Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Accumulation by Dispossession and the Informal Economy-Struggles over Knowledge, Being and Waste at a Soweto Garbage Dump

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Accumulation by Dispossession and the Informal Economy-Struggles over Knowledge, Being and Waste at a Soweto Garbage Dump

Article excerpt

Abstract

Recent scholarship highlights that accumulation by dispossession creates surplus populations who must sustain themselves outside wage labor, often through informal work. This article theorizes a different aspect of the relationship between the informal economy and accumulation by dispossession by analyzing how the state and capital seek to capture new spheres of accumulation created by informal workers. Drawing on Searle's theorization of social ontology it explores how reclaimers at a Soweto garbage dump reconceptualized trash as holding potential value and transformed the landfill from a commodity cemetery into a resource mine. The attempt to enclose the landfill therefore required appropriating not only the materials at the dump but the very framing of these materials as valuable. Reclaimers' grievance over this "epistemic injustice" fueled their successful opposition to the enclosure, demonstrating the centrality of "epistemic dispossession" to accumulation by dispossession. Highlighting the epistemic and social agency of informal workers considered the epitome of "human waste" establishes the need to recognize all informal workers as producers of knowledge and social reality and facilitates more nuanced understandings of accumulation by dispossession, how and why it is contested, and how alternatives can be forged.

Keywords

Accumulation by dispossession, informal economy, waste pickers, social ontology, epistemic injustice, epistemic dispossession

A growing body of scholarship highlights that accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2003) creates surplus populations who must sustain themselves outside wage labor (cf. Li, 2010; Perreault, 2013; Sanyal, 2014 [2007]; Sassen, 2010). Noting that many of the dispossessed turn to the informal economy, this literature establishes the need to interrogate how informal aspects of the economy are bound up in processes of accumulation by dispossession. However, there is a tendency to focus exclusively on how accumulation by dispossession leads people to become informal workers. Disrupting the unidirectional nature of this narrative, this article explores how informal workers create new spheres of accumulation that the state and formal capital seek to capture.

The article is based on analysis of the attempt by the Johannesburg Council and its Pikitup waste management company to grant a tender to a private company to recycle materials at the Marie Louise landfill in Soweto, South Africa. It draws on 42 group interviews with informal reclaimers who salvaged materials at the dump and 63 individual interviews with reclaimers, Pikitup management, and Council representatives conducted between March 2009 and August 2010 as part of a longer social history of the dump. I argue that the Council and Pikitup's desire to enclose the dump must not be taken as the simple effort to dispossess reclaimers of a pre-existing resource. Historically, garbage dumps have been the final burial grounds for unwanted commodities and sites for the permanent destruction of value. Drawing on Searle's (2006) theorization of social ontology, I explore what is required to transform a dump from a commodity cemetery to a resource mine. I argue that at Marie Louise (as at many dumps across the developing world), it was informal reclaimers who re-cast the waste as valuable and the dump as a site for the production of value through a combination of intellectual labor, physical labor, and struggle. In attempting to enclose the dump, the municipality sought to capture the physical materials interred within it as well as the very framing and establishment of these materials as valuable, while simultaneously erasing the role of reclaimers in these processes. The reclaimers' understanding that they produced both the knowledge and the new sphere of accumulation that the Council and Pikitup were trying to appropriate played a pivotal role in spurring them to contest and ultimately prevent the enclosure of the dump. …

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