Marxism, Culture, and Political Ecology

Moore, Donald. 1996. “Marxism, Culture, and Political Ecology: Environmental Struggles in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands.” In Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements. London: Routledge.

Donald Moore sets out to critique what he sees as political ecology’s emphasis on macro-structural dynamics whereby everything is determined by broad economic forces. “Global capitalism, from this perspective, not only shapes but also exactly determines heterogeneous local histories, cultures, and societies” (126). Cultural practices and beliefs in such accounts, writes Moore, are relegated to the dustbin of exotic derivate, ornamental trappings—(at most) second-order problems. Culture becomes the polite garnish of the meat and potatoes (political economy), which is where the work of “real men” and events occurs. A byproduct of these approaches is depictions of a monolithic state. While not at all dismissive of such structural forces, Moore claims that the overemphasis overlooks two fundamental processes: “(1) the micro-politics of peasant struggles over access to productive resources; and (2) the symbolic contestations that constitute those struggles” (126).

Moore shows the way Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about cultural struggles and their role in molding the “terrain of the conjunctural” can be usefully applied at a critical ethnographic medium for tracing the cultural politics of the state-directed forms of land use and the entwined relations of landscape and gendered labor in post-colonial Zimbabwe. Moore wants to bring to life how cultural/symbolic struggles are also material struggles; symbolic struggles can effect material transformations (127). His main argument builds on ideas on the ways in which “struggles over land and environmental resources are simultaneously struggles over cultural meanings” (127-128).

Summing it up, Moore writes: “In contrast to macro-structural approaches, my analysis of the colonial political economy, state policies and practices, and gender relations in Kaerezi seeks to understand what Hall (1990: 225) aptly terms the ‘continuous “play” of history, culture and power’ “ (129). Page 133 has an interesting brief review of how Moore is thinking about “the state” (fractious, heterogenous, produced by practices and discourses, etc.) in drawing on the work of several authors. Moore’s description of a controversy over a cattle dip-tank shows how the state agents and institutions’ own contradictory practices and discourses are turned against it by mobilizing those discourses and fusing them with sedimented territorialized histories of racialized dispossession (134).

Meanwhile, with men migrating for work, women were forced to struggle over land and their rightful inheritance; to do so, they drew on memories of gendered moments of historical struggles and by mobilizing particular cultural and cultivation practices to underwrite their material claims. Colonial histories meant that dispossessed men were forced to migrate due to rising tax burdens and thus their growing dependency on the monetized economy. But Moore’s point is that “these structural transformations in the wider political economy, however, were given texture through cultural idioms and the everyday practices of women and men. Local patterns of resource use arise from the complex interplay of gender relations, history, and culture and articulate with, but are not determined by, regional and global economic forces” (138). Moore’s account is less about determinations (instances, etc) and more about articulations.

He ends the chapter by reviewing the importance of culture in Marxist and political ecological analyses. “We need to move still further beyond the narrow confines of the labor process, however, and situate resource struggles within the cultural production of landscape and resources” (139). Some last choice quotes:

The micro-politics of resource struggles are animated by local history, mediated by cultural idioms, and gendered through the different practices men and women have pursued in defense of local livelihoods. The competing agendas of state functionaries pursuing their ministries’ agendas in Kaerezi layer over this contested terrain, and warn against any simple structural opposition between a monolithic state and an undifferentiated peasantry. (140)

Rather than viewing cultural forms as derivative of, or “outside,” structural entities such as “the state,” or transformations in “the economy,” the challenge becomes to explore how symbol and meaning give form and content to material transformation. It is not a question of attending to either culture or power, political economy or symbolic forms, but the interrelations among them. (140)


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