Book Review: Navigating Austerity: Currents of Debt Along a South Asian River

In Navigating Austerity, Laura Bear applies an ethnographic approach to understand how social relations and ethics are impacted by the massive global economic transition of how states manage debt. While before 30 years ago, national governments assumed debt as part of social engineering projects of development, now debt has become financialized as sovereign debt, resulting in increased speculation and “permanent crisis and austerity” (Bear 2015: 2).

Bear’s book contributes a rich and creative analysis of this large-scale financial transformation through taking the wide view of how this process has unfolded across the environmental, financial, social, and political landscape of the Hooghly river—a critical artery for trade for South and East Asia, as well as Europe. Bear combines deep archival research of bureaucratic records within the port trust library with ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2008-2011 at several sites that comprise what she calls the Hooghly’s “public infrastructure.” Included within this public infrastructure, she examines both the social actors, their technology, and the environment itself as she shifts from the experiences of the marine crew at the docks, officers and river pilots who navigate container ships on the Hooghly, boatmen and private entrepreneurs, and laborers building vessels at a private shipyard, as well as following her interlocutors to their communities beyond the river. Her chapters intertwine an ethnographic portrait of each of these groups of actors—and the specific labor relationships they have with one another and the river—with archival research about the specific reverberations of austerity policy that impact them. South Asianists reading this book may well be familiar with some of the economic and development history of India that Bear relies upon to narrate this contemporary moment; however, those unfamiliar with South Asia may benefit from reading this book with a companion text in order to understand the larger significance of her conclusions.

Bear’s central argument is that the fallout from the shift to sovereign debt engendered economic policy dominated by “the requirement of paying the interest on public-sector debt” (ibid.:13). Such an economic landscape furthers inequality, “leads to contradictions in the extractive and redistributive aspects of the public sector” (ibid.:17), and destabilizes public infrastructure and the jobs it supports, thus raising questions about the sustainability of this economic model. Her introduction and conclusion concentrate on the theoretical implications of sovereign debt. The shift from relationships between state and citizen-bondholders to debtors and the “atomized marketplace of multiple bond holders and debt-instrument investors” (ibid.: 12) effectively transforms public institutions—such as the Hooghly riverscape—into potential sources of accumulation for investors. She depicts how people still attempt to uphold “political and ethical life” in the face of these changes. With the Hooghly as her case study, her goal is to understand how such changing cultural concepts of state debt alter investment in public infrastructure, and with it, economic projects and laborers.

Bear deftly applies her theoretical grounding in new kinship studies to this economic question, repeatedly framing the significance of austerity in terms of multiple levels of relationships. One of the book’s most compelling contributions is to illuminate the powerful relationships between public infrastructure, laborers, and their bodies. Charting what she calls different “ethical stances,” she richly captures the ways that multiple actors with varying roles in the austerity economy morally embody their labor in relationship to the boats they create or pilot, the river whose environmental risks they must navigate, and their wonder or disgust with the shifting physical technologies involved in sustaining the laboring river. Chapters 2 and 6 include particularly striking examples of how laborers describe their embodiment of infrastructure and labor, arguing that new boat infrastructure meant to save costs denigrates their workmanship. With a long-standing interest in environmental anthropology, I was excited to read how she creatively posed her interlocutors’ expertise about how technical manipulations of the river aligned with economic shifts. For instance, drawing upon the experience of ship captains, she creates fruitful links between the rising danger of navigation in the Hooghly and the increase in riverbed silt due to decreased funding appropriated for dredging due to austerity measures. I found myself wanting to understand the deeper significance of the technical terms that Bear used to describe this riverscape—from the different types of ports and ships to the dangers of silt and currents—helping to realize the deep implications she outlines for each. More description of these terms (and repeatedly through the texts for those with less sea legs!) would have greatly enriched this account.

Bear’s wide-ranging ethnography presents diverse perspectives on the implications of debt past and present, thereby disrupting many anthropological narratives on neoliberalism, which often focus on decline. Her engagement across multiple fieldsites within the public infrastructure of the Hooghly moves beyond dichotomies of the powerful and disenfranchised to show the complex interplay of education, mobility, unions, gender, caste, religion, and occupational position in shaping new hierarchies and ethics among the many actors impacted by austerity. Though beyond the scope of her goals, how Bear concludes the book leaves readers hopeful for a second volume, in which she could ethnographically explore how the restraint and discipline of fiscal policy is performed at the level of speculators, international investors, and bankers and their experience of public infrastructure. Bear repeatedly argues for the unsustainability of the economic trends she describes, leading me to want her to speculate further on how these architects of austerity envision the future. For instance, do investors account for the impact of sustained de-vestment in the public infrastructures—such as modern docks (ibid.: 48-49) or a workforce well enough to work (ibid.: 160)—on India’s competitive edge in a global marketplace?

This complex, elegant book would be suitable for advanced courses on economic anthropology, globalization, and South Asia, while making original, important contributions to courses on the anthropology of the environment and kinship. Though readers without a background in economic anthropology may be intimidated by the economics-heavy parts of the text, they would be remiss to not delve into the book’s accessible and deeply relevant ethnographic core.

Claire Snell-Rood, University of California, Berkeley

Bear, Laura. Navigating Austerity: Currents of Debt Along a South Asian River. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015. 264 pages, $27.95.

About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University and book review editor for Political and Legal Anthropology Review. He blogs at nequalsone.wordpress.com and somatosphere.net. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Where is the Theory for the World to Come?, and Unraveling: Remaking American Personhood in a Neurologic Age.

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