The Politics of Custom: Chiefship, Capital, and the State in Contemporary Africa

University of Chicago Press
Free sample

How are we to explain the resurgence of customary chiefs in contemporary Africa? Rather than disappearing with the tide of modernity, as many expected, indigenous sovereigns are instead a rising force, often wielding substantial power and legitimacy despite major changes in the workings of the global political economy in the post–Cold War era—changes in which they are themselves deeply implicated.

This pathbreaking volume, edited by anthropologists John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, explores the reasons behind the increasingly assertive politics of custom in many corners of Africa. Chiefs come in countless guises—from university professors through cosmopolitan businessmen to subsistence farmers–but, whatever else they do, they are a critical key to understanding the tenacious hold that “traditional” authority enjoys in the late modern world. Together the contributors explore this counterintuitive chapter in Africa’s history and, in so doing, place it within the broader world-making processes of the twenty-first century.
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About the author

John L. Comaroff is the Hugh K. Foster Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology and an Oppenheimer Fellow in African Studies at Harvard University. He is also an Affiliated Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation. Jean Comaroff is the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology and an Oppenheimer Fellow in African Studies at Harvard University.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Mar 8, 2018
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Pages
368
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ISBN
9780226511092
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Africa / General
Social Science / Anthropology / Cultural & Social
Social Science / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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In Ethnicity, Inc. anthropologists John L. and Jean Comaroff analyze a new moment in the history of human identity: its rampant commodification. Through a wide-ranging exploration of the changing relationship between culture and the market, they address a pressing question: Wherein lies the future of ethnicity?

Their account begins in South Africa, with the incorporation of an ethno-business in venture capital by a group of traditional African chiefs. But their horizons are global: Native American casinos; Scotland’s efforts to brand itself; a Zulu ethno-theme park named Shakaland; a world religion declared to be intellectual property; a chiefdom made into a global business by means of its platinum holdings; San “Bushmen” with patent rights potentially worth millions of dollars; nations acting as commercial enterprises; and the rapid growth of marketing firms that target specific ethnic populations are just some of the diverse examples that fall under the Comaroffs’ incisive scrutiny. These phenomena range from the disturbing through the intriguing to the absurd. Through them, the Comaroffs trace the contradictory effects of neoliberalism as it transforms identities and social being across the globe.

Ethnicity, Inc. is a penetrating account of the ways in which ethnic populations are remaking themselves in the image of the corporation—while corporations coopt ethnic practices to open up new markets and regimes of consumption. Intellectually rigorous but leavened with wit, this is a powerful, highly original portrayal of a new world being born in a tectonic collision of culture, capitalism, and identity.

In this book, renowned anthropologists Jean and John L. Comaroff make a startling but absolutely convincing claim about our modern era: it is not by our arts, our politics, or our science that we understand ourselves—it is by our crimes. Surveying an astonishing range of forms of crime and policing—from petty thefts to the multibillion-dollar scams of too-big-to-fail financial institutions to the collateral damage of war—they take readers into the disorder of the late modern world. Looking at recent transformations in the triangulation of capital, the state, and governance that have led to an era where crime and policing are ever more complicit, they offer a powerful meditation on the new forms of sovereignty, citizenship, class, race, law, and political economy of representation that have arisen.

To do so, the Comaroffs draw on their vast knowledge of South Africa, especially, and its struggle to build a democracy founded on the rule of law out of the wreckage of long years of violence and oppression. There they explore everything from the fascination with the supernatural in policing to the extreme measures people take to prevent home invasion, drawing illuminating comparisons to the United States and United Kingdom. Going beyond South Africa, they offer a global criminal anthropology that attests to criminality as the constitutive fact of contemporary life, the vernacular by which politics are conducted, moral panics voiced, and populations ruled.

The result is a disturbing but necessary portrait of the modern era, one that asks critical new questions about how we see ourselves, how we think about morality, and how we are going to proceed as a global society.
In the 1880s, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized for himself the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo, he looted its rubber, brutalized its people, and ultimately slashed its population by ten million—all the while shrewdly cultivating his reputation as a great humanitarian. Heroic efforts to expose these crimes eventually led to the first great human rights movement of the twentieth century, in which everyone from Mark Twain to the Archbishop of Canterbury participated. King Leopold's Ghost is the haunting account of a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions, a man as cunning, charming, and cruel as any of the great Shakespearean villains. It is also the deeply moving portrait of those who fought Leopold: a brave handful of missionaries, travelers, and young idealists who went to Africa for work or adventure and unexpectedly found themselves witnesses to a holocaust. Adam Hochschild brings this largely untold story alive with the wit and skill of a Barbara Tuchman. Like her, he knows that history often provides a far richer cast of characters than any novelist could invent. Chief among them is Edmund Morel, a young British shipping agent who went on to lead the international crusade against Leopold. Another hero of this tale, the Irish patriot Roger Casement, ended his life on a London gallows. Two courageous black Americans, George Washington Williams and William Sheppard, risked much to bring evidence of the Congo atrocities to the outside world. Sailing into the middle of the story was a young Congo River steamboat officer named Joseph Conrad. And looming above them all, the duplicitous billionaire King Leopold II. With great power and compassion, King Leopold's Ghost will brand the tragedy of the Congo—too long forgotten—onto the conscience of the West.
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