If you want to read just one book to properly understand capitalism, let it be Tania Li’s award-winning
2014 book Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier
(Duke University Press, 2014). This might seem like a strange choice: how can a study of a faraway and possibly exotic indigenous place shed light on “our” own global realities of jobless growth and rising inequality? But it can, and it does.
The book is a masterpiece of social scientific scholarship and critical political praxis. Through a longitudinal ethnography conducted over twenty years, the book follows the consequences of Indonesian highlanders’ fateful decision to plant the booming cash crop of the 1990s, cacao. That decision, Li shows, was the reason that capitalism took root and developed apace in the highlands over the coming decades. All the telltale signs of capitalist relations emerged: land was privatized, commons eroded, classes differentiated, and wealth and poverty co-created. Instead of coming as an imposition from the outside, from the state or transnational corporations, capitalism grew within the highlands, in the intimate spaces between kin and neighbors who had all planted cacao hoping it would lead them to a better life and many of whom instead ran into a dead end -- land’s end. The dilemmas and challenges that land’s end brought are explored with care, compassion, and
a critical eye in Li’s astonishingly lucid prose.
The book is a challenge both to development discourse that insists that only capitalism can improve the lives of the rural poor, and to social movements which insist that indigenous people must be protected from capitalism’s unwanted encroachment. Neither of these two sides of the debate can account for the situation that many Lauje highlanders find themselves in - landless, jobless, dependent on the market for survival, desirous of joining the march for progress, and yet facing a grim future. Tania Li has once again brought to light the most critical and pressing issues of our time in a book that is a must-read for everyone who cares about poverty and inequality. Anthropologists, historians, economists, activists, policy-makers, and development professionals will all find a great deal of value in this remarkable work. I had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Li earlier today.
Aparna Gopalan is a Ph.D. student in Social Anthropology at Harvard University. Her research focuses on how managing surplus populations and tapping into fortunes at the “bottom-of-the-pyramid” are twin-logics that undergird poverty alleviation projects in rural Rajasthan.