It is commonplace in many intellectual and cultural spheres in the Anglo-Saxon world to refer to some places, regions, or states as “behind” others. For example, in the concerted attempt to synthesize feminist and neo-conservative rhetoric in the justification for the war and continued occupation of Afghanistan, the Bush and Obama administrations regularly referred to Afghanistan as being “behind” “the west” in terms of women’s rights, implying a linear progression from a patriarchal, tribal society which oppresses to women to a equitable, cosmopolitan one where women are nominally equals with their male counterparts. The selling of this particular narrative of progress was an important part of the CIA public relations strategy for shoring up support for the continued occupation of Afghanistan (see also: Stone, 2013).
Jorge Luis Borges once remarked that the lack of camels mentioned in the Koran proves its authentic origins in Arabia and the time of Mohammad: only an Arab author could have taken such an essential beast for granted so as not to mention it. The temporal discourse of some countries being “behind” and others being “ahead” (or maybe “on schedule” in rare cases) is much like the camel not in the Koran: it seems so normalized in our Anglo-American/European cultural worldview that the idea that temporal placement of individuals, groups, and countries functions as a means of making value-judgments about the subject goes generally without saying. Most readers of an Anglo-American background will know what is meant when Hillary Clinton says she won in the places that are “dynamic, moving forward,” while she lost in places that were “looking backwards”.
In the discipline of International Development Studies, which I am currently minoring in, this forward/backward notion of progress was quite explicit just a generation ago in Modernization Theory (McMichael, 2016). In the simplest terms, modernization theory proposed that liberal capitalist states were “developed” and “modern”, and therefore contemporary, while those “undeveloped” states in the socialist bloc and the third world were “behind” and “undeveloped”. The language of first, second, and third worlds also came from this period, which is also a value-judgment which implies these “worlds” are on different planes of existence based on their levels of development.
Empire, Optimism, and Time-Space compression
Before the 1900s, it would be extremely peculiar in European thought to imagine the future as radically different from the present. Even Enlightenment revolutionaries usually argued that what they were doing was restoring a correct and natural order which preceded the deformed order which oppressed them. The French revolution, arguably one of the most “progressive” political developments in history in terms of creating contemporary notions of sovereignty, democracy, and republicanism and overthrowing the aristocratic order, was largely rhetorically inspired by the Roman and Athenian republics and by the idea of Rousseau’s “state of nature”, rather than the idea of creating something entirely new.
It was only in Victorian England, the centre of the British Empire and at that time widely regarded as the centre of the world economy, much like the United States today, (O’Brien and Williams, 2007) that the idea of “progress” as we now understand it began to have real intellectual legitimacy. The development of electricity and the telegram led to a kind of cultural time-space compression; things were happening faster, consumer goods were travelling further, information was more widely available – early indicators of what we now call globalization. Among the imperial bourgeois of England, deeply intertwined with the royal court of queen Victoria, this spawned the first generation of futurists, bringing together colonial officers, British industrialists, American tycoons, and professional inventors in a project to reshape the world according to a furious and destabilizing techno-capitalism.
It is around this period that we first see references to Great Britain being “ahead” of other civilizations at the time. New technology, regarded as “progress” in its own right, was seen as bursting forth from the Victorian form of social organization. This perceived techno-social supremacy accompanied the development of scientific racism and the idea of whiteness, where Darwinian evolutionary theory was hamfistedly applied to human societies to explain the apparent disparity in intellect between the Victorian “white race” and their colonial subjects. This notion of “social evolutionism” was at the foreground of early anthropology, as well as the Victorians’ own perception of self supremacy (Forte, 2016). Equally, social Darwinism came to explain the increasing stratification between capitalists and workers in industrial society, depicting the working class as dirty, uncouth, and holding on to old peasant ways which kept them from experiencing the full blessings that industrial wage-labour bequeathed them.
Think on Donald Trump’s recent remarks that a variety of Central American, Caribbean, and African countries are “shitholes”, or the affore quote from Hilary Clinton, who seems to place her voters at a higher stage of human achievement because they produce more GDP, while Trump voters (especially in the Midwest) are “deplorables”. Both these value-judgments imply superiority of the speaker’s own partisan political camp based on adherence and fulfillment of the Victorian ideal while revealing the disdain for various underclassesessential to such an elitist worldview.
The Victorian era also saw a number of norms and institutions that readers will likely see as resonant with contemporary “western” society: philanthropic charity (as distinct from classical charity), states of “permanent warfare” – recall Afghanistan from the introduction, which both Great Britain and the US became embroiled in, – aversion to “provincialism” and preference for cosmopolitanism, and increased proletarianization and declining prospects for the majority of people (Forte, 2016).
Capitalist Realism, New Victorianism: Colonizing the Future
The Victorian “forward acceleration” in the realm of culture accompanied, and was basically synonymous with, the rapacious accumulation of capital via exploitation and plunder, of Britain’s colonies. It should come as no surprise that the society which used terra nullius to build a “Greater Britain” (Forte, 2016) through the genocidal settler-colonies of Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand regarded the future as terra incognita: unknown land, ripe for colonization (Morus, 2014). As residents of this “Greater Britain”, we in English-speaking North America have largely inherited the Victorian worldview. Pax Britanica has been succeeded by Pax Americana. Is it any wonder that all fantastical futures, from Star Trek to Elon Musk’s plans to populate Mars, are imagined as better, more benevolent forms of colonization?
Self-described “progressive” elites, everyone from neoconservative lobbyists to left-liberal academics, tell us that, “you can’t go backward,” or, “you can’t turn the clock back,” and, “a return to the past is impossible”. They insist that we are all going to be brought to “the future” – which seems to mean liberal democracy, globalization, and free trade. But this “progress” implies a perfect, linear arc of time through which history “progresses” towards an inevitable ontology. Such a constant acceleration, like the one imagined by the old Victorians and by today’s “new” Victorians (Forte, 2016), is neither reasonably possible nor desirable. Thus, while we are insistently told to subscribe to “progress”, we are also jarringly proscribed a “dead end” in liberal democracy.
With “progress” ending, so does history, according to liberalism/progressivism. This was Francis Fukuyama’s thesis, which suggested that liberal democracy and capitalism would eventually overtake the whole world, led by the imperial United States (Fukuyama, 1992). Fukuyama has of course had to revise his thesis several times, as threats as varied as advancements in biotechnology to geopolitical rivals to the US shake his faith in the eventuality of global liberalism.
But Fukuyama’s thesis that there is no alternative to liberal capitalism continues to resonate in popular culture. We are presented at once with liberal utopianism about its own future and “capitalist realism” (Fischer, 2014) about the possibility of systems besides liberal capitalism. The 21st century, as an age of progress at the end of progress, is one that repeats older forms of optimism and progressivism in order to conceal the stagnation and decline of American imperialism. New Victorianism which mimes the old Victorianism of imperial Britain is one way we can see this, with the pattern of imperial decline being repeated in the US case. Another is the emergence of recyclable popular culture. The reader is likely familiar with how fashion, trends, and aesthetics seem to rise and fall in vogue in an increasingly rapid, cyclical fashion. The colour at the time of writing seems to be 80’s nostalgia, which recycles the “lost future” into a consumer package that at once satisfies nostalgia for a time when optimism seemed more tangible, and makes the return of optimism seem possible in spite of capitalist crises and imperial decline (Fischer, 2014).
There are two kinds of colonialism at play here which serve to narrow the popular imagination. On the one hand, the classical Victorian tendency insists that there is something valuable in the notion of progress – that we should take pride in being “ahead” and like messiahs we should spread our forwardness in the form of “nation building” and “opening up markets”. On the other hand, imagining a system besides liberal capitalism is forbidden, a colonial restriction of self-determination. Just as old and new Victorians said and continue to say that colonial subjects are incapable of governing themselves on their own terms, requiring them to accept liberalism, globalization, and capitalism, so too is imagining a system besides capitalism dictated as impossible. In fact, these two kinds of restriction on self-determination are interrelated, often to the point of being indistinguishable.
Dystopia of the Now: The view from Latin America
The silence on how Victorian progressivism and imperialism shapes our public imaginations is not only because ideology is often most effective when it is silent, but because public intellectual inquiry has been shaped to take its presumptions for granted. Bourdieu and Wacquant deal with the internationalization of US paradigms in their controversial piece “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason”. The US has thus created an “international lingua franca” that ignores local particularities, and they point to various examples of the “symbolic dominion and influence” exercised by the US (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999). This “US ontology”, a product of US imperialism, among other things proscribes a temporal “forwardness” positioning some countries as “ahead” and others “behind”, to the point that we have very few other ways of talking about international inequalities.
In this privileging of the temporal, globalist, and ultimately imperialist notion of progress, mainstream academia often ignores local conditions and realities. In the case of Latin America, we can see how this ideology of progress, and the privileging of the advancing imperial centre, plays out in reality. The very phrase Latin America comes from “modernizing” elites; the English “Latin America” comes from the Spanish Latinoamerica, which in turn comes from Latinidad, meaning to have “Latinness”. This distinction was made by liberal elites in the newly-independent Spanish colonies to denote their proximity to the “Latin” or “European” world (Mignolo, 2005). Disdaining the provincialism of their compatriots, they sought to replicate European and American models (Burns, 1980). Progress was equated with Europeanization, which under the tutorship of Britain, France, and the United States, also meant urbanization and industrialization at the expense of Indigenous societies and local cultural traditions. The result was increased foreign penetration of Latin American economies and dependency (Forte, 2018).
In the case of resistance, the “provincial” peasantry and indigenous peoples, were denounced as ignoramuses. “Reason” was the exclusive claim of the liberal, urban, European elite. The “reactionary” peasants were stuck in the past, while the elites were in the future (Burns, 1980).
Despite this history of repeated immiseration through “modernization”, and the increasingly obvious failure of the US-imposed model even within the US itself, self-appointed experts continue to claim that Latin America is “underdeveloped” due to the persistence of feudal and traditional pre-capitalist forms of production within their economies and that therefore Latin American states should “develop” further i.e. expand the reach of capitalism in order to achieve prosperity. There is a magic belief that capital is benevolent, when in fact capitalism often breeds poverty, disease, and death. One can also hear echoes of elitist denunciations of the peasantry in the way that US authorities condemn “tyrants” and “populists” in the region.
Today, there are millions in Latin America who might be described as “victims of progress”. Progress “is a deep cultural bias of Western thought,” and it is the hallmark of the deterministic thinking of the Victorians, accepting “survival of the fittest” indicting those who do not survive capitalism as “failures” (Fischer, 2014). As such, there are cycles of “progress” and “modernization” in Latin America. With each cycle of capitalist “development” – expanding, appropriating resources, and incorporating people, spaces, and things into commodity production – Latin America is repeatedly decimated and bound as a net exporter of raw materials, capital, and labour value back to the global “metropolis”. The constant cycles of capital, rather than “modernizing” the continent, reproduce a peculiar kind of savagery.
While modernization theorists tend to view institutions like the hacienda and the landed elite of Latin America, notorious for indentured labour and brutality, as a feudal anachronism to be swept away by a more mature capitalist system of land ownership resembling the European plot farms, the reality is that the hacienda is fundamental to the sustenance not only of the local elites of Latin America, but the capitalist mode of production; representing the tendency towards monopolization in agriculture, rather than a non-capitalist anomaly. This was one of the great insights of world-systems theorists Andre Gunder Frank, which he called “development of underdevelopment” (Frank, 1969a, p. 9):
“the latifundium, irrespective of whether it appears today as a plantation or a hacienda, was typically born as a commercial enterprise which created for itself the institutions which permitted it to respond to increased demand in the world or national market by expanding the amount of its land, capital, and labor (sic) and to increase the supply of its products” (Frank, 1969b, p. 14).
The “modernizers” thus produce “savergry” in need of civilizing.
The illusion of Victorian progressivism is that Latin America’s “backwardness” and Greater Britain’s “advancement” are unrelated. In the worldview of the world’s elite, Latin America has simply failed to conform with “progress” and this is the cause of its problems. The reality is that imitation of European or US models is not only undesirable because they do not reflect local conditions, but impossible because all current and historical US and European models of enrichment and “progress” are contingent upon the impoverishment of Latin America.
Linear, Eurocentric, universalist narratives of progress are deeply embedded in our cultural worldview, both the mainstream and a variety of self-described “dissident” currents in the west. They are comforting, magic tales with familiar myths that many people are encultured into, and are exported across the world through media, communications, commerce, and military might. Yet, they cannot and do not speak for the rest of the world and their proscriptions are anything but universal. This is not a call for total rejection of the European experience or European philosophies, but an important contribution to the tradition of cultural criticism. With this criticism in mind, a future besides capitalist modernization is more readily to be understood on its own terms.
Cover Image: From NASA’s “Technicians Wanted” recruitment poster
Neoliberalism and globalism have both become buzzwords used within the political discourse by intellectuals, journalists, as much as celebrities in order to describe and explain recent events. But what are really neoliberalism and globalism, and in what relation do they stand to each other? Quinn Slobodian argues in his recent book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, that neoliberalism and globalism are commensurate concepts, an economic doctrine on the one hand and a political worldview on the other, both mutually reinforcing a particular form of contemporary capitalism. Slobodian puts the notion that neoliberalism lacks a clear referent to rest. Instead, he argues that neoliberalism and globalism have existed as a coherent body of thought since the 1920s. Tracing the origins and consequent development of these ideas, he offers the readers a richer, more precise history of both the idea and practice of neoliberalism-globalism, with particular attention to their relationship with sovereignty and democracy. As such, he provides us with a much needed historical and theoretical corrective to the oft repeated and yet often historically inaccurate theories of neoliberalism.
Donald Trump, who railed against ‘globalism’ on the campaign trail, was elected in 2016 partly on a platform of defying free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA. Similarly, we have recently witnessed a proliferation of anti-EU forces from both the left and right in Europe, notably in form of Brexit in the UK and in Italy’s recent elections. Mexico has also recently elected the ‘populist’ Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who threatens to destabilize NAFTA, at least as we know it. These political upheavals against the postwar world order make Globalists a timely and necessary reading for anyone interested in intellectual and economic history.
Central to Slobodian’s argument in Globalists is a rejection of the idea that neoliberalism can simply be reduced to ‘market fundamentalism’, a term central to Karl Polyani’s critique. Rather, Slobodian argues, neoliberalism is a form of regulation, rather than a radical opposition to regulation; it is a form of regulation that seeks to reshape societies to be more favorable to the interests of the market and of the capitalist class, in opposition to democracy and sovereignty if necessary.
Typically, histories of neoliberalism begin somewhere around the Reagan and Thatcher governments of the 1970s. However, Slobodian traces the history of neoliberalism further back, beginning in Austria in the 1920s with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of the House of Hapsburg. During this time of the beginning of the end for the old empires of Europe, Austria held its first election with universal male suffrage, catapulting the radical Social Democratic Party to previously unforeseen influence in the government. Without the autocratic counterweight of the Hapsburg monarchy, conservative Austrian elites feared that their privileges and class power would be undone by the new democratic government. In response, the Austrian nomenklatura, now-infamous names like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises among them, called for a renovation of the capitalist class’s approach to managing power. Their proposed solution was not only intended to the challenge social democracy and the global compounded rise of nationalism, socialism, but also more crucially democratic self-determination. To the capitalist class these forces represented different sides of the same basic threat: the rubes of the world, incapable of governing themselves, turned against their betters. In the words of Lionel Robbins, one of the first ardent globalists, ‘”Mines for miners” and “Papua for Papuans” are analytically similar slogans.’
Contrary to widespread belief, the Austrian School of Economics, as Hayek and Mises’ faction are often called, did not propose a regime of laissez-faire economics as we normally understand it. Rather, they sought to overcome the limitations of the old regime of mercantile colonialism, which divided the world territorially amongst competing camps of European capitalists, through the use of truly global institutions—the League of Nations, the European Court of Justice, the World Trade Organization, international investment law, etc. — to insulate markets. Their basic ethos could be summed up as follows: ‘International institutions should act as mechanisms for protecting and furthering competition without offering spaces for popular claims-making’ (p. 271). This, they believed, would protect the profits of the capitalist class against the laws of sovereign states, political instability, and demands raised by civil society and workers for greater equality and social justice. Many leaders of the early neoliberal movement relocated to Geneva in order to influence the shaping of these institutions, leading Slobodian to call them the ‘Geneva School’ (p. 7). The Geneva School was closely tied to business and finance, and its members moved easily between academic settings and lobby organizations such as the International Chamber of Commerce.
The popular (mis)understanding of neoliberalism is perhaps best represented by Karl Polyani’s description of the movement in The Great Transformation, where he uses the term ‘market fundamentalism’ to describe the Geneva School ideology. In this interpretation, neoliberals advocate for ‘disembedded’ markets which, separated from society, replace social bonds with atomized relations, giving rise to counter-reactions within society in the form of either xenophobic nationalism or revolutionary socialism. Slobodian, however, identifies the objective of the Geneva School instead as ‘enclosing’ markets in international institutions and treaties. Far from being fundamentalists with an irrational faith in the market, Hayek and Mises readily accepted that markets are ‘products of the political construction of institutions [which] encase them’ (p.7).
The first economic gathering to take the entire world as its subject was the World Economic Conference of 1927. Famous neoliberals like Mises, Gottfried, Haberler, Röpke, Hayek and the aforementioned Robbins all took a direct role in the conference and the subsequent declaration advocating global economic governance, codifying international opposition to ‘trade obstacles’ on the part of the European elite (p. 30). This is the first attempt documented in Globalists of neoliberals trying to conjure up a supranational federation of capitalists as a way to offset the dual pressures of national economic planning and decolonization.
The wave of independent nation-states rising from the ashes of empire after the world wars prompted greater urgency for such a supranational power. From the perspective of capitalists and their neoliberal lieutenants, these were adversaries to be thwarted. ‘For [Mises]’, writes Slobodian, ‘the real war was not between individual nations or empires but between the world economy and the nation as forms of human organization’ (p.109). It is from this capitalist project of ‘militant globalism’ against ‘economic nationalism’ (Heilperin, quoted on p. 130) that Slobodian traces the development of entities like the European Union, Free Trade Agreements and the Investor-State Dispute clauses they contain, as well as the World Trade Organization, and the neoliberal intellectuals’ instrumental role in their construction. While these institutions ultimately benefited the elites of the European countries and the United States, they required even the wealthy countries to acquiesce their sovereignty to dictates which spanned multiple sovereign jurisdictions, making them difficult to be challenged by any one government without inviting conflict.
Of particular interest to anthropologists, Slobodian focuses on neoliberal ambassadors’ deep interest in the area of culture. The globalists, from their vantage point in Geneva, left no intellectual or topical stone unturned. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundation, two of the largest funders of ethnographic projects to date, were generous in their support of neoliberal intellectuals seeking to broaden the conceptual scope of their project. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, essentially bankrolled a study by Wilhelm Ropke in the Danube region which lambasted the locals for ‘economic simplism’ for seeking greater authority over their own economy (p. 75). Interestingly, Ropke considered this demand for economic control as a cultural phenomenon and sought to develop methods and instruments to reshape the culture of the Danube to be more accommodating to the global market.
Globalists is effective in its ability to lay bare and substantiate with broad source evidence what Slobodian classifies as some basic truths about neoliberal ideology. The book also weaves a convincing narrative about these tenets and their implementation across the modern world. The basic principles Slobodian ascribes to neoliberal globalism are mostly described in negatives. The first is neoliberalism’s aversion to democracy, particularly to democracy that cannot be manipulated or neutered in some way. Slobodian demonstrates this through quotations from neoliberal intellectuals, Mont Perlin Society memos, and internal documents of the European Union, IMF, and other bodies. The second is neoliberalism’s aversion to the nation-state and sovereignty, which binds capitalists by certain obligations which may limit their profits and liquidity, something Mises was particularly adamant about. The third and final, related to the proceeding points, is neoliberal globalism’s resistance to politicization; that states or peoples should have levers by which to regulate or transform their social conditions is the antithesis of the neoliberal project. The neoliberal globe is one without politics, especially without politics that could potentially interrupt the smooth expansion of the market. This may also explain why we can observe an uncanny rise of disturbing pseudo-politics within the last decades.
Neoliberalism as a body of thought and its Geneva School ambassadors have had profound political, economic, and cultural influence on the modern world. Globalists does an excellent job of summarizing and explaining neoliberalism’s development, its core principles, and its direction. It is also a retort to lazy analyses of neoliberalism, which focus solely on aspects of economic policy or reform, and not on the other arenas of human life – culture, politics, international relations, etc. – which the Geneva School has actively and consciously sought to shape, along with Keynesians, imperial bureaucracies, business lobbyists, activists of certain stripes, and a host of other actors. Globalists is a valuable and refreshingly thorough book which clearly defines and scrutinizes the intellectual and practical components of neoliberalism in a manner which is deserving of commendation.
This of Dr. Quinn Slobodian’s most recent book was originally written for and published in the Journal of Extreme Anthropology as part of their forthcoming special issue on SOVEREIGNTY, which you can access here. A pdf of the review is available from the JEA page and on my academia.edu page.
As part of my work maintaining Peripheral Thought, we will soon publish a series of articles on SOVEREIGNTY, in part inspired by and intended to accompany JEA’s release of the special issue on the same topic.
The suggested citation for this review is:
Lutes, Abram. 2018. “The Geneva Men: A Review of ‘Globalists’ by Quinn Slobodian” in Journal of Extreme Anthropology, Vol. 2, no. 2: Sovereignty.
Transcript of a monologue by Anthony Michael Bourdain, 1956-2018
Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—as we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs”. But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do.
We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but “we”, as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them—and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films.
So, why don’t we love Mexico?
We throw up our hands and shrug at what happens and what is happening just across the border. Maybe we are embarrassed. Mexico, after all, has always been there for us, to service our darkest needs and desires. Whether it’s dress up like fools and get pass-out drunk and sun burned on Spring break in Cancun, throw pesos at strippers in Tijuana, or get toasted on Mexican drugs, we are seldom on our best behavior in Mexico. They have seen many of us at our worst. They know our darkest desires.
In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs—while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us. The effect on our society is everywhere to be seen. Whether it’s kids nodding off and overdosing in small town Vermont, gang violence in LA, burned out neighborhoods in Detroit— it’s there to see. What we don’t see, however, haven’t really noticed, and don’t seem to much care about, is the 80,000 dead—mostly innocent victims in Mexico, just in the past few years. 80,000 dead. 80,000 families who’ve been touched directly by the so-called “War On Drugs”.
Mexico. Our brother from another mother. A country, with whom, like it or not, we are inexorably, deeply involved, in a close but often uncomfortable embrace. Look at it. It’s beautiful. It has some of the most ravishingly beautiful beaches on earth. Mountains, desert, jungle. Beautiful colonial architecture, a tragic, elegant, violent, ludicrous, heroic, lamentable, heartbreaking history. Mexican wine country rivals Tuscany for gorgeousness. Its archeological sites—the remnants of great empires, unrivaled anywhere. And as much as we think we know and love it, we have barely scratched the surface of what Mexican food really is. It is NOT melted cheese over a tortilla chip. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply ‘bro food’ halftime. It is in fact, old– older even than the great cuisines of Europe and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated. A true mole sauce, for instance, can take DAYS to make, a balance of freshly (always fresh) ingredients, painstakingly prepared by hand. It could be, should be, one of the most exciting cuisines on the planet. If we paid attention. The old school cooks of Oaxaca make some of the more difficult to make and nuanced sauces in gastronomy. And some of the new generation, many of whom have trained in the kitchens of America and Europe have returned home to take Mexican food to new and thrilling new heights.
It’s a country I feel particularly attached to and grateful for. In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, was there—and on the case—when the cooks more like me, with backgrounds like mine—ran away to go skiing or surfing—or simply “flaked.” I have been fortunate to track where some of those cooks come from, to go back home with them. To small towns populated mostly by women—where in the evening, families gather at the town’s phone kiosk, waiting for calls from their husbands, sons and brothers who have left to work in our kitchens in the cities of the North. I have been fortunate enough to see where that affinity for cooking comes from, to experience moms and grandmothers preparing many delicious things, with pride and real love, passing that food made by hand, passed from their hands to mine.
In years of making television in Mexico, it’s one of the places we, as a crew, are happiest when the day’s work is over. We’ll gather round a street stall and order soft tacos with fresh, bright, delicious tasting salsas—drink cold Mexican beer, sip smoky mezcals, listen with moist eyes to sentimental songs from street musicians. We will look around and remark, for the hundredth time, what an extraordinary place this is.
The received wisdom is that Mexico will never change. That is hopelessly corrupt, from top to bottom. That it is useless to resist—to care, to hope for a happier future. But there are heroes out there who refuse to go along. On this episode of PARTS UNKNOWN, we meet a few of them. People who are standing up against overwhelming odds, demanding accountability, demanding change—at great, even horrifying personal cost.
[Photo]: Vancouver Indian Centre president Debbie Mearns (second from right) walking with strike leader Christine Price. August 12, 1978.
This fascinating article originally appeared in Labour/Le Travail. Formatting and spelling has been edited for clarity before appearing on Peripheral Thought. For citations please refer to the article as:
Janet Mary Nicol. 1997. ‘”Unions Aren’t Native’; The Muckamuck Restaurant Labour Dispute Vancouver, B.C. (1978-1983),” Labour/Le Travail, Vol. 40 (Fall): 235-51.
Most photographs are from the Pacific Tribune, originally established by the Communist Party of Canada as the B.C. Workers’ News in 1935.
“IN THIS SOCIETY,” explained First Nations union organizer Ethel Gardner to a skeptical First Nations community, “being in a union is the only way we can guarantee that our rights as workers will be respected.” Ethel was an employee at the Muckamuck restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia when its First Nations workers decided to organize into an independent feminist union in 1978 and subsequently struck for a first contract against white American owners. The dispute allied First Nations people with predominantly white trade unionists and made an even wider community aware of their circumstances. The union picketed the restaurant for three years, discouraging customers from entering, while the owners kept the restaurant functioning with the use of strikebreakers, many of them from the First Nations community. When the owners closed their operation in 1981, the union ceased picketing and both parties waited a further two years for a legal ruling from the Labour Relations Board. Finally in 1983, the owners were ordered to pay remedies to the union, but sold the restaurant and pulled all their assets out of Canada, refusing to comply with the decision.
The Organizing Campaign
The Muckamuck Restaurant opened in 1971, and advertised “authentic” First Nations cuisine. The restaurant was located in a downtown Vancouver West End neighbourhood, at 1724 Davie Street. Three white American owners, Jane Erickson, Teresa Bjornson and Doug Chrismas also had investments in art galleries and other restaurants in California and British Columbia. The owners maintained an informal policy of hiring First Nations people as restaurant staff. At the time of the union drive an equal ratio of First Nations men and women were employed as restaurant workers. The managers however, were white. Eighteen out of 21 Muckamuck restaurant workers signed union cards with a local independent union, the Service, Office and Retail Workers’ Union of Canada (SORWUC) and were certified as a bargaining unit 21 February 1978. SORWUC, a feminist union active in the 1970s and early 1980s, formed with a primary goal to organize women in industries neglected by trade unions.
In an interview for this study, former Muckamuck employee and organizer Ethel Gardner described her role in the early stages of the union organizing campaign:
I was referred to an employment agency which recommended that I take a federal training program connected to the Muckamuck restaurant. I agreed and eventualiy was working in the cold kitchen making salads and drinks. A few incidents occurred which got the staff upset. The cook was charged for getting the soup burnt and I was fined for leaving the bannock out overnight. When the manager told me to serve the bannock to a customer, I refused because I had been fined for leaving it out. The manager agreed and 1 threw it out. Incidents such as these led a few of us to go to the Labour Standards Branch where we were told we needed a union in order to enforce our grievances. I went back to the employment agency and said I wanted to quit, that the employer was racist. The counsellor said, ‘Why don’t you join a union?’ She told me about SORWuCs organizing efforts at Jerry’s Cove and Bimini’s, I called SORWUC and met with two union reps. They talked about the union and suggested we talk to the unionized employees at Jerry’s Cove which we did.
Ethel said Muckamuck staff had tried to organize before with another union but were unsuccessful and the instigator had been fired. SORWUC was chosen because it had some success organizing in die restaurant industry; Jerry’s Cove and Bimi ni ‘ s, as mentioned, were two examples. When asked if there were First Nations groups the staff could have approached instead of SORWUC, Ethel said, “There just weren’t any out there.”
After the union certification, Muckamuck employee Christina Prince told the press that management had told workers they “should be happy” to have a job because of their race. Christina said the racial issue emerged when employees realized that the owners were getting rich off Native culture. Management responded, “If there has been any discrimination, it has been against the highly qualified whites who we’ve passed over to hire untrained Native people.”
Not only did First Nations people experience difficulty obtaining employment in the city, but when they were hired, often the jobs were in low-wage occupational ghettos. Notes taken by a SORWUC representative at an initial meeting with the Muckamuck workers show that most staff made between $3 and $4 an hour, averaging $60 a night with tips. (The BC minimum wage in 1978 was $3 an hour.) The head cook made $7. Notes on the high turnover and lack of training for staff also included this comment: “AH restaurants have a high turnover rate which is only proof of how much people need a union there and in other places. So some people are untrained. It’s not true for all and certainly implies a slur on Native people.”
The employer took advantage of government legislation and programs to save on labor costs. Workers under eighteen earned less than minimum wage and management made extensive use of the Canada Manpower Training Program, offering to “train” First Nations people to work in the restaurant and, in return, received 75 per cent of the trainee’s wages from the government.
As Ethel Gardner stated employees had approached the BC Labour Standards Branch with complaints of management practices. Although it is illegal, an employer in the restaurant industry will “fine” an employee for making a mistake (such as mishandling cash or food) and will deduct money from an employee’s pay cheque. Muckamuck workers were told that the Standards Branch had little power to enforce laws which forbid such employer practises. A local First Nations newspaper, The Indian Voice, published Ethel’s description of the situation:
Some of us went to the Department of Labour to have the law enforced. The Department of Labour would tell the employer to behave or to give the employees back their money, but there was nothing they could do to prevent any of the illegal acts from happening again, unless we had a union contract.
Ethel outlined the staffs grievances to the First Nations readership:
Breaks were few, if any. Heavy fines were given out for petty reasons, like not tying garbage bags, or forgetting to put tin foil over bannock. Staff meetings were held every week, and it was compulsory to go to these meetings. Employees were suspended two weeks at a time for not attending such meetings, even if it was their day off. At these meetings, employees were put down for every possible mistake that could have been made on the job, big or small, true or false. According to the owners, it seemed like the workers couldn’t do a thing right. Maybe it was because the workers were Indians? I doubt it.
Ethel stated that workers who complained were fired, bribed or harassed. Further, “We are also told that we must wear Native jewelry and if we do not we are badgered about not being proud of our culture. These extras are very expensive for us as we only make the minimum wage.” Scheduling, job security and fines were also major issues, Ethel claimed.
Ethel asked for the support of the First Nations community in the dispute and stated:
For too long the fact that Native workers in B.C. are badly treated has gone unnoticed. At the Muckamuck we are told by our management that we are slow, stunned, inexperienced and hard to train, rude, stupid and ungrateful for the beautiful place that they have built for us (the Indians) to work.
Connecting this situation with other First Nations issues, Ethel stated: “We are doing our part to add to the renewed struggle by Native people to gain the rights and respect that have been denied to us since Captain Cook landed here.”
The list of grievances goes on. According to an information leaflet distributed by SORWUC, employees sometimes received “non-sufficient funds” stamped on their pay cheques. The leaflet also stated: “Employees were proud of the restaurant, nonetheless because it promoted a good image of Native culture. They (the workers) only approached management and then SORWUC because working conditions were so poor that they could not feel proud of themselves.” In an interview with a California newspaper, SORWUC representative Muggs Sigurgeirson said: “The owner would tell the staff that she had 100 applicants from other Natives as a way of threatening staff. Workers could end up working twenty days straight. One worker refused to work the 21st day and had to wait 10 days to work again. She has children to support. Workers were told that whites would be hired if they were dissatisfied.”
A union leaflet contained further workers’ demands and reasons for organizing:
We want to have decent working conditions and to be treated with respect. Some of our grievances are: poor pay, no job security, no say in scheduling, short notice of changes in scheduled hours, illegal deductions for uniforms (T-shirts) and fired or intimidated into quitting.
Another leaflet indicated workers had political grievances as well: “None of the profits made from this sale of Native culture were put into the Native community.” Workers also wanted more input into the menu planning of the cuisine. Ethel Gardner stated in The Indian Voice:
It’s not so much they were white owners, it’s just they were giving the illusion … in their advertising it says ‘staffed and run by Native people.’ People really liked to believe it was owned by Natives—they think they’re contributing to the Native community and Native Indians, but they’re contributing to the pocketbooks of these three owners.
The Muckamuck restaurant employees organized to improve wages and working conditions but also organized as a reaction to their exploitation as First Nations people. While gender issues were discussed by First Nations women workers, it was racial issues which dominated the union agenda, SORWUC organizers recognized these layers of oppression because of their own experiences as women workers in occupational wage ghettos neglected by organized labour. And so out of this dispute came an alliance of white and First Nations workers as SORWUC organizers encouraged and supported Muckamuck employees to voice their demands for respect and autonomy.
What were the features of this situation which brought these groups together to challenge the status quo? As an independent local union, SORWUC had the autonomy and decision-making abilities lacking in larger unions. A larger union would likely have pulled out much earlier than SORWUC. Muckamuck staff chose a feminist, independent union, which suggests that First Nations culture is more readily linked to a small, “alternate” union than to a large, mainstream one. The structure of larger unions could have been alienating and counterproductive to organizing First Nations workers.
Furthermore, SORWUC was committed to class, race and gender struggles. Attempts by visible minority and women’s groups to set up their own caucuses within mainstream unions or to conduct separate organizing have provided some important initiatives in the struggle for workplace equity. However, an independent movement of women workers, even a temporary one, may drive these developments forward more forcefully, a contribution SORWUC can claim to have made during its short existence.
It was also important that the white working class and First Nations groups supported this strike. SORWUC activists had experience and expertise in trade union practices and were able to share this with the First Nations workers. They were able to access the resources of mainstream unions, which was crucial in providing financial and moral support. The endorsement of First Nations groups was also important and though there were conflicts, the dispute also provided an opportunity for the strikers to discuss the benefits of unions with First Nations people.
Certification and Negotiations
The Labour Relations Board (LRB) certified SORWUC as a legal bargaining agent on 20 March 1978 and on 3 April the union served notice to bargain with the employer. A Muckamuck employee summarized events in the Vancouver Sun: “The primary union organizer was fired the day that management was notified of the application for certification. Since then six more of us have been fired or intimidated into quitting. All seven are union members, most quite active.” The union launched charges of unfair labour practices on behalf of these workers on 21 and 23 February, and on 29 March.
The sequence of events following certification are noted in the SORWUC log book. The log book was used to make daily entries of union activities for potential evidence in legal dealings and was especially important during new organizing campaigns, contract negotiations and picketing. The book was available for union staff, officers and members to make records. An excerpt documented the workers’ treatment by the employer after the union application proceedings:
21 February —application for certification Cay fired
23 February —Ethel fired
21 March—Rag suspended
28 March— Rev fired 2
9 March—Lauretta harassed into quitting
The log book described the first steps in contract negotiations from 17 April to the rapid breakdown of relations between the union and management by 20 May:
17 April—first bargaining session (to negotiate a contract)
2 May—second bargaining session
10 May—first date of hearing (of LRB, re: complaints on firings)
12 May—second date of hearing
17 May—third date of hearing
20 May—first date of leafletting (SORWUC information picket) —owner tries to bribe Marge and Christina (Muckamuck employees)
21 May—second date of leafletting
23 May—management walks out (of contract talks) —illegal picketing charge (against the union) —management puts out own leaflet
The union had organized an information picket, handing out leaflets to customers in front of the restaurant on 20 and 21 May as a means of applying pressure against management. Business dropped dramatically during the picketing. A LRB official contacted a SORWUC representative and made an informal request that the union cease leafletting until the board decided on management’s illegal picketing charge. SORWUC declined the request. Muckamuck employee Christina Prince described the LRB’s unfair actions in deciding to hear management’s complaint before the union’s:
It took us two and a half months to get in front of the LRB with our unfair labour practice suits. Yet when this leafletting started, they took us in front of the board within 24 hours. The management got an informal hearing. They called it illegal picketing. And since it was hindering business, the LRB had to automatically fall on management’s side. That’s what we were told. So we thought ‘forget it, we’ll get these people back to their jobs another way, at the negotiating table.’
Management retaliated further by distributing the first of a series of leaflets defending their actions and attacking the union. The dispute was described in the Vancouver Sun as one which “pits Indian workers against white managers.
In The Indian Voice, Ethel Gardner described the frustrations at the bargaining sessions with management in April and May:
Management generally came late, left early, complained about how long the contract was and generally treated us and our union rep with contempt. For example, they refused outright our suggestions that we bargain in the Indian Centre because it was ‘not devoid of colour.’ These were the words of their lawyer, Bill MacDonald.
Management held a final meeting with staff before relations deteriorated completely. The records from a LRB hearing describe management’s interference, in contravention of the labour code, with the union campaign:
At a meeting of the employees in April or May, shortly before the strike commenced, all of the owners —Erickson, Bjornson and Chrismas—were present and Chrismas made a number of statements concerning SORWUC, the restaurant and its future. According to one of the employees present, Sandra Eatman, the gist of these remarks was that the restaurant provided considerable assistance to Native people, that the employees should work hard to make the restaurant prosper, that the employees could thereby earn much more money, and that the employees did not need a trade union. There were some further statements made by one of the owners to the effect that the restaurant had been opened for Native people, that die Native people should be grateful and that SORWUC would destroy the restaurant.
Management tried another tactic to undermine SORWUC as the bargaining agent for the staff. The owners contacted Russell Means, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), to talk to the workers. Means met with the Muckamuck staff at the Indian Centre in Vancouver in late May. SORWUC representatives were not allowed to attend. Means suggested the workers buy out management and take over the restaurant, but it seemed impossible to get the money to do this.
Management contacted the Hotel, Restaurant and Bartenders Union (HRBU), Local 40 and, believing they would be a more “reasonable” union in negotiations, suggested they raid SORWUC. A raid did not occur, however, and the international unions, such as the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) and its leader Jack Munro, supported SORWUC’s efforts.
Muckamuck workers took a strike vote. A majority voted in favour of a strike and on 1 June began picketing in front of the restaurant. Christina Prince stated to the media: “We’ll be out for as long as it takes to get some serious bargaining done.” She called the management proposals at the initial bargaining sessions “unacceptable and unjust.”
The employer maintained an adamant opposition to the union and hinted at using strikebreakers early in the strike. On 7 June management stated they were prepared to sell their business rather than have a union in the restaurant. Management told the Vancouver Sun that seven workers were prepared to cross the picket line.
The employer also used racial issues to divide workers from each other and the union. SORWUC representative Ulryke Weissgerber said in an interview for this study:
Management promoted the idea that the workers were selling out in terms of their traditional culture by joining a white union. But I think the workers felt an alternative union was more in line with their traditional culture. I don’t think a big union would have held out as long as we did either. There was a huge sign in the restaurant window stating the workers were in a ‘white union.’ The strikers were really angry about this. We discussed things to do and went to Harry Rankin (a Vancouver lawyer [and member of the Communist Party of Canada]) who offered free legal advice. Many strategies were discussed.
A First Nations organization could have made a difference in maintaining unity. Sandra Eatmon, a Muckamuck employee, said in a recent interview that the workers did not have very many options in terms of choosing a union which would represent their interests as First Nations workers. She said, “I admire the dedication of SORWUC members but after the first year of picketing, most of the Muckamuck staff had left the picket line and white people were picketing while Native people were crossing the line and working inside.” She suggests that if a First Nations group had done the organizing, First Nations people may have stayed on the picket line longer.
But Ethel Gardner believes many First Nations people did not have a union consciousness:
The Native population by and large is not a working population. There is about 90 per cent unemployment. Even getting a job is difficult, let alone a union job. Native people don’t have much experience with unions. There is a lot of anti-union sentiment. Even the Native community didn’t support the strike to the extent they could have. People say “unions aren’t Native.” There’s no union consciousness. The staff of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) came down to the Muckamuck picket line but that was due to George Manuel, the head of UBCIC at the time. The United Native Nations sat on the fence. They said Natives were working inside the restaurant and picketing outside so they weren’t going to take a stand. Bill Wilson was head at the time.
Support from the First Nations community was crucial to the strikers. The UBCIC expressed their support for the Muckamuck strikers in a public statement: “Problems being experienced here by our people are the same problems we have been experiencing all over B.C. for 100 years.” And farther, “The owners of the Muckamuck exploit our resources—Indian work, Indian culture, Indian foods— yet refuse to treat our people fairly.” Management responded: “It was with a sense of respect, not a desire to exploit that we put together a restaurant which most business people advised us against.”
The employer’s anger at the First Nations community was also expressed in a copy of a letter sent to the UBCIC and publicly displayed in the restaurant window. It read in part:
We, however, no longer want to be directly involved with Native culture in British Columbia to the degree of commitment required in the past by Muckamuck. We had tried on many levels to achieve a positive statement and seemed to be progressing well until recently when the labor dispute first arose. The amount of energy required to pull the now shattered situation back together is too much if possible at all, the financial situation to us simply does not warrant it and the desire no longer exists.
Workers picketed a closed restaurant for the First six months of the strike. They received $50 a week in strike pay. Voluntary picketers, members of SORWUC, other trade unionists and supporters, joined the picket line. Shifts were maintained from 4 pm to 10 pm seven days a week.
Ethel Gardner kept the First Nations community informed of the strike and wrote in the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs News:
Being able to bargain collectively with Muckamuck management, we can negotiate a just and equitable contract so that in the future Indian people who choose to work there will be treated with dignity and respect. In this society, being in a union is the only way we can guarantee that our rights as workers will be respected.
The city newspapers’ labour reporters maintained regular news coverage of the strike. One Vancouver Sun business writer, Eleanor Boyle, spoke out in favour of the owners. She accused First Nations workers of “using their Indian-ness to make money, exploiting their own culture if you like.” She suggested SORWUC was out looking for a cause and that management “should get a little credit for ensuring 90 per cent of its staff was Native Indian. It should also be spared from crucifixion for hundreds of years of Canadian neglect of Native people.”
In October, management re-opened the upstairs lounge and in November they re-opened the restaurant, employing a few former staff and hiring new workers, many of them First Nations people. The lounge was renamed the “Chilcotin Bar Seven” and had a “cowboy” theme. A Vancouver Sun headline read: “Cowboys Lasso Indians on Davie Street.”41 Strikers viewed these incidents as insensitive to First Nations culture and the union spoke out publicly against these actions.
While most customers did not cross the picket line and business was minimal, die strike took an ugly turn with the emergence of verbal and physical abuse between strikebreaking employees and strikers. The police were frequently called and numerous assault charges were launched in the courts during the ensuing months. Generally these assaults involved strikebreakers taunting, kicking and hitting picketers. In late November, counter-picketing by die strikebreaking staff brought more abuse—physical and verbal—on the street. Counter-pickets were strikebreaking staff, many of them Native, who came out on to the street and held signs critical of the union and supportive of management. For passersby, it was confusing “street theatre.”
A union picketer described the scene in a SORWUC newsletter:
They [management] seemed to particularly delight in pitting the Native staff against the picketers. For several weekends in a row now, the Native scabs [not the Caucasians] have been coming out to picket with strikers. They carry signs like—Muckamuck Open, We Support Muckamuck, etc. To passersby it looks like our line is bigger. One such passerby tried to give one of these counter-pickets a donation to the strike fund and she [the counter-picket] scuttled back inside!
As the strike progressed, fewer original Muckamuck staff showed up to picket. Many had other jobs and some felt a need to maintain a low profile. To keep their current jobs, they did not want to be seen picketing. SORWUC members, other trade unionists and supporters became essential picketers. Most were white and the core picketers, reflective of SORWUC membership, were female. As legal proceedings against the management dragged on, and picketing persisted into the second year, SORWUC members spent a lot of time clarifying the confusing appearances which emerged from the strike as many First Nations people crossed a white picket line to work inside. Picketers were motivated by their determination to establish unions, and by the knowledge that the majority of original strikers supported their efforts, attended the three separate decertification hearings over the duration of the dispute and were prepared to return to work. Some First Nations people chose to join the strikebreakers for a number of reasons, including the confusion created by divisions within their community regarding the dispute, a lack of familiarity with unions and contempt encouraged by the employer for the “white” union.
Entries in the log book by white strikers (unintentionally presenting racial stereotypes of First Nations people) described the picket line atmosphere:
October 12, 1978 — 3:00 — entry by Heather: … former waiter came by to check it out. Had been picketing first two months. Now has job. Got into a hassle with one of the Indian cooks who crossed the line. She said she wasn’t going on welfare and at least they paid her —she doesn’t care about anyone else—only herself. (She’s a young, slim Indian woman). 4:45 — Older Indian man (medium height-lean) went in, greeted by owner (?) in red cowboy shirt (full beard) who smiled and poured him coffee.
The employer hired Ben Paul, a First Nations employee of the Federal Department of Indian Affairs and his wife Evelyn, to assist the strikebreaking staff in composing anti-union leaflets and various labour relations complaints and applications for decertification. SORWUC attempted to charge the employer with hiring a “professional strikebreaker” (in contravention of the labour code) but the LRB ruled that Paul was not legally defined as a “professional.”
The strikebreakers, with employer encouragement, used the legal process in an attempt to stall and subvert organizing by applying on three separate occasions for decertification. All three applications were rejected by the Labour Relations Board because the union was able to prove that a majority of the original staff were still members of SORWUC. These proceedings had the potential to wear down the union as some of the original staff moved out of the city or province and were not always easily available to testify for the union.
The first of three applications for decertification to the LRB was made January 1979, seven months after the original employees had joined SORWUC. SORWUC was able to prove that only one striker crossed the picket line to work inside. At the second hearing on 25 August 1979 the LRB stated, “… in every lengthy strike there will be some employees who do not picket but remain interested and willing to return to work when a settlement is reached.” By the third hearing 14 May 1980, the strikebreakers applied as a new bargaining unit, the Northwestern Hospitality Employees Association. Five of the eighteen original strikers were working inside the restaurant. The remainder had other jobs and one was picketing regularly. Still, SORWUC was able to present testimony from a majority of original staffers that they supported the union and were prepared to return to work when the dispute ended.
Another legal tactic used by management was their application for an injunction in the Be Supreme Court on 1 June 1979 against SORWUC picketing in front of the restaurant. Justice Patricia Proudfoot agreed to ban picketing and then after a union appeal on 8 June ruled that only six pickets per shift were allowed. Muggs Sigurgeirson, speaking for SORWUC, told the press: “We don’t consider it a victory because the number of pickets has been limited. But we’re certainly ecstatic at being back on the street where strikers should be.” SORWUC appealed the limit but the court turned down the appeal. The reason given for the decision was that the picketers were “harassing” customers and employees.
Management distributed and posted leaflets in the west end community. The LRB described and commented on these activities:
The single most disturbing theme throughout the material produced by the (strikebreaking) staff is the persistent accusation that SORWUC is a racist organization or, at least, that SORWUCs position in this dispute amounts to racial discrimination against Native Indians. This accusation is asserted baldly in some of the material. For example, one leaflet distributed during the summer of 1979 is entitled “Stop Racial Prejudice” and its concluding words are as follows: “This issue is no longer a labour dispute. It has been escalated into arguments over the right to strike. Do not destroy job opportunities for Native People! Ninety per cent of British Columbia’s Native People are unemployed. Help our economy and stop inflation. Support the Native workers at the Muckamuck. Bring a halt to racial discrimination. Support Muckamuck traditional Indian food.”
While the LRB condemned these actions, the board did not provide remedies requested by the union which included a public apology in The Native Voice and Westender newspapers. SORWUC’s newsletter contains a description of the First Nations community’s support:
We have recent letters of support from the Vancouver Indian Centre and the United Native Nations. In April of this year when management put a sign in the window saying the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs supported the strikebreakers, the UBCIC lawyer threatened to sue and the sign was promptly removed. Wayne Clarke, the administrator of the Vancouver Indian Centre has walked the picket line along with other people from the centre. In a recent letter to SORWUC, Debbie Mearns (President of the Indian Centre) told the strikers she “admired their dedication to this complex issue.”
Muckamuck strikers solicited support from the First Nations community through fundraising, conference speeches and articles in First Nations newspapers. SORWUC activists also embarked on major fundraising activities within the trade union and political left community. Financial donations for strikers accumulated into thousands of dollars by the end of the dispute.
The strikebreakers faced working conditions similar to those of the original staff, with the added pressure of working behind a picket line and serving very few customers each night. Turnover among them was high. They were paid $3 to $5 an hour. The media reported on 19 December 1979 that the strikebreakers were laid off over Christmas with non-sufficient funds marked on their pay cheques at the bank.
As the dispute wore on the union declared the strike a “civil rights issue” for First Nations people. A leaflet by the union stated: “In their actions and leaflets they (management) make it plain that they do not believe Native workers should have the right to strike.”
On two occasions during the strike when the owners tried to meet with SORWUC, the strikebreakers attempted to stop them. One vocal First Nations strikebreaker, Florence Differ, told the local media, “If management negotiates with SORWUC, we’ll walk out. I think we had a dirty deal pulled on us again. The Indians are done in again.” Manager Sussy Selbst defended the owners’ actions: “We just want to talk to the union. It’s been 17 months— we had seven customers last night. But the staff turned on us and screamed at us and called us turncoats. I was almost in tears myself.”
Again on 25 April 1980 management made moves to contact the union and strikebreakers threatened to quit. The session was cancelled because the owners allegedly feared picketing by strikebreakers outside the negotiating meeting place. By this time, the restaurant was in operation Friday and Saturday nights only. Soon after, the restaurant shut down all operations.
Finally on 25 April 1981, the LRB made a ruling on the various applications by SORWUC. Their main finding was that the Muckamuck management had not bargained in good faith. By October 1981 the owners had no assets in BC. On 1 March 1983 the LRB finally applied remedies to their previous ruling, having waited until they heard an application for certification by the strikebreakers as a new association. The LRB ruled that management owed the union $10,000 in compensation. SORWUC has never been able to collect this money, as the employer moved back to the United States. New owners set up a grocery store on the main floor of the property. Malcolm McSporrum, a local architect and supporter of First Nations issues* viewed the downstairs of the property and discovered that the setting and equipment of the restaurant remained. He contacted some former Muckamuck strikers and suggested they could be part owners in a new restaurant he would help finance. The Quilicum, a restaurant serving First Nations cuisine was reopened and a few First Nations people (including a former Muckamuck striker) have majority shares.
Many First Nations people have believed that “unions aren’t Native” partially because of the neglect by organized labour to campaign on their behalf. Consequently their working conditions have been exploitive on an economic and racial basis. But First Nations workers at the Muckamuck restaurant were able to form an alliance with the members of SORWUC to challenge their unjust status. SORWUC activists* ideological motivations, expertise, and links to the mainstream labour movement were key motivators to the workers’ efforts to resist the cultural and economic status quo.
The state’s institutions, however, failed First Nations workers as they were unable to protect workers from discriminatory and illegal employer practices. In this sense, as the strikers observed, the dispute became a “civil rights” issue for First Nations people. Although the federal employment centre attempted to address First Nations employment issues by setting up a program with local businesses, when told that the Muckamuck employer was discriminatory, the agency was only able to suggest informally that workers join a union. Similarly, the Labour Standards Branch admitted to being ineffectual in enforcing sanctions against illegal activities of employers such as fining employees for mistakes on the job, and again informally suggested workers join a union.
The LRB moved too slowly and provided remedies they were unable to enforce. The board’s decision to hear management’s illegal picketing complaint before the union’s charges of staff firings, and the delay in rendering a decision on the employer’s refusal to bargain in good faith undermined the union’s ability to be effective. The court’s decision to ban, then limit picketing, also hindered the workers’ efforts to establish a union. Furthermore police tended to view picketers as “troublemakers” so that picketers were more likely to be charged than protected in assault incidents.
The employer was not tied to the local community and institutions to the same extent as the union, so its attempts to seek legitimacy eventually failed. Their corporate values nonetheless were insufficiently challenged by the state as the long list of their illegal and unethical practices demonstrates. The fact that foreign owners can sell their business and move south without adhering to legal remedies indicates the global scope of workers’ struggle for justice.
The analysis of the role of the union can be extended further by examining the contradictions and conflicts First Nations workers experienced within SORWUC. Although SORWUC was ideologically committed to racial issues, the leaders and activists of SORWUC were female, mostly white and functioned within an adversarial and hierarchial trade union structure and culture. First Nations peoples’ ways of dealing with conflict, negotiation and decision-making were not introduced into the process. This imposition of values and culture on the First Nations workers could explain in part the eventual departures of strikers from the picket line. First Nations workers spoke on the specific strike situation in public forums, but did not speak on behalf of SORWUC as a union. Nor did First Nations workers take an activist position within SORWUC or other trade unions.
Further research by First Nations people could provide insights into how their community felt about this dispute and about trade unions in general. What were the repercussions of this strike within their community? How did the women strikers view the relationship between race and gender? Did the aspect of a visibly divided leadership among the First Nations organizations and among First Nations restaurant workers create long term problems, negative feelings about trade unions and distrust of the white community?
The closure of the restaurant and the loss of jobs for First Nations strikers does not suggest a victory for the workers. And while the LRB ruled in favour of the union, the monetary remedies were not rewarded to the strikers. Muckamuck workers, however, gained a sense of dignity and respect because they stood up for their rights. Restaurant employers elsewhere in the city may have improved their practices in light of the publicity and support for this dispute. The wider community had been made aware of First Nations, class and trade union issues. The First Nations and trade union communities found an opportunity to develop a bridge which can be crossed in the future.
Two of the original strikers spoke positively of their experience, Sandra Eatmon said she gained a respect for trade unions. “I learned about unions and workers’ rights,” Sandra said. “I thought it was the right thing at the time. We deserved better treatment.” Overall Ethel Gardner believes the dispute was a success. She said, “Looking back now, I see how we took it upon ourselves as a group of Native workers to make a statement that we weren’t going to be run in that way. So I think it was a success. We learned a lot, gained a lot and it was empowering.”
In both instances, Trump and his UN ambassador Nikki Haley reiterated an old American myth that all US aid is disinterested charity, effectively accusing the Global South of being international welfare bums. They also assumed that US aid was indispensable to Global South countries’ survival. Yet, both Pakistan and Palestine in different ways sent a very distinct message; “we don’t care” and “we don’t need you”.
In Trump’s brash displays of bravado, he may have unwittingly contributed to the unraveling of one of US imperialism’s most effective “soft power” techniques for maintaining the loyalty of intermediaries in the Global South, namely international “aid”. International aid from the Global North cores to the Global South peripheries is by and large managed by government institutions like USAID in the United States and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) but enacted by private actors often referred to as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s). NGO’s have proliferated since the 1980’s, interestingly in tandem with the rise of neoliberalism. Contrary to what much of their branding might suggest, they are essential pillars to the maintenance of imperialism today.
The “Caribbean letter”: On agency and neocolonialism in Haiti
Both these scandals have history behind them and were made possible by the deep structural characteristics of NGO’s as “force multipliers” (Forte, 2015) of US and Canadian imperialism. As a signed letter to The Guardian from Caribbean intellectuals and organizers pointed out:
“In 2008 some of us had written to Barbara Stocking, then Oxfam chief executive, objecting to a report that it sponsored, Rule of Rapists in Haiti, which labelled Haitians as rapists while hiding rapes by occupying UN forces. The year before, 114 soldiers had been sent home for raping women and girls, some as young as 11. No one was prosecuted. We wrote: “NGOs like Oxfam have known about rapes by UN forces, as well as by aid and charity workers, for decades. It’s the pressure of victims, women and [children] in the most impoverished communities, who had the courage to speak out that finally won … public acknowledgement.” There was no reply.
The latest revelations of sexual abuse by major charities…are but one facet of NGO corruption. The people of Haiti were the first to free themselves from slavery, but the colonial “masters” they defeated – France, Britain and the US – have continued to plunder and exploit, including through imported NGOs. Haiti has more NGOs per square mile than any other country and it remains the poorest in the western hemisphere. Corruption begins and ends with neo-colonial powers.
While celebrated for “doing good”, NGO professionals do well for themselves. They move between NGOs, academia and political appointments, enjoying a culture of impunity while they exercise power over the poorest. The Lancet described NGOs in Haiti as “polluted by unsavoury characteristics seen in many big corporations” and “obsessed with raising money”.
(Le Cointe, Altheia, Luke Daniels, Cristel Amiss et al., 13 February 2018)
This widespread abuse often goes unnoticed by the Global North public, whose tax dollars often subsidize these projects (Oxfam receives significant funding from the UK government). In fact, in a survey of the Canadian public, 91% of Canadians expressed at least “some confidence” while 41%, almost half, expressed “great confidence” in NGO’s (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). Canadians also see themselves as widely loved throughout the world (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012a). Yet, as the “Caribbean letter” demonstrates, Canadian NGO’s have more questionable reputations than the wider public might assume.
The normalization of NGO’s masks a series of insidious imperialist operations. In Haiti, NGO’s were used to conceal the increasing military role of the “international community”, headed by the United States, on the island. The US has twice intervened to overthrow popular Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, once in 1991 and again in 2004. The troops stationed in 2004 to quell pro-Aristide unrest remain in the country and are a key component to the management and distribution of international aid, and NGO’s are required to cooperate with these occupying forces. These same NGO’s, especially Quebec-based ones, cheered the overthrow of Aristide in 2004 (Forgie, 2014; Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). Numerous NGO’s were also enlisted by the Clinton Foundation to engage in its “development projects”, which as we have discussed before, were in fact a scheme to loot poor Haitians. Such practices are more commonplace than the trusting Canadian public might assume, as state donors like USAID and GAC, or private foundations like the Clinton or Gates Foundation leverage their vast supply of funds to encourage NGO’s to act as maintenance tools for imperialism (Frogie, 2014; Reith, 2010).
That NGO’s describe such schemes as “partnerships” between themselves and government or corporate entities conceals the power imbalance between government and foundation funders and the NGO’s “on the ground”. Sally Reith (2010) describes this as the “Trojan Horse” of development discourses, implying a level, depoliticized playing field. Meanwhile, aid has a precisely political character to it, usually in favour of maintaining imperialism and neocolonialism (Engler, 2015). USAID, which is run by the US State Department, makes no secret of this, saying its purpose is to “further America’s interest while improving lives in the developing world” (emphasis added).
The Kennedy administration created USAID in 1961, and since then the agency has been the proving ground of US foreign assistance objectives. It has been proven that countries rotating onto the UN Security Council received on average 59% more aid. As soon as their term ended, aid would fall to historic lows (Kuziemko and Werker, 2006). In a related study, T.Y. Wang (1999) found that UN voting patterns on vital issues to American interests were successfully swayed through the practice of aid giving, rewarding compliance and punishing political defiance. NGO’s are often bound to these funding streams, making the name “non-governmental” seem quite unusual given their actual reliance on western government aid.
Youthful Idealism: From impetus for revolt to marketing technique
These contemporary practices often coexist with NGO branding which promotes the role of western young people as “change-agents”, not only in their own societies, but across the entire world (Biehn, 2014). This is a legacy of the origin of NGO’s, especially in Canada, which grew out of attempts to neutralize the new anti-war left during the Pearson and Trudeau Sr. years. Many now-mainstream NGO’s such as CUSO, mostly composed of youth and students, were highly critical of the Vietnam war, and openly criticized the politicization of food aid by Canada as part of the Cold War. These organizations were lured by the relative tolerance of Pearson and Trudeau Sr.’s foreign policy, leading eventually to their institutionalization (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). CUSO was absorbed through a government coup of its board of directors, which ripped control of the organization away from its volunteers, while organizations like the Inter-Church Council (now KAIROS), had their funding slashed for criticizing neoliberal structural adjustment (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012a), the beginning of “funding discipline” as a technique for maintaining NGO’s as part of the imperialist nexus.
The idea that NGO’s were an expression of youthful change-making, however, was preserved, pivoted to neoliberal ends. Biehn (2014) scrutinizes this, demonstrating how recruitment messaging directed at potential volunteers enforces neoliberal, capitalist understandings of the problem of and potential solutions to global inequalities. Problems are thus decontextualized and depoliticized. The messages reinforce a desired image of the Western youth as a powerful actor, an impetus for change, and an inspiration (Biehn, 2014).
One of the organizations Biehn uses as a case study is International Student Volunteers (ISV). I had a colleague working on a research project with ISV, which we discussed. She was quick to express her frustration with the organization being dominated by a particular milieu of people, what I would call the professional-managerial stratum along with a particularly involved section of the liberal bourgeoisie. These “white and privileged” (her words) families dominated ISV much to her frustration (her project was to find ways to increase the diversity of ISV volunteers). In hindsight, I would argue this is to be expected, as Biehn points out, ISV-style volunteerism is a noteworthy instrument for reproducing the orientation and allegiance of Global North professionals with imperialism.
Similarly, I had peers embark on various humanitarian trips, usually ranging from one to two weeks, to Haiti immediately following and a few years after the earthquake. These trips, usually financed by a combination of Foundation sponsorship, NGO collaboration, and church-based fundraising, consisted of typical volunteerism – building cheap churches, schoolhouses, etc. Looking back, it is fascinating to me that none of these students reported back anything of the political unrest and popular resentment of Haiti in their glossy presentations once they returned home, and enthusiastically accepted the presence of US marines on the island without question. The sheltering of the future young professionals and aspirant bourgeoisie whilst providing them an “authentic” experience of aid and poverty, helps create the conscious ignorance which characterizes the transnational capitalist class (Biehn, 2014; McGoey, 2012).
South-South cooperation and the urgency of Solidarity
If any more evidence was required to demonstrate that Oxfam and similar NGO’s are part of the imperialist establishment, consider that Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of Oxfam, appeared at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Ostensibly, Oxfam was there to represent the voices of “ordinary people” to the global conference of oligarchs and elites, though as Marc Wergerif (2018) points out, no one asked them to speak for them. The assumption by Oxfam that it speaks for “ordinary people” is undercut by its actual collaboration with US imperialism and the transnational capitalist class and its failure to actually advocate solid propositions of popular organizations like La Via Campesina peasants’ coalition, or the Bolivarian social movements, or god forbid movements in the Global South organizing more explicitly for sovereignty against imperialism, such as the Syrian reconciliation movement.
Furthermore, why should a transnational foundation, run mostly by cosmopolitan professionals from the Global North and a handful of compradors, speak for “ordinary people” as a homogenized mass, and not their national representatives? Wergerif says it will be popular practices and movements that will provide the solutions for global challenges, not the schemes of agencies like Oxfam. One should note that as US imperialism continues to experience an economic and strategic decline, its beneficiaries are increasingly desperate to portray its maintenance as humanitarian, internationalist, and benevolent in nature. Meanwhile, we can see an increasing trend towards South-South cooperation in the form of Latin American integration and Chinese partnerships with Africa and the Bolivarian states, anti-EU groundswell in the form of Brexit, and a general working-class rage catapulting both right and left forces to prominence in the Global North. As Wergeif says, these “people’s everyday practices” have done much more to unravel the foundations of systematic inequality than the docile managers at Oxfam could accomplish. What directions these anti-systemic trends will take remains to be seen, but it is certain that they will increasingly delegitimize NGO’s as vehicles for social change.
Barry-Shaw, Nikolas and Dru Oja Jay. 2012b. Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Press.
Biehn, Tristan. 2014. “Who Needs Me Most? New Imperialist Ideologies in Youth-Centred Volunteer Abroad Programs” in The New Imperialism, Volume 4: Good Intentions, Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Edited by Maximilian C. Forte. Montréal, QC: Alert Press, 77-87.
Engler, Yves. 2015. Canada in Africa: 300 years of aid and exploitation. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Press.
Forgie, Keir. 2014. “US Imperialism and Disaster Capitalism in Haiti” in The New Imperialism, Volume 4: Good Intentions, Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Edited by Maximilian C. Forte. Montréal, QC: Alert Press, 57-75.
Forte, Maxmillian C. 2015. “Introduction to Force Multipliers: Imperial Instrumentalism in Theory and Practice” in The New Imperialism, Vol. 5: Force Multipliers: The Instrumentalities of Imperialism. Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 1-87.
“They seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see in poverty, but their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it… the proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”
(Oscar Wilde on philanthropists, quoted in Global Justice Now, 2016. Emphasis added.)
Perhaps the most critical analysis of modern philanthropic foundations available to the wider public is a report by the UK pressure group Global Justice Now. Their reportGated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good? (2016), which provides a damning assessment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMG for short), received little attention in the mainstream media, apart from an article in the UK paper The Independent. The article summarizes the Global Justice report as saying that the Gates Foundation promotes neoliberal economic policies and “corporate globalization” in service of its allies and funders, including major transnationals, agricultural companies, and pharmaceuticals.
Given the Gates Foundations’ significant investments in ExxonMobil, Dutch Shell, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and McDonald’s, and its significant ownership of pharmaceutical intellectual property (McGoey, 2012), Global Justice’s claim deserves more attention than it has been given by the media. The Gates Foundation purports itself to be at the forefront of improving quality of life in the Global South, yet invests in some of the largest transnationals involved in destructive resource extraction and exploitative labour practices throughout the world, to say nothing of Microsoft’s own exploitative, neoliberal growth schemes (Microsoft is one of the largest funders of the Gates Foundation besides Warren Buffett and the Gates themselves), which provided the surplus wealth necessary to create such a massive philanthropic enterprise.
The Gates Foundation is often seen as the global vanguard of what its proponents call “philanthrocapitalism” – the application of business strategies to the distribution of charity and aid through philanthropic organizations. Such a strategy and ideological fixation has recently come under criticism, even by the “cautious fans” of philanthropic organizations, pointing out how profit-maximizing logics when applied to international development often result in shortsightedness (Youde, 2013; Edwards, 2009)
Looking at history, it is clear that this is by design, rather than by accident. Birn (2014) provides a historical comparison between the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Both foundations have been significant in shaping the development of global health policy, operating on similar models, which the Rockefeller Foundation pioneered and the Gates Foundation claims to innovate upon. Thus, the contemporary hype around “philanthrocapitalism” is more of a re-brand of old-fashioned oligarchic foundations rather than anything substantially new. Both Gates and Rockefeller disbursed charity strategically, as way to secure their for-profit companies’ investments, fend off radical alternatives, and promote development strategies which keep recipients dependent on their aid and their products.
It is difficult sometimes for the public to imagine philanthropic foundations, which spend lots on public relations emphasizing the selfless “good” their work does, are actually doing harm or advancing private interests. I myself remember growing up in an environment saturated with stories of the benevolence of Bill Gates, “the billionaire who wants to give it all away”. Gates in those days, and to an extent still does today, possessed a veneration as a kind of philosopher-king, making it somewhat unthinkable to question in decent company why this one individual should have more wealth than the GDPs of forty-five countries. This is consistent with the capitalist moral ethos which Linsey McGoey (2014), an expert in philanthropic foundations, says that philanthropy helps reinforce.
Yet this humanitarian morality, what Maximillian Forte calls “moral narcissism” (2012), hardly stands up to examination. After all, as the Global Justice Now report points out, the practices of the BMG Foundation are consistently part of a strategy to bolster the investments of its funders and those companies it holds shares in. Funds and resources are often disbursed not to the poorest of the world’s population, but to countries and populations that the BMG can expect a return from (Global Justice Now, 2016). Furthermore, similar programs could easily be funded through state revenue acquired by taxing such large personal fortunes as that of the Gates and Buffets, thus private, unelected actors are taking over what was historically the responsibility of democratic, sovereign state formations (Global Justice Now, 2016; St.-Pierre, 2014). Such philanthropic elites often circumvent their obligations to their fellow citizens in the form of taxes through elaborate tax evasion schemes, such as those uncovered by the Paradise Papers.
Biopower and “Compassionate” Biological Imperialism
“Each of these two über-powerful foundations [Rockefeller and Gates] emerged at a critical juncture in the history of international/global health. Each was started by the richest, most ruthless and innovative capitalist of his day” (Birn, 2014)
The use of philanthropic foundations towards the insurance of capitalist ends is particularly evident in global health governance, a sector itself pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller’s motivation for establishing global health as a humanitarian sector was primarily driven by his desire to stave off criticism of his business practices and combat the rise of militant labor unions and radical socialist organizers within his US workforces, especially after armed guards massacred striking workers at a Rockefeller-owned mine (Birn, 2014; Youde, 2013). The Rockefeller Foundation represented the entrenchment of philanthropy, as opposed to church charity, which explicitly understood itself as being a defensive investment in alleviating suffering among the masses to forestall said masses from taking issues into their own hands.
Michel Foucault described biopower as “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (1976) pursued by states and the administrators of various capitalist power structures. In the case of global health governance, the “bio” in biopower is quite literal. The BMG, in continuation of its predecessor the Rockefeller Foundation, is one of the largest players in global health governance, policy, and research development today. It is the second-largest funder of the World Health Organization, second only to the United States government, and owns most of the HIV/AIDS research being conducted in the world today, leading to increasing concern among the scientific community about the independence, accountability, neutrality and purposes of HIV research being conducted (Birn, 2014). Meanwhile, Brazil and India were both served lawsuits for subsidizing the manufacture of cheap, no-name HIV and Malaria treatments (St-Pierre, 2014).
Further exercise of oligarchic-imperialist biopower by Gates Foundation includes reproductive health aid and in agricultural reform, pushing alarming agendas. Research shows that the BMG’s promotion of genetically modified seeds has served as an instrument to displace Indian peasants, as intellectual property ownership over seed DNA is given priority over traditional land rights. Meanwhile, concerns have emerged that Gates Foundation-funded hospitals and medical facilities are performing forced sterilizations and other non-consensual population control operations on African women as part of BMG’s reproductive health programs.
Africa: The Philanthropic Playground
Nowhere is this philanthropic power-grabbing most pronounced than on the African continent. After all, it is usually African children, African cities, and African landscapes that are used as props for philanthropic advertising, a sadistic showcase of desperation if there ever was one. The BMG is of course active in creating these “poverty porn” productions, but these visual manifestations of imperial humanitarianism also enlist the talents of celebrities, such as U2’s Bono, who readily embrace the “private sector” as a solution to “Africa’s problems”. Nowhere do these philanthropists indict colonialism, imperialism, or neo-colonialism in Africa for contributing to the continent’s many problems, because this of course would indict them and their own enterprises in perpetuating Africa’s status as a vast dependency.
The “concern” generated by such imagery, and the push for “innovative” solutions aggrandized by them, is mobilized selectively. For example, Mozambique’s public healthcare system, dubbed a model for the developing world, was gutted after the fall of the USSR (Mozambique’s main financier and ally) and USAID support was redirected to be filtered through NGO’s and Private-Public Partnerships (P3’s), some overseen and lobbied for by the BMG. P3 hospitals poached Mozambique doctors away from the public service with promises of higher salaries, eventually causing the public health system to completely implode, and for health services in Mozambique to be operated primarily by private actors (St-Pierre, 2014). This is consistent with Global Justice Now’s accusation of promoting “corporate globalization” (2016) – using aid as an instrument to force the privatization of robust public services, transforming them into profitable commodities for sale with captive markets of desperate citizens looking for adequate health services.
One should also scrutinize the positions of humanitarian imperialists like Bill and Melinda Gates about issues not immediately within their sphere of influence. The language of humanitarian imperialism has existed quite comfortably for some time now in the circles of militarists and interventionists overseeing US imperialism’s operations on the African continent. It was the same humanitarian imperialist discourse of “saving” that was used in the US-NATO intervention in Libya (Forte, 2012), which after months of indiscriminate bombing and support for jihadi terrorist organizations, resulted in the looting of that countries oil and mineral wealth and the absolute collapse of Libyan society. The fall of Libya’s pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist oriented government also created a power vacuum quickly filled by the US African Command (AFRICOM), which is now waging wars throughout the continent. Given that statistically speaking, wealthy Americans are the demographic most likely to support foreign military interventions abroad, and often lobby for such interventions, it would not be ridiculous to suspect that philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates were quite pleased with the Obama administration’s interventionist strategy in Libya, and the subsequent expansion of AFRICOM, seeing it all as part of the West’s great humanitarian project. A 21st-century white man’s burden.
While the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are perhaps the most obvious culprit given their foundation’s massive size, one should not let other foundations like the Clinton Foundation, the Trump Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, or new entrants like the Zuckerberg Foundation, off the proverbial hook. It should be evident that philanthropic foundations, being extensions of capitalism and of the financial and political dominance of capitalists, operate according to the rules of profit-maximization and continued accumulation by dispossession. Far from being passive entities in this process, they are often its active architects and thus deserve to be regarded and scrutinized in the same way any for-profit corporation performing similar roles should be.
Birn, Anne-Emmanuelle, 2014. “Philanthrocapitalism, past and present: The Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the setting(s) of the international/ global health agenda.” Hypothesis Vol. 12, no.1: 1-27.
Edwards, Michael. 2009. “Why ‘philanthrocapitalism’ is not the answer: private initiatives and international development” in M. Kremer et al., eds., Doing Good or Doing Better: Development Policies in a Globalising World, 237-250.
Forte, Maximillian. 2012. Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Africa and Libya. Montreal, QC: Baraka Books.
Foucault, Michel. 1976. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1. Paris, FR: Editions Gallimard.
Global Justice Now. 2016. Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?
St-Pierre, Emile. 2014. “Iatrogenic Imperialism: NGOs and CROs as Agents of Questionable Care” in Maximilian C. Forte, ed. The New Imperialism, Volume 4. Good Intentions: The Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 37-55.
Youde, Jeremy. 2013. “The Rockefeller and Gates Foundations in Global Health Governance.” Global Society Vol. 27, no. 2: 139-158.
Theresa Miller (Postdoctoral Fellow, Smithsonian Institution) spoke with Jeremy Campbell (Associate Professor, Roger Williams University) about his recent book on political economy in formation in the Brazilian Amazon.
As an “ethnography of political economy in formation” (p. xiii), your book stands out in its focus on the temporality and dynamism of property and the state for settlers in Western Amazonia, concepts that are often categorized as fixed or static. Could this approach be applied to other contexts of settler colonialism throughout the world, or do you think the political economy in formation in western Pará state is unique to that particular context?
Political economies are constantly taking shape, so the study of one “in formation” can be attempted in nearly infinite contexts, contemporary or historic. The challenge is in crafting the boundaries of study: what, exactly, is subject to creative labors and thus taking shape in interesting and impactful ways? In rural Amazonia, property (itself a cornerstone of political economy) is the focus of ideological and material labors for colonists and the state, so there exists an opportunity to track, in real time, the contradictions and surprises that attend to its creation. I think that paying attention to property’s arrival in the hands of colonists—those who have no official backing but who aspire to incorporate themselves and “their” lands into the economy of a nation-state—sheds light on the broader dynamics of settler colonialism. So often the story of landed property’s creation is occluded from the histories that settler colonial states tell themselves—try asking the typical American about the Yazoo land frauds, for example—that I thought it crucial to document the violence, fraud, and confusion through which this mundane cornerstone of social life emerges. Property and the state are always dynamic; much can be learned from seeing them as moving in our analysis, rather than fixed.
Your book centers on the “world-making qualities of property,” as you put it: “how it comes into existence as an institution to order territorial, social, and even historical relations between the colonists who are active agents in its creation” (pp. 18-19). Would you say that your book engages with the recent “ontological turn” in anthropology? If so, would you say that your approach deals with the recent critiques of the “ontological turn” (Bessire and Bond 2014) that maintain it often lacks attention to history and political economy?
I suppose that it’s hard to be an anthropologist these days and not take a position on the ontology debates (though it does seem to be a dust-up that is winding its way towards familiar impasses). But as an Amazonianist, there is nothing either novel or controversial about “the ontological turn.” For nearly thirty years, the key points of this perspective have been discussed, elaborated, and critiqued, perhaps resulting in the feeling among Amazonianists that an ontological approach is, like a feminist or a Foucauldian or a Marxian approach, a set of tools that may or may not be appropriate for a given intellectual task. Amazonian anthropologists—excited as any anthropologists are about the novelty of ontological precepts—have had more time to domesticate them, to find room for them in the cluttered toolbox. In my view, what’s been so breathlessly exciting about the turn is this: since its inception, anthropology has been premised on the idea that there are multiple ways to see and interact with the (singular) world; the ontological turn insists that in fact multiple worlds exist, and that the task of the anthropologist is to translate across the boundaries of worlds that have altogether distinct natures. This is an interesting provocation, but I agree that it can be difficult to see the politics of such an approach (as Bessire and Bond 2014 contend, and as Ramos 2012 does even more forcefully in an Annual Review article). In my effort to understand property speculation in Amazonia, the idea of property as a world-making institution was important, since it seems to me so self-evident that property—both as a concept and a set of material and habitual practices—is infrastructural to the day-to-day operations of the world. Or, if you like, any given world, since I have no need to forestall the possibility of multiple, ontologically divergent worlds.
During fieldwork, however, it became abundantly clear that colonists were engaging property in an effort to make a world that would be recognizable to and eventually subsumed by the already extant world of the Brazilian nation-state. So even though it makes some sense to say that Amazonian colonists inhabit a different world from residents of Rio de Janeiro or Belém, the categories governing what is real are broadly shared among these groups. Colonists are aspiring to join what they perceive to be the modern Brazil that has left them behind or betrayed them, and although property is wildly unstable and generative, all concerned see property as a means to “settling” the universe of possibilities into a singular one in lockstep with Brazilian norms. It’s at this point that the ontological approach hits an analytic dead end when it comes to my material. My point is to show how property does not pre-exist the labors that bring it into existence, and that if we pay attention to these labors we can understand how productive the instability of categories that are often taken for granted (class, gender, territory, and history) can be. This then enables a critique—and a politics—in which we can gauge to what extent terms (like “sustainable development”) and actors (e.g. colonists, the state) circulate, proliferate, and create stark inequalities and power imbalances. I am sympathetic to the point that political economic norms—which are the focus of my work, showing how they stabilize out of fits and starts and reversals in one particular place, over time—themselves constitute a particular way of being in and generating knowledge about the world. In other words, the concept of divisible and salable property may be construed as constitutive of an ontology that pulls individual persons out of the networks of energy and matter that sustain and create them, networks that could be (and are) understood and occupied with a radically different set of terms and habits. But here’s the point: Amazonian colonists are yearning to be so pulled out of what, for them, is the messy and indeterminate mash up of territories and claims that lack order; they already see the forest like the state does (or “like it should,” in the words of one settler), and not in the same manner as the Amerindians who Viveiros de Castro, Descola, and others have made famous as the exemplars of ontologically-divergent practice. Rather than engaging the ontological question—which generates only a shallow or obvious answer in the case of property dynamics in Amazonia—I erred on the side of staying close to the trouble, and tried to grapple with how property conjuring fuels inequality and environmental destruction.
Throughout the book there is an emphasis on the creation of boundaries, borders, and lines to support overlapping, contingent, and in many cases fraudulent property claims. As you maintain, frontiers are emergent as “world-making cultural objects” (p. 30). Yet settlers, both grandes and pequenos, are in a constant process of attempting to solidify the boundaries they have created through government approval and regularization. How do you reconcile this apparent contradiction between the reality of boundaries always in formation and contested, and the “ideal” of fixed boundaries that settlers pursue?
The relationship is fundamentally dialectical. In rural Amazonia, the law—the status of being recognized as in keeping with formal regulations—only takes shape through foundational acts which are illegal, illicit, and opportunistic. I don’t think this is unique to my field site, by the way. In Amazonia, part of the problem is that there have been so many distinct policies and regulations governing and encouraging colonization of the region. Colonists thus believe their actions have the force of law even if contradictory regulations also exist. Another factor is the relative weakness of the federal government in Brazil in terms of material presence in rural communities: there are no courts, few police, and all land registry offices are actually private businesses. Yet, in another sense, government is everywhere, in that colonists are working to bring about structures—property foremost among them—that will be acknowledged and regulated by the state in the future. The boundaries that these colonists cut through the forest, and the title documents they confect to their bolster claims, are real and impactful acts, but they are also notional expressions, speculation as to what might be recognizable as legal in the future.
There’s a great phrase that I heard often in Pará, and which gives a sense of how colonists think about the mercurial quality of law: “se a lei pega,” or “if the law sticks.” Colonists are aware of the letter of the law—and as I said, there are often contradictory precepts in law anyway. But colonists also understand, on a practical level, that law is a social construct that can be shifted in meaning and application. I heard “if the law sticks” often as colonists discussed new land regularization policies emerging from far-off Brasilia. The phrase reveals how the new law might not “stick,” and opens the possibility that policies might be able to be molded to “fit” preexisting practices. It’s at this moment that we see colonists as active agents in turning illicit and speculative activities into the settled and predictable ones that form the basis of political economy and become routinized as law. They are not trying to evade law, to get away with something without getting caught. They recognize, rather, that different governmental plans have come and gone, have been more or less “sticky,” and that this represents an opportunity to be creative in anticipating and trying to shape what comes next.
Your ethnography is incredibly nuanced in its ability to show the unequal yet overlapping realities of “conjuring property” for both small-scale, poor settlers (pequenos) and landed elites (grandes). Can you describe in more detail how you came to approach writing the book without falling into the common trope of victims and villains (p. 23)? In addition, how have you been able to conduct research with individuals from both groups who are often at odds with one another?
I find the victims/villains trope a bit cartoonish and ultimately unhelpful for the task of taking colonists’ lives seriously in Amazonia. Within anthropology, it has sometimes been fashionable to see colonists as demons of one shape or another, with the harshest opprobrium reserved for loggers and ranchers. I was curious to know how these very “villains” saw the world, to be sure, but I was also interested in telling the overlooked story of land-grabbing and speculation. Often, land-grabbers (grileiros) and the “big guy” (grandes) ranchers or loggers are one and the same, and if that were the whole story I’d certainly measure these folks for villainous garb. But property conjuring exerts a centripetal force in colonial Amazonia, drawing in small famers and landless workers (pequenos) as well. Though smallholders did not have the sophisticated document-forging capacities of their grande counterparts—nor did they have connections with dubious real estate firms in southern Brazil which sold land to third parties illegally—pequenos also crafted methods to claim property without official sanction from the state. Though the game was lopsided in favor of grandes from the start, pequenos co-opted elements of socio-environmentalism to take possession of land and anticipate that it would be deeded to them. This is clearly shady stuff too—maybe even villainous—but if we stop the analysis here, no texture or distinction is possible. People are so often more complicated than the one-dimensional props that we use to animate our stories. Furthermore, I feel that any principled defense of indigenous Amazonians’ land rights—a defense that I am directly engaged in and morally in favor of—needs to understand the outlooks and methods of those colonists that are, very rapidly, coming to speak for Amazonian forests as wholly-owned parcels of private property. The steps between terra nullius and deforested ranchlands are many, the set of characters is diverse, and the stakes for Amazonian peoples and places are too high for shoddy social analysis.
It took a lot of time, and many false starts, before I gained sufficient trust of both grandes and pequenos. I was a suspicious character—why would a North American be living in a colonial outpost unless he worked for the CIA or was a spy for an arch-enemy type (insert Greenpeace or any other prominent environmental organization here; I was called ‘em all). Grandes were doubly skeptical of my motives, since I first arrived in the region through contacts with the landless workers’ union. As I explain in the book, though, the line between pequeno and grande dissolved in moments of crisis—when both sides felt that the land claims they had curated would be rejected entirely by the state. Parties on both sides collaborated and colluded, and many were happy to have a researcher documenting what they were up to. It was another potential source of validation—we’re here, see, this guy is writing about us! I think that, over time, the people with whom I worked allowed their suspicions of me to subside (though I’m not sure that the elites ever truly let them go), since I was, for good or ill, sticking around. Anyone who has done research in Amazonia can attest that “researcher” (pesquisador) can be a difficult label to bear, and can muck up relationships before they’re even able to materialize. There are important reasons for this suspicion, and it is also important to recognize the considerable differences between, say, the suspicion of researchers exhibited by indigenous peoples concerned with how “research” can be marshalled to take away their lands and, on the other hand, the suspicion of land-grabbers towards researchers who might reveal their scheming. In my experience, the most potent feeling for settlers in Western Pará was one of being willfully misunderstood by outsiders, conveniently villainized when not altogether forgotten. My prolonged presence in Castelo de Sonhos activated these concerns. Interviews ended abruptly, people gave me the cold shoulder, and I spent close to a year on repeat, explaining myself, sometimes to amazed disbelief. But unlike other researchers who may have passed through the village or stayed for a week or two, I simply didn’t leave. I realize now that I was incredibly lucky to not have been chased out! So, for many people, I think I became the guy who was going to tell their story. I hope I did it justice.
The book is also unique in its sustained focus on fraud – through doctoring paperwork to make it appear older, forging picada border trails, violence and intimidation, and the interesting system of laranjas, wherein grandes use the names of pequenos to register land parcels that they actually own, initiating a system of essentially debt peonage (pp. 74-75). How did you come to discover these different types of fraud during your extensive fieldwork?
Again, it took a lot of time and many errors on my part to uncover how property conjuring works in practice. I know for sure that, without the backing of a well-liked radio DJ who doubled as a self-styled community activist, I would never have made the progress I did. This DJ was friendly with both grande ranchers and pequeno workers, and also had a keen understanding of the local economy. Gold and lumber had each boomed and busted by the time I arrived in Castelo de Sonhos, and understanding the remnants of these economic activities—the firms and workers and dreams left behind—provided crucial context for understanding the rise of property speculation and land grabbing. One of the most shocking things to me was that, after about a year or so of establishing rapport (I spent nearly three years in the field), my timid questions about land fraud were not met with anger or denial as I expected. Rather, informants responded with detailed descriptions of how fraud was actually carried out—the document forging, trail management, illicit sales and phony registrations. Everyone was really open about land fraud, since they figured (correctly) that just about everyone else was doing it too.
Despite the surprising frankness about property games, there were still several vexing puzzles that took me years to figure out. The laranja scheme, in which grandes use the good names of pequenos or other third parties to consolidate massive properties for the grande, was particularly difficult to understand. Only when I discovered multiple examples of grandes “giving” land to pequenos—properties that the latter thought were theirs but which lacked any reliable documentation—did I finally piece together how it all worked. I had to learn how to listen to grandes and pequenos from where each sat in a patron-client network; descriptions of land claims might change depending on who was in the room and who was in debt to whom.
You mention that women often held positions of authority in certain settlers’ movements such as the Rural Worker’s Union (STR; p. 87). Could you elaborate on the role of women in the practices of conjuring property? For example, do women ever take on the role of cutting picada trails?
I never observed women involved in cutting trails (picadas) through the woods to mark property limits. In truth, though, this is but one technique for making property “show up” to others in rural Amazonia. Women do walk property lines as a means of surveying whether other trails have been cut—and they often do this in mixed-gender groups. But far from the trails that define claimed parcels, women are deeply involved in other techniques of property conjuring, which include the falsification of deeds and the curation of intricate chains of title, receipts of sale or mortgage, and the like. Women and men alike do this sort of paper-making labor. Women also, it should be noted, do most of the food-production and other domestic labors that sustain colonial outposts in Amazonia. But what I found most at odds with the typical gendered division of labor is also what I think is most important about the question of gender in conjuring property: more often than not, it was women who were leaders in linking property claimants along, and even across, class lines. This was true for pequenos—the most effective leaders of landless worker organizations were all women—and for grandes, among whom women were most likely to organize meetings or to propose and discuss strategies. Women in rural Amazonian colonial settlements are the key entrepreneurs—this term is imprecise, but gets at both the leadership roles women took on and the considerable risk they were willing to bear when coordinating, for example, across class lines. We see this most clearly in the “paper settlements scandal” (described in Chapter 4), when smallholder farmer associations colluded with powerful loggers to take possession of agrarian reform settlements for the purpose of profiting off of logging the forests. Women leaders negotiated that “deal” on both sides of the pequeno/grande divide. Why this would be the case—why women would be the most effective and creative coalition-builders when it comes to the Brazilian “settling” colonial frontier—is a question of huge importance, though unfortunately beyond the scope of the book.
Your application of Tim Ingold’s (2000) concept of “sentient ecology” to describe working on conjuring property in the local landscape (pp. 78-79) was quite interesting, especially because Ingold’s theories on environmental knowledge are typically applied to indigenous or other “traditional” communities. Would you say that the “sentient ecology” of cutting picada trails can be applied to all settlers, or is this more of an expert knowledge acquired by certain people?
Intimate knowledge of forests is acquired by those who first “mexer com terra” (“mess with land”) among Amazonian colonists. This includes those who cut picada boundary trails and people who patrol these trails or scout out new territories for land-grabbing. Knowledge of soils and forest fauna is also acquired by homesteading farmers who emigrate to the region with little capital and no experience with the Amazonian biome. So this knowledge is hard-won, though even a colonist-made-knowledgeable through experience in the forest is not guaranteed to be a successful colonist. Ingold’s idea of “sentient ecology” seemed apt because, as colonists learned to read, use, and move through an alien environment they also came to understand how their actions—cutting trails, setting fires, and opening farms—were messages that other forces (human and non-human) could decipher and respond to. Making a move on land—by sending a message with a trail or with a homestead—was always riddled with the risk of failure: environmental conditions could doom a farm, a wildfire could swallow up a homestead, and an ill-timed opening of a new boundary trail could be met with violent reprisals from a neighbor. Listening to one’s surroundings—and “speaking” intelligently so that your actions might incur less risk—became crucial skills for self-styled pioneers.
However, this “sentient ecology” seems only to be an important circuit of careful listening-acting-speaking for those who initially “mexer com terra,” the very first to open up homesteads and boundary trails. Maintaining these labors requires careful skill and attention, but the very point of these activities is to settle and civilize the territory. Which is to say, those who learn to listen to and engage with an alien environment are simultaneously fiercely dedicated to diminishing the utility of these newly acquired skills. Speculators, ranchers, and other colonists who move to Pará after some semblance of colonial territoriality has been established need not acquire the skills necessary to walk or “read” a boundary trail, or to find cultivars that grow in Amazonian soils. These later arrivals still must learn skills, but they are coming into a country already transformed enough to resemble, at least aspirationally or proleptically, the industrial agricultural lands of Brazil’s south and center-west.
Settlers are constantly reshaping history through forging property documents, and as you convincingly argue, are living “proleptically” (p. 129) – representing themselves as inhabitants of the land before they actually were. Can you elaborate further on this interesting concept of settler prolepsis? Do you think it could be applied to other contexts of settler colonialism as well?
I do see prolepsis as having greater analytical purchase beyond land dealings, and far beyond the lowland South America context I explore. In my use of the term, prolepsis gets at how people attempt to occupy a rhetorical stance that inoculates them from criticism. It’s a kind a preemptive changing of the script, a prophylaxis against counter-arguments. The temporal effect of this is what I wanted to show in Conjuring Property: prolepsis has effect of sowing things back in time that didn’t really happen, as a way of blunting an anticipated criticism. As in rhetoric or debate: “I was already anticipating your thought…so here’s how you were always wrong about the matter…” In Amazonian land disputes, the “already” is entailed with how colonists narrate the past, whereas the anticipation is oriented towards what the state might ratify as viable claims on land at some point in the future. To prolept the state’s moves (and those of other potential claimants) is to guess what future regulations might dictate about the historical profile of viable claims. That is, a claimant has to be ready to fit with what will be considered lawful occupation of the place at a given time in the past and under certain conditions. To prepare their claims, colonists make their forged deeds look older than they really are, but they also assume the rhetorical stance of being already owners, already old and established in this place, even though they are anything but. It’s a political tactic meant to bend the regularization process towards honoring colonists’ claims. At base, prolepsis tries to turn into a fait accompli something that is still very much subject to dispute and interpretation by removing it—in this case property and its legitimate establishment in time—from the realm of debate. I do think there is something specific and important to how faits accomplis are “weaponized” in lowland South America as a cultural-cum-political style. Using prolepsis, ranchers and loggers can anticipate and deflect environmental regulations by making themselves into environmentalists, as I show in the book and as is happening in Peru, Ecuador, and Paraguay, far from the western Pará case. But I imagine that the rhetorical stance of being “already with the program” would be recognizable to scholars and activists working in resource frontiers throughout the world. In the end, prolepsis is a strategy for speaking about resources in a way that naturalizes their ownership by particular parties—the details can differ, but the end result is to forestall debate about whether such resources should indeed be owned at all.
What was perhaps most surprising in the book was the settlers, both grandes and pequenos, co-opting the language of Brazilian socio-environmentalism for their own purposes, seen especially in the argument that “production” (ranching, logging, farming) was akin to “protecting” the environment (pp. 140-141, 153). As you state, this co-optation ended the era of socio-environmentalism projects in the region, that only lasted for 2 years (2006-2008). Do you think that settlers would respond to environmentalist projects differently in the future, especially if pursued differently by outsiders?
My current work with indigenous peoples engaged in anti-dam activism in the Tapajós Valley has brought me at the question of territorial disputes from a slightly different vantage, only to see similar things. Miners, ranchers, and loggers have persistently tried to cloak their activities in the trappings of sustainable development. They also hardly hide their efforts to shape land use policy through direct manipulation of government entities at the local, state, and federal levels. Activities like mining, ranching, and logging need a lot of land to generate profits, and the vast majority of land in Amazonia falls under a federal- or state- protective designation. National forests are a great example: these are protected lands that are open to logging and mining (and, in some cases, even ranching) provided that the “producer” has a land-use protocol approved by the state. Big businesses—Brazilian and foreign—are best situated to develop these protocols, and it is precisely these firms that are attracted to the region due to the low start-up costs of doing “productive” activities in greenfield sites as opposed to buying up land that has already been deforested. So the last obstacle for well-capitalized firms to work in the region is appearing to be respectful of the environment. This is greenwashing for the sake of government types and for local settler communities, who constitute a labor reserve for such “productive” projects. These laborers need to be “equipped” to see themselves as environmentally-conscious miners, ranchers, or loggers. In this rendering, environmental engagement is turned into something very specific: a way to speak about territories so as to commoditize them. And everyone from capital to labor to the state is in on the farce of “sustainable development,” making the role of environmental organizations and activist (like the ones I discuss in Chapters 4 and 5) all the more difficult in the Brazilian Amazon.
It’s also important to note that this nature-as-commodity logic emerges not in the absence of regulations or as the result of conflicts about the meaning of environmental protection. Rather, the very regulations posit that the way to protect the environment is to sell it. Outside firms, government agencies, and the vast majority of colonial settlers come to a sort of negotiated settlement that free markets will ensure profits, preservation, and the establishment of law and order on the frontier. Smallholders and native communities are often subject to divide-and-conquer techniques as developers try to win locals to their cause; many of these locals then speak, in their own terms but in ways that parrot the greenwashers, a version of market environmentalism. The tragic results of this dividing-and-conquering can be seen in the case of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Complex, in the Xingu Valley just to the east of where I work (see Laura Zanotti’s  and Eve Bratman’s  great work on this case). So, no, I’m not hopeful that colonist populations will respond differently to future environmental projects in the region; these communities understand their “productive” work to be already green, in both senses of the word.
You conclude the book with some indication of what may lie ahead in land-grabbing in Western Pará, especially as Brazilian governmental policy shifts toward the market-driven “environmental governance” (p. 158-159). Could you speculate further here on the future of settlers’ future-oriented speculative accumulation?
I wrote this book to explore a puzzle: Brazil has progressive environmental laws, but bad outcomes. Deforestation has spiked again recently, native peoples’ lands are in peril, and indigenous leaders and environmental activists are in constant danger of assassination. Understanding the disposition of land—who controls it, comes to speak for it, and how rules are selectively marshalled or bent to sure up claims—seemed like crucial things to understand. But I wanted to avoid reductionist or silly tropes that often guide what we think is going on with deforestation or environmental change more generally. So, this is a story about colonialism, and specifically the socio-cultural dimensions of colonialism, the set of habits of mind and daily practices that amount to normalization of destruction and dispossession. I think there are three take-away messages from this sustained examination of property conjuring in Amazonia: first, claims-making is all about the metaphorical emptying of land—of its indigenous histories and ecological networks—so that it might be filled up with property, which both propels and is propelled by a normative faith in “settling the frontier.” Second, the frontier dreams draw so many to Amazonia become ensnared in a system that, by manipulating of the hopes of the poor to own land, actually delivers more land to the rural elite. Property conjuring and land speculation offer hope to the marginalized, but only accelerate environmental destruction and the concentration of wealth. Finally, through all of this we can see that deforestation is not a technical matter of “poor incentives” or a lack of “command and control.” Rather, environmental change is thoroughly tied up with, and a result of, the elaboration of a cultural outlook on land and economy: property is the bridge between these two, but property emerges from the actions and aspirations of people. We need to see those people, and their habits and practices, if we’re ever going to understand what’s going on in Amazonia and work to change it.
Change is possible, and victories can be won. My current work with the Munduruku and their river-dwelling allies (ribeirinhos) in the Tapajós is a case-in-point. These communities were (and remain) threatened by land-grabbers and their allies in government who backed the “development” promised by hydroelectric dams in the region. Among the dams’ backers were Brazil’s powerful agribusiness sector, which sees expansion into Amazonia as crucial for continued profitability in commodity exports (soy chief among them). Add to this an array of smallholders and ranchers who see themselves as “green,” and who describe hydroelectric energy as the clean and responsible way to grow the region. So here is the entire settler machine—its consciousness, proleptic strategies, and tremendous material power—focused on the Tapajós Valley. What chance do the Munduruku and ribeirinhos have? Shockingly, in August (2016), the largest proposed dam in the valley was cancelled due to a judicial suit brought by these traditional communities. The suit—and the well-organized social movement which drove it forward—argued for a different, non-commoditized view of territory and described how this territoriality has sustained differentiated cultures for generations. And they won, at least for now, by entering the space of politics proleptically: they knew their opponents, anticipated their moves, and firmly repudiated them. This victory gives me cautious hope, because it demonstrates that the state can yet be a tool for reigning in the settler ethos and for guaranteeing traditional peoples’ constitutional rights. Such work is difficult, and requires allies within and outside government offices willing to harness, cajole, or embarrass the state to get results, but it can be done.
Dr. Jeremy Campbell has conducted ethnographic research in the Brazilian Amazon since 2005, where he has focused on land conflicts, forest governance schemes, and indigenous rights movements. Campbell teaches at Roger Williams University, where he also coordinates the program in Sustainability Studies. He also serves as a member of the executive board of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA).
Bessire, Lucas and David Bond. 2014. Ontological Anthropology and the Deferral of Critique. American Ethnologist 41(3): 440–456.
Bratman, Eve. 2014. Contradictions of Green Development: Human Rights and Environmental Norms in Light of Belo Monte Dam Activism. Journal of Latin American Studies 46: 261-289. DOI: 10.1017/S0022216X14000042.
Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. New York: Routledge.
Ramos, Alcida. 2012. The Politics of Perspectivism. Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 481-494. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-092611-145950.
Zanotti, Laura. 2015. Water and Life: Hydroelectric Development and Indigenous Pathways to Justice in the Brazilian Amazon. Politics, Groups, and Identities 3(4). DOI: 10.1080/21565503.2015.1080621.
This piece by French theorist and political economist Jacques Sapir, originally posted on his blog in French and republished in Italian by Voci Dal L’estero is now featured in English here on Peripheral Thought. Sapir argues that, in addition to the risks to public health and environmental integrity, The Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA) is a serious violation of the principles of national sovereignty and democracy. The translation below has been edited for clarity.
CETA, a free trade treaty between Canada and the European Union, which finally came into effect on Thursday, September 21, is a striking demonstration of how states have renounced their sovereignty, leaving room for a new law, independent of the law of the states themselves, and not subject to democratic control.
CETA is, on paper, a “free trade treaty”. In reality however, it targets non-tariff regulatory norms that states may adopt, particularly regulations in the field of environmental protection. In this respect, CETA could start start a race to dismantle these protections. Added to this are the dangers deriving from the investment protection mechanism contained in the treaty. CETA creates a protection system for investors between the European Union and Canada, which thanks to the establishment of an arbitration tribunal, will allow them to sue a state (or the European Union) in the case of which a public measure adopted by that State may compromise what the treaty calls “the legitimate earnings gains from the investment”. In other words, the so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clause (or RDIE) is in practice a mechanism for hedging future earnings. And this is a unilateral mechanism: within this framework, no state can, for its part, sue a private enterprise. It is clear therefore that the CETA will put investors in a position to oppose policy measures that are contrary to their interests. This procedure, which is likely to be very expensive for states, will certainly have deterrent effects with a simple process threat. In this respect, let us not forget that following Dow Chemical’s statement of wanting to bring the case to court, Québec was forced to step back on the ban on a substance suspected of being carcinogenic contained in a herbicide marketed by this company.
There are also doubts about reciprocity: it is said that the Treaty opens Canadian markets to European companies, yet the European Union market is already open to Canadian companies. Just look at the disproportion between the populations to understand who will earn what. Beyond this, there is the wider problem of free trade, in particular the interpretation of free trade that emerges from the CETA treaty. At the heart of the treaty are the interests of multinationals, which certainly do not coincide with those of consumers or workers.
The risks represented by CETA therefore concern public health and, without doubt, sovereignty. But even more serious is the threat the treaty poses. At the time of its final vote in the European Parliament, four groups voted against: the Left Front, the environmentalists of ELV, the Socialist Party and the Front National. An alliance perhaps less abnormal than it seems, if one takes into account the problems posed by the treaty. It is instructive to note that it has been rejected by the delegations of three of the five founding countries of the European Economic Community and the second and third largest economies of the Eurozone. Nevertheless, it was ratified by the European Parliament on 15 February 2017, and it is now up to the ratification of individual national parliaments. Nevertheless, it is already considered partially in force before ratification by the national representative bodies. CETA therefore came into force provisionally and partially on 21 September 2017 in regards to aspects concerning the exclusive competence of the EU, with the exclusion for the moment of certain aspects of competing competencies that will need to be voted on by EU member countries , in particular those elements of the treaty dealing with arbitration tribunals and intellectual property. But even despite this, about 90% of the provisions of the agreement are already in force. This is a serious problem of maintaining political democracy. As if this were not enough, even if a country were to tomorrow reject the ratification of CETA, the already in-force aspects of the treaty would still have to remain in effect for another three years.
This is not what is normally understood by the phrase “free trade treaty”. This is a treaty whose purpose is essentially to impose rules adopted by multinationals on individual parliaments of the Member States of the European Union. If one wanted to give a demonstration of the profoundly anti-democratic nature of the EU, this treaty would act as a pinnacle example.
This poses a challenge to the democratic credentials and legitimacy of those who have been advocating the treaty. In France, only one of the candidates for the presidential election, Emmanuel Macron, had declared openly in favor of CETA. Jean-Marie Cavada, one of the treaty’s main supporters, also voted in the European Parliament for the adoption of the Treaty. Thus, in the presidential election, and not for the first time in French history, the so-called “party from the outside“ which in a timely fashion had been denounced by Jacques Chirac from the hospital of Cochin for becoming defenders of the establishment. 
Prior to his appointment as Edouard Philippe’s government minister, Nicolas Hulot had taken a firm stand against CETA. His stay in government, under these conditions, has produced a turnaround. As a Minister of Environmental Transition, he certainly did not regret some last Friday morning on Europe 1. He acknowledged that the evaluation commission appointed by Edouard Philippe in July picked out several potential dangers contained in the treaty. But he also added: “Negotiations have now come to such a point that unless we risk a diplomatic incident with Canada, which we would certainly want to avoid at all costs, it would have been difficult to block ratification”. This is a perfect description of the irreversibility [sic] mechanisms deliberately incorporated in the treaty. Let us not forget, too, that before being appointed Minister of Environmental Transition, the former television presenter had repeatedly stated that CETA was “notcompatible with the climate”. One can imagine how hard that sword was to swallow.
For his part, since his election, Emmanuel Macron has tried to present himself as defender of the planet, answering Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” with his own “Make the Planet Great Again “. He has often reiterated this slogan, both at the United Nations and on his trip to the Antilles after Hurricane Irma. But it can not be ignored that his commitment to CETA and its submission to the European Union environmental rules, which still has delayed on the issue of endocrine disrupters, show that his actions are not ecologically motivated and gestures towards environmental issues are best distasteful public relations performances.
We must have a full awareness of what the application and implementation of CETA means, including the dangers it poses as the national sovereignty, democracy and security of the country.
Jaques Sapiris a graduate of the IEPP in 1976, he supported a postgraduate doctorate on the organization of work in the USSR between 1920 and 1940 (EHESS, 1980) and a Ph.D. in economics, Soviet economy (Paris-X, 1986). He taught macroeconomics and finance at the University of Paris-X Nanterre from 1982 to 1990, and at ENSAE (1989-1996) before joining the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences in 1990. He has been the Director of Studies since 1996 and heads the Center for the Study of Modes of Industrialization (CEMI-EHESS). He has also taught in Russia at the High College of Economics (1993-2000) and at the Moscow School of Economics since 2005.He leads the IRSES research group at the FMSH, where he co-organizes with the Institute of National Economic Forecasting (IPEN-ASR) the Franco-Russian seminar on the financial and monetary problems ofdevelopment in Russia.
[Image:Presencia de América Latina (Presence of Latin America, 1964–65) is a 300 square meters (3,200 sq ft) mural at the hall of the Arts House of the University of Concepción, Chile. It is also known as Latin America’s Integration (Wikimedia Commons)]
The origins of Latin America and the Caribbean as a place involve layers of designations of space and place, forming a lexicon which constructs our mental understanding of the geographies incorporated into “Latin America” and “the Caribbean”. Both of these categories, like other socially constructed geographies such as “Europe” (a product of the emergence of what is now Europe as a center of the capitalist world-system), defy rigidly scientific understandings of geography. Europe is, geologically speaking, a peninsula of Asia, and while Latin America roughly corresponds with South America, Latin American cultural designations extend into North America via Mexico (and even into the United States according to many Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Chicanx nationalist theorists).
Latin America, or more accurately Latinoamerica, is a Spanish European term, later instrumentalized by French imperialism, to justify its presence based on the “Latinaity” of the region, while “Caribbean” is derived from Carib, an indigenous people of the region, but also has a colonial root. During the days of early Spanish rule, racist mythologies made “Carib” and “Cannibal” synonymous in colonial records and cultural memory, and thus the Spanish by designating the region as the “Caribbean”, also designated the entirety of the populations of that region as cannibals (Hulme, 1992).
It is because of these colonial interventions into the social geographies of what we call Latin America and the Caribbean that theorists like Mignolo (2005) call for a rejection of the category of Latin America as a colonialist regional conception forged by Creole elites in collaboration with the Europeans. Mignolo extends this argument saying that the imagining of a “homogenous” Latin America works to “render invisible” indigenous populations of African descent and the Chincanx/Latinx population of the US.
Yet, at least for now, Latin America is still with us as a social-geographic category. But despite of (or maybe because of) its persistence as a category which subsumes so many others, its meaning is constantly contested. Indeed, how could it not be? As Sanabria writes:
“Dozens of countries and territories with half a billion citizens; hundreds of languages spoken; millions of people concentrated in huge megacities, many others living in rural communities; every imaginable ecological niche spread over eight million square miles of land and sea; diverse historical trajectories, some pointing to Africa, some to Europe, and others firmly rooted in the New World; a long history of movement (diasporas) within and across national boundaries; hundreds or thousands of groups with their own self-ascribed, ethnic identity; a multiplicity of overlapping racial types and classifications, far from stable and rooted in biology; widely diverse notions of sexuality and gender relations; dozens of religious traditions and hundreds of diverse rituals, both secular and religious; widely dissimilar ways of construing health and classifying and treating illness; hundreds of different foods and cuisines; dozens of musical and dance traditions; a wide array of secular and religious popular celebrations with African, European, and New World influences—this is Latin America and the Caribbean…yet, what makes this a space or area of study and research? On the basis of which criteria or ideological positions do scholars delimit what is and what is not “Latin America” and the “Caribbean”?” (Sanabria, 2005, p. 17).
In recent years, numerous forces have tapped the diversity that is the conceptual world of Latin America described by Sanabria in order to advance their own visions and agendas. From the US creation of Latin American Studies to advance imperialist interests, to diaspora identity politics discourses, to the emergence of Bolivarianismo as the definitive ideology of the new Latin American left, what is and what will be Latin America is a crucial question for many vested interests.
One of the key battlefields of this contest is history, and pre-Columbian history takes on a special significance in particular. Competing narratives of the pre-colonial and colonial eras inform the legitimacy of various political and cultural worldviews. Thus, the renewed interest in accurate histories of these periods provokes controversy. Mann’s work 1491: The Americas Before Columbus is one such history. An excerpt of his work in The Atlantic (2002) with the same title as his book centers on two of his more interesting contributions, – amalgamations of decades of other research, fieldwork, and debate, – that (1) pre-colonial indigenous populations were numerous, numbering at least in the tens of millions, and (2) indigenous civilizations molded and crafted the ecology of the continent in monumental and lasting ways.
These contributions are significant, though not necessarily unique. Mann cites numerous other theorists and engages in many intimate interactions with them, before proposing is own synthesis. Sanabria (2005), who’s Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean, is intended as a survey text of the discipline, posits many of the same positions as Mann, though in less detail, imply that Mann’s claim that these positions are slowly gaining clout in the mainstream seems to be at least somewhat correct.
Firstly, understanding precolonial populations as vast and numerous helps us conceptualize what exactly colonialism was in a new way. The scale of human suffering and cultural destruction is of holocaust proportions. However, it is my position that Mann’s presentation of the numbers problem is undertheorized. While noting casually the combination of colonial actions and accidental introduction of diseases, Mann fails to analyze how these two forces worked in conjunction to accomplish genocides of indigenous peoples. For example, Mann might note how atrocious working conditions for Aztec slaves in Spanish mines, or the French forceful selling of unsanitized sugar to the Huron, worked to exacerbate plague and epidemic directly in service of colonial economics. In this sense, Mann makes a valuable contribution to a certain extent to our understandings of what happened in colonialism but why it happened is remarkably absent, and worth investigating. Put another way, what anthropologists call power systems and what Marxists call material conditions, is not addressed by Mann.
Mann’s second contribution is theorized more deeply. The idea that the American continents have been meddled with, often in drastic ways, by human activity for centuries before colonial contact is a controversial one. Mann particularly points out that contemporary environmentalists’ understanding of areas like the Amazon rainforest as untamed and untouched wilderness defies the archaeological evidence; Mann goes so far as to present fieldwork suggesting that the Amazon is itself a creation of human actions, an engineered rainforest created by Inca and Aztec mass-scale landscape planning.
I postulate that this contemporary environmentalist conception, the idea of untamed and untouched preserves, is firmly rooted in terra nullius colonial ideology, a suggestion Mann hints at but does not explicitly come out and say. We can see this reified from North (PETA interventions against Inuit seal hunting) to South (Conservationist support for land grabs in the form of humanitarian purchases of preserves in Brazil). Conservational ideology legitimizes itself by projecting the idea of untouched nature preserves (never mind that by designating a space a “preserve” is, itself an act of human intervention), onto indigenous peoples.
This is especially important to critique in the context of Latin America, where the negotiation of space and place is ongoing, and often dramatic in how it is resolved. We should understand the indigenous impact upon how we understand Latin American space and place as neither reflexively environmentalist, nor trapped in the mythic pre-Colombian process, but as holistic, ongoing, and shaped by the contours of history, culture, and political economy.
HULME, P. (1992). Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean 1492-1797. London, UK: Routledge.
MANN, C. (2002). “1491”. The Atlantic. Retrieved from:
MIGNOLO, W. (2005). The Idea of Latin America. New York, NY: Wiley.
SANABRIA, H. (2005). The Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean. London, UK: Routledge.
[Pictured: Oscar Pérez, a disgruntled Venezuelan police intelligence officer, reads an anti-government manifesto in a video he posted on Instagram. Pérez and his compatriots hijacked a police helicopter and lobbed grenades at the Venezuelan supreme court.]
Oppositional Performance Art, Democratic Farce
Last weekend, on Saturday the 29th of July, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela officially opened elections for its Constituent Assembly, a body of elected delegates which will eventually convene to develop a new constitution for the country to be presented and approved by plebescite by the Venezuelan people. This will be the second time in recent history that Venezuela has undertaken such a process, the first being on the initiative of late President Hugo Chavez Frias. Just as during the Chavez years, there is a right-wing opposition movement, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), which opposes the Constituent Assembly process as somehow fraudulent and a power grab by a greedy executive strongman.
This opposition movement, led by former oligarchs and US-trained “leaders” like MUD chief Leopold Lopez, are the darlings of the media. Canadians have been saturated with beaming coverage of the Venezuelan opposition from the supposedly independent and investigative CBC, which has not presented a single Chavista or pro-government commentator on its programming, while in the US the usual suspects – CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and the New York Times – have all peddled the mythos of the opposition, which the US has supported with millions of dollars in covert fundingsince 2007, and which wikileaks has revealed consistently supported since 2004 in preparation for overthrowing the left-wing Socialist Unity Party-Communist Party (PSUV-CPV) coalition government then led by Chavez and currently led by President Nicolas Maduro (Beeton, et al. 2011) [see especially cable 06CARACAS2104_aand cable 09CARACAS1132_a].
It is quite strange to use so much taxpayer money, logistical resources, and manpower allotted towards “democracy promotion” on an opposition whose electoral activity has consistently proven to be precisely undemocratic, opposing the “socialism” of the government while 75% of Venezuelans support socialism, holding rigged, sham referenda, and tampering with actual parliamentary elections. There are also reports that armed opposition gangs have attacked voting centers intended for the Constituent Assembly. This is acceptable to their sponsors in Washington because the term “democracy” in US foreign policy circles does not actually mean rule by the polis, but conformity to the liberal world order and willingness to submit to neo-colonial status under US imperialism.
Not only is this “opposition” wholly undemocratic, but it promotes its agenda through terrorist activity and racist violence. Gangs of Gurimbas, composed mostly of wealthy students and paid protesters, and military and police dissident have been especially belligerent in their efforts to bludgeon the government’s mostly working-class, African, and indigenous popular support base into submission.
Terrorism Anywhere Else
The helicopter attack on the Venezuelan supreme court by a pro-opposition military general grabbed international, and especially US, media attention and refocused coverage on the supposedly rising discontent among the Venezuelan population which the Chavismo government. Disgruntled police intelligence officer Oscar Pérez hijacked a police helicopter, which he and his compatriots used to throw four grenades into the supreme court building in Caracas and fire fifteen shots into the interior ministry during a conference.
The attack was hailed, especially in the Washington Post, as a heroic and selfless act against a tyrannical government. The bourgeois media, ever intent on advancing its agenda of regime change in Venezuela, thus neglected some key information about Perez and the nature of the attack itself. President Maduro identified the attack as “terrorism”, and under the internationally recognized legal definition, he is correct. International law makes a distinction between terrorism and armed struggle, and Perez’s attack on civilian infrastructure clearly falls in the category of the former, however much the US media in collaboration with the State Department mind try to portray it as the latter.
Perez, in his Instagram “manifesto” wears a purple ribbon tied around his left arm, which he says shows his allegiance to “the truth and to Christ”, a gesture that signals something of an affiliation to the Christian right, which has a long history of fascism in Latin America. Perez’s Instagram also features images comparing himself and his police team to one of God’s angels and images of Jesus Christ cleansing the world in a crusade. Hardly the secular democrat darling the Washington Post would have you believe he is. Instagram has been flooded with fake Perez profiles since the incident and his original account has disappeared, but these images are recurring throughout the replica accounts.
A Taste for Strange Fruit
When Abel Meeropol wrote the lyrics to “Strange Fruit”, which were hauntingly brought to life in song by Billie Holiday, he had the racist lynchings in the United States targeted against Blacks by ex-Confederates and the KKK in mind, but he could have easily been writing about the actions of the Venezuelan opposition against Black and Brown Chavistas. American poster-boy Leopold Lopez was intimately involved in coup attempts to oust the late Chavez, and during that time called for Black pro-Chavez mayors to be lynched (Beeton et al. 2011, Grandin, 2015), and as head of the MUD continues to ignore, and thus remains complicit, in the racist actions of MUD-affiliated Gurimba groups.
Like most of the sordid realities of the MUD and Gurimbas, incidents of attacks against Blacks by the opposition, like the one on Orlando Figuera (burned alive), or Danny José Subero (beaten to death with clubs), including attacks on young children, have gone without condemnation or even comment by western media or by either the Canadian or American governments, who prefer their “concern” to be focused exclusively on the government. Reminiscent of the events leading up to the Libyan “humanitarian intervention”, which also featured an anti-Black opposition, there is bipartisan support in the United States and tripartite support in Canada, including from the supposedly “left wing” NDP, for opposition organizations that I can only image make the KKK salivate given the extent of Gurimba anti-Black terror and the impunity which the media affords them. Any government brutality in Venezuela is small potatoes compared to the viciousness of Gurimba violence.
Conclusion: The Spectre of Recolonization
Given their US and Canadian sponsorship, and their emphasis on anti-working class and anti-black sectarian attacks, it is safe to compare the MUD and the Gurimbas to the US-backed contras of yesteryear and the overall US-MUD project in Venezuela to the more recent attempt at recolonization under the guise of humanitarianism, with disastrous consequences, Libya. It is more than likely, given the consistent support for the opposition, the escalation of a diplomatic and economic sanctions regime, that the US’s next maneuver will be an attempted intervention, which will work to restore Venezuela to its historically patronized status as part of “America’s backyard”. This would be a complete unraveling of the achievements of Hugo Chavez, who ended this submissive colonial status with surprising decisiveness, like Castro and Gaddafi had done for their countries before him.
While the Anglo-North American Left tends to have much more sympathy for progressive Latin American states than it does Arab or African ones, I remain skeptical that there is yet sufficient anti-war and anti-imperialist clout among mainstream “left” organizations, particularly the social democrats and other center-left tendencies, to head a strong anti-intervention movement. However, understanding the racist and violent nature of the forces which seek to replace the current Venezuelan government demands a substantial response, and there are organizations working towards this end. Readers are especially encouraged to contact the Hands Off Venezuela coalition.
It should be clear that the MUD opposition possesses no democratic legitimacy whatsoever, and that its activities represent an obstruction and violation of the basic foundations of democracy, of self determination, and of collective rights. Regardless of the errors of the current government, attempts to replace it, in the current context, only represent a reactionary, pro-imperial process which would undermine any sense of majority rule and popular sovereignty in Venezuela.
BEETON, D., J. Johnston, & A. Main (2011). “Venezuela”. Wikileaks: The World According to US Empire. New York: Verso. pp. 515-545.