Accumulation by Dispossession in Cambodia

Accumulation by Dispossession is the phrase David Harvey uses to discuss contemporary, so-called Primitive Accumulation: the commodification and privatization of goods, for the benefit of the bourgeoisie, and to the detriment and subjugation of all other classes. Primitive Accumulation, in turn, is the term Karl Marx used to describe the process of ‘enclosing the commons,’ forcing workers off of their relationship to the land and into the ranks of waged labor, the necessary factor of production that capitalists remain in need of, after they have accumulated and come into control of their machines of production. Here’s a link to a nice video by David Harvey discussing Primitive Accumulation, and here’s one discussing Accumulation by Dispossession.

I introduce these terms in order to contextualize the two videos below.  Both are examples of Primitive Accumulation, perhaps obviously so.  One takes place in the highlands, and the other takes place in a formerly middle-class neighborhood in the capital city. Both involve violence – both police and vigilante – and the law.  Primitive Accumulation and Accumulation by Dispossession are taking place simultaneously in Cambodia; it occurs to me now, that this might need to be paid closer attention to.

Both videos below are from the Asia Media Lab.



Sounding Cambodia and Primitive Accumulation

Sometimes a number of stories come out all at once, and reminds you that no matter the supposed ‘distance’ from my topic, economics are often central to individual and social practice. All of these stories came in one day, in the Phnom Penh Post.

One of the themes I’ve been concentrating on in my new research is primitive accumulation in Cambodia. Primitive Accumulation, as used by Marx, is the process by which relatively ‘free’ peasants, who lived socially off the land via the management and sharing of the commons, were transformed into waged laborers, or those seeking wage labor, the so-called working class.  All of this of course has a great deal of contemporary resonance in watching Cambodia (or any number of other places) today.  I’m hardly the only person to have noticed this. Anthropologist Iain Baird of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been publishing on this topic.  I was fortunate enough to meet him in person last year, and he directed me to a number of his relevant articles, which I recommend.

Of course, in Cambodia, one of the great stories of primitive accumulation appear as land grabs.  Dey Krahom previously, and Boeung Kak now, become relatively famous because of their location in Phnom Penh, but land grabs have been a constant threat in more rural areas for quite a long time.  The Buddha sangha in Cambodia has been confronted with a scandal in the last few months, as activist monk Venerable Luon Savath has been progressively stripped of his ability to rely upon sangha requisites – especially shelter.  Banned from staying in capital temples previously, he has now been evicted from Watt Ounalom.  Some of his supporters – reportedly from Boeung Kak – helped him move his belongings.

More generally, Cambodia is waiting to hear the US government’s decision on import tariffs from Cambodia.  Cambodia’s export markets are not terribly diverse, and therefore highly dependent on state-to-state relations with its few customers.  The United States and the European Union occupy the biggest seats at the table.  As a result, decisions on tariffs in the US make enormous changes in Cambodia.  While the Cambodia garment industry has been adding jobs in the last quarter, the reduction or elimination of select tariffs would almost certainly result in the rapid addition of more jobs.  This is absolutely necessary if Cambodia is ever to experience significant secondary industrialization and the development of a more varied urban workforce.  Dependency on agricultural exports and garment work is a recipe for constant crisis.  But, challenges in the judicial sector (widespread perceptions of corruption, e.g.) and in retention of profits (expatriation of profits, e.g.) remain the largest challenge in this regard.

Finally, after a series of mass faintings at factories, in which employers and upstream brands have promised investigations, etc., the Arbitration Council has declared a strike over irregular pay and 8 other significant problems illegal, and ordered the workers back to their stations.  The union in question the Cambodian Coalition of Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) has accepted the decision, but this is significant in so far as it appears to be setting the stage for the new norm that the government and the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) are hoping becomes reality after the passage of the new Labor Law.



Interview with Professor Kheang Un about upcoming publication

I’m very excited to see Professor Kheang Un interviewed in this video available on youtube.  Along with Professor Caroline Hughes, he is co-editor of the upcoming publication “Cambodia’s Economic Transformation,” a collection of essays on, well, Cambodia’s economic transformation.  I’m pleased to have an article included in this collection, about how Pretas (“Hungry Ghosts”) are employed by contemporary Cambodians to discuss moral reciprocity and its failure.



Sounding Cambodia on July 8th 2011

Howdy, readers.  I’ve been in the great Cascade Mountains of Washington State, and far from the internet.  But I’m back now, working on my manuscript (yes, really), and trying to keep households and students from imploding (sort of).  While I was gone, a lot of important things happened.  Here are some of them!

Over at Slate magazine, Ken Silverstein does an excellent job skewering the self-serving culture of the NGO elites who rule Cambodian in tandem (and not a friendly one) with the CPP.  It won’t be news to anyone who’s ever lived in the ‘Bodge, but it’s a good refresher.  Go read.

Meanwhile, the Closing Order from the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC, aka the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) has been released, and the media are starting to talk about Brother Number Two, Nuon Chea, again. Here’s an article in the Guardian from the  redoubtable Thet Sambath, the Cambodian journalist responsible for the most important film on the Khmer Rouge made, Enemies of the People.  Enemies of the People is available on DVD now – buy it, watch it. Learn.  As a different article said, it’s like watching a documentary on the Nazi Genocides narrated by the bad guys.

Also, there was a fascinating, important election in Thailand, which could have enormous implications (hopefully and likely positive ones) for Cambodia.  We’ll see, but the upshot is that Thailand just elected its first female Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and the army has indicated that it will respect the results.

Also, important economic news out of Cambodia.  Rice exports quadrupled, which is good for business, but should make Cambodian nationals nervous, since food security is getter worse every year. Cambodia experienced a 6.5% rise in food prices over the last year. Food security analysts point out that other countries have experienced 20% rises, and call that stable.  Tell that to the peasants. If they’re interested in eating meat, prices are at least double the rise of general food increases:

In the first six months of 2011, beef has increased some 12.07 percent to 26,000 riel a kilogramme, smoked fish has seen a 22.63 percent increase to 16,800 riel, and pork has climbed 25.37 percent to 21,800 riel on Phnom Penh markets, the Commerce Ministry’s daily report on Friday showed.

As for the manufacturing sector, the Garment Manufacturer’s Association of Cambodia (GMAC) predicts a thirty percent rise in exports this year, while the anti-union draft law is receiving unified opposition from the unions.  Meanwhile, primitive accumulation proceeds apace, with the cruelty in evidence, for example, in the repeated destruction of the shelters of already-evicted villagers from the notorious Dey Krahom collective.


Sounding on Cambodia for February 9, 2010

  • Hun Sen didn’t quite manage to make it to ប្រាសាទ​តាមាន់​ធំ​ Prasat Ta Moan Temple, which I’ve written about previously (start here, I suppose), last time Thailand and Cambodia’s nationalist factions started squabbling over it.  The whole thing is simultaneously silly and infuriating.  ព្រះ​វិហារ, which is the real object of contention, is clearly Khmer.  Everyone of consequence has agreed, including previous Thai governments.  But now, because Thailand is dealing with a nascent fascist movement (again), relatively meaningless issues like the placement of a border post and the control over a non-lucrative, largely ruined, temple like Prasat Ta Moan, becomes serious.

    And it’s all cloaked in the language and rhetoric of sovereignty and nation.  If these governments are so concerned with the well-being of their co-nationals, they might question why Surin province in Thailand, and Oddar Meanchey province in Cambodia, receive so little serious government support or funding for issues relating to actual well-being.

    Andy Brouwer’s got some good background and pictures here.

  • Meanwhile, Cambodia has asked the US government to cancel it’s outstanding debts of $339 Million dollars from the 1970s (when the client regime of Lon Nol was fighting a proxy war against its own people and the guerilla communists, on behalf of the US), or else turn it into aid.  I doubt the US would agree to stop collecting debts on its historical protection rackets (can you imagine them canceling the debt that Iraq is going to be saddled with for its ‘liberation?’), they might turn it into ‘aid:’ that all just gets spent on American machinery and ‘foreign expert’ salaries, anyway. See Will Easterly’s awesome, and relatively new, blog, Aid Watch.
  • I don’t have the fight in me for this round of “Let’s blame an American intellectual for the Khmer Rouge,” but Sophal Ear, whom I know and am friendly with, has entered another round in this effort (scroll down about halfway).  I have no sympathy for it, and find it sad to see yet another generation of scholars and thinkers on Cambodia enrolled into stale and meaningless Cold War thinking.  What exactly is Chomsky accused of?  Apologist for the Khmer Rouge?  Never did it.  Critic of American intellectuals who merely cheered while we illegally and secretly bombed Cambodia, leveling it with more tonnage of explosives than was used in all of World War II?  Yes, he did that, and I can’t imagine apologizing for that. By virtue of this previous critique, is he supposed to have been a proponent of the authoritarian and secretive Khmer Rouge?  Hardly: Chomsky has been a avowed anarchist since his youth, which necessarily entails a critique and opposition to not merely the unrestrained forces of feral capitalism, but also the vicious and violent authority of the state (anarchists were the first critics of the authoritarian communists of the Soviet Union, for instance, and have been persecuted more often by their state-communist sisters and brothers than even by the capitalists). It all seems very much like those who want to make Chomsky responsible for the horrors of the Khmer Rouge are either egregiously overestimating Chomsky’s influence (do they imagine he was somehow influencing public policy, and that therefore more bombing of Cambodia would have helped keep the KR at bay?) or holding him morally responsible for being an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, which I doubt he’d be inclined to apologize for.


  • Nobody expected the Garment Factory owners to simply roll over when the workers asked for a payraise.  They didn’t, even though the government itself claims workers need a minimum of $93/month to live, and they currently receive $50. Now, new subcontracting ‘workrooms,’ unregistered and illegal places where factories are skimming even more money from the workers, have been reported in Cambodia, and are supposedly threatening Cambodia’s trade status with the US:

The presence of unregistered workrooms could also damage the work Cambodia has done towards making a name for itself in good labor conditions. This has been sought as a competitive advantage, as Cambodian manufacturing can cost more and labor skills are lower than in competing countries.

Buyers like Levi Straus, Gap, Nike Air and Walt Disney demand respect for labor standards and worker rights. Such buyers can lose confidence in Cambodia if the country does not respect its promises of high standards, Art Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers, told VOA Khmer.

The presence of workrooms can decrease the impact of demonstrations or strikes, he said, because they allow owners to subcontract their work. He would welcome such businesses if they operated legally, he said.

  • The great explorer Zheng He, whose Chinese ships came through Southeast Asia, is explored on the BBC World Service. Check it out! (via)
  • oh yeah – my little post on the word យូន has begun receiving comments over at Details Are Sketchy, who kindly posted a link to it.  Conversation will probably be over there, I imagine.

Read This – "Let Us Not Praise Coups"

In addition to Andrew Walker’s inventory of some of the surprising accomplishments of the Thai state in achieving its Millenium Development Goals, this post by wonderful journalist Awzar Thi (a pseudonym), over at his blog, Rule of Lords is today’s must-read.

Responding to Paul Collier‘s half-baked, militarist suggestion that what countries in crisis (specifically, Zimbabwe) should hope for are military coups, Awzar Thi runs down the actual history of coups, and shows how awful they are for those over which they rule, no matter the high hopes of the populace (and international imperialists), nor the horrendous state of affairs prior to the coup. He concludes

Let us not praise coups, and let us certainly not wish them upon people who are already acutely suffering their iniquities. They are not a way out of trouble but a way into more of it. No better advertisement of this exists than Burma today.

Please, go read it.