In Gran Sabana, southern Venezuela, an ongoing process of enclosure is generating social transformations comparable to the ones associated with primitive accumulation: this process leads to the transformation of land into capital and accentuates the conditions that have for decades spurred the proletarianisation of part of the indigenous Pemon, the traditional owners of these lands.
But in this process, whose intricate unfolding I’ve come to know fairly well through lengthy fieldwork in the region, there are some singular elements that in my view beg for a distinguishable conceptualisation. Such conceptualisation is what I aimed to develop in a recent paper published recently in Anthropological Theory, which I summarise in this blog entry.
One of the singular elements I refer to is that the subjects who are enclosing land in Gran Sabana, who are local Pemon, do not necessarily require capital (in its monetary form) or violent extra-economic means to realise dispossession. This is facilitated by the particular socio-ecological conditions in the territory where the enclosures are realised, which I describe in my paper in some detail. These conditions include access to land treated as a common pool resource, a degree of “fuzziness” pervading the indigenous property regime and generalised aversion towards potential escalations of internal conflict in Pemon communities.
These conditions are also being recast in the conjuncture that the Pemon of Gran Sabana are currently in. This conjuncture is marked by growing territorial encroachment, threats of violent land dispossession by non-indigenous actors and a narrowing of economic alternatives. I depict the contours of this conjuncture at some length, dispelling potential interpretations of these enclosures as the realisation of a natural human inclination.
Other aspects of the process to which I draw attention are the discursive articulations that accompany these enclosures, which contribute to situating Gran Sabana as a centre of differential rent-capture for tourist operators and landowners. One of those articulations I characterise as a defetishising move: the region in which enclosures are taking place is discursively presented as a social product permanently inscribed with a particular type of collective labour. The other discursive articulation produces an association of property rights over Gran Sabana’s territory with a capacity for conserving this territory.
In tandem, this discursive production contributes to provide the Pemon with a layer of protection against ongoing threats of land dispossession led by non-indigenous actors, but it also disguises the fact that some Pemon people are dispossessed of land and resources that were part of their common pool.
This combination of characteristics underpins a form of accumulation and dispossession that I call ‘modern accumulation’. I propose this term because it evokes the conceptual similarities it shares with ‘primitive accumulation’, while in parallel it flags a stark differentiation with the latter. The adjective in ‘modern accumulation’ expresses in terminological terms its conceptual contrasts with ‘primitive accumulation’: it does not seek to invoke the temporal/ political load carried by the term ‘modernity’.
I also suggest that this concept can make two additional contributions for the analyses of current forms of capitalist accumulation. First, ‘modern accumulation’ helps to highlight that the subjects currently undertaking dispossessing accumulation in Gran Sabana are not the type of social subject commonly associated with ‘primitive accumulation’. Indeed, those who are enclosing belong to a group whose social identity is (partially) defined by historical exposure to processes of dispossession and proletarianisation: an ‘indigenous people’. The concept of ‘modern accumulation’ thus provides yet another opportunity to re-calibrate the current reach of capital as a social relation, by reminding us that, where the social forces that collectively organise in defence or promotion of economic alternatives are lacking, resisting dispossession does not necessarily equate to resisting capitalist expansion and its mechanisms of accumulation. Second, the contrast between ‘modern’ and ‘primitive’ that the concept of ‘modern accumulation’ flags may be useful to highlight the current prominence of non-productive forms of value appropriation, which have increased in the past decades at the expense of other forms of value production. The enclosures taking place in Gran Sabana can be interpreted as localised expressions of that shift, and as an example of how processes of rent-capture are articulated and socially shaped by people on the periphery of global capitalism.