The civil war on Bougainville — a large island that is part of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea (PNG) — was one of the most important events to happen in the Pacific since World War II. Local dissatisfaction with the island’s large, foreign-owned copper mine turned to demonstrations, escalated into a guerilla war, and forced both the mine and the PNG government to leave the island, which then entered a period of conflict between pro- and anti- PNG factions. It was a key test of sovereignty in newly-independent Pacific states, had an enormous human cost (20,000 dead, sexual violence, destruction of villages and property), and was a cautionary tale about the limits of corporate power. The reconciliation process that ended the conflict in itself is studied by academics and policy makers all over the world as an example of successful peacemaking. So what does this new book offer to Pacific scholars, and to the anthropology of mining?
Everyone knew Bougainville was important when it happened, and there is a large literature on the conflict — often written in the heat of the moment — recording the events that transpired. Given this crowded terrain, it’s fair to wonder whether Kristian Lasslett’s new book State Crime on the Margins of Empire: Rio Tinto, The War on Bougainville and Resistance to Mining can add anything new. The answer is: “yes.” Lasslett’s book is a remarkable and extremely valuable addition to the literature on this area. Written from a Marxist perspective, it uses impressively detailed original research to present a fresh take on the Bougainville conflict, one that is highly critical of the existing consensus about what happened on the island.
Lasslett is a criminologist and a member of the fascinating new field of State Crime Studies, which seeks to describe, analyze, and denounce actions that would be considered crimes if done by anyone other than a sovereign country. Lasslett’s leftist agenda has a different reading list than most contemporary anthropology does: Laclau and Rancière are not on the menu but Marx and Trotsky are, and Lasslett sees Bougainville as an important case study of state violence being used to secure the interests of capital (in this case, mining). Since Lasslett uses the Bougainville case to elaborate a wider theory of state crime, it’s fair to ask whether he really has the deep areal expertise necessary to keep from embarrassing himself when writing this book. I hate to admit it, but as I picked this volume up I thought “this guy is not an anthropologist, and not a Pacific specialist, and not a mining guy. A million half-informed well-meaning NGOs types parachute into conflict zones like Bougainville. Does Lasslett really have real areal chops?”
The answer is: Yes. The greatest strength of this book is Lasslett’s profound mastery of the primary and secondary sources on Bougainville. His deep research — clearly conducted in Pacific libraries and in close collaboration with Pacific people — has produced a level of erudition that, in my opinion, establishes him as one of the world’s top experts on Bougainville. And, most amazingly of all, he has done so despite the fact that he is a junior scholar who, unlike many Bougainville scholars, did not live through conflict.
Lasslett’s book is a revisionist history which is frankly critical of the existing literature and the scholars who produced it, especially Anthony Regan. The more original and controversial a claim is, the more important it becomes to make the case convincingly, and so in taking on established scholars, Lasslett set the bar very high. His research is more than up to the task. In addition to library, archival, and grey literature work, Laslett also did a great deal of original interviewing for this project, producing some amazingly frank assessments of the mine by mine executives and PNG politicians, civil servants, and soldiers. Lasslett’s work is partisan and activist, and also compelling and convincing precisely because he marries his strong political commitments to rigorous research and careful presentation of evidence. I wish other scholars — including myself! — had such high standards. Ultimately, I am not an expert on Bougainville, so I will be interested in seeing what the small community of scholars of the island have to say about this book. But as an expert on mining in Papua New Guinea with a strong background in the history of the country, I found Lasslett’s work to be superb. I would recommend it as the one book people should read about the island and its conflict — especially in conjunction with the more popular backgrounder Bougainville Before The Conflict.
That said, I should emphasize that the book does have its drawbacks. It is ethnographically dense. You must really be interested in reading about what happened on Bougainville, week by week to enjoy the volume. And — I can’t really tell at this point — I think you already have to be an expert on PNG history to tune in to the story. I’ve interviewed Rabbie Namaliu about his time as Prime Minister during the Bougainville conflict, and so I was very interested in reading Lasslett’s take on Namaliu’s performance during that period. But your mileage may vary.
Additionally, the book is written in a high Marxist style full of abstract noun phrases and cynical analysis of real politik. Again, for me this was a refreshing throwback to my Cold War childhood when people sat in cafés and read Lenin and were pissed off at Reagan. But I imagine for many readers it will be a slog. Perhaps in the future we will have a popular version of this history by Lasslett, but for now if you want to work through this book you’ve got to be all in, both ethnographically and theoretically.
Lasslett is committed to showing that rigorous Marxist theory can explain the Bougainville conflict. I strongly agree with his argument that we must move beyond abstractions like ‘landowners’ or ‘the company’ to reveal that complex actually existing reality of political action during the crisis — this demand for particularity is a fundamentally anthropological impulse. And I was convinced by Lasslett’s claim that a Marxist framework could be used to analyze Bougainville, but I wasn’t quite convinced that only a Marxist framework could make sense of it. The Weberian in me feels like you don’t need to be a Marxist to understand that when a company has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into mining infrastructure, they’ll be reluctant to walk away from it. As a result, I sometimes found myself skimming over passages which insisted that close reading of certain sections of Capital provided the key analyzing events which seemed to me amenable to a common-sense analysis of political maneuvering. Again, I think your mileage may vary here.
Lasslett is associated with the Jubilee Australia, an NGO critical of current attempts to re-open the Bougainville mine, and his book is published by Pluto, a publisher proud of its tradition of leftist and radical publishing. Some may be put off by Lasslett’s decision to write such a specialized book given the publicity and importance of the Bougainville conflict, but I believe his choice here was justified. This specialist scholarly monograph provides the erudite anchor for a whole chain of other texts written in other genres: reports, press releases, twitter flamewars, and more. Considered on its own, some might fault it for not doing enough to reach a broad audience. But when considered as part of an ecology of activist publishing, this book plays an important role.
I can’t comment about the importance of this monograph for state crimes studies. But as someone who focuses on the anthropology of mining and of the Pacific, I think this volume deserves to be widely read and deeply engaged with. Pacific scholars — who might not hear of the book through their usual networks — should take note and anthropologists of mining should definitely have it on the agenda. There are barriers to entry, to be sure, but for anyone truly concerned with these issues, there is no doubt that this volume establishes Kristian Lasslett as an important figure in contemporary debates.