Alistair Fraser: Land reform, South Africa, urban slums, industrial farmers

For more information about the "Exploring Geopolitics, Geoeconomics and Geostrategy" Summer School, please click here

Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (February 2012) Tags: Land reform South Africa urban slums industrial farmers peasants class power peace justice equality socio-spatial processes development

picture Alistair Fraser

Alistair Fraser

Dr Alistair Fraser is a lecturer in NUI Maynooth, Ireland. What follows is his personal introduction in the first person (participants in the Geopolitical Passport series are usually introduced in third person).

I completed a Hons Degree in Geography at Strathclyde University in Glasgow (1999) and then moved to Columbus, Ohio where I completed my MA (2001) and PhD (2006) in Geography at The Ohio State University (OSU).

At OSU I enjoyed working with Paul Robbins until he moved on and for the whole time I was there I learned enormously from Nancy Ettlinger, including working with her on a paper we published in Geoforum on British drum & bass music (which for my sins I constantly and exclusively listen to).But my PhD advisor at OSU and the person to whom I’m most indebted was Kevin Cox. It was Kevin who encouraged me to learn about and do work in South Africa, for which I am extremely grateful.

I moved to Ireland in 2006, worked as a Post-Doctoral researcher for a year and then began work as a lecturer in NUI Maynooth alongside, oddly enough, Mark Boyle who was my undergraduate dissertation supervisor in Strathclyde. Mark thought he’d seen the last of me when I left Glasgow in 1999.

The ‘Geopolitical Passport’ series offers visitors to ExploringGeopolitics a unique opportunity to find out more about the enormous variety of views within the geopolitical traditions. The floor has been given to scholars from several countries and various disciplines. The questions address issues all people with an interest in geopolitics grapple with. How should we define it? What are the most fascinating geopolitical ideas? And how will the geopolitical future look like?

My relationship with geopolitics

At what age did you discover geopolitics and what attracted you to it?

I had been reading revolutionary socialist literature since about aged 16 (Tony Cliff, Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos, etc) and this included a lot of geopolitical material (not least on US imperialism and the like), but nothing impressed me as much as David Harvey’s essay on “The geography of class power” in Socialist Register (1998), which I stumbled across when I was an undergraduate. Harvey’s ideas about geography and then the geopolitics of the version of capitalism he theorized excited me.

This had a lot to do with why I wanted to keep studying Geography. What really attracted me about Harvey’s work was the idea that thinking geographically was a necessary step in thinking about how to change the world. That still applies.

Which geopolitical topics have your focus and why did you choose especially these?

My work cuts across various areas of human geography and I fiddle around and try to take something from numerous literatures.

My work that sits closest to what we might imagine as geopolitics is about the role of land reform in the contemporary period, specifically in South Africa. I have tried to communicate how materials from my fieldwork in South Africa can first speak to broader issues regarding the dominance of market-oriented thinking in ‘development’; but then also to how we imagine that colonialism might still matter today in places such as South Africa and about quite ‘post-colonial’ questions such as how a state might try to pursue land reform.

More recently I have been trying to connect my research on South Africa with other development issues and to this end – and partly because of where I’m based – I have been working on understanding Ireland’s place in the world, particularly through the actions and words of its political class.

What do you consider your most important contribution to geopolitics?

I doubt if I’ve made any contribution at all, frankly!

But maybe some people will take something from my work on South Africa, especially my attempt at translating aspects of Derek Gregory’s concept of the ‘colonial present’ to the situation facing land reform beneficiaries.

It’s also possible (but probably unlikely!) that something might be made of my work on Ireland. My interest in looking at a place such as Ireland is undermining the (understandable but nevertheless problematic) tendency for literature on geopolitics to overlook what emerges from smaller, seemingly less powerful places.

I think the case of Ireland’s development stance – specifically its apparent attempt to create a ‘development smokescreen’ over its material stake in the status quo – can speak to other instances of countries in the so-called ‘global north’ (‘so-called’ because it’s up for question as to whether Ireland is still northern, now that it’s going through a quite ‘southern’ structural adjustment programme) discursively representing their ambitions in ways that I think are more likely to harm, rather than help the people they purport to assist.

My geopolitical preferences

What is your favourite definition of geopolitics?

I don’t think I’ve ever read one that I’d say is my preference.

I’m not one for favouring specific definitions of concepts that mean different things to different people in different spaces and times. More generally, I see politics all across the discipline of geography, obviously in radical/critical spheres especially, and so it makes sense to me to imagine geopolitics as having applicability in large swathes of the discipline.

Which geopolitical scientist do you admire the most?

Well, I always enjoy reading David Harvey and Derek Gregory and then there’s the regular stream of insightful work that arrives in my mailbox from New Left Review (Perry Anderson, etc.).

But I think of all, it’d have to be Harvey. He has such a fantastic imagination and a sense for what needs to be argued. And he does all this with an incredible consistency. Enviable!

What is your favourite geopolitical book?

Tough call so I’m going to cheat and point to one that is highly geopolitical but not what people would tend to imagine as such: Iris Young’s “Inclusion and Democracy”.

This is an awesome book: so full of insights, so imaginative, and deeply critical of how contemporary socio-spatial processes are constituted. It’s also a model text. Young wrote beautifully and she crafted her arguments in such a clear and incisive way.

What is your favourite geopolitical website?

This site, of course!

But I also never fail to find something to read in New Left Review’s website:

New Left Review

Our geopolitical future

In what direction(s) will geopolitical science be heading the coming decades?

Honestly don’t know but I think it needs to head ‘south’ (see answer to next question).

Which geopolitical subject has been too little in the spotlight and needs further research?

Another tough one but I think the urban question in the so-called ‘global south’ (i.e the formation of what Mike Davis calls a ‘Planet of Slums’) is probably going to matter a lot.

This leads me to think that geographers as a whole, and then those with a more specific interest in what they imagine to be geopolitics, are going to have to get to grips with what it will mean for so much of the world’s population to be living in urban areas and often in slums and then in many cases enduring what Michael Denning recently termed ‘wageless life’.

I am particularly struck by what Samir Amin argued almost a decade ago: that processes are in train to replace three billion peasants with just twenty million ‘modern’ industrial farmers. What would such a development really mean for us all?

What will be the largest geopolitical challenge for the world in the 21st century?

Constructing a better world, to be blunt.

If we don’t change how ‘things’ (politics, economics, the ‘bounds of justice’ that connect so many of us to nearby and distant others) are arranged and worked out, then I find it difficult to imagine a 21st century with much peace or justice or equality.

There are clearly not many positive signs that such a better world is emerging (indeed, as I write it seems like the Israel and the US are seriously contemplating war with Iran), but there are glimpses: in Latin America’s ALBA, in cooperative community economies, in subaltern industries and economic practices, and in revolts such as we’ve seen in the last year in places such as Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

Comments are closed.