Mer om Teori fra Sør

Av Alf Gunvald Nilsen

(Først publisert i Sosiolognytt 1/14)

I forrige bokspalte skrev jeg om Raewyn Connell’s bok Southern Theory, hvor det argumenteres for at sosiologisk teori utformes innenfor en ramme av maktrelasjoner som systematisk marginaliserer perspektiver og analytiske tilnærminger som er utviklet i det globale Sør. Connell hevder også at det teoriarbeidet som har vært og fremdeles er dominerende innenfor sosiologien konsekvent unngår å ta høyde for særegenhetene som karakteriserer sosiale relasjoner og institusjoner i koloniserte og postkoloniale samfunn. Resultatet av denne grunnleggende eurosentrismen er en kognitiv asymmetri mellom Nord og Sør der periferien blir en passiv datakilde for teorier utviklet i sentrum av verdenssystemet: ”The common logic is that a system of categories is created by metropolitan intellectuals and read outwards to societies in the periphery, where the categories are filled in empirically” (s. 66).

comaroffDenne tematikken står også sentralt i et nylig bidrag til debatten om teori fra Sør skrevet av antropologene Jean og John Comaroff – Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Towards Africa (Paradigm Publishers, 2012). Den vestlige Opplysningstiden, skriver Comaroff og Comaroff, fremstilte seg selv som en kilde til universell kunnskap og lærdom. Innenfor denne forestillingsverdenen kunne den ikke-vestlige verden ikke forstås som opphav til sofistikert kunnskap, men kun som et reservoar av ubehandlet datamateriale. Theory from the South er et forsøk på å destabilisere denne mytologien med utgangspunkt i følgende påstand: ”What if we posit that, in the present moment, it is the global south that affords privileged insight into the workings of the world at large?” (s. 1).

Denne påstanden finner sitt fundament i to relaterte argumenter som utvikles i bokens innledende essay.

For det første: Det er ikke slik, hevder forfatterne, at moderniteten først vokste frem i Vesten, for så å gradvis omslutte Resten. I et resonnement som løper parallelt med Gurminder Bhambras tilnærming i Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (Palgrave, 2007) argumenterer Jean og John Comaroff for at moderniteten vokste frem gjennom en global prosess der Nord og Sør fra begynnelsen av har vært uatskillelig innvevd i hverandre gjennom kolonialismens asymmetriske maktrelasjoner. Og dermed må også den sørlige moderniteten forstås på sine egne betingelser – og ikke som en avledning av et opprinnelig vestlig samfunnsfenomen.

For det andre: Innenfor rammen av den globale moderniteten er det ikke slik at Vesten ligger forut for Resten. Tvert i mot: nettopp på grunn av deres underordnede posisjon i verdenssystemet er det i samfunn og blant befolkninger i det globale Sør at modernitetens konsekvenser i dag er lengst fremskredet. Og som et resultat av dette er det også slik at den kunnskapen som er utviklet i disse samfunnene for å forstå disse konsekvensene også er rike på innsikter om samtidige utviklingsprosesser i det globale Nord.

Theory from the South er tettpakket med analyser av case studies fra det sørlige Afrika som videre underbygger denne comaroffsargumentasjonen. For eksempel hevder Comaroff og Comaroff at de utfordringene som vestlige samfunn nå står overfor knyttet til forholdet mellom migrasjon, statsborgerskap og andre politiske rettigheter har lange aner i en afrikansk kontekst hvor ”polikulturalisme” – det vil si, politiseringen av forskjellighet og mangfold – er et veletablert faktum. Det ”forestile felleskapet” som ligger til grunn for nasjonalstatens form har derfor også endret seg i retning av å i større grad anerkjenne et større mangfold av kollektive identiteter og politiske styringsformer. Forfatterne peker også på at protestbølgen som har feid over Europa i de senere år som en respons på de sosiale konsekvensene av finanskrisen i 2008 fortoner seg som et ekko av mer veletablerte motbevegelser i det globale Sør. I et besnærende kapittel som avslutter boken får vi innblikk i hvordan folkelig mobilisering rundt AIDS-krisen i Sør Afrika har bygget allianser til andre sosiale bevegelser som yter kjemper for en mer verdig tilværelse for landets mest marginaliserte grupper. Denne ”livspolitikken” utfordrer det formelle demokratiets prosedurale grenser, og kan dermed også fungere som veiviser for de nye bevegelsene som er i ferd med å utkrystallisere seg i det globale Nord.

Jean og John Comaroffs bok er usedvanlig rik på innsikter og vil kunne anspore viktige debatter langt utover antropologiens grenser som fagdisiplin. Om sosiologien skal ta alvorlig deres argument om at teori fra Sør også kan belyse den globale modernitetens konsekvenser i Vesten, mener jeg imidlertid at vi står overfor en stor og grunnleggende utfordring. For innenfor vår disiplin er det nemlig slik at vårt mest grunnleggende kunnskapsobjekt – ”samfunnet” – vanligvis har blitt forstått som en avsondret og avgrenset enhet som har sin opprinnelse i og får sin utviklingsdynamikk fra mekanismer og relasjoner som eksisterer innenfor denne enhetens grenser. Relasjonene mellom forskjellige samfunn – de relasjonene som til syvende og sist legger grunnlaget for det rommet vi refererer til som det internasjonale og det globale – har derimot ikke figurert sentralt innenfor sosiologisk teoridannelse.

Utfordringen vår ligger dermed i dette: Å tenke grunnleggende nytt om hvordan samfunn konstitueres, og å gjøre denne nytenkningen med henblikk på å anerkjenne at et samfunn aldri har sitt opphav i en nasjonal jomfrufødsel. Forskjellige samfunn eksisterer alltid i relasjon med hverandre, og disse relasjonene er en del av et gitt samfunns ontologiske DNA. Måten et samfunn oppstår, organiseres, og utvikler seg på er like mye drevet av relasjoner det har til andre samfunn som det er av ”interne” mekanismer og relasjoner – om det i det hele tatt er mulig å operere med slike skiller.

Og om vi knesetter en slik relasjonell tilnærming som et utgangspunkt for våre forsøk på å forstå de spesifikke manifestasjonene av en global modernitet har vi også tatt et viktig skritt i retning av å undergrave dypstrukturen i sosiologiens eurosentrisme.

More on Theory from the South

By Alf Gunvald Nilsen

In my previous review I wrote about Raewyn Connell’s book Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science (Polity Press, 2007), where the author argues that sociological theory is crafted within a framework of power relations that systematically marginalize perspectives and analytical approaches developed in the global South. Connell also maintains that the theoretical work that has been and still is prevalent within sociology consistently fails to acknowledge the specificities of social relations and institutions that characterize colonial and postcolonial societies. The result of this foundational Eurocentrism is a cognitive asymmetry between North and South, in which the periphery becomes merely a passive source of data that are to be conceptualized through theories developed in the centre of the world-system: ”The common logic is that a system of categories is created by metropolitan intellectuals and read outwards to societies in the periphery, where the categories are filled in empirically” (s. 66).

This theme is also the central concern of a recent contribution to the debate over Southern theory, penned by the comaroffanthropologists Jean and John Comaroff – Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Towards Africa (Paradigm Publishers, 2012). Western Enlightenment, the Comaroffs argue, has portrayed and perceived itself as a wellspring of universal learning and knowledge. Accordingly, the non-western world could not and still cannot be perceived as a source of sophisticated knowledge, but simply as a reservoir of raw data. Theory from the South aims to destabilize this mythology, taking its point of departure in the following crucial question: ”What if we posit that, in the present moment, it is the global south that affords privileged insight into the workings of the world at large?” (s. 1).

The assertion that ”the global south is running ahead of the north” (p. 19) is then provided with a foundation through the development of two key arguments in the book’s introductory essay.

Firstly: It is not the case, the Comaroffs argue, that modernity emerged first in the West, and only later proceeded to encompass the Rest. Paralleling the argument in Gurminder Bhambra’s Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (Palgrave, 2007) the two anthropologists claim that modernity emerged through a global process in which North and South were inextricably intertwined in each other from the very start through the asymmetrical power relations that were at the heart of colonialism. Consequently, modernity in the South must be understood on its own terms – and not as a derivative of an originary Western phenomenon.

Secondly: Within the parameters of a global modernity, the West is not ahead of the Rest. On the contrary – precisely because of their adverse incorporation into the world system, it is in societies and among popiulations in the global South that the consequences of modernity are most advanced. And as a result of this, the knowledge produced in these societies to understand these consequences are rich in insights that can illuminate nascent processes of change in the global North.

Theory from the South is packed with case studies from southern Africa that further substantiate this line of argument. For example, the Comaroffs maintain that the challenges that western societies are currently faced with in terms of the unruly relationship between migration, citizenship, and other political rights have a long lineage in the African context where ”policulturalism” – that is, ’a politicization of diversity that expresses itself in demands not merely for recognition but also for a measure of sovereignty against the state and against the idea of the universal citizen …’ (p. 24) – is a well-established fact. The ”imagined community” that provides the foundation for the form of the nation-state has therefore also changed in the direction of recognizing a greater diversity of collective identities and modes of political governance.

The case is also made that the current wave of protest that has swept across Europe in response to the social consequences of financial crisis appears as an echo of more long-standing  social movements in the global South. In an evocative and compelling essay that concludes the book, we are offered insights into how popular mobilization around the AIDS crisis in South Africa has proceeded by constructing alliances to other social movements fighting for a dignified existence for ”the poors” of the country. And this ”popular politics of life” (p. 43) challenges the procedural limits of formal democracy in ways that may also help the new movements of the global North chart a course forward.

Jean and John Comaroff’s book is extraordinarily rich in insights, and should be capable of generating important debates well beyond the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology. Indeed, if sociology is to take seriously the argument that theory from the South can illuminate the consequences of global modernity in the West, we have to contend with a fundamental conceptual challenge. For within our discipline, our most basic object of knowledge – ”society” – tends to be conceived of as a circumscribed and delimited entity, which has its origins in and derives its developmental dynamics from mechanisms and relations that are internal to this entity. Relations between different societies – the relations that ultimately constitute the spaces that we refer to as the international and the global – have not featured centrally in sociological theoretical work at all.

Our challenge, then, is this: To rethink, fundamentally, the ways in which societies are constituted, and to carry out this rethinking with a view to acknowledging that a society never originates from a kind of national immaculate conception. Different societies always exist in relation to each other, and these relations are in turn part of the ontological DNA of a particular social formation. Hence, the ways in which a society emerges, the ways in which it is organized, and the ways in which it develops are driven as much by the relations to other societies that it is embedded in as it is by ”internal” mechanisms and relations – to the extent that the distinction between external/internal carries any substantial meaning at all.

And if we establish such a relational approach as the point of departure for our attempts to grapple with the specific manifestations of global modernity, we will also have taken an important step in the direction of undermining the conceptual deep structure of sociology’s Eurocentrism. For the making of modernity cannot then be construed as a Western achievement; it has to be understood, as the Comaroffs propose, as a ”world-historical process” (p. 6).

New Review of “Marxism and Social Movements”

Mark Bergfeld has penned an insightful review of “Marxism and Social Movements” (Brill, 2013) in the latest issue of Oxford Left Review. The text is reproduced below, courtesty of the author. 

Colin Barker et al – Marxism and Social Movements

 

47768There has been much talk of the return of Marx since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Yet many radicals argue that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Both are true. Millions of people have watched David Harvey’s Capital lectures on youtube in the wake of financial meltdown, yet days lost to industrial action remains at an all-time low across North America and the UK. The Financial Times positively dissects Marx’s ideas in their weekend edition, yet today’s radical movements such as Climate Camp, Slutwalk, or Occupy treat Marx with suspicion or even contempt.

 

These contradictory phenomena make Barker et al.’s Marxism and Social Movements all the more important. The essays  in this collection strive toward developing the tools necessary to understand today’s social movements, the marginality of Marxism within them and, at last, develop a Marxist framework for social movement research and practice. Especially the latter is characterised by the absence and omission of Marxism. Commonly accepted theoretical frameworks such as ‘Resource Mobilization Theory’ (RMT) or ‘New Social Movements’ (NSM) might be indebted to Marxism yet they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater all together. In their quest to rationalise social movements they have turned to unlikely bedfellows such as Milton Friedman or conclusions which treat all social movements as totally distinct from one another. There are however prominent social movement researchers such as Charles Tilly, Doug McAdam, and Sidney Tarrow. All of these stand in dialogue with Marxism yet emanate from outside of it. This renders Barker et al’s book all the more important even if one does not necessarily label oneself a Marxist.

 

In roughly 400 pages the authors outline Marxism’s contribution to social movement research and practice. These consist in its theory of organisation of power. Without an analysis of the powers which social movements contest social movement research is unncessarily limited according to the authors. Concepts such as Gramsci’s concept of hegemony can help social movement researchers and activists in their everyday quest how ruling classes mobilise and develop strategies against the oppressed. Secondly, the authors highlight that Marxism can provide an adequate theory of popular agency. Both mainstream approaches such as RMT and NSM and anti-capitalist approaches such as Negri and Hardt’s concept of “the multitude” might be able to describe processes within social movements yet they cannot generate a philosophy of praxis which understands different actors within social movements as mediating different class interests. Finally, they conceptualise Marxism as a theory of strategic transformation – in other words, revolution. This does not counterpose reforms to revolution but rather regards reforms as a successive approximation to an ultimate goal.

In brief, Marxism’s contribution to social movements can be summed up best by the following words provided in the introduction: “a theory of and for movements [own emphasis]” (15).

 

Rather than outlining arguments from within Marxism, the author of this essay takes the right to discuss the book on the terms which he has encountered in his participation in social movements over the last decade. From the alter-globalisation movement – or, anti-capitalist movement – at the beginning of the 21st Century, the anti-war movement after 9/11, the climate protests around the COP-15 in Copenhagen, the recent student revolt in the UK to Occupy the author identifies that Marxism has remained a marginal force. Instead the author has encountered the dominance of ideas and practices mostly associated with anti-authoritarianism or ‘horizontalism’: consensus decision-making and the refutation of formal leadership and organisation. It is a testimony to Marx’s method and, primarily, the authors of this book that it connects to some of the lived experiences the author has had inside social movements. The fact that it takes up contemporary debates such as leadership in social movements, organisation, the production of space, and learning processes shows the limitlessness of this method and that Marxism has a role to play within academic social movement research and the movements themselves. There is however one shortcoming: the lack of any discussion on the digital dimension within social movements today.

 

Beyond binaries in social movements 

 

The question of leadership is a continuous sticking point within social movements. Most people coming into social movements associate leadership with Stalin’s moustache, white men in dark committee rooms and the ten commandments coming from Moses, or a central committee, from the mountain top. Colin Barker sets out a very different notion of leadership within social movements. The theoretical influences range from Vygotsky, Freire to Bakhtin. Barker argues that leadership is based on two-way communication. Due to capitalist social relations there will be leaders. Within social movements leadership is based on the ability to convey the aims, articulate demands and communicate with the supporters and activists of the social movement. In turn, social movements grant leaders legitimacy through continuous dialogue. Barker first advanced the ideas of “dialogical leadership” in his book called Leadership and Social Movements. The book might have been written in 2001 but the idea is far from out-dated. Most recently Paolo Gerbaudo appraised it in his book Tweets and The Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism (Pluto, 2012).

 

This critical realist approach acknowledges the fact that there will be leaders – formal or informal – within social movements. It implies a distinction between those who call themselves ‘leaders’ and those who are – whether elected or not. In doing so it is able to transcend the vanguard-leaderlessness binary which is encountered in movements and political activities so frequently. The book would have done well to analyse the various concepts of leadership which have emerged from the last round of struggle. Whether it is the leaderless discourses of Mason, Castells and Juris or the Occupy Research’s notion of “leaderfull” or the concept of distributed leadership which sees leadership vested in collectives and informal groups rather than individuals. In any case, Collins’s article as well as Barker’s theses help us to

to understand the complex relationship between protest organisers, movement- activists and the social movements they participate in. The key lesson is: actions and events do not rise out of nowhere—they involve some degree of planning, co-ordination and coalition building, paying attention to pre-existing social ties, mobilising structures and social networks.

 

The network-organisation dichotomy is another hotly debated issue both within movements and academia. Organisationl questions are as old as the workers’ movement itself. From Marx’s Manifesto for the Communist Party, Lenin’s What is to be Done?, to Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike - all of them deal with organisational questions in one way or another. Today’s dominant organisational practices differ substantially from what Lenin prescribed for Russian Social Democracy in 1903. Today’s popular writers profess “horizontalism” (Sitrin 2006), “demandlessness” (Graeber 2009), and consensus decision-making (Graeber 2013) In their scheme, networks are the extended conclusion to the spontaneous logic of social life. Organisations, on the other hand, are imposed structures which reproduce hierarchies and capitalist social relations. 

 

On the contrary, Barker argues the following: Firstly, organisations are distinct from social movements. Secondly, social movements are always networked. As different social forces organise within movements, they will seek to express themselves in different way. What does this mean for the different nodes inside the network? Can they ever be equal? Barker writes: “The ‘class struggle’ occurs not only between movements and their antagonists, but also within them: their ideas, forms of organisation and repertoires of contention are all within their opponents’ ‘strategic sights’.” (48) In other words, different ideas exist side by side and compete against one another within social movements. It is not a question whether we, as individual activists, prefer ‘horizontal’ organisation over ‘vertical’ organisation but rather whether we are able to adapt our forms of organisation to match those of the movement’s opponents.

 

Testing the limits

 

Given the space of this review essay the author must limit the discussion to a limited amount of contributions within the collection. One of the essays which connects to some of the discussions frequently encountered social movements is Chris Hesketh’s one on the EZLN and the struggles of the indigenous peoples in Chiapas, Mexico. In his essay Hesketh draws upon one of the most influential living Marxists David Harvey to analyse the aforementioned social movement. According to Hesketh, Harvey has sought to understand “how social movements have sought to contest and remake space in a radically different image” (209). Many of his ideas, Harvey has drawn from French philsopher and urban theorist Henri Lefevbre. For Lefevbre – writing in the 1960s/1970s – the labour-capital antagonism had been supplanted by a new ‘urban’ antagonism. This created the basis for new subjectivities as well new possibilities for the resistance to capital. In his attempt to create a “unitary theory of space” he updated and expanded Marx’s notion of reproduction.

 

In his analysis of the EZLN, Hesketh argues that space and the antagonisms it creates must lie at the heart of a Marxist theory of social movements. Despite the fact that the struggle of the EZLN lay in the 1990s, it continues to inspire and inform activists and theorists to-date. Hesketh’s Marxist account successfully demonstrates the potentialities and the limitlessness of Marx’s method to understand contemporary social movements. With the reemergence of occupations of ‘spaces’ from Gezi Park to the Oakland Commune Lefevbre’s and Harvey’s insights enrich our understanding of the varied forms of contention to capitalism. In this collection Hesketh shows how a Marxist theory of social movements can make use of these. This is particularly prescient given that these struggles are far more frequent and of greater impact inside of activist-circles than recent workers’ factory occupations at the point of production.    

 

The two contributions by Irish social movement researcher Laurence Cox provide us with further food for thought. In

In the past, he and his collaborator Alf Gunvald Nilsen have argued that social movement theories often develop in separation from the ‘lay theories’ which activists develop in their day-to-day practice. For both, Marxism constitutes what Gramsci calls the Philosophy of Praxis. In his contribution Thinking the Social Movement, Cox writes “these movements are not only objects of theory: they are also creators of theory. […].Social movement studies, with its scholastic isolation of ‘theorists’ for study, has little place for this kind of perspective, and – at best – grants movements the right to propose new matter for scholarly consideration.” (145) In other words, social movements constitute learning processes and produce knowledge for individuals and groups of people in their mediation with the world – regardless of whether they attain their objective or a change in policy. “movements: they are not simply the reproduction of unreflected activity, but creative processes which – in order to mobilise the unmobilised and change the world – have to keep on reaching beyond themselves. They are constantly in debate over ‘what should we do?’, contesting given assumptions as to how the world is. They continually generate ‘how-to-do-it’ theory, whether in cultural traditions, informal apprenticeship and ‘mentoring’ situations, or formal training programmes and manuals” (145) Thus social movements create a different kind of knowledge. It is a process of exploration, of reaching and transcending limits imposed by capitalism. While schools and universities reproduce the ideas of the ruling classes, social movements create democratic spaces of learning in which actors are co-producers of knowledge. The advent of blogs, twitter, photo and video has a transformative effect on social movements as it lowers the barriers of entry. The sheer volume of information, analysis and photos, for example, collected on the Occupy Wall Street protests would have been unimaginable just ten years ago. Yet this dimension of activism and its effect on social movements is not unforunately  not explored anywhere throughout the book.

 

While one may disagree with Manuel Castells he certainly has shaped the way many social movement researchers conceive the relation between political action and communication technologies. Some of his majestic claims such as “the networked social movements of the digital age represent a new species of social movement” (2012: 5) have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless he exerts influence over activists’ social movement practice and the way they make sense of the world. In the book’s introduction Barker et al write “the pity, again, is that this practical commitment to popular movements is not matched by any theory of movements; instead, books like those by Holloway and by Hardt and Negri celebrate popular insurgency while disavowing any constructive suggestions as to what such movements should do.” (20) The same could be said for Castells.

 

However, since the rise of the alter-globalisation movement there are debates within academic and activist circles about the extent to which social media and new communication technologies mediate new forms of political action, organisation and organising and inside social movements. Marxism has to come to terms with these debates just as Barker successfully displays in his discussion on leadership and organisation in social movements. The professed digitally-mediated democratisation of activist and protest culture calls for such an examination. Marxists such as Aouragh, Alexander, El-Hamalawy, Fuchs and the author of this review himself have made a number of contributions which attempt to develop such as Marxist method as social media does play an increased organisational role for individual activists and social movements themselves. Unfortunately there is no to little cross-fertilization between those researching media practices in social movements and those authors within the collection.

 

Final remarks

 

None of this should however distract us from the authors’ unrelentless commmitment to popular emancipation from below and their insistence on bringing capitalism back into social movement studies after the cultural turn in academia. This collection will hopefully inspire those Marxists who have come through the last wave of global struggle. The current price tag attached is hefty. But the paperback version by Haymarket books is not too far off. Those with library access should however make sure to order it through their insitution. 

 

Finally, if I were to name one grandstanding achievement of the book it is Colin Barker’s essay Class Struggle and Social Movements. Here, Barker argues that movements are not opposed to class struggle but are its “mediated expression” (47). In doing so he has achieved the impossible. He unites vulgar Marxists and mainstream social movement researchers in disagreement against him. Great job!

 

 

 

 

 

Of Sociology and its Miseducation

Alf Gunvald Nilsen

(Originally published in Norwegian in the May/2013 issue of Sosiolognytt)

“We have been taught, inside the classroom and outside of it, that there exists an entity called the West, and that one can think of this West as a society and civilization independent of and in opposition to other societies and civilizations.” Thus wrote the Austrian anthropologist Eric R. Wold in his classic book Europe and the People Without History (University of California Press, 1982, p. 5). The book posits a seminal critique of the tendency within social science to think of historical processes and social relations as phenomena whose borders dovetail with those of the nation-state: “Each society is then a thing, moving in response to an inner clockwork.” (p. 9).

Wolf’s book in many ways foreshadowed the more recent critique of methodological nationalism that has been put forward by sociologists like Daniel Chernilo and Ulrich Beck. This critique has often been articulated in relation to contemporary globalizing processes such as migration, environmental destruction, transnational social movements, and supranational governance that problematize the notion of the nation-state as a container of the social in the new millennium. Wolf, however, raised a more extensive and profoundly historical question about social processes and territorial boundaries. For, if it is correct to say that at social relations at one point in time social relations actually “respected” territorial boundaries, why is it then that there were more Greeks fighting for Persian kings than there were Greeks in the ranks of the Hellenic Alliance during the Persian wars of 500 to 448 BCE?

RETHMODIt is precisely this kind of historical approach which is characteristic of the argument that Gurminder K. Bhambra develops in one of the most important interventions on the state of sociological thought in recent years – the prize-winning volume Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (Palgrave, 2007). Bhambra’s critique targets the basic understanding of modernity – and the central political, economic, and cultural institutions of modernity – within historical sociology. The problem that she focuses on can be called the Eurocentric methodological nationalism of the conceptual deep structure of historical sociology: modernity is understood as a manifestation of a qualitative historical rupture, brought about by processes of change across a range of social spheres, which was unique to the cultural and geographical sphere of the west. Accordingly, the modern nation-state emerged from the bourgeois revolution in France; industrial capitalism originated in the British industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century; critical scientific knowledge can be traced back to the Enlightenment era and Europe’s cultural unity is rooted in the Renaissance.

It’s a well-known story for many of us – I have myself, albeit with considerable discomfort, presented this narrative to countless students over the years. And it is, Bhambra argues, a narrative that we need to problematize. The reason why we need to question this perspective is that when classical sociology established the analytical divide between tradition (past) and modernity (present) and drew up hard and fast lines between the west and the rest, it also displaced colonialism from the grand narrative of the emergence of modern society.

So we learn that political modernity – the sovereign nation-state – emerged from the French revolution, but not that the nation-state emerged in tandem with the colonial state, and that many of the political and administrative technologies that are deemed to be unique to European configurations of state power were initially developed in the totalitarian laboratories of colonialism; nor do we learn that many of the early modern, non-western states – for example, India’s Mughal empire – were far ahead of Europe in terms of political and administrative infrastructures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We learn that economic modernity – industrial capitalism – emerged from the industrial revolution in Britain, but not that western states were marginal entities in global trading networks dominated by Asia in the early modern world system; and we do not ask ourselves whether the ability of the west to move from the periphery to the centre of this world system during a short period of time was rendered possible by a flow of raw materials and human beings (read: slaves) that was ultimately founded on violent coercion military force. And finally – we learn about the Renaissance as the birthplace of Europe’s cultural integrity, but not how the forms of knowledge and the cultural expressions that are so often hailed as defining of this era developed in a space that one cannot credibly describe as western.

A standard response to the kind of critique that Bhambra puts forward is that these are problems of sociology’s past. After all, these days we talk of modernity in the plural: multiple modernities, alternative modernities, regional modernities, and hybrid modernities, for example. In other words, we acknowledge that there are many ways in which to be modern.

However, Bhambra argues that this simply will not do, because the underlying logic of the argument is that modernity first developed within the boundaries of the west, and then spread beyond these boundaries, to the non-western world, where it has been reshaped and moulded according to local and regional conditions. A Eurocentric methodological nationalism still constitutes the deep structure of this perspective, and it is precisely this which is at the heart of the miseducation that defines so much of the discipline of sociology today.

The question we need to ask ourselves – and to find an answer to – is the following: what if modernity was not first western and then became global? What if modernity has always been global? What does that entail for the way in which we think, practice, and – not least – teach sociology?

Theory From the South?

Alf Gunvald Nilsen

(Originally published in Norwegian in the November issue of Sosiolognytt)

“Can non-Europeans think?” – this was the title of an op-ed penned by Hamid Dabashi, professor at Columbia University for Al Jazeera in January this year. The op-ed commented on the tendency in public and academic debates to portray western philosophers as figures that articulate perspectives that are of universal significance, while non-western philosophers – on the rare occasions when they are actually acknowledged – are considered to be producers of forms of knowledge that are only relevant to their specific African, Asian or Latin American context.

The same question comes to mind in relation to the theoreticians who constitute the main focus of attention in the textbook Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory, by Scott A. Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles (Sage, 2012) – a text which constitutes the cornerstone of students’ first encounter with sociological theory at my own institution, the University of Bergen. In this book, the vast majority of scholars represented are white, western men, while non-white, non-western, and women thinkers constitute a fledgling minority.

Appelrouth/Edles: Classical   and Contemporary Sociological Theory: Texts and Readings

 Men  Women
 Western/White  24 5
 Non-western/Non-White 2 1

The scenario is much the same in other texts used at higher level theory courses, and the sub-text is easy enough to decipher: whatever has been or is being done in terms of systematic theorizations of the form, dynamics and development of the entity that we refer to as “society” has occurred or is occurring in the west. And whatever is going on in terms of knowledge production in the social sciences south of the Equator is not of interest or relevance for us as sociologists or for sociology in general.

connellIt is this situation that constitutes the point of departure for Raewyn Connell’s book Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science (Polity Press, 2007). The books title points to the power relations that have left their imprint on theoretical work in the social sciences in general and sociology in particular in such a way that perspectives and analytical tools produced by intellectuals in the global South are effectively marginalized in the dominant scholarly discourse.

In the first – and by far most interesting – part of the book Connell presents a compelling analysis of the “westernness” of dominant sociological paradigms, and how this “westernness” is concealed beneath a thin veneer of claims to universality. She starts off by problematizing the conventional origin story that is normally peddled about sociology: contrary to what textbooks claim, Connell writes, sociological theory did not originate as a response to socioeconomic and political transformations in European societies. On the contrary, early sociology spanned much more than just the European orbit, and founded its theories of change and order on a notion of global difference, in which the western “metropole” represented civilization and the non-western “periphery” represented the primitive. And this was in turn a result of the spatial and historical context in which sociology emerged: “Sociology was formed within the culture of imperialism, and embodied an intellectual response to the colonised world.” (p. 9).

However, this context was erased in early sociological treatises and then entirely relegated in the perspectives that emerged in the post-war era. This, however, does not entail that the metatheoretical assumptions that flow from the fact that sociology is moored in the west as a centre of geopolitical power simply vanish. In a fascinating reading of Coleman, Giddens, and Bourdieu, Connell shows how sociological theories that make claims to universal validity and relevance consistently evade colonialism as a historical process and experience when analyses of social relations, societal institutions and structural change are articulated. The same pattern characterizes sociological theories of globalization. The underlying logic remains the same: a system of theoretical categories are created in the west and then turned “outwards”, in the direction of the global South, where the categories are then “filled” with empirical data. The majority world – and lest we forget, that means the global South – is thus reduced to being merely an object for a thoroughly Eurocentric social science.

The second and third parts of the book turn to the global South and a discussion of theoretical contributions to social science from Australia, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Reading these chapters entails acquiring compelling knowledge about everything from sociological critiques of western dominance developed through dialogues with Islam to Latin American theories of dependency between centre and periphery in the world economy. In and of itself, this is very interesting, and as far as I’m concerned, it is as much a matter of course that a student – having completed her undergraduate degree in the social sciences – should be familiar with the work of Partha Chatterjee and Nestor García Calini as it is a matter of course that she should know the work of Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu.

However – there is something that remains unsatisfactory about this part of Connells project. Despite the fact that we are provided Screenshot 2013-10-17 15.44.36 copywith an overview of theories from the South, Connell does not – to any significant extent, at least – put forward a systematic attempt to explain to us as readers how these perspectives can be brought together in such a way as to effectively challenge the explicit and implicit Eurocentrism of sociology. As I see it, such a project would demand a far more thoroughgoing rethinking of the most foundational concepts that we have at our disposal in sociology – particularly in terms of understanding how the processes through which societies crystallize always entail a relation – or rather, a set of relations – between different societies. This will be a core theme of my next review, which will engage with Jean and John Comaroff’s Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa (Paradigm Publishers, 2011).

 

Review of Vijay Prashad’s “The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South”

Originally published in Capital and Class (37/3)

The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South
Verso, 2012, 304 pp.
isbn: 978-1844679522 (hbk) £16.99

Reviewed by Alf Gunvald Nilsen, University of Bergen/Norway

With The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South Vijay Prashad concludes his project of ‘telling the history of the contemporary world (the past hundred years) from the standpoint of the South’ (see Prashad, 2013) – a project that started with his seminal study of the Third World Project, The Darker Nations: A Biography of the Short-Lived Third World (Prashad, 2007). In fact, The Poorer Nations flows from the author’s sense of dissatisfaction with the prequel’s conclusion, which, according to himself, ‘was told in haste and it appeared to be without a dynamic that led any further, it implied that there was no hope for the rejuvenation of a Southern agenda’ (Prashad, 2013).

Prashad1This shortcoming is amply rectified in the volume under review, which subjects the decline of the Third World Project as a radical force, its many and contradictory metamorphoses during the 1980s and 1990s, the current rise of the BRICS states, and the proliferation of popular resistance to neoliberalism in the global South to a discerning analysis. Admittedly, Prashad covers a very familiar terrain in this book – the decline of the post-World War II capitalist order, in which market forces were embedded in regimes of state intervention and regulation, and the rise to global hegemony of the neoliberal project. However, it is singularly to his credit that he manages to do so in a genuinely original way, which brings to light aspects of this trajectory that are far too often neglected in the extant Marxist literature on the subject.

Prashad’s point of departure is the unraveling of the Third World Project in the context of the political and economic crisis of post-World War II capitalism – dubbed here ‘Northern Atlantic Liberalism’ (15) – during the 1970s. This was not, Prashad argues, merely the effect of the internal contradictions of the Third World Project – which were dissected and discussed at length in The Darker Nations – but the result of a co-ordinated offensive by the G7 powers to advance a project of neoliberal restructuring. This offensive was multi-pronged: it did not just target the Third World Project, but also the Communist bloc and the remaining vestiges of social democracy in western Europe; it entailed a change of guard in international financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, as well as in key United Nations organisations, that witnessed the departure of the Keynesians and the grand entrance of the monetarists; and – perhaps most crucially – it relied on the utilisation of the international debt crisis as lever by which to enforce a new policy regime across large parts of the Global South. This facilitated the reintegration of Southern economies on adverse terms into what Prashad calls ‘the new geography of production’ (4) and thus also the reproduction of Northern hegemony in the world-system. ‘Rather than a South-led New International Economic Order, the world had to live with a North-led International Property Order’ (7).

In many extant accounts of the trajectory of global capitalism, this is normally the point at which the Global South recedes into the background, more often than not cast as the passive victim of the hegemonic projects of transnational elites and the institutions they act in and through. Not so in the case of The Poorer Nations. What we get instead is a detailed narrative of the metamorphoses – and, arguably, transmogrifications – of the Third World Project across the 1980s and 1990s – the ‘lost decades’ of development across substantial swathes of the South. The most innovative and valuable part of this analysis is undoubtedly Prashad’s groundbreaking analysis of the work of the South Commission (1986-1990) under the leadership of Julius Nyerere. The story of the South Commission is one in which persistent ambitions towards progressive change runs up against both the limits imposed by a rapidly changing geopolitical economy and the erosion of Third World solidarity. The outcome was a report that sidelined concerns with equity in favour of the growth imperative, and which singled out the larger nations of the South as ‘locomotives’ that would have ‘to pull along the smaller and less endowed states. Only growth in these locomotives would be able to fire up the rest of the South from its condition of dormancy’ (89).

What this account accomplishes is to render the narrative of the neoliberal counterrevolution in a far more complex and textured way than what has now become standard fare in the literature on global political economy. This narrative is distinctive and valuable becaus of its Southern vantage point, which gives voice to an at times cacophonic and incongruous panoply of voices and visions that otherwise tends made invisible as irrelevant in the big scheme of things. In light of the fact that the frustrated project of the South Commission re-emerged as the G15 in the early 1990s, followed by the IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) constellation and ultimately the rise of the BRICS states in the 2000s, the significance of the story that Prashad unravels in the middle-section (chapters 2 and 3) of The Poorer Nations is self-evident.

prashad 2In contrast to some – also on the left – Prashad is by no means a cheerleader for the BRICS project. He recognises the significance of the vast increase in global economic salience that underpins the newfound confidence of the BRICS states, but simultaneously points out three decisive weaknesses: 1) the lack of a military platform to challenge NATO dominance; 2) the failure to entrench economic capacities in an alternative institutional infrastructure; and 3) the lack of a distinct ideological alternative to neoliberalism. Whereas the BRICS project cannot be construed as ‘a capitulation to the North’, he argues, it nevertheless amounts to ‘Neoliberalism with Southern Characteristics’ (145). Its discontents are legion, and it is here that Prashad finds hope for a rejuvenated Southern agenda.

In the final chapter of the book, we are thus presented with a sweeping tour through the terrain of popular resistance to neoliberalism in the Global South that spans the IMF riots of the 1980s and 1990s, the emergence of transnational movement networks and the alterglobalisation agenda, Latin America’s Pink Tide, and the sometimes inchoate oppositional projects that are crystallising in the ever-growing ‘slumlands’ (271) of Southern mega-cities. Prashad’s analysis is arguably at its most perceptive when it engages with the Pink Tide in Latin America – the accomplishments and limitations of which are judiciously and critically assessed. However, if I have one quibble with the book, it would be that it fails to engage in equal detail with the forms of popular mobilisation that are emerging in parts of Asia, and particularly in India and China. The weight that India and China carry in the BRICS project would suggest that the future trajectory of struggles against inequality and dispossession in these states are likely to be of the utmost significance. It is therefore somewhat surprising to find that Prashad has relatively little to say about these convulsions.

Everything in perspective, though: this is a quibble, perhaps rooted in the current reviewer’s own interests and orientations more than anything else. The Poorer Nations is an extremely valuable – even pivotal, in many respects – contribution that advances our understanding of the historical trajectory of the Global South on a number of fronts. It deserves a wide readership, both inside and outside academia.

References

Prashad, V. (2007): The Darker Nations: A Biography of the Short-Lived Third World. New Delhi: Leftword Books

Prashad, V. (2012): The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. London: Verso

Prashad, V. (2013): “New Texts Out Now: Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South”, interview available at http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/10653/new-texts-out-now_vijay-prashad-the-poorer-nations.

Vernacular Rights Cultures in the Bhil Heartland: Reflections on Democratic Grassroots Struggles

Alf Gunvald Nilsen

(Based on a talk at the international workshop Neoliberal Development and Indian Democracy: The Politics of Rights, Rebellions and Reforms, Stockholm University, 10-12 October 2013)

Introductory Remarks

Having been asked to talk about the emergence of ‘vernacular rights cultures’ in the Bhil heartland, I should start by explaining what I understand by this concept. The term is a borrowed one – I draw it from a reading of Sumi Madhok’s fascinating work on rights-based claims-making in northwestern India (see e.g. Madhok, 2013). The term is a useful one in that it directs our attention to the fact that the emergence of rights cultures does not entail the unfolding of a universal liberal-democratic script centred on the personal and political rights. Rather, claims for democratic rights and the prerogatives of citizenship emerge in the context of and are refracted through regional histories of claims-making, and are consrquently also mediated through and inflected with vernacular idioms that are specific to a given locale of struggle (see e.g. Subramanian, 2009).

Alirajpur1This insight can be extremely useful as we seek to grapple with the emergence of rights-based legislation and activism that is focused on the introduction and implementation of such legislation in India. In a perceptive article in Pacific Affairs, Phillipa  Williams and colleagues argue that the proliferation of rights-based legislation under the UPA1/2 governments has pluralized the spaces within which subaltern groups can craft rights-based claims – and an awareness of the role played by processes of vernacularization will surely be relevant to the study of new and emergent forms of subaltern politics in India (Williams, Vira and Chopra, 2011).

The article is also a very good example of another trend in current scholarship on state-society relations and subaltern politics in India in its conceptual reliance on the Foucauldian notion of “governmentality” in which state power is not understood as emanating from a unitary centre of power, but as being manifest instead in multiple and contradictory articulations of power dispersed across a multiplicity of sites (see Foucault, 2009). This enables an analytical engagement with subaltern politics as it actually exists in neoliberal India, but – as I have also argued elsewhere (Nilsen, 2011) – it arguably leaves us ill-equipped to understand those moments when the state actually comes to act in a unified manner in response to assertion from below.

In the following reflections, then, I shall try to illustrate the relevance of the idea of vernacularization in the study of democratic subaltern politics and to argue for the need to integrate the insights of the new Foucauldian ethnographies of state-society relations in India with a historical sociology of colonial and postcolonial state formation.

Everyday Tyranny in the Bhil Heartland

The area that I refer to as the Bhil heartland comprises districts in eastern Gujarat, northeastern Maharashtra, western Madhya Pradesh, and southern Rajasthan in which the Bhil Adivasis of western India are concentrated. My own research in this region has focused on western Madhya Pradesh, and the emergence of grassroots struggles in this region that aimed to democratize local state-society relations during the 1980s and 1990s. I have focused in particular on the activism of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (Alirajpur district) and the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (Khargone district).

bh

In western Madhya Pradesh, the state was not present in the lives of Bhil Adivasis as an entity upon which citizens could make claims, or in the form of public servants that were dedicated to providing basic services and entitlements to the local population. Quite the contrary – the state was present in a form which I refer to as “everyday tyranny”; that is, petty state officials (forest guards, police constables, revenue officers) would demand bribes in cash and in kind on a regular basis from the Bhil communities, often as an “exchange” for letting them carry out cultivation in the state-owned forests. The demands for bribes were underpinned by threats and use of force and violence, which combined with a lack of awareness of basic democratic rights among local Adivasis to produce a culture of fear, deference and aquiescence in relation to the local state. “They didn’t know, and whenever any authority came to their house, they thought God himself had come”, one group of activists explained. “They were afraid and whenever someone came, they would get even more frightened and tremble with fear.”

Adivasi activists, Alirajpur, madhya Pradesh, India, March 2003Everyday tyranny came in for a challenge in both Alirajpur and Khargone districts in western Madhya Pradesh when middle-class activists – essentially, educated youth from urban centres – arrived in the area in the early 1980s intent on mobilizing among the Bhils. A central aspect of the early mobilizing strategy was centred on addressing specific grievances – for example, a particular case of corruption and abuse by forest guards and police. And this strategy yielded results: the movements were able to win what one activist referred to as “small victories” – the return of a bribe, an apology for misbehaviour, the transfer of an errant public servant – which gradually reversed the grammar of fear, deference and acquiescence that had characterized the relationship between the Bhils and the local state. This in turn came to constitute an experiential counterweight that engendered a transformation of emotional dispositions: a recurrent theme among Bhil activists is that of losing their fear of the state, and “learning how to speak” in the face of power. The impact of this change in emotional dispositions was bolstered by the acquisition of skills that allowed Bhil activists to navigate the state machinery, and the emergence of a consciousness that was centred on democratic rights and constitional entitlements. The transformation was described as follows by a seasoned Bhil activist from Khargone:

“Everybody would say and think that the sarkar is the biggest among us. They thought that the hands of the sarkar were very big. Whatever the authorities say, that must be done. The village had no status at all. They would say that the sarkar’s arm is big and long. It was later that we realized that, in reality, we are the ones who have voted and made the sarkar – then we should also know what the law is, right? Later on we realized that they are making fools of us – so why is the sarkar’s arm long?”

Towards a Vernacular Rights Culture

The democratic culture that emerged through these struggles came to be vernacularized as movements in the region – and in particular, the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan – became involved with the campaign for the implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) during the middle of the 1990s. The act itself was intended to underpin and promote the ability of the gram sabhas in Adivasi communities to govern their own natural resources, and this left its imprint on the way in which Bhil activists came to articulate their notion of democratic rights. An activist of the AMS put it like this:

“… they said that our rule means that all of that which is there in the village , in our village, our voice should be listened to or heard. Whether it is the sarkar or some neta, everything should belong to us – then only will our rule be established. This was the Sangathan. After that, the land, jungle and water belong to us. Bhai, when you are living there [in the city], then everything here including the river and the well belongs to us. Yes, we do have the right to cut trees; you do not, We have the right to irrigate our lands. You all live there, not here like us. On everything we should have rights.”

Photo by Priyanka Borpujari

Photo by Priyanka Borpujari

In other words, the rights-based claims that were articulated by the AMS were increasingly couched in terms of a collective Adivasi identity centred on an awareness of having been unjustly dispossessed of natural resources and subordinated to an undemocratic state apparatus, and a demand that this historical injustice be rectified through the restitution of Bhil sovereignty within a specific territory.

Mobilization around PESA proved to be an effective strategy for the AMS. Not only did the movement spread its organizational reach throughout the area very quickly, they also started fielding candidates for local elections. In doing this, they were also successful in displacing some of the sarpanches who had functioned as the bridgeheads of Congress hegemony in the Bhil communities. The Sangathan, in other words, was becoming a force to be reckoned with through its mobilization for Adivasi self-rule.

However, this advance also produced a virulent response from above. As has been amply documented in the detailed work of Amita Baviskar, the upper echelons of the Madhya Pradesh state government responded to the progress made by the AMS through a highly coordinated campaign of repression in which the state bureaucracy and paramilitary forces were mobilized alongside a state-backed vigilante group operating under the name of Adivasi Sudhar Shanti Sena to crush the Sangathan (Baviskar, 2001). Over a period of two years, intense coercion – culminating in the custodial death of an AMS activist – succeded in bringing the Sangathan on the defensive and ultimately eroding its organizational and mobilizational capacities. Speaking to the media at the time, an activist described the process in the following way: “The Shanti Sena has gone all out in its attempt to subdue us. Since they have the backing of the police, we cannot even register cases, leave alone expect the administration to take action.”

Concluding Remarks

In the above remarks I have tried to provide an account of a specific case of subaltern mobilization that was centred on the formation of a vernacular rights culture of Adivasi sovereignty. In so doing, I have tried to illuminate how such mobilization can make important headway in terms of reversing the disenfranchisement of subaltern groups in contemporary India, while at the same time not losing sight of the limits that these processes of mobilization might encounter. And it is precisely with the question of opportunities for and limitations to subaltern emancipation that I want to conclude this talk.

Photo by Priyanka Borpujari

Photo by Priyanka Borpujari

As I stated in the introductory remarks, I believe that there are certain shortcomings in those understandings of state-society relations that conceive of state power as something which is simply dispersed across a multiplicity of sites in the form of technologies of rule. What these shortcomings are become evident if we consider for a moment the things we have to understand in order to make sense of the trajectory of the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan: (i) the making of a “colonial state space” (Goswami, 2004) in which Bhils came to be subordinated and disenfranchised in relation to new modalities of state power; (ii) the reproduction of princely power in western Madhya Pradesh as a result of the way in which the Congress established its hegemony in postcolonial India through local notables; (iii) the persistence of the adverse incorporation of Adivasi communities in the regional political economy of western India as a result of this reproduction of what are in effect colonial power relations.

To me, this suggests that in order to fully understand and engage with subaltern mobilizations around vernacular rights cultures, we need to fuse the attentiveness to the micro-politics of contemporary state-society relations that has been advanced by the recent Foucauldian turn in political ethnography with an orientation towards the political economy of state formation as a master change process unfolding across historical time. The point of doing so is not merely scholarly, but ultimately also political, as it will help us to craft analyses of oppostional strategies that are more attuned how dominant social groups can operate through the institutions of the state to impose structural limits on the advances that subaltern groups can make in specific locales of resistance.