Max Ajl, “Auto-centered development and indigenous technics: Slaheddine el-Amami and Tunisian delinking,”Journal of Peasant Studies, 2018.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article/compile this special issue?

Max Ajl (MA): As I was doing initial research years ago for my doctoral dissertation on Tunisian planning, I read widely into the criticisms Tunisians made of government planning in the 1970s and 1980s. One name persistently popped up in footnotes as a prescient and incisive analyst of the country’s agricultural system: Slaheddine el-Amami. I slowly found his pieces in dribs and drabs in Tunisian geographic and agronomic bulletins of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In 2016, I lucked upon a small archive housing much of his work. I immediately knew I had something very important in front of me. Although the field of Tunisian rural studies is historically enormously rich, critical analyses of state planning and state technological choices during the 1970s and 1980s were less common, and finding a Tunisian agronomist who was essentially doing agro-ecology avant la lettre was rarer yet. For that reason, I devoted some time to working through the material, as I knew it was something I wanted to get into print and share—above all to diffuse knowledge of Amami.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?

MA: The article focuses essentially on the politics and ecological concerns of delinking, a term Samir Amin coined to describe how Third World countries might purposefully modify their relationships with the global capitalist system, according to what he called an internal and popularly-determined law of value. The paper treats delinking in a broader Middle Eastern/North African context, drawing on Amin, and two Egyptian economists very interested in what now goes by the term political ecology: Mohamed Dowidar and Fawzy Mansour. It then uses Tunisia and Amami’s work on the Tunisian countryside and food consumption and production patterns as a case study in the possibilities of delinking. In this sense, it critically builds upon the Middle Eastern dependency school’s treatment of the rural question, which was quite attentive to ecological concerns. The article focuses on questions of Tunisian development and underdevelopment, the centrality of the rural world and small peasants to both, and what kind of possibilities that world offers for an egalitarian and ecologically sound developmental project. It also obliquely addresses literature on development and underdevelopment. In addition, it implicitly addresses questions of state formation and dependent accumulation. It engages with literature on agro-ecology and the appropriate agronomic techniques for Tunisia and other more arid lands and also ponders what kinds of rural farming technology neither degrades the environment nor facilitates the concentration of wealth. In general, it speaks more broadly to a lapsed—although now re-emerging—debate on technological choices and their relationships with social power.

J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MA: Most of my work concerns small-peasant-centered or rural-centered development, and sovereignty. While I have addressed these questions previously across the region, and in the United States, this article is one of the first (the other appeared in Review of African Political Economy) where I have connected those two questions with the intellectual history of alternative developmental planning in the Third World. Obviously, both development and sovereignty are intertwined—since sovereignty rests on and is circularly strengthened by popular support for planning policies. Likewise, planning policies are popular to the extent that they serve the interests of the poor. Examining what Tunisian and North African agronomists and social scientists have written vis-à-vis planning more broadly, and vis-à-vis populist agronomy more narrowly, has flowed naturally from investigating questions of regional sovereignty and matters of development and underdevelopment.

J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MA: Despite the wordy title, I hope the article will be read by people broadly concerned with peasant studies and rural development, where there has not been recently a great deal of attention to the region, even though rural questions are as urgent as they are elsewhere in the world. I also hope, on the other side of the coin, that regional and especially Tunisian specialists will read it, as it speaks immediately to questions of developmental models which are an urgent topic of discussion in post-2011 Tunisia. Finally, I hope that it is read by non-academics, whether activists concerned with development, development practitioners, or others, concerned with Tunisia and regional development—as I think Amami was an outstanding figure in the region’s intellectual history. If the article can (re)kindle an interest in delinking more broadly but especially Amami’s research program amongst its readers, I will be very happy, and of course I hope people can return to, deepen, and, where necessary, criticize and go beyond Amami’s pathbreaking work on agronomy.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MA: I am currently finishing my dissertation on the social and political origins of underdevelopment in Tunisia. It rereads the national liberation struggle and post-colonial planning from its margins. I am trying to show how central the Fellaga, or the peasant and landless guerrillas, were to Tunisian national liberation. I am also analyzing who the victorious post-colonial Neo-Destour marginalized—namely the small people of the countryside—and how they did so. In addition to my dissertation, I am also working on several articles examining how we might see the environmentalism of the poor in Tunisia as a counter-movement to post-1962 patterns of outwardly-oriented and urban-centered development and am also continuing my research on Tunisian and North African heterodox developmental thought. As part of that last project, I am hoping to put together an anthology of Amami’s collected writings.


Excerpt from the Article:

Delinking was a concept born out of a model of the world-system which saw the North-South divide as structural and elemental. According to delinking and the dependency school with which it was associated, the North’s development rested on the South’s underdevelopment. Each region, each country, experienced its incorporation into the global system differently, hinging on history, experience and depth of colonial penetration, and other factors. An emphasis on the hierarchical organization of the global system, both before and after the national liberation struggles, was the common thread. A second aspect of this literature was the Global South’s indigenous bourgeoisie’s—or the petty bourgeoisie who had so often helmed the struggles for independence, the ‘national middle class’ whose foibles Fanon presciently outlined—inability to initiate successful development programs. Only seldom were power redistributions sufficient to partially delink. But the cadre in power often revealed themselves as changelings, transforming from the glittering leaders of the national liberation struggle into post-colonial relays for renewed dependence on material and financial flows. The delinking paradigm treated such embryonic national projects’ fragility. From the beginning, they were braided into global technological and capital flows. They mimicked northern industry and agriculture. They embraced with ease and eagerness the North’s ways of knowing and doing. Such forms of modernization displaced and devalued pre-colonial and pre-Independence political ecologies, including agricultural and artisanal small-scale production and decentralized expertise.

As Issa Shivji points out, if ‘the underdevelopment discourse was strong on the history of development of underdevelopment [it was] weak on the politics of the development of development’. It often underspecified how post-liberation class structures led to dependence. Meanwhile, delinking detailed the political forces necessary to set in motion a development. It also prescribed the relationship between a nation-state’s social and productive forces and the global system’s flows. At delinking’s core was the notion that only through a conditional and selective embrace of exterior capital and technological flows could Global South states develop.

The Arab and African Third Worldist current offered a shared analytical background for formulating political and economic programs, and shared certain departure points regarding unlocking a productivity revolution in the agricultural sector. But they knew enough to know what they did not know. Such revolutions were necessarily local. They required expertise and understanding of the local environment, its idiosyncrasies, its unique flora and fauna, its particular pedology and hydrology, what kind of sun and rains and storms would come upon it, and when, and how often. It is to what capacities might have existed, but more importantly how to seek out and build on such capacities in the Tunisian context, that I now turn, examining this question through Amami’s life’s work.

Slaheddine el-Amami’s Thought

I begin with one of Amami’s broadest and densest works – a manifesto for local agronomic research, which he reprinted time and again. In it, he anatomized the structure of national research and its links to a dependent national technological system. He emphasized the ideological complements to this dependence. He highlighted, sector by sector, how Tunisian agronomists scarcely studied those animals and plants which were the living technological heritage of hundreds if not thousands of years of breeding and selecting species suited best for the arid lands. He began by analyzing the engineering schools’ non-stop disdain for the ‘traditional,’ and the technologies to which the slur referred. In disdaining over a millennium of precolonial polytechnics, such contempt became ‘in reality a colonial ideology favoring the supremacy of imported technology and wanting to disown any specificity to the colonized country.’ From seeds to cereal cultivars, the very stuff of agricultural production had become conduits for value outflow from Tunisia to the merchants and ‘large foreign conglomerates’ which monopolized seeds. Even the purportedly internal institutions for developing Tunisian agricultural capacity were functioning ‘as a gigantic technological relay between the exterior and the interior.’ Research focused on Green Revolution wheats. The institutions neglected barley, despite its renown as a cereal ‘adapted to aridity and one which covered half the Northern cereal lands and almost all the seeded lands of the Center-South.’ An agronomy approximately appropriate to the Eurasian and North American plains, Atlantic states’ temperate and cool weather, or Europe’s cool, damp regions, became through colonial-capitalist expansion and its lingering effects in the post-colonial states, slowly, unevenly, and certainly not mechanically a universal template.

Such plans took little account of local heritage. Meanwhile, the state agricultural institutions did little to foster agronomic research into animal and plant species and landraces which had been the mainstays of pre-colonial agriculture. In Tunisia, ‘A zoologist who might be interested in the pasturing of camels will be ridiculed. The growing of cactus is paralyzed by this prejudice that it is a symbol of under-development. A tree as noble as the date-palm is totally ignored,’ while research programs which needed a decade at a minimum to see results were also disdained. Botanists and agricultural engineers in the post-independence era did scarcely more than inventory the land-races of cactus covering Tunisia.

As a consequence, in this field the Global South lacked the institutional mechanisms that had been the sine qua non for Global North productivity increases. What was needed and missing were sustained periods of agricultural research to understand appropriate rotations. Amami called for research’s reform, its ‘total Tunisification,’ as well as the ‘beginning of a regionalization characterized by the hatching of special institutions.’ His advocacy of regionalization was part of his meta-plan to institute a centrifugal tendency in Tunisia. In his mind, decentralization had an elective affinity with peasant self-management of planning. Furthermore, in his framework, the national commodity offices had to materially link their research contracts to broader plans for embedding research in the national context. They also had to have national-popular priorities, with decisions, programs, schematic, grants, research, and funding reflecting those priorities and values.

In order to advantageously and effectively use the research infrastructure, every decision and technical choice of the research organisms, including the importation of seeds and plant, the choice of agricultural material, development of zones, and also the technical content of planning objectives, all these operations and activities which are now actually carried out in a more or less improvised fashion, and without previous studies or experiments, must be condoned by the research organisms. The orientations and the technical choices will then be taken on rational bases and as a function of norms and trials elaborated in Tunisia and not artificially transferred (El-Amami).

Amami had a wide array of prescriptions for treating the wound and the value flowing from it. Most were initial forays into research programs. This was not idle dabbling, but was informed by pellucid insights into what Tunisian agriculture needed, and with a keen eye for reworking every institution and research project into a national-popular alternative modernity. He recognized that rebalancing the Tunisian productive system had several aspects. In the agricultural sector it meant collective investigations by an array of experts, since the knowledge needed was beyond Amami, or any single scientist. But if the solution required collective problem-solving, the problem’s broad outline was clear. It was unmistakably imports of hydraulic techniques, machinery, seeds, and inputs, all manifesting a ‘double agricultural dependence, downstream and upstream, [which] is the most alienating of the relationship of unequal development between the affluent countries and the underdeveloped countries.’ Amami meant alienating in the sense that agriculture itself, traditionally the most tangible, corporeal, and immediate productive form, had become alien to the farmer. He saw that the farmer was becoming a kind of organic factory, tied into transnational supply chains, with its inputs and outputs subject to the fluctuations and price movements which monopoly-made markets imposed.

Still, the government’s development project allowed Amami sufficient latitude to call for sharp reorientations of its trajectory, if not explicitly of its internal class composition. It allowed for a certain redirection of its policies’ beneficiaries—engineers and unemployed youth—while respecting the principle of private property. Amami called for delinking, for framing the exchange relationship of cereal purchase as an actual leakage of the country’s wealth and taking steps to re-pattern internal production to keep value local, locked in the country. Delinking was not just about a fairer geographical distribution of wealth, but also about distance from metropolitan intellectual production. A polycentric world required polycentric knowledge production. Amami’s productive vision was nationalist although he partook frequently in knowledge-sharing seminars with colleagues in other Southwest-Asian and North African arid countries. Keeping labor in the countryside, and improving its productivity, also entailed rural-urban rebalancing.