The Government of Beans – [book review]

The Government of Beans – [book review]

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger, V.M. Roberts, a PhD student at York University. He studies industrialization, agriculture, and the experience of machine operation from an interdisciplinary perspective. His current project focuses on the operators of mobile steam engines in historical Southern Ontario, but he can also be found firing modern, scale, and heritage steam engines with Ontario’s energetic community of hobbyists and aficionados.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2020 The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops.  Duke University press. 

Review by V.M. Roberts

The first thing that happened when I picked up this book was that it made me uncomfortable.  I’ve spent my own long hours baking in the sun in Ontario soy fields, and for me the beans are a symbol of a way of life about to be destroyed.  “My” soybeans were part of the last few crop cycles before the farmland was paved over.  The knee-high plants I remember were green and fresh, they grew and flowered and they turned with the sun.  We tried to kill as few as possible out of respect for the farmers and the plants.  When Heatherington talks about soy fields as creepy and noxious-smelling, every fiber of my being wants to argue that it was the Round-up that did that, not the beans!  Beans fix nitrogen!  They’re good companions!  

But, of course, the fields I was in were also filled with Round-up ready soy.  I remember the ridiculously tall sprayers with their spindly arms looming on the road like something out of a science fiction dystopia.  I also remember being nervous, wondering if the farmer was going to stop spraying before they were right on top of us.  Clearly, given the relative locations of our two sets of soy fields, these issues have a global character.

Although he never fully addresses the complexities of soy farming per se, Hetherington does explain why he accepts the agential cut that makes soy the enemy.  He is reproducing the Fernando Lugo government’s perspective, and paying heed to the scrappy, activists and public servants on the (in his words “unlikely”) crew of state representatives with whom he visits Paraguayan soy fields.  This crew includes another anthropologist, in addition to longstanding members of the public service and newer people who have gained power in Paraguay’s agricultural ministry through their attachments to Lugo’s aims.  They are part of a push to preserve a slightly older agricultural tradition, the cotton-growing tradition of the campesinos.  While Hetherington’s key concern is with agribiopolitcs, he is sensitive to the layered and competing aims of his subjects, and has an active interest in the unusual way that dominant and subaltern roles were reversed during Lugo’s presidency.  While his term, agribiopolitics, may seem like a simple neologism rooted in Foucault, he historicizes Foucault’s biopolitics and calls out elements of colonialism implicit in Foucault’s logic, and in the agribiopolitics that underwrote Foucault’s framing.  Tacking back and forth between the past (both Paraguay’s and the discipline’s) and the unfolding present allows him to untangle a very complex political situation in powerful theoretical terms.

Hetherington situates his work between two waves of colonialism and despite his apparent alliance with the anti-soy movement, his writing almost dares the reader to decide who the ‘real’ enemy is.  Although he declares in the final chapter that the moment he chooses to remember is “back in chapter 12,” when what he styles “The Government of Beans” was still making progress against “soya mata,” he makes it clear that this is a preference and a perspective, not a judgement.  He masterfully establishes a feeling of identification between the reader and officials in the “Government of Beans,” only to remind us that the campesinos are themselves the product of an intentional colonial occupation that was destructive to the physical landscape and that changed a human tradition just as soya mata was destroying them and theirs.

The text is divided into three sections.  “A cast of characters” describes the situation in Paraguay, introducing the themes which will be important throughout the book, including monocropping, the destructiveness of growing practices associated with soy, the political situation during Fernando Lugo’s presidency, specific mitigation strategies implemented to protect the cotton planters, SENAVE (the National Service for Plant and Seed Quality and Health), and the significance of ethnically Brasilian farmers cultivating soy in Paraguay.  

“An experiment in government”  covers the workings of SENAVE, and the regulatory instruments used to regulate soy and to protect campesinos during Lugo’s presidency.  Hetherington pays close attention to the political and social commitments of the various players, and to the tensions between those who predate the Lugo era, and those who reflect his administration.  Chapter 11, “Measurement as Tactical Sovereignty” is particularly compelling, touching on perverse incentives, the performative significance of language and legal formalities, and government-at-a-distance. His attention to the material conditions under which people do epistemic work is insightful.

The final section, “Agribiopolitics,” weaves all of the previous chapters into a unified theoretical frame, using a historically-contextualized extension of Foucault’s biopolitics, and incorporating historical context from the coup, and from Paraguay’s history after Lugo was removed from office and Heatherington’s fieldwork was complete.  His attention to the unfolding of events in time is consistent and illuminating across both theoretical and descriptive sections, although he does assume the reader has more than passing familiarity with Paraguayan history.  This book is likely to be interesting to an audience well beyond South Americanists, and many readers might benefit from additional background on Lugo’s politics as well as the origins of campesino cotton culture.

For me, personally, soy beans will continue to be a companion plant I put in with my tomatoes, and eat plain with a certain mindfulness and ritual.  Their symbolic role as the last crop is ingrained in my thinking, even if that last crop is part of a deeply problematic global system of agribiopolitics.  Where Heatherington chooses to remember Chapter 12, I choose to remember the living plants.  Regardless, Hetherinton delaminates colonialism and gives a fine-grained description of conflicting agricultural styles.  This level of nuance may be particularly important in the complex circumstances of South America, but is worth emulating in all colonial contexts where distinctive agricultural styles are a factor.  His ability to communicate an enjoyment of the process of ethnography, even romanticizing his subjects a little, without giving in to that romanticism or losing sight of other potential framings seems honest and elegant.  While this text may not be perfect — Hetherington says his “chapters are also deliberately short, ending before I am able to sew up the excessive loose ends” (Hetherington 2020, 16) — it is generative.  It brings new ideas to familiar perspectives and offers a lens which is worth trying out.  Hetherington’s articulation of agribiopolitics seems especially important and widely applicable.