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The North African protests have renewed enthusiasm for ‘a popularly driven process mass mobilisation’, not only as a means for people to force changes in leadership, but also to ‘demand a greater say in the running of their own lives’. But can the masses sustain their status as 'full-blown political subjects', rather than 'victims' in need of ‘empowerment’, asks Michael Necosmos.

The courage, inventiveness and organisation of the people of North Africa, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt as the new year of 2011 was turning, have provided renewed enthusiasm for ‘people power’ and a popularly driven process of mass mobilisation in which people can not only force the resignation of dictators and seemingly the (partial or full) collapse of authoritarian states, but also crucially demand a greater say in the running of their own lives. In standing up against oppression in this manner, people assert that they are no longer victims but full blown political subjects.[1]

Yet the appearance of the masses on such a broad scale on the political scene for the first time since independence cannot be assumed to mean that they will remain there, and not only because coercive military power has yet to be transformed. Given the fact that this process is generally understood as one of ‘democratisation’, it becomes sooner or later systematically accompanied by an invasion of experts on ‘good governance’, ‘democracy’, ‘empowerment’, ‘civil society’ and ‘transitional justice’ inter alia who all purport to provide advice to the struggling people on how to consolidate their hard won gains, via a transitional process of reconciliation between erstwhile enemies, into a functioning democracy.[2]

In particular these experts do so because they and their funders are concerned with the plight of victims of violence. But they rarely see people from the Global South as knowledgeable rational subjects of their own history, but as sad pathetic victims in need of ‘empowerment’ who thus require the benevolent support of the West upheld since the nineteenth century by an ideology of ‘trusteeship’.[3] As experts from Western governments, multinational agencies and international NGOs descend from on high like clouds of locusts, voraciously eating up the new shoots of ‘people power’, it may be important to rethink some of the assumptions upon which such theories of transition – perhaps most explicitly outlined in the notion of ‘transitional justice’ – are founded.[4] These are so common and so pervasive in their apparent ethical ‘goodness’ that they rarely elicit criticism.

Fundamental to this thinking is the assumption that democracy – understood as a form of state of course, and not as a popular practice – must be accompanied by a ‘culture of rights’ which itself is seen as inimical to the deployment of violence. The reason being the belief that democracy implies an acceptance by all contenders for power of ‘the rules of the game’, that a consensual value system based on the mutual respect for each other’s rights and the rule of law excludes violence as a way of resolving differences, and that the commitment to such a consensus, built during a period of transition through the judging of past abuses (gross violations) of human rights through legitimate legal procedures, can lead to (elite) political reconciliation and consequently to (popular) social peace. The core assumption is that ‘transition’ is to be understood as a process of change from a state of authoritarianism and violence to a state of democracy and peace, the idea being that violence should decline as a ‘transition to democracy’ and a ‘culture of rights’ is gradually realised.

A number of characteristics of this form of reasoning are evident even at this stage of the argument. It is manifestly a variant of the old historicist notion of change from the ‘traditional’ to the ‘modern’ made famous by the hegemony of modernisation theory in the immediate postcolonial period in Africa in particular. What appears to be ‘the past’, seen as an undifferentiated whole, is simply defined negatively in relation to an idealised (future) state of affairs. Much as the term ‘traditional’, the predicate ‘authoritarian’ refers here to any form of state – irrespective of its historical location – which deviates from the Western liberal-democratic model, now global in its scope. It includes most obviously the past ‘communist’ states in Eastern Europe, the old militaristic states in Latin America as well as African post-colonial states whose secular nationalism diverged from the neoliberal ideal until around the late 1980s when formal universal suffrage was adopted by elites worried at the prospect of losing their power under democratising pressures from ‘above’ (by the ‘Washington Consensus’) and from ‘below’ (by the popular masses).

African states in particular were seen as having embarked at the time on a ‘transitional’ process of ‘democratisation’ as ‘multi-party elections’, ‘good governance’, ‘civil societies’ and ‘human rights’ were promoted inter alia through the use of ‘political conditionalities’ by the ‘Washington Consensus’ as part of a process of incorporation into the globalised ‘New World Order’ of neo-liberal capitalism and democracy.[5]

When ‘political conditionalities’ proved insufficient, it was (and still is) always possible to enforce such democracy, human rights and incorporation into the global order through the deployment of military might, more or less justified by notions of ‘humanitarian’ intervention. This may simply have lengthened the process of ‘transition’ but was never meant to alter its final outcome. In fact the ‘transition’ is apparently a never-ending one as the ideal of the West is rarely attained. The present then is turned into an ongoing ‘transition’ to an always-receding future, all along guaranteeing careers in the business of ‘good governance’. Moreover, the theoretical foundation of human rights discourse (HRD), on which this whole reasoning was constructed, is that people are seen only as victims, in particular as victims of oppressive regimes, and not as collective subjects of their own liberation. As such the law along with its trustees (governments, transnational and national NGOs, multinational agencies) are understood to be their saviours.[6] The neocolonial relationship here should be apparent, not because HRD is in itself inherently colonial, but because it is a form of state politics which is applied to neocolonial conditions with all the zeal of a ‘democratizing mission’.[7] It is these conditions which require elucidation and analysis.

The construction of indices as measures of democracy and the training by Western NGOs of experts from Africa in the use of these, much in the same way as indices had been constructed in the past in order to measure development, evidently shows how politics has been reduced to a technical process, for only a technique can be quantitatively measured.[8] Democratisation which ultimately has its roots in the struggles of people from all walks of life for greater control over their daily lives – hence in the self-constitution of a demos – is now transformed into a technical process removed from popular control and placed into the hands of experts such as ‘human rights lawyers’, ‘social entrepreneurs’, ‘governance professionals’ and ‘gender mainstreamers’ who together staff an industry whose tentacles hold up the liberal global hydra of the new imperial ‘democratising mission’ on the continent. Rather than a transition from authoritarianism to democracy, what occurred on the African continent during the 1990s can be more profitably understood as a process of systematic de-politicisation, a process of political exclusion.

If we agree with the philosopher Jacques Rancière that ‘politics begins exactly when those who “cannot” do something show that in fact they can’[9], then it is not difficult to visualise ‘de-politicisation’ as a process whereby those same people are being convinced that they really are quite incapable, that they did not do anything significant, new or different after all, despite what they may or may not have thought, as it would have all happened anyway and that in any case their work is now over. Everyone should return to their allotted place in the social structure and vacate the field of politics, leaving it to those who know how to follow unquestioningly the rules of the game (of the state): The trustees of the excluded. In fact if historicist categories are preferred, this process could be described as a never-ending ‘transition’ from the inventive politics of popular agency to the oppressive technicism of state and imperial power. A core feature of this process in South Africa in particular has been the construction of people as political victims rather than (and after many had been) political subjects, through an emphasis on legal procedures which evidently only recognise juridical agency but not political agency.[10]

The relative success of this process has in the past relied inter alia on people’s lassitude with violence and demands for justice which they have so long been denied, on the physical and emotional exhaustion of daily militancy, and on the fetishism of power. The latter promises a world in which the difficult questions and problems of ‘decision-making’ can and should be left to professionals eminently qualified, and hence paid, to do so. Yet it is apparent that this process, as currently constituted, merely gives rise to political exclusion which is not overcome by the creation of a civil society for the latter’s politics are in harmony with those of the state.[11] The result is that violence does not necessarily disappear along with the construction of a democratic state. A new oligarchy is formed (or the old one is reconstituted) precisely as a result of the de-politicisation of the masses and their political exclusion, so that the authoritarianism against which the people had rebelled in the first place is likely re-created, although now within the context of a somewhat different mode of rule and different forms of political exclusion. Of course such de-politicisation in practice is simply replicated within, as well as enabled by thought and subjectivities, as analysis becomes focussed on visualising the world through state categories. Such categories (governance, civil society, power, democracy, law, reparations, etc) objectify politics by ‘representing’ the social and thereby stress the immutability of given social places, cultures, identities and hierarchies to such an extent that state thinking becomes constructed as ‘natural’ and the immutability of place as an incontrovertible ‘fact’ evident to all. The inevitable conclusion is that there can indeed be no alternative to the politics of the state.

The neocolonial state in Africa exhibits characteristics which, in addition to its neoliberal features much emphasised in the current conjuncture by political economy[12], give rise to a fundamental contradiction between human rights and the rule of law on the one hand and state nationalism and the current concerns of national consciousness – founded on state-propagated notions of the (often newly acquired) rights of the indigenous – on the other. While democracy is said by the state to be its guiding principle, nationalism is partially collapsed into vulgar nativism and corrupt practices – from which is derived for example the oligarchy’s ‘right to steal’ justified in terms of the national interest [private accumulation is said to be in the public interest] – but it is also manifest in popular struggles against such practices, most clearly in North Africa in the current sequence. This overall contradiction is manifested in different ways in different cases but appears to be a universal feature of the state in Africa in the current period of globalised neoliberal politics.[13] This contradiction, which is a product of state politics in the neocolony, is largely insoluble through elite consensus, partly because national grievances are irresolvable through the medium of human rights discourse and partly because the oligarchy is provided with legitimised forms of enrichment at the expense of the nation. It thus regularly finds expression in forms of violence, which seem largely incontestable within the framework of the neo-colonial state without the deployment of more state (or multi-state) repressive violence. These violent contradictions arguably currently include the repressive violence of the state in Zimbabwe where the state sees human rights as little more than an imperial conspiracy, the current conflict between presidents in Côte D’Ivoire (where one relies on international support for his legitimacy and the other denounces foreign intervention), as well as the ongoing popular upsurge against the compromised nationalism of the North African secular and militaristic authoritarianisms.

They also include the case of xenophobic violence in South Africa – itself the archetype of a successful transition to democracy – which erupted in the public sphere in all its chauvinistic starkness in May 2008. Despite its popular character, this xenophobia was founded on a state politics of fear.[14] South Africa had also experienced a mass popular uprising against an authoritarian regime lasting approximately from 1984 to 1988 which was also referred to as ‘people’s power’.[15] From 1990, this was followed by an explicit and extensive ‘transition’ which systematically depoliticised and closed down popular political agency in favour of state politics, inter alia by transforming political agents into victims of human rights abuses (the now famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission process). In this case, which I have discussed elsewhere at some length[16], HRD has arguably provided one of the conditions of existence of xenophobic violence as HRD is simultaneously opposed to a resolution of the national question and inimical to the self-empowerment of the politically excluded. This is fundamentally because HRD is not so much concerned with the inclusion in the field of politics of the excluded, as with legal redress. It is not so much concerned with encouraging militancy (or even less radically with enabling an active citizenship) as with producing the passivity of victims: It thus privileges state solutions and through prioritising the law, reduces all political thought to state subjectivity. In this manner, people become transformed from subjects of history to victims of power and subjected to oppression until they re-discover their political agency along with an Idea of freedom and equality.

It follows that to attempt to understand political change in Africa through the medium of a transition from authoritarianism to democracy privileges the thinking of state politics. As a result, it can only fail to make sense of the increase in certain pervasive forms of violence in neo-colonial (post-democratic) African states. Such forms of violence are not an indication of regression to authoritarianism or of loss of momentum in an ongoing democratic transition, but rather are a necessary outcome of the combination of neoliberal capitalism and neoliberal democracy in a context of neocolonialism wherein a dominant form of oppression is national in content.

My critique of neoliberalism and democracy along with its understanding of ‘transition’ thus extends well beyond the usual radical Left critique which consists in stressing that human rights and transitional justice fail to acknowledge the issues of social justice and re-distribution [e.g. of land and other resources] in favour of the historically dispossessed.[17] This perspective ultimately boils down to ‘extending’ the conception of rights to include social, economic or cultural rights much along the lines propounded by T.H. Marshall in the 1960s.[18] This radical nationalist critique is thus limited and fundamentally statist because founded on notions of legal redress, so that it remains well within the terrain of a depoliticised technical process. At best it may advocate a modification of the state and a form of justice which is not founded on the power of victors but which would ensure greater social inclusion in the interest of all survivors.[19] Rather, social justice issues constitute only a part of a much broader national political question which is systematically reproduced in a neocolonial context by the politics of state and empire, and which is thus irresolvable via the deployment of state nationalist thinking. Given the disastrous politics of both state nationalism and state democracy which are founded on the immutability of the social, the solution to this question can only begin to be constructed by bringing affirmative politics back in to thought in order to re-politicise what has become a fundamentally depoliticised subjectivity. In this manner politics can be (re-) apprehended as subjective thought detached from social location and hence as capable of transformation rather than as the objectively immutable ‘truth’ of power and institutions. In other words the lessons of popular mass politics in North Africa must be allowed to percolate into the domain of the subjective so that a politics beyond the state can become and remain the object of thought.


* Michael Neocosmos is a professor in the [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] During the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo in February, the TV channel AlJazeera referred to the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as ‘people power’ on numerous occasions.
[2] See for example Larbi Sadiki ‘The Egypt-Tunisia Freedom Council: Western “democracy promoters” misunderstand the region, now citizens are making their own futures’. AlJazeera 27 Feb 2011
[3] See Michael Cowen and Bob Shenton, Doctrines of Development, London: Routledge, 1996.
[4] The seminal text here is Ruti Teitel, Transitional Justice, Oxford: OUP 200; but see also Richard Wilson, The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa, Cambridge: CUP 2001, and more recently Audrey Chapman and Hugo Van der Merwe, Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: did the TRC deliver? Philadelphia: UPP 2008. There is an extensive bibliography on this topic.
[5] See Neocosmos, ‘Understanding Political Subjectivities: Naming the Post-developmental State in Africa Today’ Journal of Asian and African Studies Vol. 45 No5 October 2010.
[6] See Wa Mutua, Human Rights: a political and cultural critique, Philadelphia: UPP, 2002; Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed, New York: Columbia University Press 2002 and Neocosmos, ‘Can a Human Rights Culture Enable Emancipation?’ South African Review of Sociology, Vol. 37 No.2 2006.
[7] See Wamba-dia-Wamba, ‘Democracy Today: the Case of the Democratic Republic of Congo’, Pambazuka News No. 295, 2007,
[8] See Neocosmos, ‘Naming....’ The German NGO Inwent for example has specialised in constructing and training in the use of such indices.
[9] Jacques Rancière, ‘Politics and Aesthetics’, interview with Peter Hallward, Angelaki Vol 8. No 2, 2003, p.202.
[10] Neocosmos, ‘Can a Human Rights Culture...’
[11] See Neocosmos, ‘Naming...’; Chatterjee, The Politics...
[12] See David Harvey A Brief History of Neoliberalism 2005, chapter 3 and also Abu Atris ‘A Revolution Against Neoliberalism?’,
[13] It is significant that the ubiquitous symbol at the protests of Tahrir Square in Cairo was the Egyptian flag which made the evident point that the protestors were affirming a new nation which the regime no longer represented.
[14] See Neocosmos, ‘The Politics of Fear and the Fear of Politics’, Pambazuka News Issue 380, 12/06/2008; From “Foreign Natives” to “Native Foreigners”, Dakar: Codesria, 2010, and Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, London: Penguin, 1996.
[15] Neocosmos ‘From People’s Politics to State Politics’ in A.O. Olukoshi (ed.) The Politics of Opposition in Africa, Uppsala: NAI, 1998.
[16] See Neocosmos, From “Foreign Natives” to “Native Foreigners”.
[17] Including the more sophisticated versions such as Robert Meister’s and Mahmood Mamdani’s. See Meister ‘Human Rights and the Politics of Victimhood’, 2002a and ‘The Liberalism of Fear and the Counter-Revolutionary Project’ 2002b Ethics and International Affairs, Vol 16 nos 2 and 3; Mamdani ‘Reconciliation Without Justice’ SAPEM 10:6, 1996 and ‘When does Reconciliation turn into a Denial of Justice?’ HSRC, 1998.
[18] See T.H. Marshall Class, Citizenship and Social Development, 1964, and for a critique in the context of Africa, Neocosmos, ‘Can a Human Rights Culture...
[19] In a recent lecture, Mahmood Mamdani advocated this notion of ‘survivor’s justice’ as opposed to the ‘victor’s justice’ derived from the Nuremberg model. The former is necessitated by the fact that victims and beneficiaries have to live together. The idea is important but it is not at all clear which social force(s) would have an interest in upholding such a notion and what kind of political practice would enable it. In actual fact this idea seems to suggest the existence of a politics beyond interest (i.e. beyond social location) which is what I am arguing for here.