The logic of cruelty

The most prolific thinkers are those who provide us with new concepts to think new realities, and Achille Mbembe is one of these.

A professor of history and politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, he is more a philosopher than a political scientist or historian, but his works are the profound revelations they are because he synthesises all three of these with other disciplines.

Of course, thinkers don’t generate new ideas out of nothing, and Mbembe works rigorously and carefully through the texts of seminal thinkers—Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin, among others—assimilating what he finds useful and building on their work by creating new concepts.

Born in Cameroon, Mbembe’s main concern is Africa, especially Africa since independence.
But his understanding of the continent means placing it in the context of world historical developments like colonialism and globalisation, and he has much to say about modern phenomena such as “terrorism” and the forces that underlie it.

Based in Johannesburg and a frequent speaker at universities throughout the world, Mbembe is the heir to the position at the University of California at Irvine left vacant by the passing of French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

His book On the Postcolony is a complex meditation on the nature of sovereignty, and on whether the African subject has escaped the state of slavery and negativity.

He arrives at his concept of the “postcolony” by discerning the structures that have emerged in post-colonial Africa.

Mbembe does not subscribe to the pious illusion that the end of colonialism has left Africa ripe for democracy and the reign of human rights. Rather, he charts the myriad developments, more accurately, mutations, that have emerged since the end of colonialism.

In this stark and bizarre world, Africa’s cultures have been mutilated and play little role in socialising new generations of Africans. A failure of the state has produced arrangements that serve not the people, but despots who create ad hoc structures to manage the frequent political crises that arise.

Mbembe could be accused of being fixated with death, which he sees as an ever-present reality in postcolonial Africa. Indeed, he defines sovereignty not in traditional terms as the administration of the realm according to reason, but as the power to transgress the law and the right to distribute death.

Similar themes are addressed in a 2005 paper titled Necropolitics, where Mbembe unveils a sort of logic of postcolonial dissolution that is made to work for those inducted into the war machines when the central state slowly collapses.

He introduces two concepts, “necropower” and “necropolitics”, to account for the ways in which “weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead”. These are the refugees, child soldiers and amputees, but also the ordinary people who escape the fate of the actual dead, the victims of massacres.

In Necropolitics, Mbembe produces a catalogue of exceptions to liberal sovereignty, beginning with slavery, the plantation system, the colony, apartheid, and what he terms “late modern colonial occupation”.

In all of these, the rules that apply in “normal” societies are suspended and the victims—whether slaves, blacks or Palestinians—become the objects of a system that perceives them as animals and ensures their reduction to this condition.

The use of space is crucial, ensuring a range of compartmentalisations and categorisations that facilitate the workings of power.

Plantation and colony

The plantation, says Mbembe, is the original experimental ground that prefigures relations in the post-colonial world. But it is also the site where techniques of government are forged and later used in the developed world—notably by the Nazis.

On the plantation, the slave suffers a triple loss—of home, bodily rights and political status—and is kept in “a state of injury”. But the slave resists by using his or her body, which legally belongs to a master, to produce gestures of defiance, reappropriations of experience stylized to reflect individuality, and songs of liberation.

The plantation is organised according to an administrative rationality that makes cruelty an essential element of governance, and where the “power over the life of another takes the form of commerce”.

In the colony, this is taken a step further—the population is subdivided into a hierarchy of groups and sub-groups in a manner that makes for “the first synthesis between massacre and bureaucracy”.

Israel and apartheid

Mbembe throws much light on the debate about parallels between apartheid and Israel/Palestine.

The apartheid township is described as a space constructed to ensure Fanon’s “reciprocal exclusivity”, designed to ensure that the inhabitants are confined and kept out of the path of the coloniser, overseen by police, and let loose only to labour in white areas.

The most accomplished form of necropower, says Mbembe, is the colonial occupation of Palestine. Here, space is not simply divided in linear fashion, but delimited in each of the three spatial dimensions.

Air space is a central feature of control and surveillance, and Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory are invariably situated on hilltops. The Earth’s crust is divided from what lies beneath, so that mineral and water rights are not in the hands of those who live on the land.

This “vertical sovereignty” and “infrastructural wars”—where bridges, olive trees, water tanks, computers and communication equipment are destroyed—are seen as features of late modern colonial occupation. Such methods, Mbembe says, have been used in conflicts since the end of the Cold War, in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo.

He also produces a complex account of the logic of suicide bombing, where “the body is transformed into a weapon, not in a metaphorical sense but in a truly ballistic sense”. The body escapes siege and occupation, “becomes metal”, and through sacrifice, brings “eternal life into being”.

In place of liberation

But if Mbembe descends into the negative, it is to identify possibilities for freedom and growth. In a talk in 2006, he said there is “an urgent need for a new combination of aesthetic creativity and political activism”.

This at a time when “the rhetoric of human emancipation, human redemption or what we used to call liberation” has been questioned or even discredited.

One imperative, says Mbembe, is to reconceptualise the manner in which we understand the present, to “reinvent a way of deciphering the signs of the times we live in”. To do this, we have to pass judgement on our times.

Questions of ethics are important here, and Mbembe draws on the work of Emmanuel Levinas, who sees ethics as always having to do with one’s relation to the other.

The encounter with the other, argues Mbembe, means making the death of the other my business. He focuses on three “figures of the other”: the enemy, the neighbour and the stranger. In the 21st century, politics has been reduced to identifying, pursuing and killing one’s enemy.

Topical South African questions arise regarding the other two figures. How do we deal with the neighbour who might once have been the enemy? And how do we treat the stranger in a world of gated communities?

Many people, says Mbembe, want to live only with those who look like them. A truly “Afropolitan” society would see people sure of their identities, unafraid to embrace the world.

What makes Mbembe a thinker of note is that he interrogates received history to extract rationality from apparently aberrant phenomena, breaking with the tradition that sees reason only in certain locations. But he also sees the darkness underlying self-proclaimed rationality, and its frequent descent into unreason.

On the future of Africa, South Africa

“Unfortunately, the continent will continue to face the dilemmas of war, poverty and brutality in the near future,” Achille Mbembe believes.

“Relative economic growth in some countries will not necessarily translate into more jobs, especially for the poor. The number of superfluous people—those who are of no use for global capitalism in its current phase—will continue to increase.

“Ever more virulent forms of populism will emerge, rooted in a combustible mixture of nativism, millenarianism and political evangelicalism. Predatory wars—most of them centered on the control of mineral resources—will expand to countries perceived until now to be stable.

“The best of our people will be tempted to leave the continent and try their luck abroad, in a context in which new forms of pseudo-scientific anti-black racism are taking hold of people’s imaginations. As far as South Africa is concerned, the greatest challenge will be to deepen a very fragile democracy and to uphold the rule of law.

“The assertion of new forms of lumpen-radicalism and the colonisation of both the state and the public sphere by anti-elitist and anti-intellectual forces will severely test South Africa’s capacity to build a modern society.”



1985 Les Jeunes et l’ordre politique en Afrique noire.

1996 La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun, 1920-1960 : histoire des usages de la raison en colonie.

2001 On the Postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press


2001 At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality, and Sovereignty in Africa. Public Culture 12: 259-284.

2001 Ways of Seeing: Beyond the New Nativism. African Studies Review. 44(2): 1-14.

2002 On the Power of the False. Public Culture. 14(3): 629-640.

2002 African Modes of Self-Writing. Public Culture. 14(1): 239-274.

2002 The Power of the Archive and its Limits; in Refiguring the Archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton. Cape Town: David Philip. 19-26.

2003 Necropolitics. Public Culture 15.1; pages 11-40

2005 Faces of Freedom: Jewish and Black Experiences. Interventions, Volume 7, Issue 3 November 2005 , pages 293-298

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