Humanity interview with James Ferguson, pt. 1: development as “swarming state power”


Humanity co-editors Nils Gilman and Miriam Ticktin spoke with James Ferguson on May 31, 2013, at Stanford University. This week their conversation will appear here in three installments, starting with today’s.

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Humanity: Your book The Anti-Politics Machine (1990) has become perhaps the single most influential text in the historiography of development.[1] Its thesis is that the latent function of development is to extend the bureaucratic power of the state, which explains why, despite the endless failures of development to achieve its overtly stated ends, the practice of development continues to be pursued. Let us begin by discussing the genesis of this thesis: where did this framing come from?

James Ferguson: It began with my dissatisfaction with the very repetitive policy-focused discussions going on at the time (in the academy and outside it) concerning “development failure.” The question was always, “Why do development projects fail?” and “How can we do it better the next time?” But these did not seem to me very productive questions. Lesotho was knee-deep in “failed” development projects, and to come in and say that they were failing seemed to me to be not actually saying very much—that was obvious on its face.

So I instead found myself more and more interested in another set of questions, which was, “What is it that these projects are in fact doing?” I said, let us set aside these normative questions of success and failure, and let us be good anthropologists and be descriptive: what is going on here? Once I started asking that question, I found that the intellectual work that was being done in these development agencies and development reports and in development discourse generally was quite substantial. There was a tendency toward academic snobbery, I think, to look at these development intellectuals as people who were just being really bad anthropologists, to point out that what they were saying was not very well supported, and to pick it apart. What I wanted to say is that they are not doing good anthropology because they are not trying to do good anthropology—they are trying to do something else, and they are actually very good at doing that something else.

That something else has to do with constituting usable objects, meaning the objects that can be attached to programs that development agencies are there to set up. It has to do with creating the points of engagement with the knowable world that make it possible for them to do their jobs—that make it possible for these programs to build a case for why they need more money to do the next project, and why the next project is going to turn out differently than the previous one. I wanted not only to say that this technical work is important, it is an action in the world—it is not just talk, it is a material practice that produces material effects—but also to open up the question of “what are those effects?” Simply describing those effects in terms of a binary of success or failure was inadequate.


H: You say you were interested in the material practices that were going on in these development agencies and funding agencies. That is one piece of the work, the point of departure for the book—the topic of inquiry, as it were, which was indeed novel. Also central to the success of the book was the way you used Foucault. Specifically, it is an explicit application of the theory of institutional reform that Foucault articulated in Discipline and Punish, his genealogy of how humanitarian concern with inhumane conditions in pre-modern prisons had dubious effects on the quality of lives of prisoners, but had absolutely clear results in terms of producing improved technologies of surveillance and control, not just of prisoners, but in the wider society as a whole.

It seems to us that part of the power of your application of this conceptual framework to the development industry is that it implicitly frames the Global South as a giant, planetary-scale prison, with the North exercising a global disciplinarian function over the South. Development, in this view, becomes an effective way to manage the global prison, in effect to improve the bureaucratic capacity for prisoner control. And the developmental state, far from being an agent of liberty, instead gets cast in the role of the prison warden.

Although border control issues were not part of your original thesis—in fact, one of your central empirical points is that it makes no sense to think of Lesotho as a self-contained economic object of development, as in fact its economy is completely permeable with South Africa’s—that a conception of the role of borders is one of the powerful aspects of the book, even if it remains implicit. Have you considered how your framing of the concept of development connects to the perceived criminality of the Global South, in contrast to the normatively law-abiding and law-giving Global North?

JF: I am not sure I would take the analogy of the prison quite as far as you do, if only because actual imprisonment is actually a very expensive, individualized mode of care. A prison is a place where the state houses and feeds everybody, and that is not a very good account of a place like Lesotho, so I do not think it is a literal model in that sense. But yes, I was certainly drawing parallels in terms of the kind of power that is being exercised, an analogy of power. I have become more and more interested in the question of states and mobility in relation to the sorts of power that are exercised in the parts of the world that I have worked—in what Arjun Appadurai once called “the spatial incarceration of the native”—that is, the idea that there are certain kinds of people who properly stay where they are, and there are other kinds of people (like you and me) who travel around the world and decide where we want to live.[2]

This question of spatial mobility has become a more and more central aspect of the difference between people who live in what we used to call the First World and those who live in what we used to call the Third World. One of the things you see all across Africa is an aspiration to spatial mobility. Whereas what you might have seen in an earlier era would have been an aspiration for developmental mobility: “The whole society is moving upward, and we want to be part of that.” You are now much more likely to hear, “I have got to get out of this place. Can you help me get out of this place? My strategy is an individual one or a family one based not on moving up but on moving out.” As I say elsewhere, the strategy has become one of “egress, not progress.”[3] In other words, whereas the question of the nation-state as a frame of reference was important to my first book, I have increasingly come to understand it in spatial terms, understanding the nation-state as a “container for membership.” The movement of people across those borders inevitably challenges and calls into question those memberships, as we are seeing in Europe and the United States and indeed all over the world. It is one of the key hinges of contemporary politics.


H: How does your thesis compare to that of James Scott in Seeing Like a State (1998), where he argues that the goal of development is to help render society legible to the state, to extend the power of the state into previously disorganized fields?[4]

JF: My conception is a little different from Scott’s. The fields I am describing are not previously disorganized—they are very organized, and I spend a lot of time talking about how they are organized. In other words, it is not so much about introducing order into previously unordered fields, or introducing a greater legibility that allows one to identify objects; it is more about facilitating an engagement with usable objects that results in a swarming state power rather than a controlling state power.

Now, in the end, the Lesotho state does not find itself in this position of being capable of realizing the dream of modernist social planning, the state that knows where everybody is and is able to control their behaviors. That is not the sort of state you see in places like Lesotho for the most part. On the contrary, it is actually a state that is able to control very little. Under these circumstances, what does it mean for the state to have expanded? It does not mean that they can now control things better than they used to. It means that there are more offices, more people on the payroll, and more procedures that route you through little micro-points of bureaucratic control—what I call a bureaucratic state power. The state gets its hands on more and more things, but without forming a coordinated and rationalized apparatus of planning and control.[5]


H: This connects to the thesis of your second monograph, Expectations of Modernity(1999).[6] We might call this a form of drôle de modernité: an enactment of the forms of bureaucratic state power, based on the imagination of what a modern state “ought” to look like in the minds of bureaucrats in a place like Lesotho. Such role-playing does not necessarily produce the sort of Teutonic bureaucratic efficiency and material rationality that Weber had in mind when he was writing about these things a century ago. And yet there is a mimicking of forms.

JF: Certainly! Something I was very aware of when I was working on the Zambia material was that a lot of the Foucaultian work on the colonial experience does not capture very well what colonial modernity was like in a place like Zambia. Consider discussions of censuses, for instance, which presume the idea of an all-seeing panoptic state, busily enumerating. But in Zambia the colonial authorities did only the crudest counts of population. They of course published them as if they were solid, well-researched numbers on how many people lived in which district. But when, after independence, the new national government actually performed a modern census for the first time in the history of the place, they found out that there were actually twice as many people in the country as they had previously thought! In other words, all through the period of colonial rule, the authorities had not even the slightest idea of how many people they were ruling.

As you say, there is an element of play, of make-believe. The historian Steven Pierce wrote a piece on Nigeria called “Looking like a State,” engaging James Scott, which said what is going on Nigeria is not a matter of seeing like a state, it is a matter of looking like a state—that is, of performing the forms of state power in order to adequate to expectations of the sorts of authority you are supposed to project. Meanwhile, the actual mechanisms of authority were much more continuous with older ways of binding rulers and ruled.[7]



[1] James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990).

[2] Arjun Appadurai, “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place,” Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 1 (1988): 36-49.

[3] James Ferguson, “Decomposing Modernity: History and Hierarchy after Development,” inGlobal Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 2006), 192.

[4] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[5] See Ferguson, Anti-Politics Machine, 272-74.

[6] James Ferguson, Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

[7] Steven Pierce, “Looking Like a State: Colonialism and the Discourse of Corruption in Northern Nigeria,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 48, no. 4 (2006): 887-914.


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