What do we mean by anti-commodity?

(Extract from introduction to Local Subversions of Colonial Cultures, by Sandip Hazareesingh and Harro Maat)

The concept of anti-commodity can be defined as an enduring form of production and action in opposition either to actual commodities and their existing functions, or to wider social processes of commodification, rather than simply a momentary form of protest or reaction.

It refers to a range of local productive processes associated with values other than the purely economic, that are either maintained from the past or originally created to confront the various modes of commodification, primarily but not exclusively unleashed by European colonial hegemonies.

In the book, contributors tend to employ the concept with different emphases reflecting both the diversity of the historical and spatial contexts of their research as well as their particular theoretical preferences. These are, however, productive differences that provide ample scope for further discussion, debate and the generation of new directions in both colonial and agrarian histories.

Some authors emphasise anti-commodity as original products, alterations of, or departures from existing commodity forms. Here, both its dependent and (directly) oppositional character are stressed, as in Richards’ study of the ‘re-engineering’ of transplanted rice varieties by maroon communities in Sierra Leone. This was performed as an emancipatory  activity, coeval with their struggle against slavery. Moreover, this form of hybridised local rice production, he observes, has endured to the present day.

Sinha-Kerkhoff takes a similar view of desi tobacco in Bihar, another enduring hybrid product which emerged originally as a result of the colonial introduction of, and experiments with, foreign tobacco varieties. In this case, its anti-commodity function lies not so much in its mode of production or local use but in its connection with and popularisation by, an emerging anti-colonial nationalist movement.

Other contributors conceive of anti-commodity less as emancipatory products deriving from actual related commodities, but rather as assertions of local autonomy in response to more global economic market pressures. The Shangwe communities in Maravanyika’ account attempt to hold on to their local ways of life in the face of ‘modernizing’ social and economic intrusions unleashed by the colonial appetite for cotton.

Maat’s characterisation of upland rice in Sumatra as anti-commodity rests on its particular local uses and cultural functions as a basic livelihood and community crop, which contrast with the surplus production of lowland rice for distant markets in neighbouring Java, a consequence of the latter’s incorporation within an emerging global economy in the late nineteenth century.

Curry-Machado, similarly, tends towards an ‘anti-dependency’ view whereby local development, characterised by sustainable crop diversity and the spread of education and health institutions, constitutes the main manifestation of anti-commodity in the face of the seemingly inexorable rise of the sugar industry in the Remedios region. Moreover, in this specific context, the commodity, sugar, is complementary to rather than in opposition with, the anti-commodity, since it is the social re-investment locally of sugar profits that make regional development possible.

A few authors offer an explicitly ecological understanding of anti-commodity, perceived as productive activities by peasant cultivators to maintain and sustain their livelihoods and well-being, rooted in a nurturing relationship with their local agrarian environment. Hazareesingh views anti-commodity as sustainable modes of cultivation focussing primarily on food and deriving from peasant experience and knowledge of their environment in the Dharwar region. Here indigenous knowledge enables the adoption of durable strategies to thwart the colonial drive towards the pervasive local cultivation of foreign American cotton.

Minsky, similarly, dwells on peasant producers’ activities and efforts to cultivate crops in ways that protected their collective health and well-being in the canal colonies of the Punjab. In her narrative, anti-commodity appears in the guise of life-affirming forms of sanitary practices designed to reverse the unhealthy conditions imposed by colonial attempts to secure the production of heavily manured crops for distant markets.

Collective action designed to protect livelihoods and to suggest an alternative developmental path to a post-colonial future is also at the heart of Hyde’s understanding of anti-commodity in a different context. Here it is labour action that is crucial as railway workers responded to attempts to force them to shoulder the burden of the financial crisis affecting the colonial railway system in Kenya through a flurry of strikes. These actions enabled local labour to supersede its own fictitious commodity status assigned by colonial capitalism and emerge instead as a capacity, as ‘autonomous human persons’, to use Paul Richards’ phrase, working for social and political change.

Finally, Gilbert offers a starkly contrasting perception of anti-commodity that anticipates the contemporary practice of ‘luxury’ branding of particular domestic goods to serve as a marker of privileged social status: he reads the enduring refusal by Swahili communities to develop local rice varieties into a lucrative commercial product and maintaining production for household consumption only, not as some form of resistance to market forces, but as a marker of an elitist, prestigious social identity, helping to distinguish Arab settlers from indigenous Africans.

Indeed, although the anti-commodity case studies featured in this collection are primarily drawn from the colonial period, the concept remains pertinent to the contemporary world. This is partly because, as Teodor Shanin observed some time ago, the peasantry has clearly not read the script of its predicted historical demise, even under the currently adverse conditions of neo-liberal globalisation.[1] Anti-commodity still appears to be definitionally relevant here to the world of small rural producers seeking to develop sustainable modes of food production in the face of unrelenting pressure from the powerful global corporate food industry backed by western institutional “free trade” policies.

For instance, in their analysis of alternative food networks in contemporary Mexico and France, Nigh and Gonzalez Cabanas draw explicitly on the work of Richards and Maat and its emphasis on the technical and cultural dynamism of local food systems. These networks are perceived as ‘post-capitalist social behaviour and a form of anticommodity’.[2]  Here anti-commodity is closely aligned to the radical idea of ‘food sovereignty’, originally articulated a couple of decades ago by the influential peasant movement La Via Campesina to assert the right of local peoples in both south and north, to define their own food, land, and natural resource policies appropriate to their unique ecological and cultural circumstances.[3]

(Extract from book introduction, by Sandip Hazareesingh and Harro Maat)

More details on the book at www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137381095

[1] T. Shanin (1972), The Awkward Class. Political Sociology of Peasantry in a Developing Society: Russia 1910-1925 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press).

[2] R. Nigh & Alma A. González Cabañas (2015) Reflexive Consumer Markets as Opportunities for New Peasant Farmers in Mexico and France: Constructing Food Sovereignty Through Alternative Food Networks. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 39 (3), p. 317.

[3]See the rich range of papers presented at the conference on ‘Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue’ held at Yale University, September 14-15 2013, available at www.yale.edu/agrarianstudies/foodsovereignty/.