Tactics Contra Bureaucracies:  A Conversation with Kregg Hetherington

By Kregg Hetherington and Monika Lemke

Virtual Edition 2022 Bureaucracy and Tactics

Kregg Hetherington’s 2020 book, The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops, won the 2021 APLA Book Prize in Critical Anthropology, presented by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology section of the American Anthropological Association. His political ethnography describes the environmental regulation of the soy monocrop in Paraguay. The book is about the rough edges of environmental regulation, where tenuous state power and blunt governmental instruments encounter ecological destruction and social injustice. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Paraguay was undergoing dramatic economic, political, and environmental change due to a boom in the global demand for soybeans. Although the country’s massive new soy monocrop brought wealth, it also brought deforestation, biodiversity loss, rising inequality, and violence. Kregg Hetherington traces well-meaning attempts by bureaucrats and activists to regulate the destructive force of monocrops that resulted in the discovery that the tools of modern government are at best inadequate to deal with the complex harms of modern agriculture and at worst exacerbate them. The book simultaneously tells a local story of people, plants, and government; a regional story of the rise and fall of Latin America’s new left; and a story of the Anthropocene writ large, about the long-term, paradoxical consequences of destroying ecosystems in the name of human welfare. Hetherington’s book focuses on a type of “activist-bureaucrats,” and is revelatory for thinking about tactics in bureaucracy.

Monika Lemke:  Why has bureaucracy been such a durable concept to explore through your research as a political anthropologist? What has changed in your thinking about bureaucracy as a central topic guiding your research from your first book to the most recent?

Kregg Hetherington:  I began my fieldwork in 2004 with landless campesino organizations in rural Paraguay and had no intention for dealing with bureaucracy or legal documents as ethnographic objects, but I felt compelled to by the ubiquity of these practices in the lives of the folks I was living with [1]  The prevailing theories of the state at the time centered on the state’s metaphysical quality, how it was a mask, a projection, an aura or a fetish. Yet in bureaucratic practice one encounters is the doing of the state, the state not as a problem of representation or being, but as a set of practices. The aura fades really quickly when one is trying to draft (or copy, or read, or find) a legal document, to secure a meeting with a state functionary or run away from the police. One way of reading de Certeau is to think of tactics as weapons of the weak, of those who don’t have access to the rarefied spaces from which one can think and act strategically. But you have to go a long way into the bureaucracy before you find anyone who is not operating tactically. Strategy—like the state itself—is evanescent, or maybe aspirational, but usually just outside of the actual frame of operation. To the extent that there’s a big picture that feels like the result of strategy, it is almost always more like an impersonal infrastructure, accreted from previous tactics.

In The Government of Beans, I followed activist-bureaucrats intent on using the state’s regulatory instruments to try to stop or push back against the soy monocrops that were ravaging the countryside (concentrating land, destroying forests, spreading pesticides everywhere). In the book I use an ethnographic example of several government inspectors trying to decide if a particular strip of dirt is a “communal road” so they can know if a particular pesticide regulation applies. They’ve got a form in front of them, with this yes/no question on it, but they can’t decide how to fill it out. They argue about the history and function of the regulation, the meaning of the word “communal,” about a typo that’s somehow made it into law, and in the end everyone knows that whether this is a “communal road” or not is mostly about whether or not someone wants to apply this regulation. Furthermore, its “communal roadness” on the paper is only a suggestion that must make its way through a number of other bureaucratic instances before anyone pays any attention to it.

Yet it also becomes apparent that this simple, flawed, and somewhat arbitrary yes/no question might have very large consequences for people living here, for farmers in the region, and for other bureaucrats down the line. So those imbued with the ability to decide the question are in fact exercising the power of the state. I describe this as a moment of “tactical sovereignty,” which is meant to underscore the point that even sovereignty is best thought of as a thing one exercises in a very constrained and contingent position. Control of a large territory, or the ability to kill or let live may be an effect of sovereign action, but at its base, sovereignty happens when people make documents legible, when they convince others to support them in a decision, when they build a road, when they build a squatter settlement or burn it down.

Monika Lemke:  I am also interested in the way the figure of the bureaucrat features in The Government of Beans, specifically, the mention of the “activist-bureaucrat,” a government functionary who came to the role from a personal background in activism. These bureaucrats seemed to conduct themselves in a way contrary to occupational characteristics of the generic bureaucrat, such as political indifference, regimentation, and inflexibility. Consumed by a sense of political mission, they are often frustrated by their profession’s “red tape”. They tend to alienate their older, less politically motivated colleagues. They take on longer hours than they can expect to be compensated and avoid administrative processes related to work benefits to initiate investigations more quickly. Additionally, through these bureaucrats have the formal authority to interpret ambiguous administrative protocols independently, the team environment they work in undercuts this autonomy. I am curious about how your thinking about how the activist-bureaucrats of The Government of Beans squares with the abstract ideal of the bureaucrat. What have you found to be productive ways for your ethnographic research to interact with the idealized concept of the bureaucrat?

Kregg Hetherington:  Most of the bureaucrats I hung out with during this research had spent their professional lives in activism and NGO work, not thinking about applying laws but rather how to save their country from takeover by a single, destructive industry. For them, carrying out bureaucratic work was an extension of their activism, a tactical practice that availed itself of different tools and different possibilities within government rather than something radically different from what they were doing before. So there were bound to be tensions with their colleagues who pressed their pants in the morning before coming into work (this was one of the distinctions), as people struggled over the limits of what was properly bureaucratic action. But in a way what was more interesting was how indistinct they really were, i.e. it was possible to carry out the job as a job, as an application of the law with a little bit of discretion, believing that the state was the state and that was all there was to it, and it was also possible to carry out the job as an insurgent world-changer, perpetually alive to the opportunities that arose in the gaps. I happened to be looking at bureaucratic action at a moment of great turmoil, when these contrasts were pretty visible. But the truth is that most people working in the bureaucracy fell somewhere between these extremes, carrying out their little activisms whether they recognized this or not, and happy to be getting a paycheck either way.

So as a figure, the activist-bureaucrat is not just a melding of two pure categories into some novel hybrid, but rather a way of thinking about political action in the world. It follows from what I said before that bureaucracy doesn’t really function according to abstract principles, but that there’s always a tension underlying it, and that the successful bureaucrat is the one that understands how to use the grammar of state power, but also to find the gaps and the grey zones in the rules (opportunities for “tactical sovereignty”). Bureaucracy is a craft, rather than a set of rules or routines.

Monika Lemke:  To follow up from this line of discussion about the “activist-bureaucrat,” it is interesting that you notice that this new generation of bureaucrat is politically motivated toward this choice of vocation. I am interested to get your impressions about how you interpret the activist-bureaucrat in the nexus of (state) power and within a politics of struggle, especially with respect to the political context of your research.

Kregg Hetherington:  I would hesitate to describe this as a “new generation,” but there is something specific about the folks I hung out with that I think is worth teasing out, and it gets to one of the deep ironies of progressive politics in Latin America and elsewhere during the so-called “pink tide” of leftist resurgence. Many of the bureaucrats I met were articulate critics of state power, and perhaps because it had been so long in Paraguay since anyone even vaguely on the left had been in government, the language of that criticism was often extreme and unnuanced: the state kills, the state is corrupt, the state is a fraud… The irony of now being paid agents of the state was not lost on anyone. But that contradiction is at the center of most progressive politics, which, for all its critiques of actually-existing states, is deeply invested in some version of the state promise, and willing to engage in the language of bureaucracy even when they are skeptical of it.

One book I’ve continued to think with over the years is Ilana Feldman’s extraordinary account Palestinian bureaucrats prior to 1967. Feldman’s informants are very much activist-bureaucrats in the sense I’ve described, but whose political drive is primarily the simple preservation of the bureaucracy itself in a context in which a functioning state is ultimately impossible to sustain. That self-referentiality is extreme in Feldman’s book: acting in a disinterested (bureaucratic) fashion can be the ultimate practice of defiance against colonial destruction. But that quality was also present in my research: no one told me they were happy to be part of the state because they could more effectively smash it. Instead, they engaged in the grammar of the state, that self-referential space in which the state is that which states, and the very act of stating is therefore an apologia for stateness, even when they believe that 99% of everything that went on under the name of the state was horrible, and even when they knew at some level that they had become complicit in it. Somehow the promise of the state—that some version of this collection of bureaucrats sitting in front of computers in Asunción office towers might actually protect the environment, redistribute resources, or secure justice for the vulnerable—was strong enough that it gave people enough reason to keep doing their jobs. And at least for the short time that they held onto those jobs, the few opportunities for enacting tactical sovereignty kept that promise alive. The grammar of the state reproduces itself through this practices in what Annelise Riles describes as the “as if” quality of law—you may be aware of the contradictions and deficiencies, even the impossibilities of the promise, but in continually acting as if such things were possible, you end up reproducing the grammar of possibility necessary for the promise to continue.

Monika Lemke:  In The Government of Beans, you draw attention to several technologies that are critical to the bureaucratic infrastructure, such as trucks, carbon paper forms, laboratory-bound samples, and measuring tapes. Your discussion of these elements evoked the frictions which arose from the potential of these technologies and the limited capacity in which they could be considered effective tools of governmental practice. As they feature in the book, these props of regulatory efficacy reflect and resemble the underfunded, inexperienced bureaucrats of the Paraguayan government’s phytosanitary agency. I was wondering if you could share your thoughts about how the deployment of these props contributed to performance of the ways in which “governmental practice at times made ‘soy’ seem knowable or controllable,” especially when they are in sincere and earnest use by activist-bureaucrats.

Kregg Hetherington: This is one of the central methodological keys to my research: that focusing on the things of regulation (documents, badges, moisture metres, pickup trucks, entomology degrees) gives one ethnographic access to the tactical dimensions of government. But I’ll start here by pushing back a bit on the word “prop,” which to me evokes a kind of theatrical simulacrum. I’ll use a concrete example from the book: a moisture meter is a prevalent technology for measuring the water content of soybeans, which happens to be really important for certifying quality, value, and perishability of beans. A moisture meter is not just a prop, nor is it quite what it claims to be, something that produces a disinterested measurement of the world. Instead, I talk about it as an “instrument,” a thing that changes the world by interacting (or intra-acting, in Karen Barad’s (2007) sense) with it.

Many progressive ideologies about regulation subscribe, tacitly, to the transparency fallacy, the idea that instruments create information, that information is neutral and that its wide distribution generally makes corruption and injustice hard. Yet most regulatory instruments produce information that does things in the world other things than make justice possible. Moisture readings are essential to growing a massive monocrop, to economies of scale in shipping, and to the financialization of agricultural commodities. It does not reveal beans to some strategic mastermind, but merely enhances them, adding representations to them that facilitate economies of scale. The vast majority of the regulatory infrastructure is composed of these sorts of instruments, deployed tactically by what I call the “soy state” to use public funds to provide services to the industry.

That said, many instruments are more ambivalent. Consider the mass spectrometer that activists wanted the state phytosanitary laboratories to purchase, on the understanding that it would enable them to get readings of water contamination. If you could get enough water samples from around soy fields and get the spectrometer to show that they were full of pesticides, that might help in a larger campaign to uncover the environmental malfeasance, or just plain destructiveness of the industry. Then again, it might not do that for all sorts of reasons. And meanwhile, that same mass spectrometer (a very costly public investment) would also help large farmers get more exact readings of the purity of the pesticides they were using, allowing them to save money by better calibrating their sprayers.

The appropriate question to ask of these instruments is not what they represent, or how they reveal or control things, but in what ways (always plural) are they capable of transforming things? A spectrometer might turn a poisoned river into an environmental campaign, or it might make soy farmers richer, it might uncover unscrupulous pesticide distributors, or might create a market opportunity for others. The savviest activist-bureaucrats understood this about their instruments, that they might, with care, transform the world ever so slightly in the direction they wanted, but that they were just as likely to do the opposite. This was part of the craft of tactical sovereignty, figuring out all the ways that one might nudge the world toward one in which soybean monocultures were not so devastating.

Monika Lemke:  I’d like to close the interview by asking about a paradox in Paraguayan political consciousness specific to “the government of beans.” As you note, the centralization of Paraguay’s government is a physical reality that undermines its constitutionally enshrined aspirations toward decentralization. This imaginary about centralization among state and non-state actors alike anchor their impression that the reach of government is limited, and in a way that reproduces the colonial legacy of this “metropolitan” arrangement. You explore this through the failure of decentralization: regional offices are regarded as empty shells, merely “storage facilities for functionaries.” Additionally, this sense of vacancy abets neocolonial extraction; Paraguayan territory is understood as politically mute, an inert, simplified late capitalist landscape, while the centralized arrangement of government facilitates the proliferation of a scalable monocrop such as soy. All this is discussed powerfully in your book, drawing out that the state regulatory apparatus around soy, while arguably ineffectual, performs deep political aspirations about the purposes and reach of government. How do you interpret the existence of a geographically dispersed and embodied bureaucracy in relation to these ongoing efforts toward Paraguayan decentralized government and toward particular notions of Paraguayan national interest?

Kregg Hetherington:  There are two ways to answer this question. The first is just about political economic history. Most Latin American states have an extraordinary level of centralization in their capital cities, which reproduces the setter colonial logic of the nineteenth century, in which states formed around the orbit of elite creole capitals at strategic points for trading between Europe and extractive zones of different kinds. Since the 1980s, this has primarily been considered a “problem” for liberal reformers because it facilitated the rise of dictatorships who did not offer rural peoples political representation (though one can argue that it generated a kind of illiberal populism which could be said to represent rural peoples’ interests in other ways), and because it led to regulatory inefficiencies. Even after the decentralization reforms of the 1990s, bourgeois intellectual energy that underpins government remained predominantly in these capitals. Paraguay’s version of this is particularly lop-sided, and so it’s not surprising that a great deal of discourse about government is over how to handle the challenges of movement and communication, or about how the state is “absent” in rural areas. To be very concrete, if your phytosanitary agency has its fleet of pickup trucks parked in a lot in downtown Asunción, and it takes three hours at rush-hour just to get out of the city, this is an all-consuming challenge for bureaucratic practice.

But just as more efficient regulation is rarely an unambiguous environmental or social good, decentralization does not lead necessarily to a more just distribution of resources or smarter environmental policy. In Paraguay the biggest agent of decentralization right now is soybeans: it allows for the accumulation of wealth in smaller cities away from the capital, and the rise of a whole new class of professionals, like agronomists and logistics experts governed by semi-autonomous associations. There has never been more government infrastructure outside of Asuncion than there is now, and an argument could be made that the best way for the phytosanitary agency to slow down soy expansion is not to put more inspectors in the countryside, but just to take all of the moisture meters and lock them in a warehouse downtown (i.e. increase centralization).

So another question I ask in the book is, when people say that the state is absent in the countryside, what are they actually lamenting? For some it may be the lack of police to protect their property, while for others it may be the lack of medical facilities. The answer to state absence or centralization is never merely “more state” or “a better distributed state,” but rather more questions about what hopes and needs are invested in the notion of the state presence, and an opportunity to think creatively about how to reorganize relationships to address those hopes and needs.

With the failure of Lugo’s government (which was thrown out in a coup after four years) most of my interlocutors went back to being proper activists, and though very few of them disengaged completely from official politics, most of them relinquished some of that state grammar from their tactics. It’s striking how fast one can revert from thinking that the centralized state is an impediment to progress to thinking that perhaps the world is better served by other projects, like agro-ecological schools, collective markets or autonomous community organizations, that have only minimal use for the instruments trapped in Asunción.

Kregg Hetherington is an anthropologist at Concordia University in Montreal, where he directs the Concordia Ethnography Lab and works on questions about social movements, agriculture, environmental governance and bureaucracy. His recent book, The Government of Beans (Duke, 2020), was awarded APLA’s Book Prize in Critical Anthropology, as well as the Julian Steward Award from the Anthropology and Environment Society.


[1] Hetherington, Kregg. 20011. Guerrilla Auditors: the Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Recommended Readings

Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Feldman, Ilana. 2008. Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule (1917-1967). Durham: Duke University Press.














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