Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

One of the perks of going back to student life is having more time to read more books, something that, contrary to popular assumption, isn’t always true if you’re a full time teacher. Another perk is that you get great suggestions from your teachers, sometimes of books that you haven’t heard of before or had previously been inaccessible. Call me a nerd, but this is all very exciting to me.

One such work recommended by my supervisor at the moment is Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier, an ethnography of the Lauje highlanders in Sulawesi by Tania Murray Li. “Ethnography” is the academic term for the books and reports that cultural anthropologists write. These are often products of continuous fieldwork that spans several months (sometimes a year or two). Back in the day they were usually just descriptive accounts of a specific locality (for example, a village or a town) that wove together various aspects of local life, like family relations, religion, how people earn a living, how they settle disputes and make decisions, how they give meaning to various events in their life, and others. Nowadays the heavily detailed description is still there, but anthropologists now strive to connect these localized descriptions with broader events happening across the nations where they conduct their studies, and even across the world. This is because many anthropologists recognize that local problems are inseparable from wider circumstances, and so both must be looked at if we want to solve certain issues or improve certain conditions. Murray Li’s work covers all these fronts, and her subject’s comparability to the Philippine situation makes it interesting reading indeed.

Murray Li’s book is a typical ethnography in the sense that she paints intimate accounts of her ethnographic “dramatis personae.” She captures quirky conversations, and links anecdotal incidents with larger social trends. But unlike a typical ethnography, her account isn’t limited to a specific period of time (usually the time the anthropologist spends in the field), but is synthesized from accumulated visits from 1990 to 2009.

This longer time frame allowed Murray Li to notice how life for her Lauje friends and informants substantively changed in almost twenty years. She characterized this change as the shift into “capitalist relations” between the Lauje themselves, and their treatment of inanimate resources like land, plant products, and labor. This shift is from reciprocal, neighborly relations with usufruct rights over land, with considerable personal autonomy, to quasi-employer-laborer relations, the private ownership of land, and the limiting or loss of personal opportunities. This has resulted to a certain degree of wealth for some, but brought others to the point of destitution. “Land’s End,” as Murray Li says of her title, talks about “the changed use of land, the end of a customary system of land sharing, and the end of the primary forest… It also flags their sense of bewilderment – coming to a dead end… [they] could no longer sustain their families on the old terms, but had no viable alternative.”

In order to argue for the more abstract aspects of “capitalist relations”, Murray Li goes back to basics with Marx’s capital/labor framework and Lenin’s mechanisms for the emergence of capitalism in Russia. But as an ethnography she also ascribes choice and emotion to the Lauje through Bourdieu’s practice theory, Thompson’s moral economy, and Williams’ “structures of feeling”.

I want to reserve the more academic comments and critiques for a formal book review that I am writing separately (I told you I was a nerd), but there are two points that I quickly want to raise that may be interesting and/or of use to the more public readership of this news website.

I have already partly mentioned above the first point, and that is the open usage of concepts from Marx and Lenin. Why is this remarkable? Because, in the Philippine context, any slight whiff of “Marx” or “Lenin” could very well translate to being labeled a communist or being associated with the New People’s Army.

Even any term that could be associated with these schools of thought would leave some in the academe quaking in their boots. I was at an interdisciplinary conference not too long ago and some colleagues explicitly conveyed their discomfort about using the term “imperialism” during a discussion of Philippine history. They reasoned that we should just give our students historical “facts”, and then let them decide for themselves whether there was imperialism or not (they were not historians or from the social sciences, mind you).

What this kind of outlook misses is that now, across the globe, the intellectual tide is beginning to turn towards critiquing capitalism, often with explicit references to Marx et al, like Murray Li’s book. Indeed, in some places the tide needs no turning at all: countries like France never denied the Marxist connections in their intellectual tradition. In the aftermath of the recent financial and neoliberal crises, we can say that Marx and friends are significant now more than ever.

So claiming that such terms and concepts cannot be asserted in our intellectual life is ridiculous. These are, after all, first and foremost, ideas for analyzing society. That they were central to tangible historical events should not detract from that fact and indeed speaks of how usable and groundbreaking they are, something that other scholars and researchers can only dream of with their own results. But sadly, there are still many “educated” people who never outgrew the Cold War.

The second point is Murray Li’s observation that the emergence of unequal and exploitative conditions (in the sense that people are left with no other choice than to accept economic terms that are detrimental to them) did not happen dramatically in one fell swoop, but with “stealth”. Her book identifies this additional vulnerability of indigenous and/or small-scale farming communities to shifting to capitalist relations that were, in a way, of their own accord: not imposed by state violence or multinational company coercion, but out of material, economic, and political confluences (in this case, the introduction of tree crops as alternative livelihood, and the absence of political organizing in the community), and their own understandable intention to improve their lot in life.

Murray Li does not deny that wider political-economic factors affected Lauje life, but her localized study of this specific highland group gave me pause. My understanding (based upon my reading of her book) is that the Lauje, though far from living luxurious lives, nevertheless previously had much elbow room with how they can subsist, and in the disposition of their labor and other resources. But modernity has its undeniable allure; planting tree crops such as cacao and clove promised them access to this as well. This jived with preexisting Lauje values of hard work and care for family. But as Murray Li describes, this is what led to land enclosures, and then to land being treated as private property. While some Lauje were able to build bigger houses, buy electronics and motorbikes, and send their children to better schools, ultimately there were the Lauje who, despite their hard work and care for others, were unable to secure private property rights and were excluded from any development.

In all these steps the Lauje exercised what could generally be categorized as their right to self-determination. But the end result was not the promotion of traditional reciprocal relations and equitable access to natural resources, but the capitalist relations that were almost indistinguishable from those in other poverty-stricken areas in the lowlands and urban zones.

Though the book doesn’t mention it, I surmise that this is what can happen when the right to self-determination is construed as mere liberal individual rights, subjected to little reflection other than “well, this is what the tribe wants.” Many of us have heard of stories of indigenous leaders giving permission to mining companies in exchange for vehicles or roads. We have heard of communities actively taking part in commercializing their culture so they can earn money.

For those who are able to take advantage (some members of the community, external entities like government units and corporations), they can just shrug their shoulders and claim “free, prior, and informed consent.” They can gesture to newly bought consumer products, modern amenities, and cash crops, and say: “Look! Progress.”

With her book, Murray Li hoped to urge NGOs and cause-oriented groups to reconfigure their lenses to capture the stealthy formation of unequal relations. But the case of the Lauje should also make us re-think the limits of self-determination and consent, and even the potential for regression of simple reformism and livelihood opportunities. Her book is a grave cautionary tale of what happens with “development” that merely mirrors, or reproduces, the unequal and exclusionary conditions that we already have elsewhere.


Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier by Tania Murray Li was published by Duke University Press in 2014. It won the American Ethnological Society Senior Book Prize in 2016.

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