Foreward: Everyday State and Democracy in Africa

Ethnographic Encounters

Publication Date:

Reissue Date:

Editors: Wale Adebanwi

Publisher City: Athens, OH

Everyday State and Democracy in Africa: Ethnographic Encounters, notable for both its timeliness and breadth of vision, mobilizes the distinctive, decentering perspectives of ethnography to capture the living practices, the everyday vernaculars, of the state and democracy in contemporary Africa. It exemplifies the turn in African studies—perhaps, more accurately, return—to treating these phenomena, in the first instance, as ordinary activities of world-making rather than as formal institutions or enshrined sovereignties; although, to be sure, those ordinary activities animate the manifest architectures of governance, the concrete abstractions, that bear down on the human beings who create and inhabit them.

The volume finds uncanny resonance in what, on the face of it, is a starkly different take on the enigmas of African politics today, politics at once mundane, material, mythic: William Kentridge’s haunting Shadow Procession (1999) and its sequel, More Sweetly Play the Dance (2015). These animated films depict a recurring progression of moving images, the relentless march of history across the African continent—embodied here in anonymous human forms tramping en masse across the dystopic landscape of Johannesburg, amid the detritus of abandoned mines, industrial ventures, im/possible futures (Maltz-Leca 2018, 178). Some figures stumble or limp on prosthetic limbs. Some drag their possessions or tote the master’s burden. Some wear robes, bearing aloft palm fronds. Others march in coordinated defiance, striving, it seems, to interrupt the inexorable flow. A jubilant female soldier, up high on a platform, pans the horizon with an oversized gun as an associate waves a mammoth flag. A third holds aloft what looks like an iron cage in which he appears entrapped. Max Weber’s modernity on the move— economy, society, state, democracy?—going who-knows-where. Then a giant megaphone strides by on legs of human scale, as if broadcasting in the “language of stateness” (Hansen and Stepputat 2001, 5).

These visual metaphors trace the predatory, performative, self-inflating logics of power, the ostensibly immaculate authority of ruling hegemonies; what Kentridge, artfully, calls “concepts on legs.”1 But they also make poignantly plain that it is ordinary walkers—and how better to capture the distinctive, self-mobilizing quality of the human?—who, in their joy, inspiration, or vengeance, breathe life into the larger visions and vehicles, the ways and means, of political society. We have no idea where the interminable stream, a regiment of load-bearing walkers, comes from or where it is headed. But it presses ever onward, flowing over barriers and around obstacles, thus to trouble the integrity and fixity of established forms (Fischer 2018). All this renders manifest a democracy in, and of, practice: it enacts, for whoever may be watching or listening, the endless mystery of what it takes to make and unmake a conscience collective, to produce society, to conjure into being that other fetish-on-the-hoof, the state.

William Kentridge’s relentless walkers reiterate what he terms the “fugitive nature of anything you might be tempted to think of as an essence.”2 All social forms, in sum, are artifacts, structures of longer or shorter duration, constructed by people on the move, migrants of one sort or another, as they traipse across time and space. This, he insists, is a general truth that is less escapable in Africa than elsewhere; in places, that is, where normative fictions appear more sustainable, more resolutely “factual.”3 Similarly, we suggest, with ethnographically grounded social analysis. The point of the ethnographic gaze, not least when it is directed toward settled concepts like democracy and the state, is to look behind surface forms, elective affinities, and narrated certainties in real time, on the ground. By these means may everyday social and cultural practices be made to reveal “how realities become real, how essences become essential, how materialities materialize.” And how they persist, or melt into air (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992, 20).

The turn to the everyday, the handmade, the unfinished, the transient might seem especially apposite to the experience of our precarious, deregulated times; times in which performativity, impermanence, self-making, and “responsibilization” are leitmotifs of public discourse. But it also speaks to a more enduring truth about the variable, evanescent life span ofall social forms and conventions, past and present. And to their rootedness, however stable and structured they may appear, in the practical activity of sentient agents, existing in labile symbiosis with wider human and nonhuman worlds. While early functionalist anthropologists might have fashioned timeless, ideal-typical models of “traditional” African societies, these were self-consciously systematized renderings of colonized communities whose internal political arrangements were no less under constant construction, no less pragmatically constituted, than those of liberal-modernist, putatively democratic postcolonies; after all, over the centuries, Africa witnessed the birth, rise, fall, and demise of precolonial states, including empires and kingdoms.

Of course, Africanist political anthropology has, from the first, challenged many of the Euro-normative axioms of political science—and done so in a manner directly relevant to the perspectives and objectives of the present volume. Recall that, in his preface to African Political Systems, Radcliffe-Brown (1940, xiii, xxiii) famously asserted that the empirical observation of “simpler societies” could not be accommodated by the received paradigms of Western political philosophers or economists. Scholars of comparative institutions, he observed, were wont to depict the state as “an entity over and above the human individuals who make up a society,” attributing to it “something called ‘sovereignty,’ and ‘will,’” But states do not “exist in the phenomenal world” in this form. What do exist are a “collection of [individuals] . . . connected by a complex system of relations,” who together seek to control and regulate the use of brute force.

Radcliffe-Brown, it scarcely needs saying, was proudly structural-functionalist. Yet he was quite nuanced in his denunciation of naked positivism: without “new and fruitful ideas,” he wrote, “method in itself gives birth to nothing” (1940, xiii), a point well taken in the era of big data and neo-empiricism. In his insistence on deflating the phantasmic supremacy of the state as a “fiction” obscuring the actually existing substance of political life, he anticipated one of the genealogies to which this collection is heir: a rich seam of grounded theoretical writing in anthropology and beyond that has shown, in fastidious detail, how dispersed practices of governance and sovereignty generate the effects of the state as a reified, hegemonic form of “politically organized subjection” (Abrams 1988, 63; see also Sharma and Gupta 2006). Also, how rites of conviviality, consumption, even terror crank the handle that inflates images of stateness (Mbembe 1992)—much like the magic through which ritual and mimesis generate “society” as something sui generis, something metaphysical (Foucault 1991; Taussig 1997; Hansen and Stepputat 2005; Mazzarella 2017).

But the charmed life of reified abstractions like “the” state or democracy—and the aspirations they inspire—are never above the socio-material forces of history. However much energy is given to the work of their everyday production, they remain vulnerable to discrepancies between the vision they articulate and the realities of life-as-lived: between, on one hand, the idyll of equality, rights, inclusion, security, well-being—the elemental components, these, of consociality—and, on the other, the disruption, disempowerment, immiseration, and necropolitics that render tenuous the legitimacy of their claim to be anything other than the self- serving rhetoric of plutocratic elites (Ake 2000, 7). The slippage between promise and realization has been all too evident since the end of the Cold War, a period, as we all know well, that has seen dramatic shifts in the global political-economic order; specifically, in the triangulation of state, democracy, and market, exacerbated by the planetary consolidation of financially founded corporate power. The implications of these transformations have been particularly acute in Africa. The impact here of liberalization, deregulation, and the outsourcing of the operations of state—ostensibly to decentralize authoritarian rule and to free economic enterprise from predatory accumulation—have opened up new modalities of “private indirect government” (Mbembe 1999), rogue accumulation, and the expropriation by capital of communal assets (Peters 2018). All of which has driven ever larger numbers of unwaged people into what Kentridge has called the recurring “procession of the dispossessed” (Maltz-Leca 2018, 176).

Again, that Shadow Procession. Again, More Sweetly Play the Dance—an allusion to Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), a poem from 1940s Germany—which speaks of “a way of living through violence and a way of dying by it.”4 The questions raised by the current moment, questions arising out of the rearticulation of state, democracy, and market, questions about whether the procession leads to new ways of living or hitherto unimaginable ways of dying, are these: With the state itself becoming ever more the institutional instrumentation of the market, ever more “captured” by capital, ever less bound by any sort of social contract, wherein lies the place of a politics of ordinary life? How, under these conditions, might everyday practices engage in making a democratic politics, and, even more, sustainable sociality? What sorts of statements might they, do they, make about the predicament of the present, a present in which the state and liberal-modernist democracy, far from having entered a new symbiosis at fin de siècle, may be caught up in their own danse macabre, a negative dialectic? Given that African Political Systems, the founding text of political anthropology, began by problematizing the state and the fictions hidden by its reification—given, also, that several studies contained in that volume addressed the richness of indigenous democratic practices—what does revisiting the nature of both, of both the state and democracy, eighty years on tell us about them? And about the kinds of quotidian activity that seek to address them, animate them, live them in the here- and-now? This is the clutch of questions toward which Everyday State and Democracy in Africa: Ethnographic Encounters leads us. It is an intellectual procession out of the shadows, less a danse macabre than a lively scholarly tournament of ideas, ethnographically choreographed, about the present and future of political life in Africa, and in the world in which it is situated.

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