"At That Time We Were Intimidated on All Sides"

Residues of the Malayan Emergency as a Conjunctural Episode of Dispossession

Author: Donald M. Nonini


This article proposes that the Emergency counterinsurgency campaign of the British colonial state should be viewed as a conjunctural episode of dispossession of Malayan laboring people. Conjunctural episodes of dispossession of working people through state violence and racialized rhetoric emerge as a response to crises in capitalist accumulation occurring at multiple and overlapping scales of capitalist systems – the imperial, the national/colonial, and the local/regional. During these episodes state and capitalist strategies destroy political organizations and solidarities among laboring people and demoralize them over long periods of time, through processes simultaneously material and semiotic. Employing new theorizations of the global anthropology of labor, this article first examines the postwar and Emergency years when the multiethnic and industry-wide bases of Malayan trade unions were destroyed while an estimated half a million working people were forcibly concentrated in so-called New Villages. This had the effect of suppressing a discourse of class and class struggle in favor of a dominant discourse of ethnic conflict. In an effort to articulate class struggle despite the presence of this dominant discourse of essential ethnic difference this essay examines the formation of a new working men's "society" in 1978–1980 and a dispute between truck drivers and truck owners in northern Malaysia.

Countries: Malaysia
Topics: Labor

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September 2015
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