The State in Africa

Bayart, JeanFrancois
Polity Press, Cambridge
9780745644370 (pb)

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Cover of book In the preface to the first English edition Jean Francois Bayart indicated that his purpose was to construct a mode of analysis and interpretation in the hope of injecting new life into the theoretical debate about the state and politics in Africa south of the Sahara.

There are three prefaces to the book; the first and second English Edition, and the original French Edition. (The preface to the Second English Edition is 65 pages). The Introduction: Historicity of African Societies is followed by three parts. The first is concerned with the Genesis of the State, Chapters 1 through 4, the second with Scenarios in the Pursuit of Hegemony (Chapters 5 -7) and the final part Political Action (Chapters 8-9). The notes for the prefaces and the chapters are 86 pages. More about the structure of the book below.

The trajectory of Bayart's argument is presented in the first edition. He rejects Modernisation and Dependency theories and what he calls the 'Paradigm of the Yoke'. Instead he focuses on the continuity of African politics across colonization, decolonization and independence. Although he cites a number of theorists, his approach is anchored in the work of Antonio Gramsci as he begins to develop his own framework. His argument is that the continuing deficit in the literature devoted to African politics has been the failure to recognize African societies as historical and political entities in their own right. Bayart believes that this is still little understanding of African societies, little appreciation that they are in fact ordinary, particularly when it comes to politics. Africa is portrayed as doomed, crippled, adrift, and so forth, always with someone else to blame.

Bayart identifies the belief that African societies historically have been isolated from the rest of the world as the root cause of the negativity heaped on Africa. He begins by proposing a paradigm of 'Historicity within Extroversion', meaning African societies could never have been passive objects in the process of dependency or colonization; he indicated that the real issue is that some African societies were better than others at exploiting foreign occupation. He uses historicity in the sense that history derives from objective historical and social processes, and they cannot be understood outside their social and historical context. His position is that the state can best be understood as an 'organic growth from the entrails of civil society'. Bayart sees his problem as identifying the dynamics of the State's genealogy.

In the section which addresses the Genesis of the State, Bayart discusses ethnicity, and what he calls its journalistic equivalent, tribalism. In essence, he sees tribalism as perhaps the last refuge for scoundrels, and opts for the class structure as the proper unit of analysis in the search for the genesis of the State. According to Bayart, the State is a major manufacturer of inequality. He also indicated that one's position in the state apparatus also determines one's social status, relationship to the economy and one's material power. The remainder of this section concerns the linking and telescoping of systems of inequality and domination in an historical trajectory in Africa, noting that dominated groups sometimes become the winners in the end.

In part 2 Bayart identified the search for hegemony as the starting point in his paradigm. He begins with two ideal types. One type is where the dominant group maintains power and the other which brings about the downfall of the dominant group, and the rise of some portion of the subordinate groups. A la Gramsci, he looks at the interaction between political and civil society which in turn leads to the search for a middle ground, a process he calls the reciprocal assimilations of elites. This argument begins with the distinction between political and civil society. Political society, which includes political institutions, and legal constitutional control, and Civil Society, which is commonly seen as either the private or non-state sphere. Potentially competing elites are integrated into a single dominant class based on its access to and control over state resources. Bayart argues that the state must acquire resources, and one of the most important means has been through dealing with the external world, the previously mentioned extraversion process. Moreover, the boundaries between private and public go un-recognized, especially for the elites, what Bayart calls straddling, meaning elites have a foothold in each sphere.

Bayart borrows again from Gramsci in his discussion of political action. Rather than operating under the auspices of a national class, Bayart suggests that post-colonial African states will likely construct themselves through the 'passive revolution' process, a revolution without a revolution. In Africa, Bayart describes this process as one where the educated rise to power, then seize the state's resources, and refuse to enhance and radicalize the popular movements against colonialism. Gramsci's concept of historic block provides for the organic unity of the superstructure and infrastructure, as well as the civil and political society, and cannot be separated from the study of hegemony. The political process tends to be conducive to the unification of the elites and the creation of the dominant class ideology, chieftaincy, the bureaucracy, elections and the party. In the end, the interactions of elements from political and civil society play a role in the fusion of a homogeneous dominant group. After discussing the formation of networks, Bayart describes the politics of the belly, with the phrase 'goats eat where they are tethered.' Later, he also notes that Africa does not 'eat' in a uniform way. He notes that the struggles which make up the quest for hegemony, and the production of the state bear the hallmarks of the rush for spoils in which the rich and poor participate in the world of networks. It appears that Bayart is re-affirming the notion that all politics are local.

I found this book extremely difficult to read; one reason why I discussed the book's structure in great detail. Beginning by reading the prefaces, especially to the second English edition, will most likely cause difficulties in comprehension for the novice/non-Africanist reader. Bayart provides endless lists of locations, persons, tribes, as well as specific dates in his narratives that are at best likely to remain obscure to the uninitiated Africanist. More than that, the trajectory of Bayart's fundamental paradigm is muddled rather than clarified by reading the second English preface. If this book were to be used as a text, the students should be instructed to begin their reading with the first English edition. There, the trajectory of Bayart's proposed paradigm will reveal itself, but this will not be a simple or easy task.

Lincoln J. Fry
Port St Lucie, Florida, USA