Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

Book Review: The Postcolonial Order – Endemic Criminal Violence and the Fetishisation of Law

by Raluca Csernatoni

John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff (eds.) Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006.



The book project of editors John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, puts forward an engaging account of how governmentality and violence, law and criminality, justice and disorder interplay in postcolonial contexts. The book chapters boast original and rich ethnographic and anthropological work by a number of eight contributors (sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists) that focus on a wide array of study cases (South Africa, Brazil, Cameroon, Chad, Indonesia), pertinent to the law and order dialectic theorised by the editors in the introductory section. From personal to phenomenal analytical perspectives and by problematising multiple forms of violence (from material, epistemic, communal, political, communicative, sexual, vigilante, to the violence of the market), the book endeavors to redraw the relationship between order and disorder in the postcolonial polity.

The heritage of colonial violence, the introduction of truncated new forms of governmentality or lack of thereof and the impact of misguided liberal reforms, together produced ubiquitous forms of violence and “states of exception” (Agamben) in the post-colony. Nevertheless, John Comarroff and Jean Comaroff, as a counterpoint to Agamben, propose an alternative reading to the suspension of law in former colonies so as to account for endemic forms of violence and disorder. They introduce the idea of a “spectacle of law” in the post-colony and research the impact of hyper-legalism on disorder production. Accordingly, the rhetoric of law is used by governments and political leaders to instil a false sense of order and legality, but, as observed by the authors, the proliferation of laws and discourses on lawfulness should not be understood as order per se.

The main argument presented in the book serves as a sobering warning to tendencies of law fetishisation in postcolonial contexts, especially in the cases of governmental corruption, criminal economies, relations of dependency, and the exploitation of the “South” by the global market. The cautionary message would be to critically assess the distinctive forms of order (from state violence, public or privatise policing, to vigilante justice systems) arising out of postcolonial disorders. The assessment targets the inefficient and declaratory character of such forms of order, often times used as a façade for further illegal practices and corruption. Paradoxically, hyper-legalism and the fetish for the rule of law, in turn, lead to instance in which criminal activities thrive and become institutionalised within modes of governance and under a veil of legality.

Consequently, the authors tackle the problematic of the local patterns of violence and disorder in the post-colony, by drawing on the new states’ experiences with transitional upheavals, such as corruption, high levels of criminality, predatory governments, and institutionalised coercion. In a puzzling interpretation, the authors point out the fact that the law rhetoric, as opposed to ethics, has become the benchmark for order, even though it is a hollow shell that it is constantly transgressed by predatory governments and corrupt leaders. As well, how legality and illegality are being constituted takes a center stage in the research, namely the ways in which a sense of order is imposed “upon its subordinated by means of violence rendered legible, legal, and legitimate by its own sovereign world” (p.30). By critically engaging with theorists such as Agamben, Bayart, and Benjamin, the book reorients the research focus in postcolonial contexts and emphasises the fact that in the case of pervasive states of disorder, the opposite phenomenon of law fetishisation occurs.

The authors recognise that the post-colony is not the only milieu where levels of disorder are being experienced, being also a prevalent phenomenon in the everyday politics of Western-developed countries. As well, they are not immune to disorder, corruption and criminalised behavior, all pervasive instances and structurally embedded under the veil of “legalism” and order. By mitigating a parallelism between the post-colony and Western society, especially concerning the United States, the authors distinguish that there are however important differences along the North-South dependencia lines. Indeed, in the case of developed countries in Europe and the United States it is a well-known fact that these societies do not live and experience the qualms of direct violence on a daily basis except for a soft exposure to media coverage.

Intrinsically, the authors point out the fact that by identifying violence with law and by differentiating it to sheer force, one has to analyse the nature of the authority exerting that power, whether it is just or unjust, corrupted or reasonable. In this sense, violence becomes structural and embedded in the institutional interstices of all societies. It is circumscribed by law and how it is experienced in different societies can only be understood, whether in the postcolonial context or in developed states, by taking into account each case as it is with its own culture of violence and legality. Moreover, in the post-colony one can identify new patterns of dominance of a new world order that primarily criminalises poverty and the color of the skin through the means of criminal markets, corrupted laws and the lack of legitimate authority.

All in all, the authors argue that there is more to the unravelling of the law and order fabric in the post-colony. Restructuring the systems of law and justice in postcolonial societies is not as straight forward as it may seem. Engendering intricate state-building practices and establishing functional justice system should also consider the heritage of the colonialism era, cultural essentialism, institutionalised criminal networks, and the informal control systems intrinsic to countries emerging from colonial rule.

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