Caribbean Workers and Capitalist Geography: An interview with Marion Werner

Geographer Marion Werner’s Global Displacements: The Making of Uneven Development in the Caribbean is among the most important, and easily the most innovative, work of political economy to emerge on the Caribbean region over the past decades. Issued by the excellent Antipode Book Series, the imprint of Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, Global Displacements is a rigorous and trenchantly argued examination of the impact of the global organization of capitalist accumulation and exploitation on the life and labor of Haitian and Dominican people. Focusing on the garment industry, Werner looks at the circulation of capital and labor under neoliberalism, paying close attention to questions of geography, race, and gender. A critical, Caribbeanist intervention into geographic and political-economic research, Global Displacements will stand as a classic work of Caribbean studies.

Werner is Associate Professor of Geography at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. Her research is located at the nexus of critical development studies, feminist theory, and political economy with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition to writing Global Displacements, Werner is a co-editor of The Doreen Massey Reader, and she has published articles in Geoforum, Geography Compass, New West Indian Guide, Economic Geography, Gender, Place, and Culture, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographers, Environment and Planning A, Social and Cultural Geography, and Antipode.

Werner is currently working on projects related to the international integration of national food systems via global trade and multinational regulation, including a study of rice farmers in the Dominican Republic and a project on the changing geographies of agricultural labor related to generic pesticide trade and production. 

THE PUBLIC ARCHIVE: With its granular focus on workers from Santiago de los Caballeros in the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic and the Haitian border town of Ouanaminthe, the lives and labor of Caribbean people are at the center of Global Displacements. Can you speak in general terms of who these people are and what issues they face in Caribbean labor markets structured and unstructured – and gendered – by global capitalism? Additionally, what are the kind of methodological issues you encountered in your research and writing?

First, thank you for these thoughtful questions, which have sat with me for many months. The current economic shutdown brought about by the COVID-19 crisis has led me to reflect on my work with unemployed garment workers, now well over a decade ago. Press coverage today casts the clash between use value, i.e., the needs, wants and desires for a meaningful, healthful existence, and capitalist value, i.e., surplus producing circulation, as a devil’s bargain between minimizing mass death (a.k.a. “flattening the curve”) and saving “the economy.” While ultimately reaffirming this profane tradeoff, government responses nonetheless reveal the various shades of capitalist regulation in practice: European countries and Canada to some extent have socialized payrolls; in the United States where I live, in contrast, people are thrown out of work, swelling the unemployment rolls to more than 33 million (as of May 14, 2020), and excluding tax-paying undocumented workers from even this benefit. Despite these distinctions, all of these high-income economies share the same position with respect to the millions of workers laboring in the transnational supply and services chains that provision their markets under the besieged, but very much entrenched, corporate globalization model.  From media outlets, readers get snapshots of contractors from Mexico to Bangladesh left unpaid and thousands of workers left jobless. But we should not be surprised by cash-rich corporations leaving suppliers and their workers stranded. As Genevieve LeBaron, a sociologist of labor in the UK, wrote: “it’s exactly what supply chains are set up to do” (on Twitter, April 15).

My book, Global Displacements, sought to illuminate tectonic shifts in the global economy brought about by neoliberal reforms through the lens of Caribbean garment workers’ experiences. The book was the culmination of more than a decade of work, initially outside academia, with garment workers in Central America and the Dominican Republic, spending many evenings and weekends in their homes listening to their stories, aspirations and disappointments. During that time, I observed a complex circulation of labor and capital that was equal parts common and devastating: workers cycled in and out of factories at a rhythm determined both by workers’ needs, desires and frustrations as well as permissive labor regulations and abusive management practices.  Punctuating this workplace turnover were the factories themselves, which also circulated in and out of different trade zones and neighborhoods to dodge taxes and obligations such as severance pay or a union organizing drive; factories also moved in and out of countries and sub-national regions to take advantage of new global trade rules put in place for their advantage. The ultimate commodity fetish under this model of global capitalism is that the garments (or iphones, strawberries, and any other global supply chain product) keep on coming despite these multi-scale displacements. The supply chain side of the current COVID-19 crisis reveals these displacements and their ethical dimensions most starkly, in food supply chains especially, which I’ll come back to in your last question.

Upon entering graduate school, I returned to the Dominican Republic to learn how workers navigate this instability.  During my research, around 80,000 garment jobs and dozens of factories shifted from the Dominican Republic to Asia or to lower-wage countries like Haiti as new trade rules favoring capital’s mobility took effect under the World Trade Organization. I spent a lot of time in the northern city of Santiago de los Caballeros, a center of garment production made up of mostly Dominican-owned factories. I was committed to a ‘multi-sited’ approach to my research. This meant not only following people and processes to other places, like the Haitian-Dominican border, but also considering the perspectives of people differently positioned in garment work. To that end, I interviewed managers, owners, engineers, development experts, food vendors and transport operators. But the bulk of my time was spent with retrenched garment workers as they figured out the next steps to support their livelihoods. At the heart of that process was their decision whether or not to migrate back to their campos, or rural hometowns, or to move abroad to New York, Spain, Panama, or elsewhere. Making these choices within structural constraints, women and men navigated urban and rural spaces in different ways to find not simply jobs or money, but positions of social worth. Their strategies were, of course, shaped by gender and the particular anti-Black racism that shapes working class people’s experiences in the Cibao. I really wanted to push the discussion beyond narrow economistic understandings towards a deeper appreciation of people’s expectations and desires in the context of capitalist displacements. For example, I dwell on the ways that workers themselves shape this geography of displacements through seemingly mundane occurrences, such as a worker ingratiating himself to his supervisor in order to get fired (and thus to qualify for severance pay) before the factory where he works closes up; or workers enduring serious cash and food shortages in the city in order to avoid the social stigma of returning to hometowns empty-handed. 

The very inequalities at the heart of my project – consumer/producer, North/South – also permeated my research. Both my social position (a white, ciswoman from Canada) and the multi-sited nature of the project posed ethical dilemmas.  These dilemmas have no easy solution and they remain salient in shaping and determining how, why and with whom I do research in the Caribbean, including PhD students, long-term collaborators in geography in Santo Domingo, and more recently, farmers and peasant movements. 

You’re a geographer. For those of us not in the field, can you explain what analytical tools the field brings to the study of Caribbean political-economic history? You write that you are attempting to produce “a relational geography of uneven development that foregrounds the ways in which places are iteratively forged in relation to one another” – but can you unpack this phrase for non-geographers, explaining how critical questions of space and place help us understand the different histories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic?

There has long been an impasse in development studies that sees, on the one hand, the realization of place-based modernization (deeply tied to Cold War ideology and its legacies), and, on the other, the stance that the wealth of some people and places is premised upon transfers from other people and places (i.e., Marxist core/periphery models). Critical geography has been particularly good at thinking through uneven development in historical and spatial terms to bolster and refine this second “dependency” position. Scholars like Doreen Massey, for example, long-explored core/periphery dynamics at different scales and considered how they were historically reproduced and challenged, and how they created ethical and moral connections between places. I found arguments by Massey and others to be compelling as the changes in the geographies of capitalism over the last half-century are no longer adequately described by presuming a rigid, static global North/South divide. What about China? Brazil? And what about the Dominican Republic and Haiti? But Anglo-Geography’s enduring Anglo-North-centrism was a limitation here. My work brings perspectives from Caribbean Studies more centrally into Geography, which has tended to ignore the Caribbean as a location that produces theory, instead reducing it to a site for empirical research (most recently through debilitating lenses of climate hazard and risk).  Scholars in (a broadly construed) Caribbean studies, including classic work by Sidney Mintz, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Fernando Ortíz, and Sylvia Wynter, as well as work by Fernando Coronil, Michaeline Crichlow and Katherine McKittrick (a geographer and key thinker of Black geographies), have long grappled with the uneven legacies of colonialism and how these play out in and through spatial difference. 

What then is a “relational geography of uneven development”? In short, I see it as the fractalization of core-periphery relations. We see that place-based inequality has only intensified as the dominant, ideological indicators of progress like average GDP per capita growth propel a general myth of development and failure. Obviously, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are extreme examples, but throughout Latin America, the abandonment of the already-problematic notion of national development has led to more intensely uneven and unequal inter- and intra-country differences: between northern and southern Mexico, northern and southern Brazil, and within smaller polities as well. As I show with the Cibao and the Haitian-Dominican border, these inequalities are long-standing, rooted in racialized histories of colonial capitalism; and, of course, they are not static. The border, for example, as a site of profit-making based on the profound inequalities between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is a relatively recent construction even if its conditions of possibility are formed over at least two centuries, as demonstrated by the work of historians like Robin Derby, Richard Turits, and Suzy Castor. In part, I see my book updating and building on that of two critical Caribbean geographers in the 1980s – Georges Anglades (who tragically died in the 2010 Haitian earthquake) and Rafael Emilio Yunén – to show the historical and geographical dynamics that produced Hispaniola through uneven development.   

In Caribbean studies, the plantation, or – “The Plantation” – has loomed larger over the field, with authors describing it as a social and cultural institution and not merely a political-economic machine. However, you write of the “global factory.” What is the global factory, and does it share a historical or historiographical continuity with The Plantation?

Let me answer first directly and then pan out based on critical political economy generally. In the book, I argue that the “global factory” is both meaning and material: it is both a site of exploitation through outsourcing and investment, and a set of assumptions about the path of development from agrarian to industrial to service economies. By focusing on the very instability of these factories as the model and not the exception, the book wants to make plain the social institutions and cultural forms that underlie Caribbean development, not as a false promise or failure, but rather as a set of enduring relations that are navigated and transformed as much from above as from below. This approach is deeply indebted to Caribbean studies of the plantation/smallholder complex, as part of critical agrarian studies more broadly. In the classic literature (I am thinking especially of Fernando Ortiz’ Cuban Counterpointand Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Haiti: State against Nation), scholars have long demonstrated the salience of colonial social relations around land, race, and labor as what Stuart Hall called “active structuring principles of the present.” The “global factory” then is not the sign of modernity but the latest iteration of those relations. 

Let me expand on this point by touching briefly on current debates in critical political economy. Implicit in the book, but more salient to current debates, The Plantation (as a more rigid structure) together with The Mine are at the fore of contemporary debates on our rapacious, capitalist age and resulting climate crisis. The general idea, as discussed by scholars such as Jason Moore, Donna Haraway, Sylvia Wynter and others is that the enduring binary of modernity that assigns value in hierarchical fashion to European Man versus a nature/racialized/feminized Other is central to the ongoing reproduction of capitalism. This reproduction is achieved not principally through the exploitation of labor, but rather through the degradation of land and the dispossession of people’s livelihoods and knowledge. This general approach is further developed in Indigenous studies, where scholars like Glen Coulthard and others demonstrate clearly that “proletarianization” (disciplining people into waged labor) is a narrow modus operandiof colonial capitalism, primarily reserved for Euro-descent men. Dispossession, not the inculcation of the liberal market subject, is the principal relationship of White settler colonialism to racialized Others. The ‘global factory,’ then, is better understood through this lens of coloniality, of dispossession and precarious labor as the modal condition for the world’s majority under colonial capitalism, rather than as a(n) (always already failed) transition to liberal subjectivity. 

This shift in the parameters of understanding colonial capitalism has much to learn from the long-standing work in Caribbean studies on cultural forms, autonomy, thriving and livelihood well beyond liberal models of “agency.” I want to mention a relevant example from Geography that contributes to this literature: Clyde Woods now classic account of regional formation in the Mississippi Delta calledDevelopment Arrested. Woods draws together plantation criticism and geographical work on uneven development in order to examine how the regional elite of the Delta, or what he calls the plantation bloc, reproduces its power over more than two hundred years. The genius of Woods account is his formulation of what he calls the Blues epistemology, a reservoir of indigenous knowledge and a mode of making community and surviving the sheer violence of the plantation bloc. With all of their important differences, contributions from Caribbean studies, Indigenous studies, Black geographies, and Black feminist studies offer grounded, critical accounts to think about the politics of colonial capitalism in ways that upend liberal structure/agency debates and center subaltern knowledges and theory. 

How does the notion of “coloniality” allow us to understand the organization of race, difference, and the value of labor along the Haitian-Dominican border?

The border is, of course, shaped by the divergent colonial histories of what are now these two nation-states, but it is periodically upended and reformed by particular events, hatched and planned elsewhere. The event that immediately comes to most people’s minds, of course, is the 1937 massacre under Trujillo. I lived in Ouanaminthe for about three months and made multiple trips there over a year while doing my study. I spent considerable time in the trade zone factories, but I benefited most from the perspectives of local intellectuals who had experienced the town’s unstable fortunes under episodic political upheavals and economic changes. I was really struck by how Ouanaminthe residents positioned the emerging trade zones within a particular history of development punctuated most strongly by the US embargo of Haiti from 1991-1994 after the ouster of Aristide. The embargo effectively reoriented the country’s provision of fuel through the town and led to massive, poorly planned migration and growth that not only upended social hierarchies, but also frayed the social infrastructure.  While the trade zone appeared to crystallize a rigid gender and race-cum-national hierarchy between Dominicans and Haitians, my fieldwork highlighted the other hierarchies at work, including the dynamics between the migrant workers who had come to Ouanaminthe from elsewhere during the embargo period, and the local residents who were clinging on to their social status in the midst of all of this change. The politics of value at the border then are of course dependent on abstracting embodied, historical difference into rigid categories assigned capitalist value. For the garment supply chains, this means Haitian workers doing feminized assembly work (i.e., coded as “unskilled” and thus employing mostly women and young people), supervisors bused in from Santiago, Dominican and Korean factory owners reaping a portion of the surplus, and North American brands ultimately seizing the largest share while determining the conditions and terms of the work. Through the notion of coloniality, and by delving into the particular regional history of the border, however, we see that these hierarchies of value are historically contingent and must be reproduced in order to achieve their apparent stability. Why does that matter? Because we tend to take “cheap labor” for granted, rather than to really interrogate what makes labor cheap, and thus, what has to happen to change that relationship.

Your current research is on questions of food systems and sovereignty in the Caribbean, with a focus on the Dominican Republic’s rice economy. Can you say something about your approach to these questions and your initial findings? What are the political-economic stakes in this research for the DR and the wider Caribbean? 

Neoliberal reforms in the 1980s took aim at national food systems, dismantling traditional state supports and forcing open domestic markets. For the Caribbean, domestic food systems have been radically restructured as a result, but the outcomes have been remarkably uneven.  Sovereignty questions in the Caribbean are at the heart of political debates and the question of food sovereignty is circulating very differently across the region. The contemporary notion as advanced by international groups, especially La Via Campesina (LVC), reflects demands by peasants and small farmers for bottom-up control of food systems. Both the Dominican Republic and Haiti have active peasant groups, members of LVC and advocates for the movement. My work has focused on how the sovereignty question is transformed by the state in the Dominican Republic with a focus on rice. I came to the question through various channels. One was the global food price crisis of 2007-2008 that precipitated wrenching hunger in Haiti and ultimately the resignation of the Prime Minister due to popular indignation. Meanwhile, in the Dominican Republic, rice production expanded and has since met 100 percent of domestic demand. How come the Dominican Republic has a relatively robust rice economy while Haiti’s has been so drastically dismantled? In part, the answer lies in the enduring legacies of anti-Blackness and coloniality. These legacies were strongly shaped by late Cold War politics. In my work, I have focused in particular on the legacies of land reform and the uneven implementation of neoliberal policies plus the exploitation of Haitian labor in the Dominican Republic from the 1970s to the present. The Dominican Republic in fact has institutionalized a version of food sovereignty, but it is hardly a progressive one. In the first instance, it relies upon thousands of poorly paid, migrant Haitian farmworkers. Yet, thousands of smallholder rice producers and their families are sustained by the country’s state-supported rice economy. And, under neoliberal trade agreements, that support is supposed to be dismantled.

The COVID-19 crisis is the latest shock to an already precarious food system organized through corporate-controlled supply chains. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, we are seeing some countries re-investing in domestic food production and questioning the reliance on global markets for basic needs. I am exploring what this means for small farmers, for farmworkers and for households. Ultimately, the possibility for a new food politics built around a progressive notion of food sovereignty is at stake. The current crisis offers some opportunities but also real dangers. Either way, now more than ever, the case for shortening food supply chains, investing in domestic production and curbing corporate control in Caribbean agriculture is stronger than ever.


Past interviews by The Public Archive can be found here.

Image: C. Hammond, “Inside Caracol, 2017,” via The Haiti Support Group.

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