Critical approaches to capitalism often argue that markets exacerbate inequality. By contrast, my research with US oil companies in Equatorial Guinea shows that markets are in fact made by that inequality. Global markets, the oil market chief among them, do not merely deepen racialized and gendered postcolonial disparities; they are constituted by them. From radical discrepancies in the price of labor by race, nation, and gender, to contract terms between transnational corporations and sovereign states that vary with colonial histories, to the denomination of global oil in US dollars, imperial debris shapes market terms.1Imperial debris is Ann Stoler’s term. “Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination,” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 2 (2008): 191–219. In this piece, I use the subcontracting of foreign personnel by US oil companies working in Equatorial Guinea to show how racialized differentiation acts as a proxy for “the rules of the economy.”2On how racialized networks of whiteness in particular proxy for ostensibly market-based hiring choices, see Sumi Cho, “Embedded Whiteness: Theorizing Exclusion in Public Contracting,” Berkeley La Raza Law Journal 19, April 2015. See also Karen Ho, “Racializing Normative Markets: Whiteness, Masculinity, and the ‘Efficiency’ of Networks” (lecture, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, May 12, 2016).
Cedric Robinson used the term “racial capitalism” to describe the ongoing history and power of racial differentiation as a material force.3Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). The material in this paragraph comes from this book. His work shows how social norms of racial differentiation predated capitalism in European society, and thus were widely available as an accepted way to differentiate and devalue people as the capitalist era dawned. From Slavs (the origins of “slave”) and Tartars in the Middle Ages to the Irish in the early nineteenth century to racialized populations in (or brought from) the global South via the trans-Atlantic slave trade and (post)colonialism, Robinson illustrates the global history through which racial devaluation became foundational, not exceptional, to capitalist accumulation. His work starts from histories of racism and shows how those histories shaped capitalist (and, significantly, anticapitalist) practices. Complementing Robinson’s approach, I want to start with quotidian capitalist practices—contracts, infrastructures, markets, economic theory—and show how these are built in and through forms of devalued difference including, but not limited to, race and gender. Here, I focus on subcontracting, one such practice in what I’ve come to call the licit life of capitalism.
Subcontracting in the transnational oil industry
From their office in Equatorial Guinea, Laurel Incorporated (a pseudonym) matched transnational laboring bodies with labor needs in the country’s offshore oil and gas industry. Paolo, a finance manager for Laurel and originally from Ecuador, explained: “Here we provide manpower, which is called in the worst kind of way ‘body shops.’ I don’t feel proud of that.” Laurel recruits and administers labor from around the world for oil companies working in Equatorial Guinea. Once hired, Laurel coordinates workers’ logistics—plane tickets, visas, intermittent health insurance, spending money. Oil companies pay Laurel for workers’ costs plus an additional 18 percent. After taking their cut, Laurel pays the employees. Those employed through Laurel can be fired without notice, and they are likewise “free” to quit at any time.
Nationality is central to this form of labor organization. Laurel sets workers’ pay and rotation schedule according to nation of origin. US and UK laborers work a “28/28”: 28 days on a rig off of Equatorial Guinea’s shores and 28 days off at home, considered the best schedule. Filipino workers have the least desirable schedule: 11 weeks on and three weeks off (an “11/3”). Firms have long argued that wage, schedule, and facility segregation is not a question of racism but skill level. Indeed, specialized methods of oil extraction (offshore, oil sands, shale oil) require increasingly specialized labor. These requirements then map onto geographic inequalities in the production and dissemination of technical knowledge. And yet, even the Equatoguineans who occupied semitechnical positions—radio or crane operator, one friend with a master’s in petroleum engineering from France—complained that they were kept indefinitely at the level of “trainee.” “When they bring a [white] South African … I have to guide him but I’m the ‘trainee.’ I spend six months showing him the work, and once these six months are finished he becomes [my boss], and I’m still the ‘trainee,’” one Equatoguinean worker explained. In other words, unequal education opportunities aside, even when two workers do the same job, subcontracting arrangements licitly categorize, schedule, and pay workers according to their nationality, a categorization that often maps too neatly onto race.
Of the approximately 1,000 workers Laurel managed in Equatorial Guinea during my time there—between 2006 and 2008—roughly 40 percent were Filipino, 20 percent were British, 15 percent were Indian or Pakistani, 10 percent were from the United States, and another 10 percent were South American.4All of these countries are variously multiracial and multiethnic. While I do not have Laurel Incorporated data on the racial or ethnic identities of their workers, evidence from my participant observation over two years suggests that rig workers from the United States and United Kingdom in particular were nearly homogeneously white. The only African American man I met in Equatorial Guinea was head of Corporate Social Responsibility for one of the transnational corporations, directly contracted and not a rig worker. (“The majority of them are Venezuelan,” Paolo explained, “because they have oil skills, they’re good labor, and they’re cheap; and also because Chavez fired 18,000 employees who tried to unionize.”)
When I asked Paolo why schedules varied by nationality, he replied, “They say it’s the market … Companies take advantage of inequality in the economies of the world. Some people say that it is discrimination and it is, up to a certain point. But it is also working with the rules of the economy. […] You bring in ten Filipinos for [the price of] one American guy. Same human being working the same ten hours, with equal or better knowledge, and your business is running.” The labor market, in this case, is not merely deepening forms of global inequality. Rather, the market for labor—what is for sale, at what cost, and to whom—is made by these inequalities. “You are paid according to [your] passport,” explained Paolo. Even he, as a finance manager, was paid as an Ecuadorian national. “I am an administrative manager very high up in the company, but I’m paid as a ‘third-country national,’ even though I don’t have a house in Ecuador, and I want to live in Australia.” Despite his management position, his tertiary degree in finance, and the fact that he had no home in Ecuador and was in the process of migrating to Australia, Paolo’s passport guaranteed a lower wage. Many US passport holders, on the other hand, actually lived in the Philippines or Latin America. As American oilmen they had met their wives in previous assignments abroad, in Venezuela or Indonesia, and now rotated to those sites between hitches.5“Hitch” is the industry term for each work rotation. But their passport guaranteed a US wage. These details belie industry attempts to explain wage and scheduling inequalities through skills hierarchies, and show instead how the transnational labor market operates as a form of national and racial arbitrage.
Filipino labor and imperial debris
The preponderance of Filipino labor in Equatorial Guinea’s oil industry is particularly illustrative of how histories of colonialism and racialized imaginaries constitute global markets.6Here I draw on the work of Steven McKay, “Racializing the High Seas: Filipino Migrants and Global Shipping,” in The Nation and Its Peoples: Citizens, Denizens, Migrants, ed. John Park and Shannon Gleeson (New York: Routledge Press, 2014) and Rhacel Parreñas, The Force of Domesticity: Filipina Migrants and Globalization (New York: NYU Press, 2008). One out of three workers at sea today is Filipino, including workers on oil rigs around the world. In explaining this phenomenon to me, a white North American expatriate manager working in Equatorial Guinea offered his own reasoning: “Worldwide in shipping there’s a lot of Filipinos. Why? They’re English-speaking. [They have a] willingness to work, good attitudes. [They are] good workers, friendly. If you go to Saudi, Kuwait, UAE, they have millions. […] For our facilities they went to the source of [an] inexpensive but English-speaking, highly educated workforce. Over the years it’s become a tradition [with Filipino labor], and it’s almost generational. Their grandparents, aunts, and uncles were all involved in this sort of industry. In the early years it was exploitation: low wages, poor living conditions, but you found people willing to do it. What we find now is that the wages for these third world people are creeping up worldwide.”
In this man’s explanation, Filipinos are English-speaking, highly educated, willing to work, and friendly. Moreover, it is “traditional” in their extended families to work at sea. How did this “tradition” of maritime work and this widespread characterization of Filipinos as docile workers come to be? These racialized explanations for the preponderance of Filipinos in a US-dominated industry have a very specific history, beginning with the re-segregation of the US Navy after World War I.“Jim Crow segregation, through its removal of African American labor, created a labor demand that was ultimately met through the coercive promise of citizenship-for-exploitation to Filipino colonial subjects.”
At the time, the Philippines was a territory of the United States, and Filipinos took the place of African American seamen, receiving English-language nautical training in US colonial institutions in the Philippines. Three years in the Navy qualified Filipino men for US citizenship, and over 100,000 per year applied for menial steward jobs. Jim Crow segregation, through its removal of African American labor, created a labor demand that was ultimately met through the coercive promise of citizenship-for-exploitation to Filipino colonial subjects. In this history, which leads directly to the contemporary moment in which Filipino men make up one third of the world’s offshore labor force, we see that the global labor market does not merely deepen forms of inequality. Rather, interlinked systems of racial meaning-making and valuation—from Jim Crow to US empire in the Philippines—make markets.7This relationship between systems of racial meaning inside the continental United States, in US empire, and off the shores of Africa, illustrates Jemima Pierre’s argument that scholars must attend to “the longue durée of European empire making, whereby conquest, the commerce in Africans, slavery (both in Africa and the “New World”), and the colonization of the Western hemisphere, the African continent, and Asia are all seen as an interlocking set of practices that have cemented the commonality of our modern experience. What is significant here is the racial dimension of this international system of power and the attendant global White supremacy through which it is enacted and experienced” (3). The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). For Pierre’s ongoing work on race and resource extraction, see “Race and the Bureaucracy of Resource Extraction in Ghana” (paper, American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Denver, CO, November 2015).
The licit life of capitalism
Paolo described this labor market as discrimination “up to a certain point,” beyond which it was the “rules of the economy.” Developing this relationship between discrimination and “the rules of the economy” further, I conclude by sharing Paolo’s slightly longer explanation of the practice of hiring by nationality.
“You have first, second, and third world. If you’re a US citizen going to South America, you have more spending power. Your money is more solid than local money. A barrel of oil is sold in dollars. If you have the possibility to bring people from other parts of the world and hire them by paying them what would be considered an acceptable wage for their position back in their home country, you really at the end don’t have a problem: you’re satisfying their needs—having a good wage—and the company is making millions of dollars. […] You bring in ten Filipinos for [the price of] one American guy. Same human being working the same ten hours, with equal or better knowledge, and your business is running. All the machinery is running. You’re pumping oil and gas and you’re selling it abroad. Oil price is standardized all around the world so there is the gap. People are expendable.”
For Paolo, trained in finance, the certain point past which these hiring processes were not discriminatory was to be found in “the rules of the economy.” But what are those rules? The fungibility of ten Filipinos for one American; the spending power of US dollars in a South American economy; barrels of oil sold in US dollars, a hard currency denomination that indexes the geographies of power in which the oil industry operates. Whereas the value of labor varies radically across the furiously-maintained borders of nations, genders, and races, the price of oil—while unstable over time—is largely stable across space.
The LIBOR rate or Platts Market Wire list the globally agreed-upon price per barrel for oil daily, and yet there is no analogous procedure for labor. Or perhaps more accurately, there is an analogously licit and “market-based” procedure for determining labor value, with a radically different outcome. Laurel uses a ratings system devised by Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s to determine wages by nationality, from Americans and Brits in the top wage bracket to “TCNs,” or Third Country Nationals, at the bottom. On the one hand, then, an idea of the market absolves the firms and the ratings systems of charges of discrimination or racism, while on the other hand, it is these very methods, tools, and metrics that make “the market” proxy for already-existing categories of inequality, such as S&P’s use of first, second, and third world categories. Overlapping histories of racialized inequality from colonialism to Jim Crow to Paolo being underpaid as a finance manager because of his passport “proxy” for rational, neutral market behavior—“the rules of the economy.” The market is not taking advantage of these circumstances; it is constituted by them.“Subcontracting, as I’ve described it here, is not capitalism’s ugly underbelly.”
To understand racial differentiation as a material force in capitalism is to acknowledge that racism is not an aberration from “standard” capitalist practice, but forms part of what we might call the licit life of capitalism. Subcontracting, as I’ve described it here, is not capitalism’s ugly underbelly. Rather, it is legally sanctioned, widely replicated, and even ordinary, at the same time as it is messy, contested and arguably, indefensible. Rather than bring critical attention to the scandals that saturate capitalism’s daily life, not least in the oil industry, and not least in sub-Saharan Africa, the licit life of capitalism draws our attention to what we might take to be the opposite of scandal—contracts, infrastructures, economic theory, “best practices”—and the foundational role of race therein. This approach to capitalism echoes Saidiya Hartman’s approach to the routinized violence of slavery, in which she focuses not on invocations of the shocking and the terrible, but on “those scenes in which terror can hardly be discerned.”8New York: Oxford University Press, 1997More Info →