13 June 2019

The struggle for land and capitalist exploitation

Pepijn Brandon

The sudden appearance of the land-question in the debates between the two contenders in the recent Indonesian presidential elections remind us that struggles over landownership run as a red thread through the history of capitalism.[1] Despite the enormous changes in the relationship between capital accumulation and peasant economies, there is an enduring aspect to this story. Regardless of the many different forms that the private property of land under capitalism takes, in Marx’s words in Capital, Volume III it always “presupposes that certain persons enjoy themonopoly of disposing of particular portions of the globe as exclusive spheres of their private will to the exclusion of all others.” And because this process of exclusion is historically connected to expropriation and displacement, colonialism and conquest, financial speculation and environmental degradation, dealing with land has never ceased to put dirt on the hands of all the members of the ruling class that get involved in it.

In this text, I want to focus on an elementary question: why does the ‘agrarian question’ have such longevity under capitalism? As with all elementary questions, providing an answer is not simple. The concrete processes by which peasant economies are integrated into the world market vary profoundly from epoch to epoch, between different regions of the world and ecological zones, and depending on the specific characteristics both of the agents of capital and of the pre-existing social relations on the land at the point of their encounter. Integration is never a straightforward process, and often includes compromises of dazzling complexity between old aristocracies, new rent-seekers and oligarchical capitalists, as well as between all the landholding classes, the state and small producers. The outcome, in many cases, diverges from a stereotypical pattern of capitalist agriculture envisioned by some socialist thinkers, in which capitalist development would lead to fully proletarianised farm-labourers working on factory-like, mechanised mega-farms – although there are, of course, plenty of instances in which agricultural capitalism takes this form.

These observations taken together have provided the starting point of a long debate among Marxist thinkers. It goes back to Marx himself. As is well known, working out the theory of ground rent, which explained how a class of landlords that was ostensibly outside of the core capitalist dichotomy of workers and industrial bourgeoisie laid claim on part of society’s surplus value in the form of rent without thereby negating the law of value, was a key problem that Marx had to solve in order to be able to write Capital. Even after he had worked out this problem theoretically, his desire to find historical explanations for the many variations in the concrete forms taken by landed property in Europe, the white settler colonies, India and Russia kept Marx from finishing his manuscripts for Volume III. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the agrarian question divided Russian Marxists and Populists and led to a famous polemic between Lenin and Kautsky. Throughout the twentieth century, developmentalist economists and dependency theorists assigned the question of the division of land an important role in attempts of the colonised, semi-colonised and former colonised nations to escape from poverty. These were never abstract debates. Communist movements in many parts of the world found themselves in the frontlines of revolts of the peasantry and the rural poor against the landowners. Paradoxically, and to the detriment of these often heroic movements, ‘state socialism’ also proved to be an aggressive dispossessor of the peasantry in its own right.

The continuing importance of the agrarian question throughout the history of capitalism directly links to the theme of ‘primitive accumulation’ discussed by me in the previous articles on this website. In Capital, Volume I, Marx deals at length with the commodification of land and the often violent destruction of rural communities as decisive ‘original’ preconditions for capitalist development. However, some of the complexities facing Marxist authors on this question arise from the very same source. If capitalist development is predicated on the destruction of pre-capitalist agrarian social relations, how then can these pre-capitalist relations continue to hunt the capitalist system as it matures? I believe one crucial element of the solution to this question is acknowledging that for Marx, the privatisation of land and dispossession of the direct producers on the one hand, and the introduction of the capitalist mode of production proper in agriculture are both moments of capitalist development, but not necessarily the same or consecutive moments. There is no doubt that Marx saw the first two as preconditions of capitalist development. But the latter, he treated only as its long-term result. This division is very clear in a passage inCapital, Volume III, which explicitly builds upon the discussion of ‘primitive accumulation’ in Volume I.

In the section on “primitive accumulation” we saw how this mode of production presupposes on the one hand that the direct producers are freed from the position of a mere appendage of the soil (in the form of bondsmen, serfs, slaves, etc.) and on the other hand the expropriation of the mass of the people from the land. To that extent, the monopoly of landed property is a historical precondition for the capitalist mode of production and remains its permanentfoundation, as with all previous modes of production based on the exploitation of the masses in one form or the other. But the form oflanded property which greets the capitalist mode of production at the start does not correspond to this mode. The form that does correspond to it is only created by the capitalist mode of production itself, through the subjection of agriculture to capital; and in this way feudal landed property, clan property or small peasant property is transformed into theeconomic form corresponding to this mode of production, however diverse the legal forms of this may be.[Italics by Marx, taken from the new translation based on Marx’s manuscript of 1864-1865. The passage itself was fully included in Engels’ edition of Volume III.]

The order outlined here is in accordance with Marx’s frequently stated conviction, that “capitalist production develops first of all in industry, not in agriculture, and only embraces the latter by degrees” (Theories of Surplus Value, Volume III, chapter 20.II.c).

The longevity of this ‘embracement by degrees’, in my view, poses less a theoretical problem and more a series of concrete historical problems, in the same way that the ultimate decision which parts of human life become commodified and which parts not depends on historical conditions and not on a theoretical limit to commodification under capitalism per se. Expanding onto the terrain of landed property, capitalist forms of exchange and production face at one and the same time a whole string of concrete limiting conditions. Land is the main source of wealth of all preceding ruling classes. It is the material foundation of subsistence economies and the communities on whose labour they are based. It is the first point at which nature itself intervenes in production and sets its ecological barriers on capitalism’s social metabolism, the socially mediated interaction between human beings and their environment. It is the territorial foundation on which state sovereignty is built, and a key source of state revenue. Sometimes, rapid expansion of the system pushes capitalists and the state to charge all of those barriers at once, even at the risk of social warfare. Sometimes, temporary moments of stagnation or contraction might transform the agricultural borderlands of capital accumulation into the ideal buffer zones in which to “lose” a superfluous part of the labour force (Marx’s reserve army of labour), or on which to dump part of the costs of social reproduction (to use the term popularised by socialist feminists such as Tithi Bhattacharya). The great variety of legal forms under which the economic encroachment by capital takes place, often allows an uneasy balance between advance and consolidation to appear as the pure preservation of tradition. However, as Jairus Banaji has shown extensively in his studies of the relationship between peasants in Southern India and the world market, what appears as tradition often consists of new creation of intermediary forms under the aegis of global capital.

Some of the most desperate political struggles in the last few years have been over the control of land, from the expropriation of native lands to allow for the building of oil pipelines in North America to the murderous attacks on the Movement of Landless Workers (MST) in Brazil. For greedy politicians and large landowners, however, this is a time of opportunities. The current phase of globalisation has ushered in new waves of agricultural reform. In this present conjuncture, global agrobusiness even more relentlessly than in the past subjects local production systems to the dictates of the world market, frequently while branding itself ‘socially responsible’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ for the sake of western middle class consumers. This process of subjection involves all sorts of backhand deals with large landholders and speculators at the expense of peasant small producers, who under neoliberalism lack even the minimal protection previously provided by developmentalist states. The voraciousness of this new wave is further deepened by the impact of climate change, that undermines the resources for resistance of poor communities against multinationals and local states.

However, even the latest phase of capitalist globalisation and land reform will not simply resolve the agrarian question for capitalism, by dissolving all traditional titles on land into a single category of commercial land-holding and by dividing the majority of the rural population into capitalist farmers and proletarians. As the Marxist agrarian historian Henry Bernstein noted in his seminal article from 2002,

just as agribusiness capital is increasingly consolidated through ‘globalization’ …, so is labour in the world of contemporary capitalism increasingly structurally fragmented, especially in the South. This fragmentation – manifested, inter alia, in the stagnant or declining opportunities of (relatively) stable wage employment, the vast extent of the urban ‘informal sector’, and the (re)structuring of labour markets, rural and urban – also connects with the class dynamic at work in agricultural petty commodity production.

The aim of landed property in this new phase remains, as Marx said, to carve out whole portions of the globe as exclusive spheres of the owners’ “private will to the exclusion of all others”. But this private will never goes unchallenged, however wealthy and powerful the individuals that wield it.




Banaji, Jairus, Theory as History. Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Leiden / Boston, 2010)

Bernstein, Henry, “Land Reform: Taking a Long(er) View”, Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 2, No. 4 (2002), pp. 433-463

Bhattacharya, Tithi (ed), Social Reproduction Theory. Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (London, 2017)

Marx, Karl, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III (London, 1991) Part Six

Marx, Karl, Theories of Surplus Value,

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