‘Theory from the South, or, How Euro-America Is Evolving toward Africa’ reviewed by Christopher Allsobrook

About the reviewer

Christopher Allsobrook is a Senior Researcher with the Centre for Leadership Ethics in Africa (CLEA) …


The north is heading south, both destructively and productively (17). Conditions of production and governance forced on the global south by international trade and finance under processes of decolonization inflicted horrors on the indebted developing world in the late 20th century, which are now coming home to the metropoles in the new millennium, especially since the financial meltdown of 2008. The term “developing world” is misleading, calling to mind an Enlightenment narrative this book seeks to challenge, of universal progress, led by Euro-America, with the south trailing behind, but gradually catching up. The central premise of Jean and John Comaroffs’ latest volume, Theory from the South, is that, ‘Modernity was, from the start, a world historical production’, albeit asymmetrical; ‘both a universal project and a host of parochial emplacements.’ (6). Euro-America and the global south are not just part of the same world-historical processes but, “its exclusions and its margins […] are a requisite condition for the growth of its centres.” (11). Following Hegel’s dialectic, with the slave ahead of the master, and Marx’s insight into the advanced historical situation of labour, with industrial production shifted to the periphery of global capitalism, it is argued, “the non-West is not just contemporary with the West, but ahead of the curve” (14). Blinkered by their own narratives of Universal History, the north failed to see the warning signs of what was in store for them, from the effects of liberal market-fundamentalist Structural Adjustment Programmes imposed on former colonies. That the people of the north would do this to themselves beggars belief. Visit your future, London: the gated Sandton communities of Hampstead, Soho as Hillbrow and Lewisham as Soweto; Post-apartheid Johannesburg, District 9, with rain.

But, to reiterate, for the Comaroffs, this evolution southward is not only destructive. It also offers creative and productive potential for social regeneration; that is, hope (something sadly lacking in the anxious north). Where the north looks better from afar, in general terms, than it is, up close, the inverse holds true in the southern hemisphere. Behind general immiseration, hardship and insecurity, close up, everyday life down here can be glorious. But such generalised terms about north-south relations should make empirically oriented historical materialists suspicious. There is a certain romance blown through the theory of the south by the wind of the north, the place, that is, of publication and consumption for this volume. The south, albeit with critical reflection, is packaged for the north, like world cuisine and world music (not maize meal with Knorr gravy and auto-tune RnB), a failure to explain distorted stereotypes of the south that leaves them floundering as myth.

Such criticism may be unfair, since translation is a condition for the global significance of any book, and since the empirical anthropological legwork presented here is substantial and substantive. Though somewhat seduced by post-Marxist politics of identity, corporeality and difference since the 1990s, the Comaroffs are inveterate historical materialists launched by the struggle against apartheid. This anthropologist couple have long plied a trade in ideas between north and south that provides for authentic, fruitful, mutually emancipatory intellectual exchange. Theirs is a fair trade, if you will. Yet one notices many familiar northern tropes in this southern theory, as it takes the reader through a history of post-modernity, from Foucault through Spivak to Agamben, since the fall of the Iron Curtain and Lady. To chart the rise and fall of these trends from the refracted, disturbing perspective of the south gives fresh distance for critical reflection on a shared theoretical legacy.

While the big story here, the north is heading south, is provocative, it is the small stories in Theory From the South, that make for the more subtly revealing observations. We hear, for instance, of the political and cultural practices of Southern Tswana personhood, where public profiles are coyly, cunningly managed through various fractal persona, in ongoing adaptation to an unstable, irregularly deregulated social environment that threatens intrusive, debilitating scrutiny. These long-developed practices mirror similar modes of resistance emerging in the north in response to online surveillance. Interesting as these features of Tswana agency are, though, one cannot help wondering if such adaptive play of identity was not just as common in, say, inter-war New York or Berlin? If the broad anthropological themes of late modernity discussed here are not entirely unique, this is not only because they are universally resonant, but also because of the extent to which north and south are mutually entangled. The Latin term, Africa, for example, lends misleading external coherence to the nation states of this great continent, an Africa at the bottom of which white Afrikaners and Asian Muslims are commonly distinguished as autochthonous locals from dark Nigerian “illegals”, or Zimbabwean makwerekwere (people who cannot speak properly) (102). Even if the features of the particular localities are more common than we are led to believe, the care and attention these “southern theorists” pay to them, is outstanding, lending a metonymic function for a universal, not just postcolonial, critique of neoliberal capitalism that yields philosophical returns.

Take, for instance, a central claim here, that “Euro-America’s move toward a thinned-out version of participatory government seems, ironically, to be mimicking the very minimalist version exported to Africa,” (32) inspiring non-aligned social movements (public meetings, rallies, loose activist networks, etc.) to press “thicker”, more immediate concerns than flattened-out procedural party politics can voice. Is Euro-America “mimicking” the south in this respect? Is it true that what is happening up there is happening after it happened down south? Tea Party, Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Turkish Summer, Ukrainian Winter, on it goes. North, south, it’s all happening at once, as global capital scrambles through a depression for increasingly fantastic profit margins, at ever more vulnerable sites of exploitation. The public sees each other rising, no matter who came first to the gathering.

A singular trope, in Africa, which certainly does stand out, is the inexorable pull toward political monopoly. Africans, not only by force, but, often, by consent, seem to disregard the need for at least one two strong parties. Mugabe, in 1996, claimed (not only at his convenience) that the West pushes multi-party democracy to buy influence and manipulate parties (112). In 1974, the people of Botswana, including the main opposition party, called for a one-party state (115). Unless the president dies, or there is an express need for deposition (where elections for a new president are deemed relevant and turnout is high), electoral turnout in Botswana is usually very low, signalling consent. The leader of the opposition who voted against himself in 1974 argued “you don’t just remove a leader” (128). Twenty years in, with elections around the corner, the “Tripartite Alliance” in South Africa (the ANC, the SA Communist Party and the labour federation, COSATU) shows some strain but no likelihood of major electoral defeat. This is so despite rising civil unrest, in everyday service delivery protests and strikes, such as at Marikana, in 2012, where the police shot and killed 34 protestors, in a grim reminder of apartheid, but with greater unity, between the unions, mining boards, the state and the national political party .

The story of African preference for united leadership rather than democratic contention, though, is also a myth. Despite an ongoing legacy of destabilisation of democracy by foreign policy and foreign corporations, Africans across the continent have struggled consistently to acquire it. Demoralised democracy is not rejected but is widely held to be potent force for good that has been hijacked by leaders who seek only to enrich themselves (31). Democracy remains firm as an ideal in the south, as it does in the north, even though its procedural mechanisms and institutions are widely dismissed as a “formal sham” (33). Despite widespread disillusionment with formal political procedures and institutions that reduce democracy to a shopping list at the ballot, a choice between pre-established scripts (112), Africans typically want more, not less, than this from the state. The long lack of enthusiasm in the south for procedural, over substantive, democracy, prefigures similar disillusionment surfacing in Euro-America, signalled by rising political agitation and a general withdrawal from official unions and electoral politics, by de-alignment from major parties, loss of confidence in the executive, and with the almost universal view that the state is run by “big interests” with no concern for the common good or its citizens (32). Africans’ indifference to formal political paperwork speaks of a deeper concern for real, effective politics, beyond the ritualistic trappings of the Westminster system, which the north now, increasingly, recognises.

Against this disillusionment with formal politics, the authors also point to where the politics of the global south shows positive opportunities for the formalisation of politics, with human rights discourse and its attendant shift from open ideological struggle to concerns about marginalized identities, expressed in contexts of “lawfare”. The Comaroffs are right to note that this is not the sort of politics that critical theorists might have chosen, since it does not “address directly some of the more profound moral and material forces shaping the lives of contemporary South Africans” (88). The Comaroffs’ southern theory is wise to such limitations, acknowledging, it is yet to be established how lawfare serves the cause of “little people” or social justice (150). Especially where national identity is already thin, they write, in the “policulturalism of the postcolony”, such “fetishism of the law” seems “overdetermined,” for “a polity in which struggles over difference – in particular, struggles over the authority to police everyday life – tend to find their way into the legal domain,” pitting custom against constitution (79). But, if class action lawfare, as opposed to class struggle, is not an ideal arena of struggle for “realist” critical theorists, the Comaroffs pragmatically contend, sensitive to western Marxian critique of the fetishism of juridified special interests, it is at least a site of political action that exists (89).

In addition to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Theory from the South also examines the use of social movements, branding and identity politics by South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (the TAC), as a significant alliance of juridical and extra-judicial political contestation – rejected by some leftist critics as “epiphenomenal” scratching at the surface of capitalism, for neglecting broader material concerns. Again, the south can help the north here. The TAC has long called on northern activists to join its class struggle, in a broader structural economic critique of capital’s role in AIDS (186). Furthermore, the exchange between the TAC and faith groups, Medicins Sans Frontières and other NGOs, social movements, online social networks, northern AIDS activists, etc. gives important “insight into the extra-institutional sites of politics today” (180), beyond the hollowed out modes of traditional party politics. Such extra-political sites of “bare life”, the Comaroffs note, with Agamben, are reflective of the disciplinary power of biopolitics and governmentality, the paradoxes of Schmittian inclusion and exclusion. However, they go on, the experience of social movements of the global south such as the TAC show that “bare life asserts a stubborn connection to human existence” (184). Southern AIDS activism can remind the north of politics as a positive calling, irreducible to the issues of bare life and state sovereignty (190).

Is Theory from the South too sympathetic to the south? It is true that “a good deal of kleptocracy associated with government in the south involves bribe-givers from the north, among them large, respectable multinational companies” (47). It is also worth noting, in return, that this kleptocracy involves bribe-takers in the south, enchanted by the quasi-spiritual trappings of late-modern fantasies of “redemptive capitalism” (159). We admire the fortunes of “abundance without effort” acquired by the masters of “casino capitalism”, in the “service economies” of the north, and by elite southern clients, who claim unprecedented autonomy from production (157), cultivating liberal illusions of capitalism as a mode of Immaculate Conception. Epidemic sightings of zombies in the south, since the 1990s, comment “on the disruption of an economy in which productive energies were once visibly invested in the reproduction of a situated order of domestic and communal relations” (168). The southern elite are spell-bound in complicity, then, as they fetishize alienated norms.

Jean and John Comaroff are now both Professors of African and African American Studies and Anthropology at Harvard, there to help develop the department, from Chicago, where they had worked for over thirty years. They are also associates of the University of Cape Town and conduct much of their field work in southern Africa with indigenous Tswana and San. Their work is highly interdisciplinary, addressing ethnography, colonial history, social theory, political philosophy and criticism, both locally and globally, posing big questions, but with grounded theory that always refers back to concrete communities. Their argument here resonates strongly with current thinking in the north on relations of political modernity and the prospects it offers for substantive democracy in contemporary practices of the liberal democratic nation-state. But, just as the categories, “north” and “south”, and the lines between them, so they admit, are “increasingly blurred” (46), so their status as “southern theorists” is somewhat imprecise. The category of “modernity” at the centre of this work is a concern only for a handful of departments at a few African universities, and the term, “Afromodernity” to which the book continually refers, is barely recognised on the continent, even if its reality is palpably experienced.

“The contemporary world order rests on a highly flexible, inordinately intricate web of north-south synapses,” they write, “a web that both reinforces and eradicates, both sharpens and ambiguates, the lines between hemispheres […] ‘the south’ is a window on the world at large, a world whose geography, pace Kant and Humboldt, is being recast as a spatio-temporal order made of a multitude of variously articulated flows and dimensions, at once political juridical, cultural, material, virtual – a world that, ultimately transcends the very dualism of north and south. Theory from the South, then, is about that world. And the effort to make sense of it. Which, patently, is where the question of theory poses itself.” (47). They contend that, despite a recent “flight from theory in the north”, “for the global south, the refusal of theory has long been an unaffordable luxury […] The need to interrogate the workings of the contemporary world order – to lay bare its certainties and uncertainties, its possibilities and impossibilities, its inclusions and exclusions – has become increasingly urgent.” (48). For most South Africans, the language of this theory from the south is unfathomable. It speaks to our shared condition. It is well informed by an ongoing relationship between south and north. It is deeply immersed in the context of the south. But, like Cape Town, it is a south that is tastefully packaged for the north.

9 April 2014

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