Lesley Gill and Sharryn Kasmir

For our discussion today, we had the pleasure of hosting Lesley Gill and Sharryn Kasmir as they presented both their independent and collaborative research and insights. Both researchers are collaborating together to investigate questions of “Why is labor fragmented in the present? “

Presentation 1:

Lesley Gill raised provocative questions as to various pathways towards creating an anthropology of labor, while also asking how has labor as a political formation been fragmented and disorganized. In her definition of labor, she clarifies that it is not the same as livelihood or class (class consciousness), but a political configuration.

In her analysis she gravitated towards Frederic Cooper´s metaphor of “lumps” to describe and capital and spaces of uneven development.   Which pose questions about labor, its struggles and organization in relation to the state and capital, which also make lumps; ¨no smooth surfaces.¨ She briefly refers to iterations of labor and the struggle of working people, most notably chattel slavery, indentured servitude, sharecropping, prison labor, and other forms of contractual and paid labor. She asks how do structures and networks penetrate place, and what is the role of social reproduction within these processes?

“The politics of labor involves on-the-ground social relations among working people that cohere around social reproduction and crafting enough autonomy to shape the future. It entwines working people with more dominant groups and always stands in relationship to international fields of capital and state power.” In this sense labor is different from both livelihood (a set of individual or family strategies) or class (a political expression), the focus of labor is working people engaged in the “making, unmaking, or remaking of social relationships within interconnected fields of power”. In relation to the false promises of capitalist development, she demystifies processes of uneven development. In particular, the matrix of transnational development which create unequal interactions between cores and peripheries. However, she states these insights are inadequate to describe the present, unevenness is not simply a result of capital’s omnipotence and it’s tied to struggle. Looking at how power coalesces in certain spaces and recedes in others, we need a keener eye on how these struggles of labor, capital and the state are making these lumps.

At the beginning of Gill´s presentation she presents Leon Trotsky´s thoughts, and references in his words  Russian ¨backwardness¨ and ¨advanced¨ development, while noting that Trotsky believed that Russia could follow a path from Feudalism directly to communism, although it remains unclear if he also thought Russia could arrive by bypassing the capitalist phase of development. She briefly refers to retiring stale arguments as to the fate of the ¨nation-state in neoliberalism¨ and recognizing that neoliberal capitalism reconfigures the scale at which power operates as well as the relationships between different scales. It also clarifies the multiple struggles—global, national, regional, local—that reshape the spatial dimensions of global capitalism and condition how the many differentiated parts combine and intertwine to create novel configurations.

A key feature of Gill´s analysis is the sensitivity with which she reviews how practices, organization, and social relations are fractured by different temporalities. She urges that within this fragmentation we need to develop and discover new methods and analytical tools. To accomplish this, she refers to Escobar´s ¨ alternative modernities, ¨ and Gibson Graham´s work to examine how spatial-temporal modalities are made and unmade through capital.

Saturn GM, Springhill, Tennessee

The centerpiece of her presentation was recent research she has done surrounding the General Motors plant in Springfield, Tennessee, which is the largest plant in the US opening in the 1990s. Their business model presented the 100-year company, which promised steady work to 7,000 people who relocated to Tennessee to work at Saturn. This site was developed with causal links to other historical moments and distinct places, Japan’s share of the small car market, Centers of investment in auto industry in Brazil or Mexico where labor costs were lower and new management regimes were easier to implement. She also observes central to this business model is the concept of “flexible production. Saturn’s brand slogan, “A Different Kind of Company,” and the rural imagery of its campaign directed both at consumers and inwards at workers positioned Saturn as counterpoint to auto factories in declining industrial-centers. As such Saturn employed a diverse work force composed of Mexican, African American, female joining the ubiquitous white male workforce.

Planning began in the 1960´s-70´s after the wildcat strike manifested changes, among which were challenges to embedded structural racisms. A slogan of the time was “respect rather than wages”.

American workers formed the Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, challenged racism in the auto industry and in the UAW, the interconnections between auto-workers and other sectors of a differentiated, global proletariat contributed to autoworkers organizing as a powerful segment of the US working class. As a reaction GM, moves away from these centers of militancy and moves to the south, and in response UAW unionized all plants by 1979. The union locals refuse new management changes proposed by GM and are threatened with whipsawing (originally a labor tactic) and plant closures to force local level concessions from labor.

Developing from this was how the national union became a federation of local unions, with international strategies of protectionism and politics of localism to attract global capital. Various forms of capital flight resulted from the instigation of competition between states and towns, creating a zero-sum game for labor in general. These competitions were so pervasive that for Saturn, school children wrote letters asking Saturn to choose their city, a country song was written to attract Saturn, etc. Gill highlighted how localism can greatly undermine solidarity among the working-class as it pits workers from different areas against one another.

More than a spatial assault, localism had a temporal dimension as well. labor’s temporalities rooted in family security, 30 years to retirement, sufficient household stability for children, were in conflict with the time-scale of capital, whipsawing and product investment cycles. General observations also included that the Saturn struggle institutionalized localism; however, the struggle was for time and place which was insecure and fragmented. It also highlights labor’s active role in making spatial and temporal unevenness distinct.

Presentation 2: Sharryn Kasmir investigated the spatial temporal enclave of oil through the intervention of Standard Oil corporation in Colombia. This followed a general trend of emergent oil enclaves in Mexico and Venezuela, which imposes a spatial vision upon the landscape. This vision was imposed on indigenous people and spaces in the logic of ¨primitive accumulation.¨ Oil industry remade temporalities by imposing industrial time scales on territory. Another axis of organization was that imperialism was not a foreign concept, and formed another liberatory basis of struggle.

This first generation of Colombian oil workers were isolated from Mexican and Venezuelan workers. These new oil enclaves were highly racialized and regimented; they were divided by race and required workers to carry a pass for access. The tensions that arose amongst the different groups co-habitating these enclaves disturbingly organized hierarchically based on race, not surprisingly could not be contained, as English speakers were placed in affluent neighborhoods, while other workers were in disease ridden camps. Uprooted migrant workers formed solidarities with peasants, petty merchants and sex workers. As oil workers and migrants realized they should strengthen ties, there was a general upsurge in organizing, resulting in uprisings and civic strikes.

In 2001, Anti-imperialist struggles of Colombia were taken over by right wing paramilitaries that targeted, suppressed and regulated insurgent workers in the region. The paramilitaries’ arrival and their use of political violence dealt a severe blow to the local working-class movements. Arriving in the region in 2004, Kasmir observed an ongoing strike that she first interpreted as an illustration of the workers’ movement strength in Barrancabermeja, only to realize that this was in fact the last collective action of what was once a highly mobilized and organized working-class.. These new ¨lords of the city made it impossible for political dissidence. Paramilitary incorporated people into illegal labor and the drug trade, as neoliberalism spread to Colombia it incorporated people against their consent for the extraction of oil, gold, and other resources. The country was reconfigured as new spaces for capital.

This new context of infiltration followed a path similar to that of Mexico with the neoliberal production of the paramilitary ¨narco¨ as an informal agent of worker suppression for primitive accumulation. In the following Q and A session Sharryn Kasmir referred to how these representations in pop culture of the ¨narco¨ created a type of ¨narco tourism¨ which does violence to Colombia´s history by reducing, falsifying, and glamorizing the violence of the drug wars in Colombia. As these paramilitaries displaced peasants through violence and were key to the development of neoliberalism.

Questions from the audience included:

Request to elaborate on solidarity between oil workers with the sex workers, which was met by a description of  how sex workers organized soup kitchens to support the strike of the oil workers (social reproductions famous breakfast before the revolution). However, Kasmir also warned us not to romanticize the alliance between oil workers and sex workers as the solidarity movement between the two weakened in the second half of the 20thy century.

Structural heterogeneity of labor, how to put it together in a political movement, alliances and networks to create blocks to confront capital and the state in relationship to other movements and pasts of these movements. Alliances between peasants with workers, migration struggles to move the conversation forward. The issue of migration was deemed particularly important as it puts in touch people coming from different perspectives, potentially allowing radical ideas to spread from one area to another.

David Harvey inquired: ¨where was the geographical analysis in relation to discussions of uneven development, and capital mobility?¨ Later referring  to the annihilation of space by time, described by Marx, which might be applicable here to these explorations.

Another inquiry concerned the expulsion of indigenous groups, to which we heard a  summary of the annihilation of the indigenous populations by the oil industry, which occurred as labor moved from the coastal banana industry to the interior oil territory.

This elaboration continued with a breakdown of US cold war interventions into Latin America where US security employed national armies who became ¨police forces¨ involved in the dirty wars which by the 1980s became the drug wars initiated by Clinton by channeling billions of dollars into paramilitaries that strengthened right wing backlash.

Preceding this was a democratic opening, which resulted in all the anti-imperial dissident labor organizing described above, this left was crushed by ¨Plan Colombia¨ and the drug war.

Another question concerned the relationship between ¨combination¨ to intersectionality. Jeff Mayakovsky elaborate on a book called ¨Marxism in Social movements,¨ where struggles are not framed by labor, and also have lineages and histories. This book examines these plural unified struggles, what voices are coming together. However the book also described an ¨intersectional crisis¨ as collective organizing and movements fall apart in struggling to manage ¨difference¨ and inequity. Fallacies in this process is that movements are blamed rather than wider structural crisis.


  • Lesley Gill and Sharryn Kasmir present us with two cases of enclave economies; that of the GM factory in Tennessee and that of the oil industry in Barrancabermeja. What elements help us understand why solidarity movements emerged in the Colombian case but failed to do so in the North American one?
  • When it comes to organizing workers, what tools might be at our disposition to overcome localism, which pits workers against each other, and build a network of solidarity that would respond to Karl Marx’s famous call “workers of the world, unite!”?
  • In relation to the necessity of working from the specificity of the local context, yet building networks of international solidarity, can the work of Enrique Dussel guide us here through his rethinking the later unpublished work of Marx from the last 19 years of his life, which Dussel calls the unknown decolonial Marx? Taking a cue from Dussel, what liberatory potential can be found from adapting the thought of the unknown decolonial Marx to the constraints of the local?



5 thoughts on “Lesley Gill and Sharryn Kasmir

  1. Patrick

    Thanks for the summary of a great presentation!

    The combination of the first two questions is particularly interesting to me. The history of racial capitalism is full of moments when workers were pitted against each other in groups, deflecting from their shared interests in overcoming this mode of production. Drawing colonial police from one population to repress another; bussing in competing ethnic groups as strikebreakers; parachuting in indebted migrant workers more fully dependent on the wage to undermine Indigenous workers who also had some non-market access to the means of subsistence.

    In these cases, the actual dynamics of capitalist competition (and of specific production techniques in specific industries, with particular workforce structures) create very particular terrains for struggle for control over production. As Gill noted, workforce homogeneity could be seen as a ready-made grounds of solidarity, but can just as easily ensconce and reproduce conservatism; meanwhile, the linguistic and cultural differences of a diverse migrant workforce could lead to misunderstandings or mistrust, but can just as easily lead to a dynamic openness to new approaches and radical ideas. This dynamic process cannot be known in advance. It’s constructed through struggles which, at their best, can build far-reaching networks that can be drawn on to support—and even scale up—a localized instances of class struggle.

    Every new geography of production and reproduction creates both obstacles and opportunities to classic organizing strategies. Resource extraction camps in many places now fly workers in and out, instead of building up lasting towns (even flimsy ones like gold rush towns) that house and serve their families. Innovations in transportation flexibility (airports in lieu of continent-spanning railroads or highways) allow firms to respond to price volatility for a particular commodity by ramping up or slowing down production much more quickly—making some of the larger spatial commitments in social-reproductive “fixed capital” (a church, a school) much more tentative.

    The labor migration patterns produced by such market and technological conditions can stretch social-reproductive networks far and wide, offshoring much of the work and costs of social reproduction to other locations: jobless children of former codfishers in Newfoundland working on the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta; Filipinos in the global merchant marine, foot soldiers of “the annihilation of space by time”; live-in caregivers from Bangladesh in Dubai. Networks of sex workers (who often also fly-in to resource extraction sites like Fort McMurray and Barrancabermeja), and of sailors throughout history, for instance, attest not only to the power of capital to stretch their lives across multiple sites, but to such workers’ potential power as key nodes connecting larger labor processes, alongside other laborers and their potential forms of shared consciousness and action.

    I understood Kasmir to in fact be quite critical of Escobar and Gibson-Graham, whose work is often contented with merely descriptive assertions of economic & social heterogeneity. Kasmir and Gill encourage us to develop an analytic framework that can actually explain how unevenness and combination complexly but nevertheless causally interrelate under the capitalist production and reproduction of space. As I’m arguing above, I think Leftists hoping to create a real winning internationalist anticapitalist movement should come to understand what drives the comparative advantage for capital of each particular arrangement of lumps and deserts that makes up a moment in the economic geographic development of capitalism. By understanding what specifically makes throwing these people and things over to this part of the earth (and forcing other people out of it) profitable, we can start understanding what the workers of the world can actually do to win while and once they unite.

  2. Miryam Nacimento

    Expanding on question 1, I am interested in discussing the existing normative frameworks for collective action and the conditions for the construction of unthinkable forms of workers’ solidarity across different spaces and temporalities of uneven development. Specifically, I am intrigued by the possibility of including illegal actors into the organization of workers’ global political dissidence. In the case of the Colombian oil enclave economy, Sharryn Kasmir showed how the strong solidarities initially built amongst migrant oil workers, peasants, petty merchants and sex workers were debilitated by the intervention of the paramilitary and the incorporation of people into the illegal drug trade. In the face of the gravity of the illegal economy, its undeniable enmeshment with legal markets and its well-established global networks of production, distribution and consumption, is there space for thinking about nonnormative and open forms of organizing workers globally by including illegal workers’ resistance? I came up with this question, since in other parts of the Andes, “cocaleros”, the peasants that illegally cultivate the coca plant have been able to successfully organize resistance under anti-capitalist and ethnic political platforms as in the case of Bolivia and some parts of Peru, which also points to the uneveness of power coalitions and resistance. If labor, as defined in this lecture, is a fragmented political formation characterized by a structural heterogeneity, what possible futures can political alliances with illegal business offer? Where would these alliances oppose capitalism and where would they perpetuate oppresion?


    First, I’d like to say “nice work” to our bloggers for this week. What a detailed account of the talk! That said, I’d like to take a stab at responding to the second prompt.

    To do so, I think I may first have to address the subtle critique of “class consciousness” issued by the perhaps more objective conception of labor as a “political configuration.” I found the discussion of how class struggle has contributed to uneven development and the fragmentation of labor rather interesting. However, I think we eliminate any revolutionary potential the working class, as a class-for-itself, may possess if we do away with the need to develop class consciousness among workers. Seeing labor as a political configuration void of the potential for class consciousness, if this is what the speakers actually intended to articulate, solely points to the objective reality that Marx noted re how workers are alienated from one another in the competition to garner their means of subsistence through the sale of their labor power on the job market, while acknowledging socially constructed difference (i.e. race, sex, ethnicity, localism, etc.). Unfortunately, acknowledging this reality, even if we bring forth new terms and categories to more specifically describe it, is still only the first step in the process of transforming it, which is what we are concerned with in this class—unless I’m mistaken.

    On that note, I think I’m going to go back to Lenin in What Is To Be Done? WITBD differentiates between the spontaneous activity among workers involved in class struggle and the development of class (what Lenin describes as Social-Democratic at the time) consciousness. When workers participate in spontaneous activity, according to Lenin, it usually manifests as reform movements due to the trappings of what he called economism, which describes the narrow aims of these movements based in the immediate needs of a particular section of the working class—void of any revolutionary outlook or strategy. For Lenin, the solution to this problem was the rasion d’etre of the political party. It was the party’s job to bring the analysis of the social totality of the economic relations of capitalism to the workers in order for these movements to gain teeth and to progress towards a more protracted, class conscious revolutionary goal to liberate the working class from its status as a class-in-itself. I fully recognize the many critiques of Lenin’s “political message from the outside” as an undemocratic top-down organizational method, but when thinking through how to build solidarity amongst an extremely fragmented labor population, I don’t see how this gets accomplished without some form of leadership; and with this in mind, Lenin’s conception of the role of the party at least offers us an example to build upon.

    When considering the ravishes of imperialism in the form of globalization, which Lenin described in its early stages in other works, and the utter fragmentation of labor across the globe as a result of neoliberalism, class consciousness can appear inconceivable without some type of unifying force that unites workers of different regions, languages, ethnicities, and races around a common aim without forgetting to recognize difference in the everyday realities of these workers’ struggles around the world. I find it rather interesting, and maybe a little strange, that we haven’t discussed the potential need for an international multi-racial, anti-sexist political party in our conversations around political praxis. Maybe, at the end of the semester, it’s time we did.

    1. Kathryn Alessi

      To comment the absence of leadership: Leadership, historically, is a key element for any successful movement. Being able to unite under common goals, rather than having differences tear apart the overall movement, is difficult to achieve when in face of barriers, like language, culture and bias. Using decentralization as a way to create profit by exploiting different communities of workers has happened again and again and is often successful due to the absence of leadership from the opposing side (in this case the laborers). Looking at the politics right now, the right has one leader (although not everyone is in favor of him), and the left has a variety of people struggling against to each other to become the leader which effectively prevents the whole from uniting. Leadership is integral to the success of justice movements.

  4. Sheehan

    Thanks for this summary! I think it’s particularly useful that in your first question you’ve framed both cases as enclave economies — maybe Sharryn Kasmir did this as well and I didn’t catch it. It’s easy to think with the idea of “enclave space” (James Sidaway’s term, I just found it online) re: Colombian oil, but less obvious at a Tennessee Saturn factory. It opens up some methodological considerations of scale and space too, which I think David Harvey was pointing to, especially in light of anthropology’s historical hand-wringing over the idea of boundedness in fieldwork.

    In many ways the cases that Kasmir and Gill laid out, while compelling analyses, were not the traditional report-backs “from the field,” with vignettes, interviews, etc. When discussing the anthropology of “lumps” at the end of the presentation, Kasmir talked about the importance of understanding a site’s history, especially with cases like the Saturn factory whose setting and actors may seem to just ~appear~ outside of any broader local context. But I wonder in a more expansive sense what ethnography offers analytically. If anyone knows good work on enclaves that deals with some of these questions, I’d love to read through it.

    Also the anecdote about schoolchildren writing letters to GM begging for a factory for their parents was well-timed with the Amazon LIC announcement. How recent is the municipal bidding wars phenomenon? Are there pre-20th c. examples?

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