whilst recognizing the need for differentiation that allows us to discern
causality at Level 4.
In the previous section, we saw that primitive accumulation was largely
a domestically induced process, enacted in England through disposses-
sion of the peasantry and the creation of an internal market which could
satisfy and reproduce market dependence. On the one hand, the repro-
duction of the newly dispossessed peasantry was now premised on secur-
ing a wage through which its means of subsistence could be purchased,
thereby establishing its market dependence. On the other, capitalist pro-
duction made the market (in theory) a viable mechanism through which
the means of subsistence could be secured. The new capitalist urge to
increase labour productivity and expand output per unit of labour via
technological improvement decreased the price of commodities, rendering
them affordable to classes other than the wealthy. (The expropriated peas-
antry, as we know, no longer had access to these through non-market
means such as subsistence farming.)
Thus, was the historical origin of what Marx termed ‘simple reproduc-
tion’.8 Dispossession and the creation of an internal market constitute the
basic conditions for the ‘simple reproduction’ of the capital–wage labour
64 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

relation. However, not only is there a basic necessity for the means of
subsistence to be reproduced, but it is also necessary for those products to
be consumed. In other words, the market can function as a medium for
reproduction only insofar as the proletariat has sufficient means to pur-
chase the goods required for their reproduction. Capitalist crises occur,
Marx argued, because the very means, via access to a wage, is undermined
by capitalist accumulation, and more specifically, by ‘expanded reproduc-
tion’ (Marx 1981).
‘Expanded reproduction’ suggests that capital, as a result of the force of
competition, must always return to the market and reinvest its surpluses
into the expansion of its productive capacities. Through the introduction
of labour-saving techniques in production, individual capitals can reduce
costs and reap super-profits, or, alternatively, reduce prices in order to
obtain greater market share. As innovations reduce costs, a greater num-
ber of products are transformed into consumer goods, thus stimulating
the expansion of markets and lines of production beyond existing market
capacity. While this creates the ‘internal market’ described by Wood
(1991), for example, it also causes prices to fall more slowly than costs,
creating conditions for high profitability. Capital then flows into these
lines of production, drawing labour with it. As an increasing amount of
capital is mobilized in expanding production, however, the market
becomes saturated, and innovations cause productive capacity to rise
beyond that of the market to absorb the resulting increase in commodi-
ties. The result is an under-consumption, or over-production, crisis.
Consequently, prices fall more quickly than costs, and profitability col-
lapses. This results further in the shedding of both capital and labour as
productive lines attempt to drive down costs and to re-establish condi-
tions for profitability and continued accumulation.
This is precisely what happened to agrarian production in England
over the course of the seventeenth century. The enclosures, and later the
‘first’ and ‘second’ agricultural revolutions, introduced various labour-
saving techniques such as the reclamation and engrossment of land, the
reduction of fallow, and four-field crop rotation (Overton 1996). This
permitted the expansion of food production to an unprecedented degree,
driving down costs and creating a domestic market for labourers to secure
their means of production through wage-derived purchase. But once this
‘Combined and Uneven Development’, the State-Capital Nexus... 65

capacity reached the limits of what could profitably be absorbed by the

domestic market, both labour and capital were shed systematically from
agrarian production and pushed into urban areas. The growth of London
and other urban areas were the outcome of the resultant ‘surplus’ popula-
tion created by the limits of agrarian capitalism. In England, the emer-
gence of this large ‘surplus’ population constituted a fundamental
problem for the continued reproduction of capitalism, not so much
because of a crisis in accumulation, but rather due to social resistance and
unrest arising from the new, landless proletariat. The seventeenth century
saw the emergence or resurgence of social movements, such as the Diggers
and the Levellers, that sought to challenge the status quo (Kennedy
2008). For the landlords and capitalist classes, for whom these social
movements represented a serious threat, the question became one of
‘what to do’ with the ‘multitudes’ or ‘swarmes’ of ‘vagrants’ and ‘idlers’
(Linebaugh and Rediker 2012) discarded by agrarian capitalism through
enclosure, and later by the agricultural revolution.
The capitalist dynamic of ‘expanded reproduction’ suggests that the
‘surplus’ population shed by agrarian capitalism will eventually be re-
absorbed into new production lines elsewhere. Certainly, the disposses-
sion of the peasantry and their absorption into waged labour in urban
areas contributed further to the expansion of the domestic market. But
this expanding market could not absorb all the peasantry dispossessed by
agrarian capitalism. Market dependence does not, of course, guarantee
access to that market; otherwise famine and poverty would never occur.
In fact, as suggested, one of the primary results of expanded reproduction
is the increasing superfluity of labour, and a growing ‘surplus’ population
with no direct access to a wage, and, by definition, to other means of
subsistence. It was the potential contradiction for capital presented by
political resistance by the new proletariat and landless (who through dis-
possession had suffered a contradiction of capital) that was the big issue.
How were the landlord and capitalist classes able to survive this contra-
diction? The answer in large degree is provided by the absorption of ‘sur-
plus’ population, first, by new domestic industries related to the recently
established North American colonies (from the end of the sixteenth cen-
tury) and, second, by means of the mass exportation of population to
these colonies. The dispossessed were transported in large numbers to
66 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

these American colonies both as settlers and as indentured servants and

labourers, with those considered to be indebted, poor, criminal, vagrant,
or rebellious being particularly vulnerable to this fate (Linebaugh and
Rediker 2012).
The state, of course, played a central role in attempting to resolve this
contradiction, not least through legislation. The Beggars Act in 1597 and
1598 authorized the transportation of vagrants and criminals to work in
penal servitude in the colonies. In 1652, further legislation enabled mag-
istrates to ship vagrants and beggars to the colonies, and over the course
of the seventeenth century, some 200,000 people were transported to the
Americas, thus ‘removing out of the city’ the ‘matter of sedition’
(Linebaugh and Rediker 2012, 16, 20).
We see, then, that, once established, (agrarian) capitalist property rela-
tions impel ‘expanded reproduction’—‘grow or die’ according to the
competitive impulse (Tilzey 2016b). This compels capitalists to lay off
labour to enhance productivity and reduce costs. Because most peasantry
in England were fully expropriated, that is, had no or insufficient access
to land for ‘simple reproduction’, this condition led to ‘surplus’ popula-
tion. Why peasants were fully expropriated has been explained in the
previous section: copyhold had been transformed to leasehold, and,
unlike the French peasantry, English peasants were particularly vulnera-
ble to separation from the means of production. As we have explained,
this was a crucial change in social-property relations that took place at
Level 4. Additionally, the biophysical character of England meant that
there was no ‘frontier’ of unoccupied or marginal land to which the peas-
antry could retreat to sustain the means of subsistence, so that Level 3
‘ecological’ considerations contributed in this respect to the creation of a
‘free’ labour force. Lack of any access to alternative means of subsistence
other than through the market, and therefore lack of any buffer against
the vagaries of that market, implied that a major contradiction of agrar-
ian capitalism for the dispossessed as ‘surplus’ population became a
potential or actual contradiction for capitalism and the state in the form
of political resistance and upheaval. This was a politically reflexive
response on the part of the new proletariat and landless to the contradic-
tions of ‘expanded reproduction’, not to any contradiction in accumula-
tion due to constraints in the cheap supply of conditions of production.
‘Combined and Uneven Development’, the State-Capital Nexus... 67

The solution to ‘surplus’ population was sought in part through indus-

trial expansion and infrastructure projects, so that some of the problem
could be resolved through incipient ‘articulated’ development: a virtuous
circle between expanded production and expanded consumption through
the creation of a totally market-dependent proletariat. But this could be
a partial solution only because of the sheer size of ‘surplus’ population
and its poverty—the poor do not constitute a lucrative market. So, the
second solution was to externalize the ‘surplus’, and potentially seditious,
populations onto an emerging periphery.
This seventeenth-century English dynamic is explained by competi-
tive, capitalist social-property relations as ‘expanded reproduction’, and
following the full expropriation of peasantry, of actual and potential resis-
tance to this process by the dispossessed. Indeed, the English Civil War
was a response, on the part of a fraction of the capitalist landlord class in
its alliance with the monarchy, to the prospect of the ‘multitudes’, in alli-
ance with other capitalist and merchant class fractions as Parliamentarians,
taking power (Chibber 2013). These are dynamics that can be explained
only at Level 4. Level 3 affordances, as the ‘ecological’ spatiality of the
periphery, acted as a vital release valve, however. But the impulse towards
the periphery had, in this instance, nothing to do with Moore’s assumed
‘cheaps’ dynamic, that is, of desired access to cheaper resources to under-
pin profitable expanded accumulation. Rather it was a state–capital nexus
response, not to accumulation crisis, but rather to political reflexivity on
the part of the oppressed (a kind of legitimation crisis), the explanation
for which can only be found at Level 4.
Slavery succeeded the use of indentured English and Irish labour in the
American colonies largely because of the difficulties of enforcing the sep-
aration of labour from its means of production given the abundance of
land to which transportees could abscond (Anievas and Nisancioglu
2015). Slavery was possible only on the basis of new, singularly repressive,
and highly racialized means of labour control of, in this instance, African
people, that again can be explained only by reference to the authoritative
domain (Level 4). Slavery in the American colonial ‘periphery’ was a key
factor underlying capital accumulation and the industrial revolution in
England, providing the vital subsidy to industrial development afforded
by the colonial mode of slave exploitation, and delivering super-profits to
68 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

capital for investment in domestic manufacturing. Whether contingent

or otherwise, the new plantation slavery afforded an important means by
which to offset the fall in the rate of profit in English agrarian capitalism
and, thereby, to facilitate the ‘expanded reproduction’ of capitalism that
lay behind the industrialism revolution.
In theorizing, this ‘combined and uneven’ relationship between a
‘periphery’ and ‘core’ in the dynamics of the state–capital nexus, Marx
(Capital vol. III, 339–48) identified six countervailing tendencies that
had the potential to reduce, negate, or reverse the falling rate of profit:

1. An intensification in the exploitation of labour (increase in labour

2. A reduction of wages below their value (a key mechanism, as we shall
see, in underpinning the drive to imperialism);
3. A reduction in the value of constant capital, that is, cheapening it;
4. The absorption of ‘surplus’ populations by developing new lines of
5. Foreign trade;
6. An increase in share capital.

While these mechanisms are explained by reference to the authorita-

tive domain, lying behind most of them is, simultaneously, the allocative
domain, with both unpaid labour and unpaid nature (the zone of appro-
priation or the zone of reproduction) subsidizing capital accumulation.
Plantation slavery is a case in point, and it had the potential to fulfil all
these countervailing tendencies with the exception of the last. As Marx,
himself, suggested in an exceptionally important and prescient piece of
writing in Capital volume III:

As far as capital invested in the colonies, etc. is concerned, however, the

reason why this can yield higher rates of profit is that the profit rate is gener-
ally higher there on account of the lower degree of development, and so too is
the exploitation of labour, through the use of slaves and coolies, etc. Now there
is no reason why the higher rates of profit that capital invested in certain
branches yields in this way, and brings home to its country of origin, should
not enter into the equalization of the general rate of profit and hence raise this
‘Combined and Uneven Development’, the State-Capital Nexus... 69

in due proportion, unless monopolies stand in the way. (Marx 1981 Capital
vol. III, 345, emphases added)

This quote clearly gives the lie to any notion of ‘stagism’ in the later
Marx, and strongly anticipates the theory of ‘combined and uneven
development’ as imperialism. In other words, it demonstrates that Marx
understood ‘combined and uneven development’ as constitutive of capi-
tal’s ‘laws’ of motion, and, implicitly, appreciated the importance of the
state, and its territorialized form, not merely as a legacy from the past but
as a contemporary, and necessary element, underpinning ‘expanded
The juxtaposition of extensive land and un-depleted soils (spatiality
and productive affordance of the ‘ecological’—Level 3), combined with
the authoritative dominion of capital over slave labour (Level 4) in the
American plantations, entailed both a low organic composition of capital
(countervailing tendency 3) and the means through which increases in
absolute and relative surplus labour (countervailing tendency 1) were
made possible. The slave plantations (representing in effect countervail-
ing tendency 2) enabled a cheapening in the supply of the means of pro-
duction to the imperium, such that the rate of surplus extraction and the
rate of profit on the plantations were exceptionally high (Blackburn
1988). The American plantations had a profound impact on the
development of industrial revolution in Britain in two principal ways.
First, the production of consumer goods such as sugar (most particu-
larly), coffee and tobacco on the plantations served crucially to reduce the
costs of labour power (countervailing tendency 1) in Britain. In contrast
to Europe, where labour and land costs were comparatively prohibitive
(due to constraints of land and energy based in wood-fuel), the cheaper
use of slave labour in the ecologically ‘unconstrained’ American colonies
facilitated increases in productivity. Here we can see the high relevance of
Moore’s ‘ecological surplus’ lying behind economic surplus coming into
play. The outcome was a reduction in the prices of these so-called luxury
items, enabling access to, and consumption of, these goods on a mass
scale in the imperium, while the costs in terms of human misery and
ecological degradation in the periphery went, of course, unaccounted for.
This ‘subsidy’ from human and ecological suffering enabled British
70 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

workers to afford and consume ‘virtually free’ calories, where before they
had been unobtainable given prevailing wage levels. The plantation was
pivotal, therefore, in widening and deepening market dependence, and in
reducing the proportion of the working day required for British workers
to reproduce themselves. In other words, labourers in the factories could
now work more productively over longer periods of time.
The expanded consumption of the working class brought with it the
potential to reconstitute the labour process in Britain through an expan-
sion in the unpaid part of the working day. While increases in calorific
intake meant that workers could remain productive for longer periods,
the cheaper cost of the workers’ reproduction meant a concomitant
reduction in the value of their labour power. Either by reducing wages or
by increasing productivity, capital could thus siphon off a larger propor-
tion of workers’ labour as profits without adversely affecting the latter’s
reproduction. This increase in the rate of exploitation (countervailing
tendency 1) was the basic precondition on which the industrial revolu-
tion in Britain was built, enabling a progressive shift from ‘absolute’ to
‘relative’ surplus value. Thus, the tendential shift to relative surplus value,
predicated on full wage market dependence and real subsumption of
labour, was dependent on ‘peripheral’ exploitation. Expanded consump-
tion further reinforced the capitalization of agriculture in Britain, both to
feed an ever-expanding non-agricultural population, and to secure higher
profits for capitalist farmers and their landlords. We can perceive here the
outlines of the first fully developed capitalist food regime, as the ‘first’ agricul-
tural revolution, with the ‘combined and uneven development’ of core and
periphery being an intrinsic feature of its operation, then as now. Capitalism
generates food regimes for two principal reasons: first, the supply of, ideally,
cheap and abundant food to its labour force, is vital in exerting downward
pressure on the socially average wage, and thus in maximizing surplus value
in the production of competitive commodities for sale in the market; and,
second, to afford opportunities for profit-making by the various class fractions
of agrarian capital.
Second, the absorption of labour into industry, and the ‘real subsump-
tion’ of labour that this entailed, was most pronounced in the manufac-
ture of textiles, wool, and later, cotton. Cotton was particularly central to
Britain’s industrialization precisely because the importation of cheap raw
The ‘First’ Agricultural Revolution: The First National Capitalist... 71

cotton from the American plantations, supplying three-quarters of

Britain’s imports of raw cotton (Anievas and Nisancioglu 2015). The out-
sourcing of cotton production to the ‘periphery’, where costs of produc-
tion, and labour in particular, were considerably lower, was central to
Britain’s industrial take-off in the latter part of the eighteenth century.
Through the institution of slave plantation in the colonies, capitalists
were able to reduce significantly the costs of constant capital in the form
of raw materials (countervailing tendency 3). Without this key ‘subsidy’
from human suffering, enforced in the authoritative domain (Level 4), it
is very unlikely that British manufacturers could have overcome the com-
petition from Indian textile producers, which, even until the mid-
eighteenth century, held a leading position in world markets (Blackburn
1988). Britain’s status as leading world manufacturer from the latter part
of the eighteenth century was thus founded on slavery in its American

The ‘First’ Agricultural Revolution: The First

National Capitalist Food Regime?
The industrial revolution in Britain was also dependent, however, on an
‘indigenous agricultural revolution’ particularly after 1750. Whereas,
before 1750, increases in production and productivity had come up
against the lack of a suitable consumer market, because a ‘surplus’ popu-
lation had been unable to secure consistent employment in industry, the
progressive boost lent to industrial production by the slavery ‘subsidy’ as
the century matured, translated into increased employment and an
expanded market. The opportunities for profit-making that followed
stimulated changes in agricultural yields and productivity. The capitalist
structure of production and competitive rental agreements with yeoman
tenants enforced high yields and productivity to meet this new demand.
This period also saw the formation, for the first time, of a national food
market in England and, subsequently, in Scotland. In this way, a national
market was clearly emerging by the mid-eighteenth century. It had not
been until the 1720s, however, with the increase in London newspapers
72 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

from which provincial journals derived their information, was there any-
thing resembling a national price for agricultural produce (Wade Martins
2004). Improved transport, both by road and coastal trade, however,
implied that regional barriers to competition, and therefore to the forma-
tion of a national market price, were breaking down. Droving routes were
becoming more established, allowing lean cattle from Scotland, and to a
lesser extent Wales, to be brought for fattening on lowland farms.
London’s growth in population by some 70 per cent between 1640 and
1740 implied that demand for food was ramifying ever-outwards. The
years 1670–1750 were generally years of stagnation in agricultural prices
and population grew relatively slowly until the 1730s, bearing in mind,
however, the removal of ‘surplus’ population from England throughout
much of the seventeenth century. Depressed prices, because of the lack of
‘self-sustaining’ growth that would later be subsidized by slavery, could in
the meantime be compensated for by exports, encouraged, for example,
by the Corn Bounty Act of 1688 which helped cushion farmers from the
full effects of over-production (Overton 1996). Given the nature of
capitalist production, the only way for farmers to sustain their incomes
(apart from laying off labour which represented a limited option only)
was by means of increasing yields, both in terms of absolute output and
in terms of labour productivity. Thus, between 1690 and 1750, the area
under cereals in England and Wales grew from 5.37 million acres to 5.73
million, with an evident increase in the use of yield-increasing agronomic
methods and technologies. Thus, while the area under cereals rose by 7
per cent, output of cereal increased by 19 per cent (Wade Martins 2004).
While much of this increase before 1750 seems to have been at the
initiative of the ‘yeoman’ capitalist tenant farmer, following the mid-
century, landlords appear to have taken a much keener interest in increas-
ing output and enclosing and ‘improving’ more land as population and
prices again rose in response to the advent of the industrial revolution.
Landlords under these conditions could see clear opportunities for rent
increases, and the age of agricultural ‘improvement’ that accompanied
this was ushered in after 1750. Agricultural prices remained relatively
buoyant as urban population and consumption, with ‘real subsumption’
of labour, proceeded apace. Sustained war with France from 1793 saw
wheat prices skyrocket, and they remained high until the repeal of the
The ‘First’ Agricultural Revolution: The First National Capitalist... 73

Corn Laws in 1846 (Overton 1996). Thus, once the industrial revolution
had been ‘pump-primed’ by the confluence of a wage-dependent prole-
tariat and ‘artificially’ cheap calories and raw materials for manufacture
(including the beginnings of fossil-fuel energy use in industry), a virtuous
articulation could be established between increased domestic yields in
agriculture, increased domestic consumption, and increased profits. This
halcyon period for capitalist agriculture in Britain, comprising the age of
‘improvement’ or the ‘first’ agricultural revolution, was to continue until
the middle of the nineteenth century, when the repeal of the Corn Laws,
the introduction of free trade, and increasing reliance on artificial fertil-
izers, economically and ecologically, began to subvert this articulation
between domestic agriculture and industry.
The ‘first’ agricultural revolution, while motivated ‘politically’, was
expressed ‘ecologically’ in an expansion of the area of capitalist agricul-
ture, both through enclosure of much of the remaining areas of open field
cultivation, and, particularly, through enclosure of the ‘common’ lands of
the manorial ‘waste’, that is, uncultivated lands on which the people of
the manor held customary rights to graze stock, gather fuel, take game,
and derive other benefits (Neeson 1993). Enclosure of the ‘waste’, often
by means of an Act of Parliament, extinguished these rights, and use of
the land, from which they now derived a profit, passed entirely to the
new, capitalist, tenant farmers, with ground rent accruing to the lord of
the manor. ‘Improvement’, following enclosure, was undertaken through
the application of marl (a calcareous clay), together with manure, and, in
pastoral areas, by reseeding with more productive grasses (Thirsk 1985).
The latter tended to be the pattern in the west and north of Britain. In
the south and east, ‘waste’ was now cultivated, however, with the prime
objective of producing a cereal crop. In this age of pre-artificial fertilizer,
however, the production of a cereal crop had to be undertaken as part of
a rotation, in which livestock, primarily for their manure, remained a
vital element in the maintenance of soil fertility.
In addition to expanding the area of ‘improved’ agriculture, however,
intensification of production, through increases in yield per area and
through greater labour productivity, was also characteristic. Improved
yields were enabled, particularly, by means of a reduction in fallow
through the introduction of turnips and clover. Low-yielding crops such
74 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

as rye were replaced by higher-yielding wheat and barley, the latter being
more responsive to increased soil nitrogen content. The balance between
arable and permanent pasture changed after 1750, with more lucrative
arable rotations increasing in the south and east at the expense of purely
pastoral systems (Overton 1996). Fodder supplies did not fall, however,
since the loss of permanent pasture was compensated by new fodder
crops, particularly turnip and clover, in the new arable rotations (classi-
cally, of course, in the Norfolk Four-Course Rotation system). Not only
did these crops result in an increase in fodder yields, which meant more
livestock manure for the land, but they were also instrumental in the
‘improvement’ of much ‘waste’ in the lowlands and its conversion from
rough pasture to ‘productive’ (i.e., capitalist) arable farms. This was
achieved by the same means, that is, as a fodder crop for livestock whose
manure then raised the fertility of the ‘improved’ land.
The ‘political ecology’ of the turnip in these developments was crucial,
since it was the most important crop in enabling the area of fallow land
to be reduced. One of the reasons for undertaking a period of fallow
between crops was to clear the land of weeds by means of ploughing. But
the land was essentially idle during this period, a fact which would prove
burdensome to the capitalist imperative of decreasing the ‘turnover time’
of capital. The advantage of turnips was that, when sown in rows, the
land could be hoed to remove weeds while the crop was still growing.
Thus, not only was the weed-suppressing function of fallow being ful-
filled, but, simultaneously, the crop was providing fodder for the live-
stock whose manure was essential for replenishing the fertility of the
land. These advantages were not lost on the capitalist tenant farmers and
their landlords. Thus, while fallow land comprised about 20 per cent of
the arable area of England in 1700, it had declined to only 4 per cent by
1871 (Overton 1996).
The yield of cereals, especially wheat and barley, increased in tandem
with these developments. Thus, wheat yields increased by about a quar-
ter between 1700 and 1800, and then by about a half between 1800 and
1850 (Overton 1996). The impulse here was to increase profits through
the sale of wheat to the burgeoning urban markets, where bread consti-
tuted the staple food of the working classes, and, with sugar (consumed
with tea), the overwhelming source of calories for the proletariat. Again,
The ‘First’ Agricultural Revolution: The First National Capitalist... 75

this ‘political’ impulse was enabled by a particular ‘ecology’, in this

instance, of the balance between crop nutrient demands and nutrient
replenishment. Here, the key to increasing cereal yields was nitrogen,
the ‘limiting factor’ in determining yields before about 1830, after which
date ‘artificial’ nitrogenous fertilizers began to be used. The key to over-
coming this constraint before the use of chemical fertilizers in the con-
text of the ‘agricultural revolution’ was the introduction of clover (both
white and red). This dramatically increased the quantity of nitrogen in
the soil available for cereal crops. Until the introduction of artificial
nitrogen, this ‘improved’ system of farming was, ecologically, relatively
sustainable, even if it was, socially, very far from being the case. Output
of food was thus increased dramatically, without central reliance on fos-
sil fuels or inputs drawn from overseas. But access to such increased
outputs on the part of the new proletariat was, of course, dependent on
the ability to pay, and therefore, on the ability to find waged employ-
ment. Food security for the majority was not, therefore, assured as long
as food access was determined by the market. Moreover, access to meat,
milk, and fresh vegetables on the part of the masses was extremely lim-
ited, and the central mainstays of working-class diet were bread, tea, and
sugar. From 1830, however, even the ostensibly ecologically sustainable
‘first’ agricultural revolution began to unravel, as it was replaced by
farming system that depended increasingly on energy-intensive inputs
derived from fossil fuels, and upon the importation of both fertilizer and
food, particularly cereals, from abroad ( Foster 2016). As we shall see
later, the complex interplay of intra- and inter-class contestation at Level
4 and the cost of ‘cheaps’ at Level 3 led to the breakdown of the ‘first’
agricultural revolution as a food regime, and to its succession by a
Europe-wide, and British-dominated ‘free trade’ regime which was to
prevail until the 1870s.
Throughout the duration of the ‘first’ agricultural revolution, however,
Britain continued its intimate dependence on the American colonies for
the supply of cheap, because slave-produced, cotton and sugar. Despite
the political independence of the American colonies in the form of the
USA from the 1780s, Britain maintained its close relationship with the
American southern states as the most important producers of cotton and,
with the Caribbean, of sugar. Slavery was, of course, to persist in the
76 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

US southern states until the American Civil War (1860s), and Britain’s
cotton manufacturers were strongly supportive of continued slavery until
the forcible disruption of this ‘colonial mode of production’ by the vic-
tory of the industrial northern states, with their own demands for cheap
and ‘free’ labour to supply the new factories (Post 2011).
The formation of a capitalist and recognizably modern ‘core’ and
‘periphery’, to which these British domestic developments were dialecti-
cally linked, was cemented largely during the latter part of the eighteenth
century only by means of another key element: that is, the subjugation of
what had hitherto been the world’s two largest global economies, China
and India (Anievas and Nisancioglu 2015). The core became defined as a
result of the subsequent endogenous development of capitalism in France,
the USA, and Germany (Prussia), largely in response to British hege-
mony, as we have seen. The specific timing of this was the outcome of
combined development (competitive emulation), the feasibility (i.e., the
capacity to resist becoming a British periphery) rested on modern mili-
tary capacity, while the particular modalities of capitalist transition, dif-
ferent in each state, rested on class struggles and social-property relations
specific to each. All of these factors were the outcome of Level 4 dynam-
ics. The formation of a periphery was given its motive force by these
developments, enabled by military prowess, and given its particular
modalities by spatially specific class struggles and social-property rela-
tions, often characterized by non-capitalist forms of production (uneven
development). These factors, again, were the outcome of Level 4
The objective of the formation of a periphery, of imperialism, was to
reshape land and labour regimes so as to facilitate the transfer of resources
to the imperium through a process Bagchi (2009) terms ‘export-led exploi-
tation’. The imperialist countries ruled their domain not with the objec-
tive of creating institutions that would usher in capitalism, as in their own
countries, but rather with the objective of consolidating their rule and
extracting tribute for the imperium. The structures of control in the colo-
nies were shaped by imperialism in order to impede the transformation of
the economy away from the predominantly rural primary sector and the
growth of open markets as they defined capitalism in the core. This is
vitally important to understand, because these structures of combined and
The ‘First’ Agricultural Revolution: The First National Capitalist... 77

uneven development, arising from the state–capital nexus as prime mover,

came to fundamentally define global capitalism and the ‘global’ food
regimes that were to characterize it from the latter part of the nineteenth
century. I will discuss the emergence of these ‘global’ food regimes later
on, together with the modifications to Food Regime Theory, as first devel-
oped by Friedmann and McMichael (1989), that seem to be warranted as
a response to the state–capital nexus and Political Marxian ecology
approach developed so far.
It is helpful to emphasize the importance of ‘state-specific’ social-
property relations (Level 4) within the context of combined development
as geopolitical, competitive emulation, by looking briefly at the emer-
gence of agrarian capitalism in France and Germany (Prussia), the other
principal states of the European ‘core’. I have already identified the dis-
tinct divergence between the emergence of capitalism in England, in co-
evolution with the genesis of the ‘modern’ state, and the absolutism that
still prevailed throughout the great bulk of the Western European ‘core’
until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even within
Western Europe, however, there were major divergences between France
and what was to become Germany in the appearance of agrarian capital-
ism, providing a very cautionary tale for any who propose a uniform
trend towards this end, let alone one flowing in linear fashion from the
late medieval period. Again, the explanation of the emergence and diver-
gence of agrarian capitalism is to be found in particular social-property
relations, specifically in the ‘kind of landlord class, the kind of class strug-
gle, and the kind of peasant differentiation that was integral to agrarian
transformation’ (Byres 2009, 58). Here the differentiation of the peas-
antry fed into, and interacted with, the landlord class and class struggle,
and in this struggle the state always played a prominent part.
In France, while the more-or-less cohesive ‘rural community’ was
unsuccessful in ridding itself of feudal obligations before 1789 (the year
of the start of the French Revolution), its relative protection by the tax/
office state vis-à-vis the feudal lords (seigneurie) meant that it did succeed
in maintaining ‘an economic and social system founded on the interplay
of communal pressures, the limitation of private property, and the exis-
tence of collectively exploited lands’ (Soboul 1956, 80). The upper peas-
antry (laboureurs) had not detached itself from the remainder of peasants,
78 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

as had happened in England, and by 1789, there had been little or no

transition to capitalism, led by this fraction or by any other class, or alli-
ance between classes. The French Revolution, in abolishing the seigneur-
ial regime and feudal rights, made the emergence of capitalism more
possible since it ‘proclaimed the total right to property; hence the free-
dom to enclose and cultivate and the restriction of collective rights'
(Soboul 1956, 88). Moreover, church lands and those of émigré nobles
were sold, with the major beneficiaries being the upper peasantry and
urban middle class. Despite the destruction of the ‘French rural commu-
nity’, however, attempts to secure a compulsory division of communal
lands failed. While the laboureurs did now constitute themselves as a
dominant class vis-à-vis the poor and middle peasantry, the latter ‘clung
desperately to the traditional forms of production and stubbornly called
for the maintenance of the limitations which collective constraint
imposed on private property’ (Soboul 1956, 89). These peasants
demanded the retention of gleaning and stubble rights, of common graz-
ing land and communal herds, and opposed attempts to enclose the
‘waste’ and meadows. Staunch resistance continued throughout the
nineteenth century, particularly in southern and central France and ‘con-
siderably inhibited the capitalist transformation of French agriculture’
(Soboul 1956, 91) and it was not until the very end of the century that
capitalism became generalized in the countryside (Byres 2009).
In Prussia, a powerful feudal landlord class, the Junkers, in the six-
teenth century crushed the free peasantry that had been invited to settle,
on favourable tenurial terms, east of the Elbe, and proceeded comprehen-
sively to re-enserf this class (Dimmock 2014). This was possible because
of the singular cohesiveness and military superiority of the landlord class.
The Prussian state and its feudal and absolutist social-property relations
were eventually thrown into crisis, however, as an outcome of changes in
France that led to the rise of Napoleon and to the military defeat of
Prussia at Jena-Auerstedt in 1806. In response to this geopolitical crisis,
Prussia determined, in conformity to the principle of competitive emula-
tion, to modernize its state and economy broadly along British lines. It
introduced a series of reforms, including the agrarian reform of 1807,
that entailed the abolition of serfdom and the beginnings of the introduc-
tion of capitalist social-property relations in the countryside. In contrast
The ‘First’ Agricultural Revolution: The First National Capitalist... 79

to England, however, Prussian feudal landlords ceased to be a landlord

class and became themselves a class of capitalist farmers, working the land
with an oppressed force of waged labourers, who had formerly been serfs.
Here, there was no emergence of an upper peasantry who would become
capitalist tenant farmers as in Britain. Rather, it was an agrarian capital-
ism marked deeply by Prussia’s immediate feudal past and the powerful
subjugation of the peasantry that it entailed (Byres 2009). The transition
to capitalism following the 1807 reform was by no means immediate,
however, and it was not until the 1870s that Prussia, and the German
state as it had then become, could be described as agriculturally
In this way, we can see how internal, social-property relations within a
‘state’, in geopolitical, competitive interaction with other ‘core’ states, set
these European polities on the path to acquire what would become a
‘decisive comparative advantage in the means of violence’ (i.e., military
prowess) (Anievas and Nisancioglu 2015), particularly once these means
were buttressed by, and harnessed to, dynamically capitalist social struc-
tures. This combination of capitalism and militarism appears largely to
explain Western Europe’s, but particularly Britain’s (as the pre-eminent
capitalist polity), eventual ascendancy to global pre-eminence and its
ability to subordinate much of the world, through military subjugation
and surplus extraction, for the purpose of enhancing state-based capital
Here the theory of combined and uneven development, where
grounded in a social-property relations framework, provides an explana-
tion for the key impulse underlying expanded accumulation (capitalism)
in Britain, leading to enhanced geopolitical competition between already
militarized states in the core (with their particular dynamics explained by
state-specific social-property relations), leading in turn, once capitalism
was implanted, to global capitalist (rather than mercantilist) expansion
and the creation of a subordinated periphery.
In this periphery, social-property relations represented an articulation
of imperial demands with often pre-capitalist forms of exploitation as
‘export-led exploitation’ (Bagchi 2009). In relation to governing access to
land, these peripheral social-property relations favoured either landlords
or European settlers, thereby leading to constraints on investment and on
80 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

class transformation towards agrarian capitalism (let alone towards any

possibility of transformation towards non-exploitative social relations).
The imperatives of imperial rule, as racialized extractivism, would not
permit any disturbance to pre-existing hierarchical systems unless they
themselves impeded the realization of ‘a large remittable tribute from the
colony’ (Bagchi 2009, 105). Capitalist colonialism/imperialism demon-
strated the discrepancy between the formal freedoms that accompanied
capitalist transformation in the ‘core’ (limited though these were for the
working classes until the late nineteenth century) and the reality of bond-
age imposed on the ‘classes of labour’ in the periphery. Thus, while pri-
vate property rights and ‘free’ labour (and of course the substantive
‘un-freedoms’ that accompanied this condition, most notably the com-
pulsion to sell labour power) characterized agrarian capitalism in the
core, coercion and slavery remained major instruments in the periphery
for the control and exploitation of labour. The imperial powers did not
seriously seek to change pre-existing systems of bondage, and, in many
cases, imperial property rights in the periphery increased systems of class,
racial, and gender inequality and discrimination.
This discrepancy between core and periphery reflected, even from as
early as the late eighteenth century, the differences in the dual accumula-
tion and legitimacy roles of the state–capital nexus that existed between
the two poles of the imperial system. In the core, a progressive expansion
of the middle classes during the course of the late eighteenth (in Britain)
and then nineteenth centuries (in Western Europe and North America)
comprised an ever-larger market through which the surplus value engen-
dered in production could be realized. At the same time, manufacture of
finished items and that of machinery for production was increasingly
confined to the core, while the manufacturing base elsewhere, previously
located largely in India and China, was progressively, and quite deliber-
ately, destroyed (Anievas and Nisancioglu 2015). This tended, although
not without contradiction as we shall see, to set up a virtuous circle of
expanded demand, expanded manufacturing output, increased profits,
increased income, and expanded demand, largely confined to the core. At
the same time, the state–capital nexus received legitimation, and miti-
gated the severe contradictions of, early capitalism for the working classes,
through Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality before the
law, bolstered by the ‘rational’ theories of Malthus and Ricardo that, inter
The ‘First’ Agricultural Revolution: The First National Capitalist... 81

alia, could safely place the causes of ‘surplus’ population and poverty at
the door of the proletariat itself. Moreover, these Enlightenment princi-
ples could be racialized and counterposed to the supposed lawlessness,
irrationality, pre-industrialism, and increasing poverty of non-Europeans,
elements that the Europeans had themselves induced through imperial-
ism, and which now could be used to justify further subordination.
Having destroyed the manufacturing bases first of India and then of
China, the imperial powers shaped the periphery increasingly as an export
zone for primary commodities—‘export-led exploitation’. While India
remained important as a market for goods now manufactured in Britain,
the overall emphasis in the periphery was on the production of primary
commodities at least cost, based on the maximal exploitation of human
labour and the conditions of production, both considered expendable
commodities. Here, therefore, there was no relationship between expanded
accumulation and expanded income, except at the apex of the class pyra-
mid. Similarly, cherished Enlightenment values extended no further than
the European ruling elite, with the result that the imperial state had no
real need for legitimation functions. Any opposition from the subaltern
classes of the periphery was countered by the imperium with brute
force.  As Wolf (1999, 280) has noted, 'at work everywhere, they [the
expansionary tendencies of capitalism] were most starkly in evidence in
the new colonies, regarded by the colonists as outright supply depots for
the metropolitan market. There the racial and cultural prejudices of the
new conquerors allowed them a latitude in treating the native population
as 'pure' labour which they had not enjoyed in the home country'.
In this way, the periphery, now commonly referred to as the global
South, was born. The constituent regions and countries of the periphery
are today largely the same as then, although a very small number, amongst
them perhaps most notably China, have achieved relative autonomy. The
imperium, for its part, has remained remarkably stable, with the only
significant addition being Japan, whose rise to economic and military
prowess was secured, as the exception that proves the rule, by means of its
isolationist policies during the period of nineteenth-century imperialism.
As Anievas and Nisancioglu (2015, 273) state, ‘we are thus still living in
the world made between 1757 and 1763 [when the British defeated the
French and gained control of India]; we have yet to awake from the
‘nightmare’ of capitalist history that this dominance was built upon’.
82 3 Political Ecology, Capitalism, and Food Regimes

1. But not in the reified sense of the ‘Realist’ school of thought in International
2. Given Brenner’s cautionary comments, this term should not be inter-
preted in any ‘economistic’, or reductionist, sense.
3. As is the tendency on the part of ‘populist’ scholars in the tradition of
Chayanov, in their ‘essentializing’ of peasant rules of reproduction as ‘eter-
nal’ categories.
4. In fact, the conquest and colonization of new territories principally by
Portugal and Spain from the fifteenth century can be argued strongly to be
an extension of this feudal logic, not the result of capitalism, as is so often
claimed (see, e.g., Teschke 2003 for critique of the conventional view).
5. Periodic absolutist tendencies of the monarchy expressed an ambivalent
attitude to enclosure and there were various, half-hearted, attempts to
arrest it. These tendencies were not eliminated entirely until the ‘Glorious
Revolution’ in 1688. Additionally, the landlord class did not become uni-
formly capitalist until the latter date, with significant regional strongholds
of feudalism, such as the northwest England (Heller 2011).
6. Although this, as we shall see, depends partly on the relative position or power
of a particular society within the hierarchical structure ‘inter-state’ relations.
7. The term is deliberately reversed here because it is the combination of a
core with a super-exploited periphery that generates uneven development.
8. [Capital’s reproduction] takes good care to prevent the workers, those
instruments of production who are possessed of consciousness, from run-
ning away, by constantly removing their product from one pole [labour]
to the other, to the opposite pole of capital. Individual consumption pro-
vides, on the one hand, the means for the workers’ maintenance and
reproduction: on the other hand, by the constant annihilation of the
means of subsistence, it provides for their continued re-appearance on the
labour market (Marx 1981, 719).

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———. 1985. Agricultural Innovations and Their Diffusion. In The Agrarian
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———. 2008. The History of the Russian Revolution, 3 volumes. Chicago:
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———. 2002. The Question of Market Dependence. Journal of Agrarian
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———. 2009. Peasants and the Market Imperative: The Origins of Capitalism.
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The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food
Regime 1840–1870: The ‘Second’
or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930

The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime

The British ‘Liberal’ or ‘Free Trade’ Food Regime that arose during the
middle of the nineteenth century may be said to represent the first capi-
talist food regime founded on the integration of the imperial states as, for
the first time, predominantly capitalist economies. Again, the prime
mover in these dynamics is the ‘political’, or social-property, relations
(class dynamics) in the hegemonic power, in this case Britain, and the
international articulation of these relations with receptive and comple-
mentary class interests in other states. This identifies the axial role of class
relations, contestation and hegemony, within the context of the state–
capital nexus, in the germination, reproduction, and extension, beyond
the hegemonic state, of particular capital accumulation regimes, and,
within them, food regimes. This framework echoes the claim made by
Winders (2009a, b), when he suggests that it is necessary to recognize the
centrality of (class) divisions and coalitions within agriculture, as well as
the political power of these coalitions, in explaining the emergence of
food regimes. He states further, in line with the argument developed
here, that the political power and economic interests of segments

© The Author(s) 2018 87

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
88 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

(i.e., class fractions) of agriculture shape the national policy of each hege-
mon (the dominant state within the world system), and the national
policy (of that hegemon) in turn influences the production, trade, and
consumption of agriculture throughout the world economy. He also
notes, pointedly, that ‘most analyses of food regimes … understate the
fundamental role played by [political] coalitions and conflicts within
agriculture’ (Winders 2009b, 316).
In other words, it is the process of political contestation and compro-
mise between hegemonic, sub-hegemonic and oppositional social move-
ments, thereby generating coalitions within the state–capital nexus, that
generates ‘national policy’. If such national policy is successful in accu-
mulating or perpetuating power for the state, as in the case of Britain
through capital accumulation, for example, this state may then begin to
assume a hegemonic status in the inter-state system, projecting its own
regime of accumulation internationally. This appears to have occurred,
for the first time as capitalist social-property relations, in the form of the
British ‘free trade’ food regime. As Winders notes, international institu-
tions and trade agreements are the pillars on which food regimes spread,
and concordant policies become widely adopted, through the interna-
tional system. As indicated, however, the mere formation of a particular
agricultural policy regime in the hegemonic state does not, as appears to
be suggested by McMichael (2013), for example, ‘automatically’ lead to
its diffusion. Rather, it is cross-national class coalitions and international
alliances that act as conduits for the dissemination of a food regime. This is
the case even where the relationship between the hegemon and a subor-
dinate state is highly asymmetrical, as in relations between ‘articulated’
states of the core and ‘disarticulated’ states of the periphery, for example,
where symbioses are forged between the extroverted class fractions of the
latter and the dominant class interests of the former. In short, the form of
capital accumulation within a particular food regime represents the polit-
ical projection nationally and then internationally, through conscious
class agency, of the particular interests of a class fraction or coalition of
class fractions within the hegemonic power. This, then, has the effect of
reproducing relations of ‘combined and uneven development’.
I explain now the political dynamics of the transition towards the
British ‘free trade’ regime (Level 4), before moving on to address how
The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870 89

these politics were conjoined to the ecological affordances and constraints

surrounding the development of nineteenth-century agrarian capitalism
(Level 3).
During the course of the nineteenth century, British grain producers
became progressively less competitive vis-à-vis the new capitalist produc-
ers in France and, particularly, Prussia. Once the enforced trade con-
straints of the Napoleonic Wars had passed, British landlords sought to
retain high prices for grain through their influence at the level of the
state, and, given their parliamentary dominance until the 1832 Reform
Act, this did not prove too problematical an ambition. Thus, as soon as
the Napoleonic conflict had concluded, the Importation Act of 1815
imposed significant constraints on agricultural trade, with imports of
wheat permitted only once a price threshold, at which British wheat was
competitive, had been reached. Such statutes and their accompanying
import duties became known as the Corn Laws. As it became increasingly
evident that there were cheaper, overseas sources of wheat available for
import, however, certain capitalist class fractions, notably producers of
textiles, iron, steel, and coal, became increasingly antagonistic towards
the Corn Laws (Winders 2009b). There were two principal reasons for
this antagonism. Firstly, these producers now had good reason to suppose
that they were globally competitive and therefore sought free trade agree-
ments, primarily with other countries of the core, in order to expand
their markets in those countries. But such treaties would necessarily entail
a reduction or elimination of British agricultural protection if those
countries, with their ‘comparative advantage’ in agricultural exports, were
to accede to any trade agreement. Secondly, these industrial class frac-
tions, to secure their continued competitiveness, were keen to ensure that
their work forces had access to the cheapest food available, such that
wages could be kept to a minimum. Since bread was the principal staple
of the industrial proletariat, this meant keeping wheat prices to a mini-
mum. As Polanyi (1957, 138) noted, free trade ‘meant that England
would depend for her food supply upon overseas sources…[since] it was
believed that if only the grain of the whole world flowed to Britain, then
her factories would be able to undersell all the world’.
The political agency of these industrial class fractions was key to
explaining the shift towards a free trade regime. Thus, these fractions
90 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

constituted the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838, with cotton textile man-
ufacturers Richard Cobden and John Bright amongst its leaders
(Hobsbawm 1968; Winders 2009b). Seeing a potential confluence of
interest between industrial capitalists and their work forces as far as cheap
food was concerned, the League attempted to enrol proletarian political
movements, such as the Chartists, to their cause. While this attempt at
co-optation met with little success, the League was, nonetheless, instru-
mental in securing the eventual abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846. In
this, it was assisted powerfully by the passage of the 1832 Reform Act,
which led to the enfranchisement of the majority of the industrial middle
class. Henceforth, industrial interests were much better represented in
parliament and the power of the landlord class was, commensurately,
reduced, easing the way towards free trade reform. Furthermore, the
landlord class itself became progressively divided between those special-
izing in grain production, and those specializing in meat, and particularly
beef, production. For the latter, low grain prices became increasingly
important as production became more intensive, so beef producers
became progressively more enthusiastic advocates of free trade.1
Additionally, as the landlord class diversified its business portfolio into
industry, resistance to free trade decreased commensurately.
Reflexive political action on the part of the working classes also played a
significant, albeit unintended, role in the transition to the free trade food
regime. The Chartist movement, in particular, succeeded in creating an
unstable political climate such that, ‘[w]ithin Parliament, MPs were alarmed
by the democratizing reforms demanded by the Chartists, but, most impor-
tant, they feared a working class and middle class alliance in pursuit of such
reforms’ (Schonhardt-Bailey 2006, 211). The danger of such an alliance for
the ruling classes could be removed effectively via the expedient of eliminat-
ing the basis of middle class discontent, namely, barriers to free trade.
The preceding elements go some way towards explaining the domestic,
political dynamics of the move to free trade. But if we are to consider
these dynamics in relation to ‘combined and uneven development’, then
we must ask how and why free trade policies became advantageous to
other core states, rather than simply being imposed by the hegemonic
power. The explanation here seems to lie with a confluence of interest
between class fractions internationally, where those class fractions, or alli-
ances of class fractions, held the balance of power at the level of the state.
The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870 91

During the course of the mid-nineteenth century, Britain embarked on

a series of bilateral trade agreements, of which the Anglo-French Treaty of
1860 was perhaps emblematic, the concessions of which were effectively
extended to all states in Europe. This treaty of 1860 was typical in allow-
ing more competitive (in this instance, French) agricultural commodities
to enter Britain in return for the reciprocal free entry of British industrial
goods (into France, in this case). These bilateral treaties represented, in
effect, international coalitions between class fractions whose interests
happened to be complementary in the historical conjuncture of the mid-
nineteenth century. Just as it was the case with French agriculturalists, so
was it also the case with the Prussian Junkers vis-à-vis British industrial-
ists. Thus, while the newly capitalist Junkers were competitive grain sup-
pliers globally, German industrial capitalists had not yet attained a
position of parity with their British counterparts. The Junkers were,
therefore, advocates of free trade in agricultural commodities, and in the
industries which supplied agricultural machinery, railways, and other
industrial infrastructure necessary for the cheap production and distribu-
tion of food. By contrast, German industrial class fractions sought protec-
tion against their more competitive counterparts in Britain. The political
power, and therefore interests, of the Junkers still prevailed at the level of
the state, however, with the result that Germany eliminated trade barriers
in agriculture and retained only few duties on imported industrial goods.
This historical conjuncture of complementarity between class fractions
of the various core states could be sustained only so long as increased
consumption could support profitable production. This conjuncture
began to unravel from the 1870s as a massive increase in the area of agri-
cultural production (in the Americas and Australia, particularly)
combined with increases in productivity to create an over-production
crisis, with resulting sharp declines in agricultural prices. In response,
agricultural class fractions now demanded protection from the free mar-
ket, and tariff rates on food imports began to increase amongst the states
of the imperium, particularly in the cases of France and Germany. The
ruling classes, increasingly comprising domestic alliances between
agricultural and industrial class fractions, now sought to foment more
nationally based development strategies, in which there was to be an
articulation between agriculture and industry within the national terri-
tory. This was to be combined, in many cases, with a formal imperialism
92 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

in the shape of the carving out of colonies in the ‘periphery’, the function
of which, apart from demonstrating the geopolitical prowess of the colo-
nizer, was to supply super-cheap commodities, produced by super-
exploited labour, to subsidize industrial development in the imperium.
The exception here was Britain which, because of extensive areas of tem-
perate agriculture within the empire, or ‘honorary’ empire (notably, the
USA), could still rely on imports from these ‘settler states’ as if they were
an integral part of the British state.2 Class fractional complementarities
now gave way to competitive tensions between the imperial states, ten-
sions that were to culminate in the First World War.
These political developments were conjoined to an agricultural ‘ecol-
ogy’ that, notwithstanding the claims, of amongst others, Duncan (1996),
appears to have become increasingly unsustainable as the nineteenth cen-
tury progressed. Once the Corn Laws were abolished in 1846, British
grain producers attempted for the next quarter century or so to remain
competitive with overseas producers by means of the increased importa-
tion of nitrates and phosphates (particularly in the form of guano) to
sustain grain production in the face of falling soil nutrient levels. The
1830s and 1840s were characterized by an increasing soil fertility crisis,
due to lack of fertilizers to replace nutrients, as the ‘metabolic rift’ took
the form of the burgeoning movement of food (and nutrients) from the
countryside to the city. These developments implied that grain produc-
tion, under pressure from internal accumulation pressures, exacerbated
by competition from abroad, had reached the limits of the ‘organic’
four-course rotation system that had before formed the bedrock of wheat
and barley output.3 While this system might have been sustainable in the
context of a steady state economy (although shipment of nutrients to the
city would still have presented deep contradictions as metabolic rift), it
was incompatible with the continuous demand to increase surplus value,
particularly in the face of competition. The only way for capitalist pro-
ducers to respond to these pressures was to augment the rotational system
with artificial fertilizers and imported manures. This constituted an
‘unsustainable’ overlay of intensive energy-inputs on the four-course
rotation, representing a shift to the ‘second’ agricultural revolution, or
the period of so-called high farming (Overton 1996).
At the same time, there was a shift to what has been termed ‘high feed-
ing’ of livestock, particularly cattle, to produce more meat and milk, but
The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870 93

also to produce more dung as a vital input into the arable rotation sys-
tem. Forage, from pasture, was becoming increasingly inadequate to pro-
duce the quantities, at competitive prices, and at the reduced rate of
turnover, of meat and milk demanded by the urban middle classes. In
response, cattle were increasingly fed grain and oilcake-based (i.e., feed
derived from pressed linseed and rapeseed, usually imported, and supple-
mented by African and Brazilian sources such as palm oil) fodder to sup-
plement forage. As a result, beef and milk production became progressively
more competitive than grain production, and there was a significant
move in Britain away from grain and towards pastoralism during the
third quarter of the nineteenth century.
Following the abolition of the Corn Laws, Britain therefore lost food
self-sufficiency (although sugar, of course, had been an important, imported,
calorific supplement to the British working-class diet) and this was implicit
in the increased emphasis of meat and dairy at the expense of grain produc-
tion and the progressive decline of more sustainable mixed farming systems
(Foster 2016). While the expansion of pastoral production to some degree
mitigated the soil nutrient depletion problem, this was possible only by
means of an externalization of these contradictions to overseas sites of pro-
duction via the importation of wheat, and the oilseeds that formed the
basis of oilcake. In effect, therefore, a large part of the metabolic rift was
externalized overseas (a ‘spatio-temporal fix’) to those areas exporting grain
(such as Germany, Russia, USA, France, India), thereby leading to soil
depletion in producer countries as a ‘subsidy’ to their own competitiveness.
By the 1870s, therefore, imports of guano and nitrates, the key inputs for
grain production, had begun to fall off, reflecting the shift to pastoralism in
Britain. Commensurately, however, imports of seeds for the production of
oilcake as livestock fodder continued to increase. By the end of the century,
domestic wheat production had fallen from 90 per cent before the aboli-
tion of the Corn Laws to less than 25 per cent and, by the mid-1860s,
imports of grain had already risen to nearly 40 per cent (Overton 1996).
These developments were, of course, contemporary with Marx’s own
analysis and critique of capitalism. Indeed, it is possible to credit Marx
(see Marx 1981; Saito 2014; Foster 2016) with the introduction of the
notion that he himself termed the ‘new reg ime’ of industrial-capitalist
food production, associated with the repeal of the Corn Laws and the
turn to free trade. He equated this ‘new regime’ with the conversion of
94 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

substantial tracts of arable land in Britain to pastoral systems, enabled by

new developments in livestock breeding and management as ‘high farm-
ing’. In his later writings, he appreciated fully the relationship between
the ‘political’ and ‘ecological’ contradictions of this dynamic, suggesting
that ‘the moral of the tale… is that the capitalist system runs counter to
a rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with
the capitalist system’ (Marx 1981, 216). In order to address the depletion
of soil induced by capitalist agriculture, for example, he suggested that a
more rational management of the ‘metabolic interaction’ by ‘associated
producers’ would require consciously returning to the soil what the meta-
bolic rift had taken away. Marx (1971) was also keenly aware of the impe-
rial nature of the system, not only in terms of the import of energy-intensive
imports from abroad, but also in terms of the wholesale reconfiguration
of peripheral areas within the British Isles, such as Ireland and the Scottish
Highlands and Islands, as virtually exclusive pastoral zones, with atten-
dant loss of the peasantry and small-scale producers through ongoing
enclosures and ‘clearances’. The remaining peasantry was relocated by
capitalist, pastoral landlords to the most marginal of land, where it
became highly and dangerously dependent on a new crop that nonethe-
less yielded well in the prevailing cool and damp conditions of the west-
ern Irish and Scottish coastlands—the potato (Hunter 2010). But under
such conditions the potato was also susceptible to attack by blight, and it
was only a matter of time before the new crop succumbed to attack by
this fungal disease. With the great majority of this marginalized peasantry
now overwhelmingly dependent on the potato as the mainstay of its diet,
the advent of blight proved catastrophic. Mass death and starvation was
the consequence, with the west of Ireland most severely affected, but
western Scotland was also seriously hit. Food aid for those affected was
tardy and woefully inadequate, coming at a time when capitalist agricul-
ture was actively exporting food from those areas afflicted by famine. Aid
was also constrained by the popularity at the time of Malthusian doc-
trine, which held that the populations affected were ‘surplus’, that is, had
outgrown, through population growth, their resource base and should,
consequently, be subject to ‘natural’ controls. This was, and remains in
its latter-day iterations, a crude, apologetic, and inhumane, attempt to
naturalize a deeply political phenomenon, whereby people, through
The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870 95

primitive accumulation, are forcibly deprived of their land and then con-
sidered surplus to requirements when their labour power, now ‘freely’
available, cannot be profitably employed by capital.
Imperialism also entailed, of course, processes of enhanced primitive
accumulation in North America, particularly, where indigenous peoples
were forcibly removed from their lands to make way for European settle-
ment and the commercial production of cereals and, increasingly, live-
stock. Marx was also keenly aware of the wholesale reconfiguration of
India as a new periphery of ‘export-led exploitation’. Here the export of
grain to Britain, even during periods of severe drought and privation,
combined with draconian taxes on the peasantry irrespective of ability to
pay, led to the deaths, through starvation, of some 15 million Indians
between 1866 and 1906 (Davis 2001; Bagchi 2009).
We can now summarize the political ecology of the First International
(British free trade) food regime between the late 1840s and the 1870s, its
key dynamics relating to the factors, identified earlier, that impede or
enhance capital accumulation.

1. The cost of cereals, the main item in the working-class diet, became
too high due to protectionism and due to the inability of the ‘organic’
four-course rotation system to sustain output increases. This was lead-
ing to a squeeze on profits, a contradiction for capital, and pressure by
industrial capitalists to look for cheaper supplies (countervailing ten-
dency 1). This trend towards increase in the cost of wage foods was
exacerbated by the potato blight in Ireland and Scotland in the 1840s,
with grain being diverted to alleviate famine in these areas (albeit in
nothing like the quantities required). Increase in the price of grain was
leading simultaneously to working-class agitation, such that a contra-
diction of capital was generating, via reflexive political action, a con-
tradiction for capital (A mix of Level 3 and Level 4 dynamics).
2. Political enfranchisement of the new industrial bourgeoisie through
the 1832 Reform Act enabled these pressures to be translated into
direct political action within Parliament against the landlord fraction
of the capitalist class—a case of intra-class contestation. The industrial
bourgeoisie also attempted to co-opt or defuse working-class agitation
with promises of cheaper food (Level 4 dynamics).
96 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

3. There was also an increasing division within the agricultural capitalist

class between cereal producers and pastoralists. With the increasing
tendency for cattle forage to be supplemented with grain and oilseed-
based fodder, the protected home market was leading to a squeeze on
profits for pastoralists. The latter were aware that these fodder sources
could be more cheaply supplied from overseas (A mix of Level 3 and
4 dynamics).
4. A decline in the production and productivity of soil within the limits
of the ‘organic’ system. The capitalist impulse and metabolic rift (the
continued transfer of nutrients to the city) undermined the capacity
to sustain production and productivity increases. Pressure for increas-
ing intensification and specialization led to the search for ‘cheaper’
substitutes for nutrient inputs, notably nitrates and super-phosphates
from guano, etc. (in effect countervailing tendency 3, where cheaper
inputs enable the ‘machine’ of the soil to operate at lower cost, while
ignoring, of course, the ecological costs of so doing). These derived
from the ‘periphery’ (Level 3 dynamics).
5. All the above pressures could be released by ‘spatio-temporal’ fixes in
the form of bilateral trade agreements with complementary class frac-
tional interests overseas (countervailing tendency 4) (Level 4), and, in
so doing, drawing on a ‘frontier’ of extraction where labour and/or the
conditions of production were cheaper (Level 4 and Level 3

The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime

The liberal era of free trade, dominated by Britain, was succeeded by the
‘Age of Empire’ (Hobsbawm 1987), in which, under conditions of
increased international competition between the leading powers of the
core, there was a clear move away from unrestrained competitive private
enterprise and government abstention from interference in the ‘econ-
omy’, towards large industrial corporations, very considerable interfer-
ence in the ‘economy’, and the adoption of commensurately different
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 97

orthodoxies of policy. Capitalism, and the state-based form that it neces-

sarily assumed, changed from the 1870s in a number of significant ways.
Firstly, the capital–state nexus now entered fully the era of the ‘second’
industrial revolution characterized by new sources of power (electricity
and oil, turbines and the internal combustion engine), new machinery
constructed from new materials (such as alloys and non-ferrous metals),
and by new science-based industries such as the expanding organic chem-
ical industry. All these technological changes enabled the cost of machin-
ery, and the fuel employed in its manufacture and operation, to be
lowered, thereby vastly raising the productivity of labour (countervailing
tendencies 1 and 3 above). These developments were mirrored in a greatly
deepened ‘second’ agricultural revolution, prefigured in the preceding
liberal era, that had the effect of transforming the following three aspects
of production (yields per area of land) and the productivity of labour (the
labour required to produce the yield):

• The impact of chemical fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals on

production (yields);
• The impact of scientific plant and animal breeding, facilitated by new
knowledge of genetics and its applications, on yields (and on the speed
of production—turnover time of capital);
• The internal combustion engine and its use in tractors and other farm
machines transformed the productivity of labour (larger areas could be
farmed per unit of labour) (Bernstein 2010, 66).

By eliminating animal traction, the area of land devoted to producing

food crops could be increased, chemical fertilizers reduced the need for
crop rotations and mixed farming systems, while new plant and animals
breeds increased yield and decreased the turnover time of capital. While
generating new ecological contradictions which, for the time being, could
be externalized from cost accounting, these developments delivered food
more cheaply, and in greater abundance, to the proletariat (countervail-
ing tendency 1).
Secondly, and this is perhaps the most decisive development and one
that can be understood only at the level of the ‘political’ (Level 4) by ref-
erence to the state-based nature of capitalism, a paradoxical reversal now
98 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

occurred. The free trade, liberal era had been characterized by a de facto
British industrial monopoly internationally, within which the norm had
been one of assured profits through competition between small- and
medium-sized enterprises. In marked contrast, the post-liberal era was
characterized by international competition between Britain and the now
rival capitalist, industrial economies of Germany and the USA, in par-
ticular. Competition between these states was heightened by the difficul-
ties, now encountered by capitalist enterprises under conditions of
relative depression, in realizing sufficient profits for reproduction. In this
way, capitalism, embodied in the geopolitical strategies of the core states,
entered a period of formal imperialism as understood in the manner
employed by Lenin (1964): that is, in the broad sense of capitalism as
now characterized by ‘monopoly capitalism’, and also in the narrower
sense, as the new and formal integration (colonization) of the ‘periphery’
into the capitalist world economy as dependencies of the ‘core’ states,
and, as a corollary of this, as competition between these core states. Other
than the impulse of geopolitical rivalry and prowess, leading the core
states to divide the vast bulk of the periphery into ‘reservations’ for their
own capitalists, and of markets and of capital exports, imperialism arose
due to the increased significance of raw materials that were unavailable,
for reasons of climate, geology, or depletion, in the core states themselves
(Hobsbawm 1987). The new industries of the ‘second’ industrial and
agricultural revolutions now demanded materials such as petroleum, rub-
ber, and non-ferrous metals, while the growing mass consumption of the
core required ever larger quantities not only of commodities produced in
the imperium, such as grain and meat, but also those that could not be,
such as tropical and sub-tropical beverages and fruit, or vegetable oil for
We can deepen this analysis of imperialism by looking again at the
basic dynamics of capitalism and its relationship to the state. Here, sev-
eral key structural dynamics can be identified as a result of the way in
which capitalist social relations are constructed around the private own-
ership of the means of production and so-called free wage labour. First,
because capital, like labour, has to reproduce itself through the market
(the need for labour to access the means of production through the
market I have termed, following Wood 2002, ‘market dependence’),
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 99

individual capitalists are in constant competition with one another. It is

the resulting innovative impetus that makes capitalism such a dynamic—
and socially and ecologically destructive—mode of production. ‘The
development of capitalist production makes it constantly necessary to
keep increasing the amount of capital laid out on a given industrial
undertaking, and competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist
production to be felt by each individual capitalist, as external coercive
laws’ (Marx 1972, 588).
Second, capitalism is subject to periodic crises, since this dynamic
development ‘inevitably’ results either in a crisis of over-accumulation,
when unemployed workers and surplus profits can no longer be brought
together gainfully, or in a crisis of under-accumulation, when fully
employed workers compromise profit-making through wage inflation. I
will argue here that it was a crisis of over-accumulation, and consequent
protectionism, in the core capitalist states that explains the thrust towards
formal and competitive imperialism from the 1870s. By contrast, it was
a crisis of under-accumulation during the 1970s, and the subsequent
turn to neoliberalism, that explains the impulse towards the ‘new’ impe-
rialism, from the 1980s, of the neoliberal era. Both forms of crisis are
‘inevitable’ outcomes of capitalism in the sense that it is class system
founded on the need to reduce the cost of labour, on the one hand, while
needing to find a market for its commodities, on the other. Because capi-
talism is an inherently contradictory system, the state has a vital role to
play in securing not only accumulation for capital, but also in trying to
legitimate or mitigate its contradictions. Because capitalism has co-
evolved with the modern, nation-state from the outset, and because the
need for legitimation often takes the form of placing national identity
above class identity, there is always a strong temptation for the state to
attempt to externalize such contradictions, and enhance accumulation
through super-exploitation, by means of ‘spatio-temporal’ fix (Jessop
2008), beyond the state onto what is likely, as a consequence, to become
a periphery. So, one important way of overcoming crisis is through the
outward expansion of capitalism under the aegis of the state, a phenom-
enon that we can describe as a third ‘structural’ tendency. It is in this
respect that the notion of what I have termed ‘combined and uneven
development’ becomes relevant. In short, in response to the crisis
100 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

tendencies of capitalist social relations of production, or more appropri-

ately domination, as mediated by the state, there is an inherent, ‘struc-
tural’ dynamic of expansion that takes the form of ‘combined and uneven
development’ as imperialism (Tilzey 2016a). I will suggest, following
Lenin (1964), that the key rationale for the adoption of imperialism by
the core states following the 1870s was the monopolistic control of the
sources, and the production by super-exploited labour, of raw materials
for subsequent manufacture in the imperium. This rationale could be
most effectively guaranteed by means of territorial conquest. This ratio-
nale continues in the ‘new’ imperialism of today, but is complemented,
crucially, by the unprecedented relocation of manufacturing itself to
(selected regions of ) the periphery, representing, in accordance with
Lenin’s thesis, a crucial investment outlet for Northern capital.
This discussion of the ‘age of empire’ (which will inform our under-
standing of Friedmann and McMichael’s ‘first’, or what I wish to call the
‘second’ or ‘Imperial’, international food regime) must start with Lenin,
whose Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in 1916, cap-
tures some of the key dynamics of competitive imperialism, although
these dynamics, and thus the vindication of Lenin’s theory, were not to be
realized in full until the ‘new’ imperialism of the current conjuncture (see
Smith 2016). Lenin captured the essence of the ‘age of empire’ (and, as
suggested, of the ‘new’ imperialism) as ‘the division of nations into
oppressor and oppressed’ (Lenin 1964, 407). Lenin’s theory did what was
at that time all that was possible: to recognize the beginning of a new
stage of capitalism’s development and to identify those essential charac-
teristics of capitalism’s imperialist stage evident at its birth, in particular,
the concentration of wealth and the rise of finance capital, its oppression
of, and predation on, peripheral nations, and its militarism. It is the case,
however, that Lenin could not have included a conception of how value
is produced in globalized production processes, since this phenomenon
was only to emerge in a later phase of capitalist development which we
know as the ‘new imperialism’ of neoliberalism.
The ‘age of empire’ was marked, then, by the replacement of competi-
tive capitalism by monopoly capitalism as the dominant form in both
industry and finance. While not employing Luxemburg’s (1972) under-
consumptionist thesis, Lenin did, however, locate the origin of the limit
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 101

to capital accumulation in the centre (over-accumulation) in the under-

development of individual consumption capacity, noting that ‘the neces-
sity for exporting capital arises from the fact that in a few countries,
capitalism becomes “overripe” and (owing to the backward stage of agri-
culture and the impoverished state of the masses) capital cannot find a
field of “profitable” investment’ (Lenin 1964, 73). It is possible, however,
for the capital goods sector to grow relatively autonomously from the
consumption goods sector, offering domestic investment opportunities
for capital but also leading to the accumulation of enormous masses of
capital that drive down the rate of profit. The fall in the rate of profit and
the consequent accumulation of a financial surplus are thus the forms
that capitalist crises assume under monopoly capitalism. Surplus capital
then seeks out peripheral areas ‘external’ to the capitalist sphere: ‘In these
“backward” countries profits are usually high, for capital is scarce, the
price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap’
(Lenin 1964, 73). Thus, in the phase of monopoly capital (the ‘highest
stage of capitalism’ for Lenin), imperialism assumes the form of the
export to the periphery of finance capital (industrial and financial) in its
quest for high profit rates. This stands in contrast to Luxemburg’s (1972)
assertion that it was the export of commodities in search of new markets
that was the key to explaining imperialism. The facts do not support
Luxemburg’s thesis, although it is true that the perception amongst capi-
talists that there were significant new markets in the periphery was an
important contributory factor propelling imperialism (see Hobsbawm
1987). For Lenin, however, it was the export of capital that then stimu-
lated the export of capital goods and other sundry commodities. Since it
was a necessary factor in counteracting the over-accumulation crisis of
the core, Lenin saw the export of capital as generating severe rivalry
amongst the imperial states as they strove for access to, and control over,
the periphery. He saw this as key to, amongst other things, the partition
of Africa amongst the colonial powers, and to the tensions that culmi-
nated in the First World War.
Thus, for Lenin, imperialism, through monopoly finance capital, led
to the diffusion of capitalism to the periphery, where it implied acceler-
ated growth. ‘The export of capital affects and greatly accelerates the
development of capitalism in those countries to which it is exported.
102 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

While, therefore, the export of capital may tend to a certain extent to

arrest development in the capital-exporting countries, it can only do so
by expanding and deepening the further development of capitalism
throughout the world’ (Lenin 1964, 76). He thus saw a consequent ten-
dency towards the homogenization of capitalism on a world scale since
‘capitalism is growing with the greatest rapidity in the colonies and in
overseas countries’ (Lenin 1964, 117). In this, the theory of accelerated
accumulation in the periphery, Lenin was correct in one respect, as we
have seen, although his prediction would not come to pass until the neo-
liberal era, and then only with respect to selected areas. With respect to
the theory of capitalism’s global homogenization, he was incorrect, how-
ever, since he failed to appreciate the dependent and distorted nature of
‘development’, founded on systems of super-exploitation of people and
nature, that was, and continues to be, characteristic of the periphery.
In order properly to understand the dynamics of the ‘age of empire’,
and derivatively the food regime(s) that were built around it, it is necessary
to conjoin some of Lenin’s insights with the theory of ‘combined and
uneven development’, the term that I have used to capture the nature of
dependent and distorted development through the inversion of Trotsky’s
original term. In this respect, the work of Samir Amin, particularly his
Imperialism and Unequal Development (1977), is especially useful. In this
work, Amin brought to their most elaborated forms the ‘dependency
school’ interpretations of unequal development as a pattern of homoge-
neous growth in the core states and stagnation, or highly uneven growth,
in the periphery, without, however, relapsing into the ‘circulationist’ and
simplistic surplus extraction arguments of the latter (see, e.g., Frank
1969). In this, he elaborated the concept of peripheral capitalism to char-
acterize the nature of accumulation in the periphery of the world system,
and, in contrast to dependency theory, relocated the mechanism of
unequal exchange within the theory of historical materialism to make
surplus extraction, on the basis of specific class, or social-property, relations,
the key element in his model of under- or distorted development. In this
model, wages are no longer an exogenous determinant of unequal
exchange, but are rather themselves determined by pre-existing class rela-
tions as an ‘objective’ force, and by class struggle (structured agency) in
relation to those pre-given (objective) circumstances.
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 103

For Amin, the core states are characterized, particularly from the 1880s
or so, by an articulated (or autocentric) pattern of accumulation, whereby
a portion of the productivity gains in the labour process translates into
increased wages, thus permitting a dynamic equilibrium to obtain among
sectors and between production and consumption. (As we shall see in our
discussion of neoliberalism later on, while sectoral articulation within
core states has largely disintegrated following the demise of Keynesian
policies, the relation between production and consumption, as deter-
mined by core states, but now on a global scale, remains, such that a
necessary degree of social articulation, to secure legitimation, is retained.)
The consumption capacity of the economic system expands in relation to
the development of its production capacity. The underlying tendency of
capitalism in the core is, however, one of under-consumption (over-
accumulation), with a consequent emergence of an ‘idle’ financial surplus
that depresses the rate of profit. While an internal solution to the main-
tenance of a dynamic equilibrium is possible in the core itself, through
politically conscious manipulation of the emerging compact between
capital and a ‘labour aristocracy’ as in the Keynesian era particularly, an
external solution also exists. This entails the ‘functionalization’ of the
periphery in the maintenance of this dynamic equilibrium between pro-
duction and consumption in the core. Although a secondary solution, it
is nonetheless one that has been utilized when the ‘social contract’ in the
core has been insufficient to overcome the tendency for the rate of profit
to decline. It is also one that has devastating consequences for the periph-
ery, leading not to ‘articulated’ development as in the core, but rather to
‘disarticulated’, dependent, and distorted ‘development’.
In Amin’s theory, the periphery plays two principal roles in the devel-
opment of the world capitalist system. First, and of earlier importance, it
offers an expanding market, by means of primitive accumulation and the
creation of market dependence, at the expense of pre-capitalist areas. In
this, it is very similar to Luxemburg’s theory of under-consumption.
Second, and of later significance, it increases the average rate of profit by
means of the super-exploitation of labour. This dual role has been re-
defined over time as the core has developed away from competitive capi-
talism, of the kind that predominated during the era of free trade, to
monopoly capitalism, of the kind that dominated the ‘age of empire’.
104 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

In the age of competition, it was the first of these two functions that was
vital, because keeping wages at a minimum at the centre at relatively low
and stagnant levels (down to about 1860, at any rate) came into conflict
with the objective requirement, in the model of autocentric accumulation,
of a parallel growth of reward of labour and the level of development of the
productive forces. External extension of the capitalist market was therefore
of prime importance as a means for realizing surplus value. (Amin 1977,

This interpretation has similarities with Luxemburg’s theory, since,

during this period of free trade, wages still remained largely at subsistence
levels for the working class in the centre. Amin goes beyond Luxemburg,
however, in his identification of the role of trade in the maintenance of
the rate of profit in the centre, resulting from the import of wage foods
and raw materials that are cheap, as we have seen, because of the ‘subsidy’
from previously unexploited resources (as with American wheat) or from
the use of particularly repressive labour regimes (as in Prussia, Russia, or
India). Amin argues, debatably, that at this stage there was no unequal
exchange through trade (i.e., no super-exploitation of labour) during this
period, since wages were equally low world-wide.
He argues that the role of the periphery changed with the rise of the
‘objective’ force of monopoly capital, and the ‘subjective’ force of class
struggle that pushed wages upward and internalized market expansion in
the core:

After 1880 the monopolies created the conditions needed, first, for wages
at the centre to rise in line with productivity, as required for autocentric
accumulation, with competition between firms no longer proceeding by
way of price cuts, and second, for the export of capital on a large scale to
the periphery to become possible. The first of these changes reduced the
role of the periphery in the mechanism of absorption. At the same time,
however, it reinforced the second function, that of raising the level of the
rate of profit, which was tending to decline faster at the centre. This became
possible through the export of capital, which enabled forms of production
to be established in the periphery which, although modern, nevertheless
enjoyed the advantage of low wage-costs. It was then that unequal exchange
appeared. (Amin 1977, 188)
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 105

In the periphery, unequal exchange and the outflow of profits to the

core prevent accumulation, although rapid growth occurs in specific peri-
ods and sectors. With the expansion of the market for the world system
as a whole located in the core and in the consumption of luxuries by the
periphery’s elites, the periphery is reduced fundamentally to the dual
function of providing cheap exports and high rates of profit on expatri-
ated capital, with both founded on the basis of super-exploited labour.
This function is developed by the maintenance in the periphery of a pro-
cess of extroverted and disarticulated accumulation in which high labour
productivity in the modern sector is accompanied by cheap labour, and
where semi-proletarianization in the non-capitalist spheres, particularly
in non-export agriculture, cheapens the cost of maintenance and repro-
duction of labour power. There is thus a functional articulation between
capitalist production and the survival of non-capitalist modes, such as a
semi-proletarianized peasantry, as a basis for enhancing capital accumula-
tion. Unequal or disarticulated development implies that the growth sec-
tors are concentrated in the capitalist production of exportables and
luxuries, while the production of the majority of wage foods and basic
consumer goods remains non-capitalistic, and that of capital goods essen-
tially absent. As a consequence, it is principally in the non-capitalist
modes that the impoverished masses bear the social cost of unequal and
distorted development. As we shall see later, Amin’s mechanism of
unequal development, like Lenin’s thesis of capital export, was to come to
full fruition only during the neoliberal era rather than during the ‘age of
empire’. As such, and again as we shall see later, it also forms the crucial
basis for understanding the radical, or counter-hegemonic, forms of resis-
tance to capitalism, deriving from the peasantry, that are located over-
whelmingly in the periphery that is the global South. Thus, while we
cannot conceive of the ‘peasantry’ as surviving as an unchanged and
autonomous ‘residue’ from the past, as the ‘populists’ tend to claim, we
can, for the above reasons, see a clear distinction between the generalized
‘real’ subsumption of workers in the global North and the predominance
of ‘formal’ subsumption of the ‘classes of labour’ in the global South.
So, although the putative role of the periphery in alleviating the con-
tradictions of accumulation in the core, during the ‘age of empire’, may
perhaps be overstated in the theories of Luxemburg and Lenin, with this
106 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

function becoming structurally central to capital’s reproduction only

during the neoliberal era, there is, nonetheless, no doubting the pro-
foundly distorting and destructive impacts on the periphery of the ‘sec-
ond’ industrial and agricultural revolutions, with their demands for new
and ever-increasing quantities of primary commodities. This had the
effect of further entrenching highly in-egalitarian and racialized political
ecologies of disarticulated accumulation and primary resource extraction,
whereby the function of formal colonies and informal dependencies
(such as the Latin American countries) alike, ‘was to complement the
metropolitan economies and not to compete with them’ (Hobsbawm
1987, 65). It needs to be emphasized that world capitalism in this new
‘age of empire’ was very different from what it had been up to the 1860s.
It now comprised a plurality of rival ‘national economies’ ‘protecting’
themselves against each other. With the breakdown of trade and interna-
tional class fractional complementarities, as ‘comparative advantage’, that
had typified the free trade era, it seems to have been the need to gain
secure access to key resources under these new conditions of relative
depression and the new protectionism, augmented by the perceived pos-
sibility of capturing new markets, that were the key factors driving impe-
rial ambition.
Rather than viewing imperialism as simply an expression of the contra-
dictions of capital accumulation in its new monopoly phase, however, we
need also, in accordance with our model of the state–capital nexus, to
direct attention to the geopolitical and legitimation dimensions of the
capitalist state. Thus, as Hobsbawm (1987, 67) has noted, ‘once rival
powers began to carve up the map of Africa or Oceania, each naturally
tried to safeguard against an excessive portion going to others. Once the
status of the great power thus became associated with raising its flag over
some palm-fringed beach… the acquisition of colonies became itself a
status symbol, irrespective of their value’. Imperialism was also an impor-
tant means of defusing social tensions within the nations of the core. The
rise of labour movements that characterized the newly proletarianized (in
mainland Europe) and increasingly enfranchised (throughout Western
Europe) working classes, generated political contradictions for the state–
capital nexus that could be ameliorated only partially by means of
productivity related wage increases. Ideological incorporation into the
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 107

nation-state as citizens was additionally important, and here imperialism

could act as an important augmenting factor. Thus, the rise of labour
movements, or more generally, of democratic politics, had a distinct bear-
ing on the emergence of imperialism. Indeed, ever since the imperialist
Cecil Rhodes observed in 1895 that ‘if one wanted to avoid civil war one
must become imperialist’, it has been commonplace to observe the effi-
cacy of so-called social imperialism in sustaining concord, where ‘social
imperialism’ is understood as the attempt to use imperial expansion to
diminish domestic discontent by economic improvements or social
reform, or in other ways. As Hobsbawm (1987, 69) has noted, there is no
doubt at all that politicians of the time were perfectly aware of the poten-
tial benefits of imperialism. Indeed, he goes on to suggest that ‘more
generally, imperialism encouraged the masses, and especially the
potentially discontented, to identify themselves with the imperial state
and nation, and thus unconsciously to endow the social and political
system represented by that state with justification and legitimacy’
(Hobsbawm 1987, 70).
These observations on the causal dynamics underlying the state–capi-
tal nexus in the ‘age of empire’ enable us to make sense of the so-called
first international food regime. In fact, this term, coined by Friedmann
and McMichael (1989), is something of a misnomer since, as I have sug-
gested, the first truly international capitalist food regime was that of the
preceding liberal, free trade regime discussed in the previous section.
While this first I will term here the ‘Free Trade or Liberal’ food regime,
the second (i.e., Friedmann and McMichael’s ‘first’) I will term the
‘Imperial’ food regime. The broad characteristics of the ‘Imperial’ food
regime are the following:

• New zones of grain and meat production in the so-called neo-Europes

(Crosby 1986), established by settler colonialism in the temperate
Americas, Southern Africa, Australia, and New Zealand;
• More diversified patterns of agriculture in Western Europe itself in
addition to accelerating rural out-migration;
• Specialization in tropical export crops in colonial Asia and Africa and
the tropical zones of the formally independent (and substantively
108 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

dependent) republics of Latin America, whether grown on capitalist or

peasant farms, or on industrial plantations. (Bernstein 2010, 68)

A central feature of this regime was the connection between revolu-

tionary changes in the technical conditions and organization of produc-
tion, particularly in the ‘neo-Europes’ and Europe itself, and in the
industrial plantations of the tropics, with the vastly expanded scale of
international trade in staple foods of the temperate ‘grain-livestock com-
plex’ (Friedmann 2004), in ‘tropical groceries’ (foods and beverages such
as sugar, cocoa, bananas, tea, coffee), and in primarily tropical, industrial
crops like rubber, palm oil, cotton, sisal, and jute (Bernstein 2010, 68).
The ‘neo-European’ ‘grain-livestock complex’, premised centrally on the
opening up of previously uncultivated ‘frontier’ lands with the massive
fertility ‘subsidy’ that that entailed, comprised the following

• Extensive grain monoculture, to feed both people and livestock;

• The slaughter of cattle and the processing of meat by industrial means
and on an industrial scale;
• The industrial manufacture of farm equipment, notably the steel
plough and subsequently tractors;
• Infrastructure for the handling and transportation, in unprecedented
quantities and over long distances, of grain and meat, the latter requir-
ing refrigeration;
• Futures markets and other institutional innovations in financing the
production and trade of agricultural commodities. (Bernstein 2010,

The key elements of this food regime were in fact developed during the
previous ‘Liberal’ era, and, while it is true to say that the developments in
the ‘neo-Europes’, particularly, had a profound impact on farming sys-
tems in Europe, it is incorrect to suggest, as does Bernstein (2010), or to
confusedly intimate, as do Friedmann and McMichael (1989),4 that
mainland Europe was subordinated to a continuing free trade regime
from the 1870s onwards. Much of what has been said above clearly prob-
lematizes any such assertion. Rather, it was only Britain, for reasons
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 109

unique to its early industrializing experience, that continued with a rela-

tively free trade regime during the ‘age of empire’, and this primarily with
respect to its colonies or ‘honorary’ colonies such as the USA. The prin-
cipal states of Europe, notably Germany and France, pursued very differ-
ent agricultural policies, policies that are best characterized as protectionism,
not as free trade. So, while the preceding ‘Liberal’ food regime may
indeed be described as a relatively unitary and complementary interna-
tional mechanism articulating the major core capitalist states in free
trade, and according to the principles of Ricardian ‘comparative
advantage’, it is impossible to do the same for the succeeding ‘Imperial’
regime. While these states continued necessarily in relations of ‘uneven
and combined development’, it is no longer possible to describe the
‘Imperial’ food regime as unitary and complementary; rather, it now
comprised a number of discrete capitalist food regimes structured around
the main core states and their respective empires.
As I have suggested before, the key dynamics in this process arise from
relations between class and class fractional interests (social-property rela-
tions) within and between the core capitalist states. Where, during the
‘Liberal’ food regime, the interests of the major class fractions in each
state had been complementary, these now, in the ‘Imperial’ food regime,
became progressively more antagonistic. Thus, in the case of Germany,
which, as we have seen, was a major supplier of wheat to Britain during
the middle part of the nineteenth century, the turn of the latter towards
the USA as the cheapest producer of grain had progressively deeper nega-
tive impacts on the incomes of the Prussian Junker capitalists. With for-
eign sources of income progressively blocked by cheaper competition, the
Junkers began to see a confluence of interest with the nascent industrial
bourgeoisies through policies of autocentric (articulated) and protected,
national development. The German industrial-capitalist class fraction
likewise saw its international expansion blocked by Britain’s pre-existing
industrial eminence, this now further buoyed by cheap food imports
from North America. Meanwhile, agricultural crisis was generating an
ever larger ‘surplus’ rural population, with the prospect of serious social
unrest, despite the safety valve of emigration, becoming a progressively
more insistent danger to the ruling classes. The solution to both
accumulation and legitimation crisis was seen increasingly to lie with
110 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

protectionism, with articulated development affording the means both to

absorb labour and build the power of the state. The state, aided by the
process of national unification, assisted the formation of industrial
monopolies, while social unrest could now be dampened through wage
rises in line with productivity, and social divisions ideologically ‘papered
over’ by means of ‘social imperialism’. Thus, in Germany, and also in
France, which pursued a not dissimilar course of action, significant mea-
sures were implemented to protect national cereal and animal, and milk
production, in other words, the major wage foods of the new proletariat
(Mazoyer and Roudart 2006).
By contrast, the ‘age of empire’ was marked by serious agricultural
depression in Britain as a result of its continuing pursuit of free trade. The
power of the rural landlord class was now compromised, if not broken,
and there were even calls for land reform as the century drew to a close.
However, since industry was still thriving, and there was no longer a
peasantry worthy of the name throughout much of Britain, the land
reform agenda, at least in England, had little resonance for the bulk of the
population. Not so in the Gaelic-speaking regions of Ireland and Scotland,
however. Here a significant residue of the ‘peasantry’ had managed to
survive the depredations of ‘primitive accumulation’, albeit as extremely
impoverished semi-proletarians clinging to land of the least productive
kind. With the marked decline in the agricultural fortunes of the land-
lord class, political resistance and calls for land restitution on the part of
the remaining peasantry began to gain traction. In this way, a series of
land reform measures from the 1880s onwards enforced greater security
of tenure, and some redistribution of land, in favour of Gaelic smallhold-
ers (Hunter 2010). The remainder of Britain, however, was to ‘sink into
lasting food dependence’ (Mazoyer and Roudart 2006, 370), a situation
that was to persist at least until the beginnings of state support for agri-
culture in the 1930s.
As for the global periphery, any notion of ‘articulated’ development
along the lines of Germany or France was, of course, entirely beyond the
pale. Its fate, as enforced by the imperium and acquiesced in by its indig-
enous elites, was one of reinforced ‘export-led exploitation’ (Bagchi
2009). As we have seen, as the core nations underwent the concentration
and centralization of capital, as monopoly finance capital, so came to pass
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 111

the beginnings of imperialist attempts to capture high rates of profit

through direct investments in the periphery. Despite the notional inde-
pendence of the majority of its states, Latin America was typical of the
experience of the periphery in this regard. The new imperial international
division of labour between industrial centre and primary commodity
exporting periphery gave a strong stimulus to the growth of some exports
in Latin America. Those countries, such as Argentina and Uruguay, pro-
ducing temperate agricultural commodities were able greatly to expand
production of cereals and animal products for export to European food
deficit countries, notably Britain. Heavy investment from the core states,
again notably from Britain, financed the large-scale transport, storage,
and shipment facilities necessary for this type of extensive agricultural
production. For the majority of Latin American states engaged in the
intensive production of tropical export commodities, however, this
period of British hegemony was not one of unmitigated trade expansion.
These states failed to receive British protection unless they were part of
the Commonwealth, and they were obliged, therefore, to compete with
those British Asian and African colonies which benefitted from imperial
‘preference’. Being highly dependent upon the export of one of two major
commodities, these countries were highly vulnerable to the boom and
bust price cycles of the world market.
In Central America, the export of tropical commodities was less vola-
tile since it was undertaken through the direct penetration of capital from
the USA. The most profound transformation in the region’s agricultural
economy coincided with the introduction of the modern refrigerated
steamship in the early 1900s. As bananas became a common wage food
in the core states, US companies, most notably United Fruit, undertook
large-scale production in Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, particu-
larly. In order to protect these investments against the social unrest that
followed land expropriations and the pattern of highly unequal and dis-
torted development that characterized these ‘banana republics’, the USA
frequently intervened in these countries by force to prop up, or install, an
indigenous agro-exporting oligarchy whose interests were directly com-
plementary to those of the core investors. This relationship may be termed
the ‘disarticulated alliance’ (De Janvry 1981).
112 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

In this way, Latin America was integrated into the global process of
accumulation as an agro-exporter to the core capitalist states, principally
Britain and the USA. Within this imperial relationship, core state invest-
ments were focused principally on the processing, marketing, and trans-
portation of temperate products for export. The penetration of capital
into the production of tropical commodities derived largely from the
USA, its investments being concentrated in banana enclaves in Central
America and in sugar plantations in the Caribbean. This process of impe-
rially ‘enforced’, and local elite endorsed, disarticulated ‘development’ is
one that has continued to characterize much of Latin America down to
the present day, with the brief and only partial exception of the Keynesian
era that extended from the 1930/40s to the 1970s. It forms the essential
contextual backdrop to understanding the emergence of the current, so-
called pink tide regimes and food sovereignty movements in Latin
America which I will be exploring in later chapters.
We have seen that Friedmann and McMichael (1989) describe capital-
ist relations of agricultural production and distribution during the ‘age of
empire’ as the ‘first’ food regime, a term that I have contested and prefer
to call, with justification set out earlier, the ‘second’, or ‘Imperial’ food
regime. Since Friedmann and McMichael’s work has been foundational
to our thinking about capitalism and agriculture as food regimes, and has
also been very influential in structuring thinking about food sovereignty,
it is both important and appropriate at this point to say a little more
about, first, the theoretical assumptions and lacunae that appear to char-
acterize their seminal 1989 paper in particular, especially in the light of
what I have said so far in relation to capitalism, class, and the state, and,
second, given the material presented above, about the accuracy of their
understanding of the dynamics of capital and food in the ‘age of empire’.
I suggest, first, that there are a number of difficulties with the theoreti-
cal frame that informs their depiction of food regimes, in general, and of
the capitalist-state system that lies behind them.
First, Friedmann and McMichael present, in their 1989 paper, only an
implicit notion of what defines capitalism, with the only clue as to any-
thing more explicit being provided, promisingly enough, by their refer-
ence to Aglietta (1979), one of the founders of Regulation Theory. But
the authors make use only of his theorization of capital accumulation
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 113

(Aglietta refers to this as a ‘Regime of Accumulation’ from which the

term ‘food regime’ presumably derives), with no reference at all to the
equally important concept of ‘Mode of Regulation’. Without the latter
concept, it is impossible to make sense of capitalism as a contradictory,
class-based, and exploitative mode of accumulation in which the modern
state plays a crucial role in variously legitimating (via the mode of regula-
tion) or suppressing contradiction. I will address this relationship between
accumulation and legitimation/suppression, and its connection to impe-
rialism, later on in my discussion of neoliberalism. This omission of class
and of legitimation is perhaps symptomatic, because elsewhere (e.g.,
McMichael 2013) we learn that food regime theory’s other main intel-
lectual progenitor is World Systems Theory, in which, as I noted earlier,
capitalism is identified as ‘production for profit’ in the sphere of circula-
tion, rather than being defined as a specific class relation between capital
and wage labour, with surplus value generated in the sphere of produc-
tion. There is, thus, a failure to identify the essence of capitalism as the
capital–labour relation founded on primitive accumulation and the con-
tinued separation, wholly or partially, of surplus value generators from
their means of livelihood. This condition, as we have seen, is founded in
turn on ‘modern sovereignty’ as the conferral of absolute property rights
on capitalists by the state, accompanied by the institutional separation of
the ‘economy’ and ‘polity’.
Second, they present an insufficiently developed theory of capitalism
and its relation to the modern state, both in respect of the development
of the discrete institutional sphere of the ‘economy’ and ‘polity’, and also
in relation to the accumulation and legitimation functions of the state.
The latter relates, as I have suggested, to an inadequate use of Regulation
Theory after Aglietta (1979), which, in their hands, appears to refer only
to the Regime of Accumulation, not to the Mode of Regulation. Moreover,
there is evidently a dichotomous, rather than internal, relation between
the state and capital, whereby both appear to be reified and de-historicized.
The state here is not conceptualized other than as a sectoral articulation
between agriculture and industry; there is no conceptualization of the
state as comprising the condensation of the balance of class forces in soci-
ety. Thus, while they do suggest that ‘it is possible to see a mutual condi-
tioning of the state system and capital’ (Friedmann and McMichael 1989,
114 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

112) this is clearly conceptualized as an external relation, as is indicated

by the following: ‘In both movements agriculture became incorporated
within accumulation itself, and states and national economies became
increasingly subordinated to capital. We conclude that the growing power
of capital to organize and re-organize agriculture undercuts state policies
directing agriculture to national ends, such as food security, articulated
development, and the preservation of rural/peasant communities’
(Friedmann and McMichael 1989, 95). This is quite unambiguously a
statement of capital in general, bereft of specific class and class fractional
content, counter-posed to a ‘state’, here a content-less abstraction, that
supposedly reflects, without compromise, the position of a generalized
counter-movement. This represents a very Polanyian, indeed neoclassical,
view of capital and the state as discrete, and polar, entities. So, in a similar
vein, capital is construed as monolithic, rather than comprising, often
competing, class fractions, with differing positionalities with respect to
protectionism, free trade, and so on. This sets the tone for McMichael’s
(2013) subsequent treatment of his neoliberal, ‘corporate’ food regime as
essentially monolithic, in which he neglects both the continuing signifi-
cance of different fractions of capital in contemporary dynamics and the
enduring importance of the state in its territorial form, and, consequently,
of imperialism. In contrast to this position, I suggest that it is necessary
to see the role of the state as being determined by class struggle located
within particular social formations (state–capital nexus), even though
class forces may be implicated in transnational structures. Capital is not
something that exists beyond the power of the (imperial) state, but is
rather represented by classes and fractions of classes within the very con-
stitution of the state.
Third, they display an inadequate use of class analysis, particularly in
relation to inter-class contestation, and, consequently, a deficient the-
ory of capital/state dynamics founded on class struggle and compro-
mise. (Friedmann 2005 later takes her development of food regime
theory a certain way in this direction through her notion of ‘implicit
rules’ governing each regime, but this never appears to be fully worked
out.) Incidentally, this failing has much in common with Polanyi’s
reluctance to recognize the significance of class and class struggle
(Tilzey 2016b).
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 115

Lastly, as a consequence of the lack of a social relational understanding

of capitalism and the state, the principal contradiction of accumulation is
one of scale, as trans-nationalization, the inevitable destiny of capital, the
solution to which is not its class relational subversion, but rather (re)-
localization, ‘the protective movement of our times’ (Friedmann and
McMichael 1989, 114). Thus, they treat capitalism and its ‘other’ as a
simplistic binary comprising an undifferentiated capitalism, on the one
hand, versus an undifferentiated localism as ‘double movement’, on the
other. We are given no idea of the class complexion of such localism,
which may as such comprise small-scale capitalists (e.g., the upper
peasantry) engaging in exploitative relations with semi-proletarians or
the landless. This again shows the particular influence of Polanyi in his
use of the ‘double-movement’ concept, which, as we shall see, informs
much of the thinking of the ‘progressives’ within the food sovereignty
movement, notably of van der Ploeg (2008, 2013) in his populist and
essentialist (non-class) view of the peasantry.
In short, Friedmann and McMichael focus on the assumed unitary,
structural imperatives of capital accumulation, thereby failing to expli-
cate the dynamics of political contestation, interest group power-play,
and discursive framings that are the motive forces in this multivalent
process. While failing to identify class and class fractional actors in their
analysis, they also generally neglect the need to theorize the way agency is
realized through political action and the deployment of different discur-
sive practices (Potter and Tilzey 2005). This neglects the usefulness of
class as a bridging concept, incorporating both structure and agency and
allowing, on the one hand, the identification of fractional interests con-
stitutive of capitalist social relations and, on the other, drawing attention
to the strategies that agents themselves employ in defending or advancing
their interests within the political process. This strategic relational
approach (Jessop 2005) relates the structure that defines positions to the
social practices of those occupying those positions. It is also necessary
here to comment on the relationship between class and class fractional
contestation and the state (with reference to the archetypal global
Northern polity). Thus, in its efforts to usher in and stabilize a new mode
of social regulation, Potter and Tilzey (2005) have noted that the state,
itself a social relation and not a ‘thing’, attempts to balance competing
116 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

class and class fractional discourses, but tends to favour those best able to
achieve hegemonic influence for their politico-economic position and
ideas. Potter and Tilzey defined hegemony as a discursive representation
that succeeds in equating the interests of society in general with the sec-
tional interests of a dominant class or class fraction. In this they invoked
Gramsci (1971), for whom hegemony was to be historically and contin-
gently achieved, since the structure of capitalist society does not guaran-
tee hegemony in and of itself. Rather, for Gramsci, within a given
historical setting, an ‘organizing principle’ had to be articulated by the
state in order to unify the dominant classes and represent their interests
to the rest of society. Potter and Tilzey, and Gramsci, might also have
noted that such representation needs also to be backed up by material
resources, manifested in higher incomes and consumption, to placate
expropriated classes and secure lasting hegemony.
In responding to critiques of this kind, McMichael, for example, has
certainly denied the charge of structuralism in relation to more recent
articulations of food regime theory and makes a strong case in its defence,
pointing, for example, to Friedmann’s refocus on ‘social contention and
elaboration of implicit rules [that] softens the initial structuralist concep-
tion of food regimes’ (2013, 12). Nonetheless, there remains, I suggest,
something of a mismatch between McMichael’s formal claims concern-
ing the analytical centrality of social contention and his substantive anal-
ysis of food regimes. While this is perhaps less true of his analyses of
earlier food regimes and the ‘state system’ that post-dated the 1989 paper
with Friedmann (e.g., McMichael 1991, 2001), even here contestation is
confined essentially to intra-capitalist class dynamics, with little or no
mention of inter-class contestation and the generation of hegemony in
the true Gramscian sense (see above). This follows in the tradition of
Arrighi (1994), for whom the concept of hegemony seems essentially to
equate with elite intra-class competition and compromise. As we shall see
later, McMichael (2009a, b, 2013) employs the notion of contestation
still less in his analysis of the ‘corporate’ food regime (other than in the
sense of the simple Polanyian binary of capitalism as monolith versus
generalized opposition as the ‘double movement’ which I examine later).
As we shall see, in this he appears essentially to posit a unidirectional logic
in which accumulation disciplines are imposed ‘downwards’ on states,
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 117

implying that neoliberalization, and indeed capital accumulation in gen-

eral, is essentially an ‘agentless’ process. This lack of attention to the state
as a social relation, to its distinct geopolitical concern to uphold accumu-
lation and legitimation, and to classes, class fractions, and contestation, is
a direct outgrowth of the social ontology delineated in the co-authored
paper of 1989.
Secondly, I wish to comment on the accuracy of Friedmann and
McMichael’s substantive analysis, in their 1989 paper, of what I choose
to call the ‘Imperial’ food regime.
First, in this regard, is their discussion of ‘sectoral articulation’. Here
they seek to ‘de-reify’ or historicize the assumption of sectoral articulation
between agriculture and industry as a norm and as a policy objective.
They suggest, rightly, that sectoral articulation is far from being the norm
within historical capitalism. Their critique focuses on Amin (1974) and
de Janvry (1981) whom they accuse of making ‘unexamined assump-
tions’ about articulation and disarticulation as the distinguishing charac-
teristics of ‘advanced’ capitalist, and under-developed or peripheral
economies, respectively. These are hardly ‘unexamined assumptions’,
however, since both Amin’s and de Janvry’s theses are deeply historicized
and based on a class-based analysis of capital and the state, and their inti-
mate relation, such as is signally lacking in Friedmann and McMichael’s
own account. Both Amin and de Janvry are very clear that sectoral articu-
lation occurs only in particular historical and class conjunctures, where
such articulation is typically a reaction against (free market) dependence
upon, and domination by, another capitalist power. Obvious examples
here would be Germany and France in reaction against the liberal market
hegemony of Britain during the ‘age of empire’. But these countries are
not identified as examples of sectoral articulation by Friedmann and
McMichael, however. Rather, the USA is identified as the only real exam-
ple of a sectorally articulated nation-state, but rather than suggesting that
this articulation came into its own only after the USA assumed economic
independence from Britain (i.e., during Friedmann and McMichael’s
‘second’ food regime), they suggest, confusedly, that it was the supply of
cheap wage foods to Europe (actually primarily to Britain, not to France
and Germany) that somehow constituted the foundation of sectorally
articulated growth and nationhood. Indeed, they seem to suggest that the
118 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

other ‘settler states’, such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, were
similar candidates for this accolade, when it is clearly the case, as I have
indicated earlier, that these countries remained colonial suppliers of pri-
mary commodities to Britain throughout the ‘age of empire’ (and beyond)
and were prevented, again until the Keynesian ‘second’ food regime, of
developing anything like a semblance of an independent industrial base.
One is obliged to ask: what is actually the real purpose of their critique
of Amin and de Janvry’s conceptualization of sectoral articulation? There
seem to be two possible answers to this question. The first is to suggest
that any notion of sectorally articulated development for states today, and
particularly those in the global South, is unviable, largely it would seem
on account of capital’s apparently ineluctable and unstoppable impulse to
grow beyond the state, to trans-nationalize and, thereby, to render the
state, and the peripheral state in particular, a hopelessly inadequate and
antiquated vehicle through which to foment autocentric development.
This may well be true in respect of capitalism, but to assume its truth in
respect of all forms of autocentric, that is non-capitalistic, development is
deeply problematical. But the sub-text of Friedmann and McMichael’s
argument is that the nation-state is now hopelessly passe, and that it was
a mere adjunct to a particular and past historical episode of capitalism
that witnessed an ephemeral articulation between agriculture and indus-
try. The future lies, therefore, not with the state but rather with an inter-
nationalized localism of the ‘multitude’, existing somehow ‘outside’
capitalism and the state, the precise definitional content of which, how-
ever, remains unknown.
The second answer to this question, is that Friedmann and McMichael,
in line with their ‘international localism’, wish to see all states as equally
weakened by, and equally passe with, the demise of sectorally articulated
development, the implication being that the ‘multitude’, whether North
or South, carries an equivalent burden of privation, destitution, and
alienation. As they suggest, ‘all national economies, not only peripheral
ones, were compromised’ (Friedmann and McMichael 1989, 103). But
this is a deeply mistaken assumption and one which, moreover, perpe-
trates a massive injustice to the impoverished majority who live in the
global South. What Friedmann and McMichael miss, and this cuts to the
heart of their partial and selective understanding of capital and the state,
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 119

is that, although sectoral articulation within the nation has without

doubt broken down (with the advent of neoliberalism), social articula-
tion, although under strain, has not. Social articulation is the other key
concept deployed by de Janvry (1981) and is analogous to the notion of
mode of regulation within Regulation Theory, that is, in short, the legiti-
mation function of the state. But social articulation, like mode of regula-
tion, remains unmentioned by Friedmann and McMichael. And the
absolutely crucial point, is that social articulation, previously secured
through sectoral articulation within the state, is now, under neoliberalism,
sustained in the states of the global North only by means of imperial rela-
tions with the global South. Moreover, this imperial relation, undertaken
by means of labour arbitrage or super-exploitation (Smith 2016), takes
precisely the form theorized by Lenin (see above). But, in Friedmann and
McMichael’s post- and trans-nationalized capitalist world, there is no
place for imperialism. I will elaborate further on this crucial relation
between social articulation in the global North and imperialism when I
discuss neoliberalism later on.
The second point of inaccuracy arises when Friedmann and McMichael
(1989, 94) suggest that the independent settler states: (1) provisioned the
growing European proletariat with wage foods (they certainly provisioned
Britain, but Germany and France reacted against cheap agricultural
imports through protectionism in their aim to construct articulated
economies); (2) became the basis of a new type of trade within a new
international order, alongside the colonial relation (this is incorrect,
because the previous era of free trade, the ‘Liberal’ food regime, was also
international and did not, except in the case of Britain, operate alongside
the colonial relation; the subsequent ‘Imperial’ regime ushered in a new
era of protectionism in mainland Europe which allowed Germany and
France to develop industrially). They also suggest that the new interna-
tional order encouraged a move towards comparative advantage as an
apparently automatic mechanism of specialization. This assertion is, quite
frankly, nonsense. Rather, the new order encouraged precisely the reverse
through protectionism. In fact, it was the preceding ‘Liberal’ food regime
that was based on Ricardian comparative advantage.
The third point of inaccuracy is their attempt to draw a direct link
between the late nineteenth-century system and US hegemony in the
120 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

twentieth century, suggesting that US grain exports/food aid underwrote

the completion of the state system in the newly de-colonized states of the
global South. While the latter did occur, there is no direct link between
the nineteenth-century export regime and the twentieth-century
Keynesian surplus disposal regime, which is presumably what they are
referring to. The latter had a very different dynamic, as we shall see. The
USA sustained essentially imperial relations with the global South in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with no intention at all to
foster completion of the state system at that time. Fomenting national
development in the global South after the Second World War was the
product of a unique conjuncture of Keynesian policies and cold war poli-
tics with no direct linkage to the previous imperial era.
Fourthly, Friedmann and McMichael (1989, 95) state that ‘we orga-
nize our argument around the concept of the food regime, which links
international relations of food production and consumption to forms of
capital accumulation, broadly distinguishing periods of capitalist trans-
formation since 1870’. This temporal delimitation seems to be based on
Aglietta (1979), but why begin in 1870? Why does their analysis not
begin with the first truly international capitalist food regime that began
in the 1840s, that is, the ‘Liberal’ food regime, as I term it? They go on to
suggest that ‘it allows us to characterize late nineteenth century capital-
ism as an extensive form, constructing capitalist production relations
through the quantitative growth of wage labour; and mid-twentieth cen-
tury capitalism as an intensive form, reconstructing consumption rela-
tions as part of the process of capital accumulation’ (Friedmann and
McMichael 1989, 95). While this assertion may be based on Aglietta’s
formulation, it is surely incorrect to suggest that the core economies of
the ‘age of empire’ were built on the quantitative growth of labour, that
is, upon absolute surplus value. Rather, the differencia specifica of this era,
as the quote from Amin above indicates, is precisely the transition to rela-
tive surplus value, or qualitative growth, as the basis for autocentric
development, and the construction of the nation-state, with Germany
perhaps being the exemplar in this regard. The Keynesian era represented
a considerable reinforcement of this dynamic between wage and produc-
tivity increases but, crucially, without the structural recourse to external
investments and markets that was the hallmark of imperialism.
The ‘Second’ or ‘Imperial’ Food Regime 1870–1930 121

Fifthly, Friedmann and McMichael (1989, 95) go on to suggest that

‘settler agriculture was the centrepiece of the formation of metropolitan
nation-states’. This is a dubious assertion. While it was without doubt an
important causal factor in the dynamics of national capitalisms in Europe,
it did not facilitate nation-state formation. Rather, Germany and France
reacted against cheap imports by protectionism for their agricultures, spe-
cifically to foment sectorally (and socially) articulated development. The
latter would not have happened had ‘comparative advantage’ ruled, as
was the case in the previous ‘Liberal’ food regime. Cheap food imports
from North America did indeed enable Britain to continue specializing
in industry and to allow its agriculture to further decline. They go on to
suggest that ‘in the “second” regime, this relationship was extended to the
post-colonial world’ (Friedmann and McMichael 1989, 95). This state-
ment is partly true in so far as cheap exports from the USA underwrote
import substituting industrialization in post-colonial states to some
degree. But this does not explain policies of land reform and efforts to
promote increased domestic agricultural production in many of these
states by means of protectionism, although in much of Latin America
these efforts were deeply compromised by the continuing power of the
‘disarticulated alliance’. Again, it is a mistake to speak of direct continuity
between what I term the ‘Imperial’ regime and what I shall term the
‘Political Productivist’ regime which was to emerge in the 1930s and per-
sist until the 1970/80s.
We are now in a position to draw to a close this discussion of the
‘Imperial’ food regime by means of a summary of its key causal features.

1. The continuing rise in the cost and ecological contradictions of British

‘high farming’ led Britain to seek out cheaper sources of food produc-
tion, particularly for grains, as a wage food for the proletariat. While
initially sourced principally from Europe, these derived increasingly
from North America, and the USA in particular, accelerating consid-
erably after the American Civil War as the frontier moved westwards
(post-1860s). This enabled Britain, in particular, to continue to provi-
sion its proletariat cheaply (countervailing tendency 1) and to remain
globally competitive industrially;
122 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

2. Increasingly cheap imports, based on the ‘soil subsidy’ in the ‘zone of

appropriation’ through the exploitation of previously uncultivated
soils in the USA, began to compromise the profits of the Prussian
Junkers, particularly, the most powerful class in Germany, as a result
of loss of grain sales to Britain. At the same time, these cheap food
imports undermined agricultural production more generally in
Europe, threatening considerable social unrest. Thus, again, a contra-
diction of capitalism gave rise to a reflexive political response which
then generated a contradiction for capital. At the same time, German
industrialists were constrained in their ability to accumulate by
continuing competition from Britain. Thus, there developed a new
confluence of interest between the agricultural and industrial class
fractions of German capital. Protectionist, rather than free trade, poli-
cies began to be favoured, and the German state was, at the same time,
consolidated. These are dynamics largely explicable only at Level 4;
3. These developments coincided with an over-accumulation crisis, a
cyclical tendency that capital could overcome in two possible ways:
first, by moving away from an extensive and quantitative mode of
growth (absolute surplus value) towards an intensive or qualitative
(relative surplus value) one, which implied that the working classes
needed to be integrated increasingly in a virtuous circle of increased
production and increased consumption. This imbricated nicely with
sectoral articulation and new nationhood (social articulation), so that
both accumulation and legitimation needs could be satisfied in the
states of the core. Qualitative growth implied, of course, increased use
of machinery and cheap energy to enhance labour productivity, which
implied greater recourse to fossil fuel and other, often previously unex-
ploited, primary commodities. These are Level 4 dynamics enabled by
Level 3 affordances. The second means of overcoming over-
accumulation was by supplementing and underwriting qualitative
growth through the importation of super-cheap primary commodities
from the periphery (primary means) and by securing captive markets
in those regions (secondary means). Under conditions of rival, rather
than complementary, capitalisms, these means were secured through
imperialism (again, Level 4 dynamics enabled by Level 3
Notes 123

4. Autocentric growth encouraged by such qualitative and quantitative

change in capitalism was evidenced in new technologies and new pri-
mary commodities (often only available from the periphery), and in
the considerable expansion in the consumption of those commodities
(Level 4 dynamics, enabled by Level 3 affordances, but now giving rise
increasingly to, as yet, relatively localized ecological contradictions
through pollution, biodiversity loss, and resource depletion);
5. Competitive, protectionist, and nationalistic economies, bolstered by
racialized ideologies of ‘social imperialism’, generated an underlying
dynamic of mutual aggression, that was to erupt eventually in the
form of the First World War (incidentally a gift for national capital-
isms so long as the war could be contained within certain bounds,
which proved, of course, impossible to guarantee). Thus, Germany
was effectively destroyed, for a while, as a competitor capitalist nation,
and caused a temporary trend, following the war, away from autocen-
trism and towards ‘free trade’ policies until over-accumulation struck
again with a vengeance towards the end of the 1920s, with the Great
Depression as the outcome. This stimulated a return to autocentrism
and protectionism during the 1930s, but still of an imperialist kind,
with Germany, under Nazism, attempting to build an imperialism
‘within Europe’. As we shall see in the next section, both Britain, with
its ‘imperial preference’, and the USA, turned to more protectionist
policies from the 1930s.

1. It should be borne in mind, however, that the impacts of tariff elimination
were not seriously felt for some time after 1846, in fact, not until about
1860 when grain imports started to increase consistently. Hobsbawm
(1968) suggests that British agriculture remained ‘a haven of prosperous
high prices, immune to foreign competition’, largely due to transport con-
straints and technology, preventing the nation from being fed regularly by
foreign imports.
2. This implied, of course, continued agricultural depression within Britain.
124 4 The ‘First’ or British ‘Liberal’ Food Regime 1840–1870...

3. The four-course rotation comprised: Year 1 Wheat; Year 2 Turnips; Year 3

Barley (under-sown with clover and ryegrass); Year 4 Clover and Ryegrass
4. These authors do identify the protectionist trends that characterized
France and Germany particularly, but this important fact gets lost in their
eagerness to identify the centrality of settler-state agricultural exports to
the process of nation-state formation.

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The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’
or ‘Political Productivist’ Food Regime

Following the First World War, the USA began to emerge as the hege-
monic capitalist power globally, a position which it was to attain unam-
biguously by the end of the Second World War. In this latter post-war
period, the dynamics of US domestic agricultural class fractional politics
came to exert a dominant influence on food policy worldwide, just as
British capitalist class fractions had exerted an overwhelming influence
on the parameters of the ‘Liberal’ food regime of the previous century.
The majority of US agricultural commodity producers developed, from
the 1930s, a concern to protect their enterprises from falling prices and
began, therefore, to call for active intervention by the state. Agricultural
producers in the USA were, however, competitive in the world economy,
and in contrast to their counterparts in early nineteenth-century Britain
did not, therefore, seek protection from overseas competition. Rather,
these agricultural class fractions, especially those engaged in the corn,
wheat, and cotton sectors, sought protection from the ‘free play’ of ‘mar-
ket forces’, in this case, the tendency for capitalism to encounter (another)
crisis of over-production (over-accumulation). Over-production and the
resumption of freer trade regimes following the First World War began to
depress agricultural prices in the 1920s, a trend which continued into the
1930s (Winders 2009b). Class fractions of US agriculture, by contrast to

© The Author(s) 2018 127

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
128 5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’...

their British forebears in the pre-Liberal era of the nineteenth century,

were sufficiently powerful and competitive to influence national policy
and, consequently, to mould the form of the post–Second World War
food regime, particularly, to conform to their interests. These class frac-
tions strove for the national regulation and support of agriculture, and
subsequently, for the creation of international food aid as a means of
alleviating over-supply. Nonetheless, this was not necessarily unitary class
fractional advocacy; divisions as much as alliances existed within the agri-
culture sector, shaping US agricultural policy and the international food
regime that was to arise from this (Tilzey 2006). There was, then, no
single capitalist interest position that then translated automatically into
US policy, as Friedmann and McMichael (1989) seem to suggest. Rather,
this was an agential process of negotiation, contestation, and
As noted, over-production in agriculture emerged during the 1920s,
several years before the world economy relapsed into a general depres-
sion. In line with this, a decline in agricultural prices began in the mid-
1920s and accelerated in the early 1930s, the value of national economic
output fell sharply, and unemployment rose to a quarter of the US work-
force.1 These are dynamics located in the authoritative domain of Level 4.
Simultaneously, however, capital’s impulse to expand production without
constraint began to have environmental repercussions on a scale and
intensity, particularly in terms of soil exhaustion and erosion, that could
no longer be simply ‘externalized’. The effects were witnessed especially in
terms of extensive erosion that characterized the ‘dust bowl’ in the
Midwest and parts of the South of the USA. The US state responded with
attempts to restrain further expansion in production that, perversely, was
occurring to sustain incomes in the face of falling prices. Consequently,
we see a contradiction of capitalism, manifested in the erosion of the
conditions of production, reflexively reacting back on capital via the state
(in the form of environmental regulation) as a potential contradiction for
capitalism. We also see the political ecological dialectic in operation
between the differentiated Levels of 3 and 4.
The consequence of these ‘political’ and ‘ecological’ contradictions was
the passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Acts (AAA) of 1933 and
1938. These Acts attempted to regulate ‘the market’ through a policy of
5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’... 129

supply management, founded on two main components: price supports

and production controls (Winders 2009a). Marx and Engels (1848, 29)
foresaw such policies when they suggested that capitalists can mitigate
crises of over-production, such as those characterizing agriculture during
the 1920s and 1930s, either by finding new markets (countervailing ten-
dency 5 above), or ‘by enforced destruction of a mass of productive
forces’, that is, by destroying part of the means of production. This we
may identify as another countervailing tendency which we can denote as
the seventh. Incidentally, warfare is an additional, and widely employed,
means of achieving this same end. It is something that capitalists them-
selves are reluctant to engage in since it requires systematic and coordi-
nated action; the state typically assumes this role, thus transforming a
potential contradiction for capitalism into a means of further accumula-
tion. Thus, the resulting ‘New Deal’ agricultural policy fulfilled this
countervailing tendency in two ways: set asides included payments to
farmers for either ploughing their crops under, or for leaving farmland
idle; and state purchases of surpluses removed large quantities of agricul-
tural commodities from the market. In both cases, these policies gener-
ated one solution to a crisis of over-production through contriving an
artificial shortage of commodities, thus keeping prices buoyant.
Importantly, this policy covered only six ‘basic commodities’ until the
1940s: wheat, corn, tobacco, cotton, rice and peanuts. Price supports
provided a price floor for these commodities, guaranteeing farmers a
minimum price for their crops. These supports were tied to acreage allot-
ments that limited the proportion of farmland that could be devoted to
particular crops (Winders 2009a).
Another mode of production control took the form of ‘set asides’,
these providing payments to farmers for either ploughing under some
portion of the crop or for leaving land idle. These payments approxi-
mated the market value of what would have been produced in the absence
of ‘set asides’. Finally, in connection with the price supports, the US
government created the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) to over-
see the purchase of large quantities of agricultural commodities in order
to remove them from the market so as to prevent surpluses from depress-
ing prices. Thus, income supports and production controls worked in
conjunction with one another (Sheingate 2001).
130 5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’...

Shortly after the Second World War, as the US international food

regime was emerging, it became clear that supply management policy
had one signal failure: not only did it generally fail to control supply, but
it actually encouraged over-production. This deficiency meant that sup-
ply management contributed to the very market instability against which
farmers sought protection. This was, of course, the fundamental problem
with the policy. The root of this problem was the particular combination
of production controls and price supports administered under the policy.
Production controls were primarily based on acreage rather than the
actual volume of production. While farmers faced restrictions on the
acreage devoted to production, they faced few limitations on the actual
volume of commodities produced on each acre. As long as farmers
adhered to restrictions on acreage, they could generally produce as much
as possible. This inconsistent basis of supply management, comprising
production controls on acres and price supports on volume, provided
farmers with an incentive to maximize production that undermined the
primary function of the policy: managing the supply of commodities
(Sheingate 2001; Winders 2009b). This policy encouraged farmers to
intensify their production on a smaller number of acres in order to receive
the optimum benefit from price supports.
A technological revolution in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and her-
bicides, as well as the spread of mechanization, all premised centrally on
the exploitation of fossil fuels, allowed farmers significantly to increase
both their productivity (unit of labour per unit of output) and yields (i.e.,
production per acre). These trends enabled producers to fulfil counter-
vailing tendencies 1 and 3 by discounting the ecological costs of chemi-
calization and mechanization. The resulting increased production became
a problem for some agricultural commodities, although not for others. In
particular, cotton and wheat experienced the most significant problems.
Surpluses were largely averted immediately after the Second World War
because agriculture in Europe and much of Asia had been decimated by
the war. Agricultural production in these regions began to recover by the
early 1950s, however, and the demand for US agricultural goods in the
world economy weakened. Cotton producers faced large carry-over stocks
in the early 1950s (Winders 2009b). This over-production of cotton con-
tributed to market volatility and increased government spending on price
5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’... 131

supports and storage costs. The situation was even worse for wheat pro-
ducers, who faced a growing surplus between 1952 and 1961, with carry-
over stocks exceeding production in 1955, 1956, 1959, and 1961–1963
(Winders 2009a). Thus, production controls failed to prevent chronic
wheat surpluses during this period. As in the case of cotton, wheat sur-
pluses created significant market instability and raised the cost of govern-
ment farm programmes.
Corn producers, by contrast, did not confront the problem of chronic
surpluses to nearly the same degree during this period. Since both the
production and productivity of corn increased, carry-over stocks did
indeed increase during the 1950s, just as was the case with cotton and
wheat. The quantity of corn surplus was heavily mitigated, however,
largely because of the expanding livestock industry, which was premised
on intensive production methods through the development of concen-
trated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the consumption of
increasing amounts of corn, soybeans, and other feed grains, all again
centrally dependent on discounted fossil-fuel consumption (Winders
and Nibert 2004). Increasing per capita meat consumption further
helped to prevent large surpluses of feed grains, particularly corn. Thus,
while surpluses of corn certainly existed during this period, they never
reached the threatening level characteristic of the cotton or wheat
This was the context within which a fundamental division in class frac-
tional interest emerged within US agriculture: that class fraction repre-
senting corn producers began to turn against supply management policy.
By the late 1940s, representatives of the corn class fraction, most notably,
the American Farm Bureau Federation, were calling for a more market-
oriented agricultural policy, with significantly reduced price supports and
weakened production controls (Sheingate 2001; Winders 2004). Just as
in Britain during the pre-Liberal era, then, a key class division emerged
within agriculture. In the USA, however, the cotton–wheat coalition held
sufficient political power to protect supply management policy, while the
corn class fraction was unable to eliminate national regulation in agricul-
ture (Winders 2004, 2009a). Thus, the particular class fractional divi-
sions within agriculture in each food regime were fundamental
132 5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’...

determinants of the type of agricultural policy that assumed dominance

within the hegemonic power.
Nonetheless, there was no question of US agricultural policy being
‘automatically’ translated into an international food regime. Rather, the
international ‘political productivist’ food regime had to be given particu-
lar institutional supports in the world economy through strategic rela-
tional negotiations, contestation, and compromise with other class
fractional interests principally amongst the core states, but also with
interests in the periphery. The USA, as new hegemonic power in the
imperium, succeeded in creating this support through the General
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and international food aid.
These two mechanisms provided the base for cross-national class coali-
tions which were able to stabilize the production and distribution of agri-
cultural commodities in the world economy until the early 1970s
(Friedmann 1982, 1993). In addition, the central division in US agricul-
ture between the cotton/wheat class fraction, on the one hand, and the
corn class fraction, on the other, intimately shaped, and was clearly
reflected in, these institutional bases of the US food regime (Sheingate
Before the Second World War ended, the USA began formulating pol-
icies to re-establish free trade as the basis of the world economy through
the removal of the trade barriers that had emerged throughout the world
economy during the 1920s and 1930s. Even Britain, the bastion of free
trade for a century even during the ‘Imperial’ food regime, had raised
barriers to trade by creating an imperial preference system that privileged
trading partners within the Dominions by agreeing to keep high tariff
rates on ‘non-Empire’ goods, while keeping most ‘Dominion products on
the free list’ (Brown 1950, 42). The USA took the elimination of such
barriers as its primary task: ‘the [US] State Department hoped above all
to shake the British loose from the imperial preference system … negoti-
ated at Ottawa in 1932’ (Matusow 1967, 80). Britain and its Dominions,
however, guarded imperial privilege throughout the post-war trade
negotiations because of concerns that lowered trade barriers would slow
their economic recovery (Gardner 1956). Furthermore, ‘the southern
dominions … worried about losing their British market for food’ (Zeiler
1999, 66).2
5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’... 133

Despite Britain’s resistance to the creation of a world economy based

on free trade, the USA pushed for GATT, which became effective in
1948 with the intention of reducing trade barriers in the world economy
through multilateral trade agreements. Agriculture was the only eco-
nomic sector exempt from GATT’s free trade impulse, with Article XI
prohibiting quantitative restrictions, except when ‘used in support of cer-
tain domestic agricultural programs, particularly those which, by raising
domestic prices above the world market price, tend to create an incentive
for importation’ (Dam 1970, 21). This exemption applied only when
such barriers were needed to enforce state policies that imposed limits on
domestic sales or production, or had the intention ‘to remove a tempo-
rary surplus of the like domestic product’ (Dam 1970, 258). In addition,
Article XVI permitted export subsidies for agricultural products (Dam
1970; Grant 1990). Both clauses came at the request of the USA with the
objective of their alignment with US agricultural policy.
The cotton–wheat fractional coalition in the USA opposed liberalizing
agriculture due to concerns about the resurgence of market instabilities
(Sheingate 2001). This coalition strongly favoured the retention of sup-
ply management and the protectionism that accompanied this policy. In
order to protect supply management, these agricultural class fractions
successfully influenced the negotiations that created GATT, with an out-
come that permitted a food regime based on national regulation rather
than free trade. The political power of the cotton–wheat coalition was
such as to secure a national policy of agricultural trade barriers and mar-
ket intervention even in the face of a more general thrust towards free
trade (Winders 2009a).
The exemption of agriculture from GATT encouraged the spread of
US-style agricultural policies as other states implemented, or continued
to use, price supports, direct income supports to farmers, and export
subsidies (Friedmann 1993). This diffusion of national regulation
stemmed from competition with US agriculture. First, states were obliged
to focus on their domestic markets since the US market was closed off to
them. In order to protect domestic price supports, the USA restricted
agricultural imports. Second, other states needed to protect their farmers
from US agricultural commodities cheapened by means of export
subsidies. Consequently, other states also restricted imports to protect
134 5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’...

domestic farmers and agricultural policies. Third, in order to retain or

expand export markets for their agricultural products, these states had to
deploy export subsidies so as to compete with US exports. Much of the
world economy, then, created policies to raise domestic farm income
through price adjustments, raised import barriers, and used subsidies to
export at lower than domestic prices—frequently in order to compete
more effectively with US agriculture (Tilzey 2006). As GATT expanded,
more states adopted the US model of national agricultural regulation in
order to make use of GATT exemptions. Supply management policy was
adopted by Argentina, Australia, Britain, Canada, India, Japan, Mexico,
New Zealand, South Korea, most of Europe (Belgium, France, Germany,
Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), and many other states (Winders
The European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) provides an exam-
ple of how US policy diffused via GATT. The Treaty of Rome of 1957
created the CAP with the objective of increasing agricultural productiv-
ity, raising farm income, stabilizing markets, and creating ‘reasonable’
food prices (Alvarez and Navarrette 1990; Grant 1997). The CAP
employed several familiar policy devices to achieve these ends: purchases
of surplus commodities, target prices, import levies, and export subsidies.
Most importantly, the Treaty of Rome exempted corn and soy products
from the CAP’s import controls (Friedmann 1993). As a result, the USA
lost access to the European wheat market, but became the principal sup-
plier of feed stuffs, that is, corn and soybeans. This reinforced the support
of the US corn fraction for free trade and market mechanisms, and its
increasing opposition to the extensive state intervention found in supply
management policy (Sheingate 2001).
This widespread use of national regulations for agriculture generated
chronic surpluses in various nations, just as it did in the USA. This was
especially true in Canada, Australia, and Europe. Over-production, how-
ever, was not necessarily new because several countries had been con-
fronting the problem of agricultural surplus for many years: ‘Countries
like South Africa and Australia [had been] burdened with surpluses since
WWI’ (Matusow 1967, 84). Europe, by contrast, had long been a net
importer of wheat, but became a net exporter by 1980 (McMichael
2000). Even Britain, which was the world’s largest importer of grain in
5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’... 135

the early 1950s (Farnsworth 1956), became a ‘major net exporter’ by

1985 (Insel 1985, 895). This posed a significant problem for agricultural
producers in the USA, who thereby lost their traditional market in
Europe. The percentage of US wheat exported to Europe decreased dur-
ing this period, one in which European wheat production, and national
regulation of agriculture, increased. This, of course, only compounded
the problem of increasing US wheat production and carry-over stocks
mentioned earlier.
Through the medium of GATT, then, surpluses mounted with the
spread throughout the world economy of the US model of national reg-
ulation. With such pervasive and widespread agricultural surpluses,
states now confronted a common dilemma: how to dispose of excess
agricultural commodities. The answer was to expand markets and, in the
post-war period, the USA did just this in relation to its agricultural
commodities through export subsidies in the form of food aid. Subsidized
agricultural exports to states in ‘need’ provided an outlet for the growing
surpluses during the post-war period. Food aid was grounded in the
Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954 or Public
Law 480 (PL 480), which was aimed primarily at poorer states in the
periphery (Burbach and Flynn 1980). Yet, food aid originated with the
Marshall Plan in 1948, which had two primary components: relief aid
and reconstruction assistance. Initially, the USA sent shipments of
wheat, corn, meat, and other commodities to feed Europe. The focus,
however, was on helping Europe rebuild its agriculture by supplying
inputs such as feedstuffs and fertilizers. The USA even ‘supported the
European protection of wheat and dairy products, even at the very high
level needed to keep out efficiently produced and subsidized US exports’
(Friedmann 1993, 35). European agricultural production gradually
increased and was largely restored by 1954 (Friedmann 1982; Matusow
1967). As a result, the USA needed new markets for its agricultural sur-
pluses, these having mounted again in the mid-1950s, especially in
respect of wheat and cotton. US wheat exports relied heavily on PL 480
throughout the late 1960s, but US corn exports did not rely on export
subsidies, in part because they maintained access to the European mar-
ket. This reinforced the central division in US agriculture, in which the
corn fraction opposed supply management policy, with the cotton–
136 5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’...

wheat coalition continuing, however, to be more dominant politically

(Sheingate 2001).
With European agricultural markets essentially closed off by the mid-
1950s, the USA searched for new markets in the periphery of the world
economy. Particular targets in this regard were the former European colo-
nies, now emerging as ‘independent’ nation-states. PL 480 created a sys-
tem through which the USA provided economic assistance in agricultural
commodities to these peripheral states. Here, the ostensible objective was
to supply cheap food or food aid to facilitate economic development. As
a consequence, agricultural trade in the ‘political productivist’ food
regime now flowed in the opposite direction (i.e., from core to periphery)
to that of the ‘Imperial’ food regime (from the periphery to the core). PL
480 was the cornerstone of this particular flow of agricultural commodi-
ties. Perhaps the primary benefit of, and principal motivation for, PL 480
was that it allowed the USA to dispose of the surplus agricultural com-
modities that tended to accumulate through price support programmes
and CCC purchases (Burbach and Flynn 1980). In this way, the USA
could continue to deploy management policy to placate class fractional
interest groups, while simultaneously averting crises of excess surplus
stocks. Food aid also served the purpose of constructing future commer-
cial markets for US agricultural goods in peripheral countries through the
‘indirect’ demolition of local farming systems. Thus, states that were once
self-sufficient in food production became dependent on cheap US
imports, and diets of entire nations gradually changed towards the norms
of the global North. In contrast to the Marshall Plan, PL 480 did not
emphasize building up agriculture in other nations, but instead centred
almost entirely on supplying cheap agricultural imports. The consequence
was essentially to destroy much local agriculture in the periphery because
local producers could not compete with imports subsidized by the USA
(Friedmann 1990, 1993). The result was the elimination of competition
in respect of many agricultural world markets and the creation of food
dependence, and loss of food self-sufficiency, for many states in the
periphery. At the same, however, the USA was concerned to prevent
newly independent states from falling into the Soviet or Chinese spheres
of influence, and so supported varying degrees of national industrializa-
tion through the strategy of ISI (import-substituting industrialization),
5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’... 137

bolstered by a combination of land reforms, ‘green revolution’ strategy,

and cheap food imports (de Janvry 1981). Significantly, however, other
than in the case of South Korea and Taiwan, this strategy did not generate
a process of ‘articulated’ development.
The US food regime began to unravel from the 1970s. The spread of
agricultural regulations throughout the world economy had undermined
the ability of the food regime effectively to coordinate the production,
trade, or prices of agricultural commodities by the 1970s (Friedmann
1982, 1993). Trade competition increased as more states attempted to
dump agricultural surpluses through the use of export subsidies, and the
costs of supply management programmes grew prohibitively large. In
addition, support for supply management policy within US agricultural
weakened as, firstly, the corn fraction increasingly opposed state regula-
tion of agriculture. As early as 1947, the American Farm Bureau had
called for supply management to be severely weakened, at which time the
cotton–wheat coalition had continued to favour regulation (Sheingate
2001; Winders 2004). In the 1960s, however, the cotton and wheat frac-
tions joined the corn fraction in beginning to favour weaker production
controls. The economic interests of these fractions of agriculture changed,
as a consequence, so as to reduce their support of regulation. Secondly,
southern planters had experienced a dramatic decline in their political
power by the late 1960s (Winders 2006). The industrialization and
urbanization in the South brought a rival class of capital to the region as
industry grew in both economic and political power. The rise of the civil
rights movement further challenged the political dominance of the south-
ern planters. Consequently, southern planters, the erstwhile champions
of supply management, no longer had the political power, or the agricul-
tural allies in coalition, to sustain the continued regulation of
The ‘political productivist’ food regime staggered onwards despite
increased competition and market instability due to the over-production
crisis that overtook it progressively during the course of the 1980s (Tilzey
2006; Winders 2009b). Despite this growing senescence, the fundamen-
tal changes in the food regime did not occur until the 1990s. A number
of agricultural exporting states formed the Cairns Group in 1986 to push
for the liberalization of trade in agriculture and helped to secure the
138 5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’...

inclusion of agriculture in GATT through the Uruguay Round negotia-

tions that concluded in 1994 (Potter and Tilzey 2007). This period also
saw the creation of the WTO and numerous free trade agreements, such
as the NAFTA. Finally, the FAIR Act of 1996 ended supply management
policy in the USA, despite the persistence of farm subsidies (Tilzey and
Potter 2008; Winders 2009a). This was mirrored by complementary
reforms in the European CAP, as we shall see in the next chapter. Thus,
the final breakdown of the ‘political productivist’ food regime did not
occur until several years after the onset of over-production crisis. The
formation of the WTO formalized its demise and consecrated the rise of
the ‘neoliberal’ food regime.
While the imperium was in the process of developing extensive poli-
cies designed to foment ‘national’ agriculture, and to reduce dependence
on agricultural imports, the periphery, and particularly Latin America,
responded to the inter-war depression, and to consequent loss of markets,
by constructing an independent industrial base to produce those manu-
factured commodities that had formerly been imported (de Janvry 1981).
This simultaneously required the development of an agriculture sector
that could both supply the home market and act as a source of consump-
tion for industrial goods. This entailed programmes of land reform, most
of which, however, were partial and piecemeal, largely as a result of con-
certed opposition from landed, agro-export-oriented, oligarchies. A brief
period of autonomous growth resulted that was brought to a close in the
years following the conclusion of the Second World War. With the transi-
tion of the USA to the position of global hegemon following the Second
World War, a new form of dependency emerged in Latin America, a
dependency associated with the new structure of global accumulation.
While the imperial countries had adopted the policies necessary to
perpetuate articulated development, the secular balance of payment dif-
ficulties and low investment capacity of the periphery prevented it from
sustaining such developments after the Second World War. If peripheral
states were to maintain accumulation in their industrial sectors, sources
of cheap labour and external capital had to be found. Here, of course, the
imperial states had been able to draw on either peripheral, and super-
cheap sources of supply to subsidize ‘autocentric’ growth, or had the ben-
efit of funds such as Marshall Aid to build their economies. As it was,
5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’... 139

accumulation in Latin American industry increasingly assumed the char-

acter of disarticulation. The progressive failure of articulated develop-
ment in Latin America led to stagnation in the demand for, and
production of, food staples. This stagnation led to a growing gap between
supply and effective demand, particularly for those crops that were now
increasingly competing with US surpluses disposed of in the world mar-
ket. Many countries that had been self-sufficient producers of grains now
became increasingly dependent on imports. Another consequence of the
new import dependency and disarticulated accumulation for Latin
American agriculture was a change in the traditional land tenure patterns
that led both to the transformation of semi-feudal estates that character-
ized many of the Andean states, for example, into large-scale capitalist
commercial farms, and to the creation of a labour force of rural semi-
proletarians. This new tenure and labour pattern has been characterized
as ‘functional dualism’ (de Janvry 1981), and provided, and still provides,
the basis for the cheap labour required for disarticulated accumulation, a
pattern of growth that has only been reinforced under neoliberalism and
the ‘new’ imperialism.
In concluding this discussion of the ‘political productivist’ food regime,
we can summarize its key dynamics according to our political ecological

1. The power of the ‘articulated alliance’ in the emerging US hegemon

allowed class fractions and the state to enact measures to combat the
over-production crisis in agriculture that emerged during the 1920s,
in order to contain supply and maintain price stability. Price stability
suited all fractions of agricultural capital but disadvantaged industrial
capital. So, the state sought to manage this contradiction by maintain-
ing supply management to the benefit of agricultural capitals, whilst
stimulating maximal output on the productive acreage through price
support. This, through processes of massively enhanced labour pro-
ductivity through fossil-fuel use, ensured abundant food supply whilst
maintaining high prices for agrarian capital. Its focus on nation-
centred articulated development, and away from imperialism—that
is, away from dependence on the periphery for key agricultural com-
modities—was possible only through massive increases in productivity
140 5 The Rise and Demise of the ‘Third’ or ‘Political Productivist’...

and production built on massive increase in fossil energy use (see

Mazoyer and Roudart 2006). These developments are explained by
Level 4 dynamics, enabled by Level 3 affordances, principally that of
fossil fuel and its derivatives;
2. The encouragement of further yield and productivity increases led to
commodity over-supply which the USA could alleviate by means of its
post-war geopolitical strategy of Soviet/Chinese containment
(Marshall Plan and PL480). Food aid enabled surplus stocks to be
disposed of. Overseas commercial opportunities for the US corn frac-
tion led to its advocacy of an end to supply management. Wheat and
cotton fractions, by contrast, still favoured supply management
because overseas markets, principally in Europe, were closed off to
them. Again, these developments are explained by Level 4 dynamics,
enabled by reinforced exploitation of abundant and cheap fossil fuels
at Level 3;
3. However, as over-supply became endemic to all states of the global
North, pressures for an end to supply management increased from the
more internationally competitive fractions of capital particularly. This
pressure was enhanced with the ‘opening up’ of the global South as an
export opportunity following the ‘subsidized’ destruction of its pro-
ducers through dumping. This engendered pressure for neoliberaliza-
tion, instantiated in the new WTO.  The global North sought to
ensure, however, that the impacts of neoliberalization would be miti-
gated by the retention of selected support measures for its own farm-
ing constituencies. These comprise Level 4 dynamics, facilitated by
Level 3 affordances, with contradictions in the latter increasingly miti-
gated, in the North, by ‘flanking’ measures.

1. This led gross farm income to fall from US$13.3 billion in 1926 to
US$6.4 billion in 1932 (Hosen 1992, 270). More generally, between
1926 and 1932 the gross national product of the USA fell from US$97
billion to US$58 billion, and general unemployment rose from 1.8 per
cent to 23.6 per cent (Hosen 1992, 257, 268).
References 141

2. Britain, along with France and other colonial powers, attempted to extract
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depression intensified the existing pattern of displacing staple food culti-
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contributed to the great Bengal famine of 1943–44 (Bernstein 2010,

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The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New
Imperialism, and the Emergence of Food

Neoliberalism, or post-Fordism, an emergent regime of accumulation

from the late 1970s, expressed an historical conjuncture in which social
forces in all the imperial states appeared to be undergoing reconfigura-
tion, involving continuing change in the balance of power between dif-
ferent classes and class fractions to the detriment of those hegemonic
within the policy communities of the previous ‘political productivist’, or
Fordist, regime. Neoliberalism has been considered by many authors
(Cox 1987; Gill 1990; Overbeek 1990; Overbeek and van der Pijl 1993;
van der Pijl 1998) to express a political project, propounded by discrete
fractions of capital, to restore class hegemony by, in its own rhetoric,
‘freeing the market from the shackles of the state’ (in reality, of course,
seeking a re-regulation of the state in favour of certain fractions of capi-
tal). This process, which Polanyi (1957) would have termed ‘disembed-
ding the market’, reflected particularly the ambitions of finance capital,
but progressive financialization implied that advocacy was now extending
to incorporate the more transnationalized fractions of ‘productive’
In many senses the era of neoliberal restructuring reprised the contra-
dictions and tensions which Polanyi’s concept of the ‘double movement’
had sought to articulate, with the ‘traditional’ lines of contestation

© The Author(s) 2018 145

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
146 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

between capital fractions, and between capital and the ‘classes of labour’,
being in varying degrees re-enacted. It also coincided with one facet of
the growing crisis of modernism, as unbridled faith in ‘progress’, growth,
technology, and science, in the form of ecological crisis, manifest in the
farmed landscape as ever more evident loss of traditional landscapes (and
diets), biodiversity, and erosion of the resource base. In the global South,
this ecological crisis was associated with resurgence of the ‘disarticulated
alliance’ and with enhanced primitive accumulation, involving further
marginalization and subversion of self-subsistent peasantry and indige-
nous peoples. This crisis gave rise to a variety of reflexive responses,
encapsulated within the term ‘new social movements’ (Foweraker 1995),
and generated a growing contradiction for the state and capital. The
state–capital nexus responded with sustainable development discourse. It
seized on this concept as the means by which to reconcile the oxymoron
of accumulation and sustainability, as a powerful legitimating tool, a tool
which during the 1980s and 1990s became instantiated in various
‘weaker’ guises as environmental managerialism (see Tilzey 2000, 2002),
and its neoclassical precepts articulated by the ‘new’ discipline of ‘envi-
ronmental’ economics. It is no accident, then, that the neoliberal food
regime has also been dubbed the ‘corporate-environmental’ regime
(Friedmann 2005). The regime of neoliberal accumulation thus became
accompanied by an environmental mode of regulation. Meanwhile, advo-
cacy of ‘strong’ sustainability, as a counter-hegemonic political or social
ecology, was, and continues to be, assigned a marginal status in policy, a
victim of its recognition of the politically unpalatable, but ineluctable,
causal relation between capital accumulation and unsustainability. Food
sovereignty discourse, as deployed by the new agrarian movements of the
peasantry and indigenous peoples that emerged in the global South dur-
ing the 1990s (the ‘radicals’), became one strand of such counter-
hegemony.1 As this discourse diffused to the global North, it was taken
up by a wider constituency of anti-neoliberal (but not necessarily anti-
capitalist) small and family farmers, the ‘progressives’, whom I have des-
ignated as ‘alter-hegemonic’.
From this post-Fordist restructuring process, however, there has yet to
emerge a new, stable accumulation model comparable to ‘political pro-
ductivism’, an arguably inevitable outcome given the heightened social
6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism... 147

and environmental contradictions that attend neoliberalism, particularly

in respect of the global South. Rather than witnessing a new, single ‘post-
Fordist’ accumulation regime, the neoliberal era of economic upheaval,
upheaval which is now noticeably more evident than before the financial
and food crisis of 2007/8, is characterized by a plurality of ‘rival concepts
of restructuring’ (Ruigrok and van Tulder 1995) in which neoliberalism
exhibits a highly uneven pattern of implantation, subject to varying levels
of compromise and contestation. Thus, although neoliberalism may be
formalized as a unitary doctrine and its ascendancy ascribed in part to
advocacy or imposition by the global hegemon (the USA), substantively
it is more helpful to conceptualize neoliberalism as being constituted by
multiple projects instantiated in varying form in different state–capital
nexus as the outcome of territorially-bounded constellations of state/class
interests, alliances, and compromises (Tilzey 2006).
Whilst acknowledging the differential power of states in the world sys-
tem, notably between the imperial powers and the periphery, this model
vitiates any simplistic notion of the state–capital nexus functioning as
passive recipients of policies transmitted, on the ‘conveyor belt’ model of
transnationalization, from core to core state, or from core to periphery, as
seems to be implied by, for example, McMichael’s (2013) depiction of
this process in his ‘corporate’ food regime. As Fagan and Le Heron (1994,
271) note, ‘capital still requires nation-states to secure economic, social,
and political conditions under which any accumulation can continue’.
States thus remain key sites for securing the regulatory and legitimacy
functions surrounding the contradictory process of capital accumulation
(Wood 2005; Tilzey 2006). Fagan and Le Heron (1994, 272) have use-
fully synthesized the relationship between ‘transnationalization’ and
‘national restructuring’ when they note that ‘within specific countries,
interactions between capital, labour and state both shape and are shaped
by the different ways in which capital is inserted into global accumula-
tion. Restructuring since the mid-1970s…has resulted from these spe-
cific social relations inside nation-states. Although these interactions have
been conditioned by the global system of accumulation, this itself has
emerged from the changing relationships between capital, labour and
state since the mid-1960s’.
148 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

This is to emphasize again that capital’s genesis depended upon, and

was co-constituted with, the formation of the modern state. Capital’s
subsequent survival has also depended upon its co-evolution with a pro-
tective state within which classes and class fractions contend in relation
to the degree to which contradictions should be mitigated, via ‘flanking’
measures, in order to ensure the ‘relational sustainability’ of capitalism
(Drummond and Marsden 1999). This process may be grasped, as I have
suggested, from a combination of the Political Marxian, Neo-Gramscian,
and Regulation Theoretical traditions (Wood 1991, 1995; Potter and
Tilzey 2005; Tilzey and Potter 2008; Boyer and Saillard 2002). In the
parlance of the latter, modes of regulation may, depending crucially upon
the nature of the regime of accumulation, introduce various types of
measures, ‘formal’ or ‘informal’, that seek to mitigate the negative social
and environmental impacts of accumulation but, crucially, without sub-
verting capitalist relations of domination that continue to secure the ‘eco-
logical dominance’ of capital (see Jessop 2002). Thus, while a Marxian
approach would view these measures as the outcome of class contestation
within the state–capital nexus and as constituting various forms of
‘embedded’ capitalism, a Polanyian approach would view them, mistak-
enly, as the outcome of a generalized ‘double movement’, representing
various forms of ‘alterity’ as socialism. This is because Polanyi lacked a
class-based and class fractional understanding of capitalism, enabling
him to counterpose the ‘self-regulating’ market to a generalized and social
and ‘supra-class’ interest in its restraint (Tilzey 2016b). This is important,
because a Polanyian view heavily informs the thinking of both ‘alter-
hegemonic’ (‘progressives’) and sub-hegemonic class interests (Tilzey
2016b). Because the state–capital nexus remains crucial to the operation
of transnational capital, I prefer to use the term ‘neoliberal’ food regime,
rather than McMichael’s ‘corporate’ food regime.
By contrast to this view of the abiding relevance of the state–capital
nexus, and of class and class fractional differentiation, McMichael’s
(2013) analysis seems to imply that the extension of neoliberalization is
basically a process of ‘agentless’ imposition, in which formerly ‘market
restraining’ political spaces are made subject to the accumulation logic of
the ‘corporate’ food regime. Such an emphasis on ‘downward’ market
disciplinary imposition certainly illuminates an important aspect of
6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism... 149

neoliberalization processes (see below for discussion of asymmetrical and

imperialist relations between states), but the point to be made is that it is
necessary to specify the international class alliances and relations that enable
this to happen, together with the opposed class interests that serve to
impede it. The importance granted to an apparently ‘agentless’, supra-
national mechanism in McMichael’s schema is partly explained by the
effect of the internationalization of value—the generation of a single
world price for commodities—the outcome of which is to operationalize
the ‘dull compulsion of the economic’ through market dependence. But
this is an ex post effect of intentional class action designed to naturalize, in
everyday conditions of market dependence, the new and non-universal
need to sell labour power and produce commodities at a globally com-
petitive rate. To posit this effect as a cause elides the deeply political,
class-specific and ‘agent-full’ (conscious) process entailed in institutional-
izing, or more especially ‘constitutionalizing’ (Gill and Cutler 2014) this
universal price mechanism or ‘global value relation’ (Araghi 2003) under-
taken by transnationalized class fractions of both the North and South
via the WTO and/or bilateral agreements.
But, of course, political consciousness will not realize its goals unless it
eventuates in successful and enhanced capital accumulation. In other
words, political advocacy will be to no avail unless it is able to secure
enhanced allocative power. Stated otherwise, it is the dialectic between
authoritative and allocative power that is the key to securing class hege-
mony. It is the rationalization of ex post success (in enhancing capital
accumulation) as the agentless and ineluctable enactment of capital logic
that causes ontological problems in the theorization of this process, lead-
ing to the exclusion of political consciousness and the functionalization
of the relation between aspiration and outcome. Fundamental to the
argument of this book is the necessary dialectic between conscious agency
and material affordances and constraints, between the authoritative and
allocative domains. As Holloway and Picciotto (1979) have noted, the
‘logic of capital’ is nothing but the expression of the basic form of class
struggle in capitalist society.
The point I wish to emphasize here is that neoliberalism, globalization,
or the ‘corporate’ food regime, are authored by states, or more specifically,
by the hegemony of class fractions within hegemonic states (see Potter and
150 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

Tilzey 2005; Tilzey 2006; Winders 2009b; Bieler and Morton 2015). The
lack of such a state- and class-based theory results, for food regime theory,
at least as presented by McMichael (2013), in the metaphor of an appar-
ently one-way process of internationalization or neoliberalization that
elides reciprocal—albeit asymmetrical—interaction between global and
the local, the ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ and mutually reinforcing social rela-
tions within the global political economy; and, more particularly, ignores
class agency and conflict within and between the state–capital nexus. I
suggest, therefore, that the role of the state is still determined by struggles
among social forces located within particular state–capital nexus, even
though social forces may be implicated in transnational structures. Capital
is not simply something that is beyond the power of the state, or at least
the imperial state, but is represented by classes and fractions of classes
within the very constitution of the state (Bieler and Morton 2003;
Morton 2007). Phenomena designated variously as globalization, neolib-
eralism, or the ‘corporate’ food regime, represented by the transnational-
ization of production, therefore induce the reproduction of capital within
different states through a process of internalization between various frac-
tions of classes within states (Poulantzas 1975).
Neoliberalization has entailed, then, a restructuring of different forms
of state through a process of internalization, within the state itself, of new
configurations of social forces expressed by class struggle between differ-
ent—national and transnational—fractions of capital and labour. Such
an emphasis upon both internalization and internationalization is some-
what different from assuming that various forms of state have become
simple ‘transmission belts’ or passive recipients from the global to the
national or from the ‘centre’ to the ‘periphery’, as appears to be suggested
by McMichael, and, is without doubt asserted, by other authors such as
Robinson (2005, 2008). The ‘transmission belt’ thesis of authors such as
Robinson leads, therefore, to the identification of external linkages
between the state and globalization, while the social constitution of glo-
balization and neoliberalism within and by social classes in specific forms
of state is omitted (Bieler and Morton 2004).
In summary, then, I am here articulating a position concerning the
‘internal’ dynamics of capital which brings together the Neo-Gramscian
and Political Marxism schools of thinking. This is an interpretation of
6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism... 151

political economy in which a class- and group-based ontology of change

is deployed, conceptualizing as reflexive political process the moment of
class/group agency, taking place, within the modern state, at the institu-
tional levels of both the ‘economy’ and ‘politics’ (Tilzey 2006). Capitalism,
and within it neoliberalism, becomes reconstituted as a political project,
variously proposed and opposed by discrete classes and class fractions,
and provisionally coalescing in the hegemony of historic blocs within the
state and internationally (Cox 1987; Bieler and Morton 2004). Capitalism
and the state are internally related as social strategic relations—state–
capital nexus—and contestation and the balance of class interests at the
level of the nation-state, as a nodal point within international relations as
specified above, are considered to remain key to the dynamics of
In this way, I suggest, therefore, that we need to direct attention to the
differentiation of neoliberalism as a result of the varying nature and bal-
ance of class forces within state–capital nexus and, therefore, to the degree
to which neoliberalism is accommodated, compromised, ‘embedded’, or
otherwise constrained (see Tilzey 2006; Potter and Tilzey 2007).
Furthermore, apparently ‘super-ordinate’ gaze of authors such as
McMichael fails, on this view, to take account of the strategic role of
national, regional, and local state apparatuses, and their constituent class
interests, as active progenitors of neoliberalizing institutional reforms in
favour of the ‘corporate’ food regime (Brenner et al. 2014). Thus, under-
stood, neoliberal reform models concordant with the ‘corporate’ food
regime are not simply designed within supra-national capitalist institu-
tions and then implanted, ‘pre-formed’ as it were, at national and sub-
national scales.
Intimately related to this portrayal of capital as essentially monolithic
is McMichael’s treatment of the Polanyian ‘double movement’ problem-
atic as a relatively simple binary comprising the ‘corporate’ food regime,
on the one hand, and ‘resistance’, on the other. In other words, there is a
tendency in his work to focus one-sidedly on the ‘response’ side of the
Polanyian double movement, that is, on the oppositional social forces
and political movements provoked by neoliberalization projects. While
this emphasis is certainly well justified, and is one of the key foci of this
book in terms of counter-hegemonic movements, in McMichael’s
152 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

treatment there is a tendency to focus largely on capital’s accumulation

regime, on the one hand, and resistances to it (supposedly) from the ‘out-
side’, on the other, to the relative neglect of the ‘flanking’ measures
(modes of regulation) that the state–capital nexus is compelled to con-
struct, and which embody compromise and co-optation between neolib-
eral tendencies and sub-hegemonic (other fractions of capital) and
alter-hegemonic (‘ecological’ petty commodity producer) trends. This
approach tends to elide both the differences within capital (intra-class
contestation) and the differences in opposition to neoliberalism, for
example, between alter-hegemonic and counter-hegemonic movements,
that is, between ‘progressives’ and ‘radicals’ (Holt-Gimenez and Shattuck
2011). This has very important implications, because not only does it
blunt our analysis of the complexity of capital’s dynamics, but it also,
normatively, and through conflation in the significant degrees of resis-
tance to ‘capital’, subverts our capacity to specify definitions of, and path-
ways to, non-capitalistic futures.
This should alert us to the fact that the co-optation of market con-
straining interests and institutions through the erection of flanking
mechanisms, as modes of regulation, in order to manage the socially
polarizing and ecologically damaging consequences of intensified com-
modification, means that the substantive character of each ‘round’ of
neoliberalization is the outcome of contextually specific forms of friction,
resistance and crisis engendered through this process of intra- and inter-
class contestation. Given the diversity of regulatory transformations and
their context-specific evolutionary trajectories, a singular world-scale
application of the Polanyian double-movement scheme would seem to
offer a relatively undifferentiated depiction of neoliberalization processes
associated with the ‘corporate’ food regime and of the resistances to it. It
would seem, therefore, that a more sustained engagement with the prob-
lematic of variegated capitalism, within and between state–capital nexus,
can advance our understanding of neoliberalization, its crisis tendencies,
and the possibility of its transcendence (Brenner et al. 2014). In this way,
we can begin to see that the Polanyian double movement, typically as
sub-hegemonic and alter-hegemonic opposition, is already instantiated
within variegated capitalism as modes of regulation, such that there is no
simple binary between neoliberalism and its ‘opposite’, but rather various
6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism... 153

gradations from hegemonic, through sub-hegemonic, and alter-

hegemonic, to counter-hegemonic class positions. Awareness of these
gradations sensitizes us to what is ‘post-capitalist’ and what is not, rather
than subsuming all beneath the assumed alterity of generic ‘resistance’.
The dynamics of variegated neoliberalism, and the intra- and inter-
class antagonisms and alliances that inform these dynamics within state–
society complexes, are well illustrated in the work of Tilzey and Potter
(2007, 2008) with respect to case studies in the global North. Here the
key class positions may, broadly, be described as hegemonic (neoliberal),
sub-hegemonic (‘systemic’—a spectrum of interests from neomercantil-
ism to social welfarism), alter-hegemonic (‘progressive’, ‘ecological’, and
‘organic’ commercial producers), and counter-hegemonic (‘radical’
—small farmer, ‘peasant’, and strong multifunctionality discourses). In a
similar vein, but with a global perspective, Holt-Gimenez and Shattuck
(2011) break down the double-movement binary by conceiving of a
quadripartite structure denoted as ‘neoliberal’, ‘reformist’, ‘progressive’,
and ‘radical’. These nuanced gradations in intra-class and inter-class posi-
tions allow both sets of authors to lay out the complexities of contesta-
tion and compromise in the dynamics of food regimes, allowing them
not only to explain such dynamics, but also to detail the definitional
content of ‘resistance’, not as one, but rather as several, potentially con-
tested, class positions. This further enables these authors to paint a realis-
tic picture of the potential fusions and fissions that, flowing from these
differing class positions, are likely to attend food movement mobiliza-
tions, for example. Thus, for example, Holt-Gimenez and Shattuck’s
‘progressives’ may be members of La Via Campesina, but their aim is not
so much the transcendence of capitalism as the re-localization and ecolo-
gization of markets in conformity to the alternative food networks para-
digm (Goodman et  al. 2012). For the ‘radicals’, by contrast, it is the
critique of market dependence and the desire for a post-capitalist future,
defined by the re-unification of producers with the means of production
—land—that constitute the essence of their class position. ‘Progressives’
are, therefore, more liable to co-optation into variegated neoliberalisms,
such as ‘embedded’ neoliberalism, for example (Tilzey 2006). This is
borne out by the substantial incorporation of the food ‘quality turn’ into
the policy structures of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), for
154 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

example, and the strong complementarities between ‘progressive’ dis-

course and the devolved governance structures of neoliberalism (Tilzey
and Potter 2008).
How are we to account for the shift to neoliberalism, however, a transi-
tion that occurred within the imperial states of the North increasingly
from the 1970s? As we have seen, the transition from ‘Fordism’ entailed
a progressive challenge to the ‘embedded’ market structures of the ‘politi-
cal productivist’ food regime. In the ‘political productivist’ regime, state
assistance to the agriculture sector fulfilled both capital accumulation and
political legitimacy functions as part of the larger Keynesian contract
between capital and labour. These unitary economic and social objectives
of the state assistance paradigm of Fordism were premised on strong
assumptions concerning agricultural ‘exceptionalism’, arising from a con-
sensus in relation to the need to boost food security in the post-war
period, the need to politically stabilize the countryside through the cre-
ation of a class of family farmers, and recognition of the vulnerability of
such family farms, and smaller farms particularly, to ‘unfettered’ market
forces (Coleman 1998). The fracturing of Fordism in the wider economy,
from the late 1970s, was mirrored in the progressive fragmentation of
these unitary objectives within the agri-food sector, and the legitimacy of
the ‘agricultural welfare state’ (Sheingate 2001) became subject to increas-
ing challenge. With these wider changes and the progressive over-supply
of agricultural commodities encouraged by ‘political productivism’, the
upper stratum of farmers and the agri-food processing, distribution, and
retailing sectors underwent considerable capital concentration and a con-
comitant shift in interest preference towards the ‘disembedded’ market.
This contrasted with the lower and middle strata of farmers who
retained an ‘embedded’ perspective on the market. The former group of
capital fractions began to find the nation-centred regulatory structures of
Fordism increasingly restrictive and now sought to construct a more
‘Lockean’ pattern of domestic and international governance (Potter and
Tilzey 2005), the latter eventually, from 1994, embodied in the disci-
plines and procedures of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The
processing and retailing sectors, in particular, found themselves under
increasing pressure to source suppliers globally on a least cost basis
(Josling 2000). This shift in interest preference towards the global and
6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism... 155

‘disembedded’ market progressively corroded the coherence of the Fordist

agricultural policy ‘community’ in the global North, challenging corpo-
ratist models of policy governance and introducing new discourses into
the agricultural policy debate which emphasized international competi-
tiveness and improved overseas market access (McMichael 2000).
Nonetheless, as we shall see, the imperial states were determined to retain
supports for farmers that, while more WTO-compatible than ‘political
productivism’, nonetheless afforded a continuing ‘safety net’ for a signifi-
cant number of (if not all) producers. These supports fulfilled an impor-
tant legitimating, rather than accumulation, function.
At the same time, structural change within agriculture opened up a
division of interest between larger, more capitalized businesses able to
respond to the demands of processors, distributors, and retailers, and
those more labour-intensive, family-run holdings, many of them still
dependent on state assistance and the ability to secure other, non-
agricultural sources of income in order to be able to continue farming.
Within the relative security offered by ‘political productivism’, the upper
stratum of farmers was both willing and able to allow the progressive
‘formal’ subsumption of their enterprises within corporate agri-food net-
works, both as buyers of inputs and suppliers of unprocessed products for
food manufacturing. This formalization of upstream and downstream
relations both enhanced the position of corporate agri-food capital and
led to interest differentiation between the larger restructured farms and
those marginalized in this process. The unitary objectives of the agri-food
sector under Fordism therefore underwent progressive attenuation, with
the ‘non-productive’ fractions of capital tending increasingly to favour a
liberal trade and investment regime. Under these circumstances, neolib-
eralism presented an increasing challenge to the ‘exceptionalist’ status of
agriculture under Fordism, a critique that began to be reinforced during
the course of the 1980s and 1990s by growing evidence for the environ-
mentally malign impacts of productivism. One means of softening the
blow of neoliberalism for Northern farmers, therefore, was by means of
the increasing disbursement of monies for environmental management.
Thus, ‘agri-environmental’ schemes began to become a feature of
European policy, for example, during the 1990s (Tilzey 2006).
156 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

The WTO is important because it constitutes a structure of gover-

nance that crystallizes some of the key trends in the emergence of the
neoliberal food regime, and the ‘de-nationalization’ strategy of neoliberal
class fractions. ‘De-nationalization’ (Jessop 2002) entails the selective res-
caling of regulatory functions to supra- or sub-national levels in a way
designed to bypass institutional resistance at the level of the state (Tilzey
and Potter 2007). Thus, despite the continuing presence of the strong
nation-centred and mercantilist concerns that characterized the Uruguay
Round of GATT (the WTOs predecessor) (i.e., concerns that represent
the investment-constrained fraction of national capital (see Bryan 1987;
Fagan and Le Heron 1994)), the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) (the
last, and unsuccessful, ‘Round’ of WTO negotiations) appeared to express
the (intended) implantation of a more purely neoliberal regime of accu-
mulation, reflecting the increasingly transnationalized character of agri-
food capital (or the global fraction of capital in Bryan’s classification
(Bryan 1987)). Commodity circuits became increasingly integrated and
managed by private capital transnationally (TNCs) rather than by states,
thus progressively removing the logic underlying mercantilist export
drives and other forms of state-manipulated exchanges. (This was the case
until the 2007/8 financial and food crises, at any rate.) States thus
assumed, under neoliberalism, a negative, rather than positive, coordinat-
ing role (Tilzey and Potter 2007), but nonetheless still played vital roles
as guarantors of the system. And as soon as crisis struck in 2007, states
quickly re-emerged from the shadows to assume more active and inter-
ventionist roles in bailing out the perpetrators of global turbulence.
However, contrary to the view of Peine and McMichael (2004) and
McMichael (2013), the logic underlying continued agricultural subven-
tion in the global North is not to facilitate continued accumulation by
agri-food TNCs, since these capitals can now switch to alternative, and
cheaper, supplies globally. It is, rather, one of legitimation, whereby direct
payments (no longer tied to production support) are disbursed, albeit
inequitably, to facilitate family farm viability.
The process of ‘market-liberal retrenchment’ (Coleman et al. 2004) is
indeed normatively implied in the very structure of WTO disciplines
(WTO 2000), tolerating rather than welcoming as they do ‘exceptional-
ism’ in agricultural policy. This is so because WTO disciplines (as defined
6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism... 157

by the still current Agreement on Agriculture of 1994) define norma-

tively the way in which commodities should be produced and, concomi-
tantly, the way in which intervention to address any negative or positive
environmental or social ‘externalities’ should be configured in policy
(Potter and Tilzey 2002). WTO disciplines embody the neoclassical eco-
nomic view in which ‘efficiency’ (defined as the efficiency of human
labour not as biophysical and energy efficiency) constitutes the sole arbi-
ter of economic viability in agricultural production (Tilzey 2000). This
arises, as we have seen, since human labour in capitalism constitutes the
sole source of surplus value, the means by which capital accumulation
proceeds (Burkett 1999). This singular focus upon human labour valori-
zation implicates the exclusion of environmental and social consider-
ations from the capitalist metric of efficiency, defining the inherently
oppositional relation between accumulation and sustainability (Tilzey
2002). The WTO instantiates this metric, its categorization of permissi-
ble interventions being designed to pursue a programme of reform (unre-
alized to date due to the collapse of the DDA) the desired endpoint of
which is the maximal elimination of market ‘frictions’ (trade-distorting
interventions) that might inhibit the globally competitive valorization of
human labour (Peine and McMichael 2004). The hegemony of labour
valorization within the structure of WTO disciplines similarly defines the
normative and tendential restriction of legitimate market interventions
to a category (known as the ‘green box’) defined as ‘non-, or at most,
minimally-trade distorting’ (Potter and Tilzey 2002).
The normative and ‘Lockean’ endpoint of WTO reform embodies the
transnational neoliberal ideal of capital accumulation as identified above
and, by implication, defines the place and form of possible market inter-
ventions and subventions, such as for agri-environmental schemes, within
it (Potter and Tilzey 2005). While the normative categorization of WTO
disciplines embodies a transnational neoliberal class perspective (Coleman
et al. 2004), it has thus far, under the terms of the 1994 Agreement on
Agriculture, made allowance for competing and more interventionist
forms of capitalism, representing, typically, sub-hegemonic class frac-
tional positions. But this allowance has, symptomatically, been confined
to the imperial states. The reason for this is that, while the imperial states
have sought, for their own benefit, to subject the global South to the
158 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

norms of transnational neoliberalism, they have been unwilling to engage

in a reciprocal subjection to its norms by token of the need to sustain
legitimation of the nation-state and, thus, of capitalism itself. It is this
fact that, ironically, accounts for the collapse of the DDA, and it is these
dynamics which provide an insight into the real nature of the dependence
of capital on the state, and of the exploitative (and ‘invisible’) relations
between the imperium and the periphery that sustain, through the impe-
rial state, the legitimacy of capitalism in the global North. In fact, it was
the new sub-imperium, comprising the BRICS countries, which, having
acquired newfound power and confidence through, ironically, state-
manipulated transnationalization, now confronted the imperium in the
DDA negotiations and insisted that neoliberal norms had to be applied
symmetrically across North and South, or not at all.
These dynamics point to the key means by which capitalism/neoliber-
alism, to date, have been largely successful in neutralizing and co-opting
opposition and resistance to their exploitative dynamic. This means is
hegemony, a particular characteristic of the imperial states of the global
North. Hegemony is a key part of their internal, political dynamic. An
essential part of this ability to neutralize and co-opt resistance lies not
merely in the ‘political’, authoritative domain, but also in the ‘ecological’
allocative domain through material rewards to the non-capitalist classes.
And such material rewards, following the brief interlude of Keynesian
‘developmentalism’, again rely increasingly on the fact that the capitalist
world system is characterized by a broadly bi-polar structure: the socially
‘articulated’ states of the global North, and the socially ‘disarticulated’
states of the global South (a characterization that remains broadly true
despite neoliberalism’s attempts, ultimately against its best interests in
terms of legitimacy, to ‘disarticulate’ states in its relentless search for
global comparative advantages).2 The oppositional relations between cap-
italist and non-capitalist classes in ‘articulated’ states have been defused,
tendentially, by ‘flanking’ measures based on (re)-distributional and
nation-building policies that have mitigated the conferral on capitalists of
absolute property rights in the means of production. ‘Populism’ (hege-
mony), based centrally on the generation of nationalism, has been key to
sustaining this compact between capitalists and non-capitalists in the
global North—this compromise has given rise to a variety of capitalisms
6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism... 159

(variegated neoliberalism or regulation) in these situations. But, as we

have seen in the case of the WTO, there is an inherent tension between
the accumulation and legitimation functions of the state, that is, its func-
tions in both securing profit for capital and in mitigating and justifying
the contradictions of this process. Neoliberalism accentuates this tension
by undermining the mitigatory (legitimacy) function of redistributive
policies. However, the retention of some degree of legitimacy in the global
North remains essential to the survival of capitalism.3 Where Keynesianism
previously secured this through a sectoral articulation between produc-
tion and consumption ‘within the nation’, neoliberalism has changed the
mechanism through which the compact between capital and non-
capitalists is sustained. Now neoliberalism attempts to retain legitimacy
and hegemony through credit lending and, via imperialism, the distribu-
tion of surplus from the global South to the Northern consumer classes.
Surplus value from the classes of labour now flows, therefore, from South
to North (Smith 2016), ‘subsidized’ by the massive and destructive haem-
orrhage of ‘ecological surplus’ that lies behind this relationship (Exner
et al. 2013; Moore 2015). Initially these imperial relations with the global
South were enacted through an ‘informal’ empire governed by global
value relations secured through global and bilateral trade agreements.
Latterly, as we shall see, ‘informal’ empire has conceded relative to ‘extra-
economic’ mechanisms such as direct politico-military action as competi-
tion between the Northern ‘collective’ imperium (the ‘triad’ of North
America, Europe, and Japan) and the sub-imperium of the ‘BRICS’ and
others has intensified.
In specifying the dynamics of accumulation and resistance, therefore,
we need to recognize that, beyond the ‘variegated neoliberalisms’ that
comprise the relatively articulated ensembles of regimes of accumulation
and modes of regulation, located differentially in the global North, there
exists a more profound divide between this ‘articulated’ category of
ensemble and that occurring differentially in the global South. We refer
to the latter as socially ‘disarticulated’ ensembles of regimes of accumula-
tion and modes of regulation. This profound divide arises through the
necessarily imperialistic character of capitalism, in which the accumula-
tion and legitimacy crises of the ‘articulated’ global North depend for
their resolution not only on relations of exploitation, but also of symbiosis,
160 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

with the ‘disarticulated’ global South (Amin 1976; de Janvry 1981; Biel
2003, 2012; Moyo and Yeros 2005). In the ‘articulated’ state–capital
nexus of the global North there is a relatively coherent articulation in the
ensemble comprising a regime of accumulation and mode of regulation
because of the operation of true hegemony in the Gramscian sense. This
entails the co-optation of non-capitalist classes as ‘consumers’ into the
capitalist ‘norm complex’ (Bernstein 2002). In the nature of hegemony,
the latter perceive their interests to coincide with, or to depend upon,
those of capital, so that the necessary demand-side, or realization, func-
tion of capital, globally, is fulfilled largely by these co-opted classes in the
global North.
In the global South, by contrast, capital has always been externally
oriented towards the global North (extroverted or ‘disarticulated’ accu-
mulation). As a consequence, the legitimacy of the ruling classes (landed
oligarchy, bourgeoisies) has always been low. As we have seen, national-
ism was forged only in the relatively brief interlude between the 1930s
and 1970s when populist regimes and redistributive policies (including
land reform) became characteristic. New moves in this period towards
sectorally articulated development were legitimated by nation-building
and redistribution of wealth thereby generated, entailing the creation of
an internal market. This tendency towards sectoral and social articulation
was always compromised, however, by its partial dependence on US geo-
political ambitions for the stabilization of regimes against the spread of
communism, and on food aid from the North as wage food for the new
industrial work forces. So, global Southern states never achieved the lev-
els of sectoral or social articulation that became characteristic of the
From the 1980s, however, neoliberalism subverted even this incipient
process of ‘autocentric’ (nation-centred) development. Symbiotic rela-
tions between the ‘disarticulated alliance’ of extroverted class fractions of
the global North and South were re-asserted. Accompanying re-assertions
of absolute private property through primitive accumulation and the
state as an organ of the expropriators served to undermine the legitimacy
functions of the state/ruling class. The increased separation of the polity
from civil society as an artefact of neoliberalism (and surrender of national
sovereignty to market forces) has been accompanied by representative
6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism... 161

(pseudo) democracy, confined strictly to the ‘political’ level and designed

to leave unproblematized the property rights of ruling classes/state.
Neoliberalism thus attempts to maintain the relative autonomy of the
state through the trappings of representative democracy, but this is per-
mitted only to the extent that absolute property rights of the ruling classes
are immune from democratic control. The state retreats, correspondingly,
giving increased power to capitalists and the landed oligarchy, with
pseudo-democracy expanding in tandem (Moyo 2015). Civil society and
NGOs take on an expanded role (devolved governance, de-statization4),
attempting to ‘plug the gap’ left by the demise of redistributive and popu-
list programmes.
This lack of legitimacy and of effective ‘flanking’ measures for capital
in the global South has meant that there is an increased, immanent pos-
sibility for more popular forces to re-appropriate, or challenge, the state
in re-assertions of national, or even post-national, sovereignty. Such
mobilizations thereby present a challenge to neoliberalism and, in their
more radical manifestations, perhaps to capitalism itself. This has occurred
in varying degrees in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela in Latin
America, and in Nepal in Asia, for example. This contrasts with opposi-
tion to neoliberalism in the global North, where resistance has been ren-
dered generally less radical precisely by the incorporation of non-capitalist
classes as consumers and through nation-building. This is the locus of the
‘post-political’, ‘possibilism’, and identity politics, where post-capitalist
imaginaries have been foreclosed by real subsumption of the labour force
and the hegemony of consumerism (see Harvey 1989; Wilson and
Swyngedouw 2015). But such hegemony is possible only through impe-
rialistic relations with the global South, from whence surplus value is
appropriated to feed generalized consumerism in the North. In the South,
producers (subaltern classes) are not incorporated as consumers and the
state has low legitimacy.
Nonetheless, as I shall explain in more detail later, these re-assertions
of national sovereignty in the global South are not without ambiguity—
there is no singular ‘other’ counterposed to neoliberalism. Rather, these
re-assertions of national, and possibly post-national, sovereignty combine
a tension between populist ‘neo-developmentalism’, on the one hand,
and ‘post-developmentalism’, on the other, the latter combining
162 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

environmentalism, indigenism, re-peasantization, agroecology, and food

sovereignty (Teubal 2009). Neo-developmentalism reflects the re-asser-
tion by sub-hegemonic, national fractions of capital, in the face of the
‘collective imperialism’ of the global North (Moyo and Yeros 2011), of
the ‘right’ to exploit their own national territories, with a percentage of
the surplus value thereby generated being invested in social programmes
and infrastructure through the so-called compensatory state (Gudynas
2012). National food sovereignty, through productivist means, and as
agrarian reformism (de Janvry 1981), forms a part of this neo-develop-
mentalist discourse. Redistributive measures have secured a temporary
compact between national capital fractions and the urban proletariat in
particular, but the extractivism on which such surplus is based depends
on high primary commodity prices in the Chinese market and on Chinese
loans and FDI. The current fall in commodity prices now threatens this
compact, therefore, while policies of extractivism have alienated rural
subaltern sources of support for neo-developmentalist regimes (Spronk
and Webber 2015). Unlike neo-developmentalism, post-developmental-
ism, as counter-hegemony, therefore recognizes the socio-ecological con-
tradictions and unviability of capitalism itself, whether of a neoliberal or
more redistributive variety, while re-valorizing non-capitalistic, ‘peasant’,
and indigenous means of livelihood.
So, the articulation of accumulation and regulation that is associated
with it in the global North, is possible only on the basis of imperialistic
relations with the global South (Araghi 2009). These imperialistic rela-
tions are necessary because, to the extent that it can impose its will, the
global ‘core’ cannot permit autocentric growth in the global periphery.
This would threaten the ‘core’ itself by compromising Northern growth
and consumption, and causing profound legitimation crisis through dis-
articulation between the regime of accumulation and the mode of regula-
tion. There appears to have been growing recognition by the core states,
as a ‘collective imperium’—particularly since the 1970s—that there are
insufficient planetary resources to sustain, or to realize, Northern levels of
consumption globally (Tilzey 2001; Biel 2012). The core needs both to
exploit, and preclude autocentric growth in, the periphery to sustain its
own level of consumption and secure the legitimating function of the
mode of regulation. The core attempts to functionalize the periphery to
6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism... 163

serve its own needs, undermining the construction of an ‘articulated’

state–capital nexus and creating immanent conditions for ‘state failure’,
instability and resistance (Biel 2003). Southern compliance is not guar-
anteed of course, and the above examples of recalcitrance in Latin America
and beyond, most notably China as the principle challenger to the ‘col-
lective imperium’ (Bond and Garcia 2015), underline the need for a
reflexive, strategic relational, class-based, and state–capital nexus approach
to the political dynamics of capitalism.
But how is this power from the core enacted? We cannot assume, as
noted, that a need necessarily calls forth a desired result. Rather than
simply being imposed, the subordinate relationship between periphery
and core is enacted through pre-existing, transforming, but symbiotic,
international class relations in which Northern neoliberals nurture
Southern ‘small indigenous extroverted bourgeoisies to defend nationally
the disarticulated pattern of accumulation’ (Moyo and Yeros 2005, 33).
Imperialistic relations operate through a pre-existing, but changing and
flexible, elite system of control in the South, which we have denoted, fol-
lowing de Janvry (1981), as a ‘disarticulated’ alliance. There is a corre-
sponding disarticulation between the regime of accumulation and, to the
extent that it exists, the mode of regulation. Capitalism fails to integrate
fully the subaltern classes as consumers, either materially or ideologically
such that, by contrast to the global North, they are formally, rather than
really, subsumed into capitalistic relations. This is manifest in the prevail-
ing character of these Southern producers as semi-proletarians (de Janvry
1981; Moyo and Yeros 2005).
The consequence of these disarticulated class relations is that they are
characterized, not by hegemony as in the North, but rather by domina-
tion. As Brenner (2006, 94) has noted, ‘the exercise of coercion rather
than hegemony has been distributed not so much temporally, or accord-
ing to who is President, but rather geographically—with hegemony fit
for regions of advanced capitalism, domination appropriate for the poor
countries of the planet’. The conflictual relations between extroverted
bourgeoisie/landowners and semi-proletarians militate against a coherent
mode of regulation. It falls to the international aid agencies, financial
institutions, and NGOs to institute ‘flanking’ measures to contain,
164 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

through a mix of co-optation, segmentation, and separation (de Janvry

1981), semi-proletarian resistance to the disarticulated alliance.5
The impediments to the real subsumption of semi-proletarians into
capitalist production–consumption relations, and their continuing mate-
rial and ideological attachment to land as the most realistic path to liveli-
hood security, imply that semi-proletarian resistance tends to take on a
distinctive, ‘radical’ complexion in the sense of Holt-Gimenez and
Shattuck (2011). Indeed, it is this semi-proletarian constituency that
forms the bedrock of support for LVC with its core demand for appropri-
ate access to land for smallholder food production. This is the post-
developmental constituency that lent its initial support to
neo-developmentalist, reformist, regimes (see above) but which now,
with its ambition of land and food sovereignty largely thwarted, is with-
drawing its endorsement. This ‘radical’ resistance is quite distinct from
that of the ‘progressives’ who, located primarily6 in the global North, are
concerned, not so much with social relational transformation, as with
localizing and ‘greening’ food production–consumption networks that
continue to be essentially capitalistic. To conflate the two beneath the
generic gloss of ‘resistance’, as Van der Ploeg (2008) and McMichael
(2013) appear to do, invites a series of both analytical and normative
problems that serve only to confound our capacity to chart a course
beyond capitalism.
I now exemplify the class dynamics of these ‘combined and uneven
developments’ within neoliberalism by more detailed reference, firstly to
Europe, as an exemplar of the global North, and secondly, to Latin
America, as an exemplar of the global South.

The Rise of Neoliberalism in Europe

That part of Europe covered by the European Union (EU) and its
Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), includes a number of the major
capitalist and imperial powers of the global North, notably Britain,
France, and Germany. As I have suggested above, the CAP is an example
of a global Northern agri-food policy that combines the key elements
that the state–capital nexus needs to fulfil, namely accumulation (regime
The Rise of Neoliberalism in Europe 165

of accumulation) and legitimation (mode of regulation), and that

expresses the necessarily territorialized, state-based form of capitalism.
Nonetheless, within Europe, there have been growing tensions between
the accumulation impulse under neoliberalism towards de-nationalization
(defined above, and crudely expressed as ‘globalization’) that the EU itself
embodies, and continued legitimation through ample and relatively equal
distribution to its consumer citizens of the proceeds of such accumula-
tion. The EU, and the CAP in particular, are exemplars, then, of an artic-
ulation between accumulation and legitimation, albeit one under
considerable strain as neoliberalism unfolds, that could equally well be
applied to agricultural policy in the USA or Japan, other members of the
imperium (for details of US agricultural policy and class dynamics under
neoliberalism see Tilzey 2006; Tilzey and Potter 2008).
For reasons explained earlier, neoliberalism is a regime of accumula-
tion that has been applied in qualified form to the countries of the impe-
rium, as opposed to those of the periphery. We may refer to this as
‘embedded’ neoliberalism. Indeed, I have referred to the CAP as an
‘embedded neoliberal mode of governance’ (Tilzey 2006; Tilzey and
Potter 2008). This reflects the coincidence of strong pressures for market
liberal restructuring with mitigatory (legitimation) impulses flowing
from the continued (albeit diminished) political influence of anti-free
market middle/small farm constituencies, a geopolitically powerful pol-
ity, and, with reference to agri-environmental measures, traditionally
robust relations of joint or co-production between farming, biodiversity,
and landscape. These class, geopolitical, and ecological characteristics
constitute key elements defining agricultural and environmental policy
in the European transition from the ‘political productivist’ to the ‘neolib-
eral’ food regime.
Under Fordism, political productivism assumed a concordance, as we
have seen, between the accumulation and legitimation functions of pol-
icy (Bonanno 1991), a homogeneity built on the premise that agricul-
tural production would automatically reproduce the socio-cultural
qualities of rural space (Gray 2000). This policy homogeneity was built,
in turn, upon a nationally centred, Keynesian domestic order, pump-
primed by post-war Marshall Aid, providing for a compromise between
capital and labour in the wider society. Within the rural, this entailed the
166 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

creation of a class of (domestic) market-oriented family farms, and the

marginalization or extirpation of the great bulk of the peasantry (defined
here as subsistence farmers who market any surplus with a view to the
purchase of items not produced on the farm). Based on the US model,
Western Europe thus engineered a ‘farmer road’ to capitalism. As produc-
tivism encouraged over-supply of food commodities, economies of scale,
and competition, this model increasingly encountered contradiction,
however, with smaller producers and those on marginal land finding it
increasingly difficult to retain economic viability. From the 1980s, there-
fore, there emerged in Europe an increasing regional and class interest
differentiation between those areas with a greater predominance of large,
capitalized farms (primarily of low relief and fertile soils), and those in
which smaller farms remained dominant (primarily of difficult topogra-
phy and poorer soils). Simultaneously, the environmental contradictions
of political productivism began to enter social consciousness as tradi-
tional agri-ecosystems, particularly in the lowlands, were lost or degraded
through production intensification and specialization. Where, previously,
there had been an assumed or actual symmetry between agriculture and
socio-cultural/natural values, there now emerged a spatial asymmetry,
with economic functions (productivism) being emphasized in some
spaces, and social, cultural, and environmental functions (post-
productivism) in others.
In response, the policy homogeneity of Fordism began to exhibit frag-
mentation as accumulation functions failed increasingly to coincide with
the social and legitimation (and now more explicitly environmental) aims
of policy. Thus, from 1985, the EU began to pursue a modified (‘embed-
ded’) neoliberal strategy through the creation of a single market and the
move towards economic and monetary union, on the one hand, and
through an emphasis on ‘cohesion’, on the other (Coleman 1998; van
Apeldorn 2002). The Fordist image of the farmer as producer of food for
the nation began to concede, at least in policy discourse and as a policy
goal, to the image of the farmer as entrepreneur active in a global economy.
Reflecting the continuing economic and political influence of neo-
mercantilist and social protectionist constituencies (see Potter and Tilzey
2005), however, this emergent neoliberal regime of accumulation was to
be significantly modified through the provision of safety nets and a variety
The Rise of Neoliberalism in Europe 167

of ‘catch up’ supports. This emergent policy set functioned both to facili-
tate accumulation in the new post-Fordist mould and to mitigate its
adverse impacts through social subvention measures, now legitimated
increasingly through adhesion to cultural and environmental functions.
In this way, both the structural and price/market dimensions of agri-
cultural policy entered a long, contested, and still current process of
reform to accommodate the new heterogeneous vision for farming in
which there were to be two basic forms of agriculture. The first, a restruc-
tured, commercial agriculture, was now expected increasingly to compete
unaided in the global economy, while the second, a social (cohesion or
‘legitimation’) agriculture, was now re-conceptualized as ‘agriculture-in-
a-region’. Whilst the new post-Fordist paradigm emphasized agriculture
as a sector like any other—the de-legitimation of economic ‘exceptional-
ism’ in accordance with neoliberal norms—it also stressed for ‘social
cohesion’ agriculture, however, an image of farming as contributing to
‘regional and rural development’. This constituted the re-legitimation of
social ‘exceptionalism’ on the basis of agriculture’s multifunctions—social,
cultural, environmental—in certain regions. At the same time, the ‘new
environmentalism’ legitimated certain forms of agricultural subvention,
as the environmental role of (more traditional) farming in sustaining val-
ued habitats and landscapes was seen to be fundamental to the new status
of (selected) rural areas. Traditional social support was thus re-legitimated
through rural development and environmental functions, serving to pla-
cate both rural and urban environmental interest groups.
This reform agenda, articulated by the EU, reflected in no small mea-
sure the greatly increased influence of transnational, neoliberal class
interests in defining and promoting a more globally and market-oriented
agricultural policy (Potter and Tilzey 2005; Tilzey and Potter 2008; van
Apeldorn 2002). As we have seen, these interests were also defining the
parameters within which agri-environmental policy could be formulated
and, increasingly, the very content of that policy as it became subject to
neoliberal forms of environmentalism (Castree 2007; McCarthy and
Prudham 2004). These influences were subject to qualification, however,
with policy taking the form of ‘embedded’ neoliberalism, juxtaposing
market productivism and post-productivism as ‘integrated rural develop-
ment’. This strategy was designed to stimulate the further expansion of
168 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

productivism, now of a more market-oriented kind, and its increased

integration into the global agri-food circuits of capital. The progressive
elimination of ‘market distorting’ support in Pillar 1 of the CAP was now
complemented by the creation of Pillar 2, with the intention to afford
some measure of continuing support to farms most marginalized in this
process, to provide countryside consumption spaces for the urban popu-
lace (whilst conserving a residual biodiversity and landscape resource),
and to supply the middle-class, ‘reflexive’ consumer with locally branded,
and/or organic, produce. A bi-polarity in policy became increasingly evi-
dent, therefore, between globalizing norms of governance for market pro-
ductivism, on the one hand, and regionalized norms of governance for
‘multifunctional’ agri-rural activities, on the other.
In this way, the CAP bore the increasing imprint of neoliberalism dur-
ing the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium. This trend, a
response to internal pressures and to the WTO (and to an anticipated
conclusion to the DDA, which would have further deepened neoliberal-
ism), was manifested initially in price support reductions and the intro-
duction of direct payments under the McSharry and Agenda 2000
reforms, and subsequently in further price reductions, the decoupling of
direct support, and the elimination of subsidies for holdings under five
hectares under the 2003 Mid-Term Review. The cumulative character of
these reforms was designed to facilitate the progressive penetration of
globalized market relations and market dependence into European agri-
culture, and the further marginalization of remaining ‘peasant’ produc-
ers. Meanwhile, Pillar 2 budgets came to be disbursed on a competitive
and selective basis, and were thereby heavily constrained in their ability
to counteract overarching processes of neoliberal restructuring. Budgets
for agri-environmental management likewise came to be defined and
defended increasingly according to neoclassical public goods criteria,
entailing more restrictive forms of subvention in line with WTO ‘green
box’ disciplines and the requirement to minimize ‘market distortion’
(Tilzey 2006). In complementary fashion, rural development assistance
was to facilitate less competitive farmers to diversify away from agricul-
ture or render existing enterprises more competitive, while transitional
adjustment assistance was to smooth the exit of marginal farm enterprises
from the industry. In this way, the CAP programming period for
The Rise of Neoliberalism in Europe 169

2007–2013, perhaps the apogee of neoliberalism in EU agricultural pol-

icy, was designed explicitly to conform to the neoliberal tenets embodied
in the EU’s Lisbon Strategy, emphasizing the priorities of higher eco-
nomic growth, job creation, and greater competitiveness in world mar-
kets. Nonetheless, the persistence of significant direct supports for farmers
within Pillar 1, the function of which is to act as a WTO-compatible
‘hidden subsidy’ to Europe’s farmers for reasons of political legitimacy
(and the retention of which, in the face of global Southern opposition,
was an important factor in the breakdown of the DDA), together with
the very existence of Pillar 2, suggest that the CAP cannot be described,
straightforwardly, as ‘neoliberal’. Rather, the Polanyian-inspired term
‘embedded neoliberalism’ seems more apposite because, however attenu-
ated the latter of the two might now be, the CAP still fulfils both accu-
mulation and legitimacy functions. Indeed, as we shall see, there are
reasons to suppose that the highpoint of neoliberalism in EU policy is
now passed, with trends towards what has been dubbed ‘neo-productivism’
evident in the current CAP programming period.
It was within the context of the neoliberal ‘turn’, however, that a puta-
tively oppositional paradigm of ‘post-productivism’ (more specifically,
that of endogenous, or agrarian-based, rural development) was promoted,
premised on the assertion that the market power of corporate food inter-
ests could be countered by exploiting the turn by consumers away from
industrial food provisioning in favour of quality, organic, and local food
production (Marsden 2003; Marsden and Sonnino 2005; Morgan et al.
2006). While these authors placed emphasis on elements, such as local-
ism and ecology, that are key to ‘strong’ sustainability, their paradigm
remained centrally wedded to market dependence (see Wood 2002,
2005), and subject, therefore, to the contradictions that attend this con-
dition. Thus, the turn to ‘economies of scope’ and niche markets, and
therefore to dependency on middle-class consumption as the principal
revenue stream for smaller producers, was likely to afford only temporary
respite from the pressures of competition as more producers entered the
field of quality production. Downward pressure on prices and capital
concentration were predictable outcomes, while the volatility and, argu-
ably, unsustainable nature of higher end income consumption, given its
dependence on globalized, neoliberal circuits of finance capital, suggested
170 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

considerable caution in relation to the longer-term viability, and possibly

ethics, of this ‘alternative’ paradigm. Indeed, these authors (Morgan et al.
2006, 195) themselves expressed reservations concerning the assumed
‘alterity’ of their paradigm, intimating that the turn to the ‘local’, when
allied to continuing market dependence, might represent merely the
‘inside’ of a wider process of rescaling the state, the ‘outside’ being the
growth of supra-national scales of governance associated with neoliberal
globalization—in effect, imperialism. This means both that producers of
‘quality food’ remain capitalist, and subject to the pressures of capitalist
competition, and that, where there is a significant shift to ‘post-
productivism’ while demand for cheaper wage foods remains undimin-
ished, productivism (the source of those wage foods) must be going
somewhere else, rather than being discontinued. That ‘somewhere else’ is
typically the periphery, either of Europe in this instance, or the global
South. So long as it remains subject to capitalist relations of production,
therefore, ‘post-productivism’ implies the existence of a spatio-temporal
fix that externalizes the costs of productivism onto the periphery. There is
a strong suspicion in this regard that many of van der Ploeg’s (2008) so-
called new peasantries, at least in Europe, actually fall within this cate-
gory of ‘ecological’, ‘local’, and ‘post-productivist’ capitalist producers.
While these petty commodity producers may not employ wage labour (a
Chayanovian definition of the ‘peasantry’ and one which I have critiqued
elsewhere (Tilzey 2016b)), they nonetheless remain capitalist, or depen-
dent on the capitalist market, however ‘local’ and ‘green’ this may be. In
this way, it is perhaps more accurate to describe such producers as ‘alter-
hegemonic’, rather than counter-hegemonic, and as conforming to what
Holt-Gimenez and Shattuck (2011) have termed the ‘progressives’. While
these ‘progressives’ may have secured a degree of their desired ‘autonomy’
from neoliberalism, they have not achieved this in relation to capitalism.
As we shall see, this would require a far deeper transformation in social
relations away from market dependence, and towards ‘strong’ autonomy
(see Tilzey 2016b for discussion).
The ascendancy of transnational class fractions within the EU, together
with initial support from neo-mercantilist fractions, combined with the
contradictions of commodity over-accumulation in the wage foods sec-
tor, led Europe increasingly from the 1980s to seek market outlets for its
Neoliberalism in Latin America 171

surplus agricultural commodities in the global South. In this, it paralleled

the USA and led to increasing competition between the two polities,
leading to further downward pressure on prices. These trends combined
with an increasing under-accumulation (i.e., under-production of sur-
plus value) crisis in the industrial sector in the global North generally,
leading imperial capital to seek a solution in the global South through the
mechanisms, and for the reasons, described by Lenin (1964).

Neoliberalism in Latin America

In order to understand the resulting impacts of neoliberalism on the
global South, and more specifically on Latin America as our exemplifying
case, it is important to appreciate how crises of accumulation in the global
North ‘combine’ with crises of accumulation in the global South to gen-
erate remarkably different outcomes for each in terms of ‘uneven’ devel-
opment. Here it is important to recall that the state–capital nexus exists
in a world system that is structurally heterogeneous, comprising a socially
articulated ‘core’ (the global North where most consumption occurs),
and a socially disarticulated ‘periphery’ (the global South where, increas-
ingly, most capitalist production occurs). In this structurally heteroge-
neous world system, the single world-scale process of capital accumulation
creates markedly different contradictions at both the institutional levels
of the economy and politics in each part, that is, the core and the periph-
ery. The contradictions of accumulation at one pole create the immanent
necessity for external relationships with the other pole in order that barri-
ers to accumulation in the core may be overcome. Reciprocally, the con-
tradictions of accumulation in the periphery, and the drive of capital to
transcend them, create necessary external relationships with the core.
Reciprocal necessities create mutual possibilities that shape the dynamics
of capital on a world scale. These are immanent tendencies, however, and
there is no teleology implied here since the tendencies are expressions of
class and class fractional agency and the ability of these social forces to
secure, variously, hegemony or dominance within the polity, and to proj-
ect such hegemony or dominance beyond the state and into the interna-
tional arena.
172 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

While the core and periphery structures of the world system have a
dialectical relation which they derive from the world-scale process of
accumulation, necessitating the method of ‘combined and uneven devel-
opment’ in order to understand it, one structure—the core—is dominant
over the other—the periphery. The dominant structure attempts, again
by means of class agency and in articulation with receptive class fractions
in the periphery, to subject the other structure to the requirements of the
resolution of its own contradictions. That is, the core attempts to mould
the dominated periphery so that the internal contradictions of accumula-
tion in the periphery create the external relationships that are consistent
with the necessities of the core. Through domination and the resultant
change in internal causes, external possibilities are induced to meet the
class-defined necessities of the dominant core. In this way, a single, world-
scale process of capital accumulation has been able, by means of class
contestation and hegemony, to produce ‘development and articulation’ in
the centre and ‘underdevelopment and disarticulation’ in the periphery
(de Janvry 1981, 25; Moyo and Yeros 2005, 30).7
The key contradictions of accumulation in an articulated economy
comprise the tendency either for the rate of profit to fall by means of the
under-production of surplus value, or for the financial surplus to rise via
under-consumption or realization crisis. These contradictions tend to
alternate—thus the crisis of the 1970s under a Keynesian regime, which
generated the rise of neoliberalism, was due primarily to the under-
production of surplus value; the current financial crisis under neoliberal-
ism may be attributed primarily to an under-consumption
(over-production) or realization crisis. Responses to these accumulation
crises tend to assume two dimensions relative to the nation-state. The
first consists of overcoming the barriers to accumulation through changes
internal to the core nation-state itself. The second dimension consists of
overcoming the barrier externally through a re-defined division of labour
between core and periphery. External solutions tend to be sought prefer-
entially over internal solutions since they minimize the need to re-define
class positions and the role of the state within the core. As noted, the core
states dare not allow disarticulation to extend too far within their own
polities for fear of fracturing capital’s hegemony as embodied in the mode
of regulation and, consequently, provoking profound legitimation crises.
Neoliberalism in Latin America 173

A fracturing in the mode of regulation poses a grave threat to the regime

of accumulation. Consequently, core states are at pains to externalize
these contradictions onto the periphery and to functionalize the latter to
serve their own needs. In this case, the necessary external relationships
that these contradictions create correspond to opportunities to sustain
the rate of profit or to absorb the financial surplus (de Janvry 1981, 31).
In this way, stagnation in the 1970s was generated by productivity
slowdown and was manifested in a rise in the organic composition of
capital. This tendency arose as the potential of existing technologies was
progressively exhausted and the increased bargaining power of labour
stimulated a profit squeeze and deterred investment, leading key fractions
of capital to launch an accelerated assault against labour in order to raise
profits by depressing labour costs (Dumenil and Levy 2004; Harvey
2005; Glyn 2006). The enhanced impulse towards globalization from the
1970s was a direct response to this crisis of profitability in the core
nations, with resolution sought in considerable degree through external
means by enhanced accumulation opportunities in the periphery. This
was achieved by means of financial imperialism —structural adjustment
policies and draconian rates of interest on debt repayment—and by the
insertion of imperial capital into the predominantly disarticulated regimes
of accumulation in the periphery, where rates of surplus value realization
were, and are, considerably higher (Amin 1976; de Janvry 1981; Smith
2016). Rates of surplus value are higher in the periphery because labour
is simply a ‘cost’ for capital, since the market for commodities exists pri-
marily outside the periphery in the core economies. In other words,
labour has little value as a source of consumption in the periphery, so that
capital has an interest only in suppressing production costs (de Janvry
1981; Smith 2016).
The key mechanism here, in the ‘new imperialism’, is the extraction of
surplus value from labour by a ‘third mechanism’ (the other two being
absolute and relative surplus value), namely, the reduction of wages below
the value of labour power. In other words, labour in the global South is
subject to super-exploitation. This is achieved not merely by the suppres-
sion of workers’ rights in the place of work (Level 4 dynamics), but is
‘subsidized’ by the frequently semi-proletarianized condition of many
workers, whereby the reproductive ‘costs’ not met by capital are supplied
174 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

by the ‘zone of appropriation’ in the form of unpaid family labour, partial

self-subsistence, and over-exploitation of the biophysical resource base as
the conditions of production (Level 3 and 4 dynamics). Thus, while abso-
lute surplus value was the predominant form of the capital–labour rela-
tion until the ‘Imperial’ food regime, relative surplus value predominated
until the demise of the Keynesian or ‘political productivist’ era, although
we should be aware that the latter was always much more characteristic of
the core rather than the periphery, where more brutal and archaic forms
of domination continued to persist. Under neoliberalism, and the ‘new
imperialism’, ‘global labour arbitrage—super-exploitation—that is, forc-
ing down the value of labour power, the third form of surplus value
increase, is now the increasingly predominant form of the capital-labour
relation’ (Smith 2016, 250). It is the vast and growing body of proletari-
ans and semi-proletarians in the global South which constitutes the great
bulk of the precariat of the ‘new imperialism’.
This stands against the central argument in Harvey’s (2003) theory of
the ‘new imperialism’, which holds that the over-accumulation of capital
pushes capitalism into an ever greater recourse to non-capitalist forms of
plunder, that is, forms other than the extraction of surplus value from
wage labour such as the confiscation of communal ‘property’ and the
privatization of welfare arising from capital’s encroachment on the com-
mons, whether public property or informal and customary use rights to
land and water. It is well known that Harvey argues that the ‘new impe-
rialism’ is characterized by a shift in emphasis from accumulation through
expanded reproduction, to ‘accumulation through dispossession’, the lat-
ter now being, according to him, the primary contradiction to be con-
fronted. While Harvey is correct to draw attention to the continuing and
expanding importance of old (harking back particularly to the ‘Age of
Empire’) and new forms of ‘accumulation by dispossession’, perhaps most
notably extractivism, he fails to recognize that imperialism’s most signifi-
cant shift in emphasis is in an entirely different direction. This is a shift
towards the transformation of its own core processes of surplus-value
extraction through global labour-arbitrage-driven transnationalization of
production, a phenomenon that is entirely internal to the labour–capital
relation. Harvey thus refuses to acknowledge that production ‘outsourc-
ing’ to low-wage states signifies a vast expansion of direct and indirect
Neoliberalism in Latin America 175

super-exploitation of global Southern labour by, principally, US,

European, and Japanese transnational corporations. This ignores the
massive expansion in surplus-value extraction based on ‘highly competi-
tive, low cost producers’ (Brenner 2001, 2002), a phenomenon driven by
capitalist firms based in the imperial states, and impelled by their insa-
tiable urge to cut costs by substituting relatively expensive domestic
labour with cheap Southern labour.
What we appear to be witnessing, then, is ‘disarticulated’ accumula-
tion through two principal, and juxtaposed, mechanisms: (1) super-
exploitation within the capital–labour relation, confined to highly
selective zones of industrialization, for export to the imperium—here
significant quantities of labour are absorbed by capital, but their exploita-
tion relies in key respects on their continued status as semi-proletarians as
a subsidy enabling their super-exploitation; (2) ‘accumulation by dispos-
session’, particularly ‘extractivism’, that is, the extraction of mineral, fossil
fuel, and agricultural commodities (including bio-fuels), on the basis of
expropriation of lands covered only by informal, use rights (often com-
munally held by indigenous people), and on the basis of minimal invest-
ment (other than in capital-intensive equipment and land purchase) and
labour absorption, and on the maximal externalization of ecological and
social costs. The latter model differs, therefore, from ‘classical’ primitive
accumulation in that capital is not interested principally in the employ-
ment of the resulting expropriated labour, which therefore becomes
largely redundant, but rather in the land and resources from which com-
modities are to be extracted and exported to the imperium, with no local
manufacture (and therefore employment) being entailed. (I address
extractivism and ‘neo-extractivism’ in more detail in the next chapter.)
Growth in the modern (capitalized) sector in the periphery does not,
therefore, create a tendency to eliminate the peasantry in response to the
need for market creation, as has tended to occur in articulated economies
in the core. Rather, capital has an interest, for the above reasons, in the
retention of a semi-proletarianized workforce that is obliged to sell its
labour power, but the full wage costs of which it does not have to meet.
Nonetheless, these semi-proletarians are unable, through limited access
to land, to secure ‘autonomy’ from capital. Indeed, the increased inser-
tion of transnational agri-food capital into the periphery since the 1970s
176 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

has actually accelerated the process of primitive capital accumulation

through land appropriation, as peasants are outcompeted for land by
extroverted capitalist agriculture. These peasants are subject, not so much
to generalized proletarianization (real subsumption), as to a prevailing
process of semi-proletarianization (formal subsumption), characterized by
hybridity of income from both auto-production and labour-selling to
(agricultural/industrial) capital. Under conditions of ‘accumulation by
dispossession’ for extractivism, the condition of the semi-proletariat is
rendered more precarious still by the expropriation of communal lands
(the ‘commons’) by extractive capital outside the area of immediate culti-
vation (similar to the ‘manorial waste’ of pre-capitalist Europe), and the
lack of compensatory employment opportunities.
Semi-proletarianization is the combined outcome of continued, but
inadequate, access to land flowing from the piecemeal land reforms of the
pre-neoliberal era, and the variable availability of marginal/frontier land;
the continued process of often partial expropriation through ‘accumula-
tion by dispossession’; the lack of full-time, adequately remunerated, or
indeed any, employment opportunities in the capitalist sector; and, cru-
cially, strong class resistance on the part of the ‘peasantry’ to full expropriation
by the disarticulated alliance, as land continues to be identified as the princi-
pal means to livelihood security and cultural identity. Peasant production,
the principal source of food staples in the periphery (Tittonell 2014), is
threatened, however, by a double-squeeze. Not only is it threatened on
the production side through land expropriation, but it is also subverted
on the market side by the ‘cheap’ sale of non-traditional wage foods from
the transnationalized spaces of agri-food productivism, and consequent
changes in consumption habits towards Northern diets. The result is that
semi-proletarianization, together with selective full proletarianization,
generate increased market dependence and low wages, while increased
dependence on food imports creates the actual, or immanent, conditions
for food crisis and, as we shall see, for political resistance.
The increased levels of surplus value thus generated in the periphery
are then siphoned off to the core consumption hubs through industrial
and financial imperialism (de Janvry 1981, 50; Smith 2016).8 This pro-
cess is augmented by extractivism on the basis of ‘accumulation by dis-
possession’. The movement of transnational capital out of the centre leads
Neoliberalism in Latin America 177

to selective de-development in, and disarticulation of, these economies as

capital increasingly accrues power over labour, and wages stagnate due to
competition from the global South. Growing wage differentials between
capital and labour result, generating under-consumption crisis which
capital attempts to overcome, not through wage increases, but rather
through credit lending (Turner 2008). This, in turn, leads to burgeoning
debt amongst wage earners which, when disclosed as ‘toxic’ under condi-
tions of wage stagnation and increasing unemployment, generates finan-
cial crisis. Under-consumption crisis is exacerbated as governments
impose austerity measures in an attempt to alleviate budget deficits
incurred in supporting the losses suffered by finance capital through
‘toxic’ debt (Harvey 2010). Under-consumption leads to increased com-
petition between capitals and further downward pressure on wages, lead-
ing to a further shift in production to the global South. Core states
attempt to sustain increasingly strained modes of regulation through a
combination of welfare safety nets, compensatory payments, episodic
demand-side stimuli, credit lending, and the importation of ‘super-cheap’
wage goods from the global South (primarily China), and the obfusca-
tion of these relations of imperial ‘super-exploitation’ with the periphery,
enabling consumerism in the North to be disassociated from its social
and ecological ramifications in the South. Of particular relevance in sus-
taining a mode of regulation and deflecting radical alternatives in the
global North are the structural impediments to change, both as imagi-
nary and as reality, flowing from the sheer historical depth of the real
subsumption of labour within capital.
Meanwhile, neoliberalism attempts further to deepen and constitu-
tionalize accumulation for transnationalized class fractions via a series of
global and bilateral trade agreements whose intent is to supervene over
other forms of law, thereby insulating neoliberal interests from ‘market
restraining’ measures. This expresses the projection into the inter-state
system of the historic bloc of neoliberal class forces originating in the
USA, and latterly, the other members of the ‘triad’. At the same time,
however, these agreements are characteristically asymmetrical in their
content, with the global North, as we have seen, either retaining or intro-
ducing mitigatory or compensatory measures not available to the global
South. The objective here is for Northern states, acting for neoliberal class
178 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

fractions, to secure enhanced accumulation opportunities internation-

ally, whilst at the same time selectively insulating their own citizens from
the full impacts of the globalization of value relations. This asymmetry
reflects the reality that core states dare not allow disarticulation to extend
too far within their own polities for fear of fracturing capital’s hegemony
embodied in the mode of regulation and, consequently, provoking pro-
found legitimation crises. Core states, either individually or as a ‘collec-
tive imperium’, seek, therefore, to externalize these contradictions onto
the periphery and to functionalize it to serve their own needs.
Neoliberalism, embodying the hegemony of transnationalized class
fractions of capital in the USA and, latterly, EU and Japanese polities,
thus pursues a policy of global accumulation whilst selectively insulating
its citizens from the full impacts of economic and ecological ‘blowback’.
In this way, neoliberalization, together with its mitigation in the global
North through the mechanisms described previously, that is, through
direct subvention and through the indirect subsidy of Southern ‘super-
cheap’ wage goods, has led to a characteristic pattern of contradictory
socio-natural relations in the agri-food sector within the core-periphery
structure. It has generated a selective contraction of productivism in the
global North, simultaneously unleashing a wave of market productivism
and extractivism, via transnationalized fractions of agri-food capital
(Stedile 2015), onto the frontiers of the global South. In other words,
modes of regulation in the imperium, by slowing the rate of agri-food
capital accumulation in the North, displace productivism onto the
periphery. ‘Sustainability’ in the global North, within the context of the
accumulation imperative of neoliberalism, can be secured only by a
‘spatio-temporal fix’ (Jessop 2006) that externalizes its costs onto the
global South.
This has generated a burgeoning tripartite food, social, and environ-
mental crisis in Latin America, and the global South more generally, as
peasant producers are placed at the mercy of volatile global markets,
export crops are substituted for local food staples, and biophysical
resources are despoiled through neoliberal, agri-food productivism and
extractivism. Peripheral states, while frequently complicit in the process
of transnational agri-food accumulation via the ‘disarticulated alliance’,
attempt, in conjunction with international NGOs and financial
Neoliberalism in Latin America 179

institutions, to alleviate the symptoms of these interlinked crises through

mitigatory devolved governance (de-statization, as described above) in
relation to the peasant and small farm sectors. Devolved governance,
with attendant forms of ‘integrated rural development’ and ‘pro-poor’
policy mechanisms, do constitute ‘flanking’ measures, but do not repre-
sent a coherent mode of regulation for the neoliberal regime of accumula-
tion, their purpose being to defuse semi-proletarian resistance to the
disarticulated alliance within the core-periphery structure. Such measures
have undergone a series of permutations during the course of the neolib-
eral era (including ‘climate smart’ agriculture, ‘sustainable intensifica-
tion’, and even ‘agroecology’ as components of the ‘second green
revolution’ in the current conjuncture), but an enduring characteristic of
these mechanisms involves their juxtaposition and subordination to an
ongoing productivism and extractivism in mainstream ‘development’
policy, and therefore, in the Latin American context, to the power of the
‘disarticulated’ agri-food oligarchy.
These dynamics of neoliberalism in the core-periphery structure form
an essential backdrop to understanding the emergence of political resis-
tance by peasant and indigenous movements during the course of the
1990s and into the new millennium, movements that have often had the
new concept of food sovereignty at their heart.9 Beginning in the 1990s,
therefore, a number of states in Latin America experienced a ‘second
wave’ of popular protests, ostensibly against neoliberal policies deriving
from the global Northern imperium, but actually directed in a more pro-
found sense against long-standing social inequities and political margin-
alization arising from entrenched oligarchical power and failed
‘pro-peasant’ agrarian reforms at the level of the state (albeit situated
within the international context of ‘core-periphery’ relations). Unlike the
‘first wave’ of anti-neoliberal protests of the 1980s, which were largely
associated with trade unions and urban unrest in response to abrupt dis-
locations of policy change, the ‘second wave’ was based on cumulative
grievances arising from the negative impacts of neoliberalism and its fail-
ure achieve its objectives, even in its own narrowly defined terms. What
was particularly distinctive about these protests, however, was their
broadly agrarian character and their ‘peasant’, frequently indigenous, and
communitarian complexion (Teubal 2009). While re-affirming the
180 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

anti-imperialism and national sovereignty claims of the ‘first wave’ of

anti-neoliberal protests of the 1980s, the ‘second wave’ was remarkable
for its articulation and valorization, in opposition inter alia to both
‘orthodox’ neoclassical ‘developmentalism’ and ‘progressivist’ Marxism,
of a pro-peasant positionality, often in combination with a new concern
with indigenous and gender rights, and environmental sustainability.
These protests suggested that the agrarian question was far from dead,
and that rumours to the contrary were premature if the peasant protago-
nists themselves were to have any say in the matter. These agrarian-based
protests often coalesced around the notion of food sovereignty, and the
first decade of the new millennium witnessed some remarkable political
gains. Perhaps the most remarkable political successes, particularly given
the near universal dominance of neoliberalism in Latin America until the
turn of the millennium, have occurred at national level with the election
of a significant number of left-leaning regimes and the adoption, in their
new or interim national constitutions, of formal commitments to food
sovereignty. Such states include Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and
Venezuela, while these new agrarian movements have also secured signifi-
cant successes in Brazil and became renowned, indeed iconic, in Mexico
through the actions of the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion
Nacional). These ‘second wave’ developments were by no means universal
in Latin America, however, and, in order to explain this particularity, it is
necessary to have reference to the specificities of social-property relations
and class positionalities in each capital–state nexus, that is to Level 4
dynamics. I shall address these specificities in a later chapter.
The first indication of a new wave of resistance against neoliberalism in
Latin America came in 1990 with the levantamiento, or the National
Indigenous Uprising, in Ecuador. The Confederation of Indigenous
Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the national level organization rep-
resenting Ecuador’s indigenous peoples, emerged during the event as the
principal body speaking on behalf of Ecuador’s indigenous (and peasant)
movement. CONAIE and the wider indigenous movement became
important protagonists in Ecuadorian politics throughout the 1990s and
were, indeed, central to the nationwide protests that led to the impeach-
ment of one President in 1997 and to the overthrow of another in 2000.
As the new millennium has progressed, however, the indigenous and
Neoliberalism in Latin America 181

peasant movement has steadily lost its influence and mobilizing capacity
due a range of factors which I shall address in a later chapter. Prominent
among these has been its progressive co-optation and marginalization by
the resurgence of leftist and populist forces in the country, whereby
CONAIE’s anti-neoliberal, pro-peasant, and food sovereignty messages
have been subverted by the neo-developmentalist policies of the Correa
regime (Lucero 2008; Van Cott 2009; Rice 2012).
Famously, the EZLN became a central protagonist in Mexican politics
on 1 January 1994, the date of Mexico’s accession to the North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), through its uprising and its promulga-
tion of indigenous and peasant rights in the face of neoliberal processes
of primitive accumulation (Harvey 1998; Nash 2001). Perhaps equally
famously, and very influentially from the perspective of the ‘alter-globalist’
movement, the EZLN later distanced itself from the state (and from
established political parties) when negotiations between the latter and the
EZLN collapsed in the mid-1990s over the issue of autonomy and self-
governance within indigenous communities. The EZNL has since turned
inwards in an effort to build autonomous communities, thereby largely
severing the indigenous and peasant cause from the national political
agenda. This ‘autonomist’ strategy of ‘changing the world without taking
power’ has indeed become emblematic of the ‘alter-globalist’ movement,
to which parts of the food sovereignty movement may be said to adhere,
and, in the hands of the likes of Hardt and Negri (2000), has metamor-
phosed into a populist binary of neoliberalism (and ‘state’) versus the
One of the most combative peasant-based movements in Latin America
is the Rural Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores
Rurais sem Terra, MST) of Brazil. The primary goals of the movement
have been to secure land for the landless, to sustain constant pressure for
agrarian reform through large-scale land occupations, and to fight against
economic models, and neoliberalism in particular, which enforce land-
lessness and lack of adequate access to land. Unlike the EZLN, the MST
has pursued a strategy of engagement with the state and has forced the
government to implement its own land reform legislation through the
occupation of under-utilized lands. Despite the state’s repeal of the land
law in 1999, the MST has reinforced its efforts since that time and has
182 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

succeeded in settling dispossessed people on hundreds of thousands of

hectares of land (Veltmeyer 2007).
Social protests in Bolivia increased in both frequency and intensity
from 2000. Thus, the so-called Water War in Cochabamba in 2000 con-
cluded with the ‘Gas Wars’ of La Paz in 2003 and 2005, with these pro-
tests being described as the exhaustion of neoliberalism in Bolivia (Spronk
and Webber 2007). Where before protest had been undertaken by work-
ers of the specific sector being disadvantaged by neoliberal reforms, these
latter protests have involved people from a wider range of interests,
including indigenous peoples, peasantry, students, workers, neighbour-
hood associations, all of whom had now become thoroughly disillusioned
with the negative impacts of neoliberalism on all aspects of life. These
disparate interests came together as popular coalitions of the ‘new social
movements’ (Foweraker 1995). While these popular coalitions have been
successful in mobilizing broad opposition to neoliberalism, they are, by
token of their sheer breadth of interest representation, susceptible to frag-
mentation and co-optation once resistance moves forward from resis-
tance to policy design and implementation. And, as we shall see in a later
chapter, such has indeed proven to be the case in Bolivia under the popu-
list regime of Evo Morales.
Indeed, while these ‘second wave’ movements have been important
influences on the widespread ‘turn’ to the left in Latin America over the
last decade or more, they have not generally succeeded in translating pro-
test into the concrete social relational changes that might undo the dam-
age inflicted by neoliberalism on indigenous people and the peasantry
(and here I am referring to the ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ peasantry, in particu-
lar). Rather, the trend has been towards fragmentation and co-optation of
these movements by the left-leaning populist regimes that have succeeded
neoliberalism, whereby these governments, typically, have pursued ‘neo-
developmentalist’ and reformist policies favouring national bourgeoisies,
the upper peasantry, and transnational extractive capital. Opposition to
these policies has been muted by redistributive and social welfare pro-
grammes favouring the urban poor, in particular.
The rise of the ‘second wave’, ‘new social movements’, and ‘alter-
hegemonic’ resistance raises some important analytical questions relating
to the class-based Political Marxism, such as I advocate here, versus the
Neoliberalism in Latin America 183

more ‘populist’ position, very Polanyian in tone, advocated by the quasi-

Marxism of Friedmann, McMichael, van der Ploeg, and Hardt and Negri.
It is, of course, true that ‘objective’ class position and ‘subjective’ class
positionality may not coincide.10 This is truer still given the increasingly
all-pervasive (‘economic’, ‘socio-cultural’, and ‘ecological’) contradictions
of capitalism, the impacts of which seem to transcend class and find
expression in the ‘new social movements’ (Foweraker 1995). This means
that there is now greater potential for ‘unification’ of disparate classes
under a common banner given that the ‘enemy’—‘corporate capital’—is
now apparently so all encompassing. This is evidently the case with the
‘peasant way’ and ‘food sovereignty’ on a widened definition that includes
both ‘progressives’ and ‘radicals’. This widened definition represents the
‘master frame’ (see Rice 2012; Claeys 2015) to which all adherents of the
‘peasant way’ can subscribe. While such a ‘master frame’ may be an
important and valid basis for social movement coherence and mobiliza-
tion up to a certain point, the more so when the ‘enemy’ appears to be so
pervasive, it nonetheless elides crucial differences in class position
amongst and between followers of the ‘peasant way’. These differences are
likely to come to the surface, however, as social movement strategy moves
forward from an oppositional stance towards the proactive formulation
of more detailed policy proposals. The elision of class difference, whilst
understandable and perhaps strategically necessary up to a point, none-
theless has the effect of perpetuating a ‘master frame’ as simplistic binary,
both overemphasizing the monolithic character of the ‘opposition’ and
evacuating the immanent bases of dissention amongst ‘allies’. To adopt an
uncritical stance in relation to this binary of the ‘peasant way’ versus ‘cor-
porate capital’ (the ‘double movement’) is to invoke a Polanyian narra-
tive, effectively denying, as Polanyi did, the essence of capitalism as an
exploitative class relation (Tilzey 2016b).
In concluding this chapter, I present a summary of the key ‘political’
and ‘ecological’ dynamics of neoliberalism, as embodied in the ‘neolib-
eral’ food regime.

1. The need to build ‘articulated’ economies in the post-war era in the

face of the communist ‘threat’, and to defuse socialist movements of
the ‘Great Transformation’ while securing capital accumulation, led to
184 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

intensified ‘state-centred’ accumulation of ‘political productivism’ or

Fordism, classically in the imperial states. Wage increases were bal-
anced by productivity increases through the realization of relative sur-
plus value, while increased output was absorbed by increased
consumption. These developments were mirrored in the agri-food sec-
tor, where massive increases in productivity (ratio of labour to out-
put), and also absolute increases in yields, produced ‘cheap’ wage
foods from within the nation for the industrial proletariat. Labour
within agriculture was simultaneously shed, but could be absorbed
without contradiction by the industrial sector. Restructuring was
undertaken deliberately to favour the capitalist family farm, however,
with the state engineering a ‘farmer road’ to capitalism. Peasant agri-
culture (i.e., self-subsistent farming) largely disappeared from Western
Europe and North America. (In the latter, it had largely disappeared
by the close of the nineteenth century except in marginal and early
settled areas such as the Appalachian Mountains.) These developments
are explained largely by Level 4 dynamics;
2. These developments were enabled by a massive increase in the use of
fossil fuels for energy, machinery, artificial fertilizers, and so on, lead-
ing to exponential increase in labour productivity and yields through
processes of ‘appropriationism’ and ‘substitutionism’ (Goodman et al.
1987). Other than a dependence on oil imports, these developments
took place relatively independently of the global periphery. But with-
out such oil imports, they could not have taken place at all. It was
fossil fuel that supplied the essential affordance underpinning this
regime of accumulation (Level 3 dynamics);
3. From the late 1970s, this ‘political productivist’ regime began to enter
crisis both ‘politically’ and ‘ecologically’. ‘Politically’, wage increases in
the industrial sector were not being matched by productivity increases,
and capital entered an under-accumulation (‘supply-side’) crisis,
whereby commodities, tendentially, could not be marketed profitably
(from capital’s perspective, insufficient surplus value was being gener-
ated in production as a result of labour’s increased class power vis-à-vis
capital). ‘Corporatist’ arrangements protected labour from downward
pressure on wages and led to an inflationary spiral, exacerbated by
politically engineered increases in the cost of oil imports (Level 4
Neoliberalism in Latin America 185

dynamics). In agriculture, productivism led, over time, to over-supply

(over-production) of agri-food commodities, leading to downward
pressure on prices, an increased subsidy burden in what was a state-
supported system, and, thereby, to increased pressure to export sur-
plus (principally to the global South). At the same time, productivism’s
ecological contradictions (not so much ‘source’ as ‘sink’ related) led to
increasing calls for constraints on production and the diversion of
funds to support environmental (agri-environment schemes) and
wider rural diversification measures. This then was a politically reflex-
ive response, not so much to any functional constraint flowing from
resource shortage, but rather to ecological impacts on (seemingly)
‘non-functional’ dimensions such as biodiversity and cultural land-
scapes (but over time, and as ecological contradictions deepened, there
was a dawning realization on the part of orthodoxy that compromised
soils, polluted water, loss of pollinators, etc. could actually begin to
compromise profits through the loss of subsidy to capital that nature
provided—this subsidy began to be referred to as ‘ecosystem services’
during the course of the 1990s);
4. The concentration of capital in the agri-food sector and beyond led to
calls for increasing liberalization of trade and transnationalization of
production, so that profitability could be restored through exploita-
tion of cheaper sources of supply in the global South. However, advo-
cacy of globalization and reduction of subsidy in global North by
transnational capital fractions was contested by neo-mercantilist and
social welfare constituencies, leading to the retention of certain ‘mar-
ket constraining’ features in the imperial states to mitigate the impacts
of full liberalization. Meanwhile, continuing political (environmental)
opposition to productivism led to the introduction of various ‘post-
productivist’ measures to support organic production, rural diversifi-
cation, and biodiversity/landscape conservation, but subordinate to
continued productivism. Nonetheless, this reinforced the trend
towards the export of productivist agriculture to the global South as a
‘spatio-temporal’ fix (Level 4 dynamics);
5. Reciprocal relations between imperial transnational capital and the
agro-exporting oligarchy in the periphery led to the exploitation of
ever larger areas in the latter for export of agricultural commodities to
186 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

the North. Simultaneously, there was increased migration of industrial

manufacturing to the South, subsidized by super-exploitation of
labour and the ‘functional dualism’ of semi-proletarianization. This,
together with the resurgence of extractivism, led to the further erosion
of the self-subsistent peasantry (in Latin America and Asia, this had
never been an independent peasantry, and it was always part of feudal
or proto-capitalist social-property relations) which became formally
subsumed, as a semi-proletariat, within capitalist relations of produc-
tion. This peasantry did, however, retain crucial links to land, but this
land was generally insufficient to secure full ‘autonomy’ from capital-
ism. In this way, continuing poverty, ecological degradation, and loss
of productive land to capital led to an upwelling of agrarian-based,
and anti-neoliberal, protest during the 1990s and early 2000s, par-
ticularly in Latin America. Food sovereignty claims within a ‘post-
developmentalist’ (as opposed to a national developmentalist)
discourse began to be articulated. Contradictions of neoliberalism
began, via reflexive political action, to become a contradiction for
neoliberalism (Level 4 dynamics in dialectical interplay with Level 3).

1. Food sovereignty as a term appears to have originated in Mexico in the
1980s (Edelman 2014) where it was deployed by the state, against neolib-
eralism, to assert national sovereignty over food production and distribu-
tion. In this it was used, not in the sense deployed by the ‘radicals’
(egalitarian, small-scale, ecological) or the ‘progressives’ (small-scale and
ecological), but in a productivist sense associated with developmentalism.
This tension between food sovereignty as a productivist versus a post-
productivist (agroecological) vision is reprised, as we shall see, in the cur-
rent neo-developmentalist context in Latin America.
2. Social disarticulation occurs when the state–capital nexus is interested in
its labour force principally from the perspective of production (its ability
to generate surplus value) and not primarily from the perspective of con-
sumption (the realization of surplus value through the sale of commodi-
ties). Social articulation implies a complementarity between the role of
the labour force as producers and consumers, or a situation in which their
role as consumers outweighs their significance as producers.
Notes 187

3. When viewed in this light, it is possible to make sense of phenomena

such as Brexit and Trumpism.
4. De-statization (Jessop 2002) is the devolution from the state of administra-
tive, regulatory, and funding responsibilities to the local, regional levels and/
or to non-state bodies, but without proportional transfers of power or capac-
ity that might enable such bodies to challenge existing power structures.
5. Co-optation permits the confinement of class struggle to demands that
can be accommodated within existing social relations; segmentation
seeks to divide the non-capitalist classes along sexual, racial, ethnic,
national, and educational differences so as to ‘divide and rule’; separation
entails the blurring of class boundaries through, for example, the cre-
ation of a petty bourgeoisie from members of the (semi)proletariat,
whose new loyalties tend to lie with the classes of capital.
6. Although not exclusively. One primary facet of the ‘progressives’ is the dif-
ferentiation between modernism and developmentalism, on the one hand,
and post-developmentalism, the local, and the ecological, on the other. The
latter is often associated with a post-Marxist and a post-class perspective,
and this has formed part of the view of the ‘new social movements’ ‘second
wave’ of anti-neoliberal protests in Latin America. This view is represented
by thinkers such as Escobar, Esteva, and Teubal, who may perhaps be
described as ‘alter-hegemonic’ rather than ‘counter-hegemonic’.
7. This is not to suggest that ‘development and articulation’ are necessarily
desirable or sustainable, certainly not the latter, but rather that these dif-
fering conditions between core and periphery strongly structure and
explain the differential presence of counter-hegemonic forces in the
8. Industrial and financial imperialism are a means of surplus extraction from
the periphery occurring directly as returns on foreign investments and
loans, and indirectly through interest payments on external debts; capital
is also invested in modern enclaves and industries in the periphery where
it captures high rates of profit and repatriates a large fraction of them.
9. As we have seen, the term ‘food sovereignty’ seems to have originated in
Mexico in the 1980s (Edelman 2014) at which time it had a distinctly
‘developmentalist’ (sub-hegemonic) connotation. In its 1990s incarna-
tion, food sovereignty has increasingly been associated with ‘alter’ and
‘counter-hegemonic’ positions.
10. The ‘bridge’ from ‘objective’ position to ‘subjective’ positionality is that
of ‘structured agency’—the central issue of political class formation, class
consciousness, and the role of ideology in shaping class and resistance to
188 6 The Neoliberal Food Regime, the New Imperialism...

actually experienced modes of exploitation. Thus, considerations of race,

ethnicity, gender, and so on can be vitally important factors shaping how
class is experienced, and therefore shaping class consciousness.

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Part 2
Crisis and Resistance
The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

Until the turn of the new millennium, neoliberalism appeared to be car-

rying all before it, without serious contradiction for this regime of accu-
mulation. The collapse of state communism and the opening up of China
and other centres of super-cheap labour as manufacturing zones for
Northern transnational corporations enabled the attack on labour in the
imperium to be mitigated by the import of ‘cheaps’ from the global
South. As we have seen, this served a crucial legitimation function as well
as maintaining satisfactory consumption levels in the global North.
Environmental contradictions of productivist agriculture, of manufac-
turing, and of energy production in the imperium could also be miti-
gated through shifting these activities to the periphery. As the first decade
of the new millennium progressed, however, a variety of contradictions,
in terms of capital accumulation, in terms of the supply of basic needs to
the global majority (perhaps most notably food), and in terms of the
biophysical fabric of the planet and resource supply (all the while repre-
senting contradictions of capital for the subaltern classes and extra-human
nature), began to ‘come home to roost’ as mounting contradictions for
capital, and for neoliberalism in particular.
From the perspective of the ‘classes of labour’, the contradictions of
neoliberalism are those of wage stagnation, increasing job insecurity, and

© The Author(s) 2018 197

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
198 7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

increasing indebtedness (global North), and increasing poverty and hun-

ger, lack of access to land and other basic necessities (food, water, shelter,
healthcare) (global South). From the perspective of ‘ecology’, the contra-
dictions are those of increased extraction of non-renewable resources,
depletion of renewable resources, loss of biodiversity, and global climate
change due to capital’s profligate consumption of fossil fuels. In short,
from the biophysical perspective, this represents the generalized over-
consumption of commodities to feed capital’s ‘treadmill of production’.
From the perspective of capital, however, the contradictions for neoliber-
alism comprise, firstly, an under-consumption (over-accumulation) of
commodities arising from competitive pressure to lower wages globally—
capital, in other words, cannot sell the commodities that it needs to in
order to survive by means of the treadmill of production. We can see
clearly, therefore, that the aims of ecological sustainability and the aims
of capitalist reproduction are diametrically opposed. Perversely, however,
under-consumption leads to a further competitive downward spiral of
labour shedding through automation, wage stagnation, and the search
for ever-cheaper labour sources in order to lower prices so that market
share can be retained. Meanwhile consumption, located largely in the
global North, is sustained only by increasingly risky credit-lending and
by never-ending product innovation and premature obsolescence. These
dynamics can be explained only by reference to the ‘political’, Level 4, in
our model, since they are essentially questions of class struggle in the
authoritative domain.
But while capital needs to produce and sell more and more commodi-
ties to infinity, this unavoidable impulse constitutes a looming and poten-
tially fatal second contradiction for capital in terms of the necessarily finite
supply of energy and raw materials required for their manufacture. With
the major means of keeping the cost of commodities down, and available in
abundance—fossil fuel—having now passed the point of peak supply, the
future prospect is one of dwindling stocks, and secularly increasing cost, of
these crucial energy sources. Since renewable energy, despite the claims of
‘green capitalists’, cannot generate the cheap, abundant, and continuously
expanding supply of energy required to feed capital’s insatiable appetite, the
demise of fossil fuel would appear to constitute an insuperable obstacle
to capital’s reproduction, unless some equivalent substitute can be
7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis? 199

found. These are ‘ecological’ or Level 3 dynamics where the ‘political’

dynamics of capital are enabled or constrained by biophysical affordances.
At the same time, environmental contradictions for capital as reflexive
political response, usually at the level of the state, in terms of regulatory
climate change mitigation, generates constraints on capital through ten-
dential restrictions on fossil-fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emis-
sions. This leads, in turn, to the search for, and implementation of,
fossil-fuel ‘substitutes’ in the form of, inter alia, the ‘bio-economy’. Since
the ‘bio-economy’ requires land, in contrast to the ‘subterranean forest’ of
fossil fuel, this inevitably leads to conflicts with food production, particu-
larly in the global South, generating further reflexive political resistance
by subaltern classes. These dynamics comprise a dialectic between Level 3
and Level 4.
The issue of land therefore assumes an importance in the current con-
juncture that it appeared to have lost during the era of apparently limit-
less fossil-fuel production and consumption. Thus, as neoliberalism’s
expansionary dynamic encounters the looming constraint represented by
the exhaustion of the ‘subterranean forest’ of fossil fuel, so land, as in the
pre-industrial era, again becomes the principal focus of contention as the
basis for either the production of renewable energy, or for the production
of food. And the contention is also focused on questions of ‘energy for
whom?’ and ‘food for whom?’ Should energy and food be directed
towards profligate consumption by the global minority in the North, or
towards basic need satisfaction by the global majority in the South? In
land, therefore, the different strands of the ‘political’ and ‘ecological’ con-
tradictions of neoliberalism coalesce, culminating in strained social rela-
tions and struggles over land, between social classes within the global
South, and between the global South and North. This is reflected in the
revival of issues long eclipsed during the heyday of neoliberalism (and
still largely eclipsed in the global North for the reasons earlier explained),
such as land inequality, redistributive land reform, the organization of
agriculture, its role in the social division of labour, and its relationship to
non-agricultural sectors.
200 7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

Contradictions for Neoliberalism in General

As we have seen, the crisis of the Keynesian regime of accumulation com-
prised a supply-side (under-accumulation) crisis, stimulating the turn to
neoliberalism. The latter has, in turn, generated the current under-
consumption (over-accumulation), or demand side crisis. These are
‘political’ or ‘internal’ contradictions, although enabled concurrently by
‘ecological’ or ‘external’ conditions of production. ‘Internal’ supply-side
crisis tends to stimulate technological innovation and the exploitation of
new and cheaper conditions of production to exert downward pressure
on prices in order to sustain and enhance the rate of profit—hence the
impulse towards globalization from the 1970s. The present conjuncture
is characterized by the juxtaposition of demand-side crisis, due to the
power of capital over labour (Level 4), with a supply-side crisis in the
conditions of production, defined by increases in the cost of conditions
of production, most particularly oil (Level 3), and the ramifications of
political attempts to curb greenhouse gas emissions (together with knock-
on effects for fossil-fuel-based agriculture and consequent rise in the cost
of food) (Level 3 and 4). The demand-side crisis is exacerbated by the
supply-side crisis in the conditions of production, representing structural
contradictions, compounded by the conjunctural tendency of monopoly
finance capital to profit from speculation in newly de-regulated futures
commodities such as food (Ghosh 2010; Isakson 2014). The result is a
paradoxical situation in which financial surplus continues to increase
even as the under-consumption crisis deepens, and the conditions of pro-
duction exhibit a secular, if uneven, rise in cost.
The current plethora of commodities on the market is the product of
global competition to produce masses of products on the basis of low
wages and ever-lower costs in the biophysical conditions of production
(the ‘cheaps’ of labour power in capitalist production and the ‘zone of
appropriation’ that lies behind this). There is a frantic race to introduce
new commodities in order to sustain sales, such that supply has become
divorced from demand, resulting in major imbalances between the two.
The outcome is a frenzied search for consumers that encounters the insur-
mountable constraint of limits to absorption. This comprises the perennial
Contradictions for Neoliberalism in General 201

dilemma for capitalism of seeking reductions in wage costs whilst simul-

taneously desiring expanded consumption. It also comprises the charac-
teristic capitalist paradox of poverty, or lack of ability to pay, in the midst
of abundance. The rise in global trade above production reinforces global
competition, while productivity growth in excess of wage increases hin-
ders the realization of the value of goods through sales. The short-term
imbalances caused by over-accumulated capital, over-produced com-
modities, and asymmetrically exchanged goods between South and North
are inscribed in the contradictions that culminated in the financial crisis
of 2007/8. These imbalances take the form of two fundamental contra-
dictions for neoliberalism in the sphere of demand and in the rate of
profit. This means that these contradictions of neoliberalism take place in
two spheres, namely, the realization of the value of commodities, and the
valorization of capital.
With respect to the crisis of realization, there are, as noted, severe
imbalances between production and consumption. By reducing salaries
and increasing unemployment and poverty, neoliberalism has eroded the
purchasing power of the ‘classes of labour’ (of primary significance in the
global North). This has created impediments to the realization of the
value of commodities and has led, therefore, to a re-emergence of difficul-
ties in realizing the surplus value that capitalists extract from their labour
force. While the Fordist model included, as we have seen, a link between
wage and productivity increases, the neoliberal model, by contrast, is pre-
mised on the prioritization of competition to reduce wage costs, thereby
creating a widening gap between increases in production and purchasing
power. The impacts of this have been most severe in the global South, as
we have seen, where the labour force plays an insignificant role in global
consumption but is vital in reducing costs of production. In addition to
the removal of people, wholly or partially, from the land, the super-
exploitation of workers employed in capitalist production in the periph-
ery is one of the main reasons for the food crisis that erupted almost
simultaneously with the financial crisis. As we have seen, super-
exploitation is compounded by extractivism, founded on ‘accumulation
by dispossession’. ‘Neoliberal capitalism has amputated the basic sources
of subsistence for one-sixth of the global population’ (Katz 2015, 283).
202 7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

Significantly, however, these effects have been mitigated in the global

North by a number of compensatory mechanisms which have been of
benefit even for the ‘working classes’. However, the latter’s ability to pur-
chase even luxury items, in addition to essentials, produced in the global
South, is now linked not to improvements in income, but rather to debt.
In other words, the realization crisis of neoliberalism has been kept within
certain bounds through recourse to credit-lending, that is, to debt. This
countervailing factor allowed purchasing power to be maintained despite
wage stagnation, the creation of a ‘precariat’, and the spread of unem-
ployment. Workers drew on credit relief, with this credit sustaining con-
sumption levels until debt liabilities reached such a level that default
became inevitable. Financial crisis, as we have seen, was the consequence.
Clearly these structural proclivities have not been removed, so it seems
only a matter of time before another financial crisis descends on the
global North. (The financial crisis did not impact as severely on the global
South simply because its workers are too poor for larger banks to consider
lending to.)
It should be evident, then, that consumption is based on a highly
polarized distributive structure at the global level based on the imperium
as main consumer, and the periphery as main producer. Thus, 80 per cent
of the planet’s population engages in just 14 per cent of private consump-
tion (Katz 2015). In other words, 20 per cent of the global population
(overwhelmingly in the global North) consumes 76 per cent of com-
modities produced. This casts doubt on assertions by alter-globalists such
as Hardt and Negri that Marxian class analysis based on the labour theory
of value is dead, and that the ‘pain’ of neoliberalism is distributed equally
among the ‘multitude’, whether North or South.
With respect to the crisis of valorization, it is the case, as Marx foresaw,
that the dynamic of accumulation increases the organic composition of
capital, which, in turn, tends to reduce the rate of profit based on the
surplus value extracted from the labour force. There are three indications
that there has been an increase in the organic composition of capital
under neoliberalism. Firstly, there were very significant increases in
investment in Asian economies, particularly, most notably China, from
the 1980s, which became the new ‘workshops of the world’. High rates
of exploitation, particularly of semi-proletarian migrants from rural areas,
Contradictions for Neoliberalism in General 203

made the average level of investment in China, particularly, extremely

high in relative terms (see case study below). Secondly, despite increased
rates of labour exploitation, there has been a uniform process of capital-
ization (the use of machinery in preference to labour) across all regions
and sectors, North and South, associated with the activity of transna-
tional capital. These capitals have sought to increase productivity, even in
combination with super-cheap labour, by means of intense computeriza-
tion of the production process. This has brought about a reduction in the
surplus value created by living labour. Increasingly, there is little differ-
ence in productivity between labour in the global South and in the global
North, but, despite this, wage differentials between the two remain huge.
This is the key to super-exploitation in production in the South and the
confinement of consumption to the global North. This phenomenon is
known as ‘labour arbitrage’ (Smith 2016). Thirdly, the loss of jobs gener-
ated by capitalization has generated structural unemployment.
These three processes—high foreign investment by transnational capi-
tal, the information revolution, and structural unemployment—have
increased the organic composition of capital, resulting in a relative dete-
rioration of the rate of profit. As in the case of the realization imbalances,
declining valorization of capital has generated countervailing tendencies.
The prevailing countervailing tendency is that identified as number two
earlier—driving wages down below the reproductive cost of labour power
through an increased rate of exploitation. This is the principle mecha-
nism identified by Smith (2016) in his unification of Lenin’s theory of
imperialism with Marx’s labour theory of value. Herein lies the essence of
neoliberal imperialism in its authoritative dimension.
Hitherto, these countervailing tendencies of a ‘political’ or ‘internal’
kind in the ‘zone of exploitation’ have been complemented by another,
‘ecological’ or ‘external’, tendency in the ‘zone of appropriation’—that is,
a secular decline in the cost of raw materials. But the first decade of the
new millennium began to witness a reversal of this countervailing ten-
dency as the cost of the conditions of production exhibited an upward, if
uneven, trend. Thus, neoliberalism’s ‘internal’ over-production crisis is
compounded by an ‘external’ under-production crisis in the supply of the
cheap and abundant energy and raw materials required to sustain the
ever-enlarging scale of capital’s production and productivity.
204 7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

Contradictions for the Neoliberal Food Regime

These relationships between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ contradictions of
neoliberalism are exemplified particularly well by the food crisis of
2007/8. The ultimate, or structural, causes of the food crisis may be
attributed to the basic accumulation dynamic of the class alliance of dis-
articulated capital described in the previous chapter, predicated, in the
global South, upon a deepening process of primitive accumulation,
engendering semi-proletarianization or proletarianization, and the super-
exploitation of labour. Alternatively, extractivism, through accumulation
by dispossession, renders the expropriated work force surplus to require-
ments from capital’s perspective. Neoliberalizing agriculture has, through
its symbiotic relationship with the disarticulated alliance, favoured and
reinforced strongly skewed patterns of land distribution and production
in much of the global South, particularly in Latin America and Asia,
whereby agri-industrial producers, as a small minority, occupy much of
the land and produce the bulk of export crops through the socio-naturally
alienating techniques of market productivism (Kay 2006; Tilzey 2006;
Weis 2007). As an outcome of such skewed land tenure structures, how-
ever, the majority of the rural population occupies insufficient land to
meet its own food needs (the semi-proletarians), or has no access to land
at all (the proletarians). Structurally, such populations therefore occupy a
spectrum of class positions. These range from semi-proletarian, produc-
ing as much as they can on their small plots, usually for themselves and
any surplus for the home market, and selling their labour on the large
estates, or in the urban centres (see de Janvry 1981), to fully proletarian.
Such ‘classes of labour’ comprise the growing numbers who now depend
on the sale of their labour power for their own daily reproduction
(Bernstein 2009). Such lack of adequate access to land, a direct conse-
quence of class structures both supporting and supported by neoliberal-
ism, therefore generates market dependence and vulnerability to price
Following the era of developmentalism, the neoliberal food regime has
been characterized by the prising open of Southern markets through the
bilateral class interests of neoliberalism, and further exacerbated by
Contradictions for the Neoliberal Food Regime 205

reductions in, or elimination of, support for domestic agricultural pro-

duction, and other entitlement structures, by structural adjustment poli-
cies. Structural adjustment policies created new opportunities for the
South to become increasingly export-oriented (Petras and Veltmayer
2001), favouring the agro-export fractions of capital in supplying cheap
food and facilitating downward pressure on global labour from the 1980s.
This has entailed the marginalization of other, sub-hegemonic, capitalist
class fractions in favour of the agri-food oligarchy. Bilateral neoliberaliza-
tion has thus enabled reconstruction of a global food regime that bears
certain similarities to the Imperial food regime of the late nineteenth
century, to the extent that cheap food is again siphoned off from the
periphery to the consumption hubs of the global North (Araghi 2009b).
The consequence for growing numbers of rural producers in the global
South has been increased poverty and an enforced process of semi-
proletarianization, or permanent rural–urban migration and consequent
proletarianization. The consequence has been chronic levels of unem-
ployment and under-employment throughout the burgeoning cities of
the global South, together with their rural hinterlands (Davis 2006),
leading to severe vulnerability and exposure to global market volatility,
increasingly manipulated by the power of financialized transnational cap-
ital. The corollary is the displacement of local farming systems, the loss of
associated biodiversity, and the general degradation of ecosystems and the
biophysical resource base. As Araghi has noted,

the [neoliberal] enclosure food regime, as the agrarian programme of a re-

energized, re-globalizing capital, represents a reversal of the suspension of
global value relations [of the state developmentalist era], with drastic con-
sequences for the masses of agrarian direct producers who become redun-
dant on a daily basis, and who are thrown out of collapsing national
divisions of labour into the vortex of globalization as masses of surplus
labour in motion. (2009b, 135)

This neoliberal ‘enclosure’ food regime, comprising the symbiosis of

transnationalized fractions of Northern agri-food capital with extroverted
class fractions of the South, has entailed a systematic emasculation of the
developmentalist state in much of the periphery. This has involved a
206 7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

concomitant dismantling of government credit and protection for nation-

ally oriented agriculture, together with progressive abandonment of pub-
lic structures to ensure appropriate domestic food distribution and
availability of strategic food staple reserves (Moyo and Yeros 2005).
Heavily indebted states, now confronted by increasingly volatile interna-
tional markets in food commodities and dominated by re-energized agro-
export fractions of capital, are unable, or unwilling, to counteract such
volatility since they are themselves, due to imperialist rent, privatization
and contraction of the tax base, constrained by internal and external fiscal
deficits (Ghosh 2010). The consequence is that many states in the global
South are today characterized by a triple crisis of increasing semi-
proletarianization or proletarianization, increased international price
volatility for food staples, and decreased capacity, or willingness, to
address the consequences of such enhanced vulnerability.
The foregoing affords an ultimate explanation for the structural and
immanent vulnerability of the majority of rural (and urban) poor to glo-
balized market ‘forces’, and therefore to food crisis, through their sunder-
ing, wholly or partially, from the means of production, and through the
consequent generation of market dependence. This constitutes an ‘inter-
nal’ (Level 4) contradiction of capital, although one that is inherently
conjoined to the exploitation of ‘external’ socio-natural affordances in the
generation of ecological surplus as a second structural, ‘external’ contra-
diction. This second contradiction arises both from the direct impacts of,
and indirect and reflexive responses to, the ever-increasing metabolic rift
between accumulation and the environmental conditions of production
(Araghi 2009a). In this way, the increase in oil prices, and their conse-
quences for global warming, led the ‘automobile-oil complex’, for exam-
ple, to initiate investment of large sums of capital in the production of
agro-fuels, especially in the production of sugar cane and maize for etha-
nol, and soybean, peanut, rapeseed, and oil palm for vegetable oil. This
resulted in ‘an unmitigated attack by financial capital and transnational
companies on Southern tropical agriculture’ (Stedile 2015, 37). This
structural contradiction in the contraction of ‘ecological surplus’ through
secular increase in the cost of fossil energy, combined with more conjunc-
tural and reflexive responses by capital, to generate the causes of the food
crisis in 2007/8. These Level 3 to Level 4 dynamics may be summarized
Contradictions for the Neoliberal Food Regime 207

as follows: (1) anthropogenic climate-change-induced declines in agricul-

tural output, arising from the impacts of capital’s treadmill of produc-
tion; (2) oil price rises, impacting upon agro-chemically based agriculture
and leading to food price rises, as a result of impending peak oil, com-
pounded by neoliberalism’s reluctance to invest in extractive infrastruc-
ture; (3) the diversion of land for the production of agro-fuels as a
response to climate change and energy insecurity, again leading to food
price rises as the area under food grains declines and, in the global South,
peasant production is displaced by productivist, or extractivist, agro-fuel
Another proximate, or conjunctural, cause of food crisis derived from
one of the more specific impacts of global financialization as an internal
contradiction—the deregulation of commodity futures markets (Ghosh
2010). The resultant trend towards greater market volatility in agri-food
and fuel commodities was compounded by a further ramification of the
financial crisis in the global North. Northern finance capital sought a
more ‘secure’ home in peripheral economies through investment in fixed
assets such as land, minerals, agricultural raw materials, water, agricul-
tural production in addition to the control of renewable energy sources
such as hydroelectric power and ethanol plants (Stedile 2015). This
‘internal’ contradiction has served further to reinforce agri-food produc-
tivism, or extractivism, in the global South, to marginalize subaltern
classes, and to create immanent and actual conditions for food crisis.
This analysis suggests, then, that both the ultimate, structural, and
proximate, conjunctural, causes of food crisis arise from the dynamics of
the neoliberalizing agri-food system within a disarticulating core-
periphery structure, and are linked intimately to the wider crisis of under-
consumption in world accumulation. Thus, the newly disarticulating
structure of transnationalized accumulation has facilitated downward
pressure on labour costs and conditions of production, leading to under-
consumption crisis and enhanced accumulation by neoliberal class frac-
tions as financial surplus. This is the key ‘internal’ contradiction, as the
generation of a huge reserve army of labour through primitive accumula-
tion, and accumulation by dispossession, has kept wages low, leading to
realization crisis. This is a crisis now increasingly both of and for capital,
marking, at a minimum, a signal, and possibly also a developmental,
208 7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

crisis for neoliberalism. But while the cost of labour power has stayed
down due to primitive accumulation and super-exploitation, counteract-
ing increases in the cost of wage foods, selective and strategic conditions
of production costs have risen progressively, basically through approach-
ing/attained peak oil but also reflexive responses to global warming (agro-
fuels), manifest in steadily increasing energy and food prices. Thus, the
first crisis is one of under-consumption through low wages; the second is
through increasing costs in the conditions of production, representing an
unusual and significant juxtaposition of demand-side crisis with supply-
side crisis in the conditions of production.
The financial and under-consumption crisis is thus the direct counter-
part of the food crisis in the periphery because both are products of the
extension of the structures of social disarticulation under neoliberalism.
Whilst the financial and under-consumption crisis is due to the increased
class power of capital over labour, the food crisis is due, at base, to the
renewed expropriation of land from the peasantry under disarticulated
agri-food accumulation, leading to market dependence—a product of
the assault of the transnational alliance of disarticulated capital on subal-
tern classes in the periphery. Structures of disarticulation imply low wages
for the expropriated peasantry; loss and marginalization of peasantry
under export-oriented agri-food capital means crisis in the supply of local
food staples. Peak oil and the diversion of land to agro-fuels mean
increases in the cost of food for these now import-dependent countries,
exacerbated by monopoly control of prices by multinationals, lack of
national food stores to mitigate supply/price fluctuations, and specula-
tion by finance capital in futures markets. Further, the conversion of land
to market productivism, or extractivism, under agri-food capital and the
resulting displacement of peasantry to marginal lands, the frontier, or to
the urban periphery, generates deepened environmental crisis as biodiver-
sity, soils, and water resources are degraded or destroyed (Perfecto et al.
2009; Vandermeer 2011).
We can see, therefore, that the financial and food crises are but differ-
ent manifestations of a single process of world accumulation through
enhanced social disarticulation under neoliberalism. This has generated a
twin crisis of under-consumption within capitalism (Level 4), overlaid by
the direct (Level 3) and indirect (Level 3/4) effects of commodity
Contradictions for the Neoliberal Food Regime 209

over-production, manifest as increases in the cost of the conditions of

production, and arising from capital’s metabolic rift—climate change,
peak oil, degradation of ‘ecosystem services’. Disarticulation is repre-
sented in the ‘core’ by under-consumption, and in the periphery by
enhanced primitive accumulation, accumulation by dispossession, lack
of access to land by subaltern classes, market dependence, and super-
exploitation. In short, it is possible to assert that O’Connor’s thesis of the
‘two’ contradictions of capital—‘internal’ as under-consumption crisis,
and ‘external’ as increases in the cost of the conditions of production—is,
in essence, correct.
I now want to ask whether capitalism in general, or neoliberalism in
particular, is in crisis; how this (putative) crisis is constituted in terms of
contradiction of, and contradiction for, capital; and how capital (within
the state–capital nexus) is addressing, reflexively, this (putative) crisis. My
comments here refer primarily to developments in the agri-food sector,
together with ancillary rural environmental and social policy.
Recall that a basic mechanism in the constitution of the neoliberal
regime of accumulation is the removal of means of production from the
arena of the ‘moral’ economy, or communal/state control, and its subor-
dination to market calculus, that is, its insertion into the circuits of trans-
national capital (see Tilzey and Potter 2007). This entails a process of
primitive accumulation, and is a process differentially located in the
global South due to the core-periphery dynamics outlined above. While
initially facilitating capital accumulation, but of course representing
meanwhile a contradiction for those subaltern classes suffering expropria-
tion and market exposure, it leads over time to a rise in the costs of pro-
duction through capital’s systematic degradation and destruction of
biophysical resources in its structural imperative to minimize, and there-
fore externalize, costs. At this point, however, political resistance stimu-
lates the state again, but only tendentially, to step in as a ‘double
movement’ (Polanyi 1957), to alleviate the negative impacts on both
capital and socio-environments of neoliberalism’s resurgent treatment of
fictitious commodities as if they were simple commodities. The state–
capital nexus does this by two principal mechanisms.
Firstly, by means of the construction of a mode of regulation that both
cements and legitimates hegemony as variegated neoliberalism. As noted,
210 7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

and again due to the core-periphery dynamics delineated above, the con-
struction of a mode of regulation articulated with a regime of accumula-
tion is a phenomenon largely confined to the global North. In ameliorating
the impact of the regime of accumulation on non-capitalist classes and
the ‘environment’ in the global North, such modes of regulation, as dis-
cussed, are important in generating ‘variegated capitalisms’. A salient fea-
ture in these settings is the attempt, via ‘market environmentalism’, or
‘green capitalism’, to achieve some measure of ‘internalization of exter-
nalities’ in a manner which either represents an accumulation opportu-
nity for selective fractions of capital, or which minimizes the cost to
capital of appropriate mitigatory action (Tilzey 2002; Tilzey and Potter
2008). The former is represented by, for example, market-based ‘post-
productivism’ and organic production in agriculture, where ‘reflexive’
high-end consumption enables capital, through market premia, to selec-
tively internalize costs typically externalized in productivism. The latter
entails the attachment, by the state, of ‘surrogate’ prices for fictitious
commodities or ‘public goods’, which it then pays to capital to slacken
the treadmill of production in ‘compensation’ for ‘profit foregone’—that
is, for costs that would normally be externalized onto socio-nature-. Both
mechanisms are more characteristic of the global North where, firstly,
growing environmental awareness allied to high-end consumption
through financial imperialism have stimulated an expanded market in
‘post-productivist’ commodities; and secondly, a decline in state support
for food production under neoliberalization, in conjunction with the
new environmentalism, has been, in part, compensated for by payment
for ‘production neutral’ public goods, as ‘ecosystem services’.
Secondly, the state attempts to shift responsibility for selective envi-
ronmental, social, health, and community functions onto ‘civil society’,
including non-governmental organizations, in an attempt to reduce the
tax and regulatory burden on capital and/or in response to the fiscal crisis
of the state (Tilzey and Potter 2007). Such shifts may be referred to as
de-statization (Jessop 2002; Tilzey and Potter 2008), and involve pro-
cesses of devolved governance. While in part a response to calls for greater
political autonomy at the sub-national level, such shifts in responsibility
typically, and symptomatically, take place without commensurate and
functionally necessary transfers of money or political authority to the
Contradictions for the Neoliberal Food Regime 211

civil society organizations now charged with managing the symptoms,

but incapable of addressing the causes, of environmental and social disin-
tegration attendant upon resurgent capital accumulation. In other words,
while these measures are not simply a functional response to neoliberal-
ism, they are, nonetheless, essentially concordant with its key rationale.
This mechanism, devolved neoliberal governance, is encountered in both
the global North and South, but is more characteristic of the latter, where
systematic emasculation of the state under financial imperialism, in con-
junction with burgeoning socio-natural contradictions of resurgent
primitive accumulation, have led to an explosion of NGO activity during
the neoliberal era (Biel 2012). Amongst the case studies presented in this
book (see below), Nepal is currently an exemplar of this trend, particu-
larly in the aftermath of the Maoist ‘People’s War’, during which period
the state has failed to make any progress towards the transformation of
agrarian social-property relations required to address the country’s bur-
geoning ‘political’ and ‘ecological’ contradictions. Devolved governance,
together with attendant forms of ‘integrated rural development’ and ‘pro-
poor’ policy mechanisms, do constitute ‘flanking’ measures but do not, as
I have earlier noted, represent a coherent mode of regulation for the neo-
liberal regime of accumulation, their purpose being to dampen down
semi-proletarian resistance to the disarticulated alliance within the core-
periphery structure.
This process of neoliberalization, together with its mitigation through
the above mechanisms, has led to a characteristic pattern of contradictory
socio-natural relations in the agri-food sector within the centre-periphery
structure. For the global North, neoliberalism has entailed contraction in
the spaces of ‘market productivism’ and its shift onto the new ‘frontiers’
of the global South, including the former state communist states of
Eastern Europe and Asia. Such contraction from the margins of Europe
and North America has been compensated for by the disbursement of
new agri-environment and rural development funds in the global North,
principally for reasons of social legitimation, functioning as modes of
regulation (see Tilzey and Potter 2008). This has been accompanied by an
increase in high-end consumption of ‘post-productivist’ commodities in
response to heightened environmental and health awareness, but enabled
significantly by new wealth differentials contingent upon neoliberal
212 7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

financial imperialism. This new mode of regulation has combined with

devolved governance to produce a new focus on localism and ‘endoge-
nous’ development which, in its current guise, is, however, heavily com-
promised by its typically market-based configuration and dependency on
high-end ‘reflexive’ consumption. It thus both fails to address continuing
social relational (class) inequalities in much of the rural environment in
the global North and, simultaneously, relies upon these inequalities to
secure its end market.
Neoliberalization, while generating, in combination with the new
localism/environmentalism, a selective contraction of productivism in
the global North, has, simultaneously, unleashed a new wave of market
productivism (Tilzey 2000) and extractivism onto the frontiers of the
global South (McMichael 2013). In other words, as I have suggested,
modes of regulation in the imperium, by slowing the rate of agri-food
capital accumulation in the North, reinforce the displacement productiv-
ism onto the periphery. This, as we have seen, has generated a burgeoning
tripartite food, social, and environmental crisis in the global South as
peasant producers are displaced and, simultaneously, placed at the mercy
of volatile global markets, export crops are substituted for local food sta-
ples, and biodiversity and natural resources despoiled as the necessary
counterpart of productivism/extractivism. Peripheral states, in conjunc-
tion with NGOs and international financial institutions, attempt to alle-
viate the symptoms of these interlinked crises through mitigatory
devolved governance, as a variety of ‘pro-small farmer’ projects attempts
to articulate peasant production with the ‘world market’. Absent from
such typically market-based ‘solutions’ to crisis is, again, a concern to
address the class/social relational basis of crisis, the unequal distribution
of land, and the potential, given land redistribution, for small holders to
satisfy national demand for food staples through sustainable, agroeco-
logical principles (see e.g., Perfecto et  al. 2009; Vandermeer 2011;
Tittonell 2014). Such piecemeal mitigatory measures, in the face of the
accelerated assault on Southern livelihoods through the process of semi-
proletarianization, hold out little prospect of success in ‘keeping the lid’
on growing and concerted opposition by these subaltern classes (Amin
Contradictions for the Neoliberal Food Regime 213

So, neoliberalization, as the generation of market dependence, defines

the basis for the recent and recurrent food crisis, together with the envi-
ronmental and more general socio-economic crises that are structurally
articulated with it. Neoliberal mitigatory measures, as modes of regula-
tion and devolved governance, respectively, are proving incapable of seri-
ously addressing these crises precisely because they are designed to
complement, rather than to confront, their causal bases. These crises rep-
resent, of course, the contradictions of capital for subaltern classes and
their socio-ecologies.
To what extent, however, do these crises represent a definitive contra-
diction for the neoliberal food regime, with the potential to induce seri-
ous reform, a transition to another regime of accumulation, or perhaps
the subversion of capitalism itself? The primary locus of these crises is in
the global South, the site of super-exploitation and source of super-profits
for the global North, and it is here that the contradiction for capital will
be manifested most acutely, before ramifying across the globe to the
imperium itself. As capital seeks further to ‘cheapen’ labour power, reflex-
ive political contradiction in the form of semi-proletarian and proletarian
resistance (first contradiction) are current phenomena and likely to
increase over time; and, similarly, as a contradiction in the biophysical
conditions of production, resource shortages will inflate costs directly
through progressive exhaustion of the extractive frontier (second contra-
diction). In turn, such exhaustion will inspire political resistance by sub-
altern classes. The first contradiction, manifested in the upsurge of land
occupations in the South, represents a political and reflexive response to
neoliberalism, constituting an increasing contradiction for capital by con-
straining its freedom to exploit. But as exploitative accumulation in the
meantime proceeds, political resistance grows correspondingly, poten-
tially leading in radical directions towards re-assertions of sovereignty,
whether national or post-national, including food and land sovereignty
(Moyo and Yeros 2005, 2011).
The second contradiction, as neoliberalization proceeds along its cur-
rent course, arises through exhaustion of the biophysical conditions of
production. Moore (2010, 2011) has argued that the food crisis, as a
distillation of contradictions in the conditions of production, constitutes
a signal crisis for capital. This is because it represents a point at which
214 7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

food becomes more, rather than less, expensive, initiating a contraction

in ecological surplus and compromising growth in surplus value.
According to Moore the food crisis represents the beginning of ‘the end
of the road’ for capitalism (an ‘epochal’ crisis) since the increase in food
prices portends closure of the extractive frontier. There are a number of
reasons to suppose that Moore is correct in his assertion, at least in rela-
tion to neoliberalism, if not perhaps in relation to capitalism in general.
Salient amongst these are the related phenomena of ‘land grabbing’ and
‘neo-productivism’. Land grabbing (Borras et al. 2010) suggests that the
extractive frontier is now closing with unprecedented rapidity and that
market mechanisms (informal empire) alone are becoming insufficient to
secure reliable flows of food and fuel to core nations and to the ‘BRICS’
of the ‘sub-imperium’. Land grabbing entails the purchase or lease of
putatively ‘unproductive’ land, primarily in Africa, by, mainly Asian,
states or agri-food corporations wishing to obtain cheap and secure sup-
plies of food, often together with agro-fuels, for their own populations,
or for sale in the global market place (McMichael 2013). The objective
here, of course, is to maintain downward pressure of the cost of food
staples and labour, and thereby sustain the rate of capital accumulation in
countries such as China, India, and South Korea, whilst, simultaneously,
opening up further accumulation opportunities for agri-food corpora-
tions. This is achieved by dispossession of supposedly ‘idle’ or ‘under-
utilized’ land from local food producers, the latter’s transformation into a
proletarianized or semi-proletarianized labour force, and its subsequent
exploitation on land now alienated from these local communities (see,
e.g., McMichael 2010). Equally commonly, however, these local food
producers, following complete or partial dispossession, are rendered
redundant as a potential labour force due to the highly capitalized nature
of land grabbing as ‘extractivism’ (see Veltmeyer 2017). While both forms
represent primitive accumulation, it is only the latter, where expropriated
populations are largely surplus to the requirements of subsequent capital-
ist extractivism, that may justifiably be referred to as ‘accumulation by
dispossession’. While the principal logic of land grabbing may be said to
arise from the need by the imperium and sub-imperium to defer the
impending ‘second’ contradiction in the biophysical conditions of pro-
duction, it is nonetheless also a response to an ‘internal’ contradiction,
Contradictions for the Neoliberal Food Regime 215

one stimulated, as we have seen, by the desire of financialized capital to

find more secure and lucrative forms of accumulation in primary extrac-
tive industries, primarily located in the global South.
Intimately related to this is the new discourse of neo-productivism and
food (in)security in the global North, designed to re-focus efforts on pro-
ductivism at home, eschewing reliance on volatile global markets (Almas
et al. 2009). The impacts of food price rises in the global North at the
time of the 2007/8 food crisis were far more muted than in the South, of
course, but were, nevertheless, sufficient to engender doubts concerning
the wisdom of ‘decentring’ agriculture in rural space in favour of ‘con-
sumption countryside’, and to raise concerns ‘about the capability of the
current agricultural system to provide a reliable supply of food in the
future’ (Almas et al. 2009). This concern recalls Polanyi’s (1957) com-
ments relating to renewed anxiety with respect to food self-sufficiency
stimulated by food shortages following the First World War: ‘thoughtless
reliance on the world market gave way to panicky hoarding of food-
producing capacity’ in which ‘no people would forget that unless they
owned their food and raw materials sources themselves or were certain of
military access to them, neither sound currency nor unassailable credit
would rescue them from helplessness’. Such growing doubts relating to
the wisdom of allowing de-regulated market ‘forces’—class agents of neo-
liberal capital —to determine the nature and functioning of the agri-food
system have been more recently exacerbated by the advent of global
financial crisis which, as I have argued, is yet another and related mani-
festation of the deeply contradictory character of neoliberal structures of
disarticulated accumulation, treating labour merely as a cost of produc-
tion and, thereby, generating under-consumption crisis.
These trends do appear consistent with the early phases of an ‘epochal’
crisis of neoliberalism, which would occur when constraints on the sup-
ply of ‘cheaps’ no longer enabled capitalism to extract surplus value from
labour. Under such circumstances, capital would attempt to enforce
lower wages (internal contradiction), but this would be prevented by a
rise in the cost of living due to the crisis in productivist agriculture, again
due to the high cost of energy and materials (external contradiction).
Ultimately, the ability to produce mass commodities would be con-
strained by their cost, largely due to the lack of cheap (fossil-fuel-based)
216 7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

energy. Of course, and as I have emphasized (and Moore has not), these
contradictions would be (and are being) anticipated by reflexive resis-
tances by subaltern classes both to attempted wage reductions, to primi-
tive accumulation, and to accumulation by dispossession. This is borne
out by recent wage increases in China, for example, that represent a reluc-
tant response by the state–capital nexus to reflexive working-class resis-
tance to poor salaries and employment conditions in the form of
widespread strike action. Such wage increases have caused the Chinese
economy to decelerate from 12 per cent to 8 per cent growth per annum
in recent years, leading, in turn, to a decline in demand for primary com-
modities (Bonilla 2015). Such reflexive responses to contradictions of
capital can only be understood by reference to power dynamics in their
authoritative dimension.
So, the difficulty for neoliberalism, and possibly for capitalism in gen-
eral, is, firstly, the ineluctable, if variable, increase in the cost of ‘cheaps’
(energy and raw materials), compromising profitability; and secondly,
increased resistance from social movements (calls for land and national
sovereignty) in the global South to capital’s efforts to further cheapen
labour power and engineer market dependence. Money alone is becom-
ing no longer sufficient to secure the continuing, and cheap, supplies of
food and energy to the production and consumption heartlands of neo-
liberalism. The urge by the imperium, together with the ‘BRICS’, to
secure such supplies is reflected in the new turn to ‘neo-productivism’
(‘sustainable intensification’) in their homelands, and to ‘land grabbing’
in the periphery, with increasing recourse to overt state/imperial action to
realize these ends. With the necessary shift back to biomass, as fossil fuel
becomes more expensive, land therefore becomes the crucial battleground
for the twenty-first century. Land grabbing is symptomatic of key changes
in the food and fuel regime that have been taking place under neoliberal-
ism: a second reversal of global food flows, now from the South to the
North, mirroring the ‘Imperial’ food regime, coupled with new demand
for agro-fuels, again from South to North. This renews the problematic
role of the global South as an extractive zone for the benefit of an ailing,
yet increasingly brutal and acquisitive neoliberalism centred in the North.
So, while it appeared, until as recently as 2006, that the neoliberal food
regime had resolved the agrarian question1 in its favour via global
Contradictions for the Neoliberal Food Regime 217

allocation of ‘comparative advantages’ in the quest for enhanced rates of

surplus value (Akram-Lodhi and Kay 2009), the second contradiction as
food (and fuel) crisis appears, in particular, to have become a contradic-
tion for neoliberalism. Talk of ‘neo-productivism’ in Europe and the phe-
nomenon of ‘land grabs’ in the South are clear indications of the spectre
of food insecurity now stalking even the capitalist imperia. ‘Land grabs’,
in particular, reveal the ‘invisible hand’ of neoliberaI market rules to be
little more than a thin ideological veil concealing the ‘visible boot’ of
core-periphery class exploitative relations (Araghi 2009b) as the imma-
nent dependence of transnational capital upon state imperial power
(aided by Southern comprador classes) to secure surplus value from the
extractive frontier is realized as ‘agro-security mercantilism’ (see
McMichael 2010, 2013). We might also refer to this changed relation as
‘formal imperialism’ in all but name.
Thus, while neoliberalism, in the form of ‘land grabbing’, appears to
represent a dominant force over substantial swathes of the global South,
it, in itself, represents the rising ‘internal’ and ‘external’ contradictions of
this mode of accumulation. ‘Internally’ it constitutes the desperate search
for investment opportunities based, not on expanded accumulation, but
rather upon, quite literally, the plunder of social and natural resources—
accumulation by dispossession. And land grabbing is undertaken not on
the basis of purely neoliberal means, or solely for the purposes of accu-
mulation—rather, significant elements of it are undertaken directly by
states with the objective of enhancing national food security. ‘Externally’
it represents the increasingly desperate search for alternative means of
supplying ‘cheap’ bio-energy as a putative substitute for fossil fuel, and as
a means to mitigate climate change. It fails miserably on both counts,
with biofuel supply predicated on an extractive and finite frontier, wholly
reliant on nature’s short-term subsidy, while climate change is actually
exacerbated by biofuel crops through the destruction of the ecosystems
they replace, and through the fossil-fuel-based means of production that
underpin their cultivation. These represent creeping, yet insistent, con-
tradictions for neoliberalism. Meanwhile, land grabbing constitutes, of
course, a massive contradiction of neoliberalism for the people occupying
lands so expropriated, these representing the very basis of their liveli-
hoods, not merely in terms of those areas directly cultivated, but also in
218 7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

terms of the ‘commons’—uncultivated areas required for hunting, fish-

ing, gathering, medicines, fibres, and a whole host of other essential use
values. (It should also be recalled that, in many tropical lowland areas, the
cultivated zone itself moves around, so that the whole community terri-
tory is essential for this purpose, even though only a small area may be in
cultivation at any one time.)
In this way and since 2007, an estimated 220 million hectares has been
acquired by foreign investors in the global South (Borras et  al. 2010;
Veltmeyer 2017). As we have seen, this global land grab has been stimu-
lated in part by crises in the oil and food markets since 2007, and in part
by the opportunity to make super-profits, through accumulation by dis-
possession, by extracting and exporting primary commodities for which
there is an insatiable demand. Additionally, the financialization of these
markets has provided lucrative new investment opportunities for sover-
eign wealth funds, hedge funds, global agri-business, and the large com-
modity traders (Veltmeyer 2017). But, as we have suggested, these
dynamics exhibit trends away from pure neoliberalism and a modest shift
in the centre of gravity of global power towards the sub-imperium. Thus,
while imperial agencies, both corporations and governments, dominate
as investors and land grabbers, the BRICS and food-insecure Middle
Eastern oil states in certain regional contexts, are also active competitors.
China and Malaysia, for example, dominate investments in land acquisi-
tion in Asia, South Africa exhibits potential dominance in Africa, while
Brazil is emerging as a major sub-imperial power in Latin America within
the context of neo-extractivism. (See next chapter for further discussion.)
As noted, therefore, the rationale behind land grabbing for these states is
not the accumulation of capital, but rather the satisfaction of domestic
food and energy security needs, thereby bypassing unreliable and expen-
sive international food markets. By contrast, transnational corporations
involved in extractivism are concerned primarily to supply the lucrative
(because state-supported) biofuel market through the production of oil
palm, sugar cane (for ethanol), and soya, the latter particularly prevalent
in Latin America.
As I have stressed, it is the subaltern classes of the global South which
are bearing the brunt of this assault as a major contradiction of capital-
ism. Much of the land being sold or leased to sovereign investors or to
Contradictions for the Neoliberal Food Regime 219

corporations is subject to customary use, land that is used by the ‘com-

moners’, but over which they hold no formal (legal) title. This is a pre-
dictable outcome, since lands defined as ‘commons’ in contemporary
development discourse generally exclude permanent farms and settled
populations. In the Latin American context, this commonly applies to
tropical or sub-tropical lowlands, outside the land reform sector, where
land is usually occupied by communally constituted, and often tribal,
indigenous groups, and frequently characterized by shifting (‘swidden’)
cultivation systems. Governments and investors prefer to avoid privately
owned or settled land, since their dispossession provokes both resistance,
legal contestation, and the likelihood of paying compensation for dwell-
ings and standing crops, or for relocation of the populations affected.
Only the ‘informal’ commons—all supplying, of course, essential
resources for tribal peoples, to say nothing of their intrinsic worth as
‘priceless’ biodiversity—can deliver the millions of hectares demanded by
the large investors for accumulation by dispossession. And this act of
dispossession entails, of course, not only the complete replacement of
livelihoods based on the multifunctional and sustainable use of biodiver-
sity, but also the comprehensive, and probably irreversible, eradication of
that biodiversity solely for short-term monocultural production of soya,
and for the exclusive benefit of global consumption hubs in the impe-
rium and sub-imperium. Despite customary occupancy by indigenous
people over millennia, these ‘commons’ are deemed, nonetheless, to be
‘vacant’ and ‘available’ for appropriation by other states or capitalists—
these commons comprise, in other words, terra nullius, the time-honoured
justification for colonial plunder. In conformity to the norms of ‘modern
sovereignty’, the laws of most host lessor states treat customarily occupied
lands and unfarmed lands as unoccupied and idle. As such, they are con-
strued to remain the property of the state, not that of the indigenous
people in customary occupancy of the land. As a consequence, ‘informal’,
customary territorial and communal rights are routinely ignored and dis-
respected, communities divided, farming systems subverted, livelihoods
destroyed, and environments devastated.
This process, comprising primitive accumulation, but also accumula-
tion by dispossession, increases the ranks of the semi-proletariat as a pre-
cariat, unable to find employment as a ‘substitute’ for the livelihoods that
220 7 The Neoliberal Food Regime in Crisis?

have been lost or compromised. The only real response to this process of
expropriation is one of resistance, extremely risky, and even life-
threatening, as this may be. And, indeed, such resistance has been assum-
ing the form of the ‘new’ socio-environmental, peasant, indigenous, and
territorial mobilizations that, since the 1990s, have been characteristic of
Latin America particularly (Petras and Veltmeyer 2011; Edelman and
Borras 2016). In Bolivia and Ecuador, as we shall see, this relation of con-
flict between extractive capital and mobilized resistance intersects with the
indigenous conception of ‘living well’ (vivir bien in Bolivia and buen vivir
in Ecuador), as a potentially counter-hegemonic and post-developmental
alternative to capitalism. The complexities of this dynamic of resistance,
and the potential for co-optation by the populism of ‘neo-extractivism’
and the ‘compensatory state’, are explored in the following chapter.
Cumulative resistance to both super-exploitation and to accumulation
by dispossession, by proletarian, semi-proletarian, peasant and indige-
nous social movements, entailing calls, variously, for renewed national,
post-national, and food, sovereignty, is therefore the response to this con-
juncture, constituting a rising political, or first, contradiction for neolib-
eralism. The financial and food shocks of 2007/8 propelled a Polanyian,
‘systemic’ double movement towards greater state intervention in the
market, or deployment of ‘extra-economic’ mechanisms, involving direct
land appropriation overseas, and/or neo-productivism at home. Overall,
since those shocks, there has been a trend towards greater, albeit piece-
meal, regulation of monopoly finance capital to mitigate price volatility
and speculation, without, as yet, sundering the regime of accumulation
that underpins neoliberalism. Nonetheless, accelerating contradictions
for this regime, both through political unrest and through constraints on
the supply of ‘cheaps’ in the conditions of production (‘second’ contra-
diction), suggest strongly that it is increasingly crisis prone and subject to
challenge from a variety of political sources, both ‘sub-hegemonic’
(reformist), ‘alter-hegemonic’ (‘progressive’), and ‘counter-hegemonic’
(‘radical’). Although still dominant globally, neoliberalism appears, none-
theless, to be undergoing a developmental crisis as a result of the con-
joined operation of the ‘first’ and ‘second’ contradictions of capital. I
examine the dynamics of challenge from reformist, ‘progressive’, and
‘radical’ movements in the next chapter.
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Crisis and Resistance: Reform
or Revolution?

The contradictions detailed in the previous chapter suggest that neoliber-

alism, although still hegemonic in the North, and dominant in the South,
is increasingly crisis prone and subject, therefore, to a variety of resis-
tances. Some of these are ‘systemic’ or sub-hegemonic (reformist), reflect-
ing the interest of states, in conjunction with more nationally focused
fractions of capital, in re-asserting national sovereignty, whilst others are
‘anti-systemic’ or counter-hegemonic (revolutionary) and seek a post-
developmental path in which food sovereignty, agro-ecology, and social
equity are of central importance. Still others may be described as ‘alter-
hegemonic’, lying somewhere between these two positions, and advocat-
ing above all localism and ‘ecologization’. We are therefore passing
through a crucial period, socio-politically and ecologically, in which a
number of  alternative politico-ecological discourses and systems, some
systemic and others anti-systemic, are being defined and contested. As I
argue in this chapter, more interventionist forms of capitalism (neo-
productivism in the global North, neo-developmentalism in the global
South) appear likely in the shorter-term, and have indeed emerged
already in Europe, and in Latin America, particularly. But while these
models may address some issues to do with social inequality and demand-
side crisis, they cannot overcome capital’s linear, entropic, and imperialistic

© The Author(s) 2018 225

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
226 8 Crisis and Resistance: Reform or Revolution?

dynamic (Biel 2012; Exner et  al. 2013).1 In other words, they remain
locked within capitalism as reformism, and, while attempting to address
some aspects of contradiction, ‘political’ or ‘ecological’, they simply
reproduce the overall contradictory nature of capitalism’s social-property
relations. In moving, tendentially, from neoliberalism to a more interven-
tionist form of capitalism, akin to Polanyi’s ‘double movement’, the sys-
tem is encountering, and attempting to resolve, a developmental crisis.
But as the resulting modes of reformism fail, as they undoubtedly will, to
resolve the continuing contradictory trajectory of capitalism, so an
epochal crisis will loom, precipitated by a ‘political’ under-consumption
crisis, an ‘ecological’ over-production crisis, and anticipated by the reflex-
ive political resistances of the subaltern classes.
Within the global North, particularly, these systemic trends are chal-
lenged, with respect to the food system, by a variety of Alternative Food
Networks (AFNs) through their advocacy of the localization and ecologi-
cal ‘embedding’ of the market. Whilst these principles of localization and
ecological embedding are necessary, they appear, nevertheless, to be insuf-
ficient means to ground food systems and wider society simultaneously in
foundations of ecological sustainability and social equity. Prolonged
incorporation into capitalist production–consumption relations and into
the redistributive benefits of nation-building has tended to blunt the
AFN’s critique of capitalism through reification of the continuing reality
of market dependence. In fact, much of the AFN constituency, in class
terms, comprises small-scale, family farm commercial producers, in other
words, a petty bourgeoisie. Their primary concern is commercial survival,
via niche marketing, in the face of monopoly agri-food capital, not the
subversion of capitalism itself (see Tilzey 2016b). By contrast, it is in the
global South, where peasants, semi-proletarians, and indigenous social
movements remain, in varying degrees, outside capital’s production–con-
sumption relations, where nation-building has been truncated by imperi-
alism, and where access to land remains a vital issue in securing livelihoods,
that we may find, in the ‘radical’ discourse of food sovereignty, guidelines
towards a post-capitalist future founded on agro-ecologically based buen
In this way, I now explore and assess the, more or less, anti-neoliberal
political responses and resistances to the developmental crises of
8 Crisis and Resistance: Reform or Revolution? 227

neoliberalism that have arisen over the last two decades, and have intensi-
fied since the food and finance crises of 2007/8. The analysis presented
here, and the normative proposals that flow from it, build directly on the
key principles identified in this book as underlying the ‘internal’, or
‘political’, dynamics of capitalism. To recapitulate, these are: the essence
of capitalism as market dependence and the alienability of land as an
absolute property right; a strategic relational view of class/group agency
whose key locus of action is around the state as the context both for
mediating capital’s dynamic (‘systemic’ variegated capitalism) and for
resisting it (‘anti-systemic’ social movements); the broad categorization of
responses/resistances to neoliberalism as ‘systemic’ (sub-hegemonic,
reformist, or variegated capitalism), ‘progressive’ (‘alter-hegemonic’), and
‘anti-systemic’ (‘counter-hegemonic’, radical); and the generalized loca-
tion of radical social movements in the global South due to the over-
whelming location there of the subaltern classes.
I categorize these anti-neoliberal responses and resistances in relation
to the current food regime as: neo-productivism (neo-developmentalism in
the global South), alternative food networks, and agro-ecology/food sover-
eignty, or post-developmentalism. Whilst these responses and resistances
attempt to break with the neoliberal paradigm, at least in significant
respects, it should be evident that not all can be considered ‘anti-systemic’
or ‘post-capitalist’. Thus, the first of these may be considered ‘systemic’,
albeit anti-neoliberal in important respects, the second straddles the ‘sys-
temic’—oppositional boundary, whilst the third is largely oppositional,
or counter-hegemonic, with respect to capitalist social-property relations.
In accordance with my revised conceptualization of food regimes, such
responses arise both from within the historic bloc2 of class fractional
forces that comprises neoliberalism’s provisional hegemony, and also
from without. As neoliberal hegemony fragments in the face of the signal-
developmental crisis of its regime of accumulation, so sub-hegemonic
(reformist) class interests within the historic bloc may come to the fore
and assume a hegemonic status of their own to constitute further exam-
ples of variegated capitalism. Other, more ambivalent, group interests,
such as alternative food networks (progressives) may, under such condi-
tions, move closer to the policy centre and become, in turn, sub-
hegemonic in character. Finally, anti-systemic responses (radicals) arise
228 8 Crisis and Resistance: Reform or Revolution?

from social forces that have suffered most at the hands of neoliberalism
and have, therefore, resisted absorption into the neoliberal ‘norm-
complex’ (Bernstein 2002).

Neo-productivism and Neo-developmentalism
In response to the signal contradiction for neoliberalism, manifest as
increases in food prices and vulnerability to disruption of overseas supply,
there has been a turn within in the global North towards ‘neo-productivist’
policies. Such policies tend to accord more with the class fractional interests
of those, such as neo-mercantilists, for example, (see Potter and Tilzey 2005)
who suffered demotion to sub-hegemonic positions under neoliberalism.
Under neo-productivism, however, these class fractions are now experienc-
ing a revival in their fortunes, assuming a new hegemonic status in the his-
toric bloc as neoliberalism suffers its own relative demotion. This trend is
clearly evidenced in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European
Union, for example, where, in the current programming period (2014–2020),
domestic agricultural production, now supposedly ‘sustainably intensified’,
is being ‘re-centred’ at the expense of a former preoccupation with ‘post-
productivism’ and diversified rural development, concomitants of reliance
on globalized food supply (Tilzey and Potter 2008).
Neo-productivism is a form of agrarian capitalism whose rationale is
the need reliably to supply mass ‘markets’ of the global imperia at afford-
able prices, supported by government interventions to foster domestic
production and efficient food distribution systems, together with neo-
imperialist actions to secure a continuing flow of food and energy from
the global South. In some respects, neo-productivism entails a return to
‘political productivism’, involving greater levels of market regulation and
a focus on ‘sustainable intensification’. It also, however, represents global-
ization ‘by other means’, in which the increasingly spent force, and ‘infor-
mal’ empire, of neoliberalism is substituted by more direct politico-military
actions—but still with the common complicity of more transnational-
ized class fractions—to secure the continued subordination of the South
to the North. Despite greater economic and environmental regulation as
Neo-productivism and Neo-developmentalism 229

‘flanking’ measures, the neo-productivist paradigm remains, in essence,

unsustainable through its predication on fossil-fuel usage and the system-
atic subordination of the subaltern classes and their environments to the
consumption dictates of a world minority (McMichael 2010). Through
its provisioning of labour at ‘least cost’, perpetuating the treadmill of
production and the metabolic rift, it remains highly capitalized and
energy-intensive, despite its claims to produce ‘more with less’ through
sustainable intensification. Food supply remains not only subordinate to
capitalist commodity relations, but also to increasingly ‘extra-economic’
imperial relations (McMichael and Schneider 2011) within the continu-
ing articulated core—disarticulated periphery dialectic (Amin 2012).
Neo-productivism may partially address the first contradiction of capital
as under-consumption crisis in the global North, but it cannot, in the
new, ecologically constrained, conjuncture, do this without encountering
the second contradiction, the impacts of which will be felt differentially
in the South through the new wave of extractivism.
Neo-productivism’s counterpart in the global South may be termed
neo-developmentalism or, perhaps better, neo-extractivism (Veltmeyer
and Petras 2014). This trend is perhaps most characteristic of Latin
America, where there has been widespread resistance to the socially polar-
izing consequences of neoliberalism and to the progressive loss of national
sovereignty (including sovereignty over food) that has accompanied the
deepening of ‘extroverted’ dependent development. Bolivia, Brazil,
Ecuador, and Venezuela all represent examples where popular forces,
comprising peasants, semi-proletarians, proletarians and landless, indig-
enous groups (in Bolivia and Ecuador particularly), and more endoge-
nously oriented class fractions of the bourgeoisies, have succeeded, with
varying degrees of success, in resisting and displacing the dominance of
the ‘disarticulated alliance’ of transnationalized capital. What these coun-
tries have in common is a new commitment to greater state guidance and
interventionism in the economy, a greater formal or substantive commit-
ment to national food sovereignty, and the introduction of social pro-
grammes to alleviate the severe income disparities characteristic of the
neoliberal era. Funds for the latter, however, are predicated on the extrac-
tivism described in the previous chapters.
230 8 Crisis and Resistance: Reform or Revolution?

Like neo-productivism, neo-developmentalism is not, therefore, with-

out its political and ecological contradictions. Indeed, it is inherently
contradictory because it comprises a populist reformism that attempts to
address selected symptoms of capitalist contradiction whilst failing to
address its structural causes. States such as Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and
Venezuela have engaged in processes of ‘passive revolution’ (reform from
above, led by nationally oriented fractions of capital, but in alliance with
proletarians, peasants, and indigenous people) that have also been char-
acterized as neo-extractivism (Veltmeyer and Petras 2014; Spronk and
Webber 2015). Despite some countries (Venezuela particularly) seeking
to address the causes of semi-proletarianization, landlessness, and preca-
rismo through structural measures such as land reform, all these states,
nevertheless, continue to pursue policies of both energy and mineral
extraction (often on lands of indigenous peoples), and of productivist,
export agriculture, in order to fund social programmes and infrastructure
development. In Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil, largely due to continuing
opposition from an entrenched landed oligarchy and their governments’
apparent willingness to overlook this in the search for export earnings,
little progress has been made with respect to land reform in favour of the
semi-proletariat and landless (Giunta 2014; Spronk and Webber 2015).
A percentage of revenues from primary resource extraction has been
diverted to social programmes to placate the urban proletariat, leading to
an uneasy compromise, embodied in these populist regimes as ‘compen-
satory states’ (Gudynas 2012), between subaltern classes, the nationally
focused bourgeoise, and the continuing power of the landed oligarchy.
As a result, increasing tensions have become apparent between these
neo-developmentalist regimes and their erstwhile constituencies of support
among the indigenous groups and semi-proletarian and landless peasantry,
often members of La Via Campesina (LVC). For these constituencies, ten-
sions focus around access to land and the means of production, and around
the neo-developmentalist focus on economic growth as a means of bypass-
ing the need to address the structural causes of land poverty and landless-
ness. In this way food (and land) sovereignty has become a highly contested
discourse, deriving initially from re-assertions of national sovereignty as a
counter-narrative to neoliberalism, but now often appropriated by neo-
developmentalism. This discursive tension and ambiguity is expressed in
Neo-productivism and Neo-developmentalism 231

the constitutionalization of food sovereignty in Ecuador and Bolivia, for

example. The appropriation of food sovereignty discourse by the govern-
ments of those countries, in the service of neo-developmentalist ends, is
increasingly contested by peasant and indigenous movements seeking a
post- developmentalist model of cooperative social relations founded on
the principle of buen vivir (good living) (Giunta 2014; Tilzey 2016a).
The irony here is that the governments of Ecuador and Bolivia have both
invoked the cooperative principle of buen vivir or vivir bien to legitimate
further capital accumulation by means of a Polanyian process of ‘embed-
ding’ extractivism through the ‘compensatory state’.
These ‘systemic’ and ‘sub-hegemonic’ resistances to neoliberalism
derive in important respects from ‘internal’ dynamics of capitalism that
can be understood only from a class analytical and state–capital nexus
perspective. One key fracture line for neoliberalism, therefore, and one
that cannot be understood from a perspective of a monolithic or fully
transnationalized capitalism, is the emergence of the BRICS and specifi-
cally China (and to a lesser extent Brazil and Russia) as sub-hegemonic or
sub-imperial powers (Bond and Garcia 2015). China, in particular, has
deployed neoliberal globalization as a strategic means of strengthening
the industrial and military infrastructure of the state as a counterweight
to the USA.  While its growth trajectory is highly contradictory across
both the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ dynamics of capitalism, and is heavily
dependent on global Northern consumption, China’s emergence as a key
site of capital accumulation has, nevertheless, opened up a space for other
states in the global South to re-assert more nationally based capitalist
development or, at least, for national fractions of capital to selectively
displace global Northern dominance. This, as noted above, has coincided
with widespread disenchantment with neoliberalism in the global South,
and in Latin America particularly. The boom in primary commodity
prices stimulated by China’s growth has enabled sub-hegemonic fractions
of national capital to ally with non-capitalist class forces to install a wave
of centre-left regimes in Latin America particularly (known popularly as
the ‘pink tide’) (Spronk and Webber 2015).
Such regimes, however, are highly contradictory both ‘politically’ and
‘ecologically’. As noted, they have been able to support social welfare
programmes and infrastructure development only through resource
232 8 Crisis and Resistance: Reform or Revolution?

extraction fed by the Chinese commodity boom. But they have been
reluctant to put in place sustainable food production and livelihood sys-
tems based on land redistribution, precisely because the growth model is
premised on the perpetuation of extractivism and agro-export productiv-
ism. So, while these regimes have relied heavily upon peasant and indig-
enous support to secure electoral success, and have included provisions
for food sovereignty in their new constitutions, moves towards substan-
tive implementation of these provisions, through key measures such as
land reform, have scarcely progressed beyond formal commitments.
Consequently, these agrarian and indigenous constituencies of support
are becoming increasingly alienated from centre-left regimes such as
those in Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador. Moreover, the current decline in
primary commodity prices will see a reduction in government budgets
for social programmes and a renewed focus on austerity, with a resultant
melting away of urban working-class support for these regimes.
Such contradictions are reviving divisions on the political left and
intensifying debates amongst peasant and indigenous constituencies, par-
ticularly, concerning the respective strategic merits of ‘autonomist’ or
‘dual powers’3 approaches to securing socially equitable and ecologically
sustainable futures (Mooers 2014; Geddes 2015). Neo-developmentalism
thus alleviates, but does not resolve, the political contradictions of ‘sys-
temic’ modes of production that derive from the structural failure to
address the land question and market dependence. Similarly, it is ecologi-
cally contradictory through its continued foundation in open-ended
growth, extractivism, and productivism, forms of production that run
counter to the imperative to re-configure societies as negative entropic
and circular energetic systems. ‘Systemic’, or reformist, responses to the
developmental crises of neoliberalism, manifested as variegated capital-
isms, would thus seem incapable of averting a longer-term, epochal crisis
of capitalism in general.
The case studies of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nepal presented in the fol-
lowing chapters illustrate well the dynamics of reformism in general, and
agrarian reformism in particular. Bolivia and Ecuador, as indicated, are
exemplars of populist neo-developmentalist regimes. In order to properly
contextualize these case studies of contestation between sub-hegemonic
and counter-hegemonic social interests, it is helpful here to say a little
Neo-productivism and Neo-developmentalism 233

more about reformism and the state–capital nexus, with specific reference
to the periphery. It is vital to emphasize that reform dynamics can only
be properly understood at the level of the state, not at the level of the
capitalist world system, although it goes without saying that reforms are
in an important sense responses to developments that take place within
that wider context. But again, there are clear differences between states in
the nature of those responses, for example, between Ecuador and
Colombia, or between Bolivia and Peru, that can only be accounted for
by addressing the dynamics of social-property relations within the indi-
vidual state in question. It is for this reason that case studies are impor-
tant. Thus, for example, the socially and environmentally negative
impacts of neoliberalism have been widespread in Latin America (as else-
where), but the response of the state to these contradictions has been
differentiated. Stereotypically, it takes the form either of repression of
resulting political resistance (as in Colombia) or of reform, as in Bolivia
and Ecuador. Reform is thus a non-decentralized, non-repressive form of
state intervention that aims to overcome the accumulation and legitima-
tion crises, particularly the latter, to which neoliberalism has
Thus, reform may be defined as a state intervention that is stimulated
by (developmental) crisis and is: first, evidently short of revolution (in
which case the dominant mode of production, capitalism, would be over-
thrown, as would also be the case with the capitalist state, together with
their attendant understandings of ‘sovereignty’); and, second, is not
dependent on sheer repression. Reformism, in effect therefore, attempts
to construct a ‘flanking’ mode of regulation to ‘embed’ a somewhat mod-
ified regime of accumulation but, crucially, without subverting capitalist
social-property relations themselves. In this, then, reformism has much
in common with Keynesian and Polanyian ‘solutions’ to capitalist crises
(see Tilzey 2016b for discussion).
There are three types of reforms that are of fundamental relevance to
securing and reproducing capitalism in the face of its contradictions with
respect to the peripheral state–capital nexus.

• Reforms associated with the transition to capitalism and the immedi-

ate post-transition period. In the current conjuncture, this is relevant
234 8 Crisis and Resistance: Reform or Revolution?

to Nepal, for example, which still exhibits some feudal forms of pro-
duction and domination;
• Reforms associated with crises of accumulation. In the periphery, this
is not a problem in itself for transnationalized capital since the under-
consumption crisis is located primarily in the core countries. Similarly,
under-production crisis in the conditions of production does not
appear imminent. Rather, the problem lies with the exclusion of other
fractions of capital, notably national bourgeoisie and small commer-
cial farmers, from the accumulation nexus of the ‘disarticulated
• Reforms associated with crises of legitimacy. Here the elements that
create legitimacy are: first, the existence of a petty bourgeoisie, this
providing the material basis for the ideology of liberal capitalism, and
of the meritocratic, enterprising, and ‘sovereign’ individual; the ability
of certain fractions of the working class to enter into social democratic
arrangements for the improvement of wages and working conditions
under the ideology of state planning and the welfare state. Legitimacy
reforms, in response principally to the poverty-generating policies of
neoliberalism, are arguably the most important motivation behind
reformism in the Bolivian and Ecuadorian cases, and take the Polanyian
form of ‘embedding’ capitalism and the creation of a petty bourgeoisie
(e.g., the upper peasantry) and the co-optation of some parts of the
working class.

In embarking on reform programmes, the state operates under three

further constraints, all of which are relevant to dynamics of reformism in
our case studies. These are:

• A constraint determined by the degree of legitimacy of the state. To

implement its reformist policies, the state needs to secure the support
of different social classes and fractions of classes that comprise its
• A constraint imposed by the fiscal capacity of the state. The reformist
capacity of the state is limited by its capacity to generate a public bud-
get on the basis of tax revenues. As we shall see in the case of Bolivia
and Ecuador, the legitimacy of the current regimes has been founded
Neo-productivism and Neo-developmentalism 235

on redistributive policies involving social security, health, and welfare

payments to those sectors of society most marginalized by neoliberal-
ism. The monies employed to this end depend upon revenues originat-
ing in the sphere of production, most especially through extractivism.
It is thus clear that political protests against resource extraction poten-
tially have an impact of the state’s fiscal capacity and upon those groups
benefitting from it;
• A constraint that derives from the administrative capacity of the state.
The state needs to have an adequate administrative capacity to under-
stand the nature of the specific forms of crisis and to define and opera-
tionalize the corresponding reforms. This frequently runs up against
the clientelistic nature of agencies and ministries, as we shall see in the
case of Ecuador, for example, where the Ministry of Agriculture has
hitherto been largely at the service of the landed oligarchy.

Reformism in the current conjuncture also has referents in previous

rounds of reform, in Bolivia from the 1950s until the neoliberal era, and
in Ecuador during much shorter episodes of developmentalism, espe-
cially during the 1970s. In both countries, agrarian reformism was, firstly,
an attempt to generate a more ‘articulated’ model of development, and
secondly, with legitimacy concerns uppermost, a means of containing
peasant political pressures both through direct control of peasant organi-
zations, and through the legislation of mild land reform projects intended
to eradicate semi-feudal estates from the agrarian structure and to redis-
tribute some land, inadequately, to the peasantry. This effectively induced
the transformation of semi-feudal estates into capitalist enterprises of the
oligarchy, while limited redistribution of land created an incipient sector
of capitalized family farms, thus bridging, through the establishment of a
politically stable petty bourgeoisie, the historical gap between minifundio
and latifundio. The remaining peasantry became, in the main, semi-
proletarians, selling their labour on the new capitalist estates or on the
urban market. The agrarian question thus remained unresolved from the
perspective of the peasantry, and it was this unresolved question that
underpinned the renewed agrarian protest that erupted from the 1990s
in response to neoliberalism, this time reinforced by wider concerns relat-
ing to indigenous self-determination and environmental degradation.
236 8 Crisis and Resistance: Reform or Revolution?

Alternative Food Networks

Alternative food networks (AFNs) have arisen, typically in the global
North, in response to the environmental and health dis-benefits of agri-
cultural productivism, with food justice and social equity issues being
additional, and increasingly salient, concerns since the financial crisis of
2008 (Goodman et  al. 2012). Following Holt-Gimenez and Shattuck
(2011) we may label AFNs as progressive, with their constituent interest
groups occupying a spectrum of political positions between the sub-
hegemonic to the counter-hegemonic. I have labelled the ‘progressives’
‘alter-hegemonic’, within which category appears to fall many of the
European ‘new peasantries’ of van der Ploeg (2008). In fact, this interest
group or class fraction may be described as dominated by commercial,
small family farms, accounting for their predominance in the global
North. The position of this class fraction is openly anti-capitalist only in
the populist sense of opposing the ‘corporate’, or monopoly, agri-food
sector. Its vision of the state remains in the liberal democratic tradition
since ‘this class has a strong tendency to see the state as an inherently
neutral force whose role is that of arbitrating between the various social
classes’ (Poulantzas 1975).
The sub-hegemonic leaning fraction of AFNs advocates not the tran-
scendence of agrarian capitalism, therefore, but rather its ‘greening’ and
localization, in which heavy emphasis is placed upon sustainable consump-
tion and ecological citizenship within a context of greater market ‘embed-
dedness’. The counter-hegemonic leaning fraction of AFNs does
problematize market relations to a greater degree than its sub-hegemonic
relative, and places significantly greater weight on the importance of ‘moral
economic’ and social/community support structures in attempting to
secure food justice, in particular. Nonetheless, considerable significance
appears still to be attached to individual consumer choice and motivations
in the shift to ‘sustainable consumption’, the latter functioning as an appar-
ently sufficient proxy and requisite for a socio-ecologically just system of
food production, distribution, and consumption. In so doing, this fraction
tends radically to under-theorize the structural constraints imposed by
capitalism, and condensed in the reality of market dependence, on the
possibility of transitions towards ecologically and socially sustainable food
Alternative Food Networks 237

systems. Indeed, the term ‘sustainable consumption’ itself reifies implicitly

the market as the preferred, and delimited, medium through which transi-
tions to sustainability might occur. In both under-theorizing capitalism
and reifying the market, the ‘anti-systemic’ fraction of AFNs condemns
itself, in effect, to an existence in the mere interstices of the hegemonic
capitalist food regime that continues to circumscribe it.
Turning to the sub-hegemonic leaning, explicitly market-friendly,
fraction of AFNs, we may justifiably ask: does, in fact, the turn to local-
ism and ecological embeddedness within a market framework have the
potential, as this fraction appears to assert, to square the circle of sustain-
ing capitalism and socio-ecological sustainability? Marsden and Sonnino
(2008) and Kitchen and Marsden (2009) attempt to address this issue
when, in respect of Europe, they articulate multifunctional agriculture as
part of an emerging ‘sustainable rural development’ paradigm, to which
the notion of eco-economy, built on principles drawn inter alia from
ecological economics and ecosystem services, is central. This model cer-
tainly appears to go some way towards meeting the criteria of strong
multifunctionality (see Tilzey 2006), including a degree of state involve-
ment in re-configuring market relations, for example, in public food pro-
visioning. Nevertheless, in view of the recent and immanent crises
surrounding food price rises and food security, it may legitimately be
asked whether the sustainable rural development paradigm does seriously
address, or indeed have the capacity to address, the issue of food avail-
ability and food justice: in other words, how can the supply of staples for
general consumption, rather than merely the supply of niche markets for
higher income groups, be undertaken autocentrically on an ecologically
sustainable and socially equitable basis?
This question, surely, cannot be answered effectively without a prob-
lematization of the fundamental issue of market dependence in capital-
ism, whereby constrained access to land and the means of production for
the majority inheres in the very nature of the system. Intrinsic to this
question, and detailed in the previous discussion of the food and financial
crises, is the requirement to address the role of market-based post-
productivism in relation to global agro-food circuits, together with the
nature and sustainability of the wider political economy of the North in
relation to the global articulated—disarticulated growth dialectic. In
238 8 Crisis and Resistance: Reform or Revolution?

other words, the ‘sustainable rural development’ paradigm, together with

other related AFNs’ discourses that seek to pursue ‘ecological embedded-
ness’ within a market framework appear remain, in essence, parasitic upon
the extractive frontier of market productivism by token of their failure to
problematize the wider capitalist ecological regime of which they remain
a part. That is, as constituting ‘environments of consumption’ for the
classes of capital in the global North (Araghi 2009a). The global Southern
analogue of such Northern discourses is, as we have seen, the attempt to
address the marginalization of the ‘classes of labour’ via ‘pro-poor’ entre-
preneurial development, rather than by seeking to address the wider
structural parameters of poverty generation—the dialectic between global
poverty and capital accumulation. In short, the sustainable rural develop-
ment paradigm within AFNs comprises a form of market-oriented post-
productivism and, as such, encounters the contradictions attendant upon
the first ‘flanking’ mechanism of neoliberalization identified in the previ-
ous chapter. In other words, the luxury of capitalist-based post-productiv-
ism is affordable only by means of the externalization of productivist
activities, both in food and agro-fuels, onto the extractive frontiers of the
global South. The consequence is that a significant proportion of the bio-
capacity of productive land in the South is taken up by, and to the advan-
tage of, the over-consumption centres in the North (Araghi 2009a). The
corollary of this is that, if ecological and social sustainability are to have
any real meaning, there exists a clear imperative to build ecosystem-based,
steady-state, and autocentric production–distribution–consumption sys-
tems, predicated on social equity and equality of access to the means of
production, and to recognize and eschew exploitative relations between
the North and South. This imperative is reinforced, for both ‘source’- and
‘sink’-related reasons, as capitalism increasingly encounters its second
contradiction in the form of fossil-fuel constraints.

Agro-ecology and Food Sovereignty

Given the apparent unviability of neo-productivism/neo-
developmentalism, and insufficiency of AFNs, as longer-term alternatives
to neoliberalism, I assert that it is increasingly untenable to await the
Agro-ecology and Food Sovereignty 239

coalescence of contradictions of and for capital that will characterize its

‘epochal’ convulsions. There is an urgency to build on existing reflexive
political responses to the contradictions of capital. These assume their
most comprehensive oppositional form on the extractive frontier of the
global South, as rural and radical social movements of subaltern classes
assert their right to reclaim both the land and the nation (Moyo and
Yeros 2005, 2011). These social movements comprise the peasants, semi-
proletarians, landless and indigenous peoples who, as explained earlier,
have often lent their support initially to neo-developmentalist regimes,
but who have become increasingly disillusioned with policies that have
failed to address the structural causes of land poverty and market depen-
dence, and have simultaneously despoiled, through extractivism, the
foundations of their livelihoods. In response, these constituencies increas-
ingly advocate a model of post-capitalist socio-ecological relations that
challenges market dependence, asserts the state/nation as the key focus of,
and medium for, emancipation, centred around sustainable, non-fossil-
fuel-based production. More than this, however, these constituencies,
and particularly indigenous people, are destabilizing assumptions about
state-ness, seeking, as they are, the redistribution and de-concentration of
power away from the state (Picq 2014). In this, therefore, these political
responses are revolutionary, rather than reformist. Key and overlapping
principles that guide this model are derived from agro-ecology (Altieri
1995)4 and food sovereignty (as summarized in the Nyeleni Declaration
of 2007).
The Nyeleni (Forum for Food Sovereignty) Declaration, while clearly
anti-systemic in intent, is at the same time deliberately broad and inclu-
sive in scope, designed to codify and consolidate food sovereignty as a
political project characterized by a widening constituency of support in
both the global South and North (Alonso-Fradejas et al. 2015). The dec-
laration is thus intended to be of sufficient discursive breadth to embrace
both ‘progressives’ and ‘radicals’. Despite such ‘dilution’ in the cause of
political inclusivity, however, there remain within the Declaration strong
assertions relating to land sovereignty and social equality that spring
clearly from the class positionality of the ‘radical’ fraction of LVC.5 This,
more radical, interpretation of food sovereignty, one arising from the ini-
tial impulse underlying the foundation of LVC, builds, significantly for
240 8 Crisis and Resistance: Reform or Revolution?

our argument, on the ‘return’ of the national question in the South in

response to socio-ecological contradictions of neoliberalization (Moyo
and Yeros 2011; Edelman 2014).
It is this social relational transformation towards national (perhaps
post-national) and land sovereignty, with social equality, that, I suggest,
should remain the key focus and ultimate goal of food sovereignty mobi-
lizations. Indeed, the principle of social relational change appears to be
better captured by the more integral concept of livelihood sovereignty.
Together with agro-ecology, these principles of food sovereignty’s radical
fraction help us define, I assert, the notion of ‘strong’ sustainability or
‘strong’ multifunctionality in agrarian systems (see Tilzey 2006 for
detailed discussion of multifunctionality). Political ecology as praxis
embodies these principles, entailing the re-naturalization of the social
and the re-socialization of the natural, superseding their alienated rela-
tionship and institutional separation under capitalism (Tilzey 2002,
2006, 2016b; Perfecto et  al. 2009). This entails the centrality of agro-
ecology in a post-capitalist society in which a normative political ecology
encapsulates sustainable socio-natural relations—a healing of the meta-
bolic rift.
I suggest, therefore, that in key respects the current movement towards
‘re-peasantization’, as articulated by the ‘radical’ class fraction of LVC (La
Via Campesina 2000, 2003), captures these principles of strong sustain-
ability/multifunctionality and normative political ecology. The ‘radical’
fraction of LVC emphasizes the need for a supersession of market depen-
dence and a problematization of the ‘state’, both as complicit in the neo-
liberal project, but also as potential challenger to it. This approach, then,
appears to combine a normative ‘autonomism’ with a ‘dual powers’ strat-
egy. The radical fraction thus seeks to transform the jurisdictional author-
ity of the state by challenging the state system, as a class relational system,
so as to enable the state, as a key nexus for emancipatory change, to
define socially equitable and ecologically sustainable policies for agricul-
ture and food (Moyo and Yeros 2011). This process captures the paradox
of the state both as a constrainer and as a potential enabler of emancipa-
tory change (McKeon 2015). This paradox is possible precisely because
the state is not a ‘thing’ but itself a social relation whose content reflects
the class makeup of those social relations. In this way, the radical fraction
Agro-ecology and Food Sovereignty 241

of LVC challenges the institutional relations of neoliberalism that,

embodied in the state and inter-state system, underlie mass dispossession
and market dependence.
The state here, therefore, is seen to be an essential means to an end, not
an end in itself, marking a clear disjuncture between ‘re-peasantization’
discourse and that of the ‘old’, ‘progressivist’ left and neo-developmentalism.
For the former, new social relations are founded on strong rural commu-
nity development, embodying a re-unification of ‘community’6 members
with the means of production, socialization of the means of production
as the ‘commons’ (vested in the community under devolved democratic
control), adoption of a circular economy, and satisfaction of human
needs according to criteria of human well-being and ecological sustain-
ability. This constitutes an agrarian transition in reverse, in which the
agrarian question is resolved in favour of the peasantry and the environ-
ment. Productivist agriculture, by contrast, can hold out no vision for the
future both because of its reliance on non-renewable fossil energy and
degradation of the conditions of production that attends this condition
(second contradiction), but, more immediately, because it is incapable of
absorbing the labour of the ever-increasing semi-proletariat rendered pre-
carious and dependent on it through primitive accumulation (Amin
2012). Precariousness and market dependence thus generate politically
reflexive pressures to reclaim the land (first contradiction). Both for ‘eco-
logical’ and ‘political’ reasons, the agrarian question, contra Bernstein
(2010, 2014), cannot be resolved in favour of productivism.
Agro-ecological systems, by contrast, are predicated upon much higher
inputs of human labour, such that the demise of fossil fuels carries with it
the imperative to re-ruralize society, re-populate the countryside, break
down functional and spatial dichotomies between city and countryside,
and work with, rather than against, ecological processes. Together, agro-
ecology and food sovereignty have the capacity both to feed the world
sustainably (Badgley et al. 2007; Tittonell 2014) and provide appropriate
livelihoods for the great majority as peasants, now re-united with the
means of production through conferral of land sovereignty on devolved
community authorities. If the widespread adoption agro-ecology and
food sovereignty depend upon such a final resolution, then this, in turn,
must rest upon reclaiming the land from the classes of the disarticulated
242 8 Crisis and Resistance: Reform or Revolution?

alliance and from neo-developmentalism, in other words, through claims

of land sovereignty and the redistribution of rights in land. And land
sovereignty, in its turn, can realistically come about only through a pro-
cess of reclaiming the nation (Moyo and Yeros 2011), in which new asser-
tions of national sovereignty utilize the key jurisdictional authority of the
state to transform class relations away from state centricity to the benefit
of the semi-proletarian, landless, and indigenous majority. As Amin
(2015, 30) suggests, ‘a land tenure reform conceived from the perspective
of the creation of a real, efficient and democratic alternative supported by
prosperous peasant family production must define the role of the state
(principal inalienable owner) and the institutions and mechanisms of
administering access to land and the means of production.’ This social
relational transformation, re-asserting the political authority of commu-
nity (commons) as solidarity, or moral, economy, and subverting the
institutional separation of the ‘economy’ and ‘polity’ of the modern state,
finally removes the market (capitalism) as essential mediator between
people and their means of livelihood.
This suggests that the state, through a ‘dual powers’ strategy, can be a
critical target to steer social relations in progressive directions towards
agro-ecologically based food and land sovereignty. The political obstacles
to such social relational transformation are, needless to say, daunting. We
have stressed capitalism’s remarkable power to co-opt opposition and to
turn crises to its advantage, spawning further ‘varieties’ of capitalism.
Nonetheless, as McKeon (2015, 3) has noted ‘this time it may be differ-
ent. Boundless hunger for profits is running up against the finite resources
of the planet.’ It may well be, therefore, that, as the socially mediated
ecological contradictions of and for these variegated capitalisms persist,
grow, and coalesce, strategic relational responses will gradually turn the
tide of history in favour of agro-ecology and food sovereignty.

1. This argument differs profoundly from that developed by writers such as
Rifkin (2014). He uses a non-Marxian argument to argue, as Marx did,
that competitive pressure forces capital to innovate and reduce labour
Notes 243

costs through adoption of labour substituting technology which, ceteris

paribus, raises the organic composition of capital and progressively reduces
profits. Rifkin suggests that the ‘zero marginal cost’ (extreme cheapness of
commodities) prefigures a new ‘commons’ based on the abundance of
such ‘commodities’. There are a number of flaws in his argument: (1)
while the argument about ‘zero marginal cost’ is correct as an ‘internal’
tendency (as Marx argued) it ignores the reactions by capital provoked by
this trend, most obviously the rise of neoliberalism and its logic of sustain-
ing profit by moving to cheap labour locations—globalization is basically
a response to this tendency; (2) ironically, while Rifkin’s argument is sup-
posedly based on ecological arguments—entropy law—in actuality the
proposed Internet of Things (IoT) is based precisely on the externalization
of the real costs associated with the ‘knowledge economy’. In other words,
the IoT is not actually de-materialized at all—it is an energy and materials
intensive mode of production. The majority of those ‘hidden’ environ-
mental costs are externalized onto the global South, where the bulk of the
materials for IoT are produced. So, the abundance he refers to is in fact an
unsustainable abundance based on the illusion of de-materialization; (3)
so while Rifkin’s argument is basically about an ‘internal’ process of capital
—the rise in the organic composition of capital—ironically it ignores
capital’s ‘external’ dynamic as being premised on ecological affordances/
constraints—ironic because ecology is supposed to be at the forefront of
his analysis. But it is, in fact, evacuated —unlike the argument developed
in this paper. A truly sustainable society would need to be established at a
much lower level of consumption than the one he envisages, in accor-
dance with the real entropic constraints of the planet.
2. An historical bloc is an alliance of different class forces politically orga-
nized around a set of hegemonic ideas that gives strategic direction and
coherence to its constituent elements (Gramsci 1971; Gill 2002).
3. Autonomist approaches advocate grassroots struggle ‘outside’ bourgeois
forms of the state and a withdrawal to local ‘autonomous’ zones of resis-
tance (e.g., Zapatistas in Mexico, MST in Brazil); dual powers approaches
consider it premature to call for a dispersion of power before power has
been secured—the strategy here is to radically transform the state in order
then to disperse power downwards.
4. Ecologically, agro-ecology advocates an ‘approach to farming that attempts
to provide sustainable yields through the use of ecologically sound man-
agement technologies. Strategies rely on ecological concepts, such that
management results in optimum recycling of nutrients and organic matter,
244 8 Crisis and Resistance: Reform or Revolution?

closed energy flows, balanced pest populations and enhanced multiple

[multifunctional] use of landscape’ (Altieri 1987, xiv). Socially, agro-
ecology elaborates a broader agenda ‘through forms of social action which
redirect the course of co-evolution between nature and society in order to
address the crisis of modernity. This is to be achieved by systemic strategies
that control the development of the forces and relations of production that
have caused this crisis. Central to such strategies is the local dimension
where we encounter endogenous potential encoded in knowledge systems
(local, peasant or indigenous) that demonstrate and promote both ecologi-
cal and cultural diversity’ (Sevilla Guzman and Woodgate 1999, 83).
5. The following assertions seem most pertinent here: ‘[Food sovereignty]
ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, waters, seeds,
livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce
food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and
inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social and
economic classes and generations.’
6. Defined as a community of people living together and practicing com-
mon ownership, sometimes in reference to communal forms of organiza-
tion that preceded the modern state, for example, the ayllu in the Andes.
We should be wary, however, of de-historicizing and idealizing such ‘tra-
ditional’ and customary forms of social organization, these being fre-
quently inegalitarian, patriarchal, and embedded in wider systems of
hierarchy such as the Incan state. As Amin (2015, 23) notes, ‘there is no
reason to heap excessive praise upon these traditional rights as a number
of anti-imperialist, nationalist ideologies unfortunately do.’

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Part 3
Country Case Studies
Prelude to the Case Studies:
The Agrarian Question and Food
Sovereignty Movements

We have seen in earlier chapters that interlude of ‘benign’ imperialism

and relative in-dependence for the periphery lasted only until the late
1970s. At this point, the neoliberal project was launched by the imperial
North, a strategy to recuperate monopolistic profits and stave off an
emergent South. In so doing, the project abandoned whatever incipient
policy commitment to ‘articulated’ development had previously existed.
Neoliberalism heralded not the ‘end’ of the agrarian question, but rather
the re-launching of the agrarian question of monopoly-finance capital.
Through the instrument of debt leverage, the bulk of the global South
was gradually re-opened and placed at the disposal of transnationalizing
capital. ‘Disarticulated’ development re-asserted itself, with conservative
forces, the agro-exporting oligarchies that had been reluctant adherents
to ISI and land reform during the ‘in-dependence’ interlude, now bene-
fitting from the new dependency. Thus, the highly indebted peripheral
and semi-peripheral states in which these class forces predominated
(counterposed to a burgeoning class of semi-proletarian ‘peasantry’) were
‘forced’ (or, from the oligarchies’ perspective, were happy) to lift state
controls on currencies, prices, capital, and trade; roll back industrial poli-
cies; privatize public enterprises; and retreat to the export of cash crops
and minerals as a means of servicing debt (and making profits for the

© The Author(s) 2018 251

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
252 9 Prelude to the Case Studies: The Agrarian Question...

oligarchies). This trend received further reinforcement with the collapse

of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s, and the 1990s became a decade of
almost unbridled neoliberalism.
The result of this resurgence of neoliberal and monopoly-finance capi-
tal was to shift once again the coordinates of the agrarian question. The
rural exodus and semi-proletarianization of the peasantry continued
unabated, but without absorption of the (part)-expelled workforce into
industrial employment as was supposed to happen in a ‘classic’ agrarian
transition to capitalism. Agro-export capital continued to marginalize the
peasantry, while national industries collapsed. This new ‘precarious’
workforce has remained to this day insecurely employed, under-employed,
or unemployed (manifested most obviously in the ‘informal’ economy),
in constant flux between town and country, and across international bor-
ders (growth of the remittance economy). Instead of the classical dichot-
omy between ‘peasants’ (or more precisely farmers) and ‘workers’ seen in
‘articulated’ development, and in transitions from the former to the lat-
ter, the phenomenon that has prevailed is that of permanent semi-
proletarianization. Here the expelled, the partially expelled, and
super-exploited workforce competes with those in relatively secure
employment to drive down wages across the board, delivering super-
profits to transnational capital.
This phenomenon has been interpreted, by both orthodox ‘develop-
ment’ theorists and ‘progressive’ Marxists alike, as the ‘disappearance’ of
the peasantry—for the latter, it is now simply an ‘agrarian question of
labour’ in which the ‘peasantry’ merely constitute a slightly different form
of the proletariat (Bernstein 2010). Nonetheless, members of the semi-
proletariat themselves have never abandoned the agrarian question or the
land question (de Janvry 1981). The demand for land has expanded in
rural areas, and it continues to be seen as fundamental to the reproduc-
tion of the household. Indeed, the most politically significant trend over
the last two or three decades has been the upsurge in land occupations in
the countryside of the South. This politically reflexive response by the
semi-proletariat as agent has placed the agrarian question on the agenda
as an agrarian question of land access and of rights for the ‘peasantry’. So,
access to land for the expelled or partially expelled is now also a question
of regaining access to basic citizenship and social rights, or perhaps to
9 Prelude to the Case Studies: The Agrarian Question... 253

claiming the ‘real citizenship’, beyond bourgeois superficialities, that has

never yet been theirs (see Mooers 2014; Tilzey 2016b).
We are currently in the throes of an immanent, epochal crisis of neo-
liberalism, if not yet of capitalism in general. Imperial monopoly-finance
capital has escalated its accumulation of land and natural resources in the
peripheries, yet it faces three political challenges here (first contradic-
tions) (to say nothing of longer term biophysical constraints [second con-
tradiction] to which these are, in varying degrees, conjoined). The first
two represent sub-hegemonic challenges to the hegemony of neoliberal-
ism: firstly, the national sovereignty regime established in the twentieth
century, although attenuated, is nonetheless still exercised even by the
small states; secondly, the emerging semi-peripheries (the sub-imperium),
the unintended consequence of globalization, which, although not radi-
cal in themselves, have created new spaces and opportunities for manoeu-
vre by peripheral states. This sub-hegemonic trend is itself not without its
own internal contradictions, these being intrinsic to capitalism and its
necessarily state-based form (Tilzey 2016a). Monopolistic firms are
springing up in the sub-imperium (China, India, Brazil, South Africa,
etc.) and scrambling themselves for natural resources, land, and food sup-
plies. Their home states may not be militarizing imperialism in the man-
ner of the global North, and they do often maintain a higher commitment
to the sovereignty regime and to national development, as is the case with
China particularly. Moreover, the economic flows ushered in across the
South have permitted some to circumvent the Western debt trap, as with
the ‘pink tide’ states of Latin America. But all are, nonetheless, subject to
the socially and ecologically contradictory dynamics of capitalism.
The agrarian question now certainly remains a question of national
sovereignty under conditions of imperialism and sub-imperialism, there-
fore. But there is also now a tension between national sovereignty as the
‘old’, reformist vision of articulated capitalist development (even as a
means to socialism), on the one hand, and national sovereignty as a ‘new’,
revolutionary, vision of pro-peasant, pro-environmental, and possibly
post-developmental anti-capitalism, on the other. It is the latter that rep-
resents the third, or counter-hegemonic, challenge to neoliberalism.
Questions of gender equity, indigenism, and ecological sustainability are,
in addition to class, now central to this latter vision. The political question
254 9 Prelude to the Case Studies: The Agrarian Question...

now appears to be: what type of political organization can attend to the
semi-proletariat, not to transform it into a proletariat or a class of com-
mercial farmers in a full transition to capitalism, but rather to re-valorize
its identity as a peasantry through access to land and the fulfilment of its
vocation as small-scale and ecologically based providers of secure food
supplies for themselves, the local community, and the nation—in short,
food sovereignty.
In response to deepened neoliberal imperialism and a resurgent landed
oligarchy, the ‘peasantry’ have, against all expectations and predictions of
their demise, risen up. From the 1990s, rural protest movements have
proliferated in Latin America (Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia),
Africa (most notably Zimbabwe), and Asia (particularly Nepal, but also
India, Philippines) to pursue none other than the recuperation of land by
means of mass occupations, among other tactics. The environmental cause
has become one of their priorities, particularly in Latin America, given
that the destruction wrought by extractive capital occurs most immedi-
ately at the expense of marginalized communities. This explains, at least in
part, why these rural mobilizations have often incorporated indigenous
rights, feminist, and environmental movements.
It is only in a handful of cases, however, that these ‘peasant’ protest
movements have succeeded in gaining some political power at the level of
the state (Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Nepal) and have been
able, inter alia, to secure commitments in their respective national consti-
tutions to the principle of food sovereignty. In most cases, even here,
however, such access to the state has been possible only through fragile
alliances with an emergent, sub-hegemonic, national and anti-imperialist
bourgeoisie. This means that such alliances have, from the outset, tended
to compromise and subvert the original ambitions of the protest move-
ment. While these national bourgeoisies, together crucially with a petty
bourgeoisie of upper peasantry, still nurture visions of ‘articulated’ capi-
talist development, (with the peasantry transformed into capitalist farm-
ers and/or a fully proletarianized workforce), the (middle and lower)
peasantry itself seems to have other ideas. They appear to be proposing an
alternative society which takes seriously ‘re-peasantization’ or re-
agrarianization as a modern project (although calling strongly on
traditions drawn from the past), along with cooperative and collective
9 Prelude to the Case Studies: The Agrarian Question... 255

forms of production and labour absorption. What appears perhaps most

distinctive about this new vision, at least in its Latin American variant, is
the de-legitimation of capitalism, for political, cultural, and ecological
reasons, both as an end in itself and as a putative transitional pathway to
The rationale in drawing together these case studies, then, is that three
of the states in question, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nepal, experienced (1)
widespread agrarian political protest, from the 1990s, against the estab-
lished regimes in those countries; (2) the installation of left-leaning
regimes during the first decade of the new millennium; and (3) the inclu-
sion, in the new constitutions of these states, of provisions for ‘food sov-
ereignty’. The causes and character of these developments are very similar
in the cases of Bolivia and Ecuador, while the case of Nepal is distinct in
a number of key respects.
In the case of Bolivia and Ecuador, anti-neoliberal agrarian protests
were undertaken largely by the semi-proletarian peasantry, located mainly
in the Andes, and by tribal/communitarian, indigenous groups in the
eastern lowlands (Oriente). The latter, in particular, have been adversely
affected by the mineral/oil extractive and agri-food industries. The peas-
antry’s protests hark back to the incomplete land reforms and unresolved
agrarian question of previous developmentalist episodes. Their primary
demand is for adequate land for self-subsistence as a matter of priority,
and relief from the precarity of semi-proletarian existence. Some may
aspire to become members of the commercial upper peasantry, but these
are a minority. These protests, making them distinct from previous mobi-
lizations, also have an overlay of ‘post-developmental’ discourse, compris-
ing concern for issues of indigeneity, gender, and ecology. In some
respects, therefore, these protests have become ‘post-classist’, but the class
problematic nonetheless remains strong, while exhibiting a strong indig-
enous inflection. These groups, in essence, are looking beyond capitalism
and the capitalist state, in other words, beyond reformism. Their advo-
cacy, then, appears to be directed, via profound social relational change
away from capitalism, towards what might be termed livelihood sover-
eignty—the ability to lead fulfilling lives in socially and ecological
sustainable ways, free of exploitation and the compulsion to sell labour
power to others.
256 9 Prelude to the Case Studies: The Agrarian Question...

But these ‘radical’, counter-hegemonic groups have run up against

reformist, sub-hegemonic, nationally defined, discourses of sovereignty,
including food sovereignty as productivist, national agriculture. This dis-
course is articulated also by the small class of commercial family farmers
(i.e., the former ‘upper peasantry’, not the capitalist estates of the oligar-
chy), for example, the cocaleros of Bolivia. These sub-hegemonic constitu-
encies take their reformist cue, in part, from former developmentalist
episodes, such as the MNR in the case of Bolivia, a populist movement
that sought to build national ‘articulated’ development. The populist
regimes of Morales in Bolivia and Correa in Ecuador articulate these sub-
hegemonic discourses, and have utilized widespread anti-neoliberal senti-
ment to forge alliances with counter-hegemonic groups, united by a
rhetoric of anti-colonialism/imperialism and of indigenous revival and
livelihood principles such as buen vivir or vivir bien. But this rhetorical
‘master frame’ hides the class divisions and real motivations that underlie
the populist projects—those of favouring small-scale and national capi-
talists through reformism, whilst largely neglecting the counter-
hegemonic aims, and current reproductive crisis, of the peasantry and
lowland indigenous groups. This reformist obfuscation of class and class
fractional division and interest has been facilitated by the ‘master frame’
of food sovereignty discourse itself, as articulated by populists such as
McMichael (2013) and van der Ploeg (2008), in its fatal elision of ‘pro-
gressive’ (Polanyian) and ‘radical’ (Marxian) positionalities (Tilzey
2016b). The ‘post-modern’ tendency to emphasize identity and indigene-
ity at the expense of class, together with the essentialization of the ‘peas-
antry’, has predisposed even ostensibly ‘radical’ mobilizations to
co-optation by reformist and populist trends. As we shall see in the case
studies, where ‘post-developmentalism’ is not complemented by class
analysis, fateful consequences can ensue. Thus, in Ecuador, for example,
affiliates of LVC, all advocates of food sovereignty, display markedly dif-
ferent class positionalities, with small commercial farmers and the upper
peasantry, members of the petty bourgeoisie, favouring market-based
definitions of this concept (Clark 2017). As Brass (2015, 196) notes,
‘what the[se] farmers’ movements object to is not capitalism per se, but
rather the market advantage currently enjoyed by large agribusiness
enterprises…its members seek merely to establish for themselves a better
competitive position within the existing capitalist system’. The populist,
9 Prelude to the Case Studies: The Agrarian Question... 257

neo-extractivist regimes of Correa (Ecuador) and Morales (Bolivia) have

exploited these ambiguities within food sovereignty to the full.
How is it possible to explain, however, the rise of anti-neoliberal, ‘post-
developmental’ protest as a national, rather than as a more local, phenome-
non? In this there has been a clear differentiation between states in the global
South, and in Latin America more specifically, in the degree to which such
mobilizations have succeeded in unifying at the national level, in subse-
quently overthrowing neoliberal regimes, and in instituting constitutional
and policy change, including provisions for food sovereignty. The key to
successful anti-neoliberal protest in states such as Bolivia and Ecuador
appears to be founded on the ability to deploy ethnic and indigenous, in
addition to ‘peasant’ positionalities, as an ‘anti-systemic’ ‘master frame’ (Rice
2012). But, in order to follow through on ‘counter-hegemonic’ transforma-
tion, and to avoid co-optation into reformism, there seems to be a need to
retain, or to identify, a class basis for struggle as a complement, not as a nega-
tion, of the wider indigenous, ethnic ‘master frame’. Similarly, the indige-
nous, ethnic, and ‘new social movement’ ‘master frame’ should not be
deployed to deny the profound importance of class. What appears impor-
tant is the relation between class position and the way in which people expe-
rience and interpret exploitation, and, on this basis, the way in which they
feel enabled or empowered to come together to defend and promote their
interests vis-a-vis a state/class alliance which seeks to deny those interests.
The key, in turn, to explaining why this should have been the case in
Bolivia and Ecuador, and not in neighbouring Andean states of Chile and
Peru, for example, seems to lie in the way in which the peasantry, and to a
certain extent workers, were historically incorporated into the state. In the
cases of Bolivia and Ecuador, ethnic identities and forms of mobilization
came to dominate class-based organization. By contrast, in neighbouring
states such as Chile and Peru, the distinct modes of popular political incor-
poration produced a dynamic whereby class-based identities and organiza-
tional forms came to dominate ethnic identification. Strong and cohesive
indigenous movements tend to emerge in states, such as Bolivia and Ecuador,
where the peasantry has been politically incorporated by multi-class, popu-
list parties, as opposed to those states, such as Chile and Peru, with a histori-
cal pattern of peasant mobilization by parties with self-proclaimed Marxist
affinities. The grassroots mobilizations of these Marxist parties tended to
create horizontal forms of organization, such as cooperatives and peasant
258 9 Prelude to the Case Studies: The Agrarian Question...

unions, which competed with, and in part served to undermine, more tra-
ditional, indigenous associational forms, such as ayllus and comunas. In con-
trast, the vertical lines of dependence established between indigenous
peoples and populist or clientelist parties did not replace the horizontal
organizational bonds of indigenous communities, and the creation of com-
peting class-based bonds was less extensive than under explicitly leftist forms
of incorporation. Consequently, with the advent of neoliberalism in the
global South and the severing of corporatist ties of the peasantry to the state,
it was only in certain states that conditions existed for the re-emergence of
indigenous and ethnic identities as a platform for widespread, and agrarian-
based, anti-neoliberal protest.
In this way, it would seem that the mode of peasant incorporation into
the modern, capitalist (peripheral) state sheds considerable light on the
conditions that facilitate or inhibit the articulation of, in the Andean
case, ethnic identities as a ‘master frame’ of anti-neoliberal protest.
Following Yashar (1999) and Rice (2012), it is possible to define the
period of incorporation of the peasantry as the first and sustained attempt
at agrarian reform in a state, that is, the transformation of pre-capitalist
to capitalist social relations principally by means of the ‘Junker road’, or
the ‘farmer road’ (de Janvry 1981). Thus, it was through agrarian reform,
specifically the destruction of pre-capitalist and semi-servile labour rela-
tions, that the rural masses in Latin America were first incorporated into
the modern, peripheral capitalist state. Prior to these agrarian reforms,
the indigenous peasantry was largely under the political control of the
rural oligarchy, and thus unavailable as a potential base of support for
contestation by classes and class fractions in and around the state.
Henceforth, there would be an institutional separation, characteristic of
the modern capitalist state, between the ‘economy’ and the ‘polity’,
whereby ‘struggle’ would be confined to the realm of the ‘political’, while
demands for more profound ‘social relational’ transformation in the
‘economy’ would be absorbed, within the limits of the capitalist state, by
In this way, two patterns of peasant incorporation may be distin-
guished: agrarian radicalism, associated with the ‘farmer road’ to agrarian
capitalism, whereby class contestation around the state sought to orga-
nize and mobilize the support of the peasantry, and, in the process,
9 Prelude to the Case Studies: The Agrarian Question... 259

offered it up for incorporation into the political system by the Marxist

left. This type of incorporation is evident in the cases of Chile and Peru
(the latter in the 1969–1975 reform period) (de Janvry 1981). Agrarian
conservatism, associated with the ‘Junker road’, is the process whereby
the peasantry was de-politicized and controlled by the state/political par-
ties and eventually incorporated into the polity by means of patron–cli-
ent linkages to multi-class populist parties. This second type of
incorporation, demonstrated by the cases of Bolivia (1953–1964) and
Ecuador (1964–1976), was more conducive to the eventual politicization
of ethnic cleavages, since it allowed local indigenous communal struc-
tures and associational forms to remain more or less intact. Ethnic identi-
ties took on greater political salience in these two states following the
erosion of corporatist and clientelist linkages to parties under the pres-
sures of neoliberal reforms in the 1980s (Rice 2012).
In Bolivia, for example, organized workers in the mining sector were
historically the central protagonists of popular struggle. Since the 1952
‘revolution’ that brought the populist MNR to power, Bolivia’s strong,
Marxist-oriented labour movement has had a tenuous relationship to the
governing party. The peasantry, however, was de-politicized after the rev-
olution and tied to the party through an elaborate system of state corpo-
ratism and clientilism. While labour in Bolivia has been organized around
class-based entities, the incorporation of the peasantry into the political
system followed a populist, clientilist pattern. The contemporary indige-
nous movement, and agrarian protest of which it forms an integral part,
reflect these contradictory legacies. Thus, while strong at the national
level, enabling Evo Morales to sweep to power, it continues to be divided
by competing class and, potentially obfuscating, ethnicity-based demands,
which render it susceptible to co-optation into reformism. This goes
some way towards explaining the initial success, and subsequent
disappointment, of counter-hegemonic mobilizations in both Bolivia
and Ecuador.
In identifying lines of causality here, we can suggest that the regime of
disarticulated accumulation leads to a developmental crisis for the neo-
liberal peripheral state–capital nexus. The oligarchy of the disarticulated
alliance is temporarily displaced by sub-hegemonic, nationally based
capitalist class fractions, in alliance with counter-hegemonic forces, the
260 9 Prelude to the Case Studies: The Agrarian Question...

latter impacted upon by contradictions of the extractive frontier of impe-

rial and sub-imperial capital, supported by national oligarchies (lowland
indigenous groups being particularly affected in this regard). The Andean
peasantry are afflicted by an ongoing reproduction squeeze as their land
base suffers from declining production, and off-farm employment
becomes more precarious, often requiring temporary emigration to other
states, for example, Argentina. These comprise Level 4 dynamics at the
confluence disarticulated accumulation, compounded by Level 3 extrac-
tive and farm reproductive crises, generating further reflexive political
action refracted back to the state. The crisis of neoliberalism leads to a
developmental shift to another form of capitalism, as populist neo-
developmentalism. This represents an attempt embed capitalism in a
Polanyian way by re-legitimating the state–capital nexus through social
programmes for the marginalized, differential support for the family farm
commercial sector, and the forging of alliances with extractive transna-
tional corporations. The reproductive crisis of the peasantry is largely
neglected in terms of land access and its sustainable use (Level 4 > 3 > 4
dynamics), while the whole system relies on further commodification of
fossil fuel and mineral reserves. This entails the degradation of lowland
tropical ecosystems and the loss of indigenous ways of life in order to
provide revenues for neo-developmentalism from the imperium and sub-
imperium, in turn helping to perpetuate the latter’s unsustainable growth.
The only viable form of sovereignty here appears to lie in moving beyond
the reformist, capitalist state by means of the abrogation of its key insti-
tutional structures and social-property relations.
China is also included here as a case study because (1) it represents one
of the very few examples of a peasant-based uprising that succeeded in
breaking free of capitalism and capitalist reformism through the aboli-
tion of private property ownership, the institution of comprehensive and
egalitarian land reform to the benefit of the great majority of the peas-
antry, and the administration of that land reform and peasant produc-
tion by collective and communal means vested in the village committee,
with the basic productive unit still today being the peasant family (this
being still largely the case despite efforts to collectivize agricultural pro-
duction); (2) it has achieved national food security in basic wage foods,
albeit on the basis of non-organic and agro-chemically intensive means.
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Such production is, however, undertaken largely on the basis of peasant

production undertaken on very large numbers of smallholdings. China,
has, therefore, remained largely immune to the turbulence wrought by
the global food crisis and is a salutary reminder to those who still advo-
cate food security on the basis of ‘working to your comparative advan-
tage’. Food security is, however, now increasingly compromised by the
existence of a large proletariat divorced from its agrarian roots, depen-
dent on the market to meet its needs, and shifting its dietary preference
towards western-style consumption, including the shift to meat-based
protein. In order to satisfy this shift, China is importing increasing quan-
tities of soya, grown largely in Latin America in areas of former high
biodiversity, to feed to beef cattle, for example. It is also ‘land grabbing’
in various parts of the global South to secure lands for food production,
a trend encouraged in part by the steadily deteriorating status of soils and
water in China wrought by industrial pollution, and by the loss of arable
land to commercial and urban development; (3) China, as perhaps the
most important member of the BRICS sub-imperium, plays a very
important role in contemporary capitalist dynamics, both in terms of
subsidizing, through super-exploitation of its labour force and environ-
ment, the consumerism of the global North (which appears to think it
has somehow escaped the basic laws of thermodynamics such is its prof-
ligacy in resource use), and in terms of the political and economic space
it has granted anti-neoliberal, if reformist, regimes in Latin America

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Bolivia, like many other countries in the global South and in Latin
America, underwent a neoliberal ‘structural adjustment policy’ (SAP)
during the 1980s. Thus, Bolivia’s ‘New Economic Policy’ of 1985 dis-
mantled public services and exposed the peasantry and indigenous groups
to enhanced capital accumulation by the agri-food oligarchy and transna-
tional corporations. Neoliberal policies reached a peak of unpopularity
with the privatization of the state-owned water company Servicio
Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado (SEMAPA), sparking the
resulting ‘Cochabamba Water War’. This mobilization combined with
massive protests by Bolivia’s largest union of peasants (the rural workers’
union, Confederacion Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinas de Bolivia
(CSUTCB)), and a general strike called by the non-rural workers’ union,
the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB). Three years of clashes between pro-
testers and the oligarchic state led ultimately to the toppling of two
Bolivian presidents. The 2005 election witnessed a clear victory for Evo
Morales, the leader of the coca growers’ union. His party, MAS
(Movimiento al Socialismo), was closely linked to the emergent indige-
nous, anti-colonial, and populist social movements that had coalesced in
opposition to the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s and beyond. This broad
coalition of peasant, indigenous, and worker organizations formed the

© The Author(s) 2018 263

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
264 10 Bolivia

Pacto de Unidad (Unity Pact) which was essential in Morales’ rise to

power and became integrated, to varying degrees, within the new regime
(Fabricant 2012; Webber 2015; McKay et al. 2014).
An important source of rural anti-neoliberal protest derived from the
parlous condition of the peasantry in Bolivia, particularly the middle and
lower peasantry. Thus, rural class structure in Bolivia is characterized by a
concentration of land in the hands of the agri-food oligarchy, juxtaposed
to large numbers of often landless peasants. Haciendas occupy 90 per cent
of Bolivia’s productive land, leaving only 10 per cent divided between
mostly indigenous peasant communities and smallholding peasants. Four
hundred individuals own 70 per cent of productive land, while there are
2.5 million landless peasants in a country of 9 million people (77 per cent
of peasants are indigenous) (Enzinna 2007; Webber 2015).
Of the 446,000 peasant production units remaining in the country
today, 225,000 are located in the altiplano, 164,000 in the valley depart-
ments (yungas), and only 57,000 in the eastern lowlands. Capitalist rela-
tions of production now predominate in the eastern lowlands and are
increasingly displacing small-scale peasant production in the valleys and
altiplano, although the latter continues to be the most important form of
production in the altiplano (Ormachea Saavedra 2007). (The altiplano
accounts for only 19 per cent of total cultivated land.) The rural popula-
tion is diminishing throughout the country as processes of semi-
proletarianization and proletarianization accelerate with the gradual
expansion of capitalist relations of production to all parts of the country
(Ormachea Saavedra 2007). From the early 1970s, migrant semi-
proletarians provided the workforce for sugarcane and cotton harvests in
the lowlands, while, for the rest of the year, they maintained small plots
of land in the highland departments from which they primarily travelled
(i.e., Cochabamba, Potosi, and Chuquisaca). Between 1976 and 1996,
rural population as a percentage of total population fell from 59 per cent
to 39 per cent (Pacheco Balanza and Ormachea Saavedra 2000). This
decline was caused by two main factors: declining production in the alti-
plano due to soil exhaustion and increasing division of land into minifun-
dios over time due to population expansion; and increased capitalization
of agriculture in the lowlands, leading to decreased employment oppor-
tunities (Pacheco Balanza and Ormachea Saavedra 2000). This squeeze
10 Bolivia 265

has accentuated the differentiation of the peasantry into rich, medium,

and poor strata. The year 1988 survey data suggest that 76 per cent of
peasantry were poor peasants (lacking means to reproduce their family
labour power on their own land and obliged to sell labour elsewhere on a
temporary basis). Medium peasants constituted 11 per cent of the peas-
antry (defined as family units able to reproduce labour without selling
labour power elsewhere). Rich peasants (making a profit after reproduc-
ing their family and means of production, and purchasing the labour of
poorer peasants and using modern technology) comprised 13 per cent
(Ormachea Saavedra 2007). This process of peasant differentiation has
only accelerated since then (the middle being squeezed), with richer peas-
ants becoming commercial farmers (Ormachea Saavedra 2007).
To what extent has the Morales regime addressed these contradictions
of the peasantry? Following on the demands for a constituent assembly
made by indigenous and peasant organizations, Morales initiated a pro-
cess through which a new constitution would be written in which provi-
sion was to be made for ‘food sovereignty’. When the constitution was
finally approved in 2009, it included food sovereignty as a central ele-
ment of several sections of the document. First, it refers (Article 255) to
food sovereignty in the context of international relations and treaties,
suggesting that they must function to meet the interests and sovereignty,
including food sovereignty, of the people (Bolivian Constitution 2009).
Second, the chapter on Sustainable Integrated Rural Development
emphasizes food sovereignty as integral to rural development, laying out
the objective to ‘ensure food security and sovereignty, prioritizing domes-
tic production and consumption…and establishing mechanisms to pro-
tect Bolivian agriculture’ (Bolivian Constitution 2009, Article 405)
(Fabricant 2012; McKay et al. 2014). It is important to note that these
statements could be taken to mean either productivism and developmen-
talism, or a more pro-peasant and agro-ecological programme, or indeed
both. As we shall see, the emphasis has tended to be on the first of these
options rather than the second.
The position of the Morales regime with respect to food sovereignty is
further clarified in the first National Development Plan defined in 2006.
Here food sovereignty was identified as a key element in the ‘new vision
for development’, the vision in fact being very reformist in character and
266 10 Bolivia

drawing inspiration from the MAS’ populist predecessor, the MNR,

which came to power in the 1950s. In 2008, the ‘new vision’ was elabo-
rated into the Rural Development and Food Sovereignty and Food
Security Policy (PSSA), and this was to be implemented through four
main programmes:

1. SEMBRAR, promoting private–public partnerships and largely

dependent on overseas development assistance for short-term invest-
ment projects designed to increase food production (Ministerio de
Desarollo Rural y Tierras (MDRyT) 2010, 63);
2. CRIAR, financing community-led initiatives to support small-scale
agriculture (MDRyT 2010);
3. EMPODERAR, funding agro-entrepreneurial development projects
(MDRyT 2010);
4. Promotion of Agro-ecological Production (Fomento a la Produccion
Ecologica/Organica), supporting agro-ecological producers with pro-
duction and marketing (MDRyT 2010, 66).

These programmes relied upon external funding and did not signifi-
cantly restructure agriculture and governance (McKay et al. 2014) and,
by definition, therefore, did not change the relations of production, or
social-property relations, upon which any transition to a more ‘radical’
vision of food sovereignty would have depended.
A potentially more direct means of engendering food sovereignty took
the form of Bolivia’s ‘Agrarian Revolution’ under the 2006 Ley de
Reconduccion no. 3545 (Extension Law). This redefined natural resources
as state property, and placed greater emphasis on state control and over-
sight of land consolidation and labour relations. The programme has four
main policy aims:

1. The distribution of state-owned land and redistribution by expropria-

tion of land not serving a ‘socio-economic function’ (FES) in respect
of indigenous peoples and peasant communities;
2. The mechanization of agriculture;
3. Subsidized credits for small-scale producers;
4. Markets for the products of peasant origin.
10 Bolivia 267

The redistribution of land, unfortunately, has largely failed to happen,

so that the main beneficiaries of this reform have been the small com-
mercial farms of the upper peasantry (the crucial petty bourgeois con-
stituency for the populist reformists). Moreover, the agrarian oligarchy of
the eastern lowlands has been left essentially intact (Fabricant 2012;
Webber 2015). Thus, superficially, the agrarian reform appeared to be
relatively successful, with more than 31 million hectares being titled and
over 100,000 of these titles being distributed to 174,249 beneficiaries
(McKay et al. 2014; INRA 2010; Redo et al. 2011). However, crucially,
90 per cent of titled land has ‘been endowed by the state and is composed
entirely of forest reserves’ (Redo et al. 2011, 237). Thus, less than 10 per
cent of the reform sector has actually been redistributed to those who
need it most. So, while the ‘Agrarian Revolution’ was ‘intended’ to chal-
lenge the prevailing and unequal agrarian structure, it has failed to do so.
For example, the land ceiling of 5000 hectares in the reform has been
rendered effectively obsolete by Article 315 (II) which states that if a cor-
poration has several ‘owners’ or ‘partners’, each can have a maximum of
5000 hectares, making land-size limits virtually non-existent (McKay
et al. 2014). Furthermore, the land ceiling applies only to land acquired
after 2009, exacerbating its ineffectiveness. The provision of credit for
agricultural mechanization is also clearly designed to benefit the new class
of small commercial farms, not the middle and lower peasantries, while
of course being, at the same time, environmentally unsustainable.
The process of middle and lower peasant attrition has therefore contin-
ued under the government of Evo Morales, despite his pro-peasant and
indigenous rhetoric. Capitalist social relations in agriculture have contin-
ued to expand under this regime, from 79 per cent of farm production to
82 per cent. In 2005–6 small peasant production accounted for 25 per
cent of total agricultural production in the altiplano. By 2008–9, how-
ever, this figure had fallen to under 22 per cent. State subsidies and sup-
port are directed to capitalist, agro-industrial production in the lowlands
and to the small commercial farm sector, while small-scale peasant pro-
ducers in the highlands are effectively abandoned (Ormachea Saavedra
The populist, reformist, Polanyian position of Morales has its own
policies and its own analytics, deriving from its essentially petty bourgeois
268 10 Bolivia

(‘progressive’) class base. According to this class positionality, the peas-

antry is a homogeneous group, defined by Chayanovian principles, by
indigeneity, and by opposition to corporate, monopoly capital and to the
landed oligarchy. By contrast, a ‘radical’, counter-hegemonic, or class
relational positionality, would suggest that certain groups of the peas-
antry, that is, the upper peasant stratum, are actually benefitting from
these processes of differentiation at the expense of other groups, that is,
the great majority in the form of semi-proletarians and the rapidly dimin-
ishing cohort of middle peasants. The reality is that a significant, and
growing, stratum of the peasantry is coming to be defined as ‘rich’ as per
the tripartite classification above. It is accruing profits as a direct result of
surplus appropriation through the work of salaried labourers, that is, of
semi-proletarians from the growing stratum of poor peasants in most
instances. They also have growing motivations for expanding accumula-
tion through expropriation of further land, either from the middle or
lower strata of peasantry, or from indigenous tribal groups in the low-
lands through a process of primitive accumulation (Ormachea Saavedra
2011; Webber 2015).
The result is that it is very difficult to speak of a ‘peasant way’ in general
as one encompassing the class interests of all three strata of peasantry.
Rather, the upper peasantry is likely to espouse a type of Polanyian ‘alter-
ity’ more akin to that of small capitalists and petty commodity producers
of the global North (the ‘progressives’), their primary opponents being
the agro-industrial landed oligarchy with whom they are in competition
for land and labour, and the transnational corporations. Absent threats
from this quarter, the rich peasantry is relatively happy with the status
quo under MAS, from whom the latter draws its core support (and the
class from which Morales himself comes), and which is one of the main
beneficiaries from the ‘Agrarian Revolution’. By contrast, it is the middle
and semi-proletarian peasantry who, for the reasons identified above, are
most likely to advocate ‘radical’ change away from the status quo and
towards land and food sovereignty—a change involving, at its heart,
fundamental land reform in favour of these lower peasant strata. This is a
counter-hegemonic road to alterity through social relational change to
‘real citizenship’ (see next chapter) through human emancipation by
means of the re-unification of producers with their means of production.
10 Bolivia 269

The land involved in such reform will need to be taken not only from the
landed oligarchy but also from the upper stratum of peasantry. The objec-
tive of such land reform is likely to be the creation of a stable stratum of
middle peasantry, able to support its own reproduction and to produce
modest surpluses from which to supply the non-farming population.
A transformation in this direction will be important, indeed vital, for
both social and ecological reasons. The current conjuncture is highly
unstable and unsustainable for both reasons—for the social reasons iden-
tified above, and for the ecological reasons deriving from the nature-
destroying and fossil-fuel-based character of the agro-industrial,
extractivist agriculture being practiced in the eastern lowlands. The classes
benefitting from this process, the landed oligarchy, extractive industries,
and the upper peasantry, are placing in jeopardy the livelihoods of the
majority of Bolivians—the middle and lower peasantry (semi-
proletarians), the urban proletariat, and lowland indigenous groups. To
date, the urban proletariat has been placated by the ‘compensatory state’
(Gudynas 2012) through the proceeds of ecologically and socially
destructive extractivism, but this cannot continue and is, indeed, falter-
ing, as the commodity boom decelerates and austerity again begins to
bite. The class interests of the middle and lower peasantries coincide in
this conjuncture with those of proletarians—indeed, many ‘proletarians’
are semi-proletarians. If the sustainable utilization and stewardship of
Bolivia’s rich ecosystems, including agro- ecosystems, are to be assured
through food and land sovereignty for the long-term benefit of all as ‘real
citizens’, then an alliance of these subaltern social forces—the middle/
lower peasantry, the urban proletariat, and lowland indigenous groups—
would seem to be an imperative development.
In the present, but increasingly unstable, conjuncture, buen vivir/vivir
bien has been deployed as the foundational ‘myth’ for the MAS populist
programme, taken as a projection of the collective, cooperative Andean and
indigenous way. The reality described above, one of extractive capital and
the peripheral, compensatory state, is very different from this assumed
cooperative ideal. Using this cooperative ideal to legitimate its standing
amongst the subaltern classes, MAS has attempted, via the compensatory
state and reformism, to embed capitalism in Polanyian fashion by mitigat-
ing, in some measure, the impacts of extractivism on the subaltern classes.
270 10 Bolivia

Are there any indications that the agrarian question in Bolivia may be
resolved in favour of a ‘radical’, counter-hegemonic interpretation of
food sovereignty? Under conditions of neo-extractivism and the ‘com-
pensatory state’, the class struggle in Bolivia appears to have assumed two
principle dimensions (Veltmeyer 2014). The first dimension relates to
labour in the public sector and to the mass of proletarianized and semi-
proletarianized rural and urban workers comprising, firstly, the huge
urban proletariat of self-employed workers in the informal sector and,
secondly, a rural proletariat of landless or near- landless workers. Labour
in this sector makes up well over half the ‘economically active population’
and the mass of the urban poor. This dimension of struggle refers in the
main to rural urban dynamics in the altiplano and yungas regions of
Bolivia, largely outside the new extractive zones located primarily in the
eastern lowlands of the country.
The second dimension of class struggle, located largely in the eastern
lowlands, relates, firstly, to the conditions generated by the operations of
extractive capital, conditions that have given rise to conflict between the
mining companies and the government, on the one hand, and the indig-
enous peoples and communities negatively affected by extractivism, on
the other. It relates, secondly, to the mega-infrastructure projects pro-
posed or undertaken by the MAS government and capital in support of
extractivism. The class struggle here is one waged essentially by indige-
nous groups in defence of their territorial rights to the land, water, and
subsoil resources on which their social existence and well-being depend,
and in protest against the destructive effects of mining operations and
agri-food extractivism on the environment and their livelihoods. The
movements formed to this end have been increasingly active in recent
years, as the foreign mining companies and agri-food companies have
intensified their operations with government support (Webber 2015).
There are indications that these two dimensions of the class struggle
are beginning to coalesce, with the confrontation between the govern-
ment and social movements becoming increasingly dynamic and frac-
tious. The proposal by the MAS government to construct a
trans-continental highway through the Territorio Indigena y Parque Isiboro
Secure (TIPNIS) in support of extractivism and against its own constitu-
tional commitment to protect indigenous lands and nature has acted as a
10 Bolivia 271

catalyst for the coalescence of these two dimensions of class struggle

(Ormachea Saavedra 2011; Veltmeyer 2014).
The approach to development taken by the Morales government, the
‘compensatory state’ through ‘progressive’ extractivism, and the policy
measures taken to redress the ‘inequality predicament’, raise serious ques-
tions about the likelihood, or even the possibility, of this regime consoli-
dating and sustaining the few and limited gains made towards fulfilling
its stated aim of creating a cooperative and communitarian society in
which all Bolivians ‘live well’ in social solidarity and in harmony with
mother nature. The government, like others in Latin America, has chosen
to build the compensatory state on the proceeds of a particularly regres-
sive and destructive form of capital accumulation, in which the heavy
social and environmental costs are borne disproportionately by the com-
munities most directly affected by the operations of extractive capital
(Veltmeyer and Petras 2014).
This extractivist offensive has given rise to a destabilizing process of
class struggle characterized by a veritable wave of protest and social resis-
tance (Webber 2015). In the last few years, a large number of movements
and struggles have been calling into question the extractivist-export
model and its attendant violence and environmental devastation wrought
primarily by transnational capital via the medium of the Morales regime.
By means of the compensatory state, the Morales government has con-
structed a structure of legitimacy, or in other words ‘flanking’ measures,
to support renewed capital accumulation through extractivism (Orellana
2011). This represents an attempt to embed capitalism through income
and infrastructure measures for low-income groups founded on a narra-
tive of communalism and cooperation as vivir bien. In this way, the MAS
government had, until recently, temporarily stabilized the contradiction
between the accumulation and legitimation functions of the capitalist
state, a manoeuvre on which Polanyi might have looked favourably. But
because this development model, as reformism, failed to address the class
and environmental contradictions of capitalism, it now appears to be
unravelling, as elsewhere, in Latin America. With the de-legitimation of
extractivism, the proletariat, lower and middle peasants, and indigenous
groups are increasingly advocating a model of the cooperative society
beyond capitalism. The Morales reformist regime is thus encountering
272 10 Bolivia

the constraint defined by a legitimacy deficit; meanwhile, the fiscal capac-

ity of the state is predicated on a Faustian bargain with extractivism, a
mode of accumulation that, while providing a short-term revenue wind-
fall for populism, actively, and perhaps fatally, compromises the ecologi-
cal basis for constructing longer-term livelihood sovereignty for Bolivians
as ‘real citizens’.

Constitucion Politica del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia. 2009. http://www.
Enzinna, W. 2007. All We Want Is the Earth: Agrarian Reform in Bolivia. In
Socialist Register 2008: Global Flashpoints, Reactions to Imperialism and
Neoliberalism, ed. L. Panitch and C. Leys. London: Merlin Press.
Fabricant, N. 2012. Mobilizing Bolivia’s Displaced: Indigenous Politics and the
Struggle Over Land. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Gudynas, E. 2012. Estado compensador y nuevos extractivismos: las ambivalen-
cias del progresismo sudamericano. Nueva Sociedad 237: 128–146.
Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria (INRA). 2010. La tierra vuelve a manos
indigenas y campesinas. La Paz: INRA.
McKay, B., R.  Nehring, and M.  Walsh-Dilley. 2014. The State of Food
Sovereignty in Latin America: Political Projects and Alternative Pathways in
Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. Journal of Peasant Studies 41 (6): 1175–1200.
Ministerio de Desarrollo Rural y Tierras (MDRyT). 2010. Revolucion rural y
agraria. Plan del sector desarrollo agropecuario. La Paz: MDRyT.
Orellana, L. 2011. The National Question and the Autonomy of the State in
Bolivia. In Reclaiming the Nation: The Return of the National Question in
Africa, Asia and Latin America, ed. S. Moyo and P. Yeros, 235–254. London:
Pluto Press.
Ormachea Saavedra, E. 2007. Revolucion Agraria o Consolidacion de la Via
Terrateniente? El Gobierno del MAS y las Politicas de Tierras. La Paz: CEDLA.
———. 2011. Marcha Indigena por el TIPNIS: Tension Creativa o Contradiccion
de Clase? La Paz: CEDLA.
Pacheco Balanza, P., and E. Ormachea Saavedra. 2000. Campesinos, patrones y
obreros agricolas: Una Approximacion a los Tendencias del Empleo y los Ingresos
Rurales en Bolivia. La Paz: CEDLA.
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Redo, D., A. Millington, and D. Hindery. 2011. Deforestation Dynamics and

Policy Changes in Bolivia’s Post-neoliberal Era. Land Use Policy 28: 227–241.
Veltmeyer, H. 2014. Bolivia: Between Voluntarist Developmentalism and
Pragmatic Extractivism. In The New Extractivism: A Post-Neoliberal
Development Model or Imperialism of the Twenty-First Century? ed.
H. Veltmeyer and P. Petras, 80–113. London: Zed Press.
Veltmeyer, H., and J. Petras, eds. 2014. The New Extractivism: A Post-Neoliberal
Development Model or Imperialism of the Twenty-First Century? London: Zed
Webber, J.  2015. Revolution Against ‘Progress’: Neo-extractivism, the
Compensatory State, and the TIPNIS Conflict in Bolivia. In Crisis and
Contradiction: Marxist Perspectives on Latin America in the Global Economy,
ed. S. Spronk and J. Webber, 302–333. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Ecuador, like Bolivia, is one of several countries in Latin America with a

significant indigenous population, portrayed as a model of ‘internal colo-
nialism’ (Kay 1989) and characterized by large private agricultural
estates—haciendas—owned by people of European descent, and worked
by Kichwa peasantry. While the hacienda system largely defined the agrar-
ian structure in the Andean highlands, capitalist agriculture emerged on
the Coastal lowlands with the cacao boom in the late nineteenth century
(Clark 2017). The hacienda system was officially dismantled in 1964 as a
result of the agrarian reform policy implemented by the nationalist mili-
tary government of the day. A second nationalist military government
implemented a subsequent, and more radical, agrarian reform programme
in 1973 (Conaghan 1988). While these two reforms created a larger class
of smallholders, they did not significantly alter the agrarian structure and
land concentration in the country (Barsky 1984). The reforms were
designed to foment the transformation of feudal estates into capitalist
enterprises, with the intention of stimulating a transition to ‘articulated’
development in accordance with the dominant Keynesian paradigm of
the time. Although there were cases of expropriation and redistribution
in the 1960s and 1970s, the majority of land reform occurred through
colonization of ‘state-owned’ lands, particularly in the Amazonian and

© The Author(s) 2018 275

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
276 11 Ecuador

Coastal provinces, colonization in the former impinging on the lands of

lowland, tribal indigenous groups. This, then, was a Junker, not a farmer,
road to capitalism, which confirmed the property rights of the agrarian
oligarchy (the hegemonic class), while giving the mass of the peasantry
title only to the small plots of land (huasipungos), on the margins of the
hacienda, that they had held under the previous regime. Since these plots
were, in most cases, inadequate to secure an autonomous livelihood from
subsistence, the majority of the Andean peasantry (a potentially counter-
hegemonic class fraction) were thus rendered as semi-proletarians—
obliged to sell their labour power to the new capitalist estates of the
oligarchy, or on the urban market. While the reform did afford sufficient
access to land to a small number of the peasantry, thus creating a class of
small-scale commercial farmers located primarily in the coastal provinces,
these were in the minority and, significantly from the perspective of
reformist class dynamics, were largely neglected during the neoliberal era.
This was a (sub-hegemonic) class fraction that, suffering marginalization
under neoliberalism, was to become a strong advocate of neo-
developmentalism, seeking food sovereignty as nationally focused pro-
ductivism for the purpose of expanded accumulation. The agrarian
question, from the perspective of the semi-proletarian peasantry, how-
ever, remained largely unresolved, the ambition of this class fraction
being adequate access to land for subsistence and autonomy from the
market, not for expanded accumulation.
The data on land concentration before and after the agrarian reforms
do indeed confirm that there has been only marginal change in the distri-
bution of land in Ecuador (Clark 2017). For example, in 1954 prior to
the agrarian reform processes, the Gini coefficient for land distribution
was 0.86, and by 2001 it had changed only marginally to 0.80 (Martínez
2014, 44). Due to the uneven nature of the agrarian reform process in
Ecuador, there is a wide spectrum of producers in Ecuador, ranging from
land- and resource-poor peasants in the highlands at one end, to middle/
upper peasants and large-scale agri-export operations of the oligarchy at
the other (Clark 2017). As a result, there is considerable diversity in the
nature of what the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the
Ministry of Agriculture in Ecuador (MAGAP) call agricultura familiar
campesina, or peasant family farming, a definition that includes a broad
11 Ecuador 277

range of producers who do not necessarily share, and indeed often con-
test, economic interests and class positionalities. MAGAP uses the term
campesino as an inclusive term to refer the number of farms, or Unidades
Productivas Agricolas (UPAs) that meet a number of criteria determined
by the 2000 agricultural census. The MAGAP defines agricultura familiar
campesina as any UPA with less than 5 hectares in the Sierra, less than 20
hectares in the Coastal region, and less than 50 hectares in the Amazonian
region (SENPLADES 2014, 158). Based on the 2000 census data, it is
estimated that there are 3,034,440 campesinos in Ecuador, with an aver-
age household size of 3.92 members in each household. According to the
2000 census, 84.4% of the UPAs are campesino UPAs even though
campesino agriculture only represents 20% of the cultivated land in
Ecuador. This means that the other 16.6% of UPAs that are classified as
agro-industrial production use 80% of the arable land in the country
(SENPLADES 2014, 159).
The rise of modern agribusiness in Ecuador is inextricably linked,
therefore, to the demise of the pre-capitalist hacienda system and the
simultaneous emergence of a larger, post-reform pool of land-poor peas-
ants in the highlands, who became the workforce in these modernized
agro-industrial operations (Martínez 2016). The elimination of the feu-
dal hacienda system deepened the integration of smallholders, typically
semi-proletarians, into the rural labour market and capitalist social rela-
tions. In the coastal provinces, the processes of agrarian reform of the
1960s and 1970s have given way to the re-concentration of land into
large agro-industrial properties (Cueva et al. 2008), a process particularly
associated with the production of flex crops such as palm oil, soya, and
corn and export commodities such as bananas (Martínez 2014, 50). This
has given rise in these areas to considerable resentment against the agro-
exporting oligarchy on the part of the sub-hegemonic fraction small
commercial farmers.
Both ‘roll-out neoliberalism’(i.e., instituting the new ‘regime of accu-
mulation’)—for example, the implementation of the 1994 neoliberal Ley
de Desarrollo Agrario—and ‘roll-back neoliberalism’ (i.e., introducing a
‘mode of regulation’ to ‘soften’ neoliberalism for legitimacy purposes)
(Peck and Tickell 2002; Potter and Tilzey 2005), associated with the ter-
mination of agrarian reform and state investments favouring smallholders,
278 11 Ecuador

were important in the expansion of agri-industrial production in Ecuador

during the 1980s and 1990s (Clark 2017). Land-poor campesinos often
became integrated as the workforce in these new agri-industrial opera-
tions. On the commercialization and distribution side, the increasing
vertical integration of agribusiness firms in Ecuador has made domesti-
cally owned supermarkets some of the largest, most profitable, and capi-
tal-intensive firms in Ecuador. In contrast to the growth of the domestic
agribusiness sector since the 1980s, there has also been modest growth of
smallholder rural development strategies implemented by national and
international NGOs (Bebbington 1997). Included in this group of alter-
native value chains are initiatives such as direct producer–consumer mar-
kets or ferias, food basket programmes or canastas, and certified Fair Trade
and organic production. Chiriboga (2014) argues that these experiences
in social economy and campesino commercialization were the alternative
models that inspired the ‘peasant’ vision of food sovereignty institutional-
ized in the 2008 constitution. They certainly represent the vision of the
petty bourgeois fraction of the ‘peasantry’ whose affiliations lie with the
‘progressive’, rather than the ‘radical’, tendency within LVC.  In this
regard, we may describe this interest group as ‘alter-hegemonic’, sharing
much in common with the sub-hegemonic class fraction bar the concern
to produce on a ‘local’ and ‘ecological’ basis. Compared to the growth of
agro-industrial chains, as well as the traditional chain of commercializa-
tion for campesino production, these experiences, symptomatically, are
much more marginal (Clark 2017). As we have observed, they represent,
in essence, ‘flanking’ measures, through ‘de-statization’, to stabilize neo-
liberal accumulation through placation of certain key fractions of the
middle and upper peasantry by ‘green’ and ‘localized’ petty commodity
The rise of the indigenous movement and the broadening of rural
social organization in Ecuador began with the process of ‘communaliza-
tion’, or the creation of legally recognized indigenous communities, in
the early twentieth century (Clark 2017). This process began with strug-
gles over land and against the feudal hacienda system, culminating in the
adoption of the Ley de Comunas in 1937 and later the founding of peas-
ant associations and cooperatives due to the agrarian reforms of the 1960s
and 1970s. These processes led to the creation of regional and national
11 Ecuador 279

rural social movement organizations such as Confederacion de

Nacionalidades Indigenas del Ecuador (CONAIE) and the Federación
Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas, Indígenas y Negras (FENOCIN)
(Lucero 2003). It is difficult, however, to characterize rural social organi-
zations in their various legal forms (communities, communes, irrigation
associations, cooperatives, or agricultural associations) as strictly part of
‘civil society’, whatever that term may imply. Scholars have sometimes
conceptualized them as the extension of state administration, filling in
what the state ‘cannot do’, or, rather, what the neoliberal state is disin-
clined to do (Clark 2017). In fact, these organizations became, in confor-
mity with a wider trend across the global South, part of the apparatus of
‘de-statized’ neoliberal governance.
It is unsurprising then, that with the end of agrarian reform as part of
‘roll-back neoliberalism’ in the 1980s, these organizations gained a new
privileged role in the implementation of rural or ‘ethno’-development
programmes funded by international development cooperation from the
1990s (Bretón 2008; Martínez 2006; Petras and Veltmeyer 2005). The
incorporation of these organizations into partnerships with development
agencies and NGOs also coincided with the increasing participation of
these organizations in lobbying and electoral politics, as many of the
development programmes explicitly encouraged this as part of building
‘civil society’ and fostering participation (Clark 2017). The emergence of
the food sovereignty discourse in Ecuador itself was due at least in part to
the development cooperation agencies and NGOs that funded the politi-
cal lobbying activities of rural social movements (Bebbington 1997, 124;
Giunta 2014, 1209). This lent the discourse a lack of conceptual clarity,
including an essentialization of the ‘peasantry’ and of ‘indigeneity’, that
could later be exploited by reformist trends within the Correa adminis-
tration. CONAIE and other popular social organizations on the left
founded the new party Pachakutik in 1996, which won 20 per cent of the
popular vote in the 1996 elections and formed governments at the
municipal and provincial level in some parts of Ecuador (Clark 2017).
While the indigenous movement and CONAIE became the ‘core of the
political opposition’ (Van Cott 2005, 100) in the neoliberal period, this
occurred during a period when they were recipients of international
development cooperation, a fact which surely helped them to play a
280 11 Ecuador

greater role in politics, this being a central focus of many of the coopera-
tion projects in this period.
It seems evident that the transformation of the indigenous movement
from a social movement into, firstly, a de facto part of the rural develop-
ment bureaucracy, through the creation of ‘neo-corporatist’ institutions
within the state (Chartock 2013) and, secondly, a political/electoral
movement with the creation of Pachakutik in 1996, had a debilitating
impact on the capacity of CONAIE (Clark 2017). Although the indige-
nous movement in Ecuador made important political advances in the
neoliberal period, this ethnic resurgence occurred alongside processes of
agrarian change within indigenous communities and their local- and
regional-level organizations (Bretón 2008). These changes left grassroots
members of the movements increasingly disaffected with the national
leadership of these movements. As rural social movement federations in
Ecuador became more involved in political lobbying, through the forma-
tion of the Mesa Agraria (a coalition of four peasant/indigenous organiza-
tions), for example, and later in electoral politics in the 1990s, the
relationship between their local grassroots constituents and national lead-
ers deteriorated as these leaderships adopted a more ethnic and peasant
essentialist discourse and programme (Sánchez-Parga 2010). Analysts
have concluded that the creation of Pachakutik and the transformation of
the indigenous movement from a ‘social’ into a ‘political’ one had the
longer-term impact of weakening CONAIE and the unity of the indige-
nous movement (see Martínez Novo 2014; Sánchez-Parga 2010; Zamosc
2007). In fact, it was probably not so much the formal transition from
‘social’ to ‘political’ that was the problem, as the substantive co-optation
that could potentially occur precisely because the leadership elevated an
essentialized ethnic/peasant discourse above a class-based one.
The decline of CONAIE began in January 2000, when the organiza-
tion backed a coup against the administration of Jamil Mahuad, the gov-
ernment that oversaw the dollarization of the Ecuadorian economy in
1999 (Clark 2017). Pachakutik’s support of the leader of the 2000 coup,
Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez, in his subsequent presidential bid in 2003 and
later in their participation in his government, further served to divide and
debilitate Pachakutik and the indigenous movement by eroding the cred-
ibility of both Pachakutik and CONAIE. A weakened and divided
11 Ecuador 281

indigenous movement was the result of this foray into government.

Gutiérrez was subsequently thrown out of office in 2005. The most
important force behind the 2005 coup against Gutiérrez was a group
known as the forajidos, middle-class sectors of Quito (Clark 2017), and
these subsequently became an important political force behind Correa’s
2006 presidential bid. For the first time in more than two decades,
CONAIE was not at the heart of the uprising and of the political opposi-
tion to neoliberalism in Ecuador at the dawning of the Citizen’s
Revolution, a fact that is important in understanding the relationship
between rural social movements and the Correa government. Presciently,
such nationally focused bourgeoisies and petty bourgeois class fractions
could relatively easily co-opt the ‘progressive’ tendency within the food
sovereignty movement through support for small farm productivity
enhancements, whilst emasculating the more ‘radical’ tendency through
social welfare payments as subsistence supplement.
In the period leading up to Correa’s 2006 election, Ecuador’s social
movements presented a powerful challenge to the prevailing neoliberal
paradigm. Correa’s anti-neoliberal, and anti-imperialist campaign, much
like that of Morales in Bolivia, drew centrally on this social unrest, and its
eventual success depended on the support of the country’s social move-
ments. Prior to 2006, the Mesa Agraria signed an agreement with Correa
in which he gave a commitment, upon election, to initiate an ‘agrarian
revolution’ based on the demand of the peasant movement for food sov-
ereignty, a demand centred on the democratization of land and water
access, and upon state resources for the revival and stimulation of the
‘peasant’ economy (Giunta 2014; Henderson 2017). Correa did indeed
fulfil one of his central campaign promises in April 2007 with the convo-
cation of a national constituent assembly. Correa’s political dependence
on the food sovereignty movement in the form of the Mesa Agraria,
enabled the latter to secure the institutionalization of many of its central
demands, specifically, state support for the distribution of land to the
peasant sector, and its complement by affordable credit and state-funded
training. For reasons of legitimacy, the Correa regime was obliged to rec-
ognize these broad demands of food sovereignty and to integrate them,
rhetorically, into its project. It has subsequently become evident, how-
ever, that Correa has been happy to implement some of the reformist
282 11 Ecuador

(‘progressive’) demands of food sovereignty from the sub-hegemonic frac-

tion, whilst failing to deliver on the ‘radical’, or counter-hegemonic,
agenda of land redistribution. This possibility was possible, however, pre-
cisely because of the discursive breadth of, and lack of clarity in, food
sovereignty discourse, enabling Correa differentially to fulfil commit-
ments that accorded with national food sovereignty, and the stimulation
of productivity for expanded accumulation amongst the class fractions of
the upper peasantry.
On 18 February, Ecuador’s new food sovereignty law came into effect,
enshrining in the legal system articles 281 and 282 of the new constitu-
tion. Article 281 states that food sovereignty constitutes a ‘strategic objec-
tive of the state’ to guarantee Ecuador’s self-sufficiency in healthy and
culturally appropriate foods. Article 282 guarantees that the state will
regulate equitable access to land and that the latifundio and the concen-
tration of land are prohibited. With the consolidation of Correa’s power,
however, it has become evident that his rural policies contradict, or at
best only partially enact, the peasant movement’s vision of food sover-
eignty, taken as a whole, as enshrined in the constitution. Henderson
(2017) suggests that, from their apogee in 2006, peasant organizations
have been forced increasingly to use the discourse of food sovereignty as
a defensive political tool in an attempt to prevent the Correa administra-
tion from totally abandoning the food sovereignty movement’s core prin-
ciples. Or perhaps it is truer to suggest that the Polanyian, national
capitalist ‘take’ on food sovereignty was always the position of Correa,
and coincides in important ways with the ‘progressive’, sub-hegemonic,
discourse of upper peasant, petty bourgeois producers, rather than being
a purely neoliberal positionality. Thus, the Correa administration’s own,
implicit, conception of food sovereignty, first, is not founded on the
democratization of Ecuador’s still highly unequal agrarian structure, and,
second, is centred on increasing the productivity and ‘efficiency’ (largely
through agro-chemically and fossil-fuel-based means of production) of
small- and medium-sized farmers as, essentially, capitalist producers.
As in the case of Bolivia, small-scale capitalists and petty commodity
producers are seen to co-exist quite happily alongside the large agro-
exporters, on whom the government relies in no small part for foreign
exchange earnings. Other than the goal of securing greater national food
11 Ecuador 283

security in key wage foods (the key definition of food sovereignty for the
Correa regime, and one which has been met in significant degree through
productivity improvements among smaller producers), the Correa con-
ception of food sovereignty does not accord with the key peasant move-
ment demands of land redistribution, sustainability, and the promotion
of agro-ecological production. As Henderson (2017) indicates, there is
increasing anxiety amongst peasant leaders concerning the government’s
success in consolidating power and legitimacy amongst broad swathes of
the population, including agrarian populations, despite a signal failure to
address the highly unequal distribution of land. This success is due, of
course, to Correa’s emphasis on those elements of food sovereignty dis-
course—improvements to the well-being, productivity, and competitive-
ness of the upper/middle peasantry—that conform to his
neo-developmental model. Meanwhile, the lower peasantry, through
their wage dependency, benefit from enhanced welfare payments through
the ‘compensatory state’, and paid for through the proceeds of neo-
extractivism. In this, as in the Bolivian case, the Correa regime has
encouraged not only agri-food extractivism but, perhaps even more
importantly, mineral and fossil-fuel extractivism, located primarily in the
Oriente, and undertaken increasingly by Chinese capital. Indeed, Chinese
loans have underwritten the Correa ‘compensatory state’, and their repay-
ment requires the current administration to maximize extractivism to
obviate default (Bonilla 2015). Meanwhile, such extractivist activities are
wreaking ecological and social havoc in the Oriente particularly (Arsel
2016), raising profound questions concerning the desirability, and cer-
tainly sustainability, of the neo-extractivist strategy. But the beneficiaries
of neo-extractivist revenue, revenue directed to small farmers as credit
and to semi-proletarians as welfare, are, in the main, spatially distanci-
ated, from its direct ecological and social impacts. The Correa regime has,
through due attention to its legitimacy role through the ‘compensatory
state’, thus cleverly muted opposition from these quarters. At the same
time, opponents of extractivism are derided and denigrated as ‘terrorists’
and enemies of the ‘citizens’ revolution’.
In this way, food security can, according to Correa, be secured through
improved productivity on existing holdings, without the need to expro-
priate and divide large properties (Henderson 2017). The production
284 11 Ecuador

and reproduction strategies of middle and upper peasantry, such as those

characteristic of coastal province smallholders, for example, are signifi-
cantly more dependent on commodity markets than the semi-proletarian
peasants who predominate in the Andes. The latter, typically, seek more
land and institutional support for agro-ecology to bolster subsistence
production, this acting primarily as a wage subsidy for their highly semi-
proletarianized livelihood strategies. Correa’s strategy of improving the
productivity (ratio of labour input to product output) and ‘efficiency’ of
small farmers on the basis of expanded petty commodity production, and
of re-centring the state (‘re-statization’) as the driver of development, rep-
resents a response to the historically neglected demands of the middle/
upper peasantry, a fraction particularly well represented in the coastal
provinces. Unsurprisingly, Correa’s policies receive widespread support
amongst this constituency. By contrast to their Andean, semi-proletarian
counterparts, therefore, who seek more land as a wage subsidy and sub-
sistence guarantee against adversity in the labour market, a labour market
on which their reproductive strategies overwhelmingly depend, the small
commercial farm sector is not concerned with land redistribution.
Through the implementation of rural policy that improves their produc-
tivity and market competitiveness, Correa has gathered considerable sup-
port from the sub-hegemonic small farm commercial sector. As we have
seen, this has helped to legitimize his regime and its national market-
focused policy. By the same token, this policy has served to weaken those
leaders of counter-hegemonic organizations, located principally in the
Andes, who continue to demand structural land reform and the rejection
of market-based ‘solutions’, whether nationally focused or neoliberal in
Since their high point in 2006, when they were able to shape the
national debate and constitution in ways that challenged the neoliberal
model, peasant organizations have been obliged increasingly to adopt
reactive responses to a government that has, in part, institutionalized
their demands, incorporated some of their most influential leaders,
appropriated their discourses and mass bases of organizational support,
and progressively closed off spaces of participation and influence that
these organizations had created and occupied. With demands historically
based on anti-government and anti-neoliberal foundations (the former
11 Ecuador 285

reflecting a characteristically ‘new social movement’ discourse that tends

to reify the ‘state’), the rise of Correa and the neo-developmentalist state,
with ‘re-statization’ a key feature of its governance and anti-neoliberalism
key to its discourse and (in part) policy, has rendered these claims increas-
ingly redundant. With much of their discourse, and key elements of their
policy, at least with respect to the middle/upper peasantry, now appropri-
ated by the Correa administration, many peasant/indigenous organiza-
tions have become emasculated.
Divisions have also opened up between organizational leaderships and
the mass membership, a clever ‘divide and rule’ tactic of Correa’s popu-
lism. Thus, as Henderson (2017) details, FENOCIN’s Andean-dominated
leadership, an advocate of the democratization of land through expro-
priative agrarian reform, has become increasingly, and openly, critical of
Correa’s administration since 2012 due to the government’s rejection, or
stalling, of this policy (despite the incorporation of provisions for redis-
tributive reform into the constitution, the government has sought to raise
insuperable obstacles to implementation by passing these matters to
MAGAP, an administrative bastion of the agro-exporting oligarchy). The
national leadership had by this time, however, already lost the support of
its mass base, the membership being increasingly supportive of Correa.
While much of FENOCIN’s Andean membership supports the propos-
als for land reform, its heavily semi-proletarianized condition implies
that it has frequently been a beneficiary of Correa’s social programmes
and economic policies directed at the precarious labour force, and not
specifically at the rural sector. In this way, Correa, since assuming power,
has instituted free education and healthcare programmes, and the rate of
unemployment has fallen from over 10 per cent in 2006 to under 5 per
cent in 2016, while average monthly wages have increased from USD
322 to USD 478 over the same period (Davalos and Albuja 2014; Clark
2017; Henderson 2017).
These policies and payments have progressively neutralized the
counter-hegemonic tendencies in organizations such as FENOCIN.
Thus, from 2013 onwards, FENOCIN’s discourses and political strate-
gies have changed significantly as it has become once more a vocal sup-
porter of Correa and his ‘Citizens’ Revolution’. Rather than calling for
the radical transformation of Ecuador’s agrarian structure through mass
286 11 Ecuador

expropriation and redistribution as the foundation of a ‘food sovereign’

nation (on its ‘counter-hegemonic’ definition), the organization’s current
leadership uses food sovereignty, according to its reformist and Polanyian
definition, as a political tool to negotiate projects and resources for its
membership from within Correa’s ‘anti-neoliberal’, but national capital-
ist, project, including measures to ‘revitalize’ the productivity of ‘peasant’
agriculture—that is, making the petty bourgeois peasantry more com-
petitive through unsustainable agro-chemical and fossil-fuel-derived
inputs. By re-centring the state, through a process of re-statization, as the
driver of economic and social development, Correa’s project has responded
to a number of key reformist (Polanyian) demands of the peasant organi-
zation’s memberships for protective mechanisms against more globalized
competition in the agri-food sector (together with ancillary welfare mea-
sures for semi-proletarianized peasants), and, in so doing, has weakened
the food sovereignty movement’s more counter-hegemonic demands for
an alternative, anti-capitalist model as articulated by key peasant
It is questionable, however, whether, and for how long, this populist
compact can endure. The fiscal capacity, and therefore the administrative
capacity, through re-statization, of the reformist state is dependent upon
the inherently unsustainable, and time-limited, revenue windfall that
derives from neo-extractivism. Whether through progressive exhaustion
of the resource base (second contradiction) or through a collapse in the
commodity boom as a result of accumulation crisis in China (first contra-
diction), or a combination of both, Ecuador’s model of neo-
developmentalism, like Bolivia’s, is built on shifting sands. When revenues
from extractivism begin to dry up, the short-term consumer boom, the
welfare payments, and the class alliances that go with them, will start to
unravel. At this point, the populist regime and reformist state will
encounter the limits of its legitimacy. And at this point, the counter-
hegemonic movements will regain the force, and the membership unity,
that lay behind their original vision of radical food sovereignty, but one
which now combines ‘post-developmentalism’ with a Marxian analysis of
class (see Tilzey 2016b). In the meantime, it can only be hoped that the
basis for such an agro-ecological future is not irreparably impaired by the
destructive legacy bequeathed by extractivism.
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When comparing Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nepal, there are, despite the
commonalities identified earlier, significant differences between the case
studies: Bolivia and Ecuador have large primary export economies—agri-
culture, oil, minerals, together with a significant nationally focused bour-
geoisie; Nepal has none of these (or if some, then, only in small measure),
and the bourgeoisie has a comprador character, being very heavily influ-
enced by sub-imperial Indian capital; Bolivian and Ecuadorian rural pro-
test was broad-based, non-vanguardist, heavily influenced by indigenous
groups and environmentalism, and therefore quite ‘post-developmental’
in tone; Nepal’s was explicitly Maoist, vanguardist, and classist (led by
educated, and upper-caste, Marxists schooled in the ‘orthodox’, techno-
logically determinist variant of Marxism—see e.g., Bhattarai 2003), with
little reference to a ‘post-developmental’ or an agro-ecological ethos
(although indigenous rights issues have comprised a significant element
in the Maoist uprising). In this, the Maoist movement was heavily and
explicitly influenced by the Maoist Sendero Luminoso movement in Peru
(Nickson 1992). Additionally, capitalist relations of production have
been dominant in Bolivia since the modernizing ‘revolution’ of 1952,
and in Ecuador since the 1960s, while Nepal has never had a comprehen-
sive programme of modernizing, capitalist reform (although piecemeal

© The Author(s) 2018 289

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
290 12 Nepal

attempts, including agrarian reform, were undertaken from the 1960s).

There is little investment in agriculture and much of it has a rentier char-
acter. Little differentiation in ruling class, coalescence of interest in con-
tinued comprador status, and heavy dependence on India and the
imperial powers are characteristic of Nepal’s political economy. Indeed,
significant pre-capitalist and feudal social relations remain in Nepal
(Sugden 2013), and, far from being a mere residue of the past, appear
actually to be reinforced in the current conjuncture as a form of ‘func-
tional dualism’, delivering ‘super-profits’ to those who control labour
power. These feudal social relations, together with the survival of an abso-
lutist monarchy, were amongst the important predisposing factors behind
the Maoist mobilization of the 1990s, a mobilization that was to lead to
the installation of full (representative) democracy in the following decade
and the inclusion of the term ‘food sovereignty’ in Nepal’s new interim
Blaikie et al. (2014, 283) have pointed to the key characteristics of the
political economy of Nepal, forming the essential backdrop to the Maoist

• The pervasive ‘under-developing’ (sub-imperialist) role of Indian capi-

talism and of its agents selling the products of Indian industry, replac-
ing Nepali artisan production, and increasingly dominating the Nepali
merchant and retail sectors;
• The failure of Nepal to sustain development in the manufacturing sec-
tor, and thus to give rise to a significant capitalist, or to a proletarian,
• The weakness of the Nepali state and its inability to transcend its ‘feu-
dal’ origin, mainly because of the absence both of a national bourgeoi-
sie and of a sufficiently influential technocratic reformist cadre in
• The compounding of the incapacity of the state by international ‘aid’,
which has led to fiscal irresponsibility and corruption, delayed political
reform, and which has encouraged a massive growth in the
• The failure of Nepali agriculture, even in the more productive low-
lands of the terai, to show any decisive movement towards investment
12 Nepal 291

in greater production to satisfy national food security needs and, there-

fore, away from semi-feudal forms of production and labour
• The failure of infrastructural interventions to promote significant agri-
cultural development, given the overwhelming array of constraints, for
example, the whole structure of rural economy and society, on agrar-
ian transformation; and
• The importance, at least for certain sections of the rural population, of
employment away from home, and now often abroad, and of remit-
tances as a source of non-farm income, enabling survival and even (for
a minority) improvements in the standard of living.

These characteristics have their essential basis in the late survival of a

feudal state, a puppet state of the British Empire, and in the failure com-
prehensively to transform its legacy due to concerted opposition from
domestic semi-feudal, comprador, and sub-imperial and imperial, inter-
ests. Between the 1960s and the 1990s a variety of movements emerged
in opposition to the feudal monarchical system, but they met with little
success. This was due to the fact that the Nepali monarchy maintained a
vertical structure of kinship and feudal relations all the way down to the
lowest castes. To this day, Nepal’s agrarian society remains essentially
caste-based and hierarchical, structured around the ‘higher’ castes of the
Brahmins (Bahuns) and Chettris, the lower or occupational castes (Dalits),
and ‘indigenous’ peoples (those in occupation of the land before the
imposition of Hindu rule under the absolute monarchy), a number of
whom still suffer discrimination (Adhikari 2009). Gender discrimination
and patriarchy, additionally, remain widespread, with women rarely pos-
sessing land or property. This has led, in turn, to gendered disadvantage
in access to resources, including food, with women and girls most vulner-
able to hunger and malnutrition (FIAN Nepal 2011).
In sustaining these power relations, the monarchy enjoyed the consis-
tent support of India and the USA since they shared a similar agenda—to
prevent the Nepali people from succumbing to the political and ideologi-
cal influence of the Chinese Revolution of 1949, which, as we shall see in
the next chapter, instituted comprehensive agrarian reform from which
the great bulk of the peasantry benefitted (Wolf 1999). In this opposition
292 12 Nepal

to popular movements, the supra-feudal, middle and small feudal, and

comprador feudal classes (the extroverted bourgeoisies) found common
ground with the absolutist monarchy. Finally, however, in the 1990s,
peasant uprisings tilted the balance of power in favour of the comprador
bourgeoisie, which had become increasingly frustrated with feudal con-
straints under conditions of increasing liberalization, and the monarchy
came to accept the division of power, with both interests agreeing to an
elected parliament with a constitutional monarchy (Roka 2011).
These developments coincided, however, with the introduction of neo-
liberal policies, which had the effect of simply reinforcing the existing
structures of discrimination in Nepali society. Pre-existing inequalities in
wealth and land distribution served to deliver up the benefits of neoliber-
alism to the wealthy and the landed due to their privileged access to the
state, and their powerful connections with the Indian sub-imperium and
beyond. Employment generation and industrialization, to the limited
extent that these actually occurred, became collaborative ventures between
the wealthy comprador class and their international allies. In this way, all
national assets and enterprises were privatized, tariffs lowered, trade lib-
eralized, and the financial sector deregulated, and the entire national
economy was integrated into global markets. The major proportion of
trade and industry remained, however, unconnected to, or disarticulated
from, the largest domestic sector, agriculture. Moreover, the social expen-
ditures of the state, such as they were, were reduced still further, the pub-
lic distribution system collapsed, and the accumulation of capital at the
national level concentrated progressively in the hands of the comprador
and landed elite, leading to even greater disparities in wealth between the
dominant and subaltern classes (Blaikie et al. 2014).
The implementation of a second phase of neoliberal reforms after 1992
generated even greater inequalities. Agriculture was particularly hard hit
by neoliberal policies and cuts in subsidies. This sector still employs 75
per cent of the workforce aged above 15, which means that farming is the
main source of livelihood for some 85 per cent of the population (Seddon
et al. 1998). But the contribution of agriculture to GDP declined from
60 per cent in 1984 to only 32 per cent in 2008. From being a net
exporter of agricultural produce in the 1960s, Nepal’s food security is
now structurally reliant on food imports, a trend that neoliberalism
12 Nepal 293

massively reinforced. Access to land is also precarious for the majority:

while 24 per cent of households own no land at all, 45 per cent of house-
holds own less than half a hectare of land, accounting for only 11 per cent
of the cultivable area of Nepal (Roka 2011). This means that some 70 per
cent of the rural population have no, or insufficient, access to land, can-
not produce sufficient food to meet their own family requirements, and
are therefore obliged to sell their labour power to others, landlords1 or
comprador capitalists, to make ends meet. The majority of rural inhabit-
ants are, therefore, semi-proletarians. There is, therefore, an obvious
inverse relationship between farm size and poverty, and an obvious route
to poverty reduction, of which food security is a key component, lies
through land redistribution, since only 30 per cent of the rural popula-
tion own 89 per cent of the land, of which 48 per cent is owned by only
13 per cent of the population (Upreti et al. 2008).
Neoliberal reforms coincided with the introduction of new democratic
rights for the Nepali people, rights that served only to highlight the dis-
parity between the adoption of democracy in the ‘political’ sphere and
the continuation of gross inequality in the ‘economic’ sphere. This dis-
parity heightened the political acuity of the Nepali people and they began
to demand a restructuring of the state and the social-property relations
that it upheld. The ruling elites, however, had no intention of restructur-
ing the state or social-property relations, but neither, on the other hand,
were they able to placate the people (Karki and Seddon 2003). The legiti-
macy of the monarchy and the ruling classes fell to such a low ebb that
political opposition began to turn in radical directions. Consequently, in
1996, the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN Maoist) declared a People’s
War against the existing regime. The armed struggle, conducted by the
People’s Liberation Army (PLA), rapidly became popular amongst
younger people, the deprived, the landless and land-poor, and those dis-
criminated against on the basis of caste, religion, gender, and ethnicity/
region (Adhikari 2014; Roka 2011). Within six years, the People’s War
had consumed much of the country, and the government lost the capacity
to govern in some 80 per cent of Nepal (Karki and Seddon 2003). The
monarchy attempted to re-assert its old absolute power, but this uncon-
stitutional move pushed the largest party of the bourgeoisie, the Nepali
Congress Party (NC), to split, with one faction of it joining with other
294 12 Nepal

parties in the Seven Political Party Alliance (SPA) which, in turn, allied
with the CPN (Maoist). Finally, in 2006, the old regime was deposed.
The Maoists articulated a political platform against neoliberalism,
individualism, the accumulation of super-profits by the elites and their
international corporate allies. It stood against the unequal distribution of
wealth, and all forms of social, political, economic, cultural, linguistic,
and regional discrimination, and sought comprehensive land reform,
with ‘land to the tiller’. The Maoists sought land redistribution without
compensation and the confiscation of land in the case of absentee land-
lordism. They also sought the free and fair election of a Constituent
Assembly, the elimination of all remnants of feudal relations, federaliza-
tion of the state, and popular participation in all levels of state institu-
tions (Karki and Seddon 2003).
Despite its undoubted wide popular base of support, the Maoist mobi-
lization was, however, an explicitly class-based and vanguardist move-
ment, led, typically, by newly educated, upper-caste, local elites frustrated
by lack of opportunities for advancement in a system ossified by an abso-
lute monarchy, and by an absence of democracy (Nickson 1992). The
Maoists deployed a discourse essentially of democratic modernism, not
of ‘post-developmentalism’ as in Bolivia and Ecuador, with an absence of
concern for issues of agro-ecology and ecological sustainability. ‘Food
sovereignty’, a term not really understood, and adopted uncritically at the
time of the 2009 Interim Constitution (Adhikari pers. comm), essentially
meant national food security, supported by the rather vague notion of
‘scientific agriculture’, implicitly comprising modern, intensive, produc-
tivist farming practices. Indeed, the Maoists’ proposals for change were
remarkably similar to the ‘developmentalism’ proposed by the Latin
American ‘structuralist’ school, comprising in essence a model of ‘sectoral
and social articulation’ in which capitalism was seen as a necessary pre-
cursor to socialism. Although extensive land reform was envisaged, with
‘land to the tiller’, the Maoists’ programme was, in essence, one of social
democratic capitalism (Bhattarai 2003).
So, Maoism is a discourse generated by the survival of semi-feudal rela-
tions of production, an absolutist monarchy, and consequently inade-
quate channels through which a growing stratum of educated local elites
could realize its political ambitions. In a sense, this stratum utilized the
12 Nepal 295

well-founded grievances of the ‘peasantry’ and landless to achieve its own

ends—that of political representation and power. Once (representative)
democracy was secured in 2007 and the interests of the cadre of Maoists
relatively satisfied politically, the aims of Maoism could be easily sub-
verted by the capitalist reformism of the Nepali Congress Party, an advo-
cate of an explicitly social democratic programme. Indeed, the
commitment to ‘political’ democracy, without addressing ‘economic’
democracy through transformed relations of production, meant that the
continuation of multiparty politics could easily derail the Maoists’ pro-
gramme of ‘radical’ change. Despite the Maoists’ success in the parlia-
mentary elections of 2008, the abolition of the monarchy, and the
declaration of a federal republic, the other parties, principally the NC but
also the CPN(UML) (representing the landlords, comprador bourgeoi-
sie, and the small commercial farmers), successfully frustrated the restruc-
turing of the state and social-property relations envisaged by supporters
of the People’s War. In this programme of obstruction, the opposition
parties received ready financial and ideological support from India and
the USA.  The consequence is that, today, the higher classes still retain
power over the bulk of the means of production and the contradictions
that gave rise to the People’s War remain unresolved.
Indeed, the structural contradictions of rural Nepal that the Maoists
purported to articulate, most particularly poverty, exploitation, and
highly unequal access to land, have only deepened since 2007. These
contradictions have been compounded by declining yields, soil erosion,
chronic lack of investment in farming, lack of national food security (let
alone sovereignty), and by an almost complete absence of land reform.2
The least advantaged often live in the most fragile environments, at risk
of floods, landslides and soil erosion, drought, all exacerbated by the
growing impacts of climate change, and reinforced by political marginal-
ization and exploitation by the entrenched upper castes (Wickeri 2011).
Opponents of land redistribution often point to the shortage of cultiva-
ble land available for this purpose, but ignore the potential of agro-
ecology and agro-forestry systems to make available for food production
an additional 20 per cent of Nepal’s land surface (Adhikari. 2016. Personal
Communication, Kathmandu, October). Thus, the transformation
envisaged around a new agrarian future that was central to the Maoist
296 12 Nepal

movement in Nepal, particularly in respect of comprehensive land reform

in favour of the peasantry, has now been all but forgotten (Sugden. 2016.
Personal Communication, Kathmandu, October). In short, there has been
a signal failure to make any progress at all towards that nebulous (as far as
the vast majority of Nepalis are concerned) notion of food sovereignty.
The agrarian question of the peasantry and food sovereignty in Nepal
remains, therefore, completely unresolved. The New Constitution of
2015 re-affirms the provision for food sovereignty, but this remains an
empty commitment so long as there is no forward movement on the
transformation of the agrarian social-property relations upon which such
sovereignty needs to be premised.
While the fundamental questions surrounding the agrarian question
remain unresolved, the peasantry and landless, meanwhile, are obliged
to devise livelihood survival strategies as best they can. In many instances,
this has taken the form of the remittance economy, seasonal migration
abroad to Malaysia, the Gulf States, South Korea, and India to work on
construction sites, industry, or in agriculture. Some 25 per cent of
Nepali GDP now derives from remittances from overseas work
(Adhikari. 2016. Personal Communication, Kathmandu, October).
These remittances are not necessarily re-invested in agriculture, how-
ever, and they may in fact fund relocation of the family to the nearest
urban centre, where, typically, the female head of household becomes a
stallholder in the burgeoning informal sector. Farmland is thus aban-
doned, further compromising domestic food production and reinforc-
ing market dependence. Additionally, farmland around urban centres is
increasingly purchased by the comprador classes for speculative pur-
poses, anticipating the rise in its value as urban areas expand into the
rural hinterland. The trend towards the remittance economy has been
encouraged by successive Nepali governments as a means of relieving
pressure for internal reform, whilst enabling semi-proletarians to eke
out livings from their tiny plots of land, or in peri-urban areas, by means
of the remittance supplement. The remittance economy, together with
the country’s heavy dependency on international aid, has enabled the
Nepali state to do little or nothing to address the underlying causes of
crisis, social and ecological, that derive from the unresolved agrarian
12 Nepal 297

question. These twin crises will surely engulf the country as the remit-
tance economy falters, however, and the contradictions are again ‘inter-
nalized’ within the bounds of the state. Thrown back on its own
resources, it is at this point that Nepali state (as the social relational
condensation of class interests) will again need to confront the agrarian
question, either of its own volition, or through compulsion as the out-
come of renewed social upheaval.
The agrarian question has not therefore gone away, let alone been
resolved. In Nepal, the complete lack of commitment by the rentier state
and its comprador class backers to any form of national or balanced
development, and the lack of any ‘compensatory state’, has led to a dan-
gerous structural dependence on the remittance economy and upon
donor largesse through international ‘aid’. The latter has led to a plethora
of INGOs in the country, each, however well-intentioned, engaging in
short-term, project-focused, symptom management. These organizations
facilitate, however unintentionally, the neoliberal ‘de-statization’ of pol-
icy, attempting to stabilize the livelihoods of the marginalized and,
thereby, defusing potential (re)-mobilizations by the latter against the sta-
tus quo. These organizations thus serve, perhaps unwittingly, an impor-
tant legitimation function for the peripheral, neoliberal state, while
failing, at the same time, to confront the dominant mode of accumula-
tion. This latter, through sub-imperially prevalent comprador and rentier
capitalism, continues to act as the primary constraint on a peasant-based
resolution to the agrarian question. As a consequence, these organizations
and their international sources of funding have simply deflected or post-
poned the continuing and deepening contradictions, social and ecologi-
cal, that afflict the country. The need for a resolution of the agrarian
question in favour of subaltern groups, the middle/lower peasantries, and
landless, is now greater than ever. The experience of Nepal, like that of
Bolivia and Ecuador, suggests that new counter-hegemonic mobilizations
need to sustain their autonomy in order to avoid co-optation by reformist
capitalism, whilst engaging the ‘state’, and need to foment profound
social relational transformation away from market dependence and the
capitalist alienation of land, towards what I have referred to as livelihood
298 12 Nepal

1. Typically, the landless and land-poor are subject to patron-client, or semi-
feudal, relations with landlords, in which they sharecrop the land of the
latter (often absentee), taking a proportion of the harvest as the basis for
subsistence for a few months of the year.
2. Attempts to redistribute land through reforms, the Land Reform Acts of
1964 and 2001, have largely failed (Wily 2008), in part because the NC
and CPN(UML) parties advocate financial compensation for land subject
to reform, rendering the programme financially unaffordable.

Adhikari, J.  2009. Foreign Labour Migration, Remittance and Development: A
Case of Nepal. International Conference on Migration, Remittances and
Development Nexus in South Asia, Colombo, May 4–5, 2009.
Adhikari, J. 2014. Under the Shadow of the Red Flag: Travels During Nepal’s
Armed Conflict. Kathmandu: Martin Chautari.
Bhattarai, B.R. 2003. The Political Economy of the People’s War. In The People’s
War in Nepal: Left Perspectives, ed. A. Karki and D. Seddon, 117–164. New
Delhi: Adroit Publishers.
Blaikie, P., C.  Cameron, and D.  Seddon. 2014. Nepal in Crisis: Growth and
Stagnation at the Periphery. New Delhi: Adroit Publishers.
FIAN Nepal. 2011. Parallel Report The Right to Adequate Food of Women in
Nepal. Combined Fourth and Fifth Periodic Report of States Parties  –
Submitted to CEDAW’s 49th Session, FIAN Nepal.
Karki, A., and D. Seddon, eds. 2003. The People’s War in Nepal: Left Perspectives.
New Delhi: Adroit Publishers.
Nickson, A. 1992. Democratisation and the Growth of Communism in Nepal:
A Peruvian Scenario in the Making? Journal of Commonwealth and
Comparative Politics 30 (3): 358–386.
Roka, H. 2011. The National Question and the Unfinished Revolution in
Nepal. In Reclaiming the Nation: The Return of the National Question in Africa,
Asia, and Latin America, ed. S. Moyo and P. Yeros, 172–190. London: Pluto
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Seddon, D., G. Gurung, and J. Adhikari. 1998. Foreign Labour Migration and
the Remittance Economy of Nepal. Himalaya, the Journal of the Association
for Nepal and Himalayan Studies 18: 2, Article 7.
Sugden, F. 2013. Pre-capitalist Reproduction on the Nepal Tarai: Semi- Feudal
Agriculture in an Era of Globalisation. Journal of Contemporary Asia 43 (3):
Upreti, B.R., S. Sharma, and J. Basnet. 2008. Land Politics and Conflict in Nepal
Realities and Potentials for Agrarian Transformation. Community Self Reliance
Centre (CSRC), South Asia Regional Coordination Office of NCCR (North
South), Human and Natural Resources Studies Centre (HNRSC),
Kathmandu University.
Wickeri, E. 2011. Land Is Life, Land Is Power: Landlessness, Exclusion and
Deprivation in Nepal. Fordham International Journal 34: 930–1041.
Wily, L.A. 2008. Land Reform in Nepal: Where Is It Coming from and Where Is It
Going? Kathmandu: DFID Nepal.
Wolf, E. 1999. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Norman: University of
Oklahoma Press.

The case of China again reminds us of the importance of the state–capital

nexus as possessing its own raison d’etat and, therefore, as existing as a
meaningful unit of analysis, when contextualized within the dynamics of
wider capitalist core-periphery relations. A key impulse underlying
China’s industrial development and ‘modernization’ since 1949 has, then,
been the desire to stand up to, and compete on equal terms with, the
states of the imperium. China’s ‘development’ has less to do with any
abstract process of capitalist universalization than with a fully agentful
and ‘politically’ inspired process of ‘competitive emulation’ such as we
saw in the cases of France and Germany during the nineteenth century.
The desire to erase the shameful memory of being a defeated semi-colony
of the imperium, such as it was during the nineteenth and first half of the
twentieth centuries, together with the anxiety of lagging behind as a
‘backward’ peasant economy, propelled the drive for modernization
(Wolf 1999). Although established as a communist state in 1949, social-
ism was not an exclusive imperative for the new regime. Even before the
final victory, the new government had initially opted to direct China’s
development towards ‘national capitalism’ under the leadership and tute-
lage of the state. Despite the immense and unprecedented achievement of
the peasant’s revolution, that itself gave the lie to the supposed necessity

© The Author(s) 2018 301

M. Tilzey, Political Ecology, Food Regimes, and Food Sovereignty,
302 13 China

of a proletarian foundation for communism, the new regime then seemed

to do its best to subvert this achievement of the peasantry by opting for
industrialization according to the Soviet model.
Thus, in order to sustain modernization as industrialization, China
was obliged to have recourse to a strategy common to other ‘late develop-
ing’ states. In contrast to members of the established imperium which, as
we have seen, were able to extract resources and surpluses from the colo-
nies and to externalize institutional costs by transferring them to the
periphery, the new industrializing states were obliged to pursue a kind of
‘internal colonialism’, or self-exploitation, by extracting resources or sur-
pluses from less-privileged domestic sectors, and the rural sector, in par-
ticular (Wong and Sit 2015). Thus, the process of rural collectivization
(the People’s Commune), a process that threatened to undo the achieve-
ment of the peasant’s revolution, was less an ideological manoeuvre than
an institutional strategy designed systematically to extract rural surplus at
a lower transaction cost to feed the process of industrialization. The state
thus controlled all surplus value produced by both rural and urban labour.
The central government thereby allocated resources to expand heavy-
industry-based production. China thus pursued a programme of indus-
trialization that was undertaken, in contrast to the imperium, without
recourse to surplus extraction from an external periphery. This consti-
tuted an immense challenge and comprised, before the reform of 1978,
the following strategy: (1) the extraction of surplus value from the rural
sector through low purchasing price of agricultural products and high
pricing of industrial products; (2) the forced modernization of agricul-
ture, through mechanization and the adoption of agro-chemicals, in
order to absorb domestic industrial products through rural collectiviza-
tion; (3) the mobilization of intensive and massive labour input to substi-
tute for capital under conditions of extreme capital scarcity; and (4) the
attempt by the state, when confronted by economic crises, to ride them
out by transferring the now redundant labour force to the rural sector
(Day 2012; Wen et al. 2012).
The exploitation of the rural was rationalized, as had been the case in
the Soviet Union, in terms of the imperative to build a modern China
sufficiently strong to counter the imperium. This is, without doubt, a real
dilemma for states attempting to build socialism, since the imperium will
13 China 303

not shrink from using the smallest excuse to undermine and discredit
alternatives to capitalism. Industrialization, in other words, was regarded
by China as a vital means of securing independence from, and safeguard-
ing sovereignty against, the states of the imperium. Viewed in this light,
the later ‘open door’ policy to the West, rather than representing a rup-
ture with earlier developmentalism, represents a continuation of it. So
long as the aim of development was rapid industrialization, the state
could utilize one of two options: collectivization or the introduction of
foreign capital. As a consequence, it is possible to understand why, once
the shift in geopolitics and imperial capital accumulation proved condu-
cive, China then opened its door to the global North, first by permitting
access to its labour resources, and subsequently to its domestic market
(Wong and Sit 2015).
Despite its exploitation in the cause of ‘development’, the Chinese
peasantry was still willing to support industrialization, at least in part
because the Communist Party of China (CPC) had carried through com-
prehensive and egalitarian land reform (1949–52). The CPC used the
traditional slogan ‘land to the tiller’ in order to mobilize hundreds of
thousands of peasants to fight for land revolution and the national libera-
tion movement. When the CPC came to power in 1949, the party imple-
mented thoroughgoing land reform, from which some 85 per cent of
peasants benefitted. Each peasant household was awarded, and most still
today occupy, a small parcel of arable land. The per capita arable land was
0.11 hectare in 2008 (Wong and Sit 2015), such that, throughout China,
some 900 million small landholders have access to land, however limited.
China is thus able to feed 19 per cent of the world’s population with only
8 per cent of its arable land. Land distributed to the peasantry is utilized
primarily for food production to maintain self-sufficiency. Each peasant
household has an arable plot, which is ultimately under the direction of
the village committee. In terms of legal entitlement, arable land is col-
lectively owned by a rural community and distributed within the village
according to the size of the household and other factors. It is a form of
collective ownership, in which the majority of the population of China
comprises landholding peasants.
Because of such access to land, the majority of workers in China’s
industries are in effect semi-proletarians, rather than landless proletarians
304 13 China

(Day 2012). They retain their own parcels of land for subsistence, a vital
legacy of the 1949 Revolution, and this has served to insulate the Chinese
workforce from the worst depredations of neoliberalism. By the same
token, however, and as we have seen, partial access to land also effectively
subsidizes super-exploitation of the industrial workforce, and it is indeed
the widespread distribution of land in China and the indirect subsidy it
affords, that, perhaps ironically, has made China such a favoured location
for industrial investment since the ‘open door’ policy. Indeed, after 1993,
the development of rural enterprises, which might have represented an
alternative to urban migration, was deliberately curbed in order to stimu-
late export-oriented growth. This constraint on rural development led to
a massive flow of migrant workers from rural areas to the cities, these
workers comprising, in the main, the surplus labour force from those
rural households in possession of a small arable plot. As a result of the
subsidy from land and family, these migrant workers could be forced to
endure irregularly paid wages, to accept employment without social ben-
efits, and consciously to suppress consumption in awaiting their yearly
paid cash income. Thus, China’s egalitarian and collective distribution of
rural land has, paradoxically, underwritten the country’s systematic
industrialization founded on its ‘comparative advantage’ in low labour
power costs (Wen et al. 2012). In this way, the rural sector has absorbed
the social costs of the reproduction of labour power that capital has
sought to externalize, thereby underwriting the latter’s enhanced
If the first is primarily an accumulation function, the second impor-
tant function of the rural sector is one of legitimacy, that is, serving essen-
tially as a buffer to absorb the institutional costs of the urban sector
expressed in terms of high unemployment during periods of economic
downturn. Thus, while the urban sector has been subject, particularly
since 1993, to the vicissitudes of international investment and consumer
demand, and therefore to cyclical unemployment, the rural sector has the
capacity to regulate the labour market by re-absorbing migrant workers
from the cities in times of economic crisis. The latter’s stabilizing capacity
lies in the system of rural land community ownership, a system that
remains, despite adverse pressures, largely intact to this day. Nonetheless,
an increasing number of peasants are losing their land, wholly or partially,
13 China 305

with this number currently in the region of 60 million (Wong and Sit
2015). Land expropriation is propelled by local governments and specu-
lative finance capital. Local governments’ fiscal constraint has been a
major cause of extensive and large-scale land expropriation. Periodic eco-
nomic crises, and resulting fiscal deficits, have prompted the central gov-
ernment to adopt a policy of decentralization of the tax and revenue
system, whereby local governments have become dependent on raising
local revenues. Beginning in 1984, local governments appropriated farm-
lands for local industrialization in order to increase their revenue stream.
In the year following the adoption of China’s ‘open door’ policy, 1994, an
increased amount of revenue (from 30 per cent to 50 per cent) has passed
to central government and, in order to compensate for this drop in
income, local governments have appropriated farmland to invest in com-
mercial projects.
In 2003, the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Land Contract
in Rural Areas was promulgated, stating that new inhabitants would now
obtain contracted land only if there was land reserved, if there was an
increase in available land through reclamation, or if land was ‘turned
back’ by other contractors (Wong and Sit 2015). This appears to repre-
sent the beginnings of the loss of the universal heritable right to land,
secured by the Revolution, and the beginnings of land privatization and
speculation. A likely consequence of this legislation is the exclusion of
those born since 2003 from being beneficiaries of land distribution. Once
arable land is no longer evenly distributed, and the peasantry no longer
has an expectation to share in the benefits of land, the mechanisms of risk
management through its internalization in the rural community is likely
to become considerably weakened. This represents the beginnings of the
dissolution of the vital legitimacy role of rural areas in mitigating the
contradictions of industrialization. Moreover, it begins to erode the sub-
sidy that the rural migrant workforce has hitherto offered to Chinese
industry, thereby potentially compromising its high rate of capital
Indeed, it is anticipated that the new generation of the rural popula-
tion will radically dislocate themselves from agriculture and rural regions.
Today, there are some 200 million peasant migrant workers in the cities
but, unlike the former generations of migrant workers, they are losing the
306 13 China

opportunity to return to the countryside either voluntarily or when

obliged to do so by economic downturn (Day 2012). They are, in other
words, becoming fully proletarianized. This brings with it contradictions
for Chinese capitalism. With the rural no longer subsidizing the cost of
labour, wage demands will increase, and China faces the prospect of los-
ing its ‘comparative advantage’ in low labour power costs. This would
potentially entail the migration of industry overseas to still cheaper areas
of production such as Vietnam and Bangladesh, the suppression of wage
demands, or the increased replacement of labour through mechanization.
China thus confronts the ‘political’, or first, contradiction, of attempting
to sustain high rates of growth in the face of rising labour costs, due to
increasing full proletarianization of its labour force, and in the face of
stagnating global demand, due to over-production/under-consumption
crisis. Meanwhile, it attempts to maintain downward pressure on costs of
production through the increasing import of energy, minerals, and indeed
food, as ‘cheaps’, from overseas, undertaken by means of extractivism and
‘land grabbing’. Through increasing political resistance in the zones of
extractivism, through the inevitable secular depletion of resources, and
through the unavoidable need to address unsustainable levels of pollution
at home,1 rising costs will constitute an ecological, or second, contradic-
tion for Chinese capital accumulation.
In respect of the latter, and specifically with regard to access to oil, it
needs to be appreciated that this hydrocarbon is now a fundamental and
vital input in Chinese manufacturing and construction. Whilst 25 years
ago, China was the major oil exporter to all of East Asia (Ricaurte 2012),
today it is a major oil importer, lying in second place globally behind the
USA. The growing scarcity of this ‘cheap’ has already occasioned closures
and paralysis of giant industrial complexes, in addition to the rise in the
price of Chinese products that are consumed the world over (Bonilla
2015). Looming scarcity has stimulated China to seek access and control
of petroleum resources on a global scale, bringing it, of course, into
increasing competition with the other major centres of manufacturing
and consumption, principally the states of the imperium (and this despite
the fact that these same states are highly dependent on the Chinese for
the production of imported, lower-end, manufactures). In order to gain
such strategic access to, and control of, petroleum supplies, China has
13 China 307

created three huge multinationals: the China National Offshore Oil

Corporation (CNOOC), the China National Petroleum Corporation
(CNPC), and the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation
(SINOPEC). The latter two companies are now heavily involved in oil
exploration and production in Ecuador and Peru, for example, under-
writing the neo-extractivism that characterizes the economies of those
states. Exploration and production are concentrated in the Amazonian
lowlands, commonly on the lands of indigenous, tribal peoples, and in
areas of extremely high biodiversity, supposedly afforded protection from
exploitation for both these cultural and ecological reasons. Such notional
protections have been overridden, of course, in the quest for oil, that vital
and irreplaceable energetic ingredient of capital accumulation. Despite
increasing levels of conflict with indigenous groups and high levels of
ecological despoliation, the quest is awarded relative immunity by those
neo-extractivist states, their interests aligning symbiotically with those of
Chinese capital accumulation.
As elsewhere in the global South, the contradictions of China’s rural
areas, contradictions generated by its policy of industrialization, cannot
be resolved by that same industrialization. Further industrialization,
either in industry or in agriculture, is both a ‘political’ and an ‘ecological’
impossibility over the longer term. Although by 2012 the rate of urban-
ization in China had surpassed 50 per cent, some 600 million people still
live in rural areas (Wong and Sit 2015). Even were it possible to feed that
number of people through the mechanization of agriculture, discounting
the ecological costs of so doing, the surplus labour force thereby ‘liber-
ated’ from farming, numbering perhaps 200 or 300 million, could not be
absorbed by the expansion of industry both for the ‘political’ and ‘eco-
logical’ reasons identified above. In other words, peasant agriculture
remains an indispensable mode of production in China given that the
agrarian question, whether posed ‘politically’ or ‘ecologically’, cannot be
resolved in favour of industry.
There is now an increasing intra-capitalist competition between indus-
trial and financial capitals in China, comprising a conflict in ‘develop-
ment’ strategies (Wen et al. 2012; Katz 2015) between ‘developmentalists’,
on the one hand, and neoliberals, on the other. From 1993, China based
its industrialization model on external investment from the global North,
308 13 China

as a substitute for the internal transfer of surplus from rural areas, allied
to an export-orientated strategy, again to the North, premised upon its
‘comparative advantage’ in cheap labour. Here, the new ‘open’ relation-
ship with the USA has been key: China could now gain access to the US
market for its exports while the US bourgeoisie would have cheap, skilled,
and disciplined Chinese labour at its disposal. Under this new arrange-
ment, Chinese exports had risen to 95 per cent of overall production by
2005 (Bonilla 2015), representing a crucial subsidy to the downward
pressure on wages in the USA. China’s enormous accumulation of foreign
currency reserves under this strategy, has also been crucial in staving off
the potentially terminal impacts of the financial crisis for neoliberalism in
the global North. Thus, China’s support for the US dollar and the euro at
the height of the crisis prevented the 2009 recession from transforming
into a global depression. Financial aid from China was decisive in the
initial rescue of US mortgage institutions, the subsequent support of
bonds and treasuries, and the recent propping up of the euro (Katz 2015).
Such support was not entirely altruistic, however, but served, rather, to
bolster the interests of Chinese export-oriented capital. Thus, these finan-
cial bailouts secured the continuity of its exports and helped to avoid the
devaluation of the huge quantity of assets amassed by China in the form
of foreign currency.
But the contradictions identified above, particularly the ‘political’ one
of excess global capacity, fierce international competition, and therefore
declining profitability, mean that finance capital, largely comprising
state-owned monopoly capital, is in the ascendant. This threatened
financialization of the Chinese economy may see the marginalization of
the industrial sector, just as industrialization had earlier subordinated the
rural sector to its own demands. The prospect of Chinese state-owned
finance capital speculating in the global marketplace must surely
represent the ultimate betrayal of the ideals of the 1949 Revolution, but
is perhaps a predictable outcome when state aggrandizement is elevated
above social equality and ecological sustainability. This neoliberal, finan-
cializing fraction seeks further to integrate China into global capital cir-
cuits, with greater external trade commitments, and new acquisitions of
European and US assets. Nonetheless, the 2008 financial crisis has also
generated a modest ‘double movement’ by the state, both to reduce
13 China 309

dependence on the export of basic manufactured goods and to expand

the internal market. Consequently, internal consumption has grown
slightly, wages have increased marginally, and there has been a small
decline in the percentage of production destined for export (Katz 2015).
This modest strategy of ‘neo-developmentalism’ encounters a major con-
straint, however. That is, an economy structured around extremely high
returns on foreign trade cannot be re-orientated to domestic consump-
tion without compromising its global competitive edge, one premised
on cheap labour. This directional dilemma is expressed in the ongoing
fractional contestation between neoliberal financializers, based primarily
in the coastal export zones, and advocates of ‘state capitalism’ or ‘neo-
developmentalism’, comprising in the main state elites located in the
interior of the country.
Meanwhile, with the increase in political and ecological contradictions
in the countryside, the former stemming particularly from the gradual
dismantling of egalitarian entitlements to land and the slowing rate of
labour absorption in the cities, the government has, since 2003, embarked
upon a series of investments to dampen down potential unrest in the
rural sector. In this way, a series of ‘pro-poor’ policies has been imple-
mented, including the elimination of agricultural tax, comprehensive aid
to agriculture, the cooperative medical service system, the cancellation of
educational fees in poor western regions, a substantial increase in govern-
ment investment in public services, and new rural finance services (Wong
and Sit 2015). In October 2005, the Chinese government highlighted
the ‘new rural development’ as a national strategy, while the Central
Government’s No.1 Document, issued in February 2006, determined
that ‘the building of a new socialist countryside’ should be ‘characterized
by enhanced productivity, higher living standards, healthy rural culture,
neat and clean villages, and democratic administration’. Inter alia, central
government investment in domestic grain production has been a top
priority, representing more than half of rural investment in 2010 in the
wake of the global food crisis.
Rural investment over the last decade has enabled China to help defuse
rural tensions in the face of external crises, particularly that of the 2008
global financial crisis. Thus, some 20 million peasant workers lost their
jobs in the coastal areas in 2008, a sudden upsurge in unemployment that
310 13 China

might have led to considerable political unrest in countries where alterna-

tive sources of income or subsistence were lacking. In China, however, no
major social unrest occurred because the peasant workers in question
were still able to return to their home villages to sit out the period of
temporary unemployment (Yeh et al. 2013). Continuing access to land,
albeit only to a small plot, to a house, and to a family for support, afforded
an essential safety net under conditions of great job insecurity and unem-
ployment. The government is keenly aware of the importance of this
‘base of social security’ and political release valve under conditions of
increasing precarity. Nonetheless, the basis of widespread and egalitarian
access to land continues to erode through a process of gradually encroach-
ing land speculation and creeping privatization, with local governments,
in contrast to central government, frequently instigating and supporting
this trend. The central government, despite its generous rural invest-
ments, is, however, interested primarily in symptom management, in
dampening down, rather than resolving, tensions and contradictions,
political and ecological, arising from its own overarching policies of con-
tinued industrialization, financialization, and state aggrandizement.
China is fortunate, however, in having a strong rural reconstruction
movement that seeks to define an alternative path to the socially and eco-
logically corrosive impacts of developmentalism and capitalism. This is a
politically reflexive response (O’Brien and Li 2006) to the political and
ecological contradictions of capitalism for the peasantry of China, a move-
ment that is acting to address these contradictions well in advance of the
epochal convulsions that will eventually engulf that destructive model. In
this alternative path, the re-affirmation of the legacy of the 1949 land
revolution, which abolished private property and enabled equal access to
land for the great majority of small peasants, is of the utmost impor-
tance (Yan 2008, 2017). Social egalitarianism is now conjoined, in the
current conjuncture, to ecological sustainability in the practice of organic
farming and agro-ecology. One such example is the Yongji Peasants’
Association of Shanxi Province. It now has 3865 members from 35 vil-
lages in two counties, with six technological service centres, a handicrafts
cooperative, and an ecological agriculture zone (Wong and Sit 2015).
Here, by devoting labour to social redistribution rather than to capital
accumulation, peasant members can take pleasure in helping others as
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1. The ecological devastation in China is cataclysmic: water and air pollution
is constantly at harmful levels. Of the world’s 20 most air-polluted cities,
16 are Chinese, with a population of 400 million living under daily threat.
Sixty per cent of the country’s rivers were too polluted to be sources of
drinking water in 2006, pollution deriving from industrial and municipal
sources, and from pesticides and fertilizers (SEPA 2006). Water shortage
affects 400 out of 600 surveyed Chinese cities. While grain production
has been increasing in recent years, the use of chemical fertilizers has
increased from around 1 million tonnes in 1979 to around –5.5 million
tonnes in 2009. Industrial agriculture has become the largest source of
water and soil pollution in China.

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Part 4
Resilience as Counter-Hegemony
‘Understanding the World in Order
to Change It’: What Might Food
Sovereignty Look Like? Or, a Normative
Political Ecology as Livelihood

This chapter brings this book to a conclusion by attempting to outline a

normative political ecology, or a political ecology of praxis, the integra-
tion of the political and ecological lessons and principles drawn from the
preceding chapters into a programme of counter-hegemonic transforma-
tion—the great socio-ecological transformation of the twenty-first cen-
tury. This concluding chapter aligns with one of the three main
commitments that Bridge et al. (2015, 8) suggest are defining character-
istics of political ecology: that is, a normative political commitment to
social justice and structural political change. Thus, ‘political ecology is an
explicitly normative intellectual project, which has from its beginning
highlighted the struggles, interests, and plight of marginalized popula-
tions: peasants, indigenous peoples, ethnic…minorities, women, the
poor…Political ecologists thus seek not just to explain social and envi-
ronmental processes, but to construct an alternative understanding of
them, with an orientation towards social justice and radical politics’.
The first part of the chapter explores at greater length the political and
ecological principles that might, or might need to, undergird a counter-
hegemonic society premised on food sovereignty—or, as I will suggest
here, a society premised on the more integral concept of livelihood sover-