Book Review of Jan Breman’s Mobilizing Labour for the Global Coffee Market

This post is written by John M. Talbot, Chair of the Political Economy of the World System section of the American Sociological Association.

It is part of the Journal of Agrarian Change blog, hosted on the Development Studies at SOAS blog.

Mobilizing Labour for the Global Coffee Market: Profits from an Unfree Work Regime in Colonial Java, by Jan Breman. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015. Pp. 404 + 8 Plates €99 (hb). ISBN 978-90-8964-859-4.

This is a book of impressive scope. It tells the story of coffee cultivation on Java under Dutch colonialism from its beginnings in the early 1600s through to the end of the notorious Cultivation System in the late 1800s. It focuses on the Priangan Highlands of West Java, which was the main coffee-producing region during most of the colonial period. It was here that a system of forced cultivation was introduced in the early 1700s. This evolved into the model for the Cultivation System that was imposed on the whole island in the 1830s.

The book begins by describing the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC’s) efforts to take control of the thriving inter-regional trade conducted by Javanese, Gujaratis, Malays, Arabs, Chinese, and others; and to extend its territorial control inland from Batavia (modern day Jakarta). The two efforts were interrelated because the competitive advantage of the existing traders was based on the relationships they had established with the local nobility controlling agricultural production on Java. Once the VOC imposed its political control inland, it exerted monopoly control over exports from West Java, and through that over the Batavia node of the larger inter-regional trade. Continue reading

Rethinking Agrarian Transitions and Left Politics in India

Free Issue of Journal of Agrarian Change to mark 50 years since Naxalbari

Photo courtesy Alpa Shah.

This post is written by Jens Lerche, Reader in Agrarian and Labour Studies in the Department of Development Studies, SOAS and Editor in Chief of Journal of Agrarian Change, Alpa Shah, Associate Professor (Reader) in Anthropology at LSE, and Barbara Harriss-White,  Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at Oxford University.

It is part of the Journal of Agrarian Change blog, hosted on the Development Studies at SOAS blog.

It is now half a century since the small uprising in the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal led to the spread of a Maoist inspired revolutionary armed struggle in India, that is still ongoing. But with the Indian state now bent on crushing these Naxalites, and with the more general challenges faced by parliamentary communist parties across India, the question of how to analyse the agrarian economy – the basis of left strategy for a communist society in many parts of the world – remains of the utmost importance. There are many unresolved questions for scholars, activists and left parties alike.

How important are semi-feudal production relations? Should the aim be to eradicate semi-feudal relations in agriculture and to develop a modern, industrially based capitalism? Is global agribusiness exploiting Indian farmers and if so, is this the main problem for both big and marginal farmers? Should the focus still be on land reforms and if so, what kind of reforms and why? Or should landless peasants, labourers and petty producers unite against rural and urban capitalists, along class lines? And what does the analysis of the agrarian economy mean for struggles against dispossession by mining and industrial conglomerates and the neo-liberal industrial development they are proponents of?  Continue reading

Notice – London workshop on Chinese labour regimes, 22 June

Photo courtesy CLGP, Queen Mary University of London.

‘Chinese labour regimes: mutations, expansions, resistance’ 
A Centre on Labour and Global Production workshop
Queen Mary University of London, Mile End Campus
Thursday 22 June, 2pm – 6pm


“The ongoing wave of strikes in China is the latest manifestation of a dynamic that can be summed up in the phrase: where capital goes, labor-capital conflict shortly follows” — Beverly Silver


The emergence of China as a global economic power in recent decades has been striking – Its ~10% per annum GDP growth since 1989 is but one indication. This economic boom has been accompanied by enormous changes to the domestic labour market, as hundreds of millions have made the change from rural agricultural to urban industrial workers. At the same time, strikes by workers have been rising since 2004, and have intensified since 2010, when the government stopped releasing official statistics. In 2016, China Labour Bulletin had recorded 2,662 worker collective actions – an increase of 20% from a year before.


Meanwhile, Chinese capital has been flowing overseas in search of new investment opportunities, with over $130 billion invested last year alone, an increase of 55 percent on 2015. Major investments stretch across the globe, from Latin America (the canal in Nicaragua) to Europe (the Port of Piraeus in Greece) and Africa (natural resource extraction throughout the continent), competing increasingly with North America and European capital under greater pressure due to the differential impact of the economic crisis.

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Interview: Agrarian Political Economy of Left-wing Governments in Latin America with Leandro Vergara-Camus

This post is part of the Journal of Agrarian Change blog, hosted on the Development Studies at SOAS blog. 

The Journal of Agrarian Change has recently published a Special Issue entitled, Peasants, Agribusiness, Left-wing Governments and Neo-Developmentalism in Latin America: Exploring the Contradictions’ (JAC Vol. 17, No. 2, April 2017), edited by Cristóbal Kay and Leandro Vergara-Camus. In this interview, Leandro Vergara-Camus (Senior Lecturer, Development Studies at SOAS) talks about the rationale behind the special issue and its major conclusions. The Special Issue is free to access online till May 31, 2017.


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The Centrality of the Margins: Brokering Borders and Borderlands in the age of Trump and Brexit

US/Mexico (San Diego/Tijuana) Border, 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This blog post is written by Dr Sharri Plonski (SOAS) and Dr Patrick Meehan (SOAS).

Borders are never far from the news these days, with a relentless media focus on Donald Trump’s new America and Theresa May’s ‘Hard Brexit’. Trump’s Mexico Wall epitomises this border neurosis and symbolises a wider trend towards protectionism that seeks to thwart the flow of people (into the country) and of capital, jobs and control over industries (out of the country). The UK’s Brexit campaign was animated by similar anxieties; nostalgia for a “Great(er) Britain” and a desire to regain control over the flow of people and trade across its borders.

In both cases, one can discern a paradoxical harking back to a time of ‘empire’: a time when the sovereignty of Western nation-states was anchored in the imagined distance and separateness of the Oriental East and Global South. The frontiers to be conquered and exploited were contained at the edges of space, while the borders of (white) colonial and imperial nations were kept safe and secure from encroachment by colonised (brown and black) peoples.

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Why Global Efforts to Address Climate Change Through Forest Conservation are Failing

Photo credit: UNFCCC

This blog post is written by Adeniyi Asiyanbi, Senior Teaching Fellow in the Development Studies Department at SOAS. He researches the intersection of environment and development.

Beneath the euphoria of recent progress in international climate change negotiations in Paris and Marrakech lies the reality that schemes to curb carbon emissions through forest conservation are failing. From the Brazilian Amazon rainforests to the Congo Basin forests, these schemes have not addressed climate change, stemmed deforestation, or improved the livelihoods of forest communities.

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus sustainable forest management (or REDD+) is a major global initiative to address climate change. Touted as a means to ‘cheaply’ reduce carbon emissions and drive green growth for both developed countries and developing countries alike, REDD+ aims to reduce global carbon emissions by transferring cash incentives (through grants, credits, and ultimately through the sale of carbon offsets) from developed to developing countries in order to help reduce deforestation in the latter.  Global expectations of the scheme are high. The coordinator of the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility declared: it is hoped that REDD+ will “transform rural landscapes, conserve forests, make a difference in climate change trajectories and, most importantly, bring prosperity to the rural poor”. Continue reading

Book Review of Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life by Henry Bernstein

Cover image of Jason Moore's book Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital

Henry Bernstein is Emeritus Professor of Development Studies in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS and Adjunct Professor in the College of Humanities and Development, China Agricultural University, Beijing (e-mail: 

This post is part of the Journal of Agrarian Change blog, hosted on the Development Studies at SOAS blog. It is a summary of the talk given by the author as part of the Agrarian Change Seminar Series.

Capitalism in the Web of Life. Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, by Jason W. Moore. London and New York: Verso, 2015. Pp.316 + xi. £19.99 (pb). ISBN 978-1-78168-902-8

This book has been keenly awaited by those who have followed Jason Moore’s sequence of extraordinary articles over the last 15 years or so, some of which have appeared in the Journal of Agrarian Change.

Moore’s book is not an easy read. This is not because it is not clearly written, which it is (though a few passages still elude me), but because of the massive challenges the author has set himself, and therefore his readers. While a follower of his work over the years, it has taken me some time to separate and outline the five main ingredients of the book, and in a fashion that inevitably omits much of interest and provocation. It seemed to be a good use of my effort in assembling (and trying to connect) those main ingredients to share them with others as a kind of guide to engaging with this book which is evidently one step, albeit a very big one, in what is a continuing (monumental) work in progress. It leaves me with many issues and questions which will continue to stimulate and exercise me, several of which I indicate briefly here. Continue reading

The Global Crisis and the Disintegration of Neoliberalism

Donald Trump supporter at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, June 2016. Courtesy Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Donald Trump supporter at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, June 2016. Courtesy Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Alfredo Saad Filho is Professor of Political Economy at the SOAS Department of Development Studies. His research interests include the political economy of neoliberalism, industrial policy, alternative macroeconomic policies, and the labour theory of value and its applications.

The certainties that used to hold neoliberalism together are melting into the air: the common sense of the age has degenerated into clichés. Tried and tested policies such as privatisation, marketisation and trade liberalisation have lost traction, and established political systems are haemorrhaging legitimacy. Even the steadiest political hands have lost their grip on the levers of power, which, themselves, lack effectiveness. The economic turmoil in global neoliberalism is morphing into a wholesale political crisis: the beast is sick, and it might be fatal.

A dysfunctional economic system

Neoliberalism has created unprecedentedly favourable conditions for capital accumulation worldwide since the early 1980s. The ensuing growth process supported a steep concentration of power, income and wealth, in which unparalleled prosperity for certain groups (often identified as financial or other elites or oligarchs, the top 1%, or the top 0.01%) coexist with severe poverty and exclusion.

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What Does Trump Mean for Sub-Saharan Africa?


Michael Jennings is a Head of Department and Senior Lecturer in the SOAS Department of Development Studies. His research interests include the politics and history of development processes in sub-Saharan Africa; governance, civil society, non-governmental organisations and faith-based organisations; and social aspects of health in Africa.

On the scale of some of the things that emerged from the mouth of now US president-elect Donald Trump on the campaign scale, allegedly calling the Kenyan athletics team ‘frauds’*, and mispronouncing Tanzania, hardly counts as anything serious at all. We have few clues as to what Trump thinks of the region, and how he intends his administration to engage with its countries and leaders. But are there any indications, even at this stage, of what a Trump presidency might mean for sub-Saharan Africa and development?

It was probably inevitable that Africa would feature less prominently no matter who replaced Obama. Although Hillary Clinton, through her role as Secretary of State, and the work of the Clinton Foundation in Africa, certainly has closer ties and a more detailed understanding of the region.

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India’s Land Question

Cybercity IT Park in Pune, India. Photo: Wikipedia

Cybercity IT Park in Pune, India. Photo: Wikipedia

Michael Levien is an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins University. His research focuses on India and seeks to advance a nascent sociology of dispossession. He teaches on international development, agrarian change, dispossession, and social theory.

This post is part of the Journal of Agrarian Change blog, hosted on the Development Studies at SOAS blog. It is a summary of the talk given by the author as part of the Agrarian Change Seminar Series, October 19, 2016.

While the Indian state dispossessed millions of farmers for dams and public sector infrastructure during the period of state-led development (c. 1947 to 1991), land dispossession has become unprecedentedly contentious during India’s neoliberal period. These new farmer protests, unlike the smaller number of anti-dam movements of the 1980s, have actually stopped major investments, made “land grabs” an electorally salient issue, and forced changes to India’s eminent domain law. At the centre of these protests have been privately developed Special Economic Zones (SEZs), for which India’s state governments began dispossessing rural land in the early 2000s. In this talk, based on my book-in-progress, I drew on nineteen months of ethnographic, archival and interview research focused on villages dispossessed for one of North India’s largest SEZs to address three major questions: what do SEZs tell us about how land dispossession has changed with the shift from state-led development to neoliberalism in India? What are the consequences of this change for dispossessed farmers? And what are the implications of this change for our understanding of India’s land wars? Continue reading