The persistent appeal of the California agricultural dream in North Africa

Marcel Kuper
University of Montpellier, Cirad, UMR G-Eau, Montpellier, France; kuper@cirad.fr

Pierre-Louis Mayaux
University of Montpellier, Cirad, UMR G-Eau, Montpellier, France; pierre-louis.mayaux@cirad.fr

Ahmed Benmihoub
Center of Research in Applied Economics for Development (CREAD), Algiers, Algeria; ben_mihou@yahoo.fr

ABSTRACT: The development of intensive irrigated agriculture in arid California has inspired many governments and people around the world. In the paper, we show how 'California' as a social imaginary influenced North Africa’s irrigation policies. We trace the influence of this imaginary at two very different and critical junctures: in Morocco under the French Protectorate from the 1930s to the 1950s and in the contemporary Algerian Sahara. We argue that the influence of the 'California' imaginary persisted because of how it appeared to be the perfect embodiment of capitalist modernity while at the same time exhibiting two crucial sociopolitical ambiguities; the first ambiguity concerned the proper role of the state and the second had to do with the California imaginary’s overall implications in terms of social equity. These ambiguities enabled governing actors to naturalise and routinise this imported imaginary even as they used it to forge distinct types of political settlements that were in line with local historical circumstances. We thus argue that the notion of imaginary, inherently visual and polysemic, is usefully distinguished from alternative notions such as paradigms, narratives and frames. We also contend that imaginaries do not function independently from other social forces, but rather that they are embedded in the wider political economy. This leads us to conclude that any transformation of agricultural policies in North Africa will require the diffusion of an alternative imaginary that is as effective in forging powerful social coalitions as the Californian dream proved to be.

KEYWORDS: Social imaginary, ambiguities, irrigation policies, Algeria, Morocco