Book review of Muriam Haleh Davis's Markets of Civilization: Islam and Racial Capitalism in Algeria (2022)
by Mohammed Salih
Published onNov 23, 2023
Book Review: Markets of Civilization
Markets of Civilization: Islam and Racial Capitalism in Algeria, by Muriam Haleh Davis (2022).Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Muriam Haleh Davis’s new book, Markets of Civilization: Islam and Racial Capitalism in Algeria, delves into the colonial and post-colonial history of Algerian economic development. The book encourages readers to think about racial capitalism in the Maghreb from the vantage points of critical race theory and political economy. Drawing on archival materials and interviews, Davis analyzes how the French and Algerian states introduced new economic reforms and policies from the interwar period to the initial years of Algerian independence (1962-65). Moreover, she explores how religion, Islam, has emerged as a racial category that governed access to property, capital, and livelihood in colonial Algeria (3, 158).
In Algeria’s long colonial period, race was defined vis-à-vis the skin color of subjects in the colony, and all economic development of the era needed to align with the dual requirements of colonialism and European values. To this effect, Davis takes into account two figures: homo economicus, the model agent of European economic modernity, and homo Islamicus, the model agent of native (Algerian) social practices. Unsurprisingly, French officials in Algeria strongly favored homo economicus, who was considered to be a historical embodiment of human progress, whereas homo Islamicus was strongly preferred by Algerian Muslims.
In her book, Davis builds on Cedric J. Robinson’s theory of racial capitalism (1983) and engages with a number of scholarly debates over race and religion, employing the French rule of Algeria as an anthropological case study. Throughout the colonial era, French officials made many attempts to bring the Algerian “natives” into the fold of a productive market economy and redefine the French empire as a modernizing mission (2). Under French rule, Muslims were a racialized religious group; in contrast to Europeans – who were believed to be self-sufficient, individualistic, and rational – Muslims were branded as fatalistic, anti-rational, and ill-disciplined.
The book consists of six chapters. The first chapter addresses the orientalist, Islamophobic notions of Islam and Algerian Muslims held by the French officials as well as the colonizers’ strategies for securing a settler-colony. In their eyes, Arabs were savage and ignorant, Africa was a source of contagion and center of sodomy, and Muslim lands were replete with moral, sexual, and political depravity. She uses the concept of racial fix (David Harvey (2001a, 2001b, 2006) to explore how race served as a “fix” for a series of contradictions that emerged from the capitalist development of this settler colony (21). Encouraging European settlement and introducing a rational capitalist economy were, as a result, the drivers of French colonialism. In this view, European settlers and Algerian Jews had the privilege of whiteness, while Algerian Muslims were alienated from their land and labor. Thus, Muslim bodies and sharia laws were seen as a significant threat to the French civilization project.
The second chapter, “A New Algeria Rising,” details the policies of agricultural modernization, enacted by OFALAC (Office algérien d’action économique et touristique), from the interwar period to the 1950s. In the chapter, Davis charts how these economic reforms built upon interwar ideas of economic development, even as the reforms reified differences among Algeria’s “races” in terms of their supposed capacities for market production. OFALAC also introduced the standardization of agriculture with an eye to increasing exports to Europe. But this late colonial-era initiative failed to integrate Algeria’s “native” producers. Moreover, its touristic and literary activities marginalized Algerian Muslims by depicting the colony as a Mediterranean melting pot. The concept of “Eurafrica” treated Algeria as a mere source of fine products (citrus, wine, and olive oil) and other raw materials.
The third chapter, “Decolonization and the Constantine Plan,” focuses on the political debates and forces that came under the colonial propaganda Constantine Plan, as well as the subsequent counter-movements to this plan enacted by Algerian nationalists. The Constantine Plan sought to transform Algerians into “modern subjects” through the postwar doctrine of economic planning, in which French officials finally attempted to account for the role of Islam in Algerian society (84).
The fourth and fifth chapters (“Fellahs and Peasants” and “Communism in a White Burnous”) explore the multiple, failed attempts to refashion Algeria’s agricultural economy and show the contradictory logics behind colonial officials’ conceptions of “the peasantry.” In the eyes of French administrators, the Algerian fellah (plural, fellahin; Arabic for peasant) is a particularly stubborn iteration of homo Islamicus – in their eyes, an impediment to rationalist economic development and a potential source for political unrest. Curiously, the struggles for decolonization in the 1950s turned the fellahin into politically sound semi-proletariats under Ben Bella’s Algerian post-colonial socialism. Along these lines, the fifth chapter looks at Bella’s policies for cultivating a revolutionary consciousness in Algerians. It was a transition from colonized into “productive man,” based on a socialist economy in which material resources were regulated along with “an imagined Algerian community around Islam” (119). This self-management policy sought to align the economy with the interests of Algerian peasants, who were viewed as “truth in their very being” (118; according to Frantz Fanon) and “a bulwark against the encroaching violence of market society” (96; according to Pierre Bourdieu).
The final chapter, “Today’s Utopia is Tomorrow’s Reality,” demonstrates how the politics of post-colonial Algeria are entangled with notions of Pan-Africanism and -Arabism and liberal and leftist ideologies. The author asserts that relationships between race, religion, and the economy – within the genealogy of colonial and post-colonial Algeria – are central to understanding how colonialism shaped the traditions of revolutionary anticlericalism and liberal technocracy in France, and how racialized understandings of Islam were fundamental to economic underdevelopment in Algeria (146). The epilogue covers economic changes and debates over nationalism and Islam after Ben Bella’s historic, but short-lived presidency. Davis concludes that “the tropes of homo economicus and homo Islamicus did not disappear with decolonization. Instead, they continue to structure competing imaginaries of development in North Africa and the Middle East long after the fall of colonial rule” (175).
Undoubtedly, the book is a grounded and challenging effort to revive an older Third-Worldist scholarly tradition on Algeria, and it is “an archival ethnography” of racial capitalism. Davis stated in one of her interviews “the book might be too theoretical for some historians and too historical for some social theorists” (2023). In other words, it is a historically grounded theorization of how the frameworks of race, capitalism, and economy emerge out of specific conjectures in a settler colony. In conclusion, Davis’s Markets of Civilization is a must-read for those interested in Algerian history, colonialism, and contemporary debates on Islam and Islamophobia, as well as scholars examining the twin social theories of race and political economy.
Harvey, David. 2001a. “Globalization and the ‘Spatial Fix’.” Geographische Revue 2: 23–30.
Harvey, David. 2001b. Spaces of Capital: Towards Critical Geography. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
Harvey, David. 2006. The Limits to Capital. London: Verso Books.
Robinson, Cedric. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of a Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Mohammed Salih is a Ph.D. student at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS) at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. His current research is a series of anthropological and sociological enquiries into the everyday intersections of religion, education, and gender.
I have a few questions for you. First, how do you evaluate the sources and methods that Davis uses in her book? Do you think she provides enough evidence and context to support her claims and interpretations? Second, how do you compare and contrast Davis's approach and findings with other scholars who have studied Algeria, colonialism, and racial capitalism? Do you think she engages with the existing literature adequately and critically? Third, how do you apply and extend Davis's insights and arguments to the current situation and challenges of Algeria and the geometry dash region? Do you think her book has any implications or recommendations for policy and practice?
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