When dealing with political domination, we need to stray from ready-made thinking

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Béatrice Hibou answers our questions on political domination, a concept she scrutinizes in her book, The Political Anatomy of Domination, published in the Sciences Po series in International Relations and Political Economy with Palgrave Macmillan, in April 2017. 

Where does the title “political anatomy” come from? 

The title of my book is evidently a tribute to Michel Foucault who offered a “political anatomy of details” in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. It is also a tribute to Karl Marx whom Foucault cited as a reference as well, and who worked on an “anatomy of capital.” Among other references, these two authors have inspired me to attempt a political anatomy of domination in authoritarian states, based on economic practices: I try to show how the most banal economic dispositifs and practices as well as everyday economic life pertain to domination mechanisms. In other words, I consider the economic arena as a place of power, a non-autonomous field, a site where power struggles and games of power and domination can be analyzed in their everyday workings to bring out the multiplicity of dimensions and rationalities.

What is political domination according to you?

The best definition of domination for me, is the one given by Max Weber: “‘domination’ does not mean that a stronger force of nature somehow prevails, but that the action (‘command’) of certain people is related in terms of its meaning to the action (‘obedience’) of certain other people, and vice versa, so that one may, on the average, count on the realization of the expectations according to which the action of both sides is oriented.”(1) This definition has been very inspiring to me because it opens a whole series of very fertile research paths that complexify the analysis of domination: the fact that it is neither only absolute nor top-down; that it is relational; that its exercise is always dependent on the meaning that is given to it; the importance of anticipating (behavior, understanding)... Taking into account the “constellations of interests,” I have tried to think the plurality and the heterogeneity that lie behind domination practices.

What does it mean, in concrete terms? That the population takes an active part in the establishment and then the upholding of a form of political domination? Does that equate to the idea of “voluntary servitude” defined by La Boétie? 

Yes and no! No, if you think that it means that people decide willingly to be servile and obey... which is an erroneous reading of La Boétie. Yes, however, if you follow the argument developed by La Boétie, considering that domination can only be exerted by the ones on the others. What I have tried to show is that domination plays simultaneously on mutual dependencies, autonomy and the desire of emancipation of subjects. The active part that you mention can be a real adhesion to specific values (honor of the motherland, modernization, revolution...), but most of the time it is the ambition to have one’s work acknowledged, to climb the social ladder, to get rich and succeed, but also to “conform” to the dominant social order or just not get into trouble.   

How can people accept an authoritarian political power that imposes its domination on them?

There are many reasons, and to start with, the fact that the population does not necessarily perceive domination as such, or live it as being imposed. This is the very question of the meaning that Weber puts at the heart of domination: the desire for normality, for modernity, for the state do not necessarily mean accepting domination, even if it allows for domination indeed. Similarly, acceptation or silence are not always synonymous of obedience and submissiveness. Docility is not adherence. They can mean distance, a quest for privacy, tranquility, autonomy, a capacity to take into account constraint while giving meaning to one’s actions...  In addition to that, actors do not always think of what their actions imply in terms of the exercise of domination. 

Why is this book different from previous books published on Nazism, Stalinism, fascism, for example? 

The first difference comes from the eclectic comparative approach developed in the book. The study of Nazism, Stalinism, or fascism has filled library shelves with books by specialists of the field and the period, and when these studies included comparison, it concerned comparable items, that is, precisely, Nazism, fascism, Stalinism... In this book I attempt to apply the beautiful concept by Marcel Détienne, “comparing the incomparable” and thereby compare Nazism and Benalian Tunisia, Stalinism and contemporary China, fascism and independent Angola. It is not a comparative study of situations, but of questions, problems at stake. Domination is probably one of the most studied objects in political science and in social sciences in general but with time and depending on the “fields,” the way it is apprehended changes with the intellectual tradition, the historical situations that are analyzed, the context considered, the moments of the analysis. Highlighting these differences and discrepancies helps to enrich our understanding of domination by better conceptualizing it, or at least in a finer and more differentiated manner. Second, as mentioned earlier, this book differs in that it offers an analysis of domination in terms of comparative political economy. 

What can Africanist approaches bring to the study of political domination? What are they so seldom considered? 

Africanist studies are seldom considered precisely because Africa is considered as Other, too exotic to be “compared to” (Nazi Germany, USSR, fascist Italy... to the archetypes of authoritarian situations). This position betrays both a certain condescending attitude and preconceptions (that in turn betray a certain provincialism – to follow Dispeh Chakrabarty) of the specialists of those “serious” countries faced to a “peripheral” continent, and an ignorance of it. Africanist intellectual traditions are however particularly interesting because they invite us to decenter our vision, to take into account everyday practices that are in appearance totally unfamiliar and different to deal with “domination,” to depart ourselves from usual explanations and ready-made thinking. 

Cited works

Etienne de la Boétie, Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, Black Rose books, 2007

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe:Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, 2000.

Marcel Détienne, Comparing the Incomparable, Stanford University Press, 2008

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, Vintage Books, 1995.

Karl Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1, Penguin Books, 2004.

Max Weber. Collected Methodological Writings, ed. by Hans Henrik Bruun and Sam Whimster, translated by Hans Henrik Bruun, London and New York, Routledge, 2012.

(1) “On some categories of interpretative sociology,” in Max Weber. Collected Methodological Writings, ed. by Hans Henrik Bruun and Sam Whimster, translated by Hans Henrik Bruun, London and New York, Routledge, 2012, p. 290.

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI