Gratien on Rignall, 'An Elusive Common: Land, Politics, and Agrarian Rurality in a Moroccan Oasis'

Karen E. Rignall
Christopher Gratien

Karen E. Rignall. An Elusive Common: Land, Politics, and Agrarian Rurality in a Moroccan Oasis. Cornell Series on Land: New Perspectives on Territory, Development, and Environment. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021. Illustrations, maps. ix + 252 pp. $19.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-5017-5615-3; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5017-5613-9; $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-5612-2.

Reviewed by Christopher Gratien (University of Virginia) Published on H-Environment (February, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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“What does it mean to live a rural life at this juncture in the twenty-first century?” is a question that Karen E. Rignall’s An Elusive Common addresses from the vantage point of people whose ideas about the future are rarely given a proper platform (p. 5). The Mgoun Valley of Morocco is a small oasis on the southern side of the Atlas Mountains and northern edge of the Sahara Desert. An Elusive Common is a book about the people who claim it as their homeland or tamazirt. Many have historically suffered from inequality there: Black Amazigh residents excluded from many spheres by the White Amazigh majority, poor sharecroppers, women, and recent migrants navigating entrenched forms of hierarchy and privilege. Nonetheless, as Rignall demonstrates, their collective actions reflect concerted attachment to a place where the reader might not expect to find it, invoking, reframing, and reinventing customary law to assert their political presence. This is just one of many important arguments in a work that challenges the myths and generalizations that pervade both discourses and scholarship about rural people and their relationship to the modern state, capital, and one another.

Urban and suburban populations have climbed steadily across the globe since the end of the Second World War. The demands of markets rather than subsistence tend to drive agriculture, which is increasingly industrialized. Still, “it does make sense to talk of peasants today,” Rignall assures us. To do so, we must let go of the notion “that peasants are relics, holding on to a way of life that contemporary capitalism has rendered obsolete” (p. 6). That pernicious idea was long promoted by champions of colonialism, capitalism, and the modern technocratic state. Yet it has also been sustained by their scholarly critics, who, in search of alternatives, have furthered their own fictions. Many have been drawn to the peasant commons, an imagined space of refuge from and resistance to capitalist encroachment and enclosure defined by egalitarian, collective land management and a rejection of private property. The commons have proven “elusive” because “they never actually existed” in their idealized form. In this regard, the tragic commons and the rejoinder of the romantic commons are two sides of the same coin. Instead, Rignall draws our attention to “the latent commons” (à la Anna Tsing), referring to “practices, ideas, and forms of solidarity that may organize collective action but remain obscured, either because they are self-evident to practitioners or because they could be the subject of repression” (p. 13). These “latent commons” can be hard to see because they are not always formalized or institutionalized, but they are hiding in plain sight, sometimes in surprising places.

The latent commons and the practice of “commoning” are the primary subject of chapter 3, the crux of the monograph, in which Rignall recounts collective action to divide and privatize land classified as collective under Moroccan law. Such moments of land division have typically been studied as a precursor to rural dispossession, an irreversible enclosure that paves the way for a capitalist reordering of local ecologies. Rignall reframes collective land as a product of “the first grand act of enclosure in the twentieth century, that of colonialism itself” (p. 111). Within that context, instantiating private property becomes a grassroots effort to keep a hold on land “enclosed for the benefit of outsiders” (p. 105). Rignall defines this “counterenclosure,” led by historically marginalized groups in the region in the face of efforts by rural notables and government officials to preserve collective land, as a new kind of commoning. The people she interviewed did not see land division as social division. It reflected a shared commitment to the moral economy of the commons and the right to make a living in one’s homeland that takes precedence over any particular form of land tenure.

In chapter 5, Rignall builds on this approach by expanding the purview of rural life to include wage labor, migrant remittances, and various nonagricultural activities that have come to supply the bulk of most households’ income in the region since Morocco’s formal independence in 1956. In this context, residents continue to engage in agriculture less as a profitable venture and more as a means of maintaining attachment to the land, which brings access to ancillary benefits (wood, forage) and keeps people embedded in “networks of social reciprocity” (p. 202). Commercial activities, wage labor, and remittances were not products of rural dispossession so much as supplementary economic activities that enabled people to continue farming and remain in a region where they claimed belonging.

There is plenty of ethnographic insight, including a thread of sustained reflection on the nature of legal and political pluralism, in every chapter of the book, which is based on a year of concentrated fieldwork in and around the Mgoun Valley followed by a decade of dedicated return visits. Rignall is meticulous but not gratuitous when engaging with other scholars, leaving some room to flesh out complex and compelling local personalities. These include an official (qa’id) who likened his job to that of the anthropologist, circling his jurisdiction in a Land Rover to adjudicate disputes, which frequently culminated in a common agreement to eschew formal channels in pursuit of a resolution. An Elusive Common is refreshing in its care for the plurality of voices and experiences within its small region of focus. In an increasingly robust corpus of publications on rural ecologies in the Middle East and North Africa, it is much easier to locate critiques of colonialism and the modern state than the type of local texture found in this work. Similarly, while it is easy enough to understand macroeconomic forces like those that induced tens of thousands of men from the rural southeast of Morocco to work as migrants in European coal mines, it was a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of the conditions and sensibilities that allow such people to return and work toward an overall more worthwhile life back home not easily captured in quantitative terms.

Rignall leads us deep into complicated terrain that may prove unfamiliar even for some scholars of Morocco. Reading with the biases of a historian, I would have appreciated more background in some places, particularly on the deeper history of the region before the colonial encounter that sets the stage for much of what is presented. Islamic brotherhoods or zawiyas emerge as important local features, and I wanted to know more about the history of their role in rural life and the ways it relates to the particular understanding of the commons in the text. Overall, it was easy to grasp the main contentions of the book, which are systematically presented in a comprehensive introductory section. The prose of An Elusive Common is accessible and clear, and its many conceptual interventions have much to offer a graduate seminar discussion. Its geographical and ecological context also position this monograph as good reading for scholars of both the Middle East region and Africa. This includes environmental historians, who will benefit from Rignall’s rigorous interrogation of notions that are too easily taken for granted. Reading the text, I became more conscious of the need to resist satisfying but tenuous generalizations in pursuit of effective ways to narrate rural history in relation to recent and future environmental politics when writing and teaching.

Rignall reflects on her own unease about prevailing contemporary discourses at a conference for a multi-million-dollar United Nations Development Programme project, which was meant to promote the revitalization of transhumant pastoralism in the name of environmental sustainability. “The project had laudably valorized lifeways and land uses that had officially been repressed for so long, but the narrative on display at the ceremony and in project documents was still suffused with assumptions of decline” (p. 157). She cautions against the “preservationism” of some developmentalist frameworks in favor of pragmatism and deference to local perspectives where the future of indigenous land is concerned.

An Elusive Common reveals the romanticism and nostalgia underlying many discourses about peasants past and future. Its more sober, nuanced approach to the commons is far from pessimistic, however. It provides a snapshot of how rural people continue to assert their meaningful place within those futures and opens a window onto a world of common political action that has seldom been explored. Rignall does not predict what the new commons will mean for the future, but throughout the book, she demonstrates that decentering the state, international development, and global capital offers not only a more interesting story of rural change but also a more vivid picture of rural agency.

Citation: Christopher Gratien. Review of Rignall, Karen E., An Elusive Common: Land, Politics, and Agrarian Rurality in a Moroccan Oasis. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL:

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