Proletarianisation, agency and changing rural livelihoods: forced labour and resistance in colonial Mozambique

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In current analytical approaches to rural poverty in southern Africa, the concept of
changing livelihoods stands in an inverse relation to the concept of proletarianisation. The
more we see the term livelihoods, the less we see proletarianisation. This shift reflects
criticism of Marxist work on proletarianisation for its teleology - confusing irreversibility
with inevitability - and for its functionalism - not recognising the agency of the poor,
including the struggles of people not to be proletarianised. It also reflects, however, the
current ascendancy of methodological individualism in development studies. This paper
argues that much is lost when the description of livelihoods becomes an alternative to class
analysis rather than its complement, and when agency is reduced to individual strategising.
It argues that the multiplicity and variation of rural lives in Mozambique today are the
outcome of a historical process of proletarianisation grounded in recourse to forced labour
by capitalist enterprises and the colonial state. It shows how both forced labour and resistance to it shaped the ways labour and agricultural commodity markets worked and developed. The concept of changing livelihoods helps us to us to document the processes of
commoditisation that underlie both the contingency of proletarianisation and its irreversibility. It thus also helps us to understand why the struggles of rural people against forced
labour and forced cropping often brought them more tightly into a world where wagelabour was done or hired. If we become so enmeshed in documenting the complexity of
multiple livelihoods and individual creativity that we can no longer see broad patterns of
class struggle in historical change, then the concept of livelihoods becomes an ideological
mask rather than a useful working tool.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationDen Haag
PublisherInternational Institute of Social Studies (ISS)
Number of pages40
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2001

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SeriesISS working papers. General series


  • ISS Working Paper-General Series


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