Mahfoud Bennoune, The Making of Contemporary Algeria, 1830-1987 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.)

Mahfoud Bennoune has written a rich and highly informative book on the political economy of Algeria, both under colonial rule and since independence. The Making of Modern Algeria is a thoughtful and challenging study of social change in the Arab world and post-colonial societies in general. Bennoune provides an important synthesis of Algeria’s political economy that should interest scholars and policy makers concerned with the social dynamic that has emerged in the Third World out of the process of modernization.

Dr. Bennoune employs the concept of “mode of production,” with its premise of a political strategy for social change in post-colonial societies. The resulting political economy paradigm, with its advantages over the “dependency” approach of earlier years, offers a framework which both anthropologists and historians concerned with social formation can find useful.

Bennoune first examines the period of Ottoman domination, and tries to identify the specific features that gave the Algerian mode of production its “tributary” character on the eve of the French invasion in 1830. Here Dr. Bennoune’s radical nationalist perspective does not thoroughly examine local factors which favored colonial penetration. He suggests that a legitimate state had already evolved in the Maghrib, and in the Arab world at large, before colonial occupation, and that a harmonious relationship between state and society, rulers and ruled, shaikhs and tribesmen, was suddenly interrupted by French penetration.

In fact, the Ottoman state was very weak and unstable from the onset of its rule. It never succeeded, as Dr. Bennoune points out, in subordinating the tribes in the bled al-baroud (the land of gunpowder). On the eve of the French invasion, the head of state — and, by extension, the military-bureaucratic oligarchy — had lost its social base even in bled al-Turk. At the economic level, the Ottomans multiplied trading privileges for European capital, that of French merchants in particular, and the Ottoman political class lavishly consumed tax revenues and foreign trade incomes. It obtained through piracy the goods necessary for its reproduction. All these factors contributed to fettering the transformation of handicraft production into a higher socioeconomic level. [1]

Thus Algeria’s economic underdevelopment was not primarily the consequence of French domination. Colonial capitalism did, however, profoundly reinforce the internal dislocation of subsistence economies, and forcefully accelerated the process of combined and unequal development.

This process affected different social categories and classes differently. Peasants lost their lands; the incipient Algerian bourgeoisie, on the other hand, grew up in a French shadow, accumulating economic power and “cultural capital” in order to take over the colonial state apparatus following independence. In so doing, the “intermediary classes” rapidly transformed themselves into a new class as they achieved political and economic domination and, above all, military control over the embryonic “civil society.”

Once the 1962 struggle between different groups for state power was over, Ben Bella swiftly institutionalized the spontaneous self-management movement. After 1965, Boumedienne accelerated the process of statization so as to develop heavy industry using the most advanced technologies. These industries were intended to function as “poles of growth.” By the early 1980s, according to this theory, rapid industrial growth would have transformed the socioeconomic structures sufficiently to absorb the mass of plebian labor.

Bennoune addresses the central questions concerning Algeria’s socioeconomic transformation, but he only partially succeeds. He marshals quite a lot of facts and statistics, but these tend to overwhelm theoretical hypotheses. Dr. Bennoune is himself a partisan of this “industrializing industries” approach, and provides here a good example of the thinking that lay behind it. On the other hand, he does not question its “deep structure” theoretical premise, nor the social cost of this model, which places top priority on “primitive socialist accumulation.” Importing the most advanced technology did not create jobs for “the wretched of the earth” but rather for highly skilled urban dwellers. In Algeria’s case, Western technology has helped to increase the gap between the propertied and laboring classes.

The private sector, deeply articulated with the state sector, has been steadily growing since the war of liberation. It is concentrated in consumer products oriented to short term realization of surplus value using inputs purchased from the state sector. The inputs from state enterprise are transferred at low cost to the private sector which transforms and then valorizes them in a deregulated domestic market, almost totally controlled by private capital. Up until now, there is little reliable data on the private sector, a paucity that permits one only to speculate as to the relations between it and the state bourgeoisie.

The economic reforms of the early 1980s broke down the 66 giant state firms into 474 specialized enterprises, made credit more freely available, and encouraged joint ventures. The economic liberalization legislation of January 1988 accords autonomous power to managers to run their firms strictly according to the law of profit. The new land reform implemented earlier aimed at restructuring the state agricultural sector. Self-managed units and “Agrarian Revolution” co-ops became unified as the Domaines Agricoles Socialistes (DAS), and the remaining plots of land were de-nationalized and distributed to individual owners. In December 1987, still another law broke the DAS units into collective units and one-person units of private property. These individual holdings have been appropriated by members of the state ruling class. Coupled with the “political liberalization” that followed the bloody events of October 1988, economic liberalization has reached a crucial stage. The final outcome will depend greatly on the new dynamic of conflicts.

Clearly, a systemic crisis has been developing in Algeria since this country gained political independence in 1962. The fall in oil revenues in 1986 has eliminated many social and economic projects from Algeria’s 1985-1989 plan. The legitimacy of political power has been, since independence, deeply rooted in the social and political heritage of the liberation war. The burden of sacrifice has shifted dramatically onto the shoulders of the marginalized majority, causing them to question the very legitimacy of the social bloc in power.

As Gramsci teaches us, the state does not only rule by coercion but also by the interplay of social forces. Cultural factors now play a significant function in everyday life; they greatly influence state policy, which in turn intensifies frictions and cleavages with the dominant class. In the 1980s, Algeria’s fundamental social force is not only the laboring classes but also the marginalized youth, whose shared cultural vision, though expressed in a confusing and contradictory way, is playing a crucial role in social change. Together they refuse to be manipulated by populism, language, attitudes, myths — by the “politics of the petty bourgeoisie” which had accompanied the liberation war and its subsequent project of modernization.

Dr. Bennoune’s important work, both through what it accomplishes and what it misses, points out the need to examine the class dynamics of the Algerian social formation as a whole against the background of the country’s mode of integration into the world economy. The events of October 1988 make this task all the more pressing.


[1] A. Benachenhou, Formation du Sous-Development en Algerie (Algiers: EN Imprimerie Commerciale, 1978).

How to cite this article:

Rachid Tlemcani "Bennoune, The Making of Contemporary Algeria," Middle East Report 161 (November/December 1989).

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