I am currently an Assistant Professor in Social Anthropology at the Central European University, a Quondam Fellow at All Souls College, and a Research Associate at the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities.
My work broadly focuses on two interrelated lines of inquiry: an analysis of the entanglements between global economic restructurings, everyday life, and emerging forms of political mobilization; and an exploration of urbanism, infrastructures, and mobility in post-Fordist capitalism.
My research agenda emerged out of an ethnographic engagement with Thailand. Over the course of the last decade, I conducted research on the Red Shirts, the largest social movement in Thai history, from the point of view of internal migrants, in particular some of the 200,000 motorcycle taxi drivers who normally allow Bangkok to move and blocked it in protest. In this work, I interrogate the unlikely emergence of collective action among people who, since the 1997 crisis, understood themselves as masculine entrepreneurs in competition with one another, rather than as workers with a collective identity and objective. The drivers’ ability to mobilize against these odds, I argue, spurred from the increased centrality of mobility for the operation of post-crisis Thai capitalism, the unfulfilled desires this generated among its operators, and the unresolved contradictions of their new entrepreneurial subjectivities. In this sense, my research explores mobility and precarity not just as strengths of contemporary capitalism but also as some of its fragile spots, prone to disruption by the very people who sustain their operations but remain excluded from the benefits. In so doing, I propose a theorization of power that does not focus on the sturdiness of hegemony or the ubiquity of everyday resistance but rather reveals its fragility to challenges raised by targeted collective action.
This work has generated a variety of outputs. For an academic public, I have published a number of articles in regional, urban, and anthropology journals (Cultural Anthropology, HAU, Journal of Asian Studies Southeast Asian Research, City & Society, Geoforum, Current History) as well as a monograph, Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok, published with California University Press in 2018, which received the Margaret Mead Award in 2019. For a larger audience, I have published Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red Shirts (Silkworm & University of Washington Press, 2012), established a longstanding collaboration with Al-Jazeera and Khao Sod, and the The King of Bangkok, an ethnographic graphic novel recently published in Italian and Thai and forthcoming in English with Toronto University Press.
Over the course of the last years, besides publishing this material, teaching in the Oxford Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and at the Central European University, and mentoring students, I came to see the object of my previous work as part of a larger multi-scalar research agenda. My new work progressed from the realization that capitalism has always been syncopated by economic downturns that function as moments of destruction and experimentation, each time with specific characteristics. The 1997 economic crisis that begun in Thailand and spread through East Asia, much like the 2008 Euro-American downturn it pre-figured, offered a laboratory for the restructuring of economic practices along post-Fordist lines, the precarization of everyday life, and the fragmentation of class-based politics. In this laboratory, as in Southern Europe under austerity measures, the locus of capitalist accumulation shifted away from industrial production toward more financialized and flexible arrangements; acquired workers’ rights were replaced with legislations aimed at “freeing” individual entrepreneurship; and citizens’ everyday lives and aspirations were reorganized along atomized and precarious lines. As Wendy Brown pointed out, these dynamics aimed at fragmenting collective identities, what she calls “undoing the demos.” Yet, my work shows, they corresponded also to an increase in political mobilizations and collective action, both in the Global South and in Southern Europe. My current research aims at exploring this apparent paradox both focusing on the entanglements between global economic restructurings, everyday life, and emerging forms of political mobilization; and on the roles of urbanism, infrastructures, and mobility in post-Fordist capitalism.
In order explore the first line of inquiry, I spend my first two years in Oxford deepening my understanding of economic theory through an archival journey inside the development and circulation of austerity measures. This unexpectedly diverted my research from the Global South to the Global North, specifically from Thailand to Italy. The trajectory was not casual. I discovered, in fact, that many of the young economists who had a central role in proposing austerity in post-1997 crisis Thailand—in particular Giovanni Alesina and Carmen Reinhart—have since become the main proponents of its implementation in Southern Europe. In other words, my recent work shows, the Global South is providing a trial ground for new forms of accumulation, flexible labor, and precarity, as it has happened throughout the history of capitalism—from its birth in the Caribbean plantation to the experimentation of neoliberalism in Chile—but it is rarely acknowledged.
Continuing this trajectory, I recently concluded a year and a half of fieldwork in Italy. This new ethnographic work focuses on the relation between austerity measures, reorganization of everyday life, and emerging forms of social and political mobilizations. In particular I explore the fragmentation of the Italian working class—once the most unified in Europe — along racial, generational, and gender lines and the attempts of new trade unions and mutual aid societies to oppose the resulting “war between poor” through the creation of a new collected subjectivity as the precariat. Tentatively titled The Sound of the Growing Forest: The Making of the Italian Precariat, this work aims at addressing three main political questions of our times: why are people who formerly identified as workers increasingly seeing themselves as precarious entrepreneurs, threatened by migrants? What is the relation between their atomization and the other side of identity politics, namely a nationalist “identitarian” politics best represented by populist right-wing parties? And finally, what does it mean today to push back against these trends and propose an alternative?
While my next two years will be mostly taken by this project, once done I plan to go back to questions of global capitalism, infrastructures, and mobility, this time focusing on South-to-South relations. I will do so by conducting an ethnography of the growing community of African traders in Bangkok. Attracted by the rise of Asian economies, the traders have repositioned Bangkok as a relatively cheap and easy-to-navigate base for operations inside a growing network connecting African cities—through the Arabic Peninsula—with booming East Asian urban centers. Following the traders along their South-to-South circuits of commerce and mobility, my project investigates their struggles to negotiate and challenge structures and practices of urban life both in Bangkok and along the transnational paths they travel. Overall, this project builds on my previous research by bringing together the study of political economy, non-western everyday urbanism, and an attention to the people who shape, mediate, and broker urban life but expands it to a larger scale. In doing so, I hope to provide new ways of understanding how urban networks and contemporary international trade work, beyond dominant node-centered and colonial-inflected theories.