With all frontiers now closed, we might ask if the capitalist world-economy today confronts a situation at all similar to that faced by feudalism some seven centuries earlier. Like feudalism, capitalism appears to be approaching the limits to growth inscribed in its production system. The crucial difference is that capitalism’s ruling classes lack the option of the spatial fix enjoyed by medieval Europe’s ruling strata (Moore, 2002, 315).
Commodification of nature—conversion of natural resources into commodities through privatization, alienation, and dispossession—appears to result from deepening contradictions related to capitalist crisis management through land (Castree, 2003). During moments of crisis, capitalism attempts to overcome barriers to its accumulation by gaining control of, commodifying, and capitalizing upon not-yet-commodified resources. Thus, recently intensified economic instabilities and uncertainty related to, for example, sustaining steady agricultural production, paired with the increasingly limited availability of not-yet-commodified resources, or ‘cheap nature,’ have generated renewed interest in land as a potentially liquid asset (Moore, 2014). This interest has resulted in a rising inflow of international speculative capital directed towards urban and agricultural land and resources linked to it, including water, forests, energy, waste, farms and housing that lost a share of their market value during the recent economic recession.
This essay interprets this struggle over land ownership as an ‘illusory solution’ to a fundamental accumulation crisis now occurring under the capitalist mode of production (McMichael, 2012). While policies during the last several decades have restructured the municipal services previously linked to ‘landed property’ (one of the pillars of Marx’s analysis) such as food production, resource extraction, social housing or infrastructure development, and instead sought to deliver those programs through private markets, this step is likely only “to buy time (and space) in the short run” to offset a new economic crisis in the future (McMichael, 2012, 681). Indeed, in the long run, these attempts to resolve the contradictions of capital accumulation by commodifying nature may simply reproduce the economic risks related to distributional struggles over access to affordable land. That is, I argue, the current rush to acquire land, particularly properties that diminished in value during the recent recession, is symptomatic of a deeper inability to manage the contradictions now evident in capitalism.
I address the following questions in this brief analysis: 1) how is commodification of land articulated and manifest at times of economic crisis, and 2) how is that process different from the daily workings of capitalism?
Theorizing Commodification of Land through Crisis
Capitalist commodification of resources as a means to manage economic crises is more than a mere fix. This process in many cases encourages a ‘new territorial rationality’ that sustains the myth of a crisis-free accumulation of capital, supports diverse practices resulting in material and immaterial displacement, and functions across a range of different scales and time periods (Sevilla-Buitrago, 2015). Moments of economic crisis create an opening for “predatory practices of capital accumulation” (Harvey, 2011, 107). Such efforts vary widely from the privatization of municipal resources in cities to the complex speculative dynamics of state-led devaluation or disinvestment and subsequent gentrification of urban land, or practices of global land grabbing via large-scale land acquisitions by domestic or foreign capital. Although these practices are not always ‘intrinsically brutalizing’ to the most deprived, when they operate within moments of urgent necessity of economic recovery it can become tricky to understand who wins and who loses.
Land is at once productive and political. It is a “relation of property, a finite resource that is distributed, allocated and owned” (Elden, 2010, 804). Land plays a crucial role in Marxist scholarship in its relation to rent and ownership. For Marx, land was foremost a commodity. Marx contended that enclosure of space or the ‘commons’ in pre-industrial England represented an essential solution to the crisis of feudalism. In the context of English ‘Inclosure by the Acts of Parliament,’ land was not simply a finite resource upon which feudal rent could be imposed, but also the means by which a large scale reorganization of the accumulation processes via changes in its forms of ownership could occur. Gradual privatization of common land along with colonial geographical expansion allowed feudal proprietors to overcome economic stagnation and severe agrarian crisis.
Marxist scholars differ in how they understand the relationship between land commodification and economic crisis (see Table 1 below). Some analysts have cited the crisis of Fordist-Keynesian economic development that began with the simultaneous appearance of high inflation and unemployment in the 1970s (Metzger, 2000; Davoudi, 2009), while others have examined specific manifestations of the recent 2008 financial crisis, including oil and food market crises and their repercussions for local land markets (Hadjimichalis, 2014; Desai, 2013; McMichael, 2012). Still other researchers have emphasized the intersection of multiple forms of crises including, the global ‘housing crisis’ and the commodification of policy discourse (Wyly, 2015), or the feudal crisis and the crisis of governance (Sevilla-Buitrago, 2012). Scholars view these historical episodes as drivers of the ongoing commodification of nature due to the momentum each has lent to speculative investors by sudden devalorization of land market values (Hadjimichalis, 2014), rapid inflation of food prices followed by outsourcing of agricultural activities (McMichael, 2012), or lack of profitable reinvestments in land followed by capitalist land capture of not-yet-commodified areas (Desai et al,2013). Table 1 provides a summary overview of these cases.
Case examples of crisis-led commodification of land and land-related resources
The ‘Inclosure’ Acts of Parliament to Accommodate the Crisis of Feudalism
Many farms and large flocks of cattle, especially of sheep, became concentrated in the hands of a few men, whereby the rent of land has much risen and tillage has fallen off, churches and houses have been pulled down, and marvelous numbers of people have been deprived of the means wherewith to maintain themselves and their families (Marx, 1887, 504).
Marx interpreted Parliament’s Inclosure Acts in pre-industrial England as a key process of pre-capitalist territorial formation in response to the crisis of feudalism. A brief reference to this historical moment is crucial because it represents a primary model for contextualizing capitalist crisis management through land. The historical era’s economic crisis was partly shaped by the “relation of the feudal system of social production to land” (Moore, 2002, 304). More precisely, the problem was that investments in property aimed at improving agricultural productivity were routinely undermined by the levy of feudal rents. This reality led repeatedly to radical real and opportunity costs in farm revenues.
For Marx, the fixed character of land suggested that it could only be modified through its destruction. This phenomenon played a key role in Harvey’s idea of ‘accumulation by dispossession,’ which he derived from Marx’s concept of ‘primitive accumulation.’ Both approaches refer to the pre-conditions necessary for capitalism’s development, and transition from feudalism in particular. In a time of economic crisis, accumulation by dispossession “provides an outlet for over-accumulated capital” (Levien, 2012, 940) by releasing assets at a very low cost. The result helps to sustain steady and ‘crisis-free’ economic growth (that, as we know, is neither steady nor crisis-free after all). The Inclosure Acts represented an internal fix to a crisis of feudalism by commodifying the ‘commons’ that, paradoxically, had been preserved by feudal rule prior to their passage. These processes were coupled with geographic expansion of the volume of land available by means of colonization. Some authors have described this process as a ‘scalar fix’ to the feudal crisis. However labeled, these steps constituted a new territorial formation articulated through the conversion of property rights:
A closer look at Marx’s description of primitive accumulation reveals a wide range of processes. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations; conversion of various forms of property rights into exclusive private; suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labor power and the suppression of alternative, indigenous, forms of production and consumption; colonial, neo-colonial and imperial processes of appropriation of assets, including natural resources; monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; slave trade; and usury, the national debt and ultimately the credit system (Harvey, 2003, 74).
This change in land ownership turned the periphery into a strategic territory for accommodating the crisis of land degradation under feudalism by means of a ‘spatial fix.’ Thus, the frontier of feudalism became at once the space for accumulation “of new merchant capital for old rentier landowners and also a space of exploitation in which emerged a new army of dispossessed populations, totally dependent on the sale of their labor power” (Sevilla-Buitrago, 2012, 213).
New Enclosures of Land
This historical moment of capitalist territorial formation can serve as an analogue of the extent to which a similar logic of resource dispossession through restructuring of prevailing modes of land ownership can be embedded in modern crisis management processes. For example, many scholars have considered the slowing of economic growth in the 1970’s to be the impetus for a new wave of land enclosures that neoliberalists pressed to undermine organized labor (Hodkinson, 2012). As Hodkinson has noted, these new enclosures of resources were not designed to offer new locations for profit creation in a time of crisis, but instead to create, “the large-scale reorganization of the accumulation process itself in order to undermine collective organization and place-based struggles, depress wages, and make workers vulnerable and precarious and thus more compliant to capital” (ibid, 2012, 506). This complex process did not simply result in privatization and dispossession of urban or rural land. It also enabled institutional reassignment of control of much resource management from the state to private actors, a triumph of neoliberal logic. Many have highlighted the emergence of a new regionalist politics and the growth of so-called social Darwinist competition among urban localities for municipal services and investment funds in recent decades. In this view, policies that underscored the logic of interurban competition over resource management led to an “inefficient use of public money, degradation of local communities, and created the capacity to trigger a fiscal crisis of the state” (Jones and Ward, 2012, 409). Thus, in a way, it was the urge for privatization of public services along with a cutback in public housing subsidies and other social welfare initiatives in the 1970’s and 1980s that grew into the need for many families to turn to subprime mortgages in the 1990s and the early years of the new millennium. The resulting housing and speculative bubble spurred a severe recession that spread around the world.
I have sought to raise some issues here that I hope will contribute to the recently revived dialogue concerning the land-crisis nexus. First, following Sevilla-Buitrago (2012), I highlighted the fact that a restructuring of land ownership in a time of crisis does not result in a mere pyrrhic fix, but also leads to the formation of a ‘new territorial rationality’ that reproduces the myth that crisis can be resolved by commodifying land. Secondly, I viewed these moments of crisis management, including dispossession of land and land-related resources, displacement and forced evictions of local community members and erosion of inherited systems of landed local knowledge as representing a new form of a systemic crisis that will potentially lead to reproduction of economic risks and uncertainties into the future. These issues are complex and, thus, require more thorough examination via case studies. Although, as Table 1 illustrates, some individual scholars have begun to address this task, , my hope is that this theoretical inquiry will spawn additional and more systematic empirical research on this topic.
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Vera Smirnova is a doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program. Her research interests include analysis of the urban geography and political economy of cities amidst capitalist crisis. Prior to coming to Virginia Tech to work on her Ph.D., Vera was a Fulbright Scholar at Kansas State University for two years. While there she earned her Master’s degree and explored the characteristics of urban dynamics during neoliberal economic restructuring. She is currently investigating the question of crisis-driven capitalist enclosure in cities as a means to justify strongly uneven geographical development and a fundamental rescaling of socioeconomic relationships among citizens