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thinking the postcolonial Arrow vol 6 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 6 number 2, 2007


Thinking the Postcolonial as Political*

Mark Devenney

University of Brighton


This paper has three related aims. First, it specifies theoretically the breach that postcolonial subjects perform within the political. It begins with an axiomatic specification of the conditions of the political. I contend that the political must be conceptualised in terms of the three coordinates of equality, antagonism and relational materiality. Second, it reflects on the material relationality of the present, specifying the abstract logics of domination against which the postcolonial subject demands equality. These include a global necro-politics, the actuarialisation of life and lives, the colonisation of the new bio-political commons, and the re-articulation of the nation state and the maintenance of its borders. Third, it reflects on postcolonial subjectivity in light of these coordinates of domination contending that agency must be rethought in relation to these logics.


Conceptualising the Political

1. To conceptualise politics is to presuppose an axiom of equality. This is simply stated: no account of the political makes sense if it requires that those deemed free and equal members of the polity participate on unequal terms. This entails that politics is collective and relational. The demand for equality is made by a collective of others presumed equal, but in conditions where these relations are unequally structured. However, while such an axiom is presupposed it is rarely, if ever, effected in practice. Indeed the continual violation of the claim in deed, if not in word, is one of the prime means of delimiting political community, of determining who belongs and who is excluded. If democracy is founded on the presumption of equality, it is also marked by the naturalisation of inequality whilst defending a principle of equality. Inequality is naturalised through the invocation of nature, race, intelligence, class - or whichever contingent factor is best suited to maintaining a dominant constellation. If monarchical power is characterised by the strict delimitation of politics premised upon a natural inequality which is loudly proclaimed and practiced, democracy reverses this premise (presuming an axiomatic equality) without practicing what is proclaimed.

2.   The adjective postcolonial entails a demand for equality in conditions of inequality. This demand is not that those excluded, marginalised or exploited are extended the same rights and obligations as dominant 'races' and classes. It is a demand for a re-articulation of the body politic which transforms the conditions in which lives are lived, and the terms on which subjects recognise each other and themselves. As such the postcolonial demand cannot be fully recognised within the co-ordinates of the dominant order. An account of the postcolonial as political requires a map of inequality, a specification of the structural limits on equality. This real abstraction understands the political in relation to the articulated totality within which the production and reproduction of lives is organised. It maps the relations between (a) political reason (deliberative practices in the public sphere), (b) productive and reproductive relations (discursive materiality), (c) the distribution of violence and its legitimation to maintain this order, and (d) the repressed that is expressed only symptomatically and which requires interpretation. The abstraction presented is not an essence that requires uncovering, but is better understood as history rendered natural, an ordering which protects the continual violation of possible equality, and which recruits future possibility to this order.

3. This entails that postcolonial politics is antagonistic. This is the statement of an absolute condition of the political, not the assertion of a condition which it is the aim of political struggle to overcome. As Chantal Mouffe writes:

by the political I mean the dimension of antagonism which I take to be constitutive of human societies, while by politics I mean the set of practices and institutions through which an order is created organising human coexistence in the context of conflictuality provided by the political. (2005: p. 9)

Mouffe's account of antagonism, one which is shared by Ernesto Laclau (1985 and 1990) entails that the set of practices and institutions organising human existence will not be neutral, that political order requires exclusions and inclusions which cut across the established political, productive and reproductive relations.

4. These three conditions of the political: axiomatic equality, material relationality and antagonism are not mutually exclusive but are conceptual assemblages themselves implicated in the antagonistic debate about how to conceive of the political. Before turning to the postcolonial present let me briefly demonstrate how these three moments are implicit in the first book of Aristotle's Politics.

5. Aristotle distinguishes the political life (bios) of the city from life lived according to necessity (zoe, or life itself). [1] Political life, the life of reason, is proper to human beings. Women and slaves however live lives of necessity rendering them incapable of exercising reason or participating as equals in the public realm. These distinctions allow Aristotle to defend a politics of property: only those capable of exercising reason may own property. Slaves may be owned, like cattle. Equality is thus reserved for male Athenian citizens who are possessed of reason and are the guardians of civic virtue. Aristotle suggests that he who does not need the community is either an animal or a God, and is thus not a subject of the law nor subject to the law. Yet Aristotle struggles to maintain these distinctions, describing slaves (for example) as incapable of reason, but capable of acting upon instruction and thus understanding language, the hallmark of the reasoning citizen. A symptomatic reading of these elisions indicates the naturalisation of antagonism, the rendering of it as neutral in order to justify power. Aristotle thus preserves politics for those who are exempted, by virtue of reason, from productive and reproductive activity. This realm of equality is deemed exceptional to the material relations of reproduction yet this exceptionality is defined in terms of these relations. Aristotle's uncomfortable neutralisation of these distinctions indicates his own participation in antagonistic political arguments. Aristotle deploys reason as a technology of domination, a means of distinguishing different types of life, and thus different life chances. The distribution of inequality today similarly relies on apparently neutral technologies of life which are more subtle, less explicitly political, yet all the more nefarious in their disguised consequences for the lives that postcolonial subjects may lead. Aristotle's elisions in this text betray anxiety, an anxiety which reflects both the extant critical challenges to his account, and the fact that most Athenian slaves were taken in war or bought through trade. In Aristotle's apparently neutral account of 'politics' we find that dangerously persistent linking of class and race, a linkage which justifies colonial warfare, and is intrinsic to the maintenance of economic and political oppression. We find too the implication of reason in an oppressive politics, despite Aristotle's, and many subsequent, attempts to invoke reason in order to justify and naturalise a certain version of politics. [2] Let me turn now to four of the knots which bind the postcolonial present.

The Politics of Life and the New Colonialism

6. What then are the dominant structural constraints, what I called rather ponderously material relations, within which the postcolonial as political must be thought? I take it as read that the tired debate between proponents of Marxism, wedded to a critique of international political economy (who tend with rare exception to repeat, like worn formulas, the mantras of Lenin on Imperialism, or Marx on the globalisation of capitalism) and proponents of identity politics (who repeat the ever more sophisticated mantra of difference) is misplaced. Rather than tackle these debates head on I sketch a form of bio-politics which has global reach, and which demands a different account of postcolonial agency and of the postcolonial body politic. I identify four themes: (a) a politics of life and death; (b) an accountancy of life; (c) the refiguring of property laws and consequent colonisation of the new commons; and (d) the reconfiguration of the relations between natality, nation and territory. [3]

(a) The politics of life and death

7. When the era of territorial decolonisation reached its nominal end after the defeat of internal colonialism in South Africa in 1994, the outlines of an emergent politics of life and death were already in place. Increased life expectancy for a limited minority of the world's population concentrated in a small number of wealthy nation states - the creation of conditions under which citizens are increasingly 'incapable of the experience of death' (Daub, 2006, p.151) - is mirrored by a fall in average life expectancy for many.   Poverty, disease and famine continue to destroy the lives of millions. The international economy restructured as informational and service oriented, supports excess consumption for the wealthy while relying on debt, poverty and war economies in many societies. Large sectors of the world's population suffer what Montag (2005) accurately characterises as necro-economics, or market death. Writing in the first half of the 19 th century Engels viewed the ruling classes of the United Kingdom as willing participants in social murder:

when society  places such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live - forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence - knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains (Engels, 1845).

Engels' case relies on the claim that the ruling classes knowingly maintained a neutral market logic which had little interest in the death of lives without value. Today similar inequalities are maintained, are known, and are structured on a global scale. There are still profound inequalities within nation states, but the global structuring of inequality - the calculated distribution of unequal access to goods, foods, services, education - may be said to amount to social murder. A variety of indicators demonstrate that this globalisation is more intense than the so called first globalisation of the late 19 th and early 20 th century. However, this 'intensity' is concentrated in a small number of states, and the inclusion of the poorest nations and populations tends to be through predatory corporations, and privatised indirect government targeting the export of primary and manufactured goods on unequal trade terms.

8. A number of commentators have used the terms marginalisation, or switching off to describe these tendencies. [4] Inevitably matters are more complex, and there are different histories, trajectories, and levels of inclusion both for different states, and between different sectors within states. However, the technologies of governance deployed by institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, many aid organisations and increasingly by private corporate governance are similar in nature and in outcome. They weaken the state in insisting on a strict distinction between government and economy; they strengthen the hands of those who dominate production, and sometime foster civil war through the weakening of the state's right to exercise violence as the exception to the rule in order to maintain it. Last, they insist that all goods and services, must be open to market forces including the provision of even the most basic health services. These forms of indirect governance are levered through debt bondage, which like modern forms of slavery, keeps subjects captive until the debt has been paid off, through threats of disinvestment, and in some cases military intervention.   Where debt schedules are kept to a large percentage of the gross domestic product of even the poorest of states pays off debts taken out by dictatorial postcolonial regimes. [5]

9. The Human Development Report of the UN charts these inequalities and the consequences of this systemic structuring can be seen in the horrific statistics with which we are all too familiar. Life expectancy in the wealthiest twenty nations is on average 79 for the year 2005; in the poorest twenty countries it is 44, a difference of 35 years. Those who die younger suffer the worst illnesses including malaria, AIDS, and other treatable diseases. The average spending on health care in those same wealthy countries amounts to approximately $2600 per capita; in the poorest twenty it amounts to less than $100 per capita. Given that such disparities are known, are collected, are studiously distributed by the WHO, the UN and other agencies it is not wrong to use Paul Farmer's (2003) term structural violence or to argue that Engels' notion of social murder describes the world in which we live today. These inequalities are exacerbated and maintained by international regulatory structures. While the responses to this economic colonisation are shaped by different trajectories and histories, the system uses similar discriminating criteria and rules regardless of these different histories.

10. An initial survey of the postcolonial world indicates (a) unequal chances in life; (b) the maintenance of such inequality despite widespread knowledge of both the causes and consequences of this inequality; (c) excess consumption in wealthier countries fuelled by personal debt and the consumption of the lives and labour of others; (d) structural constraints which maintain these conditions.   Such 'knowledge' is the chaff of left liberal journalism. It is endlessly repeated, returned to, and agonised over. We need to go further though and trace how the restructuring of production and reproduction requires, through a perverse logic, that matters stay the same, despite liberal humanitarian cries of protest at these gross disparities. This means beginning to give an account of the abstract logics within which the possibility of living the good life is delimited.

(b) Accounting for Life

11. In the previous section I used the term necro-economics to describe a structure which allows that some 'may be allowed to die, slowly or quickly, in the name of the rationality and equilibrium of the market' (Montag, 2005, p.17). I also quoted statistics from the UNDP's 2005 Development Report. Yet we must take the further step of explaining this seemingly unaccountable terror. In Aristotle's myth of founding, the polity institutionalises a structured distance between the citizen and the necessary reproduction of bare life, the oikos. Aristotle implicates rationality and public reason in a regime of inequality which is lent support by his metaphysics of nature. For Aristotle what we would call economy - how life is produced and reproduced according to nomos, laws - is organised in relation to a dominant citizenship which is the preserve of male Athenian citizens. The technology of exclusion Aristotle deploys is reason. Today, technologies of exclusion are more subtle, more abstract but no less insidious. If for Aristotle one's social position related to one's rationality, today the possibility of pursuing the good life and participating as an equal in the polity depends upon a complex calculus of profit which includes one's own health, one's place of birth, actuarial valuation of each individual's potential value, and estimation of potential profits that may be generated from investment in your life, and those around you. I characterise these practises in terms of an accounting for life and a colonisation of the new commons. Let us look first of all at how life is accounted for. [6]

12. The mechanisms of such accounting rely on precisely the types of statistical information I quoted above. Financial institutions, businesses and states maintain detailed information tracking every life from birth through till death.   This information is used both for disciplinary purposes, modulating the behaviour of subjects and thus modulating their subjectivity, and for bio-political purposes, the regulation of populations at a more generalised level. Such practices have been widely commented on inspired primarily by Foucault's (1994) work on governmentality, and Ian Hacking's (1994) history of the role of statistics in modern states. In the context of colonial politics Sussman argues that the use of statistics in the colonial context was never neutral. She writes:

Greater attention to both the colonial contexts of the development of population theory and to the importance of those methodologies in the construction of early forms of colonial ideology will give us a more accurate picture of the origins of and uses of demography and the other statistical sciences. (2004, 120)

This colonial arithmetic continues today but in different form. It is premised on a calculus of risk: life and death are articulated as forms of aggregate possibility on which calculated gambles, certain to deliver profit, can be taken. Thus, for example, mortality tables are the necessary support to insurance and pensions industries. Actuaries calculate the value of the 'assets' of a population developing risk scenarios based inter alia on levels of education, life expectancy, distribution of illness, levels of poverty and any other relevant information. Individuals are tied into these spiders' webs of calculability which transcend individuality through an apparently neutral practice in which each unit is important only as a presupposition. These calculating practices borrow the allure of nature, rendering them apolitical, when in fact they are deeply political. They are used as the apparently equitable means of determining which actions are appropriate in which context. As Sussman's work demonstrates, the genealogy of such an arithmetic links the present calculus of life with earlier colonial calculating practices. Petty's Political Anatomy of Ireland (1691) for example translates the costs of colonial warfare into figures, emphasising the profits to be gained from colonial policies which treat colonised populations as potential assets on an accounting ledger rather than as antagonists in open warfare.

13. Today this actuarial politics extends from the various insurantial institutions across the globe, all the way down to decisions made about the potential risk of each individual in the market place. [7] It is not only individuals who are the targets of the credit agencies. An emergent industry in country risk rating generates statistics about individual nations, cities, communities and peoples, determining collective risk rating, and specifying the terms on which investment could take place. In these cases the knowledge of the postcolonial studies graduate is put to work in determining appropriate forms of investment, and in persuading countries to adapt to the co-efficiencies identified by the risk agencies as indicators of a secure investment climate. Let me quote one of the prominent ratings agencies COFACE:

The Country rating assigned by COFACE reflects the average level of short term non payment risk associated with companies in a particular country...However international trade actors know that sound companies can operate in risky environments and unsound companies in less risky countries...The seven risk families are: growth vulnerability, foreign currency liquidity crises, external debt, sovereign financial vulnerability, banking sector fragility, geopolitical fragility and company payment behaviour. (

Agencies such as COFACE and A.M. Best undertake specific research projects for business operations offering differentiated risk assessment, even in those countries where it might be thought absurd to invest, as for example in the report for a mining company in Angola, which specifies the conditions that would ensure the continued supply of diamonds to world markets during a civil war. A.M. Best advertises its services as an assessment of political and corporate governance, economic environment and insurance risk. All three factors are combined in a calculus which classifies countries according to five tiers. Those on the lowest tier are deemed high risk, thus demanding higher interest rates on loans, or other guarantees on investment ( These might include government underwriting of risk protecting multinationals against any possible risk. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), for example, is a U.S. government agency created to promote U.S. private investment in 'developing countries' and areas. As a precondition for OPIC investment support, the recipient country must conclude an investment guaranty agreement with the US, more often than not on terms which are prejudicial to the interests of the so called 'developing country' outsourcing risk to the state which is seeking investment.

14. These technologies of governance appear neutral in applying the same criteria to all contexts. In abstracting from context, or in subjecting the peculiarities of different contexts to the same abstractions, all forms of practice are articulated as potential cultural capital. Cultural capital like all other forms of capital is now shaped as potential profit. Individuals and groups of individuals are subjected to the same risk calculus. Discrimination within populations determines which individuals can be picked off for participation in the channelling of resources out of countries and conflict zones. The sophistication then of these techniques of governance and exclusion does not so much marginalise as differentially exclude and include, using disciplinary mechanisms which determine appropriate forms of investment while allowing some to fall off the radar altogether. In political terms these technologies provide apparently neutral advice, and appear as sovereign laws insofar as they dispose over resources which make life itself possible. As Mbembe writes:

In the colonial situation sovereignty means the right to define who matters and who does not; who is disposable and who is not. This combines three distinct operations of power: necro-politics, disciplinary control, and a bio-politics. (2001: 20)

The distribution of these actuarial technologies which individualise, assess, and evaluate, and which deploy information as power, extends to the constitution of the global body politic. This body comprises organs of differential value: it is a body which sheds itself of that which cannot find a place within this calculus of value. These actuarial technologies carve the space of the world, by mapping the body and bodies as a supply side measure, as units of calculable value.

15. We should note last that these technologies purchase the future: investment in life is determined by the possibility of a long term return, a calculation which already shapes that future, seeking to protect it from the contingency of the incalculable event. This colonization of possibility as a calculable asset forecloses the possible equality that the postcolonial subject might claim. The rule of counting is applied to all, equally, and without discrimination. Indeed, it is deemed discriminatory to treat anyone as an exception. The same criteria must be used to account for one and all. The borders which separate the postcolonial immigrant from the global citizen are drawn not only by a territorial border police, but by finely tuned mechanisms of border control. These are borders drawn on the body of every individual - technologies of evaluation, of accounting, helping to determine which lives are worth enclosing, how best to do so in each case, and which lives should be excluded or kept at a polite distance. Yet this distance is infinite as it can never quite be overcome by physical relocation. In this beautiful symphony of life every note is so carefully modulated that we come to live the symphony as if it were life. A first political step then would demand the disruption of this count.

(c) Colonising the new Commons

16. This accountancy of death, a necro-economics which determines the value of a life on the possibility of receiving a return from life, is complemented by new and old forms of property. Direct colonial interventions by European powers relied on private property laws which extended European sovereignty through direct ownership and control of land, as well as stock market investment in futures. The emergent post-colony has to address new forms of colonization of the commons, most notably intellectual property law. Debates about intellectual property are often abstruse and seemingly irrelevant. This is partially because the property which is laid claim to is abstract, and cannot be located in time or space. We should make no mistake though - intellectual property is a key terrain on which debates about ownership and control over life should be fought. Let me focus on one example, the establishment of global rules regulating the ownership of human genetic information, (leaving aside for the moment food). Since 1980 there have been two fundamental alterations in the patent system: first, patent law has been internationalized, and all countries are signatories to a system which provides profit to the owners of intellectual property (IP). Inevitably the concentration of IP ownership lies with large corporations and governments. Copyright, trademark and patent all allow for the farming out of production, while maintaining control over the distribution and ownership of the product. Second, these global rules have altered the very definition of what is patentable.

17. A key question facing the early pioneers of genetic research was whether or not this 'code of life' could be patented, and to what extent its exploitation could be of commercial benefit, given the moral uncertainty surrounding ownership claims over natural products, and the scientific uncertainty about its potential use. This issue was resolved in the seminal 1980 case of Diamond vs. Chakrabarty. The US Supreme Court overruled a USPTO (the US Patent Office) decision which refused to grant Chakrabarty a patent on a living organism which broke down oil. The patent covered a bacterium invented by Chakrabarty which introduced a strand of naturally occurring genetic material into an existing bacterium (Wilkinson, 2003, 194-196). In Wilkinson's view the importance of this case is that it allows the patenting of life forms even where the 'level of human intervention is minimal' and the 'invented life form is a result of merely replicating a natural process' (2003, 195). The court ruled that patents on living matter were acceptable if they met the criteria of novelty, industrial application, and disclosure. This decision rested, as Corinne Hayden notes, on a legal nicety echoing that between labour power and the labourer: what life is and what life does (2001, p.202). Life per se cannot be patented - despite misleading headlines suggesting that life itself is now owned. What can be patented are the chemical sequences, that code for life as well as isolated and purified DNA sequences. Article 5 of the European Patent Convention for example bans the patenting of human life, but allows that elements of the gene once isolated from the body by technical processes may be patented.[8] Recent estimates suggest that more than 20% of the 31000 genes that make up human DNA have been patented in the US alone. Since 1980 innumerable patents on the cellular structure of living organisms have been taken out. The five biggest owners of patents are, in descending order, the US Government, the University of California, and three large medical companies Incyte, Genentech, and Glaxo Smith Kline Beecham. [9]

18. This may seem rather abstruse a concern but it is a key component of a differential politics of life. The funding of research into the human genome promises the extension of life, the development of new medical technologies, and the intervention before birth in the physical constitution of the human being. It also creates a new form of value, a value which resides in the genetic code and which can potentially be bought and sold on the market. The development of these sophisticated technologies has been driven by what Rajan (2006) terms bio-capital, the establishment of life industries which capitalize on life, and which have to get a return on this capitalization. He writes:

The challenge in understanding that it is a global regime that sees exchange between sites, such as the United States and India, that are radically asymmetric in the power they command in the global techno-scientific market place. (2006, 75)

These radical asymmetries are reproduced with regimes of property law which confer ownership of the new commons on already dominant corporate and state powers, and redistribute the sites and forms of production in distinguishing between different regimes of property. If we view the globe in the abstract as a striated body politic, one can all too easily identify who the target of this new health politics are, and who is excluded, as modern medicine pushes forward, redistributing risk in line with cost, and allowing to die those who cannot afford to pay for even the simplest of provisions. On the other hand these postcolonial others are also potential targets for the development of research. Because no human is deemed in law to own themselves, the patenting of genetic sequences means that what might otherwise be viewed as an individual resource is a now a resource for corporate ownership.

19. In this re-articulation of property law three different types of property complement each other: first, the distinction between labour and labour power regulates the buying and selling of labour in the global marketplace. The supply side measures of many western states are designed to increase the value of this commodity; second, human life is reconfigured. The body, which is also the site of personhood, is dissociated from life itself which as a DNA sequence, a chemical, can be owned. Third, the trading of shares on the stock-markets increasingly depends on ownership of intellectual property rights, and investment in futures markets which function on the promise that ownership of intellectual property secures future rights over new products. The opening of the genetic code to the logic of the global market has three complementary consequences for how we conceive of the postcolonial body politic. First reproduction is no longer easily distinguishable from production. Ownership of technologies of reproduction (including both techniques and stem cells) promises the development of products, including medicines, food, and even new organs. Second, markets in reproductive techniques and in genetic resources are skewed. To put the point bluntly, markets are dominated by a relatively small number of governments and companies. This results in a disproportionate investment in health and in life, and thus in possible life chances. Third, intellectual property ownership supports massive investment in futures markets, where the future is quite literally bought. The buying of the future entails a specific discipline in the present, a discipline which requires that certain relations must remain the same if the future now bought is to be realised as such. Intellectual property supports what King (2002) has termed the 'emerging diseases' paradigm which recasts colonial relations in terms of potential security threats to an amorphous west, and articulates postcolonial health on differential terms, dominated by market forces. He writes:

the emerging diseases worldview's emphasis on innovative production, efficient distribution, and global consumption of pharmaceuticals is significant as a distinctively colonial operation. Partaking in a sustained American faith in technological forecloses the consideration of social or structural remedies to international health problems. Instead, it establishes a framework in which participation in global public health is conducted upon a terrain already colonized by market relations and the logic of exchange. (2002: 779)

The consequences of the changes I have outlined above are far reaching for any theorisation of the body politic. Authors such as Sarah Franklin (2007) and Paul Rabinow (1999) have begun to chart the uncertain territory that these new technologies colonise, but little work situates them in the context of a politics of life and death, a politics which reproduces the worst genocides of colonial invasion but does so through omission rather than commission. I want to link them to one last change the reconfiguration of the nation state in the new global economy, rather than its long anticipated decline.

(d) Reconfiguring the nation state

20. Political science is dominated by the study of the nation state, deemed to be sovereign, in control of its borders and representative of its people. It characterises areas where these conditions do not exist as examples of failed states, places which require democratic intervention in order that a sovereign authority can be put in place to restore order and return legitimacy to the political system. Some go further and argue that the wanton death and destruction which characterises many of these territories is ample demonstration of the claim made by contemporary political scientists that these are areas ripe for political intervention and governance, by Western powers ready to defend human rights. [10] Indeed the struggles in these territories are often characterised as struggles over the definition of the body politic, of the dangers inherent in the failure of the system of order that goes with sovereignty.

21. Yet sovereign power dissimulates. It hides a world of shadows, a shadow economy and a shadow polity which are crucial to the maintenance of the dominant forms of contemporary sovereignty. In these shadow worlds violence can be bought and sold; territories are ill defined and borders permeable; warlords, urban guerrillas, private militias and the like abound. Moreover these private militias support a global logic of resource extraction, providing the primary resources that fund the economies of the Western Europe and North America. As Carolyn Nordstrom has noted:

The state is not without its contenders. The trillions of dollars generated in shadows and the millions of people involved in this work represent a system that in some ways can be deemed sovereign. So while crafting invisibilities around the shadows hides some of the immense profits that people, industries, social groups and states make from extra state means, they also hide the fact that the state is not the ultimate, the supreme governing authority in the modern world. Extra state systems shape global political and economic power and the authority of the state is partial. Its pre-eminence is an illusion. (2004: 235)

In many instances, even in established democracies, the state relies on these networks for the redistribution of its own power. Thus the sovereign exceptionality of state power - which opens out onto the question of a life that can or cannot be taken - is itself a contested power, differentially distributed and organised across the globe. If we characterise sovereign power in terms of the right to take decisions over life and death, then the nation state is but one of a number of organisations - corporate, private, legitimate and illegitimate - that deploy sovereignty. [11]

22. This does not mean that the nation state no longer exists, or is in decline. Nation states today play the role of defending rights to property and free markets, but find it more difficult to defend rights once conceived of as natural - life and liberty. Rather the reverse is true: the state increasingly engages in a process of determining who these rights belong to and regulating their use and distribution. Equal freedoms extend to the protection of property and participation in the market, but no further; community membership rights are protected for and by the consociates of the democratic state while excluding the threatening immigrant; and capability rights are whittled away as they burden the market generation of profit. The empty shell of democratic freedom mimics the shadow like world of network transactions which escape substantive control by even the abstract publics upon which they rely. The global re-organisation of these rights as justificatory mechanisms for the extension of regimes of accumulation forces the recognition that rights involve the extension of new powers, powers exercised by free citizens which indirectly maintain conditions of exploitation and inequality now organised on a global level.

23. It is thus that we may speak of a reterritorialisation of the nation state. The insistence on the maintenance of so called natural boundaries is an ironic counterpart to the denaturalisation of rights discourse in practice, even as the universality of rights is proclaimed by all sovereign states for their citizens.

24. It is mistaken then to conceive of the nation state as a passing entity - and the globalisation debate regarding this misses the point. Rather the nation state takes on a new form, distinct from but not unrelated to the globalisation of production and exchange. The state exercises rights discourse as a means of exclusion; acts a nodal point in the co-ordination of production, distribution and exchange; and regulates the body politic and each body through a diverse range of mechanisms. Some of these are maintained by the state (the health service in the UK for example), crime, education and various supply side measures. Others are regulated by the state but privatised (insurance/ pensions/ water even war). Last, the state intervenes to maintain and establish new territories, not territories limited by clear borders in physical space, but territories established by the new genetic and informational media.

25. This reterritorialisation is mirrored by a deterritorialisation which extends to many parts of the globe. If the narcissism of national identity is increasingly important to the European nation state (as a consequence of a perceived dwindling of the state ' s authority to regulate its own resources) other territories experience a collapse of state authority (parts of central Africa/ Liberia/ the Middle East) and a consequent deterritorialisation. Here, there is no possible means of exercising sovereign authority and those who become refugees are stripped of their status as bearers of rights which have any content - these rights become almost impossible to lay claim to in the case of bodies where the link between nation and natality no longer holds. While the consolidation of the state in the postcolonial era was always an unstable project it is now a haphazard process more likely to fail than succeed. Mbembe makes a similar point:

Many African states can no longer claim a monopoly on violence...nor can they claim a monopoly on territorial boundaries. Coercion itself has become a market commodity...Non-state deployers of violence supply two critical coercive resources: labour and minerals....Correlated with a new geography of resource extraction is the emergence of an unprecedented form of governmentality that consists in the management of multitudes. The extracting and looting of natural resources by war machines goes hand in hand with brutal attempts to immobilise and spatially fix whole categories of people or, paradoxically, to unleash them, to force them to scatter over broad areas no longer contained by the boundaries of the territorial state. Populations are disaggregated into rebels, child soldiers, victims or refugees or civilians incapacitated by mutilation or simply massacred while the survivors after a horrific exodus are confined in camps and zones of exception. (2003, p.31).

Four key changes have been identified in this section: a de-territorialisation which depends upon a selective re-territorialisation of the nation state and the articulation of human rights to citizenship rights; the geneticisation of life with consequent forms of property law attached to this for purposes of profit, venture capital and the achievement of an ancient dream: the conquering of processes of death and decay; the extension of a systematic accountancy of life and of population which feeds an actuarial politics of life and death; and the maintenance and fostering of such a system of selective inclusion and exclusion. These sovereign yet abstract logics discipline and discriminate. They are abstract and real, their consequences experienced through abjection, violence, excess consumption and debt. They entail a gradual re-articulation of the relations between production, reproduction and political life, while at the same time forcing a transformation of these spheres themselves. The subjects who benefit from these conditions are both more distanced from the consequences of a decision and more difficult to identify, given that these systemic logics operate within an apparently neutral calculus. In this context rethinking postcolonial agency as political requires a suspension of old assumptions and the identification of new strategies, agents and points of disruption in the emerging bio-political order.

Agents and Antagonists

26. In colonial societies the target of political activism was obvious: the colonial state apparatus, its local organs of governance, and the local capitalist class. Similarly the agents of such resistance were easy to identify: the colonised peoples. Today the targets of political struggle are more abstract, and the agents of such intervention more difficult to specify. Certainly none of the old figures - national democratic struggle, class struggle, or hybridity - are appropriate responses to a system which feeds on difference. The problems that any account of political agency must address include the abstract logics that govern decisions about life, debt bondage which means that for many the preservation of mere life is what dominates day to day life, and the fact that the immediate agents of oppressive governance are not necessarily the architects of their own polities. As Mbembe (2001) argues many states are in effect vassals of the World Bank and IMF. I contended above that the postcolonial demand is a breach in the established order, a breach   which asserts equality as the precondition for any political life. What does such a demand require if it is to alter the chains of equivalence which link all in an abstract system of value that even accounts for those it delinks? I consider in turn the relations between knowledge and political struggle; political agency in light of the discussion above; and oppositional politics today.

27. Political agency demands knowledge which is appropriate to the objects of struggle. I do not mean by this the abstraction that qualifies for academic philosophy or political science, but a knowledge which takes a risk, knowledge which maps the real abstraction that we might term bio-political-capital, and engages in argument and deliberative praxis, to establish the provenance of the claims made. Those engaged in the production of such knowledges enact a breach in the dominant ordering of knowledge as a form of intellectual property. This knowledge cannot have value in a system which consumes knowledge as profit. Most modern universities themselves raise funds through protection of their intellectual capital, are implicated in the production of statistical information and actuarial knowledges, and are pinioned to the so called knowledge economy. This unaccountable knowledge must account for its own positioning, its own privileges within this system while refusing the terms of this system. This entails wresting knowledge away from its links to dominant institutions. As Graeber writes:

Its hard to think of another time when there has been such a gulf between intellectuals and activists; between theorists of revolution and its practitioners. Writers who for years have been publishing essays that sound like position papers for vast social movements that do not in fact exist seem seized with confusion or worse, dismissive contempt, now that real ones are everywhere emerging. (2005, p.202)

The identification of the hidden, apparently neutral mechanisms of power, can feed a debate about the appropriate targets of resistance, and the likely outcomes of the political decisions made. However, the validity of this knowledge will not be found in the various forms of institutionalised research assessment which treat knowledge as a commodity. Rather such knowledge seeks to inform, and in turn responds to, engaged political activism.

28. However, knowledge in itself does not reconstitute the established order nor does it necessarily establish collective alternatives to the present. One might here learn a lesson from psychoanalysis: the analysand may come to regard her symptom as a contingent consequence of her life history. However, knowledge does not in itself transform the self. Indeed the analysand will not be freed of the pain which is the cause of her symptom if knowledge and being do not overlap. This is a painful process in which one's subjectivity is at stake and which may well be botched if the analysis is terminated too early. In the analytical context this transformation relies on the transferential identification on the part of the analysand with the analyst. A key moment is when the analysand comes to realise that the analyst cannot provide the answer to the question they ask.

29. Political intervention requires this overlap of knowledge and subjectivity, but it begins with the assumption that there is no prior order which will finally ensure the conformity of knowledge with the world as it is. Instead it instigates further breaches within the dominant order, seeking to recreate an alternative relation between knowledge and political practice. One reason for this gap is that subjects of political struggle assume their identity in struggle, not before hand, putting into question the terms of recognition of subjectivity within any order. Politics then demands an articulatory practice which transforms our very being. This practice characterises these conditions as antagonistic, refusing to invoke abstract notions of justice such as Rawls' (1973) difference principle. Antagonistic politics draws frontiers, engaging in hegemonic struggle to determine both how the world is interpreted, and how we act in the world. This means that it identifies antagonists. Taking this view may result in some surprising decisions. For example the postcolonial subject should vigorously oppose the invocation of democracy to justify political intervention. This is not because democracy in itself should be opposed, but because the terms of democracy - liberty and equality have been hijacked. Liberty now means the right to participate in the market; equality has been reduced to a formal principle of equal evaluation.

30. This opposition to the terms of democracy is complemented by the identification of agents of oppression. These include institutional actors such as the World Bank, certain nation states, and multi national corporations. It also includes, contrary to what some may hold, that individuals should be held responsible for their actions and their participation in systems of governance which are merely veiled forms of neutrality. The argument that the system incorporates all opposition, that actors have no choice, that they are merely implementing what the system requires - these common forms of cynical justification for the status quo - must be rejected. There are people responsible for the decisions they make, regardless of their institutional position. There are also people responsible for drafting, facilitating and organising the implementation of the rules of global trade. The resigned sigh, which invokes the system, and the knowing shrug which implicitly justifies its rules, should be violently rejected by any who oppose the present constellation and its maintenance of profound inequality. The characterisation of certain institutions, governments and persons as the enemy is a necessary prerequisite for political intervention which has any chance, no matter, how marginal, of success. When considering such interventions the abstract logics described all too briefly above must be taken into account, as well as held to account. Abstraction quickly becomes liquidation if it ignores all particularity. Political arithmetic becomes murder when its calculus sees only the bottom line. Property laws become theft when they allow for the colonisation of abstract spaces that will determine future access to health resources. Democracy remains a mere shell if it is bereft of content, and supportive of inequality. These logics point to spaces for intervention: in the spaces where political authority has failed; in the continued reliance of the wealthy on the consumption of the lives of others; in the arithmetic which when applied equitably violates equality but also in the lives of those, a large majority of the world's population who cannot identify with a neutrality which evacuates all spirit from the earth. In these spaces all harmony breaks down, the symphony is disrupted, the count is suspended.

31. A growing market in academic texts laments the failure of political agency and searches for a politics of intervention and action. [12] Zizek, for example, argues that an authentic act (as opposed to an action) 'subverts the very structuring principle of a field...redefining the very contours of what is possible and in so doing creating retroactively the conditions of its own possibility' (2004, p. 121). One's subjectivity is transformed by the act, as none of the postulates which supported the identity of the subject lend support to an act. He describes such a challenge to the symbolic order as a 'political act of pure expenditure which changes the very coordinates of what is possible within a historical constellation' (2004, p. 81). An act of such radical expenditure, as opposed to mere action, is required because capitalism is premised on the revolutionary logic of the not all, a process of continual transformation, which renders everything contingent. Any critique thereof is likely to result in the reform of capitalism, not its transformation. Indeed capitalism feeds on critique. Zizek, despite his knowledge of revolutionary movements such as the Zapatistas, here mirrors those on the academic left who in seeking a revolutionary radical act, reduce all forms of resistance to mere 'action' and conclude that capital will inevitably absorb all resistance. However, there is little attempt to give an account of capital, to identify its modulations, variations and weaknesses. Rather capitalism becomes a wholly abstract enemy invoked for the purposes of argument, and strengthened with the allure of an impossible enemy that only an impossible act can overthrow. One possible starting point for moving beyond this impasse is, as Chakrabarty suggests, to provincialise Europe and the master narrative of European modernity, including this all embracing capital. This secular humanist narrative occludes other narratives and other forms of resistance (Chakrabarty, 2000, 6). This entails acknowledging that racism and sexism are not contingent errors in this secular humanist narrative, but are intrinsic to the project of modernity and enlightenment. If anything, the divide between humanist radicalism and a postcolonial radicalism has been further entrenched in the current conjuncture. The term fundamentalism becomes the common rallying point for all versions of humanism - radical and conservative, and the easy condemnation of postcolonial and cultural politics.

32. In my view we should reject the various idealisms which posit class, the multitude, the subaltern, the indiscernible event or some other such agent of revolt without an account of the richness and variety of revolutionary struggles against the logics described above. The contingent agents of a militant politics that demands equality will not be found in the various fundamentalisms that have come to dominate the political imaginary. In this respect I think one must reject the a priori ascription of political identity to any actor, while specifying logics of possible resistance. In this respect Laclau and Mouffe's (1985) account of hegemony, antagonism and contingency is exemplary. On the other hand a properly political engagement requires an account of points of possible transformation within an existent order which is never so sedimented that reactivation of unspoken possibilities cannot take place. We have already seen that the abstract borders of the emergent order have to be patrolled, that equality is claimed yet violated, that hegemony is contingent, differential and potentially revocable. It is possible to identify those actions which are most likely to succeed, those which challenge the established hegemony. Likewise it is possible to identify those actions which are likely to falter. This will depend though on a politics which is as finely tuned as the technologies that count for every life, so finely tuned that they manage to disrupt the count, establishing a new form of what counts, of what is accountable. Such a politics will not confirm Marx's hope of a revolutionary class emerging triumphant from the ashes of capitalism, nor will it be the result of an event which treats the real of the present order. Rather it will be the outcome of patient, sometimes violent, sometimes unseen constructions of a postcolonial order that does not depend on the privatisation of the commons, does not reduce politics to deliberation, and which actively reconstitutes the terms of inclusion of productive and reproductive life in the polity.


Mark Devenney is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Philosophy on the Humanities Program at the University of Brighton. He is the author of Ethics and Politics in Contemporary Theory: Between Critical Theory and Post Marxism (Routledge 2004) and of articles on topics such as the politics of South African literature, modernity and post-modernity in the colonial context, the ethics of post-Marxism, the limits of Zizek's account of politics, and the possibilities of critical theory. He is currently writing a manuscript on the politics of death, states of exception and actuarial politics. Email:

*A version of this paper was first delivered at the Postcolonial Politics Conference held in November 2006 at the University of Otago. My thanks to Vijay Devadas, Chris Prentice and Simone Drichel who organised this conference and to Simone who encouraged me to write this paper with the invitation. The paper is marked by the context of its delivery, and by the many discussions held with participants at the conference. In particular I would like to remember and thank Bella Te Aku Graham who forced me to rethink key issues during long hours of debate.


[1] See chapter 1 of Agamben's Homo Sacer for an excellent discussion of this distinction.

[2] For a similar account of Aristotle's Politics see Frank's 'Citizens, Slaves and Foreigners: Aristotle on Human Nature.'

[3] I take postcolonial in the title 'postcolonial' politics to mean three related things: first a recognition that the aftermath of the colonial era structures the terrain of inequality which characterises contemporary global order; second a demand that politics conceptualises and challenges these unequal relations, relations which are intrinsic to the structuring of all lives, whether they be lived in Britain or Nigeria; and third a demand that all forms of colonialism are ended - ranging from direct colonial appropriation of land and wealth, to the more abstract forms of colonial domination that tie the world into webs of inequality.

[4] See for example Castells' influential account of the 'fourth world' in The Network Society .

[5] See Osabu-Kle, D. T. (2000). 'The politics of one-sided adjustment in Africa'. Journal of Black Studies, 30(4), 515-533.

[6] For example see the wonderfully titled text People: the New Asset on the Balance Sheet (2005) by DiVanna and Rogers.

[7] This calculus extends to the investment decisions made by corporations: costs of labour, welfare costs, life expectancy, skill levels, illness: whenever investment is considered, actuarial calculations are made which measure potential profit based upon the life expectancy and contribution that employees can be expected to make. The consequence is an increased polarisation of the globe in terms of appropriate forms of investment, (what used to be called primary, secondary and tertiary industries) and thus of labour. These decisions reinforce the inequitable relations which already obtain.

[8] Following this ruling a number of biotechs, including Genentech, were formed. They successfully capitalised on the potential medical benefits of patent rights that they exercised over parts of the gene, and lobbied to change the rules governing the granting of patents to researchers based in US universities. In one of the most well known instances, the University of Wisconsin, was granted a patent (patent number 6200806) which in effect privatised human embryonic stem cells. Any use made of these cells in research requires a license which has to be purchased, often at inordinate cost, from the patentee. The University in turn granted substantial rights over stem cells to Geron Corporation, allowing the company to profit from medical developments which use stem cells.

[9] Ernst and Young's report on the global biotech industry ( makes no reference whatsoever to biotech in African countries. A telephone link is provide for South Africa but the report indicates that 'Biotech companies are sustaining high levels of financing and product approvals. The sector is booming across the globe, from the maturing U.S. sector to rapidly emerging Asia-Pacific.' The report also makes clear that this boom concerns global profits, but worries that there has to be a solution to the 'price control issue to ensure that the industry's potential is not suppressed.

[10] See for example Nita Rudra 'Globalization and the Strengthening of Democracy in the Developing World' American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 49, No. 4. (Oct., 2005), pp. 704-730. Rudra argues that globalisation has resulted in democratisation in 'LDCs (sic) and that the reasons for this (based on statistical correlation) have to do with inward investment. However, her results also indicate that such democratisation often takes place at the expense of redistribution, secures capital accumulation, and impoverishes communities who in some instances revolt against their governments.

[11] See for example the Private Security Industry Act of 2001 in the UK which under the guise of regulating private security forms in fact establishes the basis for their legalisation.

[12] See among others Bowman's recent text Post-Marxism versus Cultural Studies: Theory, Politics and Intervention, Critchley's Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance.


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