Lexicon Keyword Conversation 2

The second Lexicon of Commodity Frontiers keyword conversation about “capitalism” took place on Friday 19th of November, from 4 to 6 p.m. (CEST).

Tania Li, Pepjin Brandon, Vinay Gidwani, and Serena Stein offered commentary on Sven Beckert’s text, Capital in the Feral Atlas (Beckert, Sven. 2020. Capital. In A.L. Tsing, J. Deger, A. Keleman Saxena, F. Zhou (Eds.) Feral Atlas. Stanford University Press).

Commentary Summaries

Tania Li: Two capitalisms, two commodity frontiers

My contribution to the Lexicon outlines two distinct types of commodity frontier, and two configurations of capitalist relations. One is the corporate-occupied commodity frontier, colonized by plantations, mines and other large-scale concessions. This configuration is often labelled capitalist although it is not characterized by “free” markets or competition: it depends on the forceful seizure of land, the coercion of labour, and state provision of subsidies. Inefficiency is protected by monopoly arrangements, and the goals served include national prestige and access to illicit streams of rent that are only loosely aligned with productivity or profit.  The second configuration is dominated by small scale farmers (or miners) among whom capitalist relations take the classic, textbook form: producers pay market prices for land, labour and credit; and they are governed by the imperative of market competition. There are no subsidies or bailouts, and inefficient producers go bankrupt. In Indonesia, the site of my research, indigenous farmers have been highly efficient suppliers of coffee, cacao and rubber to global markets for 300 years. Today they would also dominate in the supply of palm oil were they not suppressed by a regime that favours (and subsidizes) corporations. To call the corporate variant capitalist obscures its dependence on state support and subsidies; it also normalizes the marginalization of the highly productive, small-scale capitalists who receive no support or recognition, even when they are by far the most dynamic actors on commodity frontiers.

For further exploration of these contrasting dynamics see Tania Murray Li  (2014), Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press and Tania Murray Li and Pujo Semedi (2021), Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indoensia’s Oil Palm Zone. Durham N.C. : Duke University Press.

Serena Stein: Kindred Frontiers: South-South Frontiers, Fragilities of Capital, and Imperial Post-Capitalisms

I outline what I call “kindred frontiers” – that is, the recent forging of commodity frontiers by emerging powers of the Global South within the Global South. These insights draw on my research following Brazilian, Indian, and South African neo-imperial relations in northern Mozambique over the past decade amid foreign investments in plantations and export infrastructure. “Kindred frontiers” have risen rapidly in a New Scramble for African land and resources, with South-South extractive projects often treading along residual connections among former colonies of empire. Political leaders, international aidworkers, and investors often attempt to legitimate South-South extractive projects by plumbing rich histories of contact and intimacy, such as centuries of Indian Ocean merchant routes, as well as shared legacies of colonial violence, such as the slave trade. South-South solidarity networks also unfold across experimental frontiers among activists and scholars opposing plans to refigure Mozambique as an offshore extension of Brazil’s vast soybean frontier, or to remake East Africa’s coastline in India’s image, as a string of ports dedicated to the mining and transit of fossil fuels to Asia.

My contribution contends that South-South frontiers share a great deal with North-South imperialism. Yet, the recent grounded reality of frontier-making also interrupts conventional schemas of extractivism. From the vantage of northern Mozambique, chronicling stalled investments, abandonment of mega-projects, and breakdown of plantations asks that we appreciate failures of accumulation and fragilities of capitalism in rising frontiers. It also requires careful attention to the ways that smallholder farmers as petty commodity producers accommodate and navigate global capital toward marginal gains that may accrue in their favor, while also potentially endangering the livelihoods and ecologies they inhabit. This is particularly the case for women who may pursue capitalist agricultural development, however compromised, in the absence of compelling alternative visions. Moreover, visions of post-capitalism that travel across the Global South by activists and scholars are often encountered by agrarian societies as epistemic impositions and erasures of local priorities, desires for development, and efforts to multiply cosmopolitan connections from neglected, hinterland locations.

Lexicon of Commodity Frontiers
Editors: Claudia Bernardi, Hanne Cottyn, Eric Vanhaute

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