An Elusive Common

An Elusive Common

Karen E. Rignall, An Elusive Common: Land, Politics, and Agrarian Rurality in a Moroccan Oasis (Cornell University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Karen E. Rignall (KR): There are many narratives that frame the experience of oasis dwellers and residents of Morocco’s rural periphery more generally. These stories oscillate between the dismissal of colonial officials and scholars, who set the terms for contemporary discourses of agricultural stagnation or poverty, and the romanticization of narratives that draw on orientalist tropes about oasis life. I wanted to write this book to foreground people’s stories in all their complexities, in their own terms. It is an academic book, for sure, but I use an ethnographic approach so that my own analysis does not overshadow people’s own voices and stories. I highlight inequality, conflict, and the fraught politics around land and rural governance, but I am always aware of my own positionality and try to frame these stories from a place of respect, even love. I have continued to return, do research, and maintain my relationships with friends and colleagues in the Mgoun Valley and the southeast. This book is the first major statement of that trajectory, which has extended into engaged, even activist research, and so it is an homage to people who shared their lives and their insights with me.

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

KR: In An Elusive Common, I tell the story of a half-century of agrarian, social, and political change in one oasis valley in southeastern Morocco to ask larger questions about land, agrarian change, and what it means to live a rural life in a peripheral place such as the Mgoun Valley. I describe how insertion into the national and global economy, political changes associated with colonialism and the post-colonial state, and labor migration disrupted a racialized system of sharecropping. This system indentured black Imazighen (Berbers) to white Imazighen, excluding the former from political power and land ownership. This is a story that has been told in various forms in the scholarship of arid agro-pastoral regions like pre-Saharan Morocco—as well as in poetry, song, and story in the area. I situate this history in debates within critical agrarian studies and political ecology about the fate of smallholder farmers in the context of global economic and environmental change. Three main themes run throughout the book: first, the ways governance of communal lands brings customary law, state power, and other forms of authority together; second, what the changes in how people farm tell us about the communal governance of land and social life; and third, how the changes in the ways people make a living both support collective life (or commoning) and produce new forms of inequality. I argue for the viability of rural life and the persistence of peasant lifeways and livelihoods in this part of Morocco. But I avoid an unbridled optimism, too, about the ecological wisdom and inherently democratic nature of rural, communal governance. I also argue for a critical but nonetheless sympathetic rethinking of the role of communing—the commons—in rural politics and land governance. 

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

KR: As the culmination of nearly ten years of research, this book lays the foundation for my work, including my recent turn to broader issues of “extractivism,” or how various kinds of extraction, including renewable energy, rehearse histories of dispossession in the rural periphery. Like many academics’ first books, this one started as my dissertation research, but I continued to research issues of land rights, changing livelihoods, and rural politics for years as I turned that initial research into the arguments that landed on the printed page—and informed my current research program. Even as I begin new collaborative research on copper mining and large-scale solar facilities in Morocco’s rural southeast, I rely on insights I gleaned harvesting wheat and walking the fields with small farmers in the Mgoun Valley. It is through this granular, extended work—and the profound generosity of the people I came to know—that I understood customary law, the legacies of colonial land tenure policy, and the forms of commoning that can be challenged and even nurtured at larger scales or in different contexts, as in mining protests or mobilizations against land concessions for solar power.

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

KR: This book will admittedly have a primarily academic audience, although I feel more comfortable writing for broader publics now that I am doing more engaged work. But this academic orientation is important to me, too, as I want to engage with MENA specialists as well as critical agrarian and land tenure scholars around the world. I make some provocative arguments that I hope will have an impact on how we talk about—and often romanticize—the “commons” and forms of collective ownership and action that seem so appealing at this awful moment in capitalism. By integrating an ambivalent portrait of how inequality and exclusion are often integral to the way commons work, or small farmers access land and power, I actually think “commoning” will become a more powerful ground on which we can construct alternatives to contemporary capitalism. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

KR: I have extended my interest in unconventional forms of commoning into a broader engagement with rural politics surrounding extraction, both in the same region of Morocco and in Central Appalachia, close to where I live and teach. The parallels in the way rurality is mobilized to support dispossession of rural peoples and represents a source of creativity in both regions are striking—these parallels also motivate my apprenticeship in engaged research, learning from activists and residents in both places about how to do extended, responsive research that advances their political and communal projects. There are three major themes from the book that I pull into my current comparative work on extraction and renewable energy. First, the people we want to have oppositional politics are often deeply and intentionally engaged with markets, local and global, and may not nurture a critique of capitalism. Second, the commons is a site of struggle and exclusion, and the complex political economies of the commons mean that we should not only focus on a property form—something commonly owned—but also what forms of common action are possible. And third, the commons represents a site of struggle allows for new forms of resistance but usually entails new exclusions. Currently, I am working with activists and residents in Zagora and Midelt to trace the resource histories and politics surrounding extraction, especially the land tenure history that led to the creation of a cooper mine in Zagora and to the selection of Midelt for a large utility-scale solar installation. Agrarian questions of land access, policies on extensive pastoralism, and livelihood suppression during the French protectorate intertwine with colonial designs on metals, minerals, and fossil fuels to inform the current surge in extractivist incursions into rural spaces. We are democratizing knowledge around this history of extraction by sharing archival documents, bureaucratic procedures, and legal frameworks with residents to include them in analyzing and interpreting the documents in relation to their experience.

J: Readers who have seen your recent work on renewable energy and environmental politics in Morocco may be surprised that there is no mention of solar power or extractivism in your book (except for a footnote in the conclusion). Why is there such a clear separation between your two research programs?

KR: Many of the themes surrounding land rights and conflict, rural political mobilization, and state territorialization strategies straddle both projects but I decided to focus my book on the agrarian dynamics of the Mgoun Valley. In part this was to foreground the stories and people that were so formative to me, but it also represents my contribution to recentering MENA scholarship on rural and agrarian questions. For reasons a number of review essays have explored, the region has not made major contributions to recent academic and activist debates around land and food sovereignty or environmental change. Recent work, especially from environmental historians of MENA, has begun to change this; in broadening the field to include North African, Middle Eastern, and other non-anglophone traditions, we also see a more extensive engagement with issues of land, agrarian change, and environmentalisms. But we still need more ethnography and other qualitative and quantitative work that take rurality and agrarian questions seriously—my book tries to bring together these different methods and questions. I wanted to give those issues pride of place and hope to return to research on farming systems and land tenure one day; it is enriching to learn from people’s artistry and expertise and this kind of research provides a hopeful counterpoint to the often infuriating politics of extraction.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, pp. 9-13)

A New Politics of the Commons

The oppositional politics accompanying Mgoun Valley’s new rurality did not hinge on individual rights-based claims or a straightforward defense of communal institutions. Formerly marginalized groups in the Mgoun Valley contested the historical iniquities that protected the privilege of rural notables, but they also used political and legal pluralism—the presence of multiple systems for governing land and political life—to retain the communal orientation of customary governance institutions. The vision of the commons produced through this negotiation defies dominant understandings of what communal governance, or commoning, should look like. During another visit to Moha’s café in Imzilne, he explained to me the communal logic that informed these emergent political claims. This time, I was asking his opinion about a judgment I frequently heard from local government officials in the valley: villages were dividing up their communal lands because of the decline of customary institutions like the jmaʿa that historically governed land, natural resources, and other aspects of social life. Moha responded to my question with another question: “What do you mean? Our customary institutions are working just fine! Look outside there, look at those walls, look at how we have been able to work together!” He swept his hand in front of the window to indicate the grid-like arrangement of adobe walls enclosing the hard earth outside the perimeter of the Imzilne market. Moha explained that the placement of the market outside Imzilne in the 1960s was politically charged, involving multiple successive appropriations of the village’s land—land that could be taken because they were Black metalworkers with little power. The local commune (county government) was controlled by rural notables who had regularly invoked the power of eminent domain to seize Imzilne’s land. Over the coming decades, the area around the market became the site of the commune offices, housing for commune employees, an agricultural extension office, the local middle school, and a dormitory for children attending the middle school from their remote mountain homes. All these structures were built in Imzilne’s collective lands, and the village was neither consulted in the decision-making process nor compensated for the appropriations. As Moha, Imzilne’s collective-land representative, conceded, “There was no way to say no,” a succinct characterization of centuries of domination coming from the marginalized village’s most respected community leader. However, Moha saw emergent political possibilities in using customary rules to challenge that domination, not to return to “traditional ways” but to forge new forms of common action.

In the summer of 2010, the local Ministry of Interior official announced plans for a new qiyada (ministry office) in the plateau. The office was to be placed in the same complex of government buildings that had encroached on Imzilne’s collectively owned land. Residents knew this would probably herald yet more encroachment, so they decided to find a way to say no, or at least, no more. The form of refusal they chose was to formally divide Imzilne’s collective lands. Doing so would prevent seizure because with its transformation into mulk (private property), this newly divided land would not be subject to the same eminent domain procedures as when it was collectively owned. Imzilne residents had talked about dividing their land before, but the final impulse came when they saw contractors begin work on the new government building. As Moha asserted: “If we do not divide our land, they will just come and keep on taking more and more. At least if individuals own and signal [ʾalam in Arabic] their land, the government cannot take anymore.” So, in a matter of weeks, the sound of cement mixers on the Ministry of Interior construction site merged with the sound of Imzilne residents pounding the wet clay of the adobe walls going up around their newly allocated plots. …While scholars might interpret such actions as dismantling the commons and the communal sensibilities that go with it, Moha’s narrative underscored the importance of that enclosure for asserting Imzilne’s (albeit limited) sovereignty.

The division of communal property could signal the vitality of customary tenure institutions because new rights in land were nested in collective governance arrangements. There was, in other words, a fundamentally communal logic to Imzilne’s land division since residents or rights holders could not simply dispose of the land as they pleased. Property was still subject to collective rules about transferring ownership and use. Such hybrid property forms and social arrangements complicate ideas of the “new commons” (McCarthy 2005, 10): the groundswell of popular movements and scholarship that counters the relentless drive to neo-liberal privatization with “the positive project of building an alternative vision of the good life” (Reid and Taylor 2010, 4)….This praxis regards commoning as much more than a collectively owned natural resource. It is a broader struggle for the “commonwealth,” social cooperation that rejects the exclusions of private property in favor of collective well-being and justice (Hardt and Negri 2009). Commoning therefore represents the struggle for the just, not just good, life rather than a straightforward property form defined by collective ownership.

This book embraces such an expansive approach but pushes back against the “romance of the commons” (evoking Joseph 2002) that is often implicit in scholarly and social movement work. As Lauren Berlant argues, “The commons concept has become a way of positivizing the ambivalence that saturates social life,” threatening “to cover over the very complexity of social jockeying and interdependence it responds to by delivering a confirming affective surplus in advance of the lifeworld it’s also seeking” (2016, 395). The pervasiveness of the commons as both strategy and goal for anticapitalist struggle today signals, in Berlant’s estimation, a profound need for belonging and a way out of contemporary capitalism’s radical individualism. I assert that this has produced a romance of the commons in contemporary social theory that supersedes the “romance of community” as an antidote for the anomie and dispossession of capitalism (Joseph 2002). Social theorists have long been critical of the regressive possibilities for community as a putatively organic, natural, or spontaneous form of human relatedness (Joseph 2002, ix). This may be a long-standing theme of scholarly critique, but, as Joseph argues, celebrations of community “relentless[ly] return” in popular imaginings of a more meaningful social life (2002, xxxii). She posits that community represents a “supplement to capital,” a distinct product of capitalist modernity designed to legitimate inequality and remove responsibility for collective well-being from the state or any social body (Joseph 2002, 172). In the context of suspicions about community as an egalitarian or emancipatory space, the commons emerges as a theoretical object of desire in its stead—a site for progressive political possibility. To sustain its analytic coherence, however, the commons needs to be grounded in a political economy that can accommodate different property forms and political claims that do not always articulate resistance to capitalism.

In the Mgoun Valley, marginalized groups eschewed nostalgia for tradition as they experimented with different forms of common action…David Harvey (2011), one of the most prominent theorists of contemporary enclosure, acknowledges how this complexity can unsettle expectations about how commons should work, warning against a simple binary view that opposes privatization or enclosure to collective ownership. He sardonically observes that “the whole issue has been clouded over by a gut reaction either for or against enclosure, typically laced with hefty doses of nostalgia for a once-upon-a-time, supposedly moral economy of common action” (101). Harvey notes the possibility of antienclosure activism that foregrounds private property or some form of exclusive ownership as one way, sometimes the best way, to preserve valued commons (102). In taking seriously the proposition that enclosure could enable residents to, in Moha’s words, “work together better than we ever have,” I argue that these mobilizations represented a “latent commons” hidden in unrecognized forms of communal action (Tsing 2015, 135). Anna Tsing likens the latent commons to subjugated knowledges because they are not immediately apparent to the dominant. I take the latent commons to mean practices, ideas, and forms of solidarity that may organize collective action but remain obscured, either because they are self-evident to practitioners or because they could be the subject of repression. They are not equivalent to “hidden transcripts,” James Scott’s (1992) term for modes of resistance that escape the notice of the powerful, because they embody the expansive communal ethics I have described as characteristic of the “new commoning.” Tsing reminds us that while latent commons may be “ubiquitous, we rarely notice them,” in part because they move in “law’s interstices . . . catalyzed by infraction, infection, inattention—and poaching” (2015, 255). The latent commons of the Mgoun Valley and surrounding steppe were difficult to discern because they too were not always institutionalized. Participants in land conflicts sometimes made overt political claims, but most often they worked directly on the land itself, occupying and refashioning the landscape because they were excluded from formal political spaces. That the latent commons may sometimes turn to private property forms indicates that enclosure does not always signal the death of the commons in the face of encroachment or repression. What mattered to the residents of Imzilne was communal governance, not the property form.

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