The Ki?m Tháo and the Uses of Disposable Time in the National Liberation Front
Nothing is more important than independence and freedom.
— Ho Chi Minh
Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself.
— Karl Marx, Grundrisse
It may seem strange at first to propose to examine the uses of free time in relation to war, in the context of war. War, after all, is often associated precisely with the absence of free time, and by an accelerated experience of time: the rapid succession of events, sudden shifts in the balance of forces that require decisions to be made without the extra time necessary to assess the situation, and to arrive at a suitable course of action.
War, then, is no time for fun and games, and yet both war and games imply that there is time to spare, or time to kill. This is in fact the definition of war that both Karl Marx and Georges Bataille proposed: war as a way of wasting time, an unproductive expenditure of disposable time, a means of consuming the surplus labor time of a society.1 And in that sense, war is related not only to the pursuit of art and science (as Marx points out), but also to everyday forms of amusement and recreation, as activities with no immediate practical purpose.
The war in Vietnam was one of the most extravagant expenditures of disposable time, an exorbitant waste of time, money, and labor, one that has only recently been surpassed by the conflict in Iraq as the most expensive war in American history. It was a war of extraordinary duration — in Gabriel Kolko’s words, “the longest single war in modern times” and the “most sustained revolutionary effort in modern history.”2
But it was not the sheer quantity of time consumed by the war that distinguished it from earlier conflicts. The Vietnam War was fought not only in time, but also with time, or by means of time. The Revolution was forced by its limited resources to rely upon time itself as a strategic asset. As Kolko explains, it was the “ultimate weapon” of the Revolution, as well as the “final guarantor of victory.”3
The Revolution could afford to prolong the war and to allow inflation and internal political fractures to weaken the will of the enemy. It could waste time in quantities that American military planners had believed to be impossible, or irrational for a society based on a so-called peasant economy.4 Social scientists like Walt Whitman Rostow — national security affairs adviser under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations — believed they were fighting against a “subsistence economy,” a “traditional society” that could not provide for the basic needs of its members,5 much less produce the excess or surplus required to defeat an army created by a “society of high mass consumption,” a society whose very defining feature is excess and superfluous time.6 “The United States in 1964,” as Kolko explains, “could not imagine that a protracted war of a decade or two would be either necessary or possible. Neither its society nor its cultural rhythm could absorb the concept.”7
The inability to grasp the concept of a protracted war, then, presupposed a more fundamental limitation on the part of the American military (as well as the society that produced it) — the inability to imagine a radically different form of time, as well as a different form of excess and expenditure, notions that American social science could conceive of only in terms of the production and accumulation of capital (as in Rostow’s identification of greater “affluence” and “freedom” with “increases in output,” and productive “growth”). The outcome of the war, however, was not decided solely on the basis of the quantity of time that was available to each side; it was also determined by the quality of time, as well as the latter’s specific uses.8
Colonialism and Prodigal Living
In precolonial Vietnam, time was consumed in the form of feasts, festivals, weddings, and funerals, what the historian Neil Jamieson referred to as “occasions for conspicuous public generosity” that required excessive expenditures of wealth.9 These occasions, however, were not simply a means of wasting time and wealth; they were, in fact, productive of the very social relations constitutive of precolonial Vietnamese society, forms of potlatch in which rank and prestige within the village hierarchy were acquired by means of what Bataille called “the useless employment of oneself, of one’s possessions for play,” the “ostentatious squandering” of time and wealth that confers status and privilege upon those who are capable and willing to dispose of their possessions in an wasteful and extravagant manner.10
These rituals of consumption, then, were the forms of social practice that both produced and sustained the traditional Confucian relations prescribed between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, et cetera, relations that defined the specific rights and obligations of individuals over land and labor, as well as work and leisure.11 These practices constituted a society in which expressions referring to the act of consumption, such as ?n nói (literally, “eating and speaking”), were synonymous with the process of socialization itself, of acquiring a mastery over the art of eating and idle conversion in the company of one’s peers, superiors, and subordinates, of learning how to properly dispose of one’s time and wealth; a society in which the portion that a person receives at the communal feast designates the position of the individual within the social order as a whole (mâm cao mâm th?p, literally, “high and low trays of food”).
Under the French colonial regime, these practices were neither abandoned nor abolished, but rather exploited for other purposes. The introduction of monopoly fees levied on salt, alcohol, and opium, together with the monetization of taxes (traditionally paid in kind), imposed, in effect, a new burden upon the traditional practices of consumption: the material wealth consumed at feasts, weddings, and festivals had to be obtained now through the use of colonial currency (needed to pay the new taxes), endowing ritual objects and old use values with the additional value of exchange, while the old acts of gift and extravagant expenditure became bound up with another type of social behavior — the production and exchange of commodities for the purpose of acquiring piastre needed to pay the new taxes.12
In the process, poor peasants were forced into a pattern of seasonal migration away from their native villages, to seek money between harvests, working as tenant farmers and wage laborers in the plantations, mines, and factories located in the urban centers of the colony. The ultimate effect of the monetization of taxes, in other words, was to compel peasants to obtain money through the exchange of labor time for wages.
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I am greatly indebted to my father for sharing with me his experiences as a reeducation camp prisoner in South Vietnam, and for his honest (sometimes painfully so) descriptions of his time serving as a soldier in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. I also thank my history professor Charles Wheeler, my fellow graduate students Wai-Kit Choi and Annette Rubado-Mejia, and the faculty of the department of comparative literature at UC Irvine for their encouragement and comments on an earlier draft of this essay, submitted for the annual Graduate Student Essay Award Contest. Versions of this essay were presented at the Global States Conference, organized by the department of comparative literature at Irvine, and the UC Berkeley Graduate Student Conference on Vietnamese Studies, held by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. Thanks also to the Center for Writing and Translation at UC Irvine for the friendly faces and financial support.
- See Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, vol. 1 (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 23. Also see Karl Marx, “Character of Surplus Labour,” in Collected Works of Marx and Engels, vol. 30 (New York: International Publishers, 1988). Walt Whitman Rostow proposed a similar definition of war: “Wars temporarily altered the profitable directions of investment by setting up arbitrary demands and by changing the conditions of supply; they destroyed capital; and occasionally they accelerated the development of new technology relevant to the peacetime economy.” Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (London: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 14.
- Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 4. The two main sources on the Vietnam War used in this essay — Gabriel Kolko’s Anatomy of a War and Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (New York: Vintage, 1972) (widely dismissed by American scholars on the war as being a best seller, rather than a work of serious historical research) — are secondary sources with a reputation as politically biased (i.e., left-leaning) representations of the war. However, most, if not all, of the historical evidence taken from these sources in this essay can be corroborated by non-Marxist sources that enjoy more credibility among what appears to an outsider as the mainstream of American scholarship on Vietnamese history, whose revisionist characterization of the war seems to be based primarily on the strength of Philip Catton’s excellent, if unconvincing, reassessment of the modernization and nation-building programs of the Republican Prime Minister Ngô ?inh Di?m in Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002). Arguments identical to the ones presented in this essay concerning the differences between taxation systems and training programs of the National Liberation Front and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam can be found in both J. Race’s War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), which offers a compelling analysis of Republican pacification and nation-building strategies, their failures and weaknesses, from the perspective of an American military adviser who worked closely with both Republic of Vietnam officials and NLF defectors, and Douglas Pike’s Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1966), 298 – 99. I have retained the citations to Kolko and Fitzgerald in the body of this essay primarily for stylistic purposes, i.e., because I prefer their prose to those from less controversial scholarly sources.
- Kolko, Anatomy, 155.
- As Pierre Clastres points out, the term peasant economy is oxymoronic insofar as it is defined precisely by the lack of economy, by the lack of an “efficient” mechanism for the “rational” distribution of time and resources. See Clastres, Society against the State (New York: Zone Books, 1987), 7 – 27. Similarly, Marshall Sahlins has famously criticized Western economic thought for its ethnocentric treatment of “subsistence economies,” in particular, the inability to account for the latter’s often “prodigal” use of scarce resources and time. See Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (New York: Aldine, 1972).
- “A traditional society is one whose structure is developed within limited production functions . . .and on pre-Newtonian attitudes towards the world . . . systematically incapable of productive manipulation. . . . The central fact about the traditional society was that a ceiling existed on the level of attainable output per head.” Rostow, Stages, 4.
- For Rostow, “traditional” and “mature” societies differ primarily according to the quantity of excess or surplus capital they produce, “compound interest” that “proceeds by geometric progression” through the reinvestment of savings in production or industry: “The difference between a traditional and a modern society is merely a question of whether its investment-rate is low relative to population increase — let us say under 5% of national income; or whether it has risen up to 10% or over. With a capital/output ratio of about 3, a 10% investment-rate will outstrip any likely population growth; and there you are, with a regular increase in output per head.” Rostow, Stages, 20. Ironically, this quantitative conception of society — which Rostow presents as a “non-communist,” twentieth-century alternative to Marx — was precisely the object of Marx’s critique of nineteenthcentury political economy: Political Economy has indeed analysed . . . value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour time by the magnitude of that value. These formulæ, which bear it stamped upon them in unmistakable letters that they belong to a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him, such for-mulæ appear to the bourgeois intellect to be as much a self-evident necessity imposed by Nature as productive labour itself. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, ed. Frederick Engels, trans. Samuel Moore (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 1:84–85. Emphasis added. Rostow’s account of the “stages of growth,” therefore, is a history of the accumulation of value, or “compound interest,” one that does not critically examine (and hence “fetishizes”) the form or quality of “compound interest” itself.
- Kolko, Anatomy, 155.
- In this essay, the term leisure is used to designate a form of superfluous time characteristic of societies that are not based predominantly on the production and exchange of commodities, in contrast to free time, which, for Theodor Adorno, is a form of disposable time that is “shackled” to its opposite, abstract labor time, as the measure of the value of commodities. Free time, then, is nonlabor time, time in excess of that necessary for the accumulation of capital, but that remains, nevertheless, dependent upon the latter as its presupposition. See Adorno, “Free Time,” in The Culture Industry (London: Verso, 2001), 187.
- Neil L. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 25.
- See, e.g., Nguyen Van Huyen, Les Chants Alternés des Garçon et des Filles en Annam (Alternating Singing between Men and Women in Annam) (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1934), 10 – 25, and Pierre Gourou, Les paysans du delta tonkinois: Étude de géographie humaine (Paris: Mouton, 1965), 263 – 72. The term tradition is used in this essay not to indicate either temporal or ontological priority, but simply to distinguish distinct forms of social practices that operate according to different logics.
- The Record of Rites (Liji) contains the following description of the function of ritual in the organization of social experience: “By weeping in mourning clothes of hemp they give proper measure to funerals. By bell and drum, shield and battle-ax [for military dances] they gave harmony to expressions of happiness. By the cap and the hairpin of the marriage ceremony, they distinguish male from female. By festive games and banquets they formed the correct associations between men.” Quoted in François Martin, Jacqueline Pigeot, and Karine Chemla, Du divertissement dans la Chine et le Japon anciens: Homo ludens Extrême-Orientalis (Entertainment in Ancient China and Japan: Homo ludens Extrême-Orientalis) (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 1998), 11.
- “In Vietnam . . . the immediate effects of the sudden change to money taxes were a glut of grain on the market and a dramatic fall in grain prices as desperate peasants sought to get the needed cash. Such a drastic change was of great benefit to exporters and well-to-do villagers, who already had sufficient cash to pay their own taxes and could therefore use their reserves to profit from the cash shortages of their fellow villagers. This new tax system, then, fell heavily on the subsistencelevel peasants, who lacked cash reserved.” Samuel Popkin, The Rational Peasant (University of California Press, 1979), 120.