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Mutual Aid 151 151 8 Mutual Aid Delirium and the Political Field Sisanuk’s rather saccharine reference to the massive columns in the temple hall during the village meeting in the previous chapter, and his use of this example to suggest that the people should think of how to “work together” to ease their own poverty, indicates a more pervasive tendency to see villagebased cooperation as a traditional characteristic of rural Laos that can be tapped by development projects. The logic of mutual aid was one of the key rules implicit in the Poverty Reduction Fund. A latrine was not permissible. A latrine in the school was. A personal business plan was not permissible. A community-built school made of local materials was. The legitimating factor here that distinguished a valid from an invalid suggestion was the imagined presence of a community working together to construct their own public goods like roads and schools to be shared among themselves for common benefit. Yet Don Khiaw’s definitions of community do not fit easily into the idea of the collective village imagined in the road to nowhere project. Lao rural residents do refer to village residence as an important indicator of identity , but in economic action they cultivate person-centred networks that are diverse and widely dispersed. A resident of Don Khiaw is likely to count as closely-cultivated kin people in Thailand, the Bolaven Plateau, urban centres, the USA and Australia. In many ways, the idea of the village-community pursued by the Poverty Reduction Fund was a fantasy. By “fantasy” I mean not that it was false or made-up. I mean that it was one of the possible answers generated to that compelling question promoted by desire, which is “What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I for others?” (Zizek 1996: 117). This is fantasy in the psychoanalytic sense: an Chap8 (151-168) 151 2/20/14 3:16:14 PM 152 Fields of Desire unstable answer generated in response to both the impossibility and yet importance of formulating ourselves in the eyes of others. In this chapter I propose to take the fantasy of mutual aid seriously as part of the shared delirium born of desire that shapes the Lao political field. Cuing from Deleuze’s concept of delirium, I argue that mutual aid recurs in Laos like a compulsion. It generates its own rationalities that guide or make sense of action, even when the people who get caught up in these rationalities do not necessarily believe in them. Mutual aid is everywhere throughout the political field in Laos. Yet it is often conspicuous by its absence . In the preceding three chapters, I looked at three different policy processes : collectivization, irrigation, and the road to nowhere. It is striking that the concept of mutual aid returned in each of these, each time dressed up in the costume of its particular era (socialist collectives, irrigation management transfer, and participatory planning). Each of these initiatives was particular, influenced by trending international buzz words and the latest set of foreign advisors of the time, yet still they came to be spoken of in this very familiar framework of mutual aid. Think, for instance, of the official mentioned in the last chapter charged with translating the PRF documents into Lao, and how he struggled to find a translation for “participation”, settling at last on suan huam (the common good). This term much predates the participatory turn in development policy and points well beyond it. When he struggled to think of a translation for “community”, he just used the Lao word for “village.” In doing so, this translator was tapping into a very long-running pattern in Lao political practice: imagining an autarkic village complete unto itself due to internal cooperation and then imagining that this cooperative unit can, counter-intuitively, serve the purposes of the latest state policy. The fault of this kind of thinking should be obvious: how can mutual aid, imagined as pre-existing and a mode of autarky, also be the mode through which the state and development is enacted? Why are the state and development industry even necessary if mutual aid is already so natively effective at achieving these ends? If this “mistake” had happened once, we might accept it as such, but that it occurs again and again, and is still occurring, requires a larger explanation . Projects come and go, it seems, but mutual aid remains the obsession of...


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