75th Anniversary: 53) Research at the Rural Sociology Group: Agriculture, Decolonization and National-Popular Development

Max Ajl

What has been the role of poor rural people in the periphery in changing the world? How can the world change so that poor rural people are no longer poor? How does putting the social inclusion or exclusion of poor rural people front-and-center change how we understand politics, planning, methodology, and epistemology? And what happens to these questions when we place them in the broader framework of ecology and the ecological crisis? These questions have been central to development theories over the last decades or even the last century, and have inflected discussion of the agrarian question, in its political, social, ecological, and national aspects. Yet there has remained a nagging gap between (1) work on decolonization, including contemporary epistemological inquiries; (2) work dealing with macro-economic planning; (3) work on agro-ecology, food sovereignty, pastoralism, and sustainable livelihoods.

Over the last decade, I have tried to address these questions in a variety of ways. Spatially, I have worked outwards from Tunisia to North Africa, the Arab region as a whole, and world ecological crisis. In terms of disciplines, I have worked outwards from rural sociology into historical ecology, the intellectual and social history of planning, and the intellectual history of heterodox post-colonial theories of development.

My dissertation research (Ajl 2019a) started with a puzzle: why and how did Tunisia come to be a poor country, and specifically how did state policies reproduce rural poverty? It tried to understand this through the phenomenon of state price engineering. Yet prices reflected social and political power balances, and the origins of those balances were unclear to me: why and how had poor rural Tunisians been excluded from development? This led to work on the political-historical sociology of anti-colonial revolt, decolonization, and post-colonial political management, especially focused on how the political mobilization of the peasantry/pastoralist population of Tunisia was sheared and blocked from becoming inclusion in Tunisian developmentalism.

In parallel, I worked on other cases in the Arab region, including Syria (Ajl 2019b; Ajl et al. 2020), Yemen (Ajl 2018a), and the Arab region more broadly (Ajl 2021a) tracing how different constellations of social forces, domestically and internationally, led to different agrarian trajectories: partially rural-incorporating as in Syria and Egypt, for example. Or, how the Green Revolution manifested in the Arab region (Ajl 2017; Ajl and Sharma Forthcoming). These studies showed the agrarian question was central to world geopolitics, with more rural-incorporating governments understood as antagonistic to the established order because of their partial endogenization of productive forces. In this way, they showed that national agrarian question were local expressions of a global process (McMichael 1997), wherein political shifts in some Arab nation-states changed the parameters of agrarian/developmental politics in others. In this way I was able to think about how to break from methodological nationalism not only at the level of capitalist accumulation (Wolf 1969) but also resistance to it.

Examining the politics of national liberation and post-colonial planning led me into critiques of those processes from heterodox planners, agronomists, and economists in the Arab region, extending to West Africa and especially Senegal, the home of Samir Amin. In a series of essays (Ajl 2021b, 2019c, 2018b, 2022) I have examined notions of self-reliant or auto-centered development. This idea is based on the diagnosis that countries’ insertion into global capitalism pushes them to pursue policies inimical to the well-being of their poorest sectors. It would follow that more auto-centered policies, focusing on fulfilling the basic needs of the poorest, would lead to superior development outcomes. I examined this idea theoretically through the work of Amin and at the level of intellectual history, as it emerged in planning proposals from Chinese-influenced Egyptian and Tunisian planners.

A third ‘track’ has been my concern with climate change, in particular how to connect the problems of Northern planning and social and ecological crisis with southern aspirations for national popular and ecological development planning. This has resulted in a book (Ajl, 2021c) and a series of articles and chapters (Ajl 2021d, Forthcoming; Ajl and Wallace 2021; Tilley and Ajl 2022) focusing on various aspects of this question: critiques of green modernization, green demographic management, intervention in pastoralist livelihoods, and above all a program for national development planning North and South: bringing what I have learned into Tunisia about popular planning, developmental needs, and appropriate technologies into the northern planning conversation, to think about how to make a world big enough for everyone, North and South.

  • Ajl, M., 2022. Food Sovereignty, the National Question, and Post-colonial Development in Africa, in: Ben Gadha, M., Kaboub, F., Koddenbrock, K., Mahmoud, I., Samba Sylla, N. (Eds.), Economic and Monetary Sovereignty in 21st Century Africa. Pluto, London, pp. 238–258.
  • Ajl, M., 2021a. Does the Arab region have an agrarian question? The Journal of Peasant Studies 48, 955–983. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2020.1753706
  • Ajl, M., 2021b. Delinking’s Ecological Turn: The hidden legacy of Samir Amin. Review of African Political Economy.
  • Ajl, M., 2021c. A People’s Green New Deal. Pluto Press, London.
  • Ajl, M., 2021d. A People’s Green New Deal: Obstacles and prospects. Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy 10, 371–390. https://doi.org/10.1177/22779760211030864
  • Ajl, M., 2019a. Farmers, Fellaga, and Frenchmen (PhD). Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
  • Ajl, M., 2019b. The Political Economy of Thermidor in Syria: National and international dimensions, in: Syria: From National Independence to Proxy War. Springer, pp. 209–245.
  • Ajl, M., 2019c. Auto-Centered Development and Indigenous Technics: Slaheddine el-Amami and Tunisian delinking. Journal of Peasant Studies 46, 1240–1263.
  • Ajl, M., 2018a. Yemen’s Agricultural World: Crisis and prospects, in: Crisis and Conflict in Agriculture. CABI.
  • Ajl, M., 2018b. Delinking, Food Sovereignty, and Populist Agronomy: Notes on an intellectual history of the peasant path in the global South. Review of African Political Economy 45, 64–84.
  • Ajl, M., 2017. Field Notes on Tunisia’s Green Revolution. Viewpoint Magazine.
  • Ajl, M., Forthcoming. Everything Changes While Everything Stays the Same. Development and Change.
  • Ajl, M., Haddad, B., Abul-Magd, Z., 2020. State, Market, and Class: Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, in: A Critical Political Economy of the Middle East and North Africa, !!046316523!School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar Series. Stanford University Press, pp. 46–67.
  • Ajl, M., Sharma, D., Forthcoming. Transversal Countermovements: The afterlives of the Green Revolution in Tunisia and India. Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue canadienne d’études du développement.
  • Ajl, M., Wallace, R., 2021. Red Vegans against Green Peasants [WWW Document]. New Socialist. URL http://newsocialist.org.uk/red-vegans-against-green-peasants/ (accessed 11.1.21).
  • McMichael, P., 1997. Rethinking Globalization: the agrarian question revisited. Review of International PoIiticaI Economy 4, 630–662.
  • Tilley, L., Ajl, M., 2022. Eco-socialism Will be Anti-eugenic or it Will Be Nothing: Towards equal exchange and the end of population. Politics 02633957221075323. https://doi.org/10.1177/02633957221075323
  • Wolf, E.R., 1969. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. University of Oklahoma Press.