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The political economy of indigenous societies
by Louis Proyect
21 April 2002 00:02 UTC
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Robert Biel, "The New Imperialism" (Zed Books, 2000):

Resistance can arise not just in households or families, but also at 
the level of organised movements. Grassroots protest can appear 
negative, destructive, obstructive and bloody-minded. But what 
colonialist anthropologists branded as primitivism was a stubborn 
refusal to comprehend a profit-oriented rationale which indigenous 
peoples correctly perceived as absurd. Against an invading economy 
that gave value only to commodities, societies struggled to preserve 
their way of life oriented to use-value. Sometimes colonial ventures 
were met simply by withdrawal: a French scheme for founding settler 
colonies in Indochina collapsed because the peasants retreated to the 
hills and refused to work the land. Struggles were often consciously 
directed against economic symbols of colonialism. Thus, in the 
Maji-Maji uprising against the German colonial regime in Tanzania, 
peasants defied their leaders' advice to continue cultivating cotton 
and asked, 'How can we start a war? How can we make the Germans 
angry? Let us go and uproot their cotton so that war may arise. Enemy 
communications were also targeted, as they were seen as a symbol of 
the extraction of raw materials. In India, peasant rebels encouraged 
the smashing of railways which, even though they provided employment 
opportunities, were viewed as a symbol of colonial enslavement. The 
nineteenth-century Senegalese resistance leader Lat Dior Joob 
concentrated his forces on preventing railway-building.

These strategies are not merely negative, but imply the defence of an 
autonomous system of production and consumption; this emerged clearly 
when there was a possibility of controlling territory. Maroon 
communities in Jamaica were able to assert their independence not 
just militarily but at the level of a functioning political economy. 
In the Cauca region of Colombia from colonial times until the end of 
the nineteenth century, this kind of movement was endemic. Using 
crops such as plantain, the land could be productive according to a 
non-capitalist logic of sustainability, with high yields in 
proportion to energy inputs. Escaped slaves in many parts of the 
Americas established self-governing communities with a functioning 
political economy in all its aspects. What has been underestimated 
until recently was the extent to which they collaborated and fused 
with Native Americans to create a new political economy incorporating 
techniques from both cultures. Although the above examples apply to 
sparsely populated regions, a similar point could be made with 
respect to the large area of China controlled by the Taiping 
Rebellion (1851-64). Britain's massive plunder of resources extracted 
such a surplus that the safeguards restricting exploitation within 
the old Chinese social system collapsed. The ruling elites, who 
reached a political agreement with the enemy, made the situation 
worse by also squeezing the masses. Peasants responded by seizing 
power over quite wide areas, and when they did so, they attempted to 
restore the old economy geared to what local people needed to 
consume; but since it was impossible to turn the clock back, they 
worked out new methods, such as redistributing land and organising 
different crafts in central workshops. The system worked, and it was 
overthrown only by foreign intervention in collaboration with 
domestic propertied classes.

Although seeking to restore the self-managed communities of the past, 
these movements were also forward-looking because the situation had 
changed. In so far as traditional rulers reached agreement with the 
aggressors, they forfeited the right to represent the nation; 
democratic elements took over, and in effect became the nation. The 
restorationist aspect of popular struggles means the reassertion not 
of a particular set of social practices, but rather of the basic 
logic of traditional societies, with their sustainability and 
production geared to need. Many writers of international economic 
theory have attacked the notion that people should produce what they 
need to consume and consume what they produce, and have argued 
instead that specialisation and a heightened international division 
of labour are more efficient. I will examine this more fully later, 
but it should just be noted here that popular movements often find it 
easier than economists to cut through the verbiage to the heart of 
the issue: in the real world, international specialisation and 
division of labour are usually exploitative.

Grassroots protest movements always seem to be 'there', ready to 
flare up when conditions are right. In their ideologies, the 
slave-outlaws of Latin America or the Taiping movement articulated 
millenarian communistic ideas through a mixture of Christian and 
traditional symbolism, for the spectre of communism was by no means 
haunting only Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. But these 
ideologies should not be viewed (as conservative elites sometimes 
aver) as a foreign import; on the contrary, as Mariategui pointed out 
(in the case of Peru), they have an indigenous basis in their concern 
to preserve communitarian solidarity structures within traditional 
societies. It might seem that the strength of these movements lies 
precisely in their links with the communitarianism of the past, and 
would wane once urbanisation and globalisation undermine these links. 
But there is a significant counterargument, which I will take up 
later, that trends to self-sufficiency can be reproduced within 
capitalism, as a spin-off of the dualism that is an essential aspect 
of accumulation. In this sense, the grassroots element can also be 
'reborn' in an urban context whenever the official economy fails, 
even in the North, where the element of continuity with 
pre-capitalist practices is very weak. Official society can repress 
these struggles, but cannot obliterate them.

Louis Proyect, lnp3@panix.com on 04/20/2002

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