Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order

Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order

by James Ferguson

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Both on the continent and off, “Africa” is spoken of in terms of crisis: as a place of failure and seemingly insurmountable problems, as a moral challenge to the international community. What, though, is really at stake in discussions about Africa, its problems, and its place in the world? And what should be the response of those scholars who have sought


Both on the continent and off, “Africa” is spoken of in terms of crisis: as a place of failure and seemingly insurmountable problems, as a moral challenge to the international community. What, though, is really at stake in discussions about Africa, its problems, and its place in the world? And what should be the response of those scholars who have sought to understand not the “Africa” portrayed in broad strokes in journalistic accounts and policy papers but rather specific places and social realities within Africa?

In Global Shadows the renowned anthropologist James Ferguson moves beyond the traditional anthropological focus on local communities to explore more general questions about Africa and its place in the contemporary world. Ferguson develops his argument through a series of provocative essays which open—as he shows they must—into interrogations of globalization, modernity, worldwide inequality, and social justice. He maintains that Africans in a variety of social and geographical locations increasingly seek to make claims of membership within a global community, claims that contest the marginalization that has so far been the principal fruit of “globalization” for Africa. Ferguson contends that such claims demand new understandings of the global, centered less on transnational flows and images of unfettered connection than on the social relations that selectively constitute global society and on the rights and obligations that characterize it.

Ferguson points out that anthropologists and others who have refused the category of Africa as empirically problematic have, in their devotion to particularity, allowed themselves to remain bystanders in the broader conversations about Africa. In Global Shadows, he urges fellow scholars into the arena, encouraging them to find a way to speak beyond the academy about Africa’s position within an egregiously imbalanced world order.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Global Shadows is one of the most thoughtful, provocative, intelligent books written about Africa in a very long time. It raises in the most profound possible way the question of what precisely Africa is in the twenty-first century: a place, a predicament, an imaginative object, a discursive trope, a ‘place-in-the-world’ whose economies and social orders, governance and geography, are undergoing bewilderingly complex transformations. James Ferguson challenges us to understand those transformations, this place-in-the-world, in an altogether fresh manner.”—John Comaroff, University of Chicago

“Speaking rationally about Africa is not something that has ever come naturally. This book is a tour de force. James Ferguson shows that a radical critique of the most obtuse and cynical prejudices about Africa can be made without one repeating and perpetuating these prejudices under some other guise.”—Achille Mbembe, author of On the Postcolony

Sandra T. Barnes

“Ferguson's is a substantial voice for and about contemporary Africa. Global Shadows is of general interest to Africanists and includes several essays that can be used productively in the classroom. . . . Together, [the essays] make a statement that, in its collective impact, is even more perceptive than in its unconnected parts.”
Matthew Engelke

“Unlike many essay collections, Ferguson’s adds up to a coherent whole, and is marked by his talent for providing fresh insights into stale or stagnant discussions. . . . Without doubt, and regardless of one’s perspective, Global Shadows is a major gift to the discipline. It is a confident, thorough, and thought-provoking book that raises important questions not only about the idea of Africa but also about the future of anthropology.”
Rosaleen Duffy

"Ferguson's latest book is certainly a good read and presents a clear argument about Africa's engagement with the global system. . . . This is an extremely useful book for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of Africa's role in a neoliberal world order."

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Global Shadows

By James Ferguson


Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3705-8

Chapter One

Globalizing Africa?


The enormous recent literature on globalization so far has had remarkably little to say about Africa. Astonishingly, the entire continent is often simply ignored altogether, even in the most ambitious and ostensibly all-encompassing narratives. Popular bestsellers that seek to explain the new "global" world-whether in celebration or critique-have much to say about the newly industrializing countries of Asia, the manufacturing boom in China, the European Union, the causes of Middle Eastern "terrorism," jobs gained and lost in the United States, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its effects in Mexico, and the spread of Disneyland and McDonald's to France. But they manage to characterize "the globe" and "the entire world" in ways that say almost nothing at all about a continent of some 800 million people that takes up fully 20 percent of the planet's land mass. Academic blockbusters have not been very different in this respect. Saskia Sassen's Globalization and Its Discontents (1999), for instance, has nothing to say about Africa, except to note that African migrants sometimes show up in "global cities" likeLondon and New York. Joseph Stiglitz's influential book, also titled Globalization and Its Discontents (2003), deals almost entirely with the operations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in Asia and Eastern Europe, with only a few pages devoted to the African countries that have arguably suffered the most from the lethal IMF dogmatism he is concerned about documenting. From the self-described radical left, meanwhile, Michael Hardt and Antonion Negri's celebrated tome Empire (2001), despite its nearly 500 pages of text and abundant concern for what the authors term "the multitude," cannot muster even a paragraph's worth of analysis concerning the continent. Again and again, it seems, when it comes to globalization, Africa just doesn't fit the story line. It is an inconvenient case.

This neglect is perhaps understandable at the level of real-world politics. Defenders of neoliberal structural-adjustment programs naturally find Africa an inconvenient example; they prefer to talk about Asian tigers and Southeast Asian dragons, since they have a hard time finding any lions among the many African nations that have taken the IMF medicine and liberalized their economies in recent years. But African examples are equally awkward for those termed "anti-globalization" critics, who often equate globalization with an expanding capitalism in search of new cheap labor for its factories and new markets for its consumer goods (stereotypically, Nike sweatshops and McDonald's hamburgers). Here, of course, the inconvenient fact is that Africa's hardships have very little to do with being overrun with Western factories and consumer goods. It is hard to find evidence of the depredations of runaway capitalist expansion in countries that are begging in vain for foreign investment of any kind and unable to provide a significant market for the consumer goods stereotypically associated with globalization.

But if Africa is an awkward case for globalization's polemical boosters and detractors, it seems equally inconvenient for more analytical theorists of globalization, who aspire to planetary "coverage" but somehow do not quite know what to do with Africa (cf. Paolini 1997). Here, Anthony Giddens's approach is typical. He begins his short book of lectures on globalization (Giddens 2002) with an anecdote that claims a planet wide scope for the analysis to follow. A friend, he explains, was conducting fieldwork in a village whose location he describes only as a "remote area" of "central Africa." She was invited to a home for an evening of entertainment, but instead of the traditional pastimes she expected, she discovered that the family was to watch a video of a new Hollywood movie that at that point "hadn't even reached the cinemas in London" (Giddens 2002: 24). The point, clearly, is that even the ends of the earth-that is, the remotest villages of (what is identified only as) "central Africa"-are today swept up within a globalized social order. Yet the rest of Giddens's book does not make so much as a passing reference to Africa. Instead, the narrative repeatedly describes the world in terms of a traditional "before" and a globalized "after" that leaves no place for most contemporary African social realities except in the putative past. The collaborative volume on globalization by David Held, Anthony McGrew, David Goldblatt, and Jonathan Perraton (1999) is a more scholarly account, but it builds on a similar slippage. The volume's introduction claims to explicate a globalization explicitly defined by what the authors term "worldwide interconnectedness" (Held et al. 1999: 2; emphasis mine), but this is followed by substantive chapters that are explicitly restricted to what they call "states in advanced capitalist societies" (and it soon becomes clear that African societies are not "advanced" enough to qualify). Interconnectedness among six rich countries is documented most effectively, but the reader is left to wonder what, exactly, is "worldwide" about it.

Africa's inconvenience is not surprising if we consider that most of the dominant theories of globalization have been theories about worldwide convergence of one sort or another. From the earliest European projects of colonization to the latest structural-adjustment programs, Africa has proved remarkably resistant to a range of externally imposed projects that have aimed to bring it into conformity with Western or "global" models. It is striking that Africa today is the only world region where one will find huge populated swaths of the earth that are under the effective authority of no central, nation-state government (including most of the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] at present, huge areas of southern Sudan, and nearly all of Somalia). It is worth emphasizing that these are not odd little patches but truly vast areas. As I like to remind undergraduate students, if you put the map of Europe inside the DRC, with London at the west coast, Moscow would lie within the eastern border; in southern Sudan, the area that was until recently out of the reach of even major relief agencies spanned an area bigger than France. Nor is this a question of brief or transitory political circumstances. The weak grip of the central state in countries like the Congo and Angola goes back for many decades, while much of southern Sudan has been out of the control of its national government almost continuously since it became independent in 1956. Even where nation-states do enjoy some measure of effective control of their hinterlands, formal similarities in political institutions betray stark differences in actual modes of functioning, as recent work on African states (discussed later) shows. Meanwhile, the property laws that are sometimes taken for granted as the bedrock of capitalism in its most familiar form are only very precariously institutionalized in many African settings (as might be attested by a foreign investor in Nigeria or a commercial farmer in Zimbabwe). Finally, as we know, in perhaps a score of African countries, a host of standard development indicators-from GDP per capita to access to health care and schooling to life expectancy-have in recent years been falling, not rising. This is true not only of countries wracked by war but also of many that have seen nothing but peace. In Zambia, for instance-the country I have studied most-poverty rates are today reckoned at some 73 percent. Diseases like malaria, cholera, and measles are resurgent as public-health countermeasures have collapsed. School attendance has dropped below 50 percent in some areas, and the population is said to be less educated than at any time since independence in 1964. Estimated life expectancy at birth, meanwhile, has fallen-mostly, but not entirely, due to AIDS-from around 50 in 1980 to just 32.4 years, the lowest in the world.

All of this poses a profound challenge for global convergence narratives. It does not necessarily mean that such accounts are in any simple way "wrong." Indeed, in many domains, convergence arguments are often stronger than anthropologists (perhaps wishfully) allow. But the recent history of Africa does pose a profound challenge to ideas of global economic and political convergence. If the world's societies are truly converging on a single, "global" model, how is it possible to account for Africa's different, difficult trajectory? Is it simply a "development failure," to be placed at the door of morally culpable elites? A "lag" that we need only wait to see overcome? A horrible accident, predicated on contingencies such as the aids pandemic? What is the meaning-theoretically-of what presents itself as a vast continental anomaly?

Where recent globalization theorists have addressed Africa, it has typically been as a negative case: an example of the price of the failure to globalize, as the IMF would have it; a "global ghetto" abandoned by capitalism, as the geographer Neil Smith (1997) would insist; a continent of "wasted lives" of no use to the capitalist world economy, as Zygmunt Bauman (2004) has recently suggested; or "the black hole of the information society," as Manuel Castells (2000) would have it. Such negative characterizations risk ignoring the social, political, and institutional specificity of Africa and reinventing Africa as a twenty-first-century "dark continent." For contemporary Africa is clearly not a featureless void defined only by its exclusion from the benefits of global capitalism, nor is it an informational "black hole."

Instead, I suggest that a reading of recent interdisciplinary scholarship on Africa can help to reveal the quite specific ways in which Africa is, and is not, "global" and thereby shed surprising new light on our understanding of what "globalization" may mean at present. What we see (as anthropologists have long insisted) depends on where we are looking from. Looking at "globalization" from the vantage point provided by recent research focused on Africa brings into visibility things that might otherwise be overlooked and forces us to think harder about issues that might otherwise be passed over or left unresolved.

In a highly schematic way, then, this essay reviews insights from recent Africanist scholarship concerning three elements usually identified as central aspects of "globalization": first, the question of culture (and the related question of alternative modernities); second, "flows" of private capital (especially foreign direct investment); and third, transformations in governance and the changing role of the nation-state. It argues that attention to the undoubtedly extreme situation in some parts of Africa can help to clarify what is, and is not, "global" about the contemporary transnational political economy.


Anthropologists first confronted notions of cultural globalization in relation to the question (or, for anthropologists, the specter) of cultural homogenization. What was the fate of cultural difference in a world where fewer and fewer people lived in conditions that could be understood as those of pristine isolation; a world where ever increasing proportions of people lived in cities, drove cars, and watched television; a world where such emblems of an expanding U.S. culture as the English language, pop music, blue jeans, and McDonald's seemed to be expanding across the globe? Was the cultural future of the world a sort of Westernized or Americanized global monoculture-the "Coca-Cola-ization" of the entire planet? And if so, what was the fate of the discipline of anthropology itself in such a uniform cultural world?

Fortunately-at least for the field of anthropology-it soon emerged that cultural globalization was not a simple matter of homogenization. As anthropologists like Ulf Hannerz (1987, 1992, 1996) began to remind us, transnational exchanges of cultural products, forms, and ideas were hardly a new phenomenon, and experience showed that such traffic in meaning was not incompatible with enduring forms of cultural difference. Cultural differences were produced, thrived, and took on their significance within social relations of interconnection, not in primordial isolation. For people in Calcutta to drink Coca-Cola would no more spell the end of Indian culture than the colonial adoption of the Indian drink tea by Londoners abolished Englishness. And one was entitled to wonder, as Clifford Geertz (1994) pointed out, whether the great cuisines of Asia were really in mortal danger of being out-competed by the likes of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In fact, a host of local studies began to show that transnational traffic in meaning led not to a global monoculture, but to complex forms of cultural creativity-what Hannerz called "creolization"-whose result was not a numbing uniformity but a dynamic "cut-and-mix" world of surprising borrowings, ironic reinventions, and dazzling resignifications. The idea that logically emerged from this was that societies and cultures were not to be understood as located along a continuum between a "premodern" tradition, on the one hand, and a Euro-centrically conceived modernity on the other. Instead, Arjun Appadurai and others suggested that it was necessary to rethink our understandings of modernity to take account of the many different sorts of modern cultural trajectories that anthropologists were documenting. If non-Western cultures were not necessarily non-modern ones, then it would be necessary to develop a more pluralized understanding of modernity: not modernity in the singular (where the question is, Are you there yet or not?) but modernities in the plural, a variety of different ways of being modern: "alternative modernities" (see Appadurai 1996; Daedalus 2000; Gaonkar 2001; Holston 1999).

This is undoubtedly a very appealing idea, but it immediately raises a number of problems, which critics have not failed to point out. One problem is the meaning of the term "modernity." Once we give up the benchmark of a singular modernity, then what does the term mean, analytically? If Cameroonians practicing witchcraft are in fact being "modern," as Peter Geschiere (1997) has recently suggested, then one wonders: What would count as non-modern? Or is every aspect of the contemporary world by definition modern-in which case, the term risks losing all meaning by encompassing everything. Another set of criticisms has pointed out that the focus on cultural flows and their creative reinterpretation can lead to an insufficient appreciation of the force of global norms and of institutional and organizational domains where one does indeed find, if not homogenization, at least a high degree of standardization. Sociologists of education, for instance, have shown such standardization in at least the formal aspects of schooling (see, e.g., Boli and Ramirez 1986; Meyer et al. 1992). Here I want to point to a slightly different problem with the idea, which derives from the way that regions matter for the modernity discussion.

In East and Southeast Asia, the idea of multiple or "alternative" tracks through modernity has for some years had considerable currency, even outside of academic discussions. There, the pluralization of modernity has been linked to the possibility of a parallel track along which Asian nations might develop in a way that would be economically analogous to the West but culturally distinctive. Such newly industrializing Asian countries as Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan, in this view, can achieve "First World" economies, and the superhighways, skyscrapers, and consumer conveniences that come with them, without thereby becoming "Westernized." They can thus retain what are sometimes thought of as cultural or even racial virtues that the West lacks, while making their own, "alternative" way through modernity and enjoying a standard of living equal to or better than that of "the West" (Ong 1999: 55-83).


Excerpted from Global Shadows by James Ferguson Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

James Ferguson is Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology at Stanford University. He is the author of Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt and The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. He is a coeditor of Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, also published by Duke University Press, and of Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science.

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