Jagged Edges or Natural Flows
'Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal
'The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticisation and Bureaucratic
Power in Lesotho'
Given that European colonialists in 19th century Africa considered
their legitimate trade and Christianity constituted a civilising mission
to reform savage, backward societies, there is an historical irony in
the message of Jo Owen's recent book, 'Tribal Business: Lessons in
Business Survival and Success from the Ultimate Survivors' (2008).
In this book, Maasai 'tribesmen' teach UK business leaders the basic principles
of business survival, which boil down to the following maxims: 'dont' get
into a fair fight, you could lose'; 'take the lead'; and lastly that cornerstone
of positive thinking, 'change or die'. That lessons in such predatory ruthlessness
are sought by UK business tells us very little about the Maasai, but does
say quite a bit about the extent to which a currently hostile environment
exists within global capitalism. The Maasai are not only represented here
as 'noble savages' who can survive Robinson Crusoe-like, they are also
seen as fearsome warriors who adapt to maximise their opportunities in
the face of rapacious competitors. For Owen, survival in business is
equally precarious, as "since the FSTE 100 was created in 1984, 80% of
companies listed have been taken over [
] any tribe that
had only lasted 25 years would be said to have failed."
While Maasai 'tribesmen' teaching principles to UK entrepreneurs may appear
a novelty, the idea that the workings of the free market are part of human
nature, and have an elegant simplicity about them, unclouded by social mores
and the trappings of civilisation, is part of neo-liberalism, along with
entrepreneurialism and privatisation. Indeed, writers such as Ayittey (2005)
have argued that capitalism is not a European invention, rather the market
economy is indigenous to Africa and its authentic forms of production are
rural, and include agriculture and the extraction of natural resources. In
contrast, institutions and ideas such as 'the state', 'urban society', and
'socialism' are seen by Ayittey as western imports, and for this reason have
not flourished in the African nation-state during the post-colonial era.
The idea that there can be such a thing as a 'failed' tribe, or indeed a
'failed' state, shows that neo-liberal policy has a limited criteria of success
and failure that only really encompasses profitability for the global market.
There are, of course, echoes of this throughout the world wherever neo-liberal
policies exist, such as the evaluation of 'failed' schools during education
reforms in the UK.
In the light of these times, James Ferguson's books 'The Anti-Politics
Machine: Development, Depoliticisation and Democratic Power in Lesotho' (1994)
Shadows: Africa in the Neo-Liberal World Order' (2006), trace the complex
relation between rhetoric and policy within neo-liberalism. In fact, the
first book assesses development policies within Lesotho since independence,
asking to what extent poverty and development can be tackled within the framework
of the nation-state given the impact of the regional economy of southern
Africa on Lesotho. The second book extends the debate, arguing that development
within the nation-state must be set within a globalised economy, where new
ideas surround 'Africa' and 'its place in the world', for both Africans and
Globalisation as convergence or jagged edges?
One of the strengths of Fergusons work in 'Global Shadows' is the
insightful analysis of the much discussed, but often unclearly defined, processes
of 'globalisation'. Many people argue that globalisation is an inevitable
process of social and economic convergence and homogeneity, a single and
shared economy into which all parts of the world will eventually become incorporated.
While the current extent and the pace of the process of globalisation are
debated, there is an underlying assumption that convergence is occurring.
Globalisation is a process that is often described through metaphors of 'flow'
and 'tide', words that convey both a natural inevitability and also the Canute-like
futility of opposition. Yet, as Ferguson shows here, globalisation is a system
of disconnection. Rather than joining places together in a unified whole,
the globalised economy 'hops' between "enclaved points
the spaces that lie between the points (p47), globalisation is a 'globe-hopping'
business not a process of total integration" (p47). The example that Ferguson
cites is Angola, a state in which oil production occurs largely off-shore
and staffed mainly by foreign workers who are housed in private enclaves.
Foreign oil companies are operating within the Angolan state, but have minimal
contact with institutions and people in wider Angolan society. Indeed, as
Global Witness reports, "the government has ring-fenced the oil sector against
the inefficiencies of the rest of the economy and relations with the oil
companies are generally good" (p201, in 1999:p5).
That such glowing reports of business opportunities can sit alongside the
idea that African states are "synonymous with failure and poverty" (p5) suggest
that globalisation has not brought convergence and homogeneity to the continent.
In contrast, Africa's social and economic inequalities are widening; small
numbers of people live in the enclaves formed by the globalised economy,
while the majority live in its disregarded hinterland. Moreover, the whole
African continent has become increasingly marginalized within the world economy
in the last thirty years, as levels of capital investment have fallen. Rather
than seeing Africa as an anomaly to the successes of globalisation elsewhere
in the world, such as the Asian 'tiger' economies, Ferguson suggests that
the economic marginalisation of large parts of Africa is not anomalous, but
rather is intrinsic to the process by which a globalised economy is restructured.
Analysing the complexities of globalisation requires an overview that locates
Africa's "place in the world" in order to see how Africa "functions in a
wider categorical system and what this means for the way we understand an
increasingly trans-national political order" (p5). During the post-colonial
era, African social relations and institutions have largely been studied
at a local level, using ethnographic research methods. However, the intricate
processes of globalisation have eluded localised studies. In fact, it
could be argued that this micro-focus for research impedes collective discussions
among researchers about the economic and political issues that are common
across Africa, and also obscures the significances of larger scale issues
for Africans. The shades and nuances of meaning located in ethnographic studies
of 'alternative modernities', in which globalisation appears in diverse localised
forms, serve for Ferguson to depoliticise and obscure the gulf of
global inequality that has opened up between African countries and the west
since the 1980s. This inequality has widened to the point that it has eclipsed
the idea that African states can catch up with the West at a future point
through 'development'. Instead, African states are considered to be of a
qualitatively different order and are positioned separately and unequally
in the globalised economy. For this reason, the nation-state can no longer
be an autonomous economic entity in a global economy, and for African countries
this undermines possibilities for the state to pursue development. Africa,
as the underdeveloped entity, is necessary to legitimate unhindered or unstructured
The simultaneous 'failure' of the nation-state and the 'success'
of trade liberalisation
A common experience across African states, and obscured by localised study,
is the impact of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) imposed throughout
the continent by state governments as part of International Monetary Fund
(IMF) reforms since the 1980s. Structural adjustment policy was presented
by the IMF as the solution to the balance of payments crisis of the late
1970s, aiming to promote capital investment through currency devaluation
and privatisation. SAPs were standardised policies that, on the face of it,
appear to have failed to achieve many of their objectives; there has not
been capital investment, the agriculture sector is still dwindling, and the
manufacturing industry has been destroyed. However, there is no doubt that
SAPs have opened up the economies to the market. Following Fergusons earlier 'The
Anti-Politics Machine' (1994),
could the failure of many aspects of SAPs be seen as a necessary stage
in the overall policy of economic liberalisation? In a globalised economy
that is shaped by IMF policy, 'Afric'a is considered a region that has been
ripe for investment: it is 'under-polluted' and has an 'unfair share' of
unexploited natural resources relative to other areas of the world. Once
marketisation is permitted in previously state-run sectors such as
telecommunications, banking, transport, and security forces foreign
investors appear, meaning that the 'failure' of SAPs can occur along with
Elementary acts of theoretical and political clarification? Strategies for political
Unusually for academic writing, both of Fergusons books consider possible
strategies for political action against widening inequalities within the
nation-state and on a global scale. Both categories of the local and the
nation-state are depoliticising, because wider social and economic forces
that exist beyond the boundaries of these units are excluded from the debate.
According to Ferguson, rethinking these categories, "becomes an elementary
act of theoretical and political clarification
well as a way to strategically shape the struggles of subaltern peoples
and social movements around the world" (2006:p109). However, moving from
redefined categories to organisational strategies for political action is
another task that proves more elusive.
Where Ferguson's political strategies seem weak are in his hopes for an appeal
to moral objections to neo-liberalism within the nation-state, and in his
appeals to gain the support of the global media for marginalized subaltern
groups. Yet neo-liberalism is bereft of ethics. As David Harvey points out,
"neo-liberalism values market exchange as an ethic in itself" (2005:p3).
While Summers has rejected criticism against moral void, saying that "moral
reasons and social concerns, could be turned around and used more or less
effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalisation" (The Economist
1992 in Ferguson 2006:p71). Ferguson suggests that the 'insistent moralising'
about the production of wealth and its relation to social relations within
African cultures may spark a critique of the value-free, 'scientific capitalism'
of the neo-liberal agenda (p72), seeing evidence of this in the fact that
there are food riots that resist SAP policies. However, in arguing this point
Ferguson seems to create a dichotomy between the 'natural order' of IMF neo-liberalism
and the moral order of African economies that overlook the actual negotiations
and practices by which structural adjustment is imposed.
Neo-liberalism works in Africa in part because its policies are advantageous
to the African elite. Ferguson at points overlooks the African class interests
that impose policies and work with foreign investors to faciliate marketisation.
Later on, in chapter eight he does, however, discuss the way the "Angolan
economy has been made attractive to foreign investors, noting that: Angolan
elites meanwhile have been nothing if not efficient in growing fabulously
rich" (p201). Given the class divisions within African society it is unlikely
that a 'remoralisation' of national debate prompted by African cultural values
around the morality of wealth would restrain neo-liberal economy policy.
On the contrary, just as successful trade liberalisation requires failed
states, so wealth accumulation may require 'insistent moralising' about the
merits of the simple, unencumbered life of the village. Furthermore, as Ferguson
notes, a 'remoralisation' of political debate at national level is unlikely
to bring substantial change as economic policy is largely accountable to
the IMF, so the 'opinion' of national citizens does not, and would not, constitute
a political challenge.
A more promising strategy in the globalised neo-liberal economy is the development
of a trans-national politics of resistance. Ferguson suggests that in the
post-Cold War era 'civil society' is cast as a set of grassroots institutions
that exists 'below', but can contest, state power. This idea of civil society
"obscures antidemocratic trans-national politics" (p107) for it takes political
and economic freedoms to be maintained by a vigilant civil society against
an 'oppressive' state. Yet in the globalised economy, both the state and
civil society are shaped by the interventions of international agencies,
whether this is the IMF shaping state policies or the impact of Non-Governmental
Organisations (NGOs) operating at 'local' grassroots level. In short, as
long as the nation-state sets the parameters for political resistance, the
extent and motives of international intervention remain uncontested. Certainly,
organisational strategies for political resistance do need to reach beyond
the state. However, the idea that "transnational power does not come through
the state" (p106) underestimates the significant role played by the state
in facilitating and sustaining the transnational political order.
Local, canny grassroots operator?
Instead of resistance being based in the idea of grassroots struggle
from below, Ferguson argues for struggles 'across' against the "hydra-headed
transnational apparatus of banks, international agencies and market institutions
through which contemporary capitalist domination functions?" (p107). However,
in 'Global Shadows', the ideas for trans-national forms of resistance
seem to be limited to appeals to 'world opinion' to support marginalized
peoples; a strategy which stands in contrast to the call for the co-ordination
of labour union campaigns across the regional economy in 'The Anti-Politics
In fact, rather surprisingly, Ferguson appears to have a lot of faith in
the power of media campaigns to create a social movement 'across' national
borders. An example, he suggests, is the Zapatista movement in Chiapas,
Mexico, whose leader, Subcommandante Marcos, has 'apparently' gathered the
support of celebrities and 'apparently' appeared in a Benetton fashion shoot,
"in camouflage dress, with the glossy photo captioned: 'You have to go to
war. But what will you wear? Camouflage visual dynamic: light, photogenic
for the soldier who goes from war to war and who doesnt have time to change'
" (p108). Ferguson sees this as is a clever act of 'media politics' in which
the old style revolutionary is remade, and "local, canny grassroots operators
may trump the national ace with appeals to 'world opinion' " (p111). Yet
can a media campaign form a powerful act of resistance that reaches 'across'
The icons and images of 'resistance' movements are often incorporated, and
neutralised, by fashion and advertising. Furthermore, the appeal to 'world
opinion' is an extremely limited and unreliable form of political action
that is likely to be shaped by the perceptions of the powerful, rather than
the terms of the marginalized. Once 'support' of 'world opinion' is acquired,
what next? The 'political acumen' of the media savvy Zapatista resistance
strategy exists for Ferguson in the hope that "celebrity attention and world
press coverage may well help to protect Chiapas communities against potential
aggression" (p108). However, in recent times resistance groups that did have
transnational 'support' from celebrities and heads of state, such as the
Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), still met with brutal
oppression. What Ferguson's analysis does not take into account is that neo-liberalism
does not restrict the repressive power of the state. For Ferguson, Zapatista
tactics show that "such rhetorical and organisational moves directly challenge
state claims of vertical encompassment" (p111), meaning that state power
and authority is undermined by the struggle that reaches 'across' different
parts of the world. Yet, Ferguson's hopes for the success of the Zapatista
media campaign obscures the ways in which neo-liberalism sustains and recruits
state power to exercise 'vertical encompassment' at certain points in time
and in certain contexts. States are critical to the emerging global order;
they are not an archaic political form. Rather, they are rapidly adapting,
providing the infrastructure and the legal framework upon which market liberalisation
depends. For example, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) works
by drawing together nation-states to create a transnational order that facilitates
Images of destabilisation or should the grassroots be worldly, well-connected
Fergusons idea that the Zapatista campaign can work through the circulation
of the "image of
destabilisation through guerrilla warfare" (p108) limits the terms of the
debate by starting with the idea that "capitalism is built to perceptions"
(p108). Notwithstanding the theory of the spectacle, this also overlooks
the fact that capitalism is built on labour and so under-estimates the
significance of resistance through labour. Would it be a good idea to shape
a grassroots politics that is "worldly, well-connected and opportunistic"?
that sounds too much like the flexible practices of the transnational capitalism
which it opposes. Basing resistance strategies on the management of 'perceptions'
and 'images' seems an unstable basis on which to progress, not least as
capital investors would require greater certainty and security of return
At the start of the book Ferguson appears to suggest that capital investment
is shaped by 'perceptions' rather than 'objective data'. In the introduction,
Ferguson quotes Bhinda (1999) arguing that "negative perceptions of Africa
are a major cause of under-investment" (Bindha et al 1999:p72),
and concludes that it is 'complex investor perceptions rather than objective
data' that informs investment policy (1999:p15). For Ferguson "such perceptions
dont just misunderstand social reality; they also shape it" (p7). However,
by chapter eight, foreign investors had adapted to unstable economies and
infrastructures. Here, he argues that a new 'thin' model of the nation-state
is emerging, exemplified by Angola, in which foreign investment occurs despite
an 'inefficient' and 'corrupt' government, and a decrepit infrastructure
ruined by years of civil war. In fact, the inequalities that are brought
by globalisation are fragmenting, rather than integrating, social relations.
This process of fragmentation is both a consequence and a policy of globalisation,
and it could inform political strategies. In the Niger Delta, oil companies
have responded to protests by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger
Delta (MEND) by relocating from the Delta region to set up offshore production
and housing for foreign workers in Lagos. While the grassroots struggle 'across'
may be debated, what of the responsibility of the state official to look
'across' and address policy in a critical and informed manner? Naomi Klein
notes that if South Africans had studied the reforms in the Soviet Union,
they would have seen that economic reforms could curtail the democratic sphere.
Instead, they accepted the view of the trans-national advisors that no alternatives
to free trade policy existed (2007:p217).
Fergusons book is an insightful and original analysis of the complexities
of the economic and social processes that are termed 'globalisation'. In
particular, the common idea of globalisation as a phenomena of 'convergence',
often expressed in the naturalised metaphor of the 'flow' and 'tide', is
shown instead to be disconnected and disjointed points of investment, as
rather a set of 'jagged edges', a set of economic policies and processes
that have increased social and economic inequalities, carving out enclaves
of wealth in areas of poverty. The 'jagged edges' replace the naturalised
'flows'. Global policies do not spread prosperity, but rather exacerbate
economic inequalities and curtail the democratic means to oppose its processes.
In recent years, this overall picture of decline has been further complicated
as the balance books in some 'developing' economies show quite large increases
in GDP, yet no evidence that this wealth will 'trickle down' to the mass
of the population. Indeed, its worthwhile remembering that a range of 'disasters',
such as floods, earthquakes and wars can grow your GDP.
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Bhinda, N. et at 1999. Private Capital Flows to Africa: Perception and Reality The Hague: Forum on Debt and Development.
Daniels, J. 2008 Masai masterclass: British business men and women learn from Masai warriors how to survive in uncertain economic times, timesonline July 29th 2008.
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Ferguson, J. 1998. Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order, Durham: Duke University Press
Global Witness 1999. A Crude Awakening: The Role of Oil and Banking Industries in Angolas Civil War and the Plunder of State Assets, London:Global Witness.
Harvey, D. 2005. A Brief History of NeoLiberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Howden, D. et al. 2008. Browns African Misadventure The Independent 11/7/08.
Klein, N. 2007. The Shock Doctrine, London: Penguin Books.
Owen, J. 2008. Tribal Business School: Lessons in Business Survival from the Ultimate Survivors, London:
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