Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

6: Forms of control

The forms of control of the system of production by capital can be highly varied. They can, however, be put into two broad groups:

1. Forms of control of production by means of controls of the price and distribution systems leading to particular types of subordination of the peasants, that vary from case to case.

2. Capital inserts itself directly into production and openly exploits a wage labour force. This is typical agricultural capitalism. Capitalist relations of production are present here, whereas they were not in the first case.

Between the first case in which the peasant still retains some degree of autonomy, although being subject to some extent to capital, and the second case in which the peasant is nothing but an agricultural labourer who sells his labour power, produces surplus value for the agricultural capitalist and collects his wages, there are other situations in which the peasant occupies intermediate positions, sometimes closer to those of the autonomous peasants, sometimes to those of the agricultural labourer.

The first case, in which capital limits its activities to an indirect control of production, is the commonest one in sub-Saharan Africa. The peasant has his own land and his rudimentary instruments of production. He produces for his own consumption and partly for the market. He may also produce essentially for the market, i.e., by devoting himself to cash crops and hoping to be able to buy foodstuffs with the income from these crops. The provision of inputs and the collection of products are carried out by other structures or other social strata. The colonial administration and trading companies that performed this function during the colonial period were replaced after independence by a new national administration and structures. Local traders occupied, and sometimes still continue to occupy, a major position. Similarly, to a lesser extent and more recently, transnational corporations are directly present in some states. The activities over which the peasant has no control at all cover upstream provision of credit for inputs and sometimes technical back-up. Downstream, they include the collection of products and their transport to local processing plants or their sale abroad.

These national or foreign agencies, as well as the social strata that control these activities, are also those that dominate the fixing of prices, in both directions - both for the goods supplied by the peasants and the goods supplied to the peasants, the latter usually not being subject to price-fixing. Thus, they are subordinated to capital which extracts from them a significant amount of surplus labour through control of all the distribution circuits.

Dominating the system of price-fixing, the capitalist sector tends not only to keep the prices paid to producers as low as possible, but at the same time substantially to raise the prices paid by the same producers to purchase inputs.

The explanations given to justify this double extortion to which peasants are subjected are always the same: to cover transport and management expenses and international competition. But the reality is that on the basis of this intense exploitation, capital flourishes and the dominant classes operate a major transfer of peasant resources to their own benefit. Some examples from the Sahel zone will illustrate these extractions of resources to which peasants are continually subjected. Between 1965 and 1974, in ten years, the producer price of groundnuts rose by only 16% in Chad, 13% in Senegal and not at all in Burkina Faso, whereas over the same period the price of groundnuts on the world market had risen by 108%.

For cotton, over the same period, producer prices rose by 23% in Chad, 6% in Senegal, 13% in Niger and 3% in Upper Volta, whereas the price of cotton on the world market had risen by 118%.

Between 1967 and 1973, the Gambia Marketing Board, the state agricultural produce marketing board, moved from a loss of 1.5 million Dalasis to a profit of 9.7 million Dalasis. But producers' income rose by only 39%.

Between 1967-68 and 1972-73, the value of Senegal's groundnut production fell from 22.1 to 20.5 billion Francs CFA. The producers' share fell from 66% to 43%, whereas the income accruing to state bodies rose from 7% to 41%.

These are examples taken from public authorities which are not the only ones involved in the process of extracting surplus labour from the peasants through the price and distribution systems.

Thus, without being dispossessed of his land and his instruments of production, the peasant finds himself in a situation where he is dispossessed of his production itself. The logical consequence is that the peasant quite often simply abandons the inputs and even cash crops and devotes himself almost entirely to growing foodstuffs. Instead of the intensification encouraged by the suppliers of inputs, the peasants prefer an extensive agriculture which, despite its ecological consequences, guarantees them less dependence and fewer debts. This altogether rational behaviour - many researchers argue the reverse - leads to the rapid impoverishment of soils. Caught in the vice of excessive indebtedness and low productivity leading to the same shrinking of incomes, the peasant often finds himself forced to leave the land and migrate.

But capitalism is not interested here in getting hold of the land, just as it did not seek to alter the tenure system so as to dispossess the peasant of the land. This is because, in general, in these cases, land is relatively plentiful - albeit often impoverished land - which means that land has no commercial value, or only a very low one. Then, direct working of the land here involves major risks. These risks include the uncertainty of the weather, costly clearing work, high cost of inputs, etc. These are all factors which can raise the costs of production and reduce the possibilities of profit. Capital thus has an interest in leaving it to the peasants to work the land directly and so bear the risks that involves.

We are here dealing with the following situation: peasants, without being dispossessed of the land and while keeping their means of production, lose control of their production to the capitalist sphere which dominates the distribution system. How then can the status of these peasants be described? Are they proletarians as some have suggested? Can one say that these peasants are producers of surplus value? This question relates to theoretical considerations which have been the subject of sometimes impassioned debates. The school of thought that is opposed to the classical positions of Marxism, or the supposedly classical positions, considers that the peasant so exploited is simply a de facto proletarian producing surplus value. Behind the appearances, behind the sale of products, lies concealed the sale of labour power. According to this school of thought, it is necessary to go beyond the immediate appearances and legal relations - the peasant owning the land and those rudimentary means of production - and consider the economic relationships at the level of the system as a whole in which the peasant is closely integrated. Then, it would be realized that he simply sells his labour power to capital, a sale that is dissimulated in the form of a commodity sale.

In short, he is seen as a proletarian. What should be made of the thesis thus advanced by this school of thought? Is not the small peasant who has his own land and his instruments of production, but is exploited in some way by capital, simply a proletarian, and hence a producer of surplus value? We shall try and make a few observations arising from the questions raised by this thesis.

In our opinion, the danger of this thesis is that it reduces to a single form the manner in which capital exploits labour. This single form is seen as consisting in the sale of labour power and the production of surplus value. Anyone exploited by capital would then be a proletarian.

But the notion of production of surplus value attached to the appearance of a clearly determinate class, the proletariat, is a very precise category in Marxism. It presupposes, on the one hand, the free worker owning only his labour power and, on the other, the capitalist owning the means of production, being able to buy this labour power and use it for more than the time socially necessary for its reproduction. The difference between the labour time necessary for the reproduction of labour power and the time the capitalist uses this power constitutes surplus value. Once he buys it, the capitalist has the labour power and uses it for the production of commodities.

For selling his labour power the worker receives a wage which corresponds to the means of reproduction of the labour force given the socio-economic characteristics of the country where the sale takes place. The worker thus called a proletarian is a producer who is separated from the means of production and separated from the product. The labour that he performs is generally part of more collective labour.

The type of relationship that exists between the small peasant and the capitalist does not seem to us to be of the same nature as the type of relationship that links the proletarian to the capitalist.

Although both workers, small peasants and proletarians, are exploited and subordinated to capital, the degree of subordination is not the same, just as the dispossession of the labour process is not the same.

The small peasant who is exploited by means of the exchanges of commodities that occur between him and capital - a merchant capital - can, when he feels that the extortion of surplus value is being intensified, abandon, at least in part, the production of commodities sought by the capitalist market. He can thus reduce considerably, or even totally, the labour time that he devotes to the production of commodities sought by that market in favour of, for example, subsistence production. Similarly, he can give up the inputs offered by the capitalist market once he realizes that these inputs cost him more than they give him.

Occurrences like these, which can be observed frequently in the Sudan and the Sahel in Africa in particular, where peasants can be seen giving up inputs and abandoning cash crops to take up food crops, prove that they retain a considerable freedom of manoeuvre. The small peasant has this possibility of regulating his commitment to the system by reducing or increasing his degree of integration, but the proletarian does not.

Of course, even the peasant who produces only foodstuffs finds himself exploited by capital in the sense that he is obliged to market at least part of his production because he lives in a money economy and he needs cash to meet certain obligations. In doing so, he sells his products at very low prices to non-foodstuff producers who in general work for the capitalist market and are poorly paid, in particular because of the low prices of agricultural products. Thus, the non-foodstuff producers find themselves exploited and through them, the small peasants are too.

The peasant can even find himself in a situation where he is distinctly more exploited than the proletarian by the fact that these products are bought for far less than their value than is the labour power of the proletarian. Thus, without being a producer of surplus value, the peasant can have more of his surplus labour extorted from him. That in no way alters the difference in kind that exists between surplus value and this form of extortion of surplus labour. Some further observations can be added with regard to the conditions under which they work and their ideological and political consequences.

In capitalist production that generates surplus-value the labour process is collective, whereas it is individual or family-based in small peasant production.

Furthermore, insisting that the small peasant is tightly integrated into the capitalist system may create the impression that he now plays a completed and unalterable role in the general functioning of the system, whereas the status of small peasants can evolve in the direction of kulakization or in the direction of the deterioration of the conditions of existence leading to rural exodus and proletarianization. Finally, the mere ownership of the land and the means of production, however rudimentary they may be, leads to the peasant behaving and having a set of reflexes that belong to a different ideology from that of the proletarian: an individualist ideology underpinned by the feeling of having the possibility of becoming a kulak.

Ultimately, we feel that so long as capital does not get involved directly in the process of production, the peasant producer suffers a very severe extortion of surplus labour, but it is different in kind from the production of surplus value. The extortion of surplus labour occurs in the form of a relation of distribution, whereas in the creation of surplus value a relation of production is involved. This possibility of getting out of the structures of the system makes us think that the subordination of the peasants is rather informal. The still informal form of subordination that the modes of production to which the small peasants belong are subjected to usually leads to their regression.

In the case that we have just considered, we stressed particularly the situation of the small peasant integrated into the system, but still retaining a degree of autonomy which is manifested in the possibility of disengaging, at least partly, from the structures that make this integration possible. The case is widespread in the Sahel (Mali, Senegal, Niger, and Burkina Faso especially) where groundnut- and cotton-growing, the main base of the trading economy in this region, can suffer marked falls when the conditions of existence of the peasants engaged in it seriously deteriorate.

Compared to this situation there are others where the form of integration is much deeper, with capital getting involved directly in production. This is the system of small peasants, or kulaks, mainly in the plantation economies, state-irrigated lands worked by peasants who are like agricultural labourers, and finally systems of production maintained by multinationals. We think it can be said that in these cases we are really dealing with a capitalist agriculture, even though nuances need to be introduced. For, between the wealthy cocoa planter in the Ivory Coast and a transnational producing out-of-season fruits and vegetables, there is a vast difference. Generally speaking, in these cases the farms function as capitalist enterprises. Communal appropriation of the land is disappearing and giving way to private ownership.

The wealthy planter, the state owner or the foreign company appropriate large tracts of land on which a large wage labour force works. Production is almost wholly destined for the market. The means of production, which are the very latest, require considerable investment.

Let us examine these three cases in which capital intervenes in the process of production, which involves links between the peasants and these various capitalists: the wealthy peasant who is generally a planter, the state owner and the transnationals.

The wealthy peasant or planter, who is often the descendant of old traditional chiefs, has a wage-earning labour force made up of agricultural labourers. Around him lives a mass of often poor, independent peasants. This wealthy peasant or planter, who we shall call a kulak, enjoys great influence among the peasants. This influence shows itself in his tendency to occupy leading roles in peasant associations or co-operatives. With a capital stock in machinery and money, he exploits a wage-earning labour force. He hires out his services and can make loans at often usurious rates to the independent peasants who are to some extent dependent on him. He naturally has the reflexes and behaviour of a landlord.

For big capital and the neocolonial state, he represents a natural ally and the motor for the integration of the peasantry into the system. Since he finds himself in a peculiar situation compared to the rest of the peasantry, the vast majority of which remain poor, there develop between him and the rest contradictions of a complex nature. The rest of the peasantry has both a tendency to be hostile to him because of the economic power he possesses that enables him to exploit the rest of the peasants, and to seek his favours because of the political clout he possesses at the level of the country's leadership. But the tendency will be rather for the antagonism to grow.

In fact, the process of the development of capitalism will lead to a continued impoverishment of the mass of peasants, and this impoverishment will go hand in hand with the enrichment of the kulaks. There will be cumulative indebtedness on the one side, and increased accumulation on the other. Eventually, the kulak will tend to enlarge his holdings by buying up those of ruined peasants, who will be transformed into agricultural labourers or migrate to the towns.

The kulak is situated in the capitalist sphere. From his agricultural labourers he draws only less surplus value than the absolute surplus value in relatively little developed conditions of capitalist relations of production. The agricultural labourers here are in a situation of formal subordination.

From the mass of peasants he extracts surplus labour in the framework of relations of distribution. There again we are dealing with the type of informal subordination previously examined.

This situation, which brings together the conditions for primitive accumulation, is common in East Africa and southern Africa where the system of land registration leading to its private appropriation is well advanced. Variants are also to be found in the plantation areas of Central and West Africa.

In the examples of development of a capitalist agriculture, we have also mentioned the case of lands irrigated by the state on which peasants work in conditions which are sometimes such that they are effectively agricultural labourers. This refers to certain forms of intervention by the authorities in the rural areas, where the state practically plays the role of owner. Thus, the state, for example, lays out irrigated lands on which it puts peasants to work according to conditions that it alone determines. These interventions, whose aim is always said to be the improvement of the peasants' living conditions, thus become means of extracting surplus labour.

Usually, the state allocates the peasants plots of irrigated land which vary in size according to the size of families and to what means of production are held. On these lands, the peasants are required to grow specified crops.

A quite dense administrative and technical network surrounds the various stages of the whole process of production, which is totally beyond any control by the producers. The administrative structures provide management while the technical structures determine working conditions. Management includes supply of inputs, allocation of credits, collection of products and securing repayment of debts. Prices and interest rates are wholly the responsibility of the administration which is a state structure. The technical staff dictates and controls the application of technical methods: timing and type of soil preparation, timing of sowing and weeding, use of inputs, etc. The peasant is subject to a strict agricultural calendar and cropping methods. If he fails to respect these conditions his plot will be taken away from him. The peasant who has to live with this situation is not the owner of the land. His plot is leased to him, usually in exchange for payment of a fee. He does not own the inputs, which he is often obliged to use. The credit conditions that enable him to acquire these inputs border on the usurious. He is not free to choose his own production methods, but must accept those imposed on him. Nor does he own the product since he only receives a fraction of it after various deductions have been made for fees, credit repayment, etc.

Thus, in many respects, this peasant finds himself in the situation of a proletarian who simply sells his labour power and receives his wage in kind. What is more, he is obliged to sell all or part of the portion of the product that he does get at a price far below its value.

If the peasant here does not become a full-fledged proletarian with a wage set in advance, it is again to make him bear the risks of a bad harvest. In this system, in which the state receives a portion of peasant surplus labour, the rest going to central capitalism through the operation of unequal exchange, the peasant is super-exploited. The payment for his labour is in no way related to the conditions of reproduction of his labour power. We are dealing here with an agrarian state capitalism which reduces the peasantry to a supplier of cheap manpower. The peasant simply sells his labour power, for which he is paid in kind. He is an agricultural worker inserted in little developed capitalist relations of production. Here, too, he suffers a formal subordination.

Finally, in the examples of development of a capitalist agriculture, there are the cases of interventions by transnationals and agribusiness. The transnationals which are involved in agriculture attempt to dominate all aspects of supplying inputs, purchasing products and processing them, seeking out and controlling markets, fixing and manipulating prices.

However, intervention by transnationals in African agriculture is not yet on a massive scale. In many countries, they are active in small areas or are still at the experimental stage. Compared to the colonial companies of the old days, their interventions have a number of peculiar features.

First, they do not hesitate to make or call on large investments as has been shown by BUD (Bud Antler Inc. a multinational, based in California, dealing in African business) in Senegal. BUD brought in highly qualified technicians from Europe and America to set up an irrigation system based on state of the art technology: drip irrigation with the water brought by pipeline in a perforated tube over long distances.

They are also less concerned with actually owning the land knowing that whatever the type of ownership, they can succeed in controlling the whole system of production and distribution. In addition, non-ownership of the land reduces fiscal problems and the risk of nationalization.

Again, as in the past, they are interested in export products, sometimes even in very specialized products such as out-of-season vegetables sought by consumers in the industrialized countries. But they are not only interested in this. They sometimes attempt to organize local production to supply African markets which they thus control. This is the case, for example, with ranching which is developing in some West African countries with large herds of livestock.

Finally, the contracts that bind the transnationals to African states are built on unequal relations of force. Consequently, they can impose conditions that seriously affect national resources: occupation of the best lands, relentless exploitation of African manpower, taking over of some of their setting-up costs by local public finance.

In the last analysis the transnationals and agribusiness seek to combine for their own greater profit, technology - sometimes state-of-the-art technology - with the cheap labour force and the natural advantages offered by African agriculture, while also securing the political guarantee of national states. We shall use the example of SODEPALM, in the Ivory Coast, an agro-industrial group built up around BLOHORN, a shipowner, and owner of an oil-palm company in the Ivory Coast. BLOHORN owned palm plantations worked by agricultural labourers. At the same time, it controlled the production of village planters. It processed the products into oil; with the development of the group, made possible by participation by the state and the injection of capital from external sources of finance, the activities extended to oil products and to a whole new range of processing operations: table oil, soap-making, margarine, detergents, etc. This is then an agro-industrial complex with overwhelming economic and financial power compared to the average village planters whose production it collects. These planters exploited 26,200 ha. employing 6,000 peasant workers.

BLOHORN and SODEPALM directly exploited 42,000 ha. worked by agricultural labourers. The domination of agro-industry by the BLOHORN group is such that it makes any possibility of independence for the village planters illusory. In these conditions, peasant agriculture exists only in name. The village planters have no possibility of getting out of the system that grips them. Decision-making powers belong to a power beyond any control by wage-earners and planters. We are dealing with a vast industry which determines salary conditions and income structures in the whole system of production and distribution.

Thus, in the agro-industry controlled by BLOHORN in the framework of SODEPALM the various forms of subordination of labour to capital are present. Also present are relations of distribution, little developed relations of production and fully developed capitalist relations of production. The small planters who sell their products to SODEPALM are in a situation of informal subordination, which is very close to the formal subordination of agricultural labourers in the sense that their capacity to disengage themselves from the system like the small peasants in the Sudan and the Sahel is greatly reduced. Their degree of autonomy is weaker. Nevertheless, it can be said that they are still integrated into relations of distribution with capital, with stronger domination by capital. The agricultural labourers who work in the oil-palm plantations of SODEPALM maintain little developed capitalist relations of production with capitalism, and suffer formal subordination.

Finally, the manpower that works in the processing industries produces every form of surplus value (absolute or relative) given advanced techniques. It can be said that they are integrated into fully developed capitalist relations of production. Their subordination to capital is complete and entire. It is a real subordination.

To conclude: from the colonial period to the present day, African agriculture has undergone and is still undergoing a great variety of changes, changes which have led to various forms of domination by the capitalist mode of production over the pre-capitalist modes of production that previously existed. This domination led to a retreat of precapitalist modes of production, without however the dislocation being total; such dislocation would not be in the interest of capitalism. In fact, it is through maintaining precapitalist modes of production that capitalism can ensure cheap agricultural production perpetuating both the conditions of unequal exchange and those of low pay for labourers working for capital.

During this long process of transforming agriculture, the peasantry was integrated into the system in various forms, ranging from informal subordination - the peasant, although exploited, retains some freedom of manoeuvre vis--vis the structures of the system - to real subordination in which the peasant leaves the land for the factories of agro-industry. He then enters into fully developed capitalist relations of production. He becomes a worker producing both absolute and relative surplus value.

In terms of these two statuses, that of formal subordination corresponds to that of the agricultural labourer in which the worker, although producing surplus value, finds himself integrated into as yet little developed capitalist relations of production, with a limited level of technology that does not allow surplus value to be extracted as fully as possible.

The intense extraction of surplus labour to which the peasants are thus subjected, whatever their forms, lead to growing poverty and a profound crisis of African agriculture, a crisis that is reflected at all levels of the economic and social life of African countries.

The problem that remains posed is whether an alternative exists, and what the conditions for its existence would be.

Contents - Previous - Next