Below is the summary I wrote of the book last November. It's very long, but for those of you interested in these topics, I think it is worth the time and effort -- and the book even more so! (I was thinking of dividing this across multiple posts, but wanted any ensuing discussion -- and I hope there's some! -- to happen in one place, so I chose not to.)
What is “Africa”? What are globalization, development and modernity? These concepts – though they may be at times vague and ill-conceived – nonetheless play a central role in discourses, economic and otherwise, about the fate of the many interconnected yet unique groups on the continent. It is understandable, James Ferguson argues, for anthropologists to dismiss the notion of a unitary “Africa” as culturally absurd, but the fact remains that just such a notion is used by many around the world, including those in Africa, to justify political and economic decisions from which anthropologists have been largely absent. In this book, Ferguson proposes ways of defining (or redefining) the idea of “Africa,” as well as the ideas of “globalization” and “modernity.” He calls on anthropologists to face these and other similar issues head-on, and to address themselves to wider audiences, in their own work.
How is “Africa” defined? Africa is a place that confounds the definitions of modernity, development, and globalization: many of the usual hopes and fears associated with these concepts simply don’t fit the case of Africa. Ferguson says Africa is often defined “through a series of lacks and absences, failings and problems, plagues and catastrophes” – when Africa is even present at all in discussion, it is as a “shadow” place of “black” markets and informal economies, parallel to, or echoing, the “legitimate,” “authentic” ones. But this view is inaccurate and inadequate, just as anthropologists’ status-blind celebration of the cultural diversity of Africa is. The latter, Ferguson argues, blithely ignores the stark economic inequalities between various regions of the world.
One particularly important site for analysis is the recent flurry of interest in “globalization” – a discussion from which Africa has been notably absent, since it does not fit into the usual arguments of cultural homogenization and transnational “flows” of capital. In chapter two, Ferguson says the naturalized description of globalization as all-encompassing “flows,” popularized by optimistic scholars like Manuel Castells, is grossly inaccurate – in reality, globalization works more as “hops” between rich cities, economic enclaves (especially mining), NGOs, or ecological protection zones, while avoiding giving much benefit to or even interacting with the “dead” spaces between. In chapter one Ferguson made it clear that the “orthodoxies” of post-WWII development theory – that capital would flow into the poorest countries and they would gradually converge with the richest in quality of life – has been devastatingly disproved: capital remained concentrated in the hands of a few economic players, increasingly protected by private militias (“security forces”), while the conditions of the vast majority not involved in these “global” economies have deteriorated (p. 35-40). Far from being “anomalous,” Ferguson suggests that this vision of globalization is a “frightening” vision of what is to come (p. 42). Instead, we should (somehow) “develop new, more situated understandings of emerging global patterns, understandings that attend tore adequately not only to exciting new interconnections, but also to the material inequalities and … disjunctures” that result (p. 49) – presumably through a renewed role for anthropology in the global arena? Though Ferguson suggests one solution in chapter 8 (described below), that is ultimately left for us to decide.
Another, related, site of analysis is the idea (or “native category”) of “modernity,” which in many ways has fueled the drive for globalization and development. Our ideas of modernity, Ferguson explains, have their roots in 19th-century social evolution: all peoples are on a single track for equal political and economic status. Though social evolution as it was understood then has long since been discredited, the appeal of a “known” path to a uniform, modern culture and standard of living proved too appealing to discard so quickly. It is only recently that our “development narratives” have been questioned, first by anthropologists who wanted to celebrate African cultures and combat the perception that they are “primitive,” and now even by economic theorists in light of continued economic hardships in Africa despite widespread adoption of “structural adjustment” programs. The optimistic developmental mantra of “not yet, just wait” has been replaced with silence and even a tacit return to a belief in “natural” status differences that marked thinking before social evolutionism. But if African nations are just as “modern” as anywhere (p. 30-31), what does “modernity” mean, anyway? Should pervasive structural poverty really be seen as just as “modern” as a well-supplied, infrastructure-backed Western lifestyle?
Ferguson suggests that such a definition of modernity is useless and advocates a middle ground – “taking a hard, and sometimes uncomfortable, look” at both the culture and the economic inequalities (and, of course, the connections between them) – would best be able to account for local understandings as well as global contexts. This doesn’t have to be culturally homogenizing; it is a method of recognizing the ties between culture and economics and documenting cultural appropriation, for instance, as potential “aspirations to overcome categorical subordination” (p. 20). As for modernity, in chapter seven Ferguson advocates seeing it not as a developmental path but as a matter of status, of a particular standard of living, that is changeable (but not along a single path). In this way, the anthropological notion of “modernity” (e.g. “alternative,” and equal, modernities) can be brought into line with local understandings of modernity (“we’re not modern because we don’t have X”) and can better speak to development debates. “For in a world of non-serialized political economic statuses,” Ferguson says,
the key questions are no longer temporal ones of societal becoming (development, modernization), but spatialized ones of policing the edges of a status group. Hence the new prominence of walls, borders, and high technologies of social exclusion in an era that likes to imagine itself as characterized by ever-expanding connection and communication. (p. 192)
Finally, Ferguson deconstructs the idea of “development” and how it should be done. In the introduction and in chapters two and three, Ferguson argues that the focus on national economic responsibility in Africa is fallacious – “the promise of democracy has been held out to African publics at just the moment in history when key matters of macro-economic policy were taken out of the hands of African states” (p. 12), particularly by structural-adjustment programs imposed by the IMF, the World Bank, and others. These programs “became a way of placing the blame for the structural problems of African economies squarely on the shoulders of African governments – and by implication on African voters themselves” (p. 12). For instance, the economic hardships of Lesotho, a small nation completely surrounded by South Africa, went unquestioned (as it was a legitimate “nation”) while the difficulties of the Transkei and other South African “Bantustan” puppet-nations were critically assessed, though both Lesotho and the Transkei had similarly strong economic and even political ties to South Africa.
... and more
Interestingly, in chapter five, Ferguson discusses a group of highly-educated native Zambians who themselves felt that their country needed to “take responsibility” for itself, though they differed on how this should be done (from making up national “traditions” to inspire nationalism in fellow Zambians to becoming “coconuts,” or white on the inside in order to become accepted members of a higher status group, a mimicry which is also discussed in chapter six), during a time of excitement in the 1990’s over an “African Renaissance.” They tended to accept the common believe that their country’s problems were because of the actions of its own political leaders and other internal factors, not seeing the problems as part of a continued historical trajectory and heavily linked to outside forces. They only turned blame outward on structural-adjustment programs and world apathy when their hopes for an African Renaissance turned to desperation for a “quick fix” and then faded altogether. Anthropologists have been loath to acknowledge the implications of the mimicry behind the actions of these and others (such as the two dead boys discussed in chapter six) – in their desire to establish African cultures as on equal footing with our own, anthropologists tend to attribute such mimicry to mocking appropriations or expressions of their own culture, which many Africans ironically find demeaning and racist (“who are they to say we’re just exercising our tribal cultures and not aspiring to live like Europeans?”). At the same time, they tend to fear cultural homogenization despite ample evidence that cultural contact does not result in homogenization but in creative appropriations.
In chapter eight, Ferguson discusses foreign investment in Africa, which has been concentrated in mining and extraction – paradoxically in some of the most unstable, violent places in Africa (despite World Bank and IMF claims that such instability discourages investment). This is because such investment can be done in a “socially thin” way, with secured and insulated enclaves instead of (expensive) social services, echoing Ferguson’s definition of globalization (and his chilling prediction that this, far from being backward, may point the way to growing forms of “globalization”) above.
In a more direct call to action in chapter three, Ferguson describes the ways in which the language of neoliberal capitalist econometrics has been divorced from moral reasoning in ways which are devastating for the African nations upon whom structural-adjustment policies are imposed, just as they were for European socialist policies of a century ago. We should learn from the widespread use of moralistic understandings of these policies “on the ground” (e.g. metaphors of eating and hunger as related to greed or generosity in various places in Africa) to explicitly incorporate morality into economic understandings and policy-making: “African traditions of moral discourse on questions of economic process may thus be understood not as backward relics to be overcome, but as intellectual and political resources for the future” (p. 82). Ferguson suggests a few places to start – for instance, study these transnational institutions that have so much power, or use our own “traditions for accounting for moral responsibility” – but ultimately leaves the question hanging. (Perhaps we could also try brainstorming alternatives.)
In chapter four Ferguson also problematizes the very idea of “on the ground” – the usual hierarchical division of local (i.e. “civil society”), state, and international – noting the curious reversal in rhetoric from bad local/good state to bad state/good local while using many of the same arguments for the opposite point of view. But domination in Africa has often come from entities that are both non-statal and non-local, but interact with one or both of these: “the state” is controlled by international companies or IMF policies, while “civil society” is similarly controlled by international organizations such as USAID, and in both cases these institutions are generally unaccountable and non-democratic. Instead, he says, we should recognize the ways in which the local, the state, and the international are merged. In this is perhaps an alternate vision of what globalization means in Africa and elsewhere: a vision of a “convergence culture,” to borrow the phrase used by Henry Jenkins, connected to – and both influencing and being influenced by – a global network of media and capital. (As a side note, this strikes a chord with me because my home discipline of communication has been working to address this issue for years.)
These new definitions suggest intriguing directions for anthropology and for thinking about Africa, modernity, development, and globalization (and “civil society”) more generally. First, how could this be taken up in our own work? What issues are there with the definitions as Ferguson has presented them – do we buy them? Second, how do they reflect on other authors we’ve read: Charles Piot’s arguments for African modernity in Togo (Ferguson explicitly critiques this on page 167), the “informal” but highly organized and hierarchical economic structures Janet Roitman documented in areas in and around Cameroon (seems to fit with Ferguson’s deconstruction of local/national/international to some degree), Liisa Malkki’s discussion of how refugees in Tanzania imagine themselves, Donald Moore’s documentation of discipline and skirmishes between local and state in Zimbabwe (where would Ferguson’s deconstruction of local/state fit with this?), Louise Meintjes’ overseas-focused musicians in Johannesburg, Nuttall and Mbembe’s ideas around Johannesburg modernity and their call to approach studies in Africa not as intrinsically “other” but a place like any other place? Finally, what can we make of Ferguson’s rallying call to anthropologists to actually weigh in on political debates, instead of (sometimes purposefully) standing by the sidelines and remaining in academic circles – do we buy that, and what are its implications? What is the future of anthropology in an increasingly non-local, status-defined world?