Necropolitics

Achille Mbembe is not as well-known as he should be. One reason is that much of his work is written in French (although more translations are becoming available). I suspect this Cameroonian philosopher and critical scholar will become increasingly well-known in the years to come. This is essential reading (as is his Critique of Black Reason, which I will post about soon). Here I share some notes from his "Necropolitics" (original in French published in 2016, and the English translation published by Duke was published in 2019):

"… war is determined as an end and necessity not only in democracy but also in politics and in culture. War has become both remedy and poison – our pharmakon. Its transformation into the pharmakon of our time has, in turn, let loose gruesome passions that are increasingly pushing our societies to exit democracy and, as was the case under colonization, to transform into societies of enmity." (p. 3)

"His [Fanon's] advice to colonized persons who refused castration was to turn their backs on Europe; in other words, he suggested that one begin with oneself and stand tall outside the categories that brought one to bow and scrape. The difficult involved not only one's being assigned a race but one's internalizing of the terms of this assignation, that is, one's coming to the point of desiring and becoming the accomplice of castration. For everything, or nearly everything, encouraged colonized peoples to inhabit as their skin and their truth the fiction that the Other had produced in their regard." (p. 5)

"Civil peace in the West thus depends in large part on inflicting violence far away, on lighting up centers of atrocities, and on the fiefdom wars and other massacres that accompany the establishment of strongholds and trading posts around the four corners of the planet… the fulfillment of these new desires depended on institutionalizing a regime of inequality at the planetary scale." (p. 19-20)

"The history of modern democracies gets painted as though it reduces to a history internal to Western societies, as if, closed in on themselves and closed to the world, these societies confined themselves to the narrow limits of their immediate environment. Well, never has this been the case. The triumph of modern democracy in the West coincides with the period of its history during which this region of the world was engaged in a two-fold movement of internal consolidation and expansion across the seas. The history of modern democracy is, at bottom, a history with two faces, and even two bodies…" (p. 22)

"… this law aimed at 'humanizing' war. It emerged just as the 'war of brutalization' in Africa was in full swing. The modern laws of war were first formulated during the Conventions in Brussels in 1874, and then at The Hague in 1899 and 1907. But the development of international principles on the subject of war did not necessarily change the conduct of European powers on the ground. Such was the case yesterday; such is the case today." (p. 25)

'The colonial world, as an offspring of democracy, was not the antithesis of the democratic order. It has always been its double, or, again, its nocturnal face. No democracy exists without its double, without its colony – little matter the name and the structure. The colony is not external to democracy and is not necessarily located outside its walls. Democracy bears the colony within it, just as colonialism bears democracy, often in the guise of a mask." (p. 26-27)

"The domain of objects and machines, as much as capital itself, is increasingly presented in the guise of an animistic religion. Everything is put into question up to and including the status of truth. Certainties and convictions are held to be the truth. Reason needs not be employed. Simply believing and surrendering oneself is enough. As a result, public deliberation, which is one of democracy's essential features, no longer consists in discussing and seeking collectively, before the eyes of all citizens, the truth, and ultimately, justice." (p. 55)

"… if they really persist in wanting to live next to us, in our home, they should have their pants down, rears out in the open. Nanoracism defines an era of scullion racism, a sort of pocketknife racism, a spectacle of pigs wallowing in the mud pit. Its function is to turn each of us into billy-goat leather mercenaries. It consists in placing the greatest number of those that we regard as undesirable in intolerable conditions, to surround them daily, to inflict upon them, repeatedly, an incalculable number of racist jabs and injuries, to strip them of all their acquired rights, to smoke them out of their hives and dishonor them until they are left with no choice but to self-deport." (p. 58)

"That the technologies which produced Nazism originated in the plantation or in the colony, or that – Foucault's thesis – Nazism and Stalinism actually only amplified a series of already extant mechanisms of Western European social and political formations (subjugation of the body, health regulations, social Darwinism, eugenics, medicolegal theories on heredity, degeneration, and race) is, in the end, irrelevant. Yet one fact remains: in modern philosophical thought and in the imaginary and practice of European politics, the colony represents a site in which sovereignty fundamentally consists in exercising a power outside the law …" (p. 76)

"If yesterday the modern rational subject's raison de vivre was to fight against myth, superstition, and obscurantism, the work of reason nowadays is to allow for different modes of seeing and measuring to appear. It is to help human subjects to properly identify the threshold that distinguishes between the calculable and the incalculable, the quantifiable and the unquantifiable, the computable and the incomputable. It is to help them understand that technologies of calculation, computation, and quantification do present us with one world among many actual and possible worlds. Therefore, as Pasquinelli argues, different modes of measuring will open up the possibility of different aesthetics, of different politics of inhabiting the Earth, and, we may add, of sharing the planet." (p. 113)

State-Peasant Relations in the Ethiopian Highlands

One of the leading anthropologists of northern Ethiopia, Svein Ege, edited "Land Tenure Security: State-Peasant Relations in the Amhara Highlands, Ethiopia" (2019), with contributions by Svein Ege, Harald Aspen, Kjell Havnevik and the late Yigremew Adal. For anyone interested in issues of land tenure and land security, particularly in highland Ethiopia, this is essential reading. I share some of Ege's notes related to methodology here:

"Ethnography matter, and the call for recognizing context and complexity is as valid today as it was in the 1990s. Bruce (1993: 35) argued that those who recommended privatization reforms presented '[s]tereotypes of indigenous tenure systems that often bear little resemblance to reality'. However, image also matters, not least in the stereotypes of peasants, and a lesson from this book may be that these matter more than the actual situation on the ground, because images shape policies, whether the images are correct or not. This is a considerable challenge for ethnography. The role of ethnography is both to provide rich, multi-facetted description and to suggest concepts grounded in this material, and on this basis perhaps to challenge received interpretations" (Ege, p. 3).

"Sometimes my assistants happened to interview the same household twice, yielding some striking differences in results, which were not due to false answers but to slight variations in how the household was registered and what assets were included. A household that would qualify as 'rich' by one registration might appear as two dirt poor households in the next registration when a parent and a child were split up as heads of separate households (Ege 1999: 52-3). This problem is most probably a feature of the survey method itself. The complex relations within and among households are difficult, perhaps impossible, to capture reliably by this method." (Ege, p. 27)

"Although it may be difficult to say exactly how much land a peasant has, the various attempts to cover up information may tell us a lot about the land tenure system, the lack of trust and the need to hide information from outsiders in general and from higher administrative levels in particular. This is an important part of the land tenure system in itself and should make us treat survey data with some caution; it may also provide some entry points into the various aspects of peasant land tenure." (Ege, p. 97)

Resisting Rural Dispossession

Dip Kapoor brought together a collective of works that highlight many stories that have not been widely told, stories of localized resistance to large-scale land acquisitions and land grabs. These processes have occasionally included these actors, but often presented them as victims without agency, not actors expressing their agency. In this regard, "Against Colonization and Rural Dispossession: Local Resistance in South and East Asia, the Pacific and Africa" (2017) is a good addition. The book in an edited volume, I share three quotes that stood out:

Narrative: "These struggles are misrepresented by accounts of colonial historiographers and writers who depict our story as one of 'loss'. In their story, we have 'lost' our land and cultural knowledge. These are colonially blurred, minimizing, if not euphemizing, versions of the history of my people. In our experience, these things have not been lost, but 'taken'. These extensive and intensive experiences of a collective people so heavily and systematically dispossessed require a deeper understanding than the nouns 'loss' or 'dispossession' can only begin to offer." (p. 29)

Inequality: "While Adivasis constitute 22 percent of the population in Odisha, they account for 42 percent of the development-displaced persons (DDPs), and at the national level, of the 21.3 million people estimated to be DDPs between 1951 and 1990 due to mines, dams, industry, and parks, they account for 40 percent" (p. 71)

Gender: "The women then stood in a line as a fence of shins (pagar betis) to stop the truck. Some even climbed the truck to unload the confiscated coconuts, while others seized and hid the truck's keys. They took the police as hostages and demanded the release of their fellow villagers. Some women involved in holding the police hostage admitted that the spontaneous action was to avoid bloody fights if they let their husbands physically attack the police – so they ask their men to stay behind while they took the lead. They even provoked, if not cautioned, the police by accusing them of trying to sexually harass them. The experience of taking the police as hostages emboldened them to confront the constant threats and intimidation from police and company laborers / hired thugs, especially when their husbands were imprisoned and they were vulnerable." (p. 111)

The Art of the Impossible

I do not have a background in the arts or theatre, and have not done enough reading in my own time to know much of it, which is probably one of the reasons why I kept hearing of Vaclav Havel, but not knowing much of his works. Recently, I came across Havel as he has greatly influenced the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, and Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr. Abiy Ahmed. I also crossed Havel re-listening to the TED Talk by Bryan Stevenson. While I have not read his plays, I did get a copy of "The Art of the Impossible" (1997), which is a collection of his speeches (largely translated by Paul Wilson). The translator of the book provided a Forward, which states "The pages of this book trace another journey, even more remarkable: the inner, personal journey of an artist and intellectual whose ideas germinated under totalitarianism, grew in the post-Stalinist thaw of the 1960s, toughened in the hard years after the Soviet invasion, matured during his four years in prison, and finally bore fruit in the Velvet Revolution of 1989." (p. xiii). Some quotes from throughout the book (in order, which is also chronological, as the speeches are organized in that way, as Havel did when gave collections of speeches away):

"… this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we got used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only for ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility, and forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions." (p. 4)

"At the deepest core of this feeling there was, ultimately, a sensation of the absurd: what Sisyphus might have felt if one fine day his boulder stopped, rested on the hilltop, and failed to roll back down. It was the sensation of a Sisyphus mentally unprepared for the possibility that his efforts might succeed, a Sisyphus whose life had lost its old purpose and hadn't yet developed a new one." (p. 49)

"We were very good at being persecuted and at losing. That may be why we are so flustered by our victories and so disconcerted that no one is persecuting us. Now and then I even encounter indications of nostalgia for the time when life flowed between banks that, true, were very narrow, but that were unchanging and apparent to everyone. Today we don't know where the banks lie and are slightly shocked by it. We are like prisoners who have grown used to their prisons and, suddenly given their longed-for freedom, do not know what to do with it, and are made desperate by the constant need to think for themselves." (p. 52)

"In the subconscious of haters there slumbers a perverse feeling that they alone possess the truth, that they are some kind of superhuman or even god, and thus deserve the world's complete recognition, even its complete submissiveness and loyalty, if not its blind obedience. They want to be the centre of the world and are constantly frustrated and irritated because the world does not accept and recognize them as such: indeed, it may not pay any attention to them, and perhaps it even ridicules them." (p. 56)

"… the ability to generalize is a fragile gift that has to be handled with great care. A less perceptive soul can easily overlook the hidden seeds of injustice that may lie in the act of generalization. We have all made observations or expressed opinions of one kind or another about various peoples. We may say that the French, the English, or Russians are like this or that; we don't mean ill by it, we are only trying, through our generalizations, to see reality better. But there is a grave danger hidden in this kind of generalization. A group of people defined in a certain way in this case ethnically is, in a sense, subtly deprived of individual spirits and individual responsibilities, and we endow it with an abstract, collective sense of responsibility. Clearly, this is a wonderful starting point for collective hatred. Individuals become a priori bad or evil simply because of their origin. The evil of racism, one of the worst evils in the world today, depends among other things directly on this type of careless generalization." (p. 61)

"We are beginning, inadvertently but dangerously, to resemble in some ways our contemptible precursors. It bothers us, it upsets us, but we are discovering that we simply can't, or don't know how to, put a stop to it." (p. 71)

"For years I criticized practical politics as no more than a technique in the struggle for power, as a purely pragmatic activity whose aim was not to serve people selflessly and responsibly in harmony with one's conscience, but merely to win their favor through a variety of techniques, with a view to staying in power or gaining more." (p. 82)

"There was, in fact, something communistic in my patience to renew democracy. Or, in more general terms, something of a rationally enlightened nature. I wanted to nudge history forward in the way a child would when wishing to make a flower grow more quickly: by tugging at it. I think the art of waiting is something that has to be learned. We must patiently plant the seeds and water the grounds well, and give the plants exactly the amount of time they need to mature. Just as we cannot fool a plant, we cannot fool history." (p. 107)

"Democracy is a system based on trust in the human sense of responsibility, which it ought to awaken and cultivate. Democracy and civil society are thus two sides of the same coin. Today, when our very planetary civilization is endangered by human irresponsibility, I see no other way to save it than through a general awakening and cultivation of the sense of responsibility people have for the affairs of the world." (p. 145)

"The main task of the present generation of politicians is not, I think, to ingratiate themselves with the public through the decisions they take or their smiles on television. It is not to go on winning elections and ensuring themselves a place in the sun till the end of their days. Their role is something quite different: to assume their share of responsibility for the long-­range prospects of our world and thus to set an example for the public in whose sight they work. Their responsibility is to think ahead boldly, not to fear the disfavor of the crowd, to imbue their actions with a spiritual dimension (which of course is not the same thing as ostentatious attendance at religious services), to explain again and again ­ both to the public and to their colleagues ­– that politics must do far more than reflect the interests of particular groups or lobbies. After all, politics is a matter of servicing the community, which means that it is morality in practice, and how better to serve the community and practice morality than by seeking in the midst of the global (and globally threatened) civilization their own global political responsibility: that is, their responsibility for the very survival of the human race?" (p. 223)

Secular Translations

A couple of notes from Talal Asad's "Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self and Calculative Reason" (2018):

  • "Today an important failure is our inability to create a form of collective life on this planet radically different from the liberal capitalist states in which we live. The failure seems to be due not to any lack of imagination or will: there are many highly intelligent and determined people who have presented visions of an attractive future. It has in great measure to do with inherited languages that disallow us form understanding our own institutional and psychological blockages and the resolution they call for. Of course we can recognize and describe instances of cruelty and kindness, of betrayal and self-sacrifice, of suffering and happiness. But we don't have a language to speak adequately about the changes occurring in our collective life resulting from where we have gone wrong, and the things of value we may be losing irretrievably." (p. 157)
  • "When I referred in the past to Islamic traditions like amr bi-l-ma'ruf (which implies that mutual responsibility among friends includes persuading one another to do what is right and avoid what is wrong), I did so mainly to try and unthink our language of sovereign power, with its calculative, logical obsessions and the race to progress that that language invites us to join." (p. 158)

Xala

​From Sembene Ousmane's 1974 novel Xala, translated in 1976 to English:


  • "The colonialist is stronger, more powerful than ever before, hidden inside us, here in this very place." (p. 84)

  • "All your past wealth - for you have nothing left - was acquired by cheating. You and your colleagues build on the misfortunes​ of honest, ordinary people. To give yourselves clean consciences, you found charities, or you give alms at street corners to people reduced to poverty. And when we get too numerous, you call the police..." (p. 100)

Rethinking Identity

​Kwame Anthony Appiah is probably most well known for his book Cosmopolitanism (2006). His most recent book, "The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity" (2018) explores forms of identities (gender, religion, race, nationality, class, culture), on a chapter-by-chapter basis. The arguments deconstruct these identities, ultimately leading toward a cosmopolitanist case in the conclusion. Essentially, each chapter seeks to cast a sufficient amount of doubt about any Truth claim relating to identity, such that it would be questioned, contested, and to an extent negated as a Truth claim (and held as a truth claim amongst many equally true truth claims). Each deconstruction is rooted in post-modernist relativism. At the outset, the foundation is described as follows: "The French sociologist Pierre Bourdie put it this way. Each of us has what he called a habitus: a set of dispositions to respond more or less spontaneously to the world in particular ways, without much thought. Your habitus is trained into you starting from childhood. Parents tell you not to speak with your mouth full, to sit up straight, not to touch your food with your left hand, and so on, and thus form table manners that are likely to stick with you all your life." (21) From this, analogies are drawn to all forms of identity. 

The cosmopolitan conclusion is: "Once we abandon organicism, we can take up the more cosmopolitan picture in which every element of culture - from philosophy or cuisine to the style of bodily movement - is separable in principle from all the others; you really can walk and talk in a way that's recognizably African-American and commune with Immanuel Kant and George Eliot, as well as Bessie Smith and Martin Luther King Jr. No Muslim essence stops individual inhabitants of Dar al-Islam from taking up anything from the Western Civ. syllabus, including democracy. No Western essence is there to stop a New Yorker of any ancestry taking up Islam." (207) "When it comes to the compass of our concern and compassion, humanity as a whole is not too broad a horizon. We live with 7 billion fellow humans on a small, warming planet. The cosmopolitan impulse that draws on our common humanity is no longer a luxury; it has become a necessity." (219) 

FDI in Large-Scale Agriculture in Africa

​In 2019 Atkeyelsh Persson published "Foreign Direct Investment in Large-Scale Agriculture in Africa: Economic, Social and Environmental Sustainability in Ethiopia". The book (presumably) draws on doctoral work done at UCT (finished in 2016) and most of the data / findings presented come from 2014 or before. The book offers unique insight into environmental and sustainability impacts. The case studies are valuable references for readers and researchers. Unfortunately the book sells for US$155.00.

That said, the book is frustrating to read. For example, the author states that large-scale land acquisitions are/were concentrated in Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz regions, with one in SNNP that was excluded (and was listed as not operational in 2014). The reason this is confusing is that the author cites Rahmato's (2011) work (Land to the Investors), which lists 22 agricultural investments above 5,000 hectares outside of these regions, as well as many others in Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz. There is no source listed for the data that is presented (e.g. in Figure 7.2, page 71), that are used to arrive at these conclusions. It can take years to publish a book, but what is stated was not the case in 2014 (when data collection seems to have stopped) nor in 2016 (when the dissertation was defended). In 2011, Rahmato had shown that Oromia was the region with the most foreign investment occurring, but Oromia does not appear anywhere in the study (raising questions about data and how the conclusions were drawn). The policy changes that took place in 2013 (well before the dissertation was submitted) are not included, which seems a critical omission given that foreign, large-scale, agricultural investment effectively stopped from that point forward. With many interviews conducted in 2014, it is unclear how this did not factor into the study. There is no mention that one of the case studies (Karuturi) was cancelled in 2015, by the Government of Ethiopia (nor all the legal proceedings that followed). Many questions.

Global Social Policy in the Making

​Deacon's (2013) "Global Social Policy in the Making: The Foundations of the Social Protection Floor" outlines how the ILO was able to obtain agreement on the social protection floor, when previous efforts to have global social policy encountered barriers. In a sense, this is a history of the initiative. The author focuses on four key influences that enabled the success, namely the adopt of it by ILO, UN and G20, which are: contextual changes (global shifts), procedural changes (within the involved parties and intergovernmental institutions), actions of specific actors (institutions and individuals), and broader discourse / expectation shifts about social protection. For those interested in the 'how change' happens literature, specifically in the policy realm, this provides a rich history from which ideas and experiences can be draw.

Reading that should be more common...


Ibn Khaldun (2015 translation, 1377 original) Al Muqaddimah 

Cesaire, A. (1950) Discourse on Colonialism

Fanon, F. (1952) Black Skin, White Masks 

Fanon, F. (1963) The Wretched of the Earth 

Memmi, A. (1965) The Colonizer and the Colonized

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Rodney, W. (1972) How Europe Underdeveloped Africa 

Amin, S. (1976) Unequal Development 

Biko, S. (1978) I Write What I Like 

Said, E. (1978) Orientalism

Thiong'o, N. (1981) Decolonizing the Mind 

Amin, S. (1988 French, 2009 revision) Eurocentrism

Smith, L. T. (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies 

Chang, H-J. (2002) Kicking Away the Ladder

Asad, T. (2003) Formations of the Secular

Taiaiake, A. (2005) Wasase

Kiros, T. (2005) Zera Yacob

Mamdani, M. (2005) Good Muslim, Bad Muslim

Shivji, I. (2007) Silences in NGO Discourse

Abu-Lughod, L. (2013) Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

Cabral, A. (2016, translation) Resistance and Decolonization

Mbembe, A. (2017, English translation) Critique of Black Reason

Asad, T. (2018) Secular Translations

Mamdani, M. (2018) Citizen and Subject

Ibhawoh, B. (2018) Human Rights in Africa

Mbembe, A. (2019, English translation) Necropolitics 


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