"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


magical twilight?

Louisa Lombard has some interesting thoughts from the field on the nature of the state in the Central African Republic:
"...the CAR state appears absent, too. It does nothing for long-distance trade and travel besides impose roadblocks and fees (arguably impeding these processes more than anything else). It has an impressive capacity to demand rents, but it does not collect taxes in any kind of standardized or all-encompassing way. (There is a tax code, and the tax collector here does seem to follow it to the extent he can. But that covers only the more-formalized sector of the economy.)

"Still, describing the state here as weak, or describing it in terms of the things it does not do, is not very useful. For despite its apparent “lacks” the state here is pretty powerful. But its power lies less in the rational-bureaucratic mode of operating that Weber believed the state to incarnate, but rather leans more heavily on a “magical” mode of operating...

"I'm not satisfied with this word “magical,” but I'm having trouble replacing it. I would like to somehow encompass how the state here can be both the source of so many problems and yet simultaneously held out as the great hope and problem-solver by many people. People's orientation to the state has more of what a secular Western observer such as myself would label a religious character than anything else."
Lombard's thoughts made me think of two things. First was Christian Lund's work on what he terms "twilight institutions." The "twilight institution" as he defines it refers to the trappings of a state that remain even in the state's essential absence. It's a useful way to think about why, for example, there's still a guy who issues drivers' licenses in Goma even though whether or not one has a driver's license is largely irrelevant for almost any of the realities of negotiating traffic there (Unless one stops when the police wave one over. Then the lack of a driver's license becomes the excuse for a bribe that would have been paid anyway.).

What Lombard describes also reflects the general view of the state in the eastern Congo. Despite Jeff Herbst and Gregory Mills' suggestions to the contrary, people in the eastern DRC really want the state to work, and believe that one day it will. They don't want to secede or to become a semi-autonomous region. They want the state to do the things a state is supposed to do. Part of that may be a reaction to the perceived expansionist tendencies of some of their neighbors; it's entirely possible that the strong support for the Congolese state derives from an assumption that the alternative is to live under Rwandan rule.

But I think there's something else going on there, something having to do with a deep-seated, psychological attachment to the state. I've mentioned before that when asking the eastern Congolese as to why they have such a strong national identity, most reply that it's the one good legacy Mobutu left them. Historical precedent could explain it, but we're well into a period in which the vast majority Congolese adults today weren't around in the era when Mobutu's rule was beneficial.

What do you think? Have you seen this phenomenon of an almost religious or mystical attachment to the idea of a non-functioning state elsewhere in the world?


Anonymous Ranil Dissanayake said...

TIA - this is my favourite blog. If you get lots of hits from Zanzibar it's probably because I constantly check to see if you've done an update!

This is a really fascinating piece, and it's something I'm quite interested in as well. Actually, though, I don't think the right question is 'does this phenomenon exist elsewhere in the world', but 'how does this relate to older state- and state-like forms in Sub-Saharan Africa?'.

You'll find that many, many states in Africa continued to incorporate significant 'magical' and ritual functions to retain their authority right up to the point of colonialism. Even those states where Islam and Christianity were strong influences had continued to operate a kind of eclecticism to maintain authority.

This kind of magical basis to the state was rooted in ability to bring about good fortune, specifically rain, crops etc. and avert natural disaster. My brother-in-law is a historian at Cambridge, and he's written about how the process of conversion among Kings, Chiefs etc. was partly (or largely) justified on the basis of demonstrating the strength of Islamic or Christian belief as a magical system in comparison to indigenous beliefs.

This relates to the contemporary situation you observe as follows: in the past, obviously being Muslim, Christian or the follower of an indigenous religion did not actually affect the rains or whatever; it did, however, imbue the state with a source of authority that gave subjects or citizens faith in the system, a belief that in difficult times it was the state (or state-like structure, since parts of Africa in this time was still completely stateless, like Igboland; or operating as fluid microstates) who had the ability and authority to bring about a better future.

This is essentially the same kind of phenomenon Louisa Lombard is discussing; while the Kingships, Chiefs or local Big Men might have also contributed to problems through slaving or war, they were also the only source of ritual authority that could communicate with the higher powers that controlled rain etc.

Nowadays rain cults are weakened, but the state is still communicating or engaged with unseen forces: property rights, legitimate use of coercion (or illegitimate use in some cases) etc. And in the same way, you could argue that the subjects/citizens recognise that only a state, vested with the authority it can have will be able to affect these things.

As for 'twilight institutions', my most recent post on aid thoughts ( http://aidthoughts.org/?p=616 ) addresses the same phenomenon in a very different context. you could argue it's a kind of 'cargo cult', stemming from the common misconception that the artifices or a system are the same thing as the logic of the system.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009 6:04:00 AM

Blogger Louisa said...

The parallels between eastern Congo and CAR are striking – just replace Mobutu with Bokassa (“C'est notre Louis XIV! Notre Pericles!” gushed one man yesterday). People in CAR, too, feel squeezed by their more-powerful neighbors, especially Chad and Sudan. And the desire for a state that does “the things a state is supposed to do” – and then some – is immense. Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs stoke this desire and unfortunately seem always to leave people more frustrated than ever.

Though I'm not thrilled with the term “magical” to describe state power, what I like about the descriptor is that reinserts the idea that state power, as played out in daily interactions, is not necessarily predictable. Thus it's not just about the Big Man who is able to dictate (a line of thought grounded in political theology and the works of people like Carl Schmitt or Ernst Kantorowicz, both of whom pointed to the enduring legacy of the Christian foundation of the European state) or control the heavens (Ranil Dissanayake, if you haven't read Max Gluckman's Custom and Conflict in Africa, you might find it interesting – he too points to the importance of rituals in re-inscribing state legitimacy), but also about the peculiar, almost nonsensical, kind of legitimacy that the state form has – a legitimacy that goes against logical reasoning, as the example of driving permits in eastern Congo so richly illustrates.

But I don't think this is a particularly African quality – I think all state power is magical, in different ways. Veena Das uses the example of India, and she makes the point that state officials themselves often don't know how to properly execute the letter of the law. This is where the unpredictability, and possibly magic, comes in. Every time I encounter the Norwegian state bureaucracy, I have this kind of experience: Norway is relatively small and homogenous, and so its laws often have gaps when it comes to outlying cases, such as Norwegians born abroad (like me). An American-Chilean friend who lived in Oslo for five years still gets erroneous tax reports mailed to her in Bonn, where she now lives. The peculiar thing about high-functioning states like Norway is that the officials truly believe the bureaucracy operates wholly rationally (they figure knowing the letter of the law suffices) and often respond with a “not possible” when in fact even a “not possible” is but one possible interpretation of an ambiguous rule.

Thanks for the tip about twilight institutions – I look forward to reading Lund's work. ICG has a report that labels CAR a “phantom state,” which I think is also nicely descriptive, provided one considers phantoms to be here among us.

Thursday, November 05, 2009 9:54:00 AM

Anonymous D. Watson said...

I don't know that you have to look to failed states or to Africa to find religious devotion/antipathy for the State. The left looks to the State as Messiah and has for generations. The right looks to the state as Anti-Christ and has for generations. In the same country with the same institutions functioning in the same way, both sides seem to find plenty of evidence for their brand of government religion.

Thursday, November 05, 2009 12:03:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"he left looks to the State as Messiah and has for generations."

I dunno, buddy. Where i come from, the left is decidedly anti-state. It is also anti-capital, which differentiates it from the right wing anti-state folks... not that everyone on the right is anti-state. ever heard of the conservative nanny state? anyway, there's a social left-right, an economic left-right, etc. etc. can't just lump the 'left' or the 'right' in one big bag, as is they are all for or against cutting off the king's head, respectively. these terms are all very flexible. for example, where i live, 'liberal' is considered right wing. i find it very disconcerting to hear 'liberal' and 'left' be used interchangeably in the US.

Thursday, November 05, 2009 8:59:00 PM

Anonymous Ranil Dissanayake said...

Louisa - I read Gluckman as an undergraduate student, but it's probably time to revisit it. If I recall correctly, he also talks (perhaps in other work, my memory of this is a bit hazy) of the similar importance of ritual in England. Either he or someone else I read at the same time wrote a historical piece which looked at the evolution of ritual in England and it's continuing role of granting state legitimacy.

Totally agree that the term 'magical' covers the non-rational behaviour of actors concerned as well; I think this is also an aspect of the 'control of the heavens'. It's unlikely that it was a rational response to the evidence of rain etc.; but there was enough 'noise' in the data and imprecision that it was supportable.

Anyway, can't say I know enough about the contemporary situation in DRC or Congo - it's interesting to read the thoughts here and on your blog though.

Thursday, November 05, 2009 11:34:00 PM


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