Commodity Frontiers

Commodity Frontiers is a Commodities of Empire collaboration with the International Institute of Social History (Amsterdam), and the Universities of Ghent (Belgium) and Harvard (US).

The transformation of the global countryside has been one of the key processes in the emergence and consolidation of global capitalism over the past 500 years. Providing raw materials, agricultural commodities and labour to satisfy the voracious appetite of machines and city dwellers, the flatlands, valleys, forests and mountains of the world have been transformed at astonishing and accelerating speed. This recasting of the countryside can only be understood in connection to developments in other parts of the world and in the context of the rise of global capitalism.

Capitalism as a global system relies on technological innovation, the rise of productivity and the expansion of vast frontiers of labour, food, energy, and raw materials. For most of human history technological advances were slow and piecemeal and therefore the proliferation of extractive economies in geologically and climatically distinct eco-systems, at ever greater distances across broader space, was an indispensable element of the expansion of capitalism. This has been a highly unstable process, inciting multiple paths of transformation, increasing regional inequalities, and instigating trajectories of uneven and combined development between extractive and productive zones. The cyclic and insecure nature of extractive economies, combined with their tendency to despoil the resources on which they depend, led to constant exploration for new resources at the margins of the world economy. This drive towards permanent cost-reduction and raising labour productivity was facilitated by an indiscriminate appropriation of the world’s ecological surpluses. This process of appropriation is what we denote as commodity frontiers, entailing the long history of enclosures and exhaustion of nature, land and labour.

The central ambition of this new collaborative research project is to reveal the dynamics of these frontier processes of transformation and how they relate to social, economic and ecological change at a global and a local level. This requires a global, long-term, interconnected and comparative research frame, focussing on the dynamics between social power and property relations, and on the control of, access to and alienation from nature, land and labour in a long-term and global perspective. They are part of systemic transformations on regional and global scales.

Following on from discussions held at the IISH Amsterdam in 2012 and 2013, a workshop was held in Harvard in 2014, followed by a second in Amsterdam in 2015 –  to discuss advancing the research into commodity frontiers; with a third workshop organised in London for December 2016.

A further workshop for the Commodity Frontiers initiative was held in Dubai, in December 2017.