In my latest article (open access) for Environment and Planning F I explore Latin American contributions to the debates surrounding the concept ‘mode of production’ (MOP). I specifically explore the contributions of José Carlos Mariátegui and René Zavaleta as two of the continent’s most original Marxist thinkers. Whilst there has been renewed interest in both these thinkers in Anglophone literature recently, few have explicitly looked at their contribution to MOP debates. At the same time those interested in questions of MOP have rarely looked to Latin American theoretical sources. The article therefore offers a number of contributions. First, I remove the MOP debate from its relatively narrow, Eurocentric moorings. Second, I provide an explicitly spatial framing of the MOP debate derived from Mariátegui and Zavaleta. This opens the possibilities of thinking about co-existing differential spaces within a social formation, which can provide a basis for thinking about resistance and transformation.
A key contention of mine is that the majority of scholarship on MOP is focused on temporal questions surrounding the origins of capitalism. The dominant question that frames their inquiry is thus: ‘When was capitalism?’ I believe a more politicised understanding can be gained from asking more spatial questions, thus: ‘where is capitalism?’. This opens the possibility of thinking about incompleteness, the existence of difference within a social formation, and crucially possibilities of resistance. It thus shifts the focus from a largely historical debate to one that is both politicised and contemporary.
The article is organised as follows. First, I introduce why the MOP debate matters for historical materialist enquiry and what some of the key debates have been around this concept. Antonio Gramsci once remarked that ‘the State is the concrete form of a productive world.’ Karl Marx in Vol.3 of Capital outlines this idea in further detail, noting that notions such as MOP are vital for understanding the links between the social relations of production and the state form:
The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself and reacts back on it in turn as a determinant. On this is based the entire configuration of the economic community arising from the actual relations of production, and hence also its specific political form. It is in each case the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the immediate producers – a relationship whose particular form naturally corresponds always to a certain level of economic development of the type and manner of labour, and hence to its social productive power – in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social edifice, and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and dependence, in short the specific form of the state.
I also unpack how spatial theorists have sought to grapple with issues surrounding MOP. Two important issues are advanced here. First the idea (from Henri Lefevbre) that all notions of MOP produce their own distinct spaces. Second, I discuss the vital role of struggle in producing space. As Brazilian geographer Milton Santos argued, ‘A mode of production is expressed through a struggle and interaction between the new, which dominates, and the old. The new seeks to dominate everywhere, but without being able to do so completely’. It is this notion of incompleteness and difference that I am interested in. This issue is thrown into sharper focus once we consider the wider picture of core–periphery relations within global capitalism. How do the global dynamics of expanding capitalism, transform space and how do struggles linked to other forms of social relations retain their relevance?
To answer these questions, I explore the case of Latin America. Latin America has been a crucial location, both as a vantage point for assessing the MOP debate and, in turn, becoming a site to reflect and offer an original contribution to it. One of the most well-known contributions in this area came from dependency theory. Dependency analysis, situated the development of the periphery within the broader totality of the capitalist MOP. Latin America was therefore a constituent, if peripheral part of the global capitalist MOP. However, there remain questions about how well dependency analysis conceptualises the specifically capitalist form of value production. In this sense, it is questionable how far capitalism dominated everyday forms of social relations and spatial transformation in the continent.
There remains a gap therefore to (1) identify with accuracy Latin America’s relationship to colonial societies vis-à-vis the dominant MOP, (2) theorise how, since that time, spatial transformations have occurred across the continent and, finally, (3) reflect on how such an analysis can provide tools for thinking about radical possibilities in the present.
Here I turn to the work of Mariátegui and Zavaleta. I argue that through the nuanced incorporation of space into their theories they provide three major contributions to the MOP debate.
First, they situate colonial and postcolonial state formation within the wider totality of social relations but do not succumb to a pan-capitalist thesis claiming Latin America has been capitalist since the time of colonialism. Rather they provide a careful discussion about the feudal nature of colonial exploitation linked to racialised prejudice against Indigenous populations. Their analysis provides a careful treatment of the relational geography between Latin America and the global political economy, exploring how the rise of capitalism in one place, still reproduced the relations of feudal subservience and exploitation in others. This was mediated by the extraction of resources, but did not lead to transformation in value production in Latin America.
Second, they do not dismiss the geographical specificity of concrete social formations, showing how Latin American societies are constituted by multiple forms of MOP that are intrinsically linked to the contradictions of colonisation and the world market. Mariátegui and Zavaleta note the existence of three types of MOP within the broader socioeconomic formations they discuss (Peru and Bolivia respectively). These are the non-capitalist communitarian; the feudal; and the capitalist. This heterogeneity, whilst important for Mariátegui, finds an important new conceptual vocabulary in the work of Zavaleta with his notion of abigarramiento. Linked to the earlier point derived from Marx that linked the character of the state with the form of surplus extraction in society, this meant that state formation in many Latin American contexts remained weak and hegemony highly fractured. Alongside the state, other forms of authority and governance remained that were tied to Indigenous customs.
Finally, this fractured hegemony leads to the question of alternative space and the possibilities of transformation. Here I argue that Mariátegui and Zavaleta provide an account of agency that is resultant from the heterogeneous make-up of the societies they study. Crucially this integrates a core racial component in the form of Indigenous social forces. However, they carefully illustrate the internal relationship between race and class, which stands against recent attempts at liberal multiculturalism.
Although often using key universal categories found within Marxist vocabulary, these are developed via their encounter with local reality. Rather than simply uncovering an interesting historical past, I argue that Mariátegui and Zavaleta can be read as vital contemporary sources for today.