Under the Rubric: Land and Labor Regimes

CSSH has a longstanding tradition of juxtaposing essays for comparative effect. Our readers enjoy this ritual, but we often wonder what our authors think of it. Under the Rubric gives CSSH authors a chance to respond directly to each other’s work, drawing additional insight and inspiration from their arguments.

Land and Labor Regimes

TANIA LI, “The Price of Un/freedom: Indonesia’s Colonial and Contemporary Plantation Labor Regimes” (59/2: 245276)

R. ALAN COVEY, co-author, with KYLIE E. QUAVE, “The Economic Transformation of the Inca Heartland (Cuzco, Peru) in the Late Sixteenth Century” (59/2: 277-309)

In her essay, “The Price of Un/Freedom,” Tania Li shows how contemporary oil palm plantation labor in Indonesia paradoxically reproduces, often under the rubric of market “freedom,” key features of Dutch colonial labor regimes. Labor regimes are the assemblages that set the conditions of work. They include materials, spaces, schedules, tools, food, conditions of social reproduction, and the rules of reward and punishment. Labor regimes establish the axes of freedom and “unfreedom,” which Li works out in careful ethnographic and historical detail from 1725 to the present. Too much freedom leaves labor overly mobile, and unprotected in terms of the conditions of social reproduction; too little freedom leaves stunted lives of indentured or contract labor, forms resembling slavery. Li shows that the line separating freedom from unfreedom is never straight or easily traced. She documents resurgent forms of contract labor in the contemporary age of free-market Indonesian palm oil production that eerily replicate earlier periods of forced labor. Her work establishes that possessing an excess of market freedom to sell one’s labor can be as pernicious and destructive to human flourishing as unfreedom, given the insistent demands of calculating bodily endurance against a daily wage, and the family separations, community failures, and other costs the new “free” labor market seems to entail. Li shows that an effective and humane balance of freedom and unfreedom is a feat only rarely and fleetingly achieved. In most cases, her anthropological history demonstrates, colonial overseers, New Order administrators, and “free-market” employers alike succeed in converting communal laborers into landless or otherwise dependent peasants.

R. Alan Covey and Kylie E. Quave interpret an earlier colonial regime, the Spanish rule of the Inca heartland surrounding Cuzco after the conquest of the 1530s. Spain transformed the Inca landscape and economy, introducing new crops, animals, and systems of labor to push flows of wealth to the mining center of Potosí. Transforming the land was accompanied by converting landholding Incas into dependent peasants, reliant on a new colonial anthropology. Under Viceroy Francisco de Toledo this effort assumed its most rationalized form, called the visita general. In it, indigenous residential communities (ayllu) were relocated, carefully counted, and reassigned from sacred lands to Christian Indian towns, a transformation marked by new labor regimes and new tariff duties. But as communal territories were transformed into properties, “excess” lands were sold off, almost exclusively to Spaniards. Covey and Quave examine specific districts a generation after Toledo’s intervention and discover that, while the conversion of Inca collectives into Christian towns mostly failed, the Incas’ conversion from cosmopolitans into peasants was an all too tragic success.

CSSH: We’re not sure what fascinates us most about these papers: the distinct labor regimes you describe or the larger contexts in which they evolved. In each case, there are elaborate social worlds that must be neutralized, manipulated, or destroyed before they can produce workers. In 16th century Peru, people are turned into peasants by Spanish taxation and land tenure policies. In colonial and contemporary Southeast Asia, plantation labor becomes more or less free as local subsistence systems, global markets, and modes of state investment change. Having sampled each other’s arguments, are there analytical patterns that stand out for you in new ways?

LI: Three themes stood out for me reading your essay through a comparative lens. One is the extraordinary depth and detail with which Spanish colonial officials planned for the welfare of Peru’s indigenous population in the sixteenth century. The attempt to obtain accurate population numbers, and to understand the ecological and social dynamics of highland production systems, was associated not only with extractive demands for tribute and labour service, but also with a concern to ensure all the people—including widows, orphans, and the disabled—had sufficient means of subsistence. The ethos, in short, was governmental, in the sense elaborated by Foucault: the welfare of each and all was a matter of official concern. The situation in Dutch-ruled Java in the era of intensive coffee production (1720-1870) was strikingly different. There was little interest in knowing the size or condition of the population, and limited desire to find out whether the rural people who were forced to cultivate coffee actually had access to the reserves of “surplus” land and labour the colonial regime assumed. Concerns about native welfare did become more prominent after 1900, when the Dutch rulers adopted the so-called “Ethical Policy,” but in the plantation sector the focus continued to be the maximum extraction of profit.

A second contrast was the mode of regulation, negotiation, and protest. Spain’s colonial subjects had access to a system of law and to an appeals process to contest unfair land grabs, excessive tribute demands, and corrupt decisions. Indigenous leaders and Spaniards appointed as guardians played a role in promoting indigenous interests through legal means. As the authors stress, this system did not prevent grabbing and corruption, but it did seem to constitute indigenous people as subjects entitled to just treatment. In the Netherlands Indies, indigenous subjects had no comparable means of legal redress; arbitrariness and impunity were not the exception, they were the rule.
On the main topic of my essay—the role of un/freedom in ensuring labour supply, the contrast is more subtle. Peru’s indigenous highlanders were compelled to undertake unpaid work as tribute and to also work for wages in return for their “grant” of land from the Spanish crown. The means of compulsion was not their dispossession from the land, but their (re)attachment to it, this time under royal decree. In Java in the coffee era, the mechanism of labour extraction was similar in that the Company and later the Dutch Crown assumed ownership of all the land, and extracted labour service and/or tribute in coffee as “rent” for use of (appropriated) land. In the plantation belt of Sumatra in the nineteenth century, in contrast, the colonial power did not attempt to dispossess the native population in order to generate a pool of plantation workers—it simply bypassed them, and relied upon migrant workers imported from China and Java. Only later, after plantations had expanded sufficiently to create landlessness among the indigenous population, did the dispossession of this population become relevant to labour supply. In contemporary plantation zones migrant labour continues to be imported, producing a double jeopardy for the people on the spot whose land is needed, but whose labour is not needed. I wonder: What does “creating peasants” flag for you; what kind of figure is a peasant? Do you use this term in reference to their settlement on individually owned land?

COVEY: Your comments on our paper are very interesting from a comparative perspective. Andean anthropologists (including many archaeologists and ethnohistorians) are just starting to emerge from a structuralist, substantivist template for “traditional” Andean societies that emphasizes their timelessness and continuity from Inca times and earlier, so your paper is an important reminder of how much variation and chance is found on rural landscapes.
Our use of the word “peasant” refers to the fact that the Spanish project aspired to race-making or ethnogenesis, rendering the diverse population of Cuzco as Indians living in legible Christian towns. We use “peasant” to encompass the different class arrangements that developed or persisted as a result of the reducciones and composiciones de tierras. In many ways, the word was intended to be a forward-looking one—where flight from tributary populations built the landless populations of rural haciendas and cities, and where the surviving rural communities saw the degradation of their communal and personal subsistence resources to the point where most were forced into supplementary labor, even after the Colonial mita was no longer in force.

Turning to your paper, let me offer some comments on “The Price of Un/Freedom: Indonesia’s Colonial and Contemporary Plantation Labor Regimes.” The Southeast Asian cases that you develop in your paper serve as an important reminder of how unfree or unfair labor arrangements arise in the interplay of national politics, global economics, and the potential for specific means of production to generate profits for those who control them. The more recent cases complement our data from early Colonial Peru, illustrating some of the same changes that have occurred in the Peruvian highlands in the late twentieth century to the present. The composiciones de tierras that we studied accelerated changes in land tenure and labor arrangements that developed throughout the Colonial and Republican periods. When the Peruvian government began to conduct national agrarian surveys in the 1960s, almost all the Cuzco region’s farmland was held in large estates (latifundia), whereas indigenous smallholders held plots too small for their subsistence. Velasco’s agrarian reform altered landholding patterns 1969, leading to the establishment of new cooperatives and towns in rural Cuzco. This ironically led communities with early Colonial land boundary documents—such as the ones that we use in our study—to lay claim to the same diminished boundaries that were titled in the 1590s. In the past 20 years or so, urbanization and tourism have continued to shape rural Cuzco, altering patterns of domestic production, as well as the different places where indigenous bodies can be consumed on unequal (if not unfree) terms.

Your focus on multiple plantation crops—rubber, sugar, oil palm—demonstrates the growing dissonance between “traditional” subsistence production and the commodities that can be produced profitably in a tropical context. It affirms the ecological patterning we observed in rural Cuzco, drawing attention to the ways that commodity production accesses labor while pursuing profits. In early Colonial Peru, we saw that the labor inputs needed for commodity production of maize, wheat, and herd animals took land, water, and labor from indigenous populations in different ways. Still, these were arguably less deadly than the labor requirements imposed on indigenous populations forced to labor on Cuzco’s Amazonian coca plantations, or in distant silver and mercury mines. Your paper shows how elites tend to presume some sort of functional “traditional” subsistence economy that sustains the bodies they draw on for labor, encouraging them to calculate wages and design workplace rules solely with profitability in mind. For an anthropologist, work like this helps to sharpen a sense of the historical changes that threaten and undermine “traditional” societies, and the ways that indigenous peoples actively produce and defend their ways of life.

CSSH: The contrast you draw between a governmentally engaged and controlling authority and one that is more ruthlessly extractive and uninterested in local worlds (unless they get in the way) is ripe terrain for additional study. Perhaps your comments will inspire a few CSSH readers to follow up. Do you have any parting words of advice for them?

LI: My take-home from this exchange concerns the value of comparative analysis not only of diverse modes of dispossession and extraction, but also of the governmental logics, administrative agendas, and state or empire building concerns with which they are entangled. Profit, taxes, religious conversion, improvement of populations, subject-making, securing territory, notions of justice, and orderly rule may all be in play and the tensions and miss-connects between these agendas are as important as the alignments.

COVEY: I am grateful to the editors of CSSH for framing the significant issue at the heart of our co-authored paper: How governments formulate their policies, and how those play out in local contexts over time. Having spent much time “in the weeds” working out the details of this paper, it is helpful to have this big-picture question stated so clearly, and elaborated through the scholarly dialogue that appears here. This meta-scholarship has helped me to formulate two takeaways from writing this paper. First, it is important throughout the research process to consider actively how a particular body of local evidence might contribute to a broader set of interpretive questions. This means maintaining a critical stance between the two, trying to make sure the assumptions of received wisdom are not artificially reinforced in the ambiguous spaces of a fragmentary assemblage of texts or data. Identifying the ultimate context of one’s research leads to the second point: it is necessary to understand that any significant issue traverses the domains of multiple academic disciplines, and then to “study up” (or down or sideways, in Laura Nader’s words) to understand the broader context and place one’s data into it. Our disciplinary training prepares us to use distinctive epistemologies, methods, and source materials; and that can make it easy to overlook the parallel ways that other scholars pursue the same central theme. Transdisciplinary collaboration and dialogue can be risky and uncomfortable, but they can also yield some of the most satisfying scholarship.

R. Alan Covey is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. He received his Ph.D. from The University of Michigan in 2003 and has held appointments at the American Museum of Natural History, Southern Methodist University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Dartmouth College. Covey has conducted archaeological surveys and excavations in the Andes since 1996, with particular focus on the Cuzco region of highland Peru, where he directed a series of regional settlement pattern surveys near the Inca capital. Each of these archaeological studies has included complementary archival research in Cuzco, Lima, London, and Seville. Working with the material and documentary record, Covey has published widely on the origins and expansion of the Inca Empire, as well as the Spanish colonial transformation of the Inca heartland.

Kylie Quave is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Beloit College in Wisconsin. She earned her doctorate at Southern Methodist University in Anthropology and a B.A. in Art History at Emory University. Her work examines local communities in the imperial heartland of the Inca (Cusco, Peru) to reconstruct interactions during two waves of imperial conquest. Through archaeological excavation and ethnohistorical and archival studies, she compares the household economies of marginalized groups relative to Inca imperial development and Spanish colonial rule from the eleventh to eighteenth centuries. She was recently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College, and has taught courses at Southern Methodist University and the Universidad Nacional San Antonio Abad del Cusco, Peru.

Tania Murray Li teaches in the Department of Anthropology at The University of Toronto, where she holds the Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy and Culture of Asia. Her publications include Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier (Duke University Press, 2014); Powers of Exclusion: Land Dilemmas in Southeast Asia (with Derek Hall and Philip Hirsch, NUS Press, 2011); The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics (Duke University Press, 2007); and many articles on land, labor, development, resource struggles, community, class, and indigeneity, with a particular focus on Indonesia.