African Roads to Anarchy

We are reposting this text in fragments (as is our nature) in relation to resurgent theorytwitter buzz for the essay. Read the original in full: here.

All comments and discussion welcome.


Desert, by Anonymous

4. African Roads to Anarchy

Anarchic elements in everyday (peasant) life
To examine future possibilities for liberty in peasant life, let’s, as an example, look to the continent most often written off. These days “Africa has an image problem” [62]: war, famine, disease and charity appeals. As time goes on, this skewed view of a diverse continent will be further exaggerated by worsening climate change and the interventions of disaster capitalism. [63] In the previous sections we saw that climate change will cause and exacerbate civil wars largely through increasing the scarcity of food, water and cultivatable soil. Many envision these future conflicts as a generalisation of the image they hold of present day Africa. In doing so they are mostly mistaken.
Most of Africa’s wars today are fuelled more by the presence of resources and less their scarcity. [64] Retractions in global trade should deny oxygen to some of these fires. For instance, as the oil runs out, areas such as the Niger Delta, under siege by state/corporate oil interests, are likely to become once again backwaters rather than battlegrounds. I take it as a given that we will not see an African-wide conversion to Western-originated Anarchism, so what societies evolve into will, in large part, be defined by what they are now. And here is some good non-news from Africa — in many places and on many levels its cultures have significant anarchic characteristics, with a minority being functioning anarchies. I’ll hand over for a moment to Sam Mbah, a Nigerian anarcho-syndicalist:

To a greater or lesser extent… [many] traditional African societies manifested an anarchic eloquence which, upon closer examination, leads credence to the historical truism that governments have not always existed. They are but recent phenomena and are, therefore, not inevitable in human society. While some anarchic features in traditional African society existed largely in past stages of

development, some of them persist and remain pronounced to this day. What this means is that the ideals underlying Anarchism may not be so new in the African context. What is new is the concept of Anarchism as a social movement ideology. Anarchy as abstraction may indeed be [largely] unknown to Africans, but is not at all unknown as a way of life…

Manifestations of anarchic elements in African communities… were and to some degree still are pervasive. These include the partial or complete absence of hierarchical structures, state apparatuses, and the commodification of labor. To put this in positive terms, [some societies] were (and are) largely self managed, egalitarian and republican in nature. [65]

The extent to which Africa is viewed as a ‘basket case’ in ‘world opinion’ is in part the extent to which its societies are anarchic and not fully enclosed within capitalist relations.
Why have anarchic social relations survived in Africa to such a degree? Jim Feast, writing for the American anarchist magazine Fifth Estate , has some answers:

In sub-Saharan Africa, aside from in the minority of countries with a large, white settler population and valuable resources (such as diamonds or copper), there was little penetration of capitalist agricultural forms or government into the interior. In the colonial era… the imperial powers had only limited goals. There was no desire to invest resources to ensure the state could project its authority into every corner of the new colonies… And, after independence, settler states excepted… Africans remained only marginally affected by the market. They increasingly traded in the market, but their base was still a homestead and family farm where a subsistence ethos prevailed… The salient points are these. No matter how wide the impact of world capitalism, much of sub-Saharan Africa has not been effectively shaped by state or market power. Moreover, while in … [many parts of the planet]… there is a struggle to develop an alternative economy, in the parts of Africa under discussion, a robust subsistence economy, unconcerned with profit and capital expansion continues to exist. [66]

Peoples without governments
While anarchic elements are pervasive in Africa there are also entire anarchist societies. [67] Some of these exist surrounded by more incorporated populations, while others are truly remote from external power — through luck or active avoidance. Environments which are not conducive to empire are a significant factor behind the survival of some of these cultures and their ability to defend their autonomy.
A number have remained anarchic within themselves whilst superficially accepting outside power. This should not necessarily be seen as assimilation. Governments don’t like to let outright opposition go unpunished lest it encourage others. Yet they don’t always have the capacity to fully internalise pre-existing or maroon societies, especially wily ones. For the community, the “state power and the alien political culture… are so different and so powerful that… direct resistance soon proves to be unaffordable; passive accommodation is impossible as well. The most acceptable possibility is some kind of collaboration that allows things to continue almost as before, with the idea that ‘we were here before them and we will be here after them’” [68] In some situations this is as simple as unspoken contracts approximate to ‘We’ll pretend you’re governing us, you pretend to believe it’. In other situations ‘outwitting the state’ may involve a complex set of tactics including providing key functions, retraditionalisation, regular movement and manipulating the balance of competing external powers.
Some may object that these anarchies are not those ‘we’ would design if ‘we’ were to sit down and plan the ‘ideal’ society for them [69] — but they are anarchies none the less. Though far more egalitarian than surrounding societies, they usually have some level of sex and age stratified power relations, a division of labour and sometimes rely on animal slavery. I don’t view any of these things as good but it should be remembered that to differing extents these are aspects of all civilised societies. At least these cultures don’t have class warfare or the state! In this sense they are anarchies even if they don’t conform to all the aspirations of ‘our’ western originated Anarchisms. They should not be idealised (any more than present day Chiapas or 1936 Barcelona) and you don’t have to ‘support them’. But these are existing anarchies, the active social creation of millions of people through time resisting the concentration of power. Any overview of possibilities for liberty would be foolish to ignore them. Those of us who are freeing ourselves from authority can find insights, inspiration and warnings from their examples. [70]
Commons resurgent as global trade retracts
For those in Africa, the fact that anarchies exist and some anarchic tendencies remain widespread beyond them leaves routes of escape and survival open which can be utilised as authorities collapse, retract or are destroyed. It should be noted that many commons-based societies within Africa are fall-back positions turned to after complex kingdoms collapsed or were dismantled by invading empires (both Western and African). While colonial elites often policed through local traditional authorities, they came to blows with them too. Dominant classes act in their own interest, not in that of an abstract system of hierarchical power. The attack on local authority by outside elites opened up possibilities for anarchy in the past and this pattern continues. Jim Feast once again:

Here’s an irony of history. In the last 15 years, in [some parts of] the industrially undeveloped world, the state has withered away, not because of its supercession, but due to the extension of global capitalism. Talk of state collapse on capital’s periphery doesn’t mean governments have completely vanished, but that many states have diminished from being the totalized agencies of control we experience in Northern tier countries…

Since independence, most sub-Saharan African countries have been one-party states, headed by corrupt strong men who rule by combining military coercion with the distribution of favours to well-placed followers… The intelligent strong man sees that not only his immediate cronies (who staff the state) but regional and tribal leaders of every significant stripe must be cultivated by financing infrastructural projects (that offer prime opportunities for graft) in their bailiwicks… But with structural adjustment policies forced upon these nations, this form of government has [often] ceased to exist because funds to sustain the patronage networks are no longer there… In a movement to shore up elite rule, there has been a widespread morphing into multi-party democracies. From 1988 to 1999 the number of states in sub-Saharan Africa featuring multi-party elections went from 9 to 45. This temporarily and cynically solves two problems for state rule… It restores a patina of legitimacy to a system that can no longer provide either patronage or welfare services to its citizens, and reinvigorates it by dividing clients among the competing parties, so each political grouping has need to siphon fewer funds since it serves a smaller client base [71] …
Another loss of state power is the inability of it to provide minimal welfare to the citizenry, such as education and medical care, which structural adjustment programs eliminate as too costly. While some of these services are taken over by international relief organizations, most that are continued are done so by groups from the distressed society itself. In other words, as Thomson puts it, ‘Declining state capacity required civil society to increase its self sufficiency.’ The once-repressed women’s groups, trade unions, farmers associations, and other grassroots networks are assuming greater responsibility in social and economic life…
[So maybe here we are seeing an African road to Anarchism] ‘whereby the money economy and the state, which are in a condition of partial collapse or withdrawal, cede more and more functions to non-monetarized, non-statist village communities that are organized on the basis of mutual aid?’ [72]
This is already happening in some areas in a non-newsworthy manner without overt conflict. In others this revitalization of the commons is one of the forces filling the power vacuum left by the warring fragmentation of ‘failed states.’ The structural adjustment mentioned is of course time specific. There is an ebb and flow of projects of power, as the expansion of China into Africa shows, but nevertheless the process observed is a pointer to what may happen in many places as global trade retracts in a resource poor, climate changed world.
Outwitting the state
As well as those we could mischievously label lifestyle anarchists, [73] Africa has a growing, though still small, number of groups organising under the banner of Anarchism. These are unlikely to change the face/s of the entire continent but may play significant roles in emergent movements and struggles. To repeat the earlier quote from Seaweed: “Any bioregion can be liberated through a succession of events and strategies based on the conditions unique to it.” Even if we accept the foreclosure of any possibility of global anarchist revolution, there is no reason to say a regional anarchist insurrection somewhere in Africa (or elsewhere) is not on the cards and this is made more likely by the factors we have discussed already. In probably overly optimistic terms Sam Mbah states:

The process of anarchist transformation in Africa might prove comparatively easy, given that Africa lacks a strong capitalist foundation, well-developed class formations and relations of production, and a stable, entrenched state system. [74]

While a surprising number of African dirt roads lead to anarchy [75] much of what we have touched on here relates to many rural areas across the planet to differing degrees. For instance, in his excellent, The Art of Not Being Governed, [76] James C. Scott recounts numerous examples of lived anarchies in upland Southeast Asia. Even outside of anarchies, peasant communities whose self-sufficiency have not been entirely vanquished, still often retain high levels of autonomy — Land is Liberty! [77] Sadly in many places communal traditions have been eradicated, the ‘commons’ (or ‘wilderness’) enclosed and farmers forcefully transformed into wage labourers. In others however, they have not, for a diverse set of reasons, not least of which is resistance. States do not always get their own way.
The tide of Western authority will recede from much, though by no means all of the planet. A writhing mess of social flotsam and jetsam will be left in its wake. Some patches of lived anarchy, some horrible conflicts, some empires, some freedoms, and of course, unimaginable weirdness. As states recede and ‘fail’ — through entropy, stupidity, revolution, internal conflict, climate stress — people will continue to dig, sow, herd and live — most, admittedly, in vastly more challenging climates, and few with the guarantee of a peaceful life. In many places commodified land will be reclaimed as commons and new communities will be formed by refugees from the collapsed economies. Anarchic societies — old and new — will need to defend their liberty and lives, through avoidance, arms, flight and ‘outwitting the state’.
We have glimpsed some of the possibilities opened up (and closed) by both future climate wars and the retraction of state governance from rural communities — but what about liberty at the shifting outer borders of civilisation? And what of liberty beyond those borders — in the wild?

read more here:

Part 1 :: Part 2 :: Part 3 :: Part 4 :: Part 5 :: Part 6 :: Part 7 :: Part 8 :: Part 9 :: Part 10

3 responses to “African Roads to Anarchy

  1. I like that. It seems that the solution to the capitalist industrial complex is to allow people to be. To not demand that everyone has to agree to our idea of progress and what a human being is.

    Just allow people to do what they do farm eat fuck smile dance cry.

    I think that’s a pretty tangible vision of the future is that the people who are involved in technology and going to the stars and all this culture of information, we will do those things. While most of the people who indeed are human beings don’t give a shit about that and then we just let them do what they want to do.

  2. I mean I think the main problem is that There is a certain culture of being human that demands that all human beings have to fit into their definition of what a human being is and they all have to contribute to that project there is a certain culture of being human that demands that all human beings have to fit into their definition of what a human being is and they all have to contribute to that project.

  3. Pingback: Civilisation Retreats, Wildness Persists | synthetic zerø·

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