Self-Devouring or Predator/Prey? A Question About Racial Capitalism

In 2017, the recently elected Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales launched a nutrition campaign called Crecer Sano: Niñez con futuro (Grow Healthy: Childhood with a Future). Backed by a World Bank loan for $100 million, his program was based on a widely accepted idea that financial investment in children’s early life yields a long-term payback—it’s a good return on investment, to use the language of Jim Yong Kim’s Human Capital project at the Bank, which reports that Guatemalans fall short of their potential (see also Shaffer 2018).

“GROW,” is one of Crecer Sano’s driving messages, as it has been for the many incarnations of similar projects during past presidencies: grow bodies, grow minds, grow economies. Small tape measures and growth boards float around rural communities, evidence of the presence of development workers. Mothers are required to carry their children’s identification cards, which chart size against global growth standards. For decades, health workers have distributed packages of nutrient powders to these farming women with the message that shortness is bad and the powders will make them taller.

A health worker tracks a child’s ‘faltering growth’ during the first years of life.

The Crecer Sano project is a clear example of what Michelle Murphy (2017) has termed “the economization of life,” referring to the process of uniting biology and state planning through economics. “Grow healthy” naturalizes living as calculable monetary value; it is a way “for capitalism to imagine and organize its own milieu, to conjure its own conditions of possibility” (Murphy 2017: 007). But I wondered while reading Julie Livingston’s slim, accessible book, is the Growth Healthy campaign also evidence of self-devouring growth? More generally, how well does the parable of growth “as told from Southern Africa” map onto Guatemalan development? It is these questions I take up here.

Livingston documents how the push to produce diamonds, beef, and a highway infrastructure for automobiles is decimating Botswana. The three parables she recounts together make a parable of climatic ruin: the goal of prosperity has turned upon itself, a serpent devouring its tail. In the book’s four well-crafted chapters she shows how a push for abundance–of metals, of processed foods, of imported cars–has led to scarcity: most immediately and most dangerously, to water scarcity which threatens not just prosperity but survival itself. In calling the chapters parables she notes that the mathematical shape of the parabola seems to grow but ultimately returns to the same plane, the promised achievements ending at zero.

Livingston’s previous fieldwork in a hospital oncology unit (see 2012) informs the growth model she is working with. Self-devouring growth is cancerous: deadly cells in a body that replicate viciously, ever-more out of control. Livingston is clear that growth is not inherently bad (5), but the growth she documents is a perverse and mutant form. She notes that this particular model of growth even becomes the “means of constructing healthy, robust societies, such that there is something intractable about this thinking– grow the economy, grow a business, grow a market, grow, grow, GROW!” (5). Here lies an obvious connection with Morales’ Crecer Sano development project– which circles upon “a mantra so powerful that it obscures the destruction it portends” (5).

This is an incisively narrated book. Published at a time when college students are stretched violently thin–as rising college debt makes lengthy readings a privilege for those not working many jobs–it puts into praxis its own warnings of excessive production. At 150 carefully conceived pages, including a twenty-five page “photo-essay of abstraction” featuring black-and-white cattle abattoirs, instructors can feel good about including this on their syllabi (see, for example, Pandian 2020; I taught the book in a course titled the Anthropology of Food). I also had the feeling that the primary audience for her argument might be development or public health workers who have not yet connected promissory technoscience and impending climate collapse, rather than anthropologists. (This is not a critique; we need to reach beyond ourselves).

I admittedly know little about Botswana except from other anthropological writings (e.g. Brada 2013, Forthcoming; du Plessis 2018) and through Livingston’s previous works. The country seems to share much in common with Guatemala: both places have been viciously mined by corporations that dehumanize people as a source of labor, both are experiencing desertification as planetary temperatures soar. In both countries cancer rates are also climbing and bodies are threatened by chronic metabolic illnesses such as diabetes (these illnesses may relate only indirectly to what people eat, though the proliferation of imported processed food and unidentifiable meat-parts that Livingston documents is obviously a direct attack on social traditions, with harmful and socially uneven consequences; see Galvez, Carney, and Yates-Doerr 2020).

A site where Botswanan and Guatemalan growth diverges is that no one in my Guatemalan communities would hail Guatemala as a success story of development, as is the case for Botswana. Guatemala is tremendously stratified by anti-Indigenous racism and inequities born of the violence of racial capitalism (see Wilson Gilmore 2020). And whereas Botswana’s government has been resistant to corruption (p. 102), Guatemalan politics is marred by scandal after scandal, with ties to the deep corruption in the United States. If there is a planetary parable that maps onto Morales’ Crecer Sano project, it is one where politically powerful elites grow their wealth while leaving the dispossessed to die: the rich extract labor from the poor, isolating themselves in gated communities and behind border walls, as those who live in the wreckage of history’s “stolen dreams” remain outside to starve and suffer (Velásquez Nimatuj 2018; see also de Leon 2015).

Colonialism devours. Imperialism devours. Global trade devours. Border walls devour. Development devours. Economic growth devours. But in the part of Guatemala where I carry out fieldwork, there is not enough of a sense of unity to claim a ‘we’ who are devouring ourselves. Perhaps everyone will eventually be devoured–perhaps this is Livingston’s larger point–but, for now, there are predators and prey. Maya people with whom I have spent time have not been duped into the false narrative of global progress (see also Nelson 2009). I’m thinking as I write of the many midwives and water defenders who care for growing babies and milpas alike while fiercely upholding what is only inadequately translated as sustainability (see Garcia Maldonado, García Meza and Yates-Doerr). ‘Development’ has been forced upon them, often at gunpoint, as those who resist are murdered at a breathtaking rate.

A farmer in a high-altitude region of Guatemala holds kernels of maize grown and harvested by his family.

Since the format of Somatosphere’s book forum allows some degree of call-and-response, the question I’d like to raise directly to Livingston is this: I’d like to hear more about whose “self” underlies self-devouring growth, and how this relates to the predatory foundations of racial capitalism. I imagine Livingston would agree that specificity of place is crucial and that Southern African and American historical trajectories, while deeply connected through imperialism’s slaveries, are not the same. But is the model of cancerous growth meant to characterize an entire planet? Might the term itself devour more than its share?

Livingston concludes the book with a powerful image of how poverty may be its own ground zero but its metastatic spread spares no one (127). She writes of Botswana that “She is gnawing off her own leg to get out of a trap of her own making. We all are” (125). But at least from the Guatemalan context, such statements would elide the degree to which some people still feast off the pain of others. It would be my inclination to suggest that we are not all in this together.

Emily Yates-Doerr is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Oregon State University and the University of Amsterdam, where she is the PI on a ERC-funded project titled Global Future Health. She is the author of The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar Guatemala (University of California Press, 2015) and she is slowly writing a second manuscript on the history and present-day effects of early childhood nutrition interventions in Guatemala. She can be found on twitter at @eyatesd.

Works cited

Brada, Betsey. 2013. “How to do things to children with words: Language, ritual, and apocalypse in pediatric HIV treatment in Botswana.” American Ethnologist. 40(3): 437-451.

— Forthcoming. Learning to Save the World: Global Health Pedagogies and Moral Transformation in Botswana. Cornell University Press.

de Leon, Jason. 2015. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press.

Du Plessis, Pierre. 2018. Gathering the Kalahari: Tracking Landscapes in Motion. Dissertation: UC Santa Cruz.

Gálvez, Alyshia, Megan Carney, and Emily Yates-Doerr. “Chronic Disaster: Reimagining Noncommunicable Chronic Disease.” American Anthropologist. 122(3):639-665.

García Maldonado, María, Rosario García Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr. 2020. “Sustainability,” in Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon.eds. Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian. Punctum Books. Open Access.

Livingston, Julie. 2012. Improvising Medicine: an African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic.Durham: Duke University Press.

Pandian, Anand. 2020. Twitter post. July 30.

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. The Economization of Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Nelson, Diane. 2009. Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala.Durham: Duke University Press.

Shaffer, Jon. 2018. “The De-Socializing of Jim Kim.” Somatosphere. Feb 5.

Velásquez Nimatuj, Irma Alicia. 2018. “Why Do Children Leave My Country?” Skylight (translation from El Periodico).

Wilson Gilmore, Ruth. 2020. “Geographies of Racial Capitalism.” Antipode.