Misplantation? Landed Property, Colonial Capitalism, and the Politics of Size in Modern Egypt

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 10:50 AM
Beekman Room (New York Hilton)
Aaron Jakes, New School for Social Research
This paper offers a critical reexamination of what has been one of the most pervasive axioms of Egypt’s modern agrarian history over the past half century: namely, the strong association between the plantation form and the arrival of capitalist social relations under colonial rule. As in many other cases, the first systematic, historiographical treatments of this argument appeared as part of the ideological armature driving the case for the land reforms that marked one of the signature achievements of decolonizing regimes in the post-war era. But the assumed correspondence between property size and the transition to capitalism has persisted well beyond that moment and in literatures that share few of its political concerns. On this understanding, the main agenda of Egypt’s government under British occupation lay in securing both the political and economic collaboration of a large landholding class who would, in turn, organize the production of agricultural commodities for export along industrial lines.

Drawing on a body of new archival research, the paper demonstrates that this emphasis on the plantation form fails to account for an official discourse that consistently championed the peasant smallholding as the ideal site for the realization of the colonial state’s developmentalist ambitions. It argues, moreover, that there was nothing inherently more altruistic or less exploitative about a colonial agrarian policy that sought to promote cash-crop cultivation on small properties rather than large estates. Making sense of this alternative trajectory of colonial capitalism, however, does require a more differentiated and pluralistic understanding of landed property and the multiple roles it might play at different moments in the process of capital accumulation. Crucial to this particular history is a tension between property as a technology for controlling labor and as a mechanism for transforming land into a financial instrument.