Scramble for land: paths of resistance

This is the second of two linked posts, by Steve Drury. The first one is HERE.

To think about resistance to “land grabbing” and the way to develop socialist thinking on land, it is worth considering historical analogies. The twenty-first century global land rush by capital brings to mind the crushing of the British peasantry, from medieval times to the nineteenth century, by Enclosure of the common land on which they largely depended for subsistence.

The March for Justice, for land rights in India

Moreover, land speculation creates the conditions for stepping back to the worst form of feudal serfdom, where former small peasants lose what tenancy to land they once had, work exclusively for the new landlord and survive at that landlord’s whim. Such semi-slavery is the source of the highest possible rate of profit from agriculture apart from fully-fledged slavery.

With the modern emphasis on mechanised agriculture, another analogy is the Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in Scotland and Ireland especially, that simply expelled entire populations in the interests of agricultural “improvements”, replacing people by hardy and profitable sheep.

Land grabbing took on its present form as a financial investment device, most cruelly in the US mid-west in the 1930s. Long before that, in the nineteenth century, the great prairies of the Mid-west were settled largely as a result of US government sales of federal land at very low prices. The settlers were mainly poor immigrants and their subsistence farms were 65 hectare “quarter sections”.[1]  Most prairie farms depended on bank loans to tide them through bad times and to purchase equipment. The Great Depression of the 1930s coincided with protracted drought in the mid-west – which created the “Dust Bowl” – and falling world grain prices. This forced huge numbers of small farmers into bankruptcy.

Bank foreclosures created today’s huge capital-intensive farms on the prairies and drove destitute small farmers into one of the largest economic migrations in history so far. Hundreds of thousands of “Okies”, named after the worst hit state of Oklahoma whose population fell by more than 400,000, moved westwards to become landless agricultural labourers. Their exploitation by land barons of the Central Valley of California created conditions of mass starvation movingly described by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states of the USA.


As well as making land into an instrument of capital, land grabs of old created what became the modern working class, but also the “reserve army of labour”, as Karl Marx called it, whose plight has always forced down wages. In the case of Europe from the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, driving people off land provided a destitute mass of emigrants that gave rise to the working classes of North America, Australia and parts of South America.

Today, in Africa, South America and much of Asia and the Indian sub-continent, the abject failure of “development” has driven hundreds of millions of destitute people from the land to slums in ever-growing megacities. There are far more people than there are decent jobs. To survive, millions beg, sift household and industrial waste, or dismantle ships, obsolete computers and anything from which their “gangmasters” can make a profit. This is the global reality of “recycling” on the terms of global capital.

Inevitably, creation of “super-farms” in the “Third World” will add to citywards migration and misery, as there is not the slightest chance that profit from big agribusiness will help create urban or rural employment. The sheer numbers likely to be driven from the countryside will simply increase the number of completely dispossessed people. At the same time, wages for those agricultural workers who remain will be at a bare minimum – the very reason why inflated rates of profits are attracting masses of finance capital to poor countries.

There are historical precedents for large scale “export” of capital to exploit fertile land and vastly under-priced labour markets. The term “banana republic” now refers to politically unstable countries ruled by oligarchies rooted in agriculture. But it originated from US corporations, such as United Fruit, Standard Fruit and Cuyarnel Fruit, setting out to dominate the economies of Central American countries, such as Guatemala, and in the West Indies, for example Cuba, through acquisition of large tracts of fertile land. In the case of Guatemala, the United Fruit Company owned 42% of the entire country by the start of the 1950s for the benefit of a sizeable chunk of the US political and financial élite.[2] The term could equally have been “pineapple republic” from the exploits of Del Monte in the Philippines.

These inroads of US capital transformed rural economies dominated by small farmers to agro-industrial complexes hiring the former farmers as field labour, with the result in the Philippines that 90% of the rural population now lives in poverty. Social unrest among dispossessed people in all these fruit-exporting countries rapidly witnessed the growth and entrenchment of highly repressive and deeply corrupt regimes, such as those of the Marcos family in the Philippines, successive US-installed military juntas in Guatemala and that of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba.

While the twenty-first century land grab is unfolding, the bulk of “green” commentators and activists continue to trot out the very  buzzwords “development” and “sustainability”, that lie at the core of the “pitch” for land speculation, as at the Rio+20 summit in late June 2012. (See People & Nature comment on that here.)  Most appeal to “decision makers” to take notice, when the abstract noun “development” and the adjective “sustainable” have no meaning in the context of capital. Indeed, being incapable of controlling the inhuman logic of globalised capital, such “decision makers” have become that rare creature, the living personification of their own tropes (words or phrases bereft of their real meanings). The result is a bizarre coalition of environmental pundits, the World Bank, finance capital, and governments, from which the affected rural people are totally excluded.

Is there a solution?

What would be a socialist outlook towards the global “Land Question”? Communism is “a free association of producers under their own conscious and purposive control”. First and foremost such an association would continually to secure the means of life for all: food; water; shelter and warmth. Consequently at the core of communism is recreating a common custodianship of land, and its management through the most advanced science and egalitarian social conditions. For that to happen, land must be freed from private ownership.

Marx recognised the complexity of social ownership of land: “The property in the soil is the original source of all wealth, and has become the great problem upon the solution of which depends the future of the working class”, he wrote.[3]
In September 1868, Marx was involved in a discussion about land ownership in the International Working Mens Assocation. The discussion began with a report by César De Paepe, who said:

Small private property in land is doomed by the verdict of science, large land property by that of justice. There remains then but one alternative. The soil must become the property of rural associations or the property of the whole nation. The future will decide that question.

Marx responded:

I say on the contrary; the social movement will lead to this decision that the land can but be owned by the nation itself. To give up the soil to the hands of associated rural labourers, would be to surrender society to one exclusive class of producers [my emphasis, SD]. The nationalisation of land will work a complete change in the relations between labour and capital, and finally, do away with the capitalist form of production, whether industrial or rural. Then class distinctions and privileges will disappear together with the economical basis upon which they rest. To live on other people’s labour will become a thing of the past.[4]

Marx alludes to a likely monopolisation of land and its produce, if it remains in the hands of only part of society. But Marx’s abbreviated view was not thoroughly worked out by him or by his successors. Failure to recognise the gaps in this thinking may have allowed Stalinism ruthlessly to suppress moderately wealthy peasants (kulaks) and impose forced collectivisation on the rural people of the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s. That created a human catastrophe on an unimaginable scale, millions succumbing to starvation. The entire agricultural sector of the Soviet economy became so inefficient that the availability of staple foodstuffs in the USSR was exposed to external speculation on the world grain markets until as late as the 1980s.

In the same brief paper mentioned above, Marx went on to qualify his support for land nationalisation: “National centralisation of the means of production [emphasis in the original] will become the national basis of a society composed of associations of free and equal producers, carrying on the social business on a common and rational plan”. Stalinist forced collectivization of agriculture clearly excluded both “associations of free and equal producers” and a “common and rational plan”.

To create socialised agriculture requires unification between cities and the countryside, i.e. a direct, harmonious relationship between the “free and equal producers” in both urban and rural contexts. Implicit in that is a freedom for all to be involved in the production of food, and continual movement of people between urban and rural lives. This is not something to be defined in detail in advance of a movement towards communism.


Rural communities threatened by land grab deals have not been entirely powerless. The growing commercial demand for land aimed at food grains, biofuels and other export commodities is coming into direct conflict with the demands of tens of millions of small farmers for reform of land tenure rights, particularly in South and SE Asia, the Philippines, Ghana and Madagascar. These politically active subsistence farmers are but a small proportion of the estimated 1.5 billion worldwide who occupy and survive on plots less than 2 hectares in size, without legal rights, and whose livelihoods are increasingly under threat from both climate and international capital.

South Korea’s Daewoo corporation had plans in the late 2000s to lease 1.9 million hectares of arable land on the large island of Madagascar off East Africa to grow food grains for South Korea at a time when 3.5% of the Malagasy population depended entirely on food aid. Massive popular outcry resulted in the resignation of head of state Marc Ravalomanana in 2009. But the current government is still set on encouraging large-scale land lease to overseas interests. Indian agro-entrepreneurs are eagerly eyeing Malagasy government lease rates of around US$30 per hectare compared with up to US$2500 in the Punjab. Likewise, Cambodian farmers are involved in civil unrest and disputes with government over land tenure. Similar struggles in the Philippines forced the Manila government to enact agrarian reform in 2009, countered by pressures from Saudi Arabia, with eyes on thousands of acres of prime land, and the EU to remove a ban on foreign land ownership.

Workers and unemployed people in the growing towns and cities are just as prone to poverty and poor nutrition as are small farmers. The difference is that farmers cannot move from their land that must be tended to ensure harvest or to protect livestock from predation or theft, whereas the urban working class and dispossessed do not have that constraint. Both have much the same basic interest in survival and improving their lives. So a concerted effort of the urban masses to support and join those in the countryside would benefit both as a transitional route to complete socialisation of agriculture.

The issue of land grabs could be a major focus for such a movement, as well as the direct transfer of goods between cities and the countryside by food cooperatives. That many people in towns and cities of developing countries are only a couple of generations away from those rural people who flooded to urban areas for survival is cause for optimism that such a movement will develop.

Things are somewhat different in the developed parts of the world. The urban working class and unemployed for the most part have rural origins up to several hundred years ago. The bulk of farming is tied to the world food market, whether through sales of produce or inputs of fertilisers, livestock feed and various agro-chemical products. Yet in the current conditions of growing economic hardship there is an upsurge in growth of direct sales between rural and urban populations, such as the Laiki farmers’ markets in Greece, increasingly using the old drachma as a currency.

It is often thought that food production in Britain long ago reached its limit because of climate and scarcity of land set against rising population: Britain is a net importer of foodstuffs, including the airlifting of out-of-season produce from as far afield as East Africa and south-east Asia. Yet with careful management even the poor soils of urban areas produce bumper yields on communal allotments – and a great deal of enjoyment for those who work the land. There is, however, little sign of land becoming available to satisfy the growing demand, and perhaps future necessity, for this kind of socialised, community agriculture. On the other hand, the pressure of unemployment in Spain (almost 25% on average and around 53% among those under 24) is accompanied by widespread property squatting in cities like Barcelona to the taking over and farming of unused fertile land in the countryside by destitute young people, inspired by the syndicalist civil war slogan, “the land to those who work it!” (“¡La tierra para el que la trabaja!”).[5]

We can anticipate land occupations for communal food production not only in Africa and Asia, but also in Europe as capital’s crisis deepens. Such movements are central to anarchism, but are too rarely considered by other communists.[6] And they are likely to spread beyond abandoned land, to challenge the profit-oriented land use practices of Britain, Europe and North America.

[1] A land “section” in the US is one square mile in area, a “quarter section” being a square half a mile of a side (160 acres or 65 hectares)

[2] See here.

[3] Karl Marx, “The nationalisation of the land”. Read at the Manchester Section of the International Working Men’s Association.

[4] Op. cit.

[5] See: “Squatting the land to rise up against unemployment”, El Pais, 8 July 2012

[6] See here.

One Response to Scramble for land: paths of resistance

  1. […] This is the first of two linked posts, by Steve Drury. The second one is HERE. […]

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