There are few contemporary social theoreticians more important than English geographer David Harvey, and this essay uses some of his main ideas (and his concept of “accumulation by dispossession” in particular) to analyse the current reality in Mexico.
Today’s Mexico is immersed in a seemingly endless sea of catastrophes, and news of new injustices and atrocious deaths bombard us on a daily basis. Physical and virtual social networks, meanwhile, regularly fill up with a temporary anger that reaches a peak before gradually fading away again. And these facts, some of which are clearly interconnected (while others appear not to be), can all be systematically explained through the work of David Harvey.
Professor Harvey (b. 1935) has long sought through his work to show how capital accumulation transforms physical space and, in doing so, he has made one of the biggest contributions to Marxist theory in the last fifty years. In particular, his work has focussed on explaining the production of urban space, the role of violence and dispossession in the accumulation of capital, and the role that the financial sector plays in the capitalist system and its crises – all of these being ideas that were rarely explored by Marx (a figure who Harvey studies, criticises, and complements).
In this short essay, I will seek to explain, with the guidance of Harvey’s work, the whirlwind of catastrophes within which we find ourselves, and will focus mostly on his concept of “accumulation by dispossession” in order to describe how drug production, legal ‘reforms’ (such as the energy reforms), the changes in land ownership, and the liberalisation of trade have all produced processes of dispossession necessary for the further accumulation of capital. At the same time, though, seeing Mexico through Harvey’s eyes also allows us to understand the establishment of current and future resistance movements fighting against the system of dispossession, disaster, and death that overwhelms us today.
The modern history of the territory now known as Mexico began with a process of dispossession, with the country’s folklore speaking of how (behind the caricaturisation of pristine indigenous communities and the Spaniards’ embodiment of evil) well-documented processes of looting roared into action, linking Mexican territories to an interconnected global system based on capital accumulation and circulation (Wallerstein 1988). In short, the production of a ‘New Spain’ was an essential part of the colonial project which, though now mutated, endures to this day.
The dispossession outlined above continued for centuries, and did not manifest itself solely through the transferral of precious resources like gold to the coffers of great European powers. The dispossession was also internal: in the forced expulsion of peasants and indigenous peoples; in the loss of communal rights; in the transformation of property relations into private property alone; in the suppression of alternative forms of production and consumption; in the monetisation of trade; through the slave trade; through debt; and, finally, through the credit system (Harvey, “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession”).
Additionally, dispossession (or ‘primitive accumulation’ in the words of Marx) is an ongoing process, which does not just belong to a past, primitive, or unique moment in time (Bonefeld 2001). For that reason, Harvey prefers to call the process ‘accumulation by dispossession’, while considering it an essential mechanism for the reproduction of capital. Furthermore, the different ways in which this process occurs are not linear, so they do not follow a logic of inevitable development. Dispossession through debt, for example, coexists with the loss of communal rights.
In short, the process of dispossession is essential for the continued reproduction of capital. In over-accumulation scenarios, where labour and capital are abundant but cannot be used productively, dispossession is used as a mechanism for transporting the apparently imminent crisis, with the surplus capital and unemployed labourers being used for production processes in new spaces of capital accumulation and reproduction. And, in this way, both the destruction of capital and the rebellion of the workforce are avoided. Harvey conceptualises such movements, which are necessary for capitalists, as a “time-space compression” (Harvey 1982) – which is considered to be a twofold process. On the one hand, this ‘compression’ involves the opening of new markets, often by force. On the other hand, meanwhile, it requires the large-scale production of infrastructure – of which contemporary urbanisation is an impeccable example (Harvey 1985, 1989, 2013).
Time-space compression modifies territory but, as new spaces useful for capital accumulation and production are only created according to the temporary needs of capitalists, they are destroyed as soon as they become insufficient (Harvey 1982). The high-rise buildings increasingly erected in Mexico City, for instance, show clearly how capitalists destroy previously-produced spaces, transform their appearance, and modify the characteristics and dynamics of urban communities.
This process of perpetual expansion, as I said earlier, also has a profound impact on property relations, and the Agrarian Reform Law of 1992 is a good example of the institutionalisation of such changes. The purpose of this reform was to liberalise the land market in Mexico, and thus facilitate the increased penetration into the country of capitalist relations of production. Ejido inhabitants, meanwhile, were left “liberated” from their land, and soon became just another source of cheap labour.
Economic liberalisation in general can also produce and precipitate the process of dispossession. Mexico’s entry into NAFTA, for example, accelerated the transformation of the countryside’s productive structures, with subsistence farming decreasing rapidly and farmers being displaced and forced to migrate. In San Quintín, the Triqui indigenous community found itself subjected to a state of near-slavery, being forcibly displaced by both poverty and its political abandonment by the state.
At the same time, the mechanisms of legal servitude that have arisen with the recent Energy Reform (in which the owners of lands useful for the production and transportation of hydrocarbons are being obliged to ‘rent’ them out to the state for periods of 50 years to companies that ‘require’ them) are likely to exacerbate the process of forced territorial displacement. Subsequently, the supply of labour elsewhere will increase, and the value placed on workers’ efforts by their employers will decrease (in a change which can only benefit capitalist interests).
Laws, then, can become a mechanism for the strengthening and encouragement of these processes of dispossession. One example of this reality is Colombia, where Rule 9.70 of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States removed the right of peasants to plant their own seeds. As a result of this law, not only are these workers now obliged to buy only government-sanctioned seeds, but they are also required to buy them each year (in disregard of the ancient practice of separating the best seeds for reuse – a practice that is now illegal). The TPP, which has just been held up in the United States (for the time being at least), would seek to establish similar provisions in the Mexican countryside. In other words, dispossession processes are accelerating, penetrating into unexpected spaces, and contributing to the sharpening of the contradictions between labour and capital, between the exploited and the exploiters, and between life and death.
Just as forms of dispossession aren’t linear, forms of exploitation aren’t either. While capitalist logic focusses on the relationship between capital and wage labour, there are also other forms of domination with which this reasoning coexists (Quijano 2000). The organisation of inequality around race and gender lines, for example, is indicative of the failure of the primary dichotomy of capitalism to explain everything that happens within the system’s boundaries. In other words, the fact that those who have been suffering exploitation and state repression in Baja California are indigenous Triquis is not just a random occurrence, but is a result of the racism inherent in the coloniality of power [the colonial legacy of social discrimination that became integrated into post-colonial orders] (Quijano 2000). The fact that femicides have become a structural process that plagues the whole country, meanwhile, with a notable focus on areas (like Ciudad Juarez) where the manufacturing industry is prevalent, is yet another part of the same process.
Territories littered with dead bodies also see their disastrous realities intertwined with capitalist accumulation, with the boundaries between organised crime, ‘law-abiding’ companies, and state institutions becoming increasingly blurred. Mining, poppy cultivation, and the suppression of dissent, for example, are all interconnected, with Guerrero in particular seeing exploitative forces increase their persecution, imprisonment, and murder of those citizens who have begun to fight against the so-called necrocapitalism that reigns in Mexico (Banerjee 2008).
One interesting feature of the resistance against accumulation by dispossession in recent years is that the fight contains scenarios which depart from the canons of classical Marxist proletarian struggle (Harvey 2003). The alliances that have been formed in response to this form of capitalism, for example, are different from those imagined by Marx, and are oriented specifically towards the fight against dispossession. Considering such innovations, we can understand better the increasing establishment of autonomous regional struggles in the world. The Cherán community police in the state of Guerrero, the Zapatista communities in Chiapas, and international experiences like that of the Rojava Revolution (Graeber and Öğünç 2014) are all examples today of how the expansion of accumulation into spaces which play host to people’s everyday lives has been generating new forms of organisation and resistance against capitalism.
Overall, then, the conclusion we should reach upon looking at Mexico (and the wider world) through the eyes of David Harvey is that the building of a society focussed on dignity and life rather than exploitation and death goes through a complex, creative, horizontal, and pluralist struggle against the global capitalist order. In short, the era of dogmatic commitment to immovable formulas is over.
- Banerjee, Subharata Bobby. 2008. “Necrocapitalism”. Organization Studies, 1541-1563.
- Bonefeld, Werner. 2001. “The Permanence of Primitive Accumulation: Commodity Fetishism and Social Constitution.” The Commoner.
- Graeber, David, y Pinar Öğünç. 2014. “Ésta es una revolución genuina. David Graeber sobre su visita a Rojava”. A las barricadas, 29 de diciembre.
- Harvey, David. 1982. The Limits to Capital. Londres: Routledge.
- —. 1985. The Urbanisation of Capital. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
- —. 1989. “From Managerialism to Entreprenurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism”. Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, 3-17.
- —. 2003. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- —. 2004. “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession”. Socialist Register, 63-87.
- —. 2013. Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. Londres: Verso.
- Quijano, Aníbal. 2000. “Colonialidad del poder y clasificación social”. Journal of World-Systems Research, 342-386.
- Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1988. El capitalismo histórico. México: Siglo XXI.