Chess or Go? Comments on a Conference Panel


The conference Development for a Finite Planet: Grassroots Perspectives and Responses to Climate Change, Resource Extraction and Economic Development organised in Oslo by the Norwegian Association for Development Research collected together a diverse array of papers on local engagements with, and contestations of, environmental issues. Contexts as far apart as South Africa’s townships and the Amazon forests of Ecuador were represented, with papers for a panel on Resistance to Environmental Interventions for which I had a role as a discussant.

The panel brought together research on resource access and social justice issues in Dominican Republic (George Holmes) and both Bangalore and Uttaranchal in India (Narayana Rakesh, Darley Jose Kjosavik, N. Shanmugaratram and Claire Tompsett) – full paper titles listed below. I am not directly familiar with these contexts, and the papers did much to shed light on complex ways that state-corporate structuring and governmentality1 is playing out in these circumstances; as well as illuminating the particular patternings of fortune and misfortune that are deepening as a result.

In the paper on slums as occupation movements in Bangalore, India, presented by Darley Kjosavik, for example, rural patterns of exclusion for Dalit slum dwellers are reproduced in urban areas of Bangalore, at the same time as neoliberal policies are also reproducing caste inequalities through strengthening caste-based exclusions from access to resources.

Narayana Rakesh, Darley Jose Kjosavik and N. Shanmugaratram (all at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, UMB) Confronting neo-liberal appropriation: slums as land occupation movements by Dalits in Bangalore, India.

In George Holmes’ paper on resistance to a protected area in the Dominican Republic, élite capture of the forest reserve in this case echoes former kleptocratic2, structures associated with Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, under whose rule significant appropriation of Forest Reserve land and resources occurred prior to his assassination in 1961.

George Holmes (Leeds University, UK) The politics of scale, hegemony, and resistance to a protected area in the Dominican Republic.

And in Claire Tompsett’s paper, new Ecosystem Services and REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) discourses applied to Himalayan forests are creating innovative ways of leveraging new monetary values from nature. These innovations are attracting a new layer of actors and organisations interested in these new values, and are redirecting traditional co-management institutions (‘Van Panchayats‘) so that they facilitate market access to these values.

Clare Tompsett (Norwegian University of Life Sciences, UMB) Community forests for subsistence or business? The ‘re-assemblage’ of the van panchayats.

These papers thus drew out multiple ways in which structures of inequality are also continually being reshaped through the agency of those they affect – through varied strategies of alignment, resistance and forms of struggle. The current potent global moment of post-financial crisis is simultaneously permitting restructuring and austerity strategies to open up new possibilities for resource access, justifying a deepening of pressures on varied locations and populations – often mediated by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

In the India case study presented by Darley Kjosavik, for example, austerity and financial self-sufficiency agendas are observed to be justifying a grabbing of urban land and resources, through reconstituting slums as valuable real estate. This appropriation requires the eviction of slum dwellers – who of course happen to be of the scheduled castes. The authors of this paper correctly identify this situation as a form of contemporary primitive accumulation3. Such processes connect slum dwellers in Bangalore, to circumstances such as those prevailing in 2012 in Greece – where land and natural resources are being parcelled up and made available to outside investors under the sorts of IMF structural adjustment policies previously more familiar to countries in Africa.

And of course many of the case studies presented in this panel provide detail regarding the implications of various forms of ‘green grabbing’, or the grabbing of conserved nature value made possible through creation of new markets in monetized measures of an increasingly scarce, and therefore valuable, nature health. These interventions construe biodiverse and carbon-rich landscapes as new sources of monetary value, through their standardisation and conversion into REDD+ and other forms of conservation credits.

George Holmes in his paper identifies an important and constantly negotiated binary between,

‘a top down, distant state creating protected area territories – and local communities who try and reshape these protected area territories to their liking’.

This binary can also be seen between REDD+ ready territories and developable urban land, on the one hand, and local communities engaging with these incursions on the other. These are all processes of de- and re- territorialisation that constituting basic and ongoing contestations over access and meaning in relation to land and resources that become poised for state-corporate capture and value accumulation.

This is a deepening of a situation whereby outside interests are cloaking areas in standardised forms of rationalisation, regulation and accounting that usually have little to do with local values, practices and organisations (and may even constitute radical departures from underlying local ontologies – i.e assumptions about the nature of the world that is inhabited). It creates a productive tension between these different interests, and importantly between the very different logics that animate them. Whilst the specific ways in which these tensions play out in different contexts are different in each of the case studies, it strikes me that there are also a lot of connecting similarities.

I am reminded here of work by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and particularly their piece on what they call ‘nomadology’ in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia4. In this ‘plateau’, Deleuze and Guattari call us to think about the repeated productive tensions that are generated as the rationality of the state-capital relation seeks to create and incorporate layers of human and natural ‘capital’ that otherwise exist in a relation of exteriority to state management. Such incorporation tends to be resisted, because it entails losses of freedom, autonomy, and emplaced practices that function through different rhythms and rationalities. They refer to the polarities of this binary as State or Royal science on the one hand, and Nomad science on the other.

One way to conceptualise this binary is to think of the structural differences between the games Chess and Go5.

chess & go

Chess is organised into strict striations of space – both physical and conceptual. Movement through space is highly controlled and the pieces played with are constituted of formalised identities that are hierarchically organised and that can only act and move in pre-defined ways.

The sorts of nature counting occurring today to make Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) and REDD+ schemes possible, are examples of the ways in which state science incorporates landscapes, and peoples’ relationships with these, through standardised mapping technologies that in theory can be replicated, regardless of where they are being rolled out. In this way, local contexts globally are submitted ‘… to civil and metric rules that strictly limit, control, localize’6. These rationalisations are part and parcel of the juggernaut of green neoliberal governmentality – which seeks to create opportunities for incursions of finance into the sustainability frontier, so as to create new financial value and thus contribute to so-called ‘green growth’. It is encapsulated by the dictum that ‘you cannot manage what you cannot measure’, as oft-repeated by the banker and lead of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity programme, Pavan Sukdhev7.

The game Go, on the other hand, works to different logics: the space of movement is relatively free of rigid boundaries and divisions; the rhythm of play involves unpredictable moments of both stasis and effervescence; and its pieces are identical pellets organised along relatively nonhierarchical lines. In this game, power emanates more from situations in specific circumstances, rather than from hierarchically organised and rigid identities.

Deleuze and Guattari use the metaphor of the game Go to describe the logics of contexts existing, or desiring to exist, in relations of exteriority to the state-capital alliance.

In the case study contexts described above we see how the state-capital alliance creates new forms of accounting for and regularising landscapes – both rural and urban – natural resources and peoples, so as to further entrench neoliberal forms of governmentality and thus also release to new value. As such the striations of state science are deepened.

We also see the creative ways in which recipient peoples are variously shaping, resisting and escaping these striations, so as to retain some form of autonomy in an ongoing context that is basically imperialistic. The complexity seen in the different cases is generated by the productive tensions between these different logics. As such, there is something akin to a ‘pattern that connects’ the different cases, even though the specific details of how this plays out clearly are diverse.

To close then, given the regularising and accumulating juggernaut of the state-capital alliance – and the environmental degradations, systemic inequities and structural violence with which it is associated – the question I am left with is: how is it possible to create, embed and amplify new forms of socio-environmental organisation that move things in a different direction?

Analyses such as those pointed towards here seem to confirm a situation whereby, whatever people do to assert sovereignty over local and often ancestral circumstances, they frequently and/or ultimately lose out to the broader structural forces of the state-capital relation and its guiding logics.

If this is the case, then as scholars concerned with describing and diagnosing the contemporary distribution of fortune and misfortune, how might we support each other to contribute work that offers different tools for conceptualising, and assisting struggle, so as to compose futures in which both human and nonhuman diversities flourish?

Specifically: how might we as scholars contest structural dynamics so as to refract, as well as to describe, the inequities that frequently constitute the material of our research?

Connected peer reviewed publications

Dunlap, A. and Sullivan, S. 2019 A faultline in neoliberal environmental governance scholarship? Or, why accumulation-by-alienation matters Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space DOI:

Sullivan, S. 2013 Banking nature? The spectacular financialisation of environmental conservation. Antipode 45(1): 198-217.


  1. I use ‘governmentality’ in a Foucaultian sense, as a consideration of the praxes, discourses and institutions that are empowered to govern the ‘conduct of conduct’ («conduire des conduites», Foucault, M. 1994 Dits et écrits IV. Paris: Gallimard, p.237, see Foucault blog)
  2. I.e. in which corrupt government practices act blatantly to increase the personal wealth and political power of a ruling class of elites at the expense of the wider population, see Kleptocracy)
  3. Primitive accumulation was the term deployed by Marx (Marx, K. (1974[1867]) Capital, Vol I (trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling). London: Lawrence and Wishart) to denote the initial creation and capture of surplus necessary for all subsequent capitalist relations of production and exchange. For Marx, the two critical enclosures are of land as property and human activity as labour, but the term primitive accumulation can apply to the enclosure and commodification of any productive forces that are not a priori manufactured for sale. Such appropriations require dramatic, albeit subsequently naturalised, conceptual transformations. The conversion of land into private property, thus requires the rejection of prior values, access or use rights so that land itself becomes capital that can be owned for most intents and purposes absolutely. Marx presciently stated that “[a]s soon as capitalist production is on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation [of labour from the means of capitalist production], but reproduces it on a continually extending scale” (ibid. p. 668). Massimo de Angelis (2001 Marx and primitive accumulation: the continuous character of capital’s “enclosures”. The Commoner 2) thus refers to the ontological, as opposed to historical, condition of capitalist production. Many other authors have stressed this ongoing nature of “primitive accumulation”, from Rosa Luxemburg writing in 1913 (Luxemburg, R. 2003[1913] The Accumulation of Capital. London: Routledge), to David Harvey writing in 2010, whose reframing of primitive accumulation as ‘accumulation by dispossession’ speaks volumes about the consequences of such capture (Harvey, D. 2010 The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. London: Profile Books). As such, recent analyses frame the process as “continuous” (de Angelis op cit.), “permanent” (Bonefeld, W. 2001 The permanence of primitive accumulation: Commodity fetishism and social constitution. The Commoner 2; Harvey, D. 1975 The geography of capitalist accumulation: a reconstruction of the Marxian theory. Antipode 7(2): 9–21) and “contemporary” (Glassman, J. 2006 Primitive accumulation, accumulation by dispossession, accumulation by “extra-economic” means. Progress in Human Geography 30(5): 608–625).
  4. 1988[1980] Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. 1988[1980] A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: The Athlone Press.
  5. cf. Deleuze and Guattari, p. 389.
  6. Deleuze and Guattari, p.363.
  7. A career banker from Deutsche Bank and head of the globally influential UN/EU programme The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). Sukhdev is also founder-CEO of GIST Advisory, ‘a specialist consulting firm which helps governments and corporations discover, measure, value, and manage their impacts on natural and human capital’ – whose website tagline is ‘you cannot manage what you do not measure’ – and author of Corporation2020, a text and movement that urges firms to become multiple win ‘capital factories’ that ‘produce a surplus of all types of capital — financial, natural, human’

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