Inverting the City


ow should we think about the character of the current phase of capitalism? Globalization became the watchword of the end of history zeitgeist in the western world during the 1990s, as liberals marvelled at the accelerating spread of markets across the globe. Large parts of the Left drew attention to the deleterious effects of market expansion through the slippery concept of neoliberalism (Cahill and Konings, 2018). Critical geographers, building on the pathbreaking work of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre (2009[1970]), pointed to the spatial dynamics of urbanization catalyzed by displacement and dispossession of swatches of people by markets. With his first book, Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism, Martín Arboleda inverts this formulation to draw our attention to the material underpinnings of recent transformations to capitalism, highlighting that the explosion of metals and mined materials all around us—from sprouting high-rise buildings to the hyper-portable computers that we all carry around in our pockets as telephones—has made these changes possible. The book centers on the concept of the planetary mine, which Arboleda, borrowing from the work of Mazen Labban (2014), conceptualizes as:

‘the geography of extraction that emerges as the most genuine product of two distinct yet overlapping world-historical transformations: first, a new geography of late industrialization that is no longer circumscribed to the traditional heartland of capitalism (i.e., the West), and second, a quantum leap in the robotization and computerization of the labor process brought about by what I will term the fourth machine age’ (4).

More than merely a ‘discrete sociotechnical object’, Arboleda recasts the planetary mine as ‘a dense network of territorial infrastructures and spatial technologies vastly dispersed across space’ (5) and uses it as a route into current theoretical debates around the changing character of capitalism in the twenty-first century, planetary urbanism and infrastructure, and to the burgeoning literature on extractivism, neo-extractivism and the pink tide in Latin America [1]. It is a tour de force, and Arboleda demonstrates an astounding grasp of parallel debates within Marxist theory in particular and great skill at being able to deftly weave them together into a structure that reads remarkably well given its theoretical scope. My goal here is to outline the books main arguments, trace their main theoretical foundations and point to pathways of future research, places where Arboleda’s perspective remains underdeveloped.

Planetary Content and National Forms

Planetary Mine presents three interconnected arguments which, as I shall demonstrate below, are derived from the particular theoretical position he takes to lead him through a dense thicket of debate and disagreement. The first is that the ‘concrete determinates that produce spaces of extraction are… the production of relative surplus value at the world scale and the reproduction of the international working class as a fragmented, polarizing, yet unitary whole or industrial organism’ (6, original emphasis). The second is that although the movement of capital is distinctly international, it is still mediated on the national stage by the state, which, following the rise of neoliberalism onto the global stage in the 1980s, has assumed am increasingly coercive, centralized, and authoritarian form. The final central argument is that to confront the fragmented appearance of capitalism we need to develop a ‘dialectical theory of praxis… that sets out from the material conditions in which life itself is produced and reproduced’ (6) and that the shared geography of extraction of the planetary mine is an opportunity as well as a curse.

Arboleda analyzes the planetary mine as a totality, which he mobilizes ‘to foreground the radical interdependence of social and ecological existence under capitalism’ (20). In doing so, he forces debates on extractivism and neo-extractivism in Latin America onto fresh theoretical terrain. He weaves together analysis of global processes producing value and the rise of China as a global power (but not a hegemon) with the dynamics of the circulation of capital, the role of money and finance, the ideational thrust of neoclassical economics, the (re)production of labor and the transformative potential of struggles connected by the planetary mine. Such a breadth of considerations is unusual and refreshing, and Arboleda effectively demonstrates the extent of extractivism’s reach into capitalist social formations. 

In Planetary Mine, Arboleda offers a way of incorporating the experiences of people affected by mineral mining and hydrocarbon extraction in particular places at particular times into a theoretical framework with the dialectic of the universal and the particular at its heart. In doing so, he overcomes the regional framing of some debates (see, for example, Gudynas 2010, 2012; Katz 2015; Svampa 2016) and brings processes of urbanization, dispossession and proletarianization unfurling on the other side of the Pacific to bear on his analysis of extractivism in Chile: 

‘The dispersed fragments of the planetary mine are therefore dialectically bound to the pipes and cables tucked into the high-rise buildings of the megacities that have sprung out of nowhere in south China in just twenty years; in the myriad electronic gadgets spawned by vertically integrated electronics-manufacturing systems that have led to factories in Shenzhen employing up to 420,000 workers—a figure no automobile factory in the heyday of Fordism would have even dreamed of; and in the hulls and containers of the thousands of cargo vessels that make up the maritime commercial fleets of China, Japan, and South Korea, which have rendered the Pacific Ocean the main infrastructural corridor of world trade.’ (13)

He draws our gaze away from the nation-state and the policies of particular governments towards ‘the class antagonism that underlies the very production of primary-commodity frontiers, whose existence is essentially international, [and that] is usually ignored or pushed into the background’ (22). He also, importantly, underscores the technological transformation that accompanied the commodities boom in Latin America, where high commodity prices were also accompanied by a significant increase in mineral and oil export by volume, enabled by the robotization and computerization of mining techniques and a logistics revolution that consolidated the planetary mine across the Pacific Rim. The balance of trade between China and Latin America increased from US$15 billion in 2009 to US$200 billion in 2011, a more than ten-fold increase in a two-year period. In the ten years between 2001 and 2011, Chile’s metal exports to China increased by more than twenty-fold, from US$460 million to US$11.1 billion (14).

Arboleda also carefully extracts the planetary mine from geographical determinism or spatial reifications. Spaces scarred by extractive logics and the peripheries of capitalism are not, for Arboleda, far-flung places that are spatially distant from the urban metropolises where more of humanity resides. Rather, the peripheries of capitalism are a ubiquitous sociospatial condition (22). Extractivism shapes not just the communities and ecosystems directly in the pathways of megaprojects—the image of extractivism most of us hold in our head—but something with a planetary reach. In formulating the planetary mine as ‘the geography of extraction that emerges from and underpins this contradictory state of things’ (16), Arboleda inverts the notion of planetary urbanism initially developed by Henri Lefebvre and later taken on by, amongst others, Arboleda’s mentor at Harvard, Neil Brenner (2013). He recasts the explosion of urbanism observed by Lefebvre as the explosion of the mine on a planetary scale through the appearance of construction materials in shiny skyscrapers and the repurposing of mining technology such as the elevator shaft for the urban ecosystem. Arboleda also underscores how cities become to resemble the commodity frontier as institutional and governance practices of extraction are set to work on the urban environment, driving practices of urban extraction through the financialization of land and housing and the displacement of communities through gentrification (246). In doing so, he answers Labban’s call to ‘deterritorialize extractivism’ to great effect, providing ‘empirical and conceptual elements to make sense of the sprawling circulatory infrastructures that connect sites of extraction to megacities, factories, financiers, fleets of dry-bulk carriers, technocrats, precarious migrants, and industrial workers’ (247). 

Open Marxism and Form-Analysis Marxism

Planetary Mine is a theoretically sophisticated book, which expertly navigates a range of debates spanning the Marxist canon. The central thrust of the book comes via one of Arboleda’s major intellectual influences: his PhD supervisor Greg Charnock. Charnock, along with his collaborator Guido Starosta has been responsible for renewing the debate over the New International Division of Labor (NIDL) thesis initially developed by Folker Fröbel, Jurgen Heinrichs, and Otto Kreye in the late-1970s. Broadly speaking, the NIDL thesis attempted to explain processes of global restructuring during the 1970s through the geographical dispersal and distribution of the working-class and the reserve army of labor and the division of task on a global scale between different groups of workers at different geographical localities (Starosta and Charnock, 2016: 3). Whilst the original stylized account first offered by Fröbel, Heinrichs, and Kreye ran into problems with the industrial upgrading of the first generation of the Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Taiwan and, in particular, South Korea), Charnock and Starosta (2016: 4) reconsider the NIDL through ‘the Marxian distinction between the global economic content that determines the constitution and dynamics of the international division of labor, and the evolving national political forms that mediate its development’ (original emphasis). In doing so, they seek to advance a line of argumentation that runs directly parallel to one of the central argument of Planetary Mine: ‘that national developmental processes across the world have been but an expression of the underlying essential unity of the production of relative surplus-value on a world scale’ (Starosta and Charnock, 2016: 4). 

How Charnock and Starosta lay out their intellectual project is important, as it allows us to see the coordinates shaping Arboleda’s work, and in particular understand the origins of the importance of what Arboleda labels ‘form-analysis Marxism’: 

‘Form-analysis Marxism broadly refers to a subterranean rubric of dialectical critique that encompasses the work of authors in the traditions of Open Marxism, the Neue Marx-Lektüre, and related approaches in Latin America, notably those of Enrique Dussel and of the scholars associated with the Centro para la Investigación como Crítica Práctica [Centre for Investigation as Critical Pratice, CIPC], based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Broadly understood, these traditions frame the Marxian critique of political economy as an interrogation of the alienated forms of social mediation that are historically specific to modern, capitalist society. Despite some internal divergences, these currents have in common the fact that they reject the methodological separation of politics and economics typical of structural variants of Marxism and emphasize Marx’s treatment of alienated labor, fetishization, and alien objectivity in his mature work’ (7).

Arboleda’s positioning of himself within ‘form-analysis’ Marxism signals his attempts to tie together two interconnected Marxist traditions from opposite sides of the Atlantic—traditions that are connected through interpersonal relationships and academic networks that have fostered Arboleda’s intellectual trajectory. On the one hand, Arboleda draws heavily on Open Marxism for his conceptualization of the state and, interestingly, his reading of Lefebvre (178). Open Marxism emerged from the state debate of the 1970s, which was initially pit the voluntarist reading of the state offered by Ralf Miliband against the structural-functionalist account of the state suggested by Nico Poulantzas. The Miliband-Poulantzas debate sparked a series of discussions with the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE) over categories such as ‘value, labor process, the state, world market, social form’ (Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis, 1992: xii), moving the state debate onto more sophisticated theoretical terrain evaluating the relationship between the form and function of the capitalist state (Clarke, 1990; Holloway and Picciotto, 1978) [2]. By the 1980s,  Poulantzas’ mentor, the French structural Marxist Louis Althusser, had declared Marxism in crisis, under fire from the resurgence of liberalism (and its newest neo- variant) from the one side and tangled up with the collapsing legitimacy of Keynesianism and the crumbling Eastern bloc on the other. In the face of this crisis, some of the leading proponents of studying the state as the historically-specific fetishized form assumed by class struggle—including Simon Clarke (Starosta’s PhD supervisor), Heide Gertenberger and John Holloway—sought to distance themselves from the structural Marxism identified with Althusser and revive the Marxist tradition by

‘supplying an alternative reference-point: open marxism. ‘Openness’, here, refers not just to a programme of empirical research—which can elide all too conveniently with positivism—but to the openness of Marxist categories themselves. This openness appears in, for instance, a dialectic of subject and object, of form and content, of theory and practice, of the constitution and reconstitution of categories in and through the development, always crisis-ridden, of a social world’ (Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis, 1992: xi).

A central concern for Open Marxism was fetishism: theory and practice that renders social relations thing-like, with a commodified and solely structural appearance (Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis, 1992: xii). Open Marxists propose a form-analysis of capitalism, which ‘construes the historical development of capitalism as discontinuous only in and through the continuity of its form: that is through the movement of contradiction constituted by class’ (Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis, 1992: xvii). Consequently, the form assumed by capitalist social formations and states are their historic ‘modes of existence’, shaped in appearance but not content by processes of capitalist development.

The historically grounded approach proposed by Open Marxism has proved particularly influential in Latin America, a context where categories developed in the European context rarely match up to the postcolonial reality of the continent. It fed into the autonomous readings of Marx that characterized the later work of Holloway following his encounter with the Zapatistas (see, for example, Holloway, 2002) [3], and the Blochian readings of social movement politics and the art of organising hope offered by Ana Dinerstein (2015). And, via Clarke and Starosta, it fed into the work of CIPC discussed below. 

Importantly for the current discussion, Open Marxism also furnished Arboleda with his theory of the capitalist state and methodological tenets of inquiry:

‘A focus on the forms or modes of existence of capital rather than on “structures” allows us to supersede subject-object dualism, and henceforth capture the universal content that is expressed through the unfolding of concrete practices and things. To the extent that it seeks to decipher global processes through their concrete manifestation in the situated, affective fabrics of human and nonhuman existence, this mode of theory-building strongly resonates with the aspirations of approaches such as standpoint feminism and minor theory’ (6–7, original emphasis).

Here is the theoretical engine of Arboleda’s analysis. Drawing on form-analysis Marxism, Arboleda is concerned with addressing the planetary mine through the analytical separation of ‘the “fetishized” or “alienated” imperialist political forms, which are sensuous and fragmented (e.g., militarization, debt peonage, internal colonialism, dependency), from their essential foundations in the movement of value, a process that is suprasensuous and systemic’ (38). Open Marxism allows Arboleda to analyze transformations inscribed on people’s everyday lives without losing sight of his central interest (the valorization of value) whilst he shifts spatial scales and theoretical registers. One could go as far as to say that Arboleda provides a good advert for the analytical purchase Open Marxism has to offer. Open Marxism also, along with the work of Moishe Postone (2009[1993]) and romantic strands of Latin American Marxism (such as Mariátegui, 2007[1927]; Zavaleta, 2008[1984]; Rivera, 2010; Echeverría, 2011), shapes Arboleda’s political conclusions. He draws on these diverse theoretical approaches to lay out the case for a revolutionary politics emanating from capital itself and realized through defetishization, following Open Marxism’s attempt to reclaim Marxism as an emancipatory theory (see Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis, 1995).

Investigation as Critical Practice and Argentinean Form-Analysis Marxism

Open Marxism, however, is only one side of Arboleda’s theoretical framework. On the other hand, Arboleda leans on ‘a Hegelian reinterpretation of Marx’s concept of the world market’ (54) advanced by Argentinean Marxist Juan Iñigo Carrera (2013[2003]) and his colleagues at CIPC, including Starosta. Iñigo Carrera (2013[2003]: 54) starts from the premise that the development of human beings as subjects of history is not through consciousness or voluntaristic determinants but through the ‘development of the condition as subject of production, that is to say, of the human productive subjectivity’. The driving force of capitalism is, for Iñigo Carrera, not class struggle, nor the pursuit of use values, but the extended reproduction of the social relation that produce value, that is to say capital. He argues that since the 1950s, the consolidation of the machine system (Fordist production) on a global scale has meant that the generalized drive for self-valorization by capitalism has been through the pursuit of relative surplus value. The pursuit of relative surplus value leads to an increase the organic composition of capital on the level of society as a whole; compelled by competition, individual capitalist each step up their search for relative surplus value through investing in fixed capital over living labor. 

Arboleda uses Iñigo Carrera’s framing of recent transformations to capitalism and mixes them with Postone’s (2009[1993]) particular reading of Marx. Postone reframes capital— largely read as a social relation that sets labor power to work to produce surplus value—as an ‘alientated subject’ that becomes embodied in objects and individuals through its continued generalized extended reproduction (17). Capital’s perpetual pursuit of relative surplus value through increase in productivity, Postone (2009[1993]: 289–90) argues, produces a ‘treadmill effect’ whereby the tendency towards the mechanization of the labor process comes to acquire an ‘objective, lawlike quality’ (56). Together, Iñigo Carrera and Postone’s readings of Marx form the basis for Arboleda’s critique of world systems theory and dependency theory, which, as a result of their methodological nationalism, mistake the modes of existence assumed by the drive for relative surplus value (imperialism, dependency and the like) for the driving forces themselves, overlooking the valorization process at the heart of the processes under analysis (58).

This, however, is not the end of Iñigo Carrera’s argument. The machine system, he argues, transforms the collective productive subjectivity of the worker in a number of ways (Iñigo Carrera, 2013[2003]: 55–57; Starosta, 2016: 87–89). Firstly, on the one hand large-scale industry expands productive subjectivity of wage-laborers charged with undertaking the more complex, high-skilled tasks associated with the intellectual labor performed by engineers, computer scientists and other technicians that are critical for the functioning of machine production. Secondly, on the other hand the reduction of the laborer to an appendage of the machine replaces older particularistic skills built up through years of experience working in the labor process with universalistic skills, increasing the ease with which a worker can be replaced. Thirdly, the increasing organic composition of capital comparatively reduces the number of laborers employed by capital and therefore leads to the proliferation of the global reserve army of labor. The result, Iñigo Carrera (2013[2003]) argues, is the increasing international fragmentation of the productive subjectivity of the working-class, something Starosta (2016: 89) highlights is national in form but global in context.

Arboleda draws on this framework to assess the ways that global processes underpinning the planetary mine have formed and reformed the working-class. He does not, however, stop there, highlighting that these processes have unfolded alongside processes of dispossession and real subsumption—the increasing vice-like grip of the logics of capital on people’s everyday lives through the expansion of global finance and the extension of consumer debt—in a dialectical manner. He deftly navigates these processes in the chapters on labor and debt, explaining why mining towns thus not only cater for high-flying mining engineers but are increasingly surrounded by the informal settlements of the sea of the reserve army of labor [4]. He places transformations to settlements in the Atacama desert in close proximity to extractive operations in relation to the mass migration and transformation of the working-class in the coastal regions of China and places like the Pearl River Delta. Apart from the ground-breaking ethnography of Rosana Pinheiro Machado (2018), Arboleda is alone in drawing concurrent global processes of urbanization and proletarianism together in an analysis that spans both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

Following Iñigo Carrera and the NIDL scholars, theorizing the planetary mine through framing the generalized valorization of value as the content of historical development within capitalism mediated by the fetishized forms of the state and national economy allows Arboleda to pull his argument over multiple different dimensions of analysis without losing any of his theoretical threads. This in itself is quite a feat. There are, however, places where these threads fray, where we need to pay close attention to the limits of Arboleda’s arguments. 

Levels of Analysis

The first frayed thread is the relationship between the sensuous and suprasenuous levels of analysis in Planetary Mine, that is to say the relationship between the economic and the political. Despite continually stressing the dialectical unity of the economic and the political, Arboleda’s value-centric analysis slips into economistic readings of extractivism in places. This, in a large part, derives from the imprecise definition of how these levels fit together: 

‘Philosophically speaking, [the analytical separation of value context and fetishized forms] entails capturing how the essential level (the total surplus value of society) acquires phenomenal reality in sensuous experience via the messy materialities and entanglements of firms and states… [This] involves deciphering the practical and human content that underlies such alienated forms’ (38–39)

In his review of Planetary Mine, Jeffery Webber (2020) underscores the need for ‘more fine-grained attentiveness to the mediations between different levels of abstraction’, something more than ‘messy materialities and entanglements of firms and states’ (38). I agree, although I do not think this is a fatal blow to Arboleda’s approach. Turning to the work of Bolivian political theorist René Zavaleta Mercado, I contend, offers us a way to address the shortfalls identified by Webber. In the final stage of his intellectual journey, having been tossed into the intellectual melting pot of exiled radicals in Mexico City during the 1970s—along, incidentally, with another Latin American Marxist whose work has influenced Arboleda’s work, critical Marxist and liberation theologian Enrique Dussel—Zavaleta started to build a theoretical approach not too dissimilar to that of Iñigo Carrera. Building upon Braudelian time, Zavaleta’s scholarship investigates the rhythms of value creation over the longue durée. He is interested in how the material basis for a society, its mode of production, its political forms (what Zavaleta called societal form) and its temporal (or in Zavaleta’s lexicon, civilizational) forms were articulated through medium term structures such as the nation and the state (see McNelly, n.p.; Tapia, 2019; Zavaleta, 2008[1984], 2013c[1983]). Or, to put it in Arboleda’s terms, Zavaleta is interested in the relationship between the sensuous and suprasenuous levels of analysis. This relationship is complex in postcolonial contexts which are, thanks to the incongruous mix of wealthy gated communities, large-scale landowners, indigenous communities and urban indigenous (or cholo) communities found alongside other migrant populations in the sprawling favelas, villas miseria, comunas and campamentos of Latin American cities, marked by a complex dialectical relationship between different societal and civilizational forms. For Zavaleta, this makes social science investigations in parts of Latin America nigh impossible and something that can only be tackled through careful historical investigation.

Although Arboleda gives us a sophisticated theoretical approach with which to study the planetary mine, his analysis of Chile and the broader Pacific Rim context appears fragmented and lacking in the historical detail in places. Arboleda effectively explains how the emergence of neoliberalized and internationalized statecraft in Chile through policies, treaties and multilateral institutions such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Pacific Alliance laid the foundations for the logistics revolution to come (see chapter 4), but how this impacted the political configurations of Latin America and the forms that class struggle in particular assumed remains unclear. Likewise, although theoretically provocative, the particular dynamics of broader struggles against the planetary mine need to be fleshed out more if we are to fully grasp the political ramifications and opportunities of things through extractivism in this manner. We cannot hold this against Arboleda, as this is not what he sets out to achieve. However, it does suggest that attention to historical and empirical detail, rather than any such theoretical fix, is the way to overcome the shortcomings of Planetary Mine identified by Webber.

There is an irony in bringing Zavaleta to bear on Planetary Mine, as Bolivia’s loss of one of Chile’s major logistic hubs, the port of Antofagasta, in the late-nineteenth century War of the Pacific was one of the central concerns of Zavaleta in his seminal unfinished work, Lo nacional-popular en Bolivia (The National-Popular in Bolivia, see Zavaleta, 2008[1984]). Here Zavaleta grapples with the question of how, egged on by British railwaymen, the Chilean army laid claim to such an important part of Bolivian territory and the impact it had on the Bolivian nation. Zavaleta tackles this question through a political reading of subsumption. As well as transforming capital accumulation and nature, as Arboleda correctly stresses drawing on the pathbreaking work of geographer Neil Smith (2008[1984]), Zavaleta (2013a[1983]: 620) argues real subsumption entails ‘the application of the conscious gnosis as well as of the masses’ power… to the previous factors: capital as effective command and free [persons] in a mass-status’. Zavaleta’s political reading of capitalism and his insights on nationalism mirror the pathbreaking work of Benedict Anderson (2006): both were independently working on nationalism in different parts of the world during the late-1970s and early-1980s and provided complementary frameworks to understand the dynamics of nation building. Methodological nationalism is limiting, but given the nation is the most significant political community, it cannot be discounted as form alone. Bringing in historical considerations of nation building, and the construction of political communities would help us better understanding imperialism and dependency as a constitutive (rather than autonomous) element contained within the dialectic of the political and the economic.

So too, would the introduction of temporality into the mix. In distinguishing between the valorization of value as longue durée and nation and state building as medium term, Zavaleta is able to sensitive to the dynamics of both without dismissing politics as autonomous or, in temporal terms, ephemeral. Drawing on Zavaleta, I suggest, allows us to conceptualize the dialectical unity of the economic and the political as diachronous and therefore elements that need to be considered separately in their own right, although always with the relation to its other half at the heart of the analysis. Whilst the global rhythms of the valorization of value may have been undisturbed by the loss of Bolivia’s seacoast, it has undoubtedly shaped state formation and nation building in both Bolivia and Chile. It has also, given the mineral richness of the territory, helps shape the regional spatial dynamics of value creation and provided the raw materials for Chile’s particular development path and denied Bolivia important geoeconomic and geopolitical endowments, not least access to the sea. Whilst I have no doubt that Arboleda’s arguments concerning value creation would hold in an alternative counterfactual universe without the War of the Pacific, we also cannot discount the effects of political and/or national developments.  

The Draw of Technology

The second place where the analysis of Planetary Mine frays is when technology comes into the mix. As the arguments of the book reveal, the role of technology and the position of the planetary mine in the fourth machine age is central to the book. Bringing technological change to bear on analysis of the impacts of the global commodity supercycle has filled a substantial gap in the existent literature, and Arboleda allows himself a little poetic license to imprint the significance of technological advancements in the reader’s mind:

‘The planetary mine is the geography of extraction that emerges from and underpins this contradictory state of things. If we put together all the phases that comprise the transnational circulatory system of primary-commodity production and trace the journey of copper from its point of extraction in the Andean plateaus of Chile to its point of destination in the spaces of advanced manufacturing in China, a bewildering panorama emerges: Autonomous trucks and shovels working at nearly 4,000 meters above sea level put the metal into a semiautomated train, which then takes it to a smelting and electrorefining facility, where computerized ovens transform it into copper cathodes. The cathodes are put into containers and sent to one of the megaports of the mining industry in the Atacama Desert, where gantry cranes load the cargo into a container ship. After crossing the Pacific, our container is unloaded by the swiftness of the vast mechanical systems of the capital-intensive Chinese ports. Finally, the copper cathodes end up in one of the infamous “dark factories” of the Pearl River Delta. Here, robots and computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools operate in the dark, turning copper into the wires that hundreds of thousands of human laborers in electronics assembling facilities will later etch into the electronic gadgets we carry in our pockets’ (16).

It is not hard to see why Arboleda references classic science fiction portrayals of future urban dystopia in the cult films Blade Runner and Ghost in a Shell in his discussion. Arboleda expresses a mixture of shock and awe as he dissects the latest technological developments, with computerized and robotized mining evoking a mixture of intrigue and disgust. 

Technology, for Arboleda, holds the key to not only to grasping the extent of the mine in theoretical and empirical terms, but also the radical politics needed to confront the planetary mine. Drawing on late-Marx and notions of ‘food sovereignty, of the universal ayllu [5], of the pluriverse, and of ch’ixi modernity’ (28), Arboleda searches for embryonic post-capitalist formations and the possibility of superseding capitalism. The planetary mine knits diverse communities together and opens the possibility for productive conversations between the scientific knowledge of engineers, geologists and doctors with the vernacular knowledge of indigenous and cholo communities inside the multiple contradictory and contested form that modernity assumes in the postcolonial world, that Latin American scholars have labelled baroque (Echeverría, 2011), ch’ixi (Rivera, 2010, 2015) and abigarrado (Zavaleta, 2013a[1983]). Arboleda argues that, as well as being destructive,

‘Local communities’ encounters with technological infrastructures of extraction—from power plants, to surveillance cameras to laptops and smartphones—are laying the foundations for the novel framework of generalized interdependence prefigured by notions of ch’ixi modernity, the universal ayllu, and the utopian archipelago… The unfolding of technological infrastructures for large-scale primary-commodity production has therefore ushered in a revival of communes and of the ancient ayllu across Latin America, including in urban areas and megacities’ (219–221).

Technology, in other words, has the potential to be repurposed to scale up the ayllu and, following the arguments of García Linera, produce a new universalized future political community (217). It is in the forced mixture of non-capitalist forms and technology by the planetary mine as it reshapes Latin American society with new geographies of extraction that Arboleda finds hope:

‘As a result of these ongoing dialogues and cross-fertilizations [between vernacular and scientific knowledge], indigenous peoples have also become proficient in using drones to monitor and expose the destruction of forests, water sources, and ecosystems by oil and mining companies. Coalitions between artists and local communities have given momentum to struggles against extraction’ (257).

Here, we can see the shadow of technological fetishism. The problem is that technology is the historical form assumed by forces of production, social relations of production and of mental conception of the material world (Harvey, 2006[1982]: 100–101). This means that particular technology is produced by the combination of these three determinations and cannot be separated from the social context from whence it emerges. Andreas Malm (2015) shows with incision how steam power replaced water because of the social dynamics of class struggle and the spatial logics of urbanization, producing socio-spatial effects that cannot simply be transformed by a change of ownership. Likewise, Lisa Tilley (2020) demonstrates that the colonial spatial logics of cartographic programmes limited the political efficacy of countermapping projects in Indonesia, one of the emancipatory combinations of vernacular and scientific knowledge identified by Arboleda (257). Tilley argues that countermapping can have perverse effects and end up reifying liberal private property rights and logics of capitalist and colonial space. 

In short, Arboleda somewhat ironically falls into the trap of viewing technology through its fetishized form rather than a historically specific articulation of forces of production, social relations of production and of mental conception of the material world. I suspect that this is partially due to the references to science fiction and the colourful accounts of technological change Arboleda provides and partially due to the particular reading of capital as an alienated historical subject he borrows from Postone. Towards the end of the book, Arboleda asserts that communities around the mine are said to only form a sense of community and started struggling in the face of the planetary mine (235), an assertion that runs the risk of relegating all of Latin American history to the history of the mine. Silvia Rivera’s (2003[1983]) recovery of the history of previously overlooked indigenous rebellions during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries reveals the danger of reading everything through the mine. The lens of the planetary mine forwarded by Arboleda is undoubtedly a powerful one, but we must be cognizant of its limitations and blind spots if it is to retain its full potential.

I for one, will not hold this against Arboleda, and read the areas I have identified for improvement as routes forward for future research. It is hard not to get caught up by the whirlwind pace of technological change when observed through the window of the planetary mine. And reading political change through technology in this manner does not discount the several significant contributions to our reading of the commodities supercycle and recent developments of capitalism that Arboleda provides throughout the book. Overall, Planetary Mine makes a series of theoretical, methodological and empirical contentions that will have to tackled by future scholars of critical geography and urban studies, Marxism and Latin America. It is a book that, in short, deserves our attention.

[1] The pink tide is the anglophone name given to the tide of working-class and indigenous movements in Latin America that were articulated in state power through progressive governments from the late-1990s onwards, starting with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
[2] For an excellent overview of the contours of this debate, see Simon Clarke's (1990a) introduction to The State Debate.
[3] The Zapatista movement is a peasant movement that began to occupy territory and set up its own autonomous system of government in Chiapas, Mexico. It gained international attention following a twelve-day uprising at coincided with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in January 1994.
[4] It is also not surprising that Arboleda finds echoes of the NIDL approach to studying the changing composition on the working-class in the scholarship of Álvaro García Linera (2014), whose early work on the transformations to Bolivian miners initially published in the late-1990s followed a similar line of inquiry and remains seminal, despite his controversial role as the chief intellectual in the government of Evo Morales (2006–2019) (104–105). During his time as vice-president, García Linera twisted Marxist scholarship to justify the politics of the planetary mine that advanced under Morales’ tenure. For an overview of García Linera’s scholarship as vice-president, see Baker (2015a, 2015b); Freeland (2019); McNelly (2017); Webber (2015).
[5] The ayllu is a socio-spatial unit of Aymara communities characterized by spatial discontinuities and inhabited by both humans and non-humans.


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Angus McNelly is an Honorary Research Fellow in Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. His research examines the politics of crisis, critical political economy and Latin American politics.