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Guest Editors' Introduction: How Is Neoliberalism Good to Think Vietnam? How Is Vietnam Good to Think Neoliberalism?
Christina Schwenkel and Ann Marie Leshkowich
The recent global economic crisis has called into question triumphalist narratives of neoliberal capitalism and its global uniformity. In this introduction to the special issue on Vietnam, we examine Vietnamese “market socialism” as a fertile site for considering how transnational neoliberalism and state socialism have intersected to shape knowledge, governmentality, and everyday cultural practices. We ask, how does the endurance of socialist interpretive frameworks and logics of morality contest or rework neoliberalism and its global modes of regulation? Conversely, how might socialist continuities work in conjunction with neoliberalism to affirm its basic tenets? We argue for an understanding of transnational neoliberalism as a globally diverse set of technical practices, institutions, modes of power, and governing strategies informed by cultural and historical particularities. We caution against addressing “neoliberalism” as a uniform project that signifies the retreat of government or the triumph of a global market economy that fetishizes the “free”; instead we call for more attention to the ways in which socialism is deeply, though unevenly, woven into particular cultural forms, political practices, and historical legacies to ask, What if anything is unique about “neoliberalism” in socialist Vietnam, and to what extent is neoliberalism a useful lens for thinking through contemporary socioeconomic change in Vietnam?
Neo-Geomancy and Real Estate Fever in Postreform Vietnam
This article situates localized Vietnamese practices of geomancy within the broader history of land-use right reforms in the postreform era. On the immediate level, geomancy appears to represent individualized attempts to reconstruct private homes and cultivate personal landscapes—a seemingly bottom-up phenomenon. Situating these seemingly individualized practices within the larger social, political, legal, and economic landscape, however, shows that they cannot be decoupled from top-down processes driving the privatization of property relations. Combining thick description with a critical study of the structures impinging on Vietnamese real estate markets shows that seemingly bottom-up challenges to the state are in fact linked to much more top-down dynamics. The case of geomancy shows that analysis of individual actions must always pay attention to the way such actions are often linked to pathways of power that flow up, down, and sideways. While Vietnamese market-oriented socialism is not always described as neoliberal, this article shows that the anthropological critique of neoliberalism offers an important model and method for understanding the situated context of geomancy within the larger transformations gripping Vietnam today.
Civilizing the City: Socialist Ruins and Urban Renewal in Central Vietnam
The shift to “market socialism” has brought rapid and profound changes to urban landscapes in Vietnam. Focusing on the fate of socialist architecture and urban design under contemporary urban redevelopment and renewal plans, this essay explores the transformation of Vinh City, capital of the province of Nghệ An, from a center of socialist utopian modernity and postwar urban recovery to a symbol of urban blight and late socialist decay. Destroyed by aerial bombing during the war with the United States, Vinh City was redesigned and rebuilt in the postwar years with East German aid, technology, and urban planning expertise. A primary focus of urban reconstruction was Quang Trung communal housing, consisting of eighteen hundred apartments and dormitories in five-story buildings that housed more than eight thousand residents, mainly workers and veterans in need of housing after the war. Since 2004, sections of Quang Trung have been demolished and replaced with a trade center and high rise condominiums. Based on ethnographic and historical research in Vietnam and Germany, the essay traces new strategies of urban governance that endeavor to reorder and redesign city space through acts of architectural destruction and reconstruction that likewise infuse capitalist logics and values, such as privatization and self-actualization, into the cityscape. Emerging geographies of neoliberalism in Vietnam are shown to be contingent upon the pathologization of socialist “ruins” and urban practices, and their eradication from the landscape of urban memory. Visual spectacles of demolition thus signify new aesthetic and economic regimes that link capitalist redevelopment and redesign to the formation of modern, prosperous, and “civilized” cities and citizens.
Ho Chi Minh City's Beauty Regime: Haptic Technologies of the Self in the New Millennium
Through an often seemingly contradictory system of market socialism in Vietnam and specifically within the economic capital of Ho Chi Minh City, how may the ways in which people have been using photography and its practices since Ðổi mới (Renovation) elucidate modes of neoliberalism related to self-management and governmentality that may be at play? This article will explore the shifting idea of beauty and how the Vietnamese state has been using it historically to hegemonize the nation. It will also examine Vietnamese subject formation and subjectivities in the southern urban center through contemporary individual acts of self-fashioning, projects of physical aestheticization and the manufacturing of new individual fates evident in the activity of studio portraiture and its postproduction digital manipulations in photo recovery shops. Some of the ways in which different modes of tactility, touch, and digital processes and technologies are used in conjunction with visual images in complicity and compliance with state agendas as well as in the creation of fluid spaces that may subvert the political and structural constraints that the state has been known to impose on Vietnamese lives will be illuminated.
Rendering Infant Abandonment Technical and Moral: Expertise, Neoliberal Logics, and Class Differentiation in Ho Chi Minh City
Ann Marie Leshkowich
Over the past several decades, transnational adoption of Vietnamese children has developed from a response to war into a routine option for foreigners trying to build families. This article explores how the logics that have emerged within Vietnam to make sense of the transnational movement of children reflect both broader neoliberal ideologies of family and selfhood and late socialist anxieties about class differentiation.
Child welfare professionals, the media, and casual observers in Ho Chi Minh City explain rising adoption rates as due to the desperation, ignorance, or emotional inadequacies of poor, rural single mothers who abandon their children. Such claims about maternal unfitness are part of a growing neoliberal tendency in Vietnam to render the family and reproduction technical problems to be solved through the application of scientific expertise. Although rendering technical has elsewhere been analyzed as a process of depoliticization, this article argues that it is neither objective nor value neutral. Rendering technical succeeds by convincingly rendering its targets moral: in this case, expert intervention and social commentary about monstrous abandoning mothers construct a morally ideal maternal subject who recognizes that appropriate child rearing requires particular family configurations, material resources, and forms of knowledge. At the same time, ascribing such notions of personhood, self-improvement, and expertise to a global neoliberal advance ignores details of ethnographic context and history in Vietnam, where neoliberalism operates as much through exception as through normalization. Recent idealizations of particular family configurations and forms of personhood compellingly resonate with preexisting moral discourses about motherhood, family, and political economy, including those promoted by the state in earlier phases of socialism.
Counting One's Way onto the Global Stage: Enumeration, Accountability, and Reproductive Success in Vietnam
Melissa J. Pashigian
This article concerns the ways in which the enumeration of in vitro fertilization (IVF) births emerges as a practice that is simultaneously associated with a socialist nationalist project and post-Ðổi mới market reform. It explores the brief history of and changes in the ways in which recently introduced assisted reproductive technologies and IVF births come to be enumerated by state authorities and by female infertility patients. Focusing on changes in infertility treatment, the article suggests that in the process of making sense of the rapid social, economic, and political changes that have occurred in Vietnam over the past twenty-five years, individuals and institutions continue to draw on socialist orientations as they encounter market changes, leading to practices and subjectivities that are neither clearly socialist nor neoliberal. Rather, they are at once partial and incomplete, yet dynamic, temporally contingent on understandings of experienced pasts, and new opportunities of the current moment.
From “the People” to “the Human”: HIV/AIDS, Neoliberalism, and the Economy of Virtue in Contemporary Vietnam
Drawing on archival research and fieldwork conducted in Ho Chi Minh City and its environs in 2007–2008, this article examines a shift from a moral-economic model of protection/patronage turning on the long-standing figure of “the People,” to a biopolitical mechanism of power deploying neoliberal practices and technologies centered on a new figure, here instantiated as “the Human.” In Vietnam in the early 2000s, an older social-evils-based HIV/AIDS apparatus was destabilized by new epidemiological conditions, a reproblematization of epidemic disease after SARS, and the arrival of PEPFAR. Building on literature concerning global humanitarian intervention, I argue that in Vietnam HIV/AIDS prevention and control operates within what I call an “economy of virtue,” the general form in which neoliberal technologies and logics are being incorporated as rational, technical, scientific guarantors of the integrity and dignity of the Human. The remainder of the essay tracks the migration of neoliberal logics to the realm of global health management and their intersection with the political, technological, and ethical elements of late socialism in the combat of HIV/AIDS.
Enacting Anticorruption: The Reconfiguration of Audit Regimes in Contemporary Vietnam
This essay examines the ongoing “fight against corruption” in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The PMU-18 scandal (ca. 2005–2007), the country's largest to date, is featured as a way to explore how different initiatives to audit the financial-moral practices of officials at all levels of government shape one another in contemporary Vietnam. This focus, which considers the material consequences of different discursive positions, reveals a curious paradox. Namely, the dominant regulatory approaches in use today define the primary source of bureaucratic corruption and thus the forms of intervention best suited towards its reduction in terms that are most often associated with the other. “Socialist” approaches, which are conventionally thought to rely upon techno-scientific and administrative modes of regulation, also called for external performance audits and other business management techniques to provide greater incentives for individuals to engage in ethical forms of self-regulation, whereas “neoliberal” approaches, which normally abhor regulatory mechanisms, recommended the reintroduction of centralized command-and-control measures to limit the ability of government officials to abuse their public positions for private gain. This outcome suggests that both regulatory regimes and the techniques used to promote accountability may have more in common than is commonly thought as it also raises the possibility that recombinant forms now exist. The patterns also provide comparative insights into (trans)national efforts to guide the conduct of conduct in settings that are neither Western nor liberal.
The Price of Integration: Measuring the Quality of Money in Postreform Vietnam
The fight against inflation is a defining feature of neoliberalism and structural adjustment policies. Since the 1970s, inflation has been cast as a threat greater than unemployment because it destroys the pricing mechanism on which the flow of information in markets depends. In Vietnam, high rates of inflation in the 1980s led the government to implement reforms of the economy under the slogan Ðổi mới (Renovation). These reforms included anti-inflationary measures characteristic of neoliberal policies. By the early 1990s, inflation was reduced to the single digits. After a decade of rapid economic growth, inflation in Vietnam returned. In 2007 and 2008, the consumer price index recorded double-digit increases, raising concerns about the government's commitment to proper monetary and fiscal policies.
This essay considers the paradoxical return of inflation to Vietnam. By 2007, Vietnam was heralded as an “emerging market,” propelled by foreign investment and export-led growth. Yet inflation was widely attributed to “fiscal indiscipline” by officials with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other multilateral financial institutions. Vietnamese public intellectuals, on the other hand, attributed inflation to a consequence of economic integration with global markets. In contrast to the IMF, they pointed to social inequalities generated by the country's decade-long economic growth and raised concerns over the redistributing wealth in Vietnamese society. These two narratives reenact the divide between Keynesian economics and monetarism that has structured twentieth-century approaches to economics. What both narratives leave unaddressed, however, is how price instability and monetary restructuring are understood within specific economic cultures. In Vietnam, many people rely on cash transactions, thus the quality of money encompasses more than its relationship to price. While the demand among Vietnamese citizens for a reliable currency resonates with contemporary neoliberalism, it cannot be reduced to it.
By way of addressing the divergent concerns with the quality of money, I examine the history of money's disunification in Vietnam. The problem of inflation is not just a matter of price; it is also related to complex political-cultural formations that relate to partial sovereignty over the marketplace. I show how inflation is not simply a problem of matter of price; it is also an event that calls into question the limits to how Vietnam has been neoliberalized.
Afterword: Flexible Postsocialist Assemblages from the Margin
In this essay I suggest that rather than asking whether China or Vietnam is becoming neoliberal, we might be better served by asking how Chinese or Vietnamese political and social actors make use of neoliberal ideas and techniques for their own ends. A central task of the anthropology of neoliberalism today thus is to investigate how such historically and culturally contingent articulations of neoliberal logics and techniques work out (or do not work out) in diverse social and political settings. To illustrate this point, I highlight some of the convergent and divergent issues in two important domains: ethics and techniques of the self and class making and space making. I argue that such flexible postsocialist assemblages with their own characteristics may well become a distinct and viable pathway of social formation that dislocates the prevailing way of thinking about social change and world historical trajectory. Finally, I briefly discuss some research possibilities that deserve further attention in the future study of postsocialist assemblages from the margin.
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Like China, Vietnam has one of the world’s fastest growing economies on account of its hybridized "market socialism" that combines elements of its official socialist system with free market capitalism. This special issue examines Vietnam’s current social and economic improvisations as situated in specific local and historical experiences. These essays address the complexities and multiplicities of neoliberal reform agendas, demonstrating that socialist and neoliberal regimes are neither exclusive nor distinct.
Contributors draw their conclusions from ethnographic fieldwork in contemporary urban spaces. They link neoliberalism in Vietnam to a set of globally diverse technical practices, institutions, modes of power, and governing strategies; for example, in its shifting currency regimes and its anticorruption campaigns. Contributors also explore the growing emphasis on self-improvement and modernization through studies of architecture, changing beauty standards, and the impact of in vitro fertilization. Biopolitical logics and the self-regulation of moral personhood are also addressed in essays on HIV/AIDS and transnational adoption. The issue highlights the ways in which the socialist past is integral to the present in Vietnam, even as it is remade and newly configured.
Contributors: Erik Harms, Nina Hien, Ann Marie Leshkowich, Li Zhang, Ken MacLean, Alfred John Montoya, Melissa J. Pashigian, Christina Schwenkel, Allison Truitt
Guest editors: Christina Schwenkel (Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California at Riverside) and Ann Marie Leshkowich (Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, College of the Holy Cross).