Watts, Michael J. “The Sinister Political Life of Community: Economies of Violence and Governable Spaces in the Niger Delta, Nigeria.” Creed, Gerald. The Seductions of Community: Emancipations, Oppressions, Quandaries. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
Community is often posed as the warm, wholesome antithesis of the anonymous cold, monster of the state. In this sense, community is often the synonymous, roseate alibi of “civil society.” Michael Watts wants to present the more sinister face of community, its antinomies that he sees as “tightly bound up with capitalism and the operations of the market place as they are with and governance” (103). They are always political and represented and should be “read against the history of the modern state. Communities demand visibility, legibility, and enumeration as preconditions for claims-making and thereby for their entry into the modern universe of the political” (102).
Watts presents a Polanyian double movement in which communities are destroyed by the relentless forces of the market, but these same conditions provide the grounds for the reactive, re-makings of alternative communities. But these re-makings always hinge on a particular politics of representation, in which community itself becomes an empty signifier, one that no single political actor defines indefinitely. In this context, Watts says he wants to explore three mostly overlooked facets of community, capitalism, and modern rule: community failure, the simultaneous despotic and emancipatory forces internal to community, and the multiply scaled, complex social affiliations of communities and its members that often create schisms in and between communities.
Watts examines these issues vis-á-vis three forms of territorialized communities (or governable spaces): chieftanship, ethnicity/indigeneity, and the nation. His goal is to show how all three communities in light of their structural relations to Nigeria’s oil complex are conformed by powers and forces that produce intricate concactenations of rule and unrule, imagining and unimagining of community. In other words, Watts wants “to think about the genesis of differing sorts of governable spaces/communities in Nigeria in relation to the ‘cold laws’ of petro-capitalist development and nation-building that provide the forcing houses within which communities are constantly made and unmade” (108).
The unique mixture of capitalism and modernity exhibited by oil development in Nigeria has been both a centralizing force of state-building and simultaneously a source of illegitimacy and fragmentation of that same process. This peculiar alchemy of money for modernity along with the “illusion of development” produced “forms of governable spaces (the product of what I call political dispersion) that sit uneasily with the very idea of Nigeria—spaces that generated forms of rule, conduct, and imagining at cross-purposes with one another, antithetical to the very idea of a coherent modern nation-state that oil, in the mythos of the West at least, represented” (115).
The displacement of chieftanship’s customary authority by youth-directed protection racket in relation to the oil companies is one of these new governable spaces (or communities) concocted amid Nigeria’s oil complex. And these spaces have complex relations and links to local state governments, the oil companies, and class forces. A second example of the antinomies of community is the making and unmaking of the Ogoni as an ethno-nationalist political community—an oil minority. Watts says it “politically fell to pieces. At its core was a profound tension between community qua ethnic identity and community qua civic populism that proved (among other things) to be its downfall.” (124). Ethnically defined states proliferated under incentives of access to oil revenues further partitioning the national governed space (Nigeria) into an unmanageable infinitude, making Nigeria itself practically unimagined.
Each space and scale subject to analysis presents strong incompatibilities with each other, dynamics tend to work at cross-purposes creating an endless dialectic of order and disorder. As Watts puts it:
For the local oil-producing community, the overthrow of gerontocratic authority has generated a “restive youth” that resembles a Mafia-style violent rule. At the level of the ethnic community, it is the tension between civic nationalism and a sort of exclusivist, militant particularism expressed through resource control (“our oil”). And at the level of the nation, one sees the contradiction between the oil-based state and fiscal centralization on the one hand, and radical state fragmentation characterized by an “unimagining” of Nigeria as a basis for full citizenship and national identity on the other. (135)