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Mimi Sheller’s work offers a lucid synthesis of diverse literatures to reckon with the Caribbean’s centrality to – and silencing within – our understanding of Western modernity and its signal, if not terminal, crisis, climate change. Her Society & Space essay, ‘Caribbean Futures,’ deftly constructs a mobilities grammar to reframe Caribbean disaster narratives on terms that demand engagement with the region’s colonial legacies and enduring racial formations, as well as alternatives drawing upon Caribbean emancipatory thought and practice. Socionatural disasters –hurricanes and earthquakes – throw into sharp relief the ‘slow violence’ of colonial legacies, resource extraction and selective hegemonies (Nixon 2011; Smith 2011). They also, as Sheller argues, exacerbate long-standing politics of mobility (in)justice. Who has the right and the capacity to move in the face of rising seas, jobless economies, and ecologically-stressed environments? Who is protected and what infrastructures are rebuilt following disaster events? And whose bodies are dominated for sexual pleasure and exploited for profit by the humanitarian and investment apparatuses mobilized in their wake? Finally, what are the modes of thought and action to address these interconnected challenges?
Readers will find much to inspire them to tackle these questions in Sheller’s essay and her numerous other writings. For my comment, I want to draw on radical geography to think through the geographic metaphor of ‘the archipelago’ that Sheller mobilizes, and to put it in productive conversation with the notion of ‘the region’ as historical and spatial process. The region in radical geographic thought has long been understood as a cultural, political economic and socio-natural formation, concatenating forces for capital accumulation into contingent spatial units. Regional formation, decline, and restructuring is the working-out of uneven development, understood not as a fixed core-periphery hierarchy mapped on to definitive spatial units, but rather as a dynamic process whereby capital accumulates in some places through relations of extraction and appropriation with others. As Doreen Massey long-ago argued, space is “a product of interrelations [and therefore] constituted through interactions” (1999). Thus, places have no essential identity; rather, they are the product of multi-layered, relational social and ecological histories. Moreover, places are overdetermined by their integration in – and expulsion from – primary circuits of capital accumulation. Bringing in feminist and postcolonial theory, uneven development can be understood as a process of articulation of different historical moments of colonial capitalism that produce and transform Caribbean regions (Werner 2016). These insights are enhanced when considered in light of decades of critical studies of agrarian change (see Hart 2018) and plantation criticism (e.g., Woods 2017 ). The Caribbean literature has always been highly attuned to how politics, culture and social relations work themselves out differently in places linked to different forms of capitalist appropriation and exploitation that are articulated through classed hierarchies of race, gender and sexuality. The classic work of Fernando Ortiz in one example (1995 ): Ortiz compared and contrasted social relations and cultural formations between regions formed around sugar plantations and those developed through smallholder tobacco. Of course, the point is not that these colonial capitalist legacies of plantation versus smallholder agriculture determine social relations of race, ethnicity, class and gender in the present through some sort of locked-in path dependency. As Stuart Hall insisted, these legacies are neither past residues nor traces, nor are they simply carried through to today; rather they serve as “active structuring principles of the present” (1980: 339).
What sort of politics does ‘the region’ as a contingently produced space offer for an understanding of Caribbean futures? In his book, Development Arrested (2017 ), the late Clyde Woods weaves together a magisterial account of one particular Caribbean region, the lower Mississippi Delta, forged through indigenous genocide and removal, slave labor and soil mining via cotton (and rice) production. Plantation production consolidated a power bloc that has long mobilized racism and racial violence, massive projects of environment-making, and alliances with northern finance and industrial capital to reproduce its power and with it, the coherence of this ‘underdeveloped’ region. Woods’ notion of a Blues epistemology focuses our attention not only on how the plantation bloc has reproduced itself in the face of economic, environmental and social crises, but also how it has long been resisted by rural, African-American working classes and their cultural traditions. Villanueva et al.’s recent reading of San Juan as a ‘fragile city’ extends Woods’ framework to Puerto Rico’s beleaguered capital in the face of financial meltdown and hurricane-wrought devastation (2018). The authors develop a compelling account of how local elites -- the white ‘Criollo bloc’ -- maintain their status through asset-stripping practices that reinforce race/class divides on the island, while inflating public debt and reinforcing mainland industrial-cum-financial value extraction. In both these accounts, Caribbean spaces articulate race and class struggles that are historically rooted and never entirely local; they are formed through cyclically repeated, often brutal, space-making projects as well as temporary socio-spatial compromises.
The lower Mississippi Delta and San Juan are disparate but linked examples of how uneven development is both the product of capitalist crisis and a resource to renew accumulation in the Caribbean. Is there any substantive difference between thinking through the Caribbean as ‘island archipelagos’, as Sheller does, or as a set of articulated, relational places as I have suggested here? There is much in common. Sylvia Wynter’s notion of ‘archipelagos of poverty’ (quoted in Sheller, 978) brings into view the spatial politics of racialized capitalism, of refugees and economic migrants excluded and marginalized, while long-standing “conscripts” (Scott 2004) to the settler colonial project – indigenous and African-descent peoples - struggle against on-going injustice. But if the archipelago signals violent spaces of exclusion in her paper, Sheller also offers the island archipelago as a metaphor that signifies “a relational chain that is both social and spatial, imagined and material” (973). As Vannini at al. write, “[a]rchipelagos… are not essential properties of space but instead are fluid cultural processes dependent on changing conditions of articulation or connection” (2009: 124, quoted by Sheller, 973). Thus, throughout her essay, Sheller invokes both these notions of island archipelago: as limit to mobility and mobility justice, on the one hand, and as possibility for imagining alternative futures based on the rich legacy of Caribbean anti-colonial thought and practice, on the other.
While I fully agree with the island archipelago as both limit and possibility, I differ with Sheller on how the politics of possibility should be envisaged. Sheller expresses hope for an island politics of alternative futures that spreads a “fractal counter-politics” from the climate-vulnerable birthplace of capitalist modernity to its decadent centers of accumulation. In my view, the extent to which Caribbean spaces articulate into arrangements that promise both life-sustaining ecologies and economic viability must be a matter of politics on the ground. And while I imagine Sheller would agree, such a politics is unnecessarily obscured by a purely metaphorical notion of the archipelago as fluid cultural process. In this vein, I propose a reframing of the mobility premise that is advanced in Sheller’s essay through its dialectical engagement with the politics of uneven development. To do this, I suggest an alternative to the question posed by Sheller on the Caribbean, mobility and the Anthropocene. Sheller asks: “How might mobility justice help the Caribbean survive the Anthropocene” (974)? Instead, we can begin with the question of capitalism as a space- and nature-making project. In this sense, there is no doubt that the Caribbean will survive the Anthropocene and will continue to be spatially remade in the process. The question then may be rewritten as follows: what are the patterns of uneven development that are emerging in an “Anthropocene Caribbean” and the social justice politics to contest them?
From colonial legacies to structural adjustment to commodity ‘super-cycles’ and on-going debt crises, Caribbean spaces are deeply fragmented, like much of the global South. Archipelagos of poverty are interspersed with conspicuous consumption of the so-called emerging middle classes. Indeed, extending Sheller, the ever-reconfiguring uneven development of im/mobility in the Caribbean is striking. The massive out-flow of mostly working-class Puerto Ricans under austerity rule turned into a torrent in the wake of hurricanes Maria and Irma (Ramírez 2018), reminiscent of what Woods called the “post-Katrina New Orleans enclosure plan” and its fierce resistance by working class urban and rural African-American and ally communities (2017). These battles over displacement can be placed on an analytical spectrum of im/mobility where US-citizen Caribbean peoples sit on one end, their very claims to citizenship openly challenged. As Harry Franqui-Rivera argued, in an intervention on the Wall Street Journal’s use of the term ‘refugee’ to describe Puerto Rican economic migrants, Puerto Ricans are often selectively treated as refugees in a social, cultural and economic sense (2017). Their status is one manifestation of coloniality, related to, but distinct from, the proliferating categories of “temporary” status that leave so many climate migrants in the condition of perennial uncertainty and vulnerability. The outcry over President Trump’s termination of Temporary Protective Status’ (TPS) for Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Haitians who arrived in the U.S. in the wake of devastating earthquakes (in 2001 and 2010) and hurricanes (Mitch in 1998) too often fails to denounce the injustice of TPS itself. Thus, the uneven geographies of Caribbean im/mobility create differences that require the careful construction of political alliances. As I’ve written about elsewhere (Werner 2017), as Black and Brown people of post-hurricane Puerto Rico (and New Orleans a decade earlier) demand that the US government affirm their status as part of the body politic, allies on the broad political Left must both vehemently support these claims and challenge the notion that citizenship status determines which Caribbean peoples merit resources and refuge in the wake of socionatural disasters. In the first instance, the claim from people of color on the US’ coastal margins – ‘we are citizens!’ – pierces the universalist, liberal fiction of citizenship to expose the white supremacist roots of the settler colonial project. But, this challenge can be more radical when placed in dialogue with Caribbean uneven im/mobility. It can call out “the globally hegemonic ethnoclass of ‘Man’” to point to the true limits of its over-representation (Wynter 2003: 262) and its judiciously guarded society/nature dualism. Uneven im/mobility and citizenship status in the Caribbean demonstrates the impossibility of recuperating liberal citizenship in the Anthropocene, because those who bear the brunt of climate disasters in the post-colony are mostly not citizens of the fossil fuel-burning nations or the place where the cheap nature economic surplus accumulates.
A second dimension to the uneven development of im/mobility can be gleaned from the perspective of new axes of socioeconomic and spatial underdevelopment within and among Caribbean states and the wider global South. The best-known Caribbean example is the island of Hispaniola. It bears repeating, even as I draw on mainstream economic measures with caution, that the two countries that share the island had the same GNI per capita in the late 1960s. Yet long-standing colonial legacies of debt and violence in Haiti, along with the disintegration of the developmental state and Cold War-motivated supports, followed by neoliberal re-regulation precipitated wildly different outcomes: the Dominican Republic’s GNI per capita is currently eight-fold that of its neighbor. Since the introduction of migrant labor schemes in the early 20th century through US occupation and intervention in the region, West Indian and Haitian migrants and their descendants in the Dominican Republic have faced second-class status, but the diverging trajectories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the last three decades have added new dimensions to this unevenness. The ranks of non-citizen residents and workers in the Dominican Republic, mostly Haitian, have continued to grow and the 2010 earthquake only exacerbated this trend. Increasing numbers of Haitians continue to cross the border to send their children to school and to seek healthcare. Haitian workers build the luxury shopping centers in Santo Domingo and high-end tourist poles on the coast; they toil in rice fields and on banana farms to feed not only export and tourist markets, but also to guarantee Dominican food self-sufficiency, while neighboring Haiti remains perilously import-dependent. And while there is a remarkable level of social solidarity from many Dominicans, the present situation remains invidious. Nationalists find fertile political ground for right-wing politics in the context of a grossly unequal distribution of wealth, flat wages and persistently high unemployment. Here, then, we have another dimension to the politics of Caribbean futures: how uneven development on the heels of neoliberal restructuring has been remade in the region and the forms of social solidarity that can disrupt its violent effects.
As Sheller reminds us, drawing on Christina Sharpe, socionatural disasters unfold in and through the wake of colonial capitalist appropriations (Sharpe 2016, cited in Sheller, 982). These interactions in turn reverberate through the increasingly fragmented spaces of the Caribbean. In this sense, a fractal counter-politics of an archipelago of possibility can be neither hailed nor desired; it must be forged. In her evocative short essay, Fractal Thinking, Denise Ferreira da Silva argues that mobility can run counter to change, repeating patterns of coloniality in the present. The fractal then is ambivalent: it can signal endless repetition of the same unfolding pattern, but not necessarily. Emancipatory fractal thinking must be construed through creative, non-linear (in da Silva’s words “poethical”), materialist engagements with the coloniality of the present. Grappling with the complex, patterned and contingent spatiality of unevenness, and the conjunctural politics that ensue, thus surely remains central to advancing social justice on the contested terrain of Caribbean futures.