Looking for Gramsci in Local Resistances – Reflections from the Margins

Paper presented at the panel Capitalism and Global Anthropology: Marxism Resurgent (conveners L. Steur and P. Nieveling), 17th Conference of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Studies, 5th-10th August 2013, Manchester, UK – 

My paper deals with a Gramscian analysis of subaltern people’s resistances in West Africa. Relying on my ethnographic fieldwork in Mauritania, Mali, and Benin, it discusses pastoral communities facing political discrimination and rural economic economy; and of people, both in rural and urban contexts, coping directly with global capitalism. In this second case, they are pastoral communities, again, facing the grabbing of their lands, and slum dwellers of slave descent confronting slum-clearance programs.

My main point is that, while showing their agency, people’s resistances are sometimes unable to turn into what we should consider as a more structured social or political movement. Their resistances are in a way pre-political; or, to say with Gramsci’s words, they are subject to the initiative of dominant classes or at the mercy of forces, on the national or the global level, which they are powerless against. Certainly, this is my interpretation of my specific ethnographic context. In other situations, scholars of social movements have perfectly shown the possibility for embryonic popular politics to turn into more active political subjects transforming reality. But my ethnographic experience in West Africa made me wonder about the significance of people’s resistances, which do not really turn into mobilisation.

This is certainly a debate of the 80s and 90s, which John Gledhill perfectly retraced in his Recognizing Resistance[1]. But still, in current post-Marxist and libertarian critical theory, such as in Toni Negri’s Multitudes group, there is a renewed interest in local, spontaneous, everyday or immanent forms of resistance, interpreting them as a reaction to the global Empire rather than to State domination. There is also an interesting convergence on that with many anthropologists studying these issues, such as Arturo Escobar and his Territories of difference. What is striking is that these post-Marxist thinkers not only consider “resistance” as the sign of subaltern people’s agency; but they also make of it a political strategy, considering it the only way for peoples for changing world society in the time of globalisation[2].

Gramsci is an inevitable reference for tackling these issues. As we here all know, Gramsci is one of the most important Marxist thinkers for anthropologists, as he emancipates Marxism from flat economism and naïve mechanical historicism, giving importance to political practice and struggle and to their cultural dimension.

But if we look at the vast literature of the anthropology of resistance and of critical theory in general, we see that scholars have sometimes given contradictory interpretations to Gramsci’s theory. We have those, like James C. Scott, considering his idea of cultural hegemony as the by-product of intellectual vanguards and as a totalitarian “German” ideology constantly confirming power. Other anthropologists rather consider him the inspirer of a politics of emancipation and resistance, of popular culture and spontaneous philosophies in the field of civil society. As I have tried to show in a recent article, these contradictions partly derive from the particular interpretation of Gramsci as a “post-structural” thinker, making him a participant in the debate opposing structure and agency. But for me, we should not read hegemony and subalternity, or politics of intellectuals and subaltern people’s resistance as opposing issues. We should rather take these as two interdependent dimensions or moments of political struggle.

As John Gledhill reminds us, for Gramsci “subaltern practices that might be described as “resistance” alone would never be sufficient to create a new society”. As a Marxist and a political activist, Gramsci considered resistances and subaltern cultures as politically meaningful, but only under the condition that they are integrated into a broader political project for changing society. In his own words, “popular spontaneity” and “conscious leadership” must come together, the one relying on the other. For Gramsci, a real Marxism, as a philosophy of praxis – that is both as a philosophy and a political project – must think about social transformation by integrating even the most marginal communities, and their spontaneous forms of politics, to the historical process of taking the political initiative. In other words, Gramsci called for a theory and a practice for elevating popular resistances to a higher degree of politicisation.

So, my paper inquires in the significance of resistances, which are still at the lowest stages of politicisation, as they are the expression of people that Gramsci would define as the most “marginal” or “peripheral” among subaltern groups.

Since my PhD research in Mauritania and then in Mali and Benin, I have been studying the condition of Fulani communities with pastoral and nomadic origins, who are poor and mainly illiterate. In all the three countries, these are minorities even excluded from that particular relationship between State and Civil society, which is corruption. Gramsci considered corruption as a middle-way form of hegemony between domination and consent, because it allows dominant elites to maintain their power even when they lose their capacity to represent the people organically. This is possible because the majority of the population also benefit, at least a little bit, from the system of corruption. As regards West Africa, Blundo and Olivier de Sardan have extensively showed that corruption is a mode of government pacifying the relationship between State and Civil society. Sure, in the last two decades, Mauritania, Mali and Benin have experienced regime changes presented as revolutionary and process of democratisation considered as successful, but these have turned out to be “passive revolutions”, confirming the same power system despite its lack of legitimacy.

The problem for groups like pastoral Fulani is that they are even excluded from this particular social contract between State and Civil society, as they do not benefit from patronage relationships with dominant elites. They are also excluded from development programs, or are not allowed to participate in local and national politics. Since they have “nomadic” origins, they are often considered as strangers or as hosts on other communities’ lands. In some cases, they are even ethnically persecuted.

As regards their resistances, the pastoral Fulani I studied with seem, at first sight, to perfectly fit into the categories of anarchist communities that James Scott talks about. As traditionally “ungoverned peoples”, they have a long history of nomadism and exteriority to Statehood. In present-day, while being integrated into “modernity”, they develop tactics and strategies to keep the State at distance: high levels of mobility, strategies for hiding cattle to avoid taxation, and so on. They even have hidden transcripts for criticising power: for example, they call politicians with the word SukuñaaBe, which literally means “the wicked spirits that feed on children’s souls”. But while criticising power through the language of witchcraft, these metaphors also suggest a sense of impotence in front of the state.

I rather found a higher level of resistance in the formation of some rural militias of pastoral Fulani in Mauritania. Their members were from communities persecuted by state authorities in 1989 following a State plan of ethnic cleansing. These militias called themselves darinaaBe – which literally means “those who resist”. But their activities were almost banditry and they never really turned political.

Banditry-like activities are also a consequence of the decline of traditional rural economy. Most of the young generation is attracted by a market society that nevertheless is far from absorbing them. As a surplus-population, some of them leave their communities, as they say, for “adventure”. In the village of Hombori in Central Mali where I did fieldwork, young Fulani are attracted by petrol-dollar salaries offered by radical terrorist groups of the Northern region. In North-East Benin, where I have recently focused my field research, young men often leave for Nigeria to work in informal economy and then come back to the village with Chinese motorbikes, which allow them to rapidly move in the bush and to steal amenities in other villages.

The rest of their communities remain in their villages, trying to cope daily with the decline of their pastoral activities and recurrent food shortages. They suffer locally from social and political marginalisation, but also globally, since they are vulnerable to the environmental decline induced by global climate change and to crops price fluctuations on the global market. Sure, they prove to be able to cope with these problems with different strategies, such as economic diversification, or even informal or illegal activities for preserving their cattle stocks. But if we consider these as forms of resistance, they finally appear to be very close to what neoliberal international organisations call “coping strategies” or “resilience”, giving vulnerable people alone the responsibility for their condition and for finding a way to react to global threats. This is very similar to people’s own point of view. These communities completely distrust politics. So, they exclusively rely on their own personal effort, as a way of improving their lives, because they feel the world they live in cannot be changed politically. It is “too big and too terrible”, if I may paraphrase Gramsci again.

These considerations about fatalism and depoliticisation as reactions to global vulnerability made me think to the necessity to tackle more directly the issue of resistance to globalisation. As James Ferguson has argued, Gramsci’s theoretical imagination can be useful in interpreting contemporary resistances only if we accept that the “topography of power” has changed and that we recast Gramsci in the frame of global issues.

In this perspective, with my colleague Armelle Choplin, we are currently researching two global issues in Mauritania: land grabbing in rural areas, and slum clearance in Nouakchott. With regards to land grabbing, a Saudi financial corporation has bought hundreds of thousands of acres of pastoral land in the South directly from the State. In a country where land rights are not always clear between formal and customary property, the State sold a piece of land it considered to be waste, but which is in reality economically vital for local pastoral activities. This strategy is fostered by the World Bank and relies on the idea – as Polanyi already noticed – that capitalism should stem in traditional societies from disconnecting communities from their lands and making of them a floating labour force[3].

With regards to slum clearance in Nouakchott, people who are concerned are not Pastoral Fulani, but mainly haratin or people of slave descent, who still suffer from inherited forms of subordination and dependence and new forms of marginalisation and exploitation. A huge World Bank slum-upgrading program aims at legalizing urban informal areas, relying on the ideas of Hernando de Soto of giving land property title as a start-up capital to enter the modern market economy. But this privatisation of land has exposed people to dispossession. Only the richest slum dwellers, or the ancient masters of haratin, could get the property titles. The poorest and most marginal people of the slum have been resettled faraway, while dispossession could continue as a huge international real estate investment program is developing in the neighbourhood towards the slum.

Let’s now take a look at local communities’ reactions. They have come to protest against local state representatives and ask the central government to defend local communities’ rights. The problem is that State representatives are only intermediaries of a strategy decided in Ryiad or Washington. A sense of inability and powerlessness emerge from people’s narratives, even if they are ready to struggle. For them, speculators remain “unidentified”: “our lands, they say, are given to unknown people”. Fatalism is spreading as these communities feel unable to understand the broader logic which is at the origin of their dispossession.

So, I would argue that, compared to the case of resistances to State domination, resistances to global capitalism ask for a new element to take into account, that is the political fatalism for being subject to forces that one cannot control or even identify.

            Following Gramsci and the importance he gave to intellectual leadership in these situations of weak political mobilisation, I have finally investigated the relationship between these marginalised communities and intellectuals, political leaders or social movements and organisations, which are supposed to represent them. In both the cases of pastoral Fulani and people of slave descent, these illiterate communities desperately ask for intellectuals to represent and defend them in political arenas. They consider that their marginality is the consequence of what they call, in their own language, a lack of “culture”, “knowledge” or “consciousness”. They need representatives who know how the outside world works and how to manage the relationship with State, market and magical global forces.

Some intellectuals have emerged as leaders of social organisations intending to represent subaltern groups. But these leaders face a dilemma. If, on one side, people need leaders with a “different” consciousness to interact with “modernity”, on the other, they have a fundamental distrust for these leaders precisely because they perceive them as “different”: leaders’ social networks, interests, socio-economic conditions, and cultural capital are often very different from those of the people they intend to represent.

Some postcolonial scholars have stressed the impossibility for leaders to speak in the name or on behalf of subaltern peoples, as long as their status as intellectuals puts them in a position of exteriority. Nevertheless, these theorists have missed that, when Gramsci talks about the need for intellectuals to be organic vis-à-vis subaltern people, it is not a matter of measuring the degree of difference or of identification between base and leadership. In the Gramscian sense, leaders need to be organic politically more than sociologically. After understanding people through an empathic “sentimental connection”, intellectuals have to inscribe subaltern forms of resistance into a broader political project for emancipation and to form a new common culture. If I look to my ethnographic experience among very marginal subaltern groups in West Africa, I would say that what is lacking is not the capacity to resist political domination or to produce moral economies as alternatives to economic injustices; it is rather a political project to free them from their condition and to change the national or global constraints which structure their life. I don’t know if we can call it Marxism, but Gramsci still has a lot to say about this.


[1] {Gledhill and Schell, 2012, #79618}.

[2] This is the long wave of what Matthew Gutmann considered as a replacement of “revolution” by “resistance”[2] by post-Marxism, but then with the overloading of resistance with all the expectations of radical social change we traditionally associate with revolution.

[3] Tania Li Murray , “Centering labor in the land grab debate”; Journal of Peasants Studies, Vol. 38, n. 2,2011.


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