On the Postcolony / Edition 1

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Achille Mbembe is one of the most brilliant theorists of postcolonial studies writing today.
In On the Postcolony he profoundly renews our understanding of power and subjectivity in Africa.
In a series of provocative essays, Mbembe contests diehard Africanist and nativist perspectives as well as some of the key assumptions of postcolonial theory.

This thought-provoking and groundbreaking collection of essays—his first book to be published in English—develops and extends debates first ignited by his well-known 1992 article "Provisional Notes on the Postcolony," in which he developed his notion of the "banality of power" in contemporary Africa. Mbembe reinterprets the meanings of death, utopia, and the divine libido as part of the new theoretical perspectives he offers on the constitution of power. He works with the complex registers of bodily subjectivity — violence, wonder, and laughter — to profoundly contest categories of oppression and resistance, autonomy and subjection, and state and civil society that marked the social theory of the late twentieth century.

This provocative book will surely attract attention with its signal contribution to the rich interdisciplinary arena of scholarship on colonial and postcolonial discourse, history, anthropology, philosophy, political science, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520204355
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 6/17/2001
  • Series: Studies on the History of Society and Culture Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 274
  • Sales rank: 709,319
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Achille Mbembe lives in Cape Town, South Africa. He is the author of three books published in French, including La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun(1920-1960): Histoire des usages de la raison en colonie (1996).

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Read an Excerpt

On the Postcolony

By Achille Mbembe

University of California Press

Copyright © 2001 Achille Mbembe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0520204344

Chapter One

On Private Indirect Government

This chapter will examine another aspect of the processes described in chapter one, an aspect that the fuss over transitions to democracy and multi-partyism in Africa has overshadowed. These processes do not move in a closed orbit; they are neither smooth nor unilinear, but point in several directions at once. Further, they are occurring at different speeds and on different time-scales, and take the form of fluctuations and destabilizations (sometimes very sharp ones), periods of inertia and spurts that appear quite random but actually combine several regimes of change: stationary, dynamic, chaotic, even catastrophic.

This other aspect could be summed up in one word: entanglement. But that notion must not only include the coercion to which people are subjected, and the sufferings inflicted on the human body by war, scarcity, and destitution, but also embrace a whole cluster of re-orderings of society, culture, and identity, and a series of recent changes in the way power is exercised and rationalized. At the heart of these reorderings lies the issue of the relationships among the privatization of public violence, the appropriation of means of livelihood, and the imaginations of the self. Taken together, this appropriation of means of livelihood, this allocation of profits, the types of extraction thus required, and concentration of coercion involved will be described here under the general term fiscality.


It is impossible to approach these issues without placing three major historical processes at the very center of our analysis: first, the de-linking of Africa from formal international markets; second, the forms of its integration into the circuits of the parallel international economy; and third, the fragmentation of public authority and emergence of multiple forms of private indirect government accompanying these two processes.

Two key ideas inform this chapter. The first is that through these apparently novel forms of integration into the international system and the concomitant modes of economic exploitation, equally novel technologies of domination are taking shape over almost the entire continent. These new technologies result from the responses that the victorious actors in the ongoing struggles around the continent give to the following questions: Who is to be protected, by whom, against what and whom, and at what price? Who is the equal of whom? To what has one a right by virtue of belonging to an ethnic group, a region, or a religion? Who has a right to take power and govern, in what circumstances, how, for how long, and on what conditions? Who has the right to the product of whose work, and for what compensation? When may one cease to obey authority, without punishment? Who must pay taxes and where do these revenues go? Who may contract debts, and in the name of whom, and for what may they be expended? To whom do a country's riches belong? In short, who has the right to live and exist, and who has not, and why? All these questions relate to the three pillars without which no modern social order exists: definition of the prerogatives and limits of public power; codification of the rights, privileges, and inequalities tolerable in a society; and, finally, the financial underpinnings of the first two pillars. What, rather hastily, are called "transitions to democracy" are among attempts to answer these fundamental questions. But political liberalization is only one aspect, and possibly not the most decisive one, of the profound changes under way. Because these new technologies of domination are still being elaborated, they have not yet, generally, totally replaced those already present. Sometimes they draw inspiration from the old forms, retain traces of them, or even operate behind their facade.

The second key hypothesis of this chapter is that the coherence of African societies, and their capacity for self-government and self-determination, are challenged by two sorts of threats. On the one hand, there are threats of internal dissolution. These arise from external pressure, not only in the form of debt and the constraints associated with its repayment, but also of internal wars. On the other, there are the risks of a general loss of control of both public and private violence. This uncontrolled violence is sparked by worsening inequalities and corruption combined with the persistence of fundamental disagreements on how to conduct the ongoing struggles for the codification of new rights and privileges. The outcome of these profound movements may well be the final defeat of the state in Africa as we have known it in recent years. But it might equally well be a deepening of the state's indigenization,-or, more radically, its replacement by dispositifs that retain the name but have intrinsic qualities and modes of operation quite unlike those of a conventional state.

As the asymmetry of the economic performances of African countries becomes increasingly a structural matter, the de-linking of the continent from the formal international markets does not affect all countries or sub-regions, the same products or utilities within different countries or regions, with the same intensity. External constraints weigh unevenly on their economies. The failure of adjustment policies is not the same everywhere; at least, it does not produce the same effects everywhere. In any case, nothing implies that the de-linking itself is irreversible. Contrary to the articles of faith of neo-liberal orthodoxy, integration into the circuits of the parallel international economy has not been ended by efforts to liberalize import procedures. It is not even certain that, for the actors involved, concern to avoid taxation is enough to explain this phenomenon, which is not peculiar to Africa. In more or less different forms, the shift is affecting other regions of the world, such as South America, the former Soviet Union, and parts of Asia, where it is helping alter the ways incomes are made and distributed, the forms of community, the structures for representing and mediating economic and political interests, the conditions in which are appropriated resources necessary for the reproduction of the dominant social relations, issues of citizenship, and even the very nature of the state.

But in Africa, the current and foreseeable consequences of this shift are of an altogether different order and intensity. This shift is taking off when, with the Cold War no longer structuring relations of force worldwide, and with Africa "demoted" internationally, the continent is turning inward on itself in a very serious way-and the hackneyed notions of crisis and "marginalization" do not begin to do justice to the process at work. This turning inward is occurring on the scale of similar processes in the mid-nineteenth century, when an economy based on the slave trade gave way to one based on so-called legitimate trade; then, these processes ended in conquest and colonial occupation.

Their impact differed, of course, from region to region, and with speeds and patterns varying with local circumstances (such as whether a society was on the coast or in the hinterland or in-between, and whether it had or lacked state forms). Yet, the structural adjustment involved in the shift from an economy based on the slave trade (sale of slaves and ivory) to an economy based on trade in cash products (ground nuts, palm oil, gum arabic, etc.) led to a transformation of the material bases of states. The ways those states enhanced their values, multiplied utilities, and distributed the product of labor also changed. Moreover, territorial growth, contraction, and withdrawal had always played a key role in the process of state formation in Africa. As early as the seventeenth century, this process was already affecting several polities along the Atlantic as well as further into the hinterland. A tradition of predatory states living by raiding, capturing and selling captives, was reinforced. Against a background of territorial fragmentation and structural stagnation, slaving military regimes, devoid of civil responsibility, had come into being, and provided themselves with means, not necessarily of conquering territory and extending their rule, but of seizing resources in men and goods.

Others, no less brutal, adopted a policy of assimilating their captives. Instead of using them as human merchandise, they compelled them to provide services in kind and in labor, or imposed on defeated peoples heavy tributes and taxes. On the Slave Coast in particular (Allada and Whydah), interminable disorder led to a prolonged weakening and eventual collapse of royal power. Local chiefs took advantage of this to secure their own independence, but rivalries within the elite sharpened and these state formations lapsed into civil wars destroying what little political order remained.

As these processes of dislocation were occurring, movements were under way to reconstruct and relegitimize authority. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, for example, Dahomey conquered its neighbors, undermined by internecine disputes. But while war could serve for the permanent conquest and occupation of territories subject to periodic raiding, the use of violence did not, alone, necessarily resolve the problem of stabilizing the political order and government. Thus, having taken power on the death of Agaja after violent succession struggles and challenges to the monarchy by the priesthood, Tegbesu attempted to reunify the elite of Dahomey by embarking in the 1740s on a policy of terror, purges, and compromises. The combination of these three levers of domination enabled him, on the one hand, physically to eliminate his most determined enemies and, on the other, to intervene in factional struggles at the local level by throwing his support behind those who accepted his authority. At the same time, he lavished gifts and largesse on local chiefs and influential families. Then, by skilful manipulation of dynastic and kinship networks, the institution and spectacular display of a royal cult (human sacrifices), and redefinition of the attributes of royalty beneath a mask of continuity (redistribution of wealth and enjoyments, overhaul of the legal order), he embarked on an effort to relegitimize power, to convert raw violence into authority.

In areas in the interior subject to Muslim influence, similar transformations occurred. Before the second half of the nineteenth century, the empires along the edge of the desert had established areas they raided for captives, south and east of the Lake Chad basin. Wars to take captives and slaves did more than make it possible to build up military apparatuses, or to manage resources and populations in the framework of an economy based on tribute. While these forms of violence manifested themselves in destruction, depredation, and banditry, they also, in some cases, favored the emergence of centralized systems. At any event, they were certainly responsible for highly specific modes of political organization and forms of social reconstruction. This was the case with the relationships between sovereignty, territoriality, and citizenship. Contrary to received opinion, the idea that political power and sovereignty were closely associated with land was not unknown. Discourses on land and "indigenousness" were common coin, and the logics of territorialization went hand in hand with those of controlling "insiders" and excluding "outsiders." But territory was not the exclusive underpinning of political communities, the sole mark of sovereignty, or the sole basis of civil obedience. Space was represented and used in many ways, especially when those representations and uses were closely tied to the definition of the principles of belonging and exclusion. In a context where raiding to take captives was an everyday occurrence, the process of building political spaces and areas of sovereignty could include the imposition of tribute on, for example, those defeated whose lives had been spared. Citizenship could be linked with how much protection one enjoyed against the possibility of capture and sale. Kinship relations, for example, were replaced by or combined with other forms of relationship-those creating dependents, slaves, clients, pawns. Other modalities of legitimate exploitation also came into being. A blending of political, cultural, and religious identities was under way, diasporas coming into being. Within these truly transnational and multicultural societies, religious and trading networks became inextricably entangled. Neither force nor the fact of belonging to a particular territory ever put an end, in practice, to the multiplicity of allegiances and the comings and goings between a local time and a regional time.

But during the second half of the nineteenth century, the Muslim frontier moved, and vast areas of the northern part of central Africa were caught between pushes from the Nile and from the west. Slavery as a relation of subjection and as the supreme means of increasing goods and utilities intensified, at the same time as did the quest for ivory. Conquests, migrations, and other movements of populations fleeing marauders, mercenaries, and slave traders precipitated the transformation of customary models of social organization, registers of political action, and forms of exchange. The model of domination-half-suzerain, half-sultanic-that resulted from these upheavals reached its highest form with the Khartoumites. With the support of the jallaba (itinerant brokers whose activity in the region predated the arrival of the Egyptians), they militarized trade and specialized in slave raiding and the exploitation of ivory. Proceeding by military force, extortion, political alliances, incorporation of slaves, and a judicious redistribution of tribute, booty, and the products of long-distance trade, they set up the system of zariba (small fortified trading colonies). Where necessary, they concluded pacts with the local people and thus formed networks that dominated this whole area until the Mahdist revolt.

Along the Atlantic seaboard, as well as inland, a large number of independent political units disintegrated under the burden of external debt and domestic tyranny. In the course of the nineteenth century, these dislocations led to major cultural realignments marked by mass conversion to monotheistic religions, acute crises of witchcraft, appearance of numerous healing cults, transformation of refugee communities into mercenary bands, and a number of uprisings in the name of Islam. The fall-off in demand for slaves did not lead to a reduction of tensions; on the contrary, the peoples and ethnic groups that had successfully maintained their privileges as brokers and secured their domination over the great commercial nodal points accentuated their demographic expansion and supplied themselves with guns.



Excerpted from On the Postcolony by Achille Mbembe Copyright © 2001 by Achille Mbembe. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Time on the Move 1
1 Of Commandement 14
2 On Private Indirect Government 66
3 The Aesthetics of Vulgarity 102
4 The Thing and Its Doubles 142
5 Out of the World 173
6 God's Phallus 212
Conclusion: The Final Manner 235
Bibliography 245
Index 271
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