Development at Work: Postcolonial Imaginaries, Global Capitalism, and Everyday Life at a Factory in Tunisia – A Conversation with André Weißenfels

Diana Abbani in Conversation with André Weißenfels

André Weißenfels

André Weißenfels is a researcher focusing on the political economy of West Asia and North Africa as well as community decision-making processes, and “the social.” He has worked as a research associate at the Otto Suhr Institute of the Free University of Berlin and was a PhD fellow at the Graduate School for Muslim Cultures and Societies. He currently works as a community manager in Marzahn-Hellersdorf (Berlin) where he continues his studies of the everyday lives of people and “the social” in the context of a diverse neighborhood.

Diana Abbani: In your book ‘Development at Work: Postcolonial Imaginaries, Global Capitalism, and Everyday Life at a Factory in Tunisia,’ you explore the interplay between global economic forces and local realities through a factory in Tunisia. What inspired you to follow this approach, and how does this focus help us understand broader postcolonial economic structures?

André Weißenfels: When we talk about postcolonial economic structures, we cannot underestimate the role that the idea of “development” plays! When I started my research, I wanted to work on neoliberal work environments and see if those environments create neoliberal subjectivities—so-called entrepreneurial selves who are constantly working on improving themselves in the face of permanent competition. However, once I began my field research at the factory, I realized that work processes and people functioned very differently from that. This has a lot to do with the fact that neoliberalism in a postcolonial context is only the latest iteration of a long-standing socio-economic project called “development.” The electronics factory in which I did my field research embodies different aspects of this project. On the one hand, it is an expression of the idea that industrialization will bring about development, and the promise of development still looms large in the way that people at the factory imagine and evaluate themselves and their futures. On the other hand, as a middle-sized international subcontractor working in an offshore legal framework, the factory epitomizes a particular change in postcolonial development strategies: from a state-financed large-scale industrialization that aims at producing goods and services for the domestic market[1] to an export-oriented production led by private capital.

Understanding the postcolonial economy through the vantage point of such a factory highlights the unevenness that those policies have brought about. To explain this a little further: from a Marxist point of view, the development project was a way to integrate the newly created independent nation-state into global structures of exploitation. The way that this happened built on and reinforced existing socio-economic unevenness inside the nation-state. In the case of Tunisia, this unevenness is particularly sharply expressed in the exploitation of agricultural workers, small-scale peasants, and natural resources in the Southern and Western regions of the country to the benefit of industrial workers, merchants, public officials, and the tourism sector in the coastal areas of Tunisia (and of course also to the benefit of international investors and businessmen since a big part of the value produced in Tunisia does not stay in the country). This unevenness between the coast and the inner parts of Tunisia has a history that is thousands of years old, and it has only grown bigger in the last decades.

Diana: In your exploration of everyday life at the CERAT factory, you shed light on the nuanced realities of postcolonial labor dynamics. Could you elaborate on how this focus might help us understand broader postcolonial economic structures? I mean, why is it important to address everyday life in the context of these discussions?

André: First of all, as a cultural historical materialist, I believe that people make history. Not people as finished individual actors with an independent will and desire, but people embedded in material and ideational structures. For me, there is no way around addressing the everyday lives of people when we want to understand them, the material and sense-making (cultural) structures they are embedded in and reproduce, and the history they are forming and shaping. What I understood through the research of everyday lives is that inside the unevenness that I mentioned above, global capitalism has created loads of different positionalities, many of them kind of ambivalent. Looking at the everyday life at the factory helps us to understand these ambivalences and make sense of them. Initially, I was surprised that most employees at the factory liked their workplace and that they understand themselves as being “middle class.” This prompted me to investigate further how they evaluate their lives and how they compare their lives to other people inside Tunisia but also around the world. Their assessment of their lives is ambivalent: better than some, worse than others. For a historical materialist understanding of revolution, this means that the revolutionary subject is not always (and perhaps only sometimes) the industrial workforce, because they are rarely the most exploited and suppressed group. Who exploits whom, to what extent, with what reason, and how do people involved evaluate those forms of exploitation? Those are open questions that cannot fully be answered without looking at everyday life.

Diana: You integrate ethnographic and historical approaches to study the dynamics within the CERAT factory. What were some of the most significant challenges you faced, and how did these perspectives enhance your understanding? Could you also share how archival research complemented your ethnographic findings and highlight any particular instances or materials from your fieldwork that significantly shaped your conclusions?

André: The most significant challenge, I think, was the fact that in the middle of my field research I was denied access to the factory, and people were told not to speak to me. This was because, even though I was inside the factory as a researcher with all the official papers, the French mother company of the factory did not know about me being there until then. When they found out that this random German researcher was walking around freely in the factory, they forbade it and did not allow me to enter the factory again. However, this bump in the road turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I started to focus more on the archival work, which, at that point, I had already begun. This turned out to be great because the data from the participant observation and the archive complement each other very well.

Without going into too much detail, what I found is that the discourse of politicians, experts, and journalists in the 1970s and 1980s about what development was supposed to look like, and the promise that this contained, reverberates in the way people at the factory imagine and evaluate their own lives. The development promise is the basis of many ambivalences they experience: certain aspects of the development promise materialized for them while others did not. The fascinating thing is that the more I read into old newspaper articles, the more I understood about the factory and the lives of people working there. On the other hand, I had a more intimate relationship with the ideas and promises of politicians, journalists, and experts from the ‘70s and ‘80s through my own experiences at the factory and my contact with the employees.

That was an important experience for me as a political scientist that proper historical context is more than just the sequence of important events, but trying to understand ideas, hopes, and dreams from decades ago that made certain changes and continuities possible. So, the newspapers from the 1970s and 1980s shaped my research significantly.

Diana: Fascinating! You mention that the employees at CERAT hold personal development imaginaries that sometimes conflict with the broader economic environment. How do the “development imaginaries” influence the aspirations and daily experiences of the factory workers, and what broader socio-economic insights do these imaginaries reveal?

André: I think that the development imaginary influences the aspirations and experiences of the factory workers a lot. This goes for both material and immaterial aspirations. On the material side, people desire a “middle class life:” a house, a car, the means to marry, and the occasional opportunity to travel. These aspirations are complemented by the desire for a full-time secure contractual job, education, an orderly and tidy surrounding, and a disciplined mindset (for themselves and people around them). All these aspirations mirror, at least to certain degrees, promises that politicians, journalists, and experts made to the Tunisian people under the slogan of “development.”

However, not all those aspirations can be fulfilled (at least not for the majority of Tunisians) given Tunisia’s position in global structures of production. The export-oriented development strategy since the 1970s has created a situation in which the Tunisian economy can only remain “competitive” in international markets by producing low value-added intermediate goods: low-tech assembling of imported parts for further processing in other countries.

In other words, many enterprises in Tunisia, like CERAT, work on a given product for little money while companies in other countries continue the work on that product and receive significantly higher remuneration. This division of labor translates into a negative trade balance: Tunisia exports cheap manufactured goods while importing expensive manufactured goods. This means that the jobs that international and national capital creates in subcontracting and offshore firms like CERAT are usually lower-level jobs that do not need a well-educated workforce. This is why I think that what is missing in Tunisia is not really education. There are many overqualified people working in the factory: law students working in the warehouse, people who have studied literature working on the production lines, etc. What is missing are the jobs for all the well-educated young people. And politicians anticipated this problem in the 1970s already as a key issue of what they called “development.” Mansour Moalla, then minister of the plan, told La Presse, the biggest state-owned newspaper at the time:

It is about creating the most qualified jobs for all the young people who will graduate from the schools, high schools, and universities. The construction sites of the struggle against underdevelopment will be necessary for some time for a part of the nonqualified population. But mostly qualified jobs have to be created for the future

La Presse, 1972/02/10

Unfortunately, the export-oriented economic policies of the last 50 years have not really created such qualified jobs.

Diana: In your analysis, you discuss how global capitalism impacts local realities like those at CERAT, but locals have their own responses. Could you elaborate on the specific mechanisms through which global economic policies affect local employment practices and worker experiences and how they reshaped it according to their norms, values, traditions expertise?

André: The first thing that comes to mind is the bureaucracy. Inside the factory, everything is meticulously tracked and controlled through bureaucratic processes. For example, at every stage of the production process, any non-conformity is documented on a little form, which then travels throughout the factory and triggers a range of response processes. This form of bureaucracy is an expression of global standards and norms which make a global market possible. It is also a form of governance, of controlling from afar—a method through which people who are in another place and do not know a particular context, can judge what is going on and take decisions that affect what is happening far away. In this way, not only states but also private companies and the market—especially the global market—are bureaucratic. This means that neoliberal policies, often portrayed as “de-regulation,” have to be read as “re-regulation” instead. Obviously, this bureaucratically regulated work environment shapes the experiences of people working inside the factory.

However, they experience the bureaucracy mostly not as tedious and annoying but as comfortable and reassuring. This has to do with the fact that many aspects of this bureaucracy represent certain aspects of what the postcolonial state promised to be “development.” The strict spatial and temporal organization of the factory, the predictable work processes, the tidy work environment, the formal and respectful interactions with colleagues—all those are perceived as factors that give employees “peace of mind” and make them feel comfortable in their workplace. So, even if for many people their salary is not good enough to live up to the promises of development, the fact that they are “doing things by the book” at work resembles many other (non-material) aspects of the development promise. Elsewhere I have described this discrepancy as “a good job but not a good life.” Anyhow, the bureaucratic organization of work plays an important role in creating such an environment, and people at the factory assign it a particular meaning: not primarily as a form of control but as an expression of progress and a guard against the way things happen outside the factory and inside Tunisia which are often felt to be chaotic, uncontrollable, and rather disappointing.

Diana: Your findings suggest that neoliberal policies do not necessarily create neoliberal subjects. Can you elaborate more on this, and discuss the factors that mediate the adoption of neoliberal values among individuals in different socio-economic contexts?

André: The idea of the neoliberal subject goes back to Foucault. He argued that neoliberalism is not primarily a set of economic policies (de-regulation, privatization, destruction of the welfare state, etc.) but rather that those policies were centered on another, ultimate target: the construction and control of human conduct. And not just any but a particular human conduct: an entrepreneurial self. Such entrepreneurial selves are supposed to act in a utility-maximizing manner and permanently try to optimize themselves and their human capital. Thus, the argument goes, neoliberalism is all about creating the kind of neurotically proactive people who never stop aspiring to bigger things, change themselves and their environment permanently, and interpret poverty and unhappiness as individual failures. I will not go into why neoliberals want people to think, feel, and behave like this but it might be important to note that neoliberals think that constant competition is the way to make people behave in this way.

The CERAT factory is very much a manifestation of Tunisia’s neoliberal economic policies. As an international subcontractor and fully exporting firm, the factory is a model for the integration of Tunisia into international markets. The factory pays little taxes to the Tunisian state and is exposed to international competition, which is handed down to the employees through benchmarking. Nevertheless, this global competition creates not neoliberal subjects, but is mediated, as you have very poignantly put it, by other dynamics. One important mediating factor is the bureaucratization that I have mentioned above. Another one is the development imaginary that is connected to aspirations very different from a neoliberal subjectivity and has existed much longer in Tunisia than neoliberal policies and ideals. This development imaginary plays a big role in how people find their place in a neoliberal context and in how they interpret neoliberal promises and logics of action for themselves.

This is why neoliberal policies create more often bureaucratic selves than entrepreneurial selves. Employees at the factory are doing things by the book rather than changing the rules of the game and challenging existing boundaries. They prioritize professional security and a steady career over a high-risk high-reward environment. Finally, even though many try hard to improve their situation, they do not feel responsible for the economic hardship they face. For me, those aspirations and logics of action resemble very much a Fordist concept of economy and society like you would find it in post-WWII Europe. This is particularly interesting since Fordism was and is the conceptual adversary of neoliberal thinkers.

Diana: Based on all these findings, what are some of the key areas or questions for future research that emerge, particularly in relation to Tunisia’s industrial landscape and its integration into the global economy?

André: If we take seriously the promises of development, how they reverberate in the aspirations of people today, and the actual chances and limits that global capitalism creates for those aspirations, I think that we can apply this to a lot of social, political, and economic issues. How do migration flows inside Tunisia and from Tunisia to Europe relate to the uneven development inside Tunisia and globally, on the one hand, and to the hopes and dreams of people, on the other? How does the unevenness inside Tunisia influence political affiliations and action today—especially given that the revolution in 2010/2011 started in the marginalized inner parts of the country?

I guess, as Sara Salem has suggested for Egypt, we have to understand political struggles as the expression of a more or less explicit (unsuccessful) post-colonial project and evaluate those struggles as well as any new political formation in the light of this. Can they bring about something that people have been promised for generations and often been denied access to? Or can they replace the development imaginary, redefine drastically what people want from their lives and how they understand their place in the world?

If, as I also argue in my book, there never has been and never will be a real social contract (at least not inside the scope of a nation-state), what are the scales of political organization and meaningful cohabitation that correspond to the aspirations of development? In relation to the industrial landscape, for me, this raises the question: what are sustainable forms of industrial production that fit into an integrated national market which pays fairly for agriculture and is less dependent on global structures of production and distribution? And, again, what imaginaries could correspond to such a different vision of the economy?

Diana: Your study shows the richness of combining ethnographic fieldwork with historical and socio-economic analysis. What advice would you give to researchers interested in adopting a similarly multifaceted approach to studying industrial and economic phenomena?

André: I found it helpful to do both ethnographic and historical research with an ethnographic sensibility. This means really trying to see through the eyes of others and understand realities “by their own standards.” Such an approach usually involves understanding the hopes and dreams of people today as well as in the past, which, for me, is one important dimension to connect historical and ethnographic research. It shows that history is not simply a chain of big changes and continuities but there is a very basic everyday dimension to history: an underlying shared horizon that makes people want, support, accept, or fight against certain things at certain times.

I think that history is very everyday in its texture and contemporary realities are really historical realities. Once we accept that, we start seeing many similarities between historical and ethnographic research. In the end, we have to develop an intimate familiarity with both historical sources and peoples’ lives in order to get a feeling for the meanings that they assign to their respective life worlds. I think such a form of ethnographic sensibility can help us understand how the historical fits into the contemporary and vice versa.


References

[1] This strategy is called Import Substitution Industrialization because it aims at making the economy independent of imports and produce products domestically.


Dr. Diana Abbani is the science communication coordinator for the Merian Center for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb (MECAM) at the Forum Transregionale Studien. She is responsible for MECAM’s transregional science communication, collaborative meetings (academies and transregional workshops), and research data management. Diana Abbani is part of the TRAFO-Blog editorial team.


Citation: Development at Work: Postcolonial Imaginaries, Global Capitalism, and Everyday Life at a Factory in Tunisia – A Conversation with André Weißenfels, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.05.2024, https://doi.org/10.58079/11nno



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 9. Mai). Development at Work: Postcolonial Imaginaries, Global Capitalism, and Everyday Life at a Factory in Tunisia – A Conversation with André Weißenfels. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 22. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/11nno

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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