The Postcolonial State

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The Postcolonial State

The scope of coverage of the term postcolonial varies across disciplinary fields and authors, being broader in literary studies, for example, than in political science. Some authors include former settler colonies as referents alongside non-settler colonies. Other analysts, such as Amina Mama, distinguish the term postcolonial, used to refer specifically to former colonies, from the term post-imperial, preferring this term to refer to former imperial powers. In temporal terms, postcolonial does not refer simply to the period after colonialism but assumes continuity, in terms of the continued effects of processes initiated during colonialism, as well as discontinuity, in terms of new processes unfolding subsequently. The term postcolonial is used here to refer to the study of the attempted transformation, successful and otherwise, of former colonies in the context of changing imperial conditions.

From Structural Functionalism to Marxist Structuralism

In the early days of independence, the individualistic approach of authors who singled out the performance of those in positions of power earned them the label of "leadership theorists." Leadership was essentially viewed as a means for achieving "order." Such writers shared much in common with the "nation-building" school of American structural functionalism, where "nation" was very often equated with "state." This literature was more concerned with the possibilities of statehood and the development of political institutions in the new states than with the constraints on institutional development, the latter being of greater interest to Marxists. The chief merit of leadership approaches is the emphasis on the created aspects of state formation and the efforts of individuals with a degree of control over their political life and environment. Critics (see Stark) point out, however, that the analysis tends to foster philosophical idealism and does not take enough account of the relationship between ideology and social action.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the underdevelopment paradigm became very influential in efforts to explain the economies and modes of rule that decolonizing nations were constructing. Underdevelopment theorists were concerned with the economic dependency of postcolonial states in the context of international capitalism as well as the relative autonomy of the postcolonial state from social classes. The theoretical model drew on the dichotomy between base and superstructure that characterized Marxist structuralism, but the focus was on trade rather than production. Several authors (see Ollawa) have pointed out that the developmental experiences of decolonizing countries highlight the centrality of the postcolonial state in structuring the necessary conditions for continued capital accumulation and regulating the allocation of surplus among different social categories.

In an influential essay on Pakistan and Bangladesh, "The State in Post-Colonial SocietiesPakistan and Bangladesh" (1972), Hamza Alavi posited that the postcolonial state was "over-developed" due to its foreign creation. It was consequently particularly powerful compared to the leading agrarian and industrial classes, the latter being "under-developed." The idea of the relative autonomy of the state was proposed because of the independent material base of the bureaucratic-military oligarchy and its relative autonomy from the other propertied classes. Critics of Alavi's position point to the idea of the state being reduced to a handful of bureaucrats and military officers in his analysis. Understanding the limitations placed on the state's responses to pressures from hegemonic interests requires a closer examination of the state, in relation to its constituent parts and in relation to the international environment, and a more comprehensive view of classes.

Alavi's 1972 essay sparked off considerable debate amongst Marxist Africanists. This included John Saul's emphasis on ideology, which he said was neglected in Alavi's analysis, but was necessary for the state's function of holding together the capitalist system. Colin Leys responded by reasserting the importance of class as the basis of analysis of the state, and others responded in a similar vein. Many Marxists are of the view that patterns of belief can bind the state together and, drawing on the ideas of Antonio Gramsci (18911937), have attempted to conceptualize anew the role of elites and their ideologies, in the complex economic relationships of the postcolonial state.

Interweaving History, Politics, and Culture

Jean-Francois Bayart points out that the notion that the state was an external structure does not recognize the ways in which Africans quickly re-appropriated the new state forms and the accompanying colonial political culture. Similar perspectives (e.g., Mbembe) point to the re-appropriation taking place not only in the institutional sphere but also in the material and cultural spheres. State power creates its own world of meanings through administrative and bureaucratic practices. It also attempts to institutionalize this world and turn it into people's everyday understanding as well as the consciousness of the period.

The historicity of the postcolonial state is at the center of Bayart's analysis. His focus is on the genesis of the state, the strategies of the actors, the procedures of accumulation and the world of political make-believe, all of which contribute to social inequality. Bayart's evocative phrase, "the politics of the belly," refers to desires and practices associated with interrelated themes: poverty and food scarcity; accumulation, corruption, and sexual excess. These are all understood as changing patterns of historical action, that are located in a network of tensions and interdependence, and that act upon one another. Bayart highlights the ways in which authoritarian regimes have managed to retain control over security forces and economic rents whilst maintaining the support of Western powers and international financial institutions. African postcolonial states rested on indigenous social bases whilst simultaneously being connected to the international system. Bayart's approach counters the conception of African states and societies as lacking history, and of African politics as absent or inexplicable. These prevailed in colonial historiography, in philosophy, and continue today in mainstream Western sociology and political science.

From the 1980s onward, considerable scholarly attention across the social sciences has been paid to the "crisis" of the African state. The literature has also examined the shifting orientations of international financial institutions, from initially increasing the interventionist powers of the state to reversing that position by the mid-1980s. In an ideological climate defined by neoliberalism and marked by structural adjustment programs, scholars of diverse ideological orientations are united in their fierce criticism of international financial institutions, their appropriation of the concept of the "overdeveloped state" and the effects of their policy impositions on diverse categories of people. The literature has characterized the activities of international financial institutions as "rolling back the state" and bypassing the autonomy of the state in several critical ways through policy prescriptions and financing patterns.

Achille Mbembe's poststructural analysis of the "postcolony" draws attention not just to the historical strength and purpose of the state but also to questions of powerits manifestations and the different techniques of enhancing its value to either ensure abundance or scarcity. Before and after colonization, state power in Africa magnified its value by establishing specific relations of subjection that were informed by the distribution of wealth and tribute, and that shaped modes of constituting the postcolonial subject. Postcolonial states were strongly influenced by the modalities of their integration into world trade, such as reliance on one or more key resources for export, and whether they were financed through the peasantry, aid, or debt. Their modalities of integration shaped the forms taken by postcolonial states; the ways in which their ruling elites were inserted into international networks; and the structuring of relations among state, market, and society. Mbembe highlights the significance of the links that the postcolonial state in Africa forged among interrelated arenas. These were the production of violence, the allocation of privileges and livelihoods, and systems of transfer, such as the reciprocities and obligations comprising the communal social tie. The state's systems of allocations and transfers were significant in underpinning social and political cohesion and, thereby, the state's legitimacy.

Mbembe also draws attention to the present erosion of state legitimacy since the concentration of the means of coercion by the postcolonial state is difficult to achieve given the acute lack of material resources. Instead, autonomous power centers proliferate within what used to be a system. This is a consequence of the growing indebtedness of local rulers and trading elites, thus leading African polities to lose external power and exposing them to the risk of internal dissolution. The violence and predation required by the new form of integration into the international economy has led not only to the militarization of power and trade, and to increased extortion, but also to serious destabilization of the trade-offs that had previously governed the relationship between holding state power and pursuing private gain. The idea of the state as a general mechanism of rule and as the best instrument for making possible the exercise of citizenship is thus being seriously threatened.

Feminist Analyses of the Postcolonial State

In contrast to the above approaches, a key debate among feminist analysts of the postcolonial state concerns the extent to which the state is able to act as a vehicle for social change aimed at increasing gender equality. For example, in Morocco in the early 1990s, the modernizing state drew women into the public arena through law and education. The other side of the debate concerns the state as a mechanism for male social control and the convergence between the state and patriarchal forces. Where politics becomes deeply communalized, particularly when it is supported by state-sponsored religious fundamentalism, the traditional control over women that rested with particular male individualssuch as fathers, brothers, husbandssoon shifts to all men. Sonia Alvarez argues that there is nothing essential about the state's ability to act in either directionsocial change or social controlbut that its trajectory is more likely to be determined by political regime and historical conjuncture.

The feminist analyst Shirin Rai conceptualizes the state as a network of power relations that are located in economic, political, legal, and cultural forms interacting with and against each other. This allows her to examine the state in the context of social relations shaped by systems of power, which are themselves affected by struggles against these systems. Rai points out that the state may take different forms in different historical, social, and economic contexts, as in the case of postcolonial states emerging from struggles against imperialism and colonial rule. The nationalist opposition to colonialism was itself located within the modernizing framework favored by colonialists. The prioritization of goals, first by the nationalist movement and then by the postcolonial state, erased issues that potentially challenged the modernist developmental conceptions of the new nation-state, such as women's interests and rights.

Rai highlights three features of postcolonial states that are significant for women's strategizing for social change. The first concerns the transformative role of the state: most nationalist elites saw themselves as agents for social and economic transformation, and state institutions were also relatively autonomous from dominant social classes. This allows space for institutional and political struggles. Second, the infrastructural capacity of the state is uneven, resulting in the possibility of activists targeting sympathetic institutions and individuals within the state. Third, the existing level of corruption is an important determinant of whether negotiation within the state is possible or not. Rai points out that one of the important implications of the poststructuralist conception of power as dispersed is the recognition that power takes diverse forms and can be used in varied ways. Simply taking an adversarial position against the state may be positively dangerous for women, given the deeply masculinist character of society, including civil society.

The gendered character of state formation, state practices, and militarism are analyzed by Amina Mama. In an earlier paper, Mama had argued that, in an international context highly influenced by women's movements, the military regimes of Generals Ibrahim Babangida (19851993) and Sani Abacha (19931998) were appropriating Nigerian women and their struggles whilst seeking legitimacy for their continued rule. Later, she refined this position by pointing out that the situation was more complex than this. This complexity included the fact that the politics of transition, and hence its gender politics, was more improvised than planned and took several turns in different and contradictory directions. Moreover, Nigerian women, in diverse and competing ways, were not passive pawns but actively engaged in the political maneuvers involved.

Drawing on Michel Foucault's theorization of power as dispersed, Mama theorizes power as dispersed across micropolitical, existential states of being as well as more macropolitical formations such as the nation-state. This allows her to consider ways in which these different levels of social reality come together to produce resonance and, potentially, dissonance. Mama also draws on the feminist philosopher Judith Butler's development of Foucault's theorization of power, arguing that being implicated or enabled by relations of power does not rule out the possibility of subversion. Mama examines the gender discourses articulated by the Heads of State and their wives in successive regimes, the programs and political practices articulated by these discourses, and the different structural changes made in efforts to institutionalize them. In the process, she highlights the interplay among power, knowledge, and practice that facilitated the manufacture of consent to the military regimes dominating the workings of the state.

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan delineates the changing, heterogeneous character of the postcolonial state in India in her exploration of the state's contradictory positions toward female citizens. In a feminist analysis of social realities textured by divisions of age, ethnicity, religion, and class, Sunder Rajan examines women's lives, needs, and struggles around issues such as child marriage, compulsory sterilization, female infanticide, and prostitution. She shows how the state is critical to an understanding of women's individual and group identities at the same time as women and their struggles affect the operations of the state.


Three major conceptual fields are identifiable in the above literature. The first is that of structuralism, spanning ideas from structural functionalism to Marxism and with concomitant emphases on individualism and class. This field was in the ascendant in the 1960s and 1970s, its influence waning since then. The second field, emerging in the late 1980s, highlights the agency of actors in and around the state, located in interrelated historical, material, and cultural contexts. Although highly innovative in its syntheses of literature in history, politics, and cultural studies, the ideological orientation of this work in relation to social action is less clear. Finally, there is the field of feminist thought. This field shares common features with that highlighting agency, such as poststructural approaches to the analysis of power and the recognition of nonunitary, contradictory interests surrounding the postcolonial state. Unlike either of the other two fields, feminist scholarship is distinguished by its analysis of gendered state processes, the implications for women, and strategies for realizing gender justice.

See also Anticolonialism ; Colonialism ; Postcolonial Studies .


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Charmaine Pereira

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The Postcolonial State

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