University of Cambridge > > Department of Geography - Distinguished International Fellows > Commodifications, Capitalism, Counter-movements: Perspectives from Southeast Asia

Commodifications, Capitalism, Counter-movements: Perspectives from Southeast Asia

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The contemporary trajectory of global development, sometimes glossed “neoliberal,” is said to be characterized by the expansion of markets, and the extension of the commodity form to more domains of life. Nature, ideas, debt, risk, genes, carbon, pollution: anything, it seems, can be commodified and circulated in order to generate profit. Pushed too far, the commodification of everything puts human life at risk.  According to Karl Polanyi, recognition of the risk produces push-back in the form of protective counter-movements. Of particular concern to Karl Polanyi was the commodification of land, which is the basis of human life, and the treatment of humans as mere units of labour. This was his warning: “Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as the victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighbourhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed…”  This lecture re-examines movements for and against commodification of land and labour from the perspective of Southeast Asia, and re-centres capitalism as a key term of analysis. Southeast Asia is an important location from which to revisit these topics for several reasons. First, the region has a long history of transactions in commodities, including land and labour, enabling us to ask: if the present is different, how so?  Second, colonial powers played an ambivalent role in the commodification process, deeming sectors of the native population inappropriate market subjects, with effects that still resonate. Third, the agricultural frontier continues to expand, as land and labour are mobilized to produce commodities for global markets. Counter-intuitively, it is smallholders, not plantations that organize their production on competitive, capitalist lines. Finally, Southeast Asia is the site of prominent writing about counter-movements said to be grounded in indigenous traditions, subsistence ethics, moral economies, notions of shared poverty, Asian values, the Asian family, and the Asian village. Contemporary counter-movement imaginaries invoked in projects to involve forest-villagers in combating climate change run up against the dynamic, often capitalist, processes in which the same villagers are involved.

This talk is part of the Department of Geography - Distinguished International Fellows series.

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