Border Capitalism, Disrupted

Andrew Alan Johnson, Princeton University

Review of Border Capitalism, Disrupted: Precarity and Struggle in a Southeast Asian Industrial Zone, by Stephen Campbell (Ithaca: Cornell/ILR Press, 2018).

At some level, we are aware that global capitalism rests upon exploited labor, especially that of undocumented migrants. But our understanding of this exploitation too often relies upon caricatures: a passive worker, ignorant of his or her own exploitation and hobbled by the vulnerability that comes with migration and poverty, trapped by the forces of capital.

As new scholarship on migration, infrastructure, and urban anthropology shows, however, undocumented communities can dexterously carve out spaces for themselves, working against the forces of capital and the state. Nikhil Anand argues, for instance, that while a status of “squatter” certainly places one in an asymmetric power relation, squatter communities can wield some degree of political power at times because of their own liminality. Similarly, in Border Capitalism, Disrupted, Stephen Campbell describes how, while they certainly allow for exploitation, “precarious” forms of labor also enable new kinds of organizing and new forms of resistance. In addition, Campbell offers an ever-needed reminder that models of labor formulated in Europe and North America are themselves built from regional studies; scholarship on labor needs to take a global perspective in order to be more broadly relevant. Specifically, Campbell builds upon and critiques the Italian operista literature with his Burmese/Thai data.

In his ethnographic field research, Campbell was involved with a community of Myanmar migrant workers at the “Supafine” textile factory in the border town of Mae Sot. Campbell, fluent in Burmese, was deeply embedded in his interlocutors’ lives—he describes negotiating with Thai police to bail workers out of jail for nonexistent crimes, taking part in labor rallies, translating documents, and even accompanying workers on (unfortunately, failed) trips to seek documentation and new work elsewhere in Thailand. Further, he was in Mae Sot during periods when the Thai state actively attempted to reconfigure its relationship with migrant laborers, alternating between various strategies: from trapping migrants in border towns where wages would be depressed, to establishing Special Economic Zones, to cracking down on migrant work itself.

Campbell’s ethnography shines as he focuses on the everyday forms of exploitation and resistance that take place in Mae Sot, and how these combine legal and extralegal forces in ways that both reinforce and challenge capital. What is striking in Campbell’s ethnography is how flexible legal regimes of labor are. For instance, employers at the “Supafine” textile factory ignore Thai minimum wage laws from the outset. When pressured, they justify this disregard  by saying that they also provide accommodation (accommodation that was, at other times and places in Thai labor history, freely provided). Meanwhile, workers lack access to housing elsewhere, and migrants face extortion and deportation at the hands of the local police (not to mention a vague threat of “gangs” in the area—a threat that, while Campbell does not argue this, is in Thailand often backed by organized crime linked to business owners). Reinforcing workers’ vulnerability, employers block migrants’ attempt to obtain legal documentation. Exploitation, then, is not something made only via national policy or by the movements of a grand “capital,” but rather something that plays out on an everyday basis, involving actors and actions inside and outside of legal spheres. But this is also the case with resistance. Thai labor law prevents unions from carrying out particular kinds of work stoppages, and Thai labor unions tend to be top-down and antipathetic to Myanmar migrants. However, the precarious nature of migrant work allowed Supafine workers the flexibility to strike without having to seek approval.

Campbell’s work is resonant with other studies of resistance in Southeast Asia. While the language of control and resistance evokes James Scott’s Art of Not Being Governed, however,Campbell’s ethnography seems closest to Scott’s critics, such as Hjorleifur Jonsson, who explore how minorities come to see the state not only as oppressor, but as an entity that bears working with.

Reading Border Capitalism as an anthropologist still raises some questions. Campbell dismisses too quickly at times entities that seem important— the “Overseas Burma Association” (103), which operates in a “shady” way, seems to evoke elements of organized crime acting (partially) in workers’ interest, much as employers’ invocation of “gangs” suggests their own illicit groups. Relatedly, Campbell makes the claim that appeals towards powerful patrons have little place in the Mae Sot Myanmar community, a claim that would be surprising across most of Southeast Asia. One wonders, for instance, if Campbell’s interlocutors saw him as just such an influential patron.  Further, in contrast with an anthropological work such as Claudio Sopranzetti’s Owners of the Map, Campbell’s study seems all-too embedded in a particular way of seeing his interlocutors (as laborers), the issues they confront (class struggle), and the theoretical terms useful to analyze their situation (Marxist). I wonder what remains unseen, beyond such well-trodden formulations of class and labor.

We cannot have enough studies that push us to rethink Western-derived models of economics, and Campbell’s fluency in Burmese, his ethnographic rigor, and the attention he provides to both the written and the unwritten rules that shape peoples’ lives—and our economy—are to be praised. Border Capitalism is well-researched and detailed, and is a valuable resource for scholars working on borders, precarity, Special Economic Zones, and resistance.

About Leo Coleman

Leo Coleman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York, and the book review editor for the Political and Legal Anthropology Review. He is the author of A Moral Technology: Electrification as Political Ritual in New Delhi (Cornell UP, 2017), and has written about infrastructure, modernist anthropology, urban politics, and architecture in journals including American Ethnologist, Anthropological Quarterly, and Comparative Studies in Society and History. leocoleman.org.

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