After Servitude: Elusive Property and the Ethics of Kinship in Bolivia

After Servitude: Elusive Property and the Ethics of Kinship in Bolivia, by Mareike Winchell  (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2022)

Reviewed by Carlos Arroyo Batista, Columbia University

What does it mean to question the idea that legally defined property would bring liberty to Bolivia’s Indigenous population? What are the underlying relations between human groups and land that a property regime absorbs and transforms? How do agrarian officials construct property as a form of normative, racialized citizenship? Using two years of archival and ethnographic work in Ayopaya and Cochabamba during 2011-12, Mareike Winchell’s After Servitude asks these questions with regards to Bolivia’s 2010 revision of the 1996 Agrarian Reform Law, examining the limits of decolonization in the left-wing government of President Evo Morales (2006–19). Property regimes pushed forward by the state, Winchell suggests, have the capacity of granting assurances but also of creating new regimes of dispossession and of upending relations of reciprocity that have been created in settings of post-indentured labor. While Winchell does not argue that relations between the descendants of former hacienda masters and former serfs (peones) are harmonious, she does argue that the obligations the former masters have towards their former serfs entail the construction of relations of reciprocity and security that the Bolivian state of the Movimiento Al Socialismo potentially altered and definitely overlooked. A key idea in the book is that the Quechua farmers of Ayopaya do not seek the redress of racially inflicted violence through the “passive” methods of the state but have devised thorough social arrangements to make this redress operate through immediate “action.”

After Servitude reframes the analysis of three common anthropological problems—kinship, property, and exchange. Set out in the three parts of the book, each of these problems is treated by Winchell as a “knot” in which history is something that has to be threaded to transform the present. As the first of these knots, kinship is fundamental for the analysis of post-indentured lives because it refers to the basic structures of obligation that the Quechua construct to demand “accountability after violence.” Godparenting, adoption, and religious sponsorship (the subject of Chapter 1) are mechanisms through which Mestizos are forced to attend to the needs of the descendants of their former serfs. The treatment of kinship as something that can be extended through action—its reading as a social mechanism—comes close to Marshall Sahlins’s proposition that the basic anthropological understanding of kinship must steer away from blood and approach the “mutuality of being.” Discussing land gifts from hacienda masters to serfs and the preservation of racialized inequalities after the hacienda abolition of 1965 (Chapter 2), Winchell also approaches social ties and hierarchies as they are manifested through ownership and asymmetrical aid. When hacienda masters gave property to the mothers of children they had out of wedlock, for instance, what emerged was the recognition of a claim to a piece of the master’s estate. Although asymmetrical and hierarchical, this formation was also the recognition of mutual obligation.

Property, the second knot in the book, is treated as an aspirational object that is “liable to failure and reinscription.” Property is “elusive” because it might never come. When it does come, it is “both poison and remedy, illness and cure” (2022: 15). It is the creation of self-sovereignty and the reframing of collective rights that result in a mimicking of the colonial regime. Theories of racialized subjectivity are used here to analyze what in Adam Smith’s moral philosophy of contractual exchange was present in the Bolivian promise of land redistribution. Examining the National Institute of the Agrarian Reform (INRA) in Cochabamba and its project of collective land titling from 2006 onwards (Chapter 3), Winchell explores how the promises the state makes are characterized by the creation of new loopholes and bureaucratic entanglements that may or may not be surpassed. This is one of the main contributions of the book, as the survival of past regimes of exploitation is read into a project of redistribution that, in creating property rights, inevitably displaced forms of common obligation that were described as “feudal.” Property rights also create a reification of race and of a particularly “Indigenous” citizenship, with Morales’s agrarian reform appearing as a reinvention of the imperial mechanisms for improving Indigenous subjects. Discussing peasant unionists’ refusal of state resources and recognition and their claims to Indigeneity (Chapter 4), Winchell counters the idea that property and agrarian reform are sufficient to undo colonial injustice.

Finally, exchange is the third knot that intertwines kinship and property in the understanding of historical redress and also mediates the value of each of the spheres. An important argument in the book is that kinship and economy (the domestic and the public) are two seemingly distinct spheres that should in fact be brought together if one is to understand Indigenous dispossession and redress. Because wealth and land are constructed historically and relationally, they were understood by the people of Ayopaya as that which was not alienable and detachable in the sense the state intended them to be. Marx’s commodity fetishism  is used here as a tool to de-naturalize entities and attend “to the activity that is concealed when they are treated as a state or condition” (Winchell 2022: 21). While kinship is an entity that naturalizes the circulation of women, property is an entity that naturalizes the circulation of labor and commodities. In exchange, we find not the evolution from primitive kin economies to modern property but continuity in the circulation of matter. With wealth understood as relational, it is that which Mestizos must give backintergenerationally. Within this framework, Chapter 5 discusses a mining conflict and the workers’ idioms of agrarian obligation, while Chapter 6 analyzes a visit by Evo Morales to Ayopaya and examines his attachment to historical hierarchical figures, reading them as an expression of the afterlives of oppression.

In knitting together kin, land, exchange, and obligation, we encounter the emergence of ethics as a contemporary force that comes from a history of materially inflicted violence. In After Servitude justice is described as a historical continuum that may lead to redress if it is interpreted appropriately by the actors of the present. Justice is something that has to be socially enacted, secured from the other, sometimes by force. By theorizing kinship as “historical ethics,” the Quechua’s expectations of redress can be materialized as concrete relations between them and the Mestizos who have dispossessed them.

Winchell’s ideas on the “actuality” of Indigenous claim-making should be read in tandem with other anthropological projects that have sought to analyze the exploitation of Indigenous lives as it survives in the present. Like earlier studies of neoliberal multiculturalism, After Servitude examines the rise of insufficient and inadequate programs for addressing ongoing Indigenous dispossession in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Indeed, After Servitude deals with programs that exacerbated dispossession and displacement, even as they promised to put an end to it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s