The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops

The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops, by Kregg Hetherington (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Jesse Jonkman, University of New Brunswick and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

On April 20, 2008, Paraguay elected rural bishop Fernando Lugo as its president, ending the reign of the Colorado party that had ruled the country since 1947. The election spurred a political shift to the left and considerably transformed the relationship that the national soy industry had forged with the state bureaucracy in previous decades. Progressives, intellectuals, and activists became employed by the same legal apparatus they had protested against for years. Correspondingly, public institutions that had been partly built by the soy industry were suddenly staffed by some of the sector’s most ardent critics.

In The Government of Beans, Kregg Hetherington explores this peculiar political juncture so as to offer wider reflections on governance in the Anthropocene. To this end, he relies on 17 short chapters that are grouped into three parts. Part I (Cast of Characters) presents us with the people and plants that the book is about. Over the course of six chapters, Hetherington historicizes the conjectures that laid the groundwork for the emergence of soy and its politicization, guiding us past, among others, the Stroessner dictatorship, cotton-growing colonists, soy-growing colonists displacing the earlier cotton growers, herbicides, Roundup Ready beans, the present–absent state, and 1990s neoliberalization.

Part II (An Experiment in Government) zooms in on the Lugo government, which sought to curb the socio-environmental excesses of the soy industry. The protagonist is SENAVE, a phytosanitary agency tasked with the regulation of soybeans. More than anything, this middle section tells the story of the contingency and impracticality of governance. Four of its six chapters draw on road trips that Hetherington undertook with the Citizen Participation Unit, a department within SENAVE that dispatches to the countryside pickup trucks filled with fieldworkers who respond to campesinos’ complaints about soy. By virtue of detailed vignettes, Hetherington shows how the governing aspirations of the SENAVE officials become undermined by both the quotidian banalities of their work and the immensity of the regulatory task at hand. Soy-denouncing campesinos are difficult to locate in sparsely populated hinterlands. Field missions are delayed or suspended because per diems and gas vouchers arrive late. And sampled materials that SENAVE fieldworkers collect as proof of soy contamination get themselves contaminated at the moment of collection, seeing as fieldworkers are unaware of (or uninterested in) sampling protocols.

Part III (Agribiopolitics, 5 chapters), then, weaves the case of Paraguayan soy into an ambitious analysis of the Anthropocene. In a play on Foucault, Hetherington coins the concept of “agribiopolitics” to conceptualize the intimate relationship between the governance of people and the governance of plants. While criticizing the marginal place that agriculture occupies in Euro-American literature on biopolitics, he draws attention to the mutually constitutive nature of human and plant health regimes. From this vantage point, he also pushes against scholarship that suggests the possibility of life-enhancing forms of politics (policies of “making live”) that do not exclude some significant other (that exist without policies of “letting die”). Hetherington reminds us that government schemes in Paraguay and beyond have time and again invigorated the joint killing of plants and people. Although an easy example of this comes from the destructive soy fields that were endorsed by Paraguayan governments before and after Lugo, Hetherington is quick to point out that all welfare regimes are in some way or another premised on logics of letting die. In this regard, he notes that not so long ago the same campesinos who are now being displaced by soy monocrops were part of a state-endorsed cotton frontier that was accompanied by brutal deforestation and genocide.

The three parts of the book offer intriguing ruminations on the politics of life (human or otherwise) in the age of the Anthropocene. Rather than offering straightforward regulatory solutions or easy answers regarding soy’s victims and victimizers, The Government of Beans primarily embraces the fleeting and multifaceted character that soy occupies in Paraguayan lifeworlds. The result is a monograph that is deliberately messy, multiple, and unsettled, and Hetherington optimizes this narrative tone by using unusually short chapters. In his own words: “Like its protagonists, [the book] never presumes to have found a stable answer but simply tries to keep up with its objects” (p. 16). And yet, despite the many directions this book takes, one rarely feels lost when reading it. This is largely due to the wonderful storytelling that supports the book’s conceptual claims. The vignettes are second to none, bursting with complex characters and captivating dialogue that bring to life the soy-governing bureaucracy. The historical sections are lucid and compelling, and outline in exhaustive detail the processes that caused the rise and fall of the Lugo administration. All of which results in a nuanced monograph that complicates conventional readings on resource frontiers and shakes up clear-cut narratives of victimhood and culpability. In The Government of Beans, soy kills, but so do the campesinos and cotton crops that are its antagonists. At the same time, soy producers who oppose state politics end up building state institutions. And the campesinos who criticize the producers do so, not only because soy monoculture reduces the need for their labor power (as agrarian scholars would argue), but also because it endorses a labor ontology that wreaks havoc on the values of their moral economy.

Still, the way I see it, Hetherington reserves his richest analysis for the “Government of Beans” itself. The bureaucracy he presents is less a unified leviathan than a complex assemblage, awash with internal rifts, ideological vicissitudes, and “regulatory pragmatics” (p. 11). Nowhere does this become more visible than in Chapter 11, when the soy-skeptical Amanda discusses with her less skeptical SENAVE colleagues whether to register the road they are standing on as a “neighborhood road,” spawning an insightful disagreement over how to interpret a comma in a government decree. The discussion is not only indicative of the chasm between paper rules and regulatory practice, but also evidences Hetherington’s proposition that larger projects of state sovereignty are contingent on mundane practices of reading and enforcing the law. This is legal ethnography at its finest, and testifies to why this monograph is likely to appeal not only to readers who are interested in Paraguay and monocrops, but also to those who want to read an original anthropological work on the state.

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