Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Society for Cultural Anthropology
Cosponsored - Oral Presentation Session
When labor migrants leave the metropolis and return to rural Northeastern Brazil, they bring with them a wealth of metaphors to describe what they have lost through their jobs. Bosses, a migrant might say, take away your happiness, your capacity, or your profit. You could sacrifice your sweat or your dreams. Or, in the words of one interlocutor, maybe even your clothes: “A boss leaves you naked if he can.” Each of these tropes describes an intimate substance that, via the work process, has turned into the property of another. Yet sometimes migrants set aside this kit of metaphors and instead talk about how bosses exclude them from the mainstream job market or fail to pay the minimum wage. In those moments, migrants speak about exploitation not as loss of a substance but as separation from a standard—not as a matter of property but as a matter of distance. In this paper, I consider the stakes of these differing approaches. What sort of egalitarianism do the metaphors of property make possible? What gets missed? Following the lead of Li, Strathern, and Tsing, and Rose, I explore property as a politically specific concept, one that presupposes and creates alienability as a criterion for justice. Brazil’s migrants demonstrate, however, that the language of alienability can, at decisive moments, be replaced with an alternative. By appreciating property’s rhetorical powers and its blind spots, we can, I argue, help develop a notion of exploitation to serve as a fundamental tool for anthropological analysis.