Since the financial crisis of 2008, capitalists have reacted to the limits of profitability and the collapse of the housing market by gobbling up much of Africa and Global South’s best land, trampling native rights, abrogating treaties, speculating on the global food supply, and investing in land that usually belonged to someone else for a very long time. This ugly new reality has been called the “new colonialism,” but in it one sees the older thread of capitalism’s drive to privatize the commons for the sake of profit and empire.
Two new books examine the plunder of the commons from different vantage points. Stop Thief! is a collection of essays written between 1976 and 2012 by Marxist historian Peter Linebaugh, a protégé of E. P. Thompson. Linebaugh artfully describes how the rising bourgeoisie used brute force to seize land previously held in common by collaborative societies throughout the world. The ruling class enforced this dispossession with laws protecting private ownership of the land as a commodity to be bought and sold.
Italian investigative journalist Stefano Liberti’s Land Grabbing does not use Linebaugh’s larger, Marxist framework, but his portrayal of African and South American land privatization by big agribusiness is just as powerful. Where Linebaugh uses history to show the violence and absurdity of private ownership, Liberti uses a recent narrative to connect the dots from grain traders in Chicago and agro giants like the Karuturi Group, to displaced farmers in Brazil and Ethiopia, showing how the endless hunt for the highest return exacerbates historic questions of underdevelopment, poverty, and political repression.
Stop, Thief! is the more unconventional of the two books. Linebaugh is at his best when jumping over decades and centuries to weave together the stories of the commons and the role they play in the English countryside or in North American tribes, to name just two. The books title refers to the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) tradition of crying out to get a crowd’s attention, then launching into a speech, saying, “I’ve been robbed. I’ve been robbed by a capitalist system.” Linebaugh defines the commons as political and social traditions of sharing and mutual aid, referring to examples like food, hospitality, health care, education, sports, housing, public space, shared knowledge, literature, religion, and history, with women usually acting as guardians of the commons.
Commoning is fundamental to the working class, even if capitalism has convinced many of us otherwise. “[V]arious forms of commoning, some traditional and some not, provided the proletariat with the means of survival in the struggle against capitalism. Commoning is the basis of proletarian class solidarity, and we can find this before, during, and after both the semantic and the political birth of communism.”
The removal of peasants from the land and their transformation into proletarians dispossessed of ownership of the means of production required a centuries-long battle of outlawing these traditions while building fences and jails. As the old rhyme notes,
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
The privatization of the commons saw the rise of prisons, the police, and the creation of criminal codes defining crime as anything that offended propertied interest. One of Stop, Thief!’s most interesting chapters details Karl Marx’s transformation from liberal lawyer to revolutionary in his writings and research on the illegality of collecting firewood in German forests.
Marx made the connection between economics and criminality, noting how the expansion of commercial goods and German railroads led to the tripling of the price for lumber, setting in motion the abolition of forest rights for the poor while removing any restrictions on the, “free, private exploitation of forest properties.” This drove Marx to learn more about political economy. “Engels had always understood Marx to say that it was the study of the law on the theft of wood and the situation of the Moselle peasantry that led him from a purely political viewpoint to the study of economics and from that to socialism.”
Fast forward to 2007-08. Liberti’s Land Grabbing begins in Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, describing the new logic of foreign investment in poor, verdant countries. Communally held land in Africa began attracting the attention of international investors, as capital fled worthless financial products and overpriced housing to basic commodities like wheat, corn and rice. The price of grain increased by 137 percent, rice by 217 percent, setting off protests globally at the rising price of food.
From an investment point of view, however, rising demand and limited supply mean high returns. Agribusinesses, aided by local governments in desperate need of hard currency, bought or rented huge tracts of land in the developing world, primarily in Africa. From 2007 to 2011, foreign investors acquired 45 million hectares of land, an area roughly the size of Spain. In 2008, Madagascar made a deal with Daewoo to lease over half the nation’s arable land for 99 years.
Liberti moves from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia, where he discovers that rise in food prices set off fears of food insecurity when in 2008 the Kingdom couldn’t secure enough rice on the international market. Having lived through a threatened food embargo by the West in response to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, the Saudis have invested in foreign agriculture for import. Sadly, the dire economic straits many African nations face, created by the legacy of colonialism and reinforced by the World Bank’s “development” model of smoothing any corporate roadblocks, has led these countries to compete against each other in a race to the bottom. In the hope that foreign investment will provide hard currency and jobs, African governments offer up other people’s land for almost nothing, emphasizing poverty wages as bait.
Liberti then examines the boondoggle of biofuels and the consequences of allocating a quarter of the US corn harvest for the production of ethanol, all in the racist framework of “energy independence.” He continues on to Brazil and Tanzania, where the same dynamic is at play, and rightfully interviews Lester Brown to show the criminal nature of converting food to fuel in what is a highly inefficient process. Needing one unit of fossil fuel energy to produce 1.3 units of ethanol, Brown notes that if every acre of arable land in the US were used for ethanol production, it would only satisfy 16 percent of the US’s fuel demands. Meanwhile, with less grain available for food, prices rise, and people go hungry—usually Brown people.
Liberti has several candid gems where investors and corporate talking heads say what they really think. At a global food conference in Geneva, one admits that the happy talk about social and environmental responsibility is fake. “They had to do it. But the truth is that all the participants, including myself, are only here for one reason: to find out how to make easy money.” Another smiles with a satisfied look, announcing a bad corn harvest that is met with loud applause as investors realize that food shortages will drive up prices and make them piles of cash.
While Liberti’s sympathies are enjoyably on the right side, don’t expect solutions. Land Grabbing is all about evidence. He does readers a great service by exposing the wrongs perpetrated by giant agribusinesses and the institutions behind them, and the increasingly knowledgeable crowd who suspect that capitalism and profit create these awful realities will easily comprehend the systemic nature of the problem. This reviewer, however, couldn’t help but wonder about the resistance to land theft noticeably absent from the book.
In that sense, Stop, Thief! is the more hopeful and less inclined to see the commoners found in both books as victims than as potential agents who can alter the course of history away from privatization. Still, an impatient reader might crave a more direct approach after reading Stop, Thief! At his best, Linebaugh shows the violent transformation of peasants into laborers as part of transforming feudalism into capitalism. At other times, he loses track of the overarching story in historical minutiae that most will quickly forget.
Just when the reader tires of tracking names and dates, though, Stop, Thief! returns to its central theme of showing how collaboration, often led by women, was the basis of human social reproduction, and could be again. History, by showing the past, can illuminate the present. Linebaugh notes that the struggle to reinstate the commons is now urban:
Since the city, in the sense of law, force, and commodity, has abolished the countryside commons and the “bourgeois” nations destroyed the “barbarian” ones, the commoners of the world can no longer retire to the forest or run to the hills. Unprecedented as the task may historically be, the city itself must be commonized.
Without fetishizing the reclaiming of common space for political and cultural expression, revolutionaries must prioritize the tradition of commoning to combat the alienation and atomization of capitalist individualism. Our strength is our shared interests and our mutual reliance. We need the sensibilities of commoners and the politics of socialism to rescue our world from a capitalist system that puts profits before people and risks ecological destruction on a planetary scale.