Critique of Anthropology
2016, Vol. 36(4) 439–457
!The Author(s) 2015
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Dark matter: Toward
a political economy
of indigenous rights
and aspirational politics
University of Lausanne, Switzerland
This article shines a critical light on a trend in anthropology that has both mirrored, and,
not inconsequentially, shaped, a broader preoccupation with rights-making and rights-
claiming as the foundational strategies behind what Karen Engle called the ‘‘elusive
promise of indigenous development.’’ The article uses recent ethnographies of legal
implementation and state-capital appropriation to think more generally about the his-
tory of indigenous rights in relation to what Tania Li has aptly described as the ‘‘dynamic
specificity’’ of global capitalism. The article concludes by arguing for the development of
an ethnographic political economy of indigenous rights and aspirational politics that
reflects an analytical shift from what James Scott called the ‘‘symbolic balance of
power’’ to questions of redistribution, state-capital interdependence, and the coopta-
tion of indigenous rights as a new form of capital accumulation.
Indigenous rights, anthropology, capitalism, land-grabbing, political economy, politics of
recognition, politics of redistribution
Instead of simply endorsing or rejecting all of identity politics simpliciter, we should
see ourselves as presented with a new intellectual and practical task: that of developing
acritical theory of recognition, one that identiﬁes and defends only those versions of
the cultural politics of diﬀerence that can be coherently combined with the social
politics of equality. (Nancy Fraser)
Mark Goodale, Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Culturelle et Sociale, University of Lausanne, Lausanne 1015,
This article is part critical discussion of a set of recent case studies on the intersec-
tions between the politics of indigeneity and the political economy of land rights
and part provocation. The ﬁrst of these two will become clear presently and what
follows will develop a set of arguments about the limitations of indigenous rights
mobilization in the face of what I will call accumulation by juridiﬁcation. But these
arguments are also meant in part as a challenge to a trend in scholarship that has
both mirrored, and, not inconsequentially, shaped, a broader preoccupation with
rights-making and rights-claiming as the foundational strategies behind the ‘‘elu-
sive promise of indigenous development’’ (Engle, 2010). Writing in 1995, Nancy
Fraser foresaw the problem and tried to oﬀer an alternative. As she put it then,
[t]he ‘‘struggle for recognition’’ is fast becoming the paradigmatic form of political
conﬂict in the late twentieth century... Cultural domination supplants exploitation as
the fundamental injustice. And cultural recognition displaces socioeconomic redistri-
bution as the remedy for injustice and the goal of political struggle. (1995: 68)
Fraser’s proposition to ‘‘ﬁnesse the dilemma’’ that both recognition and redistribu-
tion were essential to any lasting vision of justice was to argue for a synthesis of
redistributive economics and what she described as ‘‘deconstructive cultural pol-
itics’’ (92). However, as we will see, on the one hand, what Fraser called the ‘‘strug-
gle for recognition’’ evolved and deepened over the intervening two decades and this
form of political conﬂict became the basis for indigenous rights mobilization from
the early 1990s to the present. But, on the other hand, the struggle for redistribution
did not evolve with the struggle for recognition (as Fraser suggested). Instead, the
‘‘deconstructive cultural politics’’ that was so essential to her framework became a
mode a reconstructive cultural politics that depended upon essentialized accounts of
indigeneity that underwrote the expansion of land appropriation and the further
alienation of indigenous peoples from modes of production that could not be readily
assimilated into national programs of neoliberal sustainable development. The
result is that what Fraser called ‘‘political-economic diﬀerentiation’’ (78), that is,
the means through which structures of exploitation are traced critically back to the
relations of production that produce and perpetuate them, was absorbed in practice
into dominant forms of ‘‘cultural-valuational diﬀerentiation’’ (79) – including the
struggle for indigenous rights. In this sense, the ‘‘promise of indigenous develop-
ment’’ based in ‘‘rights talk’’ (Glendon, 1991) and the struggle for legal recognition
has proven to be not so much ‘‘elusive’’ as misdirected. And if Richard A. Wilson is
correct, and rights talk has become the ‘‘only legitimate language’’ (2001: 1) of
resistance, political mobilization, and social change, then the dilemma that Fraser
described in 1995 has now morphed into something more ominous. It will be the
task of this article to describe the implications of this transformation in part as they
are playing out within ongoing conﬂicts over land and identity in a selection of
ethnographic and comparative case studies.
In the next section, I brieﬂy examine the history of indigenous rights politics and
its relationship to policies of national development. As I will argue, the use of
440 Critique of Anthropology 36(4)
international law to regulate and shape certain forms of indigenous rights mobil-
ization within broader labor markets was not an aberration. Rather, the relation-
ship between indigenous rights and the promotion of forms of labor and land
ownership that were consistent with the logic of capitalism was hardwired into
international law from the beginning. Following this, I turn to a selection of
recent case studies on land rights and identity conﬂicts. I examine these accounts
for signs of ‘‘dark matter’’: the ineluctable, constant, and veiled presence of trans-
national (primarily extractive) capital working not against, but with, policies of
indigenous rights. That the shaping, even deﬁning, inﬂuence of the dark matter
must be teased out from what are more often than not vague allusions to ‘‘resource
issues’’ or ‘‘economic pressures’’ says much about both the sidelining of political
economy within contemporary anthropology and the urgent need to reorient our
analytical priorities going forward.
I then return to the question of intellectual history and oﬀer a re-reading of the
inﬂuence of James Scott’s seminal study of the way peasants in rural Malaysia
created ‘‘weapons of the weak’’ out of everyday forms of social life. I will argue
that Scott’s focus on local political economies was never meant to exclude a critical
account of the way the state and capital come to form assemblages – political,
legal, and, as always, economic – that create downward pressure on local commu-
nities. When resistance to this pressure is absorbed into national legislation intended
to protect indigenous communities and even advance their interests, the possibilities
for creative slippage are radically altered. In the ﬁnal section, I bring the preceding
intellectual histories and discussion of the case studies together to argue for the
development of an ethnographic political economy of indigenous rights and aspir-
ational politics that reﬂects an analytical shift from what Scott called the ‘‘symbolic
balance of power’’ to questions of redistribution, state-capital interdependence, and
the cooptation of indigenous rights as a new form of capital accumulation.
The evolution of a hyper-politics machine
In his 1990 study of development in Lesotho (based on ﬁeldwork in 1982 and
1983), James Ferguson argued that it was of critical importance to reveal the
instrumental eﬀects of development projects that involved networks of inter-
national and transnational agencies, the state, and regional and local actors.
As he described it (1990: 256), one of these instrumental eﬀects was to reduce
deeply entrenched structures of poverty to ‘‘technical problems’’ that could be
solved through the application of solutions devised by coteries of technocratic
experts. The result was that the actual nature of problems that were essentially
political economic was buried within discourses of agricultural project man-
agement, technocratic governmentality, and quantitative indicators. Ferguson
famously called this conversion process the ‘‘anti-politics machine’’ and one of
its virtues as an analytical frame was to draw attention to the ways in which
patterns of inequality within relations of production can be reinforced when the
logic of political confrontation becomes discursively untenable.
The implication of Ferguson’s critique is that the broader relations of produc-
tion that depend on exploitative forms of land usage and labor mobilization at the
local level can only be both uncovered and destabilized when they are seen as they
really are: political problems that demand political solutions. But with the emer-
gence of indigenous rights mobilization as a multiscalar form of contentious pol-
itics, something went astray. Rather than opening new avenues to undermine the
political-economic scaﬀolding that supports what Ferguson (2006) would later
describe as the ‘‘neoliberal world order,’’ the evolution of indigenous rights stra-
tegies has in fact made such fundamental challenges less likely. This is precisely
because longstanding struggles over land, self-determination, and even cultural
legitimacy have become intensely politicized in ways that constrain, not enable,
the possibility of direct action that would challenge the political-economic basis of
social conﬂicts. Thus, indigenous rights mobilization has had as little transforma-
tive impact on the underlying political-economic conditions that perpetuate vul-
nerability as development projects, but for a diﬀerent, if not quite opposite, reason.
As we will see more fully below, national indigenous rights enforcement sets in
motion a particular chain of events that brings together both collective identity
formation and claims-making within the political and legal spheres of the state. The
result is that peoples and communities under threat are both encouraged – indeed,
in most cases, required – to pursue justice and forms of (collective) self-preservation
by running on the political and bureaucratic treadmills that are meant to keep
claimants in constant motion but going nowhere. In this way, indigenous rights
mobilization has become a hyper-politics machine that oﬀers symbolic-political
solutions to political-economic problems.
But how did this happen? And was this ‘‘instrumental eﬀect’’ anticipated by
the very structure of indigenous rights itself? It is signiﬁcant, in this respect,
that indigenous rights have been closely associated with – even derived
from – International Labor Organization (ILO) initiatives. Although it is not pos-
sible to pursue this line of analysis fully here, several important things about this
historical legacy merit attention. First, as Guy Standing has shown (2008), the ILO
– although it has passed through several iterations since its founding in 1919 – has
always been an international organization whose primary purpose is to ‘‘shape
regulated... labor markets’’ (355) and ameliorate the worst eﬀects of labor relations
for workers around the world. However, the regulation of labor markets takes place
through the ILO in order to ensure the smoother and more sustainable functioning
of what another scholar of the ILO calls the ‘‘global capitalist state’’ (Richards, 2004:
105). In its starkest moments of action and purpose, the programs of the ILO are
designed as a ‘‘means of locking in the international division of labor... to the
advantage of the aﬄuent capitalist countries’’ (Standing, 2008: 357).
Thus it was that ILO Convention 107 (1957), which is the beginning of indigen-
ous rights within the international system, was conceived of as a progressive mech-
anism for protecting ‘‘indigenous and other tribal and semi-tribal populations’’ by
preparing them for entry into national capitalist labor markets – both existing and
those yet to come. And while the convention was later disavowed by groups who
442 Critique of Anthropology 36(4)
organized in terms of what was a novel and even perplexing new category of
identity (Niezen, 2003) and critiqued by scholars for the assimilationism of the
convention (Allen and Xanthaki, 2011; Engle, 2010; Pulitano, 2012), this collective
opposition in many ways missed the mark. Cultural heritage, language, ‘‘spiritual
development’’ – all of these markers of identity were superstructural distractions
from the basic intent of the convention, which was to encourage states to open
capitalist labor markets to ‘‘indigenous’’ people so that they could more freely
exercise (individually, not collectively) ‘‘the right to pursue... their material well-
being,’’ as the convention’s Preamble puts it.
Despite the fact that only 27 countries eventually ratiﬁed ILO 107, it remained
the basis of indigenous rights within international law until 1989, when it was
revised through a new convention, 169. As a simple matter of international legal
enforcement, ILO 169 fared even worse than 107, since to-date only 22 countries
have ratiﬁed it, almost all of them in Latin America.
But despite the adoption by
the United Nations General Assembly of the Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples (UN-DRIP) in 2007, ILO conventions 107 and 169 remain
the legal and political basis for indigenous rights. The language of 169 is quite
diﬀerent in many respects than that of 107. For example, the Preamble calls ‘‘atten-
tion to the distinctive contributions of indigenous and tribal peoples to the cultural
diversity and social and ecological harmony of humankind and to international
co-operation and understanding’’; the right to apply customary law within com-
munities is recognized (in Art. 9, but qualiﬁed by the dictates of national and
international law); and, perhaps most importantly, the doctrine of ‘‘free, prior,
and informed consent’’ (FPIC) gives indigenous peoples the right to be consulted
‘‘through appropriate procedures’’ (Art. 6) on ‘‘plans and programmes for national
and regional development which may aﬀect them directly’’ (Art. 7).
However, it is clear in the language of the convention, in the debates over its
passage, and, most importantly, in the ways in which it is has been implemented in
practice, that ILO 169 was never intended to become a mechanism through which
indigenous peoples could challenge the underlying political-economic structures of
the countries of which they were ambiguously citizens.
To understand how ILO
169 can be widely seen as both a major advance over 107, and yet still serve the
essential purpose to ‘‘shape regulated... labor markets’’ in order to reinforce
the ‘‘global capitalist state,’’ it is necessary to distinguish between two forms of
assimilationism. By establishing the principle that indigenous identity and cultural
practices should be protected and that indigenous peoples should not be forced to
assimilate their identities to the majority, ILO 169 represents a radical break from
107. But in Parts II and III of 169, the articles that cover land relations and
‘‘recruitment and conditions of employment,’’ another, more basic, form of assimi-
lation is both anticipated and encouraged. At the same time that the ‘‘spiritual
values of the peoples concerned [in] their relationship with... lands or territories’’
(Art. 13) shall be respected, the convention also recognizes the fundamental right of
the state to explore and exploit mineral or sub-surface resources (either on its own
or through private contractors) on indigenous lands (Art. 15); to oversee and
regulate land conﬂicts in indigenous communities (Art. 14); to forcibly relocate
indigenous peoples (after FPIC and, in certain cases, with a duty to compensate,
Art. 16); to establish procedures through which indigenous people can ‘‘alienate
their lands or otherwise transmit their rights outside their own community’’
(Art. 17); and to establish the ‘‘means required to promote the development of
the lands which [indigenous] peoples already possess’’ (Art. 19). Regarding
‘‘recruitment and conditions of employment,’’ Art. 20 sets out procedures through
which indigenous peoples are encouraged to enter national (necessarily capitalist)
labor markets with all the rights and protections that other workers should have,
including equal pay for equal work, occupational safety, and the ability to union-
ize. Thus, while ILO 169 recognizes and even celebrates the right of indigenous
peoples to ‘‘cultural-valuational diﬀerentiation,’’ to return to Fraser, it also – in
keeping with the overarching mission of the ILO itself – establishes the means
through which indigenous peoples will eventually be assimilated to the logic of
To this point, the analysis has skirted the problem of indigeneity itself, in part
because, as we will see in the next section, the construction of categories of identity
both in terms of, and in contrast to, indigeneity, is inseparable from the legal and
political regimes that are put into place to ensure that cultural-valuational diﬀer-
entiation serves the broader purpose of labor and land market regulation.
Nevertheless, as scholars like Niezen (2003) and Li (2010) have shown, indigenous
identity formation is never an either/or proposition. That is, collective identity is
neither imposed fully by the state, but nor does it emerge organically from below as
a tool of resistance or collective expression. Rather, as Li argues, like other cate-
gories of identity, ‘‘indigenous’’ should be seen as a mechanism of social position-
ing, one that is embedded in what Baird (2013: 272) calls ‘‘particular ﬁelds of
contingent power.’’ But as Li also reminds us, in her discussion of the ‘‘tribal
slot’’ in Indonesia, these ﬁelds of power are not random; the vectors that shape
them can be traced back to their sources.
Before moving to the case studies, one ﬁnal distinction should be drawn. I have
argued that indigenous rights within international law are structured in terms of
two forms of assimilation, one symbolic-cultural, the other political-economic.
I have further argued that ILO 169 represents a major shift from the earlier 107
because, after decades of advocacy and critique, the 1989 convention rejected
the principle of symbolic-cultural assimilation in favor of cultural-valuational
diﬀerentiation. At the same time, however, neither ILO 107 nor 169 accomplishs
the more basic task of establishing a framework through which indigenous peoples
– understood very much in the contested plural – can challenge their historical
political-economic marginalization because both conventions are tightly bound up
with the broader regulation of land and labor markets within national – and,
eventually, regional and global – capitalist economies that feed on land-grabbing,
cheap labor, and the reduction of risk to capital.
But how, it might be asked, does this dual assimilationism play out for indigen-
ous rights mobilization in countries that have not ratiﬁed particularly ILO 169?
444 Critique of Anthropology 36(4)
In some countries that have eventually adopted a diﬀerent form of national indi-
genous rights legislation, or have revised existing land law (often under pressure
from transnational NGOs), what can result is a legal and political framework that
in many ways is truer to its purposes: the sweeping markers of cultural-
valuational diﬀerentiation for which ILO 169 is celebrated are decentered; and
the intent to legitimate land appropriation and accelerate the movement of indi-
genous peoples into regional and national labor markets stands out both in the
body of law and in the consequences of its implementation.
As the introduction to a special forum of the Journal of Peasant Studies explained:
the convergence of global crises in food, energy, ﬁnance, and the environment has
driven a dramatic reevaluation in landownership. Powerful transnational and national
economic actors from corporations to national governments and private equity funds
have searched for ‘‘empty’’ land often in distant countries that can serve as sites for
fuel and food production in the event of future price spikes. This is occurring globally,
but there is a clear North–South dynamic that echoes the land grabs that underwrote
both colonialism and imperialism. (Borras et al., 2011: 209)
The editors go on to describe a landmark 2010 World Bank study of the rapidly
expanding global transfer of land from indigenous and peasant peoples to public
and private actors that make up what Li has recently called the ‘‘global land invest-
ment assemblage’’ (2014a: 593).
As they put it, although the scope of the crisis is now
well understood at a macrolevel, what is missing are answers to the ‘‘fundamentally
important questions of who wins, who loses and why, and what are the social, political,
and ecological drivers and consequences’’ (Borras et al., 2011: 210) of the massive
commodiﬁcation and transference of land in the Global South to ‘‘[p]owerful trans-
national and national economic actors’’ (2011: 209, 210; emphasis in original).
A cross-section of recent case studies suggest that when ‘‘indigenous’’ popula-
tions and the lands they control or utilize come within the commoditizing gaze of
transnational capital, resources that are paradoxically both ‘‘irreducibly social’’
and ‘‘material,’’ as Li argues (2014a: 589; quoting Bridge, 2009), are neither pro-
tected nor put out of reach through the implementation of national indigenous
Rather, in practice, state-capitalist enforcement regimes are
created that both feed on what Li (2014a: 598) calls the ‘‘fuzziness’’ of the legal
regulation of land markets and take advantage of the fact that communal and
collective titling facilitates accumulation because it rationalizes the process by
oﬀering to investors what Borras and Franco (2010) describe as a ‘‘one-stop-
shop.’’ That is, the process of collective titling gives investors the ability to more
easily negotiate over vast tracts of land that were previously subject to many
competing cultural and historical claims. Although national indigenous and com-
munal rights programs have emerged, as I have argued, in relation to a broader
political economy in which land embodies merely one category of relations of
production among others, there is no question that land is a ‘‘resource assemblage’’
(Li, 2014a: 590) that is central to understanding indigenous rights mobilization as a
new mechanism for capitalist accumulation.
We begin with Irina Wenk’s analysis of land titling conﬂicts in Mindanao, the
Philippines. The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 (IPRA), as Wenk
explains, was ‘‘unprecedented in the modern legal history of Southeast Asia’’
(2014: 3). As we have seen (see Note 2, above), no Southeast Asian country is a
state party to either ILO 107 or 169, and yet IPRA both recognized ‘‘Indigenous
Cultural Communities/Indigenous Peoples’’ and established a complicated bureau-
cratic regime that was meant to ‘‘protect and promote’’ their collective rights.
Wenk focuses on the provisions of IPRA that give communities the right to
apply for collective land titles on the basis of ‘‘ancestral domain.’’ As she puts it,
the ‘‘dimension of the land titling scheme... is staggering: it aﬀects between 6.4 and
10 million hectares’’ that cover as much as ‘‘80 percent of the Philippines’ remain-
ing natural resources’’ (5).
Up to 2010, 156 collective titles over ancestral domain had been awarded. But as
she shows, through ethnographic ﬁeldwork among the Matigsalog of the central
Mindanao uplands in the southern Philippines, the granting of collective land titles
served to rationalize the likelihood of accumulation of land by investors for par-
ticularly, but not exclusively, extractive industries. Like all claimants under IPRA,
the Matigsalog, who obtained the 10th ancestral land title in the country in 2003,
were required to submit themselves to a carefully calculated process of governmen-
tality called ‘‘delineation’’ that culminates in an ‘‘Ancestral Domain Sustainable
Development and Protection Plan’’ (ADSDPP). The problem, according to Wenk,
and the revelation with the most far-reaching implications for my purposes, is the
fact that ‘‘delineation’’ requires communities to exhaustively materialize their
‘‘ancestral domain’’ in precisely those ways that make what results most attractive
to capitalist investors, who are more than willing to pursue accumulation under the
guise of ‘‘sustainable development and protection.’’
Indeed, if the exploitation of
commoditized land in the Global South is an inherently ‘‘risky business’’ for trans-
national capital, as Li (2015) has argued, then the mechanisms of delineation and
the resulting ADSDPP under IPRA create a ‘‘resource assemblage’’ that goes a
long way toward reducing that risk.
As Esther Leemann argues, in her study of the implementation of the 2001 Land
Law of Cambodia, despite signiﬁcant cultural and historical diﬀerences with the
Philippines, particularly, as she emphasizes, in the enduring inﬂuence of what she
calls ‘‘neo-patrimonial governance,’’ the results of indigenous rights mobilization in
Cambodia have likewise proven to be a bonanza to transnational capital, in this
case in the form of what Leemann describes as ‘‘large-scale industrial agriculture’’
Her research provides an important ethnographic and longitudinal per-
spective on the problem. When she ﬁrst began her ﬁeldwork in Boursa Commume
among the Bunong people in 2011, the villagers (and their transnational donor
allies) were optimistic about the ability of the land titling process under the 2001
446 Critique of Anthropology 36(4)
law to protect their lands from encroachment and dispossession by private rubber
plantations. But by 2013, during a second period of ethnographic research, the
situation in the commune had changed considerably. The commune’s land claim
had disappeared into a governance process that Leemann describes as a ‘‘tedious,
costly, red tape nightmare’’ (2).
As with IPRA’s process of ‘‘delineation,’’ the 2001 Cambodian Land Law
requires several types of materialization, each of which serves as a form of govern-
mentality that rationalizes the potential for accumulation by legalized disposses-
sion. Communities must self-identify and in most cases newly self-constitute
(including establishing authority structures that did not otherwise exist) in order
to receive formal veriﬁcation from a government department. After veriﬁcation,
communities must register land titles with another ministry, but only after having
submitted community by-laws to the Ministry of the Interior and having demar-
cated and mapped their territory. As Leemann explains, registration is done in light
of several ‘‘absurd and arbitrary limit[s],’’ including the fact that a 2009 revision to
the land law sets a limit of only seven hectares of (potentially problematic) spirit
forests and burial grounds that can be oﬃcially demarcated.
At the same time that one part of the Cambodian land law was suﬀering a slow
death by administrative bureaucracy, another provision of the 2001 Land Law was
moving forward expeditiously through the ‘‘rapid advance’’ of Economic Land
Concessions (ELCs). As Leemann explains, although only eight indigenous com-
munities had received collective land titles in the 12 years since the land law’s
passage, during that same time, more than 2 million hectares of Cambodian terri-
tory had been transferred to a group of 227 agro-industrial companies. Leemann
describes a complicated assemblage of regional, national, and transnational actors
who have used the ELC provision of the land law to commodify large swaths of
the Cambodian countryside. In this way, Leemann’s ethnography of what she calls
the ‘‘dramatic disconnect between policy-making at the international level and its
implementation’’ (2014: 1) is also a valuable reminder of the importance of
‘‘attend[ing] to the dispossessory and accumulative practices of ‘indigenous’ elites
and ‘customary’ authorities, whose position [is] strengthened’’ (Li, 2010: 400)
because of this supposed ‘‘disconnect’’ (see also Rata, 2011, on the development
of ‘‘neotribal capitalism’’). However, as I have argued, there is good reason to
believe that the dispossessory and accumulative practices that are associated with
the implementation of indigenous rights – in Southeast Asia and elsewhere – are
not an unintended consequence or a deviation from international indigenous rights
law. Rather, they are the political-economic substance – a form of capitalist assimi-
lation – that goes hand in hand with the ‘‘struggle for recognition.’’
Finally, in a recent comparative study of the ability of the Special Rapporteur
on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to shape the course of local land conﬂicts in
Latin America and New Zealand, Fleur Adcock (2014) found that the inﬂuence of
this high proﬁle institution must be divided into two categories. In the ﬁrst, the
concerted pressure and international visibility that the Special Rapporteur brought
to particular struggles did result in changes that Adcock describes as ‘‘soft’’
markers of justice. For example, national governments trumpeted the fact that they
revised national laws to protect cultural heritage, promote bilingual education, and
even take up the possibility of reparations for past harms. But despite bringing
lengthy attention and focused advocacy to particular conﬂicts, the Special
Rapporteur has not been able to facilitate ‘‘hard’’ markers of indigenous rights
promotion, like extensive land redistribution or territorial self-determination.
As Adcock shows, in each case, such hard markers were blocked when they put
at risk carefully constructed resource assemblages that brought together the ﬁnan-
cial and political interests of extractive conglomerates, political and military elites,
and, increasingly, local ‘‘micro-capitalists’’ (Davis, 2006, quoted in Li, 2010; see
also Medina, 2014 for a similar account from Belize).
In a sense, this is where the ethnographic trail grows structurally cold. Each of
these studies gives voice to local people taken in by the ‘‘elusive promise of
indigenous development,’’ a kind of betrayal that is merely a contemporary epi-
sode in a much longer history of political-economic assimilation and structural
violence. A broader historical context demonstrates that contemporary commodi-
ﬁcation and accumulation in terms of indigenous rights merely redeﬁne and
extend practices that have their roots in the colonial period (see, e.g. Li, 2007,
2014b). But despite the invaluable focus on what is irreducible within these local
histories, and the clear ethnographic portraits of newly empowered local elites,
regional political administrators, and others who constitute what Li (2010: 400)
has called the ‘‘dynamic speciﬁcity’’ of capitalism in practice, nevertheless, some-
thing is missing. Behind the ratiﬁcation and implementation of the 1997 IPRA,
the eﬀects of the 2001 Land Law of Cambodia, and the inability of the Special
Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to promote ‘‘hard’’ markers of
justice like redistribution and self-determination is the subtle but oppressive inﬂu-
ence of state-capitalist assemblages comprising government ministries, multi-
national extractive industries, national military, political, and ethnic elites, and,
perhaps unwittingly, transnational NGOs and members of the international
donor community (e.g. UNDP and various national development agencies).
And yet the shaping role of these assemblages cannot be measured directly – it
must be teased out within the language of national indigenous rights legislation
and also, more importantly, tracked through the eﬀects of this legislation in
On the one hand, the symbolic-political rhetoric that accompanies supposed
‘‘triumphs’’ for indigenous peoples through national law emphasizes all those
markers of cultural distinctiveness that have made instruments like ILO 169 and
the more recent UN-DRIP the benchmarks for indigenous rights mobilization
worldwide. But on the other hand, the implementation of these national indigenous
rights reforms often evolves into a broader strategy to rationalize capitalist
accumulation by a range of means – legalized dispossession, long-term land con-
cessions, forced participation in public–private joint ventures (as in Malaysia, see
Cooke et al., 2011), the invention of ancestral domains that make ‘‘one-stop shop-
ping’’ possible, and so on. If this is true, then at least two parts of the question with
448 Critique of Anthropology 36(4)
which I began this section can be, and have been, answered. But if we have a good
idea now of who wins and who loses, there remains the third question – why?
I suggest that the movement of this pendulum – swinging from the politics of
recognition to the rationalization of capitalist accumulation through cultural-valua-
tional diﬀerentiation – is not an aberration but is rather structural, revealing the
omnipresence of what might be thought of as ‘‘dark matter.’’ Much like the con-
cept of dark matter in astronomy, in which the existence of the majority of matter
in the universe must be inferred through its shaping eﬀects on what can be
observed, so too with the state-capitalist assemblages that have developed a variety
of means to adapt to diﬀerent forms of indigenous rights mobilization in diﬀerent
countries to similar results.
Weapons of the juridified
In this and the ﬁnal section, I oﬀer some preliminary thoughts – both theoretical
and methodological – for how anthropologists of indigenous rights and aspir-
ational politics might reposition themselves in order to begin to bring the dark
matter into sharper focus. In his 1985 masterwork, James Scott revealed how close
attention to the groundedness of power problematizes any number of key concepts,
including hegemony, class consciousness, ideology, and, most importantly, resist-
ance. What results is a ﬁnely grained panorama of what he calls the ‘‘landscapes of
resistance’’ on which people lived their lives between 1978 and 1980 in the pseud-
onymous Malaysian village of Sedaka. He argued that although the broader pol-
itical economy that framed everyday life in Sedaka was one in which ‘‘the rich have
gotten richer and the poor have remained poor or grown poorer’’ (1985: xvii),
nevertheless, he found it an important methodological move to limit his unit of
analysis to what he called ‘‘local class relations’’ (1985: xix).
This did not mean that he was dismissive of the broader political economy. Indeed,
as he puts it, the ‘‘economic origins of the petty class relations examined [in the
book]... might easily be traced all the way to the board rooms of New York City
and Tokyo’’ (xix). It was rather that the dominant critical orientation of the time took
these broader ‘‘economic origins’’ for granted in ways that led to a kind of top-down
reductionism in which the ‘‘dynamic speciﬁcity’’ of capitalist relations of production
was collapsed into abstract political-economic categories. What Scott did through his
ethnography of power and resistance in Sedaka was to unpack these categories in ways
that enlarged the understanding of how those within the broader capitalist system who
‘‘remained poor or [had] grown poorer’’ responded to this steady process of immiser-
ation. Thus, Weapons of the Weak reveals what happens after the ‘‘coup de grace’’
(xvii), after the imposition of an earlier project justiﬁed by the ‘‘will to improve’’
(Li, 2007) – in this case, the green revolution and the coming of the combine-harvester
– had ‘‘eliminated two-thirds of the wage-earning opportunities for smallholders and
landless laborers’’ in the area (xvii).
But two things happened for my purposes that complicate the applicability of
Scott’s signal ethnography for understanding the relationship between indigenous
rights mobilization and late capitalist accumulation – whether in Southeast Asia, or
elsewhere. The ﬁrst is that Scott’s reorientation was a response to a set of then-
prevailing critical assumptions that, while true (as he acknowledged), tended to
elide the complexity of everyday life. In this way, Scott’s work can be taken as an
argument for the value of knowing what Bronislaw Malinowski (1922) called the
‘‘hold that life has’’ – in this case, the hold that life has for villagers at the ‘‘capillary
ends’’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000) of a global political economic system. Because they
are not able to do anything about this broader system, they turn inward, toward
each other, and outward, but only on a small scale, and engage in what Scott
describes as ‘‘foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering,
feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so on,’’ that is, ‘‘commonplace
forms of resistance... [that] the peasantry has historically [used] to defend its inter-
ests against both conservative and progressive orders’’ (xvi).
And yet, particularly after the end of the Cold War, many ethnographers of
the capillary ends of global capitalism lost track of the very assumptions about
‘‘economic origins’’ that could be ‘‘traced all the way to... board rooms’’ that made
Scott’s corrective so necessary in the ﬁrst place. It is not possible to examine here
the intellectual histories that led to what might be thought of as a kind of misread-
ing of the move that Scott made in 1985. But one would be right to point to the
challenge to political economy by theoretical preoccupations that were impatient
with the focus on what Eric Wolf called the ‘‘totality of interconnected processes’’
(1982: 3) and, even more consequential, dismissive of the materiality of production
– and relations of production – that constituted the warp and woof of these inter-
However, more important for my purposes here was the fact that with the
coming of indigenous rights mobilization, the very nature of resistance underwent
a transformation. As Scott’s study reveals, when ‘‘local class relations’’ play out in
the face of a hostile and dismissive state, resistance must take forms that can only
work to shift what he called the ‘‘symbolic balance of power,’’ since the state is
both committed to existing political-economic networks and willing to use force if
necessary to preserve them. This is why villagers in Sedaka had no choice but to
engage in oppositional and symbolic strategies like ‘‘calculated conformity,’’
‘‘imposed mutuality,’’ and ‘‘resistance that covers its tracks.’’ But with the emer-
gence of indigenous rights in the early 1990s, the relationship between vulnerable
populations and the state changed in countries in which this new form of mobil-
ization had purchase. Indigenous rights – whether in the orthodox form of ILO
169 or in various derivations, as we have seen in the case studies from Southeast
Asia – represent a shift in the logic of empowerment. Indigenous rights require the
state to both recognize its fundamental role to address the historical claims of
vulnerable populations and to establish bureaucratic regimes to bring diverse lega-
cies of injustice and exploitation within its control. In this way, the state becomes
an indispensable ally for populations whose exploitation is tightly bound up
with the state’s position in a broader political economy. At the same time, indi-
genous rights legislation is not only, or primarily, technocratic. It also embodies
450 Critique of Anthropology 36(4)
a prevailing spirit of ‘‘transformative utopianism’’ (Moyn, 2010: 120). Thus, the
political and cultural aspirations of indigenous peoples and other marginalized
collectivities are absorbed – or, we might say, rationalized – within the four corners
of national indigenous rights documents.
As a result, populations that historically occupied a tenuous position within the
state-capital assemblages that put downward pressure on communities and terri-
tory found themselves empowered – that is, given new weapons with which to both
resist and actively engage. But as we have seen, these weapons of the juridiﬁed
do not necessarily enlarge in practice the range of eﬀective strategies for the popu-
lations that are encouraged to use them. Indeed, as we have also seen, the juridi-
ﬁcation of indigenous mobilization and self-determination can actually reduce
the possibility for the kinds of creative slippages and subversions that have
‘‘historically [been used] to defend... interests against both conservative and pro-
gressive orders.’’ One extreme result of this transformation is that the process of
juridiﬁcation itself becomes a new form of capitalist accumulation, as we have seen
with the implementation of the 2001 land law in Cambodia. At the same time that
indigenous peoples in Cambodia were empowered to seek communal titles as a
form of state-sanctioned protection against dispossession of their lands, another
part of the law made possible the massive transference of these same lands to
hundreds of transnational agro-industrial conglomerates.
Even at a broader level, as Stuart Kirsch (2012) has argued, what he calls the
‘‘juridiﬁcation of indigenous politics’’ has had mixed results. Well beyond the
question of the relationship between national indigenous rights legislation
and forms of capitalist accumulation, Kirsch examines three quite diﬀerent con-
ﬂicts – a legal case in Australia brought by indigenous people from Papua New
Guinea against an Australian mining company for massive environmental damage
to rivers that ﬂow through their territories; a legal case brought before a US regu-
latory tribunal for damages caused by US nuclear testing in the Marshal Islands
during the 1940s and 1950s; and, ﬁnally, the impact in Suriname of a 2009 ruling in
the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that found the state in violation
of its obligation to recognize indigenous land rights under international law (even
though Suriname was not a state party to either ILO 107 or 169).
What is critical for the analysis here is the way in which Kirsch distinguishes
between two kinds of impacts, which can be sorted into what I have called
the symbolic-political and the political-economic. For the ﬁrst, Kirsch’s study
shows how the use of international law by indigenous peoples as a form of resist-
ance and empowerment can have a number of positive outcomes. Indigenous ideas
and practices can be creatively ‘‘refashioned through [the] engagement with the
courts,’’ thereby creating new discursive resources for making political demands
(2012: 24); the pressing of indigenous claims in court can lead to the emergence of
new legal categories, for example, regarding the principle of subsistence rights; and
the use of law by indigenous people can serve to ‘‘unif[y] what might otherwise be
disjunctive social positions’’ within complicated and protracted conﬂicts over land,
recognition, and history (38).
But as a political-economic question, Kirsch’s comparative research reinforces
the suggestion that international law – including indigenous rights – is a tool of
empowerment that even in the best of cases cannot be used to undermine the
structures of economic power that are at the root of these conﬂicts. Indeed, in
the case study that is closest to the ones from Southeast Asia, Kirsch explains
that the government of Suriname has completely refused (as of 2011) to implement
the ﬁndings and recommendations of the Inter-American Commission (39).
it might very well be true that indigenous peoples have been able to use law to
‘‘inﬂuence jurisprudence,’’ ‘‘drive social movements,’’ engage in a transnational
‘‘horizontal exchange of ideas,’’ and ‘‘enter into intercultural conversations that
have the potential to transform all of the participants’’ in a conﬂict. Nevertheless,
the lengthening ethnographic and historical record of ‘‘dramatic disconnect’’
between these symbolic-political accomplishments on the one hand, and continuing
political-economic assimilation and exploitation on the other, cries out for a critical
reappraisal of the role of international law and the search for alternative strategies
through which indigenous peoples can meaningfully reposition themselves within
the state-capital assemblages in which they are all-too-often ensnared.
Conclusion: Toward a political economy of indigenous
rights and aspirational politics
This article has used selected cases from the recent ethnography of indigenous
rights mobilization to revisit the problem of the dynamic interplay between
the struggle for cultural recognition and the struggle for political-economic equality
– whether through redistribution or otherwise. This interplay is one in which
cultural-valuational diﬀerentiation is given more or less prominence depending
on a number of factors, including the local history of identity politics around
indigeneity, whether or not a country is a state party to the major indigenous
rights instruments, and the extent to which indigenous people have been able
to gain political power. However, what does not vary as widely is the fact that
political-economic assimilation and exploitation are not fundamentally challenged
by indigenous rights mobilization. As I have argued, the collective ethnographic
and historical record over the 26 years since the passage of ILO 169 lends weight to
the more troubling conclusion that indigenous rights mobilization within particular
countries has actually accelerated capitalist accumulation by bringing the logic of
empowerment within the state’s political and legal bureaucracies at the same
time that the state pursues policies of ‘‘sustainable development and protection’’
that serve to reduce capital risk.
Nevertheless, it should be clear that this is not, by extension, an argument that a
better, more earnest, or more authentic practice of indigenous rights promotion
would prove more eﬀective in challenging the widespread transference of land
and the assimilation of indigenous populations into national and transnational
capitalist labor markets. As Tania Li (2010) has argued, in most cases there is
no ‘‘communal ﬁx’’ that could counter pervasive commodiﬁcation, not the least
452 Critique of Anthropology 36(4)
because state-capital resource assemblages depend as much on the development of
‘‘capitalism from below’’ as on the management of dispossession from corporate
headquarters in places like Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo. And this is to say nothing
about the problematic juridiﬁcation of collective identities themselves, which
depends on forms of benevolent orientalism that have proven incapable of ground-
ing enduring processes of structural transformation (see, e.g. Jackson, 1995).
Rather, the most direct implication of this intervention is that anthropologists
of indigenous rights mobilization in particular should collectively rediscover the ‘‘total-
ity of interconnected processes’’ that give form and substance to what Li called the
‘‘assemblage of disparate elements, practices, and processes’’ (2010: 400) that constitute
the lived experiences of capitalist relations of production. As she memorably argued,
we cannot ‘‘tame’’ the dispossessory and alienating currents of capitalism by ‘‘building
walls or wishing [them] away’’ (400). But at the same time, we should not allow ‘‘the
very success of the [ethnographic] method [to] lull... [us] into a false conﬁdence’’
(Wolf, 1982: 13) that by revealing what is irreducible in these lived experiences we
have exhausted what it is that we, as anthropologists, have to contribute.
To end, as I began, with Nancy Fraser’s framework of analysis, anthropologists of
indigenous rights – and, perhaps, human rights more generally – must resist the ten-
dency to develop critical theories that both mirror and, problematically, legitimate,
forms of cultural struggle that have not been ‘‘coherently combined with the social
politics of equality.’’ What is needed, instead, is a shift in orientation that moves
beyond the logic of recognition and, even more, views its claims and purposes with
deep skepticism. What lies beyond, both methodologically and theoretically, is not
entirely clear. A cynic might say that symbolic recognition without redistribution is
better than political-economic exploitation without symbolic recognition for vulner-
able populations on the frontlines of the global crisis that the editors of the Journal of
Peasant Studies warned us about in 2011. But I am not so certain that the only choice
is to resign ourselves to passing between Scylla and Charybdis. It might be, as Marina
Welker (2014) has recently reminded us, that transnational corporations at the center
of state-capital resource assemblages in the Global South are not monolithic entities
but rather ‘‘unstable collective subjects’’ thatpresentadiﬀerentfacetodiﬀerentcon-
stituencies. And yet the trendlines from Cambodia to Belize, from Malaysia to
Suriname, are clear enough. Without a more coherent ethnographic and theoretical
approach to this political economy, the rest seems to me just a questionable preoccu-
pation with what Razmig Keuchayan (2014) has called (invoking Chomsky) the
‘‘generative grammar’’ of capitalist resilience.
Several colleagues oﬀered critical suggestions on diﬀerent parts of this article. I would like to
thank, in particular, Tania Li and Anne-Christine Tre
´mon. However, I am solely responsible
for the arguments and points of emphasis. In addition, I would like to thank colleagues at a
number of diﬀerent institutions, where versions of the article were presented during public
lectures, including at the Universities of Bern, Basel, and Lucerne, Aarhus University, and
´cole des hautes e
´tudes en sciences sociales in Paris.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no ﬁnancial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication
of this article.
1. It is worth noting that Guy Standing is both a well-respected economist and someone
who worked for the ILO itself for over 30 years, eventually rising to become the Director
of the ILO’s Socio-Economic Security Program.
2. Comparing the ratifications of 107 and 169 reveals an intriguing legal and political
history. African countries are more represented among the 107 ratifications than 169,
to which only the Central African Republic is a party. And India remains a party to the
‘‘assimilationist’’ 107 but has not ratified 169. According to the International Work
Group for Indigenous Affairs, India has by far the largest population of indigenous
people of any country in the world, around 120 million (http://www.iwgia.org/regions/
asia/india). This is about three times greater than the entire combined indigenous popu-
lations of all of Latin America and the Caribbean (http://www.iwgia.org/regions/latin-
america/indigenous-peoples-in-latin-america). At the same time, no East or Southeast
Asian country has ratified either convention.
3. For a more extended discussion of the question of citizenship within international indi-
genous rights law, see Lightfoot (2013).
4. Citing the World Bank study and other sources, the editors note that upwards of 45
million hectares were absorbed during the 2000s into this global land investment assem-
blage through what the Bank euphemistically describes as ‘‘agricultural investment’’
(Borras et al., 2011: 209).
5. The concept of the ‘‘Global South’’ is obviously a heuristic – and thus a simplifying –
device that allows for the examination of both historical and contemporary patterns of
inequality as these have been central to the development of global political economies.
However, in this context, it should be emphasized that the trends described in the World
Bank study and in the land grab literature also implicate waves of capitalist accumula-
tion involving both state and private companies from the so-called BRICS countries –
Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
6. The selection of these case studies from recent professional conferences is meant to both
foreground the current state of ethnographic research and to provide a window into the
historical moment in global rights promotion after the liminal period of the post-Cold
War has ended (Goodale, 2013).
7. Although IPRA prohibits the sale of land covered by an ancestral title, it does not
prohibit the granting of long-term leases, which is usually the preferred form of land
tenure for extractive industries who are able to secure exclusive access to resources and
exploit them well within the term of the lease (which is typically negotiated with just this
limit in mind, see Alcoa, 2015).
8. As Wenk explains in detail, the Matigsalog’s ADSDPP is a 430-page document that
reflects years of both cultural and geospatial mapping of territory; a description of
timber and mineral resources as potential investment opportunities; a finely grained
454 Critique of Anthropology 36(4)
analysis of terrain and soil types; and a long section that explains where potential out-
side investors could best build a ‘‘golf course, a tennis court and a horsefighting arena’’
9. Although, as we have seen, the 1997 IPRA was the first indigenous rights law in
Southeast Asia, the geographer Ian Baird makes the point that the 2001 Land Law of
Cambodia was the first indigenous rights law in mainland Southeast Asia (2013: 269).
10. For a detailed report on how transnational mining conglomerates like BHP Billiton and
Alcoa shape negotiations between the government and indigenous communities in
Suriname, see Weitzner (2008). As she puts it, despite the fact that these companies
have developed ‘‘corporate social responsibility’’ policies internally, ‘‘these have been
disregarded in practice (there was no [environmental impact statement] for the advanced
exploration, the communities were left out of the initial [survey] exercise, key reports
[were] kept secret even when specifically requested, and to date the companies have not
signed protocols with the communities to clarify how they understand and intend to
protect the communities’ traditional rights and uphold their right to free, prior and
informed consent . . .). Indeed, initial construction-related activities in the villages are
already taking place without the villages being consulted, without them knowing or
approving final project plans, and even though the government has not issued a
permit for exploitation’’ (2008: iv–v).
11. I must leave aside here a discussion of the various ways in which collectivities – indi-
genous, or otherwise – come to embrace, not resist, the economies of desire that ground
contemporary capitalism (see, e.g. Lordon, 2010).
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Mark Goodale is Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University
of Lausanne and Series Editor of Stanford Studies in Human Rights. He is the
author or editor of twelve books, including the forthcoming Anthropology and
Law: A Critical Introduction (NYU Press, 2017), Surrendering to Utopia: An
Anthropology of Human Rights (Stanford UP, 2009), and Dilemmas of
Modernity: Bolivian Encounters with Law and Liberalism (Stanford UP, 2008).
He is currently writing an ethnography of revolution and disenchantment in