Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Law and Disorder in the Postcolony. Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 357 pp.
The collection of essays being reviewed consists of seven case studies of local patterns of violence drawn from experiences in ten countries – South Africa, Brazil, and the six countries of the Chad Basin (Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, Niger, and Central African Republic), and two theoretical essays.
In the Preface the authors present a problem – is there “anything distinctive about (the) contemporary predicament (of post-colonies in Africa, Asia, Europe & Latin America), about the kinds of criminality, coercion, corruption, conflict, even chaos often attributed to them?” (p. vii). A presumption which they reject, that the answer to the above question is yes. And a paradox that law, rather than morals, ethics, or custom has become the measure of action, even as its spirit and letter are violated.
The editors argue that the corruption and crime in post-colonial countries are “discernible elsewhere as well, if not perhaps as acutely or as vividly – or living under a legal alias,” for instance, campaign contributions to politicians by interested businesses (p. 39). The case studies belie this easy symmetry. Several discuss local circumstances of, at best, governance without legitimacy. The gang and drug violence, and arbitrary police behavior in many of America’s inner cities no doubt is similar to that in the urban slums of the postcolony. However, for the vast majority of Europeans and Americans there is little or no direct experience or even exposure to violence other than as a media event. In the countries described in this collection and much of the post-colony, it would appear a significant percentage of people are personally, even physically affected by violence.
The conviction with which the editors of this volume, along with Derrida, Agamben, and Benjamin, identify law with violence, or even as violence, occludes the real difference between force, the effect of the physical coercion of the law, and the other forces and effects of law (p. 31). Violence at its core expresses violation. It is best understood as a morally condemned use of power. It is a normative concept; power, force, even coercion are descriptive. What is violated when force or coercion is exercised by properly constituted authority in a reasonable, culturally common sensible manner, bounded by duly adopted rules? If all law is violence, why bother with concerns about legitimacy and due process?
How then to see the “disorder,” the violence of the title and as described in the case studies? There is physical violence and political-economic corruption or structural violence in every society and system of government. Certainly, all governments and societies are capable of “extraordinary evil,” however, the frequency, duration, and breadth and depth of violence varies from place to place and time to time. Similarly with its causes and cures. For instance, looking at violence from the perspective of the perpetrator of the violent act, is it ordinary criminal behavior or something of more systemic significance? Is the violence resistance to or rebellion against government abuse; or to development and modernization; or to the impact of neo-colonial economic and ecological decisions? Or is it more properly seen as an internal matter, a civil war, over property, (think diamonds for instance); or about identity (think kin, ethnicity, or religion)?
Violence is defined or delimited by law-- the life of the law is the lived experiences of people. And experience as either colonized or colonial affects, distorts, even corrodes people’s personalities, values, and their institutions. Thus understood, neither law and its concomitant disorder or violence, nor the postcolony can be defined, they can only be illustrated. That is the value of the seven case studies in this collection; they provide a concrete text and context to study
How the same violent phenomenon can be seen differently by its perpetrators, its victims, and by the law is powerfully illustrated in Rosalind Morris’ study of rape in South Africa over the last 30-40 years. As in many societies, crimes against women receive scant attention from law enforcement. Under apartheid and in other racist systems the one exception is an attack on a woman of the dominant ethnic or racial group by a male of the oppressed group.
The Truth & Reconciliation Commission, in its efforts to get past the past, distinguished political violence including rape from personal or random acts of violence also including rape. Its records are replete with testimony showing the general difficulty of such distinctions in what was essentially a civil war; and the absurdity of such a distinction when the violent act is rape. Since then, as a semblance of “normalcy” has been established, violence against women has been seen as either a public random act of ordinary crime, or as a private intra-family act which again is of little or no concern to the police. In 2000, “less than 50 percent of all reported rape cases (went) to trial, and . . . less than 8 percent of these led to convictions” (p.85).
The Comaroffs’ more theoretical study of the public and police obsession with criminality and disorder in South Africa focuses on spectacle, a reliance by the government on both dramatic state conducted and mass media enactments of crime and punishment. Police actions, presentations and performances, museums, detective novels, TV crime shows, and gangster films are used to “construct a minimally coherent world-in-place…” (p. 292).
There are two studies of situations in Brazil that illustrate how the rhetoric of rights can be perverted or “counterfeited” by officials and others to justify oppression (p.13-16). One by Teresa Calderas of three circumstances in which notions of rights, justice, violence, and crime were central: efforts by poor urban dwellers to have their “rights to the city” recognized; efforts by human rights advocates to advance the rights of prisoners in the midst of a crime wave; and the hip-hop generation’s articulation of community in an environment of corruption, police violence, and high unemployment. The other is by Nancy Scheper-Hughes on the killing of street children by local “guardian angels” in the northeast of the country.
They perhaps more significantly show what might be called the primacy of order. In conditions of extreme disorder and threat all else becomes secondary. This quest for order often manifests itself as a withdrawal from the public square, from politics into the quotidian, thus presenting a challenge if not a threat to representative democracy. Another reaction to extreme disorder is to grab hold of a fundamentalism, perceived of as a fixed certain truth. This phenomenon and its challenge to the law are presented in Peter Geschiere’s study of witchcraft in Cameroon and South Africa. Tragically, even merely perceived rather than real disorder can have the same or worse effects, such as the death squads’ attacks on street children.
Patricia Spyer’s study of a 1999 outbreak of communal violence in Ambion City, Indonesia in is a thick description of the “swirl of images, vocabularies, sound bites, slogans, and vectors” operating just before, during, and to end the violence (p. 99). Speyer describes its focus on the climate within which the acts studied occurred as one of “hyperhermeneutics — or a compulsive need to interpret and mine just about everything for hidden meaning . . .” (p. 206 ). Charles Tilly’s study of the mechanisms of violence – network based escalation, setting based activation, and brokerage - is a necessary supplement to this otherwise very valuable study of “climate, ambiance, atmosphere and milieu” (p.190).
Janet Roitman’s study of “The Ethics of Illegality in the Chad Basin” recognizes that unregulated economic activities and gang-based road banditry are crucial to the urban economy, as well as to the financing of local administration. She focuses on how the participants in these legal and illegal activities see these acts and themselves. The participants in the economy of the Chad Basin were, as they saw it, engaged in “practices that, while not lawful (hence illegal), are nonetheless not forbidden . . . Neither outlaw nor moral activity, their practices are rather a means to participate in prevailing modes of accumulation and prevailing methods of governing the economy ” (p.249). Roitman concludes that because the self-evaluations of the interlocutors are derived from the behavioral standards of the official government, the practices, even those of resistance “are necessarily generated out of states of domination” (p.265).
The theoretical essay which ends this volume is rough going. Mbembe certainly makes a credible case that the large scale changes discussed in the Introduction and throughout the case studies operate across Africa in different ways. At the same time, he sees deep convergences that have resulted in a politics marked by “more concentrated forms of power and accumulation, rooted in brute control over life and death” (p. 7). His argument is that this current warlike form of politics is grounded in the psycho-sexual idiom of Bataille. The essay begins its analysis of “politics as a form of expenditure” by affirming “following Bataille’s discussion of the exclusionary act, that the war like act in contemporary Africa contains an erotic dimension. It is an aspect of anal eroticism, just as sovereignty is … one particular form of sadism” (p. 299). These eroticized and militarized figures of speech continue throughout the essay, leaving one to wonder just how one would go about (re-)establishing a more peaceful politics.
The editors see “great historical tsunamis” occurring in the twenty-first century (p. ix). They identify a shift from Weber’s bureaucratic government to a more privatized government-by-franchise. They see this privatization eventually encompassing the police and military. They also see a diminishment of the political and its replacement by the legal; the substitution of rule for practical reason. Similarly, they see policy matters becoming increasingly viewed as technical challenges reducible to single right answers. And they see all of this taking place in an increasingly commodified culture and an identity politics (p. ix-x).
Finally, the Comaroff’s see these tsunamis “breaking first” on postcolonial shores or “if not first, then in their most palpable, most hyperextended form” (p. ix). That being the case, the postcolonies become especially valuable sites for the study of social theory. Essays like those herein, and similar “re-storying(s)” of empirical studies of how the law affects and is effected by people and institutions as they make decisions about social practice become essential material for critical legal analysis. The key notion when all is said and done, is that of Montesquieu, that the laws of one country could not be simply transported to another country without causing great harm.
Walter J. Kendall III John Marshall Law School
 Charles Tilly. The Politics of Collective Violence. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2003.
 Chinua Achebe. Home and Exile. Anchor Books, New York, 2000.
 Montesquieu. The Spirit of the Laws. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1989. Part 1, book 1, chapter 3, p.8-9.