Is there a new extractive capitalism?

Issue: 168

Martin Upchurch

The global economy is changing.1 After the financial crash of 2008, world trade declined and has been outpaced by sluggish growth in global production. The Covid-19 crisis and a fall in commodity prices in March 2020 has since driven the world economy into a slump that is likely to be more damaging than the Great Recession just over a decade ago. Within this changing scene, debates have arisen about the growth of extractivism—the mining and extraction of metals, minerals and oil from the earth—and the growth of agribusiness, which produces food as a traded commodity. The expropriation of nature is intrinsic to capitalism, which as Marx suggested is driven by profit to rob the soil as well the worker.2 There is an obvious link between climate change and investment in extraction of fossil fuels through fracking, deep-sea mining, coal mining, oil and gas drilling, and exploitation of tar sands. The hypocrisy of our ruling elites is clear. Much favoured for plunder have been the rare earths, metals and minerals that feed the digital technology attached to smart phones and computers. Alongside this, intensive and industrialised forms of agribusiness and monoculture—most notably production of grain for food and animal feed, and palm oil for biofuels—have also encouraged states and corporations to engage in land-grabbing, often in the teeth of opposition from local and indigenous people. New and sometimes violent struggles have been the result.

Given these trends many academic and political commentators are suggesting that the world economy has now entered a new era of extraction-based accumulation that is reminiscent of earlier colonial times. This article addresses these debates by examining trends in global production, trade and investment and their role in the expansion of mining, monoculture and land-grabs. I compare earlier forms of colonial or “settler” extraction with the extractivist strategies of present-day states and assess the significance of these transformations for understanding contemporary capitalism.

Extractivism, old and new: from primitive accumulation to neoliberalism

Capitalism’s propensity to exploit and commodify the natural world is nothing new. It was central to the “primitive accumulation” of capital described by Marx. Capitalism’s birth was bound up with European colonial expansion, plunder of foreign lands and land-grabbing from indigenous people. It is worth quoting Marx at length here. He describes how the shift from the feudal mode of production to the capitalist one was achieved through force and drenched in blood:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of India and the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe as its battleground. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s anti-Jacobin war and is still going on in the opium wars against China.

The different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England, more or less in chronological order. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, for example, the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.3

The rush to monopolise natural resources was integral to the commodification of the natural world. Primary products became the fuel for the process of production, whether coal for steam power, oil for motor vehicles and aeroplanes or lithium for today’s batteries.4 In many cases, colonised societies were restructured by the imperial powers as sources of primary commodities, blocking the possibility of independent industrial development. The transport infrastructures of conquered nations were designed to extract raw materials from the interior to ports so that they could be shipped to the metropoles to be processed. The prior economic development of these societies was reversed when they were flooded with cheap industrial products from Europe.

Capitalism’s inherent dynamic of competition and ever-expanding cycle of accumulation meant a search for, and plunder of, whatever primary products could be mined, farmed or fished. The bonds between humans and nature that are essential to our existence—what Engels referred to as the “metabolic interchange”—was put under enormous strain by capitalism and a great “metabolic rift” with nature has followed.5 The breakdown of the relationship between humans and the natural world remains a consistent theme as we pass from old to new forms of extractivism.

The consolidation of the power of capital on all continents throughout the 18th and 19th centuries led to a huge expansion of world trade in primary commodities and manufactured goods—a first wave of “globalisation”. However, this process fell back as rival imperialisms fought out their differences in the First World War. Britain was the dominant power during this first wave due to its early industrialisation.

A second wave of globalisation, that of our current period, has been framed by two key factors: the United States’ hegemony since the Second World War and the declining profit rates of Western corporations since the end of the 1960s. It is against this backdrop that the so-called “Washington consensus” emerged. This “consensus” created a pact between Western corporations, their “home” states and international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They worked together to break down trade barriers, dissolve fixed exchange rates and bully “Third World” nation states that had attempted to develop their own home-grown industrial base through import substitution of key manufacturing goods during the 1950s and 1960s.6 The goal was to open up new markets and source cheaper labour in the Global South in order to reverse the declining profitability of Western capital.

To achieve this end neoliberal globalisation emphasised national economies becoming export-orientated, based on trade theories from classical bourgeois economics that extol the virtues of “comparative advantage”. The concept of comparative advantage stems from the theories of David Ricardo, the 19th century British political economist. He suggested that countries should specialise in the specific goods or services that they were able to produce most efficiently due to the presence of natural resources, labour efficiencies and other factors. According to Ricardo, as long as trade was “free” and without tariffs, then specialisation and comparative advantage would create a more efficient and effective system of world trade. More recently, the theory has been augmented by Eli Heckscher and Bertil Ohlin, who argue that an “equilibrium” is created on world markets by migration of capital, feeding industries that utilise comparative advantage and starving those that are inefficient.7 Based on this logic, the international financial institutions emphasised capital accumulation strategies focused on world trade and frictionless cross-border financial transactions. In practice, this meant the elimination of import tariffs and exchange rate controls. This shift led to a deepening of exploitation around the world and a new global division of labour that fitted into transnational global supply chains of everything from food to microchips. The expropriation and commodification of the natural world and its resources was part and parcel of these changes. The World Bank encouraged extractivism by rewriting mining codes, and regulatory reforms transformed the rules surrounding taxation, royalties, the repatriation of capital across borders, licensing and the environment.8

Nation states, especially in the Global South, began to specialise in primary and agricultural products for sale on the world market as a result. The previous relative sustainability of locally produced food and manufactured goods gave way to monoculture and large-scale agribusiness. For example, tropical rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia were uprooted and replaced by palm forests for palm oil or biodiesel. The environmental impact has been dreadful: soil is degraded, water is polluted, wildlife is endangered and greenhouse gas emissions increase as peatlands are destroyed.9 As with the earlier period of colonial extractivism, force played a role in the process. In Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Colombia indigenous populations were driven out or suppressed.10 The story is similar in Ivory Coast and Ghana, which once boasted varied and sustainable agriculture but are now both dependent on cocoa monoculture. Two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is now produced in these two West African countries, where the industry is dependent on child labour and has caused massive deforestation.11 This is not to say that all “non-western” countries were impoverished or subordinated in the process of developing extraction. Often their elites prospered as individuals, and their wealth and power allowed them to dominate their own populations. The enrichment of elites in the Gulf states by oil revenue and the development of the Arabian Peninsula as a new centre of capital accumulation is a good example of this.12

Neoliberal measures have undoubtedly paved the way for a resurgence of investment in extraction. The shift towards export orientation, comparative advantage and free trade has encouraged countries in the Global South to move away from earlier attempts at “import substitution”—efforts to establish “home-grown” industry—and focus instead on natural resources as a dollar earner. Table 1 illustrates the degree to which many countries in the Global South have become dependent on the export of primary products and commodities when compared to northern industrialised states.

Table 1: Primary Commodity Dependence (percentages of total merchandise exports, 2014)

Source: “WTO: Trade Profiles Report”, cited in Lloyd, 2016, p4.



Fuels, minerals

Total primary



























New Zealand

























United States





Although China has joined Global North countries such as Britain, the US and Japan in focusing on manufacturing exports, countries in Latin America such as Uruguay, Chile, Brazil and Argentina are heavily dependent on primary products. However, some Global North countries such as Australia and Canada are relatively dependent on fuel and minerals. These variations are discussed in more detail later in this article.

Data on foreign direct investment (FDI) also confirms a trend towards extractivism, despite investment generally contracting since the 2007-8 financial crash. Figures produced by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in its annual World Investment Report indicate a substantial three-year fall in FDI totals. A 23 percent fall in 2017 was followed by a further 13 percent fall in 2018, and FDI flatlined in 2019.13 However, FDI flows to Africa rose by 11 percent between 2017 and 2019, and this points to a bigger picture. Data about new greenfield projects (in which corporations actually set up new operations in a foreign country rather than just buying up existing companies) shows a big leap in investment in extractive industries compared to manufacturing and services. For example, between 2017 and 2018 greenfield investment in coke and refined petroleum products jumped by 480 percent, from $15 billion to $86 billion. Investment in mining, quarrying and petroleum doubled from $20 billion to $41 billion. Over the same period greenfield investment in all manufacturing rose at a much slower rate of 35 percent and services by 43 percent (much of it linked to digitalisation and new technologies). This has occurred while investment declined in those sectors that had performed best in the years of peak globalisation. For example, FDI fell by 3 percent in electrical and electronic equipment, and by 36 percent in textiles.14 Overall the inflows of new investment (including deepwater exploration) to “developing” or “emerging” countries in West and Central Africa, for example, have been accelerating. Investment has poured into oil-exporting countries such as Nigeria and projects such as the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline.15

Extraction of fossil fuels is still a major destination for FDI. The largest projects worldwide receiving new externally-sourced investment include an alliance of petroleum companies led by Shell to build a liquefied natural gas export facility in Canada, a project by the French oil and gas giant Total to construct a petrochemical complex in Jubail, Saudi Arabia and a project by the Taiwanese company CNC to establish a petrochemical plant in Paradip, India.16 Outside of these continuing major investments in fossil fuels there has also been a rise in new investment in renewable energy. This investment is in fact greater in total than new investment in non-renewable energy production. However, this is still far below the levels demanded by the United Nations’ “sustainable development goals” to combat climate change and replace fossil fuels completely. Capital has been facing both ways in the debate on climate change, supporting both renewables and fossil fuels. Governments are also seeking to encourage resource exploitation by rolling back protective environmental measures aimed at fossil fuels and the associated industrial sectors. This is especially the case in Donald Trump’s US, where the government has relieved car manufacturers from meeting pollution standards under cover of the Covid-19 crisis, handed huge bail-outs to airlines and backed the criminalisation of climate protests in three states.17

Of course, the financial incentive to invest in extraction is highly dependent on commodity prices. FDI is higher risk than domestic investment because it is subject to exchange rate fluctuations, speculation on future demand and political volatility. Nevertheless, the rewards can be great. Rates of return on investment in extractive industries are certainly greater than investment in the manufacturing sector, where rates of profitability are historically low.18 High commodity prices and low profitability in other sectors stimulate FDI in extraction as money from venture capitalists, sovereign wealth funds and corporate finance searches for a home. However, commodity prices since the financial crash have proved extremely volatile, throwing doubt and confusion into “extractivist” state strategies. The Covid-19 crisis made things much worse, plunging commodity prices further downwards. This administered a major shock to the fossil fuel industry; oil prices fell by over a third in March 2020 to a price of $20 dollars a barrel or less, the lowest level in 18 years. Metal prices also fell by up to 10 percent in the same month, and the only commodity that recorded an increase was fertilizer.19 Bizarrely, oil companies were forced temporarily to give away their product because it is too expensive to shut down oil wells and storage capacity is limited. Others were desperate to sell their oil at knockdown prices to China, which emerged from a first wave of coronavirus into a buyers’ market.20 Poorer oil producing countries such as Nigeria, Ecuador and Venezuela will be severely hit by these falling prices. The sharp decline in commodity prices may mean all previous trends in the world economy being thrown into doubt. Indeed, there is evidence that the “emerging markets” are already experiencing an economic slump.21

The new extractivism

Theoretical models of a “new” extractivism have arisen in both Marxist and non-Marxist traditions. A common theme is that of continuing imperialism, as imperialist states take advantage of the neoliberal relaxation of tariffs and exchange controls to further exploit dependent nations. For example, the Marxist economist David Harvey focuses on “accumulation by dispossession”, arguing that neoliberalism is linked to an era of “new imperialism” and a revival of “primitive accumulation” through land-grabbing in the poorer world by the richer. Harvey claims that this new imperialism is a spatio-temporal fix, which “is a metaphor for solutions to capitalist crises through temporal deferment and geographical expansion”.22 However, there are problems with such an approach, as Chris Harman argued in this journal in 2008. Most notably, it is not always the case that Western imperialist interests have been central to extraction in less developed countries of the Global South. Domestic capital has also been involved in initiating land-grabs in order to enrich themselves. Moreover, richer countries in the Global North such as Canada have also expropriated their “own” resources with just as much vigour as they have abroad. More fundamentally, the ruling class cannot enrich itself as a whole by capitalists simply robbing one another. No new surplus value would be created in such a process. Instead, one capitalist will gain at the expense of the others’ loss. As Marx wrote, “the class as a whole cannot defraud itself”.23 Harman argues:

“Dispossession” is simply a long word meaning theft. When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon used the phrase “property is theft” in the 19th century, it was an ­anti-capitalist rallying cry, capable of expressing people’s indignation at the system; so too is Harvey’s phrase “accumulation by dispossession”. But sloganising against theft is not the same as providing a serious analysis, any more than it was when Marx criticised Proudhon in 1847.24

More liberal critics of extractivism often refer to a “resource curse”, whereby a high dependence on one or two natural resources leads to instability in the wider economy when commodity prices and exchange rates fluctuate. There is also a high likelihood of corruption, and dependency on commodity extraction may divert resources from manufacturing and other sectors of the economy.25 Eduardo Gudynas pursues this point in relation to the South American cases, suggesting that the benefits of extractivism have historically been outweighed by the disadvantages.26

James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer have returned to the theme of imperialism in assessing extractivism and echo some of Harvey’s “dispossession” thesis to understand developments in South America. They argue that although neoliberalism created the political and economic space for renewed extractivism, a new post-neoliberalism has emerged out of it. This is characterised by alliances between Western interests and sections of the local ruling class that are based in rural areas and seek to profit from domestic land-grabbing and resource extraction. This occurs at the expense of more urban industrial areas and manufacturing activity, and the organised working class is subordinated during this turn to extractivism. Jobs decline, trade union bargaining power weakens and wage growth is ­suppressed.27 Petras’s and Veltmeyer’s case studies, and those of other scholars of the region such as Paul Cooney and Jeffrey Webber, emphasise the role of elements of the local ruling classes in encouraging and benefitting from extractivism. This suggests that any “dependency” aspect is weak and not substantiated by a critical mass of evidence.28

Most of the theoretical frameworks for understanding the new extractivism have emerged from the study of Latin American countries. Extractive industries are a major players in South and Central American national economies. In Mexico, for example, 23 percent of national territory is now ceded to mining companies for exploration, drilling and mining. Other states record even higher shares. Around 40 percent of land in Colombia and 72 percent in Peru are reserved for extraction. The region as a whole experienced substantial GDP growth in the years of commodity boom. As food prices increased in the years immediately before the 2008 financial crash, exports of soy, wheat, corn and sugar cane expanded rapidly, accompanying a surge in exports of raw materials such as copper, tin and oil.29 Some of the capital invested here is home-based, but much comes from overseas. Canadian-based companies are major players, paying 70 percent of all concession fees in Mexico, for example.30 Latin America in particular has provoked new debates about extractive capitalism because the “Pink Tide” of left-wing governments since the turn of the century placed much emphasis on extractivism as a state strategy. It is to these debates that we now turn.

Latin America: extractivism and the Pink Tide

Latin American states were the leading practitioners of import substitution strategies until the mid-1980s. Protectionist policies and state subsidies aimed to develop home-grown industries. These were made profitable through ­suppression of labour rights and wages by authoritarian regimes. The strategy had some considerable success; by the 1960s domestic industry supplied 95 percent of consumer goods in Mexico and 98 percent in Brazil. For a decade between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, the region’s economies were growing faster than the industrialised West.31 However, the pressures for change began to grow. Local ruling elites formed alliances with Western capital, which wanted to open up the region to foreign investment. The “liberalisation” of the region’s economies gathered pace throughout the 1970s and by the 1980s. With the return of parliamentary democracy and the election of neoliberal governments, the future direction of Brazil and many other Latin American countries was sealed.

Under Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, the state strategy for surviving in the world market rested on two pillars: industrial exports and agricultural products, especially coffee. However, the period after 1985 was one of renewed extractivism in which agriculture became the main export cash cow. James Petras describes how this led to a tug of war between “the residual statist capitalism inherited from the previous military regime and the emerging liberal ‘free market’ bourgeoisie”:

The debt crises, hyper-inflation, massive systemic corruption, the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello and economic stagnation severely weakened the statist capitalist sectors and led to the ascendancy of an alliance of agro-mineral capital and finance. This included both foreign and local capitalists, who were linked to overseas markets.32

In the 1990s this process was extended by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who began large-scale privatisation and deregulated financial markets. These reforms allowed foreign funds to pour into agribusiness, mineral extraction, finance and the real estate sector.

Argentina is a similar case. It began privatisation earlier than Brazil during the dictatorship set up after the 1976 military coup. Successive Argentinian governments had pursued a policy of import substitution from 1930 onwards. This lasted until the 1974-1976 regime of Isabel Perón, but then changed when the military took power. Just one week after the coup, the new government agreed a $100m loan from the IMF. The strings attached—or “structural adjustment programme”—included an abandonment of import substitution in favour of export orientation. The generals called this policy the Process of National Reorganisation (El Proceso de Reorganización Nacional), and it had the by-product of marginalising labour opposition in the factories. Manufacturing had state support withdrawn and was left to the mercy of the market and threatened by absorption into foreign multinationals. As Cooney explains:

The junta intended to shift support away from manufacturing industry and towards agro-industry… The rent from agriculture, primarily beef and grains, was no longer going to be used as a subsidy for industry, but rather for the development of other value-added agro-industry… The junta was being more supportive of the landowning oligarchy than of the manufacturing industry. At an institutional level, this was reflected in the government allying itself more with the Argentinian Rural Society (Sociedad Rural Argentina, SRA), which represents the landowning oligarchy, than with the Industrial Union of Argentina (Union Industrial Argentina, UIA), which represents the industrialists.33

The junta generals and their hangers-on thus sought to simultaneously consolidate their bases of support, boost their own investments and suppress opportunities for dissent from the industrial working class. Beef for burgers reared on the Argentinian pampas, along with seed oils and cereals, took priority over manufacturing in the factories. A second wave of de-industrialisation took place under the parliamentary regimes of Raúl Alfonsín and Carlos Menem after the fall of the military in 1983. The 1991 Plan Cavallo deepened further Argentina’s dependence on agribusiness at the expense of manufacturing. Environmental concerns came second in this general shift towards agribusiness and mineral extraction, as Cooney records:

The crops that were grown the most were those destined for export, and these had technological innovations introduced into their production…in order to maintain competitiveness on the world market. It is worth noting that, as of 2003, Argentina was only second to the US with respect to producing genetically modified crops, primarily corn, cotton and soybeans.34

Similar stories and paths of development could be observed elsewhere in Latin America and throughout the Global South. The pattern inevitably includes personal enrichment of a section of the political elites who profit from agribusiness, mining and land-grabs. As Ngaire Woods has exposed, these sections of the ruling class act as interlocutors between local capital and the “globalisers” of Western capital and the international financial institutions.35 They forge alliances that freeze out opposition and exacerbate and increase inequality. Nevertheless, the strategy of commodity dependency is inherently unstable. While commodity prices rise, the revenues pour in and enrich the few, but when commodity prices fall so too do the fortunes of those who have invested in extraction. Corporate and state indebtedness follow, and the repayment of loans and grants to the international financial institutions cause major financial crises.

New hope for change arose during the Pink Tide of “socialism in the 21st century” that swept across Latin America at the turn of the millenium. The left-wing governments of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador forged a new model of “progressive” extractivism. This continued the national economic strategies of dependency on natural resources such as coal, minerals, oil and agribusiness. However, it also sought to use the revenues created by these sectors to redistribute wealth to the poorer sections of society through what Gudynas has called the “compensatory state”.36 This was achieved through measures such as regulation of resource appropriation, renegotiation of contracts for exaction and implementation of social programmes financed through taxation of extractive corporations.37 Nevertheless, the real benefits of progressive extractivism never lived up to their projections. Of course, some benefits did accrue to working people. Yet, as Andy Brown has documented in a previous issue of International Socialism, “the compensatory state did not challenge either private property rights or the dynamic of capitalist accumulation” in Venezuela and elsewhere.38 Chávez’s policy of welcoming foreign investment into Venezuelan oil and mining was deepened by his successor, President Nicolás Maduro. In May 2016, for example, the government signed 150 concessions with foreign companies to begin exploration in the Amazon. The result has been environmental degradation, dispossession of indigenous people and military repression in the Venezuelan Amazon.39

As the analyst Malayna Raftopoulos argues, “Latin American governments have pursued extraction relentlessly, regardless of the socio-environmental costs and the abrogation of the most fundamental human rights that this development model entails”.40 This has been a consistent feature of both neoliberal and Pink Tide governments. Raftopoulos points to the example of Ecuador, where the left-wing Correa government “employed a zero-tolerance policy towards anyone opposing natural resource extraction”:

Ecuadorian authorities have led a campaign to vilify and stigmatise indigenous groups and social movements, labelling them “environmental extremists” or “terrorists” in order to build a framework of acceptance for curtailing human rights in the name of development.41

In Brazil, a similar pattern emerged under Lula’s Workers’ Party-led government after 2003. Petras has described this Brazilian experience as a “Great Leap Backwards”, in which the new extractivism continued the old extractivism with massive inflows of capital from overseas multinationals and financial funds. He argues that during the presidency of Lula in 2003-2010:

Brazil became one of the leading extractive commodity exporters in the world. Brazil’s dependence on commodity exports was aided and abetted by the massive entry and penetration of imperial multinational corporations and financial flows by overseas banks. Overseas markets and foreign banks became the driving force of extractive growth and industrial demise.42

The destruction of wildernesses gathered pace as agribusiness swallowed up land. Two-thirds of the fertile savannah of the Brazilian Cerrado is now owned by foreign corporations.43 Sugar cane, soybean and ethanol production and cattle ranching now dominate large areas of the deforested Amazon. The proceeds from this exploitation of the soil were high during the booms in commodity and food prices that lead up to the 2008 financial crash. This enabled some state-led reforms such as increases in the minimum wage and new anti-poverty programmes. At the same time, the government sought to incorporate the main unions allied with the Workers’ Party into semi-state functions such as operating training schemes. This helped to neutralise opposition to the state’s extractivist strategy. Petras argues:

Despite some declaratory statements and symbolic protests, agro-mineral capital encountered little organized solidarity between urban labour and the dispossessed Indians and enslaved rural workers in the “cleared” Amazon. Lula and Dilma played a key role in neutralizing any national united front against the depredations of agro-mineral capital. In effect, this relation between city and Amazon resembles a kind of internal colonialism, in which extractive capital has bought off a labor aristocracy as a complicit ally to its plunder of the interior communities.44

The impeachment of the Workers’ Party’s President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 led to major attacks on workers’ rights and benefits by the incoming government of Michel Temer. This set the scene for further attacks by Jair Bolsonaro, the current Brazilian president. The economic strategy of “predatory capitalism” pursued by Bolsonaro includes yet more reliance on the exploitation of natural resources and further destruction of the Amazon rainforest for agribusiness and mining.45

A similar process can be observed in Bolivia under Morales, who became the country’s first president from an indigenous heritage in 2005. The commodities boom enabled Morales to redirect some of the proceeds from extraction into benefits for working people, although this cash was obtained through increased taxation rather than nationalisation. However, the 2008 global financial crash challenged this approach. The focus on extraction of oil, minerals and agribusiness had weakened the urban working class and social movements, who had also been compromised by Morales’s conciliation with big capital. By 2019 this had opened the political space for a right-led coup that forced out Morales and forced him into exile.46 The leading edge of this coup was an alliance of local capitalists linked to Western business in the Media Luna region, centred on the city of Santa Cruz. Brown describes this grouping as concentrated mainly in “agro-industry such as soy and cattle ranching, as well as oil and drugs”:

They have bitterly opposed the Morales government all through its existence, at times threatening secession, fomenting disorder and using gangs of right-wing thugs to attack left-indigenous organisations and demonstrations.47

What we have seen throughout the Pink Tide experiments is the emergence of a special form of state-labour-capital relationship. As Jeffrey Webber has suggested, we can observe “disquieting new forms of class rule and domination [that] have been easy to downplay or ignore altogether”.48 The relationship is based on capital accumulation and capitalist property relations, with financial investment in extractive industry from both Western capital and rent-seeking sections of local capital. This process has been accompanied by a reduced emphasis on the manufacturing sector and thus a decline in the organisational strength of the urban working class.

Africa: from colonial extractivism to resource nationalism

A similar story to the Latin American one can be told about Africa. “Resource nationalism” in the countries of Southern Africa have seen localisation of assets through the stripping of foreign investors of extractive concessions and the prosecution of tax-evading companies that profit from extraction. Resource nationalism follows on from an earlier period of “colonial extractivism” that continued until independence from European rule in the 1960s and 1970s. After independence a wave of nationalisation of mines and other natural resources took place in many countries. This was then followed by a neoliberal period of privatisation and asset purchase by Western mining corporations in the 1990s.

A second phase of resource nationalism occurred in the 2000s. However, this has not involved either nationalisation or re-nationalisation. Instead it has focused on localising or “indigenising” the ownership of assets through taxation and the promotion of asset acquisition by domestic capitalists. Researchers Alex Caramento and Richard Saunders have described some of the features of this second wave of state efforts to recoup profits from mining and other extractive sectors.49

Africa is extraordinarily rich in minerals. South Africa topped the world league table with $2.5 trillion of mineral wealth in 2012. Around 55 percent of the world’s diamonds, 90 percent of its platinum and 22 percent of its gold is extracted in Africa. This has led to demands from within South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, to impose windfall taxes on profits from mineral extraction.50 The lack of local spill-over benefits from Western-owned and privatised mining projects has also led opposition parties to demand more state control over profits from mines. The “threat” of Chinese investment in mining and extraction has also given more bargaining power to African ruling elites when negotiating with Western mining corporations.

In North Africa, the Maghreb region has long been an important source of key primary commodities. These include oil and gas in Algeria, precious ores such as silver, gold and manganese in Morocco and phosphates in both Morocco and Tunisia. Water-intensive agribusiness is also a major industry in Morocco and Tunisia. Again, there has been an intensification of extractivism in recent years, encouraged by the international financial institutions’ emphasis on export orientation. Morocco’s 2008 “Plan Maroc Vert” set out a national agribusiness strategy that aimed at a five-fold increase in the value of export-oriented crops through ­promotion of private investment in agriculture and removal of restrictions on private property rights.51 The project is supported with grants from the World Bank and aims to shift the economy towards single-commodity agriculture and extraction of primary products. It is buttressed by “free trade” deals—the so-called Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements—with the European Union.

In Algeria, there has been a long-term shift by successive regimes from state capitalism and substantial state-ownership of vertically integrated companies through privatisation to extractivism. As Gianni Del Panta has chronicled in a previous issue of this journal, this has led to de-industrialisation and the decline of the manufacturing sector. By 2015:

Manufacturing production had fallen to about half of what it had been in 1989. Manufacturing value added to GDP decreased from 14 percent in 1985 to about 5 percent in 2010. The textile, leather, shoes, wood and paper industries almost completely disappeared.52

Algeria’s dependence on fossil fuel extraction is now almost absolute. Oil and gas account for 97 percent of the value of all Algerian exports, although less than 1 percent of the Algerian labour force (excluding overseas workers) are employed in the sector. Nevertheless a small number of elite owners have become very rich from the proceeds.53

Unlike the resource nationalism found in parts of Southern Africa and Latin America’s progressive extractivism, North African states are generally much more open to neoliberal marketisation. Nevertheless, there have been efforts to develop home-grown capital investment through mining companies such as Managem in Morocco, which now invests outside of Morocco’s borders. Other home-based industrial groups such as the Algerian company Cevital and Morocco’s Sefrioui have also gone beyond their domestic markets to engage in land-grabbing in other parts of Africa. 54

In this brief review of the history of extractivism in Latin America and southern and northern regions of Africa we can see a variety of state strategies. These range from “open”, neoliberal approaches in the Maghreb that encourage foreign capital to “resource nationalism” in Southern Africa and “progressive extractivism” in Latin America. All involve attempts to indigenise investment and accumulation, albeit to differing degrees and with different means. All also seek to exploit and degrade the land, and often this also means dispossessing the indigenous people that populate it. The general shift to extractivism in so-called “emerging economies” has been conducted at the expense of home-based manufacturing, remoulding economies towards the export-orientation model encouraged by Western states and the international financial institutions.

Extractivism and the “developed world”

It is not just in the “emerging economies” that interest in exploiting and commodifying the natural world has risen. States within the “developed” world have also been keen to focus on extraction. The boom in commodity prices before the financial crash of 2008 drove new extractive exploration inside wealthy countries, both beneath the soil and deep under the sea. The post-crash rise in primary product commodity prices strengthened the trend towards more extraction.

In Canada mining is a key sector of the economy, and Canadian capital has taken a leading role in FDI in extractive industries globally. Taking advantage of the continuing relaxation of property rights, it has bought up exploration rights and started mining operations. According to Veltmeyer:

Canadian-based companies account for around 60 per cent of foreign investments in the mining sector of the global economy, and 70 percent in Latin America. They hold around 40 per cent of global mineral exploration rights.55

A new oil and mining rush has also taken place within Canada itself, provoking a host of environmental protests at which indigenous people have often been centre stage. Prime minister Justin Trudeau has sought to placate environmental protests by taxing carbon emissions, but has simultaneously given the green light to extending the Trans Mountain oil pipeline through land inhabited by indigenous people. Demonstrations by indigenous people and others followed. Resistance has been strengthened by environmental disasters connected to mining activity. One prominent example of this is the giant toxic spills of copper and gold waste from Mount Polley, British Columbia in 2014, which polluted drinking water and destroyed the habitat of sockeye salmon in the region.56 Trudeau’s justifications of his continued support for mining are remarkable for their hypocrisy:

A thriving mining industry and a thriving natural resource sector don’t have to be impediments to fighting climate change… To produce high-density batteries and wind turbines, you need copper, nickel and cobalt. To build a solar panel, you need 19 metals and minerals. Canada is home to 14 of them.57

Canadian mining companies have been in court accused of turning a blind eye to alleged gang rapes of indigenous women working in its mines in Guatemala and acts of modern slavery in Eritrea.58 The interests of capital once again override ethical and environmental concerns.

Things are similar in Australia. There, the mining lobby has pulled the government towards a resource-based strategy within the world economy. The political power of the mining industry was clearly exposed during the unprecendented 2019-20 bush fires. According to Financial Times journalists, senior ministers of Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National coalition government “regularly slammed those who linked the devastating blazes to climate change—contrary to scientific opinion”.59 Mining has grown in significance within the Australian economy, reflecting a conscious push towards extractivism. Its share of the economy has grown from around 5 percent of GDP in 2005 to just under 10 percent in 2019. Fossil fuel companies have poured money into the coffers of the major political parties in Australia in order to block environmental preservation policies. Internationally, Australia is accused of working with states such as Brazil, India and China in order to thwart global efforts to reduce emissions under the Paris climate deal.60 Aboriginal lands are constantly under threat—most recently in Queensland, where their land titles were “extinguished” by the state government to make way for the planned Adani coalmine.61

China is also now a major player in the mining industry, producing 90 percent of the world’s rare earths. It also imports 70 percent of the world’s seaborne iron ore exports for its burgeoning steel industry.62 Rare earths are generally used in production of smart phones and missiles. Much of the iron ore is imported from mines in north west Australia for processing within China. Chinese FDI is especially important in both Africa and Latin America, and since 2006 its FDI in Africa has greatly expanded to an estimated value of over $100bn. This has coincided with China’s period of rapid economic growth and the associated commodities boom. The major minerals of interest to China in Africa include chromium, cobalt, bauxite, tantalum, ilmenite, zirconium and diamonds.63 A familiar story of environmental destruction repeats itself with the activities of Chinese-owned mining companies on the continent. For example, the Ouham river in the Central African Republic (CAR) has been heavily polluted and its riverbank destroyed by the gold mining operations of four Chinese companies. This led to the CAR government fining companies and ordering the cessation of all work in 2019.64

The US government has continued to promote investment in shale oil since the 2008 financial crisis. Its aim has been to consolidate its position as the world’s leading producer of oil ahead of Saudi Arabia and Russia. The major source of shale oil in the US is the Permian Basin, which stretches across Texas and New Mexico. The fracking of oil shale, a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing kerogen, remained a key part of the Trump administration’s energy strategy until early 2020. Extracting oil from oil shale is more expensive than extracting crude oil and so is only profitable when demand is high, and so fracking operations have been thrown into disarray by the Covid-19 crisis and the slump in demand for oil. Fracking is a deadly double act for climate change, both increasing production of fossil fuels and releasing methane at the drill site. Fracking can also poison water aquifers. Once again, resistance to extraction in the US has focused not only on the environmental consequences such as water pollution but also on the grabbing and desecration of indigenous people’s land. Most notable has been the rebellion against the construction of the 1200-mile long Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which was planned under the presidency of Barack Obama. DAPL was to pipe oil beneath Lake Oahe, near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Indigenous young people were at the forefront of the protests, which coalesced in 2016 with the ReZpect Our Water campaign. The full force of the state was deployed against them:

Protestors were shot with rubber bullets, tasered and blasted with water cannons in freezing temperatures. They have been threatened, surveilled and arrested, all while trying to protect the land they have lived on for centuries. Yet they have maintained a peaceful presence throughout the struggle to stop the pipeline, which would snake through Native American lands and disturb sacred Sioux Nation burial sites.65

The protests continued for a year and drew support from indigenous groups from across the US, trade unions, Bernie Sanders, celebrities such as Jane Fonda and even military veterans. Nevertheless, one of Trump’s first orders on taking office in 2017 was to grant permission to the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with construction.

Trump’s foreign policy has seen similar land-grabbing and force abroad, reflecting wider geopolitical rivalries for energy and resources. One of Trump’s most bizarre proposals was an offer in August 2019 to “buy” Greenland from the government of Denmark. The proposal was rejected immediately by Mette Frederiksen, the Danish prime minister, who declared:

Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland. I strongly hope that this is not meant seriously.66

Trump’s interest in what he termed “a large real estate deal” was piqued by the prospect of obtaining access to deposits of rare earths that are key to the digital technology in smart phones, computers, electric cars and armaments. Much of the deposits of rare earths there are currently mined by the Australian company Greenland Minerals. These include neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, terbium, and uranium.67 Greenland is also central to the emerging struggle between the US, Russia and China for potential access to resources in the Arctic, should global warming continue to expose it to exploration.68

For Russia the Arctic holds special promise for a future new wave of extractive activity by the state-owned oil company Rosneft. About 1.5 billion tons of oil are thought to be buried beneath the Arctic. Should the ice melt sufficiently for icebreaker ships to forge ahead, Vladimir Putin’s government has hopes to develop a new North Sea Route, “which would cut the distance of shipping lanes between key ports in Europe and the Far East by as much as 40 percent”.69 This activity has a military dimension, and Russia has established bases within the Arctic Circle. As the Financial Times reports:

Since 2013, Russia has spent billions of dollars on building or upgrading seven military bases on islands and peninsulas along the route, deploying advanced radar and missile defence systems—capable of hitting aircraft, missiles and ships—to sites where temperatures can fall below -50C. It gives Moscow almost complete coverage of the entire coastline and adjacent waters.70

Extractive industries are not only being extended on land: the deep sea is now subject to mining and sifting operations too. These have a hugely negative environmental impact on a wide range of sea life, probably including much of the undiscovered life in the deepest part of the oceans. By May 2018 the International Seabed Authority, established by the United Nations’ “Convention on the Law of the Sea”, had granted at least 29 contracts for deep sea mining. These were mainly issued for operations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.71 Much of the extraction takes place by dredging huge machinery across the seabed, which disturbs habitats and creates dense plumes of ocean dust which pollute the waters and block photosynthesis. The prize for the mining companies can be diamonds (found in the coastal waters off Namibia), as well as chunks of rock containing traces of minerals such as copper, manganese, nickel and the cobalt that is crucial for batteries.72

This maritime extraction is leading to new rivalries and flare-ups. Tensions are already rising in the eastern Mediterranean. It is estimated that 122 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas lies beneath the Levant Basin—the waters surrounding Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, has disputed the ownership of the waters surrounding the divided Cyprus, and has even “deployed exploration and drilling ships to Greek Cypriot waters and sent naval vessels to harass international companies’ operations.”73 The region is also subject to continuing arguments over the planned EastMed pipeline that would take gas from Egypt and Israel to Greece and Italy.

Extractivism today

Our investigation into extractivism has revealed various tendencies. Data shows that there has been a trend towards investment in natural resources, and this seems to be at the expense of investment in manufacturing and service industries. However, we need to be cautious in our interpretation of the data and the trends it appears to indicate.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the world economy appeared to be returning to a new period of financial uncertainty and declining rates of profit on investment. With accumulated surplus funds it became tempting to place these funds in potentially more profitable avenues such as real estate and financial instruments rather than new technologies and machinery within the manufacturing sector. Investment in extractive activity promises large speculative returns for big investors. This was especially the case when commodity prices boomed.

However, extractivism has flaws as a long-term strategy for capital accumulation. Commodity production by itself does not drive the system forward. Value is substantiated in commodity products during the labour process. Oil, minerals, palm and soybean oil all have a use-value (albeit often quite limited) and exchange-value. The exchange-value is only realised when these commodities are sold, and this is typically so that they can be utilised in production processes. It is the rhythm of boom and bust within capitalism and the system’s longer-term tendencies towards crisis that dictate the pace of accumulation, rather than the presence or absence of primary products extracted though mining or agribusiness. The crash in oil prices following the coronavirus pandemic is proof of this. The economic activity slump triggered by Covid-19 means that oil is suddenly in surplus and almost worthless in price. Millions of barrels remain unwanted in storage tanks. Thus although there may be a “new extractivism” that is empirically discernible, this does not necessarily mean that we have entered a new phase of capital accumulation. Extractivism is not a novel stage of capitalism but a reflection of the limitations and contradictions of the existing one. Extractivism is integral to global capitalist accumulation today, but it must be understood within the dynamics of the wider system.

The current slowdown in China—the world’s largest trading nation since 2013—is a key indicator of the future direction of the world economy. In the pre-Covid-19 world much of the boom in extractivism was a direct product of the growth of the economy in China, which needed to hoover up natural resources (and block competitor states’ access to them) as its manufacturing economy grew. China specialises in processing and re-processing manufactured goods. Primary products and manufactured parts are assembled to meet the demands of increasing domestic consumption and for the export market, so the pulse of the Chinese economy both reflects and partially determines the heartbeat of the wider global economy. China’s energy consumption more than doubled between 1980 and 2000 and then doubled again by 2015, reflecting its growing economic importance. It is the major world importer of primary commodities, and demand from China spins backwards and forwards along the commodity supply chain. Its major imports in 2019 included $57.1 billion of iron ore, $53.2 billion of copper and copper ore and $116 billion of oil and other mineral products. It was responsible for just over 17 percent of global crude oil imports and also imported $38.3 billion worth of oil seeds.74 It is a major importer of timber, both sawn and unsawn, primarily from South Asian countries such as Malaysia.75 Latin America, Africa and Australia are major suppliers of primary commodities to China. As we have seen, China has major investments in resource extraction within these continents and regions. However, as Covid-19 and lockdown swept the industrialised world between February and March 2020, the value of all imports of primary products to China fell by more than half, sending a massive shockwave through the world economy.76 If this downward trend is sustained, then the overseas extraction-based economies on which China depends will suffer enormously and the “extractive” model, of whatever hue, will feel the strain.

Extractivism certainly has been a strategy of choice for individual nation states and corporations. We have surveyed a number of the distinct shapes that this strategy takes today: the “progressive extractivism” with a “compensatory state” in Latin America, “resource nationalism” in Southern Africa, the straightforward neoliberal extractivism of the Maghreb and the “predatory capitalism” of Bolsonaro’s Brazil. All these strategies seek survival within a global economy based on free trade and commodification. “Export or die” is the mantra. Land-grabbing, enrichment of elites at the expense of the poor and the suppression of indigenous people are the results. The search for exploitable resources has also created new geopolitical tensions between the major powers, such as the battles for rights to deep-sea mining in the world’s oceans and the military build-up in the Arctic Circle.

The new extractivism has also become a litmus test for the fight against ecological catastrophe. The planet’s soil, air and water are being destroyed by capitalism’s commodification of nature. Deforestation, species extinction and degradation of the soil and seas all go hand in hand with the search for more fossil fuels, rare minerals and profits from monoculture farming.

New prospects for class struggles will emerge from this situation and the tensions placed upon it by today’s economic crisis. Without profits from extraction, the states of Latin America, for example, may once again be plunged into debt crises. The urban working class will be pushed even further into confrontation with ruling elites, who will wish to make workers pay the price for a failing strategy. If workers’ resistance and rebellion to austerity coalesce with the struggle against climate chaos, then a new world may be possible to win.

Resistance against extractivism has indeed already taken place on a number of fronts, in a process that Naomi Klein has called “Blockadia”: the creation of a “roving transnational conflict zone…where ‘regular’ people are stepping in when our leaders are failing”.77 Indigenous people are often at the forefront of protests against fossil fuel extraction that also draw in climate justice activists and other organisations in their wake. The biggest protest was one of the first of this new era, when resistance in Nigeria against Shell begun in the 1990s with a peaceful uprising of 300,000 people against oil spills and gas flaring.78 Many protests have succeeded against the power of the oil companies because of the development of militant tactics and mass support. In Argentina, for example, “20 out of 38 large-scale mining conflicts in the last few years resulted in the cancellation or temporary suspension of controversial projects”.79 The number of such protests appears to be growing on a global scale, with more than 3,100 so far reported on the “Global Atlas of Environmental Justice”.80

Within this context the probability of more resistance is real. In spring 2019, Algeria showed that it is possible for a coalescence of forces to emerge and quickly move from mass protest to revolutionary uprising. An uprising brought together many social layers hit by the extractivist strategy of the Algerian state: public sector workers faced with austerity, industrial workers pressed by pension reforms and wage cuts, rural populations infuriated by corporate land-grabs and water pollution from fracking and mining, unemployed young people denied access to jobs in extractive industries and oil and gas workers on hunger strike against salary cuts. These ingredients fermented into a combined revolutionary movement. As Del Panta records “the ‘economic’ and ‘political’ wings of the protest movement, which had been largely developed on parallel lines up to that point, fused into a single, generalised insurrection”.81

The prolonged economic crisis since the 2008 financial crash and the interpenetrating ecological crisis are now conjoined with the biological and political crises produced by Covid-19. There is a world to win. The stakes are very high.

Martin Upchurch lives in Bristol and is Emeritus Professor of International Employment Relations at Middlesex University.


1 I would like to thank Martin Empson, Camilla Royle, Joseph Choonara and Anne Alexander for helpful comments and suggestions on previous drafts of this article.

2 “Capitalist production…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth… All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility… Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.” Marx, 1976, pp637-638.

3 Marx, 1976, pp915-916.

4 For a detailed description of the transition from water power to coal-based steam power, see Malm, 2016.

5 Engels, 1940, pp195-197. See also Angus, 2019, pp52-56.

6 For a more detailed explanation of this process, see Upchurch, 2018.

7 For a full explanation of the Heckscher-Ohlin model of international trade, see Leamer, 1995.

8 Campbell, 2003.

9 Fitzherbert and others, 2008.

10 See Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2007.

11 Aboa and Maytaal, 2019.

12 Hanieh, 2011, p103.

13 UNCTAD, 2020, p1.

14 UNCTAD, 2019a, px.

15 UNCTAD, 2020, p5.

16 UNCTAD, 2019b, p6.

17 Kaufman, 2020.

18 According to the Marxist economist Michael Roberts, this low rate of profibility is the root of what he terms the “long depression”—the period of recession or low growth since the 2008 financial crash. See Roberts, 2016.

19 Baffes and Macadangdang, 2020.

20 Economist, 2020, p59.

21 Roberts, 2020.

22 Harvey, 2004, p65.

23 Marx, 1987.

24 Harman, 2008.

25 Haber and Menaldo, 2012.

26 Gudynas, 2010 and 2012.

27 Petras and Veltmeyer, 2005. See also Veltmeyer, 2013, p88.

28 Cooney, 2007; Webber, 2017.

29 Cypher, 2010, p636.

30 Veltmeyer, 2013.

31 Hoogvelt, 1997.

32 Petras, 2013.

33 Cooney, 2007, pp11-12.

34 Cooney, 2007, p23.

35 Woods, 2006.

36 Gudynas, 2012.

37 Gudynas, 2010.

38 Brown, 2017, p16.

39 Gonzalez, 2017.

40 Raftopoulos, 2017 p388. See also Svampa, 2013.

41 Raftopoulos, 2017, p387.

42 Petras, 2013.

43 Fernandes and Clements, 2013.

44 Petras, 2013.

45 For a detailed account, see Albuquerque and Feres Faria, 2019.

46 Brown, 2019.

47 Brown, 2017. For a description of Morales’s compromise with big capital, see Petras, 2011, p22.

48 Webber, 2017, p169.

49 Caramento and Saunders, 2019.

50 Economist, 2012.

51 Hamouchene, 2019, p5.

52 Del Panta, 2020, p70.

53 Del Panta, 2020, p77.

54 Hamouchene, 2019, p7.

55 Veltmeyer, 2013.

56 Chen, 2020.

57 Quoted in Chen, 2020.

58 Findlay, 2019.

59 Riordan and Smyth, 2020.

60 Riordan and Smyth, 2020.

61 Doherty, 2019.

62 Olson, 2020.

64 See France24, 2019.

65 Javier, 2019.

66 Falconer, 2019. Despite Frederiksen’s statement, Greenland is not an independent country. It is primarily populated by Greenlandic Inuit people and has an active independence movement against Danish control.

67 Inman, 2019.

68 Baker and Haberman, 2019.

69 Cohen, 2019.

70 Astrasheuskaya and Foy, 2019. “Arctic ice has shrunk by 12.8 percent a decade on average since 1979, according to NASA data. Last year’s September ice cover was 42 percent lower than in 1980, turning a frozen, secure northern border into a hotbed of potential exploitation and conflict. Last year Russia’s Northern Fleet conducted its largest military exercise for a decade.”

71 See International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2018.

72 Hylton, 2020.

73 Bowlus, 2020.


75 Humphrey and Schmitz, 2006, p6.

77 Klein, 2014.

78 See Rivin and Owen.

79 Meynen, 2020.


81 Del Panta, 2020, p79


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