“The Splendid Gifts of God to the South”: Struggles for Control on Tennessee Plantations
This ethnographic study based in rural Tennessee explores how the mixed forms of labor control employers and the state impose on exploited rural workers affect those working people’s ability to build class alliances across difference and make common cause to challenge their degrading treatment. I illustrate how Tennessee plantation owners enhance their profits by recombining forms of coercion borrowed from earlier eras of plantation society, including an evolving reliance on capturing workers through ‘deportability,’ a coercive technique enforced by police, immigration officials, and other state actors to control undocumented workers and temporary contract workers who have been absorbed into the North American plantation circuit after suffering violence and free-market dispossession in Mesoamerica. Drawing on participant observation as a field laborer on Middle and East Tennessee nurseries and farms, interviews with state officials, and participation in rural organizing efforts, I examine how working people’s daily experiences of degradation and loss and their interactions with the elites who put them to work structure their assessment of the viability and desirability of building class alliances across differences like race, gender, nationality, language, industry, and citizenship. I demonstrate that the hyper-exploitation of farm work sometimes bonds diverse groups of co-workers together with shared understandings, complaints, and aspirations for change. But I also argue that employers’ success in co-opting and weaponizing progressive New Deal institutions such as Social Security and collective bargaining ‘regulations’ has re-made ‘agriculture’ as terrain where employers can wield totalitarian power over their captive workers, which ‘disorganizes’ rural people in the US South and Mesoamerica and undermines working people’s ability to assert their right to migrate and work with dignity.