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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid historical, sociological and political analysis, 4 Jun. 2007
This review is from: The Criminalization of the State in Africa (Africa issues) (Paperback)
The thesis explored in this short book is that the states of Africa are becoming fused with the world of international organised crime, as defined by international norms. While the authors claim that few fully "criminal" states exist, they do detect a tendency in this direction, which they link to the privatisation of economic and state functions and the rise of global flows. The book is divided into four chapters. The introductory chapter, by all three authors, gives a general overview, explains the thesis, and situates events in their broader context. Jean-Francois Bayart contributes a chapter on the state and politics, linking it to historical trends (which he terms an accumulation of social capital) and the everyday knowledge, or metis, connected to these trends. Beatrice Hibou contributes a chapter on economics and criminalisation. This chapter explores how African societies have absorbed externally-imposed economic forms, and how reforms aimed to end corruption have had the opposite effect of encouraging criminalisation. It also lists a variety of illegal and informal practices, looks at the role of social networks, and explores the privatisation of administrative functions. Inbetween these chapters is a rather anomalous piece by Stephen Ellis on South Africa, which primarily serves to outline how criminal organisations arose from the rival strategies of the ANC and the apartheid government to win support or control in urban ghettos.

The strength of this book is its empirical and discursive focus and its avoidance of the temptation to slip into moralising despair and to reduce the meaning of phenomena to their meaning for western observers. It also provides clear structural explanations of the trends it analyses. "Criminalisation" is placed in its context in relation to political economy (such as the role of illicit trade in broader economic flows), cultural tropes and interpretations (such as the metaphor of pursuit of wealth as hunting, playing or gambling), and history (such as the similarities between current privatised violence and colonial practices). A general thesis is proposed that a "shadow state" or set of informal elites with concentrated informal sanctions has emerged in parallel to the official state, so that in some passages it seems the surface state is unable to penetrate the depth and complexity of informal and parallel institutions and economies, or more often, events occur on both levels at once, with the social situatedness of the state emerging from its insertion in the parallel networks. Phenomena are brought to the fore - such as parallel and shadow governments, and cultural valorisations of deception - which could easily be missed on a more superficial reading of the situation. The book avoids getting sucked into the morass of much journalistic and political work on Africa, looking seriously at social and political issues in social and political terms.

A partial weakness is that picture painted here is very broad-brush, with plenty of empirical examples briefly mentioned but a lack of ethnographic detail behind them and of substantiation, and even reference, of many of the claims. A sense is provided of Africans seeking to construct their own meanings, and to survive economically in a difficult context. While there is a sense of hope implicit in this viewpoint, the ambiguity of its simultaneous role as incorporation in the world system and resistance to dominant norms of this system is not really developed. Also absent is any real alternative political agenda; when political engagement emerges, which is uncommon, the authors slip back into the mode of seeking reforms in the direction of westernisation, identifying the different forms of African states as instances of lack, or identifying criminal activities as primitive accumulation which could produce later economy and state-building. In this it compares disfavourably with Hecht and Simone's "Invisible Governance" and Achille Mbembe's work on the African postcolony, where the transformative and active potentials of networked, syncretic and invisible social forms are explored in more depth. I'd also have been interested to see more on how social movements interact with the parallel structures, and what kinds of popular agency can affect, displace or win concessions from informal elites or alter informal flows or relations of power.
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