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Accumulation by dispossession and the informal economy--struggles over knowledge, being and waste at a Soweto garbage dump.


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.


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. "Epistemic injustice" that disregarded the reclaimers in their capacity as knowers (Fricker, 2007) and epistemic dispossession were therefore central to both the attempted process of accumulation by dispossession and how it was successfully challenged. Highlighting the epistemic and social agency of informal workers frequently considered the epitome of "human waste" (Bauman, 2004) establishes the importance of recognizing all informal workers as producers of knowledge who transform social reality and interrogating the implications for how we theorize accumulation by dispossession.

The article proceeds in six sections. The first reviews literature on accumulation by dispossession and the informal economy. The second draws on Searle's (2006) theorization of social ontology to understand how sanitary landfills are established and transformed as social facts. The third section explores how reclaimers converted Marie Louise from a commodity cemetery into a resource mine, while the fourth analyzes how neoliberalization created a motivation for the municipality to enclose the dump in order to benefit from this transformation in its social ontology. The fifth section argues that "epistemic injustice" (Fricker, 2007) and epistemic dispossession are central to accumulation by dispossession and struggles against it. The final section draws out implications for theorizations of accumulation by dispossession.

Accumulation by dispossession and the informal economy

In Capital, Marx (1990) focuses primarily on the dynamics of expanded reproduction within capitalism. However, since Perelman (2000) highlighted the continuing nature of primitive accumulation throughout capitalism's history, a growing body of literature theorizes the role, form, and nature of primitive accumulation within contemporary capitalism (cf. de Angelis, 2001, 2004; Hart, 2006; Harvey, 2003).

The understanding of primitive accumulation as an ongoing process is most closely associated with David Harvey's arguments in The New Imperialism (Harvey, 2003). Harvey argues that in order to assist capital in addressing a crisis of overaccumulation, neoliberal governments are creating new spheres of accumulation by privatizing public goods and services and facilitating the enclosure of common resources. As this form of accumulation is not limited to the birth of capitalism, Harvey argues against calling it "primitive" and proposes the alternative concept of "accumulation by dispossession."

Webber notes that Harvey's theorization of accumulation by dispossession differs from Marx's understanding of primitive accumulation in important ways. Most crucially, while for Marx primitive accumulation changes class relations by separating producers from their means of production and forcing them into wage labor, Harvey's accumulation by dispossession includes the erosion of common property rights to means of consumption (Webber, 2008: 401). As it is not focused exclusively on changes to access to the means of production, the concept "accumulation by dispossession" opens the possibility that dispossession is not necessarily bound up in a shift to wage labor.

Li observes that even at the time of the initial enclosure movement, dispossessed peasants did not move seamlessly into waged employment (Li, 2010: 70-71). She and a range of scholars argue that a key feature of accumulation by dispossession in the current era is precisely the fact that dispossession is delinked from proletarianization, as capital values the resources to be enclosed, but not the people who must be dispossessed of them. Rather than being a central mechanism for bringing people into capitalist labor relations, accumulation by dispossession plays the opposite role of rendering increasing numbers of people permanently surplus to the needs of capital (Li, 2010; Perreault, 2013; Sanyal, 2014 [2007]; Sanyal and Bhattacharyya, 2009; Sassen, 2010; Soederberg, 2012).

As many of these people turn to the informal economy to generate their livelihoods, this understanding facilitates fresh ways of theorizing the relationship between enclosure, dispossession, the informal economy, and capitalism. Scholars working with a classical Marxist understanding in which the transition to wage labor is central to primitive accumulation see the rise of the informal economy as pathological and as evidence of a stalled transition to "real" capitalism (Moore, 2004: 91-92). By contrast, Sanyal sees informal workers (other than those subcontracted by capital) as part of the "need economy" constituted by people excluded from capitalist relations. Rather than serving as evidence of an incomplete capitalist transition, they are an integral part of the "capital--not- capital" complex that, as Sanyal argues, characterizes postcolonial economies. According to Sanyal, because India is a democracy, government cannot simply abandon the excluded and must engage in "developmental governmentality" to reverse the effects of primitive accumulation by supporting people in the "need economy" to reproduce themselves outside the circuits of capital. For Sanyal, government support for the informal economy is not about promoting budding capitalists, but is, instead, about containing the political effects of dispossession by ensuring that people excluded from wage labor are able to sustain themselves (Sanyal, 2014 [2007]).

Gidwani and Wainright (2014: 44-45) correctly note that Sanyal overstates the separation of the need economy and the accumulation economy and fails to recognize that, far from being permanently quarantined within the informal economy, people move between wage labor and informal work. In addition, it is important to note how economic activities themselves cross the so-called need and accumulation economies. While Sanyal and Bhattacharyya claim there are two distinct spheres within the informal economy--one linked to circuits of capital through subcontracting and outsourcing and one completely outside capitalist circuits (Sanyal and Bhattacharyya, 2009: 36)--reality cannot be parsed into such neat categories. For example, informal reclaimers salvage materials for a range of purposes that span the so-called need and accumulation economies. They reclaim reusable items such as food, clothing, furniture, and building materials for personal use and for sale to people who will use them as is or as inputs into informal production. They also collect recyclable materials that may initially be sold informally to intermediaries but are transformed into inputs for formal production as they are sold upwards into highly globalized value chains.

Reclaimers' decisions regarding what to collect and sell are informed and conditioned by a number of factors, including access to waste; knowledge of and access to markets; conditions in the multiple markets for their materials; relations with the state, formal business, customers and the community where they work; and power-laden social relations of gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality between reclaimers themselves. (1) While reclaimers' actions are, therefore, undeniably shaped and constrained by other actors and the contexts within which they work, reclaimers are also active and central agents in the forging of recycling systems. As elaborated below, in most postcolonial contexts, recycling services were created informally by reclaimers. Until the point when municipalities develop formal policy on recycling, reclaimers' integration into formal circuits of capital results from their own decisions based on known constraints, opportunities, and conditions, rather than being determined by the informalization strategies of capital as assumed by Sanyal (Samson, forthcoming).

Once it is understood that the formal and informal economies constitute an interrelated, dynamic, complex whole, it is possible to develop a more nuanced understanding of accumulation by dispossession and the informal economy than that presented by Sanyal. Sanyal's focus on the relationship between accumulation by dispossession and the informal economy is one-sided and unidirectional, focusing only on how accumulation by dispossession and exclusion foster the creation and expansion of the informal economy. However, Soederberg's (2012) theorization of the extension of formal credit to poor Mexicans who previously relied on informal lending as a form of accumulation by dispossession demonstrates that accumulation by dispossession can also involve the formal economy capturing a sphere of accumulation forged within the informal economy.

Unfortunately Soederberg does not analyze the dynamics of this process or ask crucial questions related to how the informal market was created, functioned, or was affected by the capture of a significant proportion of clients by formal lenders. She also does not interrogate how workers and lenders in the informal credit market resisted accumulation by dispossession or were affected by it. Answering such questions is, however, crucial to developing a more complete theorization of accumulation by dispossession and the informal economy. This task is taken up in the remainder of the article through a study of how the state and formal capital attempted to capture recycling activities created informally by reclaimers at the Marie Louise landfill in Soweto, as well as how this was contested. As I am particularly interested in understanding how reclaimers informally create a new sphere of accumulation, I am closely attentive to their role as creators of both knowledge and resources.

The social ontology of sanitary landfills

Marie Louise is located in the historically African township of Dobsonville. Although Dobsonville is part of Greater Soweto, it borders the historically white municipality of Roodepoort and prior to 1994 was governed by the Roodepoort City Council. Marie Louise serves as a boundary of sorts, lying nestled between the famed Main Reef Road that passes through Roodepoort as it connects former mines and mining towns to the centre of Johannesburg, and Elias Motsoaledi Road, a major thoroughfare linking Dobsonville with other parts of Soweto.

Marie Louise was opened by the Roodepoort City Council in 1993. Its ownership subsequently changed a number of times as Roodepoort was merged first into a transitional non-racial council in 1995 and then into the Johannesburg Metropolitan Council in 2000. Finally, in 2001, the Council converted its waste management department into the municipally owned, private waste management company Pikitup, which became the owner of Marie Louise (City of Johannesburg Council, 2001). Over this period, the very nature of Marie Louise was also fundamentally transformed.

Like all of Johannesburg's landfills, Marie Louise was established as a sanitary landfill. Douglas (1966) famously argues that dirt is "matter out of place" and many theorists draw on this understanding to simply equate "waste" with "dirt" and argue that "waste" is "matter out of place." However, Douglas notes that in order to prevent contamination and maintain order, all societies designate specific places for dirt (Douglas, 1966: 97-98). O'Brien therefore argues that "waste" is "dirt" which has been put in its proper place, elaborating that "[i]f dirt is matter out of place, wasting is its reversal, the in-placing of dirt" (O'Brien, 1999: 271). In modern capitalist societies, the places set aside for waste include the garbage bins that make waste magically disappear from people's homes, the trucks that whisk it through the city's streets, and the landfills that serve as waste's final resting ground, usually somewhere far-off the edge of the urban map. This permanent disposal of commodities is a crucial part of the planned obsolescence that facilitates continual demand for new commodities and is central to the production of capitalist value (Rogers, 2005). Landfills, can, therefore, be seen as commodity cemeteries.

A sanitary landfill does not exist independently from human action and needs to be socially produced. In seeking to understand how landfills are created and transformed, it is useful to critically engage the work of John R Searle (2006). Searle develops a social ontology to explain how social facts such as money, citizenship, and universities (and I would add sanitary landfills) are created by humans but also have an "epistemically objective existence" (p. 12). Searle's social ontology identifies three elements necessary for the construction of social facts. (2) First, there must be "collective intentionality," which includes shared intentions "to do things," "shared beliefs," and "shared desires" (p. 16). In the case of the sanitary landfill, the collective intentionality is to permanently eradicate items classified as waste, based on the belief that they have lost both their use and exchange values, as well as the desire to remove them from circulation and contact with society.

Second, there must be collective assignment of function (p. 17). The function of a sanitary landfill is to bury and dispose of waste. This is not necessarily related to the physical features of either the landfill or the materials interred within it, for as will be argued below, the materials could be reframed as holding potential value and the physical space of the landfill assigned the function of a mine for the reclamation of potentially valuable resources. When function is not related to physical features and arises instead out of collective intentionality that assigns an object or person with a status that enables it/them to perform this function, Searle refers to this as a "status function" (pp. 17-18).

Third, once we accept status functions, there are associated "constitutive rules and procedures" (p. 16). Because these rules and procedures create reasons for actions that are not dependent on our own personal desires, Searle refers to them as "deontic powers" and argues they play a central role in forging an objective social reality (pp. 18-19). The deontic powers of sanitary landfills include rules related to who may be present at the landfill and what they are permitted to do there. People employed at landfills are commodity undertakers whose sole purpose is to render unwanted commodities permanently valueless by burying them. Accordingly, at Marie Louise, the permit explicitly forbade reclaiming and the waste bylaws stated that the landfill was the Council's property and people were only permitted to enter the dump to dispose waste. This was not an anomaly. As Rogers argues, since its inception the very concept of a "sanitary landfill" as a clean, green space was designed to "cast wasting as benign while it categorized scavenging [sic] as unclean and therefore verboten" (Rogers, 2005: 7-8).

Searle argues that when a status function becomes regular it can be said that "X counts as Y in context C. Thus, such and such counts as a $20 bill in our society. George W Bush counts as president of the United States" (Searle, 2006: 18). The recognition that status functions are context specific foregrounds that they can vary over time and place. However, Searle does not explore how this variation occurs. He also does not acknowledge that even within the same time and place, there may not be unanimity regarding the collective intentionality, collective assignment of function, and constitutive rules and procedures that allow a particular social reality to exist. The three elements of Searle's social ontology all rely on collective agreement, yet in societies riddled with power- laden social divisions, this is unlikely to be forged and maintained automatically. As Eagleton (1991) reminds us, even when hegemony is achieved it always contested and unstable (Eagleton 1991). Searle is correct in noting that deontic powers iterate upwards and interlock (Searle, 2006: 18), particularly once the state legislates social realities like money, the presidency, and sanitary landfills and can use its authority to enforce their functions, rules, and procedures. However, even the ability of the state to impose deontic powers is not absolute and this interlocking is not impermeable. It is, therefore, possible that although social facts can be said to have an "epistemically objective existence," this existence can be contested, undone, and changed, amounting to a transformation in social ontology.

As I elaborate below, this is precisely what transpired at Marie Louise (as well as many other sanitary landfills around the world) as people excluded from waged labor developed a different collective intentionality, function, rules, and procedures for the place they still called Marie Louise. Instead of seeing the materials sent to the landfill as waste to be permanently removed from society, they saw potential resources to be harvested to generate their livelihoods. And instead of assigning the dump the function of commodity cemetery, they allocated it the function of a resource mine where they could reclaim and revivify items with latent value. However, given that Marie Louise had an objective social existence as a sanitary landfill, this transformation in its social ontology required the production of new knowledge, understandings, and claims as well as concerted social struggle.

From commodity cemetery to resource mine

Reclaimers have been present at Marie Louise since at least 1994. Because salvaging was prohibited, their first battle involved finding creative ways to enter the physical space of the dump. As security guards patrolled the site during the working day, the reclaimers cut holes in the fence and worked from dawn until just before seven, when they would slip out, only to return once the guards had knocked off.

The initial reclaimers were a small group of men who collected discarded dairy products to both consume and re-sell in the township. Soon they were joined by reclaimers who previously collected recyclables at another dump and followed the trucks to Marie Louise when that dump closed. They brought with them knowledge that was essential for transforming the social ontology of Marie Louise into a resource mine, including that recyclable materials could be extracted from the waste stream and sold as inputs into the formal economy; what types of materials were valued; and whom these could be sold to. Reclaimers at Marie Louise were then able to begin collecting recyclable materials including metals, paper, cardboard, and glass in addition to a range of reusable materials.

The knowledge required to infuse new value into items cast aside as waste is far from self- evident. When reclaimers arrived at Marie Louise, most could not differentiate what was potentially valuable from what was rubbish. This is a skill that must be learned (Birkbeck, 1978) and like their counterparts in Rio de Janeiro (Millar, 2008) reclaimers at Marie Louise noted this often required apprenticing by working alongside those with more experience (Group interview #10, 26 August 2009). Buyers who purchased recyclable materials from the reclaimers also taught them to identify materials they wanted to buy:

I took a long time [to learn what to collect] because I did not even know what aluminium was. When I went to sell someone [a buyer] said to me--do not collect that kind. I just collected anything! So he showed me the right kind. He gave me a sample to take to the top, and when 1 got there I realised that they were different. So I got to know what to collect (Interview with Reclaimer #44, 25 November 2009).

As individual reclaimers became more adept at selecting and sorting the right materials, their incomes increased significantly, in some cases doubling from week to week as their skills progressed (Reclaimer #7, 25 August 2009). They also learned to watch how prices changed and to shift to materials receiving higher prices (Group interview #54, 27 March 2010). Those who collected and sold reusable materials or items they produced out of materials found at the dump also needed to find markets for their wares. This was not an easy task and some who wanted to copy others and sell items such as milk were not able to do so as they could not figure out whom to sell it to (Interview with Reclaimer #54, 7 February 2010).

When buyers realized the volumes coming from Marie Louise, they set up shop right inside the walls of the landfill. Most specialized in the purchase of one or two types of materials and all sold to larger collection companies. The buyers were not the only ones to realize that reclaimers had started to transform Marie Louise into a resource mine. As the municipal waste management workers formally employed to dispose the waste watched the reclaimers toil, they began to change the way that they saw the dump and understand that there was potential money mingled amongst the trash. Although legally barred from salvaging while at work, they exploited their more secure access to the landfill to pick the best recyclables and fought to keep the reclaimers out.

Already frustrated at the brevity of their working day, the reclaimers held a small number of informal discussions and simply refused to leave one morning in 2009. The police were called and the reclaimers arrested. As soon as they were released they returned to the dump, only to be arrested once again. After several years of ongoing clashes, the Council and Waste Tech (the company contracted to manage Marie Louise at the time) eventually recognized they were fighting a losing battle. One reclaimer explained:

They tried for a long time to lock us out, to put the fence back on. They would put it up in the morning and in the afternoon we would take it all down. And then they realised it was useless to be putting up the fence.... (Reclaimer #54, 7 February 2010).

As the police and private security could not guard the physical space of the dump day and night, eventually the Council and Waste Tech were forced to relent and accept the transformations the reclaimers had wrought to the social ontology of the dump. They asked the 96 reclaimers working at the site at the time to elect a committee to represent them in discussions. On 15 June 2000, Waste Tech and the Council agreed to let the reclaimers work at the dump, acknowledging that while Marie Louise was still officially a commodity cemetery, it had also become a resource mine. Significantly, the municipality and Waste Tech allowed the reclaimers to govern the salvaging activities at the dump. There were therefore two different collectives developing and deploying different intentionalities, functions, rules, and procedures for the same physical resources in the same physical space, creating a new, complex social reality.

The neoliberalization of Johannesburg and the attempted enclosure of the dump

For six months, the reclaimers enjoyed secure access to Marie Louise and the materials with latent value within it. The number of reclaimers gradually increased until 140 were included in the agreement and even more worked after 4 p.m. Regular meetings were held between the reclaimer committee and Waste Tech, but the reclaimers were in full command of the process of extracting materials from the trash and re-inserting them back into circuits of reproduction, as well as formal and informal exchange and production.

Unfortunately for the reclaimers they had established the landfill as a resource mine at precisely the moment when local governments in South Africa (and around the world) were neoliberalizing and repositioning themselves to maximize revenue generation and facilitate the opening of new spheres of accumulation for formal capitalist enterprises. Neoliberalization in Johannesburg was informed by developments at the national level. In 1996, the African National Congress (ANC) government adopted the neoliberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR), which focused on marketizing the state and promoting international competitiveness (Department of Finance, 1996). National government subsequently introduced policies and legislation that created material and ideological pressure for municipalities to implement market-oriented restructuring and privatization of municipal services (McDonald, 2002: 23; Ruiters, 2002: 79).

In 2000, Johannesburg launched the controversial iGoli 2002 plan, which became the model for municipal neoliberalization in the country. The municipal administration was marketized by creating 11 regional administrations to act as contractors to a central administration. Departments deemed "noncore" were sold to the private sector. The rest were transformed into three different kinds of private companies owned by the Council. Agencies providing public goods such as roads and parks were fully subsidized by Council. Corporatized entities received some subsidization to complement revenue generated internally. Utilities were expected to be fully self-financing (City of Johannesburg Council, 2001).

Despite strong opposition by municipal unions and community organizations iGoli 2002 was implemented on 1 January 2001. All of the city's waste management departments were merged to form Pikitup Pty Limited, which became the largest private waste management company in Africa (, accessed 2 November 2014). The Council then contracted Pikitup to provide all waste management services for which it bore legal responsibility. The city's waste management departments had always operated at a loss and required subsidies to provide public goods such as street cleaning. However, iGoli 2002 made Pikitup a utility in order to force it to be more innovative and efficient and adopt a greater business focus (Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council, 1999: 19). This orientation was entrenched in the Pikitup Mission statement which included commitments to "provide acceptable returns to our shareholders" and "balance good service delivery with financial returns" (Pikitup, 2001: 2).

Although disposal was identified as a revenue-generating activity as Pikitup could charge users for disposing waste at the landfill sites, reclaiming and recycling did not feature in either iGoli 2002 or Pikitup's business plans. However, once the reclaimers established that extracting recyclable materials from the landfills was a profitable activity, it was not surprising that Pikitup sought to capture this benefit and exploit it as part of its profit-oriented corporate strategy. Such a move also brought Pikitup in line with the global trend to include recycling in municipal waste management systems, which had started in advanced capitalist countries but was slowly spreading to the developing world, often with the support of donor agencies. It is crucial to note, however, that the Council and Pikitup's embrace of recycling cannot be read as something simply imported from elsewhere. As elaborated below, Pikitup's proposed recycling strategy was directly predicated on the knowledge and labor of the reclaimers, both of which they had established through hard-pitched battles against the Council. The fact that the reclaimers had already transformed the social ontology of the dump to become a resource mine was therefore central to the Council and Pikitup's desire to enclose it and the way they intended to do so.

The waste bylaws granted the Council (and therefore Pikitup as the Council's agent) ownership of all waste disposed at the landfill. However, this had never been established in practice. This situation is common in developing cities around the world where waste systems are not fully formalized and informal reclaiming is prevalent on dumps and in the streets. As the International Labour Organisation notes, in such contexts waste is better understood as a common property resource. Opening up recycling as a new sphere of accumulation for capital and a new source of revenue for the municipality therefore requires the municipality to first enclose the landfill and dispossess those who already recycle there informally (International Labour Organisation, 2004: 22). This process of enclosing landfills in order to grant private companies monopsonies over the purchase of recyclables is, therefore, clearly a form of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2003).

Although Pikitup was formed on 1 January 2001, it only took control of Marie Louise in April. One of its first acts was to inform the reclaimers that their presence there was illegal. The reclaimers believed that the agreement gave them the right to work at the dump and they were dependent on it for their livelihood. Harking back to the early days of reclaiming at Marie Louise, they began to enter the site through holes in the fence. The police were repeatedly called to remove them for trespassing. As in the past, they returned to Marie Louise as soon as they were released from jail. The reclaimers also held a number of protests at the gates of the dump which garnered support in the local press.

Despite mobilization by the reclaimers and condemnation in the media, on 21 January 2002 Pikitup awarded a tender to a private company to salvage materials on all five Pikitup landfills. ' The contract was officially granted to Reuben Recycling, a black-owned company with no prior experience in recycling. It was co-signed by MT Benjamin of the white-owned company Benjamin Waste Group, which committed to supporting Reuben Recycling to fulfill the contract. Until then Benjamin had been just one of eight buyers at the dump. As became evident, Benjamin was the real power behind the contract. Granting the tender to Reuben was a thinly veiled attempt to give a black economic empowerment spin to a contract with an established white-owned company.

The contract gave Reuben Recycling a monopsony in return for a set fee to be paid to Pikitup per tonne of recyclables removed from the dumps. It included only recyclable materials and forbade the removal of other items from the landfills. The actual work of salvaging was still to be done by reclaimers, who would be forced to sign contracts obliging them to sell exclusively to Reuben. These would not, however, be employment contracts as the reclaimers would not receive a regular wage or any benefits and would continue to be paid per weight for salvaged materials. Reuben Recycling was clear in meetings with the reclaimers that as it was required to pay Pikitup to access the recyclables, it would pay the reclaimers less than they were receiving from the eight buyers purchasing their materials at that time (Reclaimer #54, 2 July 2010). The contracts would remove the ability of reclaimers to negotiate prices with different buyers at the dump (4) or try to start selling in bulk to larger companies and would turn them into piece workers for one company earning lower incomes than when they worked independently. They would also be precluded from salvaging reusable materials for direct consumption and sale in the informal economy.

The proposed approach to enclosing Marie Louise therefore demonstrates that accumuation by dispossession can involve the state attempting to seize control of spheres of accumulation created by informal actors in order to transfer them to formal private enterprises. However, it also reveals that this process does not necessarily entail eradicating the informal economy or transforming informal workers into wage laborers. While formal private enterprises that benefit from enclosure require workers to perform the actual labor, as informalization of labor is a key aspect of neoliberalism, it is by no means given that the enterprises will create formal jobs. One option is for them to hire new people under precarious conditions. As Pikitup's and Reuben's plans demonstrate, another is to benefit from the expertise of the informal workers who created the resource and the industry by allowing them to continue to work but rendering them subservient to newly implanted formal private companies who maximize profits by exploiting their insecure and unprotected conditions. The process of accumulation by dispossession in such contexts therefore lays bare state bias towards formal enterprise and the ways neoliberalization shifts power between informal and formal economic actors.

A number of justifications were given by Pikitup and Council for granting the tender to a formal company. In court papers, they stressed the need to "control" reclaiming on the site as they argued the reclaimers were not capable of managing themselves. Within the context of iGoli 2002 and the pressure for Pikitup to turn a profit, the financial benefits of granting a formal contract were considered crucial. According to the General Manager Waste Disposal at the time "the first motive was to extend the airspace [at the landfill] and the second was to get an income [by charging the company to access the recyclables]." In keeping with broader motivations for accumulation by dispossession, he also noted that the creation of business opportunities for private enterprise was a key objective of the tender (Pikitup Former General Manager Waste Disposal, 7 November 2011).

Each justification was contestable. If reclaimers' safety was the primary concern, there were ways Pikitup could have achieved this goal without granting a monopsonistic contract that would reduce their earnings and control over their work. The airspace at the landfill was already being extended by the reclaimers and there was no requirement for Reuben Recycling to increase the recycling rate. Lastly, although Pikitup argued that without such a contract the city was "being deprived of an income stream" (Harris, 2002: 13-14), the reclaimers reported they had been willing to pay a fee to be able to continue working at the site independently (Group interview #3, 22 July 2009).

A number of intertwining explanations help to understand why Pikitup was set on contracting a formal, private company rather than formalizing and deepening control by the reclaimers upon whose knowledge and labor the contract depended. The first relates to more standard, economistic understandings of accumulation by dispossession. During the era of Keynesian and developmental states, government would have expanded the public service to provide new services. However, the ideal neoliberal state is a minimal one which uses its power to open new spheres of accumulation for capital. We are therefore witnessing a privatized expansion of the public sphere in which the state contracts private companies to provide "new" services such as recycling on its behalf (Samson, 2009b).

However, on its own, this argument does not explain the state's bias in favor of formal enterprise. As Webber (2008) observes, primitive accumulation (or accumulation by dispossession) is driven by extra-economic and not just economic logics. In the case of Marie Louise, these extra-economic reasons relate to conceptualizations of both modern waste management systems and reclaimers themselves. In theory, the state could have contracted the reclaimers to provide recycling services at Marie Louise. In India, Colombia, and Brazil, reclaimers are forcing the state to do just that. Rather than paying the state for the right to salvage recyclables, reclaimers in these countries are increasingly successful in getting the state to pay them for the service they provide, thus undercutting the neoliberal logic and inverting attempted processes of accumulation by dispossession. However, this has only been after concerted struggles through which reclaimers have challenged and overturned the state's conceptualization of both themselves and the ideal type waste management system (Gutberlet, 2008; Medina, 2007; Samson, forthcoming). Common sense understandings of modern, sustainable waste management systems punted by donors and consultants are imported from advanced capitalist countries with relatively insignificant informal economies in the waste sector. When transplanted to developing countries, these models render the informal economy invisible and fail to take into account the reality that the informal economy often already provides the services the state is seeking to formally establish (Assaad, 1996). In addition, visions of modern, "world class cities" drawn from the north do not include a place for the informal economy. As prototypical embodiments of the "detritus" of capitalism and modernity (Chari, 2013), reclaimers are particularly reviled as a visceral, visual denunciation of the purported unidirectional progressive development of the "world class city." The following section draws on Fricker's (2007) concepts of "identity prejudice," "identity power," and "epistemic injustice" to theorize how bias against reclaimers allowed the state and capital to appropriate the knowledge and transformations in social ontology developed by the reclaimers, while simultanously erasing their role in these processes so that they could enclose Marie Louise and transfer control of the recyclables to a formal private firm.

Epistemic injustice and epistemic dispossession

A growing body of literature argues that because accumulation by disppossession reduces valuation to monetary terms, it excludes and erases other ways in which spaces and resources have been valued prior to their enclosure. Given the importance of these alternative valuations to people's ways of life and livelihoods, the imposition of narrow, economic valuations plays a key role in fomenting resistance to accumulation by dispossession (Ahlers, 2010; Sneddon, 2007; Veuthey and Gerber, 2012). As will be argued below, at Marie Louise, the reclaimers' grievance was not that their way of valuing the resources was erased, but that it was appropriated and their role in establishing the materials as valuable resources was denied.

The reclaimers were acutely aware that it was they who had produced the knowledge that the dump could generate value, turned this idea into a reality, and possessed the intellectual and physical skill required to identify, extract, and prepare items with potential value. They were highly aggrieved that Pikitup and the Council were attempting to rob them of the resources they had created without giving them any credit or compensation. As one reclaimer explained:

When we started working there at the dump, nobody knew what was in the dump. Even those companies which were recycling--now they are called big recycling companies--they didn't know that there was recyclable material in the dump. They saw it because we went and retrieved it and then we brought it to them. So it was us who started that job there at the dump. Now they wanted to take over and make as if it was theirs. When they talk about recycling they all talk about companies. Companies have never been in the dump (Reclaimer #54, 7 February 2010).

This reclaimer clearly identified how the production of knowledge by the reclaimers was crucial in establishing Marie Louise as a site for the production of value and that the failure of the state to recognize the reclaimers' role as epistemic agents was central to their grievances.

Miranda Fricker's concept of "epistemic injustice" is useful in thinking through the role of knowledge production and struggles over knowledge in the attempted enclosure of Marie Louise. Fricker's philosophical enquiry into "the ethical and political aspects of our epistemic conduct" works with a socially situated conception of the human subject to reveal "the operation of social power in epistemic interactions" and "expose a politics of epistemic practice" (Fricker, 2007: 2). According to Fricker, epistemic injustice is "a wrong done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower" (p. 1). She identifies two types of epistemic injustice. "Testimonial injustice" is when "someone is wronged in their capacity as a giver of knowledge" (p. 7) and "occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker's word" (p. 1). "Hermeneutical injustice" occurs when there is no concept to describe someone's experience and when the lack of this concept is harmful and wrongful, as in the era when the concept 'sexual harassment' did not yet exists, limiting women's ability to understand, protest, and put an end to their sexual harassment (pp. 4, 149-152). Importantly, Fricker notes that because the powerful benefit from hermeneutical lacunae they can have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and preventing the development of more adequate concepts (p. 152).

While someone may suffer a hermeneutical disadvantage if a concept does not exist to describe their condition, it is only a hermeneutical injustice if the absence of the concept arises out of coerced unequal participation in the production of social meaning or "hermeneutical marginalization" (p. 152). While there can be incidental instances of hermeneutical marginalization linked to temporary powerlessness, Fricker is primarily interested in structural hermeneutical injustice, which is inextricably linked to social marginalization and powerlessness that limit the hermeneutical participation of certain types of people (pp. 153-155).

Social identity is therefore central to both testimonial and hermeneutical injustice. Fricker develops two concepts to theorize how social identity enters epistemic practice. "Identity prejudice" captures discrimination against people based on their "social type." It is the key component of structural testimonial injustice as the listener deflates the credibility of people's statements based on their social identity. It also enters hermeneutical injustice when prejudice against a social group is used to preclude or limit their hermeneutical participation (pp. 4, 16, 17, 154, 162). "Identity power" is "a form of social power which is directly dependent upon shared social-imaginative conceptions of the social identities of those implicated in the particular operations of power" (p. 4).

Fricker also interrogates the particular harm caused when the concept used to identify a group is pejorative and the even greater harm when members of the group lack a different concept to name themselves. This not only shapes how others see them and facilitates testimonial injustice but can affect "the very construction (constitutive and/or causal) of selfhood" (p. 168). Both testimonial and heremeneutical injustice therefore have "identity-constructive power" through which people "may be prevented from becoming who they are" (p. 168).

Identity prejudice and identity power both informed the erasure of the reclaimers' role in the production of knowledge that underpinned the transformation of Marie Louise into a resource mine. Pikitup and the Council consistently referred to the reclaimers as "scavengers." The use of this dehumanizing term was itself a hermeneutical injustice. The labeling of reclaimers as scavengers is widespread around the world. Rather than valuing reclaimers for the intimate knowledge they possess about the actual workings of the waste management system and the crucial role they play in it, refering to reclaimers as scavengers enables municipal governments and private companies to dismiss them as nuisances who need to be eradicated (Samson, 2009a). At Marie Louise, identity prejudice against "scavengers" facilitated testimonial injustice in which reclaimers were not considered epistemic agents with useful contributions to make discussions on the restructuring of Johannesburg's waste management system. Deploying identity power, Pikitup and the Council excluded reclaimers from consultations and negotiations around the future of recycling at the dump and unilaterally decided to integrate them into the new system in a way that was limited to exploiting their labor. While Benjamin Recycling would implicitly benefit from the reclaimers' knowledge of recycling at Marie Louise, their epistemic role would not be acknowledged or rewarded.

Hookway argues that testimonial and hermeneutical injustice are not the only forms of epistemic injustice, as the denial of someone's reliability as a sharer of information and the absence of a concept to describe one's experience are not the only wrongs that can be committed against them as a knower (Hookway, 2010: 153). Fricker concedes the need to more fully theorize the injustice when someone's full "epistemic participation" is blocked (Fricker, 2010: 178). The exclusion of reclaimers from policy processes and waste management planning due to identity prejudice against scavengers is one example of this type of epistemic injustice.

In addition to being framed as "scavengers," the reclaimers suffered the hermeneutical injustice of being denied participation in the process of developing concepts to understand the very social existence of the dump. Identity prejudice which rendered the reclaimers nothing more than "human waste" (Bauman, 2004; Gidwani and Reddy, 2011) meant that Pikitup and the city could at first ignore the way that the reclaimers had reconceptualized Marie Louise as a site for the production of value, and could then appropriate it, without acknowleding the reclaimers as the provenance of this idea. This form of epistemic injustice, can, therefore, be understood as "epistemic dispossession." (5) Of course, the key injustice for the reclaimers was the threatened dispossession of their control over the resources with latent value at the dump upon which their livelihoods depended. But, as Fricker notes, the epistemological, ontological, and material are deeply intertwined, because "if understandings are structured a certain way, then so are social facts" (Fricker, 2007: 147). The planned material dispossession at Marie Louise was, therefore, intimately related to and predicated on epistemic dispossession.

While Fricker notes that the use of terms like "scavenger" can negatively shape how people see themselves and lead them to undermine their own agency (epistemic and otherwise), this was not the case at Marie Louise. The reclaimers repeatedly asserted they had "discovered" the dump and that they "owned" it. This confidence in their roles as knowledge generators and founders of the dump inspired the reclaimers to resist its enclosure. After they were forcibly removed from Marie Louise on 12 February 2002, they protested outside the gates, ensured no one else could be contracted to reclaim materials, and prevented Pikitup trucks from entering the landfill to dispose waste. They met with the local ANC councillor and a representative from the ANC parliamentary office, believing that because they were creating their own jobs the ANC would support their struggle to return to work. However, like the Council and Pikitup, these ANC representatives dismissed the reclaimers as human waste, condescendingly asking them "why are you fighting for rubbish?" (Group Interview #3, 22 July 2009).

Disappointed but undeterred, the reclaimers secured assistance from the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), a progressive legal centre with a history of defending human rights during apartheid. Interestingly, the connection to the LRC was provided by one of the buyers at the dump. Although this alliance may seem surprising, all of the existing buyers other than Benjamin would lose access to the dump once the tender was put into effect. By helping the reclaimers to scuttle the tender the buyer was therefore also protecting his own ability to continue purchasing materials at Marie Louise. The LRC appointed George Bizos as the reclaimers' advocate. Bizos had defended Mandela and the other Rivonia Trialists, as well as many other struggle luminaries. After suffering identity prejudice and being disregarded by the state and their political representatives, the appointment of Bizos had a tremendous impact on the reclaimers as they felt it validated both them and their struggle. One elaborated that "it made a huge difference. A huge difference! I mean, Mr. Bizos used to represent prominent leaders here and activists. So we felt very honored and people were respecting us" (Group interview #3, 22 July 2009).

On 13 March 2002, the LRC obtained a court order allowing the reclaimers to continue working and interdicting their removal without a court order. On 12 August 2002, Pikitup and the Council launched a counter case seeking a permanent eviction order against the reclaimers. The judge presented his ruling on the eviction order case on 11 April 2003. He found that the August 2000 agreement that recognized the right of the reclaimers to work at Marie Louise was valid and that the notice period for them to vacate the landfill was insufficient. Significantly, his ruling went beyond issues of access to the landfill and addressed the state's identity prejudice against the reclaimers. The judge cited minutes of a meeting held between Pikitup and the reclaimers on 6 February 2002 and lambasted Mr. Dave Harris from Pikitup for referring to the reclaimers as "scavengers," underlining the word in his judgment and noting that "[t]his is a degrading and humiliating term and shows that Harris had little regard for the respondents." The judge proceeded to observe that "[t]he whole tenor of the minutes reflects contempt for the plight of the respondents." He explicitly stated that he "would hope that in the further attempts to resolve this matter, the approach of the applicants [Pikitup and the Council] will be less abrasive and that the dignity of the respondents will be respected." (6)

This recognition by the court was crucial for the reclaimers as it established them as epistemic agents with a legitimate right to participate in decision-making processes related to savlaging at Marie Louise. While the ruling permitted the state to evict the reclaimers in the future if it followed due process, it would need to engage them as rightful members of the public sphere as opposed to human waste and respect the role that they played at Marie Louise. The fact that to this day Council and Pikitup officials use the name "reclaimers" instead of "scavengers" demonstrates the extent to which this transformation has been normalized. It is also significant that the City and Pikitup have never tried to evict the reclaimers again and are currently in the process of registering them individually and encouraging them to form cooperatives that can be formally integrated into the municipal waste system.


Although this article analyzes the specific case of the failed attempt to enclose recycling at Marie Louise, it develops theoretical insights relevant to thinking through the relationship between accumulation by dispossession and informal workers more generally. Rather than simply pushing people to become informal workers, accumulation by dispossession can also involve the state and formal capital capturing spheres of accumulation created by informal workers in ways that either completely exclude them or render them subordinate to formal private capital. Doing so involves more than simply appropriating a pre-existing resource. It also entails appropriating the heuristic framing of the material as valuable and the transformation of the social ontology that creates this as a social fact, both of which result from the intellectual and physical labor (and frequently concerted struggle) of informal workers. Paradoxically, dispossession of the material resource entails the epistemic injustice of erasing the role of informal workers in these processes. Epistemic dispossession is therefore central to processes of accumulation by dispossession.

Epistemic dispossession is not the only or the most crucial part of accumulation by dispossession--clearly loss of control of the material resource is of utmost importance. However, it is important to highlight epistemic dispossession, particularly given the tendency even within much critical literature to frame reclaimers and other informal workers as "human waste," which is itself an epistemic injustice. Focusing on informal workers in their capacity as generators of knowledge and transformers of social reality allows us to develop more nuanced understandings of the forms that accumulation by dispossession takes, how and why it is contested, and how alternatives can be imagined and created. Ethnographic analysis of these issues in other sites and sectors will enrich theorizations of accumulation by dispossession and contemporary capitalism more generally.

DOI: 10.1177/0263775815600058

Melanie Samson

School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa


The author thanks to the three anonymous reviewers, Gillian Hart, Alex Loftus, Isabella Bakker, and Lucy Allais for comments on previous versions of this paper.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


Funding for the research on which this article is based was received from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the National Research Foundation (NRF) and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).


(1.) See Samson (2014) for further discussion of how power and difference play critical roles in shaping how informal workers govern their labor processes, organize and are integrated into circuits of capital. Sanyal problematically erases power and difference in his theorization of the informal economy, asserting, for example, that income is shared in the informal economy (Sanyal and Battacharyya, 2009: 38) and that although the employment of workers in the informal economy is widespread "the petty employer and his [sic] workers together can be seen as constituting a self-employed productive agent who is engaged in production to realize his [sic] consumption goal" (Sanyal, 2014 [2007], 215).

(2.) Thomasson (2003) argues that Searle's social ontology is incomplete as there are other ways in which social facts can be created and that collective intentionality is not always required. While there may be a need for a more expansive social ontology, I draw on Searle's work as the elements of his social ontology clarify how sanitary landfills are created as social facts and what is required to transform them.

(3.) Reclaimers were also working informally at the other four landfills. They had not, however, secured agreements to be allowed to work there.

(4.) Other than Benjamin Waste Group all of the buyers were small businesses that simply purchased from reclaimers and sold in bulk to larger companies. Although they were mainly price-takers with respect to the companies they sold to, there was some leeway to negotiate with them as they sought to outbid their competitors at the dump.

(5.) Kloppenburg notes that the development and imposition of intellectual property rights to seeds is based on "epistemic dispossession" of farming communities (Kloppenburg, 2010: 384) but neither defines nor elaborates the term. Engagement with Fricker's concept of epistemic injustice allows me to theorize epistemic dispossession and its relation to accumulation by dispossession.

(6.) "Pikitup, Johannesburg (Pty) Ltd and City of Johannesburg vs Motale, Matilda and 138 others, Case 14615/02," 2003.


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Corresponding author:

Melanie Samson, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, Wits Johannesburg Gauteng 2050, South Africa. Email:

Melanie Samson is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, the University of the Witwatersrand. She was a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council post-doctoral fellow at the Public Affairs Research Institute at the time of writing this article. Her research focuses on the relationship between waste and value and on how analysis of the work and lives of informal workers allows for the development of theorizations of the economy and polity more relevant to postcolonial contexts.
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Date:Oct 1, 2015
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