Blog – The Political Economy of the Agrarian Question

The political economy of the Agrarian Question (AQ)[1] cannot be understood outside the political economy of the world capitalist system (and its imperialist manifestation) as it has developed historically and impacted on Africa over the last five centuries. The motive force of the capitalist system is the incessant drive for accumulation. There are broadly two tendencies of accumulation. These are what Marx called Primitive Accumulation (PA) and Accumulation by Expanded Reproduction (AER). The tension between these tendencies helps to understand the character of AQ in contemporary Africa.

The classical AQ was theorised on the basis of the development trajectory of Europe which saw the disappearance of the peasantry as land was enclosed and agriculture assumed an industrial character. The surplus labour thus thrown out from land was believed to have been absorbed by industries (proletarianisation of the peasantry). This was the traditional explanation by Euro-centric historians and political economists. More recently some Third World political economists (for example, Samir Amin, Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik) have challenged the dominant narrative by showing that a significant portion of the surplus labour was in fact “exported” to the New World – the Americas, Australia, New Zealand etc. and the colonies. They further argue that in fact the dominant narrative of the AQ as the transition from pre-capitalist forms (peasant production) to industrial capitalism as the progressive path of development is neither applicable nor replicable in Africa under the hegemony of imperialism.  They go further and posit an alternative path of development that may be called the peasant path of development.

In this perspective and context, the contemporary AQ in Africa may be resolved into two interconnected components; The Land Question (LQ) and the Peasant Question (PQ). In Africa the LQ historically presented itself in two forms: massive land expropriation in settler colonies resulting in various systems of heavily exploited labour on the one hand, and landless, impoverished peasantry, on the other.  In non-settler colonies, the small peasant is preserved but subjected to massive exploitation through means of primitive accumulation of various kinds – expropriation of resources, unequal exchange of values etc. In recent times, even in the non-settler colonies big multi-national corporations have been granted large tracts of land (land grab) under the guise of modernising agriculture.  Thus the discourse among academics and politicians on land has been dominated by land reform of two kinds: land reform that would involve expropriation of land from large-scale farmers (whether settlers, corporations or other similar bodies) to be redistributed to the landless and land starved peasantry. The other kind of reform involves the reform of the land tenure system. Both these types of land reform discourses have been hugely contentious (statutory vs. customary tenure, large-scale vs. small-scale agriculture, etc).

[1] This blog is an introduction to the sessions on the “Political Economy of the Agrarian Question” delivered by Prof Issa Shivji during the theory workshop on the “Character of the Agrarian Question in Contemporary Africa” Jointly organised by YARA and the Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape on 13-17 May, 2019 for young African academics.