Patrick Neveling: Capitalism: The Most Recent Seventy-Two Years

On 1 November 1950, two Puerto Rican males tried to shoot their way into the provisional White House in Washington, D.C., aiming to kill President Harry S. Truman. Allegedly, the assassins were members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, an underground resistance movement opposed to US colonialism on that Caribbean island and portrayed by a subsequent report to the US House of Representatives Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs as “a handful of independence fanatics…replete with terror” supported by the US Communist Party.

Political action beyond violent prosecution of communists and nationalists was not considered necessary. The report stated that “[i]t is a historical fact that communism thrives where people are hungry and unemployed.” Therefore, it was said, the Puerto Rican local government had served a “deadly blow…to the collectivist colossus of Moscow” by “Operation Bootstrap,” an “intelligent and scientific application of a tax incentive program” that had increased employment numbers and tripled the value of production and services within a few years (Hackett 1951).

That Puerto Rican tax incentive program was actually the world’s first export processing zone (EPZ). As I show elsewhere, establishing this first such zone in Puerto Rico around 1947 might not have had the purpose of triggering a worldwide planning scheme. Nevertheless, Puerto Rican economic success statistics would soon give the island a lighthouse role in the first of what would be a series of concise campaigns to spread the EPZ concept globally. Due in large part to these campaigns, primarily developing nation-states established and continue to establish such zones hoping to attract foreign direct investment. In EPZs, capital investment, employment, and foreign exchange earnings potentially move from industrially advanced countries to developing countries. As EPZs have become central in global light industrial manufacturing with around 70 million workers in 3.500 EPZs in more than 130 countries in the 2000s, the global spread of these zones and the relocations of manufacturing that go along with this have a strong impact on the making of space, time, and worldviews (cf. Neveling 2015b).

Around the same time the world’s first EPZ was established, a particular kind of political-economic movement was widespread in New Guinea. Whereas the events in Puerto Rico and Washington received little attention from anthropologists, the New Guinean movements made for popular studies among contemporaries and have since become a central trope of anthropological endeavors—the cargo cult—to explain the very essence of being human. A volume edited by Holger Jebens in 2004 seeks to have a final word on these cargo cults. Presented in postmodernist/postcolonial jargon, the debate is whether the movement’s name, “cargo cult,” projects the desires of Western consumer culture onto New Guineans and, hence, merely serves Western narcissism (Jebens 2004).

Is this a timely, central concern for an anthropology of the Melanesian movements? The following argues that we can better understand developments in New Guinea in the 1940s and 1950s if we consider them as much as part of a global restructuring of capitalism as we would understand developments in Puerto Rico in the same period.

In his 1957 classic The Trumpet Shall Sound, Peter Worsley deals in extenso with Melanesian cargo cults, which he calls “millenarian movements.” Worsley had been denied a research permit for Melanesia because of his membership in the British Communist Party and his affiliations with Kenyan and other anticolonial movements during his services in the British Army in World War II. So he chose to study accounts of millenarian movements in the colonial period and writings on the resurgence of these movements in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. Unlike many other anthropologists of his time, Worsley analyzed how such movements in the New Hebrides and on Papua itself were connected to the regional integration into global capitalism. He saw the movements’ ideological references as “muscular Christianity,” as the leaders selected such passages from the bible for their preaching that promised the millennium in the here and now rather than in the afterlife (Worsley 1957: 137).

The ecological variations of Melanesian islands means that there are also considerable variations to their path of global integration, and these variations, in turn, meant differentiations in the trajectories of millenarian movements. Worsley relates initial, nineteenth-century millenarian movements to the spread of capitalist wage labor, which, in the region, went along with coerced migration, population decline, and economic plight. All of these are, however, common phenomena of the moment in the development of capitalist exploitation when indentured labor replaced slavery. In the British Empire, this shift happened after 1835. The large cash intake from compensation payments by the British government to slave owners gave a veritable boost to global agricultural industries. Advances in milling technologies facilitated centralization (for Mauritius, see Neveling 2012: 100–169). On the heels of this came the telegraph, the steamship, and the establishment of commodity exchanges in Chicago, which changed global capitalism for good. In Melanesia, as elsewhere, the first two decades of the twentieth century were in fact a period of consolidation after some tumultuous decades. But with the long crisis in the 1930s, and further fueled by World War II and the beginning of the New Guinea Campaign in 1942 that saw hundreds of thousands of fascist and antifascist soldiers havoc the islands, millenarian movements gained new prominence.1

The following offers a digest from Worsley’s work with a focus on these movements’ central features. The conclusion is, though, that for anthropological engagement with capitalism, we need an analysis of Melanesian millenarian movements that is less concerned with a partial criticism of colonial policies. Instead, a critique is needed that addresses the very fact that such movements were explicitly procapitalist, promoting super-exploitation and inequality. The leaders’ interests were mainly in criticizing an insufficient integration into global capitalism.

Initial to all movements analyzed by Worsley were proclamations that foreigners would come and bring riches and liberation from colonial rule. But other than in Marshall Sahlins’s account of Captain Cook’s death at the hands of Hawaiians (Sahlins 1995), Worsley does not find mythical stories that then find accidental matches in real-world events. Instead, Melanesians reacted to news, however imprecise, of the attack on Pearl Harbor or of the German occupation of the Netherlands (Worsley 1957: 39, 156). Similarly, there were rumors about Japanese or US troops landing in the near future. Global warring was reflected in social structures as many movements organized in a military fashion. In one case, there existed “the equivalents of generals, high-ranking officers, lieutenants and privates, the last being known as ‘apprentices.’ Even ‘doctors’ were appointed, together with ‘ministers’ and ‘radio telegraphists’ for the ‘radio stations’…Special agents made note of noncooperators and arrested hostile elements” (Worsley 1957: 141).

The movements’ leaders showed awareness of the means of arrival of the supposed saviors; the construction of airstrips and docks was common. The John Frum movement in Tanna even sought to build an aerodrome (Worsley 1957: 158). Furthermore, technology transfer and other notions of progress that would be central to the doctrine of capitalist development emerging in US foreign policy only after 1945 ranked high on Melanesian millenarian agendas. A movement in Biak not only set up a secret service apparatus but also proclaimed the acquisition of Dutch, English, and Chinese language skills as one way out of misery (Worsley 1957: 141–145). The “miraculous coming of a factory“ was another prophecy that gained popularity already in the 1930s, at a time when much of New Guinean rubber and copra production was hit hard by the global crisis.2

Frequent demands for higher wages also indicates why the label “cargo cults” is highly misleading. These movements were as much about relations in and of production as they were about consumption.

The fact that Melanesian movements addressed issues of global integration is further evidenced in widespread populist anticapitalism of the right-wing kind. Chinese shops were looted and their owners killed. Elsewhere, deliberate overaccumulation saw “long-hoarded savings [hurled] into the sea” as such shopping orgies were fueled by beliefs that once all money was spent, European traders would have to return home (Worsley 1957: 154–155).

An offshoot of the above-mentioned John Frum movement in Malekula shall serve as the concluding example for this section. The decline of copra production during the war years did not trigger invocations of supernatural powers. Instead, a company producing and marketing copra was founded and framed as a cooperative. The leading figures in this were larger landowners, though. Europeans facilitated integration into the global copra chain and used this position to cook the books and divert income into their own pockets. After the end of World War II, that movement radicalized as now “former members of the New Hebrides Defense Corps [imposed] quasi-military discipline over the workers” (Worsley 1957: 162). Recruitment of workers was by force, similar to colonial blackbirding.

The above summary has already underlined that a reconsideration of Worsley and cargo cults is needed if we want to incorporate these Melanesian movements into a future canon for an anthropology that engages critically with global capitalism. For furthering this, it is important to summarize and dismiss postmodernist critiques of Worsley’s work before moving on to relate Melanesian movements to the changing politics of development that emerged during the long 1930s to 1950s crisis of global capitalism.

Lamont Lindstrom has possibly been the most vocal postmodernist on Melanesian millenarian movements. One of his central concerns is that the “cargo” supposedly central in those “cults” is not what Melanesians actually wanted but what Westerners thought they should want. In this vein, he identifies a 1950s movie by Richard Attenborough as “one of the originating moments of the ubiquitous refrigerator on cargo manifests” (Lindstrom 2004: 23). Lindstrom implies here that Melanesians could not possibly have desired refrigerators. This is so because such machines are exclusive to Western modernity where they are “both metonym of technological progress and the focus of family sociability and commensalism.” Only certain pariah groups in Melanesia are driven by an “entrepreneurial desire for fridges” that would allow them to market cold drinks (Lindstrom 2004: 24). In light of what has been said above, Lindstrom is not entirely on the wrong track here, for Melanesian millenarianism was not about an eternal desire for conspicuous consumption. But this was not because the locals wanted to stick to gift economies as much of economic anthropology wants to make us believe. Instead, local elites wanted a more advanced integration into global capitalism.

In my research on the changing integration of Mauritius into the capitalist world system, I came across natives who were even worse: In 1959, the British Colonial Office appointed economist James Edward Meade to find ways for diversifying the Mauritian economy so that the island could sustain itself without changing existing class divisions. Interested in Mauritians’ ideas for overcoming their economic plight, Meade placed ads in local newspapers and invited comments. Among the 137 written answers received was a detailed memorandum from a company called Happy World Limited. This company was capitalized at not less than Rs 500,000, and it wanted a lot more than normal fridges. It was planning to convert an entire building into a deep freezing and cold storage unit and had already sent one staff member to the United Kingdom to obtain a university diploma and practical training for this purpose (Happy World Ltd. 1960).

There is then, obviously, more to the desire for cold storage than Lindstrom’s critique allows for. But the postmodernist turn is not solely to blame here. Worsley’s writings advanced anthropology in important ways. Malinowski, for example, had nothing to say about the impact of plantations, blackbirders, and forced or free capitalist labor migration. One of his central motivations was instead to excavate via the study of “primitive economy,” the lost world of honorable European aristocracy of the Middle Ages, whereas the issue of capital and capitalism pops up nowhere in a monograph of more than 600 pages (Malinowski 1922). In comparison to such ventures, Worsley’s Melanesian millenarists are rather forward-looking as he points out how many such movements turned nationalist after World War II. The problem with this analysis is not its evolutionary side. Rather, it is that Worsley implicitly established an equation of nationalism with anticapitalist resistance without considering that being against one form of imperialism does not equal an outright rejection of capitalism. Once we drop this notion, Worsley’s work provides excellent material for a critical anthropological engagement with global capitalism and local collaboration.

This is evidenced if we compare the spread of one of present-day capitalism’s central organizational principles—that of the special economic zone and export processing zone with millenarian movements. The establishment of the Puerto Rican EPZ after 1942 provides important parallels to practices of Melanesian movements. In 1942, the same year the US Army started its New Guinea campaign, the Puerto Rican local government contracted the Boston-based consulting company Arthur D. Little to study how the island’s economic prospects could be raised. The outcome of this was not only the beneficial tax regime mentioned in the opening of this paper. Crucial to a shift toward export-oriented development in Puerto Rico was the sale of government-owned factories to US mainland investors at low prices—the promotion of Puerto Rico as a tax haven for manufacturing with mainland tariffs and so forth (Neveling 2015a). Similar to millenarian movements, the Puerto Rican EPZ regime and the replicas of this regime that continue to surface around the world to this day promise the miraculous coming of factories that are actually built with loans from the World Bank or in exchange for awarding concessions to multinational corporations.

Movements in Melanesia sought to make their dreams of progress and wealth come true by building infrastructure like runways, docks, or even aerodromes. In similar ways, the airport in Shannon, Ireland, and the container harbor in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, were built or extended and equipped with export processing zone regimes to attract foreign trade and investors (Neveling 2015b). When Mauritius set up an EPZ in 1970, the promise was no less than the eradication of widespread poverty and the creation of 130,000 jobs within a decade. Only 20,000 jobs saw the light of day, and this is already an exceptional result compared with other EPZs (Neveling 2015c). The Kandla Foreign Trade Zone, set up in Western India in 1965, was supposed to bring business to the Kandla Container Harbor, constructed at huge expense by the Nehruvian state in the early 1950s and intended as a veritable competitor to Karachi. But even in the boom economy of the 1990s, India, Kandla harbor, and the Kandla EPZ were no hot spots of regional development (Neveling 2014). So what is it that makes the establishment of such zones so prominent a feature in global capitalism?

Like the Melanesian movements, such zones commonly serve the interests of established elites whose legitimacy rests on keeping alive the gospels of prosperity (cf. Landsberg 1979). Often, EPZ regimes trigger millenarist movements themselves. The Subic Bay EPZ in the Philippines, for example, was built on an abandoned US Army airbase. Richard Gordon, who ran the zone, established a military style regime, forcing job seekers to work several months without wages in order to qualify for employment. Radio features of the German journalist Karl Roessel tell of a Subic Bay zone workforce that had to wear T-shirts as they were forced to participate in regular street parades praising Gordon, EPZ factory managers, and investors (Rössel 1995).

This example is not to say that ours is a time of capitalism’s second coming, or millennial capitalism as the Comaroffs have coined it (2001). Rather, the timing of the global spread of EPZs starting in the 1940s shows that this matched well with movements such as those in Melanesia. These movements were only seemingly opposed to capitalism and are better understood as resistance to a particular type of integration into global capitalism. What were served in response to such movements were rather empty promises of development, an ideology that Giovanni Arrighi has labeled the “global New Deal” (1999: 247). The rise of EPZs in the 1940s, the violent crackdown on labor and the streamlining of the capitalist business community in the United States in the New Deal era indicates that an anthropology that engages critically with capitalism might consider the period of the 1930s to the 1950s as a global crisis of capitalism out of which emerged a restructuring that is ongoing and coming full circle in the present. Many movements that opposed the older imperial powers of the era before 1930 have made strong contributions to capitalism’s successful restructuring and should be analyzed along these lines.

Patrick Neveling is Associate Researcher at the Historical Institute, University of Bern, and affiliated with the Max-Planck-Fellow Group “Connectivity in Motion: Port Cities of the Indian Ocean.” He is currently writing a monograph entitled Relocating Capitalism: Export Processing Zones and Special Economic Zones since 1947.

1. Note that counting back the most recent seventy-two years of capitalism refers to the year 1942 here. This was not only the beginning of the New Guinea Campaign but also the year when first plans for the Puerto Rican EPZ scheme were drawn up.

2. More recent research relates the plight of Melanesian rubber producers also to the International Rubber Regulations Act. This act was supposed to solve the repercussions of the global crisis of the 1930s for the rubber industries (cf. Dove 1996).

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Neveling, Patrick. 2014. Structural contingencies and untimely coincidences in the making of neoliberal India: The Kandla free trade zone, 1965–1991. Contributions to Indian Sociology 48(1): 17–43.

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Neveling, Patrick. 2015b. Export processing zones, special economic zones and the long march of capitalist development policies during the Cold War. In Leslie James and Elisabeth Leake, eds., Decolonization and the Cold War: Negotiating independence (New approaches to international history). London: Bloomsbury.

Neveling, Patrick. 2015c. Flexible capitalism and transactional orders in colonial and postcolonial Mauritius: A post-occidentalist view. In Jens Kjaerulf, ed., Flexible capitalism: Exchange and ambiguity at work, pp. 286–324. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

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Cite as: Neveling, Patrick. 2014. “Capitalism: The most recent seventy-two years,” FocaalBlog, 17 July,