Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourses and Good Governance in Africa

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourses and Good Governance in Africa

Article excerpt

Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourses and Good Governance in Africa. By Rita Abrahamsen. London: Zed Books, 2000. Pp. xv, 168. $65.00 cloth, $22.50 paper.

The nature of global politics has changed tremendously since the Soviet collapse. Optimistic pronouncements that world had reached the "end of history" in 1989 ring hollow in a post-9/11 world.1 While communism has all but disappeared as a geopolitical force, terrorism has replaced it as the global antithesis of Western liberal democracy. Western politicians describe terrorists in terms not unlike those used to describe communists at the height of the Cold War. Like communists, terrorists are said to harbor an abiding hatred for freedom and democracy. They also hate free enterprise, as suggested by their alleged plans to attack the New York Stock Exchange and the World Bank. In the days following the 9/11 attacks George W. Bush told Americans that the most patriotic thing they could do would be to go shopping. America's current occupation of Iraq is also justified in terms of replacing terrorism with free elections and free enterprise. This conflation of democracy and free market capitalism lies at the center of Rita Abrahamsen's Disciplining Democracy. While written prior to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the book continues to hold relevance for politics in Africa and on a global scale.

Following in the footsteps of Escobar, Ferguson, and Sachs, Abrahamsen argues that the language of democracy and capitalism is used to construct a discursive other-a "Third World" that is defined more by what it is not than by what it is. The absence of traits like "democratic culture" and "entrepreneurial spirit" in this constructed Other in turn suggests certain types of interventions. Significantly, these interventions serve to extend the control of states and international financial institutions over their ostensible beneficiaries, while concealing their own essentially political character. They also mask inequalities, while defining complex political problems as simple technical ones.2 This oft-repeated Foucauldian argument detracts somewhat from the central strengths of Abrahamsen's book. Those familiar with Foucauldian critiques of development will know most of its details by heart, while those not familiar with it are unlikely to be convinced-or even to read a book titled Disciplining Democracy, for that matter.

Of course Abrahamsen's title is meant to invoke Foucault's widely known (but less often read) Discipline and Punish. In this respect it is a bit misleading, since she leans heavily on the idea that discourses shape reality. In fact, Discipline and Punish represents a radical break with this position, since it is the first work in which Foucault suggests that that the role of discourse in shaping reality is only "intelligible as part of a larger set of organized and organizing practices," to which he referred as biopower or disciplining techniques.3 While these techniques are clearly at work in the bureaucracies in which African politicians operate, they are far less pervasive in Africa than they are in the Global North. Furthermore, it is impossible to determine exactly how they are operating without detailed ethnographic investigation. Without such investigation it is impossible to say, for instance, whether African politicians have actually internalized the discourses of free market capitalism or if they are merely mouthing them to make Western donors happy. Understanding the dynamics of African democracy begins with a nuanced analysis of how power operates at different scales and in different contexts-contexts in which disciplining techniques are operating and contexts in which force and coercion are much more prevalent. …

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