The notion of extractivism and its critique originate mainly from social struggles in South and Central America. It is a term used to describe a neo-colonial situation of large-scale resource exploitation mainly for export from “Global South” to “Global North” under multinational corporate monopoly conditions, entailing large amounts of resource extraction and high-intensity, as well as long-term destructive impacts on affected communities and the environments where they live.
Extractivism is said to have characterized the recent expansion of raw material exports as a main basis of capital accumulation in South and Central American countries. This has also been called “neo-extractivism.” The intensified reliance on such exports is linked to increasing demand from businesses in rapidly growing economies. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is often cited as the main manufacturing vortex suctioning raw materials from much of the globe, but without bothering to discern and support the socialist currents within the Communist Party of China and without paying attention to the role of firms from core capitalist countries in industrial relocation to and foreign direct investment in the PRC.
Return of the state and loss of sovereignty
Be that as it may, the return to greater dependence on raw material extraction (primary sector activity) has bolstered the role of the state, which had been reduced by the 1990s to “a mediating, regulatory agent” (Svampa 2012, 46). This created an opening for the formation of socialist governments intent on using the resource boom for the purpose of wealth redistribution and of instituting socially constructive programs, like healthcare in undersupplied communities, support for communal and smallholder farming, and the uplifting of Indigenous and Afro-descendent communities.
At the same time, the extension of resource extraction, like mining and logging, has led to greater loss of sovereignty or popular control, with increasing numbers of capital-intensive, large-scale resource extractive projects and government recourse to violent intervention on behalf of often foreign capitalists. The process has sparked a sharp rise in environmental struggles, as primary sector activities encroach upon and undermine the livelihoods and communal holdings of many communities, including indigenous communities, who are thereby also having to confront renewed colonial expansion into their lands.
These have been among the reasons for sometimes harsh leftist critiques of socialist governments in, for example, Venezuela and Bolivia, and for new kinds of tensions and schisms among leftists generally (Svampa 2012; see also Brand, Dietz, and Lang 2016, for a brief historical overview).
It appears that many leftists, especially those who struggle against extractivism, forget that socialist states also engaged in raw material export as a main way to garner the wherewithal to improve peasant and working-class well-being and to defend themselves from constant core capitalist attack, both economic and military. The result was a contradictory process of unprecedented success in vastly improving people’s material and cultural living conditions combined with many instances of sometimes public health impairing cases of lasting environmental degradation (though, on the whole, never as widespread and globally destructive as in the capitalist world).
One could put under examination state-socialist countries mainly outside of Europe to discuss the impacts of economic dependence on raw material exports. This has been to some extent taken up elsewhere. I wish here to draw brief attention to Mongolia and Cuba as contrasting examples.
Mongolia is the second country in history, after the USSR, where, in 1922, communists succeeded in realizing a socialist revolution. It is also where a counter-revolution in 1992, as in the USSR, undermined or destroyed most social gains while taking prior environmental degradation problems to unprecedented heights. Since then, Mongolia has been heavily affected as never before by export-led raw material extraction, especially with the recently rising importance of rare earths used in renewable energy technology and the continuing relevance of coal, a top export. By the early 2000s, with increasing inequality and poverty rates, Mongolia had become an extraction industry paradise, attracting the largest mining companies in the world, creating the conditions for massive mining-related destruction increasingly encroaching upon and undermining the livelihoods of herders, nearly a third of the population (see Byambajav 2012; Hannan 2014; Munkherdene and Sneath 2018)
Cuba, in contrast, represents a more recent socialist revolution that gave rise to a still existing socialist state. Since the revolution there has been much reliance on raw material exports, by now mainly nickel (50% of exports), which has displaced sugar cane. The environmentally destructive effects of mining and sugar cane production have long been acknowledged and substantive efforts have been undertaken to reduce them. Yet, thanks to the Cuban socialist state, the long-term proceeds of such export-led raw-material extraction have been invested in social provisions (healthcare institutions, schools, among other socially constructive ends) and in developing agroecologically informed and ecologically sustainable farming, among other benefits.
Circumventing “the curse of abundance”
This is among the reasons why Cuba is one of the most ecologically sustainable countries in the world and why Cubans enjoy higher standards of living than most people in Central and South America and many communities even in the US. With decades of an ever-tightening US embargo and hundreds of terrorist attacks, it is an amazing feat that should shame countries like Canada, the US, or Germany, where much extractivist harm is offloaded to poorer countries, including in South and Central America.
What is particularly striking, then, is that state-socialist countries achieved the exact opposite of the “curse of abundance” (plenty of resources with widespread deprivation) common to regions like Central and South America (Svampa 2012, 52). In state-socialist countries, material well-being improved overall in society precisely by using and exporting resources like wood, oil, coal, metals, and much else, to raise the levels of material well-being of society at large. Major social achievements were made possible precisely by means of resource extraction, which could be considered as an attempted state-socialist reappropriation of capitalist “extractivism.”
The problem should therefore not be viewed as some intrinsic fault of socialist governments in Central and South America (e.g., the “development illusion” cited by Svampa 2012, 52-53), where poverty has actually been temporarily reduced thanks to “extractivism,” as in Bolivia (see also McKay 2017). It seems more appropriate to focus instead on the repeated failures in Central and South America, with the notable exception of Cuba, to achieve a socialist revolution (the defeat of local capitalist ruling classes and external imperialist forces) and take over the reins of a national economy.
Viewed in a more comparative framework that also respects rather than dismisses what socialists have accomplished historically so far, the notion of extractivism starts losing its sheen. It is instead a way to distract attention away from what needs to be achieved and the strategies to achieve such aims. That is, unless the term extractivism is redefined to mean the specifically capitalist use and export of raw materials, in such ways as to suppress or preempt the development of communism. This, regrettably, does not seem to be the kind of meaning espoused by most leftist intellectuals who criticize socialist governments on account of what such intellectuals perceive as a continuation of extractivism (or “neo-extractivism”).
There are certainly other, more profound political problems with leftists charging socialist governments and states with “extractivism,” especially with the sort of leftists who reject state socialism on principle. Their refusal to differentiate socialist from capitalist forms of raw material extraction (a useful review can be found here) leads to a contradictory, if not incoherent position.
While there is recognition that resource extraction cannot be ended entirely, that it will take time, and that it must be directed at wealth redistribution and improving people’s lives (see Acosta 2017), socialist governments engaged in wealth redistribution through resource extraction are criticized or rejected altogether. Often, such leftists chide socialist states or governments for not transforming national economies, as if hundreds of years of colonialism and a global structure founded on imperialism and neo-colonialism could be reversed in just a decade or generation and within just one country. Few of those doing the criticizing even offer any systematic “post-extractivist” alternatives.
Centralized organization and the teachings of Tecumseh
Political strategies are even more wanting or, when offered, are astoundingly ingenuous about or strangely remiss on histories of imperialist intervention that have drowned in blood previous attempts to accomplish exactly what is being advocated. There is a rampant, self-absolving refusal to confront the rather discomforting and messy matters of reconciling diverse communities and multiple contrasting tendencies within anti-capitalist leftist formations, while defending against unscrupulous national bourgeois forces and a hostile world capitalist economy. The latter requires, at a minimum, military self-defense, along with a centralized coordination process to parry immense and highly organized capitalist pressures – or is defeat better than centralism in any form to the self-appointed “anti-extractivist” critical left?
These considerations are especially important in decolonization struggles since they involve tens to hundreds of diverse communities who may also be historically in conflict with each other. It seems the teachings of the likes of Tecumseh remain crucial and must still be learned.
I would argue that the aversion to centralized organization, and especially to state socialism, is what ultimately hobbles efforts at concretely challenging not just capitalist extractivism, but, more broadly, “green capitalism” as a recent greenwashed iteration of imperialism, as addressed by others in the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” project.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro
Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro is Professor at the Geography Department of SUNY New Paltz. His research includes critical physical geography, dialectical and historical materialism, gender-environment processes, socialism and environment, socialist histories, and soil acidification and contamination. He is chief editor for the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism. His publications include “Socialist States and the Environment. Lessons for Eco-Socialist Futures” (Pluto Press, 2021 ).