People, Land, Sea, Nature...: critical geography and the search for new agents of accumulation

A panel on 'People, Land, Sea, Nature...: critical geography and the search for new agents of accumulation'

Maia Pal
Maia Pal
  Oxford Brookes University
Alex Colas
  Birkbeck University
Liam Campling
  Queen Mary University
Chris Hesketh
  Oxford Brookes University
Maia Pal
  Oxford Brookes University

Type Panel
When Jun 23, 2016
from 01:04 PM to 01:04 PM
Contact Name
Contact Phone 07500558192
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In line with the critique of structural and analytical Marxisms, Derek Sayer urged us in the early 1980s to develop Marx's method and recover history through social and historical relations 'constructed by human beings' - and capable of being changed by human beings. Historical materialism's methodological innovations then turned more to space - largely shaped by David Harvey and other critical geographers of the 1990s. This turn has been narrowed more recently on the concepts of ecology, nature and the Anthropocene. The ontological centrality of the Cartesian individual as separate from society and nature is, finally, in full crisis. Consequently, capital accumulation has been moving beyond the reductive notion of capital as accumulated labour (wage-labour) - focused on social relations constructed by human beings - towards 'spatio-temporal' concepts of accumulation. As separate and/or combined conceptual axes, space and time have redefined our understanding of accumulation, from the 'annihilation of space by time' to the ways in which capital 'produces space'; from accumulation by dispossession to capital-in-nature, i.e how capitalism works through nature (Moore, 2015). How are these shifts shaping the method of historical materialism? The papers on this panel showcase how Marxist scholars concerned with accumulation are incorporating and/or questioning the spatial turn and the agency it redefines in terms of legal territoriality, the sea, and the migrant subject. Contributors Chris Hesketh (Oxford Brookes University) Territory, rights and class: the scale of an environmental problem This paper focuses on the struggle of the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Juchitán, a municipality of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. In recent decades Juchitán has been a prime target for the development of wind-farm projects by multinational corporations linked to the Clean Development Mechanism set out in the Kyoto Protocol. However, opposing the idea that wind farms represent a form of clean, environmentally-friendly energy production, indigenous groups have highlighted local issues of contamination of fishing stocks as well as couching the term ‘environment’ in wider terms related to their access to communal land and have sought to resist this development. Such resistance is articulated here - and indeed throughout the state of Oaxaca - as a form of territorially-based politics. Linked to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal People, their legal right to consultation and self-determination are strenuously asserted in contrast to the Mexican state’s claim to the right to the subsoil and air enshrined in the national constitution. In this sense, the conflict is transformed into a class struggle to dictate who controls the production of space and the wider environment. This paper seeks to explore the contradictions of this struggle which simultaneously gains strength from but is limited by it place-based specificity. It furthermore seeks to disentangle the politics of scale at which resistance movements must now operate. Alex Colas (Birkbeck) and Liam Campling (Queen Mary) Capitalism and the Maritime Frontier The frontier as a geographical zone has historically been associated to the raiding practices of tributary modes of production or, more recently, to the outer confines of a settler-colonial capitalism. In Fredrick Jackson Turner's classic rendition, the westward land expansion of the American frontier shaped a particularly individualistic, dynamic and egalitarian form of democracy and, by extension, capitalism. We shift in this paper the location of the frontier to the sea, and backdate its modern influence to the long sixteenth-century, suggesting that the the maritime frontier has conditioned the dynamics of capitalism in very specific ways. By considering the seaborne dialectic of freedom and enslavement, innovation and tradition, social transformation and biophysical cycles, we seek to draw out some of the distinctive characteristics of the maritime frontier as it has affected exploitation, accumulation and regulation of capital and labour at sea. Maïa Pal (Oxford Brookes University) From 'Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre' to 'The Figure of the Migrant': anthropomorphism and subjectivity in historical materialism Historical materialism has moved, in many circles influenced by critical geography, from an understanding of agency as social and historical relations 'constructed by human beings' (Sayer, 1983: 149) to a conception of capital-in-nature where agency and structure are conceptualised as 'a web of life whose interconnections are much denser, more geographically expansive, and more intimate than ever before' (Moore, 2015: 12). In other words, the agency-structure debate has been reshaped by the dialectic of space and time, which has resulted in a move away from anthropomorphism. This is to be celebrated, however alluring it is to think in terms of the 'grotesque cakewalk' of 'Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre' (Sayer, ibid.). At the same time, 'the figure of the migrant' is emerging in other circles as central agent or subject for political theory (Nail, 2015). Highlighting how 'movement creates territory', capital accumulation is thereby shaped by the movement of people - a conceptual move couched in the context of recent migration challenges, but also Foucauldian emphases on the subject. This paper retraces these movements in historical materialism and thereby questions who are the agents of capital accumulation. It argues for a more careful appraisal of the 'web of life' as a totalising and universalistic concept in light of the constitutive power of legal subjects in shaping social property relations and maintaining differentia specifica of capital accumulation.