American Ethnological Society
Oral Presentation Session
This paper takes up labor circulation as an activity of political critique that links contemporary migratory itineraries to earlier passages of agricultural and mineral work in Bolivia's colonial and precolonial eras. In the Andes, as elsewhere, the promise of capitalist modernity historically lay in the premise of "free exchange:" the idea that labor arrangements are entered into contractually and that their remuneration in money should be severed from broader social and ethical claims across hierarchy. What political and economic worlds open up when we interrogate this foundational premise? Looking at bodily movements of laborers across farms, gold mines, and municipal government spaces in rural Bolivia, I consider work practices and sensibilities that implode what Dipesh Chakrabarty (1997) called the “secular time of abstract labor.” This is to linger with the normative entailments of scholarly heuristics but also to probe when and how those heuristics fail. Without equating labor with free exchange, what other connotations can the idea of work accommodate? What obligations? What disruptions to more hegemonic discourses of economic time, such as neoliberalism or “late capital”? Following the perspective of my ethnographic interlocutors in Bolivia, I ask what it means to approach exchange as always potentially “unfree,” a move that uncovers the difficulty involved in naturalizing a more disaggregated ideal of capital. More than inexorable historical telos, exchange instead arises as an embodied, tangible activity whose relational grounds render a more abstract ideal of capital precarious and liable to critique.