Theory from the South, or Reading the Global Order from the Antipodes
There appears to be a growing echo, slowly reverberating around the world, that, for good, ill, or both, Africa is the future, a harbinger of Europe’s history-to-come. Experts may debate the reasons for this: among them, a significant population bulge heavily skewed toward youth; an urban “revolution” unique in the current era; burgeoning consumer markets, rising middle classes, and accelerating techno-development; also, a propensity to repurpose material practices both foreign and homegrown, thus to remake modernity for late modern times. Says Keith Hart (2017:2), basing his prediction on the long historical relationship between demography and economy, “Sooner or later, Africa and Europe will change rank order.” The former – Africa, the continent that once signified the West’s prehistoric past and remains a perennial “basket case” in the jaundiced eyes of Euro-America – is now frequently taken to prefigure what lies ahead for humanity at large.
A decade or so ago, our Theory from the South explored this proposition and its implications for the social sciences, one of them being that Africa, as an “ex-centric” location (Bhabha 1994) and ground-zero of the Global South, has become a privileged axis from which to theorize the emerging world order of the twenty-first century. In so doing, it provoked a great deal of argument and, among northern intellectuals unused to the idea that their hemisphere may not be the font of all knowledge and theory-work, frank skepticism.
Reduced to its essence, the thesis of the book is this. While Euro-America and its antipodes are caught up in the same world-historical processes – each being entailed with the other in a counterpoint of reciprocal remaking, of “creolization” – the South has tended to feel their effects before the North. And much more intensely. There are good reasons for this. Most significant, perhaps, is the familiar fact that the imperial expansion of modern capitalism into colonies across the planet laid the basis for the violent exploitation of human labor and local ecologies, of raw materials and real estate, without the legal, moral, or political constraints that governed life at the metropole. The colony, site of rampant “primitive accumulation,” was, in short, the dark secret of Empire, its working laboratory for the refinement of the means and ends of racial capitalism (Robinson 1983). For all the talk of a civilizing mission, of progress and development, the social, economic, and governmental infrastructures of the liberal nation-state were never put securely in place here; as a result, a southern, illiberal variant of capitalist modernity, with none of the liberal conceits of individual freedom, rights-bearing citizenship, or equality before the law, took firm root. Which left postcolonial populations open to brute exploitation with the dawn of a new age of empire; the age, that is, of structural adjustment, of largely unregulated, highly mobile corporate capital, of the hollowing out of state, civil society, and democracy, of the displacement of welfare with the fetishism of rights – all under the magical sign of the market.
In the upshot, the “advanced” edges of post-Cold War political economy – its profitable re-engineering of legal and regulatory instruments, of taxation and labor arrangements, of modes of extraction and enclaved sovereignty – rooted themselves deeply in Africa; so much so that, in 2010, Newsweek declared the continent to be “at the very forefront of emerging markets…Like China and India, [it is]…illustrative of [the] new world order” (Guo 2010:44). “Africa Rising” duly became the meme of the moment: The Economist editorialized about it, a YouTube documentary dramatized it, a fashion magazine was named for it, scholars debated it, an IMF conference was held to discuss it, a sustainable development program took it on as a charter, and an eminent professor of marketing invoked it as call for shrewd global business investment (Mahajan 2009). The basis for all this? A major influx of Foreign Direct Investment earning high returns; healthy GDP numbers and growth rates in many countries; the rise of homegrown African mega-corporations; the increasing presence of transnational firms; and thriving local informal economies marked by flexible, strikingly inventive enterprise, some of it, alike licit and illicit, having grown out of performing outsourced services for northern firms. And so new regimes of work and time, new perceptions of futurity, new modes of sociality and livelihood, have taken root – regimes with analogues that are becoming ever more visible in Euro-America.
At the same time, and for the same reasons that have made the continent so exploitable for capital, so open to the siphoning off of value to worlds outside, the dystopic aspects of our times have also been most readily evident in the South. Material inequality, human disposability, mass un- and under-employment, epidemic illness and homelessness, eco-despoliation, crippling private and public debt, violent crime, and social exclusion remain endemic. Indeed, it was this counterpoint of promise and dystopia, of creative life-making and destructive death-dealing, that we sought to detail in Theory from the South. It is a counterpoint whose trajectory is under-determined. And it is full of surprises; an unruly dialectic, if you will, that does not recapitulate the telos of modernity or its reverse, defying both received Marxisms and liberal modernization theories of one sort or another. Sometimes it also defies expectation in almost uncanny ways: just as many African economies weathered the global recession of 2008-9 more successfully than did those of the north, growing at unanticipated rates as others struggled, so Africa has weathered the Covid-19 pandemic better than most, perhaps because it has had a long history of dealing with public health and economic crises.
But this is just half of our story. The other half has to do with contemporary Euro-America, site of rising carceral populations, of spiraling inequality, poverty, precarity, and debt, of a crisis of social reproduction, a silently ticking generation war, and increasing real joblessness, most of it unmeasured; all of these things, usually taken to be symptomatic of so-called “developing nations,” are now endemic to much of the World formerly known as “First.” The “new normal” of the North, it seems, is replaying the recent past of the South, not least because many of the rights and protections of citizenship once associated with liberal democratic societies have been eroded, leaving their a rising proportion of their populations, especially the poor and racialized, in something like the predicament long endured by colonial, and subsequently postcolonial, subjects – although, to be sure, there is good cause for seeing Africa less as postcolonial than as Afropolitan (Selasi 2005; Mbembe XXXX), if in its own singular, endogenous ways. This is why, in so many respects, Africa, Asia, and Latin America appear to be running ahead of Euro-America, prefiguring its history-in-the-making. And why Euro-America, tracking behind the antipodes, appears to be “going south.”
Take, for just one example, the rotting urbanism spreading through parts of the Global North. When it is said, for example, that Lagos augurs the future of the modernist city (Koolhaas and Cleijne 2001) it is not because northern conurbations also have rising homeless populations, ever more stricken neighborhoods, and pathological patterns of inequality. (Nor is it because real estate on Victoria Island is more expensive than its equivalent in Manhattan, or that “smart city” experiments are mushrooming across the continent, abetted by Chinese capital.) It is because urban scapes, as planetary phenomena, have strongly convergent tendencies: among other things, their rhizomatic patterns of sociality; their fractured political rationalities and the claims made to sovereignty within them; the gating off of their elites and the privatization of their civic amenities; the segmentary sprawl of impermanently housed, radically under-resourced populations which, at very best, enjoy only partial citizenship; their economies, including the burgeoning informal (sharing, caring, criminal, affective, i.e. “gig” ) economies arising under the impact of radical changes in labor markets everywhere. These are all corollaries of the ways in which capital, and its cultural mediations, are playing themselves out under parallel, globally-emergent sociological and infrastructural conditions, conditions that began to manifest themselves in the South earlier than they did in Euro-America. And are most graphically visible in Africa.
In Theory from the South we explore a wide range of phenomena of which the same things can be said: that they presented first in the South, and tend to be more hyperbolically visible there than they are in the North. These extend to such things as the changing nature of personhood and political subjectivity; the erosion of democracy and the crisis of liberalism; the shift from a politics of ideology to the politics of ID-ology, a politics of right/s in which identity takes precedence over all other forms of claim and mobilization; the radical transformation of labor as capitalism – itself taken ever more to be a millennial, indeed enchanted, solution to all social problems – is treated the primary force determining world history-in-the-making. The book also asks a number of foundational questions: What, exactly, is meant by theory in this day and age? And what is “the South,” given that it is a shifting signifier which cannot easily be pinned down? Given, also, the fact that “it” is not, as some would have it, simply the antithesis of “the North,” a mythic geography within which exist unreconstructed, untouched indigenous worlds whose vernacular life ways may offer rescue or redemption from the contradictions, deformities, and disfigurements of global modernity. But these are topics for another time, another blog. Theory from the South is intended as an ongoing conversation about the contemporary global order and how we are to make sense of it.
John Comaroff is Hugh K. Foster Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology at Harvard University.
Jean Comaroff is Alfred North Whitehead Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology at Harvard University.
Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.
Comaroff, Jean and John L. Comaroff. 2012. Theory from the South: Or How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa. Boulder, CO and London: Paradigm Publishers.
Guo, Jerry. 2010. How Africa is Becoming the New Asia. Newsweek, March 1:42-44.
Hart, Keith. 2017. The West’s Moral and Political Crisis. Anthropology Today 33(4):1-3.
Koolhaas, Rem and Edgar Cleijne. 2001. Lagos: How it works. With Harvard Project on the City and 2X4, (ed.) Ademide Adelusi-Adeluyi. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers.
Mahajan, Vijay, with Robert E. Gunther. 2009. Africa Rising: How 900 Million African Consumers Offer More Than You Think. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall (Pearson Education, Inc.).
Mbembe, Achille. 2007. Afropolitanism. In Afric Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, (ed.) Simon Njami. Johannesburg: Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Robinson, Cedric. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. London: Zed Press.
Selasi, Taiye 2005. Bye-Bye Babar. The Lip Magazine, 3 March, Lip#5 Africa; https://thelip.robertsharp.co.uk/2005/03/03/bye-bye-barbar
 “Africa Rising,” The Economist, 3 December 2011; https://www.economist.com/leaders/2011/12/03/africa-rising.
 See e.g. the essays in “Africa Rising: Who Benefits from the Continent’s Economic Growth?” Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Perspectives: Political Analysis and Commentary, Issue 1, February 2014; https://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/2014_1_perspectives_africa.pdf.