Episcope: “Begininning a Sketch of Accumulation by Dispossession in Contemporary Cambodia”

A new short piece of my writing has been published over at Episcope. It’s called “Beginning a Sketch of Accumulation by Dispossession in Contemporary Cambodia,” and I hope you go check it out. I’ve written about Accumulation by Dispossession, or ‘Primitive Accumulation,’ on this blog frequently in the past. Click here to see those posts. There are pictures by photographer John Vink as well, to induce you to click this link.

Episcope is a relatively new online blog from Cultural Anthropology, and is attempting to promote different types of ethnographic writing, as indicated in this partial description:

This is an experiment. The insights of anthropologists are usually sequestered in academic circles, networks, and classrooms. Our work is also often constrained within a slow, arduous publishing process such that our writings frequently fail to address in an immediate way the pressing realities we often grapple with in our fieldwork. For these among other reasons, anthropologists rarely affect how current issues are enacted in mainstream narratives.

Thanks, Episcope!

Maps of Primitive Accumulation in Cambodia, via Land Concessions: and an argument?

An article in today’s Phnom Penh Post announces that the Kingdom’s Arable Land All But Gone, according to a report by AdHoc, and as a direct result of the vast practice of Economic Land Concessions, which I associate with Primitive Accumulation. In order to make clear what I mean by that, compare this quote from AdHoc, with the description of the enclosure movement in England (the primary example of Primitive Accumulation):

Exploratory mining concessions had been included in this calculation, he said, because while firms granted these rights did not technically own the land, they acted like it in practice by erecting fences and expelling villagers from the area.

Here’s a wikipedia article on the English Enclosure movement.

Now, I’m not a geographer, so haven’t been able to really sort through this other map, created by someone at the MangoMap weblog, with the title “Lies, Damn Lies, and Maps,” which seems to be somewhat critical of this original map (?) and attempts to correct it.  I’d love to hear from those with more knowledge, what this is supposed to represent:

Cambodia: more on primitive accumulation, and new criticisms of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

After my recent post on primitive accumulation in Cambodia, now these stories from the Phnom Penh Post:

Shooter Now Unknown. It’s unclear what to make of this. It was pretty obvious from initial reports that Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith was himself the man who shot into a crowd of workers striking outside a shoe factory. It sounds like the provincial police chief, who claimed that the suspect was identified and under pursuit, may have been planning to arrest a patsy, as the police did in the Chea Vichea case, and that national officials may be preventing that from happening. We’ll have to wait and see.

Monks Await Justice. Khmer Krom – it’s what Cambodians call the Mekong Delta now controlled by Vietnam.  While ethnic Khmer in southern Vietnam appear to have a generally better nutritional profile, and experience somewhat less poverty than do Khmer (as a whole) in Cambodia, it is also clear that the Vietnamese State attempts to control ethnic Khmer display so closely that their policies amount to a form of cultural genocide. (yes, that). Khmer Krom activists are often under attack, as was made obvious in the case of the Khmer Krom activist monk, Tim Sakhorn.  Moreover, it is clear that elements within the Cambodian government often cooperate with the Vietnamese government to arrest and intimidate Khmer Krom activists.

So, when another Khmer Krom monk activist was murdered, with his throat slit in a Cambodian temple in Kandal province, in 2007, few expected a serious search for the murderer. Their suspicions have been proven correct, and five years later, monks and lay-people held a ceremony to remember his death.

Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is experiencing another set of serious criticisms, and coordination between the Khmer and International judges appears to be non-existent. The new International judge, Judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet, has re-opened Case 003, to the objections of PM Hun Sen and his co-investigating Khmer judge. Meanwhile, Cambodian staffers at the court have not been paid for a very long time. While this is supposed to be the responsibility of the Cambodian government, they have disclaimed this.  The European Union has just coughed up 1.7 million to help pay this staff. Meanwhile, the Open Society Justice Initiative is releasing perhaps its strongest criticisms yet of the tribunal’s process, talking about a ‘crisis of credibility,’ and the International Bar Association has released a statement claiming the tribunal faces a serious ‘failure of credibility.’

oh. my.

Primitive Accumulation heats up in Cambodia

The process of primitive accumulation – the robbing and looting that precedes industrial development and the emergence of a large class of waged-laborers, according to Marxist development theory – is heating up in Cambodia. I’ve written about primitive accumulation in Cambodia previously, and have been working on applying the theory of primitive accumulation (especially through the influences of David Harvey and Silvia Federici) to the contemporary Cambodian situation for several years.

Extremely clear in the Cambodian situation (though the logic appears universal and non-particular) is that indigenous groups are often the first to experience the depredations of primitive accumulation. Look at the American example: first, Native peoples were forced off of the land deemed most valuable at the time – agricultural lands. They were forced onto lands agriculturally non-productive.  Those lands, tragically, were agriculturally nonproductive partly because they hold the world’s majority of valuable, industrial economy inputs – things like uranium, oil, and metals. So now, in the American Southwest, Native groups experience exposure to uranium mining and what some have called radioactive genocide.

In Cambodia, the relationship between upland indigenous groups and lowland peasants is significantly different. But much of the logic remains intact – it is in the agriculturally improductive lands of the highlands that much of today’s industrial wealth is created – mining, logging, and rubber plantations. As those lands are expropriated from indigenous groups by government-offered concessions, indigenous groups become profoundly ‘modern.’ My sense – I do not have the statistics (anyone?) – is that upland groups are now more proletarianized, proportionally (that is, they subsist primarily on wages from wage labor) than lowland Khmer. Continue reading

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.