Blockade: The Power of Interruption

Think of this as the trailer for my ethnography, photography, and the book I’m revising for publication…

On June 23, 2008, three of us ascend an eerily empty highway from the tropical town of Coroico to Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. Foreigners, we stare at the majestic valley below as we pass above the line where the tropical tree cover of the Yungas gives way to pure rock. The so-called Death Highway has been rebuilt on a more secure footing, but it is still marked by hairpin turns, intruded upon by fallen boulders of a terrifying scale, and undermined by landslides. Its predecessor, once calculated as the world’s deadliest roadway, has been preserved as a downhill biking path for tourists seeking “100 percent adrenaline.” Where the road has fallen or washed out, drivers let their wheels dig tracks into the mud and gravel tracks, and peer over the edges of their vehicles to avoid falling off the side.

Today, however, both roads are nearly silent. None of the half dozen minibus unions are operating their vehicles, bike tours are cancelled, and the taxi we found cruises over empty roads and easily steers clear of both the rock faces and the treacherous edges. Once finally inside La Paz however, it comes to a stop at the cause of all the earlier silence: an urban road blockade. Residents of the northeastern District 13, organized through 46 neighborhood councils, have plugged the main arteries through their neighborhood with stones and their collective presence. They are calling on the municipality to meet an eight-point platform of demands concerning crime, public works, and water provision. Taxis like ours can approach the protest zone but only to discharge their passengers. Dozens of men and women walk—their goods stacked on their heads, bundled in fabric on their backs, or dragged along in suitcases—across the vehicle-free stretch of urban pavement, littered with stones and occupied by protesters who gather in the middle.

Every point along the road we have travelled is a potential chokepoint. Since the main road from La Paz to the Yungas passes through this district, a single blockade is enough to cut off all traffic to Coroico, the Yungas, Caranavi, and the northern Bolivian Amazon. Whether accomplished by simply sitting down in the street, dragging in boulders and tree limbs, or coordinating crowds of thousands to take over key thoroughfares, road blockades bring a sudden urgency to political protest. By blocking the circulation of people and goods, they ensure that the impacts of protest ripple across an entire region.

Read more at Limn Magazine…

Men and women rake and shovel a plie of garbage into bags as part of the Kariobangi Waste Management Allianc

“Every day the poor people dig, scavenge, and gather.”

Poverty is there, however, unbearable and discreet. On every page it manifests itself, in three elementary actions: carrying, scavenging, pilfering.

In all the capitals of poverty, the poor carry bundles. They always keep them close by. When they sit down, they place them by their side and watch over them. What do they put in them? Everything: wood gathered in a park, hastily, crusts of bread, bits of wire pulled off a fence, scraps of cloth. If the bundle is too heavy, they drag it along, in wheelbarrows or handcarts.

Peasants rest at the foot of the ancient walls of Nanking after collecting lotus roots for fuel. In the background: Jade Mountain, and the lake where sailors received their training during the days of the Ming Emperors. In all the capitals of poverty, people scavenge. They scavenge in the soil and the subsoil; they gather round refuse bins; they slip right into the rubble: ‘What others throw away is mine; what is no longer of any use to them is good enough for me.’ On waste ground near Peking, the rubbish piles up. This is the refuse of the poor; they have sifted through everything, they have already rummaged through their own rubbish; they have only left, reluctantly, what is uneatable, unusable, unspeakable, revolting. And yet the flock is there. On all fours. They will scavenge all day, every day.

In all the capitals of poverty, there is pilfering. Is it stealing? No, just picking things up. These bales of cotton have just been unloaded. If they stay an hour longer on the dock, they will disappear. No sooner have they been put down than the crowd rushes forward and surrounds them. Everyone attempts to pull off a handful of cotton. Many handfuls of cotton, gathered day after day – that makes an item of clothing. I recognize the look on the women’s faces, I have seen it in Marseilles, in Algiers, in London, in the streets of Berlin; it is serious, quick and hounded, anguish mingles with greed. You have to grab before you are grabbed. When the bales have been loaded onto a lorry, the kids will run after it with outstretched hands.

Every day the poor people dig, scavenge and gather.

Jean-Paul Sartre
Preface to D’une Chine à l’autre,
by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Jean-Paul Sartre,
Paris, Editions Robert Delpire, 1954.
(a book of photographs taken in China by Cartier-Bresson)

The image above is from the Kariobangi Waste Management Alliance in Nairobi, Kenya, over 300 young Kenyans who have made a waste collection system for the slum of Kariobangi; photograph borrowed from this 2013 article. The image below is a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson taken in Nanking in April 1949. Original caption: “Peasants rest at the foot of the ancient walls of Nanking after collecting lotus roots for fuel. In the background: Jade Mountain, and the lake where sailors received their training during the days of the Ming Emperors.”

Cropped cover of Eduardo Gudynas' book _Extractivismos_

Bolivia in the age of extractivism (a field report)

This is Bolivia 2015.

Unprecedented ambition is transforming the landscape into a source of new exports, an ambition that is measured more in dizzying numbers than individual projects. A feasibility study begins for a dam, El Bala, that would submerge the heart of Madidi National Park to produce 1600 to 4800 MW of electricity, but in announcing the contract, President Evo Morales speaks of a potential 48,000 MW of new projects across the country. Government aspirations for energy production also include investing US$2 billion in a nuclear power plant in Viacha, a still-hypothetical prospect that would place the vast El Alto–La Paz metropolis at risk in the event of a major accident. When exploratory drilling in the Lliquimuni petroleum block in the northern Bolivian Amazon is inaugurated, Morales proposes building an improbable but possible oil refinery to commoditize oil from a cluster of oil fields underneath the rainforest. At an agricultural policy forum, co-hosted by the government, the peasant confederation CSUTCB, and big agribusiness (the Chamber of Agriculture of the East), the government proposes quintupling the land under cultivation in the next decades, mostly by expanding mechanized monoculture. While the peasants are partners in the summit, it is the Chamber who drafts the legislation that follows. Speaking to the European Union, the president vows that global South governments “will not be park rangers” on behalf of the global North. He returns home to sign a decree authorizing oil and gas extraction in National Parks as a national strategic priority. In public speeches, Morales has also pledged that NGOs and foundations that stand in the way of using Bolivia’s natural resources face expulsion from the country.

This was the country I visited for the past three weeks. I’m at a point of inflection in my research agenda from studying how movements build power and exert pressure to looking at the how conflicts between indigenous peoples and extractive industries will evolve under the Plurinational State. In part because of the power built by indigenous movements, Bolivia is a place where indigenous territories and rights have some of the most extensive protections in written law. Those legal commitments contradict equally formal commitments by the government to fulfill oil, mining, and logging contracts, and the government’s drive for new revenues to fund its anti-poverty social agenda. Conceptualized from afar, this should be a complex story of uncertainty and contradiction, of the indigenous state official who is pulled in two directions, of hard choices and ambivalences. But as the list of extractivist plans makes clear, the government of the Plurinational State is anything but ambivalent on this issue.Read More »

Political ethnography: Should we be looking for a “complex mess” or crystallizing order?

I wrote the following comment in an online discussion during the Egyptian protests in early 2011. I’m reposting it here to ask questions of continuing importance for political ethnographers, and other social scientists.

In the wake of the American Anthropological Association’s release of a letter expressing concern about Egyptian artifacts (for 150 words) and Egyptian people (for 30 words), the AAA blog has allotted more space to the issue of the protests themselves.

The piece is called “We Are All Egyptian,” and begins “There are tens of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir today. And there are millions of Egyptians who are not.” The writer, Yasmin Moll, is doing fieldwork in Cairo and devotes the piece to people’s changing and conflicted attitudes to the protests.

I’ll leave it to others (Zero Anthropology critiqued the AAA’s priorities here) to ask questions about what the AAA is not saying, about say the thousands of Egyptians who are official or unofficial detention today, or about the web of relationships between the United States and the regime.

What interests me about this piece is the quasi-political position of an ethnographic preference for uncertainty, indeterminacy, and the legitimacy of all sides. That is summed up in the following paragraph:

“From the vantage point of those of us in Cairo, however, the picture is much more complex, fluid and messy.  And simplifying it for the sake of a sexy story or a catchy headline risks marginalizing the many Egyptians from all classes and backgrounds whose political stances don’t fit neatly into one or the other of these categories.”

Strike out “in Cairo” or rewrite “a sexy story or a catchy headline” as “[insert academic or political purpose here]” and you get a handy template for justifying the use of ethnography. One I’m sure we’ve all read in one form or another. And one that many of us have used, or will have the occasion to use.

First question, though, isn’t this an argument against extracting meaning or seeking a pattern in any reality? Doesn’t this form of practice ask us to not draw conclusions from anything as complex and indeterminate as actual people? In this case, we’re talking about a reality that has electrified people across Egypt, and around the world. Would such ethnographic messiness written about Tunisia’s revolt last month have had the same mobilizing effect in Egypt as the stories that were told?

Second question, does it make sense to describe an anti-structuralist method as politically liberating? The narrative is familiar: Writers (unfairly) fit people into categories, missing what is important. But look at the political nature of the verb: “risks marginalizing.” The implicit argument is that writing about people in a way prioritizes, say, collective action over emotional uncertainty, is part of a power structure that pushes them aside. In this case, with a very visibly present power structure being shaken, the connection between the epistemological power of those writing about the uprising and the political power of those trying to suppress it is dubious, if not nonexistent.

Third, I wonder and worry about this kind of disciplinary positioning for anthropology. Having chosen to study how and when people form into collectivities (I focus on social movements, and on processes of revolution, in recent Bolivian history), I recognize in the AAA’s blog a position that says ethnography should be directed to the individual over the collective, to the messy over the galvanized, to the fluid over crystalized. I may be over-projecting my own research interests on to the AAA blog, but I also worry about a claim that “complex, fluid, and messy” is “real ethnography,” while studying large-scale social and political changes is not. Since Cairo now and Bolivia in the past decade are interesting moments precisely because of the coming together of thousands upon thousands of people, producing tangible political results, to make increasing complexity the goal of ethnography is to call for an ethnographic approach that misses the point of these transformative moments.

Day 1 of Occupy Wall Street: Political ethnographers should ask how this moment crystallized a movement, not why millions weren't there.
Day 1 of Occupy Wall Street: Political ethnographers should ask how this moment crystallized a movement, not why millions weren’t there. (photo CC-BY-SA by Carwil Bjork-James)

Further reading:

Zolberg, Aristide R. 1972. Moments of madness. Politics & Society 2(2):183–207.

Thomassen, Bjørn. 2012. Notes towards an anthropology of political revolutions. Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(3):679–706.