Grabbing Back


Grabbing Back

Essays against the Global Land Grab
Edited by Alexander Reid Ross
(AK Press, 2014)

Review by David Porter

While atlases reify the notion that every land mass but Antarctica is defined by statist boundaries and state control, Alexander Reid Ross’ interesting recent anthology, Grabbing Back exposes this illusion. An alternative atlas portraying territorial zones of resistance throughout the world would allow us more realistically to visualize the present moment in the continuing flux of land dynamics emphasized in this book. A radical cartography would identify where people live and the relative degree to which basic subsistence and human dignity are assured, with overlays showing contrary statist and multinational expropriations. It is, above all, the protection and enlargement of land bases or “places” for survival, identity, and a rich community life that are emphasized in most of the essays in this book. As Vandana Shiva states, “land is life,” a concept diametrically opposed to capitalism’s definition of land as “commodity.” It is this polarization that underscores all the land struggles in the world.

There are nine essays in the book that focus on horizontal land struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, with a majority of these concentrating on specific country settings of India, China, Ethiopia, Paraguay, and Brazil, while others have a broader comparative scope. Another 12 essays concern the land crisis in North America, with a specific focus on grassroots resistance in Detroit, Portland (OR), Miami, New Orleans, Appalachia, Maritime Canada, the Pacific Northwest, and Berkeley. Despite this great variety of contexts, there are also stimulating theoretical articles by Guillermo Delgado-P. and Andrej Grubacic, Michael Hardt’s interview with Antonio Negri, and several integrating essays by Javier Sethness Castro and editor Ross, provide solid radical frameworks  and concepts for generally linking the various struggles.

As Ross and others describe, acquiring exclusive rights (and profits) to limited food, biofuel, and mineral supplies for ever-expanding richer populations are crucial motivations for land grabs by multinationals and states, dynamics especially intensified recently because of climate change, economic recession and feverish speculation (as quite obviously in rural China). According to the article by Ward Anseeuw and Mike Taylor, over two billion people (one-third of the world population) depend on small farms and pastoral production for subsistence. It is control and transformation of the land they depend on for survival that is increasingly under threat by the more powerful state and corporate entities. It is the opposing grassroots struggle for social-ecological self-management, as Castro describes it, that provides the radical alternative, locally and globally.

As with the spread of 19th century European colonialism, similar dynamics occur with this new phase of state-supported corporate neo-colonialism (now including non-Western imperial powers such as China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia as well)—an exploitation, as Shiva describes, that also occurs internally between the rich and the marginalized.

Government and multinational intrusions on traditional or liberated grassroots “commons” in North America are defined in the book more broadly, ranging from Appalachian mountain removal; Detroit “strip-mining;” a privatization of abandoned public land; home evictions in Portland, Miami, and New Orleans; fracking in New Brunswick; megaload trucking on scenic back roads in the Pacific Northwest to supply Alberta’s Tar Sands oil exploitation; and recent prohibitions of public protest space on the Berkeley campus.

An important, though elsewhere often neglected, dimension is the specific role of women’s leadership and militant energy in land struggles throughout the world. Silvia Federici emphasizes that land is the material basis for women’s subsistence work, thus the focus on food security. She states that one major strategy of women is the spread of subsistence farming to urban areas—a source of food for one billion people. She also describes women’s direct action struggles in Bangladesh, Paraguay, Uganda, India, Thailand, and New York City. In turn, Keisha-Khan Perry and Ana Cristina da Silva Caminha, scholar-activists in Salvador, Brazil, emphasize the gendered racism of the government in failing to fully recognize ownership of urban land reclaimed from below. They also stress women’s superior organizing efforts because of greater sensitivity to group forms of leadership, open discussion of issues, and commitment to militant action as directly defending their children. In turn, Delgado-P. Shiva and Ross emphasize that, beyond issues of survival and dignity, the significance of indigenous peoples’ struggles is ontological in essence since they challenge the very basis of identity, sense of community history and even the meaning of nature. Hardt’s interview with Negri and Delgado-P.’s theoretical contributions encourage readers to recognize that current land struggles, in whatever forms, also transcend in other ways the immediate issues and contexts involved. Each and all imply basic critiques of capitalism, statism, racism, classism and positive definitions of modernity itself. In his longer piece on “world-systems analysis of non-state spaces,” Grubacic calls for “alternative area studies” to examine the territorial strategies of escape, exilic self-activity, from the administered space of global capitalism and the international state system, citing Cossacks, Maroons, Zapatistas, and those anthropologist James Scott labels as Zomians. Though swamps, forests and mountains, he says, are most obvious exilic territories, urban neighborhoods, slums and Occupied town squares are also areas of alternative “emplacement.” Intentional critical silences and low profile forms of infra-political resistance contain the potential for larger and more public territorial and structural (at least temporary) withdrawals from the state and capitalism, as described throughout the book.

Indeed, a major strength throughout the anthology is the many examples of autonomous local direct action—including road blockades, building and office occupations, abandoned city lots transformed to urban gardens, sea piracy, women disrobing in a mass public demonstration, reversing evictions, restoring wetlands, providing horizontalist medical and mutual aid to disaster communities, dock strikes, spontaneous sabotage, massive rallies, squatting, embracing threatened trees, and open insurrection. As editor Ross states, it is these sorts of direct actions that remain “the crux of land-based movements” and thus a major purpose of the book is to be “a field guide” to such efforts. At the same time, most articles emphasize that, despite repressive responses, participation in direct action provides a crucial sense of egalitarian empowerment, a major value in itself. The many contributors to Grabbing Back would no doubt be delighted if their accounts inspire similar acts of resistance and constructive autonomy to thwart the designs of the rich and the police power behind them.

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David Porter is emeritus professor of political science at SUNY/Empire State College and author of Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution and Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria (david.porter@ esc.edu).