Every so often we have the privilege of reading a book that, like Tania Li’s Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier, radically realigns our thinking on pressing problems. Li combines a nuanced analysis of long-term ethnographic data and a straightforward, yet sophisticated, theoretical framework to prod us to reexamine an issue that is hardly unique to Indonesia: how have landless rural people been left behind in the march toward capitalist agricultural production and market expansion? The Lauje highlanders she depicts once enjoyed significant economic and political autonomy due to a system of shared access to common land and an open frontier for expansion.
The book traces these indigenous highlanders’ attempts to alleviate their poverty through agricultural commodity production, only to encounter the polarizing effects of the capitalist relations that emerged among them as a result (2). Today, they have limited access to both land and employment opportunities. Li convincingly argues that this “land’s end” demands new knowledge and a new politics (179): she deftly employs her ethnographic research to challenge both 1) development policies aimed at alleviating poverty through market integration and 2) social movements that promote development alternatives that are inappropriate for the majority of the world’s rural dwellers. The author’s forthright prose and original approach make this a superb text for classroom use at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. It will appeal to area specialists and political ecologists, along with anthropologists specializing in economic, ecological, and applied domains.
Li develops an “analytic of conjuncture” in which each element sets the conditions of possibility for others in changing configurations (16) to [End Page 827] answer a question that is both theoretically and practically compelling: why did the Lauje highlands remain seemingly inert in the face of developing inequalities? Why didn’t residents seek to limit their exposure to market risk (9)? In other words, why is there no Polanyian counter-movement? The answer to this question is found in the configuration of elements that are systematically explored in the book: economic factors (prices, market demand, profits, and credit); material qualities (rainfall, pests, diseases, topography); crop characteristics (longevity, storability, disease vulnerability, production requirements); social organization and cultural values; institutional elements (customary and official rules regulating daily life); and the desires of both humans and unseen spirits.
Chapter 1, “Positions,” explores the historical processes that informed the identities of highlanders and drew them into particular sets of political and economic relations with merchants and government authorities over the course of two centuries. Chapter 2, “Work and Care,” introduces readers to several highland neighborhoods to explore labor and social relations in a period when residents had sufficient land for subsistence production. Chapter 3, “Enclosure,” details how the increased production of cacao on commonly owned land led to privatization and a new concept of land as a bounded unit that can be owned, bought, and sold. Chapter 4, “Capitalist Relations,” explores the effects of the capitalist relations that emerged when land, labor, and money began to travel circuits defined by competition and profit. Finally, Chapter 5, “Politics Revisited,” investigates how highlanders responded to increasingly entrenched inequality.
Li mobilizes her research to support three central arguments that together answer her guiding question: how does the transition from subsistence farming to agricultural commodity production impact landless, rural people? First, she pays careful attention to the complex ways in which Lauje highlanders were positioned within local economic and political structures. She argues that the highlanders’ characterization as “wild, backward, and unproductive worked to secure particular relations of power,” and cultivated their desires for particular ways of living (32-33). She doesn’t limit her focus to an exploration of the highlanders’ conscious, articulated reasons for switching to cash crop production. Instead, she explores the set of relations, tensions, and desires which contributed to this course of action, identifying three as especially important: the experience of social stigma, livelihood insecurity, and a desire for access to the roads and schools highlanders associated with [End Page 828] “modern village life” (57). However, Li is careful to assert...