Boundaries, Sovereignty, Necropolitics

Mbembe, Achille. 2000. “At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality, and Sovereignty in Africa.” Public Culture 12(1): 259-284.

———. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15(1): 11-40.

In these two articles, Achille Mbembe explores changing territorial arrangements and configurations of sovereignty. He examines the connections and disjunctures between these two trends across the spaces and times—both plural—of the African continent. His main contention in “Edge of the World” is that the relational dynamics of space and time in globalization are leading to the “material deconstruction of existing territorial frameworks, the excision of conventional boundaries, and the simultaneous creation of mobile spaces and spaces of enclosure” in Africa (284). Domination of space and resources via territorial formations has become the primary means through which what Mbembe calls “world time” (after Heidegger) is being domesticated.

Space and resources are being mobilized in the production of boundaries “whether by moving already existing ones or by doing away with them, fragmenting them, decentering or differentiating them” (261). But rather than seeing these phenomenon as a strict legacy of colonialism or dynamics unleashed “from below,” as many have claimed, Mbembe asserts that similar processes were already inscribed by Africa’s pre-colonial configurations of land, resources, societies, and imperial rivalries.

With the onset of colonialism proper, Mbembe emphasizes not the delineation of national boundaries, but rather the internal administrative-spatial divisions at various scales (provincial, regional, urban) as the most consequential for contemporary problems (266). In the process of post-colonial state-formation, these inherited subnational divisions were reconfigured and solidified by post-colonial states with perhaps even more dire consequences, reinforcing ethnic and national fissures. “Whereas under colonization itself, the attribution of space sometimes preceded the organization of states or went hand in hand with it, since the beginning of the 1980s the reverse has been happening” (267).

In Muslim countries a networked-religious territoriality has been formed around Mosques and Middle Eastern holy places and foundations, while predominantly Christian countries have formed a more capillary logic of territory. Refugee camps, which are posed as a permanent site of exception, constitute “human concentrations with an extraterritorial status, veritable imaginary nations henceforth live” with new forms of military authority, such as mercenaries and armed youth militias (270). These conflicts are not driven by border disputes around a “desire to make an ethnocultural space coincide with the space of the state, but rather in the struggle to control resources considered to be vital,” such as water, oil, and minerals (272).

New territorial configurations are promoting the “exit” of the state and “the emergence of technologies of domination based on forms of private indirect government, which have as their function the constitution of new systems of property and new bases of social stratification” (274). Mbembe breaks down these fissures regionally along the following three axes: North Africa and Southern Africa, a diagonal from the Horn of Africa to the Congolese Coast, and the final marked by internationalized resource extraction.

The first pulls Africa in two directions, one toward the Middle East and the other with South Africa as a regional hegemon. The diagonal region is war torn through a series of warlord principalities with complicated cross-border linkages. Resource extraction from oil and minerals to diamonds is leading a deterritorialization that is superimposed on the space of the state, as in Nigeria in the context of oil and Angola with oil and diamonds. The upshot:

The material deconstruction of existing territorial frameworks goes hand in hand with the establishment of an economy of coercion whose objective is to destroy ‘superfluous’ populations and to exploit raw materials. The profitability of this kind of exploitation requires the exit of the state, its emasculation, and its replacement by fragmented forms of sovereignty. The functioning and viability of such an economy are subordinated to the manner in which the law of the distribution of weapons functions in the societies involved. Under such conditions, war as a general economy no longer necessarily implies that those who have weapons oppose each other. It is more likely to imply a conflict between those who have weapons and those who have none. (284)

This is where the essay on “necropolitics” picks up, wherein Mbembe conjoins Foucault and Agamben to claim that “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die” (11). Mbembe’s concern is “those figures of sovereignty whose central project is not the struggle for autonomy but the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations” (14). Mbembe explains why biopower, as the power over life itself, should also be thought in terms of the state of exception in examining the relationship between politics and death. Biopower is fundamentally about classifying populations into categories that are deemed worth saving and those subjected to dying (or killing). Building from Foucault, Mbembe puts racism at the center of biopower.

Indeed, in Foucault’s terms, racism is above all a technology aimed at permitting the exercise of biopower, “that old sovereign right of death.” In the economy of biopower, the function of racism is to regulate the distribution of death and to make possible the murderous functions of the state. It is, he says, “the condition for the acceptability of putting to death. (17)

Mbembe then explores how this modernization of power, which became horrifically exposed in the WWII Holocaust, developed via the slave-plantation system and colonialism. The industrialization of killing occurred through this concatenation of biopower, exception, and racism. The population being to death are of course neither Schmittian just enemies nor criminals, but subhuman. A similar dehumanization occurs vis-à-vis space in which colonies, like frontiers, are always already spaces of exception wherein there are not people, but “savages” (24).

In illustrating his point that “late-modern colonial occupation differs in many ways from early-modern occupation, particularly in it’s combining of the disciplinary, the biopolitical, and the necropolitical” Mbembe turns to Israeli colonialism in the occupied territories through the work of Eyal Weizman (summarized here). He closes by considering the war machine.

Alongside armies have therefore emerged what, following Deleuze and Guattari, we could refer to as war machines.

War machines are made up of segments of armed men that split up or merge with one another depending on the tasks to be carried out and the circumstances. Polymorphous and diffuse organizations, war machines are characterized by their capacity for metamorphosis. Their relation to space is mobile. Sometimes, they enjoy complex links with state forms (from autonomy to incorporation). The state may, of its own doing, transform itself into a war machine. It may moreover appropriate to itself an existing war machine or help to create one. (32)

These war machines are linked to the geography of resource extraction with its “enclave economies” (33) and “management of multitudes” (34). And he concludes, “In this essay I have argued that contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death (necropolitics) profoundly reconfigure the relations among resistance, sacrifice, and terror” (39).

This entry was posted in Boundaries, Carl Schmitt, Illegality, Insurgency/Counterinsurgency, Nation/Nationalism, Political Economy, Post-Colonial, Power, Race & Ethnicity, Sovereignty, Spatiality, Territory, The Body, The State, Violence. Bookmark the permalink.

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  1. Pingback: Mbembe: On the Postcolony | Territorial Masquerades

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