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Samuel W. Rose: Disconnected Development Studies: Indigenous North America and the Anthropology of Development

The purpose of this work is to examine and elaborate on the relationship between the people of Native North America and the material and ideological content of developmentalism as examined within the fields of anthropology and Native American or Indigenous studies. I observe that Indigenous North American peoples are frequently excluded from discussions of economic development within anthropology. I try to reconcile this situation and reinsert native peoples into the anthropology of development by demonstrating the historical and political continuities between United States Indian Policy with the exported ‘development apparatus’. In doing so, I follow Neveling (2017) and others in pushing back against postdevelopment’s dematerialization of development and its emphasis on development as discourse. Instead, I argue that a historical materialist or political economic approach (Rose 2015, 2017, 2018) that conceptualizes development in the terms of Neveling’s (2017) “political economy machinery” better explains the situation of Indigenous North American peoples and the processes that make and unmake their lives.

The overall point here is that in order to properly understand the political economic basis and ideological dimensions to the Post-War developmentalism project it is necessary to understand and examine the history of those political economic models and the history of those ideological dimensions. While there likely were developmentalist antecedents in the policies of the European empires, a major distinctive feature of post-war developmentalism is that it was rooted in the political economy and hegemonic position of the United States. As such, it is crucial to understand the local antecedents for American developmentalist policies, which necessarily brings us to Indigenous peoples as they were the early laboratories of these policies and political economic models.

Contextual Disconnect

On the global level, the sub-discipline of the anthropology of development has flourished in the last half century, along with the interdisciplinary field of development studies. In that time, prominent anthropological works have been produced within the sub-discipline that have had a broad impact within anthropology and influence beyond their own regional and disciplinary scope. Some of these classics include the works of Arturo Escobar (1995), James Ferguson (1990), Akhil Gupta (1998), David Mosse (2005), and Tania Murray Li (2007). These works describe the transformative effects of ‘development’, especially on the role of state policies, on the regions formerly grouped together as the “Third World” (i.e. Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Latin America), which are now more conventionally referred to as the global South. The field of the anthropology of development, along with the interdisciplinary field of development studies, has remained almost exclusively “Third World” focused. Chibber (2013) observes that this isolation in the form of the lack of thorough comparative engagement between capitalist development in Western Europe and capitalist development in the Third World has led to an inaccurate and romanticized portrayal of each in postcolonial studies of Third World development. While I generally agree with Chibber’s critique, I wish to move into a different context. The anthropological literature on development in the global South is also disconnected from the anthropological literature on what would otherwise be called ‘development’ in what was at one time called the “Fourth World” (i.e. stateless nations), especially in regard to Indigenous peoples in North America. This disconnect actually goes both ways. Jessica Cattelino’s (2008) book is likely the most popular anthropological work on Indigenous economic development in Native North America in the last several decades. Even though her ethnography on (capitalist) economic development within the Seminole Nation of Florida was published after the texts of those aforementioned prominent anthropology of development authors, and deals with many similar issues around development such as the intricacies and problematics of sovereignty, governmentality, and possible alternative modernities, she does not utilize them or the other work from this subfield. Furthermore, Tania Murray Li’s (2010) comparative discussion of the relationship between capitalism and dispossession in different regions does not include Native North America despite the lengthy and ongoing history of dispossession of Indigenous peoples in North America in relation to both colonial policies of the past as well as contemporary processes of neoliberal capitalism and state (re)formation in the United States and Canada. Instead of including Native North America as another case study alongside Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, she mentions Indigenous people in the Anglo settler states (i.e. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United States) or CANZUS countries (Cornell 2015) only once and in passing, and does so with the effect of driving a further wedge between them by saying that the processes of class differentiation were different among Indigenous peoples in those locations. Similarly, David Mosse’s (2013) summary article on the state of the subfield is telling of its geographic orientation as there is no mention of Indigenous North America at all and only a passing mention of development in Europe. The point is that these works are not drawing from and are not in dialogue with each other. There is a disconnect between anthropological studies of development in the global South with those on the economics and development of Indigenous people in the Anglo settler states even though (as I will argue) they share certain commonalities and histories.

Developmentalism and Native North America

The general scholarly consensus is that the modern ‘development apparatus’ and the pseudo-utopian vision that is the modernist-developmentalist paradigm began with the Truman administration after the Second World War, the emergence of the United States as a superpower, and actions taken within the context of the Cold War in needing to make capitalism more appealing for the (newly) former colonies in comparison to the political economic model of the Soviet Union and then later China (Ferguson 1990; Escobar 1995; Cowen and Shenton 1996; Rist 2008; Kiely 2007). As Escobar (1995: 3-4) states:

The Truman doctrine initiated a new era in the understanding and management of world affairs, particularly those concerning the less economically accomplished countries of the world. The intent was quite ambitious: to bring about the conditions necessary to replicating the world over the features that characterized the “advanced” societies of the time—high levels of industrialization and urbanization, technicalization of agriculture, rapid growth of material production and living standards, and the widespread adoption of modern education and cultural values.

The disconnect between the subfields is especially problematic here because while the Truman administration does mark a shift in global development policy, scholars of Native North America would observe that the Truman administration also constituted a dramatic (and infamous) shift in United States Indian Policy. These two phenomena are not disconnected. When the Truman administration began exporting this pseudo-utopian vision of the glories of capitalism, technology, and Western modernity to the world, United States Indian Policy shifted away from similar policies of bureaucratization, technicalization, and industrialization for tribal governments. These policies were based around the creation and support of local/Indigenous bureaucratic institutions that would in essence aid internally in the development of Native American societies toward a form of collectively managed capitalism, which was intended to bring them as societies into the modern world. Although it had antecedents in United States Indian Policy in the nineteenth century (Miner 1989) stretching back even to the Jefferson administration’s ‘civilization’ program, this type of internal developmentalism began in a comprehensive manner with the administration of Franklin Roosevelt in the early 1930s and crystallized around the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (Jorgensen 1978). The Act, as the product of the political economy of the United States of the period, was therefore in accordance with the interests of the American bourgeoisie (Littlefield 1991), and brought about the transformation of Native American societies by formally institutionalizing capitalism within bureaucratic tribal governments. In many locations, it had the effect of solidifying political power over Indigenous communities by the emergent Indigenous bourgeoisie (Schröder 2003; Nagata 1987; Ruffing 1979; Rose 2014).

The Truman administration marked the shift in Indian Policy away from Reorganization and towards Termination (Duthu 2008; Fixico 1986). The Termination period involved a series of policies that sought to formally complete the integration or incorporation of Indigenous peoples into the American mainstream political economy by means of subjecting them to the authority of the States, physically relocating them off reservations and to urban areas, and ending—or terminating—the political and legal standing of Indigenous governments in the eyes of the United States (Duthu 2008). In short, the Termination era represents a shift in the orientation of developmentalism for native peoples: from one where their own local bureaucratic institutions were fostered as the means to bring native people into capitalist modernity, to one where these same institutions were viewed as the impediments to their achievement of modernity. It represents a shift from the policies of internal developmentalism to an external developmentalism.

Image 1: Screenshot of 48 Stat. 984 (Pub. Law 73-383), part of the Indian Reorganisation Act of 1934 (, taken 10 Nov 2020)

The internal developmentalist policies of Indian Reorganization bear a resemblance to the modernist-developmentalism that the United States exported to the world during the Truman administration. It is my contention that the development apparatus and the modernist-developmentalist paradigm are direct successors to the long history of United States Indian Policy and these efforts. The Truman administration’s shift to a policy of global scope meant that they were to export what is in essence the same civilizing project except they did so in the language of development and modernity. However, by the 1970s, Indian Policy would shift back toward internal developmentalism in the periphery except this time under the label of self-determination (Duthu 2008). This represents an oscillation of developmentalism in the center and in the periphery corresponding to periods of expansion and contraction of American political economy (Friedman 1994). For native peoples, internal developmentalism marks a period of peripheralization as the center contracts, while termination and assimilation mark a period of external developmentalism and reincorporation into the center as it expands.

Similarly, the geographic contexts must be comparatively examined to draw out these historical parallels to better understand the historical and contemporary dimensions of capitalist development. For example, at around the same time that James Ferguson (1990) was famously discussing the “anti-politics machine” and how development (even ‘failed’ development) is linked not simply to an expansion of capitalism but to the expansion of state power, Marxist anthropologist Alice Littlefield (1991: 219) was writing that

Studies and critiques of these major policy shifts [in US Indian Policy] have frequently noted that the assimilation policies often failed to assimilate, and that self-determination policies often failed to provide for meaningful self-determination. Looking beyond the discourse of the reformers who claimed credit for these policy shifts, it can be observed that material interests of various sectors of American capital were often well-served by the workings of particular policies.

While I recognize and agree with Neveling’s (2017) critiques of the theoretical and empirical dimensions of Ferguson’s work in his overemphasis on discourse to the exclusion of political economic context, the crucial point here for me is to understand that the underlying processes being described are not dissimilar. These two works are describing a singular process or a singular political economic machinery, except that it is occurring at different times and in different places. Ferguson is describing “development” in Lesotho in the middle to late twentieth century, while Littlefield is describing “civilization”, “assimilation”, and “self-determination” in the United States as applied to Native Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Further Research

We do not have the space here to delve into a detailed examination of each of the finer points. Rather, my purpose with this piece was to try to begin to connect these disparate areas and fields of study and put them into dialogue with each other. Further comparative study would better elucidate the parallels and lines of divergence in the operation of capitalist development and the experiences of peoples within this machinery. This would lead to a greater understanding and greater insights into the history and operation of capitalist development as a global project and singular machinery.

Samuel W. Rose is an independent scholar based in Schenectady, NY. He received his PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 2017. His dissertation was entitled Mohawk Histories and Futures: Traditionalism, Community Development, and Heritage in the Mohawk Valley. His research has focused on the indigenous populations of eastern North America, community and economic development, political economy, and issues of race, identity, and the politics of history. His work has appeared in journals such as Anthropological Theory, Dialectical Anthropology, Critique of Anthropology, and the Journal of Historical Sociology.


Cattelino, Jessica. (2008). High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Chibber, Vivek. (2013). Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. New York: Verso.

Cornell, Stephen. (2015). Processes of Native Nationhood: The Indigenous Politics of Self-Government. The International Indigenous Policy Journal 6(4), Article 4.

Cowen, M.P. and R.W. Shenton. (1996). Doctrines of Development. New York: Routledge.

Duthu, N. Bruce. (2008). American Indians and the Law. New York: Penguin.

Escobar, Arturo. (1995). Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ferguson, James. (1990). The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development”, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fixico, Donald. (1986). Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Friedman, Jonathan. (1994). Cultural Identity and Global Process. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Gupta, Akhil. (1998). Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Jorgensen, Joseph G. (1978). A Century of Political Economic Effects on American Indian Society, 1880-1980. Journal of Ethnic Studies 6(3): 1-82.

Kiely, Ray. (2007). The New Political Economy of Development: Globalization, Imperialism, Hegemony. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Li, Tania Murray. (2007). The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Li, Tania Murray. (2010). Indigeneity, Capitalism, and the Management of Dispossession. Current Anthropology 51(3): 385-414.

Littlefield, Alice. (1991). Native American Labor and Public Policy in the United States. In Alice Littlefield and Hill Gates (eds.), Marxist Approaches in Economic Anthropology (p. 219-232).  Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Miner, H. Craig. (1989). The Corporation and the Indian: Tribal Sovereignty in Indian Territory, 1865-1907. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Mosse, David. (2005). Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice. New York: Pluto Press.

Mosse, David. (2013). The Anthropology of International Development. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 227-246.

Nagata, Shuichi. (1987). From Ethnic Bourgeoisie to Organic Intellectuals: Speculations on North American Native Leadership. Anthropologica 29(1): 61-75.

Neveling, Patrick. (2017). The Political Economy Machinery: Toward a Critical Anthropology of Development as a Contested Capitalist Practice. Dialectical Anthropology 41(2): 163:183.

Rist, Gilbert. (2008). The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith, 3rd Edition. New York: Zed Books.

Rose, Samuel W. (2014). Comparative Models of American Indian Economic Development: Capitalist versus Cooperative in the United States and Canada. Critique of Anthropology 34(4): 377-396.

Rose, Samuel W. (2015). Two Thematic Manifestations of Neotribal Capitalism in the United States. Anthropological Theory 15(2): 218-238.

Rose, Samuel W. (2017). Marxism, Indigenism, and the Anthropology of Native North America: Divergence and a Possible Future. Dialectical Anthropology 41(1): 13-31.

Rose, Samuel W. (2018). The Historical Political Ecological and Political Economic Context of Mohawk Efforts at Land Reclamation in the Mohawk Valley. Journal of Historical Sociology 31(3): 253-264.

Ruffing, Lorraine Turner. (1979). The Navajo Nation: A History of Dependence and Underdevelopment. Review of Radical Political Economics 11(2): 25-43.

Schröder, Ingo W. (2003). The Political Economy of Tribalism in North America: Neotribal Capitalism?. Anthropological Theory 3(4): 435-456.

Cite as: Rose, Samuel W. “Disconnected Development Studies: Indigenous North America and the Anthropology of Development.” Focaal Blog, 17 November 2020.

Fiona Murphy: Irish State to seal records of Mother and Baby Homes for 30 years: Urgent call for action

Tiny bodies, the remains of little children entombed without name or mercy, are uncovered in Tuam, a small Irish town in Co. Galway in the west of Ireland, at the site of a former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in 2017. The excavation, part of a Mother’s and Baby’s Home commission of inquiry (set up in 2015), precipitated by the tireless research of a local historian Catherine Corless, uncovered an eerie underground structure demarcated into 20 chambers (possibly a sewage tank) containing the children’s remains. The commission stated that ‘multiple remains’ were found, but some estimates run as high as in the region of 800. The home was run by the Catholic Bon Secours order of nuns from 1925 to 1961, one of many on the island of Ireland at that time. Now in Oct 2020, even before the Commission of inquiry publishes their long-delayed report (original deadline Feb 2018 due now Oct 30th, 2020), the Irish State has stated it intends on sealing the Mother and Baby records for 30 years.  

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Nicole Weydmann, Kristina Großmann, Maribeth Erb, Novia Tirta Rahayu Tijaja: Healing in context: Traditional medicine has an important role to play in Indonesia’s fight against the coronavirus

The first two cases of COVID-19 in Indonesia were announced on 2 March 2020, quite late compared to other countries. The first patient was a 31-year-old woman who came into contact with a Japanese citizen – who later tested positive – at a dance event in South Jakarta. She then passed it on to her mother. Both women were hospitalized in North Jakarta, which later became one of the referral hospitals for COVID-19 cases in the city. By early May, the number of confirmed cases nationwide had reached 9800, including 800 deaths. While elsewhere around the world governments are easing lockdown restrictions, in Indonesia there is still minimal testing being undertaken and the COVID-19 pandemic is showing little sign of decline.

As in many other nations, Indonesian politicians have been accused of not recognizing the seriousness of the situation early enough, and some eventually admitted to misinforming the public. Sophia Hornbacher (2020) only recently highlighted the populist rhetoric and neo-liberal policy of the Indonesian government, which once more illustrates the country’s problems of social injustice and welfare. In a statement made in early March, the health minister Terawan Agus Putranto said he was surprised by the commotion arising from the spread of COVID-19, as in his perspective “flu is more dangerous than the corona virus”.

In mid-April, 46 health workers at a hospital in Semarang were infected after patients had not revealed their travel history from areas with a high number of infections, or coronavirus red zones. Six weeks after the first case of COVID-19 was announced and in the face of what looked like becoming an uncontrollable pandemic in Indonesia, Lindsey and Mann summed up what many Indonesia watchers around the world and indeed Indonesians were feeling – that the government had been in denial of the health threat for too long and a clearly structured approach on how to handle infections and sources of these infections was still missing.

Crisis in healthcare

For some time there has been rising criticism of Indonesia’s public healthcare, including the closeness of pharmaceutical industries to medical practitioners and related “unhealthy practices” of corporate theft with government backing. Now, the existing structural and personnel shortage in the public health system has become glaringly stark due to the pandemic. The latest World Health Organisation (WHO) data shows that Indonesia’s ratio of doctors per 10,000 people is 3.8, and it has 24 nurses and midwives per 10,000 people. This is well below Malaysia’s 15 doctors per 10,000 people and Thailand and Vietnam’s eight. Besides this, questions about pharmaceutical monopolies and cartel practices in the medical sector, and cases of malpractice and fraud at the expense of patients, are mounting. Underlying this mood is a latent mistrust not only of the pharmaceutical industries, the medical profession, and the medical structures of hospitals, but of the national elites in general and the civil servants of health-related authorities in particular (Weydmann 2019: 60).

Recent history offers some good reasons for why medical professionals, patients and those watching Indonesia’s health sector are wary. In 2006, during the H5N1 pandemic crisis, or bird flu as it was commonly known, Indonesia claimed “viral sovereignty” and refused to cooperate with the WHO, going against a 2005 international health regulation on responsibilities and rights of national governments when dealing with a public health emergency. The contentious issue was around samples of H5N1, which were collected within Indonesia’s borders. In their analysis of this debate, Relman, Choffnes and Mack observed that the government declared “it would not share them until the WHO and high-income countries established an equitable means of sharing the benefits (particularly, the vaccine) of the sample collection” (Mack, Choffnes & Relman 2010: 27). Against this background many have reservations about the level of cooperation that can be reached between the WHO and Indonesia’s government in handling the current pandemic.

Many parties in the weeks and months to come have already criticized the emergency strategy of the government and the national health care system. We want to shed light on another issue raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, that of medical pluralism in Indonesia and different approaches to illness and health, as the medical context is critical for understanding the government’s response..

Jamu will do?

During the initial phase of the pandemic, some Indonesian policy makers claimed publicly that COVID-19 infections could heal without intervention, as long as a person’s body had a strong resistance to disease. For this reason, they reminded the public to maintain or boost levels of body immunity. President Joko Widodo supported this assessment and recommended that citizens drink traditional herbal jamu remedies to prevent infections.

In order to understand the political play on the role of jamu during the pandemic, it is important to know that the consumption of herbal plants as medicine has been part of Indonesian culture for thousands of years (Beers 2001), mainly based on oral traditions and without systematic canonization. Jamu isoften produced by households of jamu gendong sellers, who carry bottled remedies in baskets or via bicycles or motorbikes to customers.

Today, however, jamu is no longer the medicine of the poor but an economic sector with large international companies such as Air Mancur, Djamu Djago or Nyonya Meneer producing a variety of jamu remedies sold as instant powders, tablets or capsules. Street vendors compete with big drugstores over jamu sales and the Indonesian government campaign for jamu as a remedy against Covid-19 supported an important “economic pillar for the nation” (Prabawani 2017: 81) that generated IDR 21.5 trillion (US$1.38 billion) in 2019; up 13.1 percent from Rp 19 trillion in 2018.

Image 1: Jamu Gendong with trademark label on her Caping Gunung (traditional hat) (Erny Mardhani, 2020)

As early as mid-March, the Singapore-based newspaper The Straits Times reported that the President posted a statement on a government website saying that he started drinking a mixture of red ginger, lemongrass and turmeric three times a day since the spread of the virus and was sharing it with his family and colleagues. He claimed he was convinced “that a herb concoction can ward against being infected with the coronavirus”. His statements on the use of jamu medicine contributed to a rapid price increase so that prices of red ginger, turmeric and curcuma multiplied.

Like Jokowi, other politicians have pointed to the benefits of traditional medicine in the current crisis. The district health office of Situbondo in East Java invited members of his community to a public event to drink jamu medicine. He also involved hundreds of school students to further promote the benefits of the traditional medicine for strengthening the immune system. The minister for health also handed over jamu remedies to the first three recovered COVID-19 patients.

The WHO has issued a list of recommendations for handling the current pandemic, including handwashing, following general hygiene and maintaining social distancing. The early suggestions of Indonesian politicians to use herbal Jamu remedies as well as their general assessment of COVID-19 as a harmless virus, has been in clear contrast to the WHO assessment.

This approach has led to public criticism and questioning of whether politicians are intentionally withholding important information in order to avoid panic. In late March, mixed messaging from the government triggered the formation of a coalition of civil society organisations, including Amnesty International Indonesia, Transparency International Indonesia and the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute. The group urged the House of Representatives “to perform its checks and balances function during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the government’s policies are on the right track”.

However, “healthcare” is not a singular process but consists of a complexity of different medical traditions, external influences and dynamics. As such, the ongoing COVID-19 challenge may call on different medical approaches, which are not exclusive from one another. So, whilst the WHO uses a biomedical understanding as the basis for assessing the current pandemic, Indonesia’s politicians and many citizens are turning to traditional Javanese medical paradigms. Rather than dismissing outright the calls from Jokowi and others to use traditional medicine during the pandemic, it is necessary to contextualize their calls within Indonesia’s corporate health care market as much as within the nation’s medical pluralism and the concept of traditional Javanese jamu medicine in particular.

Traditional Javanese medicine and the pandemic

The public provision of healthcare in Indonesia is almost exclusively based on biomedical treatment approaches and corresponding ways of defining health and disease. Each sub-district in Indonesia is expected to facilitate one community health center (“Pusat Kesehatan Masyarakat”, acronym: puskesmas) in order to focus on preventing diseases and promoting health. In the present COVID-19 outbreak, this has meant that puskesmas are key institutions for public health treatment and also surveillance. It is expected that each center will trace and monitor infections locally. However, puskesmas are mostly small medical units with perhaps only one medical doctor on staff. In the current crisis, these small local centers are now required to split their limited teams in order to provide public education about the pandemic, contact tracing of infected persons, and treatment of COVID-19 patients in isolation from patients with other diseases.

Indonesia, like any other nation in the world, consists of an ethnically diverse society and this social diversity is reflected in a pluralistic medical system. Large parts of Indonesian society rely on traditional medical approaches. The use of “traditional” medicine or a combination of biomedical treatment and “traditional” medicine, is a common phenomenon all over Indonesia (Ferzacca 2001; Woodward 2011, among others). Relatively recently, more educated urban households have also been found likely to use “traditional” rather than biomedical healthcare. This vivid diversity of medical traditions is represented not only in the supermarket shelves stacked with the jamu-style soft drinks promoted by the government, but also in a large informal medical market, though not in the national primary health care system.

Despite the dominance of biomedical approaches in primary health care and the accompanying skepticism towards other health etiologies, over the past 30 years the market for traditional and complementary medicine in Indonesia has experienced a veritable boom. The use of a whole range of over-the-counter (that is, non-prescription) medications, pharmaceuticals, tonics and new forms of herbal or other mixtures has sprung up, with a wide spectrum of herbal products and stamina remedies (Lyon 2005: 14).

As the COVID-19 crisis deepened, a new market emerged offering “Corona Jamu” that contains turmeric, ginger and other ingredients, in order to strengthen the body’s immune system against viruses. An existing traditional remedy, Wedang Uwuh – a herbal specialty in the region of Yogyakarta – is also being promoted, as it is used to prevent colds, warm the body and boost immunity. The remedy is composed of secang wood, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg leaves, lemon grass roots and cardamom. The Jakarta Post summarized several reports from marketing and consumer research agencies, e.g. McKinsey, and emphasized that a number of jamu producers have seen an increase in revenue of up to 50 per cent and predicted that the habit of drinking jamu will be “a new normal”, claiming jamu as “the new espresso”. (However, no data on current market shares of small-traders and corporations in the sector is available.)

Image 2: Homemade Corona jamu sold at the Beringharjo Market in Yogyakarta (Erny Mardhani, 2020)

Yet, from a medical anthropology perspective, jamu consumption and prescriptions are based on the principles of humoral medicine, which has a long and sophisticated tradition. It identifies bodies as having four important fluids which are characterized as hot/cold and wet/dry, and is based on the belief that a balance of these bodily fluids is fundamental to good health. According to this understanding, a balanced unity of body, mind and spirit are essential to withstand outside influences such as viruses, evil spirits or social discrepancies (Weydmann 2019: 213ff.).

It is a long way to go for anyone to provide academic evidence that jamu medicine helps against Covid-19. And yet, some scientists now claim that the more-established traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), both traditional and modern remedies, strengthens the body’s immune system in ways that reduce viral pathogenic factors (Zhou et al., 2020). As has been demonstrated by Hartanti et al. (2020), jamu remedies promoted as Covid-19 prevention in Indonesia are adaptations of the TCM formula which has been officiated in the Chinese National Clinical Guideline as a means to prevent Covid-19 or treatment during severe and recovery stages.

While such trials and debates continue, one thing is certain. The current crisis of Covid-19 seems to be a big chance for the jamu industries. Recently, the head of the Indonesian National Agency of Drug and Food Control BPOM (Badan Pengawas Obat dan Makanan) declared that from January to July 2020 new permits have been distributed for 178 traditional medical remedies, 3 phytopharmaca, and 149 local health supplements with properties to help strengthen the immune system. BPOM also supports research on eight herbal products to combat symptoms of Covid-19. And, as the Jakarta Post recently wrote that there will be “a bright, post-pandemic future for Indonesian ‘jamu’” (Susanty 2020), it comes as no surprise that the Indonesian herbal products manufacturer Sido Muncul is expanding into the Saudi Arabian market as “an opportunity amid the COVID-19 pandemic”.

However, besides the economic opportunities, we also need to consider that the pandemic negatively impacts the poorest sectors of the population. Even though the Indonesian Supreme Court on the one hand annulled the increase of premiums for the National Health Insurance System (BPJS Kesehatan), Indonesian politicians are now asking the poor to spend money for jamu medications or ingredients in order to cope with Covid-19.

Against this background, the current pandemic and emerging practices of healthcare are an economic question. In short, the Covid-19 crisis “turned out to be a capitalist thing” in Indonesia as much as elsewhere (see earlier blog contribution by Don Kalb). Herbal medicine offers economic opportunities in times of crisis and even though we may dream of a system that enables health seekers to freely decide on their healthcare – independent of their economical background – we realize the many obstacles that need to be overcome before such a system can become reality for everyone.

Nicole Weydmann is postdoctoral researcher at the chair of Comparative Development and Cultural Studies with a focus on Southeast Asia at the University of Passau, Germany and works on the use of traditional and alternative medicine in Southeast Asia and Europe.

Kristina Großmann is professor at the anthropology of southeast Asia at the University of Bonn, Germany.

Maribeth Erb is an associate professor at the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Originally from the US, she has worked and lived in Singapore since 1989.

Novia Tirta Rahayu Tijaja completed her MA degree in Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Passau and currently lives in her hometown, Jakarta.


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Ferzacca, S. 2001. Healing the Modern in a Central Javanese City. Durham: Carolina Academic Press.

Hartanti, D., Dhiani, B. A., Charisma, S. L., & Wahyuningrum, R. (2020). The Potential Roles of Jamu for COVID-19: A Learn from the Traditional Chinese Medicine. Pharmaceutical Sciences & Research, 7(4), 2.

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Vita Peacock: The slave trader, the artist, and an empty plinth

On 7th June 2020, the bronze statue of Edward Colston in the English city of Bristol was pulled down by Black Lives Matter protesters with a rope, rolled a short distance down the road, and dropped into the harbor with a gurgle. Colston was a merchant who became rich in the late seventeenth-century selling sugar, wine, oil, fruits, and most significantly, slaves from the West African coast (Morgan 1999). Although, rather dubiously, Colston left no written records, he became a member of the Royal African Company in 1680, rising to deputy governor in 1689, at a time when the chartered corporation held a monopoly over the West African slave trade, shipping captives to plantations in North America, the Caribbean, and Brazil (Pettigrew 2013). Colston’s memory has however endured in Bristol because of his local philanthropic works. Colston funded schools, hospitals, almshouses, workhouses, and other charitable causes, and even today his name is attached to a number of other toponyms across the city. The statue itself was erected in 1895 at the height of the British Empire as a tribute to these works—completely neglecting their own inhumane underpinnings.

Since the 1990s, Colston’s pivotal role in the slave trade has become more widely known, and calls had been growing to remove the statue, but without tangible effect. So when a wave of protests swept the world, in anger at the killing of African-American George Floyd by a white police officer, Black Lives Matter activists in the U.S. began upending confederate statues, and Colston fell as part of this iconoclastic surge, subsequently catalyzing it when the event was beamed across social media and made international headlines. At the time of writing, over 360 public objects across the world symbolizing racial hierarchies have now been removed, defaced, painted over, beheaded, and drowned.

Michael Taussig has reflected extensively on what happens when symbols are destroyed (1999). Public statues like the eighteen-foot figure of Colston contain a secret, a public secret—in his case the secret of African slavery that lay behind his reformist programme—that is revealed at the moment of their desecration. The power of this revelation is by its own nature temporary, but nevertheless extremely potent, releasing a ‘strange surplus of negative energy’ into the world (1999, 1), a magical shockwave whose strength is commensurate with the depth of the secret it exposes. When activist Jen Reid stood on top of the empty plinth later that day, spontaneously raising her arm in the Black Power salute, ‘It was like an electrical charge of power running through me’, she remembers. As news of the toppling continued to spread, the plinth stood there, pulsing, while a feverish debate developed over what should replace it.

The empty plinth where Colston stood is embroidered with Black Lives Matter placards (Caitlin Hobbs / 7th June 2020,

I have been an admirer of the artist Marc Quinn since I was twelve years old. That year, 1997, I was tugged along to the epoch-defining Sensation exhibition at London’s Royal Academy. Quinn’s contribution was present alongside other so-called Young British Artists, or YBAs, a new generation of creators working under the influence of postmodernism who sought to redefine what we thought of as art. The sight of his head made entirely out of his own blood is still imprinted on my mind, an object which somehow managed to capture both the intense throb of life, at the same time as being a death-mask, a memento mori. Some years later, when I was twenty, I made sure to catch Alison Lapper Pregnant on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, the sumptuous marble form of a woman in the bloom of biological reproduction alongside a severe disability.

At 4.30am on the 15th July 2020, in the space of barely fifteen minutes, Quinn, together with Jen Reid, a Guardian journalist, and a team of crane operatives, again placed himself at the forefront of my consciousness when he installed a life-sized resin statue of Reid giving her salute on top of Colston’s empty plinth, alongside a statement on his website. But this artwork raised questions in a way that the others did not.

The statement announces that it was a ‘joint’ undertaking by Quinn and his model Reid, an act of co-creation. Their aims are stated using the collective ‘we’ and Quinn stresses that he and Reid wanted to do the installation ‘together’. In a fuller interview with the Guardian, Quinn even attempts to efface his own role entirely, when he claims that ‘Jen created the sculpture when she stood on the plinth and raised her arm in the air’. But this vision of equality is a smokescreen, and a dangerous one at that. Reid did not create the sculpture when she raised her arm on the plinth, she was experiencing life as a subject, not an object, sensing the energic power of defacement. Quinn created the sculpture with a team of craftsmen. He is a white, 56-year old man, educated at a private boarding school and later at Cambridge University, with a distinguished legacy as an artist behind him. This kind of positionality does not prevent him from being the effective ‘white ally’ that the statement claims to strive for, but true allyship cannot arise when vast differences of institutional privilege are altogether erased. He announces modestly that the sculpture is ‘an embodiment and amplification of Jen’s ideas and experiences’, and yet, after trawling newspaper articles about the installation, I remain unable to answer the most basic question of Reid’s daily occupation.

Still, the most egregious part of the statement comes when Quinn asserts that the motive for the sculpture was ‘keeping the issue of Black people’s lives and experiences in the public eye’. This is at best a delusion and at worst a deception. This issue was at the very center of the public’s dilated pupils as it watched the satisfying swivel of Colston’s tumble on repeat, something which had little to do with Quinn, and everything to do with the physical, social, and legal risks taken by activists on the ground. The terrible genius of Quinn’s move was that he won either way. Either Bristol City Council opted to retain the sculpture, in which case his work would be permanently occupying what is at present the most famous plinth in Britain, or they opted to remove it, by which point the exposure achieved through the guerilla act will have inflated its capital value beyond anything that could have been achieved through more conventional means.

Of course, this was what the YBAs were known for. Tracy Emin’s soiled bed at the same Sensation exhibition in 1997 was as much a confidence trick about whether such an object could command a re-sale value as anything else. And its apotheosis came when Damien Hirst attempted to vend a diamond-encrusted skull for £50 million, a brazen (and by some accounts unsuccessful) experiment in wealth creation. Even if, as Quinn says, the money made when A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) is eventually sold will be given directly to the causes of people in Britain of African descent, the value is not his to give. Just that philanthropic gesture echoes the uncomfortable paradoxes of Colston himself, who made his wealth in an economy of exploitation only to munificently re-gift it.

No formal consent has been sought for the installation’, the statement says calmly. Herein lies the most problematic aspect of the work. At the risk of simplifying a complex and multivalent phenomenon (cf. Patterson 1980), we might think of non-consent as the very epicenter of the slave relation. To be compelled into a condition when the only alternative is violence or death is the antithesis of consent as we would understand it. Enlightenment thinkers invented various moral contortions to get around this brute truth, John Locke famously arguing that as captives in a just war, the slave gave his or her consent in exchange for their life, but these can now be comprehensively dismissed. To engage in such an openly nonconsensual way with a value created by Black people, both now and historically, at a time when a genuine public discussion around slavery in Britain had just opened up, was deplorable. It need not be said that if a Black artist, or someone with less gilded credentials, had engaged in this kind of illegal action, they may not have received the same general fanfare, and may even have been criminally prosecuted.

Within just twenty-four hours the artwork was removed. Bristol has been governed, since 2016, by the first ever person of African descent to be elected to the mayoralty of a major European city, Marvin Rees, whose father is Afro-Jamaican and mother is white British. Rees set the tone within hours of the installation with a public statement, ‘There is an African proverb that says if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. Our challenge is to take this city far’. Quinn’s unsolicited gift, which may now be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, was quietly, but firmly, rejected by Bristol City Council. This was no minor financial decision for an entity working under the pressure of a decade of austerity and the devastations of Covid-19. The profound dignity of this gesture was what Audra Simpson might call a ‘refusal’ (2014), a negation of one world for the purpose of affirming another. It was a refusal in this case to play the game of appropriation, the seizure of value. It gave hope for the future.

Vita Peacock is an anthropologist and Humboldt Fellow affiliated with LMU Munich and the Humboldt University. She is currently finalizing a manuscript based on her ethnography of the Anonymous movement, Digital Initiation Rites: The Arc of Anonymous in Britain.


Morgan, Kenneth. 1999. Edward Colston and Bristol. Bristol: Bristol Branch of the Historical Association.

Patterson, Orlando. 1982. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, [Mass.] ; London: Harvard University Press.

Pettigrew, William. A. 2013. Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

Taussig, Michael T. 1999. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cite as: Peacock, Vita. “The slave trader, the artist, and an empty plinth.” Focaal Blog, 29 July 2020.,-the-artist,-and-an-empty-plinth/

Richard H. Robbins: The Economy After Covid-19

Richard H. Robbins, SUNY Plattsburgh

One feature of both the economic recession of 2007/2008 and the present Covid-19-induced economic collapse is increased central bank bouts of quantitative easing. The U.S. Federal Reserve, after pumping about $500 billion in the economy in 2008 is adding $2.3 trillion as of April 2020, while the European Central Bank (ECB) launched a €750 billion asset purchase program in March. And the IMF estimates that global fiscal support to counter the economic effects of the pandemic is $9 trillion. The question is who gets it and what does it tell us about today’s political economy and what happens next (see also on this blog: Don Kalb 2020a)?

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Don Nonini: Black Enslavement and Agro-industrial Capital

Don Nonini, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Insa Koch’s recent (2020) FOCAAL blog, “The Making of Modern Slavery in Austerity Britain,” reminds us that enslavement and the bodies of black people are profoundly interconnected, and the link to challenges to “the punitive turn” and police abuse in the UK by the Black Lives Matter movement protests are all but explicit in her piece. At the same time, other recent FOCAAL blogs have dealt with the connections between the Covid-19 pandemic and contemporary global capitalism.

Black enslavement and Covid-19 are intimately intertwined. The insurgency of Black Lives Matter during the months of May-June 2020 has its own dynamics. That said, the wide turning out of protests supporting Black Lives Matter in the streets of European cities and towns (London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Brussels, Milan, Kraków, Dublin, Manchester, Munich…) demonstrates that the European left has strongly shown its ongoing antiracist solidarity with African-American struggles, seeking to come to terms with Europe’s own troubled imperial history of enslavements, and challenging its current neo-nationalist or fascist resurgence under declining neoliberal capitalism (Kalb 2020).

The links between black enslavement and Covid-19 start – and continue with – the formation of agro-industrial capitalism and its relations to transnational finance capital.

The Lash, Degraded Ecologies, Finance

There is a clear relationship between the emergence of modern enslavement and the history of a full-blown agro-industrial capitalism. The close connections between fully rationalized capitalist agrarian production, finance, and slavery are only recently becoming clear.

New research on the North American southern plantation economies shows just how advanced rationalized capitalist production was under the conditions of slavery (Baptist 2014). Beyond its monocropping ecology, “many of agribusinesses’ key innovations, in both technology and organization, originated in slavery” (Wallace 2016: 261). Slaveholders measured land only against the capacity of slave labor to transform it, setting the cotton production line in terms of “bales per hand,” with enslaved African men being “hands,” nursing mothers “half hands” and children “quarter hands.” The labor process of picking cotton was measured and held to a standard by another unit of measurement – the “lash.”

“Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck” (Baptist 2014: 130). As Baptist further points out, “on the nineteenth century cotton frontier… enslavers extracted more production from each enslaved person every year. . . the business end of the new cotton technology was a whip” (2014: 112). Planters managed a refined rationality based on the application of the whip measured out in lashes to the backs of a slave calculated relative to their infraction – how many pounds of cotton his basket fell short of making a bale, whether or not there were impurities in it, whether one slave helped another pick her quota – in which case the former received extra lashes. Under the circumstances, the rationality of increased “labor productivity” so vaunted by economists depended straightforwardly on graduated torture – with little contribution (the cotton gin aside) from “technological innovation.”

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 culminated the violent displacement of Indian nations from the Mississippi Gulf region and transformation of their territories into “new lands” of thousands of acres ready for slave-based production (Baptist 2014: 228-229). Cotton monoculture quickly exhausted the rich soils of the South, exposed the crops to rust, rot, and worms, while plowing rows of cotton aligned to the day’s sunlight to maximize yield eroded the land and exhausted aquifers within 10 to 15 years after clearing (Wallace 2016: 266).

Due to the lack of food self-sufficiency and the seasonality of cotton harvests, indebtedness by plantation owners to Northern financiers and cotton brokers became increasingly common. By the 1830s, the cotton plantations of Mississippi, Alabama and Eastern Louisiana had adopted new forms of finance and indebtedness, when the Consolidated Association of Planters of Louisiana was established to allow their member planters to mortgage their slaves as collateral for loans from international financiers, led by the Baring Brothers and the Bank of England, that pooled investments from Europe’s finest old and new upper classes to buy the lucrative bonds issued by the Association (Baptist 2014: 245-8).

Monocropping of plants and animals, the simplification and degradation of local and regional ecologies, rapid expansion of logistics over space, reliance on finance capital for loans to expand production, and the use of enslaved degraded labor – these design features of agro-industrial capitalism have remained in effect to the present.

Meat Markets, Neo-Slave Markets

The coerced use of black labor continued after the Civil War in the cotton sharecropping economy until its decline in the 1930s. At the same time, the new agro-industrial complex of livestock production in the U.S. South – again based on the hyper-exploitation of black labor – got underway. By the 1970s, the livestock industries of intensive hog, poultry, and beef production had become thoroughly institutionalized – through vertical integration (Heffernan and Constance 1994; Stiffler 2005), increases in slaughterhouse assembly-line tempos, and incorporation of meat eating as a universal practice within the diets of the U.S. population (Schlosser 2001, 2012; Stiffler 2005). Since the 1990s the meat industries have globalized to penetrate the BRICS economies, a process facilitated by the lubrication of capital provided by hedge funds and investment banks, such as Goldman Sachs’ deal-making in the sale of Smithfield Foods to Shuanghui in China (Wallace 2016: 269-271).

Subjugated and coerced black labor has anchored and offered up surplus value through U.S. agro-industrial cotton and meat production since the end of legal slavery. Since the 1960s, rural poor African-Americans, especially women, have worked in the meat processing plants of the Midwest, Mississippi delta and Carolinas regions experiencing intensified exploitation, sexual harassment and brutalized and unsafe working conditions. By the 1990s, they were joined by immigrant Mexican and Central American workers (Nonini 2003; Stiffler 2005; Stuesse 2016), with whom white plant managers sought to set them in competition.

The Great Migration of 6 million African-Americans from 1915-1970 from the South to cities in the northern and midwestern U.S. was a form of flight from re-legalized enslavement at the hands of Jim Crow whites. Migration to the Midwest and Northeast placed large numbers of blacks at the factory doors of the Fordist industries of the North. Relegated to secondary labor markets by discrimination from white industrial labor unions during the 1950s-1970s (Cowie 2010: 236-244), black industrial workers by the 1990s, like their white counterparts, were thrown out of work by the globalization of industrial production. The only exceptions were the neo-slavery of hyper-sweated meat processing and related industrial food labor.

“Broken Windows Policing” and the Expropriation of Black Lives

The grown children and grandchildren of these laid-off black industrial workers, with more recent Latinx immigrant workers, now form both the hyper-exploited workers in the food industries (meat processing, fast foods, farm work) and situated in the cities and small towns of the South, Midwest and the Northeast, and those who are chronically unemployed and underemployed, doubly discriminated against due to their poverty (forcing them to leave school before high school graduation), and their race. Those African-Americans who have more or less steady employment also show disproportionate levels of consumer debt – from credit cards, student loans, and medically -related debt. Whether steadily employed or not, a key insight is that by and large both groups draw on the same population of urban African-Americans.

The population of urban African-Americans has the profound misfortune of living in cities recurrently subject to gentrification at the new “urban scale” of globalized real estate and finance-rentier capital (Smith 2008: 239-266). Their residence in spaces made newly desirable by gentrification by the 2000s is the obverse of the fact that up to the 1990s whites fled inner cities in large numbers for segregated suburbs, while African-Americans found themselves only able to afford to live, and only allowed to live within, housing in these redlined inner-city districts.

By the 2000s, however, real estate in these districts had become “hot properties” for global finance capital seeking new sites for safe but extraordinarily profitable rent collection and property speculation in realizing value. This trend by the 1990s was both shaped by and reinforced through the “broken window policing” that targeted unemployed and underemployed African-Americans and Latinx populations (Camp et al. 2016).

What precisely is the role of broken windows policing in the gentrification process? Put non-too-subtly, even one broken window indicates the existence of a “criminal” – an undesirable element in a neighborhood. The role of such policing is the physical removal to jails or prison, or, if that is impossible, the destruction of African-Americans whose very presence threatens the “real estate values” that the finance industry and its local allies hold dear. This goes far to explain the more than 1000 people killed by local police every year in the US, of whom more than one fourth are African-American; the one third of African-American men between ages 19-35 who are “justice involved” – in jail awaiting trial, on bail, undergoing trial, in prison, on probation or parole; and their disproportionate representation in the US’s incarcerated population, the largest per capita in the world.

Nancy Fraser (2016) observes that there is an historical dialectic between the conditions that set out “normal” exploitation of the working force, and the conditions of expropriation of the lives, labor, and property of racialized and vulnerable (e.g. immigrant) populations — as two complementary means through which the accumulation of capital can and does take place under capitalism. Fraser argues that that the new being of neoliberal global capitalism is “the expropriable-and-exploitable citizen-worker,” and that “the racialized subjection of those whom capital expropriates is a condition of possibility for the freedom of those whom it exploits” (Fraser 2016:163).

A group of people holding a sign

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Image 1: Black Lives Matters Protests in Durham, U.S. (Credit: Durham Workers Assembly Durham, North Carolina, with kind permission) 

We can see these two modes of appropriation of surplus value in the tense interconnections between whites and the African-American population in the United States through the latter’s vexed history with respect to agro-industrial and finance capitalism. These interconnections are potentially the point of class differentiation between the increasingly precarious white “middle class” and urban African-Americans, who straddle a black employed working-class subjected to intensified exploitation on one hand, and a lumpen-proletariat subjected to police-impelled expropriation and dispossession, on the other. 

Ongoing criminalization and the indebtedness of black people (the latter a tool of finance capital’s domination) are the instruments driving large numbers of urban black workers disproportionately employed in the agro-industrial food sector toward the toxic mix of indebtedness, unemployment (where employers often refuse to hire blacks holding consumer debt), bankruptcy, evictions from shelter, police “stop and frisk” harassment, enforced fines and fees levied (via police and private firms working for straitened municipalities),  assault, imprisonment, and death (Wang 2018:99-192).  

Don Nonini is Professor of Anthropology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent books are “Getting by”: Class and State Formation among Chinese in Malaysia (Cornell, 2015), and The Tumultuous Politics of Scale: Unsettled States, Migrants, Movements in Flux, co-edited (Routledge, 2020). His most recent publication in FOCAAL is “Theorizing the Urban Housing Commons” (2017). 


Baptist, E. E. (2014). The half has never been told : slavery and the making of American capitalism

Camp, J. T. and C. Heatherton (2016). Policing the planet : why the policing crisis led to black lives matter

Cowie, J. (2010). Stayin’ alive : the 1970s and the last days of the working class. New York, New Press : Distributed by Perseus Distribution. 

Fraser, N. (2016). “Expropriation and exploitation in racialized capitalism: A reply to Michael Dawson.” Critical Historical Studies 3(1): 163-178. 

Harvey, D. (2018). Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason. New York, Oxford University Press. 

Heffernan, W. and D. H. Constance (1994). Transnational corporations and the globalization of the food system. From Columbus to ConAgra: The Globalization of Agriculture and Food. A. Bonanno, L. Busch and e. al. Lawrence, KA, University Press of Kansas Press29-51. 

Kalb, D. 2020. “Covid, Crisis, and the Coming Contestations”, FocaalBlog, June 1st,

Nonini, D. M. (2003). American neoliberalism, ‘globalization,’ and violence: Reflections from the United States and Southeast Asia. Globalization, The State, and Violence. J. Friedman. Walnut Creek, CA, Altamira Press (Rowman & Littlefield)163-202. 

Schlosser, E. ((2001), 2012). Fast food nation : the dark side of the all-American meal, with a New Afterword. Boston, MA, Mariner books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). 

Smith, N. and D. Harvey (2008). Uneven development: nature, capital, and the production of space. Athens, University of Georgia Press. 

Striffler, S. (2005). Chicken : the dangerous transformation of America’s favorite food. New Haven, Yale University Press. 

Stuesse, A. Scratching out a living : Latinos, race, and work in the Deep South. 

Wallace, R. (2016). Big Farms Make Big Flue: Dispatches on infectious disease, agribusiness, and the nature of science. New York, Monthly Review Press. 

Wang, J. (2018). Carceral capitalism.  Semiotext(e) Interventions, 21. South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e).

Enikő Vincze: Post-covid “Economic recovery” in Romania: forget labor, save capital, and support militarization?

Enikő Vincze, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoc

On May 28th the liberal Romanian government published the last data on the employment situation. This is therefore a good time to review the fate of Romanian labor in and after the lockdowns. I argue that we see a deepening of the export oriented neoliberal paradigm that demonizes the “social” and represses social reproduction in favor of subsidies to capital. Moreover, some of those subsidies now go towards increased militarization and the further beefing up of policing. What the liberal government calls “economic recovery” policies, turn out to be nothing more than a return to the “normality” of state supported international capital accumulation that has characterized much of post-socialist Europe after 1989.

Reviewing labor contract data from the end of March to the end of May, one notices a steady increase in the number of both suspended and terminated contracts. By the end of April, this trend changes: suspensions decline while terminations increase. By the end of May, the total number of suspensions and terminations reaches alarming proportions: over 1 million. More than four hundred thousand workers (especially in manufacturing, retail, and construction) had their labor contracts fully terminated. These workers receive paltry unemployment benefits of 25% of the minimum wage, amounting to about 330 lei/68 euro per month. If they are lucky and can claim technical unemployment, they receive 75% of their salaries. This probably means that some 600,000 former manufacturing and retail workers will now receive a monthly benefit of about 1,000 lei/208 euro (75% of the minimum wage). By the end of May, then, about 1,100,000 workers have less than some 200 euro per month while the value of the minimum consumption basket is even in the official calculation more than double that amount (at the end of 2019, the minimum consumption basket was over 2650 lei/525 euro per month).

Image 1: “Poverty kills”, Romanian protesters in Cluj (Photo: Enikő Vincze, 2020)

The labor crisis is exacerbated by the return of Romanians who used to work abroad: 1,270,000 of them at the end of April, of which at least 350,000 are actively looking for a job and receiving unemployment benefits. Of a total Romanian population of 17/18 million, some 1,5 million people, then, live on an income that just allows for bare survival. However, one should point out that this is not new for them: they were pretty bad or very bad off even before the pandemic, when they had fully paid jobs. Now, they hardly differ from the more than 4,632,000 persons who, according to Eurostat 2019 data, lived below the official poverty line, meaning on less than 900 lei/191 euro per month. In sum, 30 years after the revolution and 12 years after EU accession, Romania, a belated but by now dedicated student of neoliberal transition economics, may well have some 6 million people just above or under the poverty line, about half the working population. Against the policy rhetoric, these people have no “normality” to return to after the pandemic (keep in mind that In the “old good times”, over 30% of Romania’s employees (or 42% of formal employment contracts) earned only half the value of the minimum consumption basket per month). But the current government does not even talk about inequalities, poverty, or the public responsibilities of the state for the dispossessions brought by capitalism. Instead, it dreams of returning to a fictitious normal that for many never existed. As in the past, the crisis of capitalism induced by the Covid pandemic is solved through the “normality” of state supported capital accumulation: further enrichment of the rich, facilitation of transnational capital, and even deeper impoverishment of the many.

The current government’s “economic recovery plan” is leading to the further pauperization of labor (for more details see here). The plan is based on state aid schemes used throughout EU in the context of the pandemic: guaranteeing commercial loans for firms, but also capital and investment loans for both small and medium-sized enterprises, and large companies; subsidizing the interest rates of bank loans; offering aid to newly established companies. Moreover, there are several other facilities granted to large property owners: reducing the price of electricity for large consumers, refunding VAT, halting seizure on their debts. The government also foresees some measures to support employers who keep employees in their jobs or plan on hiring new staff. However, it does not provide anything that would directly support labor, like raising wages or improving labor conditions. In short, it is imagined as an economic recovery but not for ordinary people.

These ordinary people are told the EU funnels billions of euro to aid Romania’s recovery. At the same time, the government refuses any talk of wage rises, social protection, or public housing investment. Such talk is branded “toxic populism” or “economic ignorance” of the critical role that investment rather than consumption plays in growth. Romanian labor is no longer interesting, not even as a consumer. This supply-side policy in support of capital is based on the expectation that labor must remain cheap (regardless of the problems that further decreases in demand would create for many local small enterprises), so that international capital may come along to exploit it. But will an export-led model work in a global economy interrupted by a global recession, with shrinking returns to capital? True, for Romania it did work in 2010. But will it again?

After the pandemic has shown so clearly that labor is the very carrier of production, the current Liberal government chooses to further disregard workers. Instead, it’s doing everything possible to grant state aid to multinational companies operating in Romania. For that goal this government is also ready to borrow on the international market or from international financial institutions, which will push debt over the 50% of GDP threshold that rules as “normality” in CEE, in which case international pressure will force it to cut public sector spending such as on public wages, social assistance, and social protection. Saving capital goes therefore hand in hand with austerity measures (as prescribed in the Convergence Program 2020 of Romania, see Vincze 2015). Once again we see the tasteless spectacle of arrogant private entrepreneurs being saved by the visible hand of the state, grinning with satisfaction at public sector cuts while claiming the right to be supported at all costs, looting the public sector on behalf of their apparently deserved private profits.

In contrast to the 2008 crisis, however, this time Romania bets that the military industry will save the economy. “Among the government’s priorities are greenfield and offset investments in industries such as the military,” says the prime-minister. This option crowns former initiatives such as the acquisition of the $ 3.9 billion American Patriot missile system, promoted by the country’s president since his first mandate. The 2020 budget allocations provide for an 18% rise of military budget as compared to 2019, while the Ministry of Internal Affairs can do with an extra 13% on top of the increased budget for the Romanian Intelligence Services.

In this increasingly troubled world with various contradictory scenarios for the future, there is a risk that the current crisis of capitalism will be resolved not only by the militarization of the economy but also by rising political and social fascism. There is consistency there. Promoting racialized hatred (Stoica 2020), provoking interethnic conflicts and tensions between social classes is part of the justification for investments in a police state with military muscle. As other branches of industry are struggling hard to recover from the recession, capital needs war industry investments to save itself. Perversely, Romania’s leaders also offer the domestic reserve army of labor the opportunity to make a career out of warfare. President Iohannis recently stated that Romania’s armed forces can be made available for participation in missions and operations outside the Romanian state, claiming “important resources for equipping the Romanian Army make it possible to achieve national defense capabilities within the collective defense system of NATO and, at the same time, coherent multiannual programs can offer the Romanian industry the chance to relaunch. especially through institutional cooperation with the companies of our allies.”

We may not be surprised by these developments, but we can and must revolt against them. We could begin by imagining different economic recovery scenarios. What if the state took over the companies that can no longer function according to the rules of the “free market”? What if state aid came with the demand for decent wages for the employees? What if the state taxed large fortunes in real estate and banking accumulated over the past decades? What if the state decided to implement measures in support of people rather than profit: banning forced evictions, municipalization of public utilities, controlling private rents, achieving a significant stock of social housing through various methods? What if the state acted for the benefit of labor? For peace and disarmament? What if we did all of this now, to mark 75 years since the defeat of fascism and the promise of a better era for humanity? Why long for the “normality” of capital accumulation when we can long for other possible worlds?

This is the English version of an article published in Romanian on the platform Baricada, June 4th, 2020. The Romanian version contains additional graphs and references. Accessible here:

Enikő Vincze is Professor of Sociology at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, and a political activist for housing justice with the group Căși sociale ACUM/ Social Housing NOW!


Stoica, Maria & Enikő Vincze 2020. “The suspension of Human rights during COVID-19: For Roma in Pata Rât they have been suspended for a very long,” LeftEast, April 27,

Vincze, Enikő 2015. “Glocalization of neoliberalism in Romania through the reform of the state and entrepreneurial development,” Studia Europaea, 1: 125-152,

Insa Koch: The Making of Modern Slavery in Austerity Britain

Insa Koch, London School of Economics

States’ claims that they are relieving human suffering have become a central element of their ongoing liberal legitimation amid their production of deepening inequalities. The British government’s modern slavery agenda in relation to “county lines” provides a case in point. County lines is the name given by the police to “Class A” drugs networks spreading from larger cities that rely on young runners to move the drugs. These runners – predominantly working class and ethnic minority young men who used to be criminalised for their involvement in the illicit economy – are now being discovered as modern slaves in need of saving. Yet, professionals also separate those worthy of saving from others who are the object of rightful punishment. The fraught politics of victimhood at the heart of the modern slavery agenda foregrounds the role of legal-moral control in governing disenfranchised populations in austerity Britain and elsewhere. It illuminates how states try to shore up popular consent beyond a politics of ‘law and order’ where decades of neo-liberal policy have brought their democratic mandates under attack.

Modern Slavery Policies: domesticating a humanitarian agenda

“More than 200 years ago the British House of Commons passed historic legislation to make the slave trade illegal. But sadly, the grim reality today is that slavery still exists in towns, cities and the countryside across the world. And be in no doubt, slavery is taking place here in the UK”. These were the words of Home Secretary and later Prime Minister, Theresa May, in 2014 when introducing her flagship policy, the modern slavery agenda. The agenda was spearheaded by the Modern Slavery Act 2015, a piece of legislation that introduces both a prosecution and a defense tool for cases of human trafficking, slavery and servitude. It has also seen the creation of anti-slavery partnerships at local authority levels, the appointment of an anti-slavery commissioner, and the expansion of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the government’s official identification mechanism for modern slaves.

Concerns over human trafficking and modern slavery have been on the international humanitarian agenda for some time (Davidson 2015). There, the slave victim has tended to be identified with the figure of the ‘exotic other’ – typically the black or brown woman from the global south – trafficked for purposes of sexual and domestic exploitation (Anderson and Andrijasevic 2008; Woods 2013). However, increasingly, the language of relieving human suffering has also become prominent in governing disenfranchised domestic populations in the global north (Fassin 2011; Feldman and Ticktin 2010). Miriam Ticktin has argued with respect to human trafficking discourses that the key to the appeal of this agenda lies in its unquestioned universality: ‘the underlying assumption is that we recognise suffering whenever we see it, because there is a common denominator to being human, located in our bodies, particularly in our bodies in pain’ (2011: 11).

The discovery of modern slavery as a matter of domestic policy constitutes an exercise in technocratic legal-moral governance. A wide range of actors – from NGOs, social movements to state actors – come to create, transgress and navigate ‘political relations […] through techno-moral means’ (Bornstein and Sharma 2016; Kosmatopoulos 2014; Steur 2018). According to Bornstein and Sharma, in ‘mixing the language of law and policy with moral pronouncement, state and non-state actors posture themselves as defenders of rights and keepers of the public interest as they push their agendas and stake out distinct positions’ (2016: 77). But legal-moral governance also tends to reframe questions of inequality in purely technical or scientific terms (Feldman and Ticktin 2010). It typically replaces a struggle between ‘right’ and left’ with a moral struggle between ‘right and wrong’, thus further reinforcing what Steur (2018) recognizes as the displacement of the political into the legal realm.

County lines: the making of modern slaves

The depoliticising effects of legal-moral governance are illustrated in the case of “county lines”, a key area where the domestication of humanitarian agendas has taken off. County lines is the name given by the police to the expanding economy of “class A” drugs of heroin and crack cocaine spreading from cities to market, coastal and smaller towns, operating through designated mobile phone lines, the so-called ‘county lines’. Over 2000 county lines are said to be in operation, with thousands of young people being exploited. Horror stories have been circulating, with common images including those of teenagers and occasionally children as young as seven (Dearden 2019) being recruited by drug lords higher up the chain to ‘plug’ the drugs inside their bodies (Adams 2018), being taken to unknown location and kept in ‘trap houses’ (Mohdin 2019) and going missing for weeks on end (Marsh 2019).

Since 2018, I have been carrying out ethnographic fieldwork on the discovery of modern slavery in county line cases. This research, prompted by developments I stumbled across in my long-term field-site – a large post-industrial council estate in England (Koch 2018) – has led me to spend months talking to working class families, the police, local authority figures, defence and prosecution barristers and to cross between Britain’s disenfranchised urban housing estates to the country’s central criminal courts. Through this research, I have watched new logics of care and control being rolled out as frontline officials traditionally trained in enforcing a ‘war on drugs’ against young, black and minority ethnic males, are learning to recognise some of these same demographics as victims in need of support. Being identified as a modern slave engenders potential forms of redress, including limited welfare and housing support and relief from prosecution for drugs and other offences.

Image 1: Modern slaves’ and their exploiters often come from Britain’s post-industrial social housing estates (Photo by Insa Koch, 2017)

And yet, the recognition of abject suffering also engenders new forms of legibility and control. My research shows that the suffering of a county line victim hinges upon the figure of the groomer. Groomers are typically presented as residing in the same community as their victims. The alleged proximity between victims and perpetrators further enables the authorities to reframe intimate relations through a lens of exploitation as quasi-legal categories are applied to everyday relations in working class communities – terms like ‘remote mothering’, ‘cuckooing’ and ‘mate crime’. Those who are found to be behind exploitation are subject to harsh punishment. This is illustrated in the case of KWA (Marsh 2019b), one of the first successful prosecutions brought against alleged slave traffickers – three young black men from inner-London housing estates – under modern slavery law.

From punitive control to legal-moral governance

Much has been made of the ‘punitive turn’ (Koch 2018), as governments across the global south (Comaroff and Comaroff 2017) and the global north (Wacquant 2009) have responded to the insecurities generated by neoliberal rule by going tough on ‘law and order’. On the face of it, the discovery of ‘modern slaves’ in the case of county lines challenges these developments as some of the most disenfranchised demographics are no longer being criminalised but rather recognised as slaves in need of state compassion and care. And yet, the picture is not so simple. As my research shows, at the heart of the British government’s modern slavery agenda lies a murky politics of victimhood, one which not only conjures images of the internal traitor in disenfranchised working class communities but which also activates a host of technical and legal mechanisms of control in the name of saving the vulnerable.

Rather than seeing the discovery of modern slavery as an aberration from the punitive conjuncture, it then constitutes a deepening of its logics through legal-moral means. In Britain today, growing inequality, topped by a decade of austerity, have generated widespread discontent with government, as evident in widespread levels of voter withdrawal alongside the more recent ‘Brexit’ vote in the referendum on leaving the EU (Koch 2017). Against this backdrop, the discovery of abject suffering in the figure of the domestic slave becomes a means of conjuring moral legitimacy on the part of the state, one which takes the language of hierarchy between the deserving and the undeserving common to neo-populist discourses to the realm of law (Kalb and Mollona 2018: 5). As Brace has argued modern slavery presents an ‘intractable, moral problem, an evil that lurks within our hearts, a beat in the shadows’ (Brace 2018: 220). At a time when decades of neoliberal rule have brought democratic mandates under attack, it is precisely this ‘lurking in or hearts’ that is galvanised by liberal government to shore up popular consent.

And yet, the veneer of legitimacy always runs thin. Take the case of Kieron, a fifteen-year-old male from a large urban housing estate. In 2018, he was designated a ‘modern slave’, having been arrested with Class A drugs. Initially, this resulted in Kieron’s family being offered an organised housing transfer to the countryside. But support has also come at a cost. Various professionals have been closely monitoring his life and his daily social relations. Meanwhile, his parents are struggling to find adequate employment in the area they were moved to. When Kieron was arrested in 2019 with drugs on him again, the tables turned. ‘Now the police are saying that he can be prosecuted because he did not accept their help’, his mother told me. The situation has come full circle: the authorities went from seeing Kieron as a petty criminal to a slave to a criminal, once more.

Insa Koch is Associate Professor at the London School of Economics and the author of ‘Personalizing the State: An Anthropology of Law, Politics and Welfare in Austerity Britain’.


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Mao Mollona: Fully Exterminated Communism, or Anthropology in the Time of Cholera

Mao Mollona, Goldsmiths College, London

One thing is sure. If just briefly, the pandemic struck at the heart of capitalism. It paralysed the economy, broke the bureaucratic machine of nation-states and forced conservative governments worldwide to pass quasi post-capitalist policies which, only a few months earlier, were considered too radical even for the radical Left. The renationalization of public utilities, the rolling out of universal basic income schemes, the debates on debt defaults, rent freezes, and recapitalization of the public sector, could be taken from the post-capitalist manifestos of Paul Mason or Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism (2018).

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