The Anti-Politics Machine Summary

James Ferguson

The Anti-Politics Machine

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The Anti-Politics Machine Summary

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The Anti-Politics Machine is a critique of contemporary political socialization by American anthropologist James Ferguson. It focuses mainly on the general term “development” that has been taken up frequently in economics, sociology, and other fields, arguing that it is less a rigorous concept than a political linguistic mechanism which frames as inevitable and ideal the world’s existing hegemonic powers and their selfish goals. Ferguson examines political and economic phenomena both inside and outside the popular domain of discourse, namely the failure of Lesotho’s Thaba-Tseka Development Project, which ran in the 1970s and 1980s. Projects such as this ostensibly seek to foster economic stability, but fail to relate to the actual goals of the regions on which they are imposed. The proliferation of such projects represents a viral logical fallacy, which Ferguson terms the “development discourse fantasy.” The book became well known for its incisive criticism of the programs whose inherent goodness is too often taken for granted by world powers and theorization.

Ferguson develops his idea of the “anti-politics machine” and introduces his case study of Lesotho, a region of South Africa. At the beginning of the 1800s, Lesotho’s state powers affiliated themselves with non-governmental organizations and coalitions that held a diversity of theories about how to govern populations while optimizing the individual life; today, this mode of inquiry is known as population axiology. As a result of these affiliations, the state became fragmented, the guiding philosophy being that no centralized state power should exert full control over any political system. Michel Foucault later addressed this phenomenon in his development of the framework of “biopower”; that is, the self-perpetuating relational system between human biological life and its reflexive political governance. Following the same line of thinking, Ferguson describes the theory of the “development apparatus,” which explains how colonial power reasserted itself despite the ostensible independence of third-world nation-states.

Ferguson analyzes the discursive legacy of development using the theoretical legacy of Foucault. He argues that the language and implementations deployed by development “experts” are entangled with the assumptions these individuals, and the powers they work for, have taken up to understand the undeveloped nation. These assumptions have unintended consequences both good and bad. Ferguson criticizes the tendency of failed development programs to be announced as successes via a biased, retroactive justification about their efficacy in leading to improved programs. Ferguson believes that development has only strengthened the bureaucracy and eliminated true political discourse from the sites where development is enacted.

Ferguson notes that a key signal that development theory is being co-opted by political hegemony is its impermeability to new academic discourse. He criticizes the methods that empowered states use to classify “less-developed countries” for examining them in a vacuum apart from their important geographic, cultural, and historical contexts. In the case of Lesotho, this led to the development program’s rationalization for wiping away the region’s economic ties to its successful grain and labor markets, mainly because the project did not want to reinforce the entangled South African Apartheid. Ferguson argues that this decision was mistaken because any good solution to Lesotho’s economic health belonged outside the bounds of traditional state intervention. In this case, the response of the program was negatively influenced by its underwriters’ conformation to the narrative forms of the report and stimulus package.

Ferguson focuses on one particular economic case in Lesotho, the cattle trade. He develops the term “Bovine Mystique” to refer to hegemonic powers’ assumption that cattle farmers’ cultural differences made them deliberately uncompetitive. To remedy this perceived pattern, the development project introduced genetically “superior” cattle from outside Lesotho, hoping to catalyze competition and privatize the livestock industry. In Ferguson’s anthropological view, the cattle breeding was “uncompetitive” because there was little banking or investment infrastructure in place for farmers. The cattle existed instead for two purposes: to allow rural families to subsist independently, and to exist as social proxies or substitutes for the men who worked in remote mines. The cattle were, therefore, not involved in the market as much as they were retirement investments. Despite its gross misprescription, the project to commercialize this market was deemed a success, since it fit in the dull category of “development.”

Ferguson concludes by delivering an explication of what he calls the “anti-politics machine.” He argues that it is not enough to analyze development’s failures, improve on them, and then return to the same general framework. Rather, he asserts we must take into account the sociological ends of these projects which encompass the totalities of states’ non-economic lives. The anti-politics machine, exemplified by the project in Lesotho, is the reduction of complex anthropological problems to technical ones, followed by a prescription of a technical solution, all with the implicit aim of destroying local social and economic legacies and replacing them with hegemonic ones. Ferguson excoriates the euphemistic language that is used to obfuscate this reality; for example, the phrase “integrated development” actually refers to the enablement of a repressive state’s reach over formerly remote or otherwise inaccessible regions. In South Africa, the very program which ostensibly sought to dismantle Apartheid ended up providing more cheap labor for fueling it.

Ferguson’s argument is ultimately a philosophical one: the furthering of state interests in remote territories is inherently an unconscionable one, because it relies on state concepts and state power that are alien to the territories at hand. He advocates, instead, a new rationality for examining economic flaws in states that acknowledges their entanglement in local anthropology, and is, therefore, sensitive and cautious in examining the consequences of foreign “aid.”