After Servitude: Elusive Property and the Ethics of Kinship in Bolivia (Review)

Mareike Winchell’s ethnography of post-hacienda life in Bolivia’s Ayopaya province reveals the complex afterlives of servitude, but fails to weigh the comparative scale between deference and refusal.

November 3, 2023

Cover of "After Servitude: Elusive Property and the Ethics of Kinship in Bolivia" by Mareike Winchell. (University of California Press, 2022)

In April of 1952, a popular insurrection of campesinos and mine workers overthrew Bolivia’s military rule and introduced a series of sweeping reforms. The 1947 peasant revolt in Ayopaya province is now remembered as one of the precursors of that National Revolution. However, with memories of bloody repression still fresh, Ayopayans awaited the August 1953 agrarian reform law rather than seize land in a new local uprising. Exultation was mixed with wariness and distrust. When some villagers declared, “For now and forever, there is no more hacienda,” others wondered who would harvest the yellow oca tubers still in the ground. When one hacienda master saw his horses reappropriated by his workers, two of his servants carried him in a chair to a town twenty kilometers distant.

This scene is one of the stories told in Mareike Winchell’s After Servitude, a surprising and thought-provoking portrait of post-hacienda life in Ayopaya, a Quechua-speaking rural region in northwest Cochabamba department. Winchell situates the reader in an unexpected place; not inside grassroots rural movements, but rather in the continuing elements of hacendado wealth, property, and influence in an economically marginal province. This contemporary ethnography wrestles with the shadows cast by the mid-century disruption of an agrarian order that promised to end the personal servitude of landless peasants tied to haciendas.

The reader of After Servitude encounters the complex inheritance of this violent and racialized system. We meet elder ex-servants surviving on gifts from masters’ children, the mine owners who re-enact patronage through feasts for their workers, and farmers whose land was given to their parents as a reward for service as overseers, or as recompense for the violation of rape. These informal arrangements exist alongside formal efforts at land redistribution and labor organizing, and are portrayed as an alternative to both. For Winchell, it is kinship and its affects that motivate hacendado families to meet subordinates’ demands with gifts, setting the terms of what she calls “unequal exchange” or “hierarchical aid relations.” The former declared their own “sentiments of tenderness, love, care, and affection (cariño) for former servants” and framed their acts from “positions of maternal benevolence.” The harm of unacknowledged parentage from coercive sexual relations is particularly highlighted, with informal adoption as kin proposed as the solution.

When the book’s gaze is upon them, we get a subtle portrait of this affective landscape, one that repeatedly acknowledges how personal feelings of connection and benevolence coexist with atavistic racism, fantasies of masculine domination, and displays of casual violence. She rightly concludes that patronage “relie[s] upon deeply racialized connotations that position the patrón as superior.” Winchell is an unflinching witness to these contradictory impulses, which regularly complicate the portrait of noblesse oblige through which hacendado families and their impoverished interlocutors transact a limited form of repair.

Winchell’s study shows that neither the 1953 land reforms—nor those that took place under former President Evo Morales—were as radical as one might have hoped. After 1952, a new agrarian order kept the hacendados and their lieutenants as majority landowners, and a significant number of peasants as their tenants, sharecroppers, and, until 1983, personal servants. Prior landholdings also structured a nascent mining industry, which today is either run by the heirs themselves, or administered by urban elites on their land. The text juxtaposes the indefensible sexual predations of yesterday’s masters and today’s bosses, the revulsion and self-assurance of those who reject the dependent order, and, above all, the complex approaches taken by those who continue to live lives entwined with “good or ‘all right’ master[s].” For them, “unionist discourses that emphasized disrupting enduring ties to hacendados and converting servitude into paid labor” were not the obvious choice they may seem to others.

To be sure, many Ayopayans are disdainful of those who continue to show obeisance to the class of the patrón. Yet this text struggles to understand the politics of refusal of servile relations. When Winchell cites the criticism of Doña Julia Yupanqui, a female survivor of mitani servitude, that her peer “Ramón, in Don Fabio’s house … remains a slave,” it is to pose the problem of why “an arrangement that Ramón felt should be honored” would appear to others as “anachronous and grotesque.” Winchell calls this disdain from those who have escaped servitude “stigmatizing” and even “dehumanization,” characterizations that miss the mark. She somehow reads slogans like “We are not human beasts” as an insult to the laborer rather than a refusal of the master.

This visceral rejection of servitude is known to be widespread in Ayopaya: “Peasants,” one hacienda heir tells her, “don’t have even a little bit of tenderness for the person they loved so much before. Instead, they are always trying to damage the masters.” It is here that I struggled most as a reader whose ancestors overcame servitude. The same landlords and heirs who prided themselves on their “affection” for less fortunate peasant families revealed their racism off-stage to Winchell. Reading this text, I was reminded of the moral compromises I know my father had to make in the Jim Crow era, and the palpable relief he experienced when he no longer had to depend on the kindness of people who saw him as lesser.

After Servitude portrays personal sponsorship and patronages as attempts at compensation, as “an exemplary willingness to respond to … history’s burdens in the present,” and argues against treating it as out of time and beneath the dignity of Quechua-speaking peasants. Rather, her text emphasizes “the affective and emotional labor” of peasants in negotiating with landlords and their heirs, and even “the agentive dimensions of positioning oneself as a dependent.” These relations do not, as promised “cast doubt on analyses of these relations in terms of … agrarian patronage,” but rather confirm that framework, in which a “moral economy” of shared expectations allows subordinates to insist on their needs by invoking the paternalist language adopted by their masters. As James Scott argued, hierarchical power “is seldom completely without resonance among subordinates”; even under chattel slavery, “paternalist flourishes” offered space for negotiating from below.

Scott, who identified a “hidden transcript” of insubordination behind the mask of friendly compliance, also offered a relevant caution. “We are in danger of making a serious mistake whenever we infer anything at all about the beliefs or attitudes of anyone solely on the basis that he or she has engaged in an apparently deferential act.” Were the servants who didn’t leave loyal, traumatized, or just doing their best to navigate a world in which they were not yet truly free? Are their descendants speaking their minds when they tell Winchell of “the good masters”? Is their insistence upon small inheritances and child sponsorship a form of kinship, or of patron-client negotiation?  

What the book lacks most is any effort to weigh the comparative scale of these political stances among Ayopaya’s peasant population. Before claiming that “Ayopayans oppos[e] temporalities of progress” or definitive land title, something they don’t say directly, Winchell must show just how many participate in these refusals. How many colonos mourned the lost oca crop rather than walking away from plantations? Do miners rely more on “generous” (i.e., food-sharing) mining bosses and refuse union strikes? How do memories of an “outsider”-driven uprising in the 1940s square with histories of mass participation? How does ethnography of political disenchantment sit with the province’s voters’ growing political alignment with the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS)?

The book’s focus on the most alienated peasants does rightly highlight those subjected to domestic and sexual servitude as people not made fully whole by land reform. But throughout, Winchell fails to grapple with either individual or collective land title as anything other than offshoots of a liberal property framework. The land reforming and titling agency INRA comes across as a civilizing urban institution, restructuring peasant life and insisting Indigenous communities must gain collective title. But INRA’s actual role is more ambivalent: it certifies the property of peasants and landlords alike and formalizes both collective and individual titles for Indigenous peasants. Ayopaya’s peasant union, which Winchell encounters denouncing the imposition of a collectively owned territory in 2010, had initiated the same demand in 2002. Her field research represents a missed opportunity to better understand the internal divisions in the province between those who demanded collective territory and those who defended private individual property rights.

In its tone and observations, After Servitude takes a contrarian stance towards progressive political projects from the 1940s peasant uprisings, to the 1953 land reform, through the MAS party of Evo Morales. This stance isn’t rooted in a defense of prior property relations, which Winchell repeatedly describes a form of injustice, but instead in assimilating nearly all such projects under the banner of “modernizing projects geared to producing alienable property,” which she concludes “often replicate features of liberal projects of assimilative citizenship and imperial models of civilizing intervention.” In other words, far from land reform being about socialist radicalism, it is a project for making liberal private-property holding citizens. In her writing, “awakened, liberated Indigenous subjects” seem to be very much in scare quotes.

Insofar as those who seek change are agents too, they are typically presented as outsiders exercising a new domination: “the revolutionaries, those strangers who appeared overnight and made new demands on rural peasants.” In its tone, After Servitude treats escaping from unions and political parties as on par with escaping class domination. If collective action is itself a trap, then personal appeals to elites can be hailed as a “new” and “creative” way to improve one’s life.

Labor exploitation, which continues after servitude is abolished, is also a critical missing concept in this text. Revolting peasants, agrarian unionists, and workers blockading or abandoning work in contemporary mines all understand and confront property not primarily as a rightful possession, but as the materialization of labor exploitation. And they all critique contemporary landowners and mine owners as both exploiters and as heirs of a feudal past. We learn without comment that “one of the best workers in Martín’s gold mine” lives in poverty, leading his co-parent to seek out the mine owner as padrino of their daughter Mela’s education; any Bolivian unionist could see that the greater transfer of wealth here is happening inside the mine. Yet present-day exploitation seems to vanish behind emphasis on “debts accrued through Mestizo elites’ earlier benefit from Indigenous labor and sexual violence” (emphasis mine).

Despite many twists and turns, contemporary Bolivia is a place where prevailing ideologies have relegated personal servitude to an abject past. Yet is also a place where economic inequalities are paralleled by relations of bodily subordination, whether through wage labor or unlicensed sexual service. Bolivia lives in the afterlife of the hacienda, and Bolivian lives are marked by the coloniality of power. Winchell’s ethnography has chosen to highlight a corner of social life even more marked by such customs—that of hacienda heirs and their retainers—and ask to what extent their histories and present practices are left out by other discourses. Those committed to a progressive politics in Bolivia must take seriously those instances where radical change has not reached broadly enough to change the lives of all, or where it even fails to exceed the limited consolation offered by continued alliances with local elites. But we might in turn widen the lens to include those who abandoned as well as remained on the hacienda, who fight through unions rather than view them skeptically, and then ask what frameworks might best interpret all these choices within a common understanding of power and possibility.

Carwil Bjork-James is a cultural anthropologist who studies political violence and strategies of grassroots protest in Latin America. He is currently an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University.

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