Book Review – This Land is Ours

June 13, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Wendy Wolford‘s This Land is Ours: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil is a much more pessimistic book than the one I previously reviewed. Here again, Wolford writes about the MST, but where To Inherit The Earth was a fairly optimistic history of the rise of the movement, the present book (more recent) addresses more directly the failures of the MST, especially the failure of massification, that is, the MST’s attempt to succeed outside of the Southern states (especially in the Northeastern states) at the same time that the movement was becoming a national and global force on behalf of peasants.

In this book then, the focus is more on what happens within a social movement once it scales up. Oftentimes, social movement organizations are depicted as homogeneous totalities. Wolford goes deeper into the MST and examines the various modes of mobilization and their success (or failure).

She first looks at mobilization in the Southern states (the MST’s place of birth and its greater success in mobilization), then turns her attention to the Northeaster states, where success has been limited. Why such a difference? For Wolford, the explanation revolves around the concept of moral economy.

What does this refer to? Wolford points to a working paper by Andrew Sayer (2004) on the subject:

“It is now commonplace to note the influence of rules, habits, norms, conventions and values on economic practices and institutions and to note how these vary across different societies. Economic processes, even capitalist ones, are seen as socially embedded in various ways. Thus there is no ‘normal capitalism’, only different varieties, distinguished partly according to their cultural legacies and forms of embedding (Hollingsworth and Boyer, 1997; Crouch and Streeck, 1997, Hall and Soskice, 2001). The rise of ‘cultural political economy’ has complemented this focus on embeddedness. If culture is taken to refer to signifying practices then economic practices can be seen in terms of what they signify as well as materially, and as culturally embedded (Ray and Sayer, 1999; du Gay and Pryke, 2002).


In this paper, I revive this focus by using a moral economic perspective to examine some of the ways in which markets are associated economic phenomena both depend on and influence moral / ethical sentiments, norms and behaviours [sic] and have ethical implications. As a kind of inquiry, ‘moral economy’ is the study of how economic activities of all kinds are influenced and guided by moral dispositions and norms, and how in turn these norms may be compromised, overridden or reinforced by economic pressures (Sayer, 2000). On this definition, all economies – not merely pre- or non-capitalist ones – are moral economies (Booth, 1994). We can also use the term ‘moral economy’ to refer to the object of this kind of inquiry.  Of course, what counts as moral, as opposed to immoral, behaviour is contestable; some forms of moral economy, for example, that of patriarchal household, might be deemed immoral, or as domination disguised as benevolence and fairness.” (pp. 1-2)

For Sayer, a major founding father of this kind of thinking was Adam Smith, who was never the pure free marketer that neo-classical and neo-liberal economists make him out to be.

For Wolford, the different moral economies between the Southern and the Northeastern Brazilian states largely explains successful mobilization in the former and demobilization in the latter. In the Southern state, economic practices revolved around small farming whereas in the Northeast, rural wage labor (mostly in sugarcane plantations) prevailed.

In this sense, the MST emerged in the Southern state and promoted what was already the cultural and moral system of farming: small landholding. To fight for agrarian reform in effect reinforced an already-existing moral economic perspective. Mobilization was therefore easier to promote and “sell” to the peasant population because it matched their habitus (if I dare use this term even though Sayer contends that Bourdieu’s concept fails because it lack moral dimensions).

In the Northeast where moral economy is based on rural wage labor and the paternalistic structure dominated by the plantation owners and their bosses constituted a moral economic background where small farming (with no wage and therefore more uncertainty) was harder to accept. Part of this moral economic structure also included the fact that if a worker does not get along with a boss, he packs up and leaves for the next job and stay there as long as things work out. In this context, a small farm is not something one can walk away from if things do not work out.

Moreover, the MST had as goal to get former rural workers / new small farmers away from sugar cane and to get to plant staple and local market crops through sustainable means. However, the new farmers preferred to plant sugar (what they knew) but on their own land, they ran the risk of no income if crops failed and they lost the benefits attached to working on a large plantation. In addition, the workers resented the “collectivism” promoted by the MST and seemed to prefer an indvidualistic organization of production.  In this sense, they saw membership in the MST as an instrumental matter (get land) but would drop it as soon as that goal was achieved as they saw MST requirements as too constraining.

Through interviews and accounts regarding the relative failure of mobilization in the Northeast, Wolford reveals the clash of moral economies between the MST organizers and leaders and the rural workers who thought the MST people behaved like the bosses without the benefits. When the sugar economy failed, rural workers were more receptive to the MST message but once it recovered, they went back to planting sugar.

In all, this book is written more for an academic audience than To Inherit the Earth. It makes greater use of theories. That being said, it is still an fascinating read as it contains a lot of field materials, interviews and descriptions even if the tone is definitely more pessimistic.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Economic Sociology, Embeddedness, Global Civil Society, Indigenous Populations, Labor, Public Policy, Social Inequalities, Social Movements, Social Norms, Sociology | 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “Book Review – This Land is Ours”

  1.   Benjamin Geer Says:

    Is it you or Wolford who put “[sic]” after “behaviours”? That’s the correct British spelling. I think we have a ways to go before “global sociology” becomes a reality…


  2.   SocProf Says:


    I do know that this is the correct British spelling but I put the [sic] because I know it would pop as misspelled to any of my American readers.


  3.   Benjamin Geer Says:

    Your American readers are presumably fairly well-read people. Have they truly never seen British spellings before? The usual meaning of “[sic]” is to point out a spelling error. By using “[sic]”, you give the impression that you think British spellings are incorrect.

    If you quoted a sentence like “I am sceptical about the centre’s ability to honour its promises and fulfil its potential to analyse labour movements and organisations in neighbouring states”, would you write “I am sceptical [sic] about the centre’s [sic] ability to honour [sic] its promises and fulfil [sic] its potential to analyse [sic] labour [sic] movements and organisations [sic] in neighbouring [sic] states”?

    Honestly, the title of your blog is “The Global Sociology Blog”. If American readers can’t even handle British spellings, is there any hope for global sociology?


    •   SocProf Says:

      You know, get over it.


      •   Benjamin Geer Says:

        Dare I say that your reaction reminds me a bit of this guy?

        Sorry, it’s not for the rest of the world to “get over” Americans’ belief that their way is the only way. It’s for Americans to realise [sic!] that not everyone does things the way they do. You’re a sociologist; haven’t you heard of ethnocentrism? If you really expect the readership of this blog to be global, why don’t you put “[sic]” next to all the American spellings, for the benefit of your British and Australian readers? Or why not just “get over it” and take spelling variants in stride, as every scholarly publication already does?


        •   SocProf Says:

          Wow, you got ugly pretty quickly. Talk about making mountains out of mole hill.

          And for your information, I am not American but if I did write the blog in my native language, that would pretty much guarantee a much more limited readership.

          And if you don’t like what you read here, you can take your baseless and below-the-belt accusations and condescending attitude somewhere else (if content does actually matter to you, which does not seem to be the case, better to focus on one 3-letter word in over thousands of blog posts!), the Internet is a big global place.


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