Retail (and Tribal) Politics
In the London Review of Books for 24 June 2010, Alex de Waal wrote about "rogue" countries --- Sudan, Afghanistan, the Congo, Senegal, and Tanzania --- and how they really work. It is a matter, he said, of "tribal" and, even more, "retail" politics. These are excerpts from his article."State-builders ignore vernacular politics, to the detriment of the countries they leave at the end of their contracts. From within the UN compound or behind the embassy walls, forces such as kinship and patron-client networks are readily denigrated as 'tribalism' or 'corruption.'''
Real politics in countries like Afghanistan, Congo and Sudan operate much like village politics or even family politics, on the basis of personal affinity, loyalty and reward. The same principles and practices are found at all levels: the astute village chief has the skills he needs to be a functional head of state.
Western policymakers call such countries "fragile states." Their formal state structures are not strong enough to resolve political disputes or manage national budgets, which makes them problematic interlocutors for Western governments and international institutions [but]... often it was precisely the strength of social fabric which allowed a country to withstand foreign invasions and colonial occupation with its social order intact; today, that strong social fabric renders state institutions incapable of effective government.
"At the Darfur peace talks, I had the opportunity to observe the head of the Sudanese delegation, Dr. Majzoub al-Khalifa, at close quarters. He had an impressively thick skin, and could withstand any insult that was hurled at him."
He was also skilled at what is known in the vernacular as "Jellaba politics," after the class of riverine traders who historically dominated the commerce in the Sudanese peripheries and beyond. We might call it "retail politics," or more precisely, "retail patronage politics." It is the ability to weigh up the price, in money, of a particular individual's loyalty and make him an offer (it is a very gender-specific exercise); it is also about reading the market so as to know the likelihood that the price will rise or fall in the future.
De Waal's conclusions about countries like Angola, Burundi, Chad and Ethiopia are bleak, because of the joining of violence and first world cash infusions ... but his conclusions about Sudan and Afghanistan are possibly not so different than the operating principals in other countries, especially Latino countries. "In principle, the tools determining the price at which a bargain will be struck can include electoral votes, the allegiance of parliamentarians, editorial columns in newspapers, public petitions and protests, work stoppages and the like; they could also include supernatural or spiritual sanctions." De Waal claims that violence becomes "a bargaining tool in its own right... It may be a means of acquiring assets, of affirming (masculine) identities, or of managing group boundaries and sustaining group cohesion. It also serves as a means of communication with the other party."
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One of our correspondents responded to de Waal's thoughts as follows:It is illogical to imagine that the failure of 'western' political culture to create miracles in places like Congo or Sudan or Somalia demonstrates the superiority of the endogenous political culture. The endogenous political culture is, after all, precisely what created the situation that exists in Congo and Sudan and Somalia, a situation which is not exactly utopian. Conversely, the lives people lead in places like Denmark, Switzerland, or France are not so bad, despite the terrible burden of living under the western political culture.
As far as "family politics" are concerned, we all know how wonderful family politics can be. Look at a few representative families ---such as our own.
On "retail politics, the ability to weigh up the price, in money, of a particular individual's loyalty and make him an offer:"
Another thing about the culture of "retail patronage" is that the cost of doing anything may be vastly increased by all the graft that is skimmed off every operation at every stage by everyone carrying it out (except maybe the workers at the end or bottom of the chain). There are those who suggest that corruption is the main reason for Mexico's relative poverty.
What else explains it? Most Mexicans are very hard-working, whereas most Brits take tea-breaks incessantly. Yet, Brit society as a whole is much richer: per capita GDP is 5.5x greater, and the latter in Purchasing Power Parity (a better index of living standards) is 3x greater. Has De Waal or other such sociological analysts considered whole societies in the simplest economic terms of input and output?
Of course there are other factors at work in places like Sudan. Maybe the culture of "retail patronage" politics is embedded in these other factors, the whole of which is what has led to the present sterling outcome.
De Waal states that violence becomes "a bargaining tool in its own right... It may be a means of acquiring assets, of affirming (masculine) identities, or of managing group boundaries and sustaining group cohesion."
What wonderful socio-babble. If violence includes killing people, then it is also a means of killing people. Pardon me, one should say: a means of challenging the lifetables of certain cohorts according to selected social indicators.--- Dr. Phage