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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Noting Shivji's Take on Gender&Agrarian Relations

A Swift Response to Shivji's Quick Notes on 'Conceptualising Gender and Agrarian Relations'

Chambi Chachage

"It is trite that facts don’t speak for themselves. You make them speak through a certain theoretical framework and ideological outlook, whether or not it is explicit or not" - Issa Shivji

Interpreting someone differently does not mean one has not read him/her closely. The author, as we have been reminded over and over again, does not have the 'monopoly' of how his/her readers 'interpret' him/her. Shivji's quick notes, though "tentative' and admittedly not "exhaustive", call for such scrutiny as the epigraph above also affirms. At the heart of this reignited debate on gendered agrarian relations is the apparent centrality of class in capitalist - and by extension, patriarchal - relations in contrast to gender. One only needs to read this line from the notes to see where Shivji is going with it and indeed where he is coming from, his afterwards bracketed elaboration about "multilayered" and "independent" existence notwithstanding: "Second, the patriarchal world is integrated in the neo-liberal world and dominated by it." This problematic, we can argue, stems from the tendency to privilege 'abstraction' at the expense of 'empirical' observation on the ground.

Inasmuch as we agree with Shivji that we "should not therefore shy away from abstraction, even if it proves difficult and non-activist on the face of it", it is quite clear that there comes a point when we need to go back to the 'post-colonial' household and look closely at this African peasant woman and the African peasant man therein. For a moment, we need to forget about the 'colonial' household that Shivji aptly describes this way: "The man was semi-proletarianised and the woman was peasantised." When we do so, we realise that both the village man and woman are generally peasantised in the neo-liberalised post-colonial and, in certain cases, are both semi-proletarianised if we accept, albeit reservedly, some of the premises from the champions of the contentious concept of deagraranisation

Inside this household what would we generally see? Exactly what Shivji refers in this liner: "The peasant woman subsidises capital by being superexploited both at the level of a producer as well as a reproducer." But when we ask him does this mean that when we talk about the peasant woman as a producer, what we are really talking about is her class (together and often in solidarity with the peasant man vis-a-vis capital) and when we talk about the woman as a reproducer, we are actually talking about her gender (apart though in relation to the peasant man versus capital), Shivji thus resorts/retreats to the safety of Marxian abstraction: "No I mean producer of commodities and reproducer of the labouring class."
Indeed but what is the African peasant man doing out there while the African peasant woman is reproducing this labouring class? Surely, reproduction even, in the biological sense, is not simply about giving birth. In other words, what is the role of this man when the woman is doing what Shivji (quoting Marjorie Mbilinyi) is doing, that is, "taking care of the old and sick, collecting firewood and fetching water, cooking etc etc"? Is this man generally experiencing the same exploitation from capital as the woman? No. Even Shivji seems to partly admits when he tweets: "Super-exploitation of the African peasant (often woman) is based on exerting super-human labour and living sub-human existence." But in his quick notes, Shivji quickly concludes: "Thus, if I may add, patriarchal division of labour is assimilated into capitalist process of production and reproduction." This 'subsuming' of 'gendered relations' as if capitalism predates patriarchy seems to be his answer to Dzodzi Tsikata whom she quotes as asking: "How do we embed the gender question in the radical political economy (by which I presume she meant Marxist [Political Economy])"?

Instantly some of us are compelled to ask Shivji, as we did informally sometimes in the recent past, about this capital that is exploiting (the labour) of both the African peasant woman and man. What is capital? Who is owning it? Aren't these owners the ones who are exploiting these men and women, albeit differentially, in terms of what some black feminists conceptualise as intersecting oppressions in regard to class, gender and race among other 'social categories' ? Sensing one is evading abstraction, Shivji could thus answer, as he once did: "Capital is not a thing - it is a relation." Yes. That is why we are still asking: Does this relation - this 'capitalist relation' - manifest itself the same way across the 'racial lines' and 'gender gap'? Or everything is (or simply appears as) class relation?

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