It makes a difference for policy and management when describing pastoralism in terms of capitalism and not as a global infrastructure


Please take the time to read the following excerpts from a very fine study by Marty et al (2022) on Maasai pastoralists in contemporary southern Kenya:

As an adaptation process, diversification brings new opportunities for some people, but can also displace risks and bring new exposures for others, acting as ‘a socially stratifying capitalist fix providing new avenues for accumulation and market penetration’, benefiting a small elite (Mikulewicz 2021, 424)’. . . .

Our results also align with recent research evidencing the increased importance of capital relations for grazing access in the context of changing land use across Kajiado (Jeppesen and Hassan 2022), which is likely to further accentuate processes of social differentiation and associated class formation dynamics. . . .

Our findings suggest that diversification tends to promote more individualized and market-based adaptation strategies, but that the drivers and ramifications of increased integration into capitalist production systems and renegotiation of production relations are complex and dynamic. Differentiated engagements with diversification in pastoral areas are not only related to changing material conditions, but also linked to ‘intangible’ dimensions, such as changing norms and values. New social differentiations emerge through the increased emphasis placed on formal education and how knowledge influences one’s position within the community and beyond (e.g. the relation to state or non-governmental actors). At the same time, other entrenched markers of differentiation persist and are crystalized through exclusionary decision-making processes and established roles, perhaps most notably gendered discriminations. The research findings thus underscore the need for climate change adaptation planning in agrarian environments to extend beyond the dominant technical focus (Eriksen, Nightingale, and Eakin 2015), by showing how adaptation processes in pastoral environments are closely intertwined within rapidly evolving socio-political and economic transformations.

Edwige Marty, Renee Bullock, Matthew Cashmore, Todd Crane & Siri Eriksen (2022): Adapting to climate change among transitioning Maasai pastoralists in southern Kenya:an intersectional analysis of differentiated abilities to benefit from diversification processes., The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2022.2121918

I’ve left the original references in to indicate that the authors are not alone in their views–which to be clear from the outset I believe to be true as far as they go.

I want however to go further and take up the authors’ own suggestion that the adaptation processes be studied in terms of how they are now “closely intertwined within rapidly evolving socio-political and economic transformations”.


Let’s look at the history behind those “socio-political and economic transformations.”

Since there are many historians to choose from, allow me to take the most recent one I’ve read: Capitalism: The story behind the word, by historian of ideas, Michael Sonenscher (2022, Princeton University Press).

I believe he is well-regarded, but that doesn’t matter for what follows: There are plenty of histories of capitalist relations, any number of which usefully complicate the above quotes and indeed compel us to go further.

–Sonenscher starts by underscoring that the development of commercial societies preceded the development of capitalism. More, when the two histories, which do get intertwined later on, are distinguished from the get-go, it becomes altogether clear that commercial societies and capitalist societies were characterized by different features and path dependencies.

Most notably, commercial societies had markets induced by divisions of labor that preceded capitalist class formation. Indeed, terminology introduce after that of “commercial societies”, like “primitive accumulation,” have served to misdirect analysts away from the high degree of economic differentiation on and specialization in those societies–again prior to very introduction of capitalist relations for financing war and debt.

–Hopefully, some readers recognize that this emphasis on trade and markets, along with a division of labor that was differentiated and specialized in terms of trade routes and transactions, also characterized significant pastoralist societies well prior to the commonly narrated version of 18th – 19th century introduction of (Western) capitalism.


–So what? So what if these earlier commercial societies had markets and transactions for goods and services?

After all, the point underscored in the above quotes and many like them is that those earlier formations have long been superseded by capitalist relations and their accentuation/extension into what are no longer and must now be considered “former pastoralist societies.”

Really? Are we sure about that?

I can well believe processes the authors describe are going on in Kajiado, elsewhere in East Africa, and elsewhere in Africa and beyond.

What I can’t believe is that pastoralists are colonized everywhere by capitalism. You mean all (or even most?) of these people Wikipedia record are integrated in capitalist relations: “As of 2019, between 200 million and 500 million people globally practised pastoralism, and 75% of all countries had pastoral communities.”

–There are too many different types of livestock production systems, too many regional differences in the impacts of the climate emergency, too many different path dependencies historically and now into the Anthrocpocene to deny the following:

Just as researchers now talk about the varieties of capitalism, there all along were varieties of commercial societies, and among that latter were and still are pastoralist systems with their evolving–that is, with less ruptured than many think–divisions of labor, differentiations and specializations.

–But, again, so what? I have argued that pastoralisms are a global critical infrastructure. I now argue they have been one for a very, very long time in terms of their differentiation and specialization of services and opportunities to advance and change.

Related source

E. Roe (2020). A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure, STEPS Working Paper 113, STEPS Centre: Brighton, UK (available online at

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