[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Haiti]: Payton on Beckett, 'There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Wed Aug 21 13:28:53 MDT 2019


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From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Wed, Aug 21, 2019 at 3:25 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Haiti]: Payton on Beckett, 'There Is No More
Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince'
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>


Greg Beckett.  There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in
Port-au-Prince.  Berkeley  University of California Press, 2019.  312
pp.  $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-30024-8.

Reviewed by Claire Payton (University of Virginia)
Published on H-Haiti (August, 2019)
Commissioned by Grégory Pierrot

In _There is No More Haiti_: _Life and Death in Port-au-Prince,_ Greg
Beckett combines a decade of ethnographic research with a novelist's
sensitivity to style to create a deeply empathetic and theoretically
expansive portrait of urban life in Haiti between 2002 and 2006. This
was a volatile era. At the center is the 2004 coup, when armed gangs,
elites, and paramilitaries ended president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's
second term by forcing him into exile aboard a US plane. This window
also includes the unwinding and repression of democratic organizing,
a UN military intervention, explosive unplanned urban growth, and a
freefalling economy. Beckett renarrates this period through the lens
of the lived realities and intellectual worlds of ordinary people
obligated making their way through a seemingly endless succession of
extraordinary societal ruptures.

Given that his field work was punctuated by such turbulent events, it
is no surprise that Beckett takes crisis very seriously. His choice
to make it the organizing concept risks veering into familiar
clichés about the inevitability of violence and chaos in Haiti. But
Beckett approaches this concept not as a totalizing social
explanation but as a "widely shared structure of feeling" that
emerged from the specific historical context and worldviews of his
interlocutors (p. 8). The motif of crisis reflected the existential
claustrophobia of a particular political generation that lived
through the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship 1986 and the
unsuccessful democratic transition in the 1990s. Beckett's research
shows that by the mid-2000s, this generation saw their lives
constrained by "never-ending crisis or the end of the world"--which
reflected their profound disappointment with the foreclosure of
social and political possibilities that Aristide and the democratic
transition had represented (p. 8). He focuses on how his
interlocutors experienced crisis intimately as "a kind of ontological
insecurity in which people lose autonomy and control over the
practices that anchor social life" (p. 170).

The book follows the trajectories of a handful of friends and
acquaintances as they navigate ordinary life across this dramatic
period. The main interlocutors come from different sides of Haiti's
polarized socioeconomic spectrum. The narrative focuses primarily on
Beckett's friendship with Manuel. Through Manuel and his colleagues,
a circle of guides and fixers connected to Haiti's tourist economy,
Beckett illuminates the experience of twentieth-century migrants who
left rural life and forged new identities and communities in the
urban context. It is Manuel who claims "there is no more Haiti" to
voice his experience of social loss and disenfranchisement (p. 6).
This storyline is contrasted with a secondary one about a network of
elite professionals and intellectuals whose investments in building
Haiti's democratic future were hamstrung by their deep distrust of
the urban poor. Beckett writes that his outsider status as a white
foreign anthropologist somehow facilitated crossing social boundaries
and allowed him to construct a narrative juxtaposing the voices of
people who cannot, or will not, engage with one another.

These two storylines are woven together thematically across the
chapters to compare elites' and non-elites' understandings of core
concepts like city, community, democracy, and death. This approach
illuminates a vast gulf in understanding and compassion separating
elites from the poor majority they rule over. Across the book,
Beckett builds a rather damning argument about how political and
economic turmoil is constructed and maintained by various
constellations of elite and foreign interests dedicated to protecting
existing structures of power. Thankfully, he presents this argument
with moral clarity rather than sanctimoniousness, which attests to
the empathy and respect he shows for his interlocutors and the
problems they face, regardless of their class position.

_There is No More Haiti_ takes as its point of departure how rapid
urbanization reorganized Haitian society geographically and created
new forms of community and identity. The first chapter analyzes the
spatial and social dynamics around a forest restoration project in
the Martissant neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. There, Beckett
establishes Port-au-Prince as both the setting for his narrative and
a central dynamic he is analyzing. As rural-to-urban migration in the
late twentieth century collapsed the spatial divides that
traditionally separated elites and non-elites, the city became a
theater where old social tensions were rearticulated through new
struggles over urban space. One of his elite friends succinctly
describes this relationship: "In the countryside, there is the rural
crisis. In Port-au-Prince, there is the political crisis. They are
the same thing. They meet here, in the city" (p. 28). Beckett shows
how increasing demographic pressure produced land conflicts that
mirrored conflicts over the increased political participation of
Haiti's marginalized classes. He demonstrates that in the 1990s and
2000s, anxiety about unchecked urbanization and anxiety about
Aristide were twin expressions of traditional elites' underlying fear
of losing status, power, and privilege.

One might assume that rural-to-urban migration means the breakdown of
social ties, but in his second chapter, Beckett follows Manuel and
his friends in their professional pursuits to show that identity and
community in the city are created through a web of mundane social and
economic interactions. Repeated transactions as ordinary as buying
food from the same vendor or bringing tourists by the same art
galleries reflect a form of conduct essential to urban social fabric,
what Beckett's friends describe as _pratik_. This term refers to the
moral and ethical world that shapes how people see themselves and
locate themselves spatially and socially. Beckett also recounts the
fallout that can occur when people fail to recognize or respect these
relationships of obligation, and how tapping into this web was a
strategy for surviving the era's reoccurring crises.

The third chapter revisits the theme of class conflict and inequality
by following braided threads of dread and anticipation in the run-up
to the 2004 coup. Beckett explores how the urban poor's claims to
city land and their claims to political participation represented a
dual threat to the country's traditional elite. He traces this
materially--through struggles over access to the Martissant
forest--as well as symbolically--through the stories that people tell
about history and politics. Across the chapter, he argues that the
biggest obstacle to democracy in Haiti is obstinate elites who resist
greater political inclusion because it might jeopardize their
monopoly over material and social resources. He analyzes how
political instability, or _dezòd_, is a game played by competing
elites in their quest to acquire or maintain power. Beckett reveals
how elites legitimate their continued stranglehold on political power
by falling back on thinly veiled racist ideas about a "Haitian
mentality" fundamentally incompatible with democracy, or the
importance of rule by the most "competent."

Following the 2004 coup, Port-au-Prince became a theater of
extraordinary violence. Assassinations, kidnappings, foreign military
attacks on poor neighborhoods, and random shootings all became
quotidian. In the fourth chapter, Beckett examines how his friends
narrated what it felt like to live in a city haunted by death. Their
stories carried different assumptions about who were the true victims
and the true perpetrators of violence. For officials and the elites,
the agent of chaos was armed gangs from the slums terrorizing decent
citizens. For non-elites, it was the repressive arm of the state,
which, aided by a UN military intervention, used violence to
eliminate popular organizing and reassert elite hegemony. From his
friends' meditations on death and politics in Port-au-Prince, Beckett
draws out the concept of _blakawout_, or blackout. The term refers
most commonly to the regular loss of electricity that punctuates
daily urban life, but Beckett shows how it symbolized broader loss of
power. It refers to non-elites' loss of political power and of the
ability to make a living amid chronic instability. _Blakawout_ also
links together the state's uneven distribution of resources like
electricity with the state's authority to kill or let live. Beckett
argues that the darkness and absence it represents "is how crisis
feels like when it happens to you" (p. 170).

In the final chapter, he follows these threads through the ruined
landscape of post-earthquake Port-au-Prince. This chapter covers
disaster, relief, and the troubled world of international
development, themes that have been well documented by earlier
accounts of the earthquake and its aftermath. But Beckett
contextualizes the earthquake within a longer history of disasters in
Haiti, including hurricanes and catastrophic flooding. Drawing on
critical disaster studies, he argues that all of these seemingly
natural disasters are physical manifestations of historically
constructed social vulnerabilities.

_There is No More Haiti _offers new intellectual tools for reckoning
with the social and political turmoil of the past two decades in
Haiti. Beckett joins Erica James and others in building a body of
scholarship that illuminates the Aristide period beyond the
polarizing figure of Aristide himself. Most importantly, the book
provides one of the first studies to emphasize the connection between
Haiti's demographic and spatial reorganization and its
twenty-first-century political dynamics. Decades of migration and
urbanization have turned local dynamics in Port-au-Prince into a
microcosm for enduring social tensions around class, race, and
belonging. Their experience of urban transformation gives ordinary
people in Port-au-Prince particular insight into the modern Haitian
experience. Several critical concepts emerge out of this framework:
_pratik, dezòd, blakawout_, among others. These are valuable for
those want to prioritize Haitian theoretical frameworks when
assessing Haitian realities. Overall, the book is a remarkable
contribution to Haitian studies, presented with such accessible and
beautiful prose that it is suitable both for experts and
undergraduates.

Citation: Claire Payton. Review of Beckett, Greg, _There Is No More
Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince_. H-Haiti, H-Net
Reviews. August, 2019.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54325

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
License.




-- 
Best regards,

Andrew Stewart



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