In On the Postcolony, Achille Mbembe writes against the making of Africa (and Africans) as a monstrous place, a timeless netherworld suspended from the forward march of modernity and progress. Africa becomes, in a word, nothing; “no more than a lacuna” (9). What happens, he asks following J.F. Bayart, when we instead think about African society in “relation to nothing other than themselves”? For Mbembe, this approach must begin with considering practices and expressions as imbued with meaning, which is also a process of the production of self and subject. The sites and moments of subjective individuation are inseparable from meaning, and they are just as much bound to the way this subjectivity is produced in the historical soils—the multiple temporalities—of everyday life.
One of Mbembe’s main points, also exhibited in another essay, is how social science can account for time as lived, inclusive of its “multiplicity and simultaneities, its presence and absences, beyond the lazy categories of permanence and change beloved of so many historians” (8). Time and subjectivity come together as the spirit of the age (15).
The first two essays in the book, “Of Commandement” and “On Private Indirect Government,” are the most focused on political economy and deal with the history and changing formations of rule and accumulation in Africa. Colonial sovereignty rested on three forms of violence. The first was founding violence, which was the condition of possibility for the other two: first, the violence of the law and the colonial sovereign as the sole power to judge those laws and, secondly, the everyday violence of the maintenance, spread, and permanence of authority (25). Under this regime, Africans became a mere “body-thing,” not even deemed subjects but animals (27). The pummeling and punishment of African was irreducibly political-economic:
As a productive agent, he/she was in effect marked [literally], broken in, compelled to provide forced labor, obliged to attend ceremonies, the aim being not only to tame and bring him/her to heel but also to extract from him/her the maximum possible use. The colonial relation, in its relation to subjection, was thus inseparable from the specific forms of punishment and simultaneous quest for productivity. (28)
Commandement, which he’s defining as a form of colonial power, was built upon three main pillars: a regime of exception in that it departed from common law (it delegated public functions to private entities), it is based on privileges and immunities (for some, the few), and it made no distinction between ruling and civilizing (29-31). “Colonial arbitrariness notoriously sought to integrate the political with the social and the ethical, while closely subordinating all three to the requirements of production and output” (31).
This hardly follows traditional or normative western ideas of sovereignty. Mbembe is also critical of accounts that explain state decomposition by claiming that statehood was an outside violent imposition. Statehood has a history in Africa; and, of course, it does not begin with European colonization.
The postcolonial potentate was thus itself a form of domination that, while using universal techniques (a state and its apparatus), had its own internal coherence and rationality both in the political-economic realm and in the imaginary… It follows that the potentate’s domination must be judged in relation to that rationality and not on the basis of some normative Weberian model that nowhere exists. (44)
Mbembe’s second essay considers how structural adjustments and financial conditionalities have helped spur the creation of new formations that do not necessarily look, talk, or walk like states. He describes this as the continent “turning inward on itself” (68) in which “marginalization,” “delinking,” and disengagement do not credibly describe the processes at work—economically or otherwise. Accumulation, taxation, coercion and warfare are all wrapped up in this form of private indirect government, which is based on a “privatization of sovereignty.”
Space and territory are being reconfigured, while allegiance, citizenship, and sovereignty are not neatly spatially circumscribed. This is not a throwback to colonial era “gangster mode” markets—though there are resemblances—but a thoroughly novel formation in which “the new forms of ‘disemboweling’ of the continent” trend from “the formal international economy toward underground channels whose tentacles, however ‘invisible’, are worldwide (from drugs and arms trafficking to money laundering” (73). In the colonial era, under commandement, along with the fighting-trading companies, the flow worked in the reverse order. The state is wasting and withering away, says Mbembe, while in its place “citizens” can be conceived as those with access to parallel networks and shadow economies (73, 84).
One of Mbembe’s main points is that global financial agencies have a huge role in producing this situation: the state is both stripped to the bone and prevented from acting in the economy. Such policies “have not simply opened the way to substantial alienation of the political sovereignty of the African states. More decisively, they have created the conditions for a privatization of this sovereignty” (78). “One characteristic of the historical sequence unfolding in Africa is the direct link that now exists between, on the one hand, deregulation and the primacy of the market and, on the other, the rise of violence and the creation of private military, paramilitary, or jurisdictional organizations” (78). The territorialization of domination works through the organization of parallel structures, whether economic or military.
The corollary of the privatization of public violence, and of its deployment in aid of private enrichment, is the accelerated development of a shadow economy over which elements of the police, the army, the customs, and the revenue services attempt to endure their grip, through drug trafficking, counterfeiting money, trade in arms and toxic waste, customs frauds, etc… What is therefore at stake is the possibility of new ways and means of subjecting and controlling people. (85)
The territorial model of the state is being exhausted or at least sapped of meaningful reference (86). It is not disengagement or delinking, but a rearticulation and configuration in which
a new form of organizing power resting on control of the principal means of coercion (armed force, means of intimidation, imprisonment, expropriation, killing) is emerging in the framework of territories that are no longer fully states. … the exercise of the right to raise taxes, seize provisions, tributes, tolls, rents, tailles, tithes and exactions make it possible to finance bands of fighters, a semblance of a civil apparatus, and an apparatus of coercion while participating in the formal and informal networks of inter-state movements of currencies and wealth (such as ivory, diamonds, timber and ore). … the process of privatizing sovereignty has been combined with war and has rested on a novel interlocking between the interests of international middlemen, businessmen, and dealers, and those of local plutocrats. (92-93)
Such formations are not necessarily irrational aberrations and far from fleeting they seem quite stable and durable.