August Carbonella & Sharryn Kasmir: Blood and Fire: Toward a Global Anthropology of Labor

Blood and Fire is a volume of the “Dislocations” series published by Berghahn Books. The immense dislocations and suffering caused by neo-liberal globalization, the retreat of the welfare state in the last decades of the twentieth century, and the heightened military imperialism at the turn of the twenty-first century have raised urgent questions about the temporal and spatial dimensions of power. Through stimulating critical perspectives and new and cross-disciplinary frameworks, which reflect recent innovations in the social and human sciences, this series provides a forum for politically engaged, ethnographically informed, and theoretically incisive responses.

We are delighted to introduce Blood and Fire: Toward a Global Anthropology of Labor on Focaal’s new blog. Rather than simply reiterating what’s in the book, we thought we’d take this opportunity to talk about how our concerns and approach to the issue of global labor developed over time and how the cohort involved in this project came together.

We both did research on devastated local working classes in the United States at the end of the twentieth century: Gus did fieldwork among displaced paper mill workers in Maine; Sharryn with autoworkers in Tennessee. In both settings, the people we studied had once been part of powerful working-class movements, but when we encountered them, their lives were overshadowed by pervasive insecurity and defeat. We would have seen the same had we traveled through rust belts in many parts of the world.

BloodandFireIn each of our cases, we needed to account for a decades-long process of ruination, and when we compared notes, we began to understand what we saw in holistic terms as a “long dispossession.” For us, this term captures more than a one-time enclosure or related event and evokes a series of partial defeats and dislocations that unfold over time, including the destruction of vibrant working-class publics; the creation of hierarchies along racial, ethnic, or gender lines that divided previously unified working classes; the intentional fostering of competition among working-class places; and the spread of a general fear of precariousness and redundancy. The title of our volume Blood and Fire uses Karl Marx’s imagery to capture the violence and terror that accompanies dispossession, as well as the toll this takes on laboring people.

Based on what we saw during our fieldwork, we jettisoned the idea of a stable working class and began to talk about industrial laborers perpetually existing in the shadow of dispossession. We quickly came up against inherited class maps that shape scholarly and popular understandings of working people. These maps center on the opposition between “the stable working class” and “the poor” that call to mind a whole chain of signifiers—the affluent worker, aristocracy of labor, and labor elite on one side; dangerous classes, the great unwashed, lumpenproletariat, surplus populations, or precariat, on the other. In turn, this opposition was too frequently mapped onto all-encompassing distinctions between skilled industrial workers in the global North and racially marked and super-exploited laborers of the South. We began planning a book with idea of long dispossession as a theoretical lynchpin, to tackle this division and to shed light on the predicament of the US working class in the global present.

Around the same time, Lesley Gill and Don Kalb were presenting their research on dispossessed working classes in Colombia and Poland, respectively. Their cases traced patterns of economic, political, social, and cultural dislocation that were remarkably similarly to those we had documented. Shortly thereafter, we encountered Susana Narotzky’s terrific study of steel workers in Galicia and Judy Whitehead’s insightful analysis on informal laborers in Mumbai. We were immediately excited about the prospect of a more ambitious volume that brought together all of our case studies within a theoretical framework that we conceptualized as “the anthropology of global labor.”

When we talk about labor, we mean to encompass myriad ways of working—the manifold labors of slaves, petty commodity producers, coerced laborers, plantation workers, and domestic labor—within temporal and spatial processes of capital accumulation, as Eric Wolf described things for the early colonial period in Europe and the People Without History (1982). We equally refer to the power-laden processes of categorizing, differentiating, or unifying those laborers. For us, labor is a pointedly political entity. So, in our field of vision, are labor’s social protests and quietude, organizations, and cultures that reflect its engagements with capital and the state, as well as relationships with other workers, locally, regionally, and globally.

The fragmentation of working classes has been the hallmark of the difficult past forty years. But even though our volume documents this discouraging time, we remain optimistic that we are surely not at the end point, but rather on the forcing ground of the as-yet-unfinished class formations of the future. Some sense of what this future will look like is apparent. It is partly exemplified by the Occupy Wall Street chant (“We are the 99 percent”) and rephrased in the “people’s” demands arising from public squares in Egypt, Spain, England, Greece, Turkey, Brazil, and many other places in the world. New alliances and networks are emerging from the ashes of the long dispossession. We do not yet know what forms will develop, but in order to understand them and to contribute to this moment of political possibility, we need to recognize the many forms of labor and the changing class maps before us. We hope that Blood and Fire: Toward a Global Anthropology of Labor contributes to that conversation.

August Carbonella is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Memorial University, Newfoundland. He has published widely on the historical memory of the Vietnam War, and on problems of structural violence, class, race, and citizenship in North America.

Sharryn Kasmir is Professor of Anthropology at Hofstra University. She is the author of The “Myth” of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working Class Life in a Basque Town (State University of New York Press) and other works on the anthropology of labor.

Cite as: Carbonella, August, and Sharryn Kasmir. 2014. “Blood and fire: Toward a global anthropology of labor,” FocaalBlog, October 10,